These past months I have done a lot of driving, and while Heidi works on communications, I think about, contemplate, ponder and wonder about many things. God, theology, history, philosophy, astronomy, etc. I think about the billions of beings I am driving past which together make a forest. I think about the to-me-countless cells making up the trees and ferns and fungi, each one a miraculous, extremely complex, living machine. But God knows and sustains each one, even down to the subatomic particles that make up the atoms, that make up the molecules, that make up the organelles, that make up the cells, that make up the tissues, that make up the organs, that make up the beings, that make up the forests that bless us with beauty and food and oxygen and so much more.
Then I make a list of all the words in English that end with the sound we usually write “sh”. I came up with 69 one-syllable words. Strangely, quite a few of them seem sort of violent or negative: bash, brash, dash (to pieces), gash, lash, mash, gnash, rash, smash, slash, trash, thrash, slosh, slush, smoosh, flush, crush, and blush. Isn’t that strange?
Then I wrestle with angry thoughts, judgmental thoughts, perplexed thoughts. Why do people–including me–do this? Why do people–including me–do that? “If we have food and raiment, let us be content with that.” But people spend their lives, their energies, their time to accumulate more and get more. And then there are those who out of the discontent become malicious, and destroy what other people have worked for, and public infrastructure that makes life so much easier for everyone–such as metro stations, bus stops, traffic lights.
Then I think about how “blessed” we are. For a lot of us, just a couple of generations ago, we didn’t have running water. Our ancestors–well some of them–had the blessing of a well that they could draw water from, others had to go to a creek and carry water a bucket at a time back to the home. A lot of people in some parts of the world still have to do that. And many of them are thankful that there is water for them to go fetch–because sometimes there isn’t any.
Come Thou long-expected Jesus! Come our King! Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done on Earth as it is done in Heaven!
Where was God? This is a question we often hear when something bad happens. It implies that if something horrible happens, there must not be a God because otherwise He would have prevented this terrible thing. The common response from a person of faith is, “God never promised to prevent bad things from happening. He promised to be with us at all times.” True but incomplete. What exactly does that mean that He is with us during that terrible time?
A couple of days ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City. Close to 3,000 people died that day. Was God there with them? If so, what did He do?
Of course, it is impossible to know exactly how each person experiences God in those times. If we look at the life of the human Jesus we can get an idea of what it means for Jesus to be present in tragedy and heartbreak. In the worst moment of Jesus’ life, in fact the worst moment in the history of the world, past and future, this innocent man hung on the cross, betrayed, abandoned, and forsaken. As He suffered unspeakable torture, slowly dying a horrific death, Jesus looked out on the people who put Him there and…prayed. Prayed to His father to forgive the perpetrators of the most heinous crime that will ever be committed. Next, He promised salvation to the justly convicted criminal hanging next to Him. He certainly could have used His power and authority to smite the perpetrators and come down from the cross. Instead, knowing in that horrible moment how the story will end, Jesus prayed and Jesus loved.
On April 16, 2007, my younger son, Hunter was a freshman at Virginia Tech. Early that morning, a student named Cho murdered 32 students and faculty. When Hunter returned home, he was in shock and despair. I was focused entirely on being his mother, not even praying or thinking about the victims. At some point that week after the tragedy, I received a vision from the Lord. I could see 3 students lying on the classroom floor in pools of blood. I knew they were in great pain and terrified. Suddenly, Jesus walked into the room. He walked up to each student, held out his hand and said, “Come with me.” At that moment, I knew the pain and terror were replaced with the peace that passes all understanding. He loved them. When Hunter returned to school, while praying at the makeshift memorial, he also had a vision. “Mom, I saw Cho in heaven surrounded by the victims. They were telling him they love him and they forgive him. Mom, if they can forgive him, so can I.” Jesus forgave Cho and, through His great love, so did Cho’s victims.
As I toured the 9/11 museum, 4 things made an indelible impact. First, as you
walk down a ramp to get to the museum, deep underground, you see a nondescript, rather ugly, concrete wall on the left. It was odd since every other part of the museum was beautifully designed and finished. I learned that it was the original retaining wall from one of the towers–the wall that holds back the Hudson River. If that wall had been breached, the tragedy would have been so much worse as lower Manhattan would have been instantly flooded. I can see an army of angels holding that wall in place during the explosions that incinerated the building and fire so hot it melted the steel. God protected the people in Lower Manhattan.
I also believe that the Lord continues reveal His presence to us in the aftermath of the tragedies.
Take the Ground Zero Cross. In the midst of all the debris, on September 13, a worker discovered a cross, perfectly proportioned, made of I beams, from the prefabricated materials used to build the towers. Recovery workers prayed there and left messages there. The presence of God must have been powerfully felt by them as they were surrounded by death and destruction.
Many saw the crossed metal as a Christian cross and felt its survival was symbolic. Fr. Jordan spoke over it and declared it to be a “symbol of hope… a symbol of faith… a symbol of healing”.One minister at the site says that when a family of a man who died in the attacks came to the cross shrine and left personal effects there, “It was as if the cross took in the grief and loss. I never felt Jesus more.” Wikipedia
The next item I saw took my breath away. A New Testament was seared into a
molten piece of steel. It was open to Matthew 5 which includes the verses:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” and “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Matt. 5:4,38,39.
Surely, the Lord is speaking to us through this one page, made of flimsy paper, out of the entire Bible that survived the hellfire and brimstone of 9/11.
Finally, I listened to a recording by the brother of the pilot, Captain Burlingame, whose plane crashed into the Pentagon. All that was recovered was his passport and the prayer card he carried in his wallet. The plastic laminated prayer card, from his mother’s funeral, survived the explosion as the jet, used as a bomb exploded. It too had the verse from Matthew 5:4 — “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” His sister said, “It also has a poem that says ‘I did not die. Do not go to my grave,'” she said. “We took that as a message from my Mother: ‘It’s okay. I got him.'”
When Yarely, our bouncy, pouncy, flouncy, 10 year old died, God sent us the same message. As I wrote in a post the day after:
After the funeral service, we processed to the burial site. It is a cemetery on the side of a mountain in the village of San Buenaventura. Although the path was long and a bit treacherous, the view over the valley was beautiful. “Just like the view from our mountain home in Tennessee!” exclaimed Brad, Yarely’s father. Off to the left was a beautiful view of a valley with a town at the far end. It was cloudy and dark when we arrived. (Thank you Lord for holding off the torrential rains during the burial.) Led by Angel and the small guitar, we began singing a beautiful, meditative song called, “Aleluya” praising God. I looked up to see the town, just the town, illuminated, shining in the midst of the grey, cloudy mountains. As the song ended, the clouds returned. For a moment the Lord reveals, “Yarely is with me, in my Holy City.”
Where is God when bad things happen? Right there, loving the victims, holding them in His arms, inviting them into a new life. But that’s not all. He is here, with us, speaking to us, the survivors, offering us comfort and hope. The very last thing Jesus said was, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Always. Amen.
Mentors, parents, and teachers receive great pleasure when their mentees take what they are learning and share it with others. Missionaries experience the same joy when people in whom they have invested carry on the work of the Gospel to new communities, especially when they make an arduous journey on mules to do so!
Mike and Betty Kaszer have been bringing medical mission teams to La Ceiba, Honduras for many years, providing healthcare where it is scarce. Rev. Nery Yolanda Varela Zuniga is an Anglican priest in this community, at the church Iglesia Santisima Trinidad. They met her 12 years ago, shortly after she was ordained. In Betty’s words, “She’s smart, energetic and sold out to Jesus. She’s amazing! She imitates everything we do in the medical clinic and in discipleship. She has picked up our training, even though we didn’t realize we were ‘training’ her. She is carrying on the work we started and building up the pharmacy at the clinic. She is only 36 years old. She loves the Lord so much! When you see her she radiates love and gives you a big hug.”
Recently, the Diocese of Honduras informed Rev. Nery that people of a small mountain village, Las Flores, needed food and clothes. She figured that they also needed to hear the gospel, so she went prepared with a team of people from La Ceiba to minister to this village of about 25 families. However, this day-trip was not a simple drive to a local destination. The team drove 3 hours to the base of the mountain, followed by a 45-50 km (28-36 mile) trek up a mountain with the help of mules. This village is multi-cultural with various people groups from within Honduras, and the chief of the village, Don Pedro Ramirez, is a descendant of Maya Shortis Natives. As they ministered, 10 people responded to the Gospel message, and Rev. Nery baptized them. The team from La Ceiba returned home the same day- spiritually encouraged by the Lord’s work in Flores and quite tired, no doubt!
Nery plans to return to the village with a small medical brigade. The
Kaszers have started an operating clinic in La Ceiba, from which Rev. Nery will
take the doctor and nurse on the next trip (date to be determined). Rev.
Nery will use the medical ministry skills she has learned from the Kaszers in
Raising up leaders in mission reaps joyful fruit. Betty shares her joy, “If you go and build a building, it can be lost in an earthquake, but when you teach people to disciple other people, it goes on forever.” Whether missionaries train locals in evangelism, healthcare, or construction skills, investment in local leaders is a gift that keeps on giving in the mission field. How will you #CarryOnAdvent this season, empowering others to share the hope of our King’s first advent (coming), as we wait in hope for His second advent?
See the video below of Rev. Nery’s team ministering in Las Flores. You may hear an unexpected voice join in the singing!
Like anyone preparing for service in mission, we inevitably get asked why we’ve chosen the destination where we’re planning to serve. It’s a quite natural question, and it challenges us to explain how a call is received. Sometimes it is a question that challenges us to explain why we’re heading to someplace so far away when there are so many ways to serve so much closer to home.
As is the case for
many missionary candidates, what some friends see as our “choice” is not so
much a decision that originated with us as it is a decision to accept an
invitation from the Lord. Explaining that can involve a
whole different level of unpacking, depending upon where the inquiring friend
stands in terms of his or her faith. No, the heavens did not part, and no God’s
voice did not resonate from between the clouds. God spoke to us as he so often
speaks – in a still small voice that a believer has to listen for among all the
sounds that fill the spaces in ordinary life.
In our case, God’s
invitation came through Ugandan friends, and through a network of friendships
we had cultivated through opening our home to students from Uganda Christian
University over a period of several years. Several years ago, the Law
Faculty at UCU began training and fielding teams of law students to qualify and
then to compete in one of the most renowned international moot court
competitions held every April in Washington DC, where we live. Because of our
involvement with our parish’s mission and outreach committee, we volunteered to
host a couple of the visiting Ugandan students, an offer that evolved into a
(mostly) annual event during the years UCU would qualify and send a team. Each
year we made new friends, and nurtured those friendships through email and
social media correspondence as they graduated from university, worked their way
through Uganda’s Law Development Centre, and began their careers. A couple of
years ago, a friend who had himself served as a missionary professor at UCU
called us, and in the course of a conversation asked, “Have you ever considered
serving at UCU yourselves?”
His question did not
immediately lead us to answer “yes”, but it did lead us to a long period of
discernment to test the idea whether we were motivated to serve, and whether
and how we were equipped to serve in a way that would contribute to UCU’s
mission to educate the rising generation of East Africa’s leaders. In thinking
back on this discernment process of now nearly two years, and pondering
ourselves the question “Why Uganda?” that is woven deeply into our call that
came in the form of an invitation I found myself returning again and again to
one of Scripture’s most familiar stories – the story Jesus provides in answer
to the question “Who is my neighbor?”
Consider that story. The Samaritan passing along the road has never met the man accosted by robbers, lying alongside that road. They are not neighbors in the sense of two people who greet each other from gate to gate across a little lane on which they each live. They are strangers. And yet the man who the world now calls “The Good Samaritan” responds to the man left beaten on the side of the road as his neighbor.
Among the things Jesus
is teaching through this story is that there are times when we are placed in
situations where we see even a stranger in a new light, as a neighbor deserving
of our attention and care. Times of opportunity, when if we listen we hear the
still small voice of God, a voice that transforms our unquestioning acceptance
of the familiar, and directs our perceptions of the world toward God’s
perceptions. To a world where neighbors can come from a place half a world
away, even when they’re sitting at your dinner table. To a neighborhood at once
vast and yet surprisingly small, where there is valuable work to be done, where
one is invited to participate in that work, though the work may take place half
a world away.
No doubt there are
people who sit down and make a decision to go someplace and to serve there,
whether the “someplace” may be in the homeless shelter in their city’s downtown
core, or to an orphanage in the foothills of the Himalayas. Catherine and I
respect and honor those decisions. In our case – and in the case of many who
are called to serve in mission – the decision to serve is a response to an
invitation to serve that God offered through friends in an unexpected way.
There is no one answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”, but in a broken
world, the God we acclaim invites us to see neighbors whom we may not
previously have considered, whether they may be reached via a bus ride
downtown, or by a flight across the world to the heart of Africa. There is so
much work to be done.
In our case, though we
did not recognize it at the time, we met our neighbors from Uganda at our
In many ways I have been a walking miracle these past 7 years. The previous 16 years had seen me laid low by Crohn’s disease. I had seen enough doctors, surgeons, and specialists to fill an auditorium. I had tried multiple drugs, had so many surgeries that I lost track of the number, and been on the kinds of restrictive diets that make people ask, “What CAN you eat?!”
After 16 years of struggle I had resigned myself to a life of limitation. Then my dear friend Fr. Josh Miller asked if I believed in healing prayer. My answer was that I did, but that I didn’t believe in it for me. I had been prayed for many times. But Josh can be pretty persuasive. So, along with fellow conspirator Jonny Cagwin we flew to Jacksonville, FL to visit Christian Healing Ministries. Over the course of multiple hours I was prayed for and prophesied over. And healing was proclaimed. And the next day I flew home in as much pain and agony as I had been in before.
But slowly something started to change. Erika and I began to watch as my body was restored. I was able to do things I hadn’t been able to do for more than a decade. I began to ride my bike again. We started a family. We started a ministry. And for 7 years my Crohn’s became an afterthought.
This past spring we were given the amazing gift of twin boys. While noticing the amazing ways that they were growing, I was also noticing that my body wasn’t working quite right. The things that I thought were behind me were back. The pain and isolation of my disease crept back into my life at first slowly, then at crippling speed. And I was shattered.
In the midst of all of this, we watched as God worked wonders in the lives of our Fellows. We watched a nascent idea for a diocesan-wide youth service day become a reality. We watched as our home parish welcomed and was ministered to by our friends from Thailand. Despite the physical and emotional limitations I’ve been experiencing, God has been at work sending the ripples of Agape Year deeper than we could have imagined.
One area of ministry that has been set aside while I have been laid low is support raising. If you do not currently support our ministry, is that something you would consider? Is a year end gift an option? We would love to share more with you how we are more convinced than ever of the need for deep discipleship of young people in our churches. Support can be given here.
I often don’t know how to pray in this struggle, and I admit to being more than a little confused as to what God is doing in my life and the life of our family. Like Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands when he was too tired, I have dear friends who are walking alongside and holding me up in prayer when I don’t have the words. Thanks for being tangible reminders of God’s presence in my life through your friendship, prayer, encouragement, and financial support.