July 25, 2008

A Little Boy with a Huge Impact

Let me introduce you to my friend Pierre Ndona Svoboda.

(This is his funny face. He charges $1 to every person who just so happens to glance at him while he is making this face. What an entrepreneur...)

While in St. Louis our group would do one-on-one tutoring/mentoring every morning for 3-4 hours. I was fortunate enough to be paired with Pierre, a 12-year-old from Congo, Africa. I went in thinking I would change a kid's life forever. Turns out he was the one who would do all the changing in me. Humbling, yes. Impacting, yes.

What started off as a somewhat awkward meeting at the beginning of the week turned into one of the most difficult good-byes I've had to say. As I got to know Pierre more and more during our times together, I learned that he used to be a shepherd in Congo. That's not something you hear everyday. Our conversations went from sports to girls to school to money (his funny face is almost unavoidable... he'll catch you looking at it no matter what). He's a genuine 12-year-old kid loving and living life just like every other kid there. But it was his unique story that I will never forget.

Please take a little time to read his story here: http://www.catholicdigest.com/article/a-second-family-for-pierre/1

This short article tells his story better than I ever could. To sum it up, though, in case you were too lazy to click on it, Pierre has scoliosis. While in Africa it had come to the point where he could barely move because his back was so out-of-place. He probably would have died in a few years, had New City Fellowship (see my last blog) not come in and brought him to St. Louis in an act of love. One family took him in (the Svobodas, a white American family) and doctors from all over agreed to operate on Pierre free of charge. After several procedures, Pierre's condition was much better. He could walk and was much taller. The Svobodas became so attached to him that they adopted him as their 5th child in the family.

(Again, the article does the story much more justice, so go back and read it... now... thank you!)

Pierre's condition still affects him slightly. While we were hanging out I noticed the slight limp in his step and the brace on his much smaller leg. He liked to jump on my back when we were playing basketball so he could dunk on the 7 foot hoop. He had to jump one-legged when all the kids were playing jump-rope. But not once did it affect him. And not once did he complain.

I realize now that God made this divine meeting happen. I needed to see the love of the family that took him in. I needed to see their willingness to embrace another child of another race and another nationality. I needed to see the response of the church and the genuine communal love that the members express towards each other and those outside the church. I needed to see the real Jesus at work amidst busy lives right in my own backyard.

It's easy to wear the WWJD bracelets and sing upbeat songs every Sunday to a God that we call Father... But to live it out daily, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, dying to self, and taking up our cross to follow Him? Now that's another story.

It's another story that is embodied in the Svobodas and New City Fellowship. I was challenged in St. Louis with how I live my everyday life. How comfortable am I, really? Do I go out of my way to bring the love of Christ to someone who might need it that day? Some days, yes. But what would it mean to truly invest in the life of an orphan who would otherwise not know the love of a family? Again, I am reminded of James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

I am convinced that James deliberately said "God our Father" to remind us of our role in the divine relationship between man and God. We were (and some still are) orphans in need of a family and in need of a dad. We tried to live our lives without it, stubbornly grasping at the thin air of false hope. But there was still a gaping space in our lives. And the only true Father of all never gave up on us. He reached for us, pulling us up when we fell, brushing the dirt of our shoulders, and blessing us as we run off again. Some run off in rebellion still after seeing the love of the Father. It is the hamartia of humanity, the pride that destroys.

But in our brokenness, He is still waiting there with open arms. He calls after His sons and daughters, much like the parable of the prodigal son. We were orphans for so long, but he has redeemed us and brought us back into his family, the body of Christ. And He does this for every single person on earth, calling out to the orphans of the world, you and me, to enter into His family. Our heavenly Dad has paid the ultimate price, giving up His own Son, so that we orphans could enter into His family.

And that is exactly where my conviction lies. That is why my eyes have been open. That is why I want to adopt an orphan child. If I truly confess to believe in Him and desire to live as Christ did, I need to die to self and bring the love of Christ to a child without a family, just as I was before I knew Christ as my own Savior.

And as I mentioned in my last blog, I want to adopt a child from Africa. Some have asked, "why Africa and why not here?" There are a couple reasons for that. First of all, Pierre truly touched my heart, and although God is not leading me physically to the African country as a missionary, He has certainly put a burden on my heart for the children of the country. Secondly, in my personal journey for racial reconciliation, I not only want to cross racial lines, but cultural and national lines as well. I want to embrace someone into my family who is nothing like us except for the fact that we are all children of God. I want to truly learn what it means to be nothing like me at all. Thirdly, a child is a child, American or African. Either way I decide, one child would be left alone. Perhaps one day I will adopt more than once, but only God really knows. I don't know exactly what it will look like, as this decision is several years down the road. But it is burning brightly within my heart, and I sincerely hope that others' eyes are opened to the thought of adoption just as mine have recently been opened as well.

I truly thank God for my St. Louis experience. It's amazing how He works and opens our eyes to the needs of His people through different people. Thank God for churches like New City Fellowship and families like the Svobodas.

Galatians 3:26-29 - "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

July 21, 2008

Lessons from St. Louis: Living the Gospel through racial reconciliation

Hello again blog.

I've finally had a full week to process my missions trip to St. Louis. Add that to the fact that I just got back from the Desperation Conference, and you could say I've been challenged tremendously in the last couple weeks with the gospel.

We worked at a church called New City Fellowship in the inner city. And let me tell you: this church was incredible. There was nothing aesthetically spectacular about the building, facilities, or even the pastor. But there was a special element within the church that took me only a couple days to realize what it was. What was it?

The experience and heart of every single person truly living out the gospel on a daily basis.

Let me explain with one example. The man in charge of the program that brings in short term missions teams to help the church/school has had a very compelling journey. Andrew Stern is a white, late 30's seminary-grad (Covenant Seminary) with a white wife and 3 of their own biological children. On paper he sounds like a very likely candidate for a picket-fence house in the suburbs. In reality, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Andrew and his wife have adopted 3 other children... three other African-American children, that is. In case you're keeping track, they have 6 children (3 white, 3 black). And no, they don't live in a big house in the suburbs. They live in the heart of the inner city. In fact, they have chosen to be right in the middle of the worst and dangerous part of the city. They might be the only Christian family on their block, and they are for sure the only caucasians.

What I don't want to communicate is any idea of racial superiority or "here's the white man to save the day" at all. Please do not get me wrong. My point here is that they have decided to take the gospel into an often-ignored region in the city. The important term here is relocation. They could easily live in comfort and safety in the suburbs if they wanted to. But they have taken the road less traveled into the inner city. Andrew's heart burns for racial reconciliation as well, and they have deliberately adopted 3 African-American children to begin steps towards this goal.

Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Each race goes to its own church. It's comfortable that way, so it's easy to see why that's the case. Sometimes there's a language barrier as well. But New City Fellowship is one of the most diverse congregations I have ever seen. They even sang worship songs in many different languages (some dialects from Africa too!). The genuine love emanating from the people in that church as they pour themselves into each others' lives is awe-inspiring. They truly are color-blind in that church. Is this the case in general for the American church? It's an interesting question to address. My critical side wants to say no. It's really a result of personal preference and comfort. What do I want? Where would I "fit in" and be comfortable? And let me make an important note here: I am very much so guilty of this as well. That's why I'm talking about this. I felt so convicted about this idea. What steps am I sincerely taking towards racial reconciliation? There is so much quiet racism in this country... whether you want to accept it or not, we all have tendencies to fear or distrust or even hate other races. I couldn't tell you why this seems to be the case, except for many historical reasons. It just saddens my heart to see it, even in my own life. I am so happy God put me on the St. Louis trip to teach me more ways I can fully understand what the gospel means. There are no stipulations or conditions on Jesus' command to love your neighbor. And you can't deny the fact that Jesus was indeed color-blind as well. And if we accept this, and understand our mission to be Christ-like, then we must endeavor to emulate Jesus in this area of our lives as well.

  • 1 John 1:6 - "Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did."

  • Acts 10:34-35 - "Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right."

  • Revelation 5:9-10 - "And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth"."

Notice the Revelation verse says, "You have made them to be a kingdom." It doesn't say "many kingdoms" or "separate kingdoms." We are one body of Christ, one kingdom of God, one people under one God. New City isn't perfect, but they have definitely grasped this part of the gospel. Practically-speaking, what steps can we take towards racial reconciliation for the cause of Christ? I think this is a personal question that only you and I can answer for ourselves, but since this is my blog and not yours (haha), I'm going to tell you one of my solutions and convictions that I've felt very strongly about after this trip:

At some point I want to adopt a child from Africa.

I feel strongly that this is one of the most practical steps I can take to live out the gospel in a tangible way. James 1:27 says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." There are so many orphans throughout the world who will grow up with no family, no positive male influence, and probably no love. My heart burns for these children. I can't think of a better way to share Jesus' love than to adopt and bring one of these kids into my own family. I also believe that bringing a child who is not my race into my future family will bring about racial reconciliation in my own life and the loved ones around me. Yes, it is a huge investment and risk. Yes, there will be questions from people who just don't understand. Will this deter me and what God has put on my heart? No. To truly love takes risk. You expose your heart and there is always chance it will be cut or hurt. But can you imagine living life without really experiencing love? I cannot. If I can bring the hope and love of Christ and a family into a kid's life, there is not a good enough reason not to.

Not many people know this dream of mine, but I am glad to share it on here. I want to expand on what has brought me to this point with a story from St. Louis, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. For now, here's a preliminary picture from my trip that will give a little insight into the path that led me to this point.

Until tomorrow...

July 13, 2008

Defender of the Faith

Welp, I'm back. I'm still exhausted, but the missions trip to St. Louis was amazing. I need to process a lot of what I learned and experienced on the trip before I try to write on it. Hopefully later this week I'll be able to talk about the trip on here. I can say one thing, though: my perception of ministry and living out the gospel will never be the same. More to come...

On another note, while on the trip I got to do a lot of reading. Ever since I started college I've loved reading. Now it's become something I need to schedule time for every week or I just don't feel right. My book of choice for the trip was the Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. This is a fantastic apologetics book. As I've mentioned before, I have become very interested in the realm of apologetics, the rational defense of the faith. This book addresses 8 common objections to Christianity such as "If evil and suffering exist, a loving God cannot", "Evolution explains life, so God isn't needed", and "A loving God would never torment people in hell." For each of these objections (each has its own chapter), Strobel interviews an expert or professor on the issue and dialogues with him or her while playing somewhat of a devil's advocate role. Strobel is a former atheist turned Christian, so he remembers and can articulate much of his own doubts from when he was an atheist. It's a very intellectual and philosophical book, and I've learned so much. I think we as Christians underestimate the need to be able to speak scientifically and philosophically about our faith. While living in a postmodern and relative-truth era, it is becoming more and more necessary to explain rationally why we believe what we believe. If we can think of a doubt or question in our own minds that we have no idea how to answer, we need to take this as a challenge and discover the answers for ourselves. Just think... if someone who is not a believer comes to us with these same questions, how can we truly witness to them in the name of the gospel if we can't answer the questions for ourselves? At the National Student Leadership Conference at Taylor this past spring, J.P. Moreland specifically addressed the imperativeness of this situation. To truly love God with all our mind, we must engage ourselves intellectually to affirm our faith. We do not have to abandon our intellect to have faith. In fact, our minds are a crucial teammate to our faith. Reading this book has reaffirmed my faith in ways beyond explanation. I have full confidence that I can address some doubts about Christianity and engage someone in a conversation about these issues. In fact, I have already had the opportunity to talk to some non-believers about their doubts and things that I've read and studied.

This is just another way that God is molding me and preparing me for ministry. I'm so thankful for the passions He gives us. We just never know what curveballs life is going to throw our way, but at least God gives us some practice pitches to swing away at.

1 Peter 3:15 - "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect"

Also, I got to jam out on the drums today, and it felt amazing. I hadn't played in a while, and it was sweet to play again. Music is such a mode of relaxation for me. I'm listening to some John Mayer right now and loving life.

Living in faith,

July 4, 2008

Missions Trip! and Wild at Heart

Tomorrow morning at approximately 5:30 AM, I will be leaving in a 15-passenger van with the youth group for a missions trip to St. Louis. Briggs and I have been planning and prepping for this trip for a while now. I'm really excited and nervous all at the same time. This will be the first time I'll be on a missions trip where I'm a leader... second-in-charge basically to Briggs. I've been praying a lot for wisdom and discernment for myself and the other leaders while we're out there. I'm pumped to see how God is going to move in the students and how they will be challenged on a daily basis. Short-term missions leads to accelerated spiritual growth, and I have complete faith that this will be the case in St. Louis.

While we are there we're going to be doing service projects during the morning/afternoon, and towards the night we're leading a Bible club (VBS-like) for kids. I don't know much about the dynamics of the location, but I believe it's inner-city. I'm personally leading the teaching team with 2-3 other students. We're teaching a new Bible story each day (Noah's ark, David and Goliath, Shadrach/Meshach/Abednego, and Zaccheus). This is the hardest it's ever been to prepare a lesson... when you're teaching little kids, there are so many other dynamics you have to think about. We'll see how it goes and what I learn about children's ministry as well.

Please be praying for our team as we go out for the next week. Pray that we would be challenged to grow in different areas and that we'd all grow closer to God. Pray that would be a pure example of Christ to the people we minister to. Pray that we would find rest in Him when we are tired and don't feel like going anymore. Pray that we leaders will have discernment and wisdom in making decisions for the team. Pray for safety!

Thanks for taking a little bit of time to pray for us! It says in James that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. If we believe the Bible to be true, then we can have faith in the prayers of our fellow believers.

On a final un-related note, have you ever been presented with a decision that in every sense seemed completely straight-forward and right, but then there were "asterisks" or questions that seemed to prevent you from making the "right" decision? When or how do these "asterisks" lose weight in the decision? Or is that even possible? I feel that to truly live you have to take risks. This absolutely applies to our faith as well, but that's not the topic in question right now. If we always make the safe decision, will we ever be fully satisfied? In the book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge talks about the 3 desires of the man's heart: a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. Somedays I feel like I'm the brink of all three, while other days I feel like I'm not seeking those desires of a man's heart at all. And then somedays, I don't feel like I'm in charge of those categories at all.... that my schedule (or life in general) dictates a different kind of life. Maybe this is the adventure I have to live; that is, it's trying to figure out how to seek the true desires that come with being a man while working, interning, going to school, living life. Who really knows...

Unfortunately I won't be able to blog again until I'm back from St. Louis. Thanks again for the prayers and I can't wait to blog about how it went!
Until next time...

July 1, 2008

Student-run church at Taylor? Let's talk...

I love how God always keeps us guessing.

I love the fact that we will do something without the slightest idea of why we feel empassioned to do that thing... all the while God is smiling down on us, molding and shaping the clay (us) with a divine purpose in mind.

I'm constantly reminded of how much God's preparing me for life with individual situations, training, and reading. One of such reminders happened very recently to me this past weekend. Unfortunately, I can't go into the details on here, but please ask me individually if you're interested. I'm bursting with excitement over what happened and is happening.

On another somewhat-related note, one of my favorite things to do is to go to some fast food restaurant (Panera's, Chipotle, Taco Bell, etc.), get some food and a drink, and sit and read a book for hours. There's something about the restaurant atmosphere that calms me and stimulates my thinking. I've been trying to do that more and more lately. Just last night I went to Panera's (free wifi too!), grabbed a good ham & swiss sandwich with a Mountain Dew to drink (ooh yes), and sat down for a good two hours, reading 2 books: the 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity by Alex McFarland and the Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. I am fascinated by apologetics and love the philosophical side of it as well. I highly recommend both books to any believer. They really hammer down some important information that you might need to know down the road. They've strengthened my faith on numerous levels as well. I really wish that Taylor offered a course completed dedicated to apologetics. I took Evangelism in Youth Ministry this past semester, and we covered some apologetics topics lightly, but not really to the degree I was hoping. (By the way, in case you just don't know, apologetics is the rational defense of the faith. It is using intellect and reason to establish a basis for faith). More to come on this topic in a later blog...

To shift gears a little, I'd like to tackle a subject that my good friend Jordan Bolte and I have been talking about for a while now. For some background information on what I'm talking about, go to HIS BLOG HERE. Jordan and I have been talking in conversation about this a lot, and I'm excited to share some thoughts as well.

What is this idea? Well, simply put, we want to start a student-run church at Taylor.

Why? I'm glad you asked. When I came to Taylor, my faith was rocked. Everything I knew about the church, worship, and the body of Christ was partly-tossed out the window. I have grown up in the church... my dad was a pastor for several years and I was involved at the other churches I attended. My family currently attends New Life Church in Colorado Springs. (I don't go with them anymore since I started the job at Vanguard Church, but that's still important to know about where I came from).

For me personally, New Life Church jump-started the battery of my faith. After so many years in the church (the general church, not New Life), I had become very comfortable and complacent in my faith. Then I got to New Life and was shocked at what I saw in worship. People were raising their hands, jumping and dancing, kneeling right where they were, etc. At first, this sight really turned me off to the worship. It was just a little "too much" for me. Fortunately for me, God didn't care what my flesh felt. After a couple months I found myself raising my hands in worship. Then a little bit after that I became so joyful in worship that I started jumping and dancing with my brothers and sisters in Christ. And wow, what a freeing experience it was. All of a sudden I wasn't consumed about what other people thought of me or how "silly" I might look to that one person in the back. Worship became an intimate encounter between me and God. It was no longer what I wanted; it was what God wanted. Am I saying that God commands everyone to raise their hands and dance during worship? No, not necessarily. Or at least, not all the time. I do think their is something humbling and freeing about completely abandoning your own pride and giving all of yourself physically to the God of all creation. It really does come down to one's own pride. In worship, are we sincerely thinking about God and giving all of ourselves to Him? Or are we worried about what people will think about us if we start to become a little... charismatic? For me, I finally realized that I had been apprehensive about being too overtly, physically passionate during worship. By letting worship become an emotional experience for me instead of solely intellectual, I could truly worship God for the first time in my life. John Piper says in Desiring God, "Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full (or half-full) of artificial admirers... On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of biblical worship." If you want some great reading on this subject, go to the chapter on "Worship" in the Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.

And that's exactly where I was challenged at Taylor. I actually tipped the scale maybe a little too far on the emotional side of worship before I came to college. Taylor renewed in my mind the importance of worshiping in spirit and in truth. John 4:23-24 tells us very clearly that God desires people who worship in spirit and in truth. We mostly equate "spirit" with "emotion", and "truth" with "intellect or the mind". I realized that I needed to love God with my mind just as much as with my heart and soul. This was a difficult process, but one that needed to happen in my life. I began to examine myself during worship, trying to discover where my mind was focused. I could easily raise my hands in worship to make it look sincere, but I had to meditate upon Him in order for it to be true, biblical worship. I've made a lot of progress in the last several years.

I think the majority of Taylor (and I believe Jordan would agree with me) does great at the worshiping in truth aspect of biblical worship. But how does the Taylor student body as a whole respond to God with our emotions or spirit? Some days you can see it, like on worship nights. Other days, not so much (think chapel...). Jordan and I strongly believe that we should be encouraging each other to become worshipers who embody God's call. Some may need to be reminded about the importance of the mind in worship (like I needed when I came to Taylor). Others may need to be reminded that it's okay to let go of their composure and worship with emotions as well. Either way, we cannot continue to be mute on this subject as a student body. We must do something about it and fight the complacency.

Our answer: a student-run church on the very campus of Taylor University. A church where everybody is valued in their own gifts. There is no one "head" of the church besides Christ Himself. The students would run worship; the students would preach; the students would lead communion; the students would pray for each other; the students would be in true fellowship, meeting each other where they are. This is Acts 2:42-47, the passage that describes what the church was intended to look like:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

This is exactly where our vision originates! Could the Taylor community of students mirror the early church? Absolutely! There would be no church politics, leadership-arrogance, or putting one person or pastor on a pedastool. We'd be a community of believers, pushing each other towards Christ as we deal with the same struggles and temptations as college students.

Would this student-run church have to run on Sunday morning? My thought is no. Personally, I am plugged in at a local church and help with the youth ministry there on Sunday mornings. I would love to see a Saturday night student-run church service at like 6:00. But in the end, we have to pray about it, and see how God wants this to go. Both Jordan and I have been praying about this and feel very strongly pushed this direction. I'm reminded of Paul in Acts when the authority allows Paul to keep on doing what he's doing and says something to the effect of: "If it's of God, it will succeed. If it is not from God, it will fail." That's exactly where we are. Please be praying about God's will for this, and if He wants you to be a part of it.

I will definitely be blogging more about this in the future. This is a really, really long post. If you read all of it, thank you! Haha!

Living in faith,