Thursday, June 08, 2017

Saluting the Benito Juarez Children's Home in Reynosa, Mexico


Last Saturday a team of 34 people from 5 different churches returned from a very successful trip to the Benito Juarez Children's Home in Reynosa, Mexico. We've been making regular visits to the children's home for many years and this is the largest group of people I've led to date. They were an exceptional team and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know many new people, and to experience the children's home through their eyes.

Don & Opal Russell
The Benito Juarez Children's home was founded 50 years ago(!) by Don and Opal Russell. After serving as missionaries in the interior of the country of Mexico for a season they had moved to the border area for another season of ministry. One day as they were having a meal on a sidewalk cafe in Reynosa, a girl who lived on the street stole the food from Opal's plate while they were praying. Rather than get mad, Don and Opal found their heart being broken by the girl's plight, and that of all the other street children.

Don and Opal decided to do something about it. They realized that for just a few dollars more, they could invite some of the street children into their home and give them a future. In June 1967 they rented a large house in Reynosa and began opening their home to the street children. Soon their home was bursting at the seams and it wasn't long before they realized they needed a larger place.

Through a series of miracles in 1970 they located a 50-acre tract of land well outside of town that they were able to purchase for a wonderful price. They had to dig their own well for water, and had to pay an extra fee to get electricity run out to where their new land, but over the years they built a refuge, a safe haven for many, many children.

Mark Russell
I first learned of the children's home in the mid 1980's when I was a student at King's Way Missionary Institute (of which Don and Opal Russell were also co-founders). I visited several times, and even donated my moped to them after moving up to 4 wheels. I went on to serve as a missionary in southern Mexico from December 1986 to November 1990 and then I moved home to Pineville to serve as an assistant to my dad at Christian Challenge. But I never forgot them.

In the mid-1990's I was looking for a way to take some of our youth on a missions trip to experience another culture and I reached out to Don Russell to inquire about visiting the Rio Grande Valley area, and hopefully the orphanage. He informed me that his son, Mark Russell, had become the director of the children's home and would welcome us as a group. We made a few sporadic trips in the 90's, but in 2003 we began making trips in earnest. (You can view some photos from that trip here.)

Google Maps view of the children's home.
(click to enlarge)
Since 2003 we have made so many trips that I've lost count. Some of the trips were just a few people and others were large groups. We've helped build the "new" 2-story dormitory (a pre-fab metal building that my brother, Andre, did most of the framing of the two floors inside), the new directors' home, the 2-story L-shaped structure that houses the current school upstairs and visitors' dorms downstairs, and now the new, NEW schoolhouse! We've painted just about every building on the campus, helped build the 10-foot tall block wall around the 10-acre compound, brought money to establish a fish-farm, brought Christmas presents every year .... and on every trip we have loved on the kids and staff, and made life-long friends!

I'm proud of our many teams over the years and the involvement we've had with the Benito Juarez Children's Home. And I'm honored that they consider us friends. As they complete half-a-century of service and look to the future, God is constantly refining their call and trusting them with more influence and ministry. Their new school is being built to the Mexican Department of Education's standards and will be a registered school, which will allow them to open it up to children in the surrounding neighborhoods as the city has grown out to where they are on the back side of the airport.

I don't know what the future holds for the Casa Hogar Benito Juarez but I know it's bright. I also know that many of our team members will unashamedly say that they thought they were going there to be a blessing, and got blessed instead! There is so much love at the children's home that you can't help but be healed by it.

I've got my trip dates set for the Christmas trip and invite you to consider joining me. Get your passport and start saving your money - and come join me December 26-January 1 as we serve Jesus together.

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Below are just a few pictures from our most recent trip to give you a flavor of the children's home.


The 34 team members from 5 different churches!
 
The children praying before the meal.
They quote a Bible verse and a proclamation
of faith before every meal.

Part of our team painting Biblical murals on the wall.
 
Putting up sheetrock in the new school.

Mixing cement the old fashioned way!
(Many hands make light work!)

Each night we had a group meeting and devotional.

Playing with the kids is always the highlight of the trip.

Praying for the new schoolhouse the morning we left.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Guest Post - Why I Love Spring


From time to time I have asked other folks to share a guest post here on the blog and this week I've asked Jenni Baier to share an update on something that's going on in her life. 

Jenni has been part of the Christian Challenge staff since 2008 and has served in many capacities, including creative director, worship team member, VBS director, special events coordinator, technology specialist, mission trip leader, and the list goes on and on and on! She's been a great blessing to our ministry and it's with a mixed heart that we announce she is moving soon to Baton Rouge to be a part of Resurrection Life, an inner-city church we support there.I know she's going to be a tremendous blessing to them as well!

Jenni shared a guest post back in January on "Overcoming Insecurity" and it touched a lot of people, especially those who know her story of God making her whole in areas of insecurity, anxiety and panic attacks. It's truly a miracle that we rejoice over! The impetus for the healing came the same week that I wrote a blog post entitled "Why I Love Fall" so she's entitled this guest post "Why I Love Spring." I know you'll enjoy!

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OK, so I don’t really love spring. A more accurate description would be to say that I have a love-hate relationship with spring.

I love seeing the trees turn green and show signs of new growth.
But I’m not a fan of the tree pollen and the allergies that it brings!
I love seeing flowers bloom.
But I don’t like the wasps and other stinging insects that come out!
I love how a spring rain can make everything smell fresh and clean.
Not so much a fan of the severe weather that often comes this time of year.
I love it when the temperature is perfect to have the windows & doors open.
But I hate knowing that extreme summer heat and humidity are just around the corner!

Spring is a time of new beginnings. It’s a time of change… and sometimes, those changes can be very sudden and dramatic. One day, you can barely make out the green buds on the ends of the tree branches… and the next time you look, it’s almost in full leaf. The grass is neatly cut one minute… then it rains and suddenly seems to grow half a foot overnight!

Right now, I’m kinda in the middle of one of those times of rapid change. It certainly feels very sudden to me. But through this experience, I’ve been learning a couple of things.

Things often aren’t as sudden as they seem

That burst of new life that appears in the spring that seems to come out of nowhere… it doesn’t. It seems to come out of nowhere because I can’t see what was happening below the surface for months ahead of time. The buds open suddenly in the spring, but often, the buds themselves began to form the previous summer!

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Hebrews 11:1-3 NIV)

Things feel sudden to me. But the more I learn to trust what I can’t see, the more He shows me how He’s been working everything behind the scenes to lead to exactly this place and this time. He’s been at work, even in the seemingly dormant seasons of my life.

I’m grateful for this spring-like season in my life, even if that means dealing with allergies and mosquitoes and storms and heat! Each season brings its own mix of blessings and difficulties, and each one contributes its own part to God’s purpose and plan for us.

Nothing is sudden to God

Just because I wasn’t planning on things turning out this way, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t orchestrating it all along. So even when something comes out of nowhere (or seems to from our perspective), God isn’t surprised.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, NLT)

“You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.” (Proverbs 19:21 NLT)

I’m learning that I’d rather have God’s purpose than my plans any day! I’ve always been a planner… I want clear goals and objectives, I like to know what I’m doing and when, and I like to have backup plans for when the originals don’t work out. Good planning can be a very good thing – but if I’m not willing to submit my plans to God, I’m not really a planner… I’m a control freak!

If nothing is sudden to God, then there’s absolutely no reason not to trust Him completely. And that’s been one of the biggest lessons I’m (still) learning in this season.

It’s so much better to surrender control to the only One Who has the master plan… for all seasons!

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I hope you've enjoyed this post. It's been an amazing journey to watch God work in Jenni's life over these past 9 years that she's been with us. Last Sunday our elders laid hands on her and commissioned her for the new calling and season of her life. A part of our heart goes with her and we wish her all God's best in this new chapter. God bless you, Jenni!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Power of the Resurrection


“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
(Philippians 3:10-11 NASB)

A youth pastor once asked a group of Christian teenagers to imagine that archaeologists had discovered positive proof that they had found bones of Jesus of Nazareth. What would that do to their faith?

The students hemmed and hawed. “He's still God, right? He still died for us. He still would have given the same teaching. I could still believe in Him, couldn't I?” They somehow felt they could hold onto their faith, even though Jesus did not rise from the dead.

THE RESURRECTION MATTERS

Paul gives a very different answer to that question in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17 when he says, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” Why does Paul say that? What was wrong with that youth group's response to this question? Why is the fact of the resurrection central to true Christianity?

To paraphrase Phil 3:4-9, Paul says:

“I followed the Law as well as anyone, and better than any of these false teachers. No one could have looked at any part of my life and accused me of breaking the Law. I was, on those terms, perfect. But now I consider all that I did, all my accomplishments, all that striving to prove to God that I was good -- I say, I consider all of that garbage, as worthless as manure, compared to the greatest thing of all: knowing Jesus Christ. Indeed, I have given up everything else so I might know Him. Once I know Him, I will be in Him, I will be part of His body, and will be declared good by Him, not because of anything I have done, but because I am identified with Christ Jesus. I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of His resurrection.”

Paul's primary desire, what he wants more than anything else in this life is to know the living, the resurrected Christ, and to know the power associated with that resurrection. If Christ is not raised from the dead, if His bones are buried somewhere in Palestine, then we cannot know Him. That man is dead. We might read about Him, we might revere Him, but we cannot know Him. Furthermore, if He is not raised from the dead, then He has no power today. He is dead. His words might have some influence – but He Himself has no power.

That’s why resurrection is so central to Christians: Christianity not a religion based on abstract principles. It is a relationship with a living Savior, a Savior we can not only know about but have a living relationship with, a Savior who infuses our life and empowers us, who transforms us into His likeness.

KNOWING CHRIST

What is “knowing Christ?” Our relationship with God is deeply personal. Throughout the Bible, God has always revealed Himself as Someone who could be known. In the OT the Israelites are always seen in relationship to a living God.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.”
(Jer 9:23-24 NASB)(Emphasis mine)

Knowing God is more important than wisdom, or strength, or riches. The people in this world who are most admired are often admired for these three qualities, aren't they? But through Jeremiah, God tells us that what matters more than anything else is understanding and knowing the Lord. Jesus Himself echoes these thoughts as He prays for His followers the night before His death:

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 NASB)(Emphasis mine)

Eternal life is what? Knowing God, knowing Jesus! Without knowing Him, there is no true life. The whole Bible agrees that knowing God, knowing Jesus, is central. But what does knowing God mean?

It is important to know about Him, but we must go beyond simply learning facts. We must cultivate our own relationship with Him. We do that by believing that He is the Son of God, believing the resurrection really did take place, and wanting Him to make us into a new creation. We grow that relationship by spending time in prayer: praying alone and with others. Talking to God builds our relationship with Him. We also need to be willing to follow, even when His commands don't make sense to us. When we do this - when we step out in faith - He will be there to support us, and we will see Jesus as a living, risen Savior.

THE POWER OF THE RESURRECTION

When Paul asks to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he’s not asking God for some kind of new spiritual or emotional experience. He’s asking to truly know, to fully comprehend, what has already been accomplished in the resurrection. Let’s consider four aspects of this power.
  1. The Power to Have Sins Forgiven - Sin has a hold on all of us. Without God, we are slaves to sin. But Christ, through His death and resurrection, frees us from the power of sin. When Jesus died, God laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Is 53:6), the punishment that all of us deserve for all our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice accomplished what no other could. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.” (Heb 10:10 NLT)
  2. The Power to Conquer Sin - Resurrection power doesn't end with our forgiveness. Christ's resurrection also empowers us to conquer sin in our lives. Ephesians 4:24 tells us that in Christ we are a new creation; His Spirit lives within us. We have been renewed, we have a new self. In our humanity, we will still have to deal with sin in our lives sometimes. God gives us the power to overcome it, but we must first know we have the power! That is why Paul has such a strong desire for this knowledge.
  3. The Power to Be God's Agent - Christianity is not just about forgiveness and overcoming sin. Christianity is not simply a solution to our problems. God has a positive purpose in our salvation. He has determined that we are to be His agents of change in the world. God empowers us not only to defeat sin but also to share and display His loving message to the world. Jesus Himself said of us, “You are the light of the world.” Paul put it this way: “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making His appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” (2 Cor 5:19-20 NASB)
  4. The Power to Be Conformed to His Likeness - “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29 NASB) Resurrection power's greatest accomplishment is conforming us to the likeness of Christ. Can you imagine what that means? Think of everything about yourself that you don't like, all the habits, all the negative characteristics - the things you have wanted to change, have tried to change. God will deal with every one of those. You are being made into a perfect creation. You are becoming like Jesus! That is your destiny, becoming the perfect bride of Christ, spotless, blameless, loving, kind, strong -- transformed into His likeness.


TWO QUESTIONS

This past weekend, we celebrated Resurrection Sunday. And here in Central Louisiana, it’s probably safe to say that nearly everyone knows about Jesus and the Easter story. But not everyone knows Him. And not everyone knows the power of the resurrection. So let me close by asking you two questions:

Do you know Christ?

Do you know the power of His resurrection?

If You say no to either of them, I’d love to visit with you. If you would send me an email to Nathan at ChristianChallenge.org I would love to dialog with you and share what I’ve discovered about Jesus and the power of His resurrection. Faith doesn’t have to be an abstract thing! It can be real and personal and powerful and alive! Please email me today and let’s talk about it!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Tale of Two Basins


The world recognizes this time of the year as a time to celebrate Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. The events of Holy Week are so familiar to us that it’s easy to miss out on some of the details. So today, I want to draw your attention to two events that center around two basins of water.

JESUS’ BASIN

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”
(John 13:3-5 NASB)

Notice that it says Jesus “got up from supper.” This could indicate that the meal wasn’t finished yet. I could imagine that everyone was still enjoying themselves at the table, maybe finishing their meals and engaging in conversations with each other. Then Jesus quietly arose, preparing to teach them a great lesson.

He “laid aside His garments.” To me this is a clear reference to the incarnation! He laid aside His glory and dignity as the Son of God to perform a servant’s task. The passage continues, “taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin...” This was the work of servants. Remember the wedding at Cana when servants filled containers? Everything Jesus did pointed to Him doing something He didn’t have to do.

Next, he “began to wash the disciples’ feet.” This is the ultimate in service. The role of washing feet was ALWAYS an act of service performed by those of lesser status for the benefit of those with a greater status. Interestingly, the Babylonian Talmud tells us that in Jewish tradition, although disciples were called upon to show great respect to their teachers/masters, one thing that explicitly was NOT required was to unloose the shoe (in order to wash the feet). That shows just how much Jesus humbled Himself to do this task.

When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, it wasn’t enough to just wash them with water, He also wiped their feet with the towel he was wearing, providing the ultimate cleansing and care. It’s also important to recognize that Jesus didn’t exclude Judas. He washed ALL their feet.

“So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.’”
(John 13:12-15 NASB)

Even though Jesus had performed this act of service, He was still their Master to instruct them and their Lord to rule or govern them. The world may think less of you if you perform low-status service jobs. But in the economy of God, you gain - not lose - when you serve someone else.

Jesus instructed His followers to wash one another’s feet. He didn’t say that in order to institute some sort of foot-washing ritual. The idea is to lay aside any false ideas of our own greatness and learn to serve one another... to prefer others in even (or especially) in the small things. To build someone up when you’d rather put them down. To resist the urge to use your influence to call out or punish someone who has wronged you… and serve them instead.

PILATE’S BASIN

“When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’”
(Matthew 27:24 NASB)

Pilate was quite a piece of work. His 10 years in Jerusalem were marked with many instances of unrest and bloodshed. Once he intentionally antagonized the Jews by placing golden shields in his palace with the names of various gods. Emperor Tiberius had to personally order him to remove them. He took money from the Temple treasury to build his aqueduct. He would send his soldiers into crowds of protesters dressed as civilians and when the crowds got unruly, at his command, they would begin beating the protesters. Philo called him “naturally inflexible, rigid, and self-willed”.

But this time he is no match for the Jewish leadership. He can see something in their eyes. He knows they’re serious, like the time they bared their necks to the Roman swords to get the soldiers to remove their shields from the temple. He backed down that time and he’s backing down again. He’s the ultimate politician. He knows which battles to fight and this isn’t one of them.

Pilate’s wife didn’t want to see Jesus condemned. In Matthew 27:19, she is so distressed over what’s happening that she sends her husband a message while he was on the judgment seat. In other words, this is so important to her that she interrupts him during a very important meeting at work. Her influence surely must have meant something to Pilate - but not enough to get him to release Jesus.

It’s not inconceivable that Pilate, because of his position, was close to people on both sides of the Jesus controversy. No matter which side he chose, he would lose supporters… so he chose not to choose, washing his hands of the matter. Sometimes refusing to take sides can be much more telling than actually choosing one and defending it.

Unlike Jesus, Pilate isn’t interested in serving. He’s interested in making himself look good. So instead of reaching for a towel, he reaches for the title. He calls for a basin, but he doesn’t fill it himself. And instead of washing someone else’s feet, he washes his own hands. Instead of being focused on others, he’s focused on himself.

WHAT’S IN YOUR BASIN?

Are you more like Pilate or more like Jesus? This is a serious question, and note that I’m not asking which one you’d rather be like. We’d all rather be like Jesus! But in the rubber-meets-the-road world of our daily lives, who do we take after more? I want you to ask yourself the questions that differentiated between the two basins: Are you concerned with service or appearance? Are you looking for a Towel or for a Title?

Living like Pilate is about watching out for your own interests above the interests of others. It’s about making strategic decisions and being careful about appearances. It’s about taking advantage of your influence to secure your own position, even at the expense of others.

Living like Jesus is about giving of yourself when you don’t have to. It’s about lovingly serving not just your friends, but also the one who’s about to deny you. Even the ones who are about to abandon you. Even the one who is about to walk out of the room and betray you.

When Pilate brought out the basin, only one person in that room was washed: Pilate. When Jesus brought out the basin, only one person in that room WASN’T washed: Jesus.

Jesus said He came not to be served but to serve. He proved that on the cross. He emptied Himself, laying aside His glory, and did the dirtiest job of all... dying for our sins. And now He calls us to follow in His footsteps.

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17 NASB)

The challenge is will we know it or will we do it? Unfortunately, sometimes even true Christians know more than they’re willing to do. The Greek tense is “you are blessed if keep on doing them.” Will we make service to others a lifestyle? If we are to make an impact for Jesus as His followers and imitators, we must do what He did. He practiced service as a way of life. It must be so for us as well. Which basin will you choose?