New Blog!

Hey everybody.  I just wanted to send out a message to anyone following my Brazil blog to let you know that now that the summer is over, I’ve created a new blog to focus on various important issues at the intersection of science, philosophy, and Bible.  If your interested, you can find and even subscribe to it here: lampstandapologetics.com.

25 things I’ve learned in my 6 months abroad.

Globalization is real and international travel opportunities are really opening up these days, especially for young people in the church.  I have been richly blessed with multiple opportunities to visit Central and South America and Europe.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve completed 6 months  of combined time outside of my homeland in the past few years.  Some of you reading this have lived or traveled abroad for years, while many may have never left your native country.  But in any case, maybe you’d be interested to learn these 25 things I’ve learned in my 6 months abroad.

5 things I’ve learned about the U.S. (because nothing has taught me more about the U.S. than going elsewhere.)

1.The U.S.A. is not truly the best at everything.  Now don’t get me wrong, America is a fantastic place to live, learn, and work.  But pick any of these categories: friendliness, scenery, technology, economic stability, mental health, physical health, medicine, transportation, primary education, receptivity to the gospel, or family values, and I could find a country that ranks above us.

2.America has given me a lot.  Our universities are some of the best in the world.  They teach us HOW to think, not just WHAT to think.  There are also many strong, God-fearing churches, and even some that are effectively tackling my generation’s tough questions.  We are a country full of generous people, and many have helped me get started in life, and that is an invaluable blessing.

3.The economic prosperity we enjoy is staggering.  The poor in America would be considered rich in many, many other places.

4.The U.S. and the U.K. really are the pop culture producers of the world.

5.Americans are paranoid about their rights, but that’s probably why they have maintained so much freedom for so long.

3 Things I’ve learned about traveling.

1.It makes a HUGE difference to the locals if you make the effort to learn even a few basic phrases in their first language.  Take the small amount of time needed to learn how to say things like “Hello,” “Good morning,” and “How are you” correctly and it really will be to your advantage.

2.When traveling, it is not only easier, but also more exciting and rewarding to not make many plans about what to do, and just ask the locals when you get there.

3.If you’re only going to be somewhere once, go ahead and be adventurous and splurge occasionally.

5 things I’ve learned about human civilization.

1.The devil makes the rich and comfortable forget God, or convinces them that they don’t need Him.  He tells them that they are too smart for Him and have risen above religion.

2.On the other hand, he convinces the poor that God will give them everything they ever wanted if they will just serve God, and thus keeps possessions closest to their heart, or he simply convinces them that God doesn’t care about them.

3.Millions of people live happily in socialist economies that serve them well.  Millions more live with socialist economies that are failing them.  The problem is not with the idea, but the implementation.

4.In more developed countries, people have plenty of money but not enough time.  In less developed countries, people have plenty of time but not enough money.

5.Many countries are quite comfortable with alcohol, and instead of vilifying it they actually just treat it like any other beverage.

4 things that I like.

1.I like playing soccer.  Especially four on four on cobblestones.

2.Fish is good raw or slightly smoked.

3.Swiss Army knives are amazing.

4.Açaí fresh from the Amazon is delicious.

6 things about specific countries.

1.France is, in fact, a Latin country.  And outside of Paris, it feels like one.

2.The Irish and Germans are on the whole very friendly people.

3.Belgium is kind of like two random countries (Wallonia and Flanders) that speak two different languages (French and Flemish) that were sandwiched together randomly.

4.Switzerland is staggeringly beautiful and the people there are also a pleasure.

5.It is easy to become friends with Brazilians.

6.Barcelona is in a region called Cataluña with its own unique language and culture separate from the rest of Spain.  For that matter spain is really comprised of seven or so of these different cultures with different dialects.

2 things about people.

1.People all over the world are happy to help you if they can, and will smile at you and brighten your day in the process.

2.Wherever you meet with the Lord’s people, they are sincere, friendly, and welcoming.

Let’s Start Talking Belém 2014 – a Final Report with Numbers

Well, Let’s Start Talking 2014 Belém is coming to a close. 

Six weeks go by fast when you’re having fun.  Last night Sherry, The Fowlers, and I threw a final party.  The Torres’ Skyped in for a while and said hello to their readers and friends.  Then Sherry and I said a few words about each of our readers in attendance, and gave them each a certificate to commemorate their participation in the course.

There is something special about reading God’s word with people.  It can quickly build shared interests and facilitate important conversation.  On top of this, there is something special about the Brazilian people.  You find that they have truly become your wonderful friends in the course of a few weeks.  When you consider these two facts, it should not be surprising that the room was full of tears.

After Sherry and I related our anecdotes, compliments, and gratitude to each of our readers, they returned the favor by taking some time to talk about us.  Rarely in my life have I been showered with so much love and I appreciate their words.  And as readers told Sherry that she was like a mother to them, that she had a big heart, and that she made them feel closer to God by teaching them the truth from the Bible, I know her heart was overflowing.

But enough of the emotional stuff…

Here are some numbers that can give you a better idea of how the project went this year.

We had 4 volunteers including myself who came down for the project.  I put in 6 weeks, Tony and Tammie put in 3 weeks each, and Sherry put in 3 weeks.  That’s the equivalent of one person working 15 weeks.

During that time, we conducted approximately 223 reading sessions that lasted between 45 minutes and and hour.  I’d estimate it was about 200 hours of Bible reading.  In the process of that reading all of our readers improved their English, most them also enjoyed learning about and discussing the Bible, and a few have either visited us at church or signed up for additional study.

We ended up with 27 faithfully attending readers.

In addition to the reading sessions, we threw 6 parties.  The themes were: Soccer, American Pizza, Scavenger Hunt at the Docs, Building Party, American Independence Day, and our final Going Away party.  Our combined attendances from the parties reaches 175.  That’s an average of almost 30 people per party.

But of course, the numbers are simply one way of attempting to gauge something much more important…  The touching of the hearts of these wonderful people in Brazil, and their touching our hearts in return.

A Christian Responds to Brazil vs. Germany

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Being in Brazil while they host the world cup has been an amazing experience.  I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the sport, and enjoyed the electric atmosphere that surrounds the games.  But I’m not here to turn all cultural on you or rave about a game that millions are already fanatical about.  Hopefully as you continue reading all will become clear.

If you’re one of my American friends, I don’t necessarily expect you to have watched the game, and I certainly don’t expect you to have watched the post-loss interview with star player David Luiz.  I’ve really enjoyed watching Luiz play throughout the cup.  He plays with more heart than anyone I’ve ever seen.  Its inspiring.  The short interview can be seen here, and is what many would describe as a “heartbreaker.”

Luiz struggles to talk as tears stream down his face and his voice is strained by overwhelming emotion.  I know what many of you are thinking: Its just a game!  And you’re right, but this player isn’t just crying about a game.  He’s crying because he feels the weight of the identity of a nation on his shoulders.  Listen to his words:

I just wanted to see my people smile. We all know how important it was for me to see all of Brazil be happy, at least because of football.”

Those words really impacted me.  I’ve been told that David Luiz is evangelical, a generic term that is thrown around a lot here.  I have no way of judging the sincerity of his faith and no desire to. But I found myself wanting to take him by the shoulders and tell him:

David, the people DO have something wonderful to smile about!  Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, delivered himself over to die on a cross so that they could be pardoned!  God Almighty, the Creator of the universe, welcomes every single last one of them to be a part of his Holy Nation, and to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  He wants to change their lives from the inside out.  He wants to teach them about healthy relationships, strong marriages, honesty, peace, and joy.  And salvation!  We derive our value not from the fact that we are Americans, Brazilians, or Germans, but from the fact that we are made in God’s image and invited to His feast.

I think that sports will always occupy the deepest, most passionate parts of the hearts of millions.  We need a group to belong to.  We need something to reassure us that we are valuable, that we are part of an elite community.  We desperately want something to celebrate, an excuse to throw a party.

Well, God’s family has a feast each week commemorating their savior, who vanquished DEATH, of all opponents, and enriches their lives daily.

Really, my friend Miguel said it better than anyone as we were watching the game.  Germany had just finished their startling unanswered 4 goal streak in about 20 minutes.  And honestly, it was sad, to see these men who had worked so hard and who carried the pride of a nation on their shoulders, to fall so swiftly.  There is some merit to feeling disappointed when you’ve worked hard and now your season is ended before you planned.  I’m not knocking anyone who has ever cried over a game.

But as the TV screen showed shot after shot of heartbroken Brazilians with tears streaming down their faces, many of the people I was with were actually having a great time with each other, reading the Bible verses that were printed on the little candies that Jonah had brought out for us, translating them for each other from English into Portuguese.  We were smiling and laughing, and my friend Miguel remarked,

“all of Brazil is crying, and here we are laughing, because we’ve got Jesus.” 

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.  Thank God that we don’t have to base our identities on the performance of a group of men in a certain color jersey that we’ve never even met.  Thank God we don’t have to base our identity even on our closest friends and loved ones.  And thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, that Brazilians, and people everywhere DO have something to smile about.  They really DO, David Luiz.  We just need to get the word out to them.

A report on the last two weeks: busy, productive, and rewarding.

The last two weeks have been very busy. Sherry arrived on a Sunday, and we began on Monday having reading sessions with all of the readers that had previously been divided between Tony, Tammie, and me. On top of that, we have a few new readers. What a blessing to have our days absolutely full of enriching conversations with Brazilian friends!

Our party last week was a Building Party. We used mixer games to build friendships and then we had a competition to build a tower out of spaghetti, tape, and string. Everyone really enjoyed it. The great thing about Brazilians is that it isn’t “uncool” to be silly and play games. Quite the opposite! Brazilians are skillful party goers because they come ready to have fun and participate in activities.

This weeks party was huge! We hosted it at the church building because there simply isn’t enough room here at the apartment. We went all out with American decorations, American barbecue, and American July 4th games. We had 50 guests at our American Independence Day celebration and it was definitely a fun time. One that thing we want to demonstrate to demonstrate as an LST team is that Christians can have fun, too. I think we are succeeding wildly in this! I vaguely remember crawling into bed around midnight after a full day of hard work.

It’s hard to believe that we only have one more week of LST! After 6 parties and countless hours of reading and talking with so many friends, I know it will be sad to say goodbye. I’ll be staying in Brazil for a couple more weeks to shadow Nick, help the Fowler’s however they need, be with the local church, and maybe have some other unique Brazilian experiences along the way.

This is primarily an LST trip, but its been great interacting with the members of the local congregation as well. Visiting their houses, teaching class for them on Sundays, discussing their personal Bible questions, practicing my Portuguese, and working alongside them in various capacities including the hosting of LST parties has been a real pleasure.

Sherry put on a Ladies’ Day at the church this morning with about 16 participants. I don’t know much about their super secret lady’s-only proceedings, but I’m told it was a great event and that all of the female members of our congregation attended, bringing friends with them.

As always, it’s been hot but rewarding!

Mrs. Sherry arrives!

With much sadness the Torres’ have returned to the United States.  We had a fun event Thursday night to send them off before their plane left on Friday.  Twenty six were in attendance and we had fun with a photo scavenger hunt at “Estacão Das Docas” (the Dock Station).  There were many sad goodbyes and earnest requests from readers that they consider returning next year if possible.

It was a pleasure to work with the Torres’ for three weeks for many reasons.  They are good cooks, hard workers, experienced event planners, and they have a real heart for evangelism.  Having Tony around to strike up impromptu Bible studies and eagerly show relevant passages on different topics was an encouragement to several here.  Tamie was alway busy doing what needed to be done to make life go smoothly in our apartment.

With the Torres’ safely home, Mrs. Sherry has arrived!  She has really hit the ground running and been busy settling in, helping to plan our next social event, and learning her reading schedule which she is eager to begin with her readers.

It has been nice to work with others this summer as compared to the solo project last year.  This broadens our range of talents and abilities as a team and creates a more energetic atmosphere.  Its also important for me, as someone who is interested is some type of future ministry, to learn what I can about working closely with people each day as a means of furthering God’s work.

The LST project is now halfway over, and I’ve had a great time so far learning about the culture from the locals, seeing local sights, watching World Cup games, reading each day with my readers who are eager to practice English and discuss the next passage from the book of Luke, getting to know the local church better and having the opportunity to speak to them, witnessing three baptisms, picking up more Portuguese, seeing what Nicholas does each day, and many other things!

Don’t forget to pray for us!  Thank you.

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Let me tell you about three baptisms!

In the book of Ephesians we are told that God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, so what I’ve seen this past month shouldn’t surprise me.  Still, I had no idea that in my first four weeks in Brazil, I would see three brothers baptized into Christ!  These great events are still sinking in…

The church here in Belém now has 5 regularly attending baptized men.  The Fowlers, their previous partners the Kings, and perhaps some other people along the way have planted and watered, and God Himself has changed their hearts and given the increase.

Today I saw two young men ages 17 and 15 who wanted the true baptism commanded in the Bible.  These young men had spent their lives surrounded by people that told them they were okay the way they were, but they had the kind of genuine faith that simply looks at the message in the text and accepts it.  There was room in their hearts for God’s words to find a home.  They were willing to subject their own wills to His.

May we all be like them.  May we look to their example and do likewise.  May we say to the Lord what Jesus said in the garden of Gethsemane “nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done.”  If it requires that I give up my pride, nevertheless, Your will be done.  If it forces me out of my comfort zone, nevertheless, Your will be done.  If it means trusting You through storms I never thought I’d have to weather, nevertheless Your will be done.

Earlier this week I saw another man baptized into Christ.  He had heard some teaching by Nicholas’ partner Brian many months ago, and the idea of going back to the Bible had resonated with him.  He stopped by to talk to Nicholas a few months later when he saw the outreach facility in Belém and remembered that the men had been partners.

The rest is history.  Much study, and much personal conviction.  He told us that the night before he decided to be baptized he lay awake, talking to his wife until after 2 AM, trying to process this unshakeable notion that He needed to make his life right with God now.

That kind of cost-counting is prescribed in Luke 14:25-33, and it is encouraging to see my brother taking the message of the gospel so seriously.  We do not commit ourselves to Christ because everyone else is doing it.  We do not commit ourselves to Christ because our parents expect us to.  We do not commit ourselves to Christ because He has become our favorite hobby.  Rather, we commit ourselves to Christ when we are forced to the crisis point, when we must process that unshakeable feeling that the Word of God produces that we must make our lives right with Him now.

And maybe some of us need to recommit ourselves to Him.  Maybe we need another crisis in our lives.  Whatever you are struggling with, open up the Word to the passages that address this topic and ask yourself, do I accept this teaching completely?  Count the cost, and make the leap.

Let’s celebrate with our new brothers, and with the Fowlers on this great news.  Let’s pray for our new brothers and their futures which, like these past few weeks, could very well turn out better than we even could have thought to ask.  And let us learn from their examples.  All over the world, people are counting the cost and making the leap.  Won’t you be one of them?

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Filling the shoes of a teacher.

Recently a Christian brother who faithfully attends the congregation here in Belém asked me if he could sit down with me some time to talk about some questions he had about the Bible.  We arranged a time, and with Nicholas translating, we talked for a couple of hours.  We discussed about half of his questions that night and were able to sit down again recently and discuss the remaining questions.

Topics ranged from the alleged miracles being performed by some famous preachers around here, to dealing with the guilt of past mistakes, to dinosaurs and the creation and historical accounts in the Bible, to angles and their function today, to many other topics.

Some of the questions were basic and simple to answer, but many of them were not.  Here are my thoughts after the experience.

1)  I am convicted that I need to do a better job of knowing where a verse is and not just what it says.  With every question, I found myself wanting to simply respond with “well, the Bible says this,” but that is exactly the kind of behavior that has led millions astray.

False teachers all over the world are telling people “the Bible says this…” but a teacher of truth takes a seeker to a passage and lets that passage speak for itself.  It is the duty of a good teacher to make sure the seeker understands: “do not trust anything I say, but examine the verses that I show you, and reach your own conclusions.”

This kind of teaching produces a genuine faith in the seeker, and eliminates much of the possibility that the teacher will preach heresy, whether knowingly or by accident.

2)  I’ve given private council to friends and loved ones before, but this was the first experience quite like this that I’ve ever had.  My brother in Christ looked to me as a leader in the church.  He views me as a minister of the word, with theological training, who has come from the United States to help strengthen his congregation.  Even though he is several years older than I am, he looks to me for spiritual guidance.

What an incentive to live of a life of integrity, so that I may preach the truth without hindrance!  What a responsibility to know the truth and convey it accurately and effectively!  As God blesses me with the opportunities to become a teacher, I must remember the words of one of James:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (3:1)”

Even Paul said:

“No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:27)”

3)  It’s so refreshing to see a brother who is so interested in learning more!  He came with a list of several questions already written down, and he had spent time pondering each one of these questions recently.  His curiosity was overflowing.

How many of us have lost that hunger to learn about God?  Surely the mysteries of Christ, the complexities and profundities and subtleties and unsearchable wisdom of our God give us plenty to be curious about!  Knowing the facts about what God’s word clearly teaches is essential and wonderful, but don’t forget that the Bible is much more than just a formula from which we can deduce the rules that the true church follows.

The Bible develops a worldview for us that is more logically consistent, more profound, more intellectually satisfying and yet more paradoxical and unsearchable, than any other religion, book, or teacher on earth.  Let’s not lose the hunger for spiritual knowledge.

I look forward to many more experiences like this if God gives me more years of life, that I may become more familiar with the locations of helpful passages, that I may grow into the role of a teacher of the Bible, and that I may have reawakened in my own mind the hunger to know God and to seek His face.

What happens when the newness wears off??

I love the unknown.  I love new foods and languages and experiences.  And while this certainly wasn’t the main or only reason why I came to Brazil, it was a factor.

So what happens when you’ve tried the foods, you’ve learned those basic little phrases like “how are you” and “good afternoon,” and you’ve seen the local sights and smelled the local smells?

Counting my six weeks last year, I am currently starting my 9th week in Brazil.  For me, the food is fantastic, but much of it is no longer new.  The language is a pleasure to learn, but I’ve moved past the enjoyment of using basic phrases to the hard work of actually trying to have useful conversations about practical matters.  The city is an intriguing place, but I’ve seen most of its sites.  And when the thrill wears off, certain realities start to sink in… Example: it’s HOT here all the time!

So here’s what I’m getting at: an appreciation for the new is good, but it can never take the place of those things that ought to be permanent and unshakeable in our hearts.  The heart of man is empty without God.  Our human nature is to be hungry, but this aspect of our nature can easily be misdirected.

Some people travel the world for years or even decades, always on the move, afraid to stay in one place long enough to lose that sense of newness.  Some people live vicariously through children, dreaming that all of their suppressed aspirations will be fulfilled in their offspring.  Some people base their happiness on a spouse or significant other, thus burdening this other with the weight of providing what only God truly can.

There’s a line in an Avett Brothers song that goes like this:

“So when you run make sure you run
To something, and not away from,
‘Cause lies don’t need an aeroplane
To chase you anywhere.”

Its an artistic way of saying: wherever you go, you will take your own personal life with you.

Have you been running from the truth of a personal emptiness by filling it with ever-changing, ever-not-quite-adequate experiences, relationships, sins, or obsessions?

Wherever you are, physically and spiritually, God is waiting to fill that hole.  And He, unlike new foods, languages or experiences; unlike children and spouses; unlike political agendas, chemical addictions, hobbies, hopes, or dreams…  He satisfies.  His mercies are new every morning.

‘The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’’’ – Lamentations 3.

A Great Week!

So much has happened in the last five days.  We’ve completed our first week of reading sessions, and really enjoyed it.  The one-on-one nature of Let’s Start Talking is really fun because it is so conducive to the formation of genuine friendships and natural conversations.

On Thursday night, we had our first social event.  There were 21 in attendance and everyone had a great time.  It doesn’t hurt that my teammates are professional cooks/event planners!  You could tell that they have some serious experience with event execution.

We decorated outside the Fowler’s house with streamers ad balloons, and enjoyed sandwiches, cookies, and popcorn as we played pictionary with a large group of church members, LST participants, and friends.
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Worshipping with the church this morning was great!  After a great deal of time and effort, we finally have power in the new church building.  Each Sunday morning, the church shares breakfast before having an open Bible study, worship, and a sermon.  Today we had the treat of hearing sermons from two of the members, Miguel and Felipe.  Its fantastic to see two capable leaders besides Nicholas in this young congregation!  I was very encouraged to hear their lessons.

Other activities that we shared with our readers this week included visiting a beautiful theater to see a free performance by a string quartet and percussion group, walking through a zoo full of Amazonian plants and animals, and having a great lunch today.  Its nice to have friends who want to share these experiences with us.