God’s Little Miracles

arch-angel-by-clay-wrightDo miracles happen? Do angels exist? I’ll tell you what happened to me last night. You decide.

After my evening’s English teaching was finished around 8:30 PM, I was asked to be the last one out of the building and to lock up. But last night, when I set the automatic locking and alarm, it just didn’t work. The door didn’t lock. I was alone outside a building full of expensive equipment, located in the midst of a low income housing project in a high crime part of my city.

I phoned my boss to tell her what had happened.  It went to voice mail. I looked around outside the building to see any familiar face from the school or the students. There was no one around except a tall African American stranger in his twenty’s, talking on his phone 10 yards away. I asked him if he lived in the housing complex or knew who was in charge. He was friendly but told me he didn’t. I basically was at a loss as to what to do. I felt I couldn’t just drive off and leave all within the building open to anyone who would wander in overnight.

I talked a bit more with the African-American guy, the only person anywhere around. At length he offered to phone the city emergency number. I ended up explaining things to the police. They told me they could notify police that patrolled that part of the city that there was a door opened. But beyond that there was nothing they could do. I was really on my own and it was getting later. I phoned my very elderly parents to tell them why I wasn’t there by now and about what had happened.

As it got later and later, I introduced myself to the guy who was still there and had made the call for me. He said his name was Dontre. I was counseling with him and asked what he thought would be any idea. So he said I could try to go to the housing complex office and see if anyone was there. I was getting desperate and I told him I could try that. Dontre said to walk about 50 yards one direction, then go to the far end of that parking lot, turn right and farther down that way was the office.

I headed out, 50 yards in the dark, left turn and another 70 yards, turn right and I as I walked on, I could see the office up ahead. Then I heard a voice.

“Hi Mark!” No, it wasn’t the audible voice of God. But over on a bench in the dark was one of the teachers who teach in the English school I work at. I nearly dropped my teeth. I went over to her as she was for some reason outside in the very late evening alone, on her cell phone. It turns out she lives there at the housing complex. She knew how to get hold of the maintenance guy in order to find some way to lock the building up.

She and I walked back to the unlocked door. I’d only been gone barely 5 minutes but when we got there, Dontre was no longer anywhere to be seen. He’d been there on his cell phone for around 45 minutes right there before that but then he was gone.

“Mark, is that all?! You call that a miracle?! That was just happenstance, a coincidence!”

Oh, yeah? If you’d seen this in a movie, you’d roll your eyes and say, “Sure, sure; that’s so totally unlikely that he’s going to meet up with a woman teacher from his school out in the parking lot 200 yards away from the building in a high crime part of town late at night!”

For me it was a real act of God and His love and providence. I was in a fix and felt torn between my responsibility to my parents and my responsibility to see that the building was locked up. So that was one heck of a “coincidence” that I’d run into one of the main teachers in the school in the late evening so far away from where I’d been. She was able to take over getting the maintenance crew there to safely lock up the school and I could drive home.

And it’s funny how Dontre just disappeared like that, no? Angels do that. OK, I’m not utterly sure he was an angel. But if not, he sure was used of God at that time to really be a help to me. At one point I asked Dontre, “So what do you think I should do?” He immediately answered, “You should think about your family, always put your family first.”

I am certain that the Lord miraculously led me last night to get out of a difficult and dangerous situation. As for Dontre, it’s like the Bible verse that says, “Don’t forget to show kindness to strangers for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13.2) And the whole event last night reminds me of another verse about angels. “The angel of the Lord encamps around them that fear God and delivers them.” (Psalm 34:7)guardian angel picture-smaller

Spiritual Habits: Humility

Humility picture-flattenedHumility is a funny thing. When you think you have it, you probably don’t. But it’s easy to not think of humility as a good thing. Certainly in the secular world, humility is normally equated with weakness and even with being a loser. But this is one of the clearest places where the Lord’s ways are not our ways and certainly not the ways of the world. Jesus said of Himself that He was “meek and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).

Today someone shared some needed correction with me. They did it very politely, they were totally right and I needed to hear what they said as I was in the wrong. Still, it was hard to take. It’s kind of destabilizing. Your inner self is offended and wants to answer back, defending and justifying yourself. And of course that’s what is the usual reaction for most people all over the world. Your pride is hurt, your self-esteem has been wounded and you just want to fight back.

I was getting feelings like that but then I remembered a Bible verse I memorized years ago, something Solomon said in Proverbs 9:8, “Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Only pride hurts, humility doesn’t really feel it. And if you are any student of Scriptures or of the great people of God in history, you’ll certainly know that they were all not only people of faith, but people of humility.

An obscure, fascinating verse,  Isaiah 57:15 says, “So says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and lofty place, with him that is of a humble and contrite heart, to revive the spirit of the humble, and revive the heart of the contrite ones.”   The great God on high dwells with the humble, not the proud. Peter in the Bible said, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5)

But how do you get humility? Do you work really hard for it? Someone said one time, “That takes humility of the kind only God can give you, because your own self is always trying to justify itself, exalt itself and protect itself.” Like Job said, “If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me.” (Job 9:20) Sadly that’s so true. But the good news there is that God can give you the humility you need and that He wants you to have. We are to “humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.” (I Peter 5:6) We should cultivate humility in our heart, just like a precious little plant, while we try to recognize and root out the sins of pride and arrogance.

Today it was a humbling experience for me to have my faults and errors pointed out, even if it was done nicely. It was almost like when I’ve had to go to the dentist. I don’t like it but I have to just tell myself rather strongly, “This is for your good. You need this; this is doing something good for you, even if it hurts a little right now.”

But I did have an encouraging thought at the time it was happening, “At least I can recognize this as something good and for my good. I can try to get a grip on this pride that is trying to rear its head right now and make me offended and discouraged by being exposed like this.” I basically ended up putting off what I’d planned to do today and just got quiet before the Lord to try to let Him work in my soul and to take to heart what had rather surprisingly been shared with me.

Honestly, it’s taken a lifetime of similar situations and experiences from time to time (many of them not as easily acceptable as what happened today) to get me to where I can try to let the Lord do the work in my heart of teaching me some things about myself that are a bit unpleasant or discouraging. Some people think the solution is to continue to keep their head, “bloody but unbowed”, as it says in an old poem. But that’s really not what the Lord wants. He wants to teach us and help us grow in our hearts and spirits. Jesus said, “Every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” (John 15:2) Purgings, humiliations, corrections from Godly brethren, even exposures are not easy to take. But if you are to be clay in the master’s hand, if you are to be purified gold, then embracing the humility that God wants us to grow in is utterly essential.

If you are a little uncertain about humility and honestly don’t even know if you like the whole idea, I suggest you make a Bible study on the subject. Humility is one of the most essential essences we need to have if we want to stay alive in the Lord and grow in His presence. Jesus said, Whoever humbles himself as a little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)

East meets West

This is a “Fields” newsletter that I sent to friends in October of 2003, after I’d been living in Jakarta, Indonesia for around 6 months.

Fields # 4 headline

DSC03592God bless you and greetings again. This time, instead of giving you “the big picture”, I want to zoom down to just one of the many events that make up what it means to live this life. More than anything, it has to do with just being God’s partner, flowing with the rhythm and timing as He leads, makes a way and does the work.

“Great”, you might say, “but what in the world does that mean?” As in any human endeavor, there are golden opportunities and occasions where you have to respond, sometimes quickly, before the chance is gone. Over the years, it’s been something to see these possibilities not just as coincidences but as “God’s set ups”. There was one recently and we even were able to get a few photos of it.

The street kids’ school project here in Jakarta is still one of my major concerns. At the beginning of September, I went there with my friend Thomas to bring their monthly gift which some of you have sent, and to just “see how they do.”

The director looks over the cards to see if they would be useful for the school.

One of the things we offer people is a set of 40 colorful flash cards in English for children. Some are explicitly Christian and would not be acceptable there. But others strike at themes that are found in both the Christian and Muslim faith, drawings illustrating “All things were made by God”, “Be kind”, “God loves a cheerful giver” and others. We felt that, because of the warm and positive nature of these cards, plus that they could be used for learning English as well as reading Indonesian, possibly the teachers and administrators at the school would want to receive a set.

As you can imagine, finding common ground between Islam and Christianity can be a challenge. But it is there and perhaps more than some realize. After our customary introduction and snack which they served, we brought out our cards as we explained our idea that perhaps they would find them beneficial to their work.

After counseling with the English teacher, they feel the cards would be a help.

The founder of the school and his team looked them over carefully. There were around 20 which we felt they would like. They could see that they were very basic and embraced themes that were as dear to them as they were to us. It turned out that, after they counseled together, they did feel the picture cards would be something they could use.

The founder of the school excused himself and we were left in the room with one of his teachers and one or two of the students and helpers. I’m sorry I don’t exactly have the photos to show the transition of how all this changed into what happened next. But there was a real interest in the simply, colorful pictures which had text in English and Indonesian.

It’s wonderful the faith and power God gives for times like this.

I struck up a conversation with a few of the ones there, as best we could, considering that neither of us spoke the other’s language. So I pointed at a picture of the sun and said the word. And they said “mati hari” (literally “the eye of the day”), the word for the sun in Indonesian. Or I would say “prayer” and they would nod and agree and say their word.  The teacher from the school who was still there was the English teacher. He doesn’t really speak much English but he was able to help a little in bridging the gaps.

Our joy is seeing their joy, the happiness of those we share God’s love and truth with.

As it went along, I was noticing that there seemed to be more and more kids coming in. Pretty soon the room was full of 30 elementary school kids who were really listening, watching, participating and wanting to know what it was all about. We talked about love (“kasih”), faith (“iman”), peace (“damal”), friends (“sahabat”), God (“Allah”), and cleanliness (“kebersihan”), all themes from the drawings.

Gestures and facial expressions can get the thought across when words fail.

What could have been a pretty rowdy atmosphere instead had almost a hush over it. The kids’ natural respect for instruction of this type was mixed with their curiosity and surprise to hear someone of another faith communicating to them on values they perhaps thought were only their own.

My friend Thomas came back and he saw an opportunity to catch a special moment on film. At times like this, it’s not always easy to remember to get out the camera and to try to capture the moment. You can ruin the atmosphere by getting everyone distracted. So you try to take a few shots while being as unobtrusive as possible.

The flash card that drew the most discussion was “Angels watch over me”, something they seemed to know a lot about. They told me about Gabriel. I agreed and asked if they knew about Michael, which they did. They were surprised and pleased. We looked, talked, discussed and agreed. Talk about East meets West! But I was having fun and doing my best to make it fun and exciting for them, pantomiming things when necessary to make the idea understood and just really being thrilled by what seemed like a spontaneous open door to reach out to all these young people who had dropped by to see what this stranger from the other side of the world was talking about.

Sweet kids hearing old things from a new angle and a different light.

I hope somehow the special-ness of the occasion is portrayed here. For me at least it felt like a minor miracle that such a coming together could be engineered by God’s Spirit between me and people of such a different age, background, and religious upbringing. Truly He is the one who can break down the walls, bridge the gaps and put people on common ground when there is a mutual respect and faith for Him and His ways. If I was a musician I would have played them a song. But in this case the Lord used what we had: a gift for teaching and the joy of sharing Him with others to make an interesting and special occasion for young people who probably don’t have many opportunities like that.

I do appreciate your support and your continued prayers. The spiritual battles here are much stronger than when I was still living in Texas. My health has been good and I bounced back from a very strong flu earlier this month in less time than was expected. It’s always such a blessing when I hear from you, to know how you are doing and to know that these newsletters are somehow a help to you. I miss you but I’m glad we can keep in touch this way.

Sincerely, Mark


Spiritual habits (Part 4) Memorizing God’s Word

memorization art-flattenedI’d been a Christian for about a year when I was at a meeting of young people on a Saturday night. A friend of mine called me up in front of these 100 people, put his hand on my shoulder and looking out at everyone, said, “I just want you to see the results of memorizing Scripture.” And I guess he was right.

One of the habits I developed at the beginning of my Christian life was memorizing God’s Word. What happened was this. I’d been a Christian for around 3 days when a brother who was instrumental in my becoming a Christian said something to me that changed my life. He told me, “You know, if you’ll just memorize 3 verses every day, God will really bless you.” Somehow that really stood out to me and I said in my heart right then, “I’m going to do that.” Basically I did that for a long time and it’s probably been the most significant spiritual habit that I’ve had as a Christian.

Now I know this is probably not what you are hearing from the pulpit in your church on Sunday morning. But if you look at the people of the New Testament, you can certainly see that they memorized Scripture. It is written flatIn the famous story of when Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, when the Devil came and spoke to Jesus, the Lord didn’t begin flaying his arms wildly and start screaming at the Devil. No, He just quoted Scriptures at him, Three times the Lord began His sentence with “It is written…”  and went on to quote Scripture in answer to the Devil’s temptations. (Luke 4:1-13) The Lord knew the Scriptures of His day and could quote them verbatim when He needed to. And He often did.

Then when Jesus had gone to Heaven and the early church was beginning, the Apostles certainly knew their Scriptures by heart. On the day of Pentecost, when Peter needed to explain things to the huge crowd that gathered, he didn’t start spewing out his own ideas. He told them, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” and he went on to quote from that Old Testament prophet, as well as other places in the Hebrew scriptures, to explain to the crowd from the Word what was happening. (Acts 2:14-36)

Even all the way back in Job, what is considered to be the oldest book in the Bible, Job said tolay up His words in your heart.” (Job 22:22) King David said, “The law of his God is in his heart, none of his steps shall slide” (Psalms 37:31). Actually there’s a lot in the writings of David about this, like Psalm 119:11 where David prayed,  “Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”

But maybe this may all make you just groan and you think, “Oh, no! I can’t memorize anything!” Let me make this a little personal because it is. Before I came to the Lord, I didn’t have any special ability to memorize things. But with the Word of God, it was like certain verses were just so clear and simple, they stood out to me so much that it was almost like the Lord just placed them in my mind and there wasn’t really a lot of effort on my part. In other words, the truths in the Words of the Lord were so strong and important that memorizing it wasn’t a lot of hard work. It was like grabbing something that was really good for me or tasted good or was worth a lot.

we should memorze flatYou may have already found that some Bible verses are almost already there in your memory. Or when you read them, they just jump out as strikingly significant. It’s those ones that mean so much to you, or that you know are timeless pillars within the Word of God, those are the ones you could make an effort to commit to memory.

For me, as soon as I found or recognized that a verse was of special significance, I’d make an effort to immediately write the reference somewhere. After a while, I built up a lot of verses like that and I ended up writing them on 3X5 cards, according to the books in the Bible they were from. I did that for around 3 years and it got to be a lot of verses. Believe it or not, I still have those cards with those verses and they’re still a part of my daily devotions.

In many ways I think of the verses I’ve memorized as my best friends. These are verses I’ve quoted to the Lord in times of desperate need, verses that have been boundaries for me to keep me from going astray, they’ve been wisdom for me in my dealings with others, they’ve been the comfort of God’s love speaking to my heart in some of my darkest hours.

Memorizing Scripture can be work and it can seem like something you can’t do. But the Word I’ve hidden in my heart through memorizing Scriptures has probably been more of a marking of my character than any other single thing in my Christian walk. Yes, it does take effort. But the people of the Bible did this and the returns on your investment of effort are immeasurable.

Spiritual Habits (Part 3) Prayer

Prayer picture-flattenedI’ll never forget when my youngest son was 2 months old. I was holding him in my arms when he looked me straight in the eyes, reached out his arms to me and gave me this tremendous hug. It was breathtaking, such love. Nothing mental, no technique, just something from the deepest place of the heart, the child reaching out in love to his father. That’s how prayer should be. Prayer is really what it’s all about. The reason Jesus came, died on the cross and rose from the dead was to restore our access to the Father, through Himself.

But just like my tiny son, you don’t really have to understand it. It’s ok to try to understand it and as we get older, our minds often come to the fore much more. But prayer is a thing of the heart. So if you don’t understand it all, don’t worry, you don’t have to.

Prayer is what God wants. He loves us and wants us to love Him. And the same way we love our parents or our wife or husband or children, and want to spend time with them and talk to them and hear from them, God in the same way wants that with us. That’s prayer. King David said we should “pour out our hearts before Him” (Psalm 62:8). What a great word picture, to pour out our hearts. And that’s how it should be. Just talking to God, telling Him what’s on your heart, your joys, your fears, your thanks, your needs, your observations, God can take it all and wants to.

And the same way it’s not work or a burden or labor to communicate with your children or your dearest friend, prayer should not be some laborious work. It should be the high point of your day, something you just wouldn’t want to miss for anything.

But maybe this is pretty new to you and you’re not too sure about the whole thing. Well, just remember, “God is love” (I John 4:8). He loves you. Jesus said that “God is a spirit” (John 4:23) and then the apostle John said that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). So the invisible, loving God of the Universe longs to have contact and a relationship with you.

Speaking of “contact”, there’s a movie by that name and there’s a scene in it where Jody Foster is trying to see if she can get some signal back from some alien civilization by means of radio telescopes. Here’s the clip from the movie where she first gets signals back that she knows are from a distant civilization.

That’s always reminded me of the first time I really knew and understood that there is a real God, a supreme power of the spiritual world who is signaling us and wants to be in contact with us. The same utter, unimaginable wonder, amazement and joy unspeakable that Jody Foster had when hearing those signals for the first time, that was how I was when I first knew for sure that there is a real God that the Bible has told us about.

So what follows next in the movie is that she and her team, and then the whole world, begin building on that initial contact and ultimately have “close encounters of the third kind” with the aliens. But for us who know that God is real, this doesn’t have to be a movie that we walk out of. This is the reality we can live in when we have contact with the God of Eternity.

So I hope you are trying to have daily “contact” with God, pouring out your heart before Him, and even receiving His “signals” back. Because prayer isn’t a one way street. God longs to communicate back to us.

It may not be in an immediate audible voice. But I can more than guarantee you that if you are talking to Him, He’s going to be communicating with you. He said one time, “Call unto me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things which you know not” (Jeremiah 33:3). And there are just oodles of promises in the Bible like that. In fact the Bible is just full of communication and interaction between God and His people.

And he wants to have the same relationship with you. He wants you to love Him and be helped by him and instructed and protected and strengthened and enlightened and blessed beyond your wildest dreams. That’s what God wants to do for you through your prayers and your time with Him.

It’s impossible to cover every aspect of prayer in such a short post here. Maybe I can write some more later or tell you about some special answers I’ve had to my prayers. But when it comes to spiritual habits, making prayer a habit and a primary part of your life is right at the top of the list.

Far Country Photos –from Borneo!

[This is another of the newsletters that I sent to friends when I was living in Indonesia between 2003 and 2008.]

FCP from Borneo headlineIn November, 2004, 21 friends of mine took a 12 day trip into the interior of Kalimantan. This is the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, 80% the size of Texas and home to over 10 million people. Some of those who went on this trip were young Indonesians that I have Bible classes with here in Jakarta. Others are children of social workers who grew up here in Indonesia. And there were a few adults around my age and of a similar background, heading up the team. Their primary goal was to bring aid and God’s love to 12 villages they would visit, through personal visitation, skits, songs and classes, as well as to distribute several tons of goods which had been donated for this project.

This “Far Country Photos #3” will give you a pictorial glimpse of some of what went on during that time. These pictures will begin from the time after the team had left the capital of the province, Pontianak (population: 390,000 and situated directly on the Equator), and had driven into the interior to a training camp deep in the jungle.

Trucks pull in to Tikalong training camp, 4 hours drive into the jungle.

Rolling out to the first village. “Do you think those planks will hold that truck?” “They should, they’re teak wood.”

Continue reading

Spiritual habits (Part 2) The Word of God

The Word of God-flattenedPerhaps the second spiritual habit to talk about, which is so utterly essential, is just our relationship and interaction with God’s Word, the Bible. If you are a child of God, then just like a child of this world when you are newborn, there’s nothing more important than your nourishment. A baby doesn’t have to be taught to suck the milk from its mother; it does it instinctively and desperately. That’s why the apostle Peter admonished, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that you may grow thereby.” (I Peter 2:2)

It’s actually not really an option. If you’ve come to have faith in God and in Jesus, it’s a matter of spiritual life and death that your faith is fed the nourishment it needs. And this doesn’t just mean going to church on Sunday or listening to Christian radio in your car. The same way a baby eats several times each day, the newborn soul into the Kingdom of God needs spiritual nourishment to grow and become what God wants it to be.

Of course some folks think the Bible is just some book, written 2000 years ago, that’s full of strange stories and perhaps good morals. Hopefully you are not someone who thinks that. The Bible is unlike any other book ever written. The truths in the Bible have the power to give life and light, healing and understanding in a way no normal book can ever do.

Here’s what Jesus told some of the people who were just coming to realize that He was the Son of God. From John 8:31 and 32, “If you continue in my Word, then are you my disciples in deed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The truth shall make you free. He wasn’t talking about some secular knowledge you might get in university. He was talking about the very truth of God that He spoke and that the prophets and men of God had spoken and recorded in what we call the Old Testament, as well as the truth that was being recorded at His time and became the New Testament.

It’s almost difficult for me to talk about this because it would be difficult to overstate how important the Bible became for me after I came to faith in God and in Jesus. As I’ve written in other places, I was always looking for the truth. But I never expected to find such a pure and perfect essence of truth that I found the Bible to be. Really soaking yourself in the Bible, just reading it for pleasure and for edification is one of the very most important things you can do. And what you’ll find, as I have, is that it somehow reaches down and into your deepest depths, exposing and clarifying some dark area of your life that needs attention, or that it speaks to you on some issue that you desperately needed to have strengthened. In short, the Bible really is what they say it is, God’s Word. It clarifies our minds, purifies our hearts, brings us joy and truth, gives us courage and wisdom and works as the presence and companionship of God and Jesus in our lives. Here’s something the prophet Jeremiah said in prayer to God about His Word. “Your words were found, and I did eat them. And your word to me was the joy and rejoicing of my heart.”  (Jeremiah 15:16.)

So I could say to you what Paul said to some of his dearest friends the last night he was going to be able to see them, “I commend you to God and the word of his grace which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance.”  (Acts 20:36) Among spiritual habits, the habit of continually going to the Bible for study, for comfort, for knowledge, for a place to find God’s presence, and much more, that habit is perhaps one of the very most important habits you can nurture in order to grow in the Lord and to stay rooted and built up in Him through the years.

In practical terms, it can mean that you cultivate and maintain the habit of reading the Bible and even really studying it. And don’t do like I did, don’t start at the beginning like you do with most books. If you are new to faith, the best book in the Bible to read is the Gospel of John, in the New Testament. In fact, the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the best place to get your grounding in what Jesus said and did. Jesus told His disciples, “The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63)

If you have time for nothing else, just really studying the life and words of Jesus in those four books will lead you to truth and love and depth that are unmatched by any other use of your time. Make it a habit.


Spiritual habits (Part 1) The heavenly vision

Heavenly Vision art-flattenedI’d just finished my time of personal devotions this morning when I got one of those nudges from the Lord that I should write a blog post on spiritual habits. What a huge subject. Here in America so many people are very aware of maintaining healthy physical habits. But I wonder how many are equally diligent with their spiritual habits?

And it’s incredibly important. Here in the US there’s a term, “morbidly obese”. In my travels abroad I almost never saw anyone like this, but here it’s not unusual to see people who weigh between 300 and 600 pounds (136 to 272 kilos). Not to be critical or judgmental, but their physical habits are killing them. You can’t see as easily the results of spiritual habits but they do affect you, for good or for evil.

When I was 23, recently “delivered from the power of darkness.”

When I was 23, recently “delivered from the power of darkness.”

It was my bad spiritual habits that very nearly killed me when I was in university. How I wasdelivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the Kingdom of His dear son” (Colossians 1:13) is a story in itself that I can share another time. But, early on in my spiritual walk, the Lord helped me establish spiritual habits that have stuck with me and have been a major factor in my staying alive for Him for the last 43 years in countries all over the world as I’ve lived to bring His love to the people of many nations.

There are so many aspects to having healthy spiritual habits. But I wanted to put one first that’s not so often even mentioned or realized. That’s what could be called “the heavenly vision”. And it’s not just the devil that fights this because, like Paul said in the Bible,  we have two natures, “the old man” and “the new man” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Perhaps more often it’s your own carnal fleshly nature constantly battling to get you distracted, discouraged, disillusioned, disenchanted and just plane dissed.

Condemnation-flattenedIf you are a believer, if you are a Christian and trying to hold on to your crown and your faith, the devil will fight you. But this is where the Spirit of God will help us to overcome that and the way He does it is through the majesty of choice. You can choose to fight and resist those negative fleshly impulses and that nature. And one of the easiest and strongest ways He can help us do that is simply through our mind’s eye.

There are many verses in the Bible where God’s greats told of the importance of this. David said, “I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” (Psalm 16:8) King David had, in his mind’s eye, in his vision, the Lord ever before Him. In Hebrews, in that stirring 12th chapter, it tells us to “run with patience the race before us”. And then it goes on the in the next verse to tell us how to do that: Looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith”. (Hebrews 12:2)

Looking unto Jesus. Setting Him before our face. It’s that heavenly vision, that setting our mind on the things above, above the daily distractions and death of this world, keeping the heavenly vision. Paul said, “I have not been disobedient to the heavenly vision.” (Acts 26:19) He’d kept the faith by keeping the vision. Solomon said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  (Proverbs 29:18)

mileyAnd here’s one more that has always spoken to me, again from King David. “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes, I hate the work of them that turn aside, it shall not cleave to me.” (Psalms 101:3). That is a significant verse from God’s Word. If your mind’s eye is filled with doubts, discouragement, worldly distractions, earthly values and prejudices, those things are “wicked things before your eyes”. Some of the filth and foolishness that’s so visible nowadays is like some loathsome, viral disease for which there’s almost no antidote, except for God. And if you don’t watch out, it will “cleave to you”, like some kind of dirty chewing gum that you can’t get off.

The solution is to keep the heavenly vision. Fill your mind and heart with positive, encouraging, faith building thoughts from God’s Word, or the refreshing uplift you get from being in God’s nature, or the strengthen you receive from deep Christian fellowship with others, or the renewing that comes from sharing His love and truth with those in need.

the vision flatSo one of the simplest but most important habits you can have to keep yourself alive spiritually is something that happens within you, when your mind and heart are stayed on Him and Him alone. As Isaiah said in a prayer to God, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because they trust in You.”  (Isaiah 26:3)

So you had to go home

naomiI heard a good talk today about going home. It really spoke to me, since I had to do that recently. It was about Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, taken from the book of Ruth in the Bible. But it made me think about myself, about other former missionaries like myself who’ve had to go home, and about what is actually “home” anyway.

It doesn’t start out a happy story. Naomi, an Israelite, left Israel with her husband, Elimilech, and their two sons when there was a famine in their part of the country. They went to Moab, what is now the area of Jordan directly east of the Dead Sea. We’re told that Naomi’s husband died there and that her two sons married women from Moab. Then over the space of ten years her two sons died. Naomi had heard that the famine was over in her homeland and she decided to return. One of her daughters-in-law decided to stay on in Moab, her home country. But the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, made a stirring plea to Naomi to allow her to come with her, saying she wanted to stay with her always, and that “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” [1]

Returning home to Bethlehem was a sad time. Naomi’s former friends who recognized her were told by her, “Do not call me Naomi [which meant ‘pleasant’ or ‘delightful’]; call me Mara [which meant ‘bitter’].” [2] She was home, but it was a sad homecoming. She was old, she had nothing but her daughter-in-law with her, and her life had seemingly almost been cursed—nothing to show for her life and her family.

Honestly, I know a pretty good number of friends right now who just might feel similar; people who left home to go abroad when they were younger. They spent their lives in service to God and didn’t use their “best earning years” to lay up treasures on earth [3] but rather to preach the Gospel in all the world [4] and to do whatever they could to reach the ends of the earth with the good news of Jesus and God’s kingdom to come. Now they’ve come back to North America or Western Europe from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America, approaching retirement age with little to show in the physical in the way of wealth or material things. They are like Naomi: now “home” but not “at home.”

If you look at the broader picture from the Bible, there are a surprising number of people who left home for one reason or the other. Abraham was commanded by God to leave home [5] and there’s no record he ever went back. Moses fled from his country when he was 40 and stayed away till he was an old man. Then one day God told him it was time to go home. And it turned out the main thing God had been preparing Moses for all his life didn’t start till he was up into his 80s and had to go home.[6]

Or Jacob. Jacob fled from home because of his treachery and deceit and never saw his beloved mother Rebecca again. But after decades abroad, the word of God came to him one day, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.” [7] In Jacob’s case he left home with nothing but came back with a huge family and some wealth as well. The only thing was that his hulking paramilitary twin brother had every reason to finally really get even with Jacob for all the despair that he had brought on him and their family before he fled abroad. So Jacob had quite a lot to reasonably fear in any return home.

How about Jesus? It doesn’t seem like He really had a home during His ministry years, or at least we can read where one time He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” [8] Someone said to Him one time, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” [9] To which He replied, “‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.’” [10] Seems like His relation to what we call “home” was not what we nowadays would call traditional.

And what about the apostle Paul? He told some people one time about himself and his traveling companions, “To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.” [11] He seems like another famous great from the Bible who didn’t have what is usually considered a comfortable, normal worldly home.

ruth and boazBut what about Naomi? As so often happens, God gets some of His greatest victories out of seeming defeat. And it takes an impossible situation for God to do a miracle. It’s all in that short book, Ruth, only four chapters.

It turns out that Naomi had a relative named Boaz. Making a short story shorter, Boaz and Ruth met up and, in modern terminology, took a liking to each other. Fulfilling Jewish customs and law, Boaz went through the process of those times to take responsibility for the inheritance Naomi’s husband had left, which would include the responsibility of marriage to Ruth. Boaz-Ruth-Naomi-Obed_1035-64This all worked out, and it ended up that Boaz and Ruth had a son together, Obed. And as the Bible says, “Obed begot Jesse and Jesse begot David.” [12] That was King David, the one who was Israel’s greatest king. And Jesus, some 900 years later, was called in His day, “the son of David,” [13] as it had been prophesied that the Messiah to come would be of the house and lineage of David.

So Naomi and Ruth didn’t wither and die in despair when they returned to Naomi’s homeland. God had something planned and prepared, something greater than either of them could ever imagine. Even if Naomi for a while “believed not,” yet God abided faithful.

So if you are “home alone,” remember Naomi. “Do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of patience, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise.” [14] The best may yet be ahead, as it has been for so many people of faith down through the ages. In Isaiah 46:4 the Lord said, “Even to your old age, I am He, and even to gray hairs I will carry you!”

[1] Ruth 1:16.

[2] Ruth 1:20.

[3] Matthew 6:19.

[4] Mark 16:15.

[5] Genesis 12:1, Hebrews 11:8.

[6] See Exodus chapters 2–4:18.

[7] Genesis 31:3.

[8] Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58.

[9] Matthew 12:47.

[10] Matthew 12:48–50.

[11] 1 Corinthians 4:11.

[12] Ruth 4:22.

[13] Matthew 1:1.

[14] Hebrews 10:36.

Hawks and doves Part 3 – Proud to be an American

Having lived outside America for 36 years in Christian service, my relationship to my country has been affected by that time abroad. Part of it is identity. It is very common, if not completely normal, for individuals everywhere to identify themselves, in more than any other way, as being of their nationality. They’ll say “I’m Chinese” or “I’m German” or “I’m Brazilian”. And certainly for Americans their sense of identity is strongly fixed around being Americans.

For me, it’s not totally the same. I am American; my relatives came here in 1650.  But my years abroad brought me to where I think of myself more than anything else as a person of faith in the God of Abraham, and specifically as a Christian.

I suppose most people want to be proud of their country. For Germans, their attitude to things like that has been altered by two world wars. Still, they have a lot to feel proud about. Even people from small countries feel proud of their country. But for Americans, to be proud of America is a major element of the national culture. I haven’t always totally felt the same. But I’ll tell you two times while I was abroad on the mission field that I really did.

The first was around 1996 or 1997 when I had returned to Budapest, Hungary after living a year in Moscow. What happened was that a former President of the United States came to Budapest. There was no 21 gun salute, no military parade, no fly-over of fighter aircraft.

Former President Jimmy Carter, working with Habitat for Humanity to help provide housing for the poor

Former President Jimmy Carter, working with Habitat for Humanity to help provide housing for the poor

This former US president and his small team traveled north of Budapest to an area near the town of Vac, not far from where I’d lived before. They were there to start building low cost housing for the many “Romani”, the Gypsy population which make up a large minority of Hungary. Almost all live in deep poverty. He had his hammer, he was working on building houses, this former US President. He was Jimmy Carter. That was one time when I really felt, “Well, son of a gun, there’s an American and some Americans I can feel proud of”.

The other time was a little more than 8 years later. I’d been living in Indonesia for around 18 months when the Asian Tsunami of December 2004 struck. The worst hit city of all was Banda Aceh, the capital of the province of Aceh, at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.

As it turned out, 3 friends and I were able to make it to that city 8 days after the tsunami struck, when aid workers were only just beginning to arrive in the isolated, war torn area. Within a day we were in a large refugee camp to the north of the city, assisting some Korean doctors who needed translators and trauma councilors to work with them. There were thousands of people in the makeshift camp, the weather was very hot and there was nothing there that wasn’t brought there by trucks, no water, no food, nothing.

Suddenly an unmarked helicopter circled overhead. Everyone noticed and watched. After it looked over the camp, it landed a few hundred yards away and began throwing out aid before taking off again.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, a US Navy aircraft carrier that provided critically essential services to Aceh province, Indonesia, in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami that devastated the area

The USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier that provided critically essential services to Aceh, Indonesia, in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami

It was a US navy helicopter, coming from the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that had steamed to the area to see how they could help. Refuges from the camp brought the boxes back to the camp. They were marked “US AID”.

“Doggone”, I said. “There’s something I’m glad to see: using my country’s vast resources to genuinely and freely help people in their desperate time of need, even people who are Muslims.” In the next weeks the US navy became one of the only ways that my friends and I could travel south of Banda Aceh to the even more seriously destroyed towns and villages down the south coast where the destruction was the worst. Every single bridge was washed out and the only way to reach people was by helicopter. The US forces worked eagerly and tirelessly with aid groups to help people in that time and to do medical emergencies on the ships off shore as well. It was a great time to feel good about my country.

Speaking of pride, someone has said that, of the 31,000+ verse in the Bible, there’s not one that speaks well of pride. While in this world, pride is extolled and honored, in God’s eyes it’s not. “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5) So I don’t think too often about feeling proud of my country. But I’m sharing here some times when I felt really good about my nation and how they were “going everywhere, doing good,” (Acts 10:38) like Jesus did.