Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stretch Your Comfort Zone through Faith

[The following opinion column can be found in this week's edition of the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper]

How important would something have to be for you to step outside your comfort zone? I came face to face with that question a few weeks ago when I had the chance to travel to Haiti, a place where nothing would feel familiar.

My team was traveling to an orphanage with emergency supplies of baby formula, diapers, and baby clothes. These 400 pounds of items were donated by members of my church but also their friends, neighbors, and coworkers. I felt honored to represent my church and my town in delivering these gifts. Still, why me? Was it really necessary that I go?

While at the orphanage I held babies that had been abandoned by their parents. Some of these newborns had been left on the side of the road to die. Now that they were rescued and had formula, they would have a chance to live. My decision to come on this trip had impacted lives. Still, why me? Couldn’t someone else have come in my place?

My senses were overloaded. My ears filled with the strange words of a language I didn’t understand, the honks of cars swerving without traffic laws, and the constant shouts of “blanc!” meaning “white person!” In my nostrils, I felt the burn of garbage piles on the side of the road. In my teeth, I tasted the remnants of the goat, rice, and plantains that my team had for lunch.

All around me, children tugged on my shirt because they wanted to be lifted and held. These experiences are not quickly forgotten but still, why me? God does not need my help to reach the people of Haiti.

The answer to “why?” is that God nudged me to go. Maybe, just maybe, God is using this article to nudge you to go too. After all, God knows that we grow most vibrantly when we are outside our comfort zones. God wants to bring us to a place where we are depending on His strength because in that place, we will have a deeper understanding of His grace.

Last week we celebrated the lengths that God would go through to show someone how much He loves them. As Romans 5:8 shares, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The question is, how far will we go to share God’s love with others? Take a step this week; ask your pastor or missions director for an opportunity to serve.

To hear from the missionaries that live and work at this orphanage in Haiti, be our guest at Algona First United Methodist Church on Saturday, April 26, for 5 p.m. worship and 6 p.m. questions and refreshments. Thank you and have a great week.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Haiti Team in Algona

[I encourage anyone who lives in Algona to pick up a copy of this week's edition of the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. For everyone else, here is the text of a recent article on our recent Haiti trips]

Making a Difference in Haiti: Teams Find Stepping Out of their Comfort Zone Rewarding
By Mindy Baker, Editor

     If going to Haiti has been a part of your bucket list, but you didn't know how to make that first step, the First United Methodist Church in Algona will give you a hand.

     On Saturday, April 26, the church, located at 201 E. Nebraska Street, will host Haitian missionaries Les and Catherine DeRoos in a special worship service at 5pm, with a question and answer time following the service.

     "We wanted to have them for a Saturday service so that people could go to their home church on Sunday, yet still hear about their mission," said Matthew Wester, Director of Congregational Care and Development.

     First United Methodist Church has partnered with Global Compassion Network, an international group based in Eagle Grove that supports orphanages, provides disaster relief and helps build Safe T Homes. Over the past year, a scout team and two mission teams from the church have traveled to Haiti to help to help with the GCN mission.

     "I read an article on the Safe T Homes in the Iowa Soybean Digest," said Al Koenecke, who was a member of the scout team and part of the first team that traveled to Haiti in February for 10 days to assist with an orphanage for girls, building homes and a sanitation system. "It bothered me that, as a farmer, I had not heard anything about these Safe T Homes, and that corporations were sponsoring these homes. It bothered me as a Christian that they were doing my work. I needed to go and do something."

     Koenecke stated it took less than three phone calls for him to get involved with the GCN.

     A second team went in March, bringing supplies for a widows and infants village. A total of seven suitcases worth of donated baby supplies, each weighing 50 lbs., was taken to the village, which connects widows to abandoned or orphaned children.

     "Two things touched me the most," said Bill Burtnett, who brought his son Tom, a senior at Algona High School, on the March trip. "I've done travel in Mexico, but the poverty in Haiti is on a wider scale than I ever thought. It is so deep, and it is so disheartening."

     The other thing that touched Burtnett was the interaction with the orphaned children.

     "It breaks my heart that they don't know a family," said Burtnett. "They have a good life, but it's not the same."

     Also on the March trip was Doug Anderson, whose experience as a mechanic kept him very busy during his 10 days in Haiti, helping with water sanitation, building solar panels and overseeing construction of the Safe T Homes.

     "Whatever skills you have, they will use," said Anderson. "I was really surprised how well the children are brought up. They are all clean, happy and well-behaved. They are all so appreciative for the help you are giving them."

     For Judy Samp, who went on the February team, the opportunity to work in Haiti became a desire after hearing stories from the scout trip.

     "I was apprehensive at first, but now I want to go back," said Samp.

     For her, it was interacting with the children, teaching them marketable and life skills -- even with the language barrier -- that meant the most to her.

     "They are truly happy people, even with their poverty," said Samp.

     "Our culture is rich in monetary things, and poor in spirit," said Koenecke. "We complain. They are poor, but so rich in spirit. They have more joy in life than we do."

     Wester explained that the program is working on sustainable change for Haitians.

     "This is not a short term project. The Global Compassion Network is making change within for the children and women of Haiti," said Wester.

     Because of that, Wester, and members of both of the first teams, hope that the community attends the special service on Saturday.

     "This is a nondenominational program," said Anderson. "If you have ever even considered going on a mission trip, now is the time. Go with an open mind."

     "This program isn't just addressing physical needs and saving lives, it's also sharing the love of God," said Wester. "You'll work hard, but we're really helping to do major things."

     For more information, attend the question and answer program at First United Methodist Church, which will be held after the 5pm service on Saturday, April 26, or contact Matthew Wester at the church at 515-295-7241

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Open Mic Prayer Requests

There's almost no wrong way to pray. Prayer is simply having a conversation with God. And authentic prayer (which is truly seeking God) will inevitably lead to: a deepening sense of God's love, a more faithful alignment of your will to God's, and an increase in discernment throughout the day. Prayer is powerful.

So why is it so tricky to take prayer requests during a church service?

Photo credit: Lars Hammar via Flickr

Consider this imagined scenario: Pastor Jim takes a moment during worship to ask if anyone has a joy or concern they would like him to lift up in prayer. Eleanor's arm shoots up into the air. She is eager to share.

The only problem is that Eleanor is sharing some news she heard through the grapevine. As Eleanor begins to speak, Pastor Jim realizes that part of what she is sharing is inaccurate. To make matters worse, he is pretty sure Eleanor did not ask for permission to share about this person's struggle.

If you were Pastor Jim, how would you handle this situation?
     Would you gently cut off Eleanor and pray a general, less-detailed prayer for the situation?
     Would you correct Eleanor's information, running the risk of breaking confidentiality?
     Would you allow the worship service to be broadcast on local television? Or edit the prayers out?
     Would you change to taking prayer requests by card instead of by open mic?

These are real questions that ministry leaders have to ask themselves. On one hand, they want to encourage the congregation to be people of prayer. On the other hand, part of being a shepherd is to create a safe environment for people to grow in their faith. Hmm.

Well, I'll leave you to ponder that scenario. But let me end by sharing about something powerful that happened this past weekend at my church: Normally we have a time of open-mic prayer requests before the sermon. I really enjoy this time (even though I remain sensitive to the dangers described above). This past weekend, however, we changed the order of the service and our prayer time came after the sermon.

Wow, what a difference that change made! The music and sermon must have churned our souls because that responsive time of prayer felt genuine and Spirit-filled. And that's what prayer should always be -- putting the focus on Jesus and getting excited about next steps. So be encouraged today that prayer is a powerful thing and God wants to spend time with you.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Water for Shepherds Podcast Interview

I was recently interviewed for the Water for Shepherds podcast, which provides words of encouragement for spiritual leaders. The interview gave me a chance to talk about the ups and downs of ministry as well as what inspires me. It's always a good time to talk about God and His unfailing grace.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

My Recent Trip to Haiti

I recently got back from a mission trip to Haiti. My overall impression is that Haiti is a spiritually dark country (with voodoo, poverty, a corrupt government, and a complex relationship with international aid) BUT that the Gospel is creating new hope. In other words, we saw a lot of heartbreaking challenges but God's love is bigger than our brokenness.

Here is a picture of an orphan, Bebi, after she taught me how to count in Creole. I had a really fun time trying to communicate with the girls at the orphanage. Though I quickly realized how little French I could remember from my studies. During soccer games I would joke around and so the kids starting calling me kokay, little rascal.

These metal houses are made out of grain bin materials. Our team built two of them while we were there. When people see these pictures they wonder if the houses are hot inside. Surprisingly, the temperature is cooler inside the houses than outside, due to the double-layer heat shield on the roof and the hot air escaping through a vent on the top of the house. Plus, these houses are earthquake-proof, fire-proof, termite-proof, and will last for decades.

Global Compassion Network builds these homes so that needy families will have a new, safe, free place to live. The picture above is of a new GCN project, the Widows and Orphans project. Basically, widows are going to live in the homes and look after newborns who were abandoned by their parents. These babies will hopefully be adopted before the age of three but if not, they will then be moved into one of the nearby orphanages.

Three babies had recently been rescued and brought into the orphanage. Our team got to bond with them during our 10 day stay. Tragically, the day after we left, one of the babies passed away. His name was Levi and he was a little over a year old and by the time he was dropped off at the orphanage. The missionaries did what they could but it was too little too late, he had too many health issues. His death is a sober reminder of the high stakes, and that we need to keep these missionaries in our prayers.

On the bright side, our team was able to bring hundreds of pounds of baby items with us in our luggage. Praise God for generous donations from the Algona community. This baby formula, diapers, and clothes will make a real difference. Oh, and it also allowed us to have the strange/fun experience of checking a completely empty bag on the trip home. The airline ticket counter probably doesn't see a lot of empty bags like that.

So whew, I'm back in the United States again. Back to the convenience of putting toilet paper straight into the toilet, of speaking my own language, of walking down the street without hearing people yell "blanc!" meaning 'white person.'

And I can't wait to tell people about my journey. Why? Because my trip shows how God is at work, both in the hearts of Haiti and in the hearts of those team members who went.