Counting your “growth rings”
Final thoughts from Brad -
If you had to look back over your life to see what had been accomplished, how would you measure your growth? How many awards you won? How much money you made? How many years you have been married? It seems like a simple question…or is it?
During a church service the last night we were in Guatemala, Pastor Juan asked if anyone in our group wanted to come say any closing words. I stood up and thanked them for another great week in Guatemala. I wanted them to know how much they all meant to us. I used the example of tree rings on a tree; how looking at a cross section of a tree revealed “growth rings”. These rings generally coincide with the age of a tree. In most cases you can simply count the rings to tell the age…a ring for every year.
Before I wrote this post, I did some research on growth rings. Many sources talked about how rings can vary in thickness. In a year of much water and ideal conditions, the ring is wider and more distinct. But, in a year marked by severe drought, the ring can be quite thin. Looking out at the members of Juan’s church, my rings are wide. I see people I have come to love, children who are growing up, faces that have become so familiar, and people I hope to see next year. The tree characterized in my life is stronger because of my time in Guatemala. More on this later…
As usual, it was exciting to see how God built this year’s team. He never does it the same way, and it is always for the best. As always, having Scott with me is an amazing blessing. We have been through five trips together now, and it always gets better. He is like a strong oak tree that I am anchored to. Having John along for a second year was a treat. His quiet, yet insightful heart is always encouraging to everyone in the group. I had been praying that Keith would go for years. When he said he wanted to go, I was excited. In the build-up to the trip, Keith and his wife Debbie blew the doors off on fundraising and backpacks. They walked down the street of their neighborhood and God made some incredible connections. Tim was another great addition to the team. Tim is probably one of the hardest working men I know. Last year when I talked about our trip to our Bible study group at church, he told me that he thought he wanted to go. He and his wife Rita worked extra hard as well at fundraising, and made so much of what we did in Guatemala possible. The two surprises were Rick Fulton and John Mitchell, both from Iowa. Rick had been to Guatemala before with Bethel and reconnected this year when Chris and Donna visited Iowa. He helped collect wheelchairs later in the year, which brought us together. While I like to keep my teams small, I really felt God telling me to invite Rick. Boy, am I glad I did. What an incredible blessing he was. He asked if he could invite John. I was so happy he did. I want to take a moment to tell you what John means to my family, and how amazing God truly is.
Almost seven years ago, we brought Mia home from China. It was one of the most challenging times for me. We knew she had a clubbed foot, but we were surprised to discover she had a tethered spinal cord. It meant that Mia would face many health challenges in life. I knew that God was faithful and would work all things together for His good will, but how? I knew God had the power to miraculously heal her. I prayed for that. One night while I was praying in Mia’s room, God showed me that while He could instantly heal her, He would change more lives and display even more power by allowing Mia to continue in her condition. God would work in the lives of the doctors, nurses, other parents and friends that we would encounter through her life. This was a hard thing for me to hear in the flesh. Parents never want their children to go through tough times. But, I knew God was good! So, I thanked God for His mercy and grace and prayed that one day I could see lives changed because of her condition. I had to wait almost seven years (you just have to wait a few more minutes…keep reading).
Holly heard about an amazing doctor in Iowa, Dr. Ponsetti. He was the 91year old doctor who created the technique of club-foot casting, where the foot is returned to the proper position through a series of casts. At the end of the procedure, a brace was necessary to keep the foot in position at night. A man named John Mitchell created the brace that Mia used. We had the chance to talk to John for a few minutes when we were in Iowa. John said that he and his wife were going to adopt from Guatemala. Years later, Holly emailed them about Bethel Ministries International (BMI) and encouraged them to contact them if they had time to volunteer in some way. I later heard from Chris that John had been helping Bethel, and he had taken groups of people to work. But, I never knew the extent of what he was doing. John’s story of his life, business creating foot braces, and his promise to give back to God so much of what he earned to help others is absolutely amazing. John started a foundation called “On His Path” in which he distributes the money he and others donate to help the widows and orphans around the world (I encourage you to visit the website).
Now fast forward to our time in Guatemala. Several of us were sitting in the van together waiting to drive to our first work site of the day. John and I were telling the other men about how we met. I had been watching John bless other people’s lives through his extreme generosity over the past few days. I had heard about how many projects had been accomplished over the past four years in Guatemala because of his foundation. All of the sudden it hit me. Why was John sitting in that van? How did he get connected to Bethel? Why were so many people blessed by God’s working through John…my daughter Mia! Remember that prayer seven years ago? Remember the answer I got from God (He would bless many more people through her affliction than her healing)? It overwhelmed me. I could not stop the tears. God did not have to show me this, but He did. Thank you God! I can still see Mia’s bedroom the night I prayed. It will never leave me. It will serve as a “growth ring” in my life. Some rings are “wide”!!!
A couple of years ago, Scott and I asked Chris to allow us to choose one area of Guatemala and focus on it. I told this story at the end of last year’s trip. But, our goal was to focus on one church, one group of people, one town...Tecpan. This week, we visited several families we worked with in the past. We found encouragement, but also challenge. Berta’s husband “Luis” is much worse in his alcoholism. He continues to spiral. But, she has a personal strength only possible through Christ. Her kids all show the psychological scars that accompany having an abusive father, yet they continue to excel in school. God gave us the opportunity to look into their eyes and encourage them to continue to work hard in school, and serve the one “Father” that will never leave them, nor forsake them. They have financial needs we were able to meet, keeping them in school and allowing Berta to feed them. Another time, we also spoke to a 13-year old boy who cannot go to school or church because he works seven days a week carrying very heavy loads around town, all because his father abandoned them. Can you imagine your 13-year old doing this? Someone in America has the financial means to change this. Could it be you? God changed his heart. You can help change his circumstance!
The “ONIL” stove project continues to be a huge blessing. People breathe smoke inside their homes, which damages their lungs and eyes. For $300, we built a kitchen and installed a stove that literally changed their lives. While installing a stove for a woman, we met little “Claudia”. She is the one who saw Chris and thought he was “Michaelito”. She was so sweet. She served as a reminder of why we do this. Four years ago, someone came to Guatemala to build a house. They left such an impression, she will not forget it. She may not remember the face, but the day impressed her heart. It’s not about us anyway. It’s about God. He is the one who arranges the circumstances. He is the “One” who gets the glory. We just get the privilege of being the people who get the hugs, the smiles and the chance to carry out His will.
Having Juana with us in Louisville for the past few months did so much towards encouraging me to a build another house. She told me of how critical it is to have a safe, warm place for your children to lay their heads at night. We take it for granted, but having adequate housing is a huge need. A relatively small price for a huge blessing! The family we built for had been sleeping in a cold, wet, breezy shack for 24 years. Can you imagine that? Her kids had been sick so many times over the years. Her 8-month old currently has pneumonia. Well, all of that changed with the house. I have to give Maureen Wagner a lot of credit for how we decorated and dedicated the house (hot mits, sheets, and kitchen tools…things guys don’t normally think of). When we dedicated the home, the mom commented that she never imagined how wonderful the house would be. I am thankful they have a place to truly call “home”. I am also thankful they have a dad who decided to stop drinking, to be present and who finally decided to be the dad God gave him the privilege of being. Imagine how wide of a growth ring that will be for his entire family!
I was grateful for the chance to step outside of my comfort zone during the week, when I took the time to walk over and visit a family I saw smoke pouring out of the kitchen because of their wood fire. When John and I walked over, we discovered they not only needed a stove, but they had two children who desperately wanted to go to school. Because of the generosity of one of the men in our group, by the end of the day, both kids were enrolled in school. I left them with a Bible. I challenged the 14-year old girl to work hard in school to learn to read. Why? Not just to get a good job, but to read the Bible to her family…to begin to plant the roots “deep” for their spiritual growth.
God has been putting a burden on my heart over the past couple of years, and that is of “Biblical training” of pastors in Guatemala. As we were leaving one of the homes, the mom commented that she had been praying for many years about the specific item we brought her. I told her that God truly does hear prayers. She said that the pastor of her church told her that “God did not hear your prayers unless you were inside of a church.” What pastor would say this? What man who was interested in the truth of Christ would say that to anyone? I was heartbroken and angry!!! Where does something like this come from? I asked Chris whether he thought this was from a lack of Biblical knowledge or a cold, selfish pastor. He said both. Just like in America, there are pastors who are only in it for themselves. But, there are others who just don’t have true knowledge and understanding of what is in the Bible. The inadequate knowledge comes from two problems, both preventable: 1.) In America, it is because we have chosen “not” to read the Bible; 2.) In Guatemala, it is because many “can’t” read the Bible. This woman was under a huge burden from this false teacher because she was not aware of what the Bible truly says about God: who He is, who we are, and what He demands and desires for our lives. If she was able to read the Bible, she could have easily known what this man was saying was untrue. That is why I so desperately want the younger generation to go to school in Guatemala. They need an education: for a good job, but to also READ THE BIBLE. But, how was I able to so confidently dismiss what this man said in Guatemala? Because I decided some time ago, by God’s grace that I needed to read it as well. My prayer is that 14-year old Sylvia learns to read, and creates a “growth ring” for her family.
I am also excited about the new chicken coop project that Bethel began this year. We constructed two chicken coups for families, gave them 50 chickens, and the feed and supplies necessary to begin selling the eggs. I was so encouraged when I received an email from Chris saying that all 100 chickens were laying eggs!!! This will be a huge blessing to everyone involved.
I am also thankful for the continued blessing we have found in the members of Juan’s church. For the third year, we hosted a dinner. It happened to be their 21st Anniversary as a church. We donated a power point projector which they immediately put to use by putting the lyrics to songs and Juan’s sermon notes on the wall for everyone to see (real helpful since we don’t speak Spanish). We had three chances to worship with them. I had the chance to preach on “Forgiveness and Fellowship”. For the second year, Scott taught at the men’s cross-cultural Bible study. We were also encouraged by seeing Blanca and her daughters, who have become like daughters to us. Looking out at the church that final night, telling them what they meant to us, felt really good inside. It was closure on another year…one more “growth ring” on the tree of my life story.
I want to take one last moment to share my hope for you. I am truly blessed to have experienced what is going on in Guatemala, but you can experience that same thing as well right here at home. If you were to look back on your life, what would the growth rings look like? Would they be full because of the richness of your life with Christ and your family, or would they be thin and narrow because of a drought…a persistent drought that seems never ending. It all begins with your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To understand “who you are”, you have to begin with “who He is”. How we are all separated from Him by our sin and personal rebellion; and because of that, death entered the world, physical and spiritual. He did not leave us there. The wages (payment) we deserve for that is death, but He paid the price so that we don’t have to experience that judgment. How did He resolve this dilemma? Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. Some people think it was the mere fact that Jesus died on the cross. It was so much more than that. At that moment, He was actually paying the price for the sin that WE committed. He bore the full wrath of God’s punishment, so we don’t have to! So, when time on this earth is done, when God looks at each one of us, He will see one of two things: “Forgiven” or “Judged”. It is a choice each of us has to make…individually. This is not about what church you belong to, what clothes you wear or what color your skin is (every tribe and tongue will be represented). This is about the God who loves us so much that He sent a gift from Heaven to pay the price for what you and I did. But, to receive this gift, you must accept it. You can reject it, but I pray you don’t. As always, if you don’t know about this mercy given by God, I would love to buy you a cup of coffee and tell you more. I promise you it will be a tremendous growth ring for you and your family.
Finally, I want to thank all of the people who have supported us through prayer, financial donations and caring words. I have received encouraging emails and had people approach me about how much they loved reading the blog. It truly does make a difference to hear from you.
It has been another wonderful year. By God’s grace, I hope to add another “growth-ring” next year. Who knows, maybe someone reading this will want to go along as well. Just let me know…
Dios te Bendiga,