Friday, March 09, 2007

The Grace of Pain

To celebrate the end of the Writer's Workshop here in Hyderabad, India, we had a special guest: the recently retired head of police for the entire Andhra Pradesh state, a region with a population of 80 million people. Tightly muscled with a steel jaw and eyes like lightning, he entered the banquet hall amid a cadre of bodyguards toting machine guns. Just last week the Naxalite terrorists assassinated a government official near here. The guards had come to protect our guest, but when you met him, he didn't appear to be a man who needed protection from anyone.

I've never in my life met a man who exuded more confidence and poise, whose presence alone spoke with so much authority. During his career he served in the military and the police throughout India, from one end to the other--fighting the Communists on one front and then terrorists on another. And yet, he was remarkably approachable. He joked with me about enjoying basketball and playing a team from the U.S. with his law enforcement friends. "We were evenly matched, of course," he said. "They were all six-foot eight and we were all five-foot eight."

But the most striking thing wasn't his composure and strength, or even his gentle sense of humor, but his words as he spoke during the ceremony. After telling us about his favorite books he mentioned some of his work experiences and said in passing, "I am thankful that God has been kind enough to send a lot of pain into my life."

When the program was finished, I asked him about his words and he nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "I have had many hardships in my life. At one time I was transferred 20 times in 22 years. Always moving with my family. I think of my life like the story of Job. But God has always grown something good. My children and grandchildren are wonderful, and I am thankful."

Powerful words from a powerful man.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Edge of Heaven

Here's the picture of the home of a family of eight in Guatemala City—two parents and six children.

The father gave up a day's income to take off work so he could meet us and thank us.

His wife made us treats and welcomed us with a kiss.

And as I looked around their hovel I thought back to the view from the resort. Earlier in the day I'd thought it was like a glimpse of heaven. But when I saw the thanks on his face and the love in her eyes, I knew I'd been mistaken.

That wasn't a glimpse of heaven.

This was.

The View From Here

I just realized something.

I never told you about Guatemala.

Last month my wife Liesl and I traveled to Guatemala City to visit the work of Compassion International and join other children's advocates on a short spiritual retreat. While we were there we stayed at a beautiful resort at the base of a volcano. (A generous donor paid for the retreat as a way to minister to us, it wasn't paid for through Compassion's funds). I've attached a picture of the view from the resort in this post. Simply stunning.

So while we were there, Mark Yaconelli, the speaker for the retreat, said, "Mel Gibson is staying here too!"

And I shook my head. "No way."

"He is. C'mon."

So Liesl and I followed him to the lobby. And sure enough as we stood there, Mel Gibson was joking around with some of the servers in the restaurant. Then he turned and headed straight toward us.

I wanted to say, "I really respect your work. Thanks for all you do! I'm praying for you," but was too embarrassed to say anything. I just stood there gawking. After he walked past us, gentle warm-hearted Liesl turned to me and said, "That was really Mel Gibson! I could have reached out and tripped him!"

It was so lovely.

In my next post I'll show you a picture of the home of one family Compassion ministers to.

Missing Pearls

Two nights ago when I slipped off to the coffee shop to send some email, I ran into a woman I'll call Vanetta, one of the students in the writer's workshop. She was seated at a table with a man I didn't recognize. Of all the people in Hyderabad I know about eight. Vanetta is one of them.

She told me she was dining with the retired chief of police here in Hyderabad. He nodded warmly and asked me to join them at their table. It seems one of the women she works with had sent the police to her home because the woman's 11-year-old daughter had disappeared and she thought maybe she'd gone to Vanetta's house. This kind man had helped smooth things over.

However, the girl never showed up. She was still missing.

Vanetta works with the sex workers (prostitutes) in Hyderabad, ministering to them and serving as an advocate for them with the police. Last year for several months she had watched this woman's daughter and the girl grew close to her. Vanetta believes the woman tried to sell her daughter for money and the girl ran away.

A shudder ran down my spine. I couldn't help it. I have an 11-year-old daughter.

"The other Pearls were so worried," my friend told me. She calls the prostitutes Pearls. To her they're precious. To the streets they're worthless.


And if these precious women become believers, Vanetta calls them Polished Pearls. "I love them so much and I'm so worried about this girl, please pray for her," she said.

If you can, please pray for Vanetta (God knows her real name), the Pearls she works with, and the young girl who is still missing. Plead God for their safety and entreat him that each of the pearls Vanetta loves so much would be polished by God's Spirit and laced onto the secret necklace that he wears closest to his heart.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Beautiful Fingers

The other day we were driving to the other side of Hyderabad for lunch. As we paused at a red light, I glanced over and saw a Muslim woman sitting beside her husband on a motorcycle. She was wearing a complete burkah with only her eyes and her fingers visible.

And the back of each one of her fingers was covered with ornate markings which looked like tattoos. I later found out that they were traditional markings that would wash off.

But still. I remember thinking, Here's a woman who just wants to be beautiful and the only part of her body she can reveal in public is her fingers. And so, she makes them as beautiful as possible.

And then, the light turned green and we drove deeper into the heart of the city.

Deep in the Story of Life

Every time I think about story, it teaches me more about God.

Here's what I mean. At the heart of every story is a transformative event--either a transformation that we see occurring or one that we realize will occur. Typically, movies begin by showing a portrait of a character in normal life, then a crisis that turns everything upside down, then the person's struggle to return to normal, and finally a discovery and a changed life. Written stories follow this basic pattern as well, but usually include a gripping beginning to snag the reader's attention.


That's what we see in the Bible in the book of Ruth as Naomi moves from a full life to the emptiness of loss, into the struggle to find balance again, and then arrives at last smack dab in the middle of a new kind of normal. It's what we see in the life of the prophet Samuel as he moves from normal life serving in the temple, (without knowing God), to a transformative encounter with God that leads to a new and different life (both knowing God and speaking for him). It's the story of Jesus's disciples, of St. Paul, of Moses, of Abraham, of Adam and Eve.

And of me.

The grand story of the stars is the intimate story of my heart.

When I pause and look into his tale, I see the author of time is flipping through the pages of my life changing me into the person I was meant to be all along.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The God of Lepers

As we entered the leprosy village yesterday, the children ran out to meet us, grabbed my hands and led us toward the church. We stepped through the gate. They'd laid down a carpet from the gate to the doors of the church. All the leprosy patients and their wives and children lined up and, laughing, tossed flower petals onto our heads as we entered.

When it was my turn to speak I shared the story of meeting a man from Iran a few weeks ago on an airplane. He had asked me all sorts of challenging questions about Christianity. In the course of our conversation I told him that Jesus offers us full and complete joy (check out John 15:11). Well, then my new friend asked how I could struggle with depression if I'm a follower of Jesus and he offers such joy.

I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure I knew the answer. Then, a verse popped into my mind. I said, "In Luke it says that Jesus was a man of sorrows. Why do you think the Bible would describe him like that?"

And my new friend thought for a moment and then he nodded. "Because he saw the world as it really is," he replied. Then after another moment he said, "Jesus was a man of sorrows. That's the best answer you've given me all night."

As I shared that with the lepers, they nodded. They could identify with the sorrows of this world, but also with the powerful hope of Jesus.

For me, yesterday was a day of sorrows and joy; a mixture of laughter and tears. Worshiping Jesus with the lepers, lifting my hands in praise with them, laughing and hugging them, praying with them was an overwhelmingly powerful experience. The same Jesus who reached out to the lepers of his day is still doing so today.

And he's reaching out to me, through them.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Amazing India

Just a quick note today since I'm having trouble getting and staying online.



Outside my window I hear the hum of the cars and the constant beeping of horns on the streets of Hyderabad, here in the heart of south Asia. I'll be here until the 12th of March teaching, writing and speaking at some ministries. It's so breathtaking and overwhelming. Colors and sights and sounds swirl everywhere. So fantastic.

Both heartwarming and heartbreaking when you see the extreme poverty. Hundreds of families living together in slums, under homes made of sticks and rags. Last night we visited a school for the ragpickers—children who can't afford school so different ministries provide for them to attend. They're called rag-pickers because they walk around each day picking up garbage looking for bits and pieces to sell or recycle to buy enough food for supper. I told them stories and was blessed to see them laugh.
Today I taught a group of 40 Sunday School teachers creative storytelling techniques to children. It was so much fun listening to the kind women and men of India read my stories in an accent I never imagined hearing them in before! They loved acting out the stories—goofy actions don't need a translator! Then I did a quick taping of a sermon for a television show that is broadcast throughout Asia. Tomorrow I'll be preaching at a leprosy church and then Monday – Friday teaching writing.

I'm so in love with the people here. So kind. So warm and helpful.

In my last posting I mentioned my friend Cec's home burned down. He was the one who told me about this opportunity to teach writing here. He used to be the teacher before I came. Please do pray for him and for my words tomorrow at the leprosy church. I will be preaching about John 10:10—how Jesus came to give us a full life. For all of us. No matter what our circumstances.