Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Few Highlights from Israel

After returning from a long trip overseas I always find it difficult to decide how and what to write about.  We learned and saw an incredible amount in Israel, but it's impossible to condense it all into a few paragraphs.  I really want to share the highlights from our trip, so I think the best way is to do a few separate installments to detail our trip.
On the Temple Mount (No contact between men and women allowed!)
The first thing most people ask us when we tell them we went to Israel was did we feel unsafe.  Honestly, we very nearly decided to cancel our trip altogether due to the political unrest in Israel, but then we realized that there will never really be a good time to visit this particular area.  There has been and will continue to be unrest till the end of time, so we figured now was as good a time as any to go.  And to answer the question, no, we didn't feel unsafe at all.  We went up near the border of Syria for a few days when we visited the Sea of Galilee, and there we heard what sounded like a military firing range, but other than that, we weren't worried about our safety.
The border between Israel and Syria
We arrived on the first night of Hanukah, and our hosts live right in the center of Jerusalem, where the giant menorah was lit each night.  Every evening a crowd gathered to dance and sing before the lighting ceremony, all of which we could watch from the balcony!  One way the Jews celebrate Hanukah is to eat oily foods such as donuts as a reminder of the oil that didn't run out for 8 days.  This was by far Patrick's favorite part of the holiday, and he celebrated it with gusto.  Luckily for Patrick he burns calories just eating donuts, so he didn't have to worry about gaining weight.  (Must be nice.)
Patrick was in donut heaven
View of Zion Square from our balcony
We had a bit of free time in the late afternoons when we had a chance to explore the city and do some shopping.  I loved walking through the brightly colored markets and seeing all the beautiful scarves and tapestries for sale.  It was easy to get lost in the maze of tiny market streets that weren't even wide enough for cars to drive through.

Our tour guide was South African as were all the other people in the group, so we learned a few phrases of Afrikaans along the way.  We made some wonderful new friends, and enjoyed getting to know them over the course of our two-week stay.  One couple brought their 7-month old son on the tour, so Patrick and I got in lots of parenting practice.  It was encouraging to see parents who were willing to travel with their child, since most people we talk to tell us to "Get in all our traveling before we have kids" as if our lives will come to a screeching halt as soon as we have children.
New friends and their amazing traveling baby!
Another great thing about Israel was the food!  Everywhere we went there were delicious things to try, and generally lots of it!  My favorite was the schnitzel laffa, which is a breaded chicken with veggies all wrapped up in a giant laffa (or soft bread).
 Enjoying some shwarma laffas.
Our time in Israel was so much more than just a sight seeing trip, and I would love to share more of what the Lord taught us during this time.  I think my God was showing me that there is so much more he wants to teach me, and I've just barely started to scratch the surface with what I already know.  There's much more to come!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Israel: A Life-Changing Trip

All my life I've wanted to go to Israel.  I've wanted to walk where Jesus walked and see the landscape that carved out so much of Biblical history.  I always thought that it would be an experience beyond description to be able to stand in the places where so many divine events occurred, and I think I was right.
The Western Wall and Temple Mount
Our two weeks in Israel was much more than just a sight-seeing tour, it was more of a Biblical study trip.  Our guide was a South African pastor/Hebrew scholar and Bible teacher.  He encouraged us to learn how to read the scriptures through the lens of the Hebrew culture and language.  Generally we read the Bible with our 21st century American viewpoint, and it's easy to misinterpret things.  Much of the things Jesus said that we find confusing today were spoken in Hebrew idioms that would have made perfect sense to his audience of the time.  The teachings we heard helped us better understand the context of the Bible and allowed us to see how obvious it was that God has been at work in the lives of his people since the beginning of time. 
Mt. of Olives
The theme for the two weeks for me was all about going deeper -- really digging into scripture and experiencing God on a whole new level.  I know this is what the Lord is calling me to do, and I'm really excited to see where he leads me and what he reveals to me as I study.  There is so much more to the Bible than just words on the page.  There is culture, context, and language that hold insights into what we read and how we can apply the word of God to our lives.  I trust that God wants to reveal himself to those who are willing to seek him.  He is findable for those who look!
Sea of Galilee 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

When in Rome...

 On our way to Israel Patrick, Mrs. Mom, and I spent three days in Rome.  Unfortunately, our luggage was lost along the way so we ended up spending three days wearing the same clothes.  That certainly didn't stop us from seeing as much of the city as possible though.

Our first day we checked out St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican, which were impressive to say the least.  Every nook and cranny contained some of the most beautiful artwork and detailed architecture I've ever seen.  In fact, one thing we noticed throughout Rome was that you could walk into a building that didn't look like much on the outside and it turned out to be absolutely incredible on the inside.  What was sad to me was that, despite the beauty in the buildings, there was very little true worshipping of God going on.  We observed a strong emphasis on all the saints and relics, but the idea of having a relationship with the Living God seemed to be lacking.

St. Peter's Basilica
Inside St. Peter's
Walking the narrow steps to the Cupola
Incredible view of Rome and the mountains beyond
One afternoon we visited the Colosseum, and I thought it was crazy that a very busy street leads right up to it.  In Rome there is this interesting juxtaposition of ancient and modern.  We would be walking down the street and look to our right and see a city block worth of ruins.  It was always a bit jarring, but very cool.  I can't imagine living in a city so rich with ancient history.
Inside view of the Colosseum
Our friend John had told us to check out the Church of St. Ignatius, and we found it by chance as we wandered the winding streets of the city.  There is an interesting statue tucked away in the back corner of this cathedral.  It's a statue of St. Ignatius (holding the Latin Bible) stepping on Martin Luther's neck, who is holding a copy of the German Bible.  It's a sad but true commentary on the power-weilding of the Roman Catholic church.  It's hard for me to believe how far removed from following Christ the early Catholics really were if they couldn't stand the thought of everyone having access to the scriptures.  We took a picture of Patrick holding his iPhone which has about 100 translations of the Bible on it.  I'm sure Ignatius is turning over in his grave.

We did lots more sight-seeing around town including checking out Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and the Borghese Museum.  Patrick and I are by no means art history buffs, and we found it rather difficult to appreciate all the awkward nude paintings and sculptures.  Instead we entertained ourselves by coming up with funny captions for some of the more-embarrassing exhibits.  Unfortunately, we couldn't take any pictures in the museum, so you'll just have to use your imagination.   
Trevi Fountain
Spanish Steps
Inside the Pantheon
Rome at sunset
Thankfully we got our luggage the night before we left for Israel.  We took a celebratory photo of the three of us in the dreadful white t-shirts the airline provided for us.  By that point we were just glad to have all our stuff back and ready to be on our way to Jerusalem!  To be continued....
White shirts and a bed full of luggage

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Container for Zambia is on Its Way!

For the past few months my amazing mother-in-law has been collecting items to send on the container to Zambia to help Holly, the missionaries, the students in the orphan school, and people in the villages.  While I was in Zambia I got to help Holly organize a huge wish list of all the things they need.  Holly sent that list to well over 100 people, and the response has been incredible.  I have been astounded by the generosity of so many people who want to be on board with what God is doing in Zambia.  During the whole collecting process Mom then was in charge of packing up all the items into 220 boxes!
Moving boxes out of our garage
Yesterday morning we loaded up a rented moving truck to haul all the boxes over to the shipping company that will palletize, shrink wrap, and ship everything on a container that will eventually make it to Mpulungu.  Though it will take several months, it is so good to know that everything is on its way!

I know many of you donated items that will be a blessing to the ministry in Zambia, and I just want to say a big THANK YOU!  It has been a huge blessing to see how God is working in so many people's hearts, showing them what a big impact they can have on the other side of the globe.  It's pretty powerful what God can do through us if we let Him!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

As Through a Glass Darkly

This week our community group spent some time studying Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1-3.  These chapters are an analogy of the nation of Israel prostituting themselves to other nations and gods.  The verses we read detail how God rescued them from the hands of their enemies and poured out wondrous blessings on them, yet his chosen people still turned their backs on Him.

Sadly, these verses apply to us today.  God has rescued and redeemed us from a life of sin and death, and has blessed us beyond our wildest imaginings, yet we still continually choose what the world has to offer over what God has so freely given us.  I can't seem to reconcile this in my mind; how is it that we can experience God in all his goodness and faithfulness, and still think that there is something out there that's better?

We read in scripture that God is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14), not because he's jealous in a worldly sense, but because He knows that He is as good as it gets.  In Him alone is perfection and fullness.  He loves us enough to want to give us what is absolutely best for us, and that is Himself.  So when we, like the prostitute in Ezekiel and Hosea, give ourselves to the world, it breaks God's heart.

What is inconceivable to me is how we can experience God's goodness and still want more.  While God has saved us from our sins, we still live in a sinful world, and are able to be blinded by worldly temptations.  It's as if, when we were saved, a veil was lifted from our eyes, but there remains a shroud over us that keeps us from fully experiencing and seeing God face to face.  First Corinthians 13:12 says, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."  This verse gives me incredible hope, because it is a reminder that there is so much more to come.  God isn't through revealing himself to us, and it will be in Heaven where we see him face to face and fully understand his glory.  While on this earth I won't fully comprehend who God is or even grasp His goodness, but there will be a time when the veil is finally lifted and my mind will not be darkened any longer.  As I look forward to that day I want to continue seeking God's face now so I can understand that nothing this world has to offer can compare to the riches my heavenly Father has for me!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life After Leaving

We've been home from Zambia for a full week now, and we're still very much in a state of transition.  We're trying to process a lot that happened in Africa while trying to prepare for our upcoming trip to Israel, not to mention planning for life after The Year of the Suitcase (as I've been calling 2012).  I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever feel settled anywhere.  It feels like we're always in a state of transition.  We always seem to be leaving somewhere, but the good news is, we always seem to land right where God wants us, and we experience so many blessings along the way.

I suppose now I'm trying to figure out what life will look like with feet firmly planted on American soil for awhile.  This next stretch of life will be a completely new chapter for us, and I'm not sure yet what to expect.  I don't have a job yet, and honestly have no idea what kind of work I'll end up with.  As much as I'd love to find a teaching position, I'm not all that hopeful of finding the job I want in the middle of the school year.  And that's ok.  Maybe God has something entirely different in store for me this next year, and I can't wait to find out what that is.

What I do know is this: whatever ends up happening, I want my life to count for something.  As hard as it may be to imagine what the next years hold for us, I want to spend my time making a lasting impact here in Louisville.  I don't want to just sit around waiting for life to happen to me.  Too often I wait around for God to hit me on the head with ways to serve Him, but I don't think that's how we ought to operate.  I want to start stepping out in faith more, finding ways to bless others and make an impact for the Kingdom of God.  So here's hoping that the next few years in Louisville will be well spent and fruitful!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Water from a Different Well

Since returning from Africa Patrick and I have had a lot of people ask us a many questions about our experiences there.  It's opened up opportunities to share how we saw God at work in the lives of the Zambians.  Usually when you think about God transforming people you think of something internal, but our experience tells us that the kind of transformation that is happening is something that seeps into every area of life.
View of Tongwa Village
One of the questions people have when we tell them we want to do missions is why would we want to go into a country to share the gospel when people already have their religion and seem perfectly happy with life as it is.  I think this is a fair question, especially coming from those who don't share our faith and haven't experience God's grace on a personal level.

At first it's easy to think that the people of Zambia who live around the lake are happy and content with the way things are.  But in truth, there is a spiritual darkness there that's palpable.  People live in fear in these areas, and witch doctors capitalize on that fear in a multitude of ways.  Sick individuals are often taken to witch doctors to be healed, only to be made worse and often killed in the process.  Incantations and rituals are performed including human sacrifice to ensure successful fishing on the lake.  The people are ruled by fear of the dark powers of the witch doctors.  Living in fear is not conducive to a life of joy.
Grandmother and baby in Nsumbu (Photo credit Brad Livengood)
There is definitely a spiritual battle going on all around the lake.  In western cultures we often don't think of spiritual things or the fact that Satan is a real spiritual being who is constantly trying to rip us away from God's grace.  In Africa the spiritual realm is obvious.  Demon possession is common, and many of the missionaries in the villages cast our demons on a regular basis.  Often what we would diagnose as a mental disorder in the US is simply the work of dark spiritual forces that can be cast out in Jesus' name.  Believers in places like this can't afford to ignore the spiritual realm, because they really are on the front lines of a raging spiritual battle.  For that matter, so are we, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Children in Nsumbu (Photo credit Brad Livengood)
In the villages there is also a sense of constantly living in survival mode.  People aren't able to plan for days to come; all they can process is how they will find enough to eat so they can live another day.  Little or no thought is given to education, so many people don't even go to school.  Critical thinking skills aren't used, so there is little chance of them ever improving their way of life.  Alcoholism, polygamy, and abuse is prevalent, and the social ills associated with these things abound.  After spending time in places like this it was very clear that the villagers weren't happy or content with their lives.  They were suffering and in desperate need of saving.
School building in Chipwa
Until you meet people who have come to recognize Jesus as their savior, you might think that there is little hope for people living such a lifestyle.  But by developing a relationship with God, people experience a great transformation not only in their attitude toward God but also in their ability to learn and improve their situation.  It's as if a veil is lifted from their minds, and they are able to learn and think critically.  They can develop leadership skills and are able to take initiative so they can provide for their family's future.  They begin to care about their fellow man and want to see their communities made whole again.  It is absolutely mind-boggling to see the difference between the believers and non-believers.  Jesus referred to himself as Living Water, water that would sustain us and quench our thirst for meaning and purpose.  It's one thing to read about this in the Bible, it's another thing to experience it first hand and have a fresh appreciation for the Truth of who Jesus says he is.  There's no mistaking the difference in the lives of people who drink from the well of Living Water.
Missionary family serving in Nsumbu (Photo credit Brad Livengood)
When we talk about transformation we don't just talk about something God does in your heart.  While that's also true, He is also renewing our minds and blessing us with the ability to truly improve the way we live, whether that's in a rural village in Africa or in the bustling cities of America.  When people honestly surrender their life to Christ, they aren't abandoned by God or left to their own devices.  The Lord really does sustain his children; we've seen it with our own eyes.
Believers worshipping together in Nsumbu
So this is why we do missions; this is why we are willing to travel around the globe to share the gospel--because it really does change people.  No amount of education or medical treatment can provide the same life changing transformation that God can.  And when you see it up close and personal, you can't help but want to be part of it all!
Women's ministry in Mpulungu

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Afternoon in Amsterdam

Patrick and I had a long three days of traveling before we finally made it home to Louisville.  Though long, those days were anything but boring!  On Saturday we had a long layover in Amsterdam, so we decided to make the most of it and venture outside the airport to see a bit of the city.  Nevermind the fact that we'd had basically no sleep for two days.  Our unspoken motto seems to be "travel hard or go home."
It turns out that Amsterdam is pretty cold in November, and not at all conducive to flip flops, which,  coming from three months in Zambia, is all we had with us.  We figured as long as we kept walking we could stay warm enough to not freeze to death.  Honestly it was only about 50 degrees or so, but after spending so long being constantly hot, it felt freezing to me.
 I stood in awe of the beautiful architecture all over the city.  That and the sheer number of bikes everywhere.  I love cities where most of the population gets around by riding a bike.  I think I'd fit in very nicely.  We found a delightful little cafe for lunch, and I had real coffee (as in, not instant) for the first time in months.  It was so tasty I deemed it photo worthy.

A giant bike parking garage.  I couldn't even fit it all in the picture.

The other thing I discovered was that sex and drug use is absolutely rampant.  I was surprised to see prostitutes just standing in shop windows and pot sold openly in many stores.  In a few short hours it was clear that this was a city in serious need of redemption.  It reminded me of a present day Sodom and Gomorrah, and I noticed a deadness in people's eyes that was unnerving.  Experiencing all this was a good reminder of how powerful the gospel is to change people's lives and bring new life.  I remember someone saying once that Jesus didn't come to make bad people good.  He came to make dead people alive.  Though there is rampant sin in that place, I think it's exactly where we would find Jesus today.  He always had a way of hanging out with the "wrong" kind of people, yet those were the people who ultimately understood the concept of grace.  Has much changed in the past 2000 years?  It's those who have fallen the hardest that experience the biggest transformation when they come to know Christ.

Monday, November 19, 2012

So Long Zambia

It’s hard to believe that our time in Zambia has finally come to a close.  The last three months have gone by in a blink, and in many ways I’m not ready to go back to the US. There is still so much that I wanted to accomplish in Mpulungu.  As the bus rolled out of town it felt like a dream.  I kept thinking I’d wake up under my mosquito netting and get up to teach another day in the school.  How did the time go by that quickly?

Visiting a few of our students and their families
During our 18-hour bus ride to Lusaka I had plenty of time to reflect on this latest chapter of my life.  You know it’s funny, my whole life I’d been afraid that God would call me to missions in Africa.  Africa always seemed so foreign to me, and for a long time foreign things or places scared me.  I like the familiarity of home, the comfort in knowing the language and culture of my own country.  So the awesome thing is that while we’ve lived in Zambia, God has shown me how easily foreign places can become familiar, and how quickly the unknown can become home.  I have a sense that He’s doing this to help me make the transition to full-time missions in a few years when we (yet again) pack up and leave behind all that is familiar and comfortable.  It’s becoming crystal clear that God does indeed prepare our hearts for the things He calls us to do.  He doesn’t just hand us an assignment and leave us to flounder on our own.  Instead, he works in and through us to teach us the things we need to know, or show us what he wants us to understand about himself.  I’m always floored by just how faithful God is.

Pumping some villages this is the only source of water available.
After spending so many months this year in other countries, I’m starting to think that life in America will seem boring.  Patrick and I have become slightly obsessed with seeing what God is doing around the world, and I think that’s why we seem to have a hard time keeping our feet on US soil.  We’ve been so blessed to be able to travel this much and experience so many different cultures and people groups.  It’s through all these experiences that God is growing our hearts for the nations and to see the Truth of Christ known around the world.  Our latest challenge will be in finding new ways to serve Jesus within our own culture!

Spending the day with part of the team at Isanga Bay.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Do you ever feel like God has to teach you the same lesson over and over?  This seems to be the story of my life.  God wants to transform my heart, but it’s not an easy process, and sometimes I think my heart makes for some pretty tough clay in the Potter’s hands. 

This afternoon God handed me another challenge, really, another opportunity to learn a lesson in giving up my rights to things that aren’t ever owed to me in the first place.  This has been something God has been having me walk through again and again, yet somehow I never seem to get it.  So now the Lord has asked me to deal with some difficult circumstances that I’d much rather avoid.  At first I was angry, but then I heard God’s still small voice saying that he has a lot to teach me through this.  He wants to teach me how to be a servant even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.  He wants me to learn how to love without condition, and how to truly walk in His strength. 

It occurred to me that it’s so easy to talk a big game about how Jesus has changed my life, but if I don’t live it out, what’s the point?  Who cares what I say if my life doesn’t reflect the change?  The most difficult thing about following Christ is living life where the rubber hits the road; where life gets tough and the people get messy.  But isn’t that what being salt and light to the world means?  This is the very reason we’re not whisked away to eternal glory in heaven the moment we become followers of Jesus; God wants us to be the hands and feet of Christ to everyone.  He wants to show the world his power and glory through us… if we’d only let Him. 

So here I am hearing God speaking all these things to my heart and I can do nothing but throw my hands up in surrender and say, “Go for it Lord.”  I really do want God to transform my heart; I want to be more like my Savior I’ve given my life to.  But that transformation doesn’t come easily.  Actually, it’s usually pretty painful, but in the end the glory God gets from it all makes it well worth the struggle.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Going Out for Battle

I’ve always heard it said that it’s when you’re really making an impact for the Kingdom for God that you start facing severe trials and persecution.  Obviously Satan doesn’t want us to succeed in glorifying God, and he’ll do anything in his (limited) power to destroy anyone who does.  Of course, we have an incredibly powerful weapon on our side: prayer.  But how often do we actually tap into this power and rebuke Satan?  How often is it that we actually trust in the power of Christ to overcome these trials?  Jesus says in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  Jesus has already won the battle; all we have to do now is declare whose side we’re on.

This past week our whole team has felt a kind of spiritual heaviness that has practically exhausted us.  Satan has come against us in many ways recently, yet we’ve all experienced victory in different areas through prayer.  It’s been truly incredible!  We have seen God answer prayers in miraculous ways, and I have been very encouraged and reminded that God is always faithful.  He never leaves us in the hands of the enemy, and is ready at our side when we call on Him.  Our team has recently gotten a new boat to use to visit the villages around the lake.  Patrick and Chris traveled to Zimbabwe to pick it up, and every step of the way they faced difficulties.  We all knew that there was a spiritual battle raging, because Satan knew that if we got this boat God would be glorified.  Our team didn’t sit idly by waiting for the boys to come back.  We dug into the trenches and went to war with Satan by praying that God’s power would be evident in the whole thing.  It was exhausting, but God answered our prayers in big ways, and God got all the glory for it!
Patrick, Chris, and the very prayed-over boat!
 I have found a lot of encouragement in Isaiah recently, specifically Isaiah 33:3 which says, “O Lord, be gracious to us; we long for you.  Be our strength every morning, our salvation in times of distress.”  This has been a good reminder that I must call on the Lord daily.  In so many ways we really are at war.  There is a spiritual battle being waged around us whether we know it or not, and prayer in the strongest weapon we have.