The possible and the impossible

fullsizeoutput_db3After about a six-hour journey we arrived at Darkhan, a city in northern Mongolia. A church of the Mongolian Evangelical Lutheran Church worships there in a building that used to be the barracks and offices of soldiers of the Soviet Union army back in the days when the communists of the U.S.S.R. dominated Mongolia. It would have seemed impossible back then to think a church would be praising the Lord in that building but now that is the case. In rooms where Soviet soldiers used to hang out, children are hearing the good news of Jesus while surrounded by beautiful art work, as seen in the picture above.

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We got to meet some of the people of the church. Some years ago one of them was facing challenges that seemed impossible to overcome. He had gone to Russia looking for work but couldn’t find any. He was homeless and the weather was turning dangerously cold. He wanted to return home to Mongolia but there didn’t seem to be any way. Some months before somebody had tried to share the good news of Jesus with him but he had no interest. Now in his desperation he cried out to God for help. Through a variety of miraculous events, God worked things out for him to get back to Mongolia. Eventually he came to the Lord and is now a very inventive, talented man who, with his wife, helps manage a factory that makes high-end felt slippers that are sold in Norway. The factory is in a building next to the church and is a fruit of the ministry of the Norwegian Lutheran Mission.

It’s impossible to imagine how a family that had a 6-year-old son die could find any comfort. A family in the church in Ulan Bator suffered that kind of tragic loss recently. The funeral for their little boy took place one of the days we were in Mongolia. We visited their home with the pastor and a number of family members and spent time in prayer for them. The family was at the worship service on Sunday. At their home and at the worship service it was encouraging to see the congregation come around the grieving family to offer comfort and support.

The mom shared briefly during the testimony portion of the worship service. She was crying and much of the congregation was crying as well. They were living out the Bible’s call to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). It also seemed like, when the mom was sharing about the pain of losing her son, some of the other moms in the congregation held their little ones a little bit closer. Tragedies like this can remind us that life is fragile and precious and a treasure to cherish.

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A long bus ride and an unreached town

IMG_0705We visited a 29-year-old man in his apartment that also serves as the meeting place of a congregation he is serving. His mother lives there as well and his sister lives nearby. The mother is also involved in trying to share the good news of Jesus with their community here in Mongolia. She recently finished two years of training at the Lutheran church’s Bible school. They have a small apartment but a big heart for Jesus and their community.  They shared about some of the different ways they’re involved in trying to develop relationships and reach people, including things like a book club and playing basketball.

The day after we met with him, the young church leader was going to ride a bus for 13 hours to another community in Mongolia that doesn’t have any church. He and the church body are looking to see if relationships can be developed that can lead to the good news of Jesus being shared in that community and eventually a new congregation begun there. The young man makes that 13-hours-one-way bus ride once a month. Pray for him and these two Mongolian communities he enthusiastically and joyfully serves.

Pastors being used by God in Mongolia

One man was a “good atheist” during his teenage years, as he grew up under the Communist indoctrination that dominated Mongolia for 70 years. He hadn’t heard anything about the good news of Jesus until he was 20 years old. The other man struggled with alcohol problems that threatened to ruin his life and his relations with his family. He saw 32 of his “drinking buddies” die of alcohol-related causes over the years. Now both of these men rejoice in having found new life in Jesus and they serve as pastors in the Lutheran church in Mongolia.

The former atheist is now convinced of the truth of God’s Word and he is teaching it, pastoring and giving leadership to the church body. The former slave to alcohol is now helping others to find the freedom Jesus brought to his life. He pastors four congregations and leads a ministry to help those struggling with alcohol problems. Both of them are great testimonies of how God can change lives. It was an enjoyable privilege to visit with them as my trip to Mongolia with Pastor Lyndon Korhonen has begun.

Crazy grace

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I recently had the chance to see the musical Les Miserables. The music is excellent but the message of the play is even better.

As the play begins we’re introduced to Jean Valjean. He did 19 years of hard labor in prison, simply because he stole a loaf of bread to help feed his starving family. He gets out but he has to carry around a piece of paper that identifies him as a convict. No one will hire him. A priest takes him in and gives him dinner and a place to stay for a night. During the night Valjean steals silver from the priest and tries to run but is quickly caught. The police bring Valjean back to the priest, refusing to believe Valjean’s claim that the silver was given to him. The priest says he did give him the silver but he forgot the candlesticks. After the police release Valjean and go on their way, the priest tells Valjean he has claimed his soul for God and he is now to live as a changed man. And that is what happens. The rest of the play is about Valjean living a new life of service to others, all because of the kindness and grace he was shown by the priest.

Who gives expensive candlesticks to somebody who eats their food and steals from them? Even more so, who gives their Son to die for rebellious, undeserving sinners like us? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the nature of grace. It’s crazy. It gives gifts to thieves. It suffers and dies for ungrateful sinners.

While in prison Valjean suffers under the cruel hand of Inspector Javert. Javert continues to pursue Valjean after his release, and tries to throw him back into prison. In one confrontation Valjean pleads for mercy, telling Javert of people he is helping and how he has changed. Javert dismisses the idea and tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change.”

Late in the play Valjean has the chance to get revenge on Javert and kill him, but he doesn’t and he lets him go. Javert is furious and can’t understand it. “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he, to have caught me in a trap and choose to let me go free? … I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert!”

It is either Valjean or Javert. It is either grace or law. Many view life like Javert. They think life is all about keeping rules. Grace angers them like it did Javert. It doesn’t seem right for criminals to receive forgiveness. Good things should only come to those who keep the rules. Punishment comes when you break them. There is no mercy or possibility of people changing.

Thankfully, because of Jesus, we can live like Valjean rather than Javert. Change is possible. God is merciful and forgiving. He longs to give His gracious gift of salvation to undeserving sinners like us. We rejoice in “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We give thanks for the amazing, crazy, doesn’t-make-any-sense grace of God.

Fantine is a lady in Les Miserables who is treated terribly and suffers much painful humiliation. She finally gets some help from Valjean. She looks at the misery of her life and with sorrow sings, “There was a time when men were kind. When their voices were soft and their words inviting. … I dreamed a dream in times gone by; when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”

The good news of Jesus proclaims that those dreams come true, because of God’s grace. Jesus is kind and gentle and His words are inviting. His love for us never dies. Because of Jesus and the cross, God is forgiving. His grace is not a dream. It’s real.

The song in Les Miserables that moves me the most is “On My Own” sung by the young lady Eponine. She loves a young man who loves somebody else. From the despair of her heart she cries out: “On my own, pretending he’s beside me. … I know it’s only in my mind, that I’m talking to myself and not to him. … I love him, but when the night is over, he is gone. … Without me, his world will go on turning; a world that’s full of happiness that I have never known. … I love him, but only on my own.”

Many struggle with that kind of sadness. What helps the most is the good news that God really does love you. You don’t have to pretend He is with you. Prayer is not pretending you’re talking to Him. He is real, He hears us and He won’t be gone when the night is over. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). When we know His grace and love, we’re never on our own.

 

The power of encouraging words

At a school in Dubai an experiment was conducted to see if words had an effect on plants. A recording was made of students insulting plants and another was made of compliments. The recording of put downs like, “You look ugly” and “Are you even alive?” was played to some plants on a loop for 30 days. Another recording of positive comments such as, “I like the way you look” was played to other plants for 30 days. The plants that were continually insulted withered, while the ones that heard positive comments remained healthy.

It may seem strange to think plants respond to what they hear and the science may be questioned, but it would fit with how the Creator has ordered His world. It is not surprising if plants wither if all they hear are insults and negativity. That is what happens with people.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. … The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:1, 4). We can’t be exactly sure how it affects plants whether the words spoken to them are gentle or harsh, but we do know how it affects people. Harsh words, spoken in anger, lead to more anger. Mean, nasty put-downs cause much discouragement. Constant criticism with no encouragement crushes a person’s spirit and makes them want to give up.

Gentle words bring peace and ease tension. A soothing tongue and loving encouragement can inspire a person to keep going and not give up.

Words can knock a person down or lift a person up. They can cause deep hurt or bring gracious healing to wounded souls. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. … Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12:18, 25).

In our hi-tech world with email, Facebook, texting and Twitter, words are constantly being spread around the world. Many of them are negative and critical, focused on failure, expressing anger and knocking people down. Those kinds of words cause relationships and spirits to wither.

Words of blessing and encouragement, words that describe the beauty and grace of God, words that give thanks for good things God is doing are words that build up and give life. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Some words that are shared are truthful but not beneficial. The person sharing them may feel good about “getting it off their chest,” but they aren’t words that help the listener or build them up.

We give thanks for God’s loving, gracious Word that builds us up. In this world full of words that wither souls, we give thanks we can turn to Christ and find the gentle words we need to hear and the encouraging words that give life.

Honest about our hurts

The other night I took a break from what I was doing and watched some of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. At the ceremony those who are inducted are given the opportunity to give a speech. It was interesting and enjoyable to hear what these successful athletes had to say at this significant moment in their life.

During a couple of the speeches it seemed like they were almost ready to sing a hymn and give an altar call. Some of the players gave strong and powerful testimonies about their faith in the Lord. They wanted people to know they didn’t achieve this honor on their own. They gave thanks to God and told about times of struggle and how the Lord Jesus had helped them through the challenges.

A couple of them told about growing up as sons of single moms. They were poor, living in tough, dangerous neighborhoods. Most people would have looked at their situation and said there was no chance they would turn out well. But they had a mom and a grandmother who prayed. That made a world of difference.

They admitted mistakes they had made and told of times when they were headed down the wrong path. They expressed appreciation for how God brought people into their life who helped them get going in a different direction. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear their honesty about things they had done wrong and their humble admission that they needed others.

Brian Dawkins told about a time early in his career when he was struggling with depression and contemplated suicide. He gave thanks to God and people who watched over him, encouraged him and helped him get on a path to healing. He encouraged others who were going through similar struggles to look at his life and find hope that God can help you get through the hard times.

At a Hall of Fame induction ceremony you expect players to talk about how great they were and tell stories about their success. You don’t expect someone to show such transparency and talk about his battle with depression.

We expect a happy face. When we ask someone how they’re doing we expect a quick “Great.” We expect boasting, but in a subtle, humble way of course. We get scared to do like Dawkins did and admit our struggles. We worry about what people might think of us.

I have been blessed that I haven’t struggled with depression like many others have, but I did have a period when sadness was camping out a lot in my life. I don’t know if I would have been considered depressed at the time, but I was pretty down for quite a while. Your pride doesn’t want to admit you’re hurting. You want to be a poster boy for “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). So you try to fake it. I found out I’m not as good at faking it as I thought I was. I’m thankful for good friends who asked, “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

That’s how it ought to be in a congregation and with friends in Christ. We don’t need to fake that we’re fine. We have freedom to ask our friends how they’re doing and share with our friends how we’re really doing. We can do like Paul did with the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (I Thessalonians 2:8). God’s love enables us to find hope and strength as we share our lives with one another.

I appreciate how Brian Dawkins courageously and humbly shared his life. His speech can be found on YouTube. It’s worth a listen.djzg5eux4aeack

 

The meek win?

During his campaign for president 30 years ago the first President George Bush spoke of a longing for a kinder and gentler nation. He also described those who volunteer and serve others as being like a thousand points of light, with service shining bright in the midst of a dark world.

The call for a kinder, gentler nation was mocked by many 30 years ago. It still sounds strange today in our society that is so often mean, cruel and violent and going the opposite direction of kinder and gentler. Kindness and gentleness is too often looked down upon instead of being valued and encouraged.

The vision of a multitude of humble servants shining like a thousand points of light was a confusing concept to some 30 years ago. Recently it was described again as not making sense. Kindness, gentleness and humble, sacrificial service doesn’t make sense to the world. The world understands putting yourself first; looking out for your own interests and not the interests of others. The world understands promoting yourself and boasting about what you have done. The world understands being assertive and going for what you want, even if it means knocking others down to get it.

Gentleness and kindness seem strange to the world. Meekness appears to be weakness. It is that way now and was also that way in Jesus’ day. At first His own brothers didn’t understand His humble service and why He would do great deeds but not want to draw attention to Himself. “Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). Letting people know how great you are – that makes sense to the world. But that’s not Jesus’ way.

Pilate couldn’t understand Jesus failing to fight back and defend Himself when He was attacked. “‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed” (Mark 15:4-5). The world’s way is stand up for yourself and return insult for insult. If somebody posts something that appears to be an attack and a slam, you better slam them back. That’s what the world thinks. Jesus’ way of silence and meekly letting them nail Him to the cross amazes and confuses people. But it brings salvation and hope to those who trust Him.

First Timothy 6:11 says to “pursue … gentleness.” Are you pursuing gentleness or running from it? We can pursue gentleness because we are chosen and loved by God. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).The world doesn’t think so, but the meek are the ones who are going to come out ahead. “I will remove from you your arrogant boasters. … But I will leave within you the meek and humble” (Zephaniah 3:11-12). Arrogant boasters can intimidate at times and deceive people into thinking they are far more impressive and important than they really are. The arrogant boasters of this world are not to be feared for they have no future. It is the meek and the humble who trust in the Lord who will win in the end. They are the ones who can look forward to a victorious and glorious future.