Exciting News!

It has been a whirlwind new year for me so far.  I had a great time teaching a 3-week Gospels intensive over the winter term at ACU, and got to preach as the Angel Gabriel on Christmas Eve which was a ton of fun.  We’ve made a transition in our worship service format at church which has been fantastic on our community, and I got to go to kenpo for the first time in 6 months last week!

In November, our worship pastor took a sabbatical to rest and recharge, to enjoy some family time and refocus his ministry on seeking Christ and seeking to lead people to Him.  We didn’t have a delineated sabbatical policy as a church for our pastoral staff, so our elders made one.  In a nutshell, every 5th year we give our pastors 2 extra weeks of paid leave that must be taken all at once and should be used for the purpose of spiritual renewal.

Since then (late October) I have been praying about a sabbatical, because this is my 5th year serving as the senior pastor of our church.  2012 will be a sabbatical year for me, and I have been praying and seeking God on how best to take my sabbatical this year.  I wanted it to be significant, and while 2 weeks alone in the woods with my Bible might be awesome I just sensed that would not really do what I wanted to do.  I wanted to really grow in Christ in ways that I normally couldn’t, knowing that meant getting away from my normal routine.

Here is where God stepped in.  Over the past several months I have built a friendship with the father of two of my previous students from ACU who is also a pastor in town, who pastors a very large congregation and whose heart for shepherding and for preaching lines up with mine.  He asked Laura and me to have dinner with him and his wonderful wife, and at dinner he asked us to join him next month on a pretty crazy trip.

He asked us to join him for 15 days in Israel! Surprised smile

I have never been to Israel, but having heard from many of the life-changing time that it is for pastors and professors I really want to go.  This will be an awesome time of spiritual growth and professional development, and will benefit me in the pulpit, the classroom, and as a shepherd.  Rather than try to explain it all to you myself, I asked Mark to explain why this makes a PERFECT sabbatical and why it is an important trip to take.

I am so excited to go and sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee like the disciples did, to stand next to the wall that Nehemiah rebuilt, and to go back through the Gospels like I did over the past 3 weeks and see and touch and smell and taste what it was like in Jesus’ world.  I know it won’t be relaxing like a vacation and plan to wring every bit out of every moment that I can, but it’s invigorating just to think about the amazing opportunity to even go!

Pastor Mark has been incredibly gracious to offer us to come along with him not only for the big tour he is leading, but to spend a few days before and after with him there to see some stuff that a big group just can’t.  He’s also being very generous to help us go and to provide room in his personal schedule for us, and has been generous financially too.  He has been to Israel 10 times and is using the very best guides to really avoid the tourist traps and instead experience Israel in a life-changing way.

So if you would, please pray for us as we plan this trip. Just like with our trip to Rwanda in 2010, this one is on short notice.  Just like our opportunity there, we have 5 weeks until we leave. Just like Rwanda, I believe that God has orchestrated the events leading up to allow us to go, and that He has it all in His hands.  And just like our trip to Rwanda, we have no idea how we are going to make the trip work financially.  I know that finances are not a major concern to God, and that He has all the money He needs to do everything that He wants to do.  I also know that, looking at our finances, it makes no sense to me how He is going to make this trip a reality. 

The total costs for this trip, all things considered, will be around $7000. I believe that God wants us to go on this trip and that it will be a blessing on my own spiritual growth and on my ministry for the next decade or more, and we are stepping out in faith to go.  If you would, please, I have three requests of you that would make a world of difference to me:

  1. We cherish your prayers!  We need God’s guidance as we try to figure out all of the logistics.  Pray for how we will take care of the kids, for our home, for our church and my classroom at ACU as I am not there to shepherd. Pray for us to be transformed by God during this trip in seeing Him and His Word in a new way and to be able to bring that home with me and impact others in a greater way in my preaching and teaching ministry. Please pray for God’s hand to provide financially for us to be able to go, as that part is still a big source of anxiety.  I know that God hears His people in these regards.
  2. Please share this post with your friends and your church!
  3. If you feel led to help us in some way, we would absolutely love that! Whether that is feeding our pets or house-sitting for us, loving our kids while we are away, or providing financially for the trip we would be very grateful.  Please, I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to give or help; I know that times are tough for many and that life is busy.  That said, if you’d like to help with going financially or some other way that would be an answer to prayer.

We are really excited to share this news with everyone and looking forward to seeing God at work in this trip.

Thanks so much, and may God bless your 2012!

Crunch Time

Man, I can be a jerk to live with when I am stressed out.  I realized yesterday that my outlook had been skewed by my schedule and (more importantly) my priorities and that had made me more than a bit difficult to get along with.  Don’t get me wrong; I have my reasons for feeling like a mummy (“pressed for time”…thank you, I’ll be here all week!):

  1. We transition to two worship services in 2 1/2 weeks at church, and we still need about 8 volunteers to make it a success.  That seems like a small number, but it’s still a stress.
  2. I have a ridiculous weekend ahead.  I am hosting Dr. Dave Anderson this weekend for Graceline, and he is preaching at church this Sunday.  That’s cool!  But I have a funeral to officiate and a family to grieve with on Saturday too, which of course is occupying a lot of my mind.
  3. I have a huge pile of grading on my desk, and 75 research papers coming in on Wednesday. Ahhhhhhhhh!
  4. I am working on my Easter sermon, my second ever in first-person.  That takes WORK.  The last one went well and I want this one to also.
  5. Last but CERTAINLY not least, both Laura and I are not able to run right now.  She had surgery to remove more tissue after her melanoma diagnosis, which put her out of action for 4 weeks.  Then I hurt my foot and need to take about 10 days off too—no running or kenpo. 

The end result: Stress.  The outcome: John is a jerk who gets snappish and surly. 

As I looked at the reason I get that way, it really boils down to simply being too focused on tasks and not focused on God and people.  I look at the “task” of two worship services and realize that we are doing that to help people, not to have something to do.  I look at this weekend and thank God that I get to be with that family and get to know Dr. Anderson better.  I realize that God has entrusted me with helping 75 students understand the New Testament better, and this is their chance to show me that!  My Easter sermon shouldn’t be a chance to be impressive but to help real people see the impact of the resurrection of Jesus on their lives.  And certainly, I realized that being unable to work out has given Laura and me some time to sleep in, to goof off, and to rebuild some margins in life.  Blessings, all.

And the schedule?  Well, God isn’t hanging me out to dry, either!

Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
(Isaiah 41:10)

Yesterday I completely revamped my prayer list too.  I took every task off of my list and instead changed to praying for people.  Monday, for instance, I am now praying for Laura, for my heart, for vision to lead our church, and for those who don’t know Christ in my life.  Tuesday is Elizabeth, the men that I am mentoring as well as my mentors, and my staff at church.  And so on.

And the change in focus has brought with it much more peace and much more willingness to be kind, to be present and to let small annoyances stay small.

How do you react to stress?  Is it schedule, or assignments, or money that makes you anxious?  Do you run to God or from Him when stress hits?  And when you can’t run to your normal stress relief, how do you cope?

The Eye of the Hurricane

Melanoma.  What a scary word.  A couple of weeks ago Laura went to the doctor to have a weird mole on her knee looked at.  The doctor didn’t like it and so he removed it and sent it for a biopsy.  Then last Monday the office called back and said it was melanoma.  Google melanoma and the first hit is this; the first two sentences are frankly terrifying.  Even though the doctor said it was “stage 0/in situ” and therefore easily treatable, it’s still no bueno. 

Today she goes in to the doctor to have some more tissue removed from around where the mole was, just to make sure it’s all gone.  We’ve had a couple of weeks to think, talk, pray, and consider what this means for Laura and for us.  And this morning, as I was walking in from my run, God reminded me of where my attitude needs to be:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NASB)

Rather than being anxious for my wife, I need to pray and give God the place He deserves.  I need to trust in His grace and in His goodness and tell Him my desires.  My Calvinist friends may say that God already knows; that may be true, but Paul still tells me that my anxiety is not solved by God’s omniscience but by letting Him know my needs with thanksgiving.  Then His peace will guard my mind and my heart.  Thanks, Lord, for the reminder today.

If you get a moment, please pray for Laura and for the surgery.  Pray that it’s all gone and that her recovery is swift.  Pray for the next four weeks as she is on restricted activity and can’t run or bike or take ballet.  And pray that I don’t drive her nuts during that time. 🙂

And please, look at that link again and if you have any moles pay attention to the ABCD symptom tool.  Go get it checked!

What strategies do you use to fight anxiety?  What is most helpful to you as you face an uncertain future?  Where do you struggle the most, and how do you deal with it?

Day 2 in Belgium: Lots of fun! (and prayer requests)

The “team building” phase of our trip is almost complete, and it has been a roaring success in my estimation.  The jet lag is almost completely gone (Brussels is +9 hours from Phoenix) and we are set to celebrate Chris Maddox’s birthday tonight.

So last night we ended the evening with some late dinner and a glass of wine, plus sharing our day and what we learned.  It was good times!  Laura and I finally hit the hay at about 11PM because I wanted to try to kick the jet lag all at once.  It was really hard to basically go 36 hours with maybe 2 naps of 20-30 minutes each, but it worked!  I woke up this morning at 10:30 totally refreshed.  Now then, waking up that late shot my plan to go for a run in Brussels, but I am not really worried about it. 🙂

I forgot in yesterday’s post to mention an awesome blessing that Laura and I got on our arrival.  Two team members, Rob and Patti, got their room upgraded from a suite to the Royal Suite when they checked in!  That suite is a 2BD, 2BR unit with a kitchen and living room.  It is way bigger than our first apartment, and Rob and Patti asked us to share it with them!  So we canceled our room reservations and have stayed in their room, which saved us about $200-$250.  Plus the room is way, way nicer than what we would have had!!  The bed is quite comfy. 🙂

One thing that we have had to get used to in Europe is that the bathroom is not like America.  We have a shower and sink attached to our room, but the toilet is in a separate room and is shared.  It is really common here for public restrooms to charge for their use, and I kid you not in 75% of the ones we have seen the door to the men’s room is wide open so everyone and their mom can see guys using the urinals. AWKWARD!

I thought waking up that late today would mean that Laura and I were on our own, but I was wrong.  The whole team got together at noon and went to the middle of Brussels, known as the City Center.  We had a fantastic time today strolling through Brussels and seeing the sights.  We went to the famous statue of the “pissing boy” which was interesting and ate lunch at an amazing restaurant.  I tried Chimay beer and it was delicious.  More than that, though, we got to see the AMAZING architecture of Brussels;  I have video and will upload some when I get home.  America has nothing that compares to walking into buildings that are literally 800 years old.  Today we saw a whole square, the Grand Place, that was built before 1700.  The architecture and attention to detail is amazing, and I loved all of the little architectural touches that were built for nothing more than artistic value.

More than the architecture, though, I am thoroughly enjoying our team.  Laura and I have had a great time enjoying the sights and spending special time together as a couple, but the time with the team is even more precious in some respects.  Literally the entire team gets along great and I can’t detect any personality conflicts whatsoever.  Everyone has their place and everyone loves Christ and gets along with one another.  It’s fun to see team members take care of one another and float between hanging out with different people as we walk from place to place. This gives me great hope for our time in Rwanda starting tomorrow that we will experience more of the same!

We leave the hotel at 7:30AM tomorrow for our flight to Kigali, so prayers for us to get to the airport safely and with all of our baggage are appreciated.  It’s an 8-hour flight, so I would ask you to pray for it to feel fast and for us to get in safely and without too much struggle to rest.  Starting tomorrow evening we do what we came to do, and I am excited about that. 🙂

It’s Chris’s birthday today, so we are going out to dinner after I finish this post.  Then there is some fun nightlife here that Laura wants to check out, so pray we get in at a decent hour too!

Thanks for following along on our trip and for praying for us.

T-Minus One Day!!

We leave for Rwanda tomorrow.  I am so excited!  At the same time, I am a little stressed to make sure that everything is prepared for the journey.  Just for fun I thought I would share this video that PBS shot last year of the team from Highlands who went to Rwanda.

Unfortunately this never made it to the air; too much Jesus I suppose. 🙂  Several of the team members who are going this year are in this video!  Dr. Jackson is coordinating the trip for us in Rwanda.  This is a GREAT look into the lives of the people we will be ministering to in Gacundezi. 

If you would take some time and pray for us, I would appreciate prayer for several items:

  • We still have to get everything packed up and ready.  We’re well on the way, but there is a LOT to get ready for tomorrow morning.
  • The FH staff wasn’t able to get the handouts I prepared (find two of them here and here) translated into Kinyarwanda.  Their internet has been very spotty, so I just found that out yesterday.  We went with plan B, which was to just print the pictures and allow them to take notes as I tell the story.  Please pray that I am still able to communicate with the pastors meaningfully and that we can overcome this technical difficulty! (Rule #1 for all Bible teachers: never, under any circumstances, rely on technology.  It WILL fail you)
  • Praise God that Laura got so many donations that she was able to make about 15 extra clean birth kits!  Also pray that we can get them fit into suitcases appropriately.
  • Please pray for team unity.  We met last week with the team and it looks like we are going to get along great!  There are a few issues in the schedule and politics between national organizations and local ones, but thankfully that’s not a team issue.  Please pray that those issues won’t interfere with the great camaraderie that I sense between the people.
  • Pray for my “type A” personality.  I am NOT leading this team and have a very well-defined role to play.  I am used to being the leader, but the team has fantastic leaders in Chris and Rob.  Please pray that I am able to function well as a second banana and that I receive joy in not having to make sure everything is planned and executed.
  • Within my role, please pray for me to communicate well with the pastors as well as lead daily devotions for the team.  I really want this trip to be about Christ and not about me, so please pray that I stay out of His way.
  • I have been told that perhaps the best leader in Gacundezi is the leader of the Muslim mosque.  His name is Kazim, and evidently he is very open to discussing Jesus.  Pray for him, and that he comes to the training and is open to how to study Scripture and apply it to our lives.
  • Pray for Laura and her mission as well.  There is no telling if a birth will occur while we are in the village, and she is stepping WAY outside of her comfort zone in teaching hygiene, labor and delivery, infectious disease and the like to the clinic as well as to the school.  Please pray that God guides her opportunities and her words.
  • Pray for travel mercy.  Our flights there aren’t horrible; Phoenix to Philly is 5 hours, then a 90-minute layover, then 8 hours from Philly to Brussels.  Add the 8-hour time difference, though, and it gets dicey.  On the way home we fly from Kigali to Brussels (10 hours including a stop in Uganda), 3-hour layover in Brussels, Brussels to Frankfurt Germany (1 hour), 90 minute layover, then Frankfurt straight to Phoenix! (16 1/2 hours!) 
  • Pray that God would allow us to keep Matthew 10:42 firmly in mind, and realize that everything we do is for Him and He is aware of it all.
  • I am slightly irritated with Phoenix Seminary right now, because they have asked our team leader to take video of me while ministering to be used at a couple of major donor fundraisers this year.  That’s not a big deal, but they planned and executed this without asking me if I was willing to participate.  So please pray for my heart, that it won’t affect how I serve and that I can have a good attitude about it.

Thanks so much for being along for the trip with us!!  I am going to try to get a short blog post up about the day’s activities every day, but especially once we get to Nyagatare the intarwebz have been broken lately.  I will update everyone as often as I can!