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

Christians Under Construction Week 3

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. Here is week three:

Romans 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.

Today was Mary Gentry’s birthday. She had waited 364 days in eager anticipation of turning six, as this meant it wouldn’t be long until she could be in kindergarten.

“Mom,” Mary shouted, running into her mother’s bedroom first thing in the morning, “is it really today? Has my birthday FINALLY come?” Marilyn Gentry, still trying to wake the sleep from her eyes responded, “Yes, Mary. It is today. But what time is it?”

Mary, now jumping up and down on her mother’s bed, screamed, “5 o’clock.” Mom replied, “Oh Mary, it’s Saturday. Mommy needs a bit more sleep if we are going to have that big party later this afternoon.”

Mary, totally ignoring her mother’s request, said, “Can I open some of my presents now? Can I? I can’t wait to see what I got!”

The afternoon finally arrived, and none to soon for Mary. She tore into her presents. Wrapping paper was flying everywhere. Before long she was done. She had no time for cake or conversation with the relatives who had arrived. She grabbed her gifts and was later found asleep with each one spread around her – totally exhausted from playing with her new toys.

Christians, in a way, have experienced the same excitement that Mary did on her 6th birthday. When we were born, or rather, reborn on our baptism day, we were given gifts. No, not the kind that our relatives or Godparents might give us, but gifts from God. And these gifts came in two varieties — the gift of faith and the gift of spiritual gifts. When we had that first birthday we were given the gift of faith by God. That faith, put into us by the Holy Spirit, knows Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. He is the one who paid the price for our sins. The gift of faith is much like a birthday gift from loving parents. It is usually the best gift we receive and the most appropriate for us. Our heavenly Father knows exactly what we need, and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he gives it to us – eternal life.

Faith in Jesus however was not the only thing we received at that first birthday of ours. God tells us that he has also given us different spiritual gifts. These gifts are only given to his children. They include things like the ability to serve, teach, encourage, contributing to the needs of others, giving, leadership, showing mercy and many others.

If we were baptized as babies, we probably didn’t know what to make of these gifts God had given us. We may not even know we have them. But two things are certain. Like Mary we should be very excited about receiving them and even more excited to use them.

Read Romans 12 again and determine for yourself what spiritual gifts you have been given. Ask others what they think your spiritual gifts may be. And then plan on using them until you lay exhausted on the floor from enjoying their use. What a blessing they are from God.

Discussion Questions: What makes your baptism so special? Can you think of ways that you can celebrate your spiritual birthday? Which spiritual gifts do you think you have? How about those around you? How are these spiritual gifts different than other gifts you receive?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Romans 12

 

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have given each of us very special and precious gifts. We thank and praise you for the best gift of all, the gift of eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus. But you didn’t stop with that gift. You kept on giving. Now help us to use the gifts you have given us. May we use them to your glory. Amen.

Christians Under Construction Week 2

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. Here is week two:

(Please set aside an evening this week to use this devotion as your personal devotion or family devotion.)

Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Bill Gentry loved his job. He worked as an advertising executive in one of the city’s largest agencies. He spent his days working with companies trying to help them create advertising campaigns, commercials and billboards. Much of what he did was to observe large companies and try to learn from their approach to advertising. One of his favorite companies to watch was Nike. “What creative campaigns they come up with!” he told a number of his associates. He especially liked their “just do it” campaign. It was simple and to the point, but you remembered it and you remembered who told you to do it – Nike. It meant that with those shoes you could do it…jump high, run fast, be like Mike, whatever. Bill was so impressed by the concept that he told others to “just do it”, he told himself to “just do it.” It was motivational for him.

Then on one Sunday morning he heard his pastor say the same thing. His pastor was talking about Ephesians 2:10, and in it he described one of God’s very own creative campaigns – God’s “just do it” campaign.

He listened intently and learned that God tells each and every one of us to “just do it” too — to do good works, God wasn’t trying to sell shoes however. He didn’t make a shoe that he claimed could make us run faster or jump higher. He didn’t stamp a swoosh on anything to identify it as something cool and hope we’d buy it. What God did do was make us. He calls us his “workmanship.” And rather than stamp us with a logo, he put faith in our hearts, a faith in Jesus our Savior.

What’s even more amazing is that he didn’t roll each of us off the same assembly line. God made each one of us by hand, gave us each faith, and determined ahead of time the “features” our model had. Wow! Each of us is unique with our own feature set.

God is so much more creative than we can even imagine! It is those God-given features that identify us as God’s workmanship–that we are made by Him and for Him. And it is those features, those spiritual gifts, that determine exactly what God wants us to do.

We don’t have a swoosh. We don’t even have to wear a cross, Christ already wore one. We simply need to “do it.” That shows the world who made us and to whom we belong. It shows God that we love him and are grateful for his craftsmanship.

God too says “just do it.” “Do what I’ve enabled you specifically to do. Do those good works I’ve prepared in advance for you to do.”

Be sure to read next week’s devotion to find out some of those “features” that God has built into us. For a sneak peak, you’ll want to read the “Family Reading” verses for today.

Discussion Questions: What have you ever been compelled to “just do?” Do you have other mottos that you live by? List some of the “features” you think God has given to you. Discuss why everybody has different spiritual gifts.

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Romans 12

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have made each of us with different gifts, but you crafted each one of us with love. Please help us be like Christ, who did it for us, who paid for our sins on the cross. Help us to do good works, those which you have prepared for us to do. Amen.

Christians Under Construction Week 1

A number of years back I developed a series of Stewardship devotions called Christians Under Construction that could be used in family devotional settings.  Their focus is on how we can best use our Time, Talent and Treasure resources. I plan to re-release these this fall as our children head back to school and help us all think about our service to the Lord. Here is the first one:

1 Corinthians 12:1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.

Bill Gentry was startled to hear screams coming from the upstairs bathroom. As he entered to see what was happening, he observed his son, Bill Jr., angrily scolding his 5 year old sister Mary. “You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined it! What were you thinking? You’re so stupid.”

“Who’s stupid?” dad asked.

“Dad, she was using my GameBoy as a life raft for her Barbies. Now it’s ruined. She’s such a dummy!”

Bill Sr., in the most fatherly voice he could muster replied, “Now Billy, let’s just settle down for a minute. It’s clear that Mary didn’t know any better. She is only 5 years old. There are still many things she is ignorant about.”

Both Mary and Bill Jr. cocked their heads, and almost in unison sputtered, “what’s ignorant?” Billy added, “and why does that give her the right to ruin my video games?”

The family patriarch paused for a minute, sat them both down at the kitchen table and explained, “Being ignorant means not knowing those things that you haven’t learned yet. Billy, you are in 7th grade, so you haven’t learned the things that are taught in the 8th grade yet. So you are ignorant about all those things. You don’t know them. You can’t use that knowledge, because you don’t have it in your head yet. Mary doesn’t have it in her head yet that she can’t use your GameBoy as a flotation device for her Barbies, regardless of how desperate their situation might be.” Bill Sr. mustered a wry smile, just so the two of them knew he was trying to inject a bit of humor. Sometimes his kids weren’t all too sure.

He continued, “There are worse things to be ignorant about you know.” Billy responded, “like what?” “Well,” said the father, “in the Bible it says, ‘Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant’. Spiritual gifts are some of the special talents and abilities that God has given each of us to use. This Bible verse says that we should learn about those gifts so we can use them to please God.” Mary injected, “Oh I want to please God! But daddy, how do we do that?” “Good question Mary,” dad continued, “first you have to know what pleases God. The only way to learn what pleases God is to read and study the Bible. You know, like we do in our family devotions, and at church and Sunday School. There we learn about those special talents God has given us and how to use them.”

Billy’s head perked up as if he had an idea that would impress the two of them, “Dad, why don’t we use our family devotion time to talk more about those spiritual gift things the Bible mentioned? If the Bible says we should get smart about those, I think we should. I don’t want anybody calling me ignorant, especially God.”

Discussion Questions: Describe, in your own words, the word “ignorant.” Can you think of things about which you are ignorant? Why would it be bad to be ignorant about spiritual gifts? How can we become “smarter” about them? What would be the absolute worst thing to be ignorant about? Why?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: 1 Corinthians 12

Prayer: Father in heaven, please help us to learn more and more about you and those wonderful gifts you give us. Teach us not to be ignorant about the lessons in your word. Especially help us never to forget what your son Jesus did for us. We thank and praise you for that gift, and the wonderful news that our sins are forgiven through faith in Him. Over the coming weeks help us to live lives of thanks by learning more about what you have given us. Amen.