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First Thoughts Blog
Category Archives: Missions

The Bench Warmer

In 1994, Henry Blackaby & Claude King authored the book titled “Experiencing God.” I’m sure many of you have either read the book or devoted hours to the workbook. The book asked you to take a look at yourself and your relationship with God. It goes on by walking you through seven realities, the third reality being “God invites you to become involved with him in his work. And we are to join him."

When I received the phone call to join the group traveling to Beirut, Lebanon, for a medical mission trip, I knew in my heart exactly how I was supposed to respond. Go. I did question my own worth and value to the team, until I was reminded from God’s Word that he has been preparing me for this. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that God wanted to do something special in my life and he did.

Having attended church most of my life, I’ve watched and listened to many videos from my pew in church (bench). I’d think, that was nice, but they probably have a lot more time for that or I’d convince myself that they are a lot more “churchy” than I am. Or I may have even thought that someday when I have more “resources”, just maybe I will do something like that. The problem with the above thoughts is the “I.”

I knew that God’s work, this mission, was going to happen with or without me. It was merely a question of responding to a call to get off “the bench” in which I have been keeping warm for years. Even when I began to pray about going, as the pastor suggested, I felt ridiculous, because I already knew in my heart how God wanted me to respond.

After arriving late at night in Beirut, I met Rebecca and Nour (last name omitted), and their lovely daughter. What a blessing they are to the refugees and all the people God sends their way in Beirut. They walk with our Lord, led and strengthened by the Holy Spirit in such harsh conditions, both spiritual and environmental. There are not enough words, particularly in my vocabulary, to explain how my heart goes out to them. By the end of the week, I also learned that the teams could not have been successful without the effort, work and preparation made by this couple. Plenty more could be said about how God is using Nour and Rebecca in Lebanon.

At each makeshift health clinic we set up at an inner city church or school, I was able to witness for myself a team of doctors, nurses and laymen, led and strengthened by God’s love for those around them, caring for His children of all ages who had been exiled from their homeland. Smiles were everywhere and on almost every face. And of course tears as it was a matter of the heart.

We won’t know the physical or spiritual impact, that one week made toward supporting Rebecca and Nour. I do know over 820 refugees received health care that they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Maybe a few just in the nick of time. I do know I saw a beautiful group of people both young and old who said Yes God, send me. I do know that I was blessed and God used this trip to Beirut, Lebanon to open my eyes, soften my heart and witness once again His greatness and His sovereignty in a lost world. 

Posted in: Missions

Detained In Russia

In September, Whitney Alexander, my daughter Katherine, and I traveled to Kaluga, Russia to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Word of Life Church. For over a dozen years, First Presbyterian has had a relationship with Word of Life church. We’ve shared fellowship, sent groups to visit the Kaluga church, and had their senior pastor, Albert Ratkin, speak at First Presbyterian conferences. So it was fitting that they would invite a group from First Presbyterian to celebrate with them.
 
In the last two and a half decades, the church has faced low-level harassment and legal assaults on their property rights, just because they are openly Protestant Christians. In the last year, however, changes at the national level have made their situation, and the situation of Protestant Christians throughout Russia, more tenuous.
 
On July 11 this year, while the team was working on visas, Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill prohibiting any evangelism except in a church building—be it online, at home or on the street. This was a dramatic roll-back of religious freedom in Russia. Many Russian Christians were concerned. Arch-bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Russian Evangelical Union, (of which the Kalgua church is a part) wrote in an open letter to Putin that the law “creates the basis for mass persecution of believers.”
 
We went ahead with our plans, and on arriving in Russia for the celebration found the 300-member Kaluga church full of joy and surrounded by well-wishers from other nearby churches. I was struck by how much love the other churches poured out on the Kaluga church: one church sent people to help serve tea at breaks, another sent a team to cook for the whole Kaluga congregation on Sunday, a number sent members bearing gifts, and several sent leaders to bring greetings.
 
The new laws didn’t dampen the joy of the event. Part of the celebration was a commemoration of the life and martyrdom by Stalin of the founder of Russian Protestantism in Kaluga. Even this potentially somber story filled the church with a spirit of courage.
 
On Friday night Whitney spoke, bringing greetings and encouraging the church. Saturday night he spoke again along with arch-bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky who came from Moscow for the event. After dinner at the church the arch-bishop left for Moscow and a few minutes later we, along with Pastor Ratkin and his family, walked out of the gates of the church-yard headed for the pastor’s van. 
 
Suddenly a uniformed police officer and five plain clothes officers (who turned out to be FSB, the current day equivalent of the KGB) approached us. “Let me see your documents,” said the uniformed officer to me and Whitney. (Thankfully, the pastor’s wife Elena put her arm around my daughter Katherine, spoke to her in Russian, and guided her to the van and out of the situation).
 
We were told we had to go to the police station. Albert, his wife and a number of church members (and visiting pastors) accompanied us and waited all night. At the police station, Whitney and I were separated and questioned for hours with no opportunity to have a lawyer. Finally, at 2.30 in the morning, a police colonel brought us together and pronounced us guilty of “religious connections” and fined us 3,000 rubles each.
 
During the Sunday service the next day Albert explained to the church what had happened: how a police informant had secretly (and illegally) video taped Whitney speaking to the church; we had been questioned without a lawyer until late at night and found guilty on the spot. Albert pointed out how appropriate it was that they had just learned how the Russian Protestant tradition in Kaluga was started in persecution and to take heart, because God is in charge. 
 
After that serious note the service turned joyful, with greetings and gifts from other churches then baptisms, and then cake, tea and food and more food and wonderful fellowship between the members of the Kaluga church and other churches who had come to share their joy.
 
The next day, as Albert drove us to Moscow to leave Russia, I told him I was concerned that the our case might cause problems. “This is bigger than you or me,” was his wise reply.
 
And he was right. The US embassy in Moscow has become involved, Russian media has picked up the story (both for and against), and a local television station has made it part of a documentary lambasting Protestant Christianity. And still it is bigger than all that. It’s part of the unfolding of the gospel story.
 
The Word promises: “Indeed, all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We don’t think about it much in the US, but I for one, have decided maybe I should.