Avenues of Grace

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Missions and Measurement

We arrived home from Poland on Sunday night, and my mind has processed a thousand different emotions and lessons that The Lord taught me while there.  How do you describe the warmth of the people, the beauty of the country, the power of God’s Word, or the Spirit that flows through believers of every nation? How can I tell you the peace, the welcome, the feelings of “family” that we experienced with complete strangers or the joy of sharing with those who are considering who Jesus is for the first time?

 

You see, missions is not just about the pretty pictures or the bottom-line of numbers.  God works mightily in so many things on a mission trip, and I want to give as full of an account as I can.  So here goes:

Several years ago, Melaina fixated on a Polish missionary and began praying for her every day for more than a year. This was not our doing. It was The Lord. Only HE could call a 7 year-old to pray like that. We sensed then that we might one day go to Poland.

Fast forward to several weeks ago, and we were $3,600 short of paying for our trip. With so much going on with my family, I had no time to fundraise. The Lord quietly reminded me that HE was sending us to Poland, and He owns the storehouses. I continued to pray and enlisted my prayer warrior friends to pray with me. The Lord provided MORE than we needed for the trip!  Again, only GOD can do that.

We arrived safely and Danny preached the next morning in Olsztynek.  A younger man and woman offered to translate, but after a minute or so, they realized that they couldn’t. A visitor who came in late stood and offered to translate.  It turns out that he was a professional translator AND a pastor. He was in town for the day because his son was placed in the children’s hospital there.  At the end of the sermon, one precious woman came to the front and professed Jesus as Lord.  Just think of the odds of all that coming together at the perfect time…Ya’ll, only God can do that.

So the camp consisted of Polish workers, teams from Arkansas and Florida, and the guests who signed up or who the Polish church members invited. Our theme was the “I Am” statements in the book of John, so all of our lessons walked through those.  The camp was a family camp, so we had a variety of men, women, and children.  Each day followed the same pattern: team devotion, breakfast, worship service, crafts, separate men/women/children Bible studies, and lunch. We then had free time for a couple hours followed by games, whole group Bible study, dinner, and open discussion time.  For those that could stay up late enough, there were games until almost midnight each night.

So now that you know the format, where do I even start in telling you how God is moving?  I could tell you about the man who has battled alcoholism and was saved before coming to camp.  I could tell you how he gave his testimony that if the Bible could help him, he swore he would profess Jesus to everyone he encountered.  This man was baptized at the lake in the camp, and his girlfriend crowned him with a beautiful lei of flowers that she made.

Maybe I should tell you about the women’s group, how open the ladies were to listening to the Bible stories or how they were willing to ask questions and be transparent.  One said, “Last year, my heart was not ready, but this year it is.” Will you pray that she will fully surrender to Jesus?

Maybe I should tell you about another lady who shared the story of her dream while at camp.  In her dream, she went to the store to buy cabbage, but someone stole her wallet. On her way home, she was crying and Jesus appeared to her and gave her a new wallet that was better than anything she had before.  She told us that she believed that she had the dream because she was getting baptized, and she believed that the dream represented the death of her old life and the resurrection of her new life in Jesus. This, she told us, in a room full of women who do not yet believe.

I could tell you about the precious translator who just absolutely won my heart. She has the sweetest spirit about her, and I know that we would be close friends if we lived in the same country.  She said that she has always considered herself “spiritual” but not “religious.”  She has never believed in Jesus, but after translating, she is now interested in what we believe. Will you pray that she understands how very much Jesus loves her?

Would you pray for the precious Polish believers who war with a culture of  religion instead of relationship?  It is so difficult to break from traditions that you’ve held since birth, even when your heart tells you that they’re wrong.  One couple is confronting this now and will have to come to terms with what they believe to be true about God and His Church.  Will you pray for them?

Will you pray for the ones who had serious questions during discussion time? This was an open format for people to be honest and genuinely ask anything they wanted to know without any of us interjecting. As the Polish pastors fielded those questions, it was amazing to see the Lord move and to prompt people to give their testimonies.  One such testimony came from the pastor’s wife, a precious woman with more light in her than I can possibly describe.  She came to Christ through a vision of Him after she was contemplating committing suicide.  Isn’t it incredible how the Lord redeemed her and is using her so mightily? Will you pray for her family?

Shall I tell you about the children? They were everywhere! I absolutely LOVED the family culture.  My daughter didn’t know how to feel about being able to roam freely around camp by herself without worry.  She got to play and be a kid instead of worrying for her safety.  It was wonderful! God grew her faith, too.  She celebrated as He provided for us, and while the beginning of the camp was hard for her, by the end of the week, she managed to befriend two precious Polish twin girls.  It was wonderful to see them play, and I know she will cherish them in her heart.  It also helped her to consider those at her school who might not speak her language.  She got to experience what it felt like to be an “outsider,” and I know that this lesson will stay with her.

On the last day before we got on the plane, we had the opportunity to see Warsaw.  It was both exactly what I expected and none of what I expected. I imagined flocks of tourists and museums to remember the Warsaw Ghetto.  Instead, I saw only a small plaque on the wall of a building and a marker across the sidewalk.  It took me a moment to catch my breath, but then I realized why this was so.  Most buildings had plaques of some sort or another, some from WWII, others from Russian takeover.  In the midst of Old Town, there are remnants of the old fortress wall, and in the center stands a beautiful castle. At the end of the day, we had the chance to tour the castle.  It was incredible with ornate, gilded ceilings, massive murals and tapestries, and centuries old artwork from floor to ceiling in almost every room.  We even saw two original Rembrandts.  What struck me most, however, was the contrast: the palatial glory of the castle in the midst of so many memorials to those who were slain.  Even many of the paintings depicted the rise and fall of empires.  This was my first time seeing things so old, and doing so reminded me that everything in this life will pass away, but the glory of the Lord is forever.  In Him alone can we find safety. In Him alone can we find eternal life.

So how do I “measure” this trip?  It isn’t by the bottom-line question that so many of you will ask: “How many got saved?”  I measure this trip by the seed sown. I would love to tell you that everyone at camp accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but that is not what happened. What I can tell you is that they heard the Gospel over and over; I can tell you that God moved mightily; and I can tell you that He isn’t finished.  The campers have spiritual questions now, and those questions are the beginning of seeking Him.  Will you pray with me for the Polish believers to continue to shine their Light in darkness?  Will you pray for the Word to take root in good soil and not be choked out by the culture? Will you pray for Jesus to break down the fortress of each camper’s heart and reveal His Truth to them? Will you pray for the missionaries and church planters to seek the Lord, grow in Him, and stand firm?  Only 200 of 2400 counties have an evangelical presence in Poland.  Will you pray for more people of peace to rise up, plant churches, and see His Gospel transform Poland?

It’s hard to come to a close, but I suppose that’s because I don’t believe this is one.  The trip is only part of the mission, and the mission isn’t over.  Will you join me in prayer?

 

 

 

The War for Authenticity

I grew up in church. I was there every time the doors were open. I loved every part of it until one night at church camp.  I was broken and crying out to the Lord and felt that I needed to speak with a counselor.  While I won’t claim that I was pure in any way for most of my teenage life, I will tell you that, at this point, I was still really young and trying to follow the Lord.  When I met with the counselor, he asked that we go outside to talk. It was dark, and he began to ask me really uncomfortable questions.  As he spoke, my anger raged inside me. Maybe he didn’t intend to make me feel the way he did.  Maybe he thought I was naive enough not to notice where his questions were going. Either way, that was the turning point for me walking away from the church.

I spent the next several years going through the motions with spiritual highs and lows and times of nothing spiritual at all. My parents did everything possible to pour God’s Word into me, but when I looked at the church, I didn’t see God’s love.  I saw judgment and slander and gossip and anything but the Gospel.  For a brief time, I saw God’s love in a youth minister who I knew I could share my heart with.  He was special– when I looked at him, I knew that he knew that I was living in sin, yet he welcomed me with open arms and continually pointed me to Christ.  And then he was gone.  The church changed leadership, and in what seems like an overnight decision, he was ousted. The one who walked with us, the one who met people out on the streets and asked them to join us, the one who didn’t care about the color of our skin or our background, the one who day in and day out week after week shared the Gospel, was gone.  And that was strike two for me.

Fast forward a few years, and I had just turned seventeen and was living in my own apartment and going to college.  When I finally got the nerve up to attend a church, guess what happened? It was NOT church. It was a Republican rally.  The only time Jesus was mentioned was in the opening prayer.  The preacher (and I use that term VERY loosely here) literally ended the “sermon” of talking about the death penalty by slamming his hand down on the podium and screaming, “and I say let’s kill em’ and kill em’ faster!”

I. Was. Done.

So how on earth did I end up back here? And why on earth do I encourage people to attend the local church? How did I come to love her so much in my adult life when I found no relevance in her in my younger, more pivotal years?

The answer is simple: Jesus.

I remember the moment when I knew I must go back.  I had spent years shoving the Holy Spirit into the recesses of my being and living the way I wanted.  I was empty inside and hurting, but I was also stubborn and wanted to live my own way.  Then one morning it happened: I was in the shower, and I felt this “leaving” within me. I don’t know how else to describe it. I know the Lord never leaves us,  but I believe that He allowed me to feel that so that I would return to Him.  I remember hitting my knees and screaming out loud, “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?!”

I have never been so scared in my entire life.  It had been years since I spoke with God, yet in that moment, I knew I would never be the same.

You see, God pursues us. He is the Good Shepherd, and He never loses one of His flock. His children hear His voice. There was no person, no sermon, no pastor, no program, no music, no graphic, no show that brought me back to Him.  It was God Himself.

This was my experience as a believer.  This was the Lord calling and my willingness to surrender.  But God didn’t stop there. He didn’t intend for me to walk alone. After years of being away from church, I had a desire to be with people of God.  But how, after my experiences, could I find an authentic church?  Did it really exist?

I share my story with you for two reasons.  I want you to understand that this is not some generic “5 Ways to Become More Relevant as a Church” list.  It is what made me listen after years of turning away.  It is also to encourage you, fellow church members, to BE The Church.  Our worship times are full of “fans” who are not actually followers of Christ, and it is hard for outsiders to differentiate.   We must be active in reaching people instead of sitting comfortably on our pews. We must live what we believe.  We must be authentic in the midst of pride, comfort, busyness, and distraction.

So now to the grit of the matter: How can we, as a church, reach the lost or even the believers who have experienced “church hurt”?

  1. We have to be relevant in the right ways. While it’s important to contextualize, we have to be careful not to simply advertise.  Every gimmick, every show, every song, and every graphic is important, but these things are ultimately just vehicles for the message.  Millennials have been sold the philosophies of postmodernism and relativism mixed with tremendous undertones of existentialism.  They question the meaning of life and whether or not life even has meaning.  They are searching for purpose in a world that doesn’t fulfill and doesn’t make sense.  They see suffering and hatred that are incomprehensible, and they are searching for peace. When millennials walk into our churches, if we don’t have substance to support the hype, they will not stay.  They can get great coffee at Starbucks instead.
  2. We have to LOVE people, not adopt “projects”. This might be the hardest part. Discipleship is not us sitting at a table and imparting our knowledge on a group of eager listeners as they highlight their Bibles and become the next Timothy.  (Okay, so maybe it can be for some, but that’s rarely been my experience.) More often than not, discipleship is MESSY. It is first and foremost a friendship.  We are all family in Christ, and we should treat each other as such.  This means sharing our burdens, warring together, praying together, and pointing each other to Christ.  It means receiving a call at 2 a.m. from a friend who has fallen into sin and telling her how much Jesus loves her and that His mercies are new every morning.  It means holding each other accountable in the Word, not condemning each other.  After all, we can’t be someone’s Holy Spirit.  We are all on a journey, and we are all being sanctified daily.  The Lord is the One who works on us. If we could fix each other with our judgments, we wouldn’t need Him.
  3. We have to get over ourselves.  We are obsessed with perfect angles and pithy quotes, but if our lives don’t reflect the Gospel, we are “stale bread” to outsiders. As we disciple each other, let it be that we point each other to what God’s Word says. Anyone can argue with our personal thoughts on a matter, or the latest celebrity preacher’s thoughts on a matter, no matter how eloquent they sound, but they can’t argue with what the Word says.  Let us be a people who abide in the Word so that it flows through our hearts and minds and out of our mouths and into our limbs! As my mom would say, “Let your walk talk what your talk talks.”
  4. We have to love ALL people.  Oh friends, if I could scream one sentence from the rooftop, this would be it.  Yes, ALL people, because God loves all people. Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of sin for ALL people.  You know… the ones with different skin tones, the ones with different nationalities, the ones with different backgrounds, the ones with illnesses, the ones with different religions, and even the ones with different sexual preferences!  Jesus didn’t say, “Go and share the Gospel with all nations of people who look like you and are already Christian.”  He didn’t say, “Go and sit on a pew with your best friends and form a holy hill that digs into my Word but never practices it.”  What about the woman who sneaks into the back of the church right when it starts and leaves during the offering? How will you reach her? What about the one who smells like he hasn’t had a bath in a week? What about the one who only speaks broken English? What about the one who just got out of prison? What about the one who has a bad reputation?  What about the one who is openly gay but decides to try your church? Friends, oh dear sweet friends,  we have to stop.  We have to see the unseen. We have to walk into church with eyes for the lost just like we walk into the world with eyes for the lost.  We have to do more than wave hello. Anyone in the world (especially in the South) will do that.  We have to be willing to get into people’s lives.  It can be uncomfortable. But each of us has a circle of people that we encounter each day that are totally unique to us.  What if we stopped letting fear stop us? What if we loved ALL people as Christ loves them? What if we shared the Gospel with ALL people, no matter their background?  The Gospel has the power to save! It has the power to transform! We should be a vehicle for sharing it, not a barrier preventing it.
  5. We have to be available.  Enough with limiting our hours to Sunday and Wednesday at specified times. That is NOT authentic.  Would we do that to our family members?  Would we do that to our friends? We don’t throw seed in the ground, water it once, and expect it to continue to grow.  We need each other! God is relational, and He has designed us to be relational as well.  There is no greater blessing than having a group of people to pray for us, encourage us, and continually point us to Christ.  We have many burdens in this world, and when the Body of Christ functions as He desires, the Church becomes a safe haven, a place of refuge and growth that is not limited by time or place.

For me, church is not about a building; it’s about a group of people.  I spent years without that support, and while finding it was difficult, it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.  If you don’t have a church, I’m urging you not to give up.  Jesus loves the Church and desires for you to be connected.   If you do have a church, I urge you to take these things into consideration.  We will never win a culture in a fallen world, but through The Church, the Gospel can win a people.

 

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Worth the Risk: A Response to the Refugee Crisis

We’ve all seen the pictures—the ones of men lined up on the beach waiting to have their heads chopped off. We’ve cried through the photos of children with tear-filled eyes posing with the leaders as a “warning” for the media. We’ve been enraged to hear about groups of people who have been forced to leave their communities, starve on a mountainside, and wait for an imminent death. We’ve heard of the rape, the torture, the crucifixions, the burnings… and we are angry.

This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Southern Baptist Convention. The theme was prayer, and I can never express the power of the Holy Spirit in those moments when thousands of pastors cried out to The Lord for our families, our cities, our country, and our world.

The last part of the night was prayer for the persecuted. As the faces of our brothers and sisters from around the world flashed across enormous, panoramic screens, I couldn’t contain my sorrow. Sorrow for those who are facing a hell that I cannot even comprehend, and sorrow that I could live my life and only have them as an afterthought. Why had I not been praying, fasting, relentlessly seeking wisdom from the Word and interceding on behalf of these people? How could I have been so inconsistent? How could I forget the innocent blood being spilled? How could I have been so selfish?

So I prayed. I prayed for deliverance for them. I prayed for brave men and women to rise up with the courage to fight the terrorists. I prayed for the Lord to remove the enemy. I prayed for the believers to remain strong and look to the Lord. I prayed for the terrorists to have dreams and visions of Jesus. And more than anything, I prayed for the Gospel to spread like wildfire.

Fast forward just five months, and something miraculous is happening. Because of the persecution, the people of the Middle East are beginning to question things that they have never questioned before. They are beginning to wonder why they are being forced to subscribe to a particular extremist brand of their religion. They are wondering why people are willing to die for Jesus. They are wondering why a line of men sang praise songs to Jesus until their cords were severed with knives.   And a movement is happening. But you’ll never hear about it on the news.

And then another miracle happened. The Lord answered our prayers. He delivered the people from the arms of the enemy. He gave them safe haven in a number of countries, and HE even hand-delivered them to our doorsteps so that they could hear the Gospel and sleep without fear of death.

And we welcomed them…with hatred, closed borders, name-calling, stereotyping, and prejudice. We looked at the color of their skin, the hijabs on their heads, and the country from which they came, and we forgot that they are the very people that we asked God to deliver and chose instead to brand them all terrorists by affiliation.

My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you to pray and ask the Lord for wisdom in this situation. The Gospel has NEVER been about comfort, safety, and prosperity. If you don’t believe me, just look at the lives and deaths of Jesus’ own disciples. Better yet, look at Jesus’ life! These people are simply LOST, just as you and I were once lost. I implore you; pray and ask the Lord to show you how to see them the way HE sees them. He loved them so much that He died for them; who are we to deem them unworthy?

I understand that this is scary. I understand the potential threat. And I understand that the Gospel is WORTH IT ALL. I am in awe of how gracious our Lord is to give us such an amazing opportunity to share and to give these people such an unlikely opportunity to hear the saving, glorious Gospel of Jesus. We don’t have to go to the front lines; we don’t have to sacrifice anything except our personal, luxurious comfort.

It’s time for us to rise up and BE the church. We should love these people (and ALL people) so immensely that they can’t help but wonder the source of our love. We should pour out ourselves in every way possible to show kindness, friendship, aide, education, and any other means available to bridge the Gospel to them. We shouldn’t be fearful of foreigners if they come to our churches; we should welcome them with open arms and as much love as humanly possible. Because this is what Jesus would do and what He commands us to do.

I realize that many of you will disagree with me, and that’s okay. This is truly the conviction of my heart. All I am asking is that you genuinely seek the Lord in how to handle this situation. If your words flow from the condition of your heart, what does the world see when it reads your social media posts?

As for me, I am excited. God is never surprised and always has a plan. My prayer is to be ready for every incredible opportunity that He has in store! He is working everything out for good…we just have to have the right vision to see it.

Thus says God the LORD,
            Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
            Who spread out the earth and its offspring,
            Who gives breath to the people on it
            And spirit to those who walk in it

  I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness,
            I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You,
            And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people,
            As a light to the nations,

   To open blind eyes,
            To bring out prisoners from the dungeon
            And those who dwell in darkness from the prison.

Isaiah 42:5-7

 

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