Wednesday, August 15, 2018

“No man is broken because bad things happen to him. He’s broken because he doesn’t keep going after those things happen.” ― Courtney Milan

                 I've had a run of very bad days full of bad things, such that now would not be a good time to ask me how to use a rectal thermometer.  I woke up several days ago with no feeling in my left leg.  I thought it was just asleep and tried to stand up, only to fall over.  I was paralyzed in that leg.  I had to go to the bathroom, so John got my walker from several years ago, and I was able to get to the bathroom and back.  John had called the doctor and by now, he was on his way.  Of course, this leg paralysis was how Karen fell the night she died, so I was immediately convinced that I was going to have a stroke, too.  This led to a massive panic attack, and Dr. Chris tried to calm me down.  An injection and some massage and I was able to get some feeling back in my leg.  The paralysis was only temporary but it felt darn permanent at the time.  About five hours later, the doc had me on my treadmill and by two in the afternoon, I didn't need the walker any more but was still sick due to the panic attack.  About five that evening, I had another attack of chills, fever, nausea, and headache.  However, the doctor had left town with his nurses, so I just had to suffer through the entire night until about nine the next morning when a nurse came and was able to do an IV injection of massive antibiotics—so powerful that it took twenty minutes to inject just 10cc's.  She got the vein on the first try which is unusual as my veins are hard to find and hold onto.  She was very patient—and cute, John said.  John took terrific care of me, going without sleep himself.  I gradually began to feel better although still quite sick to my stomach.  After two nights with no sleep and still not feeling well at all, I was ready for a quiet night—but that was not to be.  One of our neighbors from just two houses away had a wedding and she was from a tribe that celebrates a marriage for 24 hours with loud music, singing, shouting, and fireworks.  We closed all our windows but the pounding of the bass still shook the house.  They also drove around the neighborhood with a car and PA system blaring their joy and driving the rest of us nuts.  This finally slowed down this morning around nine and John and I both slept the rest of the day.  I'm still not feeling wonderful but am no longer thinking I'm about to die or am still sick to my stomach.  
                   On balance, not too bad—all things considered.  For a time, I was wondering if God and Satan were fighting over me (reference to the Book of Job) or if Karen had remembered some of the times I was not the perfect husband and wanted to remind me.  Whatever the cause, I still refuse to give up and will continue to fight to feed our orphans.  I still have a $15,000 operation facing me next October (2019) to replace my implanted defibrillator in Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam and have no money to pay for that and I won’t have Karen by my side for the first time.  We also have about a year to find a source of funding that can contribute $1,000 a month to keep our mission running.  Don't know how that will turn out, but, so far, God has provided what was needed.  Important to remember that we came here with only two suitcases, $8,000, and a whole lot of faith to what was just a potato field.  Maybe seventy-five years is all I get (I'll be seventy-four in November) but that is so much more than I deserve or that many other people get, so I can't and won't complain.  If the money is there, I'll keep going.  If not, I am in God's hands as I have been since 1990.  Not a particularly bad place to be.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

“Church isn’t where you meet. Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. Church is who you are. Let’s not go to Church, let’s be the Church.” — Bridget Willard

            I have served as a pastor in some very beautiful churches, if you judge them by the buildings and their architecture and setting.  I have served in churches that were very popular for the weddings of people who never worshipped there but wanted to be married there because of the beauty of the sanctuary.  But the churches I remember best are the ones where the people WERE the church in the community.  One church didn’t even have a true sanctuary but made do with the fellowship hall—for decades, and they are still doing it.  Most of us think of a building when we hear the word “church” which came from the Scottish word “kirk” back in the fifteenth century.  The word in the Bible that is translated as “church” is the Greek word “ecclesia” which does not mean a building and never did.  I suspect Christ never really intended for there to be grand buildings erected in His name.  For ecclesia means the people called out for a special purpose—called out of their homes and businesses to do things that would benefit the entire community.  It is this word that really means church and has nothing to do with walls and pews and stained glass.  
                          Here we have twenty-four churches and only seven of them have buildings and three of those are just mud blocks stacked up with a thatch cover.  These mud churches are often destroyed during the rainy season, but the members cheerfully rebuild them as soon as the dry season begins.  We have an expression in Swahili here we use for church which means “praying under a tree.”  We need the tree for shade because of the heat.  In the picture of our church in Muranda at the right you can see how the people try to sit in the shade and only the children have to suffer the sun.  Christianity is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world.  In the U.S., studies show that about 60% of people join churches because members invited them.  About 30% join because of the building.  Pastors shouldn’t have big egos because only about 6% join because of the pastor.  But not here.  Here, almost 100% join because the church is where they hear about God, Christ, love, hope, and forgiveness.  They are very happy and sing God’s praises for most of the service.  Many have to walk at least five or six kilometers (about three miles) just to get to church.  
                          We started a church at the village of Kabainja with one tree and five tarps to make shade.  One of the members had been walking almost twelve kilometers every Sunday to attend at a nearby village and begged us to begin a church in his village.  He promised us that people would come.  We went out on the appointed Sunday and even had to use GPS to find the spot as no roads were in existence.  There were over 100 people waiting in the shade of one tree with the tarps tied to it and to poles.  I personally baptized 82 new Christians that day, and after being baptized, each one went over to Karen who would lay her hands on them and bless them.  It took a long time but was well worth it.  The church now has about 160 members and still is meeting under the tree.  
                           You see, the church here exists to serve the community through its members.  I think that’s always how it was supposed to be.  One medium-sized church I pastored in the U.S. was voted church of the year for its size because of the amount of time and money the members spent on others.  The food pantry they established that year is still operating over decades later and has expanded.  If your church is only defined by its walls and architecture, it is not really a church.  If the people in your community know of your church because of its service to others as well as its own—that’s a church.  Any church, no matter how big or how grand can become outreach centered and driven.  That’s not a decision the pastor makes, that’s a decision the members make.  If your church is not living for others, it is probably dying or the members are really attending a wake every Sunday.  
                      Sadly, every year churches are closed and the buildings sold, but the true church can never be sold because it is living and breathing in the hearts of those who love Christ.  Take a good look at the church in the picture on the right because it is not the tree or the cornstalk temporary walls that make it live—it’s the people, old and young who meet Christ under that tree and carry him to others in their hearts.  It is the way “things sposed to be” to quote an African/American preacher I once knew. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

                Today is Friday, and for many, the beginning of a weekend to spend on things you want to do.  Let me suggest that you set aside Sunday for going to church.  Oh yes, I know that lots of people don't want to go to church because it is filled with hypocrites.  Well, yes, it is.  Many don't want to go because too many of the people there just want to be seen at church—to appear to be Christians or to make contacts for business.  That's true, too.  We are all human, however, and we are all imperfect, and it is very true that the church is full of imperfect humans, but that is hardly a reason for not going.  Over the years, as a pastor, I have heard many, many reasons why people who profess Christianity don’t go to church.  I have been to some churches that I wouldn’t want to attend either, but that’s not the point because there are so many churches from which to pick.  You see, we all need to have our batteries recharged—and no matter how expensive or high tech your smart phone is, without charged batteries it is worthless.  You will always find a way to recharge your phone batteries, but please don't neglect your spiritual batteries.  Perhaps this story, which I'm sure you've heard before, will help explain things a little.

                 A country pastor was out visiting one of his members, a wife who always came with her children but without her husband.  It was a farm couple, and as it was evening, the pastor found himself sitting by the fire with the husband as the wife put the children to bed.  The husband said, “Now, I’m a Christian, but I don’t need church.  My farm and the outdoors is all I need to get close to God.”  The pastor didn’t reply, but he did take the poker from the rack and pulled a burning coal from the fire.  He sat silently while its flame died and and it became black and cold.  Then, with a look at the husband, the pastor pushed the dead coal back into the fire where it immediately burst into flames and was living and glowing once more.  The pastor sat back, still without speaking.  The farmer sat mute for a minute, and then said, “Ok, pastor, I see your point.  I’ll be there next Sunday.”  
       It is like the quote from Stanley Hauerwas above, we need each other because it is difficult to follow Christ on your own.  Church can recharge your spiritual batteries in many ways.  As a pastor, I was never so vain as to think that the sermon was the only way God spoke to those who came.  The choir, the windows, the touch of a friend, the quiet before the service, a lively Sunday School discussion, or maybe even the children’s sermon all teach, preach, touch, and inspire.  Go and be open to accept God’s message in whatever form it arrives for you, but go.  Yes, there will be sinners there because it is a hospital for sinners, but their presence will not make you a sinner.  That's something you have to do for yourself.  Still, if you make church attendance the mooring point around which your life revolves, you will be amazed at the effect.  Especially if you find forgiveness there.  Now, if the church you are attending doesn’t do it for you, find another or change the one you’re in.  Church is for you not you for the church.  What is important is that your spiritual coal is alight and bringing heat into the cold of this hard world.  That is most easily achieved by being with and surrounded by others who also love and follow Christ and will share their warmth and love with you.  God is with you wherever you are but being with others who are struggling as you are will help you in oh so many ways.  God bless all of you who make Sunday special.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

“Being fired was the best luck of my life. It made me stop and reflect.” —Jose Saramago

                “You’re fired!” is something I have heard many times.  I was fired as the driver of a mail truck in Los Angeles.  I was fired as the head of maintenance (janitor) for an entire office building in Los Angeles.  I was fired as the General Manager of a large psychiatric facility in Los Angeles.  I was fired as the Vice President of Mobile Medical Industries in Los Angeles.  I was fired as the associate pastor of a very large United Methodist Church (4,000 members).  Here’s the thing—I thank God every day that I was fired from those jobs.  I could still be driving a mail truck under the kind of pressure that causes ulcers and heart attacks and never pays well.  I could still be a janitor even though it paid fairly well, but my self-image would never have improved.  I could still be running a mental facility but the stress would have probably have made me an inpatient in the same kind of place.  If I had not been fired as the vice president of that medical company, I would have gone to a federal prison with my bosses and partners.  It was because I was fired me and my bosses stole my investment that the U.S. attorney was sure I wasn’t in on the scam.  Had I not been fired from that job, we would have never moved to Arkansas where I became a church goer, and Sunday School teacher, and part-time local pastor, and then went to seminary.  If I had not been fired as the associate pastor of that large church, I would never have become an evangelist and later a missionary.  
                 The last sixteen years of my life have been my happiest, my most productive, and the most rewarding in terms of service to my Lord (the death of my wife of over fifty years was a bummer, but the good with the bad, eh?).  Had I kept my position in that big church, I would never have been free to follow God’s continuous and urgent call to mission.  We would never have sold everything and moved to the continent of Africa to carry on the expansion of God’s Kingdom and to help make the changes we have made here in sanitation, hygiene, education, clean water, pastor training, church growth, vocational training, Bible distribution, and becoming part of the lives of so many Tanzanians who turned to us for help.  You could say that each time I was fired, I moved on to bigger and better things.  It seemed that being fired was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time.  
            It is hard for us to see at the time that when bad things happen to us, they may just be an open door to become better people and to serve God at greater levels than we ever thought possible.  I am not ashamed of the times I was fired.  More than once, I knew that my bosses were doing illegal or immoral things and was afraid to say anything because I didn’t want to lose my paycheck.  That was my weakness, so I am grateful that each time I was fired, I was freed to become more of the man God wanted me to be.  We can get so frozen into thinking that we are what we do that a threat to what we do is like a threat to our personhood—but it isn’t, believe me it is NOT.  If you are a great teacher and have been called to that vocation, losing a position as a teacher in one school system doesn’t mean you are not a good teacher or no longer love teaching.  You just have to look elsewhere to find where God really wanted you to teach.  Being fired may feel bad at the time (it did for me) but as time passes wisdom comes.  Feel not dismayed at the loss of a job—look for the door that God just opened for you.  If you don’t walk through that newly opened door, sometimes God will throw you though it (it happened to me or I wouldn't be here in Bunda, Tanzania), but you will always benefit.  We never know what is ahead of us, but we are never just what we do for a living—we are always more.  We are always servants of God, and you can trust that God will take care of you and guide you if you will but let Him. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

“You may have your diploma from a seminary, been ordained by a Bishop, or been commissioned by a denomination but ONLY God can “call” a person and bless his or her ministry .” ― John Paul Warren

                   One of my first pastorates in the United Methodist Church had had the congregation split and decimated when the pastor who was beloved by the congregation left his wife for another man and moved to another state.  I ignored the problem, focused on the healing power of the love of Christ, and preached and lived loving and serving others.  Four years later, the church’s membership had quadrupled and it was an active and vital church once more.  From there I was sent to a church in Arkansas where the pastor had torn up his United Methodist credentials, started a non-denominational church and took half the members, almost all the money, and the books and records of the church.  Within three years, following the same path I followed with my first church, this church had tripled its membership and was once again an active and vital church.  At the same time I served a second small church (membership about 20) as part of my two-church appointment.  The second church wanted me to evangelize, and I tripled its membership in less than a year and was fired.  The people I brought to the church were new Christians and energetic and hopeful.  They were also poor and Hispanic.  I was told by the Chair of the Administrative board as they were firing me that they didn’t mind new members as long as there were just like them.  Ah, what can you do?  By this time, I was seen as a healing pastor and so was not sent to prosperous churches.  My next appointment was to a church where the membership loved the pastor, the choir director, the secretary, and the chair of the Administrative Board which is a rare occurrence.  However, the pastor divorced his wife (the choir director) to marry the church secretary (who had to divorce her husband, the chair of the Administrative Board).  Naturally, they sent for me.  I met with a group of members before I accepted the appointment and told them I was not a “regular” pastor and would call them to become more like Christ and to focus their actions on helping and loving one another and those outside the church who were in need.  They welcomed me, and in two years, we were having to have two services a Sunday and were voted the Church of the Year in our size category.  They won the Church of the Year award, not because they had grown in size but because they spent more of their budget on the poor and needy both domestic and foreign.  The food pantry they started is still running and bigger than ever decades later.  Following the kinds of pastors that I did made me much more understanding of the less-than-Christian actions of clergy.  Some become ministers as a job choice, some because of other family members, some to carry out personal agendas, and some, sadly only some, are called by God to serve as pastors and shepherds for those who are struggling with living as Christians in a very non-Christian world.  When we first came here on our first mission trip we had gifts of money and school supplies and toiletries and the like for the churches and their members.  Three of the four churches were delighted and put the money and things to good use.  One of the four pastors, stole the money, the three suitcases full of stuff, and fled back to his village in Kenya never to be seen again.  I was not surprised having had the experiences of the pastors I had followed in the U.S.  
                    It has happened again here.  For me, one of the really good things about the Methodist Church in Tanzania is that we have no professional clergy.  Every pastor has to have another job as the church does not pay them.  This can have negative consequences, however.  A man we thought was exceptional and had ben elected as a bishop (but had not been consecrated) stole money from the church, stole from members and neighbors of the church, lied to the leaders of the church, married a woman with some money, and two days ago called Bishop Festo and said that he was no longer a Methodist pastor and was going to be running schools and concentrating all his efforts on making money.  Had I not known by immediately following pastors who had been untrue to their positions of responsibility, it might have surprised me, but it didn’t.  What surprises and pleases me is that we have pastors like Reverend Festus (Festo) who is now Bishop Festo.  With no money except his own from his small farm, he started and built one of our bigger churches and one of only six that actually have buildings.  He then started six more churches in a forty-kilometer radius and every one of those churches continues to grow.  I was present for the first service of one of those at the village of Kabainja and baptized 82 people that morning who went from being baptized by me directly to Karen who laid hands on them and blessed them.  That church now has 150 people with 60 children attending every Sunday and meeting under a tree with tarps providing shade and protection from the rain.  For every one that disappoints us, there are ten who glow from within because of the Holy Spirit that dwells within them and guides and blesses them.  We have grown from four churches to 26 now (seven with preschools that Karen helped to begin and trained the teachers) and from 200 members to almost 4,000.   Of course, we have had pastors who disappointed us and turned their backs on their flocks as they were more interested in money than with serving God.  Some even took us to court four times and lost every time.  There is not a single person reading this who does not know of a pastor or servant of God who has disappointed and some who even went to jail.  The pastorate has many who should not be pastors, but it always has those who have been truly “called” by God, and everyone reading this knows at least one of those as well.  God uses some of the strangest people to carry on His work, but He seems to know what He is doing, and I have learned long ago not to judge because as Christ said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,” and “it is by their fruit that ye shall know them.”  Amen.  You are blessed if you have pastors and leaders who were called and answered the call of God and not the call of something else.  I was called here and so cannot be defeated.  I may be disappointed by the actions of others, but I forgive and go on because the harvest here is plentiful and true laborers are few.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.” ― John Joseph Powell

             Some things still amaze me.  Our power went out last night for about twelve hours as a transformer blew up near us (we heard it about two in the morning).  That didn't amaze me as our power goes out almost every single day.  Our generator needed petrol and for a while, our solar lights were all we had.  That didn't amaze me.  I mentioned our power outage and reliance on our few solar panels on my watch forum, and one of the members of the forum in Canada has sent us enough money to buy another solar panel.  I’ve never met him and don’t even know his real name.  That amazed me.  John told me someone who read of his work is sending him electronic parts and has praised him and told others of his work.  That amazed him.  
                 It seems that what amazes John and me is when other people that we don't even know care enough to want to help us.  What is also amazing is that they are doing the very things we have dedicated our lives to doing—but that doesn't seem amazing to us—it just seems normal.  We don't see ourselves as different from anyone else but Shaban and Dr. Chris assure us that we are indeed different.  They say that the people of Bunda have changed the way they think of non-Africans because of the things we do.  They say they have never known other wazungu (non-Africans) who cared as much for Tanzanians as we do.  I don't know if I've mentioned it, but during the drought last year we dug deeper for both our wells, the one we use and the one from which we offer water to the community.  They both still went dry and we had to pump water up from Lake Victoria, but now, thanks to a lot of rain (it's been raining every day for the last five days—in the middle of the dry season), both wells are producing again.  Every morning at eight o'clock, we open the taps on our community well and there is a line of women and children waiting to get the water for their homes (see picture at the right).  Neither John nor I remember that we provide that water unless one of us sees the folks getting it, but even then it seems like so little.  It is so easy to forget or to discount or dismiss those things that take no effort on our part to make happen—but they make a huge difference in the lives of others.
         Turns out that what amazes John and I is that there are people out there just like us.  Probably a whole lot more than we ever thought there were.  In fact, I'm writing this to quite a few of you who care for us and our mission here and support it in many ways.  We are still amazed that you folks are so nice and continue to keep us and our mission going.  Just goes to show you that the images of most folks on the television really don't have an actual correlation to the rest of us.  We see greed and violence toward others all the time, but that's such a small percentage of the good that people do.  People like you.
      Well, forgive us, but John and I still think that you guys are amazing.  And you can take that to the bank.