Friday, June 29, 2012

Preaching in Haiti

I don’t preach much. It’s really not my strong suit when it comes to being a pastor. I’ve done it, and can do it, but it just takes a lot of emotional energy for me to do it well. So, when I was asked on a Saturday to preach on Sunday, I was looking for any way possible to deflect the invitation. But that was only the first reason I didn’t want to preach on that Sunday. I was in Haiti, I would need to be translated, I didn’t have any notes with me, the church would be hot, uncomfortable, and overcrowded. Now that’s plenty of reason to say “no thanks” to Marcel, my Haitian host.

But as Marcel chatted with me about why I should preach on 12 hours notice, I had a very difficult time telling him no. Marcel said, “This has been a very busy week with your group and my family coming.”  Marcel’s wife and five of his kids had traveled with us from the U.S. They had not been home to Haiti in over five years. “I don’t get many breaks from preaching,” he continued. “I’m sure you have a sermon in your back pocket. When I travel to the states, I’m asked to preach from my back pocket.” How do you deflect that request? 
The good news was that God had given me a passage that had been rolling in my head for several weeks. I had always thought about how I would teach the passage and now I was about to find out. So, late that Saturday, I grabbed my Bible and some blank pages from a friend’s journal and threw together an outline. I was surprised how quickly things came together. It was good to know that with a translator, I had to keep things short, simple and relatable to a different culture.
As I finished, a young man from our team, Ben, approached me and asked if he could pray over me. Though Ben is only 20 years old, his spiritual maturity is well beyond his years. He has traveled abroad for the last two years with an organization called Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and has felt the pressure I was feeling. He prayed, “God, help Phil to know that he’s proclaiming your Word and not his own and that he can rest in the power that comes from your Word.” I really appreciated Ben’s prayer. I knew that truth, but needed the reminder as I approached this new opportunity.
The next day, I got up early and spent some time going over my notes, rehearsing what my simple little message would sound like. I grew excited about this opportunity but there was some real anxiety within me as well. As we arrived at the church, another one of my group members approached me and asked to pray over me. I think he saw my worried face and my pacing feet. Kevin prayed this with his hand on my shoulder, “God, help Phil to know that he’s proclaiming your Word and not his own and that he can rest in the power that comes from your Word.” Once again, I needed that reminder as the service time approached.
Preaching to this Haitian church was an incredible experience. As I began to speak, I felt calmness—and even a cool breeze—in that packed house. I experienced a freedom to speak as God led and even the staggered flow of speaking through a translator (who was Marcel) went fairly well. I preached from Luke 19 and told the story of Jesus pursuing the short, hated, chief tax collector named Zacchaeus who was known by his community as a notorious sinner. I made the point that the people grumbled when Jesus hung out at Zacchaeus’ house and that Jesus loved the lost more than the people did. The story ends with Jesus giving his mission statement: “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost.”
When I finished, I prayed a prayer of blessing over the congregation and walked off the little stage feeling a sense of completion and relief. But, Marcel called me back. He pointed to a woman who was approaching the stage and said, “Please pray with this woman. She’s giving her life to the Lord today!”  I was honestly shocked and didn’t know quite what to do. Marcel repeated his instructions to me. So, I knelt and prayed with the woman (who didn’t understand a word I said). After a song, Marcel came and prayed with woman, asking her questions leading to her confession of sin and her receiving the gift of salvation through the shed blood of Jesus.
I was shocked and amazed; but why? Perhaps the prayers of my traveling buddies were being answered in front of my eyes. Perhaps their words had not quite sunk in with me. “God, help Phil to know that he’s proclaiming your Word and not his own and that he can rest in the power that comes from your Word.”   The power of the verse, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost” had transformed this woman’s view of God and her view of her life. Watching Marcel lead her to Christ in front of the congregation moved me immensely. That day, I learned again a powerful message about the changing power of God’s Word. This song from David rings even more true for me after that Sunday in Haiti.
Oh, how I love your instructions!
I think about them all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are my constant guide…
How sweet your words taste to me;
they are sweeter than honey.
104 Your commandments give me understanding…

              (portions from Psalm 119.97-104)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Disaster Averted

This week I’m packing for another trip to Haiti. This will be my second trip in two years to Haiti and the excitement is really building in my soul. As I plan and pack, memories of last year’s trip seem to be hitting at strange times. The other day, I was watching the weather and the meteorologist simply said, “And today marks the beginning of the hurricane and tropical storm season in the Atlantic Ocean.” That little statement triggered a Haiti memory that I hadn’t thought of in many months. But this wasn’t a memory of something that happened, it was a memory of what didn’t happen. 

As we settled in our seats for the flight to Port-a-Prince from Miami, many of us were checking our phones one last time. Once in Haiti, what phone service we had would be very expensive to use. Shelly, sitting a row ahead of me, turned to tell me and said with phone in hand, “Just saw a weather report for Haiti. They’re expecting a tropical storm in the next few days.” Having never been to Haiti and having never experienced a tropical storm, I wondered what it was going to be like experiencing two very intense things on the same trip. 
As we arrived and settled into the home of our host, the concern of this impending storm came into our conversation. We had just driven two hours from the airport in Port-a-Prince to St. Marc.  The drive was visually intense. We saw thousands of tents still being used as homes and shelters from the devastating earthquake. We drove through smaller villages plagued with poverty and overcrowding. And, we saw the beauty of an incredible Caribbean island as the sun set over the ocean and the mountains. Our hearts were tugged and our minds were churning just from the drive to our host’s home.  Then we remembered… there’s a storm coming, right?  
Marcel, a Haitian pastor and our host, had heard about the storm but he didn’t seem overly concerned about it. Either he didn’t want us freaking out, he didn’t know much about what the storm was forecasted to do, or he was just used to big storms blowing in and out. He assured us that if and when the storm comes, we would be safe. We went to bed relieved and ready to tackle the days to come. Over the next couple of days, occasionally someone would ask about the storm. Marcel would say that it’s coming but didn’t offer any details. Apparently, Haitians aren’t as obsessed with the Weather Channel as Americans are. We focused on our project and left the weather report to Marcel to figure out. 

We had arrived on a Tuesday and on Friday afternoon, Marcel interrupted our work and said, “Pack up your things. The storm is coming soon. We’re heading back to the house.” We did as instructed, loaded up with a sense of urgency and concerned excitement for what the night would bring. When we got back to Marcel’s, we spent a few minutes putting some things usually left outside in a secure place. But most of the evening was fairly routine. We ate dinner, played cards, and enjoyed each other’s company.  As I went to bed that night, I fully expected to be awaken by wind, rain, and thunder. I wondered if we would have a rough, sleepless night as this storm fell over us. But, the night passed and I woke to the typical morning sounds of goats and chickens, truck horns, and people going about their business. I found Marcel was up working on breakfast and I had to ask, “Marcel, what’s up with the storm? Is it still coming?” He laughed as he said, “Good news for us! Bad news for Cuba! We dodged a bullet.” 
It wasn’t until I returned home the next week that I learned what really happened with this storm.  Friends and family members had been tracking that storm all week. Pleas for prayer were all over e-mail and Facebook. This was expected it to be a biggy—dumping up to 20 inches of rain on our region.  St. Marc is a town built on the base of a mountain, so mudslides were predicted to be a huge problem. So what happened to this big, nasty storm? Well, as the storm hit the mountains guarding our region, it split in half, weakening and changing direction. St. Marc stayed dry and safe.  Yeah… we dodged a bullet. Possible disaster was somehow averted.

In our study in the Psalms this summer, it’s evident to me that David understood to expect storms and struggles in life. David seems to be constantly asking God for help in times of trouble and he beautifully expresses his gratitude and praise to God when God relieves him from his situation. What I love about David is that he also sees God’s protection from real danger that never materializes—like the impending storm that never arrives. 
So what are some storms that never arrive? What does God spare and protect us from?  The easy ones to recognize are the close calls with our cars on the road. “Wow, if that truck wouldn’t have stopped!  That would have been bad.” The other day, I found a two-inch burn mark on my deck from a charcoal briquette that got loose from my lighting canister. What could have happened with that unattended smoldering coal on my wood deck? Why didn’t my house burn down? 

But, there’s a whole other category of things I feel God has graciously spared me from disaster. These are storms that I have the ability to create. It’s storm damage that can be produced from angry words, a lustful heart, an addictive tendency, a selfish decision, or self-medication. When I’m really honest with myself, I recognize my potential for producing real problems on my own can could become devastating. 
This week, meditate on Psalm 124.  Listen as David gives God credit for his protection from impeding disastrous storms.  

Praise the Lord,
who did not let their teeth tear us apart!
We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap.
The trap is broken, and we are free!
Our help is from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. 
Psalm 124.6-8

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Explosion in a Mini-van

a. A release of mechanical, chemical, or nuclear energy in a sudden and often violent manner with the generation of high temperature and usually with the release of gases.
b. A violent bursting as a result of internal pressure.

 Everyone knows that when you mix certain ingredients together you have a high probability of causing an explosion. Gas fumes and a lit match. Mentos and Diet Coke. All you typically need is something flammable or chemically reactive, something to put it under pressure and contain it, and a detonator. But, what if you were to replace “mechanical, chemical, or nuclear energy” with “emotional energy” in the above definition? Try the following mixture!  A young dad driving in heavy traffic. Three small kids tired of being buckled in car seats. A nasty thunderstorm limiting visibility and crawling traffic. All contained in a mini-van on the verge of breaking down. All that is needed is a detonator.

This is one of those dad-stories that I look back on with a ton of regret. Our family was driving home from a trip to the U.P. on Labor Day. Labor Day is the one day of the year when people are allowed to walk the Mackinaw Bridge. Thousands of people do this each year and it causes a challenge for drivers heading south. Our 1990 Plymouth Caravan was struggling that day. Every time traffic halted to a stop, the temperature gauge would slowly rise to dangerous overheating levels. I grew increasingly worried that the van would eventually break down. All I wanted to do was get home that day and let my mechanic solve my mechanical problem. I didn’t want to be stranded on the road on a holiday with a wife and three small kids on an overfilled freeway. As long as the car was moving, it stayed cool enough. If we had to stop for a backup, I had to shut it down for a few minutes. For three hours, I nursed the car down the highway. My tension level was pretty high but I was able to keep it in check… until… the detonator arrived on the scene.

A massive thunderstorm crossed our path and for some reason, the van could not take it anymore, leaving us stalled on the side of the road. It’s amazing the little things that can detonate a verbal explosion in a man. In this instance, it was a simple question from the back of the van, “Daddy, why are we stopped?” For some reason, that small question sparked a dark explosion in me. I don’t remember the exact words I used in response but I do remember the damage I caused that day.

Being the man in the car, I tried to do the man-thing in this situation. I popped the hood, got out of the car and hovered over the engine looking for something obviously broken that I could fix with a piece of gum, a hanger, and a crayon. I was clueless. In my frustration, I did the one thing I knew I could do: I slammed the down the hood of the car with incredible force. Now soaked from rain, I got back into the car. I know everyone had questions like, “What’s wrong?” “How long are we going to sit here?” “What are we going to do?” But my first explosion had effectively shut down any inkling to ask any more questions. Then Janice, my wife, did something I thought was just out of line and inappropriate for this situation. She gently suggested that I try starting the car again. Apparently she had been praying for God’s help during all this and thought it was worth a try after her private prayer time. I wanted to snap at her and may have muttered something tasteless and lacking encouragement, but with reluctance I turned the key. The van coughed and sputtered but with a few tries it fired up again and within minutes we were back on the road.

I told you earlier that this was a story I look back on with great regret. It’s because I absolutely missed some huge opportunities to lead my family in an adventure in faith.  How much better would our day have been if I had quietly taken my worries over traffic, a mini-van, and storms to God? How much better would it have been if I had allowed my kids to join in on the adventure of seeking God’s help and protection when trouble began to brew? What would it have been like to gather as a family to ask God to intervene when we found ourselves on the side of the road? How cool would it have been to celebrate together that God is bigger than storms and junky mini-vans?

As a young man and a young dad, I came to the stark realization that I wasn’t yet mature in my faith to trust God with the explosions of life. In that season, I was unable to lead my family through a journey of faith that God had provided for me that day. Instead, I defaulted to the easy alternatives to trusting God: Worry. Anger. More worry. More anger.

I want to be a man like David, the psalmist. He learned early how to respond to the storms and breakdowns of life. I’m sure he failed from time to time but it’s clear from his songs that he strived to trust God when struggles crossed his path. As I flip through the Psalms, it’s very evident that David pursued God in all situations in life. So perhaps seeking him in trouble only came naturally. How much better is it to use these words in times of trouble?

I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth!
He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.
The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.
The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever            
Psalms 121 NLT