Monthly Archives: January 2013

BELARUS JOURNAL 1.30.13

Today Sergei and I traveled on a makeup visit to the town of Novolukoml in the Vitebsk Region of northeastern Belarus. This is the oldest part of Belarus and the most traditional in terms of both political and church culture. We enjoyed half a day with Evgeney and Ira Taran.

Last year we were on our way to their home on the day temperatures reached dropped to minus 26 degrees! The fuel in Sergei’s car froze and we were stranded until Sergei Zhukovski came from Borisov to rescue us. That day ended with me in a Belarusian hospital bed, but that’s a story we will leave be today.

Evgeney was in the continuing education class I taught the past three years at the seminary. He was a serious student on the quieter side. They came to plant a church here in 2000.

The town was established in 1964 to service the largest electrical power plant in Belarus. Evgeney took us to the frozen lake where the plant is located. During the summer many vacationers camp along the shore. Today there were a few grizzled men who walked past us carrying large hand drills almost as big as themselves, used to make holes for ice fishing.

In summer what would have been a beautiful view made of blues and greens was nothing but white. The blanket of snow on the ground vaguely merged with the white overcast sky. We walked a little bit, but the cold chased us back to the car.

In the Taran’s flat we were greeted by Ira and their daughter Vera who were busy making final preparations for our lunch. Sergei always tells those we visit to keep the meal simple, and those we visit always provide their best (we never show up for a visit without bringing a big bag of food). Debbie’s cooking reputation stretches across Belarus, I guess I brag on her a lot, so Ira unnecessarily apologized in advance for the meal.

We were quickly seated at a full laden and wonderfully smelling table where we could get down to the business of eating and talking. It didn’t take long to feel the pain of Evgeney and Ira’s discouragement. After twelve years of labor they have experienced virtually no visible fruit. Their hearts ache and they question their calling and abilities. Ira especially misses the fellowship of believers.

During the summer they are able to attract some people to a Sunday service, but they cannot afford heat and in the winter people stop showing up. They tried meeting in their flat, but neighbors called the police who forbid them to continue.

As I shared my own discouragements and I could see Ira’s eyes welling up. My desire was to be fully open with them in sharing my heart. I described how immensely helped I have been by seeing my identity as a worshipper. Having this approach to my devotional life has transformed my prayer life, especially when circumstances seem heavy and unchanging.

Evgeney and Ira to share their prayer requests so I could send them to you, again tears were in their eyes. Here are their requests:

  1. A fruitful church
  2. That God would create a gathering of worshippers in their church
  3. Opportunity to present the gospel
  4. A team of people so they are not working alone
  5. Christian fellowship
  6. To be able to complete their building with heat

As we left Evgeny asked if we could drop him off at his father’s house. His dad had a stroke last year. As we drove the 7 kilometers to a tiny old village with mostly abandoned log cabin homes, Evgeny mentioned that he makes this 4.3 mile (each way) walk every day to visit his dad.

Thank you for holding up this couple in your prayers. They shared that our visit had truly encouraged and refreshed them – which is the reason we make these trips to struggling pastors.

Sergei and I had a few hours in the car today for long discussion about our lives, our ministries and our shared labor in SEE Global. There are some serious obstacles in front of us. We discussed steps to take and affirmed with one another that God can be trusted in everything that happens.

Tonight, I had the great joy of being with our sister church in Gatovo. Normally they have small groups on Wednesday, but they meet together for a meal and Bible study when I am here. The night was mostly made of loud greetings, big hugs, smiles, laughter and catching up with one another. I cannot express the joy it is to be with them – except to say they are family to me.

My teaching was to share the sermon I gave at Greentree this past Sunday from Philippians 1. The warmth of love which Paul expresses in the passage was a message I could enthusiastically give to them from my heart.

Well, time is getting late and I need to sleep. I rejoice in the care of your love and prayers for me. They are a daily strength to me.

BELARUS JOURNAL 1.29.13

Last night I was so tired the thought of having meetings and teaching today was not appealing. But after sleeping soundly for 11 hours I felt energetic this morning and ready to pursue the day.

This morning I met with the four pastors who serve with Sergei Lukyanov on the SEE Global board in Belarus. They are all godly men; it encourages me to know they are leading the vision and ministry of SEE Global.

For the first hour Sergei asked me to share my heart with them. My focus was encouraging us to lead by our character and to have the deeply rooted conviction that what God wants most from us is our love for Him. This means we must pursue time with Him above all other responsibilities. I told them for me it is to see myself fundamentally as a worshipper. If that is my perspective, it will also be my practice. My challenge was that we never lose sight of the qualities of heart that biblical leadership requires from us.

This was followed by conversation on SEE Global priorities. The two big issues are biblical training and church planting.  There are lots of questions and obstacles in both these pursuits. Above all we need to have a common philosophy about what we want to accomplish and then we can work out how to progress.

The problems we face are complex and the sheer number of them can look defeating. But I love that these men are not discouraged by these things. They believe God is greater by far than any difficulty.

Viktar Krutsko came by early afternoon to grab me for lunch. Viktar is Senior Pastor at Bethlehem Church and President of the National Union of Baptist Churches in Belarus. Debbie would be proud as I ordered soup and a side salad. I am trying to eat carefully. I even ignored the cookies calling to me during the morning meeting. In Belarus any conversation lasting more than 5 minutes will include tea and cookies.

Most of our lunch conversation was spent catching up with one another. Viktar attended Moody Bible College so he is glad to hear me describe my daughter Jillian’s experiences there. Last summer Viktar lost his mother which was a hard time for him. Conversation eventually came around to some of his own challenges.  I appreciated his openness and the opportunity to be a careful listener.

It is required to register with local police for any visit lasting more than a couple days. As Andrei, the Dean of the Bible College, drove me across the city for this purpose, I nodded off several times – the morning energy had run dry.

Fortunately the main SEE Global office located in Bethlehem Church, has comfortable chairs and a couch. This was helpful for some afternoon reflection. Unfortunately (depending on perspective) the plate of cookies this afternoon included my favorite walnut shaped cookies filled with milk cream. This time the Siren’s call was answered.

Tonight I taught the youth Bible study at Bethlehem Church. The group has grown over the years so it has been divided by age into three groups. They gathered together for me tonight. I love their enthusiasm; this is one of my favorite teaching forums of the trip.

My subject was our love for God. I try to include some questions to help draw them into the subject matter. The young people were attentive the entire time and even responded to my humor, although early on I had to stop and tell them what part was funny.

Sergei was excited tonight that three unbelievers (a man and two women in their early 30s) came in off the street because they saw the big banner in the front of the church which has Jesus name in the church website address. They decided to stay for the service.

At first when we sang I could see a little awkwardness on their faces, but soon the two women were singing, As we sang the song “I will follow you” one of the women appeared fairly engaged in the singing. My heart was moved as I watched them. What grace of God that they had come in – even though they as yet don’t realize it.

As I opened the lesson I tied it to the gospel in a way that did not make it seem as if I was preaching at the three of them. Please pray that God will plant His word and the witness of His people into their hearts and bring them back to the church.

Any visit to Bethlehem Church involves meeting old friends, some are former Bible College students and others I have met during one of my many times teaching here. The church has gracious warmth and vibrancy that reminds me so much of Greentree. They are as easy to preach to as Greentree as well!

Pray for SEE Global and the great team of men who faithfully lead our ministry here. We want to serve God courageously and wisely. Ask God to keep His hand on all that we do to make it eternally fruitful.

Thank you for reading and caring about these activities – and know all the notes and comments I receive in different ways from you are meaningful.

BELARUS JOURNAL 1.28.13

It has been several years since I have made a solo trip to Belarus. My plan is to use the alone time reflectively. I hope to use it well both in thinking about how SEE Global can strengthen the church in Belarus; and by picking an area of biblical thought to focus on. In my spring trip to Guatemala I used my alone time to read the New Testament book of Revelation along with Vern Poythress’ commentary on it. That time is still bearing fruit in my life.

Sitting on the plane for hours renewed the appreciation I have for my Kindle. Carrying a library with me makes travel all the better. I am currently reading Carl Trueman (theologian) and Patrick O’Brian (novelist). I managed to read a few chapters and get a full two hours of sleep on the overnight flight, but when the awakening of the plane’s interior lighting was a rude intrusion.

Landing in Frankfurt, Germany the clocks tried to convince me it was 7:00 a.m., but my body knew it was really only 1:00 a.m. My tradition during the Frankfurt layover is to have a cappuccino with a chocolate croissant in one of the airport cafes – it gives me a European swagger. Today my tradition was followed by a double shot of espresso. I even drank some – a distracted traveler slammed into my waitress sending cups and coffee in divergent directions. The cups chose the floor and the coffee chose my jeans.

Waiting at gate B31 I began to hear the rapid sound of Russian around me. Any language sounds fast when you don’t understand it. But Russian adds a combative flair. Even discussions at church often sound as if people are arguing with each other. Then again it is church – maybe they are.

A few hours later when I came out of customs at the Minsk Airport I met the welcome sight of Sergei Lukyanov, my dear friend and our partner in SEE Global. Our greeting had an air of homecoming to it. As excited as I was to see and talk to Sergei, my mind was too fried for in depth conversation during the 40 minute drive into Minsk.

We stopped at the SEE Global office to go over my schedule and get a quick call in to Debbie. It was sweet to hear her voice. I threw out a couple tweets to let everyone know I arrived (I hope you got them). Unfortunately I did not have the wireless code at the seminary apartment until today, which is the reason, my first Belarus Journal entry is a day late Today has a lot going on, but it will all be enjoyable. I have late morning meetings with the pastors on the Belarus Board of SEE Global (we also have an American board). This is followed by lunch with the President of the Baptist Union of Churches. Tonight I will be teaching the combined youth Bible studies at Bethlehem Church (Sergei oversees this area of ministry).

Pray for wisdom and energy as I work through the day. I want these activities to more than “good”, join me in asking God to work in deeply powerful ways. So you have a general idea of how my time will be spent over these 18 days, here are the major (planned) activities:

1.  Teach the book of Romans at the Bible College in Minsk

2.  Spend lots of time in discussion with the SEE Global staff and Belarus board

3.  Thoroughly enjoy preaching, talking and eating at our sister church in Gatovo

4.  Visit pastors

5.  Teach at a city youth conference (somewhere in Minsk)

6.  Whatever our partner Sergei Lukyanov wants me to do

Please pray for Ann, she is a formewr student of mine and she was the first secretary for SEE Global. Ann was married last year and is now pregnant. Doctors say she has a tumor, but Ann and her husband, Misha, don’t want to risk their baby’s life so they are asking God to heal her and protect their unborn child.

My heart if joyful that I can be here AND it is joyful with the thoughts of your love and prayers for me!  Philippians 1:3-11

GETTING READY FOR BELARUS

Orange coat 1999 (first visit to Belarus)My first trip wearing the famous orange coat

In January 1999 I arrived in Minsk, Belarus for the first time. It was exciting to be this brand-new adventure. I had never felt drawn to travel outside of the country before, but when the opportunity to teach at the Minsk Bible college was offered, an immediate interest was sparked inside me.

To be honest, the day I left Belarus for home I did not think I would ever return. However, within days God began stirring my heart and impelling me to go back.

Over the 14 years since God has enlarged my heart for the church in Belarus. A confirmation has been the way God quickly gave our church a heart for Belarus as well. It has been thrilling to see dozens of people from Greentree travel to Belarus and build enduring friendships with our fellow believers there.

Eventually our activity led to the creation of SEE Global, a mission organization that coordinates the efforts of churches throughout the U.S. with the church in Belarus.

After church on Sunday, I will leave for my 20th trip to Belarus/Lithuania. These trips have always busy, but in recent years demands on my time have mushroomed (a pun Belarusians would get).

There will be more invitations to preach in me than I can fulfill. There are old friendships to grow and a new ones to establish. SEE Global responsibilities and opportunities keep growing. I feel like a farmer trying to carry a bushel of apples in his arms – without a basket!

Beyond the Bible college we have taken over, we have a continuing education program for pastors, an annual retreat for pastors and their wives (when we can afford it), Bible conferences, and the care/encouragement for dozens of pastors.

Steps we are now pursuing include seminary level training for men who want to become pastors, a renewal of church planting, a Russian language website, and the translation of worship music into Russian.

God has been teaching me to trust that He can hold an entire orchard of apples in His arms. Learning to not try to carry them all myself is a lesson we are working on.

Retreat 2011SEE Global pastors and wives retreat

About Belarus

Belarus is a former Soviet Republic located between Russia and Poland. The church in Belarus faces what appears to be overwhelming obstacles.  Their government has passed the most restrictive anti-religion laws in Europe.  Their country has the highest rate of alcoholism in the world and the third highest rate of suicide. 

Family life has been shattered with 70% of marriages ending in divorce!  Belarus, which is only the size of Kansas, has 400 orphanages, filled with children abandoned or removed from their homes.  The Belarusian people are rich in burdens and poor in hope.  The church in Belarus is small; over 90% of Protestant churches have fewer than 60 people and many towns have never had a church. Less than half of 1 percent of the population are believers

The opportunities we in the American church have to partner with the Belarusian church are not easy ones, but they are incredibly exciting and worthy; for the church in Belarus is hungry!  They want to grow in God’s Word and in practical ministry.  They want to plant churches.  Young believers want to receive training.  Pastors want the encouragement of relationships with American pastors, and churches want to have prayer relationships with American congregations.

with pastor Kulesh family

A favorite activity in Belarus is spending the day with a pastor and his family

You can have a part

Beginning on Monday (as wireless service allows) I will be posting a daily BELARUS JOURNAL so you can be there with me. Each day I will share what is taking place and let you know how you can pray.

Everything God does has significance, would you consider going on this pray journey with me?

I hope to meet you there!

SEE GLOBAL INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER

SEE Global teamThe SEE Global team in Belarus

This morning the staff and leadership team of SEE Global in Belarus began a day of international prayer. They are praying for their needs and nation as well as for God’s work with ministry partners here in the United States, as well as for ASELSI, our ministry partners in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Since the sun rises there first, they got started 2:00 a.m. New Jersey time. You don’t need to start then (I’ll be joining in a wee bit later). Actually, by the time you read this – it’s too late. But would you consider taking just a couple minutes some time today or right now and ask God to perform a fresh work of grace in Belarus? The spiritual soil has been hard a long time, but we know the grace of God is far greater than any degree of human resistance.

Thank you for joining us!

LET’S INCLUDE ALL THE CHILDREN

 

Today is the 40th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v Wade. That ruling ended many state and federal restrictions on abortion. It was truly a tragic day for our country. The “abortion debate” is aggressively argued by those who are in favor of and against the idea that a woman has the right to terminate the life of her unborn child.

Yet, however much people want to think it is a complex issue, it is really quite simple, abortion ends the life of a child that up to that point was safely preparing to enter life on its own. Our emotions may be complex and confused by various scenarios, but truth and right are straight forward principle in this matter.

In the days after the horrible massacre of children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, President Obama gave an impassioned and eloquent speech on the compelling need to keep our children “all of them, safe from harm”.  Saying “they had their entire lives ahead of them”. He then added the follow indictment,

“And if we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how as a society we will be judged.”

Mr. President, you are right – however you have ignored the most vulnerable children of all, those who rest in their mother’s womb.

May we never lose our voice to pointing out that abortion is a stain of shame upon any nation that defends it.

 

SERMON LEFTOVERS 1.21.13

 Are we serious about the church? 

Two weeks ago we looked at the importance of the local church

We examined the New Testament picture of the church, and how we are to fulfill that picture

This included the principle that God appoints leaders in the church which means He wants us to follow them

However, our culture does not like authority, and that is increasingly affecting how believers treat the church

Hebrews 13:17 may be the strongest statement the Bible has on our response to the local church. If we understand and become comfortable with the most challenging passage on taking the local Church seriously, we will have healthier churches

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you”

To obey and submit are not popular themes, yet here they are, so what does it mean?

It will help us if we back up to where the subject begins in Hebrews 13:7-9

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings”

Hebrews 13 first addresses our response to past church leaders

Those leaders are now gone, but we are to “remember” their testimony

To remember them means we still adhere to the unchanging truths of Scripture they gave us

There is a lot at stake in this, because v9 remind us there is bad teaching out there

In v17 Hebrews then addresses how we respond to current leaders

The Greek word for “obey” carries the sense of having confidence and trust in someone

To submit to pastors mean we are under the ministry they have been given by God for us

Taken together, God is telling the Church to receive and hold the ministry He has given pastors for the health of our soul

Let’s be more specific on how we fulfill Hebrews 13

We certainly want to guard against any abuse of this principle (such as cult leaders who demand absolute authority). God is the only person to receive our complete submission, He alone is Lord

We also want to guard against ignoring this principle

Our submission to any leadership is based upon the parameters of their authority.

When God tells us to submit to our pastors, that submission is defined by the responsibilities God has given them.

If we look at the role given to pastors, we see what this submission means

1.  Pastors are to teach God’s word and declare his gospel (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

So we are to be present to hear that teaching and have a heart to receive it

2.  Pastors are to equip believers to serve Christ and each other (Ephesians 4:11-12)

So we are to embrace being equipped so our lives are more effective

3.  Pastors are to shepherd the congregation (1 Peter 5:2)

So we are to be connected to the congregation instead of being on the fringes

4.  Pastors are to lead in decisions of operation and direction (1 Peter 5:2)

So we are to participate in what it means for our church to move forward

What if we disagree or don’t like what is happening?

If biblical principles are violated, we should be “critical”

If your preferences are violated, we ought to be submissive

We should share our thoughts, but in the end we are to stand with our church

Submission is a central attitude of biblical Christianity

Submission is practiced by Christ who is equal to the Father, yet submits to Him

Submission is at the heart of the Gospel, as we submit to Christ as our Lord

Submission is an example to be set by the pastors themselves (1 Peter 5:3)

Perhaps this seems like a self-serving topic to you

To some degree it is, just as the end of Hebrews 13:17 tells us

If we treat these things lightly we are clinging to own ways

Embracing God’s order means his agenda is what we want most

As we fulfill what God asks of His Church will give all of us more “joy”

The question for each of us to answer; Are we serious about the church?

THOUGHTS FROM LES MISERABLES

When we heard Les Miserables was coming out in theaters. I don’t think Debbie was ever more excited to go to the movies. We were not disappointed in what we saw.

Some people have criticized the singing quality of the movie version, but I think they have missed the point of the movie version versus the Broadway edition. If you want to hear the best singing for Les Mis then listen to the Soundtrack, but if you want the best storyline of Les Mis then don’t miss the movie.

The singing in the movie adaptation may not be quite as good as the Broadway version, but it may be more powerful. The actors did an exceptional job of bringing the powerful story and gritty realities behind these songs to life.

I was introduced to the music of Les Miserables in 1987 and I have enjoyed listening to the soundtrack many times. The story of Les Mis grabs you right from the beginning and doesn’t let go. The heights and depths of the human condition are portrayed in their brilliance and squalor.

Whenever I listen to Les Mis there is a burden on my heart, because I know these sorrows and feelings of hopelessness are very real in the lives of countless people throughout the world. As Fantine sings “now life has killed the dream I dreamed”, my heart aches for those trapped in hopelessness. And when Eponine sings “every day I’m learning, all my life I’ve only been pretending”, I think of the emptiness in people’s dreams.

The “take away” for me is to be reminded that our world is a hard and brutal place which cannot offer true hope without the entrance of Christ into it.

Each of us have people moving through our lives who are hurting and hopeless. Yet we have a wondrous hope that cannot be lost. This hope shines brighter than the darkest moments of our despair, and it reaches into the deepest pits of our suffering.

In Christ hope is held secure for us. Will we own it – will we share it?

THE HERO WITHOUT

to-do-list460


Guest Blogger: Debbie Huber


In January, I always have the strong desire to get organized. I feel the need to scrub every baseboard, clean out every closet and every dresser in all of the bedrooms, organize all of the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen, and get rid of all of the junk that has accumulated in the garage. Even though I think I can do it all, often what happens is that I become overwhelmed and give up before the checklist is completed, realizing that I cannot do it with my own strength.

In a similar way, this happens with our relationship with God. We do love Him and we want to grow in our love and commitment to Him. We read where the Bible says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

But where do we begin? How do we love God with ALL our heart, soul, and mind?

We often decide to “try harder” by being “better” at reading the Bible and praying, mustering up our own strength. When we do this, we are focusing on what will fail – our own strength.

Instead of looking within ourselves, look to the Gospel of Christ that is the power that has changed us and is the hope that will continue to transform us into the likeness of Christ.

In a recent post on the Gospel Coalition blog, Tullian Tchividjian wrote:

“When you’re on the brink of despair-looking into the abyss of darkness, experiencing a dark-night of the soul – – turning to the internal quality of your faith will bring you no hope, no rescue, no relief. (It is) the equivalent of giving a drowning man swimming lessons: “Paddle harder, kick faster.” We assume that people possess the internal power to get things right so we turn them in to themselves. But, as too many people already know, every internal answer will collapse underneath you.

Turning to the external object of your faith, namely Christ and his finished work on your behalf, is the only place to find peace, re-orientation, and help. The gospel always directs you to something, Someone, outside you instead of to something inside you for the assurance you crave and need in seasons of desperation and doubt. The surety you long for when everything seems to be falling apart won’t come from discovering the dedicated “hero within” but only from the realization that no matter how you feel or what you’re going through, you’ve already been discovered by the “Hero without.”

For certainty of faith, the believer must look outside himself to that word of the gospel: ‘the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ.’ “

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk,” (1 Peter 2:2). Go with longing to God, asking for His strength to help you depend fully on Christ, the “Hero without”, and His finished work for you.

THE STORY OF GOD

The Bible is essentially God revealing His story to us along with the place we will have in it (either under condemnation or in His wondrous grace). Matt Papa condensed the story of God’s Word in this 10 minute video he calls “The Story of God”. He tells this story in the style of a modern poet.

The benefit of watching this video is two-fold. The first benefit is that of hearing God’s truth. The second benefit is getting a big picture overview of the Bible’s story.