Monday, December 22, 2008

The Light

For unto us a child is born,
unto us, a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulders.
And his name, shall be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God,
the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
One of my childhood Christmas memories is singing this song with my sister. It’s part of the Hallelujah chorus. I don’t think we ever said, “This is my favorite Christmas song,” but we both kind of knew it was and would look at each other whenever it played or just launch into singing it while driving in the car.

This advent I have been preaching from Old Testament prophecies using the theme: “God Keeps His promises”. In Isaiah 9 before “our song” is a remarkable prophecy about Jesus bringing light:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of darkness
a light has dawned.
Darkness. It would be difficult living in darkness, waiting, confused, lost, wanting to see a glimmer of light. If just a little light appeared, people couldn’t help but turn and look at it. “What is that?” they would say. They couldn’t ignore it. It would be a compelling force, because people WANT to see. Most people. Some people who are in the dark don’t even know it. Darkness becomes habitual. It helps to conceal what they are doing. They think they are getting away with something that they couldn’t get away with in the light.

The people of God had lost their way. They had a list of rules. They had some stories that they would tell traditionally every year, but they were still way off the path.

When I was telling this story in church, I asked, “What is the Great Light that Isaiah prophesied about?” Several shouted out; JESUS! Then Miguel added, “Jesus lights our path so we know the way to God.” Yes, Yes, Yes. We don’t have to stumble around and lose our way. Jesus is the great flashlight.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world;
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
—John 8:12

Light. It gives us warmth. It helps plants grow. It enables us to do our work. But most importantly, the light of Jesus shows us The Way. May you glow with the Light of the One, the long awaited, promised, Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Deliver Us From Evil

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:13)

These are the words Jesus used to teach the disciples how to pray. Who is this evil one?

Evil, the devil, the Prince of Darkness…I didn’t used to give it much thought. In fact, there was a long period when I assumed that “evil” was not so much a spiritual force but rather the “hell” we create here on earth with our selfishness and sinful choices.

I’ve never heard a pastor pray against evil. In a generic sense, yes, but not boldly recognizing a force that is trying to wreck havoc with the church, “prowling like a lion seeking whom it can devour” (1Peter 5:8). Yet Jesus mentioned the devil often , as did the New Testament letter writers. (Matthew 4, John 17:15, John 14:30, 1 John 5:18-19, James 4:7, 1Thess 5: 22, 2Thess 3;3 are just a few of the many references).

One of the young believers at our church, I’ll call him Paul, comes to my gate about 7:15 AM to ride with me in the van to pick up people. Paul is 15. He gave his heart to the Lord when Ian was here last month. Last week an older deaf boy met Paul at his house at 7 AM and took him out to eat breakfast. This older boy is a JW leader. He told Paul not to go to church, that the Christian Church is wrong, that Paul should come with him to the JW worship. Paul, who is generally hungry and does not have food at home, was delighted for the attention of the older popular deaf boy and the free food. Yet, after breakfast, he came to Jesus Deaf Church. The older boy says he will come get Paul next Sunday and take him to eat again.

On Saturday another older deaf boy went to Paul’s house and tried to convince him to not go to church. He said Paul could work with him. Paul would love to earn some money. The only day that the older deaf boy wanted Paul to work was Sunday morning. Paul came to church instead. Score: Jesus 2, Evil One 0
But oh my… I wonder how long Paul can resist.

Our School is Anglican (Episcopal). The diocese decided that they would renew the tradition of years past where every child and every teacher is “required” to attend church at the school on Sundays. I haven’t been going. I’m leading Jesus Deaf Church on Sunday mornings. Two weeks ago I got a letter from my principal saying that I’m under contractual obligation to attend the worship at the school church. I was “EXPECTED” to be there the next Sunday (which was the following day) Hmmm. What to do? Do I fight this battle now or do I concede this battle in hopes of winning the war for our church? I drove around that night to tell many deaf people that church is canceled for this Sunday. I made a mental note that I would need to see her superior to get permission to have church at my house for deaf, instead of attending the school church which none to the deaf kids would understand.

She told me I could discuss the matter with her boss on Wednesday. I prepared a letter for the boss. I prayerfully tried to communicate how our church began, how God started it, how God is maintaining it, how deaf people who come are not just school children, how deaf people are bored in a hearing worship service that they cannot understand. Then I prayed and fasted hoping the boss would be open to at least reading my letter.

When the boss (the “superintendent”) came on Wednesday she handed me her own letter expressing her disappointment in my not attending the school’s church, and I gave her mine. She read it right in my room, right then. She closed the letter, patted me on the back and said, "Your mission is doing a good work.” (Ahhhh...Praise the Lord for prayer answered.) She says she will write me another letter (I’m hoping it says that in lieu of my leading Jesus’ Deaf Church, I don’t have to attend the Anglican worship regularly.) I haven’t received it yet but if you’re counting I going to score that as Jesus 3, Evil One 0.
Note: I am not saying my principal or this woman are “evil" (by any means) but that the forces of the devil are working against our church.

Then there is the deaf boy from the family in San Jose. It’s fair to say they are “always” drunk. He fell in love with one of the girls who attend Girl’s Night. He gave her a promise ring and wants to marry next summer. She told him he had to stay sober. He did for a few months, but now he comes to visit her drunk and was drunk when he came to worship two weeks ago. He was drunk for their date last Saturday. She struggles because she is in love and wants to live with him (now) and marry him this summer. We've talked, and prayed and talked some more and she's staying with her mom and giving him some space, praying he will change.
Score: Jesus 4, Evil One 1.

There’s so much more. It’s like the deaf people and our church are caught in a huge elastic band. They’re pulled to church and then pulled away by some enticement. Then they come back to the Lord because the Holy Spirit convicts them or I talk to them, then they are pulled away again by something else. One of the boys said he is so tired of the pulling. He thinks staying home and not attending church will help him sort things out. I’ve visited him and others have visited him. I’ve prayed for him and with him. He’s come to school to talk but refuses to come to church. He says he’s tired of the spiritual battle. Sigh.
Score: Jesus 4, Evil One 2

It’s tough. The spiritual battle is exhausting. I know that the Holy Spirit empowers us believers and we have won the battle… the ultimate battle… but I hate fighting in the mean time. You know? It wears me down. But the Evil One will not win this battle. The Lord has been supporting me. Mom sent me a package. I have received email letters of support from people I haven't heard from in months. The Holy Spirit is strengthening my prayer life and showing me how the early church fought the same battles.

When I was younger, we didn’t talk about the Devil. The thinking was, don’t mention the forces of Evil. Doing so gives them power so just ignore them. But I don’t agree anymore. They’re there. They are prowling around like a hungry lion seeking whom they can devour. I need to pray against them. I need to pray for protection around all of our church members and courage for all to resist temptation. Can you join me?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jailing Poor People for Begging

The jail here in Orange Walk has three cells. Each cell is about the size of a 10 x 12 horse stall. The small windows on the north side let in enough light to hedge a guess about the weather on the outside, but not enough of a breeze to cool off the cramped quarters where 8 to 10 men reside. The stench is unbearable since many of the men are arrested while drunk.

Today I was summoned to court to “interpret” for a deaf man that I know. Unfortunately I am the only person in Orange Walk who can voice what the deaf mans says. Unfortunately because I can’t hear the judge well and really am not qualified to “interpret”.

During the course of the judge’s questions we learned that he was charged with wandering the streets begging. He has no family, was abandoned when he was a child, lives alone in a house without electricity, food or water, and has no source of income. He has an outstanding bill for court costs from the last time he was picked up with cocaine in his pocket. When the judge read his conviction, the deaf man responded, “Yes, but what else can I do?” They sent him back to jail. He will remain in jail for up to three months. During that time someone from Human Services is supposed to get him in a rehab/job referral program. But he is deaf, and there are no interpreters in Orange Walk, so it’s hard to see how he will benefit from the rehab counseling.

My first reaction was this is incredibly unfair. The man is poor. He’s always been poor. He never had an education or a nurturing family. Throwing him in jail merely takes this man, an eyesore, a nuisance, someone we are embarrassed by, off the street. Mayan people believe strongly about sharing with each other and taking care of each other. It’s fundamental. How can it be against the law for a poor person to beg when they are hungry?

And then I thought, I wonder what Jesus would do if he encountered this man. There certainly were a lot of disabled beggars in Jesus’ day. I never heard of him giving them money. He gave them something more, the power to change. He said to man at the pool at Bethesda, (John 5) “Do you want to get well?” It sounds like a silly question. What poor crippled man lying by a pool begging would not want to get well?

I imagined asking the deaf man the same question: Are you ready to give up your addictions? Do you want to stop begging and work? I think he might say, “But what can I do?” He’s given up.

Maybe the man at the well, who had lain there for 38 years had given up, too. He responded to Jesus with hopelessness. “Everyone gets into the pool before me.” It’s no use. I will always be like this.

Jesus sensed his hopelessness. Jesus wanted to enable him. Did he walk over and lift him up? Did he soothe him with flattery and words of encouragement? Jesus knew the crippled man needed to make an effort. He had to pick himself up. When the man made the move to stand, Jesus healed him. Would Jesus have healed him if he continued to moan and lie on his mat? I doubt it.

Many times when I encounter the deaf man begging in town, I talk to him about Jesus. I pray with him. He says he prays and he will change. In fact most times when he sees me, staggering toward me with his hand out and almost blind drunk, he says “I pray.” Others, too, have talked to him, but he hasn’t changed.

I still wonder how to be Jesus to this man. I wonder how to help him pick up his mat and walk.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

God Heard My Cry

God answers prayer. Sometimes we have to wait a long time for the answer. But God's timing is perfect.

Below is the story of the miracle we experienced last week when God answered our prayer.

Some of you will remember we have had a “rough year”. Beginning in November last year when one of the young women discovered she was pregnant. There was a huge fight among the young adults in our church mostly about who was the father since it could have been several of them and no one wanted to take responsibility, specifically to help pay with hospital costs. Some were supporting the woman and the men were supporting the one boy, who she said was the father. The church was splitting in half along “boy-girl” lines. When the men came, if they came, they came with an attitude. They would refuse to look “across the aisle”. I preached. I counseled. We had a few breakthrough moments and then it would revert back to the hatred. I really was having trouble reaching the men. Because they did not want to see or talk with the young woman, they started leaving the church. Two joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.

That's where we were on October 3, 2008. But to tell the story of this miracle faithfully, I have to go back about three years when I was reading the D.O.O.R. Costa Rica Newsletter. I was interested in it at the time because I wondered if some of our leaders might benefit from going to Costa Rica to participate in their training. (It’s a center for training deaf church leaders.) I noticed that they had pictures and biographies of about 20 deaf people from all over the south-western hemisphere. ONE name and picture stuck out for me. His name is Ian. My heart raced a little and I immediately thought maybe this man will be our leader. Maybe he will help to reach the men. I cut out the picture and put it on my wall, but waited a year until he graduated to contact him. When I emailed DOOR, they didn't reply. I didn't know how to get in touch with Ian. Over a year passed… his picture was still on the wall. I looked at it and thought, if God wants this man to come to Belize how will he even know about this ministry? Eventually I told Galen and Gloria, my mission board supervisors, because they have contacts in Trinidad where Ian lives. I asked them if they could find him in Trinidad, but that never happened. I still did not know how to reach him and put it on the back burner. This summer someone sent me an email which directed me to I never have time for the many online friendship sites, but decided to try it and see if Ian was on Facebook. He was, (in fact he had just recently joined.) I sent him email. I asked him to come help us for 10 days to see how he fits with us and if the men will learn from him.

HE CAME! He came to Belize October 3 to 13. He arrived and the men who were angry and not attending church came to see what he had to say. He preached. He taught Bible at school. He had lunch with some of the men and then we had our Friday Night Girl’s Night Bible Study. We invited the young men. Ian taught and every one of the adult men and adult girls confessed and repented. They each made a public confession of wanting to follow the Lord. EVEN the very angry, sometimes aggressive "father" of the newly born baby. He confessed. He said he wanted to turn around. He said he wanted to follow Jesus. He even talked to the young mother and offered to help with baby costs and try to work on their relationship for the sake of the baby. It was a miracle.
"God is able to do far more than we could ask or imagine." (Eph 3:20.)

All of the people in our church love Ian. They use his signs (he signs some things differently) out of respect because they want to do things the way IAN does it. He knows what and why he believes but shares patiently and gently. He listens and seems to receive wisdom from the Lord. When he teaches, they WATCH. I trust him.

While he was praying alone, he thought God was telling him to come back to Belize. He thinks that God wants him in Belize to help lead the church, particularly the men. We don’t know the details of when, where he will live, what he will do for money but we are trusting God with those details. He said he will come back and stay as long as God needs him. He is starting a new job in November in Trinidad. He has commitments there. But he said he senses God calling him to Belize and does not want to "pull a Jonah".

Isn't this crazy? How can I invite someone I've only known 10 days to come and work in this ministry? How can he leave his comfortable life, church and friends for a much poorer life here in Belize?

I'm reminded of this passage in Matthew:

"When John was in prison asking, "Are you the One who is supposed to come? Or should we look for someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back to John and report what you have seen. The blind have received sight. Disabled people walk. Lepers are healed and Deaf people hear. Those who are dead are raised to life. And good news is preached to the poor." (Matthew 11:2-5).

I know that we fasted and prayed periodically for two years asking God to send someone. When he came he preached the Word mightily and consistently. He spoke with wisdom and patience. Some people in our group who were hardened to each other, opened their hearts and asked for forgiveness. They gave their hearts to the Lord.

Is Ian the One who is supposed to come help us? As crazy and "dangerous" and risky as this sounds:
I'm sure of it.

Praise to Him who hears our cries for help. He answers our prayer.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Growing Things

I love to grow things. I love teaching. I love pastoring. It's interesting how much all three have in common. Primarily I realize I have very little control over the outcome. I can nurture, I can provide the right environment (soil/classroom instruction, worship), but the result depends on the roots.

The first two weeks of school one of the boys (age 14) came in "gang wear" every day. His shoes were untied, he had a cap turned backwards, his shirt hung out and his pants, at least 5 sizes to large, were hanging down halfway over his butt. His clothing was an expression of his attitude. During the day he threatened to punch me several times. He refused to work...and then laughed while glancing at the other older boys hoping to get their approval of his rebellion.

God's timing is perfect. In the midst of this struggle at school, I was studying the concept of abiding in Jesus (John 15: 1-8).

"Abide" is an old fashioned word. In fact, my Bible uses "remain joined to me". Jesus invites us to be joined to him. What an amazing statement of grace that we, as imperfect as we are, can be joined to God. My sister explained that this joining is like being grafted, the weaker plant to the one with the roots, so that the weaker plant can draw nourishment and strength from the root. Jesus invites us to abide in him. When we abide in him we bear fruit, give glory to the father, and show that we are his disciples. (John 15:8)

What is the root that is sustaining my pseudo-gang member student? Approval? Popularity? Rebellion?

He and I talked a lot this week. I asked him if this behavior was making him happy? Was he becoming more popular? Was it working? What was the outcome he wanted? And I prayed for him. Angelica and I prayed for him. I talked to his mother. I hate to talk to the parents with "concerns" about their children. She shook her finger at the boy and walked away. He's deaf, she's hearing. It's hard to communicate. He does what he wants. She can't control him. what?

Angelica and I prayed some more. School is over at 2:45, but he stuck around. He sat at his desk, looking sad and reflective while Angelica and I cleaned up and prepared for the next day. At 4:00 we were ready to close the windows and go home. He stood up, and came to me with a hug and said, "I'm sorry." We hugged, I told him I forgive him, and told him to choose Jesus because all the other stuff is just temporary.

The next day, Thursday, he came to school in his school uniform, shirt tucked in, with a belt, hair combed (not spiked) and shoes tied. He was even smiling. It's was a huge change. I thought we would be fighting the attitude battle all year.
The following day, Friday, he was smiling again and cooperative. He even joined me after school to shop for groceries and carry my bags. (!!!). Someone asked him why he was grocery shopping with me and he just shrugged. I think it is about abiding. When we abide with Jesus we draw nourishment from the True Vine. There's no substitute. Jesus says, "Come, be joined to me." It's not just "something to do" but our source of life. This young man, through the Spirit who touched his heart, got a taste of abiding with Jesus and wanted to hang on to it. I hope he does.

May God give you grace and peace,

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Losing a Friend

My dog died yesterday. I don't know what caused her sudden death. On Wednesday I took her to the vet to be spayed. She was groggy on Wednesday evening and didn't want to eat anything. That seemed normal after having major surgery. She doesn't usually like the dried food too much even when she is feeling perky. So after school on Thursday I stopped at the store and bought her "comfort food"... a can of wet dog food: beef chunks in sauce. She gobbled it up. That evening she seemed to have more pep and was up on her feet and moving around almost like normal. The incision looked good. In the morning I gave her some more of the wet food and went to school. When I came home, she was dead. (!)

Her name is Flaquita. It means skinny little girl. We kind of "acquired her accidentally". Last February I would come home everyday to find this skinny, mangy, pinkish dog laying at my gate. She could hardly move because she was malnourished and sick with worms and mange and fleas and ticks. I thought that I would surely come home and find a dead dog at my gate each evening, but she hung in there. I wondered at what point is a dog "beyond hope". Would feeding her just prolong her inevitable death? After four or five days I decided to start feeding her. She was hesitant at first, not sure she could trust me, but she ate the food. And remarkably she grew stronger within a week. Sulmi started calling her "Skinny".

I took her to the vet where she got the rabbies, worms and mange shots. That helped a lot! It was only a few weeks before she started growing hair: white hair with black spots, like a dalmation.

Flaquita quickly learned to come to her name and our voices. She eagerly greeted us and smothered us with kisses. She never bit and faithfully barked whenever a stranger passed the gate or came into the yard.

She had some faults, though. She loved to dig. It's hot here in Belize. Today it's high of 95 degrees in the shade. Flaquita learned that digging the top layer of the dirt revealed a cooler underlayer and made a nice cool place to rest. The best place to dig was where the soil was already tilled: my garden! To her credit she actually did not dig up the plants... but tossed a lot of dirt all around on top of the plants. We bought some sand and made a sandbox for her. She found the sand was easier to dig and in a shady place. It was a great substitute for garden digging...most of the time.

I miss her soft black nose. She liked to press it against my face or arm or hand. It wiggled a little when she touched me. She liked to take walks down our street. She always stayed close and sort of pranced as she walked. Luis liked to hug her. She would come right up to him and he would grab her by the neck and hug her close and kiss her face. She just wagged her tail and licked him.

We'll miss her. I felt so sad last night. I was trying to decide to go ahead or cancel Girl's Night Bible study. I decided to go ahead with it because I didn't want to just sit at home and cry all night. But I couldn't study scripture. (?) I couldn't find comfort in scripture. I wanted to, but it didn't help. I wanted to see and hold and pet "my baby girl", and the words were too distant, too contextually different. Sigh.

This isn't particularly "hope-filled" or even the words I "should be" typing. But maybe it will make me more sensitive to the next time someone loses a loved one... that reading scripture to them just may not cut it.

I pray for the peace of God which passes all understanding,

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

God is Faithful

Our God is truly an awesome God! As a first born I tend to want to be in “control”. I like to have plans and lists and all the details figured out. But the more I work in partnership with God I learn that He is in control and I can leave the details to him. God more than amply meets all my needs.

I look around my house in Belize and see a blender and chopper that the Mennonite Women of Virginia sent me. When I left the US I was wondering about what to do for a vehicle and Hector said, “Maybe someone will donate a van to your ministry. “ I laughed and said , “Yeah right!” but within 15 months God had raised the money and tapped the people and I was sitting with a brand new 15 passenger van in my driveway. I also had worried about companionship. I didn’t come with a husband or a co-worker. I still would love to have someone to share the work and minister particularly to the boys, but I don’t lack companionship. God has blessed me with Sulmi and Kristel who keep me centered on what’s important, the women who come for girl’s night, friends from home and my sisters who keep in touch several times a week regarding their lives and a book study we are doing together, the teachers I work with, and the Spanish Mennonite Church here. I definitely don’t lack companionship! God also seems to bring people into my life just when I need them like the time Galen showed up and fixed the green table just as the leg was falling off. Sandi Harris and her family invited me to San Pedro with them and listened, counseled and prayed with me when I really needed the support. Then there’s Vera and Basil DeKlerk who appeared one Sunday and unknowingly made a donation that covered the cost of a table for our fellowship to the penny, just after I bought it because we really needed it but really didn’t have the money for it. And God sends friends like Linda and (and previously Katie) who came from Lancaster, PA to help with VBS. They were a Godsend. I could never have done VBS alone. In addition they brought suitcases full of craft materials for VBS and gifts from other friends in Lancaster.

Sometimes I think God calls people to ministry and they say, "Uhhh.. is it really you, God?" Like Peter did in Matthew 14. He's in a boat in the middle of a storm. There's lots of wind and he looks up to see Jesus walking towards the boat...ON THE WATER! Impossible. So he says, "It must be a ghost." But it wasn't a ghost, it was the Lord. And the Lord said, "Be brave! It is I. Have courage." But Peter, more courageous than the others who said nothing, shouted back across the wind, "Lord is it really you? If it is you show me a sign, let me walk on water."

Have faith, friends. When the God of the universe calls you to work with him (imagine that!) in partnership (!) and says, "Come!" don't get stuck on the details or ask for signs. Just go.

God is faithful. You will be blessed and awed at how Jehovah Jirah will supply all your needs “beyond your wildest dreams”. And just think about it: is there anyone else you would rather work for?

Blessings to anyone who is thinking about mission work.
May God give you His peace,

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Godly "Coincidences"

July 20, 2008

Jessica is the hearing sister of one of our Deaf Church members. Sometimes on Sunday evenings she joins a youth group at a nearby hearing church. Last Sunday they decided to “take church” to a family they thought needed some encouragement. So eighteen of them crowded into two cars and headed about 40 minutes south. They sang and prayed and had a Bible lesson there on the uneven dirt floor, under a leaky thatch roof, in the pouring rain, while chickens and two goats mingled with them in the candle and lantern light.

Jessie noticed that one of the women was using some body language to talk to a young girl. She asked about the child and found out that she was deaf.

When Jessie came to my house this morning for our regular math tutoring session she told me about the “new” deaf girl she had met Sunday night. I wanted to meet this little girl. So Jessie and I got in the car and made the trek back down the Belize-Corozal Rd. It was still raining and the ground was more flooded than the night before. So we took our shoes off and walked through the mud to the house. Jennifer was excited to see visitors who came to see HER. She’s 11 and bright with a big smile and eyes that squint when she doesn’t understand something. She had gone to school in El Salvador when the family lived there, so she knew some sign language but was puzzled that the language we were using with her was different. I tried to get her to show me the signs she used for some common household items like:
table, chair, Mom, baby, oven, scissors, hammock, dog, cat, chicken, corn. She knew a sign for some of the words, but for most of them she put several signs together to form a gesture. We stayed and talked for a while and eventually Jennifer warmed up. Her mom and grandma talked about wanting Jennifer to join my class at St. Peter’s. It would be wonderful if they could work it out.

I’m eager to see what will happen next. Like Sulmi, Evelin, Luis and Alejandro, who came to my class knowing only a few signs, it will be fun to see Jennifer transition from trying to remember signs and filling in the blanks with gestures and drama to becoming a confident non-stop chatterbox. I look forward to seeing her light up during her first few days in the class when she sees she is surrounded by peers that she may not yet understand but nonetheless immediately feels a bond with them just because they are deaf.

It’s interesting that Jessie happened to go to youth group the night that they happened to “take church” to this family. God is working out his kingdom. He leads people to other people who will tell still other people in the hope that the “lost” will be found. Godly coincidences.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Loving Each Other: a farewell, a hello, and making peace

On a personal note, today was that day I gave Sulmi back to her family for the summer. It was hard to do. She came to live with me last September because her family lives too far away to transport her to school everyday. She's too young to put on public transportation by herself and there is no school bus to her village. So she stayed with me and went home on weekends. This "hosting" situation is common here in Orange Walk when families in the villages can't afford to transport their children to a school outside of the village school.

When church and lunch were over she said, "When are you taking me home?"

I said, "Right now". It was 2:00 PM.

Sulmi said, "Can we go at 8:00 PM?"

"No, we need to go now because at 8:00 it will be dark. Mom and Dad are waiting for you."

"I want to go at 8:00, " she repeated. I hugged her and she jumped in the car. Surprisingly the actual farewell was easier. When we got to her house she exited the van and walked right into the house, smiled at her parents and gave her orange drink to her little sister. I waved goodbye with the "I love you" sign and she just smiled and waved back watching the van drive away on the bumpy, dirt road. It will be a lonely summer for her in a household where no one signs. It's the same for many of the deaf children here. But Sulmi is a survivor and tough. She'll figure it out.

She's grown so much in 9 months. When the social worker and I visited the family last August, she barely signed. We tried to talk to her and she just looked at us with big eyes or looked down at the ground. Now she is a regular giggle-box. She shares information and argues her point of view. She explains events and makes jokes. She keeps us in stitches with her constant chatter.

As I drove the van with all of the other deaf children in it, I was thinking through all of these things and grateful for the chance to be her part-time mom for a short time. I think she will come back to live with me again in September. We'll see what happens.

God coincidences: Sometimes God creates amazing coincidences that work out for his purposes. Shortly after dropping off Sulmi we passed a bus stop and several of the boys in the van were signing to me, "Hey, there's a deaf person at the bus stop."

"Really?" I couldn't imagine who would be at a bus stop in the Yo Creek area.

I did a Belize thing... put the car in reverse and hauled it back to the bus stop. We stopped right there and the person the boys were referring to came out and talked to us. I'd never met her before . She's about 30, cute and smart with a big smile and dimples. I told her I was driving a van that brings deaf people to my house for church every Sunday and asked her if she would want to join us. She signed, "Yes, I see your van go by and I wanted to join you."

She directed us to her house where she lives with her mom. It was nice to talk to her mother who it seems, also knew a little about us. I'm looking forward to getting to know Dora.
I thought I knew all of the deaf people in this part of Belize. Glad that God helped us to include one that we were missing.

Finally I want to share a thought that I have been chewing on this weekend:
I preached from John 15, "I am the vine and you are the branches". Like branches we can do nothing unless we are connected to the true vine. Apart from the vine we die, can't bear fruit, and are tossed into the fire. (Eww scary but, I get that part.)
The hard part is the next paragraph: Jesus says:
"You are my friends if you do what I command."
That's a conditional statement. We want to think of Jesus' love being unconditional. It's grace, unearned, undeserved, given for us while we were yet sinners. Free.

Yet, Jesus says it several times, several ways: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love."
(John 15:10).

If we want to remain connected to the vine, we need to do what Jesus commands. So what does Jesus command? Love each other.
He says it twice (Jn 15:12, Jn 15:17).

Sarah, from the painful argument these past months, turned away, looked down and signed "Hard. Hard!"

Yep. It is. That's why we need to be branches that cling to the vine. Then the love that flows through our veins is not just our own but comes from the source of Love. We can't do it apart from him. Will it then be easy to love our enemies, people who hurt us, people we just plain don't like? Nope. Still "Hard-Hard", but the peace that passes all understanding is worth it.

Peace, friends. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Monday, June 23, 2008

An Awesome God

It was a small group at church today but the young man and woman from the last several month's worth of drama, were present. I dont want to use their real names, but will call them Mark and Sarah for the purpose of this blog.

What did God do?
They came to church with a bit of an attitude. Sarah was disappointed her best friend was absent so she felt she was without support from her "team". Mark always has an cap worn backwards, pants hanging halfway over his butt, slouching in the chair and hesitant to stand for the songs. They were defiantly NOT speaking to each other.

I preached on forgiveness from Matthew 18. I tried to contemporize it. Peter must have had a gripe against someone. He came to the Lord asking, "How many times do I need to forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?" I dont think Peter thought through this question. How can you set a limit to forgiveness? What would happen after the 7th time? Do you say, "Hey, sorry! My records show that I have forgiven you 7 times already. You are over your quota. Get lost." Not.

Jesus in his reply is gentler than I am. He just touches on Peter's legalistic question and then addresses the motive for forgiving others. He tells the story of the king's unmerciful servant. We acted out the story. In our Deaf Chuch drama helps many who have limited signing skills to be able to visualize what the story is about. So the king tells the servant that he owes a million dollars. The servant can't possibly pay that amount. The king is ready to send the servant and his family to debtors prison for what would probably be a lifetime when the servant begs for mercy. The surprise in the story is that the King forgives him. He lets the servant go free and completely waives the debt. (No one could believe it. Sarah looked at me and smiled... she alone knew that the King in the story was a metaphor for God.) So what does the servant do next? Have a party? Bow down and worship God? Hug his wife? No. He chases after a fellow servant, a friend, who owes him a dollar. He beats up his friend and then has him thrown in jail for not paying a measly dollar debt. (The Holy Spirit was bringing understanding. Everyone started laughing at the absurdity of the servant's actions. Everyone in the room would have forgiven a dollar debt. They knew the servant should have extended the grace he received from the King.) It was fun to see them all understand the story, but did they understand the metaphor? So we talked it out a bit. Some daydreamed, some watched through glassy eyes. It wasn't hitting home.

Then we played a game. I have to give God credit here. Yesterday while I was thinking through this sermon, I knew I needed something to bring it home... a game... an image...something. God helped me remember a game that we used to play at deaf women's retreat every year. We never tied it to forgiveness. It was just a game, an activity. God's Spirit had a plan.

First the boys/men. I put three pieces of masking tape on each person's arm. I told them that each piece of tape represented one of our mistakes...maybe lying, maybe anger, maybe punching someone, whatever. On "go" they were to take the tape off of themselves and put it on someone else. The goal is to try to end up with no tape at all. For a minute they were grabbing and slapping and some were rolling on the floor. In the end everyone had at least two pieces somewhere on their body. We did it again with the girls. This time I stood in the middle and didnt take off any of the tape any person put on me. I just kept accepting it. When a minute was up, I had about 12 pieces on me. I said. That's what Jesus did. He took all of our sins so we could be clean. (Sarah started crying). How can anyone who has been made clean turn to someone else and say... you have a spot and I'm sick of looking at it? Forgive your brothers and sisters, because Jesus forgave you. (I think I've said that many times since I've been here in Orange Walk. The other times I didnt get much of a response.. maybe someone said, "Ok. Can we have lunch now?")

This time God moved us. I confessed and asked for their forgiveness for something, a young boy confessed something and asked for forgiveness from the group, three girls stood up and said they were sorry to each other, at least two more people asked for forgiveness and then there was silence, for a little bit. I was ready to close worship and Mark stood up. He said, "I want to say I'm sorry to you and to Sarah for hurting you and I was wrong." All the angels in heaven must have been cheering because this boy never says he's sorry or admits he is wrong. Then he hugged me and then everyone started hugging. (Wow! I kept thinking ...Yes, God answers prayer. Our church is on the road to healing. Thank you to everyone who prays for us.)

The rest of the morning went well, everyone was mixing and talking. Someone said to me as we were cleaning up lunch, "This is fun." She didn't mean the cleaning. She meant the love the group was learning to share. As I was driving the van to drop people off after lunch, I saw Sarah and Mark sitting together, talking and smiling. There might have been a kiss.

As I drove I was thinking, God has a plan for Mark. Maybe someday, he will be preaching to our church, telling his testimony about how he used to be attracted to gang behavior, drinking , bad language, sex, and a rough temper, but God forgave him. And the people of the church who will be much younger and not know the old Mark will say, "No, really? You? But you are so gentle.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Extending Grace

June 15, 2008

"God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. "
Ephesians 3:20
(The Message)

God is building his Kingdom among Deaf people here in Orange Walk, Belize. Sometimes it goes a little slowly and I get discouraged. This verse reminds me to hang tight. God's in control. It's his project and it will evolve beyond my wildest dreams, not by my effort, but by his Spirit. It's one of the words of encouragement God has given me this past month while our church has been struggling.

One day last week I was seeking God's direction with how to handle a fight between one young woman (20) and one young man (19). They are in volatile romantic relationship and she is pregnant. Their fight quickly got bigger because the girl sought out other girls to be on her side while the boy did the same thing with the boys. By Sunday it felt like the church was splitting in two. The original problem was fairly complex and was not going to be resolved in one discussion. But more than that it concerned me that others were being dragged into it. I was clearly in over my head. No matter what I said I could not get them to let down the wall of pride and anger. But most of all I was worried about how this would effect our church.

When I need encouragement, God sends someone. If I don't hear it from the first person, God will send a second.

This time he sent John, a friend and a pastor in Maine. John emailed me reminding me that when Paul was shipwrecked he still showed confidence in God because God had given him his destination. He was headed to Rome (Acts 23:11). God would would make it happen. John saw past the "problem" to my worry about our church...would it die because two people can't get along? John reminded me that God has shown me my "destination" many times and many ways. God will make Jesus' Deaf Church in Belize grow roots, flourish, and multiply. I should trust God to make it happen.

You would think that would be enough, a timely email, but I wandered on to my job at school and was still worried and not sure what to say and how to handle the young the couple. This day happened to be staff devotions and the principal led reading from John 14:1 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust in me also."

I had to laugh. I wondered if God would bombard me with Bible verses all day until I surrendered to trusting him.

Today, Sunday, both sets of alienated factions came to church. We prayed, we talked, we prayed some more and God brought the beginnings of forgiveness. We learned that sometimes you have to let go. You can't fight until the other person says, "I was wrong and your were right." They might never do that. You have to forgive. Sometimes in relationships we just have to let go, even when both people think the other person is "wrong". The anger and the hate, the bitterness and the way arguing stirs us up and makes us all nauseous and tired is not worth being "right". So today we all struggled to grab a piece of Peace and say... the issue and the "he said, she said" doesn't matter. Our love and our community, our relationship to each other is too valuable to throw away.

We ended with apologies, a prayer of thanks and commitment to our future.

Grace. Freely giving the grace that Jesus extends to us is unnatural. It's hard. Yet, it's the only way we can survive as a Kingdom community.

I don't know where we will be in a week. Will they walk away from our moment in the presence of God and turn back to anger and resentment? Maybe... but I am trusting God to lead us again if that happens.

Grace and Peace, Nancy