Pure Joy by Lisa Kern

“Why do you want to go?” the STAMP committee asked me.

My answer wasn’t exactly about God’s clear and present calling as much as it was about a sense of duty. A “whatever–your–hand–finds–to–do” burden that drives most of my waking hours. I can’t even watch TV without crocheting or looking up recipes on my phone or doing light exercises.

It's just the way I’m wired, so I answered the question, “I’ve done this kind of trip before (as in 21 years ago). I’m capable of doing this again. It needs to be done. Someone has to do it. I’ll do it.” I did wonder, before God in prayer, if something else was going on. With my constant need to be productive with every moment of God’s gift of time, was this trip just feeding my own addiction to productivity rather than God really wanting me to do this?

Suffice to say, I was accepted, along with my husband who led the team (which included two other area churches), to serve in Thailand, taking care of 80 third-cultural kids—ranging from babies to teenagers—as their parents attended a week-long conference that included training and much-needed rest and recreation. So, my willingness combined with the STAMP committee’s acceptance, I counted my application as God approved. Not a very spiritual measuring tool I guess, but we don’t all get burning bushes, you know. 

What can I say that would compel you to apply for one of the short-term missions trips? That it keeps you busy? That you have a skill they need and you just should go? Yes to all that, but that sounds rather sterile. There must be more compelling reasons to apply.

As it turned out, there were more compelling reasons for me as well. I did get to check off wiping noses and bottoms and consoling some pretty inconsolable (at first) babies and blowing about a thousand bubbles and singing "Father Abraham" till I hear it in my sleep two weeks later. All tasks that needed to be done; all checked off. And my deep-rooted sense of duty notwithstanding, I was blessed. Blessed beyond measure.

My mom used to come back from serving in a nursing home ministry and cry with both joy and some unrealistic guilt about getting so much out of it when she was the one who went to serve. She seemed to think serving should be hard—more of a sacrifice than plain joy. And that's my compelling reason to you. You will experience just plain joy.

You will go to serve and there will be parts that will be extremely hard, but you will be blessed. You may have to give up work days, raise support, maybe get a babysitter or a vaccine or two. You may have to buy Airborne and Zicam for the plane. But the needs are great, and I know some of you who are reading this are qualified to do the work.

You could go to Arizona to work on the roof of a radio station that broadcasts God’s love over the border. How many people might not get to hear the Word if that roof gives out? Can you help fix a roof? Or you could go and help build new school buildings for at-risk kids in Haiti, or engage Vietnamese Christians in evangelistic conversations at English language camps and cultural education excursions (in other words, talk), or build security walls and help in day camps for at-risk kids in Dominican Republic, or love on and serve through the distribution of clothes, food and the gospel to the refugees in Greece. Or, if you’re an outdoor-loving college- age student or a hiking enthusiast regardless of age who's willing to help other students practice their English language skills and open gospel doors as you hike the mountains of Romania, you qualify.

Yes, there is sacrifice. We've been back for ten days and are still resetting our internal clocks so we stop falling asleep at 8 p.m. only to wake up at 3 a.m. Someone told me that we still have about four more days before we even out. Was it worth it? It was so worth it.

If we didn’t go, topping off the child to adult ratio to exactly the numbers required by our short-term rule, missionaries with children would have had to sit out the retreat, missing out on worship, seminars and rest. And they seriously needed that rest.

I would have missed the great privilege of hearing amazing stories of triumph, hardship, heartache and perseverance to stay true to God’s calling and gospel sharing in some of the most difficult places on earth from women who are just like me—except for the fact that my life is easy. I don’t have to wear a burka. I can get any food I want, drive anywhere I want, sing Fernando Ortega songs right out loud with my windows open—any time I want.

Yet these women and I were able to sit around a table with yarn and fabric and adult coloring books (I did crafts with some of the women in the afternoons as well as baby duty) and talk about life and struggles and relationships. Aside from those hard differences, we were friends, sharing and praying and crying together like biological sisters, like true sisters in Christ. They needed that and it turned out, so did I. They were so happy to have a chance to pray, color, sew, crochet, worship, play games, get much needed counseling care and share meals with their peers. And if our team wasn't there to take care of their kids, it couldn’t have happened.

Yes, you may return a bit haggard from the trip but small price to pay for the pure joy of knowing you were able to make a difference. I am fulfilled.

Should I Stay or Should I Go by Jennifer Miller

I can give you all sorts of reasons to only give that STAMP 2017 brochure a passing glance.

The trips are for people with summers off or whose kids are out of the house or who are young and full of energy or who aren’t scraping to make ends meet or who are already connected to the missions department and know the missionaries personally.

I get all that. Last summer I said good-bye to my three- and one-year-old sons and boarded a plane for a country I had never visited to work with people who didn't share my culture or mother tongue. Even as I was sitting on the plane I wondered, “Is this the right choice? Is this the right time? I am going to wake up each day with only a faint idea of what I would be doing.” Not exactly the most encouraging way to begin a missions trip as I sort of counted the cost—both financial and personal—of my short-term missions trip.

I discovered that it was so worth it.

During the College Church trip to the Island of Lesvos, Greece, last summer, the Lord performed a priceless work in my heart. As we walked into the refugee camp for the first time, my first impression was the lack of accommodations. I knew that refugee camps weren’t fancy, but I expected people would at least have a cot to sleep on.

In truth, many did have cots, but as we first walked into the camp, the main path was littered with cardboard that people used as a layer between themselves and the harsh gravel as they slept on the ground in makeshift tents of blankets, tarps and cardboard.

As you can imagine, I came home from this trip different. God broadened my understanding for the plight of the refugee as well as the residents of the countries receiving refugees. I came back burdened to pray for the lost. Suddenly, my complaints that seemed legitimate only weeks before vanished into thankfulness.  

The Bible teaches that evil cannot triumph over God’s great redemption plans. I believed that truth for years, but last summer I saw it come to life in the faces of new believers at the camp. So how does that work itself out in a refugee camp? The more I learned the reasons that caused people to leave their countries, the more complicated, complex and bewildering a solution seemed to be. My mind searched for a way to fix the problem, but God was working through it.

One day, I sat on a bench by a gate and listened to a man who had escaped ISIS in Iraq. He recalled how he had always desired to know who God was, and it was at the camp, through conversations and friendships with some of the relief workers, he came to know God in the person of Jesus. He described his journey as a refugee as painfully awful but also a wonderful gift of the Lord drawing him to himself. I glimpsed the glory of the truth I so easily believed magnified in the face and voice of this new believer.

Now don’t get me wrong, there may be legitimate reasons not to go on a short-term missions trip this year. God does not call everyone to every trip every year. But don’t count yourself out just yet. Consider and pray if this is something God has for you. Not doing so might mean missing out on some beautiful blessings from the Lord.

To help nudge you along the way, here is where you can apply to the 2017 STAMP trips, including a return trip to this refugee camp. Application deadline is February 5.

The Interlude Called Time by Nancy Tally

Time, an interlude which—for those who live in it—divides eternity past from eternity future. Time’s boundaries are solidly set by the very movements of each heavenly body in our universe. To make it even clearer to us, God created the sun, the moon with the stars and even the seasons to mark time’s passage. There is no change; 365 days to a year, 24 hours to a day, 1440 minutes. While the calendars used to count the days vary from culture to culture, the rhythm stays consistent within each culture, and we all agree our days have the same number of hours, the same number of minutes.

None of this is earth shattering except I just realized that everyone on earth actually agrees about this one thing. We all have the same amount of time each day. But, oh, how our perception of that amount differs and changes as we move through life.

Ask any one over forty and he or she will tell you time is moving faster, and the more years the person has lived past forty the more amazed he or she is how those years fly by even faster. While we experience that reality from year to year, how do we perceive the passage of time day to day or even within a single day?

I first noticed how time could move either faster or slower when I was about seven-years-old. Sitting still and quiet, coloring book in hand, my mornings dragged on interminably. It was made all the worse because my least favorite thing to do as a lefty being raised as a righty was to color. My huge repeated sighs and squirming in my chair did not win me any favor in my captor’s eyes. She was always glad to release me to my grandfather’s care and I was overjoyed to escape.

With my grandfather, afternoons and evenings would fly by; even long rides to get to where we were going were over in a flash. Soon we would be in the sunshine: fishing, berry picking, shooting, hunting, swimming, or inside learning things like how to make and can jelly. The second half of the day was over far too soon.

From my perspective, childhood days were definitely longer and years flowed by leisurely. Neither did time speed up for me during my school years though small pockets of time seemed to never end.

After marriage, I became busier and my to-do list longer. I remember more days than I care to admit to when I would look at my list and tell God I didn’t have time to stop and talk. Those days invariably would speed by and were over well before I reached the end of my to-do list. Other times—fewer than I care to admit to—I looked at my long list and said, “God, I choose to visit with you first.” Consistently, I would get to the end of these days and marvel at how the time spent with God was given back to me over and above what I had given to him. My list completed or nearly so and my energy renewed.

The past three decades, I have seen each year pass more quickly than the last. I know what it is like to have busy days that speed by; then draw to halt: dead in my tracks, my days swallowed up in personal pain or illness. There have been hundreds of days I have felt time drag as I sat next to a hospital bed waiting to find out what our new reality was going to be.

Dear reader, what can I tell you? That not only is God in control of our great big universe but if you choose you can turn each individual day over to his control. I do not believe he will physically stop time for us as he did for Joshua. But I can tell you, if you let him, he can order your day and make your path so straight that you will achieve more in the twenty-four hours he has allotted you than you could ever imagine.

Once Upon a Time by Pat Cirrincione

Stories often begin with “Once upon a time.” King Solomon wrote, “Everything has its time.”

There are books written about time and space. Our watches and clocks and phones keep us attuned to time. As I thought about this word, two thoughts kept resounding in my brain: time before the Holy Spirit was in my life and time after the Holy Spirit came into my life, two rather profound moments—one unrefined, one becoming refined.

Time was, before the Holy Spirit came into my life, that I ran things my way. I made all the decisions—what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it and why! I was in charge. (Although in the 1960s, I did get rid of my watch for a year and kind of drifted through time.)

My time was explicitly scheduled, orderly and organized, except my time for God. I would try to make time for him on Sunday mornings and attend church, but once our children began playing sports, there wasn’t even time for that. I prayed, when my time allowed, but time passed, and with it, any time I had with the Savior.

I took what spare time I had to read romance novels as I sipped a cup of gourmet coffee, with no thought to the time I was wasting. I was so caught up in my family, the world and climbing the corporate ladder that it felt as if I were always running around in time! I prayed when I could, but never picked up the most important book in my library—the Bible.

But then, God decided that he had had enough of my nonsense and took a firm hand on how I was managing what was really his time! 

In the nick of time, God gave me a choice—him or the world—which, oddly enough, became an easy choice. Him, the God-Man I had known all of my life but kept putting on hold.

Though totally unaware of it, God had been quietly and gently leading me to his time, a time to study and learn about the Creator, to do what he wanted, to spend time with him. After all, he created time to be used for his glory.

So, once upon a time, there was this creature of God’s whom he loved so much, and now, she spends a lot of time talking to her Creator each day, appreciating the gift of his salvation. 

Lately I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, an observation by Solomon about time, and my question is what are we doing with the time God has given us? Take it from someone who is a reader; read his Word. It’s filled with so many genres: mystery, poetry, music, humor, to name a few. Take time to get to know God this year before time runs out on you. 

Nita's Smile by Cheryce Berg

Cancer is ravaging Nita Martindale’s mortal body, but not her soul, orthat of her husband’s, Wayne. Their souls are intact—more than intact—as they rest in God’s steadfast love.

It started with a suggestion from one neighbor to another—sing to Nita said the one neighbor who is also Nita’s hospice nurse. The other neighbor, a follower of Jesus, had the inspiration to sing hymns, not only to encourage Wayne and Nita, but also to show Christ’s love to neighbors they had been praying would come to him. Out went texts, Facebook posts and emails . . .

She smiles the whole time. She smiles and sings. Her smile is alight with hope as she gazes on us from her front stoop, backlit by the warmth of her home.

In Christ alone my hope is found; He is my light, my strength, my song.

We shiver and sing in the January wind, standing on the frozen grass.

This cornerstone, this solid ground, Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

I glance around, surrounded by this ragtag crowd whose voices warm the cold air. Neighbors, co-laborers, pastors, friends. All united in love for her. I wonder if all standing there know the only One who can comfort.

What heights of love, what depths of peace, When fears are stilled, when strivings cease! My comforter, my all in all—Here in the love of Christ I stand.

Nita’s face is alive with the knowledge of her Savior and his power over sin and death.  

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, Scorned by the ones He came to save. Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied; For every sin on Him was laid—here in the death of Christ I live.

She knows without a doubt that she belongs to Christ, and her faith is a testimony to us as we sing. She sees victory over death on the road ahead.

There in the ground His body lay, Light of the world by darkness slain; Then bursting forth in glorious day, Up from the grace He rose again!  And as He stands in victory, Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me; For I am His and He is mine—Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

She is flanked on either side by those who love her best, her husband and daughter. They hang a warm coat on her thin shoulders, wrap their arms around her and watch her closely.  They sing, too, but their lips tremble. Hers keep smiling.  

No guilt in life, no fear in death—This is the pow’r of Christ in me; From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.

Our words swell as the power of Christ flows through them, reminding us where our hope lies. Reminding us there is nothing to fear when we belong to him. Telling us that even cancer cannot pluck us from his hand. Promising that someday he will call us home.

No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home—Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

We sing for Nita Martindale, and she smiles.

A Hard Call that Ends Well by Wil Triggs

Mark Sutkowski is the manager of the LifeWay store in Wheaton, the one that’s closing in just a few days. That means that he will soon be out of work.

If you’ve ever been there, you may have seen him. Mark’s a big friendly guy who is happy to help people.

Because he has also been the point person for the College Church Book Stall, which is an extension of the LifeWay store, Mark called me yesterday. I had emailed him a list of new titles we’d like to add. But I’ve also been hurting for him and the other staff at the store. I thought this would be a hard call.

We talked about displays and fixtures that we are getting from the LifeWay store to help us better display our books. We talked about new titles that are coming to the Book Stall in a week or two. We talked about the shift we will have from working with the LifeWay store in Wheaton to the one at Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago. He told me that I’ll really enjoy connecting with the manager at the other store and how the three of us will meet soon to talk about the transition.

I asked him how he was doing and if he had any plans for what’s next.

Mark was so positive. He’s excited that he can help us for a few more weeks. He's happy to bless us with a couple of fixtures for the Bookstall and the Library. He loves LifeWay and is grateful for the ministry they’ve had in that retail space, the opportunity to witness. He’s looking forward to probably moving to the Dallas area to be near children and grandchildren. He’s even looking at ways he might be able to stay in Christian retail or work with LifeWay in some way in Texas.

Here’s the thing about Mark. He was every bit as positive during our phone conversation yesterday as he was the first time we met when there was no inkling of the store shutting its doors. It wasn’t even close to a hard call.

In the days ahead, I look forward to connecting with him and the other manager as we transition working with one store to the other. I’ll keep praying for him and the other staff who are losing their jobs. But for Mark at least, I see a man who is trusting God in the course of big change.

This brings to mind some of my notes from what Josh Stringer preached January 1 in his sermon on Psalm 130:

What brings conviction to your soul? Think back to the troubling headlines of 2016. What about the headlines of your life in the past year? I’m talking about the things that don’t leave the walls of your home or the trappings of your mind. The real distresses of mind.  . . . You can trust that God hears your prayers. We wait because he loves. Hoping and waiting are inextricably linked. . . . waiting, hoping, watching, telling. Bring people to the hope of the Lord. We need each other. We need each others’ stories.

Thinking of the story in his sermon of Josh and Adam running that marathon together, I’m grateful to run this little piece of life with Mark as he runs this challenging part of the course set before him. He’s finishing well.

What to Take into the New Year by Virginia Hughes

I've been making a lot of lists lately. That's what we Virginias do this time of year, now that we have the "yes," answer to the Santa Claus question all cleared up. Here goes another list. At the top of the page I write: 

RIDICULOUS NOTIONS THAT WILL NEVER COME TRUE

This could be a list of many things. Among them:

1. My Christmas wish list or 

2. My New Year's Resolutions

Making the most of the holiday season for some of us includes pursuing that fleeting corner of stillness and hoping that just the silent stars go by. But it's never just the silent stars that go by is it? 

During the season, add to your regular jobs all the new lists. There are lists of lists: decorations to put up indoors and out. Ugh, replacement lights, weren't these lights new just last year?  Gifts to be bought, wrapped and given. Favorite foods to buy and cook. Travel arrangements, visits to coordinate. House to clean. Where will family meet? My house? All at once? Deeper layers of house to clean, and re-clean. 

Where is the joy? Oh, the check engine light is on in the car. There it is. It's suddenly flashing now. It's serious. "Joy to the world, all the boys and girls," as one sits within the aromatherapy of oil and fumes waiting for the tidings of great joy: what needs to be replaced on the car. It's a long list that is single spaced with a staple on the printout, looking rather like "the decree that went out from Caesar Augustus that everyone should be counted and taxed." Wait, no, that's coming up later. Let's stick to Christmas joys for now.

This year also brought the joy of being numb with nose biting cold right during those key shopping days before Christmas along with some midnight snow shoveling. If you're one to Christmas shop in hands on, real type stores and not exclusively online, the cold may have added to your sturdy Midwestern character, or shrunk your inner Grinch's heart even smaller. It hasn't been that cold since walking to grade school in an itchy wool coat covering a thin cotton dress and knee socks. Maybe it has been that cold since then. I can't remember since my brain went numb from the recent cold temps.

There is important work to be done on all levels. Traditions to build in one's family, that you hope are more lovely than the annual family meltdowns. Memories to make, photos to take. Cards to send. Always another pile of laundry. Special concerts and worship to attend.

If you're the reflecting sort, this may be your most difficult season of all. It's the pace of everything that's so rough. The only reflecting you can manage is a bleary image of yourself in a mirror needing Windex. One must fight for those quiet moments, steal them even.  

A beautiful verse of Scripture will renew one's mind, that's where the rest is. Rest in it. In the beginning was the Word . . . The angels said it too: "Peace on earth, good will to men on whom his favor rests." The peace they promised was deep and real, from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Not the Pax Romana, so proudly enforced by the physical might of the Roman Empire at that time. "You people will be peaceful or the sword will strike you," is not a peace that gives one's soul the assurance it needs to sleep in heavenly peace. 

So busy, so tired, yet blessed if you still feel enough to know your heart outgrew the Grinch's when you held the candle high at the Christmas Eve service with your daughter smiling on one side and your husband recovering from recent surgery, yet standing tall on the other. Prayers have been answered and the Lord has "Risen with healing in his wings." We are blessed.

In some cultures, the home is swept, and spotlessly cleaned and even painted inside and out between Christmas and New Year's. Maybe you added that to your list this year.  

You may want to sit in a moment, hold onto a memory, breathe in just being together with a family member for the first time, or possibly the last time on earth. “Be near me Lord Jesus I ask you to stay.” Read a story to your family. Play a game. Fit together a jigsaw puzzle. Sit together. Laugh a lot.

By now, you have Christmas and New Year's celebrations perfectly figured out. Know just the right thing to do to make it extra meaningful, right? 

Add that to the list of RIDICULOUS NOTIONS THAT WILL NEVER COME TRUE.

Mary Lou Bayly (Joe Bayly's wife) put life in perfect perspective when she said, "You are not God. God is God." That's the truth that guides us gently into the new year. And it's time for a true silent night, and a new year that is in God's hands.