Sunday, May 17, 2015

But Now I See...My Good, Good Father

This week I've been pondering how my faith is based on God's character and His inherent goodness and perfection.  If God is not good all the time then my faith has no firm foundation.  So...when my prayers aren't answered according to my immediate desires I need to remind myself of the truth of God's goodness.  Because He is good I can KNOW that He will do what is ultimately best.

Two weeks ago today, as we started our last full day in Colombia, we sang a new-to-me song in worship, led by Erin Deuel, called "Good, Good Father".  (You can find it on YouTube by a group named Housefires II)  The song repeats, "You're a good, good Father.  That's who You are...And I'm loved by You.  That's who I am."  Then it goes on to say, "You are perfect in all of Your ways to us."

In the past two weeks that song just keeps replaying itself in my mind.  As I go through my day I keep repeating that phrase in praise to God..."You're a good, good Father."

I've already talked in previous blogs about the Operation Christmas Child discipleship graduation we were blessed to participate in on Sunday morning and about how God protected us on our trip back from the last afternoon distribution.

And I told you about sweet Andres (pictured above) who won my heart.  But there's something about Andres and his shoebox that I haven't told you, so here's the rest of the story...

First, a bit of history--

In a past blog I mentioned my friend Lisa from Virginia.  After reading my blog, Lisa was kind enough to bring me some stuffed animals when she was visiting family here in Erie last summer.  A few months later she returned in September with more animals and to invite some of her Erie family members to Franklin Graham's Rock the Lakes festival.  God answered our prayers that weekend when one of Lisa's aunt's made a decision to say "yes" to Jesus!  Lisa and I have kept in touch, and I've been praying especially hard over the past few weeks for challenges she and her family have been facing.

Now--back to Colombia--

After our harrowing bus ride back to the hotel two weeks ago I quickly cleaned up and headed to our last delicious hotel dinner.  I was just finishing up when two guys came over and knelt beside me--one on each side.  I was perplexed, and one said with a chuckle, "I know, this looks ominous."

The other guy pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of a family, but I honestly didn't recognize them.  He then explained it was a picture of Lisa's family and that each of these guys--at separate shoebox distributions in totally different locations--had found two of the over 500 boxes packed by Lisa's family and each of them had e-mailed Lisa and sent her a picture of the child who received their box.  In each case Lisa promptly replied to the e-mail and told them she knew someone (that would be me--lol) who was on the trip.  So the guys (who are actually named Nate and Mark and  are staff members with OCC) found me at dinner to let me know.

It moved me to tears to think how our good, good Father sent this very special encouragement to Lisa and her family at a time when they really needed it.  God was loving on them for sure.  But, that's not all...

I didn't have e-mail access in Colombia, but when I got back into the US I had an e-mail from Lisa that she'd written while I was still in Colombia asking me to look hard to try to find one of the boxes her family had packed so she could get a picture of me with the child.

I wrote back and told her I was sorry I hadn't found any of her family's boxes.

A few days later while I was on vacation with my family Lisa sent me a text.  She'd enlarged the picture of my special friend Andres with his box and recognized all the items.  She could identify positively that it was a box packed by her family!

They'd packed over 500 boxes and ran out of letters and pictures after the first 400 of them so Andres' box didn't have those.

So, Lisa got that picture she wanted of me with a child who received her box.  And we both got another example of God's amazing goodness to us.

You're a good, good Father.  That's who You are.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

But Now I See--His Protection

After connecting with my new friend Andres at that last Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution in Colombia on Sunday night, I wanted to stay and enjoy his company.  But the rain that had been falling intermittently was beginning again.

We gathered quickly to pray for Zulay, the woman who'd planned this shoebox distribution, and her team, and to leave them with a gift bag of ministry materials.  We barely had time to exchange hugs before our bus driver hurried us to the bus.  The locals told him we might not get up the hill to leave the village because of the rain.

We all clambered onto the bus and watched the rain through the windows as our driver began to slowly accelerate up the steep grade.  The tires made a sucking sound as they sought traction on the slippery pavement.

Everyone in the bus began praying aloud (and loudly) with his or her own words.  A chorus of "God, give us traction," and "Lord, get us up" mixed with other variations of the theme as we prayed and ground our way up--finally, with a cheer, to the top.  Praise God!

But the adventure didn't end there.  We started down the mountain and the rain fell harder.  The wipers tried to keep up the pace as we watched the water swirling down the road.

When we came to an intersection that had a foot or more of water, the bus came to a stop.  Water streamed down as the driver seemed to consider his options.  I whispered to Carole who was sitting next to me, "We have plenty of water in the bus.  I vote we sit here and wait."  She nodded and replied, "They tell you never to drive through standing water like this."

Then we watched as a line of tiny yellow taxis began to bravely head up the grade in front of us.  Not to be outdone, our driver joined in and started to pull forward.

video credit to Arthur Schalick

We inched up and ahead as the water swirled beside us.  We kept praying and the bus kept moving.  Time passed, the rain slowed, and we all cheered as we reached the relative safety of the highway where the only danger lay in dodging oncoming vehicles and the ever-weaving death-defying motorcycles.  Thank you, Lord, for letting me see Your protection.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

But Now I See...That ONE

Somewhere in this group of children leaving our last Operation Christmas Child distribution in Colombia is that ONE, and I won't forget him.  All the boys in the room whooped with glee over the contents of their boxes,  but I moved to the other side of the room where one little guy sat slumped on his chair, dejected.  He pulled out a pair of the little black Croc shoes I’d handled so often as we’d received many cartons of them to use as fillers at the OCC Baltimore (BWI) Processing Center where I worked in gifts-in-kind last fall. 

He held up the little shoes, then pointed to his feet—showing me the shoes would not fit.  His box held only three other items—a small new stuffed TY Beanie dog that also looked like a familiar filler item from the PC, a coloring book, and a very small can of generic play dough.  He looked crestfallen as he showed three other people his box with the too-small shoes.

I thought back to one day when I was working at the PC in Baltimore.  One of the coaches who was working on the line inspecting boxes brought over a box marked for a boy 5-9 that had come to the PC with only two pencils in it.  My associate, Linda, put a pair of those same Crocs in an adult size 6 in the box.  I told her I thought they were too large for the age range and replaced them with a size 2 instead.  I thought a size 2 would fit the middle of the age range better.  Linda remarked, “Well, I hope it’s not too small for the kid who gets it.”  Now, as I looked at this sad little boy, her remark came back to haunt me. 

None of us knew what to do.  To offer this child another box could have started a domino effect.  He left disappointed, but I hope that later he will be able to enjoy the other items he received.

I have often told people when it comes to packing new shoes or clothing to do your best at guessing the size and then pray for God to match it to a child who can use it.  Of course I love to hear the stories of children who open the box to find the shoes or clothing they need that fits them perfectly.  One of the other teams in Colombia told of experiencing that this week.

But I guess God wanted me to see that sometimes this doesn’t happen.  It reminds me that prayer is a very important ingredient in each box.  Did anyone pray over this box?  Did I pray over that box with two pencils in it at the PC before I decided which shoes to put into it?  I confess, I didn’t. 

It also reminds me that the quality of the box is very important because each of these boxes is an ambassador of the love of Jesus.  Operation Christmas Child is stressing the importance of a nice, quality WOW item for each box—one that will truly bless the child.  But only God knows what that item is for each individual boy or girl. 

Everyone who packs a box and every volunteer who inspects a box needs to be committed to making each box a good one so hopefully no child will be disappointed.

God, I need to remember how sacred each of these boxes can be.  When we pack thousands of boxes at a packing party, help me to remember this sad little boy and pray that each of the boxes we pack will be a blessing.  God, help each one to be filled with just the right items.  When we pack clothing, help us make sure we pack enough other items so that the child will be blessed if the clothing doesn’t fit.  And, maybe I need to remember to “go big” on the sizing for the age groups.

God opened my eyes to see that ONE child behind the box.

But Now I See and Connect

For our last Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution event of this trip to Colombia we drove up the mountain again—this time higher than ever before.  Our team estimated we reached about 7,000 feet of elevation.   We noticed that the higher we climbed the more impoverished the neighborhoods seemed. 

Crude rural houses, hardly more than shacks, hug the winding road with little more than a foot or two to separate them from the traffic of buses, tiny yellow taxis and overloaded motorcycles carrying several passengers that constantly dart between the other vehicles.

We had our own moment-by-moment Gran Adventura as our bus passed oncoming buses with only a few inches between us.  Several times our driver made a wrong turn and had to back down a steep road past another bus.  One particularly hair raising moment involved backing up beside a truck loaded with propane gas tanks that we cleared, after several tries, by two inches.  It also began to rain on the trip up the mountain.  We all prayed the rain would stop to accommodate this outdoor distribution, and the sun was soon shining again.

Besides being face-to-face with the locals as we continually passed mere inches from them on the road, we also enjoyed the sight of a llama being led on a leash.

Finally, we approached the school where the children were sitting on the cement courtyard in their school uniforms—even though it was Sunday afternoon--waiting for the program to begin.  Sadly, the heavy metal gate in front of the school was lined with children looking in who could not invited in to receive boxes.  This was not only heartbreaking, but we knew it had the potential to become a dangerous situation. 

The rain began again, and the organizers decided to move the children inside to several classrooms.  While this made the gospel presentation more challenging, the rain helped disperse the crowd outside the gate and may have been a means of protecting the children. 

Our team divided, and several of us went to each classroom.  I went into one with children aged 5-9.  The desks had been pushed against the perimeter of the room, and most of the girls sat at the desks while the boys sat on the floor.

There were no seats left, so I plopped down on the floor beside a sweet little boy who had a hole in the back of his uniform shirt.  I noticed many of the children’s uniforms were in poor condition and, at least outwardly, they appeared more needy than the children we’d seen in the past two days.

I sat cross-legged as my new little friend immediately lay down and put his head in my lap.  I rubbed his back as I watched it rise and fall with his even breathing.  And in the midst of the chaos of that room I took some time to pray over him, asking God to allow him to grow into a godly man with great spiritual strength.

The decision was made to take the girls out to another room, and we were left with a floor full of boys aged 5-9. 

A sea of little faces looked up at our interpreter, Juan, as he led the children in a gospel lesson from The Wordless Book, using the large colored pages to tell the boys the good news of Jesus and explain that He is the greatest gift of all.

Then it was time to distribute the boxes.  It amazes me how patiently the children sit waiting in line for their turn.   Some of the boxes were bigger than others or had fancier decorations on them, but I heard no complaints from any of the boys. 

Finally, each boy had a box, and waited expectantly to hear “uno, dos, TRES…” the signal to open those gifts.  Then came the shrieks—louder than any I’d heard at the previous four distributions.  These boys were over the moon excited!

I sat beside my little friend, Andres, who’d never left my side.  His mouth was in a perpetual “Oh” shape and his eyes glistened as he took out every treasure—probably twenty different items--and lined them up on the floor beside his box.  Only then did he begin to examine them one by one.  He touched each item carefully, almost reverently—in apparent disbelief at the bounty spread in front of him. 

As I looked around me, I saw this scene repeated, with nicely-filled boxes blessing these needy boys.  I wanted to stay in this spot for hours and play with these little guys, but we were being beckoned to leave quickly because of the rain.

Before we left, we were able to pray for the ministry partners who worked to organize this distribution.  We had to leave, but they will not.  They will continue their work here on this mountain in Colombia.

God allowed me to see their vision and be challenged to follow Him in ministry as they follow Him.  Together, by God’s grace, we can join Him as He makes disciples.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

But Now I See...

Last night at about this time I was lying in bed unable to sleep.  I spent some time talking to God, reminding Him that He gave me a clear call to come to Colombia.  Through John chapter 9 He gave me confirmation through several avenues that He had something for me to see here, but as of last night I didn't feel I'd seen it...whatever it was.  Tears leaked out of my eyes as I told Him I didn't want to leave Colombia without the vision He had for me.

This morning we traveled to a Wesleyan church (Wesleyan Mantantial de Vida) to be there as 70 children graduated from La Gran Adventura--the Spanish edition of Operation Christmas Child's discipleship course--The Greatest Journey.

How sweet the children looked in their miniature blue caps and gowns, and their parents proudly adjusted those caps and snapped pictures as they waited to process down the aisle.  I couldn't stop the tears as each pair of children marched solemnly to take their places at the front of the church.

After a greeting, the worship team came to the platform.  I was blown away when they opened with "Open The Eyes of My Heart" sung in English.   God was confirming His promise to open my heart and let me see.

Following that we sang "Revelation Song" in Spanish followed by a rousing rendition of "God's Not Dead" alternating between Spanish and English.  Wow!  How moving to worship together with people we'd never met before yet felt we knew.

Pastor Fernando said the church was founded six years ago.  They have been trying to start a children's ministry but as of last year they had only four children.  Now, after a shoe box distribution, they are graduating 70 children from La Gran Adventura.  These 70 children are trained and ready to change lives in their homes and community.

Many of the children brought their families to the service, and when Pastor Fernando gave an invitation at the end of his gospel message there were about 25 people who raised their hands to give their lives to Jesus.  My eyes were being opened.

After the sermon they began the graduation and several children shared testimonies.  Thirteen-year-old Julianna Fernandez preached an amazing message of her own.  She said, in part, "The emptiness of my heart has been filled...I wish you could be children again so you can see how wonderful this is...You can trust Him.  Thanks to God I am here.  Jesus is here with all of us.  Close your eyes.  It's the prettiest of sensations...Jesus made a fingerprint in our hearts."  Ah-mazing.

We were able to rejoice with the families as each child received a diploma and a New Testament.  And, at the end, there was another count of "uno, dos, tres" followed by little caps flying into the air.

I thought of the OCC motto "We Make Disciples" and realized that isn't truly accurate.  Honestly, it's GOD who makes disciples.

He is making a disciple of me and He's making disciples of my team.  He's making disciples of children around the world and He's making disciples in their families and their communities.

Pastor Fernando and his wife told us, "We've been here for six years, but today was the first time the community came to us."

Because of simple shoe box gifts.  Because of prayer.  Because we have a God who is good.

My eyes were being opened.  Finally, I was starting to see.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two More Distributions

After a wonderful time of worship and devotions this morning we headed out for two more Operation Christmas Child shoe box distributions.  I was feeling anxious today because I had the responsibility of delivering two shoe boxes packed with items donated by my area team.  I knew they were counting on me to get pictures for them of the children who received their gifts.  I'm not the greatest photographer and I'm not great under pressure--a bad combination at shoe box distributions where things move fast.

Our first stop was at El Pacto Evangelico in the community of El Rizal Manrique Oriental.  Church leader Zulay Echeverry Balbin is a pastor and a teacher who has a huge heart for the children in the community.  She is also active on the OCC Regional Team.  Zulu arranged for 350 children to attend this distribution.

The neat thing about this one is that many of the parents of the children attended and were able to hear the gospel message along with their children.  Our hosts were so welcoming and served us all plastic cups of wonderful strawberry juice.

I was able to give my first box to Laula, the little girl pictured above, and I got a bit of video of her excitement at opening her box.  Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted most of the pictures I took at this site but am hoping to get some from my team to post later so you can see the site.

Things got a little crazy when we ran out of boys' boxes and had to give some of the boys boxes that were packed for girls.  This upset some of the parents and we ended up making a quick exit to the bus in order to defuse the situation.

After another great lunch at a restaurant next door to the site, we got back into the bus for another death-defying ride.

Our afternoon distribution was such a joy.  It was sponsored by Power of Heaven Wesleyan Church led by pastor Santiago Salazar Gil and his wife of three months.  The distribution was held at the public school from which Santiago graduated.  This growing church has 400 people involved in area small groups with multiple corporate weekend services.

The gospel presentation at this distribution was amazing and was led almost entirely by the competent youth of the church.  They had wonderful crowd control and the children really got a chance to hear a strong gospel message presented in several different ways.  It was fun to hear them sing two songs with the children that dated back to my own youth.

One of the youth helping is named Majerlly and she told us she received a shoe box when she was eight years old and another at age twelve.  As a twelve-year-old she got a harmonica in her box and it made her cry with joy.  She says she was excited to help with the distribution today because it helped her relive that joy she had when she received her own box.

What a blessing it was to give the second box packed with items from our team to a sweet girl named Sara.

There was a lot of squealing and excitement when those boxes were opened...

I managed to accidentally delete quite a few pictures from my camera today and the internet here in the hotel is pretty slow, so posting more pictures will have to wait.

Tonight we were blessed by a program featuring Colombian folk dances and bits of local culture.  They ended by praising the Lord "in the Colombian way"--including a Conga line that called for group participation, but I declined.

My lack of Conga ability was one of the reasons I was hesitant to come on another distribution trip.  And I thought I was getting out of dancing when we didn't have to perform any choreography this time...

Well, off to rest up for tomorrow's graduation from the Operation Christmas Child discipleship program.  Let's just hope it doesn't involve dancing--lol

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Tale of Two Distributions

Our Operation Christmas Child shoe box distribution this morning was in a storefront church named Iglesia Cuadrangular San Pablo (a Foursquare church.)  Pastor Geraldo and his wife Deanna have this sweet little girl (pictured above) named Hadie and I had a blast hanging out with her and blowing bubbles. She loved the TWO stuffed animals she got in her box.

The gospel presentation was done by some of the teens from the church and it was simply excellent--well-practiced and well-acted.  Most of the 80 children at the distribution don't regularly attend church services so it was a good opportunity to share the gospel.

Another special cutie was this little guy named Matteo who is almost three years old and stole our hearts.

Matteo's mother is in prison and he lives with her there.  Some members of the church went to do ministry at the prison when Matteo was only four months old, and since that time one woman has sort of adopted Matteo.  She takes him to church and takes him out of the prison on outings.  She said he loves to lift his arms and praise the Lord in church.  Please pray that this little guy will become a mighty man of God.

We had a marvelous lunch at La Gran Casa, the local restaurant right next to the church.  There is never any shortage of great food at any Operation Christmas Child event.  The flat corn bread is called arepa but was kind of tasteless and not worth the investment of carbs.

We climbed back into the van and headed up (always UP) the windy roads to our next distribution where Pastors Eliseo and Marta Coronado (who also pastor at the church we were at in the morning) had arranged a distribution in a local public school yard.  A total of 309 mostly unchurched children from the community came to hear the gospel.

The children were neat and well-dressed, with their hair neatly fixed, but the homes their homes in the surrounding area were pretty crude.

Of course it was wonderful to distribute the boxes and watch the joy they always bring.  I spent some time with the littlest children who seemed a bit overwhelmed and not all that excited about their boxes.  They did, however, enjoy blowing bubbles.  One little sweetie was so tired she could barely stay upright, let alone open her box.

I was most touched to be given the opportunity to pray for the team after the distribution was over.  When I asked if they had prayer requests they asked for nothing for themselves--only prayer for the children of the community.  After I prayed and gave Marta the bag of children's ministry tools we'd brought as a gift, we hugged.  We hugged a long time, and Marta sobbed--the kind of tears you cry when you're tired and just need a shoulder.  That hug was honestly the highlight of my day.

On our bus ride home (our driver is adventurous to say the least with a close call about every ten seconds) our team leader Phil Barks remarked how these national churches just see the need in their communities and work to meet those needs.  They don't have budget meetings or make long-range plans, they just trust God and step out in faith to do what He is calling them to do.

They really are on a grand adventure.