“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in swaddling clothes in placed in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds...”
Are you still with me? Or were you already beginning to tune out? Chances are if you are anything like me, you read the first line and already recognized the familiar words of the Nativity story so you just skimmed to the end of the paragraph. Why read it again when you’ve already heard it a hundred times before?
You see for most of us the sheer familiarity of the story of Jesus birth often has the effect of dampening or even destroying our feelings of awe or wonder at the truth that GOD became a man. As the Gospel of John tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Let me ask you, does that truth change anything for you? Does it do something inside of you each time you hear it?
Perhaps as a child there was a time you were struck with the wonder and awe that God would send His Son into this world as a helpless baby... to come as a lowly servant... to die in the place of sinners... to bring us into a right relationship with the Father. But as each Christmas comes and goes the narrative can become so familiar, that our wonder turns into indifference – our awe into boredom – and as a result all of our Christmas carols, pageants and candlelight services become nothing more than mechanical rituals that we repeat every December. And so maybe for you Christmas 2013 feels like just another ho-hum Christmas.
Maybe what we all need is a change in perspective – to somehow see Christmas in a fresh way.
Apollo astronaut James Irwin got to experience the ultimate change in perspective as the eighth man to walk on the moon and the first to ride the famous Lunar Module. In his book More Than Earthlings, he recounts much of his out-of-this-world exploits and how it changed him.
“I was just amazed to see the earth,” he said. “It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament – a very fragile one, hanging majestically in space. It was very touching to see earth from that perspective.” At one point, Irwin had trouble with a planned experiment. “He was erecting an experiment that wouldn’t erect, due to a cotter pin or something of that nature,” his wife Mary recalls. Frustrated in his attempts to get the experiment to work, Irwin decided he would pray.
While raised in a Christian home – and a believer and churchgoer since age 10, it had changed his life very little. He described himself as a ‘bump on a log Christian.’
But there on the moon he really needed wisdom due to this problem and so he said, “God I need your help right now.” Suddenly Irwin experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in a remarkable way, unlike anything he had ever felt on earth. “The Lord showed him the solution to the problem and the experiment erected before him like a little altar,” Mary says. “He was so overwhelmed at seeing and feeling God’s presence so close,” she says. “At one point he turned around and looked over his shoulder as if He was standing there.”
This unusual encounter with Jesus – some 238,000 miles from earth, changed Irwin’s life forever. Within a year of Irwin’s return from space, he resigned from NASA and formed the High Flight Foundation, with the mission of reaching the world as “goodwill ambassadors for the Prince of Peace.” Irwin said, “God decided that He would send His Son Jesus Christ to the blue planet and it’s through faith in Jesus Christ that we can relate to God. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes unto the Father except through me.” And whenever people asked Irwin to talk about the Apollo missions he was always quick to say: “There’s something more important than man walking on the moon, and that is God walking on the earth.”
Unlike James Irwin we can’t just jump on a spaceship to experience the reality of God becoming a man from a lunar perspective, but Jesus is as near to us today as the whisper of the heartfelt prayer that Irwin spoke on the moon: “God I need your help right now.” So whatever stage of life you are in, whether you believe or aren’t quite sure what you believe, whether you are a completely devoted follower or a ‘bump on a log’ Christian, Jesus desires to be so real to you that you might just look over your shoulder to see if He’s standing there. It is only the reality of Jesus presence that can truly change a life so that our perspective will never again be the same.
My prayer for you is that Christmas 2013 won’t be just another ho-hum Christmas but a time where you experience Jesus in a fresh and personal way.
May God bless you and yours richly this Christmas,
~Pastor Danny Groening
Killarney Mennonite Church
Relationships. We all have them. And unless you're a hermit living in a cave somewhere (who happens to have an internet connection) we can't get through life without them. The fact is we were made for relationships. God looked at Adam all alone in the Garden of Eden and said: "It is not good for man to be alone." So He created Eve and as a result, marital and family relations have been the foundation of human existence and society ever since.
But in spite of their normalcy in our everyday lives, we have a complex relationship with relationships.
On the one hand relationships provide us with life's greatest joys: The tender love of a mother - feeling the pride of a father; romantic love - the thrill of a first kiss; a best friend - someone to share life's joys and sorrows with; holding your newborn child for the first time - the rush of responsibility and the flood of unconditional love for something so tiny and helpless.These are just some of the joys of relationships.
But on the other hand relationships also provide us with life's greatest sorrows: Being unwanted by a mother - rejected by a father; the intimacy of love leaving one vulnerable to the worst kind of betrayals - neglect, abuse, infidelity and rejection; a lifelong best friend turns their back in betrayal - slandering the other with words that cut deeper than any knife; the newborn child is now a rebellious teen - the last words to their parents were: "I hate you, stay out of my life!" These are just a small sampling of some of the sorrows that relationships can bring.
We definitely have a complex relationship with relationships - often they're like the old adage "can't live with 'em, can't live without them."
So what can we do to nurture good relationships?
It begins by understanding that we are all fundamentally selfish (Yes, I am including myself in that statement!). Selfishness is not a new phenomena, but is traced all the way back to our human origins as described in the Book of Genesis. Eve desired something that she did not have and should not take, but the serpent whispered "when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." In that crucial moment Eve did not stop long enough to consider the potential ramifications for her husband or her future children, the lure of instant gratification was too strong, she wanted it now, so... "when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it." Adam also ate of the forbidden fruit and shortly thereafter, when God questions him about what he had done, Adam throws Eve under the bus and selfishly blames the whole thing on her!
"The woman you put here with me - she gave me some of the fruit from the tree, and I ate it."
And in some way, shape or form, selfishness has been at the root of all relational problems ever since.
We want our way even at the expense of someone we care about; we want our feelings understood without needing to truly consider the feelings of the other; we try to make others feel guilty for not meeting our needs first; we want others to admit to their mistakes without us having to admit our own; we want to receive forgiveness without needing to apologize; we will nurse a grudge until the other has groveled and begged for forgiveness for a sufficient length of time... then we'll think about it; we want instant gratification without pausing long enough to consider how that choice may affect others.
Even things that appear selfless to others we can use to disguise a selfish motive: we give to the charity... so that we can receive the tax-deductible receipt, we volunteer at the kids club... because it looks good on resume, we serve at the church... so that people can see how good we are, we do a favor for someone... because we expect one in return.
Are you beginning to recognize how selfish we truly are? If so, what can we do about it? Start by going to the most selfless event in the history of the world, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Let's pause for a moment at the foot of the cross and simply consider this one fact - He didn't have to do it. No one forced Jesus into doing what He did. He willingly took the judgement that our sin and selfishness deserves upon Himself.
The Cross of Christ is where selfishness goes to die.
So what can we do to nurture good relationships? Go to the cross and die. Die to selfishness and be resurrected with Jesus and become more and more like Jesus - by living a life of selfless service to others.
Philippians 2:3: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to his own interests, but the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!"
An anonymous author has summed these truths up on a very practical level in a poem entitled:
The Six Most Important Words.
The SIX most important words: "I admit I made a mistake"
The FIVE most important words: "You did a good job."
The FOUR most important words: "What do you think?"
The THREE most important words: "After you please."
The TWO most important words: "Thank you."
The ONE most important word: "We."
The LEAST important word: "I."
Everyone’s busy. You’re busy – I’m busy – we’re all busy. Most people will simply skim over the headline of this article and keep right on going – simply too busy to stop and read something other than the headlines or the caption under a photo! I have yet to meet the person who tells me that they have too much time on their hands. It seems that no matter what stage of life someone is in there is always something that demands our time and there just simply aren’t enough hours in a day to do it all, let alone find time to relax. So if you found a quiet minute to sit down and and read this - Congratulations! And seeing as you’ve already come this far, why not keep reading?
Your time is valuable so let me cut straight to the point: I want to personally invite you to come to church with me.
Now I know that may seem an odd invitation and not overly personal as this is a blog article and not a one-on-one conversation, but I really mean it – I want you to come to church. In fact it won’t even hurt my feelings if you decide to go to a different church, so long as you go! Of course I would love to see you at Bay Avenue on Sunday morning, but I am confident that whichever of the several churches in Killarney that you visited would welcome you warmly.
But why church?
Well have you ever considered that there might be more to life than just making as much money as you can, having as much fun as you can, living as long as you can and then dying? Have you ever wondered if there is life after death? Have you considered the possibility that there could be a God who is keenly interested in your life? Have you ever pondered the idea that there could be a Creator who has uniquely designed your life to have tremendous meaning and purpose? Have you ever considered that if there is such a God that you could get to know Him? If you have ever asked any of those questions, would it interest you to know that God has made a way for you to know Him in a personal way and find out what He has to say about your life?
That’s fundamentally what church is all about and it’s the reason why I go – because it’s a place where we can begin to discover the answers to those questions in very real ways.
Jesus said: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
But now I know what you might be thinking: “I’m too busy to go to church”. Fair enough. We’ve already established that everyone is busy. But we also have to acknowledge another reality and that is that often saying “I’m too busy” is code for saying, “Other things are more important”. So what we’re really saying is “_________ is more important than going to church.” I’ll let you fill in the blank (sleep, golf, watching T.V., camping, hockey, making money, doing the laundry, etc.) And when we do this what we are really saying is that asking the deeper questions about life, seeking the answers, and knocking on every door until one opens isn’t actually that important to us.
But consider what might happen if you genuinely do ask, seek and knock? You may just be surprised to discover that you receive the answer, find the meaning of your life, and have the door opened to new possibilities that you’ve never even considered before. But it won’t just happen on its own – we all have to start somewhere. So why not join me in church this Sunday?
Too busy? Well consider that if you’ve actually read to the end of this article you might just have more time on your hands than you realize...
So consider yourself personally invited to come to church. I’ll even save you a spot next to me! And while you’re at it, bring your family with you. We’ve got Sunday School and kids church too.
So other than an hour of sleep – what do you have to lose? Find out for yourself what church is really all about – and who knows – you might just get more than you bargained for.
I'll admit it - I'm a little bit Redneck.
Here are some of the things that finally that forced me to accept it: I grew up on a farm, I like driving any type of vehicle through mud as fast as possible, I enjoy hunting - and - last but not least, I LOVE watching Duck Dynasty.
Now admittedly the goatee that I've had for the past year is not even in the same league as the full out beards that the men of the Robertson family wear, but watching last nights episode together with my wife made me realize that I have much more in common with them than I had previously realized. In that particular episode Willie and Jase decided that it would be a good idea to take their "citi-fide" wives deer hunting with them. Because as Jase put it "I love deer hunting and I love my wife. So the two should go great together." Needless to say, things didn't go quite as well as they'd hoped.
This reminded me of the time early on in my relationship with Leanne when I decided that it would be a great idea to take Leanne out paintballing with me and the rest of the boys for exactly the same reason. Two things I love should go great together right? Well not necessarily. As I recall, after Leanne got hit for the first time, she decided that she'd had enough and in order to keep her appeased, I spent the next ten minutes running around the field unarmed while she unloaded on me. Needless to say I never took her paintballing again. Lesson learned. Just because you love two things doesn't mean that they'll go great together.
But this exactly where Duck Dynasty does something that almost no other show on television is doing - they combine good clean entertainment with a clear presentation of the families strong faith in God. At the end of every episode after all of the high-jinx and shenanigans are over, the entire family is seen seated around the dinner table and Phil Robertson prays a simple prayer of thanks and blessing to God. The prayer often includes: "Thank-you for another day on planet earth - thank-you for the great hope we have through Jesus Christ - help us to love you more." I think it's moments like these where the genuine and authentic way in which the Robertson family live out their faith day to day really shines through.
So even if you aren't at the place where you can admit that you've got a little bit of Redneck in you to - if you love Jesus, then you will appreciate what Phil and Willie Robertson have to share in these two video clips - enjoy!
Like everyone else, I was shocked and then deeply troubled last Friday as I watched the unfolding news coverage of the massacre that occurred in a Connecticut elementary school. My first instinct was to try and make sense of it - how - who - why? But then I quickly realized: Senseless murder is always just that - senseless. There is simply no making sense of it, so don't bother trying. And although all murders are troubling, there is something much more sinister and dark about knowing that young children were deliberately targeted and then riddled with bullets.
So how do I process something evil like this in what is supposed to be the joyous and peaceful season of Christmas?
Well it struck me as I was reflecting on the Christmas story found in Matthew 2, that the school shooting in Connecticut is not the first time children have been deliberately targeted and massacred at Christmas time, in fact the direct result of the very first Christmas was a mad man ordering the mass execution of infants and toddlers.
"Herod was furious when he learned that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, because the wise men had told him the star first appeared to them about two years earlier. Herod's brutal action fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah:
'A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah - weeping and mourning unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted - for they are dead."
It appears that the same evil that was evident at the first Christmas is still alive and well in our world today. As a father to a twenty month old son, this thought is frightening. Instinctively I want to protect my boy and attack anyone who would dare harm him. But the cruel fact is that in spite of my best efforts, I cannot always protect him nor guarantee his safety. So I must realize that it is not any one person, people, or system that threaten him, but evil itself. As long as evil exists in this world the potential for ordinary people to do evil things will also exist.
But how can I attack evil? How can anyone attack evil? There is only one way - with love, radical love.
The kind of radical love that God demonstrated to an evil king in an evil world on that first Christmas when instead of being concerned about protecting His only Son from those who would harm Him, God sent His Son into harms way into an evil world to die for evil people so that they could get rid of the evil deeds of darkness and live out the good deeds of the Kingdom of Light. Radical love and radical sacrifice - even towards the perpetrators of evil - that is God's Way.
Victoria Soto embodied this type of sacrificial love. She was one of the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School who after hearing gunfire hid her students in the classroom closets and then faced the masked gunman alone. When he burst into the classroom and at gunpoint demanded to know where her students were, she told him that they weren't there - and was immediately gunned down. She was found huddled over her children, her students, protecting them to her dying breath. Victoria Soto faced evil with radical, sacrificial love and in doing so saved her students.
This is a picture of what Jesus did for the world - but not only for the good people or the deserving people.
King Herod and Adam Lanza, the two men behind the mass murders of children, and yet it was even for them and people like them that Jesus, The Son of God, came into this world to save and redeem.
But be warned, the path of radical love is not an easy one, it wasn't easy for Jesus and won't be for you or I, but it is the path that God Himself has shown us.
May God grant all of us the grace, courage, and faith to follow His path through these troubled times.
Most of us think of the Christmas story as one of joy, peace and harmony – With the soft melody of “Silent Night, Holy Night” playing in the background, we picture sheep grazing, angels singing, and of course baby Jesus, complete with glowing face, asleep on the hay.
Because of this, whether or not we believe it really happened, we tend to think of the Christmas story as nothing more than a fairy tale, a nice story to tell the kids and maybe sing a few carols about, but it has no place in the reality of our lives today. Because for most of us, life today is about as far from the peaceful scenes of sheep grazing and angels singing as one can get.
That is why we need to discover that the true Christmas story is far less serene and idyllic than what we have made it out to be. In fact the Christmas story could just as easily be looked at as a story of a marriage in crisis and a family under attack.
Remember the story begins with Joseph in the process breaking off the engagement with Mary after he discovered that she was pregnant with a child that wasn’t his. And even after an angel visits Joseph in a dream to tell him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and he does proceed to take Mary to be his wife, he still undoubtedly had to endure the whispers and gossip of the community. Any way that you look at it, these were less than ideal circumstances in which to begin a marriage.
Later on in the story we read of the visit of the wise men, magi from the east who had followed the star to come and worship the newborn king. In our Christmas pageants we always stop at the part where the magi outwit King Herod and return to their own country by a different road. We fail to go into or even mention that King Herod was so furious and intent on killing this perceived threat to his throne that he orders the execution of every single baby boy, two years old and under in the entire region. For me having a son that falls into that age category, the thought of this is more than a little unsettling. Of course we know that Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, were warned by an angel and so they escaped and fled to a foreign country just in time. But once again, anyway you look at it this is a story of crisis upon crisis. It begins with an unplanned pregnancy, potential scandal, and a marriage in crisis, followed by an arduous journey, giving birth in less than sanitary conditions, closely followed by a maniac king seeking to kill their child, and then having to run for their lives to a foreign country.
When we put it into these terms we begin to realize that the Christmas story is firmly rooted in the reality of this world – a world where scandal, divorce and broken families are an ongoing reality. We see the pain and devastation of these things all around us – we know that nearly as many marriages end in divorce as in “happily ever after”; we know that the consequences of a broken family are as real for the children as they are for the adults; we know that the pain for everyone involved is very real and long lasting. So what does the Christmas story have to do with any of this?
It shows us that God entered this world right in the middle of all its pain and difficulty to meet with us exactly where we are. He didn’t come to save the perfect family; He came to save your family. He didn’t come to speak words of judgment to those caught in scandal; He came to speak words of comfort. He didn’t come to avoid those whose marriages are in crisis; He came to restore them. He didn’t come to make all of the trials of this life disappear; He came to guide you through them. He didn’t come to look down on your weakness; He came to heal you.
No matter what struggles you have, no matter the condition of your life, God came for you. God came to enter the reality of your life and begin making all things new – but He won’t force His way in – He enters only by invitation.
So how about you, have you invited Him into your life? Your marriage? Your family? If not, what do you have to lose? You’ll be amazed at what He has in store for you.
May God bless you and yours richly this Christmas,
~Pastor Danny, Leanne, & Declan Groening
Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis has openly called upon the people of Winnipeg to begin praying. Why? Because he believes that it will help reduce crime and violence. Clunis is quoted as saying, "If you're praying for your neighbour, I don't think you'll be out there hating your neighbour or fighting with your neighbour," he added."If you are praying for your neighbour, you'll say, 'OK, I'm praying, but how can I practically do something to impact my neighbour's well-being?'"
Would it surprise you if I also told you that Chief Clunis is a Christian? Of course the skeptics and naysayers are also quoted as saying that Clunis should keep his faith to himself while holding a high-profile public office. They say: "No one chose him to be police of our souls," but my question is, isn't this a perfect example of what Christians everywhere should be doing?
No, I'm not referring to being a police chief (at least not solely), I'm referring to being open and candid about our faith in God and the power of prayer in whatever position in life we happen to hold. Now, pastors like me say stuff like this all the time, but people expect us to tell people to pray more so it loses some of it's impact. But when someone in the position of the Chief of Police of the City of Winnipeg say's something like that, people notice. In fact I would go so far as to say that his simple words of faith had more impact for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven in Winnipeg (and remember that I say the next part as a preacher) than all of the sermons preached last Sunday in the city combined!
I believe that as Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is the answer for all people, we need to take Chief Clunis' advice and pray, pray, and then pray some more. And while we're at it, I believe that we also need to follow his example, whether police chief, pastor, pig farmer, pediatrician, pilot or plumber and be open and candid about your faith in God and the power of prayer.
Tragedy - It is defined in Webster's Dictionary as a "dreadful event".
We live the majority of our lives trying our best not think about tragedy and so when it strikes someone else we shake our heads, pass along our condolences and do our best to move on with life. We simply hope that these "dreadful events" won't come our way. But then the unthinkable happens - tragedy strikes me - what then?
The fact is that tragedy and its close companion pain are part of the human experience that is common to us all – no matter where on earth one lives, how much or little one has, how strong or weak one is, pain and the grief of loss touches each one in some way at some time. We have only to visit the post-office and see the cards of bereavement taped to the door to be reminded that death is not a stranger in our town. And it is not reserved only for the old, but can also visit those whose lives have only just begun.
By now it is public knowledge and anyone who cares to know has heard about the tragic - dreadful event - that occurred this past August when a young mother and her two young children were killed instantly in a head on collision with a semi-truck near Manitou.
I was on the way home from holidays together with my wife and our 16 month old son, when I received the news. I was sitting in the parking lot of Wholesale Sports in Regina, my son was in his car seat babbling happily and my wife had just gone into Old Navy to do some shopping. Into this peaceful setting these words just didn't fit: "All three were all killed in a car accident this morning."
The shock and disbelief at hearing those words left me initially incapable of grief. I looked in the rear view mirror at my son and he instantly smiled happily back at me and laughed, the sun was shining on a beautiful summer day ... it was surreal. Everything seemed just as it should be, but something was wrong, terribly wrong. Instantly the name of the husband and father left behind hit me with a flood of realization - he would never again be able to look in the rear view mirror and see his 15 month old daughter smile happily back at him. Instantly the tears began to flow as the reality sunk in.
Tragedy had struck - was I prepared?
My initial reply is "No, I was not prepared." Because after all, who could be for something like that?
My next thought was a prayer: “Oh God, why? Why have you allowed this to happen?”
I am certainly not the first, nor will I be the last to ask this question. Even Jesus was faced with a different form of this question by His good friend Martha. She, together with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus were close friends of Jesus and He would often stay for extended visits at their home. However, when news came that Lazarus was seriously ill, Jesus did not rush to his aid but instead stayed where He was. So when Jesus finally arrived four days after Martha’s brother Lazarus had died she greeted him with the words: “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” This statement was not unfounded; she had undoubtedly been present to witness times where Jesus had healed others, so why not her brother? Why had he delayed in coming and so allowed this to happen?
Jesus reply to her was simple: “Your brother will rise again.”
Within this statement resides the heart and intent of God towards all people – He desires for us to live – really and fully live. He demonstrated that a short time later with the famous miracle of calling Lazarus from the tomb and physically restoring him to life. But living happy, healthy, and long lives on this earth is only part of the equation, because though Lazarus lived more years he still died again. As the Bible reveals to us, God’s plan for the human race was never for a temporary life, but one without end. God’s plan was not to simply set us in motion like a top and then watch us spin down and topple over. His intent has, and always will be, for us to choose to live in a close never-ending relationship with Him. And the never-ending, eternal aspect of this relationship is only possible if the final words Jesus spoke to Martha are true: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
As with all matters of faith, the choice is left to each one of us: “Do you believe this?”
Sitting in my car in “Wholesale Sports” my head still spinning from the news of tragedy, I was confronted with the reality of this question: “Do I believe this?” As I pondered this, somewhere from deep within me came the words of the Psalmist, “Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of His saints” and with those words came the unshakable conviction that they had been received into the never-ending embrace of their maker – “Yes, I believe.”
So how does this belief help us in times of tragedy? Quite simply – It gives us hope. No, it doesn’t give us all the answers and Jesus didn’t give Martha any explanation of why he had stayed away either, but he gave her something greater – hope for beyond the grave. He didn’t owe her an answer nor does he owe us an answer to explain exactly why certain tragedies are allowed to happen, he simply asked for faith. So what was Martha's reply in the face of tragedy? “Yes Lord,” she told him, “I believe.”
And out of her faith Jesus performed not only the outer work of physical healing, but the inner work of spiritual healing that only He can provide. But He would not force it upon Martha nor will He force it upon you – He simply asks the personal question: “Do you believe this?”
Belief produces faith and faith produces hope and hope produces perseverance to go on living.
So when tragedy strikes, are you prepared? What will your response be?
"I'm going to give you the credit of being real with you." This is the very first statement that I made as the chapel speaker to the Sr. High campers this past week at Turtle Mountain Bible Camp. And to the very best of my ability I tried to be just that - real - transparent - vulnerable - and yes, blunt.
As I was preparing for the week I often struggled with exactly what I needed to focus on as I presented to them the heart of the Gospel message and what it means to be a Christian. What I have seen so often play out in other evangelistic outreach programs, including camp, is what has often been called "Easy-Believe-ism", "the soft-sell", or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, "Cheap Grace." In other words the emphasis is placed solely on the fact that God loves you, that He forgives you and that He wants to give you the free gift of salvation. Of course, all of those things are true, but what often happens when only those things are presented is that the decision to believe in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior - becomes ONLY a decision to believe in Jesus Christ as Personal Savior. Personal LORD get's left out of the equation. In other words: "I've punched my ticket to heaven... now I'm free to live life how I like."
Jesus, however, never made it that easy. Only those who were willing to surrender everything in order to follow Him were deemed worthy of being His disciple and calling Him LORD. Being a Christian is SO MUCH MORE THAN SAYING A PRAYER - It is a LIFETIME of FOLLOWING a new LORD and a NEW MASTER.
So for the first chapel sessions I presented the hard facts about what it means to follow Christ and SURRENDER EVERYTHING that we are and have to Him. I told them more than once: "I would rather have you leave here this week and NOT become a Christian because you fully understand what it means to be a Christian and aren't sure if you're ready for that commitment than to take this decision too lightly."
By the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, I knew that God was working in a big way. My younger brother Jeremy was working as a Cabin Leader and he stopped by on his skill-off to let me know about was happening in his cabin. He has been on a "1 on 1" (a time where 1 Cabin leader and 1 camper have a set time to talk alone) with one of his campers who had shared with him that the main reason he came to camp was for the chapel sessions. He was from a non-Christian home and camp was the only place that he would hear about God and this being his third year at camp he sensed in advance that he needed to make a decision and that hearing about what it really meant to be a Christian had helped him a lot. So when Jeremy asked him if he was ready to make a decision for Jesus, the camper, smiled shyly and looked down at the ground, and then just as quickly looked back up at him, straight in the eyes and said: "I did last night in my bunk."
AMEN! Heaven rejoices and I rejoiced to see the joy in my brothers eyes as he shared this incredible news with me.
Right then and there I sensed that this testimony was only going to be the beginning, the first-fruits if you will, because at that moment I was preparing to give the invitation to the campers to surrender to Jesus as Savior and Lord in chapel that evening. I believe the Lord gave me the idea to gather as many small flat stones as I could find and write on them two words, "Let Go." As I did I prayed over each one that it would represent in someones life the moment of full surrender to Jesus Christ. I believed God for a response, but even I didn't believe big enough for the response that followed.
For my talk that evening I shared my experience of going skydiving and how the very last thing that I did before literally letting go of the airplane and put my faith fully in that parachute on my back opening properly, was to look up at the bottom of the wing where a small round sticker with a smiley face stated two simple words: LET GO. There comes a point where you can believe everything you want about the safety of skydiving and how the parachute works until you finally have to put it to the test and "Let Go." I explained that it's the same way with faith in the Lord Jesus, just like when Simon Peter saw Jesus walking on the water in the middle of a stormy night and he believed and immediately put it to the test by asking: "Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water." Jesus reply was one word: "Come." And so Peter left the safety of the boat and in faith did what no other man has ever done, he walked on water. An adventure he could never have experienced had he not put his faith into action.
Before I gave the invitation I explained what was going to happen: first whoever wanted to make a first time decision to make Jesus Christ their Savior and Lord could come forward, take one of the "Let Go" rocks and with a marker write their name on it; and second whoever was already a Christian and wanted to surrender something in their lives, whether some vice, secret sin, or whatever was holding them back from being completely surrendered to Him, they could write it down on the rock.
No sooner had I given the invitation and the band had begun to play the song "Jesus, All For Jesus" that the first person stood up and with tears flowing came to the front. Others followed until the aisle was full and with tears flowing they came forward. When finally everyone had come to the front and was again seated, I told them: "We are now going to SILENTLY walk as a group down to the lake and we are going to "Let Go" in faith and throw these rocks into the lake. 'That as far as the East is from the West, so far has God removed our transgressions from us." We walked en mass down to the lake as silent as a funeral procession. The shore of the lake was lined with well over 100 campers and staff and on my count of 3-2-1, as one body we threw our stones into the lake. To watch those stones whistle through the air and splash down sinking forever out of sight was a profound moment. More profound still were the events that immediately followed.
Each of the cabin groups went off to gather alone with their cabin leaders and I encouraged anyone who had made a first time decision to share it with their cabin. I've sometimes tried to imagine what Pentecost might have looked like when the Holy Spirit descended and Peter preached and over 3,000 people came to believe in a single day, this maybe wasn't quite on that scale but it as close as I have ever experienced in my life.
The tears of joy, prayers and confessions that followed were numerous and powerful. Imagine tough 15 year old teenage boys breaking down in tears confessing their sins and sharing their struggles with pornography addiction, drug and alcohol abuse, premarital sex, and suicidal thoughts to each other. Girls confessing their addictions to injuring themselves through cutting, anorexia, and overdosing on medications. The walls that were so carefully constructed to keep others from knowing what is really going on inside of us tumbled down like the walls of Jericho.
The Holy Spirit immediately began speaking through many of the campers as brand-new believers began ministering words of healing and forgiveness to each other. Teenage boys who only day's earlier had been fighting and couldn't stand each other, were asking each other for forgiveness. The most timid and soft-spoken outsider, a boy with F.A.S. who just day's earlier hated camp because he couldn't make any friends became the most bold, speaking powerful words into the one camper who proudly declared himself an "ATHEIST with the sole intent of coming to camp to cause others to question and lose faith."
I could go on and on about the testimonies that continued to pour out in the following day's but I will end with this:
Another profound moment happened that reminded me of the incident of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. One camper who had latched on to me during the week (there's always one!) who had become a Christian a few years earlier at camp, but did not have any support from home or a church, came up to me after we threw the rocks in the lake with a strange request. He said: "I need to walk down into the water, I don't know why, but I just have to. I was going to do it by myself but something inside of me said ask Danny to go with you." So I asked: "Why? Why do you need to do that?" And he said: "I've been a Christian for a while but I just need to feel like my sins are washed off of me and I can start fresh with Jesus." I then asked him: "Do you know what Baptism is?" His reply? "No, what is that?" So I explained it to him and with glowing eyes he burst out: "That's exactly how I feel! That's exactly what I need." Well I wasn't about to say no to what the Holy Spirit was prompting in this young man's life and so right then and there we walked together out into the lake and upon his confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord I baptized him.
The only witness was Hannah, the camp lifeguard who was watching from the balcony. When we came back up she came over and excitedly congratulated him for his decision. She later shared here at our church that witnessing his baptism was the most profound moment for her.
I later told him that normally before I baptize someone we do a ten week baptism course and we would make it a big thing with family and friends present. And don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that baptism is something that is best done in the context of a community of faith where he they are immediately welcomed into a church family to be nurtured and discipled in their faith. But there are exceptions, like Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch who immediately after believing in Jesus asked him: "There is some water, what prevents me from being baptized?" And so Philip baptized him with only the two of them present. When the heart is ready and God is moving there is no need to delay.
I praise God for what He has done ask you to continue to pray with me for those teenagers that they will continue to live out their faith and find a church to belong to.
Finally, How about YOU? What do you need to "Let Go" of?
It is only when you fully SURRENDER to Jesus as your Savior AND LORD that will begin discover the true joy of being in the bulls-eye of God's Will for your life.
"For it is only in Your WILL that I am free."
Our Harley Davidson... err... bus
Guatemala Missions Trip
February 1-14, 2012
Our trip got off to an inauspicious start early Wednesday morning as Leanne drove me the five blocks to Lakeside Christian School. Only two blocks from home a pedestrian with a large hood on, which I assume restricted his vision, walked briskly (without looking) into the middle of the intersection directly in front of us. For a split second it seemed we wouldn't be able to avoid hitting him, but instinctively I reached over, yanked the steering wheel, and the car slid just scant inches in front of him. We stopped the car to check and see that the pedestrian was safe but found he had simply kept on walking. So we drove the remaining distance to the school feeling a little rattled.
Over the previous weeks we had been praying constantly for safety in our travels to Guatemala, but never imagined that God would need to answer that prayer only two blocks from home. God is good and that was only the first of many countless answers to prayer along our journey.
Another example was when we finally landed in Guatemala City after two long days of travel. We still needed to clear Guatemalan customs with our 24 full-sized suitcases packed full with donations of clothing, shoes, school supplies, medical supplies, soccer balls, and just about anything else that you can fit inside a suitcase. If the customs agents wanted to give us a hard time and search each and every suitcase, we could have been there for hours. However, as soon as our team leader, Nancy Reimer, explained that we were a missions team and what we were doing, they began waving us through. As I walked forward toward the line that headed for the luggage scanner (where all the other passengers were headed) the custom guard waved me the other way towards the exit doors. We could hardly believe how easily our entire team of 12 members and 24 suitcases (plus carry-ons) cleared customs in no more than five minutes. Later when we shared this with Brian Ladd, our missionary contact and guide for the trip, he was shocked. In the many other missions teams he’d led, not one had cleared customs that quickly or easily. We thanked God for yet another answer to prayer.
The next day we were on a bus rocketing north through the steep hills and volcanic mountains of Guatemala on our way to the town of San Bartolo. The scenery was beautiful and disturbing in equal parts; beautiful in the natural beauty of the diverse landscape and lush farmland, disturbing in the garbage and poverty that people lived in and amongst as far as you could see.
Along the way we picked up Henry, our Mayan translator. To say that Henry is full of life and enthusiasm is an understatement. We very quickly grew to love Henry and his laugh was infectious. I soon learned that he is thirty years old, works full time for World Vision in economic development, and speaks six languages (Spanish, English, Japanese, the Mayan language of Kiche as well as two additional dialects of it). Not the least of these being his love for the Lord and his heart for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This was a huge blessing for me as one of my greatest fears on the trip was the uncertainty of preaching through a translator. But Henry quickly laid those fears to rest and I could see God working through him as he spoke. I tried my best not to use Canadian slang or expressions, but a few times to emphasize how easy something was I said: “No Sweat!” It was actually pretty funny watching Henry squirm trying to translate the expression. This soon became a running joke with the group. There were other times where I would say one sentence and he would go on for three or four minutes, but the people’s response to those messages and God’s call were undeniable and humbling to be able to be a part of.
At one small mountain-top (over 11,000 ft) village where we led a church service, both me and Nancy Reimer shared our testimonies. Our testimonies both emphasized God’s grace to forgive us no matter what we had done. When the altar call was given a man and his wife came forward. Through the translator we soon discovered that this couple had strayed from the Lord and had not been to church in a long time. They did not even know that our mission team would be there that day, but had felt prompted to go to church. Coincidence? I like to think that coincidences are simply when God chooses to remain anonymous. So I had the privilege of praying with them as they rededicated themselves to the Lord.
We also had the opportunity to lead a VBS program at the local Compassion Centre. This Centre is where all the children that are sponsored through the Compassion Sponsorship program go to receive teaching, medical care, clothing, food, and letters from their sponsors. However, the center could only accommodate 150 children at a time and there are over double that number of Compassion-sponsored children in the area. Because of this they had to go on rotation with different groups coming on different days. I can’t emphasize enough that Guatemala is made up of kids! The average age of the country is 20, which means that half the population is under that age!
At the end of the first day of VBS, Henry explained the Gospel message and gave an invitation to accept Christ. 16 children came forward! The next day 26 came forward! And the third day another 14 made first-time decisions to follow Jesus! In three day’s we had the privilege of helping lead 56 children to the Lord! It was a profoundly humbling, yet amazing, to see all those young lives so excited to follow Jesus.
Later on we did a house visit to a very poor family where a widow lived with her two children, a thirteen year old girl and eleven year old boy, as well as her eighty-five year old mother. When her husband had become ill, he had refused to go the doctor because he knew they couldn’t afford it and by the time he finally went it was too late and he died. As it turned out he had simply had an infection that $150 dollars Canadian worth of antibiotics would have cured. The mother said that when she worked (which wasn’t always often) in the fields she would make about 40 Quetzalas a day which is approximately 5 dollars Canadian. They lived in an extremely simple one room house with no kitchen or even a means for cooking, so in order to cook meals for her family she needed to go to the neighbours house next door. We gave them a package of clothing and other items from the donations we had received, including a soccer ball that the boy was ecstatic about. We also had extra money that was brought along either personally by the group or donated, and at the end of the trip we decided to use the money to build this family a new house, complete with their own kitchen. This would cost around 3,500 dollars Canadian. But what was especially heartwarming about this visit was that we soon discovered that the two children had been at the Compassion Centre the day before and had both given their lives to the Lord. It was obvious how happy their Christian mother was about their decisions. It was encouraging to know that not only were able to bless them physically but more importantly, spiritually.
In all of this I haven’t yet mentioned the main work portion of our trip which was working on constructing a new church for the Iglesia Bethania (Bethany Church) of San Bartolo. We arrived to see that the foundation walls for the main sanctuary had already been set in place, but we soon discovered that the project was far larger in scope than we had initially been told. Upon completion it was going to have three stories complete with a Sunday School wing and kitchen and dining area. So not only would it serve as their church, but also a Christian School and Compassion Centre which would allow the Compassion Children to come every day instead of every other day.
We joined up with the four-man crew working there and were immediately hard at work. The construction method used there is predominately by manual labour which involved digging the foundation of the Sunday School wing by hand with picks and shovels. In the hot Guatemalan sun we definitely did our fair share of sweating and had the blisters to prove it. The people there seemed to realize the effort we were putting in for them and soon more and more people came to help every single day.
Finally, at the end of the week, the church threw us a farewell service which I have to say was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. One of the elders of the church said: “You have now been written in the history books of our town.” At the close of the service the entire congregation filed by us and every last man, woman and child gave each of us a hug and expressed, often through tears, there appreciation for what we had done for them. I can only say that the feeling is mutual, as God blessed me through them more than I can express.
I would especially like to thank each of you who supported me with your prayers and finances as none of this would have been possible without it. You have been part of God’s answer to prayer on my behalf and I pray that you have been blessed knowing that your gift was used by God to further His Kingdom. May God bless you richly for it!
Pastor Danny Groening
Please feel free to comment on any happenings from Killarney Mennonite Church.