Posts Tagged ‘Let’s Start Talking’

Aegidien Church in Hanover, Germany

You aren’t surprised, are you, that the people who start something called “Let’s Start Talking” find themselves in conversations with lots of people all the time about lots of different things.  Would you like a quick look at our conversation itinerary?

Hannover, Germany was our home for six years and where all three of our children were born. Along with two other couples, we moved here in 1973 to begin a new church plant.  That church grew and thrived for 20 years, long after all of us Americans had left. The Hannover church even helped in planting two other churches in Peine and Hildesheim, both cities about 30-45 minutes by autobahn from Hannover.

In the mid to late 90s, the devil got into the Hannover church through divorce, immorality, petty jealousies and blew it completely apart.  Many of the members have remained faithful and belong either to one of the offspring in Hildesheim and Peine, or they attend another church. Some seem to have completely abandoned their faith.  Those who really suffered, however, were the children of the members.

Even if we just have one day, Sherrylee and I have always made a point to keep the love and the conversations alive that we share with our brothers and sisters in this region.  But, as you will see, the conversations can be gut-wrenching.

  •  “How are your kids?”  The Hannover church was mostly young families, so there were lots of children. Today most of them are in their early 20s, marrying, finishing educational goals—and only a few of them are active believers! Most of those children do not attend church and do not appear to be living in any kind of faith.  The ones who have chosen faith are spoken of almost as miracles—like God has been especially gracious to them.  The others are all still held up to God in prayer by loving parents—at least by the parents who are themselves still believers.
  • “What do you hear about _________?” Surprisingly, many from the disintegrated Hannover church still keep up with each other. Some have moved away, a few of the older members have died, and only a handful want nothing to do with those friends from the past.  I believe that even these occasional relationships are remnants of the strong love that existed in the Hannover Gemeinde.

Those conversations were only the front door then to these conversations which were much more difficult and sometimes painful:

  • “I  feel betrayed by the people who abandoned their faith?”  Those who so casually leave a church family probably have no idea that they cause real pain,–but they do, and it is a pain that can endure for years!
  • Why don’t those other people love me anymore just because I don’t worship with them?  This conversation usually grows out of a longing for the intimacy that has been lost.  Sometimes even those who have abandoned the community suffer from this loss of intimacy. It’s not unusual for them to blame those that they themselves rejected!
  • How can I have a relationship with her when she is still living in sin?  The broken mess that sin creates can be forgiven, but the consequences  for relationships are very difficult to heal. The people can be redeemed, but the mess is often permanent—at least until Jesus comes and makes all things whole!  We had several conversations this time about how Christians should respond to the enduring brokenness that sin leaves behind.

Happily, we were able to have breakfast with Don and Cindy Roehrkasse and Kyle and Susan Bratcher who lead the church in Hildesheim. Randy and Katie Smelser and Amanda Knapp, the American workers in Peine, joined us around a true love feast!

Amanda and her husband David are fairly new, but the other three couples have worked with these churches from their beginnings!  Our conversations with them were not about the past, but about the future

  • people they were studying with,
  •  plans for developing native leadership in the church,
  •  the possibility of a new church plant in Celle

And, of course, we talked about Let’s Start Talking!

So Thursday from dawn until well after dusk, we talked.  We talked and prayed and cried and laughed and dreamed and wondered—because that’s just what Christians do with each other.

“We believe, therefore we speak!”


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We left half of our toiletries in Belgium with Hans and Ans!  Fortunately, the Brazles are coming to Rothenburg, so we may be able to have deodorant again by Sunday.  Just joking!!

Tip: The more methodical you are in packing, the less likely you are to leave things! Scattering and rearranging your packing, that is, putting your toothbrush in a different bag or putting dirty clothes where your socks used to be, almost guarantees leaving something behind somewhere!

Our visit with the church of Christ in Hamburg was wonderful.  This congregation, planted in the early 1950s, is one of the most mature and stable in Germany. They have four elders and a pretty stable history.  About seven years ago, when the International Church of Christ dissolved, a number of committed young couples joined this church’s work and have been a blessing.

I suspect that this church has been in the phase of church development that I described in the last posting where it is mostly focused on church life and inward things.  Sure, they have continued to have gospel meetings and other types of evangelism that were effective forty years ago, but these activities were church habits and no one really expects them to reach new people in this century.

That’s why we at Let’s Start Talking are excited about their invitation to receive a team next summer. LST veterans Steve and Val McLean from Santa Barbara, CA are very close friends with one elder couple here, so they have been informing the Hamburger (yes, that’s what people from Hamburg are called!) about LST for years.  Finally, the church has invited them to come and actually do LST here!

Much of the maturity and stability of the Hamburg church is a direct result of the lifelong efforts of Dieter and Eva Alten.   I wish I could write their whole story for you, but someone else will have to do that.  I’ll tell you what I know though.

Dieter was one of the very young men converted by the first American workers in Germany after WW II. Very early, he and his wife Eva moved to Hamburg where they worked with Don Finto in the new church planted by Weldon Bennett.  Don left to return to the States and Dieter and Eva stayed.

Sometime in the mid-seventies, an American Christian who had the Dale Carnegie franchise in West Germany was ready to go back to the States, so he transferred it to Dieter. This gave Dieter both greater influence and greater financial stability. I know American workers whom Dieter gifted with free courses; I’m sure he did the same for German workers.

And even while being the national director of Dale Carnegie, he continued to hold meetings, to do training and mediation for churches of Christ throughout Germany.  He was a regular guest speaker in Hannover when we were planting a church there!

Eva is gone now. Dieter is 83 years-old and suffers some speech impediment because of a stroke a few years back, BUT he serves as an elder, he attends every service (Sunday and Wednesday both!), and he preaches on occasion.  I was told that although he can no longer speak as spontaneously, he writes out his sermons which have the same depth and are as full of encouragement as ever!

We visited Dieter briefly, told stories from old times and laughed together. His eyes are full of life. I’m not sure he really remembered us—but that really doesn’t make too much difference.  We will always remember him.

We read together some verses, highly appropriate for Dieter, from Psalm 92:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.

Thank you, Dieter, for bearing fruit and for staying fresh and green!  And, thank you, Lord, for your servant Dieter Alten!

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While a student at Harding in the late 60s, Owen Olbricht, director of Campaigns Northeast,  introduced me to the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness. We sang it often in devotionals, sometimes in parks, and even once on a local TV station.

Yesterday, after receiving some especially good news, Sherrylee started quietly singing this great hymn again—and I joined in. Her voice is much lower than mine, so when she starts a song, her natural pitch leaves me no choice but to sing the tenor to it. Regardless, however, of who sings which part, that particularly hymn has been a special blessing to us at significant moments in our journey for many, many years now.

Great is thy faithfulness, Oh God, my Father. . . . Thou changest not. . . .where thou hast been, thou forever wilt be!   If you know our story, you know that Sherrylee and I feel like our mission time in Germany were some of the best and most formative years of our lives, but that made it all the harder when overnight literally we found ourselves on a plane back to the U.S.. We felt like we had been ripped out of home, dreams, church, mission—all those things that give purpose to life. How could things change so quickly, so drastically! 

This song reminded us then that God had not changed. He was still in control. He knew where we lived. He knew our pain. He had not abandoned us—nor we Him, so in spite of a traumatic upheaval in our lives, God had not changed and was not far from us.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest . . . join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.  Life has seasons. Our time in Germany was a wonderful time, but so were our twenty-two years in Oklahoma. We had serious doubts about whether Oklahoma was really where we should be! After all, we were missionaries, not Sooners!  But God was faithful and took that season in Oklahoma and shaped that moment into a wonderful place to raise our family, a meaningful ministry with students at Oklahoma Christian, and a place and time for Let’s Start Talking to take root and grow.

And now in the fall and winter season of our life, the mercy and love of God is even more evident. We continue to love deeply the work we have been given; we are surrounded by not only a God-called team of co-workers, but grown, faithful children– and grandkids who are being taught God’s faithfulness every day.  What more could anyone ask for.  God is faithful, full of mercy and love.

Morning by morning new mercies I see! Strength for today . . . The more I learn as I walk along the journey with God, the less I worry about tomorrow—not because there is less uncertainty, not because there is less catastrophe around the corner, but just because I think I’ve learned that God only takes care of us one day at a time! 

It has something to do with the same reason he gave the Israelites only one day’s worth of manna every day (except on the Sabbath). It’s Jesus in the garden praying in spiritual pain for what was going to happen the next day.  It’s Noah not knowing if and when the dove would return!

As Executive Director of LST, I’m often asked about our five-year plan: where do you want LST to be in five years?  Or we sit and talk about how wonderful it would be if the ministry were supported with an endowment, so that we did not live each year hand to mouth like we have for the last thirty-one years!

My personal fear is that sometimes we are trying to build barns and create our own security rather than depending on the Lord day by day. 

Fortunately, the Lord has never given us that kind of security, not personally nor in the ministry—and I keep thinking that maybe day by day, morning by morning, maybe that is supposed to be enough!

If you don’t know this great hymn, find it on YouTube and listen to it and learn it, so that every day of your life, you have these words in your heart and on your lips:

Great Is Thy Faithfulness, O God, My Father!

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The work in Russia in the early days after the collapse of the Soviet Union was extraordinary. Last year, I told you the story of how LST went to Moscow in the summer of 1991, and working out of a local school, began reading the Bible with people who would literally cry sometimes because of their joy at finally hearing a Word from God. (See “A Personal History of LST”)

One of the most moving stories from those days was about the person who had the only Bible in the small Russian community, so he rented pages from his Bible and people paid him to have an hour to read the story of Jesus for themselves.

LST went first to Moscow, but soon thereafter was invited into Saint Petersburg, where we have continued to send workers yearly.  My first trip between the cities is a great illustration of those early days.

Everything had to be done through a Russian liaison. In those first days, many of us hired a Russian couple named Volodya and Lena. ( I can mention their names because half the people in Russia have the same names, so I’m not invading their privacy.)

One of them would meet you at the international airport, take you either to your hotel or sometimes to their apartment, where you could stay, called the people you needed to talk to, negotiated for you for rented space, told you where to eat and where not to eat, taught you how to ride the subway system, and exchanged money for you.

You needed this kind of help for several reasons. Few people spoke English, so you needed them to translate, but Russia was rather lawless in this transition from Communism to Russian democracy and people were poor, so there was a lot of street crime.

 As Americans, we were prime targets for petty crime of all kinds as well as just exploitation. Prices for Americans would not only start out ten times higher than for Russians, but then would be raised again in the middle of the transaction. The people we would rent classrooms from would try to change the rent on us weekly, so it was an environment where you needed to work through a Russian liaison for some assurance and stability.

I needed to go to St. Petersburg to meet with the Christians there about bringing an LST team the next summer, so I decided to take the overnight train, not really knowing what an experience it would be.  Lena took me to the ticket office where she negotiated my ticket for me—getting a price well below what the agent had first said it would cost!

The next day, Volodya accompanied me to one of the Moscow train stations, telling me basically not to talk English in public. I felt pretty cloak-and-daggerish, especially going into the dimly lit train station. We get to the train that I’m supposed to ride and Volodya instructs me to wait for him, so I wait as he approaches one of the train conductors and talks with him for several minutes. At the end of the conversation, he pulls a set of pencils, a small $3.00 calculator, and some chewing gum out of his pocket and gives them to the conductor. This is what he called “tipping” and was what seemed to make everything work in those days.

He called me over, told me everything had been arranged and that I was safe and should not worry. I was taken care of–and handed me over to the conductor. The conductor took me to a small, spartan compartment on the train that was obviously a sleeping compartment, let me in, shut the door and locked it behind him. That was a little spooky!  But I was taken care of . . . so I settled in for the overnight trip.

There were two bunks, and I was given the top one. At the end of the bunk was a rolled up mattress with straw stuffing—yes, I’m pretty sure it was straw—zipped in a mattress cover with a sheet, wrapped in a blanket.  So I unrolled it and lay down and read until the 10 watt bulb in the compartment was no longer adequate to read by and until I relaxed enough to get sleepy.

Much later that night after I was asleep—lightly—I heard the compartment door being unlocked, then slid open. The conductor came into the room—not the same one, but a lady conductor! I pretended to be asleep, but was aware that she was checking on me. Then she took off her jacket and blouse and lay down on the bottom bunk! Well, that kinda woke me up!

But she had been “tipped” to make sure I arrived in St. Petersburg safely—and she did. She got up about an hour before our arrival, put her uniform back on, and went out very quietly, not to disturb me—as if I had done anything but sleep fitfully all night!

Just before arriving, she brought me hot tea and a biscuit for breakfast, then escorted me off the train until I was met by our contact in St. Petersburg.  I thanked her with my best Russian. She acknowledged, but didn’t smile. Russians really don’t smile a lot.

This small little adventure reminded me not only how we are constantly dependent upon God, but that most people in the world are good people, just trying to live from day to day.  For a few pencils, a calculator, and some chewing gum which she probably took home to her kids, she had allowed this unknown American to sleep in her compartment—risking her safety. Maybe she didn’t sleep much either.

I wish I could have told her about Jesus. I hope someone else has.

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The towers had fallen, the Pentagon was on fire, but no one knew what was going to happen next. We had a small TV at the LST office, and as much as we tried to work that day, we all kept drifting back to the TV to watch the reports. 

We didn’t express our personal fears at first, but eventually someone voiced the question of who will want to get on an airplane and fly to a foreign country now? What impact did these terrorists make on the willingness of Christians to go into the world?

I had just finished writing the lead article for LST’s Fall newsletter. It was no longer the right tone, so I sat down and wrote the following:

September 11 re-shaped the world in which all of us live.  Our priorities have shifted as individuals and as a nation; the same is true at Let’s Start Talking.  This newsletter was ready on September 10—but some of it was no longer appropriate by the end of the next day.  If we took a little longer in saying to you what is on our hearts, we knew you would understand.

After the initial shock and outrage came a longer period of deeply felt grief. So many dead and missing, so much destruction, our shattered sense of security at home—the horrific reminder that this world is ruled for a time still by the Prince of Darkness—what could we do but grieve!

While grieving, however, we learned something about how to respond to tragedy and darkness.  You too probably noticed the many people running for their lives, running away from falling buildings, from death and destruction.  Everyone was running away—except for the Rescuers!  In the midst of the crisis, hundreds of firemen and police ran towards death and destruction in hopes of saving a few!  The actions of these men and women changed the future for many others.

The metaphor is powerful.  As Christians, we wear the badge of Jesus Christ, serving as Rescuers for God!  We cannot stay home and protect our own interests; we dare not retreat from going into all the world; we must not isolate or insulate our churches, our outreach, our missionaries, or ourselves in the face of darkness and destruction.  Because of the badge God gave us, because of the Name He lets us wear, we must run towards the darkness, into the danger, and look for those few that can be saved.

We at Let’s Start Talking will not forget the example set by the firemen and other rescue workers in New York.  We are calling on God to make us strong and courageous this year. We need you to go with us and support this army of God more than ever!

For those who wear the badge, the job is not yet done! Ten years later, people are still dying in darkness, buried under steel rafters of Sin. No one worried about cost, distance, or duration. Whatever it takes, wherever they are, however long it takes–those were the parameters on 9/11!

We wear the badge. We have only one choice—only one desire:  to run toward the ashy darkness with the hope of leading one more person out of destruction into light! 

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I’m not entering THE BEST LST STORY EVER contest, but I hope you will!  I do, however, have several stories that I want to share with you over the next two weeks as we move toward our big weekend of September 23-24!

If you are a new follower of my blog, you might enjoy reading the series I wrote last year at this time: “A Personal History of Let’s Start Talking” http://wp.me/pO3kT-7U

Santo Domingo

One of Our Best Travel Stories

In 1994, LST was scheduled to go to work with the church in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the first time.  It has long been our practice to visit sites before we send teams there in order to make sure that both we and the local Christians/missionaries know what the expectations and commitments are going to be.  LST never goes to work with any church or missionary without an invitation, but a few hours of face-to-face conversation have saved us from many awkward and/or difficult situations.

Our travel agent prepared our agenda and sent the tickets to our office. We threw them into a drawer until the day before we left, but when we did look at them, we noticed that she had us flying first to Miami and then to Caracas, Venezuela, and spending the night there.

I called to confirm this, and she said she was sorry but there were no direct flights from Miami to Santo Domingo!

 And so we left the next day for Santo Domingo via Miami and Caracas.

As we waited in the Miami terminal for our Caracas flight, I noticed on the flight board several flights from Miami direct  to Santo Domingo. I actually called the travel agent from the airport and told her what I saw, but she assured me that she had researched it and we still had to go through Caracas. OK!

We boarded the Caracas flight, flew four hours to get there, then spent the night in a hotel that provided security both from the airport and back because of the threat of highway bandits.

Our adventure began again the next day when we arrived at the international part of the Caracas airport, tickets in hand for the flight to Santo Domingo—but as I looked at the flight board, I didn’t see our flight.  Our flight was VE 122 at 9:25am  and the only flight to Santo Domingo on the board was VD 121 at 9:15am.  Well, it was Latin America, so we just thought someone had made a mistake on the tickets. In these pre-9/11 days, those kinds of errors happened occasionally and were usually no big deal.

We had no trouble checking in for VD 121 to Santo Domingo, boarded the plane—a pretty small plane—and took off right on time at 9:15am.  About thirty minutes into the flight, however,  we started to land. Nobody was upset, so I wasn’t either. It didn’t seem to be an emergency. In fact, we picked up a few passengers on this unscheduled stop and then took off about forty-five minutes later.

Finally we arrived in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic—about an hour later than our itinerary said we would—and were met by very gracious, but puzzled missionaries.

After our sincere apologies for being late and causing them so much trouble, I mentioned that we had had an unscheduled stop between Caracas and SD. They said, “Why did you fly through Caracas?”

“Because you have to from Miami.”

“No you don’t! There are six or seven direct flights every day from Miami to Santa Domingo!”

“No way!”

It took only a few more minutes to unravel what had happened . . . . have you figured it out?

Our travel agent had written our tickets for Santo Domingo, VENEZUELA, not Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  Santo Domingo, Venezuela, is a small town buried in the Andes—not where we wanted to go.

The hilarious part is that with our ticket to this little Andean village town, we had managed to the WRONG flight on the WRONG airlines at the WRONG time—and got to our desired destination!

God moves in mysterious ways—and so do Mark and Sherrylee!

I’ve got another LST story about flying to Siberia that I will tell you next.

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Lost Luggage

Summer Mondays are the most exciting day of the week at Let’s Start Talking!  Beginning the first Monday of May and extending through the last Monday of August,  this first day of the work week is a day when we try to make sure that all LST staff members are totally accessible—and, if they are not out of the country on an LST project, they should be in the office.

We discourage taking comp days or vacation days on Summer Mondays.  This year the 4th of July fell on Monday—but the LST office was open!

Summer Mondays require our full attention at LST because Summer Mondays are big travel days, and travel days can be very unpredictable.  Let me explain.

This year LST will organize approximately 120 different short-term mission projects to 25-30 different countries.  Between 60-70% of these projects will happen between May and August. It used to be even more.

For the first twenty-five years, LST was primarily working with university students, so summer months were the only times they were available for short-term missions.  About five years ago, however, we started focusing on recruiting from churches. Not only was the pool of potential workers much larger, but adult church members were not locked into the summer months as the students were, so many could go in the Fall and/or Spring!

In 2010, LST sent twice as many adult church members on LST projects than university students!  In 2011, LST will have recruited, trained, and sent approximately 500 workers, with about 160 of those being college students and the rest being church members.

In spite of this demographic shift, the summer months are still the heaviest travel time.  And because Monday is not only the day of departure for teams, but also the day that all of the student teams return to the U.S., it is the day when things go wrong!

Just a few weeks ago, a campus minister was traveling with his team to China. They flew from their homes to Los Angeles, where they were to catch their international flight.  When you check in for an international flight, the agents always make sure you have a valid passport and the proper visa—because if the airlines take you to a country and you are denied entry, then they have to fly you back immediately at their own expense. (That happened to me once on a flight from Rome to Tirana, Albania, shortly after that country opened up!)

The campus minister and his team made it through security and all the way to their gate, but while they were waiting to board their international flight, someone stole his passport which contained his visa to enter China!  He, of course, could not continue, so they called LST—as they should have—for help.

Well, the team went on without him, but we were able to help him replace his passport and get a replacement visa from the Chinese—and re-book his ticket, so that he was able to fly out on Wednesday—just two days late to his project.  That’s a typical Monday issue for LST.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our church workers in Asia  fell and hurt her back enough that the week before she and her team were to return, she could not sit or walk at all. She actually conducted her reading sessions while lying flat on the couch!  But how does she get to the airport with her luggage, sit in Economy seating for 15-20 travel hours in order to get home from Asia??  To make this particular problem even more interesting , our staff member that was coordinating with her team was in Rwanda, Africa, on her own project. Nevertheless, she did a great job staying in touch with the worker in Asia and our office, so that we were able to get this worker home with minimum discomfort.  That’s a Summer Monday’s work for you!

Flight cancellations for storms or mechanical difficulties are just pretty routine on Mondays. The LST team doesn’t even break a sweat for those blips on the screen, we have faced them so often! Lost luggage and lost tickets are a cake walk!

Right now we are dealing with a harder situation with a new LST site, hosted by American missionaries to an island in the Mediterranean.  We felt like this new work was going to be difficult from the beginning because the church was very small and the avenues for recruiting Readers very limited, so we asked two of our most seasoned workers to go first and try to work out the difficulties. They have done a fabulous job—but it has still been difficult even for them. Many Readers are refugees, others are just short-term visitors to the island, so few of the Readers have been dependable about keeping their appointments.

In addition, the host missionary’s wife has had to have surgery on the island for a pretty serious condition, so both he and she are not able to do all for the project that they certainly had intended to do. Next week a student team of five is scheduled to go to this site, so we have spent the last week trying to decide if they should still go. Today, Summer Monday is the day that we will meet and make that final decision.  Pray that we are wise! If the team does not go, much preparatory work and effort seem lost, and there will be people on the island who do not hear the Good News!

Summer Mondays are great days to watch God work!  

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