Follow the Cloud

First time blogging in a long time…but I’m moved to talk about an upcoming book.

Full disclosure…I’m recommending a book I haven’t read yet.  Yeah, I get that it’s a little weird. The book isn’t out yet…but I hope you’ll bear with me (It comes out on August 1, 2017…you can find more details at www.ifollowthecloud.com).

After we moved to a new town a few years ago, my wife and I made a list of several churches that we wanted to visit.  I had one of them already picked out in my head that we would end up at and I made sure that we planned on visiting that church last so we could give an “honest chance” to the others.  We visited another one of the churches first…and we never left. It’s been over four years.  That first Sunday we visited, Pastor John Stickl taught from Luke 15 (The Parable of the Prodigal Son)…I still remember it vividly years later because I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that Valley Creek Church was where God wanted me to be as He began a work that He is (still) doing in my heart and a journey that He is (still) taking me on.

Obviously, I can’t comment directly on the book yet.  But my own journey in “following the cloud” has been and still is an amazing experience where God is daily showing me who He made me to be, and more importantly, revealing more of who He is. It’s an amazing thing to step into the work that God is doing…and that is what I wish for you.  That’s why I’m recommending the book and why I want to share a little bit of about my journey.

Several years ago, God began to call me to “something.”  But I didn’t know what.  I resisted for months.  But finally, thankfully, I took a step of faith and said yes to something, but I didn’t know what.  I never would have expected at the time that saying yes would take me into places like refugee camps in Iraq and Buddhist temples in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In this whole journey, I am almost daily reminded of something that Pastor Stickl told me shortly after I said “yes” but before I really knew what God had in store for me.  He told me, “Always remember that God is more interested in what He does IN you than what He does THROUGH you.”

That’s a hard thing.  The world is performance based. We want numbers and quantifiable results. We can’t quantify what God’s doing in our hearts.  We can’t put numbers on our faith level.  And so I still struggle with maintaining my focus.  Sometimes I get focused on what I’m doing, instead of Who I’m doing it with.

That’s why books like “Follow the Cloud” are so important to me (and the current book that I’m reading, “Real Love in an Angry World” by Rick Bezet).  And that’s why partners in our work like my brother and the other board members at The Great Need are so necessary.  And why I need the relationships with my small group and friends and family.  I need the constant reminder that while we live in a results-oriented world, God wants my heart, not my results.

And I’m so very thankful for that.  Because I’m inconsistent at best.  But when I get to go to work with my Good Father, it’s always an amazing adventure.  It’s an exhilarating, world-altering journey that I get to be a part of.  Whether the current leg of that journey is at home being a husband and a father or it’s stepping into a refugee camp in the middle of Iraq, God is teaching me…molding me…and hopefully making me a love a little more like Jesus every day.

Over the past year or so, “Go. Love.” has become a very personal “mission statement” for our organization, but even more so in my life.  It combines “The Great Commission” and “The Greatest Commandment.”

The Great Commission – Go and make disciples.

The Greatest Commandment – Love God and love people.

Go across the street or around the world, wherever God has me at the time.  And bring the hope-giving, life-changing power of Christ’s love with me through real, authentic, sacrificial love.

That’s what my journey “following the cloud” has been and is currently.  I hope that God is working in you in a powerful way.  If He is, maybe “Follow the Cloud” can help impart a new revelation from God.  If He’s not, maybe this book is the next step that you need to take.  I hope you’ll check it out.

www.ifollowthecloud.com

 

A Great Big Fat Lie

I was told today, “We should be able to be safe when we’re sharing the Gospel.”

To cut to the chase, if you believe that, then you don’t understand the Gospel.  You don’t understand the price that was paid for you to receive the Gospel.  And you don’t understand the supreme majesty of the One that the Gospel points to.

 
“We should be able to be safe when we’re __________.” Bowling. Eating dinner. Taking our kids to school. Dancing. Working. Watching TV.  Playing cards.  Roasting marshmallows.  Eating the amazing God-given gift that is guacamole.  Watching cat videos on Youtube.
 
There are a million ways to finish that sentence. But sharing the Gospel is not one of them. Not now. Not ever.
 

This has crept into our Americanized version of Christianity. It’s a prosperity gospel of a different sort. God owes us nothing. Not riches, not success, not safety.

The Gospel is not complicated.  God created us to have a deep, personal, eternal relationship with Him.  But we have all sinned…we have fallen short of the perfection that He is, so that relationship is broken.  The penalty for that sin is separation from Him, which brings death, now and eternal. God’s plan was a plan of redemption.  Redemption is simply getting something of value out of something worthless. God traded Himself for us.  God, in the form of the man Jesus, traded his perfection for our imperfection. We have nothing of value to offer God, but He still gave us the most valuable thing He had to offer.  Himself.

That’s the price of the Gospel.  God set the standard for the value of the Gospel.  The price of the Gospel is everything.  There was no “safety” for God.  There was no “security.”  It’s all or nothing…there is no in-between.

God is worthy of our praise for more reasons than any human has ever been able to think of.  There are aspects of God that our tiny little human imaginations can’t comprehend.  The Gospel doesn’t exist FOR God’s glory.  It exists BECAUSE of God’s glory.  God’s glory would be unfathomable without the Gospel…He doesn’t need it to be proclaimed to get glory, it is proclaimed BECAUSE He is glorious.


But we so often trade in this all-encompassing, all-costing Gospel for a cheap imitation.  Some budget-version Gospel that we try to hock from the cozy confines of our infomercial studio hoping that someone out there is just bored enough to watch our late night, low cost show.

Don’t think I exclude myself from this…I don’t.  I’m in that boat.  Heck, I may be driving the boat.  And it’s ridiculous.  Last summer I sat on the side of a mountain looking out over the plains towards Mosul, Iraq, which is the ancient city of Nineveh and the words from the end of Jonah came to my mind:

I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
You are eager to turn back from destroying people.

I’m so thankful for that.  Because He has shown me such great patience.  He has shown me such unfailing love.  That’s the Gospel.  And it’s time I start living like it.

Comfort or Blessing?

Note: This blog post is based on a sermon I taught about a year and a half ago.  For some reason, I felt the pull to post it now.  Maybe someone who reads it, needs it.  And I definitely needed to revisit this.

 

I think sometimes we confuse our comfort and security for God’s blessing.  God doesn’t promise us comfort and security.  In fact, Jesus says repeatedly that if you follow Him, you will have hard times.  And sometimes (often times?  most times?), getting out of those comfortable places is the blessing that God wants to give you.

Look at Elijah.  In 1 Kings 17, Elijah is hiding out by a little creek.  That may not sound too comfortable, but consider the circumstances.  The king and queen (Ahab and Jezebel) were trying to kill him.  There was no rain for three years, but this tiny secluded creek still had water.  Because of the drought, there was no food to be found.  But God sent ravens to Elijah twice a day carrying food.  He kind of had it made…God was literally bringing exactly what Elijah needed to Elijah’s doorstep.

But God had another plan that wasn’t necessarily comfortable for Elijah.

Towards the end of the three-year drought, God told Elijah to go to the town Zarephath. To fully understand the impact of this, you have to understand what and where Zarephath was.  First, it was a Gentile city.  God could have easily sent Elijah to a city in Israel, but He didn’t.  He sent Elijah out of the physical comfort of his homeland.

Second, it was right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, right smack in the middle of two Phoenician towns, Tyre and Sidon.  Jezebel’s father was the king of Tyre.  And Jezebel was the reason that Elijah was on the run.  She was the one who had turned King Ahab against Elijah and the reason Elijah would be killed if caught.  God wanted to move Elijah out his emotional comfort zone by calling him to go to the home of his enemy.

Third, Sidon was one of central points of Baal worship.  The very idolatrous belief that Jezebel had brought to Israel, which had prompted the drought and famine.  And the very religion that Elijah would soon deal with head on in the famous confrontation on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18).  Sending a prophet of God into an idolatrous, pagan land was pulling Elijah out of his spiritual comfort.  Suddenly, he was not just outnumbered, he was completely alone.

God took Elijah out of all his comfortable places and sent him right into the mouth of the beast.

And of course, God didn’t send him to some rich family who could take care of him.  God told Elijah, “I have instructed a widow there to feed you.” A widow who had just enough food to make one last piece of bread before she and her son were going to starve to death.  A poor widow in the middle of enemy territory.  A poor widow in the middle of a drought and famine.

So God performed an amazing miracle and kept food and oil in supply.  The widow, her son and Elijah always had enough to eat.  So things are looking pretty good…

Until the widow’s son dies suddenly and mysteriously.

And she blames Elijah.

All the widow had to do was step outside and tell everyone Elijah was in her house and suddenly, Elijah would be hanging from the nearest tree.

I have to wonder at that point if it crossed Elijah’s mind that he could have just stayed by the creek being fed by ravens. Life was good there.  All his needs were taken care of.  He was safe and comfortable.

But again, God showed that He had a better, bigger plan.

Elijah takes son’s body upstairs in her house.  He begs God to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable…to raise the son from the dead.

And God does.

Holy cow.

So…Elijah could have just sat there by the creek, eating his raven-delivered food. He could have been all safe and comfortable.

But God wanted Elijah to do more.  To be a part of more. To be blessed more.  To not just be a witness to big, crazy, talk-about-it-3000-years-later things, but to actually be an active participant in those things!

But Elijah understood that his comfort and security were not God’s blessing.  God’s blessing is whatever brings us closer to Him.  And whatever allows us to be right in the middle of the redemptive, life-changing work that He’s doing.  And comfort and security rarely do that.  Whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual comfort.

We build these little castles. And we think, “Wow, look at this…God has really blessed me.”  Meanwhile, God is whispering to us, “No…not that, I have something bigger and better for you over here.”  And we just sit there in our little castles.  And often we’re bored.  But we call ourselves blessed.  While right outside, God has this amazing adventure waiting for us.  This incredible faith-growing, Kingdom-building adventure to experience along with Him.

Our castle might be a physical comfort that we build for ourselves.  Or it might be an emotional castle that keeps us from ever being brokenhearted.  Or it might be a spiritual castle that means we are able to live our faith without being tested or challenged.

But God has more for us.  God has more for me, and for you, than comfort.  He wants so badly to bless us more than we can imagine.  But we settle for good, when He offers GREAT.

So, I hope you’ll join with me in praying a desperate prayer that God would reveal those areas where we are striving to sit in our little castles of comfort instead of stepping in to the world-altering adventure that He has for us.

Muslim Lover?

I was called a “Muslim Lover” today. It was a private message on Facebook, from a Facebook friend. Since it was done in private and my reply is in public, I will not mention his name but here is my response.

My first thought was “Thank you.”  For a few seconds, I honestly thought he was giving me a compliment.  Then I remember his Facebook posts that included all kinds of venomous hatred…not just for Muslims, but for Hispanics.  And I realized that he meant “Muslim Lover” as a disparaging comment.

Let me be clear right off the top…he’s right.  I’m a Muslim lover.  Let me be clear about something else.  I’m not an “Islam Lover.”  There are many teachings in Islam with which I disagree strongly.  Which considering I am unabashedly a follower/worshiper of Jesus, that should not come as any surprise.

But there is absolutely a difference between being a Muslim lover and being an Islam lover.

I have had the unbelievable privilege of meeting, getting to know and becoming friends with many Muslims.  I have had the amazing experience of traveling in Jordan and Iraq, where the overwhelming majority of the population are Muslim.  And I haven’t met a single Muslim that treated me with anything but respect, courtesy and friendship.  And honestly, even if they treated me poorly, I would hope that my response would be still be to love them.

Last summer, I enjoyed a 12 hour flight from Amman, Jordan, to Chicago where I sat between two Muslim young men and enjoyed myself immensely as we discussed our views on politics, economics, movies, video games and our faith.  We had very different views on many things, but we found much more common ground in our humanity than we found differences in our backgrounds.

The thing that really bothered me about the “Muslim Lover” comment is that it came from someone who claims the title of being a Christian.  I’m sorry, but if you follow Jesus, you love Muslims.  And you love Hindus.  And Buddhists.  And atheists and hippies and lesbians and homeless people and drug addicts and Christians that call themselves Christians but just flat out don’t love Jesus at all.  Meaning that you have to love people that are different than you.  Which is everyone.

You don’t have to love Islam.  You don’t have to convert to Islam.  You don’t have to love Jesus any less.  But you have to love Muslims to follow Jesus.  Period.  And I would even wager that if you love Muslims, you will come to love Jesus even more.  Because it is natural instinct to fear those that are different.  But when you choose to love, God’s love flows through you, kicking that fear out and making room for you to love Jesus more.

And I know that when I love my Muslim friends and the Muslims that I have the privilege to meet, in that love they get to a see a little glimpse of Christ.  And sometimes that little glimpse is all that they need to see to come to experience Jesus in a real way.  And that is bigger and more important than any fear that may creep into my mind.

 

Word of the Year – 2016

I prayed for God to give me a single word about His character to focus on for this entire year.  I expected something big and majestic and earthshaking.  But the word that He gave me is not one of the words that is typically used to describe God:

Vulnerablesusceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.

It’s a powerful thing to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It takes amazing strength. It takes a lot of guts.  To step into something, knowing that you can be hurt, takes a whole lot of something that I don’t always have.

But it also allows you to love more deeply and more intimately than you can be if you are trying to protect yourself.  When God created us, He set down His shield and left His heart exposed.  Exposed to our taunts, to our apathy and to our lack of faith.  The King of All Creation purposefully leaves Himself vulnerable to His creation.  That is a big and majestic and earthshaking thing.

I have a feeling this year will open me up to some heartache, but I pray that God will use that to teach and mold me more into His image.  I can’t say that I’m necessarily “excited” about the prospect of setting down my own shield and taking that risk.  But I know that God “is close to the brokenhearted.”  It’s something I’ve even written about before, but not in the sense of vulnerability being a character trait of God.

Joyful Brokenness – Part II

Joyful Brokenness – Part II

In my previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the kids that I met on my trip to Iraq, and I’ll definitely get back to talking about them since they are the reason that I went and the highlight of my trip.  But in this entry, I want to talk a little bit about what I saw of the Christian church in Iraq.

When you think of Iraq, you obviously think of Muslims.  And Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of the population, but there is a sizable minority of Christians.  As recently as a few years ago, Christians were about 10-12% of the population.  Most are of ethnic Assyrians, who trace their ancestry and heritage in this land back 3000 years or more. The Christian heritage traces back to the mid first century AD in the western portions of the Assyrian homeland, and in northern Iraq to the mid 600’s with the arrival of Rabban Hormizd, a priest who built a monastery in Al Qosh, Iraq in 640 AD.

I spent a lot of time in Ainkawa, a suburb of Erbil that is 90% Christian, and spent a full day in Al Qosh, hanging out at a monastery talking to the priests and nuns and playing with some of the children at their orphanage.  I asked a lot of questions about their history and the present situation and was very surprised by some of the answers.  So here is a kind of a quick hit recap of some of my observations.


 

One series of questions that I always asked when I had a chance to really sit down and talk with people was what they thought of certain leaders.  Here is the overview of the responses from the four priests I sat down with (though obviously an hour long conversation can’t be summed up in a few words).

Bush 41? Unanimously disliked.  Not trusted.  He asked the northern tribes, Kurds and Assyrians, to rise up against Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, but did not support them when they did.  Saddam retaliated against the Kurds very harshly, including using chemical weapons against them.

Clinton? Meh.  Talked a lot, most of what he said was just what people wanted to hear.  Didn’t really impact Iraq a whole lot.

George W? This started an animated argument among the priests.  One loved him, one hated him, the other two had mixed feelings.  Most had no argument with the decision to remove Saddam.  All disagreed with the handling of the post-Saddam era.  The big argument came when discussing what they perceived to be his motivations and that they see him as “giving up” on Iraq and agreeing to move out too many troops to soon.

Obama? Hated.  HATED.  I can’t overstate it.  They often mocked a spit after saying his name to get the name out of their mouth.  The words they used were “liar,” “coward,” “terrorist,” “traitor to the world,” and the like.  While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of President Obama, it actually riled up something in me.  He may be a coward, but he’s MY coward, and how dare someone else talk about him that way.

Saddam? Overwhelmingly missed.  Three of the four priests said they’d take him back in a minute.  The fourth said “probably.”  The reasoning was simple…under Saddam you knew who your enemies were and “if you kissed the king’s ring, you got to live in peace.”  Now, your enemies hide in the bushes and ambush you.  There is no king to keep relative peace.  I asked them, “So, Saddam attacked his own people…killed thousands, tens of thousands, and you’d still choose him?” They all said yes. I pressed my point a little, saying, “It could be said that Saddam caused the current situation by pitting the different sides against each other to keep them from coming together against him.  He was always playing one side against the other, which has over decades has created the mistrust and hatred we are seeing today.”  The answer from one priest was, “That’s pretty amazing for someone who grew up as a farmer and didn’t finish school.  He was a gifted leader.”  They were overwhelmingly willing to give up freedoms for security.


 

 

I got to spend part of my day in Al Qosh at the ancient monastery of Rabban Hormizd.  Al Qosh is an ancient town (founded about 1500BC) where the Old Testament prophet Nahum was born and died (and his tomb is in the middle of the town).

The monastery was originally built in 640AD and then added on to over the years.  It was amazing to have the chance to walk into the ancient, 1400 year old cathedral carved right into the solid rock of the mountain side.  I got the chance to pray in the “room of darkness” where monks have gone to pray for centuries.  It was a powerful and emotional experience for me.  It was amazing also to have the priest give me a guided tour, translating the Assyrian and Aramaic writing on the plaques and rock carvings.  A once in a lifetime experience.

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Standing up on the balcony of the ancient monastery with a priest named Rony, you could see the Nineveh Plains stretch out for miles to the south.  Right on the edge of what you could see through the hazy heat lay the outskirts of Mosul.  The front lines with ISIS.  As I discussed the amazing history of the monastery with Rony, he pointed to the ancient Assyrian writing and stone archways and said, “We have great history…” and then he point off to the south towards ISIS and continued, “But I fear we don’t have a future.”

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All the priests felt the pressures of being trapped.  They are pressed from the South and West by the Sunni extremism of ISIS.  And the spreading influence from the east and north of Shi’a Iran and the Kurds.  They would stay, until the end.  But that end may not be very far off.  It was a sobering reality check for me.

I asked Rony what he thought of American Christians (he had served in a church in Las Vegas, so he had experienced America first-hand).  He said, “It is the same everywhere.  There are Christians who are only interested in Jesus on the holy days and then those that follow Him every day.”  He asked me what I thought about American Christians and my response was, “I think we too often confuse comfort of our own creation with a blessing from God.”

He didn’t understand what I meant, so I elaborated about how I believe that God often keeps us uncomfortable so we rely on Him alone.  But too often, we sit in our nice houses in our safe neighborhoods and say, “God must really love me since He has given me all this.”  Rony just nodded his head and said, “That’s a problem everywhere…the only difference is the size of the house.”


 

 

I also got to spend some time in a refugee camp for Christians who had fled Mosul when ISIS took over as we made two deliveries there. Mosul once had a thriving Christian community that numbered in the tens of thousands or more.  But after ISIS took control of Mosul on June 10, 2014, that changed.  The change was slow at first…for the first few weeks, as ISIS reinforced, the Christian community was respected.  But on June 29, ISIS declared a caliphate (Islamic government) and started to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.  On July 14, ISIS issued an ultimatum to the Christians.  Convert to Islam, pay the tax as an infidel (handing over all their possessions and leaving), or die.  The deadline was July 19.  On July 14, there were about 20,000 Christians left in Mosul.  On July 19, it is reported that there were 20 who refused to leave and are presumed to have been murdered.

ISIS marked the houses of the Christians with the Arabic letter ‘nun’ which stood for “Nasrani” (Nazarene) to indicate the Christians. Those who resisted ISIS were killed.  Men, women and children were beheaded.  In some cases, heads were mounted on spikes in public parks as a warning.  Nuns were kidnapped.  Priests killed.  It was a systematic persecution.  Religious genocide.

I was with those Christians from Mosul on July 19…the one year anniversary.  I remember reading news reports last summer questioning a lot of the stories coming out of Mosul.  One story on a major newspaper website openly said that the marking of the houses with the N letter never happened, that it was purely a propaganda invention.  I talked with men and women whose families have lived in Mosul for generations who were there and lived it.  I saw pictures from some of their phones of what happened.  This refugee camp had a giant heart with the Nun painted in the middle of it as a reminder and a memorial.  There is no doubt what happened.

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I asked one of the men what specifically we could be praying for.  He said, “Hope.”

That’s what so many of them seem to be lacking.  They lack hope for a future, especially a future in Iraq.

“Where can we go?  What can we do?” he asked.  “We can’t go home.  There are no jobs for us here [in Erbil], we are stuck with no future.  And without a future, where is the hope.”

That was the recurring theme from the Christians I talked with.  They have a long-term hope with Jesus.  But short-term, they are hopeless.  And after a year of complete desperation, they are falling even deeper into that hole.

But then there were the kids.  The kids still had joy.  And where there is joy, there is hope.  And so I still have hope.  I love my shirt from the group “Hope Iraq” that calls it “Outrageous Hope” for Iraq.  I have that outrageous hope that won’t ever quit.

Because with Jesus, there is always outrageous hope.

 

 

 

 

 

Joyful Brokenness – Part I

There is no way that I can describe in a handful of words what I experienced during my nine-day trip to northern Iraq.  But here is the first post in a series…a few words, which will be a feeble attempt to relay some of what God did, what He showed me and what I got to experience.  This series of posts will be a “highlight reel” not a complete story.

First, I’ll say that I full expected going in to the trip to have a moment where it kind of “hit me” that I was finally in Iraq.  But it never came.  I never had that “Holy crap, I’m here” moment.  What I had instead was an amazing peace and restfulness and joy of being home. I’ve never felt more “right where I was supposed to be” than I felt when I was with those sweet kids. That made coming back harder than I expected.  And it made my time there much more emotional than I expected.  And that emotion still comes at me in waves more than two weeks later.

My first trans-Atlantic flight was easier than I expected.  I rested well, and we got to see a little bit of Amman, Jordan, on our eight-hour layover there.  We left Amman at 1:30am Friday and arrived in Erbil, Iraq, at 3:30am.  After a few hours of sleep, we were ready to get busy.

Our first stop was at a makeshift Yazidi camp that surrounded a building that had been under construction.  The 100 or so people lived in tents and other temporary housing scattered around the half-finished building.  As we pulled in to the camp area, kids came running to see who the visitors were.  When we got out of the car, they all surrounded us and begged us to play with them.  I wore myself out lifting the kids up in the air, spinning them around in circles.  They just begged for more…more hugs, more tickles, more holding them…they craved physical affection.

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After a while of playing with them, one of the kids was always by my side. The moment below was captured by my friend Calvin…I know this will be a defining moment in my life a piece of my heart was left in Iraq right then.

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At this camp, we distributed a few weeks worth of food and talked to the elders of the camp to see what their biggest needs were.  They desperately needed a bread oven and air conditioning units for a few of their tents used by the children and the elderly.  We would return to this camp a few days later with those items. So I would get to spend more time with the kids.

At one of the camps, one of the girls always stayed right on the edge of the commotion.  She was a little bit older, she had recently turned 11.  During both of our visits to this camp, she never got directly involved in the play or the affection, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘She wants to so bad.’ I asked her name and she just turned away and didn’t reply. “Her name is Dilan (name changed to protect her identity),” said another girl.  I offered her one of the bracelets we were giving out (made by American kids) and again she just turned away without answering.  It was obvious there was more going on with her.

On our second visit to this camp, it was the same thing…Dilan was always right on the edge of the activity…wanting to join in, but not letting herself.  I asked one of the men who spoke Arabic (most of them only spoke the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish, which I don’t speak) about her.  He just said, “Da’esh (ISIS) took her away for months.  She got free a few months ago.”  My heart just sank.  It’s one thing to hear the story of the Yazidi girls being taken away…sold as sex slaves…raped, beaten, abused…sold to another ISIS terrorist and have the whole process repeat. But then suddenly, I’m sitting 15 feet away, looking into the eyes of a 11-year-old girl who is trying to figure out if she can trust this foreign man.  If she can trust any man.  Ever.  As a father who has been trying to adopt and be a daddy to a little girl for over four years, that caused one of the deepest hurts I’ve ever experienced.

We spent a few hours at that camp that second night.  We interviewed some of the kids and the leader of the camp, capturing their story (which are still being translated).  We played.  We loved on kids, with hugs, tickles, and about 7,000 hugs from the kids.  But as we were leaving, I heard a girl saying “Wait.”  I looked back and saw Dilan running towards me.  I didn’t know what to expect as she ran towards me, but she just buried her head in my chest and cried as she hugged me.  We sat that crying for a few minutes…I had no words whatsoever.  The only thing she said was “Thank you.”  Over and over.  If I could’ve gotten it out, I would have said, “No, thank you!”  But hopefully my tears said that.

After a few minutes, I pulled back and managed to get out, “Do you want this bracelet?”  I had pulled a purple one out for her after one of the girls told me purple was her favorite color and was wearing it on my own wrist.  She smiled and held out her wrist for me to slide it on. Knowing that we needed to go (another camp was expecting us), I told her I would always remember her and would be praying for her.  She asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?”  I shook my head. “The next day?”  I couldn’t make myself say no out loud, so I just shook my head again.  She asked, “Then when are you coming back?”

“Some day,” was all the response I could get out.

She pointed her finger at me, and in a tone that said she was taking it as a promise, she said, “OK…some day.”

That moment on a hot July afternoon in Erbil, Iraq, changed me.  It broke me.  It took everything I knew, and shattered it into a million pieces.  It took me and shattered me into a million pieces.  That night, I sat on the edge of my bed and couldn’t even form words in my mind to pray.  I just sat there in the presence of God and cried. My soul cried out for God to do something.  His response was clear: I AM.  Not “I am doing something.”  But just “I AM.”  That He is enough.  He’s big enough…He’s powerful enough…He’s loving enough…that He’s got this.  I’ve learned it’s easier to take a step of faith than it is to sit down and rest in faith.  But that night, my Daddy calmed my soul with only His Name.

I told my wife when I got home that God had broken me completely on this trip and He was putting me back together as something different.  I can see a lot of the pieces, but even more than two weeks after returning to my “normal life” I still don’t know what God has in mind for all the pieces.  It’s not a Humpty Dumpty story of just putting me back together.  It’s something new.  It’s a painful process.  But there is joy in it.  I’ve written before about finding joy in being “a little bit broken.” In being broken for others and finding life and joy and peace in that.  But this was not a case of being a little bit broken.  I was shattered…to the core.  And it changes everything.  And I’m so thankful for it.

If you would like to give a gift to support the work The Great Need is doing in Iraq, you can find more information at www.thegreatneed.com/shout

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7,000 Miles to Iraq

In one week, I’ll be heading to Iraq for our work with The Great Need.  One of our main missions while I’m there will be to deliver shoes to thousands of orphans in the refugee camps, but I’ve got a very busy nine days planned even outside of that.  There will be meetings, boiling hot days and very late nights…and lots of trying to communicate in my broken Arabic.  I can’t wait.

Truth be told, there are times when I have hard time believing that this whole thing is real.  I’m a computer nerd from Texas and somehow God picked me to be His hands and feet for kids in a country 7,000 miles away.  What the heck?  It’s incredibly overwhelming at times.  And there are so many times that I think that I’m not the right person, that I’m not good enough.  But that’s when my Good Father comes and reminds me that He does all the work…that He just wants to hang out with me while He does it.

So liberating!

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  In the context of Galatians, Paul is talking about the slavery of the Old Testament Law, but I think in a general sense that slavery can be many things.  Including fear.  Especially fear.

One of my favorite songs right now is “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Worship.  The chorus to the song is simply, “I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.”  That is a truth that is more powerful than we often let ourselves admit.

The bridge of that song says:

You split the sea
So I could walk right through it
All my fears were drowned in perfect love
You rescued me
So I could stand and sing
I am child of God…

I can’t wait to be standing and singing in Iraq.  With humility…without fear.

25 Year Old Poetry Flashback

So, I bought a new desk and in the process of moving and reorganizing all my crap, I found several folders and binders full of poetry.  In some ways, it feels like another life ago that I wrote that much.  But it’s funny, because when I read some of the poetry, it takes me back to the moment.  Some of them, I can picture where I was when I wrote it.  I can remember the sights,the sounds, the smells.

Some of them are pretty dark.  I wasn’t in a great place at the time, but that’s probably not uncommon for being in your late teens or early twenties.

But, in an effort to completely embarrass myself, I’m going to include some here.  It’s funny, because some of the ones that were my favorites back then definitely didn’t stand the test of time.  But I think some did.  Maybe it’s nostalgia on my part…but who knows.  Maybe they all suck.  Or maybe there is something in here worth saving.

 

Sand Castles

Built with care by little hands
Stand little castles in the sands.
Tender hearts that build up dreams,
Under the brilliance of sun-beams.

Castles mighty, firm and strong
Standing watch over the ocean long.
All the day their hearts delight,
Then creeps in the solemn night.

In the night, the waters rise,
Unseen by little, sleeping eyes.
The waves work away castle walls
To sounds of distant sea-bird calls.

Built with care by little hands
Wash away castles in the sands.
Tender hearts that once held dreams
Swept to sea, under dark moon-beams.

(C) Tom Shiflet, 1992

 

Moonveil 

Part 1

the moon behind a dark, dense cloud
shifting shapes of a veiling shroud
i closed my eyes, my head i bowed
the silence growing ever more loud
the moon was gone, black turned the night
i searched for some faint glimmer of light
but only dread and death came to my sight
the darkness had achieved complete might
around me blows a chilling wind
shivers down my spine it sends
in its breath my destiny bends
and to me, my life it lends
lost and alone, i run from the gloom
but all of my heart, the night did consume
weaving a death image on a star covered loom
a tapestry of a vine-tangled tomb
death would not catch, so i ran ahead
unknowing that all the time i was led
by fate and destruction, seeking me dead
stopping when, on a gravestone i read
her name through the dirt, mud and moss
feeling nothing but emptiness and loss
i was surrounded by only refuse and dross
so to the grave, my heart i tossed
i stood watching, from the grave’s rim
my burned crimson, but soon grew dim
it’s screams sounded an unholy hymn
that echoed inside me, from soul to limb
i turned, toward the sound of confusion
and saw her, but came to the conclusion
that the moon veiled image was a mere illusion
so i live my life in lonely seclusion
with my heart in that same dark veil
hearing at night her anguished wail
piercing my soul like a ghostly nail
and dragging my spirit a desolate hell.

(C) Tom Shiflet, 1992

 

As I Grow Older

As I grow older,
I find myself
holding tighter
to my baseball.
Trying to recapture
those carefree younger days,
I suppose.
Or maybe to help
me grow up.
I do not know
for sure.
But I think
that in reality,
baseball is simply
holder tighter
to me.

(C) Tom Shiflet, 1993.

The Great Need – The Why

I had a really great conversation with a gentleman tonight whose family came to the US from Jordan when he was 12 years old.  He is a Muslim and he has been following what The Great Need is doing in Iraq, and just wanted to talk to me about why we are doing what we are doing.

In no way was he accusatory about our motives and the entire conversation was extremely cordial.  And I think we found considerably more common ground than differences.  But it made me think about those that may have seen a little bit about The Great Need, maybe seen some pictures that we’ve posted or maybe even donated to our cause. And it made me want to clarify the “why” of what we do.  Or maybe more to the point, “why we don’t do what we do.”

I understand there is a level of suspicion that comes from American charities working in developing countries.  Sometimes it’s a suspicion of action…is this person or group trying to take advantage of others. And very often, there is a suspicion of motives.  Is this a case of “the great white hope from the west riding in to save the day.”  Both are understandable because both of these things have been major issues in the past.

This gentleman tonight questioned me politely more about the second of these concerns.  And he put it as bluntly as “are you helping these kids purely out of pity?”  I told him, and I want to say as clearly as possible here, no.  We are involved in Iraq (and Haiti and all the other places we are working and ever will work) for two reasons.

First, out of obedience to God’s call to care of those who need help.  This ties into the second reason, and I’ll tie it together in talking about that, but otherwise I won’t belabor this point.  Either you agree or don’t when it comes to matters of faith, that’s fine.

But the second reason is out of immense respect for these children.  When you serve others out of pity, you are essentially saying, I am awesome, therefore I am going to help you because you’re not awesome.  I don’t think anything could be further from the truth.  I want to help these amazing kids in Iraq because THEY are awesome.  They are spirited, intelligent, resilient, beautiful children who have survived things that I probably wouldn’t.  That retain a smile even in the midst of chaos.  They play, they laugh, they sing, they dance, they remain kids, when everything around them is giving them a reason not to.  THAT. IS. AWESOME.  I’m just a computer nerd from Texas that is most decidedly not awesome.

I don’t pity these kids.  I look at them and I struggle not to pity our kids here in the US.  Our kids who don’t know any different than the “American Way.”  Who learn greed and selfishness and “being a self-made man.”  Who don’t hear “no.”  Who don’t know how to go without…anything.  Who don’t know contentment.

These kids in the IDP camps of Iraq may own one pair of clothes and share a soccer ball among 40 other kids.  And they’re content.  Yeah, they have wants…their family back together, to return home, to go back to school, to grow up.  But they are content in their circumstances, and I want to learn that from them.  I want to be like them.  I hope some day to “grow up” to be like a 10 year old in Iraq.

I said the first reason and the second reason tie together and here is what I mean…from Genesis to Revelation, this common theme of caring for the hungry, the orphans, the widows, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the outcasts…it comes through again and again and again.  Because God loves His children.  More than we can imagine.  He loves us, more than we can imagine.  And His love doesn’t know levels.  It’s full throttle, all the way.  Pedal to the metal, raging, crazy, ridiculous love.

And He loves little Fadi in the IDP camp outside of Dohuk the same as He loves me.  And if I decide that I’m so awesome that little Fadi must have my help, then I’m basically saying, “Because God loves me more, I need to love this little kid more so he feels more loved.”

NO!

Because God loves Fadi recklessly, furiously, passionately.  How can I not hold Fadi in immense respect?  How can I not want to walk through fire to help him, to get to know him, to love him, to learn from him?

The name Fadi means “redeemer” in Arabic.  That’s what it boils down to.  “For God loved Fadi so much that He sent His one and only Son, that when Fadi believes in Him, Fadi will not perish, but will have everlasting life.”  The ultimate expression of God’s immense love is His redemption, a gift that is offered to every single person.

And when I realize that I don’t hold that monopoly, respect grows.