the church

Bill Mounce with East Mountain

IMG_8523-1.jpg

Two weekends ago, East Mountain had the privilege of hosting Bill Mounce, a world-renowned New Testament scholar, author, and Bible translator. Bill was a part of the ESV and NIV 2011 Bible translations. Bill spends most of his time these days running BiblicalTraining.org, a website dedicated to training and equipping Christians at all levels. East Mountain utilizes Biblical Training’s resources in our pastoral training programs. Biblical Training supplies the content, and East Mountain provides the facilitators, the community, and the support network. Read below to hear about our weekend with Bill.

BillMounce-Jack-Micah.jpg

Bill with Micah and me at the East Mountain braai


On Friday, Bill visited with a cohort of Stellenbosch theology students. The students had the opportunity to dialogue with Bill about their research and his ministry experiences. One PhD student asked Bill about the importance of Biblical Languages for preaching. Bill's response, after decades of pastoral ministry: "I don't know how you stand up there and say 'Thus says the LORD' without being absolutely sure what the text means. And I don't know how you know that without the languages."

IMG_1727.jpg

Theology students listening to Bill talk about the importance of Biblical Languages.

On Saturday, Bill lectured on Titus 2:11-16. We asked him to speak about the importance of theological studies for practical ministry. He chose to talk about the relationship of justification and sanctification, saying that so much of one’s ministry is dependent upon how one sees the relationship between justification and sanctification. Bill uses the imagery of Matthew’s gospel (7:12-13) in relation to these terms. Justification is the gate entered; sanctification is the path followed.

Here’s Titus 2:11-16 in the NIV and ESV

Titus2.png

After the morning lecture, we shared a relaxing lunch. One of the cornerstones of our ministry here at East Mountain is that we are intentional about spending time together and getting to know one another. We view sharing meals as an important activity which facilitates deep conversations and true community.

IMG_8523-1.jpg
Version-2-2.jpg

In the afternoon, we continued discussing the converging worlds of theological reflection and practical ministry with a panel discussion on how the church can and should address the country’s biggest needs. In addition to Bill, our panel consisted of Bryan and Gabe. Bryan is an influential church leader in Cape Town. Gabe is the lead visionary for East Mountain, overseeing strategic involvement and local partnerships.

IMG_1733.jpg

Bill, Bryan, and Gabe

The rich discussion impressed on me the importance of the work we are doing. There is a deep need for greater Biblical literacy, more theological training, and, especially, discipleship of church leaders. Paul sent out Titus and Timothy as apostolic delegates with his full authority to address the situations in Crete and Ephesus, to restore order to the churches, and set up healthy, Biblical processes for dealing with current and future issues. In the same way, God, through His Spirit and His church, is calling pastors to lead their congregations in a way that motivates believers to preach the gospel, to love their neighbors, and to work towards reconciliation and peace (2 Cor 5).

In post-apartheid South Africa, there is no shortage of need for what Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation. As I learned in our discussion, even reconciliation is a loaded term in South Africa. The chasms of inequality  and mistrust run so deep, only gospel-preaching paired with gospel-living can begin to bring healing.

Version-2-1.jpg

 

Would you join us praying for the Church to rise up in addressing the needs of South Africa?

Would you pray for God to be glorified through the advance of His Kingdom here and now?

Thank you for being a part of what God is doing in South Africa through East Mountain.

Joy in the Slums

One Sunday morning we found ourselves sitting in plastic lawn chairs inside a one-room church in Mitchell’s Plain, one of the largest slums nearby.

The city we live in, Stellenbosch, pulses with the energy of a college town, an eclectic mix of care-free, party-seeking students and dignified professors. It’s set against the backdrop of stunning mountain views, surrounded by vineyards, and filled with oak-lined streets that boast beautiful European architecture.

wpid-stellenbosch-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg
wpid-stellenbosch2-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

But drive a short distance in any direction, and you remember that you are, indeed, in Africa. Flat plains stretch out, dotted with scrubby bushes. Suddenly, the townships pop into view - poor neighborhoods where the vast majority of the population lives.

wpid-township2-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg
wpid-township-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

Ramshackle buildings with flat roofs, built haphazardly, lean against each other for support. Narrow roads crowd with children running, men shooting the breeze, women hanging laundry. Above, a tangled mess of electrical wires and smoke clouds the horizon.

The contrast is so stark, it’s unsettling. Like many things in South Africa, what you see is not necessarily what you get. One of the reasons we love working with East Mountain is that they have ministry partnerships with a multitude of different communities - white, black, coloured (the proper term for an ethnic group here), wealthy, poor, Anglican, Baptist … we have been so thankful that the Lord has placed us on a team of strategic missionaries that have the same vision we do for a unified church. Being part of their work allows us to be involved in many layers of South African society, not only those we would encounter in our own quiet neighborhood.

And so it was that I found myself, the object of curious stares (as if my pale skin & red hair weren’t enough, my watermelon-sized belly really does the trick), opening my Bible along with the tiny (mostly coloured) congregation. What followed was a quiet, passionate sermon on the suffering of God’s people - one of the most encouraging and challenging I’ve heard in a long time.

“As a Christian, if you are not suffering now … well, don’t be surprised when it comes.” He reminded us that the road to following Jesus is not easy, nor should we expect it to be. What struck me was the joyful, confident tone of his voice, even as he spoke of suffering. I saw many heads nodding in agreement.

My heart ached as he made the sermon personal. He acknowledged that he knew people in that room who weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from.

He softly acknowledged the congregation’s grief over the recent death of a young man in their youth group, lost in a drive-by shooting. Mitchell’s Plain is one of the most violent, gang-ridden neighborhoods in the world. I knew this, but such a reality was hard to imagine in this church. It struck me that I was sitting among Christians … that really knew what it was to follow Jesus along the road of suffering.

wpid-IMG_0048-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

They didn’t choose Christianity because the culture told them it was right, or just for the sake of their kids, or because of an uneasy feeling that it’s better not to offend an unknown God. Theirs was a genuine faith, tested intensely and tested often. They knew Jesus on a deep level I don’t as a child of privilege, born into a middle-class American family. As the pastor touched on Hebrews 11 and the great Christians of old who suffered joyfully for Christ, I realized I was sitting among modern-day heroes of my faith, unknown and unsung except by Jesus himself.

And I thought of everything the Lord has provided for us in recent months — the outpouring of love and financial support, prayers and encouragement from all of you.

wpid-IMG_0245-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

I thought of how smooth our transition here has been; we have been welcomed by the East Mountain community, by professors and students in Jack’s study program, even by the friendly people of Mitchell’s Plain.

The Lord has been very kind to us in recent months.

Yes, it was difficult to quit steady jobs that we both loved, say goodbye to family and friends, and fly into the unknown - especially with a baby on the way.

But oh, how the Lord has been kind to us. Our transition has been so much easier than I was prepared for.

  • Within weeks, God provided a lovely, affordable apartment in a peaceful part of town.
  • Through all of you, God provided the finances for essentials like a bed, a fridge, and a stove. I felt I was living in the lap of luxury the first time I used our washing machine - not something I expected to find at an affordable price here. As I unpacked baby clothes and supplies, I thought of each beloved friend and family member that purchased them for us - this made it all the sweeter.
  • Within weeks, God provided a doctor I feel I can trust, and a doula to help me through labor. He has provided a robustly healthy pregnancy, and within weeks, God willing, there will be a third Messarra adventuring with us around South Africa.
wpid-IMG_0300-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

The Lord has been kind to us - especially through all of you. Thank you, a thousand times over.

Pastor Andrew concluded, “The Lord loves us, when things go well for us and when we are not sure how to make it through the day; let us not doubt his love and goodness. Even as he allows us to suffer, he invites us to know him - a joy that no suffering can touch.”

While I know there will be suffering, I also realize that the pastor was right - knowing Jesus, really knowing Jesus, is the sweetest part of this life. Following him as he takes us through journey after journey, be it a journey through a tough job, financial strain, grief, joy, blessing, parenthood, marriage, singleness … Jesus remains with us and makes life worth the living. May we never be distracted from this truth.

My prayer for each of you is that you come to know Jesus as deeply as Christians in Mitchell’s Plain - for such an joy cannot be snatched away.

Would you continue to pray with us?

  • For a positive labor experience and a healthy baby - she is due March 23!
  • For the provision of a car and internet at our apartment.
  • For Jack as he re-develops study habits - it’s been a long time, and having a newborn will only add to the challenge! He is loving translating Deuteronomy & Judges with like-minded nerds.
  • For our continued funding - we are 75% funded! Thank you to everyone that has given!
  • For friends here - it can be a little lonely moving to a new place. Would you pray that God provides us with solid community and rich friendships?

South Africa: T Minus 3 days!

January usually feels like a slow month - Christmas is over and I'm typically in "recovery mode," falling back into a rhythm and contemplating a new year, all in the midst of cold, gray winter. This January has been quite the exception! We have said good-bye to our jobs and co-workers, dealt with visas, moved out of our house, packed our bags, and prepared to start a new life overseas. We are now soaking up every last minute with family and friends as we make final preparations to move.

It's hard to believe, but in three days, we will be on our way to South Africa!

wpid-planetoSA-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

It’s 15 hours from Houston to Dubai, where we will layover for a night, and then on the next 10-hour plane to Cape Town, South Africa, followed by an hour drive to Stellenbosch.

Study update: Jack begins new student orientation the day we land. He is excited to dive back into the world of Linguistics, Greek and Hebrew. As his wife, seeing his passion and excitement for studying and sharing the word of God continues to confirm for me that God is leading us forward to pursue our calling.

wpid-studying-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

Would you pray with us, that as Jack studies the word of God, the Lord would give him opportunities to share his findings with the church?

Housing update: We will initially be living with some very kind missionaries from our East Mountain team and will begin hunting for a place of our own to live, something that we've been told can take time and patience in a university town with a housing shortage.

Would you pray with us, that God would deliver us an affordable rental home in a safe area that meets our needs?

Baby update: In late March, God willing, we will welcome our little girl! We are thankful that both Loren and baby are healthy. Much of Loren's time in the first few weeks will be establishing care under a doctor and securing plans to deliver the baby.

wpid-10872883_729825297916_8487312528740355077_o-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

Would you pray with us, for health for mom and baby, and that God will provide us with a skilled doctor, doula, and supportive community as we welcome our first child?

Ministry update: We are excited to finally in person join the East Mountain ministry team (check us out, we are now "official" on their team page!). We are honored to join them as we work together to equip and expand the church in South Africa.

Would you pray with us, that as we undergo a lot of transition, we are able to establish a healthy and positive community with our East Mountain team?

Funding update: Thank you to everyone who has given to support our ministry in South Africa! Currently, we are 60% funded. We are thankful to be reminded that God provides for us, enough for each day and need. You can find more information on our budget page.

Would you pray with us, that God continues to meet our financial needs as he teaches us to rely on him and our community of faith?

Thank you!!

We’ve been amazed (yet again) at how our God is a God of abundance - we have seen his care through all of you. We are overwhelmed by the generosity of our community here - between baby showers, practical help preparing, words of love, financial gifts to our ministry, and an outpouring of love and support, we are very aware that we will not journey into South Africa alone. We are deeply humbled by all of the support and love.

Thank you for being part of our journey, and thank you for your love.

Together, I know God is going to use us to encourage our brothers and sisters in South Africa, and to advance his kingdom work! Lately, I’ve been contemplating a beautiful quote from The Valley of Vision. Wherever you find yourself this January - stuck in the cold and gray, aware of his abundance, or somewhere between, may it encourage you:

“Every new duty calls for more grace than I now possess, but not more than is found in thee, the divine treasury in whom all fullness dwells.”

Why South Africa?

Living in America, it often feels like Christianity is in its decline. In 1910, 93% of all Christians in the world lived in Europe or the Americas. Today, that number is 63%.For our society, the significance and beauty of the gospel has faded in an age of material wealth and busy schedules.

In reality, the gospel is not dying out or fading - it’s just that its center has shifted dramatically.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-20-at-4.15.13-PM.png

Today, 1 in 4 Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa. In the last century, Christianity has spread more rapidly there than any other region of the world - it has seen a 60-fold increase in the number of believers! Many people ask us: Why South Africa?

Our answer: the gospel is spreading like wildfire in South Africa. That creates a huge need for Biblical education, pastoral training, and church support.

Why-SA-post-041.jpg

Today, you and I have more than 516 million brothers and sisters in sub-Saharan Africa, hungry to know God, eager to understand His word.

Our brothers and sisters need us. As people come to faith by the thousands, theological education and Bible study opportunities remain scarce.

In Tanzania, we met pastors who came to Christ, and less than a year later, had dozens gathering in their home, looking to them for spiritual leadership and teaching. Untrained, unsure of themselves, they pray God will help them; they shared of nights lying awake, wishing God would send someone to support and teach them.

Why-SA-post-035.jpg

In Rwanda, we saw the shadows left by the light of this revival. We met a “pastor” who had an obsession with building his personal wealth - the gospel he preached was not the truth, and he preyed on his congregation’s generosity. The people in his church didn’t know better -- no one ever gave them a theological foundation or taught them to read the Bible. Desperate physical needs abounded in his congregation, unmet, while the pastor’s house grew larger, his clothes ever more extravagant.

In Uganda, we asked our host pastor: “What is your church’s biggest need?” His answer: “Bible teaching! A class so that anyone could learn to read the Bible for themselves. We need more leaders; my congregation is hungry to learn! You have theological degrees from an American university ... could you teach them?”

You can imagine our delighted response. Jack had more fun that month than perhaps any other on our year-long journey.

Why-SA-post-039.jpg
Why-SA-post-038.jpg

I loved teaching community health classes, weaving together Scripture and topics in family wellness, working to empower African women. The month passed too quickly, and we still find that our hearts yearn for those days.

Why-SA-post-036.jpg

Why South Africa? Where there is a need, God provides. The faithful in Africa have been praying that God would send them teachers. And to our surprise, sometimes the Spirit whispers that WE are how God will answer their prayers.

We have heard the call of the Lord yet again: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

We know our answer - but we can’t do it alone.

Would you consider answering the call with us? We are 30% funded, and praying that God would provide more partners to join us in this exciting ministry.

We are passionate about equipping our brothers and sisters for the work of ministry. We know God has wonderful things planned for His church in South Africa. Would you join us?

Preparing for Jesus: Ideas for Celebrating Christmas & Advent

wpid-voiceofpsalms-2013-11-29-10-201.jpg

Dearest Friends,

Peace on Earth! Advent is here! Sunday, December 1st, the global Church recognizes the first day of the season of Advent, a time to remember Christ’s arrival to earth and look forward to his second coming. Advent lasts for the four weeks leading up to Christmas day. It fills me with awe to think that all over the world, Christians from many different traditions recognize the miracle of Christ’s first and second coming, all at the same time.

The majority of my church experiences have not included advent - I do not come from a liturgical tradition. However, in the last several years I have found that celebrating Advent in my home has made the Christmas season more reverent, meaningful, and joyful.

I’d like to share with you some of the more practical and meaningful ways we’ve woven Advent traditions into our home, in the hopes that it might help you as it has helped me as we resist the hectic tide of commercialism during the Christmas season.

First, a bit of background on Advent:

“Advent, meaning “the coming,” is a time when we wait expectantly. Christians began to celebrate it as a season during the fourth and fifth centuries. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done. And we wait in expectation of the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ, what God will yet do. But this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As an expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise ... prayer; and birth involves pain ... tears, joy, release, community ... Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world.” (Taken from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

The heart of Advent is to take a few minutes each day or each week in December to slow the pace of our lives and recognize what God has done, and what he will do, with the miracle of Christ at the center.

In this effort, tools like short scripture reading plans, songs, or advent calendars can help engage our minds, hearts, and bodies.

You could something each day from Dec 1- Dec 25, or on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas day, with something special on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. It’s your home, so my hope is to inspire you with ideas so that you are able to put together something that works for your family.

Here are some of my favorite tools:

One of my very favorite daily Scripture reading plans can be found in the short book The Voice of the Psalms, published by Ecclesia Bible Society. In the beginning of the book, it has an Advent reading plan with daily readings from the Psalms that focus on Christ’s coming, with Messianic quotes from other parts of Scripture. It only takes 5-8 minutes a day, and scripture selections are fantastic. (Confession: I don’t always get to it every day ... sometimes Jack and I have to play “catch up” and read three or four days at a time ... but it is always worth it!) Together, the readings present a sweeping picture God’s story of redemption in Christ. It is available from Amazon or at Family Christian Bookstores (call before you go, they might be out of stock!).

One of my favorite bands, Page CXVI, will release an album of Advent and Christmas hymns on Tuesday, December 3rd. You can hear a preview of it here. For me, it’s a challenge to find Christmas music that is both meaningful and enjoyable to listen to. This album accomplishes both (as a Kickstarter backer, I’ve had the privilege of getting it a week early, and it’s been on repeat ever since!). It will be available for download on www.pagecxvi.com (and likely on iTunes as well).

If you prefer a short devotional reading, this free, downloadable resource from Connection Church in Astoria, New York has devotionals for five days each week. It was written by my dear friend Larry Mayberry, who is a pastor at the church. It contains meaningful reflections and stories, sweet hymns, and scripture quotes all put together in a self-contained format. It only takes 8-10 minutes each day, and might be more enjoyable if the idea of a scripture reading plan feels too intimidating for your home.

To engage the kids:

As a child, one of my favorite Christmas traditions our family’s Advent calendar. Each night before bed, our excitement would build until it was finally time to unearth that day’s mystery as a little bear searched for the Christmas miracle (and finally found ‘Christmas’ with the family gathered in the living room). If you are looking for a high-quality advent calendar you can use year after year, I recently purchased (and love!) this wooden Nativity Advent Calendar. The small, hand-painted figures of the nativity fit behind small doors, and each day you can add to the scene until it is complete. It is well-made, sturdy, and beautifully painted. The back is magnetic so the figures stick quite well. It would also be quite easy to write short, daily scriptures on small pieces of paper and put them behind the doors as well to be read when you add the figures to the scene.

For something more affordable, you can find a variety of Advent calendars that have chocolate or short Scripture verses behind each day’s “door” for $5-$12. Some of my favorites are made by the Vermont Christmas Company on Amazon, though you can also find them at the dollar store sometimes or at Christian bookstores.

The Jesus Storybook Bible (which is lovely any time of year - I enjoy it even as a adult) can be used to tell the story of Christ’s coming when the stories are read in a particular sequence. You can find a free, printable reading plan and a description of how one mom uses the Jesus Storybook Bible during Advent with her children here.

However you celebrate Christmas and Advent, I pray you will make deliberate space and time to celebrate the miracle of Christ’s coming as we wait together in expectation for what God has promised he will do. Merry Christmas, friends!

With love,

Loren

*Note: I was not compensated in any way to share these items ... I just thought they were all great enough to tell my friends about!

Giving Jesus the Silent Treatment

Have you ever asked a question you couldn’t answer? Have you ever excitedly jumped into a new project, only to realize a tragically short time later that this *particular* project would soon haunt your dreams?

Well, friends, here’s a confession: I do this ALL.THE.TIME. And now you’ve been caught in the cross-hairs of this particular shortcoming of mine.

You see, I did both recently on this humble little blog when I

(a) posed the ridiculous question - “How do you love Jesus well in America?”

… around the same time that I decided to

(b) build a brand-new blog from scratch. (Apparently making the internet is hard. Who knew?)

The result is that I got overwhelmed and simply stopped blogging. I’m sorry about that. Some of you may have noticed that it has been an embarrassingly long time since I last wrote. And that last time, i left you with a cliffhanger. I’m not sure how to make amends except to say that if you come to my house, I will make you a cup of tea with a side of heartfelt apology. And I promise, I’m now out of “pretend it doesn’t exist” mode and into “get to business” mode. I have not forgotten I promised you a Part II, and it is forthcoming. In the mean time, however, I have some musings regarding Lent and Easter that I’d like to share.

The Lord has been moving me (okay, pulling me kicking and screaming) into a place of deeper honesty - with myself, and with my community. I’m just not sure we do each other any favors when we pretend like we have it all together. Sometimes, I don’t even make the conscious choice to pretend … it’s just sort of my default mode. (Incidentally, I think it’s often the default mode of our churches, too.)

So on Good Friday, I found myself sitting in a dim sanctuary, staring at a blank slip of paper, having just been challenged to write out “a confession.” There was just one small problem … I had been giving Jesus the silent treatment for weeks. It wasn’t intentional, but I ended up living for a while mostly independent of that small voice inside - the one that gives me joy and life and strength. In all this, there’s the good and the bad.

The Good: My relationship with Jesus every year resembles more of an actual … relationship. We talk. I talk a LOT, because I’m self-centered, but sometimes I also let HIM talk and I just … listen. Every time I do this, I’m reminded that I really like listening to Jesus. More and more, my “Christianity” isn’t about adhering to a set of beliefs or identifying with a religious label or even being part of specific church, but instead, my “Christianity” is having real interaction with God. And this is good, I know. And something to celebrate.

The Bad: When I act like an angsty, immature teenager (which is embarrassingly often), it gets reflected in my relationship with Jesus. Hence, the silent treatment.

Lately, I’ve been running. I’ve felt so restless and so every day I’ve run four or more miles at a time, scratching that itch to get out, to move, to do something.Until Jesus bought me a to a halt … literally. What I didn’t realize? That physical restlessness was a pretty accurate picture of internal state as well. Then I tore some ligaments in my ankle and ended up in a cast - with strict doctor’s orders: NO RUNNING . For six weeks. Just long enough to wreck my carefully constructed running routine and miss Houston’s best weather.

picstitch.jpg

It’s almost as if I could hear Jesus saying, “My child, it’s time for us to talk.”

Then, there was that fight with my husband. The one where I looked in his angry eyes and saw reflected back at me … my own imperfection. My selfish flaws that had ignited his anger. A fight that stopped me in my tracks and brought attention to my ugly, glaring sin. That’s the thing about marriage - there’s no place to hide.

I could almost hear Jesus saying, “My child, it’s time for us to talk.”

And finally, there was that PERFECT road trip with my soul-friends. The ones that make me feel most like ME when we’re together. The ones that touch a deep part of me and reassure me with their very presence that yes, things are going to be alright. We danced ourselves crazy at a dear friend’s wedding, celebrated love with tears in our eyes, and laughed until my stomach muscles tightened in protest. I realized it was the most alive I had felt in weeks.

IMG_6509.jpg

And I could hear Jesus saying, “My child, it’s time for us to talk.”

And ever so gently, he told me … “I came to bring you LIFE TO THE FULL … in Africa, in Asia, AND in America. You are more than your work, more than the sum of your hours, because you serve a bigger kingdom.” As he spoke, I felt very small. And very sad, because I realized I had missed his voice - the entire Lenten season.

This year, I gave up sweets for lent. Because they are my kryptonite, and sometimes my love for them is rivaled only by my love for my family, God, and cheese. I was disappointed that I still craved sweets - daily. Only a few days in, I was doing it more out of pride than penitence. (Probably because Jesus and I weren’t talking.) I did it because I said I would - and my stubborn pride would let me be *that girl* that “failed” at Lent.

So after endless days of stupid, prideful self-denial, I sat in a dim sanctuary and with burning cheeks, I read: “[She] honors me with her lips, but her heart is far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) How painfully true. Missing The Point - this could be the summary of my Lenten season this year. I had been following the letter of the law, but shut out the Spirit. I had stuck my fingers in my ears and gone my own way. I laughed out loud in that sanctuary as the thought occurred to me - “How old am I?! Shouldn’t I know better by now?” And so, I finally started talking to Jesus again. It went a something like this:

“Thank you, Jesus, that you don’t give me the silent treatment - even when I deserve it. You won’t play my silly games. You just wait for me, and draw me near. Thank you that you require no self-punishment before I return to you. I AM that prodigal daughter … and for some reason, I keep leaving. And every time every time every.time. You run You run out to meet me. And you kiss me, and embrace me, and adorn me with your finest of jewels, and invite me the feast. And while you hold me, Father, my shame is a tidal wave threatening to drag me out to shore But you hold onto me still and you whisper words of love in my ear. You invite me to communion … still. After it all. You ask me to partake of your body and blood. Again, and again. And again. The perfume of my idols still on my clothes, and you whisper still - “this is my body, broken for you.” And I just … ache. For how good you are. For how easily I forget. I ache for my leaving, and I ache for your love that always brings me back.”

For reasons I still can’t fully understand, God betroths us to him

in righteousness

in justice

in iron-clad, covenantal, kind, unbreakable love in mercy in faithfulness (Hosea 2:19)

And more than that, he brings us to his banqueting table, to the feast - while our sin is still on our hands and written on our hearts, he washes it all away. The sin, and the shame, and the past … as he washes our feet.

And this is love.

Wherever you’ve been, and wherever you wander - Jesus waits to welcome you back home. It’s the reason we call that Friday Good. It’s the reason he set us free on Easter Sunday, and why he sets us free every day … Jesus is still there, still waiting. Ready to welcome us back home.

Mission Impossible, Part 1

refugee_line.jpg

I’m a missionary. My mission field is located in a small, dilapidated office building in Houston, Texas, USA.In October I re-entered the American workforce, when the Lord graciously provided a job that allows me to provide for my family and also work with refugees.

In my opinion, America is as challenging a mission field as Vietnam was, where being who I am - a Christian - is illegal. It’s as challenging as the desperate slums of Uganda. As challenging as the hostile Hindu village in India, where I called home last year during the Christmas season.

The Lord has LITERALLY brought the nations to Houston ... Every day I walk into my multicultural office and I feel as though the Lord has handed me the nations on a platter.  I share a cube wall with Iraqi Muslims. A few paces away sit a few self-proclaimed atheists, Hindus from Nepal, a few buddhists from Burma.

My job is to teach life skills and to serve over 15 different refugee populations. In an endless stream, they come from Ethiopia, Burma, Egypt, Cuba, Nepal, Iraq - just to name a few.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

They’ve arrived in this land of plenty by proving that to stay in their country would be to place themselves in immediate danger of serious bodily harm. That’s the story their visa tells with its stamp: “REFUGEE.”

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

And I see their eyes, haunted and yet hopeful. I look into their faces, adoring me for the small help I can give.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

And some days I feel like Atlas, that mythical figure who carried the world.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

After giving up everything - saying goodbye to siblings and friends, parents and sometimes even spouses or children - after undergoing rigorous testing by the UN, external agencies, and the US government - when they receive the YES they’ve been waiting for … they make that long flight from East to West. I’ve done it before - the confusing mix of days and nights, airports, sleepless hours, security checks, transfers.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

They step onto the flat, humid land of Houston with only a suitcase and the hope of a better life.

... And then my office steps in. We provide a small, semi-furnished apartment with the rent pre-paid for a few months. We provide a week’s worth of food and access to services like health care and food stamps.

In a strange land of strange tongue, they are promptly told they have exactly 3 months to learn English, find a job, begin paying taxes, and navigate a brand-new country. Overwhelming doesn’t even begin to cover it.

These people who grew up in deserts, jungles, and tented camps now attempt to navigate the Houston bus system that covers over 15 major highways and interchanges.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org
From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

Single mothers that can’t write their name in their own language are told that to feed their children, they have 90 days to learn English. Doctoral professors in Engineering are told that despite their education and experience, they must start by taking the GRE - that in America, everyone starts over. Many for better. Some for worse.

And sometimes I think God made this heart of mine too sensitive. Because I ache for their situations. I’m keenly aware of the challenges, because a year ago I got lost trying to take the bus across Kathmandu. I couldn’t read or speak Nepali and so for about three hours I wandered the city, desperately trying to remember my “address” … wishing someone spoke my language.

I remember the shame when I was told my modest (to me) clothing was causing the catcalls as I walked down a muddy Rwandan road - my knee caps were showing - and how inappropriate that is in Rwanda! I might as well be naked, I was told.

I remember my tongue twisting, trying to master the tones of Vietnamese merely so I could thank the woman who made my breakfast each day. I never did say “Thank You” successfully - not once in 35 days of repeated attempts.

I remember wondering HOW the skills I had from home - my college degree, my ability to type 100 words a minute, my knowledge of drilling wells -- how would any of this contribute to the rural society of Tanzania, where prized abilities included being able to to skin and cook a chicken with ease, to preach in Swahili, to drive a Dala-Dala (a 15-passenger van used as a taxi) down the left side of rutted roads.

I was completely unemployable, nearly useless, and mostly unable to build solid relationships without help.

And so when they come to my humble desk, and I’m told: “Teach them to be successful, responsible American citizens” … I know, I know how impossible that seems. And yet I also know what love and patience could do for them.

This is my mission field. The fields are ripe for the harvest.

And yet I’m mostly miserable, constantly at war within myself because I can’t seem to find the courage in this “tolerant,” politically correct, anti-Christian society to declare (or even whisper): “Jesus. The most important thing this place can offer you … is the freedom to know Jesus.”

And on Tuesday nights I gather with a small group, and we read his word and we speak of how difficult it is to tell of the Lord’s goodness … In a corporate office. In a public school. In groups of stay-at-home-moms, quick to judge but slow to be real. In the messy families we call our own.

And I pray to be given courage but mostly I feel like Peter ... in his early days, well-meaning but all-too-quick to deny that I know anything about THAT MAN  - the one that divides, the one surrounded by misperceptions … the one I’m so secretly and so desperately in love with.

Were I to write a gospel, it might read: “I tell you the truth: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for an American Christian to honestly and lovingly spread the Kingdom in his homeland.”

and with the disciples my mind wonders: “Who then [in America] can be saved?”

and this Sweet Savior Jesus, he looks to the core of me and says: “With man this is impossible, but with God all.things.are.possible.”

So ... where do we go from here?

Stay tuned for Part II …

Zipper Snags & Judging Others

zipper_snag.jpg

This morning as I showered, I let the words of Graham Cooke wash over me -- truth beautifully spoken -- “The Lord loves you. There is nothing you can do to make Him love you more. There is also nothing you can do to make Him love you less. He loves you because He loves you because He loves you because He loves you …

He won’t love you any better when you become better. Because that’s they way that He is … that’s His nature. He loves all the way, all the time. His love is unchanging.”

Like the warm water running down my back, these words of truth washed over me, invigorating me, steading me for a new day … until they hit a *SNAG* in my brain.

Like a zipper caught halfway down, my enjoyment of God’s love yanked to to a stop.The words of a dear friend came back to me: “I’m just not sure I can trust Graham Cooke …. because, you know, he’s divorced.”My thoughts snarled … and I started thinking.How often in sermons have I heard, “We can take comfort from the fact that none of the great prophets of old were perfect. They were human, just like us. And yet, God used them to say great things.”We know Abraham intentionally deceived others -- on more than one occasion. Yet he’s even mentioned in the Bible’s “hall of fame": “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)

The sticky fact is: we carry a double standard. When a “hero” of the Bible messes up, we breathe a sigh of relief and they seem more approachable to us. Yet today, when a pastor, worship leader, teacher, or missionary fails -- and especially fails in public -- We shrink away. We wonder, is it still okay to keep that book he wrote (the one that we enjoyed at one time)?

Is it still okay to listen to that worship album if I find out one of the musicians was …. you know …

These are good questions -- the Bible says “[those] who teach will be judged more severely than others.” (James 3:1)

We do need to carefully evaluate who we let speak with authority over out lives.

And yet. I think it’s easy to go too far. I think sometimes we -- the American church -- go to far.

He writes that one controversial book, and so all his work is quickly discredited. Anyone that shares his sermons must issue a disclaimer … “Now, I know he wrote that really awful book, but really some of his stuff is great … “

She is caught in an affair, and the numbers at her Bible study dwindle.

The fact is, we have far less grace for our leaders of today than we show to those that are gone, despite the Biblical admonition to give good leaders “double honor.” (1 Tim 5:17)

How silly would it be to throw out all of David’s psalms because of his illicit relations with Bathsheba …. or his murder of her husband …. or his cover-up of the murder … (take your pick). Instead, we celebrate the fact that GOD spoke incredibly through him, in spite of his shortcomings.

But today -- today we push leaders into a frenzy of trying to attain public near-perfection.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

Watching political leaders sweating to attain the perfect image, hoping to be given the majority approval, I am painfully reminded of how we do that within the church, every Sunday.

Pastors may talk about struggles from the pulpit, but often they are “acceptable” struggles -- the ones that won’t tarnish their reputations, but will be indulgently passed over with a chuckle. We don’t often hear pastors share their struggles with pornography, yet a recent survey shows that 51% of pastors say cyber-porn is a possible temptation, and 37% say it is a current struggle. (Christianity Today, Leadership Survey, 12/2001).Something is wrong.This obsession with perfection, pushed by the media, is infecting our churches.The result is that it becomes harder and harder to be an honest people, broken vessels that openly share our sins -- and most magnificent -- HOW GOD IS HEALING THEM.Our status quo, the one that we (perhaps didn’t choose, yet) find ourselves in is so focused on evaluating an individual as a whole

so quick to draw lines in the sand,

to position ourselves on the right side of the line --

that we’ve forgotten ... the Holy Spirit was was given as a guide. That Spirit, given to exercise our muscles in discerning someone’s message -- not someone as a person.

As a newly-launched missionary, I find myself tangled in the middle.

My journal contains a stack of half-written blogs I longed to post here, discarded because they might be too controversial or too honest.

This tiny voice in my head wonders --

“What if they knew that I cried nearly EVERY day in Tanzania, hating my team … refusing to see the banquet table the Lord prepared before me -- a beautiful community I would not sit with?”

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

“What if they found out that retching in a primitive outhouse in India, I begged God to let me go home?”

The saddest part is, the most beautiful stories come out our brokenness, God actively and currently molding redemption in our lives.

THAT team I never thought I could work with? They became deeply loved family by the end of the Race -- after countless hours of painful discussions, working out our differences.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

And oh, there are more stories -- stories of my own brokenness, my own stupidity, that somehow God transformed into beauty …

They are beautiful stories, these recent threads woven in God’s tapestry called redemption … beautiful stories that often go untold, because we will not tolerate how truly messy our sin is.

Because, as Derek Webb reflected, it’s easier to ask for a new law; a new rule for our rulebook, so we don’t have to think … instead of listening to the Spirit.

I’m boldly declaring that THERE IS A BETTER WAY.

God gave us the Spirit -- to “find out what pleases the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:10) So that we could be free, “not under the law, but under the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:18)

Paul encourages us to “not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17)

It takes practice. It takes sitting in silence with the Lord, honing our ears to hear his Spirit’s quiet voice -- until that voice becomes so familiar, it’s like a shout in our mind. (Ephesians 1:13)

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

If we all became more acquainted with the Spirit, more practiced at loving all and evaluating words, not people -- we could trust the Spirit of God in others to lead them, to lead us,

and we could live freely, for “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5)

I read Galatians 5. I hear Graham Cooke’s voice speak unequivocal truth -- that same man that is divorced, yet still blessed by the Spirit to speak truth …

And that snag in my mind? It smoothes out, because the Spirit inside me can tell me what is true.

And I hear freedom bells ring.

I highly recommend Derek Webb’s A New Law and Jonathan & Melissa Helser’s Inheritance ... two places you can hear fully human men speak truth that will rock your world.

The Gift of Presence

The coffee shop where we spent a lot of time building relationships and playing Uno this month

The coffee shop where we spent a lot of time building relationships and playing Uno this month

Here on the Worlp Rape (Nepali Engrish for World Race), we go a lot of places for not a lot of reasons. "Ministry" often looks like going to a church service (or a gathering or a graduation or even a wedding) and sitting there, or worse, just standing there. You're not asked to preach or sing or pray or testify. You just sit.

Meanwhile the people stare at you intermittently between singing or praying in their mother tongues which we of course do not understand.

30 min goes by.Sitting.An hour passes.Still just sitting.An hour and a half passes.

(This is how I go through 2 full battery cycles a day on my iPod touch...)

I don't think this is what Abraham had in mind when he was told God would use him to bless all people groups. It's certainly not what I thought I was signing up to do 12 months ago at Training Camp. Regardless, I am here, and I know God wants me here.

But, why?

There are so many other (read better) things I could be doing.

You have 7 brilliant, passionate, equipped, University-educated 20-somethings at your disposal. And you just want us to SIT HERE?!?

We can teach classes on health, Bible, English, business, finance, hygiene. We can preach and sing. We can host medical clinics. And that's just the list of degrees and certifications on our team!

[photo missing] Krystle checking blood pressure during the medical clinic this month

"No, thank you. You canjust sit here." (to be understood as: Sit down, shut up, don't do anything disruptive, and smile.)

WHY???

Well, the short answer is I don't know. The long answer goes something like this...

Sometimes, God can use us without us doing anything. Sometimes, we don't need to preach or evangelize.  Sometimes he just wants us to BE there.

Sometimes he just wants us to BE.

Not do. BE.

At times we feel like sports stars or movie stars; people just love being around us.

Sometimes we can be an encouragement to others by just being there, hanging out, playing Angry Birds. During a medical clinic for the elderly, I sat in a chair surrounded by a flock of kids watching me play Angry birds. Sometimes they ooh-ed and awed. Sometimes they provided commentary on the action. Sometimes they laughed at my failures. They loved it.

Somehow, that's ministry.

I can't tell you how many times it has happened, but it feels like we've done more of that than what we would normally consider ministry in these past 10 months.

Sometimes you just being there is all God wants you to do.

Our American culture tells us that we are what we do. Therefore we must perform and accomplish and work and do. But God didn't create us for the purpose of doing that stuff.

He created us to worship Him and enjoy life serving Him and His Kingdom.

Worship is a matter of the whole person, your heart, your mind, your body, the deepest parts of who you are. And, worship is about all of life, not just singing songs or going to church.

You cannot worship when you are not aware of God's presence.

God is in the business of giving the gift of presence, His presence. Our Scriptures are full of theophanies. The Bible itself is a book of divine disclosure; that's what makes it holy. In the Old Testament, He appears to Abraham and Moses. In the New Testament, He reveals Himself to the disciples and Paul. Then, in a dramatic turn of events, He gives all His followers the Holy Spirit.

And because we are Spirit-filled people, God can use us as gifts of presence.

Yes, we are called to be more than just gifts of presence. All followers of Jesus have been commissioned as heralders of the good news in both word and deed. If St. Francis of Assisi really did say something along the lines of "preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words" (which is questionable), then he was wrong. TheGospel is not good news if it is not news that is both proclaimed and proved. But, sometimes, God just wants us to show up and wait.

If I were more spiritual I would now tell you a story about how I did this and share some profound insight with you.

I'm not.

I'm still learning, so maybe we can do this together. Maybe we can play fewer levels of Angry Birds and ask God to speak in those situations. Maybe we open up a dialogue with God in our own mother tongue while the others do the same.

Mad photo props to the fabulous Brianna Danese.

Prophecy Then & Now

IMG_7515.jpeg

I post this to contribute to the ongoing musings and discussions happening on our squad related to the outpouring of the indwelling Spirit.  This is not meant to be the authoritative answer by any means. These are thoughts compiled by one scholar who has devoted his life to studying the Bible and encouraging the church and scholarly community with his findings.

What follows is a list of characteristics that generally apply to most (but not all) prophets. Prophets pray (Abraham), praise (Mariam) and preach (Amos), but so do lots of other people who are not called prophets. What makes them so special?

These characteristics, compiled by John Goldingay of Fuller Theological Seminary, distinguish prophets from other leaders, and can be thought of as familial traits or resemblance shared by family members.

Disclaimer: No one prophet applies to all of these characteristics. No one characteristic applies to all people labeled as prophets. Characteristics of one prophet may not be a necessary component of prophetic ministry as a whole. Goldingay's 9 Facets of a Prophet / Prophetic Ministry1. A prophet shares God's nightmares and dreams.

They can see things that other people cannot see (i.e. Isa 1, Elisha & God's armies)

A prophet looks at the present in light of the past and in light of the future as well as the future in light of the present. Decimation is not the last word.

Prophets in the OT were invited into God's "cabinet," His heavenly court, to be a part of the decision making process of the gods. (Gen 1 & Job 1 are two examples of this "heavenly cabinet". 1 Kings 22 is a prime example of a prophet being a part of the process. Abraham's pleading for Sodom & Gomorrah in Gen 18 is another.

A prophet brings bad news (nightmares) more than good news (dreams), about 2/3 bad and 1/3 good.

2. A prophet speaks like a poet and behaves like an actor.

The books are most written in poetic style, in verse, and contain a lot of indirect communication. They are full of hyperbole and imagery, simile and metaphor (1 Kings 13 & 22).

Receiving a word from a prophet does not make life less complicated (or easier). Its like hearing a parable from Jesus. We should expect Christian prophets to speak in pictures.

Prophets speak in rhyme. Prophets can dance. They got rhythm.

God may leave us initially puzzled. God speaks in pictures & images for 2 reasons: 1- that deep truths about God can't be put in straightforward language that speaks only to the rational mind (they are not simply easily understood and comprehended) they require images that have the capacity to reach the whole person (deep truths about god speak to the whole person, not just the rational mind) and

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

2- that we don't want to receive God's truth. But, pictures and images can get past our defenses and break through our resistance.

Prophecy speaks to our will, our imagination and our insight.

3. A prophet is somebody who confronts the confident with rebuke and the downcast with hope.

They minister directly with the people of their day, they speak to their own people and the struggles they are dealing with. They don't speak much about "the Messiah."

The first two thirds of Ezekiel is mostly rebuke, but the final third of Ezekiel is about restoration. First Isaiah (1-39) is mostly rebuke. Second Isaiah (40-55) is mostly hope. A true prophet knows what time it is, an speaks accordingly.

4. A prophet is someone who speaks mostly to the people of God.

They are not social reformers though they do have a vision of what things should like. They remind the people of their commitment to God. They do speak to the world/nations, but primarily to the people of God. Prophets today will call the church to be people of God instead of an imitation of the world.

5. A prophet is someone who is not a part of the establish societal/ruling/political structure.

They are independent of institutional pressures of church and state, not on the payroll of gods people. they speak using objectionable language an that says something about who they are speaking to as well as the prophets themselves.

6. A prophet is a scary person who mediates the things of a scary God.

Prophetic ministry today should reduce the domestication of God that characterizes us as evangelicals and charismatics.

7. A prophet intercedes with boldness and praises with freedom.

From jackandlorenmessarra.theworldrace.org

They are mediators who mediate in BOTH directions as members of God's cabinet, they take part in cabinet discussions on behalf of the people of God advocating for them (prayer). They also proclaim the cabinet's decisions to the people (preaching). Amos 7&8. Both activities, the preaching and the prayer, have the same aim, which is for God's positive purposes to be fulfilled and God's negative purposes to be abandoned. (Abraham in Gen 20). Prophets pray & preach, as well as praise!

8. A prophet is someone who speaks and ministers in a way that reflect the personalities of the individual and their time.

God speaks by their "hand." Some humanness comes out in the delivery of Hod's message. God uses them as who they are to bring the message they can bring. Jeremiah speaks differently than Isaiah who speaks differently than Ezekiel, etc.

It does not bypass the person or their personality.

9. A prophet is certain to fail, in some way or another.

God sent prophets to call His people out from their apostasy and back into right relationship with Him. Almost none of them succeed. Ironically Jonah was the most successful prophet. However, God is ever hopeful, and no "failure" discourages Him.

Prophets are not infallible - they make mistakes (i.e. Elijah, Hannaniah, Jeremiah in ch 15, they may not achieve the purpose for which God sent them.

So, what's the point? God stays ever faithful and ever hopeful. Prophets are a means of God's grace. A prophet should prophesy because God called him/her. He or she must be obedient and faithful, because God is. Closing Thoughts

I would encourage you to listen to the first 45 min of this lecture where Goldingay explains these 9 facets/familial traits. If you are interested, you might as well listen to the entire course. If you want to read more on the topic of the Holy Spirit and prophecy check out Walter Brueggeman's The Prophetic Imagination, Gordon Fee's God's Empowering Presence. Probably the best commentary on 1 Corinthians is by Gordon Fee, the chief NT editor for the NIV.

After understanding how prophets ministered in the OT, we can begin to draw conclusions about what the gift of prophecy and prophetic ministry should look like today. Stay tuned for a post later this month on some of my thoughts on that matter.

(The pictures were taken and edited by Loren when Jack & Jake team preached in Uganda.)