Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

One of the things I appreciate about vacation, aside from exploring new places, is the time to read. During our vacation in December, I finished 3 books, one of which was The Challenge of the Disciplined Life. I read it interspersed with other reading, since it is one of those thought-provoking books that you don’t want to read too quickly. After almost every section I read, I would share some of what what I was reading with Bob, and say “This book is so good!” I would call it one of those classics like “The Pursuit of God”, which clearly articulates the fundamentals of life as a follower of Christ and also highlights and brings to life the Scripture.

Challenge of disciplined life cover

The book focuses on three main areas – money, sex, and power. In each area, Foster illustrates the ways that these ‘gifts’ can be perverted and used for evil purposes. However, each can also be used for good when we have the right perspective and discipline. While I enjoyed each section and though that it brought out some significant and relevant truths, the section that perhaps spoke to me most was the one on money.

In the section on money, Foster describes the greed that our culture encourages, and even how subconsciously we allow money to dictate our decisions. He describes specific ways to combat greed and “dethrone” money’s high place in our minds. For example, the disciplines of giving, simplicity and trust, and making a conscious effort to value people over things. I also appreciate that Foster encourages us to really question the status quo by the standard of the Bible, and his words are prods that might allow the Holy Spirit to convict us or guide us into a deeper inner life if we are open to it.

I want to share a few quotes – although each of these are explained much better in the context of the rest of the chapter. In a chapter dedicated to exploring a mentality of simplicity, he explains:

“If we take the Biblical witness seriously, it seems that one of the best things we can do with money is to give it away. The reason is obvious: giving is one of our chief weapons in conquering the god mammon. Giving scandalizes the world of commerce and competition. It wins money for the cause of Christ. Jacques Ellul has noted, ‘We have very clear indications that money, in the Christian life, is made in order to be given away.’”

Foster then proceeds to give some helpful recommendations about how to give, including “with glad and generous hearts, let us keep in creative tension “reasoned” giving and “risk” giving. There is one kind of giving that carefully evaluates the track record of organizations and individuals, and another that gives without calculation. Both kinds of giving are essential.” This spoke to me because I tend to be one who wants to ‘reason’ when I give, and know that it is a valid cause, or a worthy person, etc. Yet, I feel challenged that I also have to be open to the Holy Spirit and sometimes willing to give when it doesn’t make ‘sense’.

In our lives in Congo, we are often presented with opportunities or asked directly to give. Being open to the Holy Spirit and free from the power of money means being willing to give to something that is a “risk”…even if it means a sacrifice on our part. I admit that a few times we have given some money or tried to help someone we didn’t know well, and it turns out they lie to us or steal things from us and we feel taken advantage of. But far greater than those cases are those people we gave something to who were also a ‘risk’ but have become treasured relationships or where we have seen positive growth in their lives. As Foster articulates, I think erring on the side of giving is better than erring on the side of withholding because it helps discipline us not let money have too high of a value in our minds.

I happened to pick this book up at random at a guest house. It looked dusty, old, and worn, but when I started reading I was drawn in by the engaging way of illustrating powerful truths. I appreciate Richard Foster’s humble and vulnerable descriptions of the importance of discipline in the spiritual life and a constant searching to understand God’s heart.

This is one of those books that is a rare treasure – you read it slowly and thoughtfully, and have to be open to change. Even though it was written first about 30 years ago, it seems very relevant and current. It also felt like it brought to light and gave practical contemporary interpretation to the truths of the Bible. I always felt like Richard Foster was bringing truth out of the Bible rather than selectively using the Bible to support his own truth. I think this is one of those classic books that every follower of Jesus should read. If you do or already have read it, I would love to hear your reflections too!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

This Land

This Land, a thousand hills
A thousand hidden hurts
A thousand sudden smiles
A thousand gentle sighs
Oh, a thousand hidden cries! 

This Land my heart
This Land my home 
Blood soaked earth 
Never to forget
Once again, met.  

Blood spilled, oh this Land by One…
Knowing each curvature
Each address, each mudugudu
Each sheet-metaled heart
Each yearning, home.

Emblazoned on my bosom
Rwanda, rises, Fire-Lily-stretching 
Forged in ruinous burn
Upwards meeting
Son’s sweet, bloom.

Oh hills, we pray your peace.
We bless your roots.
We admonish your guardians.
We sanctify your dreams.
We ache, your pathos.

Today mind and heart,
We live your story tell.
Friend closer brother
Yours we always are  
A thousands hills not beyond
This Land blessed, not gone. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Growing young faith

The children looked intently at the picture of the baby in the hay surrounded by a man, a woman, and a few animals. A few would eagerly raise their hands to answer Tatu Celestin’s questions:
“Who was Jesus?”
“The son of God!”
“Where was he born?”
”In a stable with animals.”
”Was he born with honor?”
”Is a stable with animals a place of honor? No, he was not born with honor and glory. He left that in heaven when he was born as a person like us.”

SS pictures Kga 1-1

Here in Kasai, most families sleep at night with livestock in their homes – goats, chickens, guinea pigs, etc. So, I could see how that was the concept of Jesus being born in a stable was not particularly “dishonorable” to these kids. And they could recognize the animals and the surroundings in the picture as a familiar setting. Tatu Celestin patiently walked them through the story of Jesus’ birth, always making sure the kids understood and engaging them with questions. One 7-year-old was even able to quote John 3:16 when he asked the reason why Jesus was born.

This Sunday was the first Sunday that a new set of pictures and lessons about the life of Jesus was used here. Tatu Celestin, the Sunday School teacher at our nearby parish in Kananga, was the first to try it out. It has taken almost all year to develop, and it is finally finished! A team of people here, including the Coordinator of Christian Education, the director of Evangelism, and the director of the printing press, coordinated the effort along with a couple of others who helped with writing lessons or illustrating the pictures. The pictures were drawn locally in Kananga, and lessons were written in Tshiluba. Each of the lessons was laminated so that it will last for years despite the humid and dusty climate, and so that nearby churches can share and rotate the lessons amongst themselves.

The staff at IMPROKA, the CPC Printing press, with
the completed Sunday school pictures

We have found few churches here who have a strong Sunday school or time for teaching children. Children are present in the main worship service, and maybe after a 3 hour service adults don’t have the energy or motivation to do anything else for the kids. Many people have told us that a lack of materials like pictures and lessons is one the primary reasons for the neglect of Sunday schools. We know that there are lots of ways to communicate a story and truths without materials – story telling, acting something out, etc., but those require some training and a lot of effort on the part of the teacher.

We are hopeful that early next year a training can be organized in both West and East Kasai to equip Sunday school teachers with knowledge and materials for teaching children. Children are eager to learn, and we have seen many who are fervent prayer warriors or are exceptionally loving and helpful to others. But we know that they need dedicated time tailored to them to really understand the truth of the gospel and the significance of what Jesus accomplished through his death on the cross.

And the support for creating these pictures? It came from a generous and faithful woman in the U.S. who spent many years in Congo as a missionary. In her retirement, she has collected stamps from churches and individuals and used the proceeds from the sale of them for ministry projects in Congo. What a creative idea! Given the decline of postal mail and the increased cost of mailing, “Stamps for mission” ended this year. But, we are grateful for Peggy’s faithful use of time and energy to continue to support God’s work in Congo.

SS pictures Kga 1-4
The children and teachers of the Kananga 1 parish,
along with Kristi on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Highway in the Desert

Isaiah 40:3-5 (NIV)
3 A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Q-Zee, a Kenyan friend of ours who sings in a Christian Rap group called the Super Concaves, recently said to me, “In our suffering, God makes a highway of blessings.” I preached these words a week ago Sunday, yet sometimes in the wee hours of the night I still wonder, “Are these words really true?”

The people of Judah had found themselves estranged from Yahweh for three score years and ten. They were lost. They had released the anchor of their faith. They felt abandoned. They wandered in a spiritual wasteland. Their hope was gone. Yet into this barrenness comes a fresh word. Into the parched desert comes water for the thirsty. A voice calls, “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD.”

Several centuries after these words are spoken, a man appears in the desert. He announces the coming of another. This another announces a kingdom within. He announces a kingdom without end. He announces blessings for those bent down; He lifts up those bowed down. A highway is made.

Our friend Q-Zee does not speak empty words. 2014 has been a year of trial for him and his family. His mother was imprisoned, falsely accused of killing someone. Q-Zee’s estranged father was one of her accusers, seeking to profit from selling her land. Yet when Q-Zee went to visit his mother in prison, he learned from prison officials that his mother spends all of her time comforting others. She isn’t distraught. She is consumed with serving her Lord and Master. In prison, in the place of desolation and rejection, in the desert, she has found consolation and comfort from God. In turn, she imparts words of comfort to others.

What comfort do you need this Christmas season? Where are you feeling oppressed and overwhelmed? What broken relationship has sent you reeling? What source of suffering has thrown you to the ground? Friend, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ comes on a highway and meets us in our places of disconsolation and disquietude. God meets us in the desert. All four Gospel writers sing with one voice the words of John the Baptizer, “Prepare the way for the LORD, make straight paths for him.” Luke gives full expression to the echo from Isaiah when he writes, “And all flesh will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3: 6).

Thank you, Q-Zee. Your words indeed are true. “In our suffering, God makes a highway of blessings.” God meets us in the desert, and brings forth salvation.

God of all persons, times and places, we humbly come before You this Advent Season. We acknowledge our weakness and our need for you. Many of us have found ourselves ‘in the desert’. We have been wandering in a spiritual wilderness. Please come and meet us. Please construct a highway of blessings beyond anything we can currently imagine. May You be glorified in us! In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

**this devotional message can also be found on the PC(USA) World Mission homepage and World Mission Facebook page where every week this month you will find an Advent Devotional written by a PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Strength of the village

Pastor Crispin showed up promptly at 8am on Sunday morning to escort us out to his rural parish for our long-anticipated visit with them. About 35 km outside of Kananga, we turned off the main road onto a narrow path. “So, is this ‘road’ really big enough for a vehicle?” I queried skeptically. “Oh yes!” was the quick reply from Pastor Crispin, “There are a couple of difficult spots, but we have just repaired them so that you can get through.” So, we plowed through the narrow path, and it sounded like an automatic car wash as branches brushed the car on both side. While en-route, Pastor Crispin shared about the challenges of living and serving in a rural area. Most of his congregation are not very educated; few of the women can read, and those that cannot seem to feel they are too old to learn. They are all farmers, so having disposable income does not come easily. The average offering is about $1 per week.

At about 9:30, we started to see palm fronds planted by the road as a sign of welcome. We saw some of the church members still hurriedly gathering up things to go to church, and welcomed some into the car. A group of youth waving palm fronds and shouting welcomed us on the road and ran behind the vehicle cheering. We learned that this was the first time this church has ever had a missionary or foreigner worship at their church. We were thoroughly impressed with their building, especially the strong and durable looking thatch roof.

Everyone enjoyed the worship, including a couple of solos by a young woman. Bob preached from Isaiah 40:1-5, where God tells his people, in the midst of their suffering and despair, that He will send the Comforter, the Messiah. It seemed especially appropriate, given that people in the church had literally “prepared the way” for us by making the “rough ground level” so that we could reach them. Towards the end of the service, the pastor invited people to bring the gifts they had prepared for us. As the youth played a song, women and men danced forward in a joyful procession and presented us with the produce of their fields – basins of corn, large roots of cassava, plantains, pineapples, and a whole bunch of bananas. It was amazing to see the outpouring of generosity, especially knowing that harvest season is not yet in full swing.

After the service, we piled into the vehicle with as many people as could fit, and drove the 100 meters to Pastor Crispin’s house for lunch. As we drove, one young man stood on the back of the Land Cruiser with a megaphone, inviting people in the village to come and buy Bibles and other books. “Come and get a Bible!” he announced, “Instead of paying 10,000 Francs, you can pay just 4,000! Come buy a songbook! Lessons for children!” Pastor Crispin had been mobilizing his people for weeks, encouraging them to have money ready when we came to buy Bibles and other books. The church members succeeded in buying all 5 Bibles that we came with, as well as some other books like a catechism and a biography of a Kasaian pastor named Maweja Apollo.

Over lunch, we learned that the church has formed an Evangelism Committee. Every week, the committee members gather at one member’s house on Friday evening, and spend the night there. Very early on Saturday morning, they worship and pray together, then go out visiting in the neighborhood. They go door to door, asking each family if they can pray for them, or if they want to talk about God. They visit each house, regardless of whether the family attends another church, or doesn’t worship at all. Sometimes, people welcome them warmly and are eager for their prayers, and other times they get a hostile reception. After a couple of hours of visiting homes, the committee reconvenes to share their experiences. They then stay together throughout Saturday, preparing for an evangelistic worship and prayer gathering at 4pm.  We were so impressed at their active involvement in the community and their passion to share the love of Christ. What a generous sacrifice of time each of these people is making! In a place with very little financial income, they are giving generously of the their time and their energy – also precious resources in this agricultural society.

We returned home tired after a long drive, but refreshed by the joyful and generous hospitality of this rural church. We are enjoying fresh pineapples, corn, and plantains this week, and looking for vulnerable others with whom we can share this bountiful gift!