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Friday, July 31, 2015

Fraternity

  
Fraternity

I have been giving considerable thought to fraternity for the last few weeks. My older brother recently turned 60, and my younger brother recently was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia complicated by a lung infection. During this time, he survived an NDE (near death experience).


When I learned how serious his condition was, I began to ponder what I would say if he had not survived. I began to ponder what I would say in a sermon. Ponderous thoughts.


Ponderous thoughts balanced by humorous stories. People often said to me, “You and your brothers are so much alike. You look alike and even sound alike.” My response was always, “I hope so. We have the same parents.” We all enjoyed a brief moment of levity.


Dictionaries offer several definitions for the word, brother, including one who shares a common ancestry, allegiance, character, or purpose with another. A member of a fraternity, trade union, or panel of judges on a court constitutes one’s brother. We use the word in religious and ethnic settings, and sometimes utter it to express exasperation. The primary definition, however, is a male who has the same parents as another or one parent in common with another. The word comes to us from about the 12th century. The Old English word was broþor, from Proto-Germanic brothar. The Romans and Greeks spoke the words frater and phrátēr.


Ancient literature is replete with stories of brothers. Egyptians had Anpu and Bata, and the Romans, Romulus and Remus. Antigone is Sophocles’ tragedy about the brothers Eteocles and Polynices. Israel offers three tales in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers, followed by Exodus’ Moses and Aaron. In addition to Andrew and Simon, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, Jesus’ close disciples, Martha and Mary had a brother named Lazarus.


Famous brothers include the Wright, Kennedy, Grimm, Marx and Sullivan. Christian tradition offers us Cosmas and Damian, Cyril and Methodius among others.


What establish us as brothers are not only our common parents, but also our shared experiences within that particular family. Like other siblings, we experienced certain customs, traditions, celebrations and tragedies, but only in the way our family could. We remember what it was like to open presents on Christmas morning in our pajamas. Our later Christmases were marked by attending Mass at St. John’s, mom cooking breakfast, breaking oplatki and exchanging gifts before visiting aunts and cousins in the afternoon. We remember what it was like to play football with our dad and ride in the back of his Chevy pickup to a baseball game, buy baseball cards and chocolate pop at Shaffer’s Market, listen to Polkas on the weekend, and dance the Polonaise with the Krakowiaki at the PNA. And to think my father preserved these historic family moments on his Bell and Howell 8 mm camera.


When dad was healing from surgery on his varicose veins, he read his Douay-Rheims Bible. Ecclesiastes 3 begins, “All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” We remember planting, weeding, harvesting and canning tomatoes and peppers. We remember celebrating First Communions, Confirmations and graduations, our parents 25th and 50th Wedding Anniversaries, our grandfather’s funeral, and our cousins’ weddings. As adults, we remember our father’s sudden death and mom’s extended, painful struggle with amyloidosis and multiple myeloma.


Our parents are now gone, but our relationship has not changed dramatically. Although we live hundreds of miles apart, we maintain regular contact via phone, skype and text. We celebrate one another’s successes and comfort one another in sickness or sadness. Ours is a unique fraternity for we are bonded closer than most siblings are. I know this because of the feedback from in-laws and others.


I have renewed my efforts to call my brothers once a week. We share news about our gardens, trips or meeting someone from Monaca at a gas station in Arkansas. I sometimes have a question about electrical wiring or a chemical compound. There are other times when we mail one another cards or hand-written letters. My older brother sends me Coca-Cola bottle tops and newspaper articles. Most often, we close our conversations and letters expressing our love and prayers for one another.


It would be very easy to slip into a routine relationship with my brothers. What keeps me from slipping is experience. Throughout my decades in pastoral ministry, life revealed to me many ordinary, unimpressive, distant sibling relationships. I see these at funerals where the living express regret for not spending enough time with the dead. When I would ask family members to share memories, these siblings do not share anything beyond childhood or anything at all because they do not foster fraternal or familial relationships.


With God’s gracious aid, I am certain that we will have fraternal memories to share with others. I am comfortable with my brothers sharing anything embarrassing or enlightening stories about my life. The Good Lord knows that there are more embarrassing than enlightening moments to share.


I blog to share my thoughts and insights regarding Scripture or ministry. Most of my blogs are my sermons or Sunday school lessons. My audience knows that I often end with a few challenging questions to consider. I call them life applications. So, here goes. When did I last call or write my siblings? Call them as soon as you finish reading this paragraph. Share some news with them. Ask about their lives, the people in their lives, their interests or illnesses. Express sorrow, joy, gratitude and love. For this, you will have no regret.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Meet Insurmountable Challenges with Undaunted Courage



“I felt strong when they told me that Jesus loves me,” states Delfin Villegas. The first time he felt like this was in 2002, when a pastor came to his house and showed him the Bible.
 Although his wife was Christian, Delfin was not. He was an alcoholic, like many men in his culture. But at the moment when a group of Christians told him that Jesus loves him, “God touched my heart.” That moment started a long journey that took him not only into the church, but also into church planting. Using the material provided by Multiplication NetworkMinistries, church leaders taught Delfin and others how to become church planters in the rural villages of the Amazonian rainforest of Ecuador.
He has worked as a church planter for eight years. We see the fruit of his labor not only in the expanded worship area, but also in the hearts of the people God touches through him. Alcoholism and marital infidelity are prevalent among the people. Many families are dysfunctional. Delfin meets insurmountable challenges with undaunted courage. He visits families in their homes to tell the parents how families should live. He invites them to become part of the church for the church can help. He is living proof.
The father of three, Delfin introduced to us his wife, Janelle, and two of their three children, Elvis and Ingrid. The oldest, Wellington, is 17 and in school this morning. As Delfin looks at his family and his extended family gathered with him today, we know he is sincere when he tells us, “I look for Christ in the heart.”
We distribute Bibles to the children and listen to them sing, and know that God touched their hearts as He touched Delfin’s. As we bid farewell, we know God used Multiplication Network Ministries to build a new outpost of His Kingdom in the Amazonian rainforest.


Monday, July 27, 2015

From Shrunken Heads to Expansive Hearts



Six hours southeast of Quito in the tropical rainforest between the upper mountains of the Andes and the savannas of the Amazonian lowlands, lay a series of split and rotted planks leading to a concrete slab. A primitive wood plank barn roofed with corrugated steel stands on the slab. Doorless, windowless and void of electricity, this is Jose’s church. Jose leads worship for a group of Shuar people, 90 minutes outside of Puyo.

Interior View of Shuar Church
 The Shuar people are an indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. They are Amazonian tribes living at the headwaters of the Marañón River.  Shuar, in their language, means "people." While Westerners may not know the Shuar people by name, we know them by reputation – and their former practice of shrinking human heads. We saw their work the previous afternoon, but tonight we were not afraid.


The Shuar people abandoned the practice of shrinking heads as well as tribal warfare and polygamy at the end of the 19th century. They live peacefully in small communities, raising cattle and serving honorably in the Ecuadoran military.


Church Planter Jose
On this night, Jose and a gathering of 50 Christians, welcome Multiplication Network Ministries to their church to praise and worship our Triune God. By candlelight, we sang, prayed and encouraged one another before tasting fire-roasted chicken, cassava and corn served on a palm leaf. For this evening, we thank our hosts, Pastor Jaime Ledesma of Iglesia Bautista Kairos, and our gracious God for guiding us safely to and from another Kingdom outpost made possible by the work offered through MultiplicationNetwork Ministries.
Receiving their first Bibles


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Supportive Belief Principles


My Three Ecuadoran Amigos
While riding a bus through Ecuador, I took time to gaze outside at God’s grandeur and converse across the aisle with His creatures. In between, I read Cold Calling for God by Rev. Ronnie Doss and Michael Durkin. They direct the reader to write three supportive belief principles and say them aloud twice a day for thirty days.
My three supportive belief principles are:
     1.    The local church transforms my life.
     2.    Discussing faith in God makes me happy.
     3.    God brought us together for a purpose greater than we imagine.

These principles came to me after years of reflective meditation. First, the local church transformed my life as a child, teen, young adult and mature man. The church transforms my life because of relationships. Through the local church, I understand that God loves us; and that humans love one another, including me. In turn, through these relationships my capacity to love God and others increases.

Second, when people tell me how God is working in their lives, I am intrigued. It is more interesting to hear how God is working in a person’s life than to listen to the news, political opinions, sports, weather updates or just about any topic under the sun. That the person talking to me is aware that a Supreme Being is active in his or her life fascinates me. My experience is that one comes to this conclusion after reflecting on life, and seeing that God indeed has always been present in their lives.

Right now, in this ordinary moment, God has brought us together for a purpose greater than either of us can imagine. Read that last sentence again and take a moment to reflect on it. If you ask yourself, “For what purpose?” you will discover that the answer is not immediately clear, but the truth is that God has brought us together for a greater purpose. What follows from this principle is: What can I do for you today?

The response to this question is not always evident immediately. When asked, “What can I do for you today?” most of us reply, “Nothing.” My proactive response is to do something before asking the person. This weekend, while my wife is away, I did a few loads of laundry and ironed. I called my two brothers and a friend. I participated in worship, prayed for others' needs and started a conversation with a new friend.

I keep these principles in mind as I go through the day, and think of them when I am in the ordinary moments of life – eating breakfast, walking the dogs, conversing with my wife, family members, acquaintances or strangers. Why? Because, like our common creeds, these principles guide my life.
How does your local faith community transform your life? Have you noticed how differently people respond to you when you discuss how God is active in your life? At this very moment, for what purpose has God brought us together as author and reader? What will you do for others today? Finally, what are your three supportive belief principles?