Sunday, October 25, 2015

my grandpa's story & the blessing of suffering

It's so easy to mistakenly associate God's blessings only with all of the "good things" in our lives.

"work is great, God's really blessing me."

"family is good, everyone is doing really well, God's really blessing us."

"no financial problems, car problems, relational problems...God's blessing right now."

or the big one:  "everyone is healthy- that's all we can ask... we're really blessed right now."

Sometimes those are blessings form God, there's no doubt about that.  The problem is when we get so certain that those things are always "blessings", and we forget how the seemingly bad things in our life can be blessings as well.

Romans 5 talks about rejoicing in our sufferings - because of all the good things it produces.

1 Peter 5:10 says that after we have suffered, the God of grace will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us.  Did you get that?  It's the blessing of suffering that allows those wonderful things to develop in us.  It's not the "good blessings" like family, health, and financial security that restore, strengthen, and establish us - its the process of suffering that get us there.

Suffering has a purpose.  Through it, God is accomplishing something.

James 1:2-4 says "count it all joy my brothers when you face trials of all kinds, for it produces steadfastness...  let the steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing."

We need the process of suffering in order to complete and perfect us.

My favorite teaching on suffering is 2 Corinthians 4:17.  "For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison..."  This verse speaks to the eternal value of suffering, which is really all that matters.  When we are wise, we think and live in light of eternity.

There are dozens and dozens more.  The bible is filled with scripture and stories that point to God's purposes for our sufferings, and how he longs to bless us in the process.

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My grandpa died last week.  He was an incredible man, and left behind a legacy worth mentioning.  He was a lifetime farmer who finished his first few hours of the days' work before anyone else even woke up.  No one outworked my grandpa.  He was also an honest man who prided himself on telling the truth and treating people fairly.  He was a faithful man who loved his wife and honored his family.  And he would always jump to help anyone who needed a hand.  He really was a good man.

He was also the most stubborn man I've ever known.  Maybe the most stubborn man that anyone has known!  In fact, at his funeral, I made the statement that if I passed out a sheet of paper to everyone in attendance, and asked each person to write down 3 words that described my grandpa, I bet "stubborn" would be on everyone's list.  The reaction of laughter confirmed it to be true.

Yes, he was a good man...  but my grandpa was not a Christian.  Despite over 60 years of marriage to a wonderful Christian woman who faithfully followed Jesus, served in her church, led bible studies, and prayed for my grandpa every day - he never broke.  His stubborn nature didn't need anything or anyone's help.  He was a tough farmer who could do anything and fix anything... so what did he need Jesus for?

Then came Parkinson's disease.

This progressive disease of the nervous system that causes so much pain, and for which there is no cure, took my grandpa down a road he had never been down before.  A road of helplessness, and vulnerability.

Parkinson's disease takes your identity away.  It starts with the death of nerve cells in the brain.  Those neurons send messages that seize up the working parts of the body.  In my grandpa's case, and among other things, he lost his ability to work, walk, talk, and move freely like he used to.  Though his mind told him "you can do it", his body just wouldn't let him.  Month after month, the effects of the disease got more and more suffocating.     
 
Before Parkinson's, my grandpa had a very specific identity.  Some of his characteristics, as I mentioned above, were actually quite Christ-like, such as work ethic, honesty, and faithfulness.  But the untouchable, do-it-alone mindset always kept him from believing he needed a Savior.

Parkinson's took that away in a hurry.

Before you knew it, grandpa needed to be waited on hand and foot.  He needed help moving, eating, and bathing.  He even needed someone to take him to the bathroom.  My grandma couldn't do it all alone, so often times complete strangers had to help him do these very personal and private things.  And trust me, gramps hated every minute of it.

He tried to defy the odds.  He regularly stole the keys (which my grandma had hidden) and took the cars and tractors out for joy rides.  It's a miracle he didn't kill himself.  One time, he insisted on going out to "burn ditch" like he had always done before.  He eventually fell down and found himself helpless and face-down, surrounded by flames.  By God's grace alone, my grandma realized what had happened, and in a miraculous act of strength, she drug him through the flames to safety - sustaining 3rd degree burns in the process.

Those are just a couple (chosen from dozens!) of examples that touch on the stubbornness of this old man!

But little by little, my grandpa's heart began to soften.  Maybe this part is just my opinion, but I believe God was honoring my grandma's lifetime commitment to Jesus, and her thousands of prayers for her husband, when He gave my grandpa Parkinson's disease.  It was a final chance.  Not everyone who says "no" to Jesus over and over again gets such a last chance.

Eventually, my grandpa, at age 83, confessed to his wife that he needed Jesus.

After 60 years of prayer and faithfulness, having never pressured or persuaded him, he had come to this point on his own.  He confessed his sins and asked to be baptized.  I can't imagine the joy my grandma must have experienced.

He died last week at age 87, five years after giving his life to Jesus Christ.  During those 5 years, he was a complete mess.  He cried a lot, confessed his mistakes, and apologized constantly.  He wanted to make everything right with anyone he had hurt.  He even worked to piece together the broken relationships of those close to him.

He was still a bit stubborn and ornery - but he was changed.  He was forgiven and free.  His tough, i-don't-need-anything-from-anyone identity... was gone. 

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The great thing about suffering (even though we don't see it this way at the time) is that it strips us from our identity that we thought defined us.  Whether it be tough farmer, successful executive, athlete, mom-of-the-year, pastor, politician, or anything else...  suffering has a way of making all of that pretty meaningless.

Even our more general traits, such as funny, smart, clever, strong, prideful, wise, etc...  when we are suffering, we tend to care less about those labels, don't we?

It's hard for us to realize that many of the things that make up "our identity" are precisely the things that limit us.  We don't realize that our identity can box us in, and trap us.  "I'm this person, I'm that person, It's just who I am."  The great thing about suffering is that it removes all of that.  We can't cling to, or protect "our identity" any more.

But he said to me. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, I am strong."  ~ 2 Corinthians 12: 9-11

Suffering took away my grandpa's very solidified identity.

While he was a man who already knew about Jesus, it was through his suffering that he actually met Jesus.  As tough as a man as he was, it was in his weakness that he was made strong.

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As strange as it sounds to thank God for a cruel and unforgiving disease that has no cure...  I am thankful that God used Parkinson's disease to bring my grandpa to Himself.  There is no doubt that he is not struggling with Parkinson's anymore.  He no longer struggles to walk, eat, or talk.  He has a new body and is in perfect health.  His witty sense of humor is in tact, and he probably cracking people up as we speak.

For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison...

So as my family and others celebrate my grandpa's life, God put on my heart to remind everyone how the happy ending (new beginning!) to his story was made possible through suffering.

It should encourage us all to pray bigger, bolder, riskier prayers.  We should ask God to replace our identity with his, no matter what it means for us - even if it requires pain and suffering along the way.

Because I guarantee you, based on where my grandpa is now - based on what he is witnessing right now - he doesn't regret for one second that God used Parkinson's disease to get him there.



Monday, October 5, 2015

unforgettable night with enrique and the boys

last friday night was one of those special moments in the history of our ministry.

our weekly tuesday-night bible study with the boys turned into an emotional time, full of the Holy Spirit.  there's no way i'll be able to describe it all, but i want to share one special part.

enrique in NYC last year
enrique has been a skeptic from day one.  for years now we have been walking with him through the abuse he experiences at home.  we've been through alcohol rehab with his dad, and countless other things.  but when it comes to the thought of following Jesus, enrique has always said "no thanks."

he has been skeptical and also cynical.  throughout the years, he has said "christians are all hypocrites.  they say they're different, that they've accepted Jesus, and they just do the same stuff as everyone else.  its not for me."

he drives me crazy sometimes, but man, i love this kid.  (i guess he's not a kid - he's actually 18 years old.)  we've tried to walk him through it all.  we've explained that in some ways he is right - no one is perfect, becoming a christian doesn't mean you stop sinning, and we're all hypocrites to some degree.  also that the way each person responds, grows/not-grows after accepting Christ, does not change who Jesus is.  we've also encouraged him that the beautiful difference between christian sinners and non-christian sinners... is the forgiveness offered through the cross.  we've had more conversations with enrique about Jesus over the last 5 years than you can imagine.  and he listens...

but he isn't buying it.  every time we have great moments and conversations with him, he finds a way out.  not long after, he's always convinced that its not for him.

enrique is a deep thinker in a village where there just aren't many.  areas of malnutrition, poor education, and other generational problems just don't produce a lot of deep thinkers.  but enrique is an enigma in this place.  he takes what he hears, what he is taught, and he meditates on it for long periods of time.  he's not a talker.  he's a thinker.

over the years, jesus has been pursuing enrique in a big way.  of course he learns about God every day during mandatory daily devotions at the academy, and every-day life at the academy.  but it seems that every where else he turns, he hears about Jesus as well.  at edbv (his school run by our friends the schmidts), he hears about Jesus.  his best friends have accepted Christ.  he just can't escape!

so...  a few weeks ago during our trip to the U.S., he talked to me for 5 straight hours (driving from jacksonville to miami) about how he feels different.  he explained how the men's devotions book i gave him a year ago is "starting to come alive".  (we made an agreement a long time ago that he would read one each day.)  he said that it used to be boring, but now its exciting.  he explained that he used to read them real fast and head off to school, but now after he reads one he opens up the bible to research a little further what it said.

i asked him if he thinks the book has suddenly changed, or if he thinks his heart is beginning to open up to the grace of Jesus?  "i don't know", he said, "we'll see."

last tuesday night, he showed up at our optional bible study discipleship program, which he has never come to.  mynor caught everyone up on where we currently are in the study, then he welcomed enrique.  i couldn't help it... and asked him directly before we went any further:  "kique, you've heard about God for years.  did you come here tonight to continue 'exploring' what Jesus is all about, or have you come to a point in your life where you already know that you need him?"

from that moment on, the night was on fire.

enrique prayed (and prayed, and prayed).  in tears, he gave his life over to Jesus Christ.  at one point he stood up to address all of us, and his knees literally buckled underneath him and he fell to the ground.  he sobbed uncontrollably as he finally let go of all the abuse and suffering he has endured in his life.  he took all of the weight and all of the pain, and put it at the feet of Jesus.  he was free.

his best friend allan, cried hard and celebrated with him.  he shared with the group as tears ran down his face that "everything is different now.  now that we have enrique, we're going to be so much stronger."  he shared how this has been his prayer for so long, and that this was one of the happiest moments of his life.  they hugged strong, like men should hug.  something beautiful that never happens in this village.

confessions, commitments, and heartfelt encouragements followed from julio, ivan, and josue.  it was one of the most raw and honest moments with friends that i have seen.  at one point, enrique looked at julio, eyes locked, and said "i owe you an apology.  you have tried to help me several times when i was drinking and doing stupid things.  and i just hated you more.  i've always thought you were so stuck up.  that you think you're so cool.  but i see now how many times you've tried to help me.  i am so sorry." 

at that point, i think i broke.  men don't talk to one another that way here.  no apologies.  no signs of "weakness".  again, it was a beautiful image of true manliness. 

last night was the opening night of the local fair here in town - a huge time of temptation for all the boys & men in the community.  booze is everywhere, people come over from neighboring towns, girls are half-dressed, etc, etc.  enrique came up to the living room where i was resting.  he wanted to hang out and talk.  i asked if he was going out to the fair and he looked at me like i was crazy.  "man there is nothing for me out there.  no part of me wants to go out there."  after catching up for 30 minutes, he went down stairs and spent the rest of the night with my kids, playing games and listening to music.

this is a different enrique.  he has always been a unique young man.  other kids follow him.  and like allan said...  now that he has given his life to Christ, we're going to be so much stronger.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

disasters (natural & political) in guatemala

recently in the small village of santa catarina pinula, guatemala, heavy rainfall caused a mudslide.  a chunk of a mountain literally collapsed on top of the village.

after several days if digging and searching, the hope of remaining survivors is dwindling.  almost 100 bodies have already been found, but up to 600 are thought to be buried under 50 feet of earth that crushed over 125 homes in an instant.

mynor and i went out there yesterday attempting to volunteer, but we were turned away, saying that they have more helpers than the delicate situation can handle.  we spoke with a firefighter that clearly had experienced hell on earth the last couple of days.

some of the personal stories emerging from this tragedy are gut-wrenching.  there's a boy who can't find his mom, dad, and 4 brothers and sisters...  and a woman who somehow survived, but lost virtually everyone - 21 family members dead, including her husband and all of her children.

there is another injustice behind this tragedy though.  since 2008, CONRED declared this exact village a high-risk area and recommended the community be relocated. their report suggested evacuation relocation and stated that the mountains above the village's current location will not withstand heavy rainfall.

the government did nothing.  didn't help.  didn't require that people leave.  nothing.

meanwhile here in guatemala, our president and vice president are in jail, along with many other government officials, who collaborated in a huge customs/import scheme that lined their own pockets with millions of dollars.

while the customs scheme is (thankfully) what got busted, everyone here knows that's only the least of it.  the corruption and lack of concern for the important issues is at a disastrous level in this country.  and it is always the poor who suffer.

please pray with us for the people of santa calina pinula who are in complete despair right now.  and also for the future of guatemala as we are in the middle of new presidential elections.

update:  since writing this post, a new president has been elected in guatemala.  his name is jimmy morales, and he was formerly a television comedian.  considering the fact that the guatemalan government has been a joke for a long time, perhaps its appropriate.  while not much is known about him, at least the people made it clear that they no longer want a known politician in office.  we're praying that, at a minimum, he somehow stays clean from the corruption that has owned every guatemalan government leader for decades.