Midwest Island Missions

My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.

Isaiah 51:5

In 2010, a Bible class in the Adams-Friendship area, offered by pastors from St. Paul’s in Mauston, led to worship services with a core group of about twenty members or so. Today this second site of St. Paul’s has grown, by God’s grace, into a thriving mission of about 130 souls. We lease an old day care building that is too small to meet all our needs, and yet people keep coming back, and the Word continues to be proclaimed. St. Paul’s in Mauston, which pioneered this mission and still partners with it as one congregation in two locations, has been working hard with the members in Adams-Friendship to fund ministry, a full time mission pastor, and even a new church building. Many congregations throughout the state have also contributed to a building fund so that work can continue to move forward, and God-willing expand as we move into a larger and more versatile facility in the near future.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church – Mauston, WI

When I received the call to serve as mission pastor to St. Paul’s in Adams-Friendship, I was curious to know what a relatively new mission startup was doing smack dab in the middle of what I had always assumed was a very churched (and very WELSy) part of our country. I was surprised to learn that in Adams County, in the heart of Wisconsin, only about 15-20 percent of the population claimed any connection to a church. On top of this, St. Paul’s was the only WELS congregation located in Adams County. St. Paul’s in Mauston saw the chance to share Jesus with this “island” of unchurched people in the heart of the Midwest, and as I considered the call I began to see what a wonderful opportunity this was to reach the lost.

Two months have passed since I arrived, and the opportunities I was told about were not exaggerations. I’ve shared the freedom of the gospel with people battling drug and alcohol dependency. I’ve spoken with jail inmates and former inmates about the cycle of sin and God’s solution in Christ. I’ve witnessed baptisms in a garage, heard testimony from men and women recovering from abuse and broken families, and I’ve seen kids discover a very different message than what they hear all around them. There are people in Adams County struggling with broken families, addiction, financial hardship, depression, anger, and loss. And amidst this sea of grief and pain, St. Paul’s stands ready to share eternal hope and a temporal change in perspective through the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Jasper Sellnow and his family

This rural mission is a reminder that God’s Word still has much work to do in the heartland, even in places we might normally overlook. Congregations can identify the needs of the communities around them and perhaps discover untapped mission fields right in their backyard (or neighboring county). And as St. Paul’s in Mauston discovered, you can sacrifice a little so that even without full Synod mission funding, new churches can be planted and God’s Word can be shared. The lost and hurting are all around us, even on the “islands” in the Midwest. God grant us wisdom and love as we share the hope we have in Jesus.

Rev. Jasper Sellnow lives in Friendship, WI with his wife, Sarah, and their five children. He serves St. Paul’s Mauston & Adams-Friendship, working primarily as the mission pastor in Adams County.

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Introducing Ourselves – One Taco at a Time

“What restaurant are you from?” a man asked me.

I said, “We’re not a restaurant. We’re a church!”

For three years running, Bethel Lutheran Church in Menasha, WI has set up a small taco kiosk during community festivals. This year’s Latinofest turned a beautiful Fall weekend into a mission opportunity.

Both Anglo and Latino members make plans months in advance. Still, the week before the event always sees a flurry of activity – marinating the pork in a bright-red blend of chilies and spices, buying and chopping bulk onions, cilantro, and limes, reigniting the friendly debate over the best size and brand of corn tortillas to get from the Mexican grocery store.

Everything must be fresh and authentic!

The night before the event, a salsa-making party fills the church kitchen with the smells of a creamy salsa verde (green) and an eye-watering salsa roja (red). Finally, it’s show-time: The meat is stacked with great care on a vertical spit called a trompo and then fire-roasted until crispy. No one can resist watching the taco meat go ‘round and ‘round as it cooks on our two machines – or the delicious smell that floats through the festival and brings in a long line of curious gringos and Latino families.

The food is simple, and the price is kept low – just enough to cover our costs. (Any additional proceeds are reinvested into supplies for future Hispanic outreach events.) The reason we’re there is not to make money. We’re there to tell our Latino neighbors that Iglesia Betel (Bethel Church) is a church that loves them, offers many free services to them, wants them to hear God’s Word in their native language, and proclaims salvation through Jesus alone.

That’s why every plate of tacos is served up with a small invitation to join other Spanish-speakers for worship every Sunday at noon or for bi-weekly English classes, which wrap up with a prayer or Spanish Bible Study.

Each year so far, our kiosk has been staffed by an even blend of Anglos and Latinos, and the group always works together like a well-oiled machine. Those volunteers gave up a beautiful Fall afternoon to serve tacos, all because they wanted to introduce their neighbors to our bilingual church. Their work made it possible for me to spend the day talking with the folks who passed by, answering their questions, and inviting them to worship – whether in English or in Spanish.

Written by: Pastor Phil Hunter, Bethel Lutheran Church in Menasha, WI

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The Gates of Hell Cannot Prevail

Looking out of our 36th floor apartment in Hong Kong gives us a good view of everyday life in our corner of Asia. In early September, the soccer field in Sycamore Park was re-purposed for use in a Hungry Ghost Festival – a traditional festival also held in other Asian countries. An ornate temple was set up on one end of the park, and a theatre graced the other end. A large furnace sat looming on the side. This bustling activity was accompanied by many other sights and smells happening around the city.

The smell of burning joss paper in small red cans filled the air in some areas – providing money for dead relatives to use in the afterlife.

Rice, pork, fruit, wine and other foods were put out on sidewalks and tables in front of buildings for the ravenous spirits wandering the earth.

People believe that during this lunar month, the gates of hell open and the restless spirits of their ancestors come out. They believe that supplying food, paper images of money, and clothes for the spirits of dead relatives will not only take care of them in the afterlife, but will also bring blessing to them in this life. Neglecting them can bring misfortune. All other hungry ghosts are released – as if on parole from prison. They too roam around unseen and need to be appeased.

In the Sycamore playground seen from our balcony, people were burning incense and waving it before the shrine set up to appease their gods. In one ceremony, Daoist priests led people from station to station. Operas were put on to entertain these visitors from the dead as well as to celebrate the deeds of those considered gods. To end the festival, a 15-foot long paper image of a spirit god was paraded to the entrance of the furnace, stuffed in, and swallowed by the flames.

In part, you come to respect a culture which honors commitment to family, shows respect and obedience to elders, and keeps alive the memory of ancestors. With this festival, it’s hard to know how many believe in the interaction with the dead and how many simply see this rite as part of their duty to honor relatives in their traditional ways. It poses a challenge for the Christian who wants to respect a cultural heritage, while also making sure people know the beautiful comfort and hope that is in Christ.

There is a spiritual world out there. People feel it and fear it. The Bible talks about it.

Yet, what cultural religions do and what the Bible reveals often don’t match. The Bible talks about the angels and demons that affect our lives by fighting for our souls – the angels as messengers of God that protect us, and the devil and dark forces of the heavenly realms that draw us away from God. Unlike the hungry ghosts, Scripture helps us understand that those who have died are not the ones troubling or blessing us. Their existence is not in limbo, nor are they ones who bring us luck or trouble.

Multi-Language Publications continues to provide resources to all people in East Asia – helping them realize that in Christ, we find the peace and comfort for life after death. Those who die in him have found rest. Only in the risen Christ do we understand that our own resurrection brings us to the presence of God himself – where blessings are lavished on us because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, not because we have caring relatives who remember us. In Christ, we are convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is our daily peace.

The gates of hell cannot prevail against that.

By: David Kehl, Multi-Language Publications – Asia Coordinator

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Picking Up The Cloak and Going On

When Elijah went up, Elisha went on.

On the same day, God brought them both to a significant juncture: the Lord called Elijah homeward–his work was done. Elisha moved onward–because his wasn’t.

The sights and sounds were phenomenal; it must have been an amazing event to witness.

So was the June 2nd Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) graduation1 in Lilongwe, Malawi even though there was no whirlwind or chariot and horsemen of fire. That day was remarkably momentous. Not just because the students received a well-deserved diploma and congratulatory handshake, but because (in a sense) each one “picked up the cloak” and moved on.

The cloak?

Go back for a moment to 2 Kings 2:13. It’s there on the ground. But because of the attention-grabbing whirlwind and the “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” chariot and horsemen of fire, we sometimes miss the cloak.

Let’s not overlook it anymore.

The cloak had been Elijah’s. It had fallen when the old prophet ascended.2 It was the same cloak that Elijah had just previously rolled up and used to smack the waters.3 It wouldn’t be all that incredible had not the waters divided and dry ground appeared.

“My father!  My father!  The chariot and horsemen of Israel!”4

 And just like that, Elijah was gone.

Keep in mind, it’s not just any person who had left the scene. The person who is gone is Elisha’s spiritual father, his teacher and mentor! The one with whom he had spent time and built a relationship. This meant no more chats or discussions; no more opportunities to ask questions. No longer can Elisha sit at Elijah’s feet and learn from him. Might Elisha be feeling a bit alone? Inadequate? Intimidated? Elijah is gone. Gone! Ah, but look – his cloak isn’t! Elisha sees it and picks it up…

And goes on.

In a sense, the LBI students have done the same. They have gone on. But before they did so, they (like Elisha) picked up the cloak.

For three years they walked and talked with their “spiritual fathers.” But now the time is over with their teachers and mentors.  No longer will they study the Gospel of John with Pastor Panning or speak Greek with Pastor Nitz. They won’t learn any more biology with Professor Mwakatika or Pastoral Theology with Professor Kumchulesi.

Though a new class is coming to the LBI in September, the work of the professors is done for this particular group of “prophets’ sons.” Look, the cloak has fallen from the professor’s shoulders, and these nine students of the Word have picked it up.  They are off and running. A “passing of the baton” of sorts. Soon they will be found in Lusaka, Zambia in yet another classroom for three years.

God-willing, in 2020 these nine men will become full time called workers in the Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA). Academically speaking, these men have run a marathon already… but the road ahead of them is equally long. Won’t you take a moment to offer a prayer on their behalf?

If you’d like, you can simply use the one the hymnist wrote:5

God of the prophets, bless the prophet’s sons;
Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast.
Each age its solemn task may claim but once;
Make each one better, nobler than the last.
Anoint them prophets, men who are intent
To be your witnesses in word and deed,
Their hearts aflame, their lips made eloquent,
Their eyes awake to ev’ry human need.

“The mantle has been cast.” Keep in mind this mantle is not so much a swath of cloth but a symbol of something far greater. Elisha had begged for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah’s spirit was nothing less than God’s power and strength. And got it! He simply wanted to go on in the same power that Elijah had been given. He wanted to be able to do the Lord’s work and do it well.

And he did. Because the power was not from Elijah, it was from God.

Just as the Lord had given Elijah what he needed to do his work, the same Lord would equip the new man who would follow. Elisha would go on in the strength of the Lord.  He was, well, cloaked in it! Wrapped up in the grace of God!

So are the nine students who have graduated.

Yes, they have picked up the mantle and gone on. The campus is now quiet. The students and their families are gone. The only things that linger are memories and pictures of that graduation day. Oh, and the tree that they planted.

All in all, it was indeed a special event. But even though those nine young men were all wearing brand new suits and received unanimous recommendation to go on to the Seminary, we realize…

It really wasn’t about them.

It wasn’t even about their professors. And most certainly it was not about the piece of paper they can now frame and hang on their wall.

It was about Jesus Christ, our living God and Savior! It was all about the Lord who gives the power and abilities to teach and to learn. It was our gracious God who called each man to be in the place where God wanted him to be. All along it was the Lord who was daily strengthening faith, forgiving sins, equipping and empowering these students and their teachers “in the spirit of Elijah.”

That’s good to know when you reach your own significant juncture in life. Maybe you’re there right now. Or, perhaps one is right around the corner. There may come a time when someone special in your life leaves you behind. Not necessarily through death, but that may be the case too. It may be that that someone special in your life is called by God to go in a different direction than you thought–or hoped. But chances are, you may at least for a while, feel alone. Lonely. Perhaps intimidated by the work that God has called you still to do. You may wonder how to move forward with the gifts you have–or don’t have.

The answer is there, but it’s easy to overlook.

Sometimes the things that are the most near to us are the things we don’t see. What has been with us all along, is “the mantle, the double portion of the spirit of Elijah.” Better put: the gospel in word and sacraments. The power of God for salvation!

 My father!  My father!  The chariot and horsemen of Israel!

What a joy it must be for our Lord Jesus to see us doing what Elisha did…

Picking up the cloak…and going on.

By: Missionary John Holtz
__________________________________________
1.) 2017 LBI Graduates:

  • Four LBI graduates from Malawi: Baloyi, Mr. Gomezgani Anthony, Kalima, Mr. Greshan David, Mpingiza, Mr. Joel, Namakhwa, Mr. Justin Lackson
  • Five LBI graduates from Zambia: Banda, Mr. Daniel Favour, Banda, Mr. Jatelo Lingililani, Mwanza, Mr. Elias, Nhliziyo, Mr. Dumisani James, Nyirongo, Mr. Chisale Doubt Jackson

2.) 2 Kings 2:13

3.) Kings 2:8

4.) “Elisha’s exclamation… refers to Elijah, his father in the faith. Just as mighty horses and chariots are emblems of a king’s strength, so Elijah had been a spiritual bulwark of God’s people.” Arno J. Wolfgramm, The People’s Bible, KINGS, page 169.

5.) CW 543 God of the Prophets, Verses 1 and 2

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Evangelism in Malawi

The answer was surprising.

At first… only at first.

I had asked a rather straightforward question of some of the pastors in the Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA) in Malawi. I had been requested to teach a course on Evangelism so I figured that it would be good to first find out what evangelism was currently being done in our geographically small, but extremely populated country. So my question?

“What evangelism program do you currently carry out?”

That word: “program.” Do you like it? Mind it? Or cringe a bit when you hear it? I don’t know, maybe it’s not the best word to use. I suppose it can sound like we are talking about something merely mechanical or canned. Maybe it sounds too much like a staged performance or show, a theatrical technique.

I don’t mean it in that way at all.  Would another word be better?

Approach?
Effort?
Method?

We know that the Lord Himself gave us the “Great Commission” at the end of the Gospel of Matthew.We see Jesus himself engaged in evangelism throughout his life. As Luke wraps up the story about Jesus bringing salvation to tree-climbing, branch-clinging Zacchaeus, he includes Jesus’ own words to that short man: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” 2

Jesus reached out with the gospel message to needy people, but he wasn’t the only one. So did his disciples. We find them on various occasions talking, sharing, telling, and inviting.

“Come and see!”3

It wasn’t so much about a program but a person. And that person is Jesus.

When you think about your own congregation, how would YOU answer that same question? Whatever word you prefer to use, how are you personally and and as a congregation reaching out to the lost?

Knocking on doors?
Hanging flyers?
Mass mailings?
Telephone surveys?
Travel canvass witness teams?
Friendship Sundays?
TV? Radio? Websites?
Personal invitations?
Chats over Coffee and doughnuts?
Breakfast meetings? Luncheons?

The answer every Malawian pastor gave me was none of the above, but each said the same thing. Their answer?

Funerals.

Funerals? Yep, funerals.

Was that even one of your top answers for your congregational gospel outreach? Had funerals even crossed your mind?

A surprising answer, but only at first.

Attend just one funeral in Malawi and you will understand. You see, everyone attends the funeral. EVERYONE.

It’s not just family and friends and congregation members who come to the funeral. So do people in the work place. The neighborhood. The whole village. The entire community. Even those who didn’t even know the person well, or even at all, will come to the funeral to show respect. It’s just an unwritten rule inscribed in every Malawian heart: you just don’t NOT attend.

Recently I did attend a funeral in May. The dear wife of retired Pastor Akim Daile was called to eternal glory. Jean had had a long and fierce battle with cancer and finally, the Lord said, “enough.” To say there was a “crowd” at Mrs. Daile’s funeral is an understatement. Pockets of people were everywhere. The funeral house was jam packed. Hundreds gathered around the coffin, viewed the body, followed in procession and sat at the gravesite.

Choir sang.
Women danced.
Men shoveled.
Wreathes were laid.
Speeches made.

My, oh my, were there people! Everyone was there – including our pastors. Each one knew what it meant… among the hundreds and hundreds of people, there in the crooks of the trees are perched the Zacchaeus’ of our world. They are people with a great need, and that great need is Jesus – the One who walked out of his own tomb. The pastor takes his place in the center of the crowd. He stands near the coffin and offers a silent prayer; he opens his Bible and reads the text. He begins to share the Word of Life.

That’s what evangelism looks like in Malawi.

By: Missionary John Holtz, Malawi, Africa 

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Hope in North Dakota

I’ll never forget the day I met Dan.  It would have been hard to forget since it was Easter Sunday in 2015.  But it was even more memorable for a different reason.  After an inexplicable struggle with my text, I delivered what I genuinely felt was an excellent sermon.  The law was striking, the illustrations were spot-on, and the gospel hit home with the incomparable message of hope in Christ’s resurrection.  Of course, it helped to have the Holy Spirit’s flawless work through my preaching that Sunday.  It would have been a total dud otherwise.

Yet, when I had a chance to talk to Dan after the service, it felt like a total dud.  On a day where everybody else reflected that Easter joy, you could almost see a storm cloud following Dan.  Can you imagine?  Even after a morning focused on Christ and on the resurrection, Dan felt empty.  Easter’s certain hope was lacking for him.

Dan wasn’t the kind of person in whom you’d have expected to find this.  He grew up in a very church-going, Pentecostal family.   The air force had brought him to Minot, but had avoided ensnarement in the temptations that some young airmen face.  All in all, he was a good kid with a good head on his shoulders.  But somewhere along the way he lost his spiritual moorings.  He completely doubted his faith. It produced an opportunity: one of our members invited him to Easter Service.  While he continued to struggle that morning, I extended a feeble invitation to take Bible information class with him and try to answer some of his questions. Dan was looking for hope, so he came.

It’s one of my favorite classes I have ever taught. Dan started the class unable to answer the question, “How can I get to heaven?”  But every week as we dug into God’s Word, I could see the Holy Spirit working on him.  I remember discussing infant baptism with Dan, assuming this would be a sticking point given his background.  We went through Scripture’s evidence for it.  My jaw dropped when he simply said, “It’s hard to understand because I’ve never heard this before, but it’s pretty clear… this is what the Bible says.”  With this simple approach, Dan found hope in a purer way than he had ever heard before: in Jesus, his full and free Savior from sin.

Hope’s rays finally broke through his dark storm clouds.

At the end of that summer, Dan was baptized.  Then, just as quickly as I came to know him, the air force took him elsewhere.  I’ve stayed in touch with Dan over the last two years.  He’s doing great.  Recently, he met a wonderful Christian woman and is getting married.  Someday, he wants to make it back up here so he can take her to church here.

And I just marvel.  I marvel at how the simple message of God’s grace in Christ dispels life’s darkest storm clouds, even if it does take some time.  I marvel at how hope is still needed even in places like Minot where there are almost 20 Lutheran churches and 80 churches total.  I marvel at how God put Dan in the right place at the right time to find the right hope.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 3:3)

What other hope would have helped Dan?  None, but this!

By: Rev. Nathan Walther, Grace Lutheran Church, Minot, ND

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From Growing Plants to Growing Faith – Carbon Valley, CO

“We are buying a former nursery for our new church.”

“A nursery? That’s awesome. Who doesn’t love kids?”

“Actually, it was a plant nursery.”

“Uhhh…What?”

This is usually how the conversation went. It was understandable considering that using a former plant nursery for ministry isn’t the most common of ideas.  Let me share with you our thought process.

To understand how we got here, it helps to know our background and where we came from.  Carbon Valley Lutheran is a new mission which started formal worship a year and half ago.   We weren’t a daughter church, sister site, or multi-campus concept.  The draw was that over the past 10 years, Firestone, Frederick and Dacono Colorado (just north of Denver,) has been one of the fastest growing exurbs in the United States. There are few churches present in this location; and no Lutheran churches.  We started worship with 115 in attendance, converting an elementary school gymnasium into worship. Since our launch, God has continued to bless our efforts with both familiar and new faces every Sunday.  Due to the positive response, we started the search for a location to call our own earlier than usual.  My comment often is “If God wants us to run, then who are we to hold him back.”

After a thorough understanding of our community, search of the area and exhaustive fact finding, we settled on a site which was a former plant nursery.  It has the room we need (3 ½ acres,) the location we wanted (high visibility at the center of future Firestone and zoned commercial,) much of the soft costs of a building project already included (parking lot, landscaping, water tap, electrical, lighting, etc…,) and at the right price.  On March 10th, we closed on our very first piece of property as a church.

So yes, thinking of converting a former plant nursery into a place of worship might seem a bit odd at the outset and yet, for a mission church who has been worshipping in a school gymnasium and wants to serve our community well into the future, we were willing to look at what a space “Could be” rather than “What it was.”  Soon this space which formerly grew plants, will grow faith.

Want to watch us as we grow?  Check out our Facebook page (search Carbon Valley Lutheran) to see pics of our latest clean-up day. In addition, you can view some of the nursery and surrounding area by watching this video:  https://vimeo.com/192300930

By: Missionary Tim Spiegelberg, Carbon Valley Lutheran, Carbon Valley, CO

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Renovation Complete, New Goals in Stevens Point, WI

January 29, 2017, was the date chosen for our new mission church and student center’s Grand Opening and Dedication. The Word in Stevens Point, Wis., needed to be ready for that special day. To me, the amount of work ahead of God’s people at Divine Word in Plover seemed insurmountable. I can only assume others had similar feelings. Would we be ready to welcome guests and visitors into a completed worship facility? Only time would tell.

On New Year’s Day, our core group started attending The Word for a set of four preview services. The community was welcome to join us as well. After each of those four services we set aside time to evaluate what had just happened in worship. Evaluation forms helped guide our discussion each week under the following categories: Worship, Sermon, Interior Feel, and Exterior Feel. The goal was improvement from week to week as we geared up for our Grand Opening and Dedication services.

Slowly, new interior items began to be delivered. Basic metal folding chairs were replaced with new, padded chairs. Lighting fixtures were installed, an improvement over bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Steady progress was being made toward January 29.

Getting the word out about The Word was also important to the core group. Radio ads about our upcoming opening aired on local Portage County stations. Facebook events were created and shared again and again. A local reporter from the Stevens Point Journal was contacted to run an article about the exciting launch of a new church and student center in downtown Stevens Point. Fifteen different individuals helped to distribute about 4,000 postcards to the communities around The Word, which invited them to join us for our Grand Opening and Dedication.

One week before the big day we recognized the amount of work that needed to be put in to make The Word presentable for visitors. Our core group, other Divine Word members, and UW-SP collegians set aside time every evening to sweep and mop floors, paint doors, clean bathrooms, set up the worship space, and prepare thank-you-for-coming gift bags for all first-time visitors at our January 29 celebration of God’s blessing on our efforts to reach our community with the good news of Christ our Savior.

What seemed like a workload too overwhelming at the beginning – was accomplished by so many individuals that volunteered their time and ability to make sure everyone’s first impression of The Word was a positive one. All that was left to do was to wait for January 29 to come.

No one had a crystal ball to tell us how many people God would lead through our doors that Sunday morning and evening. 161 people came to The Word’s Grand Opening at our 10:00 a.m. service. At least three family units worshiped with us for the very first time. 198 people came together for our dedication service at 4:00 pm in the afternoon. Numerous families from area WELS congregations were in attendance, as well as a handful of first-time and second-time visitors. UWSP collegians and their families attended our services on that Sunday as well.

Recognizing a completed project such as this one in Stevens Point is a great blessing God has granted to Divine Word, The Word, and our Wisconsin synod. Stevens Point is no longer the largest Wisconsin city without a WELS presence. But, we also recognize this renovation project is not the end goal. With God’s blessing, we will strive to proclaim the Word, the good news of Jesus as Savior, to the people of Portage County until Jesus comes again. We implore our Heavenly Father to keep us focused on the only two numbers that matter: the total number of people who are in God’s family versus the total number of people who aren’t.

By: Rev. James Roecker
The Word, Stevens Point, Wis.

 

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Put your heads down

This month’s article is written by Rachel Holtz, daughter of Missionary John and Mindy Holtz

“Put your heads down! Put your heads down!”

This is what the crew shouted at the passengers aboard the South African Airways aircraft, flight SAA 204, going from New York, USA to Johannesburg, South Africa. Sophia Weisensel, my roommate and good friend, and I were among those passengers.

We were on our way to my home in Lilongwe, Malawi. I was SO excited. Indescribably excited. I hadn’t seen my family for the whole of my first full school year at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

But just as the plane was about to takeoff, we were told to put our heads down and assume the brace position. At first we didn’t know what was going on. There were lots of questions running through my mind.

What happened? Why are we stopping? Will we make our connection flight? How will I let my parents know what’s going on?

 It turned out there was a malfunction in one of the engines and we had to abort the takeoff. We sat on the plane for an extra two hours waiting for the problem to be solved. It was eventually, but the delay caused us to miss our connecting flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe. Sophia and I spent two nights at the airport hotel in Johannesburg, waiting for the next SAA flight to Lilongwe.

I was so close, yet so far away.

Fast forward the two days of wandering around the airport, watching movies in the hotel room, and eating at the same restaurant with food coupons. My indescribable excitement had been put on pause because of the two day delay, but during the flight to Lilongwe it continued to grow.

Finally, FINALLY, we landed and got through customs and sorted out the luggage.

What was it like to finally be home? When I saw my dad, mom, and sister, Heather, the anticipation and happiness that built up inside of me let itself out through a burst of tears. I hugged them all as I cried.

My initial excitement lessened to a more normal level during my first few days at home. I was happy to be back. It felt SO good. Yet…

…something also felt weird.

Something was different and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I felt a slight sadness after coming home that I didn’t expect. Talking to another good friend about it helped me understand what was troubling me. It was a certain undefinable change.

I had been apart from my family for about nine months. I changed during that time. They changed during that time. But we didn’t change together as a family unit. There was no specific big change that I could point out, but it was there. And it made me sad. I longed for how it used to be. More questions were running through my mind. God, what do I do? How do I make it feel like it used to? Before I left?

 Thankfully, it only troubled me for a little while. All I had to do was remember to be grateful and remind myself of God’s promises.

I need to be grateful for God’s presence in my past and be assured of His presence in my future. There’s no point in wishing for what once was. God gives us what we need at the proper time and everything that happens to us is for our eternal good. God also promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Though I’m still comparably young, I can see how God has always been with me.

And looking back on my freshman year at Bethany, I don’t understand how I managed it. How did I make it through all those changes? Being away from my family, adjusting to an American culture, a different school system, and a Minnesota winter, to name a few.

Well, obviously it was my plenteous determination, cultural adaptability skills, and superior intellect.

Not so much.

God was with me, and He gave me strength when I needed it. Sometimes I didn’t even ask for it. Sometimes I didn’t even realize He was giving it to me.

Pretty soon my family and I will be experiencing more big changes: I’m going to leave Malawi again to start my sophomore year of college, my sister will be going to Wisconsin Lutheran College for her freshman year, my parents will be alone at home for the first time. Now our family will be separated and stuck in three different directions of change. When we reunite, it might feel more different than ever.

I KNOW I don’t have to worry about tomorrow, next week, or next year, but I’m sinful and I worry anyway. I KNOW that God will carry me through anything, but I’m sinful and I rely on my own abilities. I KNOW that God has plans and purposes for me, but I’m sinful and I think I know what’s best for me.

The only thing I can do is continuously run back to God and his promises.

Going back to one of my dad’s favorite hymns always gives me comfort.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change he faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul; your best, your heav’nly friend Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end. (CW 415)

When the crew aboard flight SAA 204 told us to put our heads down, I only grasped the physical meaning at the time. I only thought to put my head down to assume the brace position, but I should have also put my head down in prayer.

Of course, we shouldn’t only pray in the case of airplane emergencies. But always. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, pray continually. And we can pray with the assurance that God will answer us with what we need. With what He knows is best.

Change can be especially hard, but God has a plan. Pray for strength, patience, courage, and guidance. God will give you what you need, even if you forget to ask for it.

So tiyeni. Let’s go.

Let’s follow the SAA 204 crew’s advice. Let’s put our heads down…

…in prayer.

Your Mission Partner’s Daughter,

Rachel Holtz

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Ministry is a marathon

“Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I don’t remember when or where I heard that advice. A professor in a Seminary class? A wise pastor early in my ministry? I’m sure I bristled a bit when I heard it. The thought doesn’t naturally appeal to me any more than the idea of running more than once around a track.

It’s true, though. We might like to see instantaneous results. We might wish we could sprint to the tape and move on to the next event. But gospel work is one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Left, right, left, right. Law and gospel, law and gospel. Sometimes you can’t see progress any more than a marathoner can tell he’s a step closer to the finish. Sometimes you don’t see it at all.

I think it’s especially true in cross-cultural ministry, with its unique obstacles: language barriers, differences in customs, the instability of work and life that many immigrants face. It can take a little longer to clear those hurdles, establish trust, and find opportunities to share the gospel. I suppose it’s more steeplechase than marathon. Still, the essence of the work is the same. Preach the gospel. Let the Holy Spirit work when and where he wills.

The Guzman family is an example. When I was assigned to Bethel 11 years ago, Mario was a student at our English as a Second Language classes. Then we lost contact with him. After a while, he came back. On and off he studied, as life and work allowed. He would stay after class for our Spanish Bible study when he could. He, his wife Evelyn, and their children would join us for special events. Then we would go months without seeing them.

A few years ago, they wanted a new school for their two youngest children. They asked about our Lutheran school and we were thrilled to have them enroll. We got to see them more often at school functions. We started offering regular Spanish worship services, which they attended frequently.

A year ago, their daughter graduated from our grade school and was confirmed. After the service, Mario said, “Maybe we’ll get confirmed, too.” I was elated! But we weren’t there yet. Multiple jobs and four children make life pretty hectic. Finally, after half a year, we were able to schedule a class and, after another half a year of studying whenever we could together, finish it. This month, Mario and Evelyn will be confirmed.

It only took eleven years!

I’m not saying that they weren’t Christians before we met them—or that membership in a congregation is the ultimate goal. But it’s amazing to look back and see how the Lord kept bringing the Guzmans back to hear the gospel with us and now, finally, to confess their Spirit-worked unity with us. It gives me hope as I think of all the other people who appeared our lives and then disappeared just as quickly; the Lord may bring them back, and who knows what the Word we shared may be doing in their hearts even now? It brings me encouragement as we patiently invite and teach others over the course of months and years; who knows what the Lord may work in time?

Mario actually enjoys running. I’ll probably never join him on one of his long-distance runs. But I’m glad to keep putting one foot in front of the other in our ministry…and wait to see how—and when—the Lord chooses to bless our work.

Rev. Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel Lutheran in Menasha, WI

Photo taken on the day of the Guzman daughter’s quinceañera after the service at Bethel

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Pure Water for Nigeria

Pure drinking water is a paramount need in Nigeria and so many other places in the world which lack sufficient water treatment infrastructure. A woman wrote of her immigrant family homesteading in North Dakota in the early 1900s. She wrote of frequent sickness because her family drew drinking water from a meager stream. That’s how it is in rural Nigeria today – and in some cities too.

I visited the village of one of our churches. The congregation leader was my eager guide. “Show me where you get your water.” He took me to a stream. It was low due to the dry season. In the exposed stream bed, my host pulled a palm-leaf cover from a hole in the mud. Two feet down was the surface of the murky water. “This is what we drink,” he said matter-of-factly. Even without public health training, I could imagine all sorts of micro-organisms that the villagers were ingesting every day. It is any wonder our Nigerian friends are so often sick, especially in rural areas?

Pastor Ted Lambert and I were teaching Seminary in 2002. I assumed that the students had a good source of water. One day we crossed the sand street visit young men making cement blocks. For water they had dug a square hole alongside the road. Road run-off collected there for mixing cement. How shocked we were when our students came to draw water from the pit. “What’s that water for?” we asked. “For bathing .” Thank God they could get better drinking water elsewhere.

Nigerians will tell you that our discoveries are common knowledge. So Lambert asked WELS Christian Aid and Relief to help. We dedicated our first borehole (drilled well) in 2002 at Ikot Osom, where villagers had been walking to a distant stream for water. The local head chief thanked us, “You think you have given us water. You have actually given us life.” That first deep borehole is still at work for hundreds of Ikot Osom people, managed and maintained all this time by the Lutheran congregation just 20 yards away.

In November 2015, we dedicated a new borehole in the front yard of our sister Lutheran church at Ikot Ntan Nsit. With the start of the new generator, flip of a switch or two, drinks of cool water and a short prayer, we asked our Triune God to bless this water for the surrounding community.

Our boreholes in Nigeria are dilled deep enough to draw water from clean gravel layers 130 feet down or deeper. Our drillers go deep enough for the water to test pure. Each unit has a gas-powered generator, submersible pump, two or three 1500 liter storage tanks, and a cement block house to elevate them for water pressure. The local congregation is in charge of their borehole, distributing the water and charging a water fee just large enough to fuel their generator and service their pump. This is a total “hand-over” package manage. WELS will not return to repair their precious boreholes. So far, this seems to work in most places.

We’ve had some failures. One could not be drilled when the workers hit a thick rock layer. Another tapped a vein of water contaminated by salt and iron and was abandoned. Yet another congregation did such poor drilling work that water would not flow. But they linked up with a United Nations group to get their borehole productive for the community. The only two hand pump wells we did failed after short use. For this reason, we stick to the more costly mechanized borehole version.

In all, we’ve done 30 borehole projects in Christ the King Lutheran Church (synod) and All Saints Lutheran Church (synod) in Nigeria. 26 were sponsored by WELS Christian Aid and Relief and its predecessors, one by a foundation grant, and three by WELS congregations and donors. 26 boreholes remain successful, thanks to careful management by our sister Lutheran congregations.

Pure drinking water remains a daily concern in Nigeria. Thanks be to our Lord of abundant love for the many WELS donors who sponsor boreholes for Nigeria. May our fellow Lutherans in Nigeria providing pure water for their communities also attract many souls to drink of the water of life which only Jesus supplies!

Written by Rev. Douglas Weiser, part time missionary to Nigeria

To view a video highlighting bore hole activity, visit this link.

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Don’t let go until He blesses

I never have fully understood Genesis 32:24. “…a man wrestled with Jacob till daybreak.” Read the whole context1 and you come to find out that the “man” was God!

God in a wrestling match?

I can’t help but picture an angelic announcer with a microphone and a note card: “Ladies and Gentlemen…welcome to the Jabbok Arena for the match of the century. In this corner, contending for the crown, weighing in at 178 pounds, Jaaaaaaaacob! (Applause); And in this corner, weighing in at…well, I don’t know how much He weighs…the undefeated and undisputed reigning Champion of the universe…God! (Applause)

What is this? The Old Testament version of World Wrestling Federation? Not Hulk Hogan verses Da’ Crusher, but the Deceiver vs the Destroyer.

No four-sided ring and no leather bound turnbuckles; no folding chairs to slam or ropes from which to jump, but an under-the-stars night time match of grappling, rumbling and tumbling. Jacob putting God in a “half nelson?” I still can’t entirely understand how it all took place but maybe I grasp it a bit more now than I did before.

Like Jacob, I too, have been in a strenuous wrestling match. Not a physical bout but a spiritual one. Not just for one night but for one month. A Call put me in the ring.

John Holtz, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Bylas Arizona, together with the Administrative Committee for the Native American Mission is extending this Call to you to be their shepherding pastor on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Like a ring-side bell, that announcement began the match. I wasn’t wrestling with the Calling body but with the real CALLER Himself: God. Clay Jar vs The Blesser. Four weeks of grappling in prayer. Agonizing, arduous, exhausting prayer.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”2

He did.

God blessed me immeasurably through time in the Word. The LORD has blessed me through talks with Christ centered, mature-in-the-faith people. He’s given me a new look at the gospel work He’s calling to be done. He’s has called to mind once again that we are to walk by faith and not by sight. Christ has reminded me again and again through His Word what He displays through my jar-of-clay weakness: His victory-of-the-cross strength! To be sure, in both Malawi and the San Carlos Reservation, the needs are so great, the work is so important, the people so precious and the message so valuable. Consequently, the wrestling match was so strenuous. But through all the straining and struggling, He led me to a decision. I returned the Call that I had received to Our Savior’s Church on the Apache Reservation. I believe the Lord led me to continue to serve in Malawi. The BLESSER blessed me with assurance that He will be with me and not forsake me.3

Dear Mission Partners, I write to you these thoughts to thank you for your prayers, emails and phone calls. Perhaps not everyone who reads these communiques knew about the Call, but many of you did. And when you found out, you prayed for me and my family, for Our Savior’s congregation and for the Malawi mission field. In your own way, you stood outside the ring and offered prayers for the one in it.

As far as I know, there is always some Called Worker in WELS some place in the country or in the world who is wrestling with a Call that has been laid upon his/her heart. Might be a teacher or pastor, a missionary or lay minister. If ever you do hear about such Calls that are extended, even if you don’t know the person well, and especially if you do, might I ask that you also say a prayer for that person? I’m sure he or she would appreciate that kind of support. “Mission Partner” in the true sense of the words.

Though Call decisions may come easier for some than others, there is still is an important decision to make. Because a Call is from God, the wrestling is with God.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Jacob didn’t until God did. Through the strenuous process, like Jacob, we are blessed to see God “face to face.” We do so by faith through His Word. We see God as Jesus has made Him known.4

We know Him. He is both Destroyer and Blesser. By His death on the cross and resurrection from the grave He destroyed the power of sin, death and the devil and blesses us with life and eternal salvation. Though, like Jacob, we all have been deceivers, we too have all been justified.

Clay jars have overcome.

Unlike He did for Jacob, God didn’t change my name after the match.5 But sometimes I think I’m limping a bit more. Did he touch my hip? Not sure, (maybe it’s just arthritis) but He did touch my heart. He once again touched it with His grace and love and mercy.

He’s given me a wife worth far more than rubies,6 two children who love me far more than I deserve and family members who accept God’s will even when it doesn’t match theirs. He’s already blessed me with a cloud of witnesses that has gone on before me7, a mission family presently surrounding me and leaders currently guiding and encouraging me.

Whoever He Calls, He blesses. Wherever He Calls, He equips.

Dear Mission Partner, you too have a calling, a vocation to serve and glorify the Lord who has called you to the position and place in which you find yourself today. And if today the one in the ring wrestling with God is YOU, you may very likely discover that the match is long and strenuous. But…

“Don’t let go until He blesses.”

Tiredly but sincerely,

Your Mission Partner,

John Holtz

_____________________________________________

  1. Genesis 32:22-32
  2. Genesis 32:26
  3. Deuteronomy 31:6, Matthew 28:20
  4. John 1:18
  5. Genesis 32:28
  6. Proverbs 31:10
  7. Hebrews 11
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“Knows Little” Becomes “Knows the Gospel”

I recently had a chance to teach an East Asian man named Xiao-Dong. His name means “knows the East.” The same sounds in the native language can also mean “knows little.” That was certainly true for him. He hadn’t had much formal Christian training. What he had learned was from books and the internet.

“Knows Little” and his fellow students were East Asian grass roots church workers who were part of four weeks of training spread out over a year. They weren’t yet affiliated with us but were willing to study. Church workers from our daughter church SALEM in Hong Kong and I were doing the teaching.

BWM-ALSblog-012816-350We didn’t hit it off well in our first meeting. I was responsible for going through the teaching about the end times. I diagrammed on a white board our Lutheran understanding. I could see “Knows Little” was becoming agitated. In fact, he suddenly got up and went to the white board. Without asking for permission, he sketched out his understanding which was much different. Then he sat down. It was a bit embarrassing for the others in the class.

“Xiao-Dong was zealous, but he was being true to his alternate-name “Knows Little.” Fellow students talked with him later asking him to be patient and respectful. I also encouraged him to make good use of this time and let the Holy Spirit guide him. We kept teaching. He didn’t speak up much in the next classes. Nevertheless, in other classes he still didn’t look too comfortable with some of our teachings such as infant baptism. We were getting worried this could be a difficult situation.

The gospel, however, is the power of God. Our teaching centered around the grace of God in Jesus. We patiently taught the Biblical truth of law and gospel. Over the course of several months we saw a marked change in “Knows Little.” The frown on his face became a smile. The hardness we had seen was melted by the good news of a Savior who loved, forgave, and accepts him. His initial doubts about us were removed as he heard sound teaching that was followed by genuine care for him.

At the end of our training, he got up and shared what he had learned. “I want to thank you. I never knew the difference between law and gospel before. I was living in the law. I never really saw or shared the love of Jesus. Now I know. Thank you for teaching me the gospel. Thank you for showing me in your teaching and in your lives what it means to love one another. I have so enjoyed the brotherly love. I want to share this love with my church and with my neighbors.”

The gospel is powerful and changes people.

All of us start out as “know nothings.”  Thank the Lord for pastors, missionaries, and brothers and sisters who can correctly teach the gospel. Thank the Lord for power to demonstrate the effects of the gospel in our lives. Even though we get to know something, there is always much more to learn. God’s will is that all of us who “know little” become people who “know the gospel.” People who get to know Jesus know all they really need to know.

Written by a missionary in East Asia

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Academia Cristo

Academia Cristo (Christ Academy) is a multi-faceted effort of the Latin America missions team which seeks to 1) make disciples in Latin America by sharing the message of God’s grace with as many people as possible, 2) identify and train potential leaders, and 3) encourage those leaders to make disciples who plant churches. The Latin America missions team uses social media to promote the Academia Cristo mobile app and website throughout Latin America.

The Academia Cristo training program is divided into three tiers:

  1. The mobile app: The Academia Cristo app offers four self-led courses at the Bible Information Class level of study. The last course in this tier focuses on training students to share what they’ve learned with others. Students must complete all four courses before they are able to sign up for live classes.
  2. Discipleship 1: Students work through 13 Bible Institute level classes that are taught live online by a WELS missionary or national partner. At this level, a large emphasis is placed on gathering a group of people to share the gospel message.
  3. Discipleship 2: Students who complete the Discipleship 1 tier then move onto Discipleship 2 where they take advanced Bible institute level classes, still taught live online by a WELS missionary or national partner. Students at this level are actively sharing the gospel message with a group of people and are in doctrinal agreement with WELS. They are also matched with a WELS missionary or national partner mission counselor and receive face-to-face visits.

Learn more at academiacristo.com.

Outside the Comfort Zone

Amanda Oswalt is getting what she prayed for: an experience outside of her comfort zone. It certainly is all that…and much more. Amanda stepped out of the sparkling and sanitized hallways of St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin one day and into the handmade brick and mortar, dark and dusty clinics in rural Malawi the next. Could there be a more stark contrast in health care and facilities? Not from Amanda’s perspective: “It was such juxtaposition from where I came from and into what the medical reality is here.”

BWM-Malawi-AmandaOswaltJust what are the medical realities in Malawi?

Well, to name a few…

• Limited medications
• Long queues
• Little/no electricity
• Outdated equipment
• Insufficient funds
• Staffing shortages
• Cramped quarters
• Overcrowded rooms
• Minimal/no pain management

With such circumstances just what is Amanda, the Nurse-in-Charge, to do? Lots, actually. Though she is seldom called upon for direct patient care, Amanda has a full
plate. As the Nurse-in-Charge, she makes sure that everything with the staff and clinic management medically runs smoothly. She purchases the majority of the clinic’s medications and works with the Malawian Government to procure others. She also reports back pertinent statistical data of the Lutheran Clinics to both the Malawian Government (which gets the lion’s share of the data) and the Central Africa Medical Mission Committee (CAMMC) in the States. Because the national staff can adeptly do the hands-on care of the patients, Amanda isn’t really needed for that work. Instead, she is needed and responsible for a lot of the behind the scenes work. In her terms, she is “almost exclusively a manager.” Amanda, however, recalls one unique situation where she was literally hands-on with patient care:

“I had to hand-ventilate a child that was intubated for over an hour. I then had to teach the child’s mother how to do it; then her and her family would then be responsible for breathing for that child.”

As recent as December 2013, when Amanda interviewed for the job, she would not have guessed – or even dreamt – of finding herself in such situations in a developing country! Even after interviewing for the position, she actually thought that – for one reason or another she wouldn’t get the job.
But she did. She got the job and we got the blessing!

The Lord had plans of His own. The Lord knew we needed Amanda “for such a time as this.” (I stole those words from the book of Esther1). Amanda is bringing to our Lutheran Mobile Clinic (LMC) what Esther brought to the palace: her God-given personality, strengths and unique set of skills. A wonderful combination that the LMC in Malawi needs at this time. Isn’t it grand that the Lord determines not only our times but also the exact places for us to live?2 For Amanda, it’s in Area 10, Lilongwe, Malawi. As the crow flies (if it dares over the ocean) a mere 8,490 miles3 from home!

Though sad that Amanda is so far away from her Wisconsin home, her parents are also both proud and supportive of their daughter. They realize that Amanda hasn’t just moved clear across the globe to pursue a dream, but more-so to follow the Lord’s calling in her life for these 3 years that she’s signed up with the CAMMC. (2015 – 2018).

“Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this…I appreciate you and your support so much! Thank you!” – Amanda

Amanda admits that living and working in a country such as Malawi does not come without its tough and challenging days. Even BWM-Malawi-AmandaOswalt1though it is called the Warm Heart of Africa, it doesn’t always give a person the warm fuzzies. Amanda treasures her “go-to” Bible verse that she’s kept close to her heart and mind since she was young:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5,6.

Amanda shares this comment:

“These verses were my confirmation passages and whenever I’m having a rough day or moment I tend to meditate on this passage. It always reminds me that He has the plan and I need to let go of my attempt of control and just trust.”

Ah, yes….trust. Blessed is the one who trusts, not in faith itself but in the object of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ! We are weak but HE is strong. Strong enough to lean on. As you lean on Him, Amanda, know that we (your “family” in Malawi) are tightly wrapping you up in prayer. May I assume that there are many people in the States praying for you as well? Word has it that WELS has a lot of prayer warriors in LWMS and supporters of the Central Africa Medical Mission! I’m sure that many of them, like your parents, are impressed with your courageous spirit and very proud of what you are doing. Yes, what you are doing is indeed admirable. Thank you for working hard to make the clinic a blessing for thousands of patients as well as an opportunity for others to follow in your footsteps.
Thank you for humbly yet boldly serving the Lord and His people with dedication, commitment and love. But every now and again, Amanda, take a break from your work. Do what you enjoy in a country not your own:

Play a little rugby (have you told your Dad and Mom?) Hit the volleyball around. Watch a local soccer game or two. Taste the local cuisine. Hang out with newly made friends. Take time for tea time. Travel a bit. Oh, and do all these things – as well as your work – while leaning on the Lord! And while you’re leaning on the Lord and talking with Him, be careful for what you pray. You might just get again what you got when you came to Malawi: an experience …outside the comfort zone.

Your Mission Partner,

John Holtz
Malawi


1. Esther 4:14
2. Acts 17: 26
3. Calculated as great circle distance on the surface of the spherical Earth.

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Nepal: Earthquake update

On Saturday, Nepal suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, centered in Kathmandu and the Gorkha district, which is about 400 miles of where our World Mission contact is located in Dhangadhi. He has reported that he is safe, though he did feel the quake, even from that distance. Various news sources are reporting that nearly 4,000 people have been killed by the earthquake and its aftermath and thousands more are in the hospital.

Our World Mission contact reports, “There are numbers of rural areas where the government has no access. Most of the relief agencies starting to pour in at capital city. We want to reach areas in the Dhading, Gorkha, Chitwan and Rasuwa districts with some supplies. Medicine, food items, and clothes.”

He continued to explain that because the earthquake occurred during worship time and the church buildings are small, many of our members were saved. He plans to travel to the rural villages that aid agencies can’t reach to bring medicine, tents, blankets, and food.

WELS Christian Aid and Relief is assessing the situation and is prepared to provide relief. May God use this event to lead many to the true and living God. To help support relief efforts, you can donate online or send checks to WELS, Re: Christian Aid and Relief, earthquake disaster relief fund, N16W23377 Stone Ridge Drive, Waukesha, WI 53188-1108.

Nigeria: The day in the life of a regular family

This is the Pastor Michael Egar family. A family like most of ours no doubt.

But not like the families of us all. For one thing, Pastor Egar is so very grateful to have his wife and three children. He grew up without his parents, being raised by his grandmother. He was a convert to the Lutheran faith only eight years before his seminary graduation. Egar says he is very thankful to God for giving him such a good woman as his wife and that they have the blessing of three children

For another thing, as a seminary student in Nigeria, Egar spent much of five years living at the seminary, 250 miles from his home and family. That sort of devotion to his spiritual goal demanded much sacrifice on the whole family’s part.Nigeriablog-04202015-350

So it was a very joyful week indeed, when Egar graduated from Christ the King Lutheran Seminary on March 14, 2015 and was ordained a pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria a week later! The ordination worship was cause of great celebration. But with the crowded church grounds, busy schedule, plus food duties for Mrs. Egar (Anthonia), getting the family together for a photo by mid-afternoon was a bit stressful.

And this is where I learned that Egar’s family is just like our families. Their elder son participated in the family snap (photo). But he was not the most eager for it. Why? Because, as his dad explained, the young man had been on the receiving end of a fatherly lecture about driving the family motorbike around Ogoja in a safe manner. How many 14 year old sons enjoy their dad’s lectures about safe driving?

Safe driving lecture included, it was a great day for the Egar family. Dad was ordained a Lutheran pastor. And they all learned that they would move to rural Bitiah Irruan, where Pastor Michael Egar is to serve the largest congregation of All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria. Surely motorbike driving skills will be of value there!

Written by Rev. Douglas Weiser, non-resident missionary to Nigeria.

Malawi flooding update and Easter greetings

Hello to all,
I pray you had a meaningful Holy Week.
I wanted to send a brief update out now that the flooding in Malawi has subsided. Thankfully the rains have let up and the ground has been drying out. Progress is slow. The good news is thatdyeeggs-04132015-350 with many special gifts and support and help from Christian Aid and Relief our church has been able to extend help to many members who were seriously affected from the flooding. People are slowly rebuilding. They are used to a hard life and carry on amid the difficult conditions. Rob’s farthest church in Southern Malawi in the Elephant Marsh is still inaccessible. He is hoping by the end of April perhaps the roads will be dry enough and he could visit it again. For now the ground is too muddy and many people have not returned to the area after being evacuated by boat. Our rainy season total is around 60” with nearly 2 feet of that water coming in just 4 days in January. The subsistence lifestyle relies heavily on personal fields and the yield of the crops. Some people can’t plant again. In some areas where the flooding swept through the topsoil has been washed away and only sand is left behind. In other areas there isn’t enough time left in this year’s rainy season to plant again and new crops won’t have the chance to get watered any other way. So it is very helpful that some programs have recognized the longer term struggles and are continuing to offer supplies as needed. It will be a long road to recovery until the heavily affected areas are back to normal. Once people are settled again the plan would be to rebuild the many churches that were damaged as well. EasterEgg-04132015
Here in Blantyre city I organized a special Easter Bible group this week and held it at our urban church—Beautiful Saviour. We had the biggest turnout ever with nearly 30 kids attending along with their moms (Nathanael snapped some pictures while I was teaching and helping so I’ll share a few). Some of the kids were unchurched and hearing about God’s love, sin and the Easter story for the first time. We had an Easter egg hunt and hard boiled nearly 60 eggs for decorating and dying. It was amazing to see the enthusiasm and excitement that lit up the room…and hopefully that will carry on into their homes and hearts.
Our family wants to wish you a blessed Holy Week as the Holy one became weak for sinner’s sake.
God’s blessings for a wonderful Easter celebration on Sunday.
Missionary Robert, Rebecca Wendland and family

If God is for us, who can be against us?

This is a special article because Missionary Holtz was in Nigeria for teaching, graduation and ordination.

If God is for us, who can be against us?1

Excellent question, Paul, just excellent.

Paul’s query is much more than simply thought-provoking and much greater than merely discussion raising.  It’s heart-touching and faith building.

Sermon worthy.

Of all the Scripture that could have been used very fittingly for the sermon text on Graduation Day at Christ The King Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria, the nine students chose this one from Romans 8:31b:  If God is for us, who can be against us?

Why this particular text?  Why this specific question?  The nine graduates had one answer:

“Because  this very Word of God speaks personally and powerfully in our circumstances here in Nigeria.”

During the years of their Seminary training, it seemed to them that so many – too many – things were indeed against them:

  • Ebola
  • Boko Haram
  • The death of 3 classmates
  • The death of 3 local lecturers
  • The death of two student wives
  • A serious internal church issue

It’s not that any of the students or lecturers were killed by – or even infected with the Ebola Virus; it’s not that any of them were kidnapped or even personally threatened by a terrorist group; but these two weighty Nigerian issues were serious enough concerns for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) that the Board for World Missions (BWM) temporarily suspended all travel to Nigeria by WELS Called Workers who would teach at the seminary in Uruk Uso, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.

Cancelled travel meant postponed classes.

Postponed classes pushed Graduation Day further down the road.  Graduation became a tantalizing mirage that the students could never reach.  The closer they came, the further it went.

But the nine students didn’t quit the program.  They pressed on.  They persevered.  They rode out the storm.  Then one day two lights of hope shone over the troubled waters in the distance:

Nigeria declared itself “Ebola Free” on 20th October 2014 and her president, Goodluck Jonathan joined Nigeria with neighboring nations2 for a stepped up military campaign against Boko Haram.  Though both were still menacing issues for Nigeria, neither one was hovering anywhere near the Lutheran Seminary.  The WELS Board for Missions was satisfactorily assured and gave the green light to Missionary Doug Weiser3 to engage the traveling professors.

Classes could resume!

The professors came in three week waves.4 The students were elated.  Graduation Day would happen!

It did.

Though the normal six year seminary time had stretched over seven years, graduation finally took place on 14 March 2015.

WELS Pastor Joel Jaeger5 preached the text the students chose:  “If God is for us who can be against us?”

Even though this sounds like a searching question, it’s really one of a half dozen powerful answers to his first probing question.6 Like an ammunition clip for an AK47, Paul’s six questions are lined up one right after another and ready for action.  Paul rapid fires these six rounds.  He not only hits the target but he tightly groups them centering on the bulls-eye truth:

Through Jesus Christ we are more than conquerors!7

The Seminary Students needed to hear that message on Graduation Day.

They did.

Who can be against the class and ultimately succeed?

What can be against the graduates and victoriously triumph over them?

  • A deadly disease with plenty of victims but no cure?8
  • A terrorist group with plenty of machetes but no conscience?
  • A dwindling class?
  • A growing anxiety?

Paul’s question is really his answer!  It’s the answer the graduates rejoiced to hear:

NO ONE and NOTHING can go up against our great God and be victorious! 

A cross and a grave couldn’t stop Jesus, how could anything or anyone else?

Graduation Day was a good day.

Gowns were donned.

Gifts were received.

Congratulations were given.

But more importantly,

Sin was exposed.

Grace was announced.

Christ was praised.

Then on the 15th and 21st of March 20159 God supplied nine more gifts10 to His Church in Nigeria.

Just in case you ever wonder if Satan, the world or a relentless bombardment of life’s challenges have gotten the upper hand, ask yourself an important answer:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Your Malawi Missionary Partner,

John Holtz

____________________

John Holtz, Doug Weiser, Joel Jaeger

Christ the King Lutheran Seminary

Graduation Day 14 March 2015

___________________________

  1. Romans 8:31b
  2. Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
  3. Pastor Doug Weiser retired from the pastoral ministry (serving in Bellevue, Washington at the time) in June of 2014 and was commissioned as the Missionary to Nigeria the same day. He jokes that he has the record for the shortest retirement:  three hours!  With WELS budget funding, Pastor Weiser can travel to Nigeria at least four times per year, teaching at the Seminary and coordinating the WELS work there.  He organizes WELS pastors, professors and missionaries to teach at the seminary while he works with the two synods.
  4. Missionary Holtz was in Nigeria teaching the Seminary class a course on Evangelism, 23 February 2015 – 13 March 2015.
  5. Pastor Joel Jaeger presently serves Christ Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Previously he has also served in Nebraska, Germany and St. Lucia. Pastor Jaeger has traveled to Nigeria four times to teach in the seminary.  This time he taught the book of Titus.
  6. Paul begins Romans 8:31a with his question: “What shall we say in response to this?”  In response to what?  Paul had just assured the Romans that God works for our eternal good and assures them that God has predestined, called, justified and glorified them.
  7. Romans 8:37
  8. To date and to my knowledge, no known cure for Ebola has been officially announced or recognized. However, there has been a lot of progress made in this particular medical arena.  Some people who had been infected with Ebola are still alive.
  9. 15th March 2015 was Ordination and Call day for two students who will serve in Christ the King Lutheran Church of Nigeria. Missionary John Holtz preached for the Ordination service.  He used John 10:11-18 as the text.  The theme of the sermon:  “Lord, you are the Good Shepherd, help me to be a shepherd under Christ!”  The 21st of March 2015 was Ordination and Call Day for the other seven students.  They are serving in their sister synod called All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria. These synods formed years ago when certain groups of dissatisfied people broke away from the Lutheran Church of Nigeria.
  10. Ephesians 4:11. Pictured from left to right on page 1, student’s names are in bold type: Pastor Doug Weiser, Joseph Odama Ogar, Vincent Onah Odey, Pastor John Holtz, Wonah Johnson Egbe, Samuel John Udoh, Egar Michael Nleng, Eshua Sylvester Odok, Idorenyin Joshua Udo, Agwu Johnson Ogar and Orji Stephen Odey, Pastor Joel Jaeger.

Lenten prayer from Russia

Jennifer Wolfgramm, wife to missionary Luke Wolfgramm, gives insight into to political situation in their area of Russia and a Lenten prayer from their congregations. 

People often ask about the political situation here. We have not experienced any problems. We are far from the unrest. Our streets are peaceful. People are friendly to us.

However, we have experienced some changes because of the political situation. The Ukrainian Lutheran Church had a congregation in Crimea. This congregation woke up one day in 2014 and found itself in the Russian Federation. Political reality makes it unrealistic for the congregation to remain in the ULC. The congregation is re-registering as a member of our Russian Lutheran Church. Luke and Pastor Alexei went to visit the congregation in December. It takes all day to get from Novosibirsk to Crimea, so working together and supporting each other will provide some challenges. The pastor already Skype in to the regular Monday meetings of our missionaries and Russian pastors. We are enjoying getting to know the pastor and his congregation.

You may have seen on the news that the ruble is losing value. In the past six months, the ruble has gone from $1 = 30 rubles to $1 = 60 rubles. The devaluation of the ruble is already bringing on higher inflation. The economic crisis that has begun is supposed to be quite bad for the next year or two. So far, prices have not been rising as fast as the ruble is devaluating, so for those paid in dollars (like the missionaries), overall things are a little cheaper. However, our Russian friends and congregations will be struggling.

The economic crisis is a result of western sanctions and the falling price of oil. The economics and politics are connected. As economics worsen, we wonder what kind of political fallout there may be. Please pray that we can continue to work here in peace and quiet. We know that God will use everything for good.

Now, like you, we are preparing for the greatest day of the church year, Easter Sunday. Each of our four congregations plus the deaf congregation has mid-week Lenten services. This year we “Stand with Isaiah” and study Isaiah 53. Our children and adults are preparing special music for Holy Week. The children in Iskitim are preparing a play for the Sunday after Easter about the Emmaus disciples. Our missionary team quartet is preparing for five Easter outreach concerts, beginning on Palm Sunday. Another busy season, filled with the blessings of working with our Russian brothers and sisters to share the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection! May God bless you and us and we do His work around the world!

Prayer Requests

  • Thank God for our Russian pastors! Please pray that God would continue to bless them.
  • Thank God for our Daylight teachers! Please pray that they would make many contacts and be allowed to see some fruits of their labors. Pray that more teachers would desire to serve in Russia next school year.
  • Please pray that the children in Iskitim would grow in their faith. Pray that their parents would also want to learn about their Savior.
  • Please pray for the health of our deaf translator.
  • Please pray for the congregation in Crimea during this time of political transition.
  • Please pray for our members during the economic crisis.
  • Please pray for peace.
  • Thank God for blessing the children’s ministry in Iskitim!
  • Please pray that God would bless our efforts to share the Good News during Lent and Easter!

Happy Chinese New Year

“San-nihn faai-lohk” or Happy New Year in Cantonese Chinese, the language spoken in Hong Kong.

We are finishing up the New Year celebrations for the Chinese Year of the Sheep, which have lasted about two weeks. This is the equivalent to the celebration of Christmas in the States. There are three official consecutive days off of work for banks and government offices, so no mail. Restaurants are open and welcoming with higher prices. Family members are obligated to come home to visit their moms and dads, so airports, train and bus stations are crowded.

The first day of the holiday is usually celebrated with close family members. The second and third days are for visits to extended family members – aunts, uncles, etc. A wrapped present of a tin of cookies, chocolate candy or a box of imported noodles is always presented to the host. A New Year visit is never done empty-handed. (As a result, grocery stores set up gift wrapping tables just like the malls in the U.S. at Christmas.)

Homes are decorated with fresh flowers or plants, as well as red banners and pictures with Chinese blessing phrases written on them. One of the popular blessings is a wish for money and prosperity in the New Lunar Year. As a result, red envelopes or “lai ci” filled with money are given out as gifts to the children in the home visited. In Hong Kong, it’s also expected to give the red envelopes to show appreciation to the service people who keep the neighborhood clean and safe.

Unfortunately at this time, the Buddhist and Taoist temples are also filled with people buying offerings of fruit or burning incense to gain blessing for the New Year or to honor ancestors.

The Christian community here in Hong Kong has church as usual around all the celebrations. We thank the Lord for His blessings of salvation through Jesus, for his protection and preservation in His world, for good health, and for His light to shine in Asia!

May the Lord God, the Father, Son and Spirit, bless your Year of the Sheep with His peace through Jesus!

Mary Witte (missionary wife in Hong Kong)

A heart for the people

Next month we will resume with an article on an LCCA Called Worker. This is a special edition article.  This month’s focus:  Lawrenz Family

In your mind, picture a bovine herd grazing on an African plain: cattle or Cape Buffalo or Wildebeest – doesn’t matter which animal you imagine.  Now narrow your sights just to the calves.  The ones born around the same time of year are similar in size, roughly the same in height and weight. But do you see that one that is a bit taller, bigger and bulkier than the rest?   Notice that it is also more solid and muscular than the others.  Tough as nails. According to Ngoni culture and language, that one is called the Jere.  In every herd of animals, or even in a gathering of various species of animals, there is always one that stands out by its sheer size and bulk. That one is Jere. Now look at another crowd in Africa.

Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village

Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village

This time, not animals, but people. See the one that stands out above the rest?  The one that is a bit taller than most?  Solid and robust? That’s Jere. Some know him as Steve Lawrenz.  Many, however, in Zambia and Malawi, know him as Jere. Pastor Jere. Jere is his African name, given to him by a man from the Ngoni tribe in Zambia. The name stuck. He carries the token Ngoni name well!  A bit taller than most of the rest of us.  Tough as the calluses on the feet of Ngoni warriors.  Strong as an ox. Steve used to pick up missionary kids by the ankles and swing them around upside down.  They loved it (until they turned 18 years of age).   Some people have commented that Steve doesn’t know his own strength.  Why would he?  After all… he’s Jere. Interestingly, Jere is also the name of the Ngoni Chief of chiefs sitting on the throne in Malawi.  Jere is the surname of the royal family.  The Chief of chiefs will always be a Jere. Chief Jere stands tall, not only in his home village but in the whole country.  The name and the position is so highly honored that a late Chief Jere has been pictured on the 20 Kwacha monetary note of Malawi: Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa II Lazalo Mkhosi Jere.  (Whew!  How would you like to write that name every time you had to sign a check!?) Ironically, some have stated that Steve Lawrenz even looks like Chief Jere. But these are not the reasons why so many people know Steve Lawrenz as they do.  The Africans in Malawi and Zambia know Steve Lawrenz, not for his name nor his height but for his… heart. Like David of old, a man after God’s own heart. A heart for the people Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village But Steve will be the first to point out that it’s best to look at God’s heart and not his. After all God’s heart is filled with a love for the people that is as unfailing as it is eternal.  God’s heart beats with a passion to touch the hearts of people, filling them with forgiveness and faith and love. He who is loved much has much reason to show it. Jere does. When God called, Steve came.  He came to Africa with energy and enthusiasm and determination.

Child wearing a cross sticker

Child wearing a cross sticker

Only the Lord knows how many sermons Steve preached, babies he baptized, and people he confirmed and communed.  Over Steve’s ministry of 28 plus years in Africa, how many Gospel seeds were planted, watered and nurtured?  How many hearts were encouraged, lives changed or faith renewed? It wasn’t so much the fruit of his work that encouraged him as it was the promises of God.  The Word fed his faith and the people fueled his passion. His heart beat for the people. It was easy to tell. One can just hear it in his voice and see it on his face.  If Steve will allow me and if you’ll indulge me, may I say that I see a special verse in Scripture that has Jere written all over it: 1 Thessalonians 1:8.  It reads…”We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well because you had become so dear to us.”
If I didn’t already know Paul had written those words to the Thessalonians I would think that Steve had penned it to the Zambians and Malawians. Jere’s life and style of ministry revealed his heart for the people.  He truly shared not only the gospel but his life as well.

Steve and John

Missionary John Holtz with Steve Lawrenz

The people indeed had become dear to him.  Oh, so dear. Find Steve in Malawi and you’ll hear him with people: chatting in Chewa, rehearsing people’s names, delighting children with his much loved antics.  Jere loves to put cross stickers on the foreheads of African children and tell them about Jesus. Locate Steve and you’ll notice that he’s chumming with the national pastors, working on building relationships and looking to do the good works that the Lord has already prepared for him to do. But no more. No more?  Well, I should clarify those words a bit better: he will be doing these things in Africa no more.  America, yes.  Africa, no. Steve and his wife Lori are leaving Africa.  They are bidding farewell to the land of Malawi in which they hung their hat for the last seven years.  From their home in Blantyre, Malawi and from 10,000 feet in the air, on 2 March 2015 they will wave good bye to neighboring Zambia where they raised their three children, Scott, Diana and Adam. What’s it like to get rid of most of your things, pack the rest and move back to a place you left almost 3 decades ago? “Exciting!” Steve says with enthusiasm.  “I love adventure!  In fact, for me, going to America now is like going to a foreign country.  Yes, I grew up in the USA and served as a parish pastor for 4 years in Minnesota and 6 years in Pennsylvania.  Except for furloughs, however, I’ve been away from the USA for almost 30 years. So many things have changed.  Lori and I will need time to transition back into American culture.” Steve agrees wholeheartedly that the time is right for their move: “About my position being eliminated and I going back to the USA, I agree with it totally!  I support the idea of going back to the USA with no missionary to replace me because it is the right thing to do in the development of a mission.” Steve recalls the time when there used to be 13 missionaries in Malawi and 11 in Zambia.  At this time there are now but four mission families in Zambia and with Steve’s and Lori’s departure from Malawi there remains but four also. Dear Steve and Lori. We will miss you.  Many many Malawians and Zambians will miss you. Thank you, Steve and Lori, for sharing both the gospel and your lives with us in Africa.  You have become dear to us. You have touched the lives of countless people in these two countries and left an indelible mark upon them…God’s indelible mark!  God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the cross has found its mark not on foreheads but in hearts. Dear Mission Partners, if you ever see Steve in America, call him by his African name. Call him…Jere. He’ll be glad you did.  You’ll be glad you did. If he starts reaching down to pick you up by the ankles to swing you around upside down, either let him show you his strength, or you can ask him to instead share with you a story or two of his experience in Africa.  In Chichewa or English or both. You’ll be in for a real treat.  He not only has a flair for a good story, but a passion for the greatest one ever told.  The story of how God has… a heart for the people.

Missionary to Malawi, John Holtz, gives a great send off to Missionary Steven Lawrenz as his time in Africa comes to an end and he returns to the United States.

We are not afraid

We were not in class on that Friday morning. We were walking to the mortuary before the morning dew had cleared. Shocking news had punched our hearts as we woke. “Pastor Umoessien is dead.” Even those in charge said, “We don’t know what to do.” Should the seminary continue with classes and pay our respects later? No, word came that the morticians wanted to begin their work. So we cancelled class for the day. Students, Director, and WELS instructors started their sad procession together. Leaving our lane, turning left on the sand road. Our oldest student came for chapel a few minutes late. He caught up with our sad walk. “Pastor Umoessien is dead.” Student Samuel’s mouth dropped open, his lips quivered, his eyes frantically searched ours, “What?” We explained that Umoessien had been killed the previous night, January 15, 2015, in a car-motorbike collision. “No, he was just here that same morning talking to us!”

Pastor Umoessien

Pastor Umoessien

But yes, Umoessien was dead. A ‘keke’ (motorbike tricycle taxi) pulled up to park at the entrance path to the mortuary. Emem, Mrs. Umoessien, had come with one of her sons. We all crowded into the first room of the mortuary. Our friend’s body was laid out on a mat on the floor, covered in a dignified way. We lined the north wall and clogged the doorway. There was no plan for who should speak. The two WELS pastors were silent, giving way to whatever the Nigerians needed to say or do. The Director was also silent. Unbidden, student Egar offered the prayer.He praised the Lord our God and thanked him for this opportunity for us to honor a man we loved and to declare to the world that we are not afraid. We are not afraid because our God is in charge. The same one who gave us Jesus as our Savior has now taken Umoessien away. And we trust our Lord in all he decides for us.

When Egar concluded, we all said, “Amen,” including the new overnight widow of Rev. Eme George Umoessien.

In fact, Pastor Umoessien was one of five men connected with the seminary who died within the last year and a half. Evangelist Happiness Uko, Ev. Samuel Eyo, retired professor Rev. Edet Akpakpan, and Ev. Saviour Udo had all preceded Umoessien, leaving this earth for heaven. Of them, only Akpakpan had achieved old age. But many student and instructor devotions, a student sermon at the dead pastor’s congregation, and the general population of both our synods in Nigeria kept making the point, “We are not afraid.”

Pastor Umoessien

Pastor Umoessien

Why would people keep asserting our faith in such words? Because adversity and death, so easy to suffer in Nigeria, are feared. People fear death because it tempts them to believe that God is not in charge. They fear death when they revert to the old ways, fearing that someone has cursed our seminary or the living spirit of a dead person has decided to plague our seminary. In defiance of the old and default animistic views of cause and effect, our fellow Christians tell themselves and the whole world, “We are not afraid.” Nor should we fear death or any other adversity. For if God has so freely given his own Son to take away the guilt of our sins, how would he not take care of us in all the lesser issues of life – issues of both life and death (Rom.8:32)?The family of Christ the King Lutheran Seminary and both synods in Nigeria have suffered a string of deaths. But they assure you and one another, “We are not afraid. We will continue our studies. We will go into the field with the gospel of our Savior.” So take heart in your own lives! Receive whatever God sends you with both hands!

Rev. Doug Weiser, missionary to Nigeria, recounts National Pastor Umoessien’s death and how we have no need to fear death because of our faith in Jesus.

It is finished

Brooks Reames is a member of Peace Lutheran Church in Aiken, South Carolina. He writes about how he came back to Christ through Pastor Jonathan Bourman.

I am not sure how you feel when you read those words, but the first thing that comes to my mind is EXHAUSTION and a major inability to be who I desperately want to be.  We all feel the need not only to be better human beings, but also to be better Christians.  We feel this because the law of God has been written on our hearts.  As Romans says, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts…” This truth really began to take hold of my heart back in 2011.

Previously I had lived in Greenwood, South Carolina.  I had received a baseball scholarship to Lander University in 2008 and lived there until 2011.  Jesus radically opened my eyes while I was there.  Late at night sometimes when drugs and alcohol were present I felt the weight of the law.  I headed for church and was baptized on November 21, 2008.  During the next three years in Greenwood, God did a magnificent work in my heart.  He gave me a burning desire to know him more deeply and I wanted to love him more effectively, but I had one big problem.  My doctrine and my mindset were all messed up.  The focus of my Christian faith was all about my performance and not enough about Christ’s performance for me.  I lived a very rocky Christian life.  When I felt I was achieving obedience, I was happy.  When I thought I was failing God, I was depressed.

After living a life of trying to achieve my salvation, I hit rock bottom in my faith.  I finally came to a place where the law had completely wrecked me.  I was mad at God and turned my back to him.  I can recall one day when I told him I was done following him and cursed him out.  It seems absurd to curse at God but I can say honestly that it was a great day in my life.  I had finally given up on trying to obey the law.  I had finally come to a place where I knew I could not do it.  Little did I know that that was God’s intention for me.  God wanted me to understand my inability to obey the law.

During the next couple of years, I rebelled.  I gave up on following him.  I knew that if being a Christian was about following rules, then I couldn’t be one.  I still had a distorted view of the Christian life.  Even though I was living in this mindset, God had a beautiful plan for me.  God was leading me to the true and right doctrine.  During that time, God led me to the beautiful gospel of grace, but I struggled to find assurance in it.  I needed someone else to “get it” – to confirm me in it.  I felt as if I was the only person in Aiken that was itching and needing the pure gospel message.  I wanted and desperately needed someone to tell me the gospel was really true.

My story takes me to the end of 2013.  It was during a fitness orientation at Gold’s Gym in Aiken (where I work) that a met this tall skinny guy.  Little did I know that this fitness orientation would be one that would lead me to understand the true doctrine.  I met Jonathan Bourman, who I now consider a great friend and my pastor.  Jonathan had recently moved to Aiken to plant a church.  When I heard him tell me that I remember rolling my eyes to the back of my head and thinking, “Aiken has enough law filled churches.” But then we began to talk and he said a word that struck a cord in my heart.  He said “GOSPEL!” The joy that sprang to my heart after hearing that word was indescribable.  I later came to understand that this guy, “gets it,” and I needed to hear more from him.

After the encounter with Jonathan we began to meet on a weekly basis.  He began teaching me the Lutheran doctrine.  I was blown away with the purity of this truth.  Christianity became clearer to me. The gospel was the centerpiece in this doctrine.  I began to see the true essence of my Savior.  As time went by I gained the assurance I was looking for, not from my own feelings of salvation but from God’s Word and my baptism.  What a beautiful gift God has given me in seeing his pure doctrine. Today I proudly call myself a Confessional Lutheran and will forever live to be reminded of the gospel message and in hopes of bringing this freedom to other people.

I am truly excited for Peace Lutheran church to begin.  There are no other churches in the Aiken area that are bringing this message.  My soon-to-be wife and I are becoming members of this church and are looking forward to hearing the gospel message preached.  My prayer is that through Peace Lutheran Church many people in Aiken will come to believe and understand the true doctrine of Christianity that truly, “It is finished.”

To learn more about Peace Lutheran Church, visit www.peaceinaiken.com.

At home in Mexico

My husband Jorge is from Huamantla, a city of 50,000 at the foot of a volcano called La Malinche, where every year two dozen bulls thunder through the streets, and artisans cover six miles of local thoroughfares with elaborate carpets made of flowers and colored sawdust.

I am from pleasant small-town Wisconsin, that beautiful green country of cows and cornfields and cold winters, where bratwurst has been elevated to an art form and Friday night fish fries and the Packer games are considered sacred traditions.

The story of how we met is something only God could have arranged.

Our paths crossed for the first time in the arid industrial city of Torreón in northern Mexico. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a sojourn from urban metropolises to dusty rural roads and back again.

Jorge grew up in a Catholic family but came into contact with the Lutheran church as a teen, and eventually became a member. At the urging of his pastor, he decided to begin pastoral studies. This choice led him to Torreón, where the seminary was then located. In the meantime, I was studying to become a Spanish teacher at Martin Luther College. Word came that there was an opportunity to teach English in Mexico through WELS Kingdom Workers. Very interested to be immersed in a Latin American country and at the same time use my gifts to help the local church, I applied and shortly after, was accepted. Where in Mexico was I headed? You guessed it: Torreón.

Jorge and I were friends right off the bat. We visited all the museums and parks Torreón had to offer. He introduced me to some strange new foods. I may have asked him one too many questions about Spanish. Before a year had gone by, we were engaged. After finishing college (me) and seminary (Jorge) we got married in the beautiful colonial city of Puebla. Jorge was assigned to serve in Mahahual, a remote beach town six hours south of Cancun. It was a charming and tranquil place to live, sandwiched between the jungle and the sea. God blessed us with a little girl while we served there. Several years later, Jorge accepted a call to serve in city of León, Guanajuato, where we currently live. The changes were drastic; we traveled 1126 miles to our new home, from sea-level to nearly 6000 feet above sea-level, from a tropical to a semiarid climate, from the Caribbean coastline to the Sierra Madre mountain chain.

Folks often wonder what is like for me to live in Mexico, after having grown up elsewhere. Though perhaps cliché, life is slower here. You can spend a morning meandering through the town plaza, listening to organ grinders and feeding the pigeon flocks. At the same time, you can spend months trying to get one piece of paperwork registered by the local government.

As newlyweds, we traveled with only three suitcases and a few boxes of books to our name. Though we still live with very little by American standards, we daily witness people with much less. This is humbling; the abundance in the United States is a blessing I can no longer take for granted. To all of us, on both sides of the border, our Father sends us the manna of food, of friends and opportunities. He gives us so many gifts, Himself above all.

We live very deeply in the culture, as a typical Mexican family would. Most of my day is spent talking and working in Spanish. The experiences God has given me are beyond what my younger self could have imagined, from making chileatole (a savory corn and chili pepper soup) and tortillas with my mother-in-law, to giving birth in a rustic cabin because there were no hospitals nearby. I didn’t realize when we married the magnitude of the change I was embracing. I find the differences to be even more striking as I watch our daughter grow up. She chatters away in Spanish, eats tamales and thinks every party has a piñata. Mexico runs through her veins.

This life can, at times, be lonely. There are cultural moments in which I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Years pass without seeing any family members face to face. I miss births and deaths, weddings and graduations, often communicating from a cramped internet café. I mourn the milestones missed, and yet this serves to remind me that I am really homesick for heaven, that far-off Country. All of these places we have lived – Torreon, Mahahual, León – these are all temporary cities as we continue our sojourn home. One day we will be together again at His feet.

As we lay down our roots here and yet keep our eyes heavenward, we have confidence that Christ will keep us. Whether He shields us from heartache or permits sorrows to enter our lives, we shall not fear, for our God is good and He is in control. I confess with the Psalmist, ¨The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.¨

Kerry Pamperin de Briones, Mexico

God bless Malawi

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

(1 Thessalonians 3:9)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Greetings from Malawi in Jesus’ name! In the past few weeks, many of you have heard about the severe flooding in Malawi. Unusually heavy rains have caused extensive damage, especially in the Southern Region of Malawi. About 80% of our LCCA churches are located in this area. Thousands of our Lutheran members have been affected by these floods. Many have lost their homes. Others have lost their fields and gardens. Many have been injured, and some have even lost their lives. With one united voice we cry to our gracious God in heaven that he may have mercy on all who are suffering from this disaster.

But how can we thank God enough for you, our brothers and sisters in America! You have poured out your earnest prayers like a mighty flood before God’s throne. You do not know our names and we do not know yours, yet you have come to our assistance with your generous gifts and offerings. Even now, the affected congregations of the LCCA are receiving disaster relief from the WELS – warm blankets, plastic roofing sheets, nails, and a bucket to carry water. These gifts of love do more than warm our bodies in the cold hours of the night. They warm our hearts, for now we know that you are one with us in Christ!

We thank the WELS Christian Aid and Relief Committee for their generous and ongoing financial contributions. We thank the Kingdom Workers for supplying manpower to assist in the distribution of relief. Most of all, we thank everyone who has offered heartfelt prayers and generous gifts to help us in our need. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

God is always good to us, but these hardships in Malawi will continue for some time. We humbly ask that you will continue to hold us up in prayer, just as we will always pray for you. We ask that you will continue to support us with your financial contributions, just as you have been doing right up to this time. May the God who loves us and who has washed us of our sins in Jesus’ blood bless you for your kindness.

Your brother in Christ,
Rev. Riphat Matope, president, LCCA Malawi Synod

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The tree of life: Malawi flood update

The rains were no surprise.

The floods were.

River banks can hold only so much.  Land can soak in only so much.  Sand bags can stop only so much.

Then the inevitable happens.

When floods come, fields go.  When a cyclone hits, everything is hit.  Soil erodes.   Roofs cave.  Houses collapse.  Bridges break.  Pit latrines become unusable.  Dirt roads become impassable.

In November and December Malawians were praying for rain.   Now they are praying for help.

Sabina certainly was.

One minute she was taking inventory of her fish, the next she was taking refuge in a tree.

Perched like a bird on a branch she helplessly watched anything and everything imaginable flow past in a muddy, churning torrent:  household items, livestock, clothing, baskets, garbage, crops, grass and logs.

Even bodies.  Human bodies.

Oh, she has an amazing story to tell.  And tell she did.  In a face–to-face interview with Missionary Paul Nitz of Lilongwe, Malawi, she told it. You can find her story at  WELS Missions Blog Both Sabina and Paul can tell it better than I ever could.

But one thing I can say: She survived.  Hundreds didn’t. Could she ever forget that tree?

When the elders of our Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA) congregations took me on a trek through their lands in Malawi’s Central Region, to my shame, at first I didn’t see it.

What I saw was only the destruction left in the wake of the floods.

I saw collapsed houses and piles of broken bricks and useless rubble.  I saw the obliterated fields and newly cut river channels.

I saw the bent over corn stalks.  Each flattened one was like the needle of a compass, pointing out the direction that the flow of water had taken.

I saw clumps of grasses, sticks, branches and uprooted trees trapped and wrapped against clusters of banana trees.

As I saw incalculable devastation I could only imagine incredible loss.  I witnessed so much ruin that had come with so much rain.

But the elders of the congregations saw more than I did.

Even when the rains first began to fall, they knew exactly where to go.  As they helplessly watched the waters rise and the floods sweep away so much of what they had or owned, they sought refuge and safety in the one thing strong enough, the one thing big enough and the one thing close enough: the tree.

Yes, that tree.

The Cross of Christ.  And, by faith, they climbed up into it.

The Tree of Hope.

At some point along our trek through the devastated land, the conversation turned.  We stopped talking about what was lost and instead talked about what was found: Opportunities to serve!  Moments to share God’s comfort and blessings in the middle of a flood of problems.

The elders shared with me how people were coming weekly and faithfully to the church to hear the Word.  One elder informed me that he was now the elected lay preacher.  He was full of joy that he had the privilege of leading the worship and giving the sermons.

I had thought all along that what I was going to come back with was but a report and an assessment of the flood damage.  More than that, however, I came back with sharper eyes and a stronger message:

Though the destruction was great, God’s love in Christ Jesus is greater still!

Thousands of Malawians are displaced and struggling to put back together the life they once had.  Among them are many Lutheran church members.  Some are grieving the loss of family and friends or both.  Others are trying to scrape together the means to rebuild a house or prepare a meal.   Most fear the hunger that will hit even harder when there is little or nothing to harvest in a couple of months.

But they are not without hope.  In Christ, hope is as certain as it is comforting.

There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off    — Proverbs 23:18

Mpemba-Beni-02032015-350The WELS Board for World Missions (BWM) and Kingdom Workers (KW) are working hard at addressing the immediate needs of those in our Lutheran congregations who are greatly affected by the floods.  Through funds made available through Christian Aid and Relief, we are handing out much needed practical items that our LCCA members need now: buckets for clean water, blankets for warmth, plastic sheeting for temporary roofing and nails to fasten bamboo together for framing temporary shelters.

May I take this opportunity to thank you for your gospel and prayer partnership.  It’s a partnership, not only with me, but with them: our brothers and sisters in Malawi who share the same faith in our wonderful Lord Jesus.

As partners, please stay and linger with us for a while at the tree.  That tree.

The Tree of Hope.

Missionary John Holtz, Malawi