Saturday, September 23, 2017

“I love to talk about nothing. It's the only thing I know anything about.” ― Oscar Wilde

                        When I was a senior in high school, I asked a girl to go to the movies with me.  On the way to the theater, out of the blue, she told me that she adored me.  I swelled up a bit, being the subject of adoration and all.  As we passed the concession stand, I asked her if she wanted any popcorn.  “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I just adore popcorn.”  I deflated quite a bit after learning that I ranked right up there with popcorn on the adoration scale.  We didn’t have any more dates after that.  A couple of years later, I took a young lady home after a date and summoned up the courage to kiss her.  After what I thought was a fantastic kiss, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “You really don’t know how to kiss.  Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”  Now that girl I married less than a year later and we have been together now over fifty-two years, and I have loved every minute.  Guess teaching how to kiss trumps adoring popcorn every time.   I don’t really have a fantastic moral message for today.  Shaban brought Karen her new residence permit with passport stamps and is going to the post office to pick up a package from South Carolina.  Not much news either, but I did give you a nice little anecdote to share with friends. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

“God will reward you,' he said. 'You must be an angel since you cared for me.’” ― Victor Hugo

                        Many of you already know this story, but it’s the very end of it that’s applicable today.  We recently had our wells run dry because of the drought and needed $3,000 to hook-up to city water (pumped from Lake Victoria).  We didn’t have it.  I wrote a blog about it a few days ago and forgot about it (‘cause I have faith).  Yesterday, we received the final gift from a stranger that took us to the $3,000 mark.  We got every penny we needed, some from friends but most from people we had never met.  Do I believe in angels?  Oh yes.
                          On February 16, 1996, at approximately 2:30 in the morning, I woke my wife, Karen, and told her I didn’t feel well.  Uncharacteristically, she jumped up, hustled me into the car, and drove me to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rogers, Arkansas.  When we arrived, the nurse took one look at me and rushed me into the cardiac emergency area where they began hooking wires up to me.  I remember smiling, and saying, “I’m going” and leaning back and dying.  It felt soft and warm, as I remember.  The doctors and nurses tried everything, paddles, you name it, but Karen heard the ER doctor say, “Let’s call it, death occurred at 2:54 A.M., February 16, 1996.”  An off-duty nurse from the ICU on the fourth floor happened by and said, “Let me try” and she jumped onto the table and began beating me with both hands.  She brought me back.  Over the next two weeks, there at that hospital, and later at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the doctors tried to figure out why I had died.  They pumped dyes into my arteries, ran wires up into my heart from my groin area, slowed my heart down and speeded it up, but could find no culprit for my death.  I did not have a heart attack, there was no damage to the heart, my arteries were in perfect shape, there was no damage to any veins, and no reason for my heart to have stopped, but there was also irrefutable proof that it had stopped—just no one knew why.  In the end, they implanted a defibrillator in my chest with a wire attached to the inside of my heart that would shock my heart back into action whenever it might stop, and it did about a week later when I was back home, but because of the defibrillator, my heart restarted and I didn’t even go back to the hospital (I am on my fourth implanted defibrillator that will cease operating in 2020).  About three weeks after I had returned home, I was able to get out and about (with someone else driving), and I went back to St. Mary’s to find the ICU nurse who had saved my life.  She wasn’t there.  She had been a temp and no one even remembered her name.  I tracked her through Human Resources but the woman who had hired her had relocated to a hospital in Minnesota.  I was able to get the name of the agency that sent her.  The agency told me that they had lost her file, but she had moved back to California someplace.  All they could tell me was that her name was Sky (see picture at the right).  Apparently, my life had been saved by a hippie-named, wandering nurse from somewhere in California, and no one knew where she was or who she was.  All this happened before my very first mission trip and almost ten years before we moved to Africa.  A few days ago, one of my Tanzanian friends asked me if I believed in angels.  How do you think I answered him?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

“God constantly surprises me. I had thought I didn't like surprises, but I found I did when they came from Him.” ― Malorie Blackman

                        I recently got a new bronze watch that was a gift from my oldest son and his wife (see picture at the right).  It was a combination birthday (in November) and Christmas (in December) present that I received in August and made me very happy indeed.  I wouldn’t buy or even wear a very expensive watch (one that cost in the thousands) because I know how I could have spent that money on our orphans or other projects.  Even if it was a gift, I would have to sell it and use the money for God’s purposes.  Thirty years ago, I once wore expensive watches made of gold but now can’t even wear things that are gold-colored because that reminds me of the person I was then and don’t care for anymore.  However, my children and some friends know of the special watches that I covet that cost just a few hundred dollars instead of thousands, but even then I would never buy them because I would use the money for charity instead.  I do like mechanical (non-electric) watches that rely just on engineering, gears, springs, and wheels.  The idea of all that inside a watch that keeps really good time just amazes me.  Also love the idea that a bronze watch will develop a patina and change every time you look at it.   My wife had a case hand-made for my watches and my son, John, put the lights in it.  More kindness sent my way and gratefully received.  
                            One of my friends on my watch forum from England knew of my wish list and offered to trade me a watch he knew I really wanted for a watch I already had that he liked.  We made the swap and I am happy now to have a Smiths Everest (picture is on Facebook post) like the one that Sir Edmund Hillary wore when he was the first to climb Mt. Everest back in 1953.  Of course, there was a disparity in value between the one I traded (much less than the one I received), but my friend wouldn’t have it any other way (and his wife is sending school supplies to Karen).  As it stands now, I have a collection of about twenty “affordable” watches (under $500 in cost, most under $200) that were all gifts to me from other watch enthusiasts, family, or good friends who knew that I would be pleased (picture on Facebook post).  It is a great compliment to me, and one I really don’t deserve, that so many would want to give me watches.  In total, I have been given over a hundred watches, but have given almost all of them away to Tanzanian doctors, nurses, bishops, pastors, veterinarians, teachers, our own workers, police, and other folks here who need watches but could never afford to buy them.  It not only pleases me to give them away, but it pleases those who gave them to me as well.  It’s one of those “everybody wins” situations that has been going on for years now and is still active.  One of my best friends in the States just wrote me that he has found a watch he knew I wanted (a Timex not a Rolex) and is sending it to me in his next package.  People I have never met or even seen their pictures have surprised me with gifts of watches from Seoul, South Korea, to Southern California, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, the U.K., Canada, and Italy.  I am always humbled but always happy when I am remembered with a watch of the affordable variety.  
                                My latest gift from my oldest son is a Gruppo Gamma from a fairly new company based in Singapore.  Turns out their small watch production runs always sell out, and there is a loyal fan base for their watches with a club on Facebook.  I started posting pictures of my latest with a new band on it on the club site and have discovered many new friends—some of whom have started reading my blog and have even contributed to our water needs.  Who could ever have guessed that my fascination with watches would lead to blog readers and contributors to our mission?  Several of these are atheists, but love to read the blog.  Go figure.  One of the folks on that watch forum just contributed enough to buy fifty-one Bibles in Swahili for our church members.  Tell me again how my watch forum is just selfish and not a means to evangelism and the expansion of the Kingdom?  One of the men on my watch forum recently wrote that he looks for my posts there every day as he feels that I am the “heart” of that forum.  I only post pictures of the watch I am wearing that day, occasionally post pictures of our work here, and always enjoin those reading my posts to be kind to others--not much, actually.  I’m writing all of this not to draw attention to my cool watches (well, maybe a little), but to tell all ya’ll that if you love others and care about being kind—there are lots of people out there who will like you and look to you as a role model.   
                      If you have something that makes you happy, it may be that God wants you to use that happiness to become an evangelist in an oblique way.  Whether your passion is bass fishing, quilting, running, riding motorcycles, painting, or teaching small children—God will help you find a way to make that a tool of His for reaching His children that wouldn’t or couldn’t be reached any other way.  Use your happiness to make Him happy.  Others have done it.  I have done it.  You can do it, too.  Just be real, honest, and share who you are and what makes you happy and God will find a way to make the world a better place in ways you would never have expected.  I think Christ said it best a long time ago when He told us not to keep our lights hidden under baskets but to let them shine.  I just never thought an “affordable” watch would become an evangelism tool.  I’m sure God has even more surprises in store.  Who knew?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“I've lived a life that's full. I've traveled each and ev'ry highway; And more, much more than this, I did it my way.” — Frank Sinatra

                                 Many pastors grew up knowing that that was exactly what they would be.  Some were sons and daughters of pastors.  Most were brought up in the church and the progression was a natural one.  Then there were the ones like me who grew up on the wild side—far from church and its morals and tenets of faith.  But like many others (the prodigal son comes to mind), at some point I realized I was going in the wrong direction and made a u-turn in my life.  It wasn’t a rapid thing.  It was more like having a sore leg that hurt every time you stood on it.  Little by little, the pain went away until one day without knowing exactly when or why it happened, there was no more pain in that leg.  
                    I became what was known as a “second career” pastor, someone who had lived and worked and damn near drowned in the ocean of the secular world for decades and then swam up out of it onto the beach of faith.  I was still wet and my clothes were soaked, but again, little by little, the sun burned off the water and I got new clothes.  I was still carrying years of bad habits and one by one shed those extra weights on my soul.  I remember being very proud of having an “Rev.” in front of my name and began wearing a clerical collar which was unusual for rural Arkansas.  However, if you played for the Yankees all your life and suddenly discovered you were playing in Fenway Park as a member of the Red Sox, you needed to wear your new uniform all the time to remind you that you had new teammates and a new coach.  This bothered many of my pastoral colleagues as I was only a local pastor and had not attended seminary (I would later spend four years in seminary amassing 140 graduate hours in theology, philosophy, and ethics before graduating).  So, I showed up at my first district ministers meeting in a gray shirt with a clerical collar and wearing a cross round my neck.  One of the old timers and old school whose name was (and I am not making this up) Reverend Doom walked up to me, stared at me for a bit, and then said very slowly with emphasis on every word, “Who - in - the - world - are - you?”  I smiled and answered, “I am still finding that out, aren’t you?”  He stomped away, angry.  This was the beginning of many years of not fitting in, not being what the others were, and not looking or acting as they did.  Thanks be to God that I was who I was and didn’t try to be like them.  
                 When I was ordained, no one from my family was able to come, and as a newcomer to Arkansas and the church, I didn’t know many people.  After the ceremony was over we each stood in an reception hall under a spotlight with our name hanging over us.  All of the others were surrounded by family and friends and I was alone in my little circle of light.  The famous theologian that had come to be the ordination preacher, was Will Willimon, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a famous author.  He came over to me and noticing my aloneness, said, “I hear you are a bit of a maverick, and no one seems to want to be seen with you.”  I replied, “Guilty as charged.”  He leaned close, dropped his voice, and said, “Don’t ever stop being a maverick, my son.  Without mavericks, the church will die and won’t change or grow as Christ would have it.”  With a hearty handshake and a smile, he walked away.  No one else ever came to shake my hand and welcome me into the ranks of the ordained pastors.  Didn’t bother me, I was there because Christ had called me.  This was no vocational choice, no legacy of following relatives, this was real and I had no idea where it would take me.  It took me to small rural churches, large urban churches, Indian villages along the Amazon, the slums of Curitiba, Brazil, and ultimately to the small town of Bunda, Tanzania.  The road was bumpy and I fell more than once, but I always got back up and continued on the narrow path that Christ had laid out for me. 
                          I don’t regret centering my focus on Christ and not what others wanted of me.  People said some very ugly things about me, and some of my ministerial colleagues did what they could to sink my career (long since forgiven by me), but here I am, still doing what Christ called me to do.  Others spent decades serving the church the only way they knew and have now retired to their lake houses to spend their years fishing and watching TV.  Me, I still battle malaria and missing my family and friends that are so many thousands of miles away, I continue to struggle and serve Christ who called me, but I am content with who I am, where I am, and what I am.  To paraphrase an American President, the world will little note nor long remember what I have done here, but it is not the world I am trying to please.  I just want to be obedient and available to the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace, because my Redeemer Liveth, and because He does, I do. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“That is the thing about the world: it isn't that things are harder than you thought they would be, it was that they are hard in ways that you didn't expect.” ― Lev Grossman

                             No one ever said that being a missionary would be all smiles, joy, and laughter.  If they did, they were dead wrong and very foolish.  Of course, there are smiles, joy, and laughter, but that all comes at a price.  The price is discipleship.  Too many people call themselves Christians and yet never do what Christ called them to do.  These so-called Christians never pick up their crosses and follow Jesus.  They don’t really believe there will be a judgement day, but I’m afraid that they will be the ones (Matthew 25: 35-40) that Christ will claim He doesn’t know.  They use the church and their faith to justify their lifestyles and to allow themselves to feel free from guilt.  There is no redemption without price.  Christ said to save your life you must lose it, not that all you have to do is say some words, join a church, and your obligation to Him is over.  So very many who call themselves Christian never feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, or help those who do.  These people who call themselves by the name of Christ do not forgive others, never turn the other cheek, or walk the extra mile.  These sing hymns, hold hands, pray loudly, and live as if Christ truly died 2,000 years ago and is not now living and holding us all to a higher calling.  Being a missionary is not a badge of honor in the church because many missionaries make very little sacrifice and live lives of fullness and plenty.   
                          Missionaries may be seen as more Christian than others but only if we, too, are living as Christ has called us to live.   Some missionaries take their work and their calling very seriously, as all Christians should.  A young woman missionary from Canada is serving in the maternity ward of a hospital in Shinyanga, Tanzania.  I met her when she came to Bunda to buy a biosand filter for her ward.  I tried to give it to her, but she insisted on paying.  She is the kind of missionary I would like to be.  Her name is Alida Fernhout and not too long ago, she posted this on Facebook:
             “Sometimes I wonder if my heart has become callused and rough from the constant death and grief. I get angry at the injustice but I don't cry often.  But every 6 weeks or so, something minor or unrelated will rip off that tough surface of my heart and the tenderness will reveal itself again.  Today it happened while biking down the highway in the 32 degree heat. I was sweating and felt parched. I saw a procession of utterly silent men walking down the side of the highway. At the front were men who were taking turns carrying the small wrapped body of a young child. A funeral procession.  I immediately had chills, became cold, the hair on my arms was standing up. I didn't know this child. But how many [dead] babies have I silently wrapped in their mothers kanga's (cloth), carefully tucking up their chins and covering their faces. And I realized I had lost count.  I felt cold and grieved the rest of the ride home. And was relieved that my heart is capable of feeling stripped and vulnerable again . . .”
                      This young woman seems to be doing so much more than we are, yet we are both doing what we can, where we are, with what we have, and every true, authentic Christian can do that—and must do that.  Our mission feeds orphans every day here in Tanzania, but your mission field surrounds you right where you are.  Within a few miles of every Christian’s home are hungry children, homeless people, widows, orphans, addicts, alcoholics, battered women, women in crisis, bullied children, and children and young people in danger of taking their own lives.  You are surrounded by people who will never know the peace the hope of Christ can bring unless you reach out to them.  The measure of your Christianity is not measured by the number of Sundays you spend in church, but the number of moments you are obedient and available to Christ to spread His light and love to those who are currently living in darkness.  Pick it up and follow Him.

Monday, September 18, 2017

“The highest form of worship is the worship of unselfish Christian service. The greatest form of praise is the sound of consecrated feet seeking out the lost and helpless.” ― Billy Graham

                                   I spent over thirty years helping to try to prevent youth suicide.  I worked hot lines as a volunteer at crisis centers in Los Angeles.  I served on the board and helped in a small way to get the crisis center in Northwest Arkansas started, even serving as its first interim director.  I worked with Lt. Governor, Winston Bryant, as a member of the Youth Suicide Prevention Commission in Arkansas for years.  I served on the board of the NWACIC for six years and consulted for years after that.  I did counseling, grief counseling, live television interviews, wrote and directed a video for schools that was used in over twenty states (through the Lt. Governors of those states) to raise awareness of the problem, and helped raise money to keep the crisis center operating.  
                                        However, not once in all those years could I or any of us ever claim to have saved a single life.  We could count the number of calls that we received, the number of workers and the hours that they worked, the number of cities and schools where we made presentations and distributed literature, but we could never claim that we saved even one life.  I was once asked in a television interview why we continued to work so hard when we had no way of knowing if we were successful or not.  My answer was simply that if we knew that young people were taking their own lives, and we did nothing to try to stop it, we couldn’t live with ourselves—it was and is the right thing to do.  It was enough for me.  Many of the men and women with whom I worked had lost children to suicide (some as young as ten years old) and they wanted to try to keep others from going through the same pain that they had endured.  What really mattered was that we knew there were serious problems that ended young lives and shattered the lives of those who loved them—and to do nothing was simply not an option.  For those of us who voluntarily offered our time, our service, our shared pain, and our shared labor, what was important was that we were doing something, even if it was something that could never be measured in terms of lives saved.  
                                 It was never easy, but it was always worth it.  None of us could ever have been convinced that what we did was meaningless just because their were no numbers to show that what we had done had saved lives we could count.  It was enough for us to know that we did all we could, all we knew to do, and that we never gave up.  Crisis centers, suicide hot lines, internet contact, and every other type of help is still being offered and used.  If we know there is a problem, even if we don’t know how successful we are at solving it, we cannot ignore it if we love others as Christ loved us.  How can we possibly say that we value the lives of young people and turn our backs on even one possibility of saving one of those lives?  It is nice to be able to show how many meals were served to the homeless, how many shelter beds were filled, how many jobs were able to be filled, how many filled the pews of the churches, how many filled the seats in the AA meetings, and how many filled the stadiums of Promise Keepers, but suicide prevention simply doesn’t allow us the luxury of those kinds of feelings of accomplishment.  Sometimes, it is not the results that are important, but the efforts made to tackle the problem—knowing that never really knowing is a part of that process.  I do not regret a single minute spent, not do I believe any of the other thousands of volunteers do either.  Our sense of accomplishment had to come just from knowing we were making the attempt and were always caring, always loving, and always hoping that we were giving young people a chance at a meaningful life.  It was enough.  God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called, and He never promises good feelings from recognizable accomplishments.  He calls us to help those in need and rewards not our successes, but our valiant attempts to be obedient and faithful servants—and that alone.  We cannot feed all the hungry, heal all the sick, free all the oppressed, but neither can we turn our backs to them or fail to try because we can’t count our successes.  When God calls, we respond without conditions.  Christ is counting on us and we can count on Christ.