Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Power of Love In Action

So, another Valentines Day come and gone. Funnily enough, this has me reflecting about love. Not because I’m “in love” with anyone in particular. But because every day I am increasingly aware of another sort of Love.

The Love of God. Extravagant, unearned, undeserved, lavish, breathtaking, costly.

I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my mind around it. The Creator of the Universe left the glory of heaven, and came to earth, starting as a baby. Weak and vulnerable. His very birth cost the lives of thousands of other babies thanks to King Herod’s murderous mission of infanticide. He was born not into wealth, comfort and security, but poverty, dirt, mess, chaos. His parents were refugees, having to flee to Egypt.

The God-Man learns a trade, then hits the road on a mission to “preach the good news to the poor, set the captives free, cause the blind to see.” He is equal parts miracle-worker and story-teller, rabble-rouser and taboo-breaker.

He winds up suffering the worst fate imaginable – he loses all dignity, covered with shame, humiliation, bruises, rejection, loneliness, nailed to a cross. An innocent man suffering the agonising death of murderers and traitors.

Why? The Bible is very clear about this. Jesus was very clear about this. A chasm exists between holy God and fallen man. A chasm that for so long could only be bridged by animal sacrifices. A chasm that so many people try (and fail) to bridge by themselves. A price had to be paid for every sin. So God decides to come down to earth and pays the price for us. Once for all time. Willingly. Voluntarily.

I love that the name Jesus means God With Us. That’s exactly what He was. No longer could we shake our fists at the “angry Deity in the sky” as so many do these days. No longer could we claim that God did not understand what we went through. Jesus went through everything we go through, and lived a sinless life. He is our supreme example. The spotless sacrifice to enable us to come directly to God and spend eternity with Him.

Armed with the knowledge of this incredible unearned, undeserved Love, what does a person do? How do we respond to this?

The simple answer is to become a support player in God’s magnificent eternal epic by living a life of following and obeying Jesus.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11) 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees people in need but does not help them, how can the love of God be in them? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:16-20)

God has blessed me with the gift of music, and I am profoundly influenced by song lyrics. Listen to these words from the song "Alive" by Natalie Grant:
Who but You, could breathe and leave a trail of galaxies and dream of me?
What kind of Love is writing my story till the end with Mercy's pen?
Only You.
What kind of king would choose to wear a crown that bleeds and scars to win my heart?
What kind of Love tells me I'm the reason He can't stay inside the grave?
You. Is it You? Standing here before my eyes, every part of my heart cries

Alive! Alive! Look what Mercy's overcome; Death has lost and Love has won
Alive! Alive! Hallelujah, Risen Lord, the only One I fall before
I am His because He is alive.

Who could speak, and send the demons back from where they came with just one Name?
What other heart would let itself be broken every time till He healed mine?
You. Only You could turn my darkness into dawn; running right into Your arms

Emmanuel, the promised King the baby who made angels sing
Son of Man who walked with us, healing, breathing in our dust
The author of all history, the answer to all mysteries
The Lamb of God who rolled away, the stone in front of every grave

I heard a great quote from Brother Andrew, who is is a Christian missionary famous for his exploits smuggling Bibles to communist countries in the height of the Cold War, which earned him the nickname "God's smuggler" “If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.”

Wow! Talk about getting hit right between the eyes. It was with this mindset that I took my recent trip to seven countries in Central America, to visit some of my Compassion-sponsored children and their families.

I understand my mission as a Christian is to follow the example of Jesus as best I can. To use what I’ve been blessed with to bless others, and share God’s Love with them. So I offered this adventure up to God as one small example of “denying myself, taking up my cross and following Him”, which is what Jesus calls us to do in Luke chapter 9.

In order to take this trip, and enter into the lives of these people God has entrusted to me, I suppose I sacrificed a lot, in a “first-world” kind of way (although keep in mind that it’s all God’s anyway).
I spent over half my savings (I was between jobs and wasn't getting paid during this time).
I used time I could have and should have been preparing for my new teaching job.
Security and safety were out the window (particularly on the roads).
I was way out of my comfort zone by visiting different cultures where I didn’t fully understand the customs or speak the language.
I saw things and heard stories which absolutely wrecked my heart. 

In all honesty the enemy was in my ear the whole trip (Waste of time. Waste of money. Where is God? What difference are you really making? There’s no hope for these people. They don’t really appreciate what you do). I battled attitudes and unmet expectations.

In the end I don’t regret any of it. Every dollar spent. Every hour spent on a plane or waiting in airports. I was following God’s example as best I could, making sacrifices to BE WITH people I loved. So often it was all I had to offer them. To be with them.

It was profound to be able to give so many “first” (and probably only) experiences of visits to restaurants, zoos and fun parks. To let kids have the joy of being kids that we just take for granted. In the Compassion Projects I experienced love, fun, joy, laughter, innocence, peace and Hope. Releasing children from poverty in Jesus name.

For all my education, money, skills and blessings, time after time I felt so useless, helpless and inadequate in the face of such great needs. The stark reality of their lives honestly smashed me up, in my heart and my head. I could only hold them and lift them up to God. He is their Hope.

Growing up in Australia, I have been blessed with anything and everything I could ever want or need, and I am thankful for that. Meeting these children and families, for the first time in my life, everything else was stripped away, torn down, pulled apart. The only thing left was GOD. I am thankful for the experience, because I saw what true Faith looks like. I met true Christians, and was inspired. I am now faced with the challenge of how I can live a life of utter dependence and reliance on God, in a society such as ours. So self-reliant, self-confident, self-righteous, arrogant, prideful, greedy. And yet so blessed and prosperous.

I get an increasing feeling in my heart that my long-term future may not be spent in this blessed and prosperous culture. For six years, God has been working on my heart and character through sponsorship with Compassion. I have given of my money, time and emotions investing in children and families. My next step may be to give myself. To BE WITH them. Somewhere. I look forward to seeing what God has planned.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Heartbreak and Hope - An Attempted Summarization of my Compassion Trip to Central America

So, it’s two days since I’ve arrived back in Australia after an indescribable trip and it’s “straight back into it.” Starting teaching at a new school, new group of kids, new way of doing things. It’s a lot to get my head around.

That’s the headspace I’m in as I try and somehow summarize my recent trip with Compassion, with a neat little bow and a cherry on top. I’ll do my best.

The numbers are astonishing, and the mere fact that I am sitting here awake and healthy is a miracle of God.
3 weeks.
7 countries.
14 children visited.
16 flights and a bus trip.
80 hours travelled by road and air.
45,000km covered.
As for $$$$, I lost count, but I know it was less than half of the average Australian wedding, which I understand is $36,000 for one wonderful, self-indulgent day.

All through the trip, I felt God sustaining, protecting and providing for me. He was honouring the prayers of so many people, and at times I literally felt myself being carried through situations and circumstances that in my own strength would have wrecked me completely.

The contrasts of this trip were overwhelming and hard to process. If I was to give the trip a title, it would be “Heartbreak and Hope.” Nice alliteration, but also accurate.

Two years ago, I was listening to the Hillsong song “Hosanna”. Part of the bridge of the song goes:
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause
As I walk from earth into eternity

I said to God “I want you to make those words a reality in my life, no matter what it costs.” Boy, did God honour that request! But I am also glad, because I believe my involvement with Compassion, and the things I have seen, heard and experienced are bringing me closer to God’s heart, and making me more like Jesus, which for a Christian is the ultimate goal.

The home visits were mind-boggling, and they cut deep. I didn’t really get any surprises. I’m not ignorant about poverty, and I never for a moment thought that everyone lives like us in the “developed world”. But because I’ve made the choice to jump in and I’ve invested so much into these kids and families through my money, letters, love, encouragement and prayers, it was so personal, and it hurt my guts to see the way they lived, and the lack of opportunity they faced. 

I want to make it clear at this point, and it should be obvious to you, dear reader, that what I do with Compassion is FOR God, ABOUT God and BECAUSE OF God. It hurts me to say I’ve been accused by people close to me of being self-promoting and prideful in the way I go about it, and even that Compassion is an idol for me.

One good thing about the trip is that God continually confirmed to me that IT IS NOT ABOUT ME! If I had gone on this trip content in, and just wanting to see, the difference I alone was making in their lives, I would have been incredibly disappointed and disillusioned, maybe to the point of not sponsoring any more.

Compassion and God are making the real difference, giving the child and their families hope for the future in this life and the next, giving them skills and tools to lift themselves out of poverty (not doing everything for them or forcing them to be reliant on their help). 

By taking that extra step and visiting the children and their families, I found out so many things that I would not have known just from the letters. So many needs. Here’s a few:
* One girl (14) and her brother (12) have to work 6 hours a day to support the family because their father drinks
* One girl’s father has rheumatoid arthritis and is very crook, but works making coffins anyway, to support his family
* The mother of one boy (8 y.o.) is 23, and has just had a new baby. They live in a brick-box (can’t really call it a house), there is no toilet or running water
* One girl is part of a family of six, and all they own is a box of clothes each because a relative stole ALL their possessions over a number of days. Even the kitchen sink, and he tried taking the doors off the hinges.
* One girl is part of a family of 10, and has two-and-a-half walls on her house and no running water
* Two families, one of 7 and one of 11, are about to be kicked out of their house and have nowhere to go
* One girl is growing up with fighting parents because her father is openly living with another woman, even though he is married to his wife. This family had not had running water for two days when I came to visit
* One girl (18) was unable to tell me what her dreams for the future are, what she’s good at or what she likes doing.   
* One girl’s father asked the translator to ask me for money, and either he or his wife have to stay at home because if the house is vacant they will get robbed.

That’s just scratching the surface. Do you see how, if this was all about me and the wonderful difference I was making with my $11 a week and words on a bit of paper, I would have found all this too hard to take, thrown my hands up in despair and ….(I don’t know how to finish that sentence)?

No, it is not about me. I am merely/humbly/proudly (all at the same time), an instrument God is using in His Story. What I give is the five loaves and two fish, and God multiplies it to “feed” thousands. To encourage, inspire and challenge many. What an honour and a privilege it is to be used by God.

So that was the “Heartbreak” part of my title. Now for the HOPE.

Compassion works in 26 countries through partnering with local churches. I love it. The church is the Body of Christ. The hands and feet of Jesus. They set up Child Development Centres, or “Projects” where the children go to be loved, cared for, encouraged, fed.

I have now visited 26 of my sponsored kids, in 10 countries and the Compassion Projects are seriously my favourite places in the world. They are filled with life, love, energy, hope, dreams, laughter.

The Project workers are nearly all volunteers from the local church, who literally give their lives for these kids and their families. They are true heroes. They sacrifice, build relationships and KNOW them, because they want to share the love of God with them. Extravagant love, unearned, undeserved.

There are a couple of reasons the money from sponsors does not go directly to the families in the form of cash. One is the potential for corruption by authorities or misuse by the parents or extended family. But the simple reason is that the Project workers know the families so well, and know what their needs are. Every dollar spent is audited at three levels. Receipts are kept, photos of purchases are taken. I’ve seen it. The integrity is beyond question.    

On my trip the visits to the Compassion Projects provided the HOPE. There was lots of footy (Australian football) played. Lots of singing, dancing, laughing, running, jumping. Lots of music – anywhere there was a guitar, piano or drum kit, I was on it. I saw workshops in action. Teaching kids skills that can be used for income-generation and helping their families. Giving them a way out. I left the Projects confident that God was there, and He was their HOPE.

Looking back, I love seeing the number of situations where I had nothing to offer but PRAYER. I didn’t necessarily like being in those situations at the time, because I felt so useless, helpless and inadequate, but as the Bible says “His strength is made perfect in my weakness.” That statement rang true on too many occasions.

I was left with the profound realisation that when everything else is stripped away and we’re left with nothing but complete and utter dependence on God, that’s when He does His best and most powerful work.

Being able to pray with and for these precious families was such a humbling experience and a privilege, I often struggled to hold it together. The fact we can come directly to the Creator of the Universe and He listens and responds to us. He WANTS to hear from us, and YEARNS to have a relationship with us.

I was able to pray for a miracle of healing. For provision of jobs, houses and food. For strength, courage, wisdom and knowledge. For God’s peace and security to come on each family. For barriers to be broken down so that the families would fully come to know and rely on God for their needs. I was also able to pray for a beautiful group of 13-15 year old girls on behalf of their sponsors who most likely will never get to visit them.

The amazing thing was, the thing I quite often found myself praying the most was THANKS. I was in the middle of this profound experience, smacked around by the realities of life in poverty and the word I kept hearing myself say the most was THANKS?

My two most impacting experiences both involved prayer.
One was with the young mum of the only boy I visited on this trip. I have shared about this in another blog, but seeing her circumstance, her loneliness, her brokenness, we went out into the backyard, and as I looked at the hole in the ground that was their toilet, I had nothing. I was lost, for words and for actions. I held her close, and verbalised the only thought that came to my mind, the only thing left: JESUS. Being able to pray for that woman was so precious, and I’m grateful to God for the opportunity.

My last visit in the Dominican Republic was not one of the most memorable or exciting. I barely got anything out of her all day, and to be honest was ready to go home. However, God turned it into possibly the most eternally significant moment, and showed me what can happen when you pluck up courage and act on a prompting from God.
She was not able to tell me any of her dreams for the future, what she was good at or liked doing, which for an 18 year old was sad to witness. She had mentioned at the start of the visit that she wasn’t a Christian, and I knew I had to follow this up at the end of the day. I asked her “What is the one thing that is stopping you from fully giving your life to God.” She was unable to answer. There was just some barrier blocking her way.
I shared my experiences of being similarly lacking purpose and direction when I was younger. It wasn’t until I fully committed to God at age 21 that He started giving me opportunities and showing me what He wanted me to do with my life. I emphasised that it’s completely her decision, but as soon as she takes that step and gives her life to God, He will start working on her and make something great out of her.
The time of prayer we shared was incredibly powerful. She was moved to tears and I could feel God working in her heart. He has given her wisdom and protecting her from falling into the teen pregnancy trap that has snared most of her friends. I can’t wait to see what God will do with her life.  
Time after time I was floored by the faith and trust these families had in God, despite the “predicament” of their circumstances. It was so counter-intuitive, but that’s the Kingdom of God. It’s just so backwards, upside down and topsy-turvy to our “human” way of thinking. Their gratitude at my visit, as well as their hospitality and generosity with so little to give, was also amazing to experience. I received t-shirts, traditional Guatemalan garments, pictures, notepads, letters, all made and given out of pure love.

It was amazing to witness the differences between the families who were completely committed to God and the church, and those who were on the edge. Two families in particular, you could literally feel the unity, love and hope that existed in their homes. They were no better off materially than any of the others, but they knew that their true value and Hope was found in Jesus.

One family of six makes money by selling a traditional drink called “horchata”. On a good day they make $20. Yet with their faith in God and help from Compassion, all four kids dream of having jobs in the medical profession. The thing was, with this family, I honestly believe that those dreams can be fulfilled.

One thing I’ll never forget is twice having the offer of someone else washing a weeks worth of my dirty clothes (this is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone!) It was an incredible act of servanthood and humility, and it was much appreciated.

Some highlights to finish off:
* Playing drums and leading a church of 300 Mexicans in celebrating our Great God
* Taking each family out to a restaurant for lunch, often for the first time. Such a simple gesture, met with such thankfulness and gratitude
* Eating so much wonderful fried chicken I’m surprised I didn’t turn into one!
* Witnessing the pure, innocent joy of going to a fun park, a zoo, jumping on a trampoline and a bouncy castle.
* Meeting Rosa and her family for a second time three years on, and seeing the differences which are evident in their lives, thanks to their faith in God.
* Going on a Moto-taxi ride in Mexico
* Teaching the kids about Australia, jumping like a kangaroo, snoring like a koala and laughing like a kookaburra
* Singing songs to kids and being sung to by kids
* Seeing the joy, life and hope at each of the Compassion Projects, and knowing it is from God alone.
* Getting the Australian football out in soccer-mad Central and South America
* Being a passenger in a car in seven different countries in South/Central America and not witnessing (or being involved in) a single accident!
* Getting to know each of the families I’ve invested in through sponsorship on a much deeper level, knowing that God has connected us.

Even though, as you can tell, I’m a hugely passionate advocate and supporter of Compassion and what God is doing through them, I’m not going to finish with an “altar call.” I’m not going to beg, coerce or guilt you into sponsoring a child. That decision is up to you, and is between you and God.

However, over the course of this trip, I am confident I have fully, completely and honestly (sometimes too honest for my own good) painted a pretty clear picture for you.
A picture of the state of the need in the world.
A picture of the difference between our world and theirs, and the clear fact that, if we are willing, God can use us to make a difference to a child (or many!) and their family.
If you want ANY more information about anything you’ve seen or read, feel free to contact me and I would love to share with you. The ball is in your court.