Friday, November 24, 2017

Home at the Nehemiah Center

Today at the Nehemiah Center we had a graduation for all of the courses from Better Churches II. There were 59 graduates present, and some of them had participated in two separate courses. The courses included:

1) Presupuesto del Buen Sentido (Good Sense) from Kingdom Finances, which was a pilot program about budgeting and learning how to manage finances. The takeaway from the course was that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but that power in Christ requires good planning - not just random hoping.

2) Consejería en Familia (Family Counseling) from DEFE, a program for pastoral couples to strengthen their own relationship and learn how to counsel others better. These pastors felt that they were pastored in the course, and they expressed appreciation for their mentors, Luz and Manuel.

3) Salmos de la Calle (Street Psalms) from DEFE learned that we are all singers of God's psalms. Participants felt inspired to be involved in their communities, using art and asking beautiful questions.

4) Instituto Timoteo (Timothy Leadership Institute) from DEFE, where participants who were pastors and church leaders learned about different modules related to pastoral care, family violence, preaching, and church planning. The pastor who spoke about his experience attested to the changes that have happened in his church and the work that God is bringing about in a new church that has been planted as a result of their participation in Timothy and the other church planting course.

5) Más Iglesia (More Church - Church Planting) from DEFE taught participants principles for healthy churches and how to multiply them, either through planting a new church or adding to the one they currently have. Participants talked about how much they learned and how much they appreciated the course.

As the participants gave testimonies of their time at the Nehemiah Center over the past two years - starting with Better Churches 1: Take the Pulse of Your Church and continuing with one or two of the above courses, they expressed appreciation for the facilitators at the Nehemiah Center. Some said that the Nehemiah Center feels like home for them.

For me, this was very humbling and encouraging to hear. Mentoring and pastoring pastors and church leaders is not an easy job, but it's also not very flashy or glamorous. It doesn't cost very much money in and of itself, these visits and coffees and hours dedicated to listening. The overhead for these kinds of activities is very high comparatively because someone needs to pay salaries for facilitators and cleaning ladies and cooks and security guards. However, in today's day and age, relationship is a scarce commodity and it needs to be brought to the forefront. While these pastors are in Nehemiah Center trainings, they are meeting other pastors and forming support networks that will last much longer than a year or two. They have learned that they have friends, resources, and a place to call home at the Nehemiah Center.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Significant events

Today is the day after the world changed 500 years ago. In 1517 on October 31, Martin Luther is said to have begun the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 theses to the door of a church. How could he have known that his desire to reform the Catholic church would later result in a myriad of Protestant churches? It makes me ponder how the actions we take today affect the lives of people years and years later. It also makes me think about how striking it is that all of the churches I work with - both in Nicaragua and in North America - owe their existence to Martin Luther. What a motive for celebration!

The month of October was a busy one for me, and not because of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I'd like to write about each one of these events more in-depth, but for now I'll just give you the highlights.

October 10

The Nehemiah Center held a "Vision Conference" for new pastors in Managua to come, meet the Nehemiah Center, and possibly sign-up to receive training in the coming year. We had 54 participants though not all were pastors of formal churches like we were hoping for. After a devotional time and a plenary speaker, the participants were divided into three groups. Each group rotated around three workshops: The Context of the Church, The Context of Managua, and the Nehemiah Center and its program Better Churches 1. I assisted my colleague Freddy in the Managua workshop. We had a photo collage that people looked at and talked about what the photos provoked in them. Then we discussed how Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem with all its flaws, and we prayed for Managua. After the workshops finished, we adjoined to the large ranchón area for feedback and lunch.
Praying for Managua

October 13 and 27
The León pastors began the Daniel Plan study. They opted for a more informal format than the pastors in Chinandega who had participated in three workshops facilitated by Manuel at the Nehemiah Center. The León pastors decided to meet every other week and asked me to facilitate the study. They have challenged themselves to lose 4 pounds in the next two weeks, and they are encouraging each other to have healthier lifestyles.

October 20
For the first time ever, we invited all the participants in the Church Friendship Program who live in Nicaragua to come to the Nehemiah Center to meet each other, share experiences, and give input for the program next year. I'm still working on going through all the questionnaires and notes that we took that day! I was very thankful for Raúl's presence taking notes and leading games with the 18 participants who arrived. Only 2 pastoral couples didn't show up out of the 11 who participate in the program. Praise God for a great turnout, and they all asked to do this again (and on an international scale!) next year!

October 22
In Acahualinca the 4 churches hosted a marriage conference for the couples in the church. In total with kids and servers there were about 60 people present, with 20 couples who participated. Pastor Andy, formerly from Oskaloosa, shared about the promises that couples should make to each other, and Pastor Henry from Acahualinca talked about the enemies of marriage. It was a sweltering afternoon, but we made it through by listening to some good music, playing some fun games, and eating good food at the end.

October 24 The Chinandega couples finished their study of the Daniel Plan with an afternoon potluck and prayer in Chinandega. We focused on the importance of friendship to continue to make changes. It's been a little hard to foster fellowship lately, but I trust that the Spirit knows what it's doing. We really enjoyed all the dishes that everyone brought to share at the end!

October 28
I handed over the keys to my house in León. My roommate moved out on the 10th, and since I have been traveling between Managua and León so much, it doesn't make sense to have a big, empty house to pay rent on. Plus, it's dangerous to leave a house without anyone in it, and the roof was leaking very badly during the rains. So I sold some things and put the rest of it in storage. For now I am house-sitting for some friends, and lots of people have offered me their extra beds when I need a place to stay. Between December and May I'll be with so many teams and traveling to the States that I won't need a place for more than a month of nights! It is definitely interesting to know that I'm a nomad right now, but I'm thankful for all the gestures of hospitality from people that I have received.

Now you know why I didn't blog all month! I've still been involved with the Nehemiah Center daily grind, meetings, Dordt students, and other random things. Perhaps one day, like Martin Luther, my actions will affect others' lives in ways that I can't even imagine. Soli deo gloria.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

I love to ride my bicycle

Here in León, my primary transportation is a bicycle. The pastors joke by calling it my car. Some of you may remember the bicycle blog from a few years ago, and I still have the same one although Raúl and a friend modified it quite a bit several months ago. When Dale from Resonate Global Mission came in June, he took some footage of me riding through the streets of León. By the way, I only rode this slow because Dale asked me to - normally I zip along! I hope you enjoy a glimpse of life here!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Living in the gap

During my parents' recent visit, my mom commented to me, "It's easier for you to speak in Spanish now than English, isn't it."

The question has been echoing around in my head ever since. Is it? Do I live more easily in this Nicaraguan setting than in the North American setting? If so, what does that mean for me, for my ministry, for my constituents?

I haven't come up with any answers, just the beginnings of explanations.

Yes, most of my life, especially the emotional part, happens in Spanish. I am dating a Nicaraguan man. I live with a Nicaraguan woman. The people I call family here are Nicaraguan. My work bridges Nicaragua and North America, translating and interpreting between English- and Spanish-speakers.

Speaking in Spanish is like jumping in a pool for me. It's refreshing. I feel good speaking Spanish. I couldn't survive only speaking Spanish, just like I couldn't survive if I couldn't breathe air. Breathing air - like speaking English - is necessary. But maybe I prefer being in the water.

As I become more entrenched in Nicaragua, putting down roots and building relationships with people here, I have come to realize that the relationships that last are those with Nicaraguans. The missionary community here is very transient. Although there is a strong North American presence with the missionary and tourist communities in Nicaragua and especially León, the same people don't stay very long. So I have been focusing on the relationships that will be here long-term, and in the meantime, I think I have neglected some of my distance relationships. Forgive me for that, friends and supporters.

I have realized that there needs to be a balance. My ministry revolves around being able to bridge the cultural and language gaps between Nicaraguans and North Americans. Thanks to God, I think I am pretty good at it. However, it takes a lot of work to balance all these circles and relationships. North American family and friends, Nicaraguan family and friends, Nicaraguan pastoral networks and churches, North American pastors and churches, supporters of my ministry and beneficiaries of my ministry, Resonate Global Mission (formerly known as Christian Reformed World Missions) and the Nehemiah Center.

Some days I lean on one leg more than the other, and some days I can't stand doing the splits over the gap anymore. But by God's grace I'm trying. Trial and error, refocusing and trying again... That's what this life is about, isn't it? I'm open to advice. And again, sorry if you have felt neglected. Shoot me a note, and I'll remedy our lack of communication. Thank you for hanging in here with me as I struggle to live between two worlds.

And my comfort in all of this? We are all pilgrims passing through. This world is not our home. We are longing for the day when every nation and tribe and tongue stands before the Lamb, adoring God as one. Maybe living between worlds is just preparing me for the next life, giving me a taste of the glory of unity.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Skinny cows

When Joseph rose to power in Egypt, it was all because he knew his cattle. The pharaoh dreamed about 7 fat cows and 7 skinny cows, among other things. God revealed to Joseph the meaning of the dream, and Joseph became the second-in-command of Egypt. The 7 fat cows represented 7 good years of harvests, better than ever before. And the 7 skinny cows represented years of famine that would wipe away the good years that had come before.

At the Nehemiah Center, many of the pastors joke about the early years as being "fat cow" years. The programs had enough funding to take pastors to the beach for trainings, eat well, spend the nights in hotels, etc. Now we are living in the "skinny cow" years of financial crisis in the world economy and also in the Nehemiah Center budget. Thanks to God we have been able to make ends meet, but there is little cushion or margin for error in the budget. We definitely aren't spending any extra on luxuries.

The courtyard at the Nehemiah Center

However, the years of skinny cows are the ones in which God makes key moves. In the story of Joseph, the famine extended to his homeland of Canaan, forcing his family to go to Egypt where they heard there was grain stored up. The famine forced his brothers to desperately return to Egypt after their first encounter to rescue their imprisoned brother Simeon and reunite Joseph with his little brother, Benjamin. The skinny cow years weren't close to over, so Joseph invited his father and their entire household to move to Egypt. The skinny cow years brought unity and reconciliation.

Asking pastors in Chinandega to support the Nehemiah Center

I've witnessed a similar thing happen at the Nehemiah Center. Over the past year I have been involved with a funding campaign to raise funds for the administration of the Nehemiah Center. People at the Nehemiah Center have worked extra hard to be good stewards of our financial resources, and we have decreased our budgetary needs in many areas. However, we have also had to open up and be vulnerable with the pastors we serve. For the first time in Nehemiah Center history, we asked local churches to contribute offerings to the Nehemiah Center without being directly involved in training. The local church has been rallying to the call and expressing their support of the Nehemiah Center through words and finances. It's not enough to sustain the entire Nehemiah Center, but it's a start. Without the financial crisis, we wouldn't have had the courage or desperation to go and ask for support. Nothing much would have changed, and things would have stayed as they were; separate, dependent, alienated. By asking the Nicaraguan church for support, we have learned to trust God more, trust our local churches more, and trust ourselves more. Together, we can do this.

The first Nicaraguan donation to the Trumpet Call campaign from Getsemaní church in León

Maybe the years of the skinny cows aren't so bad after all.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why Church Friendships?

Some of you may wonder what the big deal is about Church Friendships, the program I coordinate at the Nehemiah Center. Some days I wonder that myself. However, I recently had the opportunity to dig into some people's stories as well as the purpose of the program when Dale VandeGriend from Resonate (formerly Christian Reformed World Missions) came to do a video about my work with the Church Friendship Program.

The Church Friendship Program exists so that Nicaraguan and North American churches can be in a committed, long-term relationship based on prayer, communication, mutual learning, visits, and teamwork. They exchange ideas for ministry. They pray for the leadership of each other's churches. They spend weeks with each other in ministry and personal settings. The Church Friendship Program exists to help people understand and appreciate the body of Christ, diminishing our narrow views of the world and God's Kingdom.

There are three churches in León who participate with one church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. When we asked a León pastor about his experience in the program, he said that it has been refreshing to him to have monthly meetings with the other Nicaraguan pastors. He always leaves that time having learned something new, laughed a bit, and prayed with his fellow pastors. They are a support network for him. When I asked a leader from the church in Canada why they are part of the friendship, here is what he said:
As we continue to explore what this friendship looks like some things have become very evident. At first we had no idea of how this would work, but now we are seeing the impact on individuals who have been part of visits but also our Church as a whole. As individuals it has been a journey of discovery for all involved, a journey of seeing God at work in a different country and Church. It has been a growing in the understanding of how big our God is. As a Church we have grown in our prayer. We continue to exchange prayer emails with each other to stay connected and are very intentional about sharing those with the congregation. On our last trip we brought some hand prints members of our congregation had made to the Churches and then brought back hand prints their members had made. These were put up in our fellowship hall along with some of the hand prints we had left. In the middle of this were the words Together In Faith.  The words speak to why we are involved in this friendship. 

 The Church Friendship Program brings this out for churches and their members - together in Faith. We hope that it will be a support network for those pastors who are involved, both locally and globally. The spiritual retreat aims to help Nicaraguan pastors and their families grow closer together as well as be able to relax as families and reflect on God's Word. The visits from North Americans - and hopefully one day Nicaraguans - aims to help them appreciate each other and be able to discuss ministry together better. As they get to know each other better, these churches become friends - and family in Christ.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

León Pastoral Retreat

Last weekend 20 people from three pastoral families in León and myself piled into three vehicles and took off for the beach. We rented a house near Gran Pacífica and spent Friday and Saturday relaxing, singing, and reflecting on the Word together. The house was a large VRBO find with five rooms and multiple double beds. The three pastoral couples who participate in the Church Friendship Program in León brought their households. As well as eating together, watching a movie, swimming, and taking walks along the beach, we went through five discussion themes.

First, we "unpacked" by asking ourselves how we are feeling at this moment, what stresses are we taking into this retreat, and giving these burdens to God. José, one of the young men at the retreat, said that he wants to implement the "unpacking" method of considering his emotions and tasks and bringing them to God more often.

In León, three pastoral couples participate in the Church Friendship Program at the Nehemiah Center. They brought their children and some close family members to the retreat, depending on the size of their family. Most of the people at the retreat are involved in ministry at the churches Getsemaní, Belén or Monte Horeb. We made quite a good chorus with the guitar that the pastors took turns playing because there was at least one worship leader from each church present. You can check out the choir in the videos. When we shared "Thanksgiving" time, it was hard to reel us in from the singing and sharing testimonies of how God has worked in our lives and lives of people around us.

Our homework for "Adoration" was to walk around and see how God talked to us through the creation of God in nature. It was raining lightly so many of the participants stayed at the house, but I decided to wander the beach. It was a lovely, overcast afternoon, and the raw beauty of the rocks and the plants along the shore reminded me that God is always bringing beauty from places we don't expect it. People see rocks as obstacles to swimming, and I saw them as beautiful texture where the water pools and the shells collect. It was a good afternoon of praise.


Another of the reflections was about "Confession" and asking ourselves what makes us hide from God or blame other people. We spent time quietly journaling after focusing on Genesis 3 and then affirming Christ's forgiveness in our lives.

The objective of the retreat was for the pastoral families to spend time together in quality time, reflect on the Word, and grow closer together with the other families in the program. From swimming in the Sea Salt pool on Saturday afternoon to teaching one another UNO to sharing meals together, I think that objective was reached. By the end of the retreat, people were expressing appreciation for each other and the time they could spend together.

 Our final reflection was based on John 15 and Jesus telling us to "Remain" in him. We shared our thoughts, and many of the participants shared that the way to remain in Christ is to bear fruit. May God be glorified by the fruit that these pastoral families produce in their lives, churches, and in the testimony of the unity of Christ in the Church Friendship Program.