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.


video


video

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.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Providence

As I write this post, I'm sitting bundled in a blanket with a sweatshirt on and my hair down. No, I did not decide to get a hotel room with air conditioning to survive the Nicaragua heat of 100+ F. I'm in Canada.
For the past few months I have been wanting to visit my grandparents, and I arranged a short trip to coincide with my parents and also to greet a supporting church for the Nehemiah Center. I arrived at my grandparents'  house in Taber on Wednesday night after a long but uneventful day of traveling, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them both up yet. We had a cup of tea before Oma got so sleepy she could hardly walk, and Opa and I chuckled about how her sleepiness catches up to her. The next day after our traditional porridge for breakfast, I took Opa on some errands. One of the stops, he told me, was to take care of an insurance issue. He told me where to park, and I unwittingly ushered him into a small and unassuming office. They asked for his license, which is standard procedure in Nicaragua so I thought nothing of it. Then they led him to a back room to take his picture and signature. By this time I thought we weren't getting his insurance renewed, and when I looked down at the paper my grandfather gave me, I was aghast to see "TEMPORARY OPERATOR'S LICENSE" across the top. "Opa! You shouldn't have your driver's license!" I exclaimed to the 90-year-old man in front of me hobbling with a walker and barely able to stand after a 10 minute transaction. He said it was for just in case, in the future. The rascal used me to renew his license when no one else would have done it for him! Yes, I have very poor observation skills for those of you who are wondering, and I was focusing on opening the door and moving the chairs, not what the office was called. Little did I know that three days later my clever opa wouldn't need any kind of ID, let alone a driver's license. Looking back, at least he got what he wanted before he died.

The next couple of days my parents were around town also, and we spent time with Opa and Oma, even going on a walk both afternoons. It was a very nice visit. When I said goodbye to Opa on Saturday before leaving for Edmonton, I fully expected to see him the next week again. Then my aunt got the text while I was giving greetings from the Nehemiah Center to the church. Opa had one last Sunday of prayer and song around his bedside before he went to his eternal rest.

I am in awe of God's timing, that I could be visiting just at the right time. Opa had really good days I was with him, with minimal pain and good energy. It's one of the best ways I could have asked for to have my last memories with him. 

Homer Oudman was a hardworking Dutch farmer who survived World War II, fighting in Indonesia, immigrating to Canada in the 50s, and a family of 10 children with all their children and grandchildren as well. He loved offering us treats and hated leaving leftovers after a meal. We could never drive the same route twice, and he always liked to go and look around at things. When my brother and I visited, Opa often took us to swim with him in the early mornings, and afterwards he would shout in his thick accent, "Do you need a slurrrpee for yourrr burrrrpee?" And we would go to the 7-11 to get slushies. He and Oma were at all my graduations, and they came for other special visits too. I appreciate their faith, prayer and family devotions at meal times. He could drive me crazy sometimes, but I'm so glad for all the time I could share with him. God's hand is very evident in the life of my Opa and also in that I could be close to share a last little bit with him.

Rest In Peace, Opa. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

The world mourns tonight.

The Savior has died. "But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel..." protested Cleopas and his companion when the risen Jesus asked what they were so upset about. Hopes dashed, mixed messages and sstories that only result in a confusing jumble (Luke 24).

As we remember tonight that Jesus died, the world mourns. We mourn a Savior who seems to have not saved. We mourn the injustices suffered at the hands of oppressive regimes like the Roman empire. We mourn situations in Syria, Sudan, North Korea, etc. We mourn the accusations brought by religious leaders against those they perceive as a threat. We mourn for Palestinian Christians who are ostracized by their Muslim people as well as the Jews. We mourn our own helplessness against unjust systems. We mourn abortion, US foreign policy, human slavery and sex trafficking, poverty and homelessness. We mourn our part in nailing the Savior to the cross with our sin, our shame, our rebellion. We mourn that we are part of the religious people who marginalize, avoid or punish those we deem unworthy of God's grace. We mourn the unfairness of people being judged by their skin or race, locked inside (or outside) of walls and forced to go through humiliating and difficult processes to cross the barriers that we are told make us safe.

I mourn tonight. I mourn the rejection of tourist visas for Nicaraguan pastors who were going to visit their friends at their sister church. I mourn how I take my power and privilege for granted after sitting at a retreat on the beach pondering the Emmaus road story in Luke 24. I mourn the blindness that keeps me from seeing Jesus or seeing others as God does. I mourn my ignorance to see God's plan to make everything right with the world when it does not match my expectations.

It's Friday, but Sunday's coming; in the meantime, the world mourns, desperate for a Savior. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A piece of heaven

This past week, I was part of an encounter between a Canadian congregation and five Nicaraguan congregations. A group of seven people from up north visited for a week, and they spent a day with each of the pastoral couples who are part of the church friendship in León. Two of the pastoral couples have two congregations under their wing, thus the five congregations. We visited the elderly, discussed church structure and liturgy, made greeting cards, participated in a quarterly evaluation of church programs, toured a school, and got to know the different congregations. We also had an outing with the pastoral families and the group to Estelí where we enjoyed walking through the woods, a beautiful view, petting some goats, a delicious dinner, and an hour's worth of joke telling (translated by yours truly). It was a great week.

Team members in their t-shirts
To welcome the group, the churches held a combined worship service. The hosting church had made t-shirts for the seven team members and the other pastoral couples with Canadian and Nicaraguan flags on the front and a verse from Psalm 133 on the back, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony." The hosting pastor welcomed everyone, one pastor read the Bible, another prayed for the offering, and another preached. People from the four different churches prayed and sang and worshiped God together. As I participated in a service with all my León friendship churches at once, I was overcome with emotion. All of these churches, Nicaraguan and Canadian, are important to me. The pastors are like my own pastors, and I really enjoy my meetings with them. Usually I am a go-between with the churches, but last week I didn't have to be a link because everyone was together.

Pastors across the aisle in their t-shirts
As we sang together, I was filled with joy and wonder for the body of Christ. Worshiping among the different congregations, I realized that I was experiencing heaven, like when it says in Revelation 7:9 "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." This past week with the team and the León pastors was a taste of heaven. Different nations and languages, adoring God together through worship, times of fun, and service to others. These moments are the reason that I serve as the coordinator of church friendships in Nicaragua. I love getting to know the churches, praying with the pastors, and translating their messages to and from each other year round, but these team visits are the high points (although also the most exhausting times) of these friendships. They make me see heaven.

After the combined service, we took handprints to send back to Canada

I hope that wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you get to witness glimpses of heaven this week too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Crazy Normality

Every now and again, I stop and think, "I live in a tropical, tourist destination!" It rocks, really. Sometimes I start smiling walking down the street just because I love life here. The white-domed cathedral, the volcano, the beach, the colors, the smells, the sounds. Life in Nicaragua is great. Granted, I do the same thing when walking in Burns Harbor, Indiana or Sioux Center, Iowa. It's a gift to love the place you are.

However, life in Nicaragua is also normal. It's normal life for me to speak in Spanish, to run to the corner store for milk in the morning, to have to try to figure out what to do about a leaking faucet and a smoking outlet (yes, all real-life situations for me today). I recently wrote in a newsletter that August and September are going to be pretty routine for me. Apparently the normal routine means that I spend 3 days of my week in Managua, one in Chinandega, and the other 3 in León trying to rest while balancing the work that needs to get done. Sometimes it feels a little out of control. Nonetheless, I am enjoying the pastoral visits, and I like getting reports done (I don't like actually writing them).

That said, there are other CRAZY parts of my life that I can't seem to get over when I pause to think about them. Let me give you an example of things today that struck me.
1) I went to be the judge of a singing contest with English students at a high school. I met the English teacher two weeks ago at another English singing contest, and she asked me to help out. I figure it's my duty as a native English speaker, and so I agreed even though I don't have any connections to this school. There I am, white skin, honey-colored hair, blue eyes, center of the attention of a lot of high school students when I walk in. I don't know if I'll ever get used to being so remarkable here. It feels very strange to me, the way people react to me.

2) After finishing at the school, I went to visit a pastoral couple. This couple is one that I have grown close to, but I felt like it had been a long time since we had a heart-to-heart, so I paid a visit to see how they are really doing. The pastor had to go visit another church, but his wife and I shared lunch together and talked about life. It amazes me that these heroes of the faith, dedicated servants of God, open up to me about their lives and let me be a pastor to them in some ways. It's a completely normal part of my job, and yet it moves me to tears that I have the privilege of walking alongside these incredible ministers in the faith.

3) On the bus on my way home, we got pulled over. These stops have been becoming routine. In some places they check documents, and at this particular stop, they have asked young men to show their bags, and the officers check their seats. There was a young man seated next to me, and they asked him to get off and show them his bags. As they started going through his backpack and lunch on the bench, another officer mounted the bus and started poking the seat the young man had been in. Then he sat down next to me, and his supervisor said, "There, the bag by your leg!" And they said they found marijuana! But they didn't make anyone else get off, and after a few minutes, the driver closed the doors to continue on our way. No questions asked. The young man stayed behind, and I have no idea what happened to him.

This is normal life for me these days. It all seems very crazy. Regardless, I am thankful. God is good, and he takes care of me no matter what.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Chasing the Sunset

My heart feels full lately. Lots of new experiences, fulfilling events that fill me with wonder and delight at God's goodness and faithfulness in my life and the lives of people around me. I have seen prayers answered, lavish generosity poured out, faith like a child's, healing granted, laughter and love and tears. All of these things dance in my head, and I have been looking for how to express them in blog-sized pieces.

But tonight, the other side of things came into play. The side where I feel like an outsider, wondering how long I have to be here before people stop needing to explain things to me. Wishing I could sit on the porch with a drink and the company of my parents after a long day of work. Chasing the sunset.

I live in the city of León. While it's a beautiful city, it has a lot of tall buildings. As I was coming home in the late afternoon light, reflecting on the conversation I had just had with several pastoral couples in Chinandega, the sky was alight with color and the breeze was cool. I had to see the sunset. I put down my bag and took off on my bicycle, headed west.

My eyes feasted on the blazing orange in the clouds above me. Hardly paying attention to the other things around me, I focused on the heavens and tried to find higher ground so I could see above the buildings. To no avail. The sun set without me. The sky's fire went out. Disappointed, feeling like I should head home so I could go to church, I turned around.

The view to the east was powerful too, though. Dark storm clouds piled high (Lord, please send us rain. We are in a drought and need it badly), the fading light highlighting just enough to see their majesty.

Sometimes, we are looking so hard for something, we miss the other views around us. I'm not saying that those moments where we long for "home," for going back to the way things were, for seeing the beauty of the sun hit the horizon, they won't necessarily go away ever. And it's okay to grieve what once was. But there are new views, new loves, new homes. May we ever be pilgrims with broken hearts as we live on earth, chasing after the Son because only He can truly show us glory.