Friday, August 31, 2012

Still Reading? Hang In There!

I know, I know. The Journey reading is tough right now. I’ve heard it from many of you. People in my small group and even some in my own family have fallen off the pace a little. Life gets busy in the fall when school starts back and it doesn’t help that the reading in Ezekiel (like Jeremiah) is, well, depressing. Would it help if I told you that there’s light at the end of the tunnel? We’re only one month away from the New Testament!!! In fact, things are going to get better even before we start the Gospels. Daniel is really interesting and unbelievably accurate regarding what would happen in the world before the Messiah was to come, and there’s a really cool event that we’ll read about next: the return of the Jews from the exile. You don’t want to miss it. Putting the final pieces in place will complete this big puzzle we’ve been working on since January! You’ll be so glad you stayed with it, and you’ll understand the Old Testament better than 90% of all Christians! Don’t quit!

Even more than this, I don’t want you to miss the important spiritual purpose for reading all this doom-and-gloom. There IS a spiritual purpose. And it’s not ALL doom-and-gloom. Okay, there’s a lot, but every bit of it is necessary. God had a purpose for it then and he has a purpose for preserving it for us to read now. For them? Easy. He wanted them to realize the seriousness of rebelling against him. He also wanted them to consider how hard it is for inherently sinful people to be obedient to an infinitely holy God. In fact, it’s impossible! With all the advantages he’d given them and all the ways he’d revealed himself to them, they still couldn't break free from the gravitational pull of their sinful hearts. So now, in the time of Ezekiel, they’re broken and exiled to a foreign nation as slaves. God reminded them why they were where they were. Over and over it seems. According to my wife, "he’s rubbing their noses in it."

His purpose for US in reading it? Exactly the same. He wants us to see the seriousness of sin and our inability to change ourselves. He wants us to grapple with the similarities between them and us. He wants us to wonder if the doom and gloom ever ends.

Then he cracks the door of hope.

God says that HE will take your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. HE will establish a new, everlasting covenant. HE will atone for your sin. HE will be our God and we will be his people. No one will say, “serve the Lord” because HE will write his law on our hearts.

It reminds me of the time long before when the whole “God’s people” thing began. Remember Abraham? In Genesis 15 God promised to make a great nation of him, and Abraham believed—which God “counted to him as righteousness.” In the great scene that followed, God asked Abraham to prepare some animals and divide their carcasses in halves as men did in ancient days when making a covenant. The two men would then “walk the blood path” between the dead animals to promise, “If I break my end of the deal, I’ll die like these animals.” Abraham prepared the animals and then waited. He even had to drive off the vultures that wanted to eat the carcasses. He finally fell deeply asleep and a “dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” God showed him a glimpse of a hard future for his offspring. Then God symbolically passed through the animal carcasses...twice. Once for himself and once for Abraham. Don’t forget the picture. God was saying in effect, “You can’t live up to your end of the covenant. So I’ll do it for you. And if (when) you don’t, I’ll die in your place.

Abraham’s children have utterly failed to live up. Now God, through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is making sure they know it. And he’s preparing the way to come and die in their place. Just as he showed Abraham he would.

Oh, and that promise to Abraham’s family? We’ll see in the New Testament that it includes all who believe, just as Abraham believed and was counted righteous. So hang in there! It will all come together. You’ll be so glad you pushed through.

Friday, August 3, 2012

God’s Glory in Brazil

I am just now able to sit down long enough to write some reflections on this trip I’ve been on.
The last week-and-a-half has been life-changing for me and a few people and (I pray) world-changing for others. God has just blessed this time, effort, and money.

Last week I went with some in our church (including my family) to work with the church we planted in Barra (Rio de Janeiro) Brazil. They are doing an amazing work. God is blessing them with much growth and increasing influence, both in the Christian circles of Brazil as well as cultural change in Rio. Last Sunday, they had about 2600 people in their worship services. 47 people joined their church Sunday, making the total number of members 1745. That’s amazing when you remember they had a small handful of people when the church began 9 years ago. But to simply state numbers does not give an adequate picture. The church is unique in Brazil. In it are both rich and poor. Worshiping, serving, and learning together. And loving one another. Examples abound.

One of the two poor communities we worked in is called Tijuquinha (ti-ju-KEEN-ya). When I went there with a group five years ago, it was much worse. It felt extremely dangerous. Open sewage. Strong bad smell. The people we met there seemed much poorer. Lice-infested kids wore rags and scraggly animals walked the dirt alleys. Homes were dirty. It truly was a favela (Portuguese for “slum”). The church had just started reaching into the area, and we met with a small group of about 6 people, and went to the homes of several others who were new Christians. This time I noticed a remarkable change in Tijuquinha. Kids seemed healthy. I did not notice a smell. Dirt streets had been paved with cobblestones and had sidewalks. Many neat little stores and services (like hairdressers) were doing business. Homes were much neater. It seemed much safer. It’s not even accurate to call Tijuquinha a favela anymore. We were told that it is now called a comunidade (pronounced “communi-dodge,” meaning “community”)! What happened?

Darla and I after our first day at Tijuquinha watching our
group interact with the people (and watching Dara,
Addy, and Allie show Brazilian boys how American
girls play soccer. They were quite impressed!).
We were sporting our tie dye shirts. We made
hundreds of these for the kids there! An awesome day.
I think I know. There are now dozens of small groups from Central Church Barra there. I walked the streets and met many people inviting them to our program there and giving out Bibles and lists of the small groups in the community. Almost everyone knew of Central Church Barra and had favorable things to say. The church has literally transformed the community. Many of the residents I met 5 years ago who were new Christians are now leaders in the church and/or community. You can just tell they are happy and growing. They are seeing their community changed. This time I met with a small group (a couple of other groups met with us, so it was not really “small”). Four men received Christ that very night. UNBELIEVABLE!

The rest of the week we worked in a new favela that the church has targeted to transform. It has already begun. They had events designed for the purpose of showing love to those people whom the government had forgotten. It reminded me of the Tijuquinha I visited five years ago. But we (the group from Providence and Central Barra) played with kids, prayed with the people, presented the Gospel, and invited the whole community to a big event there on Saturday. At that event lawyers, doctors, professional counselors, veterinarians, physical therapists, and other professionals from the church set up stations to give free help to the people. The church went all out and we were right there with them. We made salvation bracelets (I’ll try to blog later about them) that told the story of the Gospel, and (with translators from Central Barra) told hundreds about Jesus’ love. Then some famous Brazilian musicians gave a mini concert for the people and Pastor Josué spoke of God’s love and told the people that Central Barra was just starting to show his love and would be in this community from now on. At least 47 people received Christ. I am tearing up as I recount this even now.

This week I’m in São Paulo, the third largest city in the world (according to some reports). There are many places here where wealthy and poor neighborhoods live virtually side-by-side, oblivious to one another, and oblivious to the Good News. We’re wanting to start another church like Central Barra. Please pray for us. Jesse Cragwall of GPI is assisting, Tim & Polly Sumner are translating, and John Barber is getting it all on video. More later, just please pray as we meet with pastors, denominational leaders, seminary professors, and potential church planters. Many thanks to those who are helping us make connections and getting the word out. Great things are happening.