Friday, September 8, 2017

Five Things I Didn’t Know About West Africa
In July of this year, my wife Becky and I traveled to Togo, West Africa to serve the team. I came home changed by what we saw in Africa, and I’m sure Africa has a lot more to teach me. Here are
five things I didn’t know about West Africa before our trip:
West Africa is incredibly green (during the rainy season). The rainy season in West Africa runs from about June to September. During this season, the land explodes with lush vegetation. Crops of corn, beans, yams, peppers, rice, as well as bananas, papaya and mangos and other varieties are farmed. In the rural villages we visited, from daybreak till dusk the roads are lined with men and boys carrying machetes and hoes heading to or from the fields, and women and girls with washtubs of freshly harvested produce on their heads.
Many (very many) people live without electricity or running water. I know, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find that a large segment of the population in a developing country lives without some basic amenities. The truth is I considered indoor plumbing and electric lights essential, if not for life, at least for happiness. but we actually found that we benefitted in many ways from living without these conveniences. Undistracted, unhurried conversations with our friends and teammates replaced “virtual” social media exchanges. The indescribably magnificent night sky which was unobstructed by buildings and streetlights was a nightly source of awe and amazement. Here’s another benefit that I still smile when I think about: the exhilaration (I’m not overstating it) of a breeze and a bit of shade on a hot sunny day. Pure pleasure. (No, I’m not giving up air conditioning.)

Virtues abound among the people. Gratitude, hard work, service, hospitality, just to name a few. I was continually impressed by the way complete strangers in the most primitive villages welcomed us warmly. Just one example of gratitude I witnessed: Our van was slowly driving through a jam-packed market and a man shouted something to our driver, Raymond, who pulled over. In a few minutes, an elderly woman appeared from a side street wearing the telltale pair of sunglasses that indicated she was one of’s cataract patients. She began shouting, raising her hands and dancing, expressing her joy and gratitude for her restored sight. Turns out her surgery was months before, but the gratitude was still strong enough for them to pull us over for an impromptu party on a crowded street.
Commitment to Christ costs. I came to Togo wanting to see God in a bigger context. I’ve been a believer in Jesus Christ for more than 35 years and a pastor for 20 but I know my experience and understanding of almost every aspect of what it means to be a Christian is limited. What does faith look like in other tribes and nations? What does worship sound like in another (foreign to me) tongue? One big difference between my daily experience of faith and our Togolese brothers and sisters experience is that they often pay a heavy price to be identified as a Christian. Africa comprises a potent mix of religions, many of them hostile to Christianity. When a person becomes a follower of Jesus Christ they are often ostracized by their village or disowned by their family. The effect I saw in them, however wasn’t discouragement, but a deeper commitment to the study of the word, prayer and especially fellowship and worship.
Africans helping Africans. This is the single most eye-opening fact that I witnessed in my brief time in West Africa. Africans are helping Africans and they are much better at it than I’ll ever be. I was humbled to be a part of a team of West African men and women, young and old alike, doctors, nurses, laborers and missionaries, whose passion for Christ and for their Togolese neighbors is resulting in healed bodies, mended hearts and transformed lives. They communicated with little or no need for an interpreter. They knew the culture, the needs and the circumstances of the people and they are highly motivated to serve them. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need our help, I still believe that the needs in Africa are great and that the resources in the West are also great, but our role, my role should be to equip the Africans who are serving Africans.
We’ve been back home for a while now and I’m still processing many of the things we saw there. The Africa I expected to see when we traveled there, the sights, the people and the work, was not nearly as amazing as the Africa I found when we got there.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Psalm 103:14-16

14For he knows our frame;     
he remembers that we are dust.  
15As for man, his days are like grass;    
he flourishes like a flower of the field;  
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,    
and its place knows it no more.  

The following was written after waking from a dream which ended with me saying the words:

"This moment here, this moment, right now.
How precious it is."

How I might desperately wish at some future time to have this moment back. No matter how much I might want to live in this moment again, I never will.
But if I could go back there are so many moments that I would return to, if only for a dozen ticks of the clock, even if I was just a silent observer, even if the scene I returned to was 'stop action'. Just to be a witness of so many things that were commonplace then but gone forever now.
- To my childhood, to see my parents when they were younger than I am now,
- To see my brothers, the things we did together that are faded memories to me now
- My elementary school, the nuns that taught at St. Gregory,
- To see Grandma and Grandpa Purpera, my mom's parents. To see Grandma Canal and Aunt Connie, my dad's widowed mom and his sister...

The list goes on. In fact every hour of those times past are precious beyond words, and gone beyond my reach. As are all the moments of my past. Beyond my reach -- to laugh with my son, Josh one more time, and I know I could make him laugh, because he laughed so easily. To sit quietly together and do nothing but just be together.

Gone beyond my reach.

How do we live with this? The longer I live the more I lose to the past. Given enough time, everything that I hold dear will be gone -- cease to exist. 

Beyond my reach.

I can only live like this:

This moment here, this moment right now -- I treasure it -- I revel in it -- I live it fully, value it fully, am fully present to it.
I savor it's blessings, move through it's doors, study it's rooms, I silence the noise in my heart to fully hear the sounds that are of this moment and never again, I breathe in the aromas that will catch me suddenly back when this day has washed down stream.
I am in it like a returning version of my future self -- as much as I can be.
And I fill it. I fill it with as much as I possibly can so that some future version of myself -- given the miraculous choice to return to a day, a time in the past,
would choose: this day…this time…this hour...

And then...

Without regret, I let it slip into the past.

And if I am intentionally living each scene of my life fully, I cherish the future as much as the past, I move on to the next moment and wring every possibility out of it and make it a shining moment or day or month or year or lifetime.

I think there's probably not going to be the possibility to return and interact with the past, but I fully expect one of the benefits of heaven will be to know it all. And from there I will probably savor this moment or regret this moment more than I ever could here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Lion and the Lamb

     I've always been struck by the contrast between the Jesus who appears in the stories of the final week of his life and the Jesus who appears throughout the rest of the gospel. Before his final days he is like a lion. Performing miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead, he literally walks on water. There seems to be no limit to his power. And he always comes out on top. The demons always flee, the bad guys constantly try to trap him and trip him up and he always has just the right thing to say to confound them and frustrate them. For the first 3 1/2 years of his ministry the good guys always win, the bad guys are always sent packing. He's exactly what I expect a hero to be.
     Then, as the end approaches, Jesus says to his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." (John 12:23)
     The stage is set, he's paid his dues, it's time for the final showdown, the big reveal.
     But the Jesus we see in the few hours before his death is so different from the lion like character that has been drawing such a crowd. First, he comes riding in to town on an under aged donkey. I don't care who you are, you're not going to look like a hero astride a shaggy, wobbly legged donkey. And once he gets to town, the bad guys get away with murder and Jesus has nothing disarming to say. He's bound and beaten, mocked and spit upon by the same clowns he's showed up in every confrontation for 3 1/2 years. Where's the hero? Where are the words of wisdom? It's frustrating to read the story. Why doesn't he show himself for what he really is? He seems the opposite of a hero. He seems like a victim. Is he really a lion? Or is he just a lamb?
     The reason this part of Jesus' life is so frustrating to us is the same reason that it was so confusing and sad for his closest disciples, his friends. They thought (and we usually think) that a person's finest hour is when they rise up in all their strength and ability, put their greatness on display and triumph completely over the enemy for all to see. But when Jesus said that the hour had come for him to be glorified, he meant that he was going to demonstrate what glory really is. And it turns out glory is not what we think it is at all.
     If we are honest, we have to admit that the biblical account of the original sin that Adam and Eve committed—not just the sin of eating forbidden fruit, but their prideful arrogance to want to be "as gods..." to do what they wanted when they wanted—is very believable. Adam denied God's will to do what he wanted to do. And from that day on mankind continued to do just that. We all want to be our own boss, to be as strong and fearsome as the Lion in defending ourselves and making a life for ourselves.
     But then Jesus came along. In Jesus the human race finally had a man that could resist the temptation to have it his way and instead say, "Not my will but thine be done." And that is precisely what it means to be worthy of glory: to know God's will and deny oneself and do it. 
     When his hour had come, he showed us what kind of a hero he really was. He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:24, 25)
     He delivered himself to his tormentors, riding right into their stronghold on the lowliest beast of burden. They bound him, beat him, insulted him and he said nothing because everything that needed to be said had already been said between him and the Father.  To be a lamb like this requires the power and courage of a lion. 
     This truly was his finest hour on the earth and they never stop talking about it in heaven because it was and is the most amazing, selfless and courageous thing any man has ever done. And in the songs they sing to him, about him, the name He is known by is the one he proved he deserved in his finest hour: The Lamb of God. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

John 3:1-8
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 
2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 
3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 
4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 
5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 
6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 
7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 
8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

This private dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most well-known passages in scripture, and for good reason. This is the first time in the book of John that Jesus speaks more than a few words. And these words describe the central experience of those who enter into the kingdom of God. He's talking to Nicodemus but his intended audience is much bigger. He's talking to all of us. All of mankind. And what he says is on the top shelf, it's a stretch for anyone to grasp, but it's not completely out of reach.
I don't think Nicodemus was a bad guy. He wasn't the kind of man who judged someone from a distance, without talking to them face to face. He was obviously successful and well respected and well known. To me that indicates that he was probably hard working and dependable and a good leader. Qualities that make up a good guy.
But this night, in this conversation, as he tried to get a handle on an unconventional young rabbi, this successful and respected religious leader was out of his depth.
Nicodemus' question shows that he is trying to understand, but Jesus knows Nicodemus (and we) won't grasp these words with understanding alone.
Here's what Jesus is telling us: Intimacy with God results in spiritual conception
A new person is born, a spiritual person, when we are intimate with God. Other places this new person is referred to as 'the inner being...' (Ephesians 3:16) 'a new creation...' (2 Corinthians 5:17) or 'a new heart' 'a new spirit'. And this new person, comes into being and supersedes and replaces the old person that we were. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is this new person who sees and enters into the Kingdom of God.
No doubt Nicodemus was surprised to hear Jesus refer to it in these terms, but the experience sounds exactly like what King David sought when he prayed, "Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10). As a leader of Israel, Nicodemus would also be very familiar with the words God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." and "I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes..." (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
It's gratifying to witness Jesus as he explains 'spiritual truth in spiritual language' to a man who has had no experiences that correspond to these words.
It's gratifying because after we have been born of 'water and the spirit' we are all called and equipped and privileged to have very similar conversations with our friends and family and neighbors. Trying to speak to people about a dimension that they have no point of reference to comprehend. It's comforting to know that even Jesus isn't entirely successful in getting his point across. But wow! His words are so descriptive and powerful. Even if you can't understand them, you want to understand them.
Maybe that is where the problem lies. I said earlier that Nicodemus was trying to understand Jesus' words, but Jesus knew that Nicodemus wouldn't get a grip on his words with understanding alone.
There is one thing necessary for anyone to experience what Jesus is talking about, to experience conception at this point of intimacy with God. And that is to believe.
The thing that distinguishes someone who enters the kingdom of God is that they believe. In fact the early church didn't call themselves Christians, they called themselves believers.
It is only when we believe that we conceive, and when we conceive, that we see, and when we see, that we enter into the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

He Never Prophesies Anything But Trouble For Me
1 Kings 22:7-8(NLT) 7But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there not also a prophet of the LORD here? We should ask him the same question.”  
8The king of Israel replied to Jehoshaphat, “There is one more man who could consult the LORD for us, but I hate him. He never prophesies anything but trouble for me! His name is Micaiah son of Imlah.”  Jehoshaphat replied, “That’s not the way a king should talk! Let’s hear what he has to say.”

     This drama from the book of 1 Kings depicts two kings with different values and governing styles. It is a very rare instance of cooperation between the kings of Israel and Judah. And the decision making process of these two men, Ahab, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, show why these two kingdoms had such a hard time getting along. Jehoshaphat wants to consult the Lord (by consulting a prophet) because he believes that knowing the will of God is vital to making a decision. Ahab, on the other hand seems to suspect that consulting this prophet will result in trouble and doesn't want to hear what he has to say, as if ignoring his counsel would result in a good outcome.
     One of the most difficult things for a leader to do, whether they are a father or mother, business owner, department head, pastor or congressman, is solicit opinions that are contrary to his own. It's not easy to lead people, even under the most ideal circumstances, but especially when they don't agree with you, when they know (or think they know) more than you, when they don't see things the way you do.
     Some leaders mistakenly believe that contrary opinions should be silenced or discredited, as if the "peace" that results is desirable. But often for a leader, silence isn't golden and it doesn't signify agreement, it is a sign of deafness.
     The more powerful a leader, the higher his profile, the more likely he is to trust his own judgment and less likely to value the opinions of those who are less powerful or influential. The more difficult the decisions, the more high level subordinates with opposing views can appear to be enemies instead of sources of good information and strategy. If a subordinate believes that disagreeing with a leader's viewpoint may be seen as insubordination, they are very likely to keep their opinions to themselves, even when their views are informed by solid evidence or experience.   
     To make good decisions, leaders nust have as much up to date, pertinent information as possible. Often that means intentionally seeking out opinions that are or may be opposed to his own opinions. He has to make the effort to get people to talk to him to say things he may not want to hear.
     God's will can sometimes seem difficult and troublesome, but ignoring it doesn't change anything. God can use anyone who is willing to hear the unvarnished truth and act on it. Many of the most well known characters in the Bible were powerless in themselves, but armed with the truth and a willingness to courageously act on it, they prevailed despite their lack of stature.
     Who has the right to speak the truth to you? If the people who have a right to speak into your life, to influence your decisions don't include some who seem to prophecy trouble, maybe they have been silenced or ignored, or worse, maybe you as a leader have become deaf to an opinion that might be your salvation.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In the wake of the killings of Christian relief workers in Afghanistan in August asked several spiritual leaders, including me, the question, "Given the climate of the times, should Christians evangelize or share the Gospel?

My response:

That’s a very good question and one that every believer and every Christian leader should ask themselves often.

When Jesus told his disciples that they were going to be bearers of good news, He didn’t limit this activity to any nation or language group or season (or climate). He also didn’t give them a detailed “how to” guide to reach different cultures or to operate in different environments. Instead he encouraged them with the words they needed desperately to hear: He said “I’ll be with you”. As difficult as it may be to share our faith today, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t anticipate the challenges we face. It’s also hard to imagine that He’s at a loss on how to draw people to his table of love and forgiveness and hope and peace when these essential elements of life are becoming so scarce today.

But I think there’s a word missing from the above question.

Too many believers know the answer to the question in its present form but I’m afraid we won’t get much heavenly credit for that. When you add the word “how” just before “should” you get a question that won’t leave us feeling self satisfied or comfortable.

“Given the climate of the times, how should Christians evangelize or share the Gospel?”

Sharing the Gospel in the world today presents some challenges that previous generations didn't face, but just because the climate is different doesn’t mean that seeds can’t be sown and produce an abundant harvest. It does mean that it is vitally important that we don’t just copy the techniques of those who have gone before us, even if they were successful. Instead, we should emulate the partnership they shared with Christ and his Spirit. After all, isn’t every successful sharing of the gospel more to the credit of Jesus’ compassion and wisdom and sacrifice and relevance than to the servants he used to make them known.

That’s especially true in the climate of these times.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tag you're in!

A recent retreat for the men of our church included a paintball competition that was eye opening on several different points.

The safety equipment consisted solely of a plastic helmet with goggles.

Eye opener #1: I guess our mothers were right when they identified the salient danger in shooting activities as being the loss of an eye. (One of our guys discovered that other protective gear a little farther south on the anatomy might have been a good idea as well. Can’t believe nobody thought of THAT ahead of time.)

Our rules of engagement for the fast paced games of capture the flag on a relatively small course, were pretty simple: All participants had to start with a hand touching their home base. At a given signal competition began. The winning team was the first team to grab the white flag hanging from a stick in the middle of the course and return said flag to their home base. The only other rule stated that (obviously) if you’re hit by a paintball, you’re out, but if anyone from your team touches you after you’re hit, you’re back in the game.

At the opening signal my teammates and I sprinted for the makeshift barricades strewn randomly around the course, firing wildly in the general direction of the flock of enemy players flying headlong from their own home base. Paintballs zzzinnnnged from the barrel of my weapon, hooking and slicing with a randomness reminiscent of my few disastrous golf outings.

Eye-opener #2: The fear of stepping into the line of paint pellet fire made all of us appreciate the courage veterans in our group must possess to have faced live rounds from real enemies.

It only took about 30 seconds for me to get thwapped in the appendix by a lucky shot from one of my fellow men’s ministry “brothers” on the other team.

“I’m HIT!” I said, using the designated sign of holding a hand up. That’s when I realized that I was separated from my teammates by at least 10 yards. No one even looked my direction. They were all focused rather intently on the battle before them, firing their weapons and squeezing themselves as tightly as possible behind what little cover they had found.

Eye opener #3: (And this one is a life lesson) Your teammates have their own battles to fight and skin to save, so keeping a big distance between you and them means when you’re hit, you may be out of action for a while.

I knelt there, powerless to help, as the bad guys steadily gained ground over my outnumbered team. Suddenly one of the brothers on my team jumped from the safety of his wooden spool and dashed across the open ground toward me, slapping me rather rudely on the head and diving for a tree as bright balls of paint splattered all around.

I leapt forward to a spot alongside a teammate crouching behind a pallet and began firing anew. Almost immediately I was dinked on the head by another shot, but being so close to my teammate, he simply reached over, slapped my back (kinda hard), and I was instantly back in action.

Eye opener #4: (Another life lesson closely related to e.o. #3) The buddy system is the way to go if you want to stay in the game.

We “played” as long as we had paintballs to shoot. Afterwards we showed off our welts, laughed at each other’s war stories and headed back to the dorm. On the way back I couldn’t help wondering: if one of these men were shot down by a fiery dart from the enemy, is it possible that they might only require a simple compassionate touch from a brother willing to go out to them to get back in the battle?
Maybe that’s what Galatians 6:1 means, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

It's certainly worth a try.