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I made up a new song a couple days ago. It’s called I’m So Glad I’m Not a Worm.  It’s sung to the tune of Everybody Ought to Know. earthworm It goes like this:

I’m So glad I’m not a Worm

I’m So glad I’m not a Worm

I’m So glad I’m not a Worm

Eating dirt all day.

It was originally called I’m So Glad I’m not a Dog.  It came to me as I was taking a pail of table scraps out to the compost pit at the back of the mission.  As I approached, three mongrel dogs crawled out of the pit and scampered away.  I thought how glad I was that I wasn’t a dog like that, and began singing, “I’m so glad I’m not a dog.” As I thought about those words, I realized that there are probably some people in the world that would like to be dogs, especially a pet dog in the United states.  Most pet dogs in the U.S. have it made.  They have all the comforts of home.  They live better than most people in the world. I read recently that in 2012, Americans spent over 53 billion dollars on their pets, a large majority of those pets being dogs.  I read a mission web site that said that Americans spent as much  money on their pets Halloween costumes as they did on helping to send the gospel message to the unreached people groups of the world (310 million dollars).  It’s a dog’s life, and it’s a pretty good one.    So I changed the words to I’m So Glad I’m not a Worm.  Although I expect to receive a scathing email any day now from the NAAW (National Association for the Advancement of Worms).

What I am really saying when I sing “I’m so glad I’m not a  worm” is that I am glad that I  am a chosen, elected, predestined from the foundations of the earth, child of God,  who daily experiences the riches of God’s love, mercy, grace, kindness, gentleness, goodness and provision of all my daily needs and most of my wants because He Loves Me and wants me to be happy.  Much better than being a worm.  Although, maybe I am a worm at heart, or used to be.

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Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

At The Cross by Isaac Watts

The staff at Cristo Por Su Mundo (Christ for the World), a home for needy children here in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is part of FoundationFor His Ministry, recently began a five day study of what it means for Christians to live in community.  I felt like this was an important topic for us to delve into, since we are a faith community with almost two dozen staff members and sixty children, and we had never had an in-depth study of what the Bible or Christian leaders have to say about this important topic.

A book that has heavily influenced my perspective on Christian community, is called Life Together,  by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I took the first devotional/teaching session to present Bonhoeffer’s ideas of what living in community is all about.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian, professor and pastor when Hitler was in power.  He was ultimately executed by Hitler for his anti Hitler activities.  He was head of a Christian community in Germany for awhile and wrote his little book Life Together to help other Christians who lived in community or who were considering the idea.
In our first devotional study time I handed out two pages of quotes from Life Together.  Here are some of my favorites:

The goal of Christian community – Meeting one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

Be thankful – Enter into common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.

Jesus Christ alone is our unity – Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.

Priorities – It is more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to his son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today.

Learning – Only in fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship; both begin with the call of Christ.

Meditation – The period of personal meditation is to be devoted to the scriptures, private prayer, and intercession.  If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness.

Meekness – He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself.

Helpfulness – We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.  God will be constantly canceling our plans by sending us people with needs that we can meet.

Jill, the assistant administrator of the children’s home also spoke about living in community.  She looked at community from a theological point of view.  She used the book called Community 101 as her guiding light.  This book talked about how community began with God, the Trinity, three in one, the first community.  Then God created Adam, and God declared that it was not good that man was alone.  Man was created to live in community, and God created Eve, from one of Adams ribs.  Thus the first human community.

Satan hates all things that God creates as good and beautiful, and seeks to destroy them, especially community.  His first attack was against community.  An essential element of community between God and man, and mankind living in community, is trust.  Satan attacks community by attacking trust.  He convinced Eve that God could not be trusted, and thus destroyed the perfect community that man had with God, and in the process, the community Adam and Eve had.  Satan continues to try and destroy Christian community, and those living in community must be ever vigilant regarding their thoughts, words and actions, lest the Evil One drive a wedge between its members.

Below are some quotes from Community 101:

Primacy of oneness – God is  eternally one.  When he created us in his image, he created oneness.

God’s gift of oneness – God’s supreme achievement was not the creation of solitary man, but the creation of human community.

Centrality of oneness – The quality of human communities depends on our willingness to be dependent on God.

Commitment to community – For a church to develop and maintain oneness is not a take-it-or-leave-it option.  It is a priority and a mandate.  We need to be constantly reminded of our true identity as a community of oneness.

God calls us to have a “personal relationship” with Him.  But that is not the end all and be all of what it means to  be a Christian.  God brings us into right relationship with Him, so that we can be part of the “called out ones”; the church; the community of faith; the  body of Christ.  God created community because He loves us and wants us to be happy.  I know that is true for me.  Although I have gone to church most of my life, and been a member of different churches, and done church for most of 50 years, I have not experienced such joy and happiness and fulfillment since I became part of this Christian community in Mexico called Cristo Por Su Mundo.  Instead of “doing” church, we are “being” the church that God called His followers to be.

Thinking on this, I am reminded of the breakfast illustration of ham and eggs.  In the making of this breakfast the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed.  Most Christians are involved in a Christian community, living at the fringes of what God truly intends for His disciples.  I think God wants all His children to take the plunge, and commit to living in community.  That is the way He wired us in order to truly glorify Him by enjoying Him.

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There are many things which a person can do alone, but being a Christian is not one of them. As the Christian life is, above all things, a state of union with Christ, and of union of his followers with one another, love of the brethren is inseparable from love of God. Resentment toward any human being cannot exist in the same heart with love to God. The personal relationship to Christ can only be realized when one has “come to himself” as a member of His Body, the Christian fellowship.

William T. Ham

I was released from prison last Tuesday at 5:43 pm.  A prison guard walked me to the main gate, put his key in the lock,opened the huge metal door and let me out.  I was a free man.  It felt great to be free, to be liberated from the iron bars and concrete walls.  But I was also thinking of the friends that I had left behind.  Bernardo, Aries, Guillermo, Armando, and Marzalino to name a few. I was sad that they were still doing time.  Oh well, I thought, I will be able to encourage them next Tuesday.
Your see, I teach an English class at a prison that is across the highway from Cristo Por Su Mundo, (Christ for the world), home for needy children, where I live with my family, and participate with God in helping “the least of these” as Jesus referred to the oppressed and downtrodden of the world.  These include the children and prisoners that most of humanity forgets about and leaves behind.  Every Tuesday afternoon I walk across the highway and enter a whole new world.  I get to leave after a few hours.  My students, my friends, have to stay.

One day I was walking alone in the hills that surround this mission.  This was about five years ago.  I was talking to God about my life.  I was thanking Him that he allowed me to cooperate with Him at the home for needy children.  I was thinking how fortunate I am to be participating in the Divine Nature that Peter talks about in 2 Peter 1 (see my last blog).  Part of participating with God is to make beauty; to  make the world a more beautiful place everyday, and I am able to do that by planting and maintaining the gardens here at the mission.  But I was thinking, what else could I do?   God, what else do you want me to do?  What else can we cooperate on in helping this hurting world?   Then the verse from Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you did not visit me.”  The words of Jesus on the last day, judgement day, convicting me.

The mission already had a couple of preachers and teachers who would go to  the various prisons in the area to minister in word and song, and I felt like I could and should do something different, to reach out to other prisoners and help them in a way that they could get a sense of  the love of God, without a Bible preacher or teacher.  The idea came to me that I could teach an English class.  Before I came to Mexico, I had never taught English, but I realized that the most important thing about being a teacher of anything, is to simply know more than your students.  So I decided I was qualified and at the request of some people here at the home for needy children, I began teaching English.  That was going well, so now I would be going across the highway to the prison to see if anyone there wanted to learn English.  There was- and I was there to stay, at least for about three hours every Tuesday afternoon.

All my students are great.  I can’t believe any of them have done anything to deserve prison.  I have never asked any of them why they are, or were, there.  I don’t think  it is any of my business.  When I see them, I don’t want to see them as murderers, thieves, rapists, drug dealers or extortionists.  I want to see them as people who were created in the image of God, people who have made mistakes in life, as I have.  People who want to learn English, but more important people who want a friend, people who want to hear the Good News of God’s love, even if it is in the context of an English class.  The students come  and go, both to class and to and from prison.  Two of my students were released, and within months were back in prison, back in my class.  Most have been released and are leading productive lives.

I don’t understand a lot about the Mexican judicial system, but it seems that you are guilty until proven innocent, and you don’t get a trial before a judge.  What happens is you are accused, sent to prison, and then your lawyer writes to the judge, explaining your side of the situation, then the other lawyer answers with a letter, and it goes back and forth like that until the man is declared not guilty and gets out of prison, or is found guilty and continues to live behind bars.  This process can go on for years. There are two sections to this prison; one for people who have been conviction, the other for dozens of men and women who are “on trial” in their cells.   One of my favorite students, a very intelligent man, who speaks remarkably good English, has been in prison for the whole time I have been teaching, waiting for his case to be resolved.

I have had some students who have been in prison in the U.S. and in Mexico.  I ask them what is the major difference.  They tell me that if you are in prison in the U.S., you are probably guilty.  If you are in prison in Mexico, there is a good chance that you are innocent.

The situation for many in prison in Mexico is tragic.  Many prisoners feel helpless, and that their situations are hopeless.  I thank God that He  reaches out to those men and women behind bars and concrete walls, and reaches into their hearts with hope, mercy, love and grace.  While many suffer injustice from the system, they receive joy and peace from God.  While the government says “You are to live incarcerated in prison”  God says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

I thank God that I am free, on the outside and the inside.  I also thank God for setting the captives free; free in spirit; free in heart; free in soul.  Those whom the Son sets free, are free indeed.

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Stone walls do  not a  prison  make, Nor iron bars a cage ;

Minds innocent and quiet take that for an heritage;

If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above, enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace (1618-1658), from To Althea, from Prison

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Next blog – Life in One Mexican Prison

My wife Anita, our two daughters and myself were in Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico a couple weeks ago, helping with the

Anita serving up atole

Anita serving up atole

preparation and joining in the celebration of Radio Zapoteca’s second anniversary.  Wood fires were burning in cinderblock rings.  Smoke  filled the cooking area and escaped through slits in the rusted tin walls.    Milk, ground up oats and sugar were mixed together in a big pot  over one fire to make a traditional Oaxacan drink called atole.  Chickens, throats freshly cut, were briefly plunged into boiling water of another pot and then plucked naked.  Nine butchered chickens contributed to some delicious chicken soup and tasty tamales.

Women from a half dozen local church congregation gathered in Anita’s parent’s yard to help.  Some churches donated food, others tables and chairs.  The Home for Needy Children, where Anita and I are staff members, donated cases of milk.  I wrote in an earlier blog that the social service arm of of the government had given the ministry a bunch of milk.  Out of our abundant supply we were able to share.  Blessed to be a blessing, as the saying goes.

Anita’s older brother, Arturo, started Radio Zapoteca two years ago, because of his vision of proclaiming  the Good News that God loves us and wants us to be happy, to the entire Mitla valley.  This wonderful DSC00310Christian radio station plays inspiring Christian music, and proclaims the messaged of God’s love in Spanish and the local Zapoteco dialect.  This station also broadcasts via the  internet at RadioZapoteca.com if you want to give it a listen.

Arturo is an inspiration himself.  Fifteen years ago, Arturo was living for himself.  He graduated from the local university with an accounting degree and immediately got a good job making good money.  God spoke into his life through local missionaries, who convinced him, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that there was more to life than money and mezcal.  He turned his life over to the Good Shepherd and Savior of his soul.  He was filled with a joy that he had never experienced

Cooking tubs of tamales

Cooking tubs of tamales

before.  He gave up his job and went to work for the missionaries, helping them make recordings of the Bible in the dialects of illiterate village people living in isolated areas of Oaxaca (RadioZapoteca.com includes Bible recordings of over 400 dialects).

He worked faithfully in that ministry for a few years, while being heavily involved in a local church.  The little church, Dios Es Amor (God is Love), was the result of a church planting of a larger church in Oaxaca city.  The idea was that after a few years, it would become self sufficient with its own pastor.  Arturo had been in charge of the youth group and would preach occasionally.  The pastor of the parent church in Oaxaca city saw the hand of God on Arturo’s life and Arturo felt the call of God to pastor the little flock.  After receiving pastoral training, and much prayer, Arturo was ordained as pastor of  Dios Es Amor.

Over two years ago, Arturo began dreaming of a way to communicate Christ, not just to his small band of brothers and

Sisters in Christ helping to prepare a feast for the fiesta

Sisters in Christ helping to prepare a feast for the fiesta

sisters in the Lord; not just to his neighbors and those he would casually meet, but to all of the Mitla region.  He envisioned a Christian radio station that would proudly proclaim the gracious goodness of a living Redeemer, not just to the Spanish speakers, but to those indigenous people in the area called Zapotecos and spoke that dialect.  Arturo could reach out to them in their “heart” language, since he was half Zapoteco and  could speak the language.

He  shared his vision with other Christians and they began to dream the same dream, and supported Arturo with

prayers, funds, time and talents.  Two weeks ago, these Christians, along with  hundreds of others who regularly tune in to Radio Zapoteca, came  together in the town square to celebrate the radio station’s second year of existence. Pastors of different denominations spoke about the importance and blessing that Radio Zapoteca was for them personally and for their congregations.  People spoke about how much more they enjoyed God when they could turn on the radio and listen to inspiring Christian music, teaching and preaching.  Bands came from all around to play their different styles of music, glorifying the King  of kings and Lord of lords.

Standing in the smokey, makeshift kitchen of my in-laws, surrounded by sisters in Christ cooking chickens and making

Arturo broadcasting the Good News on Radio Zapoteca

Arturo broadcasting the Good News on Radio Zapoteca

tamales, I rejoiced in God’s work and goodness.  I thought of all the Christians in the community that were encouraged daily by Arturo and Radio Zapoteca.  There were so many who had come to know our Great, Good God, and were themselves helping to grow the Kingdom of God in their own special ways.  And on that Saturday in February, we were all together, pitching in, to make the  second anniversary fiesta such a success – glorifying God and enjoying Him and His presence among us.

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Guiraa redee badeedni te guluiireni rexpejn Jesucrist, te gunreni dzuun te gustajlreni rebejn ni gac xquidoo Jesucrist.   Zapoteco de Mitla translation of Ephesians 4:12 –               to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

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Next blog – Beauty, Truth and Goodness

Recently I was thumbing through the Evangelical Theological Dictionary of Theology, and there it was! somewhere between Hallelujah and Homologoumena, I encountered  Happiness.  I was pleasantly surprised that a theology book considered happiness a worthy topic.  It not only explored the concept of happiness, but included a “to-do” list.  Things people need to do to be happy.  I have taken that list, modified it somewhat, and added a few things of my own, to come up with a Top Ten list of things  people need to do to be happy.

1.  Develop a close relationship with God.jesus

John 15:9  “Stay in my love.”  John 15:10  “If you obey my teachings you will live in my love.  John 15:11  “I have told you these things so My joy may be in you and your joy may be full.”  John 15:15  “I no longer call you servants.  Instead, I  have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have told you.”  New Life Study Testament

The most important thing to do to enjoy God and be happy is to have  a deep, trusting, and loving relationship with God.

2.  Have a strong moral base.

Mark 12:28-34  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is closely related to number one.  One way we love God with  all our being is  to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Loving doesn’t necessarily mean “liking”.  Having a strong moral  base essentially means that we do to others as we would like  them to do to us.  We don’t have to like other people in order to treat them right.  Jesus uses the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this point (Luke 10:25-37).

3.  Show mercy and compassion to the poor.

Proverbs 14:21 “He who  despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is  kind to the needy.”                                                       Matthew 25:37-40  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when  did  we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give  you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you  in, or  needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick  or in prison  and  go to  visit you?’                                                                                                                          “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”    New International Version

When we reach out and help the poor, less fortunate, the “least of  these”, God fills us with joy, because these are the kinds of works we were created to do to be happy people  (Ephesians 2:10).

4.  See your work as a gift from God.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13  “I know  that there  is nothing better for men than to be happy and do  good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” (also Eccl. 2:24,25; 3:22; 8:15)

The author of Ecclesiastes mentions often that enjoying and taking pleasure in  your job is one of the most important things we can do to be happy.  God gives all of us special gifts, talents, and abilities, that, when put to work, brings us joy. I  believe God has given me the  ability to garden and to teach.  I have been doing these two  things for over thirty years.  While I  never made a lot of money doing these things, they have brought a richness of joy into my life.

5.  Think of others as better than yourself.

{love and happiness}

{love and happiness} (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philippians 2:3  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in  humility consider others  better than yourselves.”   1 Timothy 1:15  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  NIV

Perhaps nothing can  take away my happiness quicker than when  I begin to think that I am better than  someone else.  That can be quite a temptation, especially when one lives  in a Christian community in a foreign county as I do.  Here at the home for  needy children in Mexico, there are staff members and volunteers from different countries, cultures, backgrounds, environments, and spiritual walks.  The Devil wants to bring divisiveness rather than unity, and he loves it when he can get us to think of ourselves better than those we are around everyday.  When we feel superior to  others, complain about others or look down on others, then the Devil has gained a foothold and we lose a precious bit of divine joy that  God has for us.  The great apostle Paul, writing to Timothy towards the end  of his life, comparing himself to others, states that he is  the worst of sinners.  If we can identify with Paul, then we can experience God’s love and enjoy Him in a unique way.

6.  Say “Thank you”.thank you

Colossians 3:15  “Let the peace of Christ have power over your hearts.  You were chosen as part of his body.  Always be thankful.”    1 Thessalonians 5:16  “In everything give thanks.  This is  what God wants you to do because of Jesus Christ.”     NLST

Say “Thank you” at least 50 times a day.  Say it to God, to friends and family, to co-workers and to complete strangers.  I f you have a thankful heart, you will have a happy heart.  Just ask Madame Blueberry from VeggieTales, she’ll tell you.

7.  Embrace silence and solitude.

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”  “Solitude … is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.”  Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pg.s 16,22

“The day needs definite times of silence, silence under the Word and silence that comes out of the Word.”  “Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s word with a blessing.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pg. 79

Two  writers that I have a lot of respect for when it comes to enjoying God, are Henri Nouwen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  They both write about the importance of silence and solitude in the life of a happy, fulfilled Christian.  They both suggest that daily times of  silence and solitude, as well as extended get-a-ways where you can enjoy longer times of intimate silence and solitude with  God and His Word are extremely important.  It is especially in times of silence and solitude that we experience God, His  love and joy.

8.  Don’t talk so much.dont talk

James 3:6  “The tongue is a fire. a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is  itself set on fire by hell.”    James 3:8  “No man can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Hmm. Our tongues – fire, world of evil, corrupting, restless evil, full of deadly poison.  Not happy things!  Haven’t we all been burned and been poisoned by other  peoples words?  More tragically, we have burned and poisoned others with our careless words, gossiping, backbiting, sarcastic and venomous words.  James says in the beginning of chapter three that if you control your tongue you will be perfect – perfectly happy?  I think so.  Fewer words, more happiness.

9.  Delight in God’s Word.bible pic

Psalm 119:16  “I delight in your decrees;  I will not neglect your word.”  vs. 24  “Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors.”   vs.35  “Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.”   vs. 47  “I delight in your commands because I love them.”   vs. 77  “Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight.”  vs. 92  “If your law had not been my delight, I  would have perished in my affliction.”  vs. 111  “Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.”  vs. 143  “Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight.”  vs.174  “I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.”    NIV

Start your day by reading God’s Word, studying and meditating on the scriptures, praying through some verses, memorizing others, and you will have a delightfully happy day.

10.  Don’t live in the world and go to church, but live in the church and go into the  world.

I don’t know who  originally said that, but I love it.  God not only saved us to have a personal relationship with Him, but, more importantly, saved us to be a vital part of His  body, His kingdom, the community of faith, the Church.  The Church is  not a building that we go into once or twice a week to “worship God”.  The Church is the body of Christ, a spiritual building that God has chosen as a growth instrument to help His followers grow  in  the fruit of the Spirit, of which  one important fruit is joy.  As a community, a fruit basket, we go into  a hurting world and bring to it love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness and goodness.  Hence, we “live in the Church”, and go into the world.

Romans 12:4,5 ,6  “Just as ach  of us has one body with many members, and these members do  not  all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form  one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”

So there it is, my top ten list of things to do  to  be happy.  When these things are prominent in my life, I discover I am happier, experience more joy and enjoy  God  more.  Most of these things don’t just happen overnight.  It has taken me almost 50 years to cultivate them to the  point that they are more or less natural to my life and faith walk, but I still  have a ways to go.

I have about ten different types of fruit trees that I  planted and care for here at the home for needy children in Oaxaca, Mexico.  I imagine these ten things “to do” to be happy, as fruit trees in our lives.  When they are young they bear no  fruit, or immature fruit that is very small or not very edible, but they have the potential of producing much fruit.  In order to finally bear good fruit they constantly need looking after.  They need water, sun, good soil, fertilizer, insecticide, and pruning.  After four or five years they almost all bear fruit, some more than others.  One has died and a couple others are struggling mightily.

So it is in our “spiritual orchard”.  Some of the things on our “to do” list come naturally, are comfortable for us to practice and live.  Others we struggle with, and some we just feel like giving up on.  With patience, diligence, and the goal of Happiness in view, we can have a beautiful and abundant orchard that yields a life of happiness and enable us to enjoy God forever.

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”    Jim Valvano, College Basketball Coach who died of cancer eight weeks after saying this in  a speech.

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Next post – The Lord’s Prayer, A  Happy Prayer

Elaine

Elaine and her husband Ian are long time volunteers from Canada, here at the home for needy children in Oaxaca, Mexico.  The other day I  asked Elaine if  she believed God loves her and wants her to be happy.  She said, “Absolutely!”  Then I asked her why she thought God allowed her to lose her hearing.

DSC00222

Happy Children Playing
Artwork by Elaine

She had had perfect hearing most of her life.  About 28 years ago she gradually began to lose her hearing do to menieres disease, losing her hearing first in one hear, and then in the other until she was  totally deaf.  She thought about my question.  She told me that she never thought a lot about why God allowed her to lose her hearing.  She told me about difficulties she experienced as her hearing became impaired.  With tears in her eyes she recounted a recurring nightmare she had  regarding her hearing  loss and her increasing need to  depend on devices used to help the hearing impaired.  A few more tears appeared as she told me about how much she loved music, and that she can’t go into a music store now.

Thinking more about my question, she mentioned that with her hearing loss she has learned to depend more  on God.  She rests more in God.  Sometimes God takes things away from us, things that we enjoy, to help us focus on Him so that we can enjoy Him more.

God has made Elaine happy and uses her in a tremendous way at the mission, in the community and in three Oaxacan prisons.  She is an artist and has  painted many beautiful pictures and murals that inspire everyone here at the children’s home.  She received a cochlear ear implant almost three years ago and partial hearing has returned to her life.  That helps her to teach art classes at the mission school.  She also has a sewing talent and ministry that reaches out to poor and incarcerated women, both physically, with quilts, and  spiritually, with words that flow from her compassionate and joyous heart.  She glorifies Him and enjoys Him in many different ways everyday.

Thinking about Elaine and her spiritual journey, I was  reminded of  two different scripture passages from the book  of John.  One  is  from chapter nine, the account of the man  born blind.  In those days, most Jews thought that physical maladies  were a result of sin.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned?”

Jesus told them that the blind mans affliction was not a result of sin.  He was blind  all  his life so that one day the master healer, Jesus himself, would come along and restore his sight, and that God would be glorified through the miracle.  Surely, the man who could now see, glorified God and enjoyed Him forever.

I also thought about John 15, where Jesus speaks of God the Father as a gardener of a vineyard.  Jesus says the  gardener cuts off every branch that bears no fruit.  It is a basic principle of horticulture that to get more, you cut more.  I do  most of the gardening and landscape maintenance here at the mission.  While we don’t have any grape vines to  prune, I am constantly pruning roses and other flowers in order to get bigger and better flowers.  Lately I have been pruning some overgrown citrus trees in order to get more, high  quality fruit.  In  the same way, God prunes things from our lives, in order that we may produce more fruit – fruit of the Spirit.  In the case of  John 15, the spiritual fruit in question is JOY.  In verse 11, Jesus says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  God loves us and wants us to be happy, and many times He  prunes away one aspect of our live to ultimately produce more joy fruit in  our  lives.

Elaine  misses her ability to hear perfectly.  Daily her thoughts turn toward heaven and the time that  her hearing  will  be restored.  In the meantime, she  thanks God for the gifts he has given her and the compassion she is able to show others who have suffered loss.

Art

When I first met Art, he was dying of a brain tumor.  He was a middle aged man, gray hair, balding.  He had once been an active Episcopal priest.  I met him at a Lutheran church that I had just begun attending in Northern California.  As I recall, he told me a joke.  He loved to tell  jokes.  It was hard for  me  to understand him, because the brain tumor had caused his speech to be a bit slurred at times.  He also had trouble with his sight, and needed a cane to get around.  All of this didn’t stop him from enjoying God and  telling jokes.

He told me about the time he told God a joke.  Immediately afterward he said he was plagued with guilt.  Who was he to be joking around with the Almighty, Holy God.  He was in turmoil, he told me.  He prayed.  He cried.  He begged forgiveness.  He repented.  After some time in this anguished state of mind, he heard a voice.  The voice said, “Art, tell me another one.”

I think that because of this experience with a God who likes to laugh at jokes, Art began bringing much joy and mirth into peoples lives by telling  jokes and funny stories.  It didn’t matter so much that you couldn’t always understand him or get the punch line.  What mattered was, here was a man who believed that God loved him and wanted him to be happy, despite his painful circumstances.  As a result of the joy he experienced, he naturally wanted to spread the joy, and the best way he knew was telling jokes and hysterical stories.  After I gave Art my email address, not a week went by that I didn’t receive at least one new joke or funny story.  I always laughed and thanked God for Art.  I miss him.

Anita

Anita was born into poverty.  She was born at home because her parents couldn’t afford a hospital.  She had a brother that was stillborn.  One of her sisters died at six weeks, and another who died  before her tenth birthday.  Her youngest brother has Downs Syndrome.

Anita is a lady who suffered much as a young girl growing up poor in Mitla, Mexico.  Her parents couldn’t afford a house, so they lived with an oppressive grandmother who treated them like servants or slaves.  When that environment became too much for them, they decided to  move to a small piece of land they owned on the edge of town.  They constructed a “house” of bamboo sticks and a tin roof.  Some days all they had to eat was tortillas with a bit of salt or pumpkin seeds  for flavor.

Their only hope, so it seemed, lay in the syncretistic, Catholic religion that combined Christian orthodoxy with ancient, pagan, Zapoteco traditions.  They prayed to saints, built a shrine to dead loved ones, and put out offerings they couldn’t afford , to celebrate the “Day of the Dead.”  All of this brought nothing to their souls by way of peace, joy and  happiness.

Fortunately, protestant missionaries lived nearby, and helped Anita and her family financially by giving them jobs.  More importantly, they helped spiritually by giving them the gospel, the good news, that God loved them  and wanted them  to be happy.  One by one, Anita and her family gave their lives to Jesus.  One of the happiest days of Anita’s life was when she surrendered to God and embraced His love.  The  burdens  and oppression she had suffered all her life,  lifted away.  She felt light as a balloon.  She felt she was floating on air.  And oh the joy that flooded her soul.

DSC00231

Anita, The Happy Cocinera

Anita is my wife.  I met her my first day at the mission.  She is an  incredible cook and was working in the kitchen at the time.  The first thing I noticed about  her was her smile and sense of humor.  My Spanish wasn’t so  great  then, and I didn’t understand half of what she said, but I did understand that she was glorifying God by enjoying Him!

We married two  years later, and she continues to  light up my life, our daughter’s lives, and all those at  the mission, with her cheery attitude, generous giving of herself, and her contagious sense of humor.

I thank God everyday for this ray of  heavenly sunshine that He  has shined  in my life.  I also thank God for the inspiration of Elaine and Art, people who  show  me how to  enjoy God in the midst of unpleasant life situations.  People who know that God loves them and wants them to  be happy.

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“One day our Sovereign Father and Friend will allow us to grasp His reasoning.  Until then, we must trust Him.  He is filled with love for you and me, and He uses the things we don’t understand to bring us closer to  Him.”  Letter from Bob Vander Plaats to his severely disabled son – from his book Light From Lucus.

pain – death – war

Last time I wrote that we were created to enjoy God.  I wrote that God loves us and wants us to  be happy.  Writing that, I could hear in my mind, voices of readers making objections.  People naturally asking, “If God loves us and wants us to be happy, then WHY?  Why is there suffering and pain in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why were more Christians tortured and killed last century, than all the other centuries put together?  Why are babies born with defects?  Why does God allow children to be abused?  Why is there war?”  The “Why’s” are many.

These questions lead to others.  Is God good and loving, yet weak or powerless to prevent pain and suffering?  Or, is God the almighty creator of the universe who made us and then takes an apathetic step back to see how it will all play out?  Questions like these are asked everyday in a hundred different ways, and it seems that no one has the answers.

Well, never fear, friendly reader.  Michael James Santiago Schwab is here.  I have all the answers.   In my dreams!  To tell the truth, my own voice was making the same objections when I wrote about God’s love, enjoying God, and being happy.  I was asking WHY?  I wish I had all the answers, but of course I don’t.  I live in the same world as you – a world filled with  the tensions of good and evil; wholeness and brokenness;  happiness and sadness; peace and conflict; joy and disappointment; success and frustration.  These types of tensions confront most of us on a daily basis.

Another question.  What do we do with all these tensions?  Try to ignore them?  Bury our heads in the sand?  Put on rose colored glasses?  Pray for the best, but expect the worst?  Let go and let God?

Again, I don’t have the answers.  All I can do is share some ideas about how I have learned to cope with these issues as they have sprung up on my spiritual  journey.  I hope what I have to say will encourage everyone, but undoubtedly my words will be a disappointment for some and ring hollow to others.

For me, finding the  right perspective on these issues of good and evil, suffering and pain, begins with reading the Bible.  I believe the Bible is God’s Word that He gives us to help us think His  thoughts after Him.  To open the eyes of our heart, our spiritual eyes.  I think of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, as a User’s Manual, that God has graciously given us to.  He made us.  He knows how we function.  He explains what we need to know in the Manual.  In reading, studying and meditating on the Bible, God helps me  understand, a little bit more everyday, what’s going on.  I get more of His perspective.  Through the help of the Holy Spirit, I can see things more clearly.

One of the first things that I learn from Scripture is that having all the answers in life isn’t all that important.  In fact, having all the  answers is impossible.  What is important in life is to trust that God loves us and  wants us to be happy.  That’s what the Bible says.  One example- I just scanned the book of Psalms, all 150 chapters.  I  have read it many times, and underlined things that were important to me.  Scanning all those pages and reading things I had underlined, certain words and phrases jumped out at me.  Rejoice, gladness, joy, delight, steadfast love, love endures forever, rescue, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, goodness.  These are the words that the writers of the Psalms use to describe God, His gifts, and their reaction to those gifts.  Throughout the Bible, from the Garden of  Eden in Genesis, to the New Jerusalem in Revelation, I read about a Good God who loves His people and wants them to be happy.

Job

Job and his “friends”

This is not to say that  God’s people never suffer.  All we have to do is to read the book of Job to see that.  This book gives the account of a “blameless, upright man who feared God and shunned evil”.  He was very wealthy.  He was a devoted father.  A picture of health.  We all know the story.  He lost everything in a short time.  His wealth was stolen.  His children died in a tragic accident.  He began suffering from a horrible, painful skin disease.  How did Job react?  The first two chapters tell us that “Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” and “Job did not sin in what he said.”  Job 13:15 records Job as saying, “Even if God kills me, still I will trust Him.”

Naturally Job wanted to know WHY?!  Why God?  Why?

Towards the end of the book of Job, Job receives an audience with God.  Surely he must have thought, Now God will answer my question – WHY?  Guess what?  God did not answer the Why Question.  God proclaimed  His might and power to Job.  God told Job to consider the universe that He had created.  God directed Job’s attention to nature, and God asked a few questions of His own.  Forty-seven questions to be exact.  A few examples of the questions that God asked Job –

Where were you when I laid the earths foundations?

Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?

Can you bring forth the constellations?

Do you send the lighting bolts on their way?

Will the one who contends the Almighty correct him?

To all these questions, Job had to answer “No”, while God says, “I was there, I have done it and will continue to do it.”  What God is saying to Job, and to us, is that He is all powerful.  He is sovereign.  He has given us a beautiful creation, and He can be trusted to do the right thing, even if we can’t see it or don’t understand it.  Job never did understand, this  side of eternity, why he had to suffer the way he did, but he did understand that he had to to trust in God, that  He is  good and that His love endures forever.

I love Psalm 103.  God is pictured as a loving, compassionate father.  He understands what we are going through.  Why we suffer.  Verse 14 says, ‘he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”    Our attitudes are dust.  Our actions are dust.  Our strength is dust.  Our motivations are dust.  As a result of all that “dust”  we suffer sometimes because of our sin.  We cause other people to suffer because of our sin.  We suffer because of other peoples sin.  Sin is the main cause of suffering, although certainly not the only cause.  Despite our sin, as Psalm 103 says, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.”  When we recognize our sin, and ask God to forgive us and restore us to a right relationship with Him, then we can be assured, as verse 12 states, “as far as the east is  from the  west, so  far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

In our times of trials, turmoil and terrible pain, we can be sure that God, our compassionate Father, is  there beside us, walking with us, and at times carrying us.  Ultimately we can rest assured that we will  be delivered from all  sorrow  and suffering.  Why?  Because God loves us and wants  us to be happy.

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“Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home”     Amazing Grace

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Next blog – Three Happy People

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