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A Rainy Day in Athens!

rain in athensIt was raining hard this morning when we woke up in Athens.  Our apartment for this LST project is near the center of the city, so we are surrounded by tall buildings which block the sun a bit.  All this to say, that it was really a dark, rainy morning.

Sherrylee and I take Uber to the church building every day, so upon arriving, we went up to the third floor where Sherry’s classroom is. The church has only had access to the third floor for about five months, so, of course, there is no electricity yet. To explain the delay would take the whole page, so let’s just say it is always moderately dark on an average sunny day, and on a dark, rainy day, Sherry wondered how her students would be able to do their work—and there were no ready answers.

At the morning huddle, we were warned not to go near the government offices downtown because anarchists have gathered from all over Europe to demonstrate for . . . . no, against governments, I think. Eleni also said that probably only ten people would come today because people from super dry climates don’t like to get out in the rain, especially with their children, so our clothing distribution this afternoon was postponed and our common meal scaled down.

All in all, it promised to be a rather dark, dreary day.

At the end of our English classes for the day, we have a 30-minute devotional with all the participants, where we talk about God in four different languages.  Everything is translated, so one minute of a message takes four minutes to deliver to all the participants.

About one minute before we started, I was asked to present the message at the devotional.  Maybe because we had all been dealing with the weather all day, I thought to myself, Jesus said many things about rain, so let’s talk about rain.  I did a quick search and actually chose a passage from Acts 14, where Paul and Barnabas talk about rain to the people of Lystra

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

We had expected 10, but we had about 50 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, and others who gathered to hear the word of God that said the rain is God showing kindness on them, showing Himself to them, so they can find Him. And God not only gives you rain and crops that become the food that fills your stomachs, He also wants to feed you spiritually so that your hearts will be full of joy!  I concluded by saying,

So when you go out in the rain today, don’t let it depress you or make you afraid. Remember that this rain is an act of kindness to you from the Living God who loves you. Let that give you joy and make you want to know and trust this Living God.

The message to the people of Lystra was still powerful and alive for the people of Athens two thousand years later.  It wasn’t a dark day after all!

 

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Is God In Greece?

refugees welcomeI visited with a Christian man from Albania today who moved to Greece seven years ago because he felt called to plant a church among the million Albanians who had fled to Greece in the 80s and 90s.  The Soviet Union was quite successful in purging all of its satellites—but especially Albania–of Christianity, so the million Albanians then in Greece seemed like a ripe mission field.  He and his family moved to Greece and began a church which then multiplied into other Albanian churches throughout Greece.

When the refugees started pouring into Athens, these Albanian Christians felt like they had to do something in spite of the fact that many of them had been refugees themselves. Every evening, they now go out on the streets of Athens looking for homeless, hungry, and otherwise needy refugees. On the spot, they give them sandwiches and clothes and try to give them information to help them find long-term solutions.

While I was visiting with my new Albanian friend, Sherrylee was visiting with a Brit who is in Athens running an organization that helps Muslim refugees who become Christians find housing. Most of these new Christians are refugees who have nothing anyway, but when they become Christians, they often are expelled from their family, harassed by their community, and sometimes physically attacked by their former Muslim friends.  These people literally leave everything and everyone they know in order to follow Jesus.

About the time we were finishing these conversations, an American attorney from Colorado walked up and put the keys to the upstairs in my pocket to return for him.  He and another attorney are in Athens for two weeks to give free legal counsel to refugees.  The Omonia church is providing them meeting space so that they can help the refugees coming to the church for help.

Jesus in Egypt

This is not a Christmas picture. This family is seeking refuge in Egypt!

While Elena (one of the missionaries at the Omonia church in Athens) was telling the group about the attorneys who would be here for two weeks, a refugee spoke up and asked if any doctors were coming. She said, “Not yet, but we hope some will come later!” 

Then she told the 70-80 people in the room not to be afraid because God loved them and that He is near. He is not far away, and if anyone tells them differently, then they were not telling the truth. (I love her boldness!)  She then asked everyone to stand for the time of prayer: I prayed in English, one brother prayed in Arabic, and another in Farsi. After the prayer, the church fed all us.

Here we were . . . in a room full of Muslims . . . praying to Our Father, who is an Unknown God to many of them . . . in languages that most often curse Christians . . . with Christian workers from countries that American Christians usually consider mission fields . . . . breaking bread.

I pray that you can imagine yourself in this room too—because God is here!

“We used to pray for God to open the doors to the Middle East,” the tired missionary said today after supper, “but when he did we were naked—totally unprepared!”  I was reminded of those days not so long ago when all the talk at every missions conference was about the 10-40 window, that band around the earth between 10  and 40 degrees north of the equator.  We were always reminded that two-thirds of the world’s population lived in that band and that the countries in that belt included the least Christian and least accessible countries to Christian missionaries.

40_Window_world_map

               My second thought was less noble, i.e., that we had truly prayed for open doors, but we wanted those doors to be open over there, so that we could send the Gospel to them. We did not really want the doors to open the other direction and have all of those people in our neighborhood.

               But God’s ways are not our ways!  Today, here in Athens, I sat at the table with two young men born in Syria, and we read the story of Jesus. A tall, blonde 18-year-old sat down to join us. He is an American citizen, born in Pakistan and raised in Afghanistan.  I had hoped that the Iraqi Kurd would join us, but he was too busy registering new people for English classes as they walked in the door.  He did, however, have time to introduce me to two Iranians, whom we invited to join us tomorrow.

               So if we finally do recognize that God has moved millions of Muslim people out of their countries—at least temporarily—and moved them mostly to Greece and Italy and Germany, are we western Christians indeed unprepared—naked??

               The first step in preparing is to open our hearts to those God is bringing to us! God so loved the world . . . so His children will love the world as well.  And we will know who our neighbor is. As Jesus preached it, the neighbor was the Samaritan, the foreigner. Not the fear of terrorism, not the fear of lost jobs, not the fear of social impact, there is no justification for ignoring the homeless, penniless refugees who have fled religious or political persecution and who have knocked on our door asking for help.

That is why this church of Christ in Athens has opened its doors to any needy person who walks in the door. Their work is horribly underfunded and understaffed and amazingly under-organized, BUT God has provided them with the ability to do more than they could have ever imagined—just as He has promised to do for all of his obedient children.  At least hundreds and probably thousands of refugees have come through their doors. They have been noticed, fed, clothed, served, and taught about Jesus—unashamedly!

We who lead churches in America need to check our hearts to see if they are open or shut to all people who God brings into our neighborhood.  Our missionary (btw, a woman) told us about a church in Norway that had refused to let a woman in a hijab (head covering) enter their building to join their assembly. I wonder how our American churches would respond to the same situation?

Don’t pray for doors to open unless you are ready for your own front door to open!

Ah, Retirement!

Glasco ChristianOne week ago we were worshipping with a little Christian church in Glasco, Kansas, of which in 1870, my great-great grandfather Mahlon Woodward and his wife Mary Ann were founding members.  After lunch at church with people who knew my grandparents and my dad, we accidentally went to a poetry reading that had been advertised as a Smithsonian program on Kansas waterways! I suppose towns of 500 can’t be picky!

Today, one week later, Sherrylee and I worshipped with the Omonia Church of Christ in Athens, Greece! Ten days or so ago, the missionaries in Athens put out a call for immediate help with their English program for refugees. Some very generous donors called us and said that they would sponsor us, if we were able to go, so here we are, getting ready to start tomorrow helping people mostly from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, and Afghanistan improve their English and become better acquainted with Jesus. 

MunichOur international flight was via Munich, a new airport, but the same city where in 1971 two pretty clueless young newly-weds landed and began their mission journey together.  We are slower than we were then, but wiser, I hope—certainly more experienced.  While we have definitely changed, the world has changed also. When we left for Munich in 1971, Christians faced Iron Curtains and Cold Wars and Walls. We could just barely drive to Berlin back then, much less the Arab world. Now Christians can go to a small church building in Athens and work in the Middle East. Look around your neighborhood and tell me the world has not changed and that the nations are not coming!

So we may need to work differently than we did forty-six years ago, but people are still riding around in their chariots and saying, who will help me understand what I’m reading here about Jesus.  And God still uses those he has used before–regardless of their job status or age–to serve and teach Searchers.

Sherrylee and I will be in Athens for three weeks, and I hope to post regularly.  Pray for us—for health and strength and courage and boldness.

I wish I could say that I had been tramping through the desert to smuggle Bibles or to reach some lost tribe that had never heard the Story when the Devil appeared as a rattlesnake and bit me in order to slow the Ultimate Victory—but, alas, that is far, far away from the true story!  The true story is much less dramatic than you might imagine, but for curious minds, here is what happened.

About noon on Friday, April 28, 2017, Sherrylee, Mr. Bingley, and I left by car for California. The three of us anticipated reaching Albuquerque that evening for the first stop on what was to be a fourteen-day road trip, including four days at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures in Malibu, about four days in Escondido, CA with our daughter’s family, and a couple of days in Aguila, Arizona with my sister Betty, looking at a family history site.Bingley

Our first and last “warning” came about 3pm, when we stopped at a very nice roadside park to let Mr. Bingley, our little Havanese/Shitzu mix, walk around and relieve himself.  He has made this trip before and does quite well, with the exception that he can get motion sick, so we give him half of a Dramamine every 5-6 hours to help him out.  Anyway, as we are walking around near the children’s playground area, there is a big sign that says WATCH OUT FOR RATTLESNAKES. I took that sign seriously, as I walked Bingley around. We didn’t wander off into the open grassy areas, but stayed on the sidewatchout for rattlesnakewalks until all his needs were taken care of. Then off we went again further along Highway 287, anticipating driving through Amarillo about 6pm. 

At 5:30, we were about six miles south of Claude, Texas, and Bingley was a little restless, so we realized that he probably was about ready for another dose of Dramamine for his motion sickness.  Everyone knows that pulling off on the shoulders of a small highway can be a little risky, so we decided to pull over where there was actually a small dirt road intersecting our highway.

I was amused because the name on this dirt road that did not seem to lead to any destination in sight was Hotel Road. We only turned far enough onto Hotel road to clear the shoulder of the highway, then we stopped, not fearing that we would be interfering with any traffic on this dirt road.  I got out of the car, walked around the back of the car and to the back door of our four-door Honda Accord sedan. I opened the door to get Bingley’s medicine out of his duffel bag in the backseat, leaned in to get it, and

rattlesnakeBAM! Something bit me just above my right ankle—and it hurt!  I stepped back and looked down and there was a two to three foot long rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike again.   I had already yelled, “Something bit me” and Sherrylee looked out and saw—and heard—the snake rattling at that point. I remember looking for a rattle and seeing it, but I never heard a rattle before it struck. 

We must have pulled right up next to it as lay camouflaged on the side of the road. I had almost stepped on it without ever seeing or hearing it—which is why it bit me.  Having seen all I wanted to see, I shut the car door and backed away very quickly. The snake slithered away also, but by that time, I had all the facts I needed:  I had been bitten by a poisonous rattlesnake out in the middle of nowhere, so we needed to get somewhere and get medical help.

I jumped in the car and drove very quickly toward Claude while Sherrylee dialed 911.  The 911 operator told us to go to a big gas station in Claude and wait and they would send an EMS team to us.  That sounded like a good plan. I wasn’t feeling bad, but my foot hurt, and I was pretty anxious.  About ten minutes passed, then the County Sheriff called to say that the EMS service was not the best idea and that we needed to get to the hospital ER in Amarillo!  That was over 30 miles away.

Sherrylee told him that he needed to provide us with a police escort, and he agreed, so we waited just a couple of more minutes and a police SUV pulled in front of the station. Together we raced to the county line which was where Hwy. 287 junctions with I-40 just east of Amarillo. And when I say raced, I mean 95-100mph!!

The Potter County police were supposed to pick us up there. We saw them heading toward us but on the opposite side of the road. The police called us and said to continue, and they would try to catch up with us.  They did not know, however, how determined Sherrylee was to get me to the hospital before . . . .

6:15 pm on the main Amarillo highway!  You can imagine what the traffic was like, and it had begun to rain! Sherrylee, emergency lights flashing, sat on the horn and moved people out ofNW Texas her way like her life—no, my life—depended on it, and we pulled up to the Emergency entrance of the Northwest Texas Hospital in Amarillo, the main trauma center for that region.

 

I limped through the emergency door straight to the desk and said, “I have been bit by a rattlesnake!”  The nurse took my name and information, then made me a wrist bracelet and said, “I have already called the pharmacy and ordered the anti-venom!”  That was a good sign! (Weekends can be tricky at hospitals, or so I’ve heard.)

The hospital staff proved to be wonderful and extraordinarily competent!  We waited about two hours because there was no swelling in my foot. Did you know that about 50% of all rattlesnake bites are “dry,” that is, the snake injects no venom.  Grown snakes can control how much they use; baby rattlesnakes can’t, which is why they are more dangerous.  So the doctor held off on the anti-venom, hoping that it was a dry bite.

After two hours, my foot did start swelling and the pain increased immensely, so we started the anti-venom serum Crofab. It took about 8-10 hours to get the serum in and the pain under control, but after that it was just managing the pain.  All to say that by noon Saturday, I was feeling great except that it was excruciatingly painful to lower my foot to the floor.

That became the big question: when they released me: how was I going to get around?  By Sunday afternoon, the physical therapy team had been called for an evaluation, so when they came, we tried out walkers, then crutches. I actually discovered while we were testing this equipment that the longer I stood on my foot, the better it felt. Crutches in hand, I was discharged that afternoon.

Because of unbelievable weather conditions—snow, ice, and 60 mph straight winds in Amarillo—on Sunday, we had already decided to wait until Monday to return home. Continuing on to California did not seem like a very good idea.

Sherrylee drove us home Monday at a much-reduced rate of speed, and we arrived safely about 6pm, to be greeted by this sign by our driveway!  It’s good to laugh about it now.Snake sign.jpg

 

I’m very thankful to God for guarding us, to the doctors and staff at Northwest Texas Hospital for their personal concern and excellent care, and to Sherrylee for her love and attention, and for being an exceptionally strong and competent partner—for better and for worse.

Fourth Advent

Story and Text:  The Birth of Jesus—and the Announcement to the Shepherds! (Luke 2:1-7;  8-20)

Big Idea:              Jesus was really born. This is not a fairy tale!  His birth changed the whole world!

                It’s really hard to separate fact and fiction as a child. I just had a conversation with one mother who worried about whether pretending about Santa Claus might bleed over into her children thinking she was “pretending” about Jesus.  I don’t really share her fear, but I do appreciate her sensitivity to the problem that many adults have of truly believing that Jesus was/is real!

Activities:

  1.  Go to the maternity ward of a local hospital during hours when newborns can be viewed. Try to pick out the one that looks like Baby Jesus. Of course, it would be a boy, not a girl. Would he be dark-skinned, pink, big, small, hair or hairless? It’s just a game, but Jesus did look just like one of these babies.  If you can’t go to the hospital, then look at pictures of newborns on the computer.
  2. There was no room at the hotels. So where would you stay if you traveled to a new city and could not stay at a hotel?  With a relative? But what if you knew no one?  The only place you were offered was . . . . someone’s barn, or their garage . . . .or a basement . What if your house was the last hotel that Mary and Joseph came to and all the beds and couches were taken. Where would you put them?  You might want to go out to the garage and look for a place to make a bed.  No lights, just a candle.
  3. What do shepherds do at night while the sheep are sleeping? Some of them sleep while others watch the sheep!  Turn out all of the lights in your kid’s room and let them watch the sheep. SUDDENLY a bright light appears! LOUD MUSIC starts with angels singing!  Do you get the picture?  Can you recreate that moment? No wonder the angels had to tell them not to be afraid!
  4. Where would you look for Baby Jesus if the angels told you to go to Bethlehem to find him? (Could draw a maze!) The hospital?  The church building? What clues did the angels give the shepherds?  What if someone rang your doorbell in the middle of the night, looking for a new baby, what would you think?  Where would they look at your house?  Would they ever think to look in the garage??
  5. After the shepherds left, they couldn’t stop talking about what had happened to them and the baby they had seen!  Why didn’t they keep it a secret—just for themselves??  Is this the same reason we keep talking about Jesus?
  6. What would be different in the world if Jesus had never been born?  If you have watched It’s A Wonderful Life with your kids, then you can refer to what Bedford Falls would have been if George Bailey had never been born. But even without the movie, you can talk about this and see what the kids come up with.

I do hope these small ideas have helped stimulate your own creativity in talking with your children about the birth of Jesus.  I know you realize that your young kids are taking in everything you do and say, so the biggest activity of all in preparing your kids is to show them that Jesus means everything to you! The moments they hear you talking about Jesus, or doing for others in Jesus’ name, or remembering to thank God for Jesus when you pray instead of just asking for things . . . when they observe that you really love Jesus, even when they don’t fully understand what all of this means, they are being given the best gifts you have to give them, all you really want for them to learn from you!

You are the star that guides them, you are the announcement of His birth, you are the messenger that God has chosen who blesses your children with the Good News that the Savior has come into the world and dwelt among us!

Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

It’s early Sunday morning—the third Advent Sunday—so you are just in time to start preparing your kids for Christmas if you haven’t started yet.  And if you have been following our plan, then you are ready for the final week before Christmas. Either way, it’s a beautiful Sunday morning and you have lots of opportunity left to prepare your kids for celebrating Jesus in Christmas!

If you were not aware of them, go back and look at the previous suggestions and you may find some that work for you this week.  You may also find some good music to introduce to the kids this week.  Look in the right sidebar called Categories under Advent.  You may also find some good texts and ideas from last year’s Advent series as well.

Story and Text:  Luke 2:1-6

Big Idea:              Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, not knowing much—but obediently.

Such a short text for such a wonderful story.  The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 90 miles by car today, which is just an hour and a half, but by donkey (maybe) when you are nine months pregnant, it is longer and harder.  And they probably did not go straight through Samaria because good Jews did not do that. They crossed the Jordan to the east and went down the east side of the Jordan until they had bypassed Samaria and came to Judea. Then they crossed the Jordan again and would have gone by Jericho and near Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem.

I’m sure it took them at least a week to travel—which is perfect for preparing your children!

Activities

  • Find or make a map of Israel and trace their journey each day until you arrive on Christmas Eve.  Trace about 20 miles each day and you will see where they were.  Look on a historical map of Israel so that you can identify the historical sites that Mary and Joseph would have passed, especially the Jordan River and Mount Nebo. They would have been able to see many other mountains, valleys, and places where Old Testament events happened. That’s a good research project for older kids—and parents as well!
  • Find a picture of a woman who is nine months pregnant and talk about how hard it is to walk. You might even put a pillow or something under your child’s shirt and let them see how hard it is to walk and bend, etc.
  • What things would they have needed to take on their journey?  Food and water! It would be like a picnic to eat as they traveled. Maybe you could do a picnic—indoor if you are not in southern California!
  • Where did they sleep as they traveled?  Maybe outside, but maybe at stranger’s house. Maybe your kids could sleep in a different room in sleeping bags on the floor as if it were a guest house along the way.
  • What do you think Joseph and Mary talked about as they traveled?  Make a list of things and talk about them with your kids.  Do you think they talked about what the angel told Mary?  Or what Joseph saw in his dream from God?  Do you think they talked about the Messiah and what they had always been taught he would be like.  Do you remember what you and your spouse talked about before your first child was born?

Music

If O Little Town of Bethlehem is not part of your Christmas repertoire, let me encourage you to add it. It’s a little harder to sing, but has beautiful words.

-Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beautiful piece of classical music for Christmas–a Bach composition with words added later. You will find beautiful instrumental versions—especially the one by George Winston, but also sung by many artists, including Josh Groban, Sarah Brightman, and The Beach Boys.

Watch on Thursday for the last Advent preparations before Christmas Day!

 

(Reposted from 2012)

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