Thursday, July 25, 2013

Paraguay part 1: Tacumbu Prison, Divino Redentor, and Missionaries

It's been a wonderful time here in our first few days - with only ten days here we have been busy so far but it has been great.  Today has been the first day with scheduled "down time" to rest and discuss the past few days.  One thing I firmly believe about short term missions teams we are on, especially for short trips, is that we are not here to change the lives of the people we meet; rather to support the people who are already here and able to continue the long term work. In that regard we have three main ministry goals: to support Angel Hernandez's reentry ministry at Tacumbu prison by holding a conference to encourage and challenge the men, to support the teachers at Divino Redentor school with first aid training and a devotional, and to support the Hernandez family as a whole however we can.  There are only four of us on the team: Myself, Alise, and our friends Fernando and Alicia - and our two kids.

The trip here was about what we hoped for, the kids did great for the most part - when we got off one of the planes the woman sitting in front of the kids looked back and asked "were those kids back there the entire flight?"  I can't imagine a better compliment.  Monday we settled in at our housing and then spent some time with the Hernandez family.  Their kids immediately took to ours and they have been having a great time together.  On Tuesday we went with the Hernandez family for a hike and had some great conversations about their ministry and their experiences with Paraguan culture.  That evening we had a BBQ with another missionary family: the Tengans as well as a local the Hernandez family has been meeting with: Hugo.  

Wednesday was a full day: we were up early and out of the house before 8am. Alise, Alicia and the kids headed to Divino Redentor School and gave a devotional and first aid training to the teachers.  (12 year old Cruz Hernandez got involved as the translator and word is he did better than Malia.) The first aid training was very well received and a lot of misconceptions were corrected.  Alise has taught first aid and CPR before so between that and her schooling/career as an Athletic Trainer she is practically a doctor here in Paraguay.  Alicia led a devotional for the teachers and it went well.  When they go back on Monday they will be giving another encouraging devotional to the kids this time.  We brought some medical supplies along with us expecting to use them for training, though now that we are here we see that the school has zero first aid supplies so we are putting together first aid kits for each classroom.

While the women were serving teachers on Wednesday, the men were serving men at Tacumbu prison.  A little background on Tacumbu: many consider it to be one of the most crowded prisons in South America, it was built to hold 1200 prisoners and yet currently holds over 4000.  It also holds some of the most dangerous prisoners in Paraguay: one of the men told us that there is a murder within the prison almost every day.  There are not many guards and most of them are only concerned with keeping people from escaping.  Drug use within the prison is not just rampant, it is a regular occurrence. One of the men we were talking to says that a rock of crack can be bought for about $0.75 US, cocaine for about $1.25 US and bottles of whiskey for around $7.00 US.  Obviously the prison understaffed and just about anything can be smuggled in.  There are essentially three major sections to the prison: General Population, a section run by the Mennonites, and Remar which is where we spent our time.  Remar is essentially a wing of the prison for men who seek Christ and it holds over 600 men.  I think the most intimidating part was when we walked through the General Population to get to Remar.  It was chaotic to say the least, men tried to approach us or stare us down, the overall feel was a general disarray.  But as we entered Remar through another set of gates, there was an immediate feeling of peace and sanctuary.  The prisoners in Remar are the ones who guard the gates to make sure no one from general comes into Remar without permission.  Within Remar men are working on crafts to sell - Angel says that in General, few people do crafts because the focus is to either stay alive or find the next fix.  The first day of the conference went great, Angel, Fernando, and I each gave teachings before having a shared meal with the leaders (who were either prisoners or former prisoners.)  They then gave us a tour of the Remar section.  The extreme overcrowding means that even in Remar many men do not have a bunk and sleep outside where the temperatures are in the low 40's at night the prison does not provide blankets so the men on dependent on family and friends to bring them blankets and clothing.  They even asked Fernando to give the main message at their church service when we go back on Monday (to the entire population of 600 men at Remar.  Overall, we were blessed by our visit there and were especially impressed with the hunger of the men for the Word of God.  After each teaching we allowed for question time and most of the questions were far deeper than I expected.  Angel plans to make this Shine conference an annual event. 
Wednesday night was Fernando's birthday so Alicia took him out to a restaurant to celebrate while Alise and I went with Angel to a home church.  One of the things the Hernandez family was telling us is that Paraguay is the fastest growing nation in South America and i don't doubt it, the country has changed a lot since we were here eight years ago.  What it also means is that as the country grows, it is even more important for churches to be prepared for a growth.  We were so impressed with the home church we attended, it was a small room where about 25-30 people gathered together - shoulder to shoulder singing worship, praying for each other and doing a study or a teaching together. We were able to give a brief teaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the worship afterwards was one of the most powerful I have experienced in a long time; I was practically brought to tears as they sang in Spanish while we sang the same song in English.  

Today we met with two more missionaries: Antonio & Graciela Chavez.  They are Paraguay natives who are missionaries to Nepal.  We were absolutely blown away by their heart and their stories.  Meeting with them was inspiring and encouraging to us as we saw what they have been doing in a country which is not friendly to Christians.  

Tomorrow we will be blessed by an issue of good timing: the house the Hernandez family has been living in has become infested with mold - the room their two girls have been staying in has walls which have become black with mildew and their daughter Paz has trouble breathing as a result.  Two weeks ago they found out they would be able to move into a new home and we are going to spend most of Friday helping them to move.  Then in the evening we get to go with them to a professional soccer game.  Saturday we will continue with the move and then present at a mini-conference at a church about two hours away.  This church is in the country and they do not speak Spanish there but a local dialect of Guarany.  Sunday we will go to the church the Hernandez family attends and Monday will be back at the prison for the men and school for the women.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Art of Shalom

originally posed on

Last week I wrote about the word "repent" and how it it is about returning to Shalom or harmony with God - if you missed it, you can read the archive on our website.  Moving towards harmony however, is more than wanting to, it is good to be reminded how to.  Putting our lives in harmony with God's will and desires is not easy and is a process - it happens continually over time.  This is a part of Spiritual Formation: "the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others." (from M. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey) Being in harmony with God has a purpose: for us to be transformed to be more like Christ.  Which leads to two questions: How can we know God's will?  And what is our role in moving towards harmony?  All I can write about is how God has worked in me - I am by no means living a life of perfect harmony with God, but my life has been transformed significantly from where I was ten years ago and I feel in much deeper peace with Him now that I was then.  I'm not trying to be "preachy" so apologies if it comes off that way, I am simply sharing experiences.  Here is a list of ways through which I have experienced transformation:
Pray and Study Scripture: Did you really think I was going to start anywhere else?  The single biggest change in my life (yes, bigger than my wife and kids) came eight years ago and it started with prayer.  It's a long story so here is the nutshell: I was in a not-so-good place. I was going to church, I was involved in ministry and small groups, and I was a pretty good guy.  But I was also on a path looking for my own desires and seeking my own way.  I was in a rut, and I knew that my life was stuck and I remember having one of those cry-it-out-to-God prayers where I asked God for motivation to get my life moving again.  In reality I was just asking for strength to make a few minor changes.  Of course, that is not what the answer to my prayer was.  The following Sunday, God gave me a purpose to my life through a pretty intense call to serve Him.  Within a few months I was going back to school after 15 years, had quit my job for something which gave me more time to study, and had cut free from a few unhealthy relationships.  It was then that I started to read Scripture with "new eyes" and it made sense to me in new ways entirely.  I look back and see my path towards Shalom with God started with a really tough prayer.
Get Out There and Do It: Phillip Yancey said "I do not get to know God more deeply and then do His will, I get to know Him more deeply by doing His will."  I don't think it is a mystery to anyone some of the things God clearly calls us to do.  If you aren't sure, listen to Pastor Sam Earp's message from Sunday.  Don't start with trying to fix your own sins, don't focus on other people's sin.  Start by answering the challenge "where is the church?"  Start by being a neighbor to people who need one.  Something amazing happens when you experience God's love through others.  When you can go from knowing about God's love to experiencing it, something clicks in your head.  For me, it clicked after my first missions trip.  After my second trip it clicked for me that missions is not a destination but a mindset.
Practice the Disciplines: I think a lot of people feel disciplines aren't necessary in "modern Christianity" or that they are more for "baby Christians" and don't apply to them.  I disagree. Dallas Willard likens disciplines to an athlete practicing their craft.  The goal of practice for an athlete is to increase physical strength and build muscle memory so when the time comes for the game, they don't have to think - it is automatic.  The same is true for Spiritual practices.  Practice disciplines but don't just do it because someone said so.  Fasting without knowing why only makes you hungry.  Research how to practice them,and what they are for.  Probably two of the best resources out there are The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.  Sure, they may not be the most exciting books out there but they will change how you practice disciplines.  At the very least, google "spiritual disciplines" to see what others think about it.
Hear it and Share it: Call it discipleship or spiritual mentorship, it is something I encourage all of you to do: find someone who has more experience than you in the Christian walk and meet with them, one on one, on a regular basis to pray together, share life experiences, discuss Scripture, and work on how to live out the Scripture with your lives.  Then turn around and do the same with someone who is less experienced than you.  I can't even begin to tell you how huge this has been for me.  #1 - you are forced to not just talk about it and study it but to actually live it out.  #2 - you get to know each other and grow over time which means discussions, advice, and accountability are more personal.
Is this an all-encompassing list?  Not by any means.  Life Groups have been huge for me, so has praying for others and being prayed for.  Fully engaging with the church instead of just attending.  Sharing the Good News with non-followers.  Sharing the Good News with followers. If you aren't already, get out there and experience it.  If you already have experienced it, share it with others so they can learn from your triumphs and defeats; and celebrate both with you.  This is my prayer for all of us this week: that we can experience God continually, both through Scripture and through life, and in that experience know Him and His will better.
trying to follow, not just believe,
Pastor Mark
P.S. One last prayer request.  As many of you know, my family will be a part of a team heading out to Paraguay in less than two weeks.  One of the team members, Desire, is still waiting to hear back from the Paraguayan embassy and have his visa approved.  They have taken almost four weeks now and we still do not know if he can go with us yet.  Please keep Desire and his visa in your prayers; we need him and his experience on our team but are running out of time to purchase the ticket with less than two weeks left.  Thank you.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The End is Near So... Return?

originally posted on

If you have read some of my earlier posts, you can probably tell how much I enjoy Jewish theology and how important I think it is for Christians today.  One of the most important lessons can be knowing how the Jewish understanding of some words (and the understanding of people in biblical times) is different from our own.  Usually a better understanding of the words and thoughts used back then changes our insight as we read the Bible today.  Last month I wrote about Scripture containing "Listen! or Hear!"  Another important and commonly used Jewish word which does not translate into English well is the word "repent."  When I hear someone say "repent" the image that comes into my head is a wacko with a sandwich board screaming about the end being near.  You have all probably heard it used to describe "turning from" or "changing your mind" about sin. Those definitions are not wrong, but they are not fully complete.  To Jewish scholars, repent is less of a "turn from" and more of a "return to."  But if it is a return, we must have been there before right?
Where or what we are returning to comes back to Shalom, or harmony, with God.  It is about having a relationship with God where we are totally in sync with His will.  Think about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what made it paradise?  Was it the nice trees and waterfalls?  Not really, we still have that today.  It was the connection they were able to have with God.  Their relationship with Him was perfect because sin didn't get in the way.  They were not even aware of the concepts of "good and evil."  Repenting is not simply about running away from sin, it is about moving closer to God.  Where the Jewish and Christian understanding differ however, is when it comes to atonement.  In the Old Testament, repenting and returning to God was a process of ceremonies which people did to get closer to God.  Jesus changed things right from the start of the New Testament when he said "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15) No matter how much we seek to stay away from sinning by following the law, we cannot move into harmonious relationship without God.  Repentance is still a return, but it is based on faith.
That all sounds beautiful and fluffy, but what does it mean for us in practical terms today?  It means we have to know God is drawing us towards harmony with Him, and we should be seeking the same.  Harmony doesn't mean that we get everything we want from God; it means that what we want changes to wanting what God wants - which is not always what we think.  This is where we see the understanding of repent as "changing our minds" - in seeking His wants and desires, our minds change about what it is we want.  One of the more popular Jewish examples of repentance is that of a man who cheats on his wife; if he truly repents and his mind is changed, he can be in the same situation with her again and not even lust after her - because he is in harmony with the desires of God and wants other things for her.  Even to the Jews so focused on the Law, changing their mind resulted in changed actions.
Sometimes seeking harmony with what God wants means changing our mind about what we think He wants.  Christianity Today recently posted excerpts from an interview with Bono of U2 and he speaks about his experience with this: "We have a pastor who said to us, 'Stop asking God to bless what you're doing, Bono.' ... He said, 'Find out what God is doing, 'cause it's already blessed.' ... When you align yourself with God's purpose as described in the Scriptures, something special happens to your life."  My prayer this week is that we can align our lives to joining God in what He is doing, to want what He wants, and to return to a harmonious relationship with Him.