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An Altar in the Wilderness

There exists a deep sense of displacement in many of our hearts. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a tent to live in, but we are looking for a city with foundations, built by God. While we walk in the shadows of the dark valley, the enemy sneaks along the hillsides above us, spying and sniping, trying to kill us before we reach the open country. We are easy targets. We carry the Light through this strange country we wander in.

We do not, however, wander aimlessly. There are waypoints in the wilderness. Consider Isaiah 19:19: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt.” In New Testament language, we might say, “Every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This prophecy provides hope for the future and spiritual principle for the present.

As you journey, look around you and you will see people with strange customs, alien affections, and selfish pursuits. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, who worship all sorts of things. In ancient Egypt it was the Nile River or frogs or fertility. Today the gods have different faces, but the affections of the worshipers are the same. Whether by ritual or sorcery or science, fallen mankind desperately tries to control all that threatens or promises to promote.

We, too, face fear, but God has not forgotten us in this wild country. He has allayed our fears by releasing us from the overwhelming need to control all. He has given us an altar outside the camp , where Jesus suffered in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. In so doing, He has changed our affections, transformed our customs, and made our pursuits transcendent instead of transient. We have lost our place in this world, becoming pilgrims, aliens, and strangers.

We have become a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts. This is our mandate, our role, our place. To paraphrase (or personalize) 1 Peter 2:9: “But we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are living witnesses of Jesus’ sacrifice, his resurrection, his ongoing intercession, his call to draw all people to himself.

Do you, too, feel your displacement in this world? What altar to you sacrifice at? Are your affections, customs, and pursuits the same as or different than those around you? Are you pursuing eternity or time? Are you a sign to your generation? A witness?

Take these questions before God in prayer … then go out and shake the gates of Hell today!

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Light from Broken Lamps

My friend, Lim, came sauntering up to the house one afternoon carrying an old kerosene lantern. He often stopped by to chat in the late afternoon. “Brother Todd, could you help me fix my lantern?”

Of all the skills I had to acquire to thrive in a jungle village, fixing leaky kerosene lamps wasn’t one. Like most Westerners, I’d probably just go buy another rather than fix it. They are relatively cheap. On the other hand, I might learn something. I suspected that he knew how to fix it, just didn’t have the stuff.

“Sure, Lim. What’s the problem?” “It’s leaking right here (he said as he pointed to the seam along the base.” “Any idea how to sort it out? I painted it last time.” The verb “paint” is about as ambiguous in the trade language as it is in English. We can speak of painting something with oil, paint, or even medicine when speaking of treating a wound. I was trying to figure out what he was getting at. We walked into my little workshop and started looking around. He picked up a can of paint: oil-based paint that becomes gummy when it dries. Clever. I never would have that of that one.

Outside in the breeze we started brushing paint around the bottom of Lim’s oil lamp. He grinned at me. I suppose he’d had similar experiences when trying to teach his children lessons that seem so straightforward to an adult. We set the lamp aside to dry and took up the real work of the day, talking about what was going on around the village, in Lim’s life, and eternity.

I’ve often thought of Lim’s leaky lamp since then. When you only make a few hundred dollars a year, kerosene is an expensive commodity. How sad and stressful it is to watch it drip down the side of your lamp and spill onto the ground, especially with such an easy, if unorthodox, fix.

Missionaries, especially in the kinds of remote areas where many Bible translators work, can be isolated for months at a time. Spiritual nurture is rarely external. Maintenance of the inner life can be costly and precious. Stress mounts: sometimes cultural; sometimes emotional; sometimes interpersonal; as often as not physical (sickness). Whatever the cause, the lamp of life tends to spring leaks and the precious flow of Oil drips out the bottom instead of feeding the flame.

The servant of Jesus must pay attention to the condition of the vessel. Where are there leaks? How large? Can I plug them or do I need help? Where can I find help? The servant’s life must be filled with the life-giving flow on a regular basis, lest the light dwindle to mere shadow.

Following are a few Bible verses that may help fan the flame and give the servant an advantage.


I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” –Psalm 121:1-2, ESV

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” –Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer 0f faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”–James 4:13-16, ESV

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Old Photos and New Life

Memories sit on the shelf of the mind quite often collecting dust and serving little purpose, like old family photos placed in a hall closet and forgotten through most days. There they sit until relatives land in town for a few days or one of the kids is home from college. Then they see the light of day.

I’m pulling a few of those memories from the closet today as I reflect on something that happened thirty-two years ago today (April 11, 1982). It was that Easter Sunday that I surrendered my life, my rights, my past, present, and future to Jesus Christ. I was buried with him in baptism and raised again with him to new life.

Why was that? Why would I have made that decision? How did it really change anything?

Walk to the shelf with me. Let’s pull out one of the photos from years earlier. The photo is shadowy. There is a six year old boy, wearing pajamas. His sallow face is swollen, hair tussled. A small pair of plastic-framed glasses lay on the night stand. He is kneeling under the table, eyes squeezed shut, hands folded. It looks as he could bolt at any moment, running for his life. There is a caption below: “Please God, I don’t want to die.” He had been told a few hours before that he might only have six months to live.

How about this one. Look at this. This photo is of an eight-year-old boy, sitting on the bench seat of a moving truck. He is holding a Orange Crush soda in his hand, his big eyes gazing up at his dad, grinning like a possum eating sweet potato. He gets to ride with Daddy on the first leg of the trip south to a new home. That new home would end up being southeast Kansas. Caption here: “What will life be like there? Will I fit in? Will they like me?”

What’s this? In this photo our little boy is alone, face tear-stained, shaking. Small towns can be cruel. Sometimes older siblings can be too. This photo was “taken” just after he was left at home, everyone else headed out for pizza and fun. Caption here: “Why?” Pause for a moment and consider this one. Lonely, alone, hurting, fearful, sick, desperately looking for . . . acceptance. We place this photo back in the box. How depressing. But wait . . .

Here’s an interesting one. There is our boy sitting in a church pew. The cushions were red, the hymnals that sort of 70’s burgundy that found its way onto Lincoln Continentals, velvet suits, and church hymnals in those days. The crowd is small–must’ve been a Sunday night–definitely. The preacher at the edge of the picture isn’t wearing a tie. Definitely Sunday night. White knuckles. Right there in the center of this photo. Our little boy is white-knuckling the back of the pew in front of him. He has talked to the preacher. He knows about Hell . . . and heaven. He knows about sin and its wages. He knows the price of rejecting God. Yet, the knuckles are white, the boy stationary.

What’s this one? This photo is different than the others. It is effusive, almost glowing. Can photos glow? In this photo the boy is dressed in white. His hair drips, water running down his chin. Is it water or Spirit? His eyes are bright, his face no longer sallow but warm and ruddy and alive. He smiles and feels clean, pure, new, and empowered. It seems like it must be the same boy from the other photos, yet not. There is still fear in this photo, yet it is a holy fear, not one born of dread and death. Oh yes, Easter Sunday. 1982.

That photo was taken 32 years ago today. Death died that day in me and became Life. Dark was dispelled by Light. Lost became found. Rejection was redeemed by the One who had been rejected without cause. Loneliness was removed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit came to make a new home in me.

Aged Todd Portrait Photo

I thank God today that He looked at my sickness, my loneliness, my pain and buried those in the grave. I thank God today that by the power of the resurrection and by His Spirit he raised me to eternal life, lived in Him. I thank God today that he has given me opportunity upon opportunity to put hands and feet on “thank you.”

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Facing the Unthinkable–Three Realities That Will Change Your Life

The lights in the cabin were dimmed. The almost unnoticed sound of air slipping over the skin of the airliner reminded me that I was at 40,000 feet. I sat, bleary eyed along the rear bulkhead, reading light on, notepad on the tray in front of me. It was Father’s Day and I was suspended between heaven and earth separated from my children and facing an unthinkable tragedy–I was going home, alone, to the U.S. to help my family bury my father. There were no words to pray. Sitting numbly in a stupor, I pressed pen to paper and began to write. “The last words my dad ever said to me were, ‘I love you, son. . .'”

Uria Village, PNG

The sun rises over Uria Village, Papua New Guinea

Mountains across the valley emerged from the darkness as dawn approached. Fog flowed through the valley below us, a great white river that would disappear soon enough. The friar bird began singing his morning prayer as did the dozens of Papua New Guinean neighbors encircling our house. I listened to the cadence of my wife’s breathing and of the gentle words of caring friends outside. Though we had lived in Papua New Guinea only a short time, my health was mysteriously failing. Why? Our friends were crying out to heaven for answers.

A different night a line of flaming torches flickered against the mountainside. People were descending into a maelstrom of violence and hatred, ready to burn, to kill, to revenge. Sin had to be dealt with, swiftly and severely, shame mitigated, respect restored. The torch bearers thought that someone in our village had performed a revenge-killing on one of their relatives and they were coming to make war. We were caught in the middle of friends who were suddenly at war with one another.

Loss, sickness, and violence. Three threads of my New Guinea experience. Why were they so frequently present? What was I to learn about shaking the gates of Hell from these harsh realities?

First, I learned that in even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations, I do not come to God with answers–I just come to God. I learned that I don’t have words, most of the time, to adequately express the loss, the hurt, the frustration or the fear. I learned that there is Someone to help me with all that.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:26-27, ESV)

Second, I learned that in even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations, God is with me. I know this, in part, because the Son submitted to the most inhumane, brutal torture and murder, in order that I would not be charged and executed for my wrongdoing. I know this in part because when He was undergoing life in a human body–the temptation, the taunting, the torture, the rejection, even death–he experienced more of the unthinkable that I could ever imagine. Therefore, He is qualified to empathize with everything I’ve experienced. He takes that experience and prays with understanding for me.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Third, I learned that even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations serve to make me more like Christ and are used by God to make me more than a conqueror. They are used to make me fit for heaven, to be purified in the inner man, to be holy as He is holy. They are normative Christian experiences, not exceptions. They do not separate me from Him, they deepen my dependence upon him.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:35-38, ESV)

These three truths transform my heart and mind, stealing me away from fearful, tentative tendencies, making me into a fearless, intrepid intercessor who intercedes along with the Holy Spirit and the Son, shaking the gates of Hell, causing rumblings in heavenly places, risking all for the honor of being called “son” by the Creator, Conqueror, and Counselor.

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Promise and Prayer

abraham stares at the stars

The old man stood in the cool of the night, stargazing as old men of many generations since have done. He turned the words over and over in his mind as he tried to take in the enormity of it all.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.  Genesis 15:5-6, ESV, emphasis mine

This wasn’t the first time Abraham had heard this promise. He’d heard the promise before he’d left Haran with his wife and nephew for parts unknown. He was already 75 years old then. He’d heard the promise again when Lot moved off toward the Jordan Valley and he moved further into Canaan. He heard it now and would hear it again before seeing its fulfillment. The promise came this time with prophetic words about his descendants and with an offering.

Abraham had difficulty in “seeing” how God would bring this promise about. Even so, he had no doubt whatsoever that God would do it. Further, he believed that God had power and will to do even the patently impossible to keep his promise.

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Romans 4:19 – 25, ESV

Both Old and New Testament references to Abraham’s faith connect God’s promise to Abraham with the coming of Messiah. It also connects the quality of his faith to being counted as righteous before God. Faith, in this context, is not merely mental assent to an idea, but a relational posture by which we gain access to God’s promised right to become sons and daughters, born of God (cf. John 1:12-13). Our basic posture toward God is that of functionally believing that God will do what he says. Period. No prevarication. No looking askance at crazy, impossible sounding schemes. We believe Him. And it is counted to us as righteousness.

Abraham-style faith changes how we pray. Paul rightly reminds us that the promise did not come through the law, but through faith “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring  [that is, you and I if you believe]. . . ” (Romans 4:16)

In prayer, we “confidently draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV) We come looking for grace and mercy to help us in our weakness, knowing that it will be granted us. We come to God in prayer, confessing our sins, trusting that when he said that “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” that he will cleanse us. (1 John 1:9) We come to God for wisdom, knowing that He will grant it. We pray for our leaders, for our comrades in the Kingdom, for victory in the heavenly places, that we will stand in the evil day and overcome the enemy of all that is holy. Our prayer life changes when our faith functions not only in the mind (mere lip service?) but in the hands and the feet (obedient action).

When we act on the belief that God has the power to do things in any situation, especially that we cannot even imagine, when all looks impossible or lost, we pray differently. We pray according to God’s character, not ours. We pray according to God’s ability, not ours. We pray according to God’s promise, not according merely to our intentions. We pray for transformation, not just to make it through. We climb out of our natural selves, with all its limitations and we dare to pray prayers that can only be fulfilled in the supernatural. We pray so that God alone, by His mighty power, gains glory for himself while we fade into the background. We pray in such a way that He increases and we decrease. Our prayer life becomes a genuine testament to Jesus’ life (at work in and through us).

If you want to pray prayers that transform first you and then those for whom you pray, adopt a posture of functional belief that God does what he says he will do and then act accordingly.

How can we be confident that we are indeed praying according to His promises and not merely according to our personal aspirations or desires? I will address this question in the next post . . . 😉

 

 

 

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Day 35: A Call to Prayer

December 26, 2013 Cape Coral, Florida —

Our youngest daughter hummed, sang, and listened to Christmas music from October until at least yesterday. Yesterday, the Christmas story was read, prayers were prayed, turkey eaten, presents opened, time shared with loved ones.

Today feels different. The Holy Spirit has been pressing on my soul for some time now to be really prepared for 2014 in a number of areas. I and Angela see both challenges and opportunities in the coming year and are vibrant with anticipation of what God has in store for these coming days. It is critical that as we prepare and anticipate God’s work in the days of 2014, that we call believers to pray with us. We need to live in the shadow of the Almighty. We need to call on his name. We need to experience ongoing answers to pray that all might behold His glory.

Would you pray with us in the coming days that:

  • We will recognize God’s leading and be able to know the difference between His plan and our desires (when they are not the same).
  • We will have God’s wisdom in planning and in executing the plan for developing ministry partnerships.
  • We will be equipped and ready in every way to depart for Papua New Guinea in July 2014.
  • Our Somau Garia co-workers will be protected from the attacks of the enemy as they continue to draft Acts, James, etc. in preparation for our return.
  • We will be fully submitted to Christ in all things as we proceed toward the goal of living and working, once again, in Papua New Guinea.
  • God will continue to grant grace and mercy as our family is dispersed to colleges, jobs, and callings.
  • God will grant us new financial partners even before the close of 2013.
  • God will raise up the prayer team He is designing for us.

Thank you for praying with us. Our heavenly Father is pleased beyond measure when we put our trust in Him in prayer.

What will our daughter be doing in the coming months? She will still be singing, humming, and being enthusiastic, but I think it will be praise songs from church, hymns played on the piano, and enthusiasm about making the trip across the big pond to Papua New Guinea. I hope, too, that of all her enthusiasms, she will also be praying.

Blessings, friends!

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Day 33: The Birth of Hope

simeon holding Jesus

Simeon was an old man, holding out on death by holding onto a promise that was made to him by none other than God himself. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, ministering and watching. The Holy Spirit was on him and the Kingdom of God was at hand as he took the baby in his arms,

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to you word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

Anointed and prophesying, Simeon gazed into the realm beyond time and space, seeing in Jesus’ face the eternal. At once he saw baby and salvation. In those baby blue eyes he saw light and revelation for peoples living at odds with God. Raising the child in his hands he saw the glory of Israel. For all eyes to see, there was the child whose coming was prepared in the sight of all peoples: even eastern star gazers and scroll readers, looking for the One born King of the Jews.

Tears soak my beard. This Son is my savior, my king, my light, my hope. This hope was revealed to Gentiles, too–my ancestors were Welsh-Irish, not Jewish. What life would I have had if Jesus’ father hadn’t swept him away to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath? Had Jesus not offered himself in my place, I would have suffered the horror of eternal separation from God.

Wet beard, bleary eyes, full heart, I, like Simeon, can hold this child before you and proclaim that salvation and revelation and light and glory has come!

I have a friend in Papua New Guinea named Ezekiel. He was already in his thirties when I came to know him and he’d been advocating for literacy, Bible translation and awareness since he was a school boy. He actively waits for the day when the word of God will be available in his heart language. “Active waiting” for Ezekiel means plodding day after day, drafting, translating, checking, sharing, preaching, teaching, leading: moving people toward the Bible and moving the Bible toward the people.

A few years back he became exceedingly ill and spent months in the hospital. Though weakened in body, his zest and gusto remain full strength. Though he fights constant pain he continues to work on translation, preparing for the day when we can revise, check, and publish the fruit of his labor.

Imagine the day when, like Simeon in the temple, Ezekiel will be able to hold up the New Testament with wonder in his eyes, and say,

“God’s word was prepared before the eyes of all the people. Within it you will find revelation, light, and glory. Within it you will find hope and consolation.”

You must pray with us that this day will come when our brother will be able to depart in peace, having accomplished the God’s grand purpose of his life.

Prayer and Provision Opportunities
Stay informed and inspired to pray for the Somau Garia translation team by clicking here. If you’d like to partner with Pioneer Bible Translators in sending us out to get our boots on the ground in Papua New Guinea and get moving forward on finishing translation of the Somau Garia New Testament, click here to visit our Donate page where you will find instructions on how to do so.

Blessings!

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Day 30: Compelled

It is easy to over-simplify missions and missionaries, reducing the mission and those doing it to the lowest common denominator. For example, supposing that every missionary is exclusively motivated by the Great Commission is a mistake. I once knew a lady who characterized missionaries as people “who like to use the church’s money to take extended vacations.” I’ve heard others paint missionaries as social misfits who couldn’t make it in a real job so they moved overseas where they could be weird at a distance. I’m sure that these folks had their reasons for their views. Maybe the missionary they knew only spoke of the Great Commission. Perhaps they met an unscrupulous missionary who wasted lots of money on frequent, expensive vacations (doubtful, but possible). Perhaps they knew a missionary that they thought was absolutely odd. I’ve known a few :-).

As a missionary, I will tell you that missionaries are as different from one another as any group of people. Some missionaries are exuberant, some reserved; some boisterous, some edgy; some excitable, some unflappable; some quiet and deliberate, others spontaneous; some deeply thoughtful, others reactive; some mature, others immature. Missionaries are people, broken, in need of a Savior, dependent upon God’s grace and mercy. One quality I think most missionaries share is reflected in Paul’s comment found in 2 Corinthians 5:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

In my opinion most missionaries I’ve ever served with (this is a personal observation) are profoundly grateful that Jesus died for them and furthermore, raised again. Because of that, at least on some level, they no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them. This doesn’t make missionaries perfect in their ability to lay self aside. They struggle with this reality as much as anyone. It does reflect their motivation for going and doing and being, though. While the Great Commission does come into it for most, the love of Christ that caused him to sacrifice himself for us is likely more personal, more intimate, more compelling and is more likely to carry a person through dark days than is a mere command.

Don’t miss the importance of being compelled by Christ’s love. Consider what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Sobering words, aren’t they? These words drive us beyond the surface of legalistic pietism and onward toward a life transforming spiritual worship–offering our bodies as living sacrifices. Going to the mission field, being separated from home and hearth, missing holidays and family events and whatever other of our favorite things mean nothing if they are compelled by some reason other than love.

Will our love be perfect? Of course not. Missionaries are not perfect people. The quality of our love, our willingness to lay self aside and embrace Christ’s sufferings, indeed, the needs of others, is in the process of being perfected. As we grow in our relationship with Christ, the quality of our love will become more His and less ours.

What compels you as you consider the missionaries you know and the missions you or your church support? When you pray for your missionaries or write checks to support them, my prayer is that these are acts of living sacrifice; acts of worship. The joy and warmth that accompany loving Jesus in this way will not be supplied by other motivations or means.

I am overjoyed when I consider the love being shown to Jesus as we worship him together in prayer, in generosity, and living sacrifice. Thank you for loving him with all your heart! Thank you for worshiping Him! Thank you for walking with us toward renewed service in Papua New Guinea. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the the Lord make his face shine upon you and give you peace.

Shalom!