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When I was a kid, I was wild for Samson. I guess most Christian kids are. He’s an ancient Superhero, and what kid doesn’t like Superheros? Samson, the super strong Israelite, whipping the oppressive Philistines with incredible feats of daring do.

I got older and took another look at Samson and found him an incredibly flawed human being. Dishonoring his parents and his vows before God. Looking for love in all the wrong places with Philistine women. Not to mention his cruelty to animals (remember the 300 foxes?). It didn’t take too hard a look at his life for him to fall off the pedestal that I had put him on.

And then about a month ago I heard a teaching series about Samson from Robert Godfrey and Ligonier Ministries. His main text about Samson was not found in Judges 13-16, where the story of Samson is found, but in Hebrews 11, the Hall of Faith. The writer of Hebrews say in verses 32-34, “I do not have time to tell about … Samson… who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouth of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

It was an incredibly interesting series, and once again my view of Samson has shifted. No, he hasn’t returned to pedestal status, but I see a flawed man, who, nonetheless had great faith in God, and was used by God despite his weakness. In fact Hebrews says that God turned his weakness to strength. Hmm? Sounds like me. Maybe you too?

J.I. Packer died about a year ago on July 17. His writings and online sermons meant a lot to me and helped me grow in the Christian faith. Below are some quotes that are meaningful to me, and I hope will be to you as well.

We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.

Every Christian’s life-purpose must be to glorify God. This is the believer’s official calling. Everything we say and do, all our obedience to God’s commands, all our relationships with others, all the use we make of the gifts, talents, and opportunities that God gives us, all our enduring of adverse situations and human hostility, must be so managed as to give God honor and praise for his goodness to those on whom he sets his love (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Matt. 5:16Eph. 3:10Col. 3:17). Equally important is the truth that every Christian’s full-time employment must be to please God. . . . Pleasing God in everything must be our goal (2 Cor. 5:9Col. 1:101 Thess. 2:4; 4:1)

What Scripture says, God says; for, in a manner comparable only to the deeper mystery of the incarnation, the Bible is both fully human and fully divine.

There’s a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. When you truly know God, you have energy to serve Him, boldness to share Him, and contentment in Him.

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“It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on a Sunday.” General Stonewall Jackson, Confederate Leader

Stonewall Jackson was accidently wounded by his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. He suffered for a few days before he died. He was told by his doctor on Sunday, May 10, that he would probably not last the day. Later that day General Pendleton stopped by to tell him that all his troops were praying for him. That was when Jackson, in a sense, said that his prayer was already answered, for he had “always desired to die on a Sunday.”

Josefina Maceda, my mother-in-law, my Madre, died this last Sunday at the children’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico. I don’t know if it was a desire of hers to die on the Lord’s Day, but I wouldn’t be surprised. She loved the Lord’s Day. She loved going to the House of God to worship her Savior. It’s comforting to know that she is enjoying God eternally in His celestial House.

Saturday morning, as is my want, I read a chapter from Proverbs. It was chapter 28. I read a couple of verses that were at first comforting, and then disturbing, and then encouraging once again.

Verse 20 says, “A faithful person will be richly blessed…”

Verse 25 says, “those who trust in the Lord will prosper.”

I have always liked those verses and highlighted them in my Bible many years ago.  But this time, I doubted.  I know of few people who faithfully trusted in the Lord like Madre. Yet she didn’t seem to be richly blessed and prospering. She had been bed ridden for at least a week. In pain. Skin and bones. Every breath a groan.

I thought if that is what it means to be richly blessed and prospering, then I’ll pass, thank you very much!

I took my doubts to God. God reminded me of Romans 12:1-2, especially the part where Paul writes, ” Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” 

God was telling me that faithful people who trust in the Lord have renewed minds. They don’t think like the world does. They have different definitions for things like blessings and what it means to prosper.  The world thinks money, power and health are what prospering is all about. God says we prosper and are blessed when we love others deeply and are loved deeply by others and have a hope that will never fade away. Madre had all those.

That put a new light on things, and I saw that even in the midst of her suffering, she was truly blessed and prospering. She was surrounded by family that she deeply loved and who deeply loved her. She had deeply loved and blessed people from all over the world – United States, Canada, Germany and Japan, to name just a few. These people have been showing their deep love for her ever since she received the cancer diagnosis by supporting her with financial help and prayers. One neighbor came the last month of her life, almost everyday for at least an hour to pray with her, for her, and to sing to her, even though Madre couldn’t respond most of the time during her last days.

Looking at the situation from that Godly, renewed mind-point of view, I came to the realization that she was indeed richly blessed and prospering beyond all measure. I will take that blessing everyday and twice on Sunday!

Right before General Stonewall Jackson breathed his last, his doctor recorded that “Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face.”

I had never been with someone when they died before. I’m glad to say I got to be with Madre. And I was glad to see that just before she went home to the Father, she too smiled a smile of ineffable sweetness. It was as if she saw the Lord, like Stephen did in Acts 7, welcoming her into his eternal Kingdom with outstretched arms.

These last few days I have been thinking a lot about what Paul wrote to the Romans in chapter eight, verses 18 and 23.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us…We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

If only we all had that attitude and perspective. What a way to live! What a way to die!

Chlorophyllum rhacodes (Shaggy Parasol) growing in the decaying leaves and moldering twigs in Oaxaca, Mexico

We have gotten a lot more rain than usual here at the children’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico. Everything is nice and green and mushrooms of different shapes, sizes and colors are popping up all over the place, some as big as a dinner plates. I find them fascinating and have been doing some research on them. I have come to the conclusion that Christians are a lot like mushrooms, at least in two respects.

One thing I learned is that mushrooms grow best in places that are wet or really damp. We have received more rain this last June and now into July than I can ever remember in my 16 years of living here. So that explains the surge in ‘shrooms. They grow especially good in dead, decaying and moldering matter, like old leaves and sticks, exactly the place I found Old Shaggy, pictured above.

Christians actually grow and even thrive in exactly the same kind of environment. The Bible describes this world and its systems as dead, decaying and moldering. Yet Christianity, as the proverbial mustard seed, has been growing like crazy, not just in spite of pain, suffering and persecution, but because of it. Throughout the centuries different cultures and regimes have been trying to systematically snuff Christianity out, and yet it has grown into the largest religion on the planet.

I read an article recently in Christianity Today about how, in the past, the missionaries were kicked out of China, and church leaders feared for the future of the church in that country. Not to worry. Christianity grew from a few thousand believers to millions of believers within the following generations. Now it seems the same thing is probably occurring in North Korea; an expanding underground church amidst the worlds worst persecution of the church.

But not only the Church Universal grows amongst the death and decay of the world, but so do individual Christians. We all experience times of trials and tribulation, sorrow and suffering, frustration and failure. These are times of rotting leaves, moldy twigs and decaying branches. Times where we not only grow, but flourish. With these kind of experiences I think of Joseph and all he had to endure during his life. Sold by jealous, spiteful brothers into slavery. Falsely accused of a capital crime and tossed into prison. Forgotten by a fellow inmate he had helped out, he languished in jail. And then what? Next thing you know, he is second in command in the most powerful empire in the world.

When those same brothers came to him begging for food, he could have extracted sweet revenge, but instead he told them, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He was able to say that because over and over Genesis reminds us that God was with Joseph. God is still in the “making good out of evil” business as we can plainly see in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good to those who love God…” Even those decaying, moldering things.

The second way I see that Christians are like mushrooms is mycelia. I learned about mycelia from Emma Erler who is a landscape and greenhouse specialist at the University of New Hampshire. She writes, “Mushrooms will go away on their own once the weather dries out. Keep in mind that although these fruiting bodies have disappeared, the fungal mycelia is still growing in the soil. The fungus will continue to grow and persist as long as there is plenty of organic matter to feed upon.”

I found that to be very interesting. Mushrooms are only the fruit of a much vaster, invisible fungus network that lives underground. When the mushroom dies, the plant continues to live and grow and have its being. That makes me think of all the Christians who have died, yet a part of them continues to live and influence us who are living. I especially think of Christian writers from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul to Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Stott and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few. They are all dead, but their ideas, theology and insights continue to live and spread through the world with their words, just like mycelia.

So, if anyone should happen to tell you that you remind them of a mushroom, take it as a compliment. You are growing strong through the murky mire of decay; the stench and darkness of this present world, because God is with you, just as he was with Joseph. And, after you are gone to be with the Father, your mycelia, your love, grace, compassion and kindness will continue to live on in all those you cared about and helped.

Mushrooms and Christians. Who knew?

Happy Fourth of July!

What is it about planting a tree that makes the world a little more beautiful, and the person who plants it a little more hopeful about the future?

Maybe it’s the idea that, given the right conditions, the tree will grow. The tree will grow bigger than the person who plants it. Usually much bigger. Planting a tree reminds us that there are things bigger than ourselves. And the tree will live a long time, probably longer than the person who put it in the ground. Planting trees reminds us that we have good things to look forward to.

And the tree will occupy a space that otherwise might have been bare, or ugly or choked with weeds, and will bring a type of beauty to that space that will be hard to match as the years go by. Planting trees also makes our inner space more beautiful.

And the person who plants the tree, the planter, will look at the tree, gaze at the tree, and will have a sense of the past, present and future, all at once. The planter will remember when his or her hands dug out some dirt from the earth to make a little hole, placed a sapling in the hole, and tucked the little tree into its place, tamping the dirt gently around its tender roots. The planter will also see how beautiful the tree is at the present. “My how it has grown” and imagine what it will look like as it continues to mature – five, ten or fifteen years down the line. And the planter will smile.

Perhaps some of these thoughts were running through Martin Luther’s head when he wrote about planting his apple tree in an uncertain time. Maybe he was thinking of his God who gives strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Maybe he was thinking that he might not be around for too many more tomorrows, but his apple tree would.

Last Sunday, a group of Venezuelans, who live in Oaxaca, Mexico, came to the home for needy children to plant some trees. One hundred and three to be exact. They invited the children to help them and the kids responded with great enthusiasm. It was a blessed, happy thing to see adults and kids, Mexicans, Americans and Venezuelans, males and females, all working together to not only make this children’s home a more beautiful place, but the world a better place.

And to make their hearts a better space.

Venezuelans, living in Oaxaca, Mexico, come to FFHM’s children’s home with 103 trees and we all work together to get them in the ground.

He that plants trees, loves others besides himself. Thomas Fuller

God loves us and wants us to be happy. This verse from Romans emphasizes that truth. Notice it does not say, “May the God of misery fill you with all despair and anguish as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hopelessness by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

No, it is all about being filled with all joy and peace and overflowing with hope. If there are three words in our vocabulary that are the essence of happiness, they must be joy, peace and hope. And Paul’s prayer is that his readers would not just possess a little bit of joy here, and a taste of peace there with a smidge of hope thrown in. No. He wants his readers to be filled with all joy and peace and overflow with hope.

How is that accomplished? Paul says it comes from trusting in God. Trusting in God like a little baby trusts in its parents. Trusting in God so deeply that, like a baby, you don’t even realize how much you are trusting him. Sometimes when I am praying, I will all of a sudden say “Goo, Goo – Ga Ga”, just to remind myself of how much I truly depend on him for every little thing I have, like bread, breath and water. It also reminds me of my insignificant knowledge in comparison to the infinite knowledge of our omniscient Father. There are so many things that I don’t understand about life and God, that I would like to understand, but I can’t. Then I get this image of Einstein trying to explain the theory of relativity to a toddler. There is no way the toddler can understand. Like me. There’s no way I can understand a lot of the things that I would like God to explain to me. So I say, “Goo, goo – ga ga”, and go on happily trusting God.

So let’s trust in Lord; taste and see that God is good, all the time, and celebrate the fact that our Father in heaven loves us and wants us to be happy.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Mark 4:35-37

My mother-in-law is dying of stomach cancer. I call her Madre. She was diagnosed about three years ago, underwent almost a year of treatment, seemed to get better, but now it’s back with a vengeance and the doctors say there is not much they can do about it. She is ok with that. She is in the boat with Jesus.

She had a very difficult life when she was younger. She married when she was a teenager. Her and her husband lived with his mother. By all accounts his mother was very demanding and made life impossible for Madre. They were all poor. This was Mexico forty years ago.

My father-in-law and Madre moved to the outskirts of town and built a place to live, or at least to exist. Their walls were bamboo sticks and their floor dirt. She had six children. Three daughters died of various ailments before they were ten years old. The youngest son was born with down syndrome. They all had a hard life, especially her.

But then, she got in the boat with Jesus. She was working for some missionaries, who shared the Good News of God’s love with her, and she became a follower. Soon, the whole family was following Jesus. While outward circumstances didn’t change a whole lot, at first, their soul’s were now full of peace and joy.

After some time, the oldest son began working with the missionaries, recording indigenous people reading the Bible. Then he became pastor of a small church. After that he started a Christian radio station. Their daughter married a missionary, me, and she joined me in working at a home for needy children.

Madre always had a big smile and an encouraging word for everyone. She was always generous with her time, talents and treasure. Probably too generous. She never took a day off. Working Monday thru Saturday, and then busy with church commitments from dawn to dusk on Sunday. She never took time off for herself. Perhaps that contributed to her cancer. Who knows? I know that the only time she had significant time to rest was when she was going through her treatments and was living with us here at the children’s home. For the first time in her life she was being taken care of the way she was used to taking care of others. She was the focus of attention. She still is.

I like to think that God has considered all that Madre has gone through, and all that she has given to others and to the work of the Kingdom, He is saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into your rest.” And she sails across the lake, almost to the other side, with Jesus in the boat, enduring her last storm until she arrives safely Home.

Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

The flower and the plant in the photo above is Cylindropuntia fulgida, also known as the jumping cholla or jumping cactus. Of course it doesn’t really jump, but one gets that impression when one wanders too close to it. Just barely touch it and you will have at least one, if not more, cactus burrs stuck to your jeans or flesh if you are wearing shorts. You could almost swear the burrs jumped off the plant and onto you. At least that has been my experience on many occasion as these cactus are common in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I live.

This plant is an apt metaphor for the quote above by Thomas a Kempis. Many times we complain or murmur about the burr stuck on our pants or embedded in our skin, and we miss the simple beauty of the flower. We are surrounded by simple beauty, gifts from God, no matter where we live, but with our bent nature, we are more likely to complain about inconveniences and disruptions than we are to be content with things simple.

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God, without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Philippians 2:14

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Philippians 4:12

God, help us as your dearly loved children to learn, like Paul, the secret of being content, and to think, at least twice, before we open our mouths to murmur, grumble and complain.

This time of year commencement speakers and valedictorians from sea to shining sea are encouraging graduates to follow their hearts. That is just about the worst advice anyone could possibly give.  The best advice they could give would be to follow Jesus (and I don’t mean on Instagram) and to be led by the Spirit.

Jesus said in his sermon on the mount that there are two gates and two roads.  One is broad and there are many who take that route. Jesus said this way leads to destruction. The other one is narrow, and few travel that path. Jesus said this way leads to Life.

The broad road is the way most traveled these days; especially graduates who take the speakers advice, Following their hearts, believing their dreams can come true.  The narrow road is for those who choose to follow Jesus and be led by the Spirit.

I have been studying Romans 8 lately. The apostle Paul writes about the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (flesh being the natural desires of the heart). The life governed by the Spirit and the life governed by the flesh. Living in the realm of the Spirit and living in the realm of the flesh. The life led by the desires of the flesh and the life led by the Spirit.

His conclusion – Those who live their lives according to the flesh are under condemnation and spiritual death.  Those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.

The road in the photo above is of a typical road in the remote regions of Oaxaca, Mexico. This road links little pueblos or towns together. Often there is no public transportation and people must walk many miles on these roads if they wish to visit or do business with people in these communities.

I have walked many a weary mile on roads like this with Pastor Edgar.  Pastor Edgar started over a dozen churches in distant, isolated villages in the rugged mountains of Amoltepec, Oaxaca.

There was a time in his life when he had to make a decision of whether to follow his heart or be led by the Spirit. He was married with two young children, one who suffered with physical health issues. He was working in a church in a big city, doing alright for himself, following his dream of being a successful pastor with a big church.

But then the Holy Spirit intruded. He was made aware of a region of Oaxaca, out in the middle of nowhere, with no churches, with no gospel presence, where some had never heard of the love of God or the message of Christ. He had a big decision to make. Would he be led by the Spirit and uproot his family from the city and move to the wilderness of Amoltepec, or follow his heart and continue to live his dream in the comfort of the city.

He chose to be led by the Spirit. Was it easy? No! There were no doctors to treat his son when he suffered and he almost died. They called out to that same Spirit who had called him, and his son was healed!  Edgar himself almost died when he was hit by a car, and still suffers terrible leg pain to this day. He was almost murdered by a group of men who did not want any part of the gospel being preached in their community.

So was it worth it? He would definitely say yes, thinking of all the churches he started and all the souls that said Yes to Jesus and No to the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Brothers and sisters in Christ who now have a peace that surpasses all understanding, a glorious inheritance in God to look forward to, and are no longer slaves to fear. Something they would not have if it were not for Pastor Edgar being led by the Spirit.

So, to all those graduates being encouraged to follow their hearts, I say, “Be led by the Spirit. Become a child of God. Delight in God and he will give you the desires of your heart!”

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