Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Words Took Wings and I Found a Halo Rainbow

Just a few days before we left for Yei, Sudan, I read these words by Charles Spurgeon that summed up what was happening in my life. I was getting the focus off myself and on to the One who really mattered in all of this. This quote is taken from "The Gospel Coalition Blog" by Ray Ortlund dated October 3, 2009. He quotes Charles Spurgeon as saying,

"Our faith is a person; the gospel that we have to preach is a person; and go wherever we may, we have something solid and tangible to preach, for our gospel is a person. If you had asked the twelve Apostles in their day, 'What do you believe in?" they would not have stopped to go around with a long sermon, but they would have pointed to their Master and they would have said, 'We believe him.' 'But what of your doctrines?' 'There they stand incarnate.' 'But what is your practice?' 'There stands our practice. He is our example.' 'What then do you believe?' Hear the glorious answer of the Apostle Paul, 'We preach Christ crucified.' Our creed, our body of divinity, our whole theology is summed up in the person of Jesus Christ."

Within two days after I read these words, we left for Southern Sudan. I was about to experience a journey that I will always treasure. I was getting to go in peace and gratitude without the baggage of struggle that had erupted in my life. I could go with a sense that God was at work. I could do that because of the prayers of my wife, Betty, and many friends. I knew they would be praying for us and for the pastors and workers that we were about to meet. On the Sunday before we left, Betty had asked our home group to write notes and letters for me to take. They did and I got to take those notes with me along with other encouraging words from family and other friends. By the time we left, I had been blessed beyond what words could describe and it just got better with every passing day. I am thankful to God for all of this and for how He used others to help keep me moving forward.

I know others have made trips like this without struggles.  I know that I have had to face up to some things about what it meant to want Christ to be the center of my life and what it meant to live for His glory. This experience became the place for that to happen. I have had to face up to my own sense of inadequacy and see that God is my adequacy.

As I write these words, I know there is much more to this story than me. I didn't fully know how all of this would unfold. I didn't know that I would see in even a fresher way the role that my wife, Betty, would have - even after I left for Sudan. I didn't know that I would see how God was working in her life through what I was experiencing and would experience.

Rather than being a story about me, it would be a story about the men with whom I journeyed and what their lives came to mean to me. It would be about the pastors in Southern Sudan, their courage and devotion to God and their willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel. It would be about worshiping God in a new culture and about studying together with joy filled, gospel empowered believers across the ocean. It would be about coming to grips with the many foundational truths of the gospel and then seeing first hand how the gospel had impacted lives.

But in all of this unbelievable experience there is another thing that I would sense in a deeper way. It was the glory of God. As I watched events unfold over the next several weeks, I knew I was seeing God's glory being manifested in the hearts and lives of others. For the first time, I really begin to feel the weight of it. After all is said or could be said, I knew that only one thing ultimately mattered. It was His glory as revealed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I am glad I got to see that. As I think back to those days, I still find it so astounding that we got to be used to present Jesus in the glory of His gospel - to see something of His glory, to relish in it and, communicate it. We got to behold a multifaceted diamond of unbelievable radiance as the gospel was unfolded and as we saw how it touched lives and laid the foundation for future work among people hungry for and desperately needing Christ.

So on October 5, 2009, the words I had been laboring over for several months, together with the work of the other 6 men in our group, literally took wings as we lifted off from DFW Airport at 3:40 in the afternoon. Not only were the words in our minds and hearts; they were in 60 notebooks that would be our gift to the pastors in Southern Sudan. We take things like this for granted, I am afraid; but, as I would soon learn, not so among these pastors. It was awesome to watch the Sudan pastors as they received this material and begin to read. I have to fast forward at this point to mention a scene late one afternoon after a long day session of teaching. We looked across the grounds to a building where some of the pastors were staying and saw one of the pastor sitting off by himself pouring over the note book - examining each page. Words can't describe that scene and many others like that.

The flight to Yei, Sudan was long. I learned quickly that it would be a sleep depriving excursion for me. There were two 9 hour flights divided by a several hour waiting period in Amsterdam - not to mention what seemed like countless security checks. Those moments for me at security check points and customs became a team joke. I was always the last one to clear through security. We eventually arrived in Entebbe, Uganda late in the evening and by then I was not sure what day it was. As we entered the airport, I got my first glimpse of something I had never seen - soldiers armed with assault rifles. I remember, Jeremy Pace, our team leader saying just look straight ahead and follow him through the airport. Believe me, I did exactly that.  All the time I kept thinking of the old movie, "The Raid at Entebee" and the scenes at that airport. For us though, it was nothing like that.  I would not say I was afraid, but I stayed aware of the many assault rifles.

There was a thought that had been with me even before we left home. From the beginning of our meetings in preparation for the trip, I was aware that the flight from Uganda into Southern Sudan would be by way of a two engine, 19 passenger plane that had serious weight restrictions. I knew that on the previous trip by a team from our church, the pilots had not been able to find the dirt runway. They called for the help of the passengers. I know that I started this portion of the story on the high note of God's glory but there was another battle that I had to face that was obscuring higher thoughts of the gospel and God's glory - it was an overloaded two engine plane and an hour and half flight over a jungle that looked like a scene from a Tarzan movie.  I had no idea how God was about to handle this and introduce me to Southern Sudan. I had no idea He had a simple lesson for me about His glory.

After a day and night of rest we returned to the airport to board our "little" plane. Once again, it was the check point routine. I remember getting to the desk and presenting my passport. I evidently had missed the words, during our time of preparation, about being asked why I was leaving Uganda and going to Southern Sudan. So when I was asked why I was going to Sudan, I began to stumble for words. I finally said, "'Er, we are going to work with a church and uh..." Fortunately, one of our team members step up and told me to say. "teach." Relief. I made it through and we finally boarded the plane. I sat on the one seat row next to the window overlooking an engine. I would have a good view of any oil leaks and I would also be able to see the jungle below. Comforting.

I still remember sitting in an almost fetal position with my carry on bag in my lap. Come to think of it every thing was carry on, included the duffle bags filled with heavy notebooks. I tried to take comfort in the fact that our flight would last about an hour and a half. I did not reckon though on the fact that the flight would require one stop. Our first dirt runway landing was uneventful except for the mud puddles. As we descended, I could see a small school yard near the runway. A fence separated the school yard from the runway. Along the fence, children had lined up to watch us land and then take off again. Another scene caught my eye. The field next to the runway was covered in tall grass. Women, holding children, were either standing or sitting in the grass. I was not sure which. Only their head and shoulders rose above the grass.  It was a puzzling sight but it did say something about life beyond most of our experiences.

It was on the last stage of the journey into Southern Sudan that something happened that forever marked that phase of the journey. It still is in my thoughts today.  I had been filled with apprehension.  I remember closing my eyes and trying to pray but I was continually drawn back to the window, to the ground below - and to the jungle and the roaring engine. We were about 20 minutes out from the air strip in Yei, Sudan when I notice the shadow of the plane moving with a rippling effect across the ground below. It was the clear shape of the plane. I followed it for a few minutes and then looked away. When I looked back, I saw the shadow of the plane again but this time there was something remarkably different. Around the shadow of the plane was a halo rainbow. I later learned that the halo rainbow is an unusual occurrence that requires a certain angle of the plane to the sun and the right amount of water droplets. Believe me, this is an over simplification on my part. I found out that this phenomenon is appropriately called "glory." All scientific explanation aside, it had a much deeper meaning for me that went beyond just the happenstance of occurrences in physics. For over 15 minutes I looked at the shadow of the plane inside the halo rainbow - a shadow that had now taken the shape of a cross - the tail wings were no longer showing. I am not trying to get mysterious here, but I do know the impact that scene had on me regardless of whether anyone wants to give it a natural explanation.

We were on our way to talk to men and women about the cross and the promises of God - promises that He kept and fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I thought of that as I looked at this scene outside the window of that plane. I thought about the privilege God was allowing me to experience and about the life of the men with whom I traveled. I thought about the silliness of my anxiousness. God had provided me with a remarkable visual reminder that there was something more important than me or the journey. It was a fresh reminder that this was, like everything else, about His glory - glory portrayed in the cross, in His Son dying upon the cross, and in the promises fulfilled. It is amazing what God's glory will do for you. It is amazing what getting just a glimpse of His glory will do. It will capture your thinking and your life. It will drown out anxiousness and needless worry. It will do that and much, much more. I am thankful He opened my eyes that day in the skies above Sudan, through a halo rainbow, to the thoughts of His glory. What will it be like one day to live continuously in His glory?

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

I Am Still Lord of all You Do

This title may seem strange at this juncture of the story of my trip to Sudan. It came to have a very important meaning to me toward the end of my time of preparing for the talks that I would be giving. The decision to go to Sudan and the preparation to go over the next several months brought a number of battles or points of struggle. I could gloss over these, but then the story would not be complete. I initially thought that once I decided to go on the trip the struggle would basically end. I was wrong.

Almost immediately I was hit by a life-long struggle of a sense of inadequacy. I began teaching in Sunday School shortly after I got out of college and entered the United States Air Force. Over the years I spent many hours studying God's Word. It was not like I had never taught or had limited knowledge and yet when the reality of what I would be doing in Sudan begin to dawn on me, this old sense of inadequacy came back. This new manifestation of the struggle related to our teaching assignment. I learned that each member of the team would be writing two papers of at least 25 pages each and then teaching about two hours on the topic covered in those papers. This was to be followed by a question and answer time. All of the talks would be through an interpreter which meant - well, I wasn't quite sure other than somehow we would have to speak in a way that accommodated the need for translation.

In order to understand this phase of the journey, I have to digress and look at something God was doing in my life at the time. Even now when I think about it I am astounded.

Through much of my life as a Christian, I had an incomplete view of the place the gospel had in the life of a believer. I had no doubt that it was the key to the entry into salvation. I discovered much later how far short that view came to the real truth. I have written about this in more detail in an article entitled, "What Does It Mean to be the Clay?" That post includes an unpublished May 23, 2009 post explaining how I had spent many years understanding that the gospel was primarily for the unsaved. I never heard about the on-going importance and relevance of the gospel to my life as a Christian. There was some irony in this discovery. I had been hearing this truth since we became part of The Village Church in July 2008. I am sad to say that it took awhile for me to grasp this new understanding - at least, to me it was new. At about the same time I began to pick up on phrases like, "gospel centered living." I did not understand living in those terms for the simple reason that I saw the gospel as primarily relating to one's entrance into salvation. I remember trying to formulate questions to ask men like Geoff Ashley and Josh Patterson, pastors in our church. Those questions were very ineptly worded. I was wanting to know how did you live a gospel centered life and what did that look like. Was I living such a life and didn't know it? I am not sure what day I came across a book by C. J. Mahaney, entitled, "The Cross Centered Life." It was within several months of departing on this trip to Sudan. I know that when I began to read it, I couldn't read it fast enough.

Little did I know that some things were converging in my life at this point. God was about to show me more than I ever expected concerning the gospel. I was going to learn and witness first hand gospel centered living. I was going to be part of helping a group of Sudanese pastors understand, in greater detail, the gospel and its ramifications. I was going to learn much from them what gospel centered living was all about. It turns out that it was going to involve a process that would immerse me in the gospel both in terms of studying, the presenting of the lessons and seeing the gospel at work in the lives of people in a different part of the world who were really living regardless of their outer circumstances.

At our first team meeting in July 2009, I learned that each member of the team would be teaching two topics. Those topics related to the foundation of the gospel, the matter of first importance Paul referenced in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Geoff Ashley told each of us to "think of yourself as the team's subject matter expert on your particular nuance of the overall theme of the gospel." That is when the weight of what I would be doing started to grow. Each of us were asked to name four areas out of the 14 topics that we would like to present. The list of 14 included: the gospel at 30,000 feet (a version of a sermon by our lead pastor, Matt Chandler); of first importance or thinking through 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; God is the Gospel (based on a book by John Piper); the atonement, part 1 (multifaceted aspects) and part 2 (penal substitution); consequences of the gospel (putting off the flesh and dying to sin), sin (part 1, Genesis 3) and part 2 (Romans 1); the incarnation, consequences of the gospel, part 2 (Christian unity), part 3 (social engagement, evangelism and good works); justification by faith; the importance of regeneration and the resurrection. If that wasn't enough I learned that we also would be helping lay a foundation for future trips by teams from our church. I had no idea what that meant.

After praying and thinking about which topics I would choose, I submitted four. One involved the history of redemption - similar to our pastor's message on the gospel at 30,000 feet. A second one related to the atonement and the aspect of penal substitution. From my perspective, I think part of the reason I chose these particular topics had to do with my love of history and the nature of my work as a judge in the criminal justice system. As it turned out these were the two topics Geoff Ashley assigned to me. The months of August and September became a blur as I began to read, study and write. Many times it seemed as if my head was spinning from all the reading and thinking. I am not sure how many "completed" drafts I came up with only to discard and revise them. My days were literally consumed with reading and writing - no arithmetic, other than adding up the few hours I had left to finish the project. It was like I left on the trip two months before I actually did. My wife, Betty, was very gracious and never made me feel guilty about the time it was taking me to complete the work. She was praying and had others praying as well. I could not have made it without her prayers and support. In a real sense she was and would continue to be part of that trip. That is another story that I look forward to sharing.

In the midst of all of this writing effort, I came under attack with another sense of inadequacy. Not only was I struggling to put all the vast amount of material together in a very short time, I became burdened by a new form of inadequacy. The more I learned about the pastors to whom we would be speaking the more I started to realize the extent of what we would be doing. Each of these pastors with whom we would be teaching and worshiping, were prepared to lay everything on the line for Christ and the advance of the gospel - including their lives. They were willing to and probably were already suffering for that purpose. I learned how true this was after we arrived in Sudan. I began to think about the fact that I would be part of helping them do that - that we would be equipping and encouraging them to make that kind of sacrifice. I never taught a group who would face such adversity. The gravity of it all began to weigh on me. I struggled with thoughts about whether I could make the kind of sacrifice they were willing to make. On July 24, 2009, I wrote Matt Elkins, the Mission Pastor, at The Village Church, about this struggle and what I had concluded. "I have been trusting in my own adequacy. I was reading how Paul, when he was contemplating the mission of presenting the gospel, had asked, "Who is adequate?" I agreed with him that no one is adequate. It has taken me awhile to move to the peace that Paul had in his conclusion that God is adequate. He is our sufficiency. I am thankful that the opportunity to go is uncovering areas of my life that need to be brought before God. I am glad that he is allowing me to see that He is working in my life. I am grateful to God for the role of the leadership of our church in making this step possible in my life."

Things finally started to come together in September although, I was being pulled in other directions. There was a new home group leaders' orientation class that Betty and I had to attend. We were starting a home group and it was necessary that we first complete the class. Our new home group began preliminary meetings in September. We also had to finish several interviews of new covenant members in our church. There was a meeting with Vernon Burger of His Voice Global. From my understanding Vernon had been instrumental in opening up this opportunity of partnering with the churches in Southern Sudan. My work as a senior judge was requiring time in court and I was also trying to complete necessary medical examinations. In the midst of all of this, our team had to have the final drafts of the talks, outlines, bibliographies, footnotes and discussion questions ready for printing by September 25, 2009. Late on the evening of September 19, 2009 I finished the two lessons and saved them on the computer. I normally would print the revised work; but it was late so I saved the printing for the next day - a Sunday - our last day to meet as a team before departure. I went to bed and felt relaxed for the first time.

As I write this I can still feel the tension of what happened. My calmness was short lived. I had a rude awakening on Sunday morning when I turned on the computer and attempted to open the talk on Penal Substitution - a talk that had turned out to be the hardest and most complicated of the two. I discovered that I had unknowingly deleted the paper the night before. The last thing I saved that night was the outline of the talk. I didn't realize that the outline had the same title as the paper. When I received a message "did I want to replace," I click "yes" thinking that I was replacing an earlier version of the outline. Instead the talk was overwritten. I can't begin to describe how upset I was when I realized what I had done. The weight of the last two months came crashing down on me. To say that tears came to my eyes is putting it mildly. I can remember crying out rather loudly, "No," No." "It can't be." I may have even pounded the desk with my fist. No, I did do that. Betty came rushing into the study to find out what had happened. To her credit, she stayed calm and when I told her what I had done she immediately began to pray. She started calling different members of our home group to pray. For me, all I saw was a hopeless situation. She saw much more - something you could only see by faith. She told me, "Well, maybe this is not the talk God wants you to give." I didn't want to hear that; but within about an hour, I started to have peace about the matter. I started to accept that it was very possible God wanted something else. It turned out He did; but not another paper. Betty suggested another thing to me that morning. She said, "When you get to your meeting this afternoon, ask Kent if there is anyway to retrieve the deleted talk from the computer." I said I would, but I didn't believe it was possible. By then, I had arrived at the conclusion that I would just start over and see what happened. Kent Rabalais was a member of our team and also knowledgeable about computers. I had received some training from him during the time he had worked at the local Apple Store.

By the time I got to the meeting that afternoon, prayers were being answered. I was resigned to starting over and actually had a peace about it. I was learning something else or being reminded of something else. It is embodied in the title of this post. I have found that it is very easy to lapse in my trust in and reliance upon God. I was secure in the fact that I had completed the talk. God had just reminded me, though, how fragile that sense of security can be and that there is no real security in anything apart from trust in Him. There is not a point when trust is no longer necessary - even if I was actually holding the papers of the talk in my hand. I realize in looking back, that I needed this reminder on the eve of my departure to Africa. There is no real substitute for trust. That was how I was to make this trip and carry out the assignment given.

With that peace and with the seemingly insurmountable task facing me to complete a new paper within a few days, I went to the meeting. I am thankful that I could go with renewed trust and with a fresh reminder from God that "I am still Lord of all you do." I am especially glad for that state of things because as it turned out I was able to retrieve the paper. A feature on the computer called "Time Machine" had saved the paper, without me knowing it, and I was able to restore it. It caught the paper a few moments before I deleted it. Of course, that is the explanation from a human perspective. I know otherwise. Had God intended for me to rewrite the paper, no human technology in the world could have altered that fact or have saved that paper. Yesterday (September 12, 2010), our pastor, Matt Chandler, in introducing a new series of messages on authority, cited the following passage from Psalm 115:3:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

I have great need to always remember that truth. It has been nearly a year since that Sunday morning shock wave hit me concerning my misplaced confidence, i.e., a completed paper. I think about that moment quite often. I think how there is never a moment when trust in God is not needed. I can easily substitute what is seen for what is unseen. God can take away the seen. I can forget that ongoing trust is the heart of gospel centered living. I had wanted to know what gospel centered living meant. It was being answered in some very unique ways in this journey to Sudan. I had lost sight of the need of ongoing trust. God reminded me of it in a simple way by allowing me to carelessly delete a talk, the completion of which had left me feeling secure. He graciously said, " I am still Lord of all that you do." I am still mystified at how God works and I will, for sure, this side of heaven, continued to be mystified. And I yet I know that it is by grace through faith that my life in Christ unfolds. The cross will forever be a reminder of that truth. The gospel will forever affirm that truth and it will always be better than I deserve. In a few days, I would be standing before a group of pastor in Yei, Sudan and telling them that what we deserve is God's wrath, but instead, I could, because of the cross, by grace through faith, stand before them and join hands with them as one of God's children, because we had been redeemed by Christ's shed blood and forever delivered from judgment and the wrath of God. I deserved nothing but death and His wrath. Instead, I received mercy - not only when He gave the paper back to me, but more especially when He gave the life of Christ to me through faith and now sustains me in that life; but not just me-

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Her Husband... He Praises Her

I found this story among some of my notes. I do not know the author but it was entitled, “Letter to My Unborn Child.” The person who wrote this, as you will see, was paralyzed.

"Your mother is very special. Few men know what it’s like to receive appreciation for taking their wives out to dinner when it entails what it does for us. She has to dress me, brush my teeth, comb my hair, wheel me out of the house, open the garage, put me in the car, take the pedals off the chair, stand me up, sit me in the seat of the car, twist me around so that I’m comfortable, fold the wheelchair, put it in the car, go around to the other side of the car, start it up, back it out, get out of the car, pull the garage door down, get back into the car, and drive to the restaurant. Then it starts all over again. We sit down to have dinner, and she feeds me throughout the entire meal. When it’s over, she pays the bill, pushes the wheel chair out to the car again and resumes the routine. When it’s all over - finished - with real warmth she will say, “Honey, thank you for taking me out to dinner.” I never quite know what to say."

When I think of that story - when I think of His story, I have a great deal of trouble with how often I am self centered and helpless I really am.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dealing With A Life Long Question - The Will of God

The night I was confronted with the possibility of going with a team from our church on a teaching mission to Southern Sudan I came face to face with another issue - God's will. On this occasion, as at other times in my life, my initial preference would have been to know specifically what God's will was in the matter. I am not so sure, though, that this did not have some selfish overtones. Some times we may be acting from a more self centered standpoint and we just clothe it with spiritual garb. We can approach the matter of "seeking to know" God's will before we decide because we want to know how everything will work out. We want to minimize the unknowns. This approach causes delay and can eventually render us unable to decide. I think in the initial days of deciding about the trip to Sudan I was not wanting to face the unknowns. I was too obsessed with the future. I was thinking, too, that I didn't want to be presumptuous and say I am going to do this or that without saying, as James does in James 4:15, "Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." I began to lapse back into thinking that I had to know or, at least, I thought I needed to show my dependence upon God by seeking to know His will.

What I have ended up doing most of the time, when the answers don't get specific, is to keep moving forward in varying degrees of struggle - praying that I would have the wisdom to take the right course or step - that I would be open and sensitive to God's guidance. Yet, I would still find myself wanting to "discover" God's will about the matter. That was true in the days I struggled with the decision about the trip to Sudan.

At times in my life as a Christian, I have had problems with the issue of God's will in decisions that I made or that I was planning to make. It was never clear to me how all that worked. It has not been until just the last few years that I have started to understand more. That means I have spent a lot of years in various degrees of darkness when it came to knowing how I was supposed to live and make life's decisions on the basis of God's will - a lot of years of thinking that I had to find God's perfect will in order to make right decisions in life or follow God's plan for my life. That created a problem. If God has a plan for my life (and your life) (and He does), then why is it that for the most part we can only discern it to any extent by looking back - looking back to trace God's hand in bringing us to where we are? The answer to that question is that while God will guide us, He does not burden us with the task of "divining His will of direction for our lives ahead of time." But I didn't know for a long time that this was true. My perspective, when it came to God's will of direction for my life, was as myopic as my eyes were - even more so. As this became clear to me, it made me realize how confused I have been in the past.

I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to how God's will works in the decisions that we make. Some of that confusion and struggle surfaced for me in the days leading up to my "going forward - no retreat" decision about the trip to Southern Sudan- a trip and an experience that would turn out to be one of those defining moments for me in my journey with God. To get there was a journey in itself - not just the physical aspects of the trip. That was smooth compared to the spiritual journey.

Among the many things that I had to deal with in actually reaching the point of refusing to retreat was the matter of God's will - primarily learning a lesson that up to that point had been basically an academic one. It was ironic (but not really) that when this all began to unfold I had been reading a book on this very matter. I had no idea that I was about to be confronted with more than words in a book or in an article.

I had just purchased a book entitled, "Just Do Something - A Liberating Approach To Finding God's Will." I became aware of this book on June 1, 2009 through an article written by Geoff Ashley, the Discipleship Resource Pastor at The Village Church. It is the same Geoff Ashley who would later pose the Sudan question to me. As I look back on these events, it is fascinating to see how God works. I sure didn't pick up this book because I consciously needed to know the truth when it came to God's will and deciding to go on a mission trip to Sudan. God did know. I can see now how He was preparing the way. If you really want to kick it up a notch, that preparation just didn't start on June 1, 2009. Just think about that for a moment. As soon as I began reading the book and the article, I could feel clouds of confusion starting to lift. But that was not at the heart level yet. I had no idea how those thoughts were about to impact my life and enable me to keep moving forward toward one of the greatest decision I have made in a long, long time. I had no idea how God would use those thoughts to keep me from retreating - how they would keep me from indecision and from acting like a coward or resting in my own comfort. I didn't know how those thoughts would keep me from being paralyzed by the idea that if I went on the trip I might be going against some hidden will of God that could have led me into some bad situations. I didn't know that it would keep me from looking for a "no-risks" path of obedience. It would, instead, help me reaffirm that I didn't need to know the future because I could have confidence in the One who holds the future. It would keep me moving closer to the greatest of all plans that God had for my life and your life - being engaged through trials and triumphs that lead us to being transformed into the image of His Son. I would eventually come to the point of simply trusting Him - living and obeying and not missing one of the greatest moments in my life - Sudan III. I didn't know any of this when I first read Geoff's article and eventually the book by Kevin DeYoung. Even after God brought me into the classroom of life on this matter of His will, it took a while for it to dawn on me that what I was reading was about me. That is still strange to me; but it made me realize that this is not only true of the books we read, it is also true of the most important book, the Word of God. The light doesn't come on automatically. I am grateful that it did begin to shine.

As I try to explain what was happening, I have had to look at the momentary struggle that I had in sorting through things in light of this "liberating approach to finding God's will" as dealt with in the book, "Just Do Something" and in related Scripture. I really want to be clear about all of this and to look a little closer at how these truths about God's will affected my life during those days leading up to the trip and the awesome experience I found in Yei, Sudan with some brothers and sisters in Christ. Part of what I write in this section of the story will be based on the thoughts expressed in the book and article I just mentioned and the part it played in not letting me retreat from full scale, heart-felt obedience and the opportunity of a life time. It will be about how this experience in Southern Sudan became "heart-work" for me full of real joy and peace.

Even though I was studying and reading this book when the opportunity for the Sudan trip unfolded, I did not immediately relate it to what I was going through - at least in the initial days leading up to the decision to go on the trip. I think that it was the little words on the back cover of the book that caught my attention and served to explained what happened in my life and the struggle over the decision to go on the trip. It explains how I could go in peace and joy - I gave up. I surrendered to God and the things I knew to be true. I "just did something" and things began to happen. I came to realize that the issue for me was whether I would retreat in comfort or fall into some self appointed comfortable obedience rather than take advantage of an opportunity that I never envisioned would be mine. The questions about why I was asked to go on this trip also lifted.

One thing did weigh down on me, though, as I crossed the line. I became painfully aware of and burdened by the thoughts about the consequences of retreat from the path God had opened for me. Just thinking about it now brings a sense of dread. It is like suddenly realizing how close you came to a serious fall or an auto wreck. I know me well enough to realize that had I retreated, I could very well have given up. I am not sure that I would ever have recovered. I am not sure how the next page of my life would have been written. I have regrets in life as we all do; but a decision to retreat on this occasion could potentially have been my greatest regret. This is one reason I cannot say enough about the mercy and grace of God that He would not let that happen for one such as me. He did not let it happen when it came to the greatest moment in my lifetime - my salvation. And if I could see back over my life, I know that it is filled with those moments of mercy and grace. It does frightens me, though, when I think that I could have used muddled thoughts about God's will to shut me down. I could have missed out on a trip of a life time. I wonder how many could join me in expressing similar struggles - perhaps some going on now that are keeping you from making the decisions you should make concerning your journey with God?

I think that I knew that unless something happened - like not being approved for the trip or something else that stopped the process - that I would go on the trip. The problem was, though, I was not spiritually ready to go. I was resigned to the thought of going; but I was not at peace and that is not how I wanted it to be. I didn't want to go for the wrong reason or with the wrong attitude. Too much was involved. Live would affected. People were putting their confidence in me. As I dealt with the unknowns and with wanting God to clear all of that up for me, I knew that this presented another problem. I was coming to the point of no return once the application went in for consideration. I thought I was wanting it to be God's will; but it actually was a situation where I was wanting to know something that was not mine to know - at least in the sense that I was wanting to know it. I think I was wanting some type of express spiritual permission to go on this trip so bad things wouldn't happen and good things would. But even had that happened, I would have missed the greater lesson when it comes to God's will. As the author of the book, "Just Do It" says,

God is not a Magic 8-Ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for Him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That's wonderful. The problem is we think He's going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know - and need to know - what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God's will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than freedom.

The better way is the biblical way: See first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we can know what they are and where we're going.

I think that too much of my problem when it came to wanting to find God's will was a lack of trust in God's promises and provisions. Kevin DeYoung said on page 47 of his book, "We don't just want His word that He will be with us; we want Him to show us the end from the beginning and prove to us that He can be trusted. We want to know what tomorrow will bring instead of being content with simple obedience on the journey." James 4:15, quoted above, is often seen as an expression of submission on our part to God's will and that is the sense in which I referred to it earlier. In another sense though it is a statement that recognizes the awesome truth that God is sovereignly in control of our lives. The author also says, "We must live our lives believing that all of our plans and strategies are subject to the immutable will of God. Therefore, we should be humble in looking to the future because we don't control it; God does. And we should be hopeful in looking to the future because God controls it, not us." As I write these words now, I realize that this is the point to which God brought me in those days leading up to boarding the plane on October 5, 2009 for Sudan. It explains why I could leave here in peace and be able to deal with all that followed and return home with a heart of gratitude that God would have allowed this to happen in my life.

I was reminded at some point in the struggle, that I was trying to walk by sight and not faith. I realized too that in the mix of all that was happening was the matter of sin on my part in wanting to be in control and chart my own comfortable course. "We risk because God does not risk. We walk into the future in God-glorifying confidence, not because the future is known to us but because it is known to God. And that's all we need to know." That is more or less what Dr. Steve Glaser was telling me that morning when I spoke of my concerns about the trip. "What is the worse that could happen to you?" The answer, when you are walking by faith, is nothing. I never could say in all of this that God was telling me to do this or that. I could say as things progressed, "It seems like the Lord is leading." In that sense, I was doing what I should have been doing all along - expressing my dependence upon Him. It didn't mean that I was passive either. This trip was one of the most "unpassive" things I have ever done. It was like Josh Patterson told me, "You just keep moving forward, placing these struggles before God."

I reached the point, by moving forward, where I could experience the truth expressed by Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34 - and the rebuke - "O you of little faith." I could take "tomorrow" out of the mix. I could concentrate on His will to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." I could start running hard after Him. I could focus on the truth that His will for each of us to grow in holiness in daily life. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification." I could focus on rejoicing, praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances because, according to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, that too is the will of God.

An interesting thing was happening during all of my struggle as "Mr. O-You-of-Little-Faith." My wife, Betty, never wavered in her conviction that this was something I should do and that God wanted me to do. She was very gentle about this conviction and looking back I am grateful for the way she would express it. She didn't let me retreat. I am blessed to have someone like that - someone who was praying for me and trusting God that I would make the right decision. It didn't mean that she wasn't apprehensive. I think she was just a little but it never really showed. I think God was working in her life as well. Actually I know He was. On this occasion God placed her strong faith in my path and cut off any retreat that I might have had out of "concern for her." She put that to rest the night Geoff asked me to go. Through all of this, I knew she was on track. I knew she was right and I knew that I would get to that point once I got the clutter out of the way. That supportive role concerning the trip didn't end with my decision to go. It continued even when I was on the other side of the ocean. Those times will be part of the story down the road. Her trust help me to get my focus back where it belonged - on God's Word.

One verse that came to mind was found in Colossians 1:9. There Paul said to pray that we "may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in he knowledge of God." I began to see that in a number of areas God had already told me what to do. For example, to live in the power of the Spirit. That, I was not doing and yet God had made it clear that was how we are to live. This is the approach to life that He was always wanting from me - and for you. The sooner that truth is seen and accepted the sooner we can get on with the matter of joyful obedience. That meant the sooner I could get on with the trip to Sudan. I could make the trip and I can now live each day knowing that while God doesn't reveal many, many things to me, He is guiding me and His will, as expressed so clearly in Scripture, if followed, will enable me to move forward and not retreat.

There is still much more I need to understand about God's will in terms of life; but one thing has become clear in all of this. When I really looked at God's will, as revealed in Scripture, it went from a question about knowing to a matter of doing what God had already revealed - of moving forward in dependence upon Him. In Texas history there is a story of an event that took place in the final hours of the battle at the Alamo. A line was drawn in the sand. When the men stepped across the line, that meant "no retreat." I am thankful for the morning of July 9, 2009. I don't mean this to be an overly dramatic statement; but knowing the direction my life could have taken and knowing, to some extent, the impact it would have had on my life, and knowing now what was waiting for me in making this trip, a very life defining thing happened to me. I don't know all that happened in my life that day; but I do know that on that day, in a sense I came to a line of "no retreat." I stepped across that line. Instead of death, as the men of the Alamo would find, I found a new experience in living.

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Trip Name for the Application is "Sudan III"

When I was first asked about going on the trip to Southern Sudan, I did not realize that I would have to complete an application. I received an email from Geoff Ashley on June 30, 2009 asking me if I what I had decided about the trip. That is when I learned about the application. Geoff said, "If you are interested go on and fill out the application ... The trip name is Sudan III."
Filling out an application is not a new thing for me. Over the years I have had my share. My wife and I had just completed a very detailed application required by our church in order to become home group leaders. I knew from that experience that there would be nothing simply about the application for the trip called "Sudan III." I was not disappointed.

When I looked at the mission trip application required by our church, I knew that I had a new problem. My first thought when I read over the application for the first time was that I would not be able to complete it in time. In fact it was already past time to submit the application. I was not sure what effect that would have. Filling out the application would require thought and I was not sure how much thought I could provide at that time. I had just about used up my thinking in making the decision to go. Of course, I was still thinking largely in terms of "me." I do have to say, though, that part of my concern was related to being sure this was what God wanted. I will address that aspect later; but, for now, I can just say that it did account for some of my concerns.

I knew that our church had a lot of mission trips; but I never realized what was involved in going on one of those trips. I quickly learned though that there was nothing casual about the process or the "vetting." Now that I had decided to go, I was not sure how things would work out once my application was considered. Initially, beyond putting my name in the application, I was at a loss as to how to properly fill it out. I am looking the application again as I write and remembering how blank my mind was the day that I first looked at the application.

The first thing staring me in the face was "Passport Information." Filling that part out would be easy because I didn't have a passport. I had know idea at that point how long it would take to get one or if I could get it in time for the purchase of tickets. There was a section in the application about ministry participation and then a whole page about medical information. I was in good health but I didn't know how my age would be weighed. I knew that I needed to talk to a doctor about the matter. I later did and his first reaction was, "We need to get you set up for a stress test right away." I guess health and age was a factor. It turned out that I had taken a stress test in February 2009 and had received great results. Health was a factor; but thankfully I was fine and as it turned out I never had any health problems while in Sudan or after my return.

Next was a section on my overseas experience and ability to speak foreign languages. That answer would be simple - "None." I had never been outside the United States and could not speak a foreign language. I didn't figure the Latin that I had studied in college would count. I would also be required to express in writing my personal testimony. I was given a page and a half to do that; but eventually only used half of page. I was not sure how a whole blank page would look. Another question was "How is God at work in your life now?" That caused some concern because of the struggle I was having about going on this trip. In looking back at the application, I had written a question that could have raised doubts. I had said, "Why after all these years have I been asked to be part of the presentation and teaching of the gospel to people on the other side of the world?" I haven't fully answered that because I am still learning, but even if I don't come up with a full answer, I am satisfied just to say, "Thank you, Lord. What a blessing." I am praying that it will be more than that and that one day I can fully see how God used this trip and time of teaching for His glory. I turned another page in the application, and it didn't get easier. "Tell us more about your passions, talents, work experiences, unique skills, cross cultural experiences and anything else that has shaped who you are." At that moment I knew that I wanted people to have a clear understanding of the gospel in terms of living because that is what I wanted. I thought, "Maybe I can answer that one." I skipped to the next series of questions - "What have been some of the defining moments of your life" and what "cross-cultural experiences have you had?" "What do you believe is the biblical purpose/goal of global missions?" "Why/how do you feel God is leading you in this trip overseas?" The questions just got deeper and deeper and I was pressed for time. By then I was feeling the pressure.

I guess that once again I was wanting an easy route and way through this. I knew that I was going to have to start thinking at a different level. I was also going to have to trusting God at a different level. I was starting to realize more and more that I really needed to turn to God in all of this. I also had a sense that maybe I had waited too late to do that. I was left with heavy weight on me. Had I sacrificed obedience for struggle and doubt? Had I listened to "Adam the First" too long? Had my delay really been retreat and had I crossed the line of going farther with God? Through out that day and evening I would try to fill out the application; but I drew an absolute blank on these questions. Guess what? I still had not quit trying in my own effort. I should have spent the day in prayer instead of trying to escape the reality that I would not be able to do this on my own. When I went to bed that evening, I did not sleep. I don't think I ever closed my eyes. I started praying; but even that was a struggle. I had decided to go but I could very well still sink the whole thing over the application. I am not sure what all God was letting me experience in this step of the process; but it was agonizing. What I needed the most at that time was to just give up on my own ability and admit that I couldn't do it without Him. Why has that been my struggle so much of my life?

I say I had decided to go on the trip, but I still had thoughts that maybe I wouldn't get to go. I also knew that God was not closing the door - yet. I was coming to the point of being troubled that after weeks of struggle, I might not get to go. I don't know if Josh Patterson, our Executive Pastor, was preparing me for that possibility. After I submitted the application, Josh told me that if it worked out for some reason that I couldn't go then maybe I could help the team in some other way.

After that sleepless night, I remember going to my desk at 5 AM the next morning and thinking "What am I going to do. It can't end like this." This was Thursday. The first meeting was on Sunday. I was far behind the curve. I had an early breakfast meeting with my friend, Dr. Steve Glaser. He and I lead a men's Bible study group and we were meeting to talk about that. Before I left home that morning, I sent Josh Patterson a note expressing some of the struggle I was having. Later, at breakfast, I told Dr. Steve Glaser, for the first time, about the trip and my concerns - especially about the physical aspects considering my age. We talked about a number of things concerning the trip; but one response he made that I won't ever forget was when he said, "Look at it this way. What is the worse that could happen to you?" I laughed and said, "That is one thing that I am thinking about." But I did begin to think about what he had just said in a much broader sense. I realized that the worse things that I had been thinking about included a bucket list of thoughts not worth pursuing and that the worse thing was not the worse thing. The worse thing would have been not to go. When I got home around 7:30 AM, a weight had started to lift. It was like the first ray of peace began to shine into my situation. I found that I had received a reply from Josh Patterson. His son had been sick and he was up at 5 AM that morning, as well, when my email came. He was able to reply immediately. With his response, my talk to Dr. Glaser and more talk with my wife, Betty, that morning, things began to come into focus.

For the first time I could actually do some clear thinking. They all had been encouraging me, in essence, to press forward in the Spirit's strength. Josh spoke in terms of putting off the old and putting on the new and of mortifying those things that were dragging me down and hindering a heart felt response. I recently asked Josh whether I should write about this struggle. The heart of his response echoed the words that he wrote to me the morning of July 9, 2009. He said, "I definitely think your writing needs to include the challenges to obedience and how this process exposed areas of your life. The vast majority of people who read this will identify with the struggle to obey and get to see how the Lord is faithful and gracious in it. They will see the process for what it is…a process. None of us are complete yet and certainly nobody is “finished”. So, we press on and see the love of the Lord and patience of His hand as He chisels and molds us into the image of His Son." For the first time on the morning of July 9, 2009 I had a peace that I had not had. The guilt that I was feeling over my struggle in the process began to lift. I knew that I had to take the baggage of fear, pride, concern about my reasons for going, physical concerns, financial concerns and get honest before God. I told Betty, I think, for the first time, at least in confidence and peace, that I wanted to go. It was becoming more and more a heart-work thing for me. I even felt that all I had been through was part of the process of preparation for the trip. I still had to pray, though, that I would not carry any unnecessary baggage with me. I am not referring to the 33 lbs limit on physical baggage that we were under. I immediately began to work on the application and within an hour it was completed. That in itself was a miracle. In fact, words were coming so fast that I had trouble typing fast enough. It was just one more gracious indicator that I was moving in the right direction. But the battle wasn't over. In fact, it will never be over this side of heaven. I was about to be reminded of that and those reminders would keep coming - not to drag me down - but to keep me heaven bound in my thinking - to keep me moving forward in dependence upon God. At times, though, I could still hear the call of "Adam the First." He never gives up.

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”