Is God Good?

One of the questions that can easily stop us in our tracks as evangelists is: “If God is good, why does everything around me seem wrong?” We don’t know how to answer, so we flee from the conversation or mumble something that sounds churchy, but in all honesty, that question is intimidating because we don’t exactly know how to answer it, right?
How about this?
Imagine that the world is a valley, and granted, it’s a mess. Everyone is scrambling to define their place and achieve something, all too often at the expense of others. Sprinkled throughout are the Christians, supposedly understanding the way they are to act, leaving behind the urge to prove something and instead, building life rafts. Everyone else laughs at them, not unlike those who laughed at Noah, not seeing the need for their work, not seeing the value of their preparation. 
What they haven’t seen, but the Christians have, is the dam at the top of the cliff. It is big and strong, and Christians know that means it holds back a great deal of powerful water. One shift and the valley will be forever changed. Not erased, but filled with a new way of existence. The earth-bound constructions and defined boundaries will cease to rule. The water will take every nook and cranny for itself, as is its nature. It will clean away the dirt and debris in its rush by, leaving only fresh water glittering in clear light. 
Christians know the better focus is to prepare for the coming flood and inform as many people as possible. They do so by showing them the power of water in small ways, trying to raise awareness of its importance and power so that others realize the need to be ready and the value of being part of this new way. 
Why is the valley still messed up? Because the water waits, letting those in the valley have a chance to choose its way. 
In the same way, God is good, God is love, and he is showing us this every day by not flooding in and filling the whole world with himself…not yet. The results would be great for those who are ready, and disastrous for everyone else, so he waits because he loves them too. As long as people have freedom of choice in how they live, their choices will inevitably have consequences. Often those consequences affect those around them, so that the circumstances experienced in the world are not God’s doing, because he holds himself back and lets us choose.  The very fact that we see the brokenness and pain of the world is why we see clearly the need for his love and power, and since we can recognize his love in the waiting, we allow him to first flood us, producing in us the changes that happen when his power comes. Not force, not demands, not rules, but real transformation. This is the message of the good news - the power of love to change the world by its presence. This is what we carry to a world still in need of it, the example of what can be.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
— 2 Corinthians 3:17-18


We recently had our annual retreat with missionaries from Lima and Cuzco. It is astounding to think that, for some of us, this was our final gathering as missionaries in Peru. We call it the Peruvian Missions Summit (the acronym for which will tell you something about our sense of humor). Five years ago, two green teams got together with a packed schedule of activities facilitated by visiting experts.  We played a bit, but it wasn’t about relaxing. We were eager and fresh.  We had not yet come through culture shock. We hadn’t formed any enduring relationships with Peruvians. We had no good stories.

Four years later, disciples are baptized, churches are meeting, teams are reconfigured, unimagined ministries are underway, imagined ministries are dead and gone, and we have a story or two to tell.  We also have a boatload of kids and no hope of concentrating on anything scheduled at a retreat. So we took the time just to be together, to snatch conversations when we could and swap war stories. Or fishing stories. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. We sang a bit and ate a lot. And when the kids were in bed we stayed up late to tell jokes and commiserate about expat life in Peru.

In those scattered moments, something happened for the first time since we started meeting each year—something that could only happen with time, highlighted by the nearing departure of fellow workers. We discovered a bond that had slowly formed, and just sharing that bond was as encouraging as anything could be.  It is the bond of having lived in solidarity with Peruvians as God’s mission unfolded among them. Not of having achieved something or been something, but of having struggled alongside Peruvians. It reminds me of trekking up the Rockies with the church youth group. That shared hike, even for just a few days, created a strange, intense mutual understanding. Much more so these shared years in cross-cultural Peruvian ministry.

On the final night of the retreat, the conversation took a serious turn. We reflected on the poverty, corruption, and evil that plague the country and the seemingly minuscule difference our combined efforts are making. I could see we were indeed standing on a summit, surveying the peaks and valleys surrounding us. Then someone asked: so what do we do? Of course, we haven’t found the answer in a few years’ time; if anything, we have learned that we don’t have the answer. It is humbling to see so many mountains yet to climb. Yet, it is a question asked in hope, because it looks toward the continued unfolding of God’s purpose in Peru. Amidst our faltering attempts to say something about the way forward, there was a clear resolution: that the struggle will go on, that Peruvians and foreigners alike will keep walking together through the next valley, up to the next peak. I’m thankful for those who have come before. I bless those who stay and those who will come. I pray that the Spirit and the church will keep sending them to journey in solidarity with Peruvian kingdom-seekers.

I Choose to Praise

Being in a new place and being away from home and what you are use to can be hard. We have been sick most of the time we have been here, have had troubles with the language and had times of not understanding the culture. I have had a couple of memorably bad days already where I have just ended up in tears and frustration. I have realised through these times that it is good to take time to celebrate and praise the Lord for the things that bring joy and happiness no matter how small or big. So there are a couple of things I want to share with you and hope you can celebrate with me. 
We have now been in Arequipa for 6 months! It seems like such an achievement as this is the longest I have been away from home. I could not have dreamed of all the things we have done, seen and been a part of already in these 6 months. Our new church family have welcomed us with open hearts and it has been such a privilege to walk with them in faith.
We have finished our Spanish lessons and can hold a relatively good conversation, which in turn is helping us to make some new friends.
I am also surrounded by teammates who don't know me so well but have opened their homes and hearts to us. It fills me with so much joy to be able to share this experience with them.
And lastly God’s amazing grace…what a beautiful gift. He has given me strength. He has soften my heart when it has been so hard. He has provided so generously in ways I didn’t even know I needed.
So I praise God for these things and ask that you will with me as well.

Philippians Prayer

I had the gift of leading a devotional among the team in the past week as part of our team meeting.
We read Philippians 4:4-8. If you haven't read it lately, read it. Through the stresses of the day, the difficulties we face, our challenges, our distractions and our emotions. The words ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus' are truly wonderful words. If I genuinely reflect on the times I have prayed for God's work in my life I can see a peace that I would not ever have otherwise. If you reflect on it too, I believe that you will find the same thing.
I also have a default position, which is using God as a Lucky charm (only praying when I ‘need’ or strongly desire something). I’m sure God knows that is my normal heart, so every time I read it I feel like God had me in mind. God knows what we need, of that I am certain. But not only that, he gives us the assurance that only He is able to; that the master of the universe has our concerns in mind and through Him we will have a peace that we can’t understand, but can be ever-so grateful for.

Faithfulness or Success

I've written before about how the church measures success in mission work.  I'm kind of obsessed with success.  I don't know why.  Personality probably.  Cultural values, no doubt.  I've failed plenty in life, but that seems to have only reinforced my desire to succeed.  Tell me I can't, and I'll prove you wrong.  Knock me down, and I'll get back up.  My mom told me I could do anything, and apparently I believed her.  
At the end of the summer this year, one of our interns asked me what has been the most important lesson I've learned in the mission field.  It didn't take me long to answer, because the important lessons are often then ones that hurt most in the learning.  My response was, "I'm learning to be content with faithfulness rather than success."  This is not a tremendous insight; just Google the title of this article.  In fact, I distinctly remember one of my graduate professors making this point.  I also remember thinking, "Sure, in theory, but of course God wants results.  Otherwise, what's the point?"  If that sounds pathological, just remember that the missionary too lives by grace alone.
Yet, the fact that there are results that God wants is what makes sense of the contrast between faithfulness and success. The point is not that God is indifferent about the consequences of the church's life in the world.  Rather, it is the importance of such consequences that gives meaning to success, and it is the meaning of this success that makes the contrast with faithfulness actually challenging and weighty.  Only in view of God's deep concern about the brightness of light and saltiness of salt can we really grasp what it means that he is pleased with our faithfulness regardless of our success.  The two are not mutually exclusive, but sometimes they are very different.  

What is Christmas Really About?

Christmas isn’t about baby Jesus.   It’s about Jesus, just not baby Jesus.
It’s about Jesus coming, showing up in the muck and mess of the physical world, assuming a position of no power and just walking around in skin like everyone else. 
The Advent season, the season of waiting for Christmas, isn’t about waiting for the announcement of the birth of the Savior. That already happened. It’s about waiting for the announcement of the return of the Savior, about acknowledging a continuing need for as much of His Presence as we can get.
For some, it’s with excited anticipation, made manifest in the jitters of small children who can’t fall asleep for the thought of what the morning holds. For such as these, it is joy in the gifts that are coming. 
For some, it’s with weariness, knowing that the current struggle or pain will someday be seen as fleeting. For these, it is determination to stand firm until it gets better, seen in the person of Mary, bearing through the shame cast her way, enduring a long journey and painful labor to birth her King, obedient through difficulty that was given as a blessing because of her faithfulness. The good and hard entertwined and impossible to separate, all taken as worthwhile for His purpose.
For some, it’s with a yearning for something they can’t put their finger on, even as they hold out hope for it. Though others around them might see it as foolishness to want the unknown, the story shows them wise and committed. For these, it is a search through the night sky, following a glimmer of truth, as seen in the “wise men” who pursue a star for long years in search of an unknown baby king. It’s an inner draw to what is real, whether it seems real to others or not.
For some, it’s almost an afterthought, the result of being in the right place at the right time and finding themselves stirred anew through the message of God. He’s fine working that way, delivering the good news directly to those who hadn’t sought it out, as He did to the shepherds. They were about their own business when He sent a whole sky-choir to change their focus for the night. He can find hearts wherever He chooses, and Christmas reminds us of that.
We remember Christmas to look back at God giving all of Himself to the world, a reminder that love means emptying yourself for the sake of the one you love. We give gifts to participate in this process, looking for how we can step into the act of making someone else’s life good. We choose selflessness and sacrifice and presence and kindness, because that’s what God did.
But we also remember Christmas to look forward to all that has yet to happen, to the day when these truths won’t be a passing season, but a fully enacted reality. We remember our hope in a world where Jesus shows up in the muck and mess of every day, acknowledging that for now He does so through us and will one day blast in and make it all new and better. He will flood earth with heaven and everything will be as it should be. That’s just what happens when His Presence and Love fill a place - everything is good. 
So if, for you, this holiday is about fun and laughter and singing and joy…embrace it and know that you are embodying the light of Christ and hope that won’t give up.
And if, for you, this holiday squeezes a little tight because you feel the weight of the world’s brokenness pressing down on you, giving the usual cheer a grating, off-tune feel…accept it and know that you are reflecting the reality of our need for Christ. 
And if, for you, this holiday feels empty and meaningless because life is just life and lights don’t change it, rest in it and know that the power of Christ depends not one bit on your tendency toward sentiment or joviality. 
Because at the end of it all, Christmas is about how Jesus arrives in the situation He chooses and it doesn’t have to make an ounce of sense to anyone. He shows up because it’s time and that’s that.
This Christmas, remember that this story is both a past truth and a future promise about the Presence of the King in the world. It’s cause to celebrate.

An Invitation and Apple Pie

Back in the day when our two families were strategizing about where to live and what to focus on in this great big city, we decided to move into two communities where “gringos” don’t live.  We wanted to live among the people that we were going to serve.  So, I remember Greg and Kyle looking at the classified section of the Sunday paper for houses to rent.  They also contacted some real estate agents to help us look for available homes.  Guess what we found out?  Our targeted communities never had listings and the real estate agents only worked in the neighborhoods where the gringos normally live.  We were at a loss for what to do until someone suggested we talk to bodega owners.
Every street has a bodega.  It is typically a front room or corner spot of someone’s house where they operate as a little mini-mart.  One can find milk, eggs, flour, sugar, popcorn, produce, and snack foods all in a stone’s throw.  Some are small, and some are huge, but they all have one thing in common...  they know what is going on in the community.
So to continue from the first paragraph, Greg talked to a bodega owner that knew of a bottom floor for rent in the area we wanted to live.  Long story short, we rented that home for two years.  We never would have found it if we hadn’t talked to the bodega owner.  Between the Smiths and the McKinzies, we have had our fun share of moving into different houses here (usually they only let you sign a one-year lease, and then they kick you out because some family member is wanting to move back in).  When one of our families needs to move, we check the papers, but we also know now to go corner mart to corner mart to ask the bodega owners of what is available to rent.
As a team, we had the idea to come into a neighborhood and form some of our first relationships with our neighbors.  We learned very quickly that this would not happen.  You see, when my family moved to a new home in the states, I remember people bringing food to our door to welcome us into the community.  I guess I thought it would be similar here, maybe not with apple pie, but something to say, “Hola, we would love to get to know you.  Welcome to the hood!”  This did not happen at all.  We quickly learned that Peruvians are very slow to trust anyone, and they really stay to themselves and the rest of their family (who usually all live under the same roof).  Once you form a relationship with a Peruvian, it is an even longer process to get them to introduce you to their family or invite you into their home.

We have had all kinds of outlets to form relationships here aside from the neighborhood.  We meet people through our kids’ activities or through CUDA projects to name a couple of examples.  But we really haven’t ever been super close with the neighborhood.  I have accepted that as the way it is, but I still have my eyes open to forming relationships wherever I can.  A couple of months ago, I remember going on a walk with Greg.  We were talking about the new team coming in and reminiscing about our arrival to Arequipa.  Greg said to me, “You know, if we really wanted to get in with the neighborhood, we could just go to the bodega and offer to work there for free.  Everybody from the community goes to buy the bread there every morning.  You would learn who everybody is just by hanging out in one place.”  This strategy isn’t exactly realistic.  We have lived here long enough that we know that they would look at us like we are absolute loons, but the point is a good one.  The bodega owners know everybody.  They are the ones that know what is going on with everyone in the neighborhood because everyone comes in at least once a day and spills out the scoop.

We have been living in our current neighborhood for over two years now.  I frequent the bodega just like my neighbors.  I have come to know the owners by name, and they know my children by name when we come in together.  They can even tell me if Greg already stopped by to buy ice if I am unaware!  I love it.  I feel at home.
The other day, something very simple happened at the bodega, but it signified a lot to me.  Esther, the bodega owner, handed me an envelope before I headed out with my bag of fresh bread for 33 cents.  It was an invitation for my family to attend her youngest daughter’s birthday party.  At first, one may think, “What’s the big deal?  It’s a birthday party.”  But to me, this invitation says that Esther trusts me.  She trusts me so much that she is willing to invite my entire family over for a birthday party for someone very special to her.  That is huge.
I have made an effort to become a neighbor here.  I frequent the bodega, and I sometimes go to Esther just to ask a question about my girls’ school activities when I don’t understand the culture.  I appreciate her so much, and I like to consider Esther my friend.  I think that she just told me through an invitation that she wants to be friends with me.  I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I am thinking I might be baking her an apple pie sometime in the near future.

One Way to Look at It: A Proposal

It’s easy to think of people in terms of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. That The World is an entity separate and apart from The Church, and the very basis of our identity is wrapped up in having a line drawn between the two groups. Then we imagine that if God were to choose a side, He would plant His feet just as firmly on our side of the line as we do and join us in glaring fiercely at those who refuse to cross over to our side. He rejoices in their struggles, failings, and pain as proof of their wrong position. 

Except, does that actually sound like Him? There has to be a better way to think about it.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
— John 3:16

Familiar words that pack a punch, though its power is often lost on us because we can rattle it off “by heart” without actually engaging the heart at all. Yet, it carries a great deal of meaning. 

It means that God wanted so badly to be in unity with each and every one of the people He created in His image that He proposed marriage to everyone who ever existed. He came in close, offered the promise of a committed life with Him, and asked if we would take Him up on it. As proof, He paid all that it would cost with His own life, giving that which was valuable to Him to His beloved. As a man presents a woman with an engagement ring, Jesus gave us Himself to prove His dedication and sincerity. 

And every single person who has lived or will live since then has the choice to merge their life with His, or not. Some of us have accepted His proposal and now live a mutual life with Him. Just like marriage, we don’t do very well some days, but the commitment is there, the base assumption that we live this life together. Others have not yet accepted His offer, but it still stands. It will stand until time ends. He loves each person so dearly that He will wait patiently for their answer. 

Do we really feel justified to look down on anyone else for where they fall in their process with Him? Do we truly think that God has assigned us the task of determining whether others have missed their chance? Or, when we really think about it, do we recognize that such an assumption makes no sense in light of the God who has shown us such grace, accepted us so freely, and continued steadfast in His love for us despite our own flaws? 

Who are we to write off anyone to whom He has made such an offer? Who are we to be stingy with love when we have received it abundantly? If we are His representatives here on earth, then we show others what this committed life with Him looks like, which means being open to those He has invited. After all, it’s His kingdom.

Planes, Libraries, and Automobiles

I made it safely to the states with our three kids.  If you happened to hear the story of our departure, you know that it was not the easiest of trips.  We missed our international flight and were totally rerouted (this happening after all the drama with Ana’s passport).  Greg posted that people pray for less stress for me, and I want you to know that if you prayed this prayer, God was gracious to me.  Though stress was going to be a factor (I was traveling without my husband with THREE kids for crying out loud), everyone was overly helpful, we got on a flight THAT night out of Lima, and my sister made all the connections with me (there was a chance she wouldn’t with the crazy delays out of Arequipa).  So, thank you for praying for our travels.  I returned early with the kids to participate in the festivities of my best friend’s wedding.  Greg will join us the end of September for a one-month furlough.  We will hit Tullahoma, Memphis, the Dallas area, and Tyler in a whirlwind trip.  It has been a blessing to already be spending time with my Tullahoma family.  We look forward to seeing so many more of you!

My article is short this month.  First of all, Happy Five Year Anniversary to Team Arequipa.  If you have supported this work in any way, we consider you part of the team.  It is an absolute blessing to see the faithfulness of God as we look back on what he has done in the past five years.  For me, I am in awe of how he has blessed the Living Libraries program.  Lucia (the Peruvian in charge of the program) and I have worked so hard this year to see how the program flows in all grade levels serving an entire school.  It has been a great year, and our plan is to open three more libraries next year.  It will be a lot of work, and CUDA saw the need for us to hire another employee for the program.  I am honored to introduce you to our newest Living Library team member, Felicitas.  She is a Christian with a passion to teach.  She is gifted in working with the children, and I am so excited to see how Lucia and Feli work together in these months that I am not present.  Please pray for our library team, and pray for the schools that we will enter next year.  We will be in contact with so many teachers and students.  It is a huge blessing to be in a place to influence so many toward the glory and work of our God.