Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Turning Point (reflecting on Nicaragua)

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on my trip to Central America, which was exactly one year ago. Every day, looking at the calendar and thinking about where I was, what I was doing, what I was experiencing.

I visited 3 kids in Nicaragua, and it was difficult. Stinking hot, the driver got lost on all three days and my translator was frustrating, in that I sometimes had to prompt her to actually translate for me.

The part that stood out to me was my visit to Antonio. This 8 year old kid was full of life. Chatty, talkative, animated. We hung out at the church for a while, drank coke, played with my Australian football.

In contrast, I noticed his mother, who looked so young and was nursing a brand new baby, didn’t say a word. Even in our conversations she almost had to be prompted. I sensed much sadness and loneliness in her life.

I took Antonio, his cousin and a few other relatives out to a chicken restaurant for lunch and they continued to talk, and talk, and sing, and talk. We had a ball. Then it was time for the home visits.

Visiting the homes of my Compassion kids was always confronting. The realities of poverty were right there, there was no hiding from it. I was always received with hospitality and they were always welcoming, but because I have invested so much in these families, it hurt my guts to see the way they lived and the lack of opportunities they faced.

Antonio’s home visit was probably the hardest I have done. It was The Turning Point, as I have entitled this blog. The house was nothing more than a brick box. Dirt floor, holes in the roof. One bedroom. No privacy for this woman with an 8 year old and a new baby.

We sat around and chatted for a while. The conversation was driven by the Project workers, since I was lost for words, taking in everything around me, and still sensing Mama’s sadness and shyness. We got Antonio talking, showed him some pictures, gave him some gifts. When I do a home visit, I can normally ask to take photos of the house, even when I’m thinking “How do they live like this, day after day?” Today I couldn’t do it. It just didn’t feel right.

I learned that Mama was 23, so she was just 15 when she had Antonio. Antonio’s father left just after he was born, and she now had a husband, who was as young, if not younger than she was. He scratches an income selling newspapers at the local market.

The Turning Point came when we ventured out into the backyard, and I use that term loosely. It was a dump, with a cinder block out in the open for a toilet.

At this point, everything that had been building up inside me as I learned about their reality came crashing down. I felt the full force of their despair, their hopelessness. I could not move. I had no words.

After a couple of minutes I managed to speak: “Jesus. Jesus.” Over and over again, that was all I could say.

The next few minutes were holy, sacred and powerful. I did the only thing I could think of. I held this beautiful young woman and I prayed for her. I lifted her up to God. God gave me the words, and He gave me the strength to say them. Mama was overcome. Her brokenness was evident, but as I prayed, I could feel her responding and crying out to God in her spirit.

The Bible says God’s strength and power is made perfect in our weakness, and it was certainly true on this day. This was “The Turning Point” because God helped me to truely realise that without Him we have nothing. I guess I knew this in theory, but my wealth, prosperity, abundance, self-reliance and self-sufficiency prevented me from knowing it fully.

People who are materially poor know what it is to depend on God and trust Him completely. They have to. This is a great example to me, and I know God wanted me to see all these things for this exact reason.

I want to live a life that demonstrates complete trust, dependence and reliance on God, which is one of the reasons I am headed to serve Him in the Philippines. I don’t want material possessions or a life of comfort or ease to stand in the way of my relationship with God, so I am giving it up to pursue what I believe He has created me to do.

Postscript: As heartbreaking as this day with Antonio and his family was, God has put two sparkles of blessing in their lives: Compassion and Antonio’s grandmother.
Without Compassion, Antonio wouldn’t have regular food, clean water, education or medical care.
Even though Antonio’s father left, his grandmother stayed. I was inspired by the love Antonio’s grandmother has for him, even though technically she has no obligation to. Love of God in action.

Antonio’s new sponsor is Kayla Groth. I know the relationship will be a blessing for both of them.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Never Want To Become Numb

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic.

Exactly one year ago, I was on a massive adventure.

7 countries, 14 families, 3 weeks. With Compassion. Visiting homes, schools, Compassion Projects, churches. I’m just reliving it.

What I saw, heard and experienced wrecked my heart in so many ways. The reality of many people’s situations is mind-boggling and unthinkable. The depth of evil and the soul-destroying effects of poverty in the world sometimes seem boundless. However, I also found out that through Compassion, God gives them Hope.

This trip was necessary preparation for what is to come. I have been sheltered, prosperous, blessed, wealthy, self-sufficient, and I needed my eyes opened and my heart broken so God can use me properly in the Philippines over the next X years.

I am convinced that caring for children is the role God has created me for.
It may be why He made me short (a long shot, I know) and popped me somewhere in between simple and intellectual, to help me relate to them and understand them better.
It’s why He made me patient, gentle and affectionate.
It’s why He gave me the ability and desire to play, laugh and show joy.
As hard as this is to say being male, it’s why He gave me a soft heart. 
Note: The following has been “borrowed” from blogger Patricia Jones when she was on a Compassion trip to Ecuador. It captures my heart so well, I just had to adapt it.

I never want to become numb to this.

It would be easy to turn off the emotions after being on multiple trips with 
Compassion over the years. After all, I have seen poverty before…. many times, all over the world.

However, the day that I can look at a child who lives in poverty, and not feel emotion, is the day I don’t recognize Jesus in them.

It’s the day that I forget that those little hands and feet, those beautiful eyes, the little toes that squeeze through the holes of the worn out shoes, is a creation of God. It’s the day I forget that whatever you do to the least of these you do unto Jesus.

So many needs.

There was Yeymi from Guatemala. She and her three sisters sleep in the same bed despite having a spare bedroom because they “don’t want to be alone.” Every second week they are just looked after by their elderly grandmother. All they own is a box of clothes each, because her mother’s uncle came and stole everything they had, even the kitchen sink, and tried to take the door off the hinges.

There was Josefa from Guatemala. She and her brother have to work six hours a day making shoes, as well as go to school because of the lifestyle choice of their father.

There was Olga from Mexico. One of nine children, they have no access to running water and two and a half walls on her house.

There was Julissa from Nicaragua. Her father was gravely ill, but as the only breadwinner in the family he continued making coffins regardless. (I understand he’s doing better now)

There was 8 year old Antonio from Nicaragua. His mother is 23 with an equally young husband and a brand new baby. They live in a brick box and her loneliness and brokenness were palpable as she was overwhelmed by her circumstances. In a holy moment I was able to hold her and lift her up to God

There was Ana Cristina from Brazil. Her family has spent two years on the run because of incidents involving drugs, murder and revenge. Eleven people share a one bedroom house. The fence is laced with broken bottle edges. It is not safe to go out after 7pm. There is marshland out the back that floods when it rains. Her 20 year old brother had a baby with a 14 year old.

There was Cashofia from the Philippines. She has not seen her father for three years. He is in hiding because he was accused of a horrific crime against one of his employees.

After seeing these things, I could not just shut my eyes to it, as much as I wanted to. Because God loves them, and He entrusted them to me. To use what He has given me to help them, and show them His love. Each family I visited, my heart was full of love for them, and I was thankful to feel this love, to feel the pain of their poverty, and the desire to make their life better. I wasn’t numb.

If I stop shedding tears for the poor, I stop seeing them like Jesus.
I never want to become numb when one of my kids gives me a long hug goodbye, as if to say thank you, and then I see her wiping away her tears. She sees my tears too…and she knows that today, she was loved. A hard heart is not for me.

I never want to become numb for those things that God holds so close to His heart. These are His children.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Five Songs That Have Shaped The Journey

Those of you who know me even just a little bit will know that MUSIC is a huge part of my life and who I am. Here's a sample:

It all started with piano lessons from my wonderful mother from about age six.
I progressed to the recorder at school, then tried guitar in third grade but my fingers were too small.
Bass guitar and drums were both taken up at about age eleven, and I still play to this day.
I have taught classroom music at school, as well as private music lessons in keyboard and guitar.

Having grown up in church, there came a point where I was just singing the words to songs, without taking time to understand or appreciate what I was singing. As I grew as a Christian, I realised that considering the songs were about and for God, the Creator of the Universe, this probably wasn't a good idea, since we "will all be accountable for every careless word we have spoken." (Matthew 12:36)

So over the last few years, there have been some songs which have had a huge impact on my life. Even though as a musician I am interested in song structure, timing, a great melody or bridge, ultimately it is the lyrics that get me. The lyrics of a great song settle in my soul and affect the way I see God and the world in general.

I wanted to share the lyrics and video of five songs that have shaped my journey over the last few years. Please enjoy, and take some time to soak in the lyrics.

Song # 1 - "Alive" (Natalie Grant)
I first heard this song two years ago at my church on Easter Sunday. I think the occasion, combined with the visual just got me. The reality of God leaving heaven and coming to earth as a man to be with us is just too amazing for me to wrap my mind about.

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

Song #2 - Oceans (Where feet may fail) - Hillsong
When I first heard this song, I was considering the move to the Philippines, so I particularly related to the line "Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders; let me walk upon the waters, wherever you would call me."

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep my faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You've never failed and You won't start now

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior

Song #3 - I Saw What I Saw (Sara Groves)

Having seen poverty up close in 12 countries over the last four years, this was the cry of my heart. I was humbled and inspired by their faith, joy, generosity, contentment and kindness. They know that with God, there is always Hope.

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road
Cut me to the soul

Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
And what I know of love

We've done what we've done and we can't erase it
We are what we are and it's more than enough
We have what we have but it's no substitution

I say what I say with no hesitation
I have what I have and I'm giving it up
I do what I do with deep conviction

Your courage asks me what I am afraid of
Your courage asks me what I am made of
Your courage asks me what I am afraid of
And what I know of God,
And what I know of God.

Song #4 - How He Loves Us (David Crowder Band)
Top line: "If His grace is an ocean, we're all sinking." I can't get past this line. Every day we have on earth is evidence of God's grace, and I am indeed sinking.

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all

And we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If his grace is an ocean, we're all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don't have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about the way...

Song #5 - Red Letters (DC Talk)
Just in case you are unaware, Red Letters refers to the words of Jesus from the Bible, and it stems from some translators choosing to print the words spoken by Jesus in red ink. I know many people have differing opinions about Jesus and the Bible, and you might be reading through this and not really be a "God-person" but in the words of Whispering Danny, "I cannot deny something that has revealed itself to be true to me." The words of Jesus are powerful. I know, sitting in the homes of the poor, I had nothing to offer them except the Hope of Jesus.

Pages filled with a holy message
Sealed with a kiss from heaven on a scroll long ago
Phrases, words that were bound together
Now have the power to sever like a sword evermore

Heed the words divinely spoken
May your restless heart be broken
Let the supernatural take hold

There is love in the red letters
There is truth in the red letters
There is hope for the hopeless
Peace and forgiveness
There is life in the red letters

One man came to reveal a mystery
Changing the course of history, made the claim he was God
Ageless, born of a virgin Mary
Spoke with a voice that carried through the years, it's persevered

What You say moves me, revelation, come and take me
The more I look (the more I look) the more I see (the more I see)
The Word of God (the Word Of God) is what I need

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Couple of Videos - A Tribute to Brazil and Looking Ahead to the Philippines

I have put together a couple of videos. One is about looking forward and the other is looking back.

Obviously I feel that the Philippines is my future home, for a while at least. I was blessed to be able to go there in April 2013 on a Compassion group tour. Hopefully the video will give you some idea about why I'm so excited to spend possibly the next few years there.

Having said that, I cannot express the impact that Brazil has had on me over the last few years. I was blessed to be able to visit twice in the last two years and honestly, the faith, love, joy and generosity I experienced from the people involved with Compassion just blew me away. This is a simple but inadequate tribute to those people.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013: A Year of Tests, Blessings, Provision and Preparation

For me, 2013 was a magnificent year, full of unimaginable blessings from God, fully due to His grace and mercy in my life.

It feels kind of wrong writing that, because it seems that when most people speak publicly about the year that was, it’s all about how hard, challenging and tragic it was, and they can’t wait for it to be over.

That wasn’t the case for me though, and for that I boast in God. I repeatedly experienced His protection, provision and faithfulness. I have dedicated and committed myself to be an instrument to be used for His Kingdom, and this year He used me, BIG time.

Looking back, I can see 2013 as a year of preparation. In less than a month I will be heading over to the Philippines for an indefinite period, working in an orphanage called The Ruel Foundation, doing a combination of admin, teaching, finance and computer stuff. I am equal parts excited and terrified, as I am “stepping out of the boat” and fully trusting God to provide for my needs.

In 2013, I believe God put me through four tests, in order to prepare me and develop my character for what I will experience in the next phase of my life. I like to think I passed them.

Test #1 – Waiting on God’s Timing
This was a hard one. I first got in contact with Pauline from Ruel in October 2012, when she needed a teacher. At that point I didn’t have a job for 2013 and I was ready to go there and then. I mentioned it to my church leaders, and they said that if I went they wouldn’t send me with their blessing because they believed there were areas of my character that needed working on before I could do something like that. As much as I didn’t agree with it, I accepted the Pastor’s decision as a man of God, and held off.

I immediately benefitted from this decision. A couple of weeks later I got a job at my old school back in Werribee where my family was, teaching Grade 1.
Also in 2013:
- I was able to visit 11 countries on 3 trips visiting my Compassion sponsored kids,
- I had a great year in the classroom, giving me an extra years teaching experience
- I was able to spend lots of time with my five nieces and nephews aged 1 to 5 and see them grow
- God blessed me so much financially that I’m better off now than I’ve ever been

I could very easily have packed up my stuff and headed over to the Philippines in 2013, but because I showed humility to accept a decision I didn’t agree with, God blessed me in so many other ways. I am glad I waited.

Test #2 – The Pride Test
As many of you know, over the last seven years I have turned into a bit of a “Compassion lunatic”. I have been absolutely sold out for this child development organisation because I have become so convinced that it is God’s business and it is so effective in releasing children and families from poverty in Jesus name. I have sponsored 54 kids in that seven years, and God has also blessed me to be able to see it in action in 12 different countries.

Unfortunately some people close to me have challenged me about the way I go about my advocacy, claiming I have been self-promoting and prideful. For me it has always been about, for and because of God, and I am comfortable in my heart that God sees it that way too.

The pride test came in September this year. The public nature of my Compassion sponsorship and advocacy caught the attention of some friends and people at Compassion. My friend Chad Loftis did a little documentary on my sponsorship journey, and Compassion interviewed me for the September issue of their magazine. It turned out they were both released at the same time, and with the nature of social media, thousands of people were seeing what God was doing in and through me. To add to that, at the same time I was over in South America on another Compassion trip, publishing my God-adventure on Facebook and my blog.

With the “self promoting and prideful” label still stinging me, I was all too aware that this was a Pride test, and there was a risk I could get caught up in all this exposure I was getting, which I wasn’t used to.

Ultimately, I believe I handled it in a godly way, and it’s between me and God. I left the promotion of the doco and the article to others, and while I appreciated the many encouraging comments that were made, I made sure to keep my distance, so as not to be seen to be revelling in the attention. I believe that both the article and the doco pointed people to Compassion, the church and God, viewed through the lens of my personal experience.

Test #3 – Stewardship Test
Earlier this year, I started delivering a couple of local newspapers in my area. Not sure why. A bit of exercise and it kept me humble I guess. Certainly wasn’t all about the dosh. Right from the start I was receiving a couple of extra bundles and they were over-paying me. Not by much, only a single-figure amount, and for a while I went on undisturbed, thinking “It’s their mistake.”

However, once the Ruel job was confirmed for 2014, one day I was massively convicted. The following verses speared through me: “Unless you are faithful in small matters, you won’t be faithful in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” (Luke 16:10-11)

If I was happy compromising even over a few bucks, how could I be trusted with the responsibilities I would have at Ruel, and even one day in heaven? I was reminded that honesty and integrity is hugely important to God. What I have belongs to Him, and I am accountable for how I use it.

I knew action was needed, and I wouldn’t feel right in my spirit until I had righted the wrong. So, I wrote a money order for an amount less than $100 and sent it back to the company, for what I owed. I believe God blessed me in response, as I am now financially better off than I have ever been, despite sponsoring 30 kids, taking three trips and paying rent all year. That is the God-economy.

Test #4 – The Heart Test
As I have mentioned, this year I was incredibly blessed to be able to visit communities in 11 different countries, seeing the work of God through Compassion, and visiting the wonderful children that I sponsor. In January I went to seven different countries in Central and South America; in April I did a group tour to the Philippines and in September I visited four countries in South America again.

I have already written extensively about these visits (to read about them, please click on September/October 2012, January, February, April, September or October 2013 in the menu to the right). My heart was stretched and broken in a million different ways by the things I saw and experienced. The situations that these kids and families find themselves in are unimaginable, and as Christians we cannot shut our eyes to it. However through the church and Compassion there is Hope for a better future, both in this life and the next.

God needed me to see these things to develop my character and to help my heart become more like His. I believe I could have reacted one of two ways after these trips. I could have processed it all and then sunk more snugly into my privileged life of wealth, abundance and prosperity, feeling some measure of pity but keeping my distance from it.

Instead, God used the heartbreak and agony of the realities of poverty to confirm to me my purpose, that He has prepared and equipped me to GO and BE WITH the poor. To use what He has given me in skills, gifts and talents to care for and share His love with others, in particular people in the developing world.    

And so that’s where I find myself at the start of 2014: about to go on a great big adventure, with God as my guide. It is an amazing feeling to realise that all the experiences, gift, talents and abilities that I’ve been blessed with have led to this point. I honestly believe that this job is what I’ve been created to do. Everything I love to do and everything I’m good at is all lumped into this one role.

I’m loathe to put a timeline on how long I will be away, since I am not God and that would be presumptuous, but I’m hoping my first stint will be three or four years, God-willing.

A verse that has often challenged me is Jesus ultimatum to any potential followers: “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” There is certainly a cost involved in that. It’s a big ask, and I have often wondered what that really looks like, especially for people who call themselves Christians in the developed world – we are, on the whole, rich, affluent, prosperous, comfortable and secure.

In the end, all that matters is what that looks like for me. I am not accountable for anyone else.  While I can look around at “Christians” in places like Australia and the US living for themselves and their own comfort and lifestyle and feel frustrated and angry at them, all I can do is set an example of a life lived with generosity, simplicity and contentment, and hope that some people follow.

I am not trying to win a holiness competition, or say that everyone should do exactly what I am doing. That would be arrogant and foolish. But I do know that for me, Jesus’ command to deny myself and take up my cross involves giving up everything, in terms of material possessions and GOING to serve. I am literally giving myself. It is a scary place to be, but God has proved Himself faithful far too many times for me to have any fears and doubts that He is with me and I am doing His will.

I need your help, reader. If you are a Christian, can I ask you to pray for me? Prayer is powerful, important and it works. I am under no illusions about this next period of my life and I’m not going in with my eyes closed. It is going to be extremely difficult and challenging in many ways, and I cannot do it without God’s help and strength, and your support. Thanks.