When God Surprises: Our God Is An Awesome God

Prayer is important, right? We say this, but do we believe it. Do we live it and breathe it?

I know I struggle with this. Let me share a recent story.

andyclassroomI teach at Life Pacific College. In the class we have 40 bright-eyed, curious students ready to learn. Now, before we get into the academics of the class, I start the class with prayer. I want to model the value of prayer not to mention that if we do not know how to pray in missions, we will get beat up spiritually rather easily.

In my last class, I started the three-hour, afternoon block according to our routine of devotion and prayer. But let me share a little secret, I was going through the exercise for the sake of the principle of prayer. My faith was not exercised in the slightest as I knew we had a lot of material to get through. My mind was on the material, and the material was on my mind to quote Snoop Dogg.

As the students began to share their requests, I started to think this is different. I wondered what is going on. The first few weeks, we had one or two requests, maybe three at the most. Today, the requests just kept coming. One of the half-dozen requests stood out to me. A student in the back of the class, Josh, asked for us to pray for his friend, whose dad had a skin disease causing him to no longer be able to walk. I thought, whoa, this is big, but my faith was little.

I hoped the students who prayed might have big faith as all I could think about was a lecture that was running out of time. But pray we would. If we didn’t get to all the fun extra facts and stories in the lecture, so be it. Prayer would happen, even if my praying heart was distracted. So internally, I mustered up the fortitude to pray. I started off the prayer, touching on unreached peoples (the topic of the day) and handed the rest of the prayer requests to the students.

To begin praying, my passion to see all peoples reached with the love of Jesus shined through. However, as the other prayers began to be lifted up by the students, my mind wandered. I couldn’t help but think this will take a long time, and we have too much material (*lecture notes) for the time we have. It was like we were trying to pack three weeks’ worth of clothes into a bag that could only fit a few days’ of outfits.

I went to my computer to check our time, maybe that would calm me down. Perhaps we hadn’t gone as far into the hour as I feared. Hopefully, time was moving slowly, and it was just my mind racing. But no.

We were 22 minutes into the class. I was so tempted to use the time of their prayers to prepare for the next thoughts I had to give in the lecture. My mind was elsewhere, but I fought myself internally, saying: this time is valuable, I have said this, I must model it. So, we prayed, and I joined my heart to the prayers being lifted up. Sometimes, you are not the perfect professor you aim to be.

And sometimes God surprises you anyway.

After the lecture and the break, we reconvened in the library to learn how to research for the research project they would have. While sitting along the wall next to my students, listening to the lecture on research from the librarian, Josh turned to me and whispered this story.

He texted his friend to say we prayed. His friend texted back to say her dad began walking this afternoon (within the hour of our prayer) and has been healed.

Whaaaaaat!!? That is incredible I thought. This is like the Centurion’s servant who was healed within the hour of Jesus’ authoritative prayer. This is Biblical stuff happening in our midst. Happening in America. Flabbergasted, I was.

I responded, amazing out loud, while inside I felt so much awe and shame at the same time. I had no faith to see this happen, and our awesome God did it anyway. Now, the students exercised faith, so faith was in the equation, but the biggest part of this healing is a healing God who loves to show how he is on mission.

A little background: This friend’s dad is a total unbeliever. He came down with psoriasis which progressed so badly that he couldn’t walk. When his daughter prayed for him, he tried limping around, saying I am healed in a mocking tone.

The next day when we prayed, there is no doubt in his mind he was healed by a God on mission, a God desiring to show himself real.

I am simply blown away. Mind blown. This is awe-inspiring stuff. When I think about this, I know I will not minimize the time we have to pray next week.

It is great to be surprised by God every now and again. Has there been a time you were surprised by God?

Partnering With An Inner-City Ministry: A Little But Powerful Church

What we see is not always what is seen. I found this out this weekend when we went up to work with a church we are partnering with in South Central LA.

The story of how this partnership started is fantastic and deserves a place on this blog in the coming days. However, it is incredible to see a little church plant like what we are part of reaching into another community to serve the under resourced. Our church has started partnering with an inner-city church, Faith Community, down the way from where the Rodney King riots climaxed 23 years ago.  Faith Community is a little but powerful church with a great history. Two churches with similar hearts to serve their community have joined together to see Jesus’ name lifted up. Both churches have such passion for the people in their neighborhoods, yet the two churches look and feel super different.

One church resides in South Orange County while the other sits in the middle of urban blight with liquor stores dotting the neighborhoods, and metal gates surrounding most properties. Safety and security are held at a premium in the neighborhood of Faith Community Church while South Orange County is known nationwide for their high ratings on being safe towns to live in. Furthermore, the two communities couldn’t be more distant on the poverty/wealth spectrum.

Nonetheless, the two churches have the beginnings of a partnership because of a common vision to be a blessing in the place they have been located. Both churches strive to care for those less fortunate, to serve the community, and to proclaim Jesus’ love. Both churches have felt a common call both in their community and for each other. What we have to offer is some expertise in some small ways to help Faith Community take steps toward a long standing vision. All we want to do is help them become more of what they are already doing.

Some of the things I love about partnering with this wonderful church include:

New relationships. I love the young and old. I have met talented young people who can sing, dance and ball. I have met tough, indomitable deacons who just cannot be held back. One man, Frank, is out there working every time we come. Either he is painting, or putting in flooring, or helping fix odds and ends around the building. Frank Faith Community Frank recently turned 80, but I think he could put many an 18-year-old to shame with his muscles.

Learning from others: Each and every time I go, I learn from the stories of these people. Their faith, their prayers, their passion is incredible. To a person, the people of Faith Community have a story worth telling. I wish we could all get to know them and where they have come from. 

Vision: In the midst of overwhelming circumstances, the pastor of this church has incredible vision. The building is old and quirky. It comes with its challenges. The neighborhood wreaks with despair. The members have their own burdens. Hope is not a commodity in reserve, yet the pastor sees what God can do to transform a church and through this church to transform a community. I’ll close with a story that illustrates this. 

In partnering with Faith Community, we wanted to help them see their vision become a reality. Pastor, which essentially is his name around the church as it is spoken with such honor by his people, says he wants this church to be so relevant that the community could not live without them. One way that they desire to be relevant is in tutoring students from the middle school across the street. Literally, the middle school is 100 ft. from the church building. Faith Community hopes to turn one of their rooms into a tutoring center. The rooms are small, and the building is old and in need of tender loving care. And this is happening now as both churches move forward in this vision to help kids as young people in the inner city have less than ideal structure at home for help with school. Faith Community would like to fill this void and be a blessing to young people.

Now, when we found the church, their room was unusable. The electrical had issues, the ceiling needed help, and on the list went. Pastor, a gifted minister and artist in his own right, came with no skills, only a vision. However, the vision seemed impossible as the skill set to renovate a room was not within the church. The people did not know how to make the room into what they wanted. Second, the church had little to no resource to make this happen.

When we were connected with the church, we immediately caught their vision and hoped we could play a role in remodeling this room into a safe, clean and sharp looking tutoring center—a blessing to the neighborhood. Now, through a few workdays over the year, we have made some progress. But we are going at the pace that the church can handle in order to make this their project. We do not want to simply do it for them. Our goal is to come alongside of them. We want to facilitate what they want to see happen. And it has been awesome watching the two churches work side-by-side in this endeavor. A real partnership is forming.

On our last work day this weekend, we were able to put up a drop ceiling, which was the highest hopes that pastor had for this room. However, he did not even ask for that specifically up front as he thought the price was too high. As we dialogued over several weeks, and this idea was suggested Pastor, never short on words, became speechless as he tried to tell how much he had wanted that specific idea but hesitated to ask. We knew it was costly, but also knew we could find a way.

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As a church plant, we need to be creative in where we find our materials as our budget is slim. Long story short, we were able to salvage materials from an office building that was going to be torn down in order to make brand new, beautiful apartments in Laguna Niguel. We donated these pieces for a drop ceiling to our friends in LA.

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But what seemed like a simple task of installing drop ceiling quickly became a challenging task as the walls, ceiling and floor were anything but level. Nothing went at 90° angles. Nothing seemed straight. No matter, that did not detour guys from finding a way.

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When our day was wrapping up, the workers were feeling a mix of satisfaction with finishing a difficult piece in the project and disappointment that lights were not installed yet. This does not even include the experience we had to know how much nicer things could look. This is what happens when we bring our culture into a situation. We see what we see in comparison to what things could look like in South Orange County or in Newport Beach.  This is not what the people of Faith Community saw.

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Pastor came in at the end of the work and gushed with gratitude. He saw the vision beginning to come into focus. As he put it, we were putting shape to their vision. This warmed my heart, as our goal all along has been to be a true partnership. We do not simply want to go into the city to do something that makes us feel good. We want real partnership. What we can offer is helping a wonderful, little church have a pathway to their vision.

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While we worked together, we each saw things differently; good but differently. The people in LA were so appreciative of the steps taken forward, while we thought we could have done so much more. We know access to money and materials is not hard to come by for us if we put our minds to it, but the folks in LA have a completely different world to compare with what they saw happening.

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Pastor concluded by saying he can start to see what the room can look like when it is finished, painted, and decorated. He told of how he could see students being tutored by people from Faith Community. He believed that kids would say one day that their life was saved because of this tutoring room. Stop, and pause here. Read that again. Kids’ lives can be saved, because of this little room. I believe it too. I believe it deep in my bones.

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Sometimes we see one thing, while those living in the place see something totally different. Perspective can be so helpful.

In conclusion, I love learning from my friends in LA. I love asking them to tell me what they see, because they see their situation so differently than we do.

Has there been a time that you have had your perspective changed or learned from another culture?

Mission Training

I want to follow up on a post from last week regarding passion for missions.

I posed the question, has passion for mission diminished? I still wonder. However, a follow up question was sent my direction by a mentor of mine.

This mentor asked the deeper question, is it interest in missions that has gone down or interest in mission’s training.

Oh boy! Receiving questions like this really get the wheels turning. Not that a probing question negates the first hypothesis. These may not even be mutually exclusive.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t wholeheartedly agree with his presupposition that interest in mission’s training which would include intercultural studies at the university level or training within any mission organization has gone down. My mentor, added this little nugget he received from a peer who does mission’s training.

Those with more mission’s training stay on the field longer.

So many experiences began to flood my mind when I reflected on this maxim. As a missionary in Thailand for six years, we ran into quite a few young people passionate to help with one thing or another. We heard it all, or at least close to it all. Maybe not close to it all, but a lot. I remember hearing many a young missionary talk about why they would choose one organization over another. Many times the bottom line in making their decision came down to which organization gave them the least hoops to jump through, mostly the least training, and the least prerequisites.

What began as a passion to just get out on the field quickly changed into tensions as they confronted a set of circumstances the young and inexperienced missionary was ill-equipped to face. Often, this meant the missionary did not last as long as they might have with better training, or simply more training. Issues of culture shock, homesickness, pressures of ministry, expectations that didn’t meet with reality from both the host nation and the missionary merely begin to scratch the surface of the barriers to a long-lasting time of service on the field. I’m not sure if the further training actually gives significantly better skills in handling the pressures of missionary life. Rather I believe it can be a tempered set of expectations and willingness to persevere, or maybe just the discipline it took to get through the process that helps people make it longer. I don’t know. The skills matter, but the training adds in so many more intangibles including stronger relationships with those that have gone before that can encourage along the way.

I am beginning to see why training matters. Those without it tended to produce the results expected by limited training.

On the flipside, our friends who worked in organizations that required substantial training and pre-requisites, even thorough follow up while on the field tended to actually last longer on the field.

So if training can be incredibly valuable as it builds into the missionary a capacity for longevity and perseverance, why are so many with a passion for mission displaying a disproportionately low passion for training?

If we train our body for athletics, why not train our mind, soul and body for ministry?

When I think of training, I think of Rocky, who never thought he could simply roll out of bed and win a prize fight. No, he trained his guts out in order to be ready.

What is it today that has caused people to think they can shortchange the process? Is it that Paul simply went on mission’s trips all around the known world, so why can’t I? Is it a sense of invincibility that young people have matched with their zeal and a calling.

Now, calling is important, but so is preparation. It is important not to shortchange the process as we desperately want to get out there and “save the world”. If God has called you, he will make the way and the timing work according to that very calling.

Sometimes, God calls us long before we are ready, and he is okay with that. He is willing to wait as he develops us and prepares us. On that note, I wrote about the space between the calling and the sending here and here.

But I can’t imagine it is just unbridled zeal and youthful naivety that causes people to forego more mission’s training. Maybe we could throw impatience into the mix. Do we think we are so eager to see our life calling come to fruition that those tasked with the training and equipping are simply roadblocks in the way of God’s call on our life. Is that just one more thing aimed to slow us down or detour us from accomplishing all that God has laid ahead for us. Pretty interesting when we think about it like this, huh?

Perhaps the instant gratification of our culture has caught up to this facet of training as well. If I can find info on Google about anything, why do I need to go through a process of training. If I can have Amazon send me packages by drones, why can’t I find some hyper speed way to accomplish my goals? In a moment, I can have a meal, in blink of an eye, I can have a library downloaded onto my hard drive. In a fast-paced world, one can easily lose sight of the Longview. It is easy to get lost in the now.

What are a few more weeks, or a few more books read, a few more meetings with mentors, a few more classes in the grand scheme of a lifetime of service to our missionary God? If we have 90 years or so to live and serve God, what could a little more training hurt? It seems too easy if we put it in those terms.

But the pressures of this world get us going. There are people dying, sick, malnourished, stuck in poverty, or war torn villages, in bondage to false religion or beliefs, and the list goes on. We can’t wait a moment to get out there and help people. But what if we could wait, wait just a little longer to be more prepared and better equipped to have longevity and sustainability.

Here is the rub. Mission’s draws out so much from any person willing to leave this world behind to live in a completely different world. Youth adds so much potential to the mix. there is something precious in the heart of a young person that is willing to risk it all. But as time goes by, the capacity for risk narrows. Age and often a growing family cause us to minimize risk rather than increase it. So how do we preserve in people a capacity for great risk while also equipping them for great effectiveness and longevity. These must be the questions that mission’s trainers wrestle with.

What do you say?

Who Are ‘People’? In-Group, Out-Group

Ellie RunningMy daughter tells me that she doesn’t like people which sounds kinda harsh for a three-year-old.

The thing is Ellie is a super relational and fun-loving girl. But she says, she doesn’t like people. On the surface, one might wonder what caused her to be so jaded. Or does she really not like people. Well, she says so, but she loves those days when she gets to see her friends/cousins. She calls her closest friends cousins.

 

I have to wonder about my girl. She is super cute, loving and sensitive as all get out. Yet, she tells me that she doesn’t want to be with ‘people’. This most often comes out when we are at the park. Recently, I took her to the park to play on the slide, the swings and the sand. She was in heaven when she arrived to find the park empty. She had all of the apparatuses  to herself. Oh boy!! This was a good day for a little girl who doesn’t like sharing, most especially sharing with those she doesn’t know well.

Soon her joy took a sharp turn downward. She cried out to me, Daddy, people are coming. This was followed by, I don’t like people.

On the surface, this sounds pretty bad. More than bad. Shouldn’t we inherently like people? I exude an outgoing nature hoping it will infectiously rub off on my sweet girl.

It hasn’t.

She still says, I don’t like people.

Not only that, she reiterates it again and again. She even said it that one day at the park several times in earshot of the toddler and his mom playing at the little playground.

Where does this dread of others come from?

Upon reflection, one must look a few layers below the surface to see what is happening. What is causing her to verbally, overtly talk about not wanting others to be with her. By others, she uses the word people. First, let me define ‘people’. In our preschooler’s mind, ‘people’ are those people who she doesn’t know—the stranger.

This started about a year ago as she was on one of her 50+ flights by the age of three. Our veteran traveler patiently waited for the loads of passengers ahead of us to deplane. She stated, Daddy, the people aren’t going yet. From that point on, people meant strangers. People could be singular for a person she did not know or plural for the crowds of people at a ballgame, airport, or conference.

Now, let’s dig a little further down to another layer. This little girl spent the first two years of her life growing up in Thailand, and my wife and I are still amazed at how much Thai culture we still see in her. She displays more Thai than we ever would have believed.

Let me explain a moment. In America, we live in an individualist society which believes the individual can influence the group. In other parts of the world, people live in what is called a collectivist society. In this, they believe the group helps shape the individual for the better.

In this in-group type of culture, those on the in are deeply loyal to one another, caring for each other, and protective of the group. They are suspicious of others, and essentially ignore those not in their group. It is almost as though those on the outside do not even enter their radar. This is overly simplifying the cultural difference, but it helps give a sketch of how American culture differs from a culture in Asia at one level.

Now if we add in one more little nugget about the development of a worldview, I think we begin to understand what is going on a little more. Sociologists claim that a child will have developed 80% of their worldview by the age of four. That is pretty incredible to think how much an environment, especially a home shapes a child.

But this makes sense. If Ellie had one of her friends with her at the park, she would play nonstop with her playmates. She loves playdates, church services with friends, or other interactions with her little friends. She is super awesome around those she has welcomed into her group/family. Did I mention she calls her closest friends cousins. That happened in Thai culture all the time with our friends. Their close friends, especially from their home village would often be called cousin even if there was no blood relation. It is cool to see how she displays Thai culture, no matter how subtle.

Even when it makes me ponder if she might have anti-social tendencies. She doesn’t. It just comes out similar to how her Thai friends behave. Our precious girl makes it clear she doesn’t want to play with others—‘people’ at her park. She claims it even if it’s not hers.

Child playing with globe,isolated on a white background.

I used to keep hoping her shyness or antisocialness was a phase she would outgrow. Perhaps, it is more of a cultural understanding that she learned while living on the mission field.  And this settles my soul to know she has been shaped by the life we brought her into.

 

What are some traits your little ones may have picked up from the environment they grew up in?

Passion for Mission Waning

It has been far too long since I stepped away from my blog as transitioning back to life in the US is difficult. Learning new rhythms, values and priorities tugs on me. And I did not want to wrestle through everything openly here. However, I do want to dive back into musing about Life, mission and God. Let’s dive in deep here on the mission side of things.

I have been told that interest in global missions is diminishing.

I don’t have any Empirical data to state with certainty that young people care less for missions than they once used to. Why: Short-term missions trips are growing at unprecedented rates, care for social issues globally have reached great saturation thanks to social media and strong publicity, and yet, I wonder if people really care for mission as much as they once did in our great mission sending nation. Or are these trips and t-shirts for stopping human trafficking just something that helps people feel good along the way?

Even as some aspects of mission awareness and participation have grown exponentially over the past decade, universities are seeing less interest in the mission’s training arms they offer.

Recently, I had a conversation with a mentor of mine who heads the graduate department for Intercultural Studies  at a school in the Midwest. He told me interest is down at this historically significant school in missions. Further, he said his daughter, who teaches at another well-known school in the Pacific Northwest, mused that young people do not have as much interest in missions as before.

Why: I am not sure.

I have just started my teaching experience at a school with a long tradition in sending missionaries to all parts of the globe. My class of incoming freshman seemed interested and attentive. I had a wonderful group of students engaging the topic, wrestling through what it means for evangelism, and digging into scripture. I know there are pockets of mission interest, but is there an overarching, deep abiding passion for mission throughout the American church? My experience is limited, and the surveys are scant on this topic. Nonetheless, I have nothing to compare my first class to. All I have are anecdotal observations from my experience as a missionary in raising funds, talking with churches and talking with other missionaries. Despite, short term trips and global awareness of injustice on a steep incline, we do not see the churches engaging missions as they once did.

Maybe it is poor definition of mission.

Stephen Niell, missiologist par Excellent, famously said this: “If everything is mission then nothing is mission.

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Are we doing too many things under the umbrella of missions but really not doing an integrated missional approach to fulfilling the Great Commission? Are we giving compartmentalized efforts to mission and not organizing our lives and churches around the mission of God?

The real question I would ask is have we become more self-absorbed in America that we do not prioritize the Great Commission. Do we think the Great Commission only applies to our neighborhood, or does it still apply to the uttermost parts, the ends of the earth? If we are called to make disciples of all peoples, how does that reorient our priorities?

How do we shape our life, our focus, our budget, our free time, our relationships, decisions based off of reaching the peoples of the world for Jesus?

For diving back into my blog, I went straight for the heart. If this makes you uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable too. If I am wrong, and mission interest really is up, Thank God. On the other hand, if mission interest is down, how do we turn this around?

Let’s wrestle through this together?