Monday, September 20, 2010

HSM Year 2-- The Beginning

    So now we are about 2 weeks into our "normal" HSM small groups.  We had our start-up party two weeks ago, and our first official meeting last week.  In our group this year: L.J., Andrew, Ray, Emerson, Jeff (the returning students), and Daniel, who we have gotten to know over the summer.  We are really excited about the opportunities and possibilities for these guys this year.
    As many of you know, the high schoolers are going through the New Testament this year.  The effort is to read the whole New Testament, because many of them simply have never taken the time to read God's Word.  So I have started posting a daily dose of reading on facebook for them every day with a pace set so that they will finish.  Can't wait to see what kinds of questions they come up with.  And they are reading the Message Bible, so there are bound to be some funny quotes in there.
   As for service, we are partnering with the Treasure Box, an organization that provides prepackaged meals to our community.  For $30, you can get enough food to feed a family of four for a week, or a single person for a month!  We will be helping on distribution day.  But our big project with them involves their annual Holiday meal box.  For $35, a family will get a whole turkey, veggies, sweet potatoes, pasta, and a pie.  We are trying to get 50 of these Holiday boxes donated, so that they can be distributed to families in our neighborhood who would otherwise not be having a meal for the holidays.  Our official kickoff was yesterday, and our fundraising goes through November 7. If you would like more info, you can go to and look under "holiday box."  Or you can find one of us at church.
    We have also already developed a web page.  It is still in its infancy, but we are calling it Zombies With Jesus.  I am going to explain our name in the "About" section soon, but it will be a cool funnel for all of the activities we are going to try and do this year.
    And as for activities, we are still coming up with some solid ideas, but our first is Sunday night, when we will be going as a group to Mosaic in LA to hear Erwin McManus speak.  Should be a fun night for all of us!
  That's about it for now.  As always, many thanks to my fearless co-leader Evan for putting up with random texts about ideas and such, and welcome to our temporary intern (gofer) Zach, who will be joining us until they leave for Scotland in October.
   See ya later, and as our tag line states "Get undead and Come Alive!!"

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Little Light of Mine....

    Darkness.  Despair.  Hopelessness.
    Until recently, these were words that had a vague meaning for me.  But to be quite honest, I had not truly experienced them.  Oh, I thought I had.  In my selfish world, when I was the center of my life, there were times when I thought that was where I was.  But since I have come back to Christ, and I have devoted my life to trying to live by His example, my perspective has changed.  When I thought I was in those places, experiencing those feelings, it was all based on my perspective, not God's. Now, I understand that what I can see is not the whole picture.  I realized how little I had actually suffered in my past, and how ridiculous it was to associate my life with such pessimism.  I had no concept of the depth that those words can go.
    These past few months, my eyes have been opened in wonderful (and scary) ways.  My first encounter with the true meaning of these words was in Arizona.  When we joined with 3:18 ministries for a week, doing God's work on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, I saw what darkness, despair, and hopelessness is.  Parks designed for fun that are ravaged by layers of graffiti.  Broken bottles that seem to cry out with the agony of the generations of teens who broke them, the glass shards so abundant and so thick on the ground-- no, IN the ground-- that it feels like darkness has taken root in the place.  Kids who know death so well that even the accidental death of a friend is met with a shrug and "oh well, that's how it goes."  Just--sadness.  It had a profound effect on me.  Broke my heart for them.  And left me overwhelmed.  This is a place where we can do our best to shine God's light (which we did), but it seems like we were just candles in a hurricane.
    Then, my lovely wife got into a geography class at LBCC.  But what she thought was going to be basic geography is actually cultural geography.  The second assignment focused on Eastern Europe and Russia.  And while she was reading about them-- highest murder rates in the world for "modern" nations, suicide rates that are the highest anywhere, alcoholism numbers that are astronomical-- that same feeling of being overwhelmed hit me again.  And don't even get me started on Africa, where they don't even keep records.
    And now she is doing an assignment on the ethnic strata right here in Long Beach.  Another shot to the system.  There is that same profile again, only in a much more condensed area, right in our own backyard.
    Such a sense of loss.  Darkness so deep that the people in it are numb to pain.  I can only imagine the tears that must flow when God looks down at these areas of the world.
    And yet, here we are, the family of God, clinging together like the army at the Alamo.  We come to church, and we take comfort in ourselves, in being together.  We build our defenses against the onslaught of the world.  We picture ourselves as a lighthouse, standing against the crashing waves, a beacon for those who are looking for rescue.
    If seeing these things and learning about them has taught me anything these past few months, it is that our view of the church may be a bit wrong.  I can't remember where I read it (if anyone reading this can help, thanks), but I read recently that the church should be more like a M.A.S.H. unit.  We should be here to encourage each other, but our main goal is to strengthen and then send each other out into the fight again.  At the time, I liked the concept.  Now I realize that the author may have hit the nail on the head.
    I'll take it a bit farther.  We see ourselves in the church as a lighthouse, but maybe we need to think smaller.  Instead of preventing a crash, maybe we should act as the rescue party.  You see, the world has already crashed.  There are places here that have been wrecked for so long that they have not seen God's light in years, decades, maybe ever.  The people there are surrounded in darkness, and they are so absorbed in that way of life that they don't see any other choice.  Just imagine how bright a candle, or a flashlight, would be for them.  Maybe we, every individual in Christ, are God's flashlights.  And imagine God's joy when he sees the bright centers of the world, His church, spreading out, even as tiny flickers, into the darkness, finding survivors to bring home!  Even better, imagine what He can do once His light has reached their eyes!
    It makes sense to me, and seems to be in line with His calling for us.  I just never realized how big of a task we have in front of us, and the depths of darkness that we can penetrate when we follow God's will.  And now that I have been awakened to what is out there, how can I go back to sleep?  I can't.  I can only devote myself to following Christ's example, and to being the best light I can be.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Arizona trip-- Looking back

    It has been a couple of weeks since we got back from Arizona, so I have had some time to reflect back on everything that happened, everything we experienced, and what I came away with.  Here are a few of my observations:

1) We had an incredible team.  14 people that were so diverse and unique, and we all got along.  There was little to no conflict, and we worked together so well every day to accomplish amazing tasks as work, and to be Jesus for those kids.  I am proud to have been a part of that team.

2) There is so much of society that flies under the radar.  We spent a week in a small part of the country that has been largely ignored, but in reality, we could have gone only ten minutes into the city and we would have also been in an area that is largely ignored.  I think I have realized that while I cannot spend several weeks doing mission work offsite, there is so much opportunity just within our community.  I have made it a goal that we are going to be doing much more service as part of our HSM small group.  In fact, I have already started moving in that direction.

3) I went there expecting to see miracles happen.  And in that, I was disappointed.  For you see, the miracle that happened was not external to us.  We didn't see God's hand moving.  Instead, we were being God's hand.  And it felt natural, easy.  When we are in line with God's will, it is like leaving the shore and just flowing down the river current.  If we just stop fighting it and relax, it can be quite a ride.  And I am sure that there are rapids and waterfalls and such, but wow!  What a ride that can be!
  Anyway, I learned what I think is the point:  we are supposed to be God's hand.  I mean sure, there are lots of times when we have to rely on God stepping in and working things beyond what we can do.  And we can't forget that it is all Him working through us.  But being God's hand, and being like Jesus to those around us, that is what we are supposed to do.
   We are God's children, after all.  And I think He may get more satisfaction from seeing His kids demonstrate what they have learned and loving like Him than when He has to do it all Himself.  As parents, don't we like that more?  Aren't we proud of the kids when they show what they can do with their learning?  My son just graduated from high school, and I can attest that I was super-proud that he did the work, even though I know I could have done that work, too.

4) I was just reading through my list of cool quotes and stuff that I have been collecting through the years, and I came across this one:--"It only takes a single point of light in a dark night sky to lead the lost wanderer back home."   It struck me that we were being single points of light in the midst of a dark night sky on the reservation.  And Kara and Tory of 3:18 Ministries are there as spotlights all of the time.  It really did seem like we were doing so little compared to what really needs to happen there.  But I know that God was using us, and I can only hope that we have helped lead some of the kids from the darkness.

That's it for the Arizona trip blogs.  Have a great night, and thanks for reading!

"If the Arizona trip were made into a movie, it would most definitely be a musical"-- Evan McElrath, Saturday Version

Day Six, Saturday--"Sing, Sing, Sing"- Chris Tomlin

     Phew-- the last day.

     This was to be the day when I just laid it all out there for the Lord to handle.

     Late on Friday night, I found a tire store near Phoenix (about 90 miles away) that had tires for the truck.  So we decided that I was going to pack all of the gear I could stow into the truck, then head out before breakfast down to Phoenix.  Hopefully the timing would work out and I could just join the van as it passed by later.
     And that is exactly what happened.  We got up and started packing the truck with our gear, and I helped clean up around the church for a while.  Then it was time to part ways.  We said a short prayer, and I headed out.
     You see, those 90 miles were through the mountains we had driven through on the way here, and there was little to no phone reception until the last 15 miles or so.  So if I ran into trouble along the way, it was going to be bad.  And with a donut spare and a tire with a large screw in it, there was nothing I could do except rely on God.  Oh yeah, did I tell you that I could actually hear the screw tapping the asphault as it hit on every turn of the tire?  The devil was still trying to make me despair, but at this point that was a feeble attempt.
   So I took a cue from the Israelites when God gave them Jericho.  I didn't try to fight, I just praised God for the miracle that He was going to perform for me.  I rolled my window down, turned up the music, and shouted praise to the Lord for the next hour and a half.  And it worked.  Faith does work.
    It was going to take about an hour for the tire replacement, so I waited with baited breath for the rest of the group to catch up.  According to the timetable, they should have caught up while I was still waiting.  But they never showed.  And I knew that there was no reception in the mountains, so I kept waiting.  And waiting.
    Right about the time I was ready to head back towards Globe to find the group, they texted that they were out of the mountains.  Turns out they had left a bunch of Tory's stuff in the van, and they had to turn around 1/2 an hour out of Globe to get it back to them.
    The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful.  Terry  rode with Zach, Evan, Kaitlin and I on the way to Blythe, and we had some awesome conversation playing 21 questions.  In Blythe, four of us acted like we were in a  car and tried to act our way through the drive-thru at Taco Bell.  It was a mediocre fail, but we had a great time acting out the parts.
   We made it home the rest of the way on a mix of Disney songs and Evan's ipod.  It made for a good soundtrack for the way home.
   When we got home, it was a pleasant surprise to see Christine and Matt waiting for us at the church.  I had really missed them, and wished more than anything that they could have experienced it with us.

    So today's lesson was faith.  Jesus said "ask as if you have already received," and that was what I had to do.  I was so thankful and full of praise, knowing that the Lord was going to take care of us.  And sure enough, He did.  Faith.  What more can I say?

"If the Arizona trip were made into a movie, it would most definitely be a musical"-- Evan McElrath, Friday Version

Day Five, Friday--"The Circle of Life"-- The Lion King
    Today's theme was a bit hard to come up with, because I really had a roller-coaster of a day.  But in the end, I remembered a quote from J.M. Strazinski (sp?) regarding an episode of Babylon 5 when one of the main characters had a day that went from good to bad.  He said "The wheel turns, and if you forget that it eventually turns on you, you'll be ground beneath it."  When I think back on today's events, I can only come to the conclusion that there was some real spiritual warfare going on that day.  Read on, and you'll see what I mean.

   The day started out innocently enough.  We were all to be working at the fitness center today.  Some of us were to be working outside finishing the last 20 feet or so of the wall, while the remainder were inside painting bathrooms and putting a cool stripe in the aerobics area.  We loaded up as we had every day this week after breakfast, and started on our way.  It was a good 25 minute ride into the reservation to get to the fitness center.
    I had Evan, Casey, Kaitlin, and Courtney with me in the truck.  We were the last car in the caravan, just standard operating procedure.  Listening to music, talking back and forth.  Suddenly, the tire alarm went off in the truck just as I felt a slight pull on the wheel.  Sure enough, we were driving at 60 mph with a flat front tire.     I was able to pull over, and Evan and I quickly got to work changing the tire.  The hardest part, believe it or not, was figuring out how to get the spare down from its cavity under the truck.  We turned Casey onto the manual, and quickly had it out.
   The biggest problem, as it had been all week, was the heat.  We left the car running so the A/C would stay on, but the engine heat was venting right into us as we changed the tire.  But we still managed to turn it into a half-way learning experience for those who did not know how to change a tire.
   We were back on the road in about twenty minutes (it may have been less, but we definitely were NOT the Duke brothers) and we took a shortcut to the fitness center, where the rest of the group was waiting for us.
   Of course, Rachel's sense of humor was in fine form today.  She had already assigned the project teams, and wouldn't you know it, our truck got to paint outside!  We laughed (a little), then got down to business.  Turns out we were able to finish the wall, touch up from the day before, and paint a little pony wall that was part of the entrance.  In other words, our outside team rocked it again.
   For lunch, we had the food in the truck.  However, we forgot that when Rachel borrowed the truck to go to lunch in town.  So we ended up not eating until we got back to the church, where we met Rachel with the truck.
   We had about an hour until we had to report for VBS, so I decided to take the truck around and try to find a new tire.  The spare had plenty of miles left on it, but it was just a donut, so I wanted to get it taken care of.  What I found out was double-trouble.  Not only did no-one in town have tires to fit my car, but the other front wheel had an identical screw to the one that had killed the flat tire.  It was only a matter of time before the screw either broke or blew out, and I would be stuck with two flats.
   So I was a bit dejected when I got back to the church, needless to say.  It was at this point that the war for me that day was at its greatest.  It seemed that there was little hope, and that I was going to let down the rest of the group.
   But right then, I remember feeling this calm come over me.  It is the same calm certainty I have felt at the critical times in the past: Sara's test to match bone marrow, Gerhard's heart transplant, the birth of all of the kids, etc.  It was a turning point-- despair or faith.   Failure or hope.  I felt God telling me that even though I didn't know how, it would be okay.  So I decided to go with God.  I embraced the calm and the hope, and it carried me.  Not that I didn't worry the whole night what exactly I was going to do, but I knew that it was in God's hands, and that was reassuring.
   The VBS was almost exactly like the 2nd day at the other neighborhood.  The kids were waiting for us, having opened up and allowed themselves to relish the joy and love that we were pouring on them.  There was even a pair of sisters that brought their baby sister, who could not have been more than 8 months or so old.
   It was especially fun today because we had inadvertently added ice to the play water, so the kids were filling their squirt guns with ice cold water.  Many a leader, HSM'er, and child were shocked with the cold.  And when that ran out, we just kept up with the hotter water, too.  It was great fun, and once again we said bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the day.
   For dinner, Tory and Kara had arranged a poolside BBQ at a friend's house.  So we all went over there, and amused ourselves watching the high schoolers find creative ways to go down the slide into the pool.  We also had a great discussion with Terry that went over into the next day as well.
   Once we got back and debriefed the week, it was time to go out and see the stars for the last time.  But of course, as with everything we do with HSM, we did it to the extreme.
    It started out just Shelby and I going out to explore into the hills behind the church.  But we didn't have light, and the first time we heard the brush rustle we headed back for lights and reinforcements.We found Garrett and Conner, and a flashlight, and headed back to where we had gone before.  The others were trying to come along, but not until we were already a ways into the brush, so we just continued.
   Up about 3/4 of a mile into the hills was a set of huge water towers.  We decided to head for the towers, and stumbled our way there.  Once we got there, we climbed up onto the wall that surrounded the towers and went around the periphery as far as we could.  That must have been when the others passed us, because we did not see them when we got around, so we headed back.
  The others had a quite different experience.  Instead of heading for the tower wall, they went on up around the tower to another trail that led further away from the church.  Apparently, they went far enough to feel a bit worried,  then headed back in the general direction of the church.  At one point a coyote howled not too far from them and gave them the chills.  Their final adventure happened when they ran across some suspicious activity between some trucks just before they got back to the church.  That was when we met up with them again.
    While they were telling us their story, some police cars came up looking around at the towers and right by the church.  The plan was that the kids were going to run inside while I talked to the police, but fortunately they passed right by us without a second thought.  Not sure what was going on, but it was definitely weird.  Hopefully they were going after the trucks.
   That pretty well ended the night.  By this time it was about 12:30, so we all decided to turn in.
   Today's lesson was about worry.  You see, between the flat tire, the missing lunches, and the lack of tires, the devil was definitely trying to end the trip on a sour note.  Because I was worried about control of the situation.  We thought we had it all figured out.  And by tripping us up, he was trying to get me to despair and lose hope.  But God stepped in at exactly the right time, as He always does.  His calm kept me from the abyss, and allowed me to recognize that He was in control.  And more than that, His grace made it possible to continue pouring out His love on the kids, even when things were looking sour.  Its amazing what He can do.

" If the Arizona trip were made into a movie, it would most definitely be a musical" -- Evan McElrath, Thursday Version

Day Four, Thursday-- "The Happy Working Song"--Disney, from the "Enchanted" Soundtrack

    Thursday saw our group back together again, working as one unit on the fitness center outside wall.  On Wednesday, the team that was there had painted a fascia about 4 feet high that went along the top of of the wall.  They had to paint most of it from the roof, and from the heat we felt working on the ground, it must have been blistering up there.  But we now had the entire wall to paint, along with a second smaller piece of wall and an entrance way that was going to be white.
   So we split into three teams: big gray, little gray, and white.   Zach was quick to claim leadership of team big gray, but he lost it again after about 20 minutes.  You see, it was a brick building, and we were painting with rollers, so it was really hard to get in the spaces between bricks.  Zach was given responsibility for filling in behind the rollers.  I think he really ceded his leader position after one too many jokes about how he needed to "take care of" someone's crack. :-)
    Once the real leadership was established (Evan had team big gray oversight), we all got to work a little more seriously.  I use that term lightly, though, as all of the teams were having a great time (even though the other teams were losing!).   It was so hot that all we could do was think of ways to entertain ourselves to take our minds off of the fact that we were melting.  So we sang.  Disney songs.  Lots and lots of Disney songs.  To the extent that more than one fitness center customer went inside shaking their heads in wonder (at least I can't think of anything it would have been besides wonder).   But we all found new levels of talent within each other.  I truly believe that no other group besides a church group can sing so well.  I mean, we make it a practice to sing every week together in worship, so it would just make sense that we would sing good together outside of church, too.  No other groups can claim that.  Just listen to them sing happy birthday at restaurants (I stole that example from Mark Gungor, but it is true).
   After work, we went back to the cultural center.  Herb had invited us to lunch today.  When we got there, we realized just what he meant.  He woke up at 4:00 AM to start preparing the meal, and he closed the center, his means of income, for the day just to host us.  We were awed by his generosity and his desire to spend some time with us, and we hadn't even tried the food yet.
   Herb had indeed prepared a feast for us.  Using traditional Apache methods and spices (including the acorns that we had seen on Tuesday), he made dumplings, stew, frybread, and Apache tamales.  He also prepared an iced tea that used herbs that promoted cleansing.  His aunt, who looked like the traditional picture of ancient Indian women,  had helped.  But they made it all in the back patio of the cultural center.  Their BBQ pit was literally on the ground, and there was a sense of authenticity and tradition that permeated the place.  It was really cool.  And the food was amazing.
   For VBS today, we moved to another neighborhood on the reservation.  Believe it or not, this park was even less happy than the first place.  Here, the slide on the playground had been burned to the point that it was just a melted, charred, mess of plastic.  The glass here was even more abundant.  The basketball court was fenced, but there were so many holes in the fence it just made it look violated.  And there was no shade except one canopy that we brought with us. 
   The neighborhood kids echoed the park.  There were still lots of kids, but this time they were "harder."  The kids didn't open up as quickly, preferring to keep a tough, macho exterior through the lesson and the craft.  It wasn't until game time, when we all poured our hearts (and copious amounts of water) into them, that they really started to show the joy we had seen in the other group.  But once that happened, the same miracle we had been a part of at the other neighborhood started working here.  And we were all immersed in it fully this time.  In fact, the time there passed so fast, I don't think any of us wanted to be done when it was time to head back into town.
   The camaraderie we had enjoyed through the day continued into the evening.  At dinner, Tory and I ogled the Legos catalog while Rachel and Evan laughed at us.  Zach, by virtue of his strapping good looks (You are welcome :-)), was linked to Evan as his nephew by one of Tory's kids.  That turned into great laughs for the rest of the week when we realized that Kaitlin might then be his mom!
   After dinner we went to Dairy Queen where we met some of the teens that have broken through some of the despair thanks to the ministry out there.  The best part of that trip was all of us running full speed out the doors and into the cars to hide from Katie and Shelby, who had gone to the bathroom.
   For our debrief that night, instead of the normal lessons learned, we drew names and wrote letters of encouragement to our fellow teammates, seeing as how we had one more day of labor and VBS to go.
   That night saw the biggest gathering of us outside to look at the stars.  The meteor shower was in full swing, so we all got to see a few really good shooting stars against the backdrop of the Milky Way, all the while having some good conversation about movies, theories, and life in general.
    Looking back, I think my lesson for today was about perseverance, patience, and endurance.  When we were working, especially at the beginning of the day, it seemed like we were making such small progress that we would never be done.  At Herb's, we learned about how you have to wait for the acorns to cure before you can process them to make the spice.  At VBS, we had to persevere through the lesson and craft before the kids really opened up to us.  And watching for shooting stars is all about patience.
   None of today was done on a timeline that I could control.  I was certainly part of the action, but the timing was all governed by God.  I just had to jump into the action, and let His timing control the pace.  Once again a lesson about putting myself under His control.  Even if it seems that things are not going as easily as it should, just trust Him.  His time is coming, and the results will be better than you can imagine.