Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Given A White Robe

In 1994 Arwen and I were convinced it was time to go. We had been committed to going and serving overseas since we got married to each other and now it was time, but where? We prayed about it and settled on Middle Earth because it was completely unreached and the doors were just coming open there. So, I wrote to our Agency and asked for job requests from the region. Arwen and I read and prayed through forty different requests but the one for Team Leader for Minas Tirith in Gondor blew us away. It was the greatest opportunity ever, a dream job. If anyone else read this request it would snatched up immediately! So, I called the Agency headquarters and talked to the secretary for the region. I told her that we didn’t have all of our paperwork in yet but we had to reserve that job somehow. I will never forget her words. ‘Middle Earth? No one wants to go to Middle Earth!’ A year later we were on our way.

In 1999 we went on our first homeleave and we met the secretary at our debriefing conference. I reminded her of her words and she said she could not believe she would have said such a thing- I assure you she did. At the conference she played the piano and taught us all a new song (I forget the author) that always reminds me of her whenever we sing it.

Our heart, Our desire, is to see the nations worship.

Our cry, our prayer, is to sing your praise to the ends of the earth.

That with one mighty voice, every tribe and tongue rejoices.

Our heart, our desire, is to see the nations worship you.

A few years later- after being secretary for our region for many years she heeded her own words and came out to a different country in Middle Earth. She learned the language, the culture, and most of all she learned to love the people in extraordinary ways. She glowed with the love of Jesus and everyone who ever met her was struck by her grace. Yesterday we heard unconfirmed reports that she has been killed after a several week ordeal. Security forbids me to say anymore. Likely, even hopefully, you will never hear her story this side of eternity. You will not know of the great sister who has laid down her life for the Kingdom of God.

There are a lot of mixed feelings about martyrs. In our Western society it has become a negative word, a word to describe misguided people. Some in Church who do understand the word still don’t like it. For too many of us the old enemy death has not lost his sting. We cling to ideas of loss forgetting our faith. Our hearts have not caught up with our heads. Revelation gives us a different perspective. In chapter 6:9-11 we see:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

I grieve that I will not see my friend again this side of eternity but I do not mourn her loss. She has been given a white robe and is now at rest. She will be honored throughout eternity for her service to her Father. She has laid down her life not just for her friends but for her enemies as well. I believe it was because she had such grace and character as the Lord had put into her that He honored her by allowing her to be a sacrifice for the people she was sent to serve. I am sorry you can not know more about her to honor her and learn from her. Just know that the Father is raising up many like her to swell the numbers of His Kingdom until it truly does have no end. Heaven will be truly glorious as it radiates with the splendor of men, women, and children who reflect the glory of our God for all eternity. She is no longer in the battle. Who will stand in the gap she leaves?

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Last week after a successful food distribution to a village starving in the worst winter Gondor has seen in 25 years we decided we would go back down to Anfalas and do a special seminar. The young church down there is always hungry for more of the Word so I thought it would be a good idea for us to take a whole day and do an Old Testament overview kinda conference.

We met a couple of times and portioned out the different subjects each of us would teach. Merry would take the Patriarchs, Frodo would teach Exodus through the Judges, and Sam would go over the Wisdom litereture. I would overview Israel's history and put the prophets into that perspective. On Monday we met to make sure that we were clear on what we were doing. Everything looked good. Any questions? Merry shifted in his seat, 'just one.' 'Are you coming with us?'
I paused, looking at his discomfort and trying to figure out where he was going with this.
'Do you think I shouldn't go?' They had discussed this, obviously they didn't think so. They then explained that while everyone in Anfalas loved me it was clear that when I was there people were shy. They didn't always come around the foreigner and when they did come around they didn't always open up and asks questions. 'Ok', I said. 'You guys are breaking my heart!' Man, teaching the Word is my greatest joy in life. I knew they were right. I sent them on without me.

The team got back yesterday and the study went really well. All four baptised believers were there and eight other adults joined them. The teaching went on all day and into the night. No one left or lost interest. They were all rivoted to what the guys were saying. And God was working in me too. He told me to look up a verse that would help me. It is a much used verse in our line of work. So much used that it is almost trite, taken for granted.

2 Timothy 2:2
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who also will be qualified to teach others.

This verse washed over me. It soothed me and gave me joy. I thought about how I was able to just say to Merry, 'Teach the Patriarchs' and he would do it. I didn't say to him, 'Don't forget to mention this, please emphasis that, use these key verses.' He knew it. We have studied and worked together for four years. They know the Word and they know Jesus well. They can teach very well. Lives were changed Tuesday. Several who have been fence sitting have been powerfully challenged to follow the Truth in an effective way. God is moving in Anfalas. And if He is then my job is done and I need to move on to the next village, the next uncrossable barrier, the next Gate of Hell that is begging to be knocked down so that those inside can be set free by our relentless savior.

A quick prologue to what I have just written. When Merry finished sharing about how Joseph experienced great personal pain but that God used it all for good he got a phone call. His sister's apartment here in Minas Tirith burned completely in the night. Thanks be to God who awoke his sister at one in the morning when she heard the sounds and smell of burning and looked in on Merry's studio where he does dubbing of Christian movies and music. The fire was already raging and the force of it blasted the door open and threw her back. She escaped with her two children unharmed but they have lost everything. They are currently staying at Frodo's house until funds can be collected to remodel the apartment. Local believers are coming to their aid and today I know that they have clothes and shelter and all that they need. Replacing the studio and the apartment will be harder for them but not for God. Merry took the news gracefully and was a testimony of how God's children should bear burdens. I am proud of the whole team who can not only share the Gospel, they live it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Heating Up in the Cold

Well, I tried singing, reading the Word, talking to my family but I can't shake the feeling of anger that has taken over my heart. So, I will process with you, dear reader, and maybe I will get it off my chest once and for all.

Backround: Gondor is having the worst winter in 25 years. It has been darn cold and the utilities have consequently suffered badly. Our dam is out of water and we have severe power shortages. This means that for the last couple of weeks we have had no power from 10 to 5 am and pm. But worse than that the villages outside of Minas Tirith where I live have had no electricity at all for over a month. Many people have died in the cold including newborn babies in cold hospitals. This kind of crisis brings out the best and the worst in people depending on their charactor. Our believing friends have done great, bearing inconveniences patiently and serving others. The Government officials have responded with a spate of new fees and regulations designed to milk every penny they can out of local people and us International NGO's. This has been getting steadily more annoying to me but today I just about lost it.

We have not had water for more than a month now as all the lines are frozen. I walked into the office this afternoon and had to leave again quickly before I blew up. Three men from the water department had barged into our office and were demanding back payment for supposedly outstanding bills from 1996. They want about $50. It is not about the money. It is about my temper and the fact that I have not had a bath in six weeks. They will come again tomorrow and I am asking all who read this to pray for me. If God blesses me with more grace than I can currently find in my heart I will deal with these guys tomorrow morning and move on to serve the people he sent me to. If I face them without such grace this blog may be closed as I get deported for physically assaulting the water guys.

Grace grace God's grace, grace that is greater than all our sins.... I need MORE!

UPDATE: So, you guys must have prayed hard because today our water came back! Of course, we didn't have electricity all day but now that is back too. I met with the water guys and they were somewhat reasonable, or at least I was. So, thanks to all who prayed. It is a small victory in the midst of a big crises but hey, one step at a time.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

To Mount Doom 3

Arathorn was a 26 year old International Service Corps young man with the Southern Baptists. He had served for one year in a country to the north of us and he wanted to serve his second year taking advantage of the door that God opened for us in Mordor. The year was 1999 and it was time for me to go on my first homeleave. I told Arathorn that we would not be able to support him well. We were partnering with a construction agency that would be able to get the money and resources to him to continue the project but there would be no pastoral care, and very little advice or encouragement. Arathorn tackled northern Mordor with zest. He was determined to get the Gospel to people who had been in complete darkness for thousands of years. These were fanatical Muslims who had spent the last twenty years in civil war. Everyone carried a gun and everyone knew how to use one.

Living conditions were primative but tolerable. We had set up an office and the local family who owned the property lived there, cleaned, cooked and served with great hospitality. But this was in the end a small village. There was no electricity except for the generator we provided. There was no water except what the family carried in from the well. Life was completely communal with this one big exception: We never saw women at all. They were shut up behind high walls and when there was a rare occasion of a woman traveling on the road she was covered from head to toe, her face veiled completely, and more than that people would be angry if you looked at her for more than a passing glance. Communal living does however mean that everything you do and say is known by everyone in the village. How do you do evangelism and discipleship in this very hostile setting. Arathorn didn't know but he was determined to find out. He shared stories, his testimony, he told coworkers about what he believed. Immediately he was opposed by our office manager. He was a strict Muslim and more than that he was afraid that if anyone thought that Arathorn was trying to spread his faith they could all be killed. Arathorn kept trying anyway. He was frustrated that he could not have any private conversations. After a few of these early on the villagers were afraid to talk to him alone because of several who had faced a mean interrogation afterwards. 'Why did you talk to Arathorn? What did you talk about? You are not wanting to be a Christian are you?!' Arathorn was frustrated. Not only was he not able to evangelize one on one but he could not even have a close friend to talk to. Just before I left for the US I went down with the director of the Construction firm we partnered with. We walked into a big controversy. The local officials in Mordor were furious with Arathorn because he had given a man a New Testament in their language. Of course, the reason he gave it to him was because he had asked for it! It had been a trap. The Director and I went to see the Governor of the district. We told him that we would take Arathorn and go home. Of course, with no one else to run the projects we would have to suspend our activities. The Governor asked Arathorn to promise not to give our any more New Testaments and he could stay. Well, personally I think that this is an easy promise to keep. After all, how effective is giving out literature in a country with 17% literacy! No, we would stick to stories and Arathorn would have to keep looking for a way to share them.

When I came back from the US Arathorn came up to visit us in Gondor and take a break. It was never much of a break for him to come to Gondor. The spiritual battle seemed to rage even more when he came here. He was arrested at the airport and held until we could get him out every single time he came- which was several times... five or six I think. They always said his visa was wrong but the truth was he dressed, talked, and acted like a national from Mordor which made him very unpopular in Gondor! I asked him how things were and he described his difficulties. He struggled terribly with being the only known believer in all of northern Mordor. He was alone and he was frustrated. But he talked about the projects and the office with some joy. He told me that it was an interesting thing to watch the other organizations down there. There was a Swedish group and their guy wore a tie and so all the Mordor staff had taken to wearing ties. There was a French group and they had several young men who drank wine alot. So, their national staff had begun drinking as well. Then I asked him the obvious question, 'What are your staff known for?' He thought for just a second and replied that his men where known for servanthood. His guys stood out in that they were always ready to pick up a shovel and help. I liked that a lot.

Arathorn extended his contract for two more years. Finally, in 2001 another young man came out and joined him. Then another, then a young family. Arathorn worked harder and harder. He finally left frustrated and defeated. I give him full credit for opening the office that is still there today. I give him full credit for beginning a work in one of the most difficult places on earth. But he left thinking he had failed.

Two years later the team leader for Northern Morder came up to me at a conference and said, 'Hey Strider, do you ever hear from Arathorn anymore?' I told him that I had lost track of him. He said to me, 'Well, if you ever see him tell him that we currently work with six men who have become believers. All six of them knew Arathorn.' We always tell ourselves that we will never know the impact we have on others this side of eternity. I am sure that some who are famous with big ministries will be disappointed at how few they touched for the Kingdom. I am very sure that Arathorn will be amazed at the many who surround him on that great day and say thank you. Arathorn, if you are reading this I will say thank you right now, and WELL DONE!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

To Mount Doom 2

In my last post I recalled how we began our work in Mordor. Once the money was in we still needed personnel and we needed them fast. We had a three and a half month window to build 6000 houses or people would perish in the snow. My Engineer friend took advantage of the Red Cross pulling out by hiring one of their administrators. Later we would be priviliged to pick up a highly trained national engineer. These two men saw the project through even when we didn't know if we could go back to Mordor ourselves. The civil war got closer. As the Engineer stayed on after everyone else evacuated I began to get concerned. If he suddenly had to leave could we get him out? I began to look into it. Then another agency assured me that they had everything under control. Our Engineer could come out with them across the river by boat. All the permissions were arranged. Fine I said and assurred my friend that all was ready. When he got across the river, with bombs clearly heard in the distance, he was told by the border forces that his name was not on the list. He called me on his Satelite telelphone and exclaimed that there was a huge mess up. He as not happy as they sent him back across the river where there was only a small guard house and nowhere to spend the night or get food. Fortunately, the Mordor border guards took pity on him and fed him and gave him room in the guardhouse to put down a sleeping bag. He would remain there for three days while I ran around from morning till night everyday going from office to office trying to get permission for him to get across. I was one stamp away from getting a helicopter with the Gondor Army when the big boss from out of town came in unexpectedly and squashed the plan. I finally got his name on the approprate list and he came across the river and was picked up by our national guys who drove him the seven hour drive up to Minas Tirith where we live. I am not sure he ever forgave me for letting him sit on a dangerous border for three days but I promise all of you I did not rest an hour while he was there. Such is life, or at least such is Middle Earth.

Our next task was to get personnel on the ground. We had a functioning office, some great national staff, and a big budget but no expatriot staff to run the project or more important, to take advantage of the ministry opportunities. There were several families who had lived in Mordor before they had all been kicked out two years before, there were several more families that had claimed to love the people of Mordor and worked in neighboring countries to serve these people. I was sure once they knew about our project they would be begging to get involved. In many ways I was still operating out of my area of responsibility. Mordor was someone else's job, not mine. I had a full-time job right here in Gondor as my team continually reminded me. But after a few weeks I realized they were not coming. It is difficult to say exactly why but I will put forward two reasons that I think are valid. One, they did not come because they had always had city ministries and several of them had families that were used to the city and our project was more than just rural, it was remote. Two, I think that once someone is settled, even if it is not in the place one wishes to be, it is very difficult to pick up and move on a moment's notice. We were asking a lot, and in the end we were asking too much. No one came and we concluded the project that fall with no international staff on the ground. It may interest you to know that our little organization built 500 homes in four months and that the four NGO's combined built 13,000 homes- that's right, THIRTEEN THOUSAND! The people of northern Mordor had the shelter they needed for the winter. I am very proud of the project we did, of the plan that we came up with and I want to be really really clear here: This is all credit to the Holy Spirit who gave us the plan and the resources to accomplish it.

That winter our region had what we call our Annual General Meeting. During the meeting there was a special session called by our leadership to address the problem of Mordor. Several people made presentations about how they might could try and do something from some direction or another to get people in. I stood up and described our project, our entrance into Mordor and I plead for people to come and join the project. Now, you may not believe this but several people stood up and opposed me. They said that Mordor was too dangerous, it was too risky, we were not ready etc. etc. I replied that we would never impact the lostness of Mordor without risks and sacrifices. Much more annoying to me was that there were non-Christian international workers there doing projects right now while we Christians hid behind our own timidity. I challenged them to take up the task or renounce their claim to love the people of Mordor. Yeah, I know, I am not much of a diplomat.
I was discouraged.

But later that day a young man I will name Arathorn came up to me and asked me more about the project. He had been working for the last year in the mountains north of Gondor and he said this was just the kind of challenge he was looking for. I talked to his supervisor who gave the ok and we arranged for him to go down in six weeks time. I warned him that I was going on Stateside Assignment later that year. He would be all alone, the only known Christian in all of Northern Mordor and we would not be able to support him well. He said he understood. He said he was ready. I don't think he has ever forgiven me for our lack of support and the really difficult time he had for the next three years. But that will be the topic of my next post.