Time for One

liz and childI had barely stepped into the small store when the little girl saw me and ran straight toward me. We were in the town of Bo in the interior of Sierra Leone and had traveled several hours to visit the CLC store. She had a bright expressive face and no fear of strangers. Very quickly she grabbed on to my leg and held on for dear life. Just as quickly she saw my colleague, Liz, and jumped into her lap as if she was a long lost aunt. Apparently no one had warned to “be careful of strangers” and none of the people in the store who were her relatives cautioned her at all from “bothering” these invited guests. It was almost as if she knew that Liz was safe and that Jesus would approve of their embrace.

At Liz’s recommendation, I am reading the book, “Kisses from Katie” about the teenager from Tennessee who went to Uganda for her “gap year” between high school and college and ended up staying, founding an NGO and is in the process of adopting thirteen little girls. I was particularly struck by this paragraph in the foreword,

“People who really want to make a difference in the world usually do it, in one way or another. And I have kisses from katienoticed something about people who make a difference in the world: They hold the unshakeable conviction that individuals are extremely important, that every life matters. They get excited over one smile. They are willing to feed one stomach, educate one mind, and treat one wound. They aren’t determined to revolutionize the world all at once; they are satisfied with small changes. Over time, though, the small changes add up. Sometimes they even transform cities and nations, and yes, the world.”

As a type A personality living in America, I can often get frustrated at the pace of change in other parts of the world that I visit. Nothing ever seems to happen on time and progress is often measured in years, not days, weeks or months. Setbacks are common and simple thing become complex. Despite this, more often than not, I am overwhelmed at the joy of the people I meet and their lack of concern at the challenging circumstances they face. I am put to shame and weep for my own tendency to complain at the slightest inconvenience I have to deal with.

This week I was reminded once again of my tendencies to see the forest and not the trees, to focus on tasks and not people, to measure success in numbers and not changed lives. I love hosting big events, speaking to large crowds and selling lots of books. I am not so good at noticing the little girl grabbing my leg and begging for attention.

Jesus himself had lots of crowds to contend with and spoke so often that he had to intentionally make time to get away and be with His father. He had to get in a boat just so that the crowd would not overwhelm him and his disciples. The demands for miracles, healings and casting out demons were constant. Somehow, though, when a woman touched him, he felt the tug on His garment and knew that power had left him. He took time to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He mentored just twelve men and he welcomed the little children to come to him. He always had time for the one.

In our culture of multi-tasking, texting while driving, typing while talking and generally distracting ourselves to death we have regularly put programs before people and results before relationships. I am the chief of sinners in this regard and have much to repenting to do. As I ponder this challenge, it seems like we are constructing an America where community is defined by our digital status. How many “friends” do I have on Facebook, how many people have “re-tweeted” my statement and how many comments do I have on my blog post? In the face of this, I want to start to ask different questions:

• How many strangers have I talked to this week?
• How many people have I invited to dinner this month?
• Who do I really need to meet with face to face with no time constraints?

The next time a little girl tugs on my pants I will bend down, pick her up and give her a hug, even if that is all I can do for her that day.

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Faithful to all Generations

photo 30I was standing at the front of the room when an old man walked up to me. We were on a break at a Pastor’s Conference that CLC was hosting in Liberia and it seemed that everyone wanted to talk with me. I had just given the devotional message that morning and presented the CLC work and a little of our history in Liberia and our gratitude to God for being able to return to this war torn nation. The man waited patiently until I had finished speaking with those around me and stood there with an almost angelic smile on his face. As we began to talk, he introduced himself as Edward Dennis.

Edward was excited to meet me at told me that he had worked in CLC as far back as 1965 and he remembered many of the CLC missionaries that had served so faithfully in Liberia over the years. He went on to tell me that he remembered my grandfather who had made a trip to Monrovia many years before. His face shone brightly the whole time he was talking and as he told me his story, I knew I was standing in the presence of one of God’s special saints.

That night I sent a Facebook message to one of the missionaries he mentioned and she responded quickly telling me that she remembered him fondly and really appreciated working with him. The next morning, Edward showed up again before the day’s activities got started while I was busy at the book table. He came right over to me and mentioned that he had someone with him that he wanted me to meet. Immediately this tall younger man came right over and he had the same big smile on his face. This was Edward’s son Trokon.

Trokon was also really excited to meet me and had something in particular that he wanted to share with me. Looking me straight in the eye he said, “When my dad was working for CLC many years ago, he used his wages to pay my school fees. I praise God for CLC.” He went on to tell me that he had done well in school and was now in full time ministry. The ministry he works for is located in Minnesota and is doing great mercy ministry in Liberia. What a testimony of God’s faithfulness through the generations.

My chat with Trokon took place on a veranda outside the church where a huge inscription was etched into the wall of the church. I could not help but notice the name of the senior pastor located at the top of the list of people who had been there the day this new part of the church was dedicated in the 1970s. His last name was Reeves, the same as the current senior pastor. God was reminding me of something very special.

I had not realized it until that moment, but the Pastor of the church where we were holding the conference, Samuel Reeves; the person providing the training all week long, Dr. Tony Hart, and I all shared one thing in common. We were third generation recipients of God’s blessing and had fathers and grandfathers before us that had served in full time ministry in some capacity.
In a time when it seems that the nuclear family is under such great attack and children are rejecting the faith of their parents left and right, this was a remarkable reality. The three leaders of this conference were just like Trokon and indebted to the saints who have gone on before us. I was also reminded that “to whom much is given, much is required”.

As the week of training came to a close and pastor after pastor shared about what the event meant to them and how it would change the way they pastored in the future, I wondered how many of these men and women would be passing a legacy of blessing on to their children. Some of them were probably the children of full time ministers themselves. The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but one thing is certain, He is faithful.

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Expecting the Unexpected

photo29His raucous laughter startled me. This large Nigerian man had just finished asking us what we were doing in Sierra Leone and our answer seemed to have amused him. With a wry smile on his face, he asked the question that was on his mind, “Why are you trying to sell books to these people when all they care about is their stomach?”

The truth is, that was a pretty good question. In a country with an incredibly high illiteracy rate and recovering from a devastating war, running a Christian bookstore can sometimes seem like pushing a boulder up a mountain. Like everything in Africa, though, I was just learning that the answers can be as surprising as the questions.

Liz, my CLC colleague, and I were walking in the hot sun uphill from our Garrison Street store when we discovered one answer to that simple question. His name is John. (Not his real name) John works for our ministry and was guiding us through the crowded streets. While we were walking, he shared his story. In high school, he discovered our store and a man named George. George is passionate about Christian books and the power of the gospel to change lives.

John grew up in a Muslim home, but was drawn to our store and his conversations with George. It was not long before George was recommending books, talking about Jesus and encouraging John to consider a new path for his life. Shortly thereafter, John came to faith and told his father who graciously allowed John to pursue his new found beliefs. Today, John is helping others who stumble across our store on a daily basis to make good book selections and to consider the truth that has changed his life. You should see him smile when he talks about it.

God is working in a mighty way in Africa. Spending two weeks there reminded me once again that serving effectively often requiresphoto23 an ability to expect the unexpected. Right from the beginning of this trip, things were not going as I had hoped. My normal excitement about traveling had been replaced by unusual anxiety about unfinished work and unfulfilled projects at home. Landing in Monrovia, though, my anxieties seemed to subside as I breathed in the warm humid African air once again. I was delighted to see new directional street signals and stop lights that were fully functional in several key intersections. Things were looking up. So much progress had been made in this war torn country in just the six years since I had first visited.

Our first week in Africa started in earnest on Monday morning with over two photo25hundred and fifty pastors at the conference we were hosting. Dr. Tony Hart, who had traveled with me from the USA, did a great job of starting the training with a whole day focus on the spiritual life of the pastor. From the questions that were asked, it was clear that he was really connecting with the attendees. Things were going even better that I had expected and then we asked about the crusade.

For several weeks, Tony had been preparing to preach at an evangelistic Crusade in Monrovia in the evenings after the pastoral training in the daytime. We were only in the country for a week and he wanted to maximize his time wherever possible and he has a real passion to share the gospel. As we discussed this outdoor event with the planning team, it became clear that there had been some miscommunication and the event had been planned for Wednesday through Friday evenings, not Monday through Thursday as we had anticipated. We would simply have to adjust our schedules. That was fine, except Tony was scheduled to leave Monrovia on Friday afternoon and would not be able to preach that night. Little did we know what God had in store for Friday.

As always, God knows what He is doing, even when we are scratching our heads. At 2:30AM on Friday morning, I woke up with violent stomach pains and rushed to the bathroom only to discover that my traveling companion, Liz, had just been there as well and for the very same reason. We were both pretty sick and wondering what could have caused this. It was doubly concerning because we had been hearing about an Ebola outbreak in the neighboring country of Guinea. Rumors were flying of some confirmed cases in Liberia as well.

By sunrise, things had not gotten much better and now Tony was not feeling well either. Unfortunately, we were scheduled to have the closing ceremonies of the conference in just a few hours. I took some medicine I had been given for just this type of incident, prayed and waited. Amazingly (to me, not God), I started feeling a little better and my strength started coming back. By 10AM, I was listening to the pastors’ share about the significant value of the training they had received. At this point, Tony was lying on a couch feeling very weak and certainly in no condition to preach at a crusade even if he had been available. Liz did not attend the ceremonies at all.

Though I was not feeling 100%, God gave me the strength to stand at the front of the church where the conference was being heldphoto22 and hand out gift packages to all 250+ attendees one at a time for over an hour without having to run to the bathroom at all. I will treasure that moment for a lifetime as I watched person after person and saw their eyes light up as they accepted a NLT Life Application Study Bible and the CLC Bible Companion for their own personal and pastoral use.

We left the next day for the second leg of our trip to the neighboring country of Sierra Leone where CLC has three bookshops. Upon arrival, we were taken to a Christian guest house where the surprises kept coming. As I prepared to go to sleep that night, I sat on the bed and it collapsed. Who knew a mattress would be held up by loose boards sitting precariously on a wooden frame. Fortunately, I had not broken anything – me or the bed – and I was able to reposition the boards. You can believe I slept pretty carefully after that.

In the morning, I awoke to find two flasks sitting on the table outside my room. The previous night, Liz had asked if they had hot water for the showers and they assured us that they did. Little did I know that the hot water did not come out of the shower head, but was contained in the flasks. Now what? After some reassuring instructions from my seasoned Africa traveling companion, I learned the joys of taking a “bucket bath” that many in this part of the world experienced every day.

photo27The following day, we visited our shops in Freetown, had some important meetings and prepared to head home for the evening after work. My African counterpart, Jusu, drove us down the hill from our building and came to a dead stop in the middle of a traffic jam that I was sure would be of little consequence. How bad could a traffic jam in Freetown really be? Three and a half hours later we arrived at a restaurant after having travelled little more than a few miles in that whole time. Needless to say, God was working on my “patience muscles”. Despite the seemingly never ending traffic nightmare we experienced, one thing really stuck out. In a country where various factions had killed, looted and destroyed on these same streets, no one was even beeping a horn. People waited patiently in a situation that would surely have resulted in a road rage incident anywhere else, especially in America. Jusu even took time to chat with people out of the car window while we were stuck giving a whole new meaning to “Christian” community.photo28

As I came to the end of a truly incredible two week adventure, it was clear to me that God continues to be in control. He does work in mysterious ways, but He is working. Next time I travel, I am going to try and do a better job of expecting the unexpected and remembering that His ways are higher than mine.

 

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The Joy of Writing My Story

road tripWhat began as a road trip has now spanned five years of my life.  I originally began writing this blog as a means to document my travels through the southern United States with an intrepid team of coworkers.  We had lots of fun, took a lot of pictures, met a number of authors and discovered places that were both remote and stunningly beautiful.  Never did I dream that the idea of sharing my life, my travels and my occasional insights would turn into a habit that has now shaped my life.  I certainly could not have conceived of doing it for five years.

Some have asked how I have kept at it for so long.  Others have wondered how I have been able to be so consistent and still others have pondered how I still have anything to write about after all this time.  The only thing I can say is that it has become a joy and not a burden.  As each week unfolds, I pray about what I might write and I trust God to inspire me.  Interestingly, He has never failed.  No matter how uninspired I may feel leading up to my time to write; somehow that prayer is always answered.  What I have discovered is that simple idea my grandparents used to talk about – being “reasonably” obedient.  My job has been to make the time and when I have done that, the words have not been difficult to write.  As I told someone recently, writing is now a labor of love for me and not a chore.

One of my favorite quotes of this past year was by Seth Godin in Brad Lomenick’s new book, The Catalyst Leader,

“Instead of wondering what your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” 

For many people, life seems so ordinary that it barely seems worth mentioning or pondering much at all.  I have been blessed to live a life that is nothing short of extraordinary.  Growing up a missionary kid was not my choice, but shaped it me in immeasurable ways.  Though I was sorely tempted to pursue a life of safety and security as an adult, God had other plans.  He wanted me to experience the life He had planned for me before I was even born.  Surrendering to His will for me has given me a lifetime of material to write about.  I can truthfully say that I have never had a boring day since and the adventure just keeps on getting more interesting by the year.

As I write this week, I am sobered by the reality that several saints went home to be with their heavenly father in the past week.  Each lived a radically different life.  At the midpoint (or maybe slightly past it) of my life now, I have begun to think more about what my life will mean to others when I am gone. What contribution have I really made?  Have I really made this world a better place and touched people’s lives in a meaningful way?  I probably really won’t fully know the answers to those questions until I reach Heaven’s shores one day.

What I do know is this; God is on the move and is working in a mighty way in our world.  Chaos may seem to be in charge, but even the uncertainty we face and the horror of death and destruction will come to an end one day.   He is sovereign and I can choose to be a part of His plan or not.

This week I am getting ready for another road trip or should I say plane trip.  I will be heading to Liberia, Sierra Leone and England and will be gone for two weeks.  In each place, I will have the unique privilege of seeing God at work.  In Liberia, I will help to co-host a Pastor’s Conference in a city devastated by war and now in full blown recovery.  It was just two years ago that I traveled to Monrovia with a dream of seeing our bookstore re-opened and now I will be able to see it in person and meet our dedicated team members.  While I will be taking a brief hiatus from writing this blog, I will certainly have much to share when I get back.  The adventure of my life continues on one story at a time.  I can’t wait to see what God has in mind for the next chapter.

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Bible Reading in Daily Life

bible readingBible reading has never come easy to me.  While I have read hundreds of books in my lifetime and have cultivated a habit of daily reading time, it hasn’t always been the Bible that I am most interested in picking up.  At various times in my life, I have been more committed than at others to Bible reading and for almost all of my life I have felt a certain level of guilt over this issue.  I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way.

This week, a sweeping new study was released that was based on an extensive survey of Bible reading habits in America.  The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis conducted the survey and released the 44 page report this week.  Here are some of their findings:

·         The four-centuries-old King James Version of the Bible is far from dead. Despite its archaic language and a market flooded with newer, more modern English translations, more than half of the individuals and two-fifths of the congregations surveyed still prefer the King James Bible.

  •  Of those surveyed, African Americans reported the highest levels of Bible engagement.
  •  Seventy percent of all blacks said they read the Bible outside of public worship services, compared to 44 percent for whites, 46 percent for Hispanics and 28 percent for all other races.
  • Bible memorization is highest among black respondents, 69 percent, compared to 51 percent among white conservative Protestants and 31 percent among white moderate/liberal Protestants.
  • Most of those people read at least monthly, and a substantial number — 9 percent of all Americans — read every day.
  • Women were more likely to read than men; older people were more likely to read than younger; Southerners were more likely to read than those of any other region.
  • The percentage of verse memorizers among Bible readers (48 percent) equates to roughly a fourth of the American population as a whole, or nearly 80 million people.
  • Psalm 23 — which begins “The Lord is my shepherd” — was the most popular Biblical passage.
  • Younger people, those with higher salaries and, most dramatically, those with more education among the respondents read the Bible on the Internet or an e-device at higher rates.

So what is my problem?  Far too often, it seems like I approach the Bible with the idea that I have to figure things out.  Why did this author write that?  Why was this particular book written at all?  What is the point of genealogies?  Very quickly, I have reduced the Bible to a textbook for study and dissection and not the very word of God itself.

Lately, I have been wondering if I have gotten it all backwards, maybe the point of Bible reading is more about the God speaking to me through its pages than me figuring things out at all.  I am certainly not advocating abandoning the concept of Bible Study, but simply that in my attempt to study it so much, it has become cold, dead and distant.  The truth is that it is meant to be alive, relevant and transformative and I don’t see it that way often enough.

So here is what I am doing this year to allow God’s word to speak to me:

  1. Making regular times to read and listen to the text – nothing more.
  2. Reading from several translations to ensure that I really understand what I am reading.
  3. Reading whole sections that naturally go together like the gospels and the epistles.
  4. Asking God to speak to me through the words
  5. Highlighting and memorizing verses that are particularly meaningful

One more thing – While I enjoy reading the English Standard Version of the Bible, I really love the New Living Translation as well nltand often read the same passage from both.  Later, I will take the time to read the Life Application notes as a help to understanding what I have read and how to apply it.  These notes often remind me of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.   In this case, it is I that too often needs someone to explain what I am reading. 

This year, I am consciously taking more time to let God speak directly to me and trusting Him that His word will interpret itself in many cases.   Somehow, spending time with God seems a lot more interesting that reading a text book. 

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Lenten Reflections

Carnival_Costume_in_TrinidadI can still remember the bright colors and the incredible costumes.  Growing up as a child on the island of Trinidad, it was hard to ignore the Carnival season each year.  Trinidad is known around the world for having one of the most festive, vibrant and popular Carnival celebrations highlighted by competitions between various calypso and steel pan bands and massive street parades.  Little did I know about steel pan bandthe debauchery and drunkenness that were also so prevalent in those days as well.   All of this revelry right before the holiest days on the Christian calendar.  The irony of these two events happening back to back was not lost on me as I grew up and eventually realized how they were so closely related.  In a world seeking its own redemption through acts of penance and service this was simply a balancing of the scales.  Why not have lots of fun with a little sin thrown in for good measure if you were going to spend the next forty days earning God’s favor.

Celebrating Easter has always been a little hard for me.  Singing Christmas carols and opening Christmas presents while thinking about the birth of the one who came to save me is a lot easier and a lot more fun.  Contemplating what Christ went through on my behalf at the cross is a lot more sobering.  For the early Christians the agony surrounding the events of Jesus’s crucifixion was held in tension with the fact that he had risen again and appeared in person to so many of his followers.  The resurrection gave meaning and depth to the suffering and loss they had experienced.  It also helped them have the hope they would need to endure suffering of their own.

I don’t like to be reminded of hard things.  It is a lot easier to be blissfully ignorant than to pay attention to the realities of the world around me.  As an American evangelical this can be a daily temptation.  Why learn about the suffering in Syria, Egypt, Ukraine or the Sudan when there are so many other things to be distracted by?  The re-igniting of the culture wars, opinions on the latest NetFlix series or results of the latest sporting event are far more interesting and fun to “chew on”. 

The truth is, we live in a messy world and it is getting messier all the time.  For evangelicals that like to point out the rapid acceptance of all things homosexual in this day and age as a clear sign of the end times, this has been a pretty sobering week.  Instead of pointing fingers, we have had to hear news and accusations about scandal and sexual impropriety by Bill Gothard and sexual abuse at Jesus People USA.  This coming on the heels of so many sad stories of sexual sin that has taken place at missionary boarding schools is more than sobering, it is revolting. 

So what do I want to give up for Lent this year?

  •    Giving a deaf ear to those hurting and in need right around me
  •    Ignoring the suffering of people “so far away”
  •    Pretending that being a born again Christian means having it all together
  •    Feeling self-righteous when I see a Christian leader stumble
  •    Wishing all the bad news would just go away

As I look at that list, I am struck by the impossibility of it all and that may be the most important point.  Left to my own devices, I will always seek a little Carnival before Lent – always trying to keep the scales of sin and good works in just the right balance.  It will always be a losing battle without the cross.  Only as I embrace the suffering and agony of my dying savior will I fully be able to understand the power of His resurrection.  Just as I am tempted to give up on all this, I am wonderfully reminded of the best gift ever given.  Jesus did not leave me alone to wallow in my doubt and sin.  He gave me His Holy Spirit to provide me the power to even contemplate the starting point for real change – repentance. So as the Lenten season begins this week, I will be celebrating the joy of that precious gift and learning to repent and forgive even as the world seems to be going crazy.

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The Power of a Reading Mom

me and momThere was something so familiar in that voice that it was almost mesmerizing.  My mom was co-teaching a class at Cairn University with me this past week and she was reading a letter from one of our interns.  As she read, I was swept away to a different time and place when I was only a child and loved to hear that same voice.  It was strong and confident and made the words so real.  I would often get lost in the stories and find myself imagining that I was actually in Narnia or some other imaginary land that she introduced me to.  This wonderful voice would  animate the books that I read as a child as I could hear her reading in my head even as I was simply reading on my own.  Her voice became the soundtrack of my reading world and made my books seem so much more interesting.   I loved to watch my friends as they heard my mom read to us and see them discover how a book could really sound.  Many of them became book lovers too.

Far too soon, I went off to boarding school and began to live life far from that wonderful voice.  No matter the distance between us, I knew one thing for sure; my Mom would be praying for me in that very same voice.   We would write to each other (long before e-mail) and I would imagine her reading my letters out loud to my Dad and how different they would sound in her melodic tone.  To this day, my siblings and I remember our family devotions as times of excitement and joy as Mom would choose a new book to read that we had never heard before or revisit one of our old favorites.  God’s Word never sounded the same when other people read it.  Somehow, it seemed to come alive in startling ways when she took the Bible in her hands.

Many years ago, a group of reading and praying moms were asking God for something very specific.  They wanted a Christian bookstore in there part of Philadelphia.  More importantly, they wanted access to books they could read to their own children and to be able to share their love for great Christian literature.  In God’s timing, the CLC team in Fort Washington decided to move a bookstore from the headquarters campus to the very part of the city that these women lived in.   God answered that prayer and generations of children have been impacted by this lighthouse in the city.

Tonight, I ventured out into the city to meet with a small group of African American women who had invited me to speak.  Once rose of sharon womenagain, praying moms want access to Christian books to make sure this generation gets to hear the gospel through the words of the Bible and other wonderful Christian books.  Their passion and excitement for reading was evident from the moment I arrived.  Many of them recalled the names of books that had meant so much in their lives.  As a special treat, I was able to bring my mom along to this gathering and she got to speak as well.  Her belief in the power of the printed page has never changed and she inspired every other woman in the room.   Who knows how many more kids will now grow up to be lifelong readers as a result of the passion for reading that these women will share. 

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