May 17, 2014

Gideon Moments: The Mission and Ministry in Saipan

I took this photo while working on my Sabbath morning sermon--on Sabbath morning!  In place of my missing journal I wrote down my sermon notes in some empty pages of my planner.  God really blessed because the message of that sermon--about trusting God when you don't see away forward has become so fitting to my life, particularly in the weeks since we've returned from Saipan.

From what would have been my paper and pen journal--only if I'd had my paper and pen journal I would not have written much of what you see here.  This was typed on my laptop during the Chicago to Narita leg of our 27.5 hour journey to Saipan.

Friday, April 11, 2014, in the air en route to Narita, Japan. (12:42 A.M. EST)
I've begun this epic journey, the return to the touchstone of our adult lives, this mission to Saipan as off balance and emotionally disoriented as it’s possible to feel. 

[What followed was a lengthy reflection on some recent events  in my professional life, including some key events that had taken place just the three days prior to our departure.  A lot was weighing on my mind.  After unpacking all that I continued as follows] 

To add to this unsettled feeling is that fact that I’m typing this journal entry.  Typing because I have nothing to write in because I lost my journal on the flight from Columbus to Chicago today.  The journal contained all my notes for my week of prayer talks next week (not to mention the irreplaceable documentation of my life for the last six months or so).  Suddenly I have nothing ready for my main responsibility in Saipan this coming week.  Apparently God has seen fit for me to completely rely on Him for what He’s called me to do.  And right now I don’t even know what that means.  Should I be spending these precious hours now that boys are finally asleep frantically (or more spiritually, solemnly) reading the Bible and praying so that God can give me a new message.  Or do I just go forward and believe that when the time comes I’ll be given the words.  One feels like manipulation, the other like presumption.  Not only do I no longer have the materials I prepared but I don’t even know how to trust God to get me through.
The trip I had planned is not the one that I’m having, at least so far.  And right now I’m not quite sure what that means.  If what I had planned can be so easily taken from me, it makes me wonder if I dare plan anything at all.  And to go into this week with little or no plan is depressing to me.  I take literal joy in planning.  It’s the planning itself, that is so rewarding to me, even more so than whether the plan pans out.  So I plan.  It’s what I do.  But I commit to keeping it loose, being open to the Spirit.
The story of Gideon is on my mind a lot right now.  I think it will be the focus of my talk for the church youth group tomorrow evening at their post-hike vespers.  In Gideon we have the story of a man who struggled to really trust and believe God, a man who thought he knew how God was going to work through Him and found that what he had in mind and what God had in mind were totally different things.

What’s the plan?  When do you do when you think you now what God is doing and find out—repeatedly-that His plan is more audacious and more risky than anything you could have imagined?

By the time we landed on Saipan I had re-sketched out on my laptop as best I could recall the outline of the topics I would speak about. The theme for the week was "Jesus Cares" and each day had a topic (chosen with the help of one of my more challenging students at CAA, who several weeks earlier, while sitting with me in a teacher-enforced timeout, shared with me the four things that really mattered to him--basketball, school, family, and his future.  They became my topics for each day of the Week of Prayer.  I figured that what really mattered to this young man might matter to a lot of other kids as well.)  The message was that Jesus cares about us, and thus, about each of the those things that matter to us.  Each day's talk had a story, a message, and a scripture.  Storytelling is one of my strengths so that was the centerpiece of each day, with the idea that the story would drive home the message.  There were substantial holes still though--I had no story for Wednesday or Thursday, no scripture for Monday, a hazy message for Tuesday.  I also had a message theme for the sermon on Sabbath, "Trusting in God when the Lights Go Out" but no sermon notes yet.  What I did have was a pretty clear idea of what I would say--thanks to my missing journal--for the Sabbath evening vespers just 14 hours or so from our arrival on Saipan.  
Sunday morning,  April 13 Babs and I met up Sharon Nguyen, the principal of the Saipan SDA School and she took us on a lovely tour of the school property and campus, ending here in the auditorium where I would be speaking throughout the coming week.  I only just now noticed perfectly appropriate banner posted above me.

Here's a selection from my typed-out journal from Monday morning, April 14:

Here am I.  Monday morning, the first day of the reason I’m here.  To be the vessel through which God reaches down and touches the hearts of these kids and brings them into a real and meaningful relationship with Him.  The thought that has kept running through my head during this time of preparation is “What do I need to do to ensure that I receive the message from God.”  Prayer is obvious. . .but did I pray enough?  Should I have my own personal devotions first….after all how can God use me if I haven’t even bothered to spend time with Him for my own personal growth and connection but instead am just using the time to get what I need for my talk today.  But then, if I’m having personal devotions just so that I can be in the right place to receive what He has for me, then it isn't really the same as not having devotions—except worse because I am being disingenuous about it?  There is the temptation to try to make God work for me and I realize that right now He is calling me simply to trust.  He brought me out here,  He chose not to bring back my journal, He will work it out.  There is no need to put Him to the test, or go through the  motions to “get Him” to do what I need Him to do.

And after the service was over:

So it went well.  My only downside was that I completely forgot the theme scripture which is such a crucial part of the meeting.  How can you have a Week of Prayer and not even mention God’s Word?  But then again, I asked the Holy Spirit to be there.  I trust that He was and that He did what was needed.  The story was well received. And the skit Elijah and I did went quite well.  So I’m grateful.

And that was how things would go for the remainder of our week in Saipan--God would give me the details just before each day's talk, and His grace was always more than sufficient.

The outline for the Saipan SDA School Week of Prayer (and other speaking engagements). It would have been great to say I had this outline done in advance, and I guess I sort of did before my journal was lost, but the truth is I built this whole outline today, as part of preparing this blog entry.

Sabbath, April 12, 2014:
Sundown Vespers
Gideon Moments.  The Story: Losing my Journal/Gideon's Battle against the Midianites.  
The Message: Trusting in God when the plan keeps changing and the new plan seems impossible. 
The Scripture: Judges 7
Talking to the AY group for vespers after our hike to the Second Grotto

Monday, April 14, 2014: 
Week of Prayer Talk: 
Basketball.  The Story: The Sarah Season (the big reveal at the end of this inspiring story of a five-man basketball team that went all the way to the league championships motivated by the one of their schoolmates who'd died suddenly during the school year was that the team was from my audience's own school, Saipan SDA School and that the championship game had been played right on their own campus--though at the time, the campus belonged to another school!).  Read the full story, with pictures here in a blog entry I wrote just after we moved away from Saipan.
The Message:  Does Jesus care who wins a basketball game?  Maybe not but he cares about the people who play--on both teams, and he cares about everything that matters to us from something small like a basketball game to something huge like the loss of a loved one.  
Scripture (which I forgot to use on the first day!): Psalm 139, the theme scripture for the week.

Delivering the message. The first day of Week of Prayer, Monday, April 14.

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Noah's Ark (Elijah played the Voice of God, Noah's son Shem, and various animals entering the ark; I played Noah)
Message: Jesus is with us when we are scared
At the end of the story the kids got to take turns acting out different animals and we would guess what they were.  The lion was a very popular choice.
Elijah and I acting out Noah's Ark: Here Noah directs one of the animals on to the ark

The elephant!

The lion! Very scary!  The kids loved it and when it was their turn they all wanted to be lions!

Scared on the ark.  We did each story twice each day, once for the toddler class pictured above and again for the preschool class.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
School.  The Story: Alpo (I warned the audience at the start that this story did not have a happy ending. It's a hard-hitting true story of one of the more shameful chapters in my life--my class's harsh treatment of a new student who came to our school when I was in the eighth grade.  He was admittedly difficult--he wanted to be friends, he just didn't know how.  And we--well, especially me-- used that as excuse enough to gang up on him. He lasted just a few months before transferring to another school and I never saw him again.  I ended up with this school-themed retelling of the sheep and the goats (inspired by the great Keith Green's own retelling).  
The Message: Jesus cares about our experiences in school and He especially cares about those who are struggling in their school experience--and we should too.
The Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (I played the voice of God and the wall, Elijah played Joshua. Kids from the audience joined as members of the army marching around the wall)
Message: Jesus helps us to be patient and wait

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
Family.  The Story:  Lucky/Team Hoyt (I talked about my mom and the childish gripes I had when I was a kid/teenager and how in hindsight the very things I griped about were blessings.  I then segued into the story of Dick and Rick Hoyt, culimanting in the powerful I Can video about this amazing father-son racing team).
The Message: Jesus cares about what we are going through in our families whether we feel lucky or not. And no matter what our family situation is, we all have a Father who cares and who will carry us through.
Scripture: Isaiah 40:28-31

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Jonah and the Fish (I played the Voice of God and the great fish, Elijah played Jonah, and audience volunteers were the sailors that threw Jonah overboard
Message:  Jesus is always willing to give us a a second chance when we do wrong

Jonah and the sailors on the ship to Tarshish

Here comes the storm!

Jonah gets thrown overboard

The fish chases Jonah.  When I caught him, placed the black cardboard over Elijah to represent him being inside the fish.

Thursday, April 17, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
The Future.  The Story: Lost ( I told the story of my friend Grant and I getting lost in the wilds of the Saipan boonies, augmented a PowerPoint slide show of photos from the actual adventure.  In hindsight, I would maybe not have used the PowerPoint as I felt like it interrupted the flow of the storytelling. It would have been better to show the pictures after the story was over.  But it still went fine. I just really don't believe in PowerPoint as a sermon tool, like, ever.) You can read my original telling of this adventure on this blog back in 2006 here.
Message: Jesus cares about our futures and if we follow Him we'll never get lost.
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11

Thursday,  April 17, my last Week of Prayer talk.  I spent the rest of the school day subbing in the classroom for a teacher that was out that day.

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah, Babs, and Ezra)
Story: The Birth of Jesus (Elijah played the angel, I played Joseph, Babs played Mary and Ezra played Baby Jesus).
Message: Just as Jesus came as a small baby, Jesus can help us live for Him even if we are very small

Friday, April 18, 2014
TGIS Vespers Worship Thought:  
Is It Well With You?
Message:  Gatherings like this are what life is all about.  If we would have more gatherings like this we need to keep Jesus number one in our lives.  
Scripture: 1 Timothy 6: 6-18

TGIS worship at the apartment where we were staying.  Hoping to meet with this group again if not on the temporal paradise of Saipan, then in the Eternal Paradise to come.

Sabbath, April 19, 2014
Sermon at Saipan Central Seventh-day Adventist Church
Message Title:  Trusting in God when the lights go out.  The message was you don't know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.  I wish I'd seen that great quote posted on Facebook before my sermon.  It said so eloquently what I tried to say in my sermon.
Scripture: Isaiah 43:2

Sabbath morning sermon.  April 19, 2014

Evening Vespers at Mt. Tapochau
Barbara took the speaking duties this time and shared from the heart about her journey with God in moving the school to a new campus and the miracles he worked to bring her dream to reality after we left Saipan.  It was a truly moving testimony!  Read the miraculous account here.

Babs and I on Mt. Tapochau just before her beautiful testimony of God's leading for sundown worship on our last day in Saipan, Sabbath, April 19, 2014.

The mountaintop.  Mt. Tapochau, Sabbath evening, April 19 at the end of a week of what was by God's grace fruitful ministry. It didn't happen the way I planned, but I trust that it happened the way He planned.

Pass/Fail: The Sheep and the Goats (RSV-Revised School Version)

I developed this "revised" version of Jesus' classic sheep and the goats parable in Matthew 25:31-46 for one of my week of prayer talks on our mission to Saipan last month.  It is inspired by the fantastic retelling by Keith Green.  You can watch the video at the end.  It's about eight minutes long, but well worth the time, I think.

But when the son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, then he will sit on his glorious throne and all the schools will be gathered before Him and he will separate them one from another as the teacher separates those who will pass from those who will fail.  And he will put the passing students on his right and the failing students on his left. 

Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come you blessed of my Father inherit the kingdom prepared for you for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you shared your lunch with Me. I fell down and you didn't laugh at me and instead helped me up.  I was a new kid and you invited me to play with you.  I was weird and the other kids made fun of me and you stood up for me.  I was annoying and you were patient with me.  I didn't understand how to do the homework and you helped me.

 The righteous will answer Him saying, Lord when did we see You hungry and share our lunch with you and when did You fall down and we helped you up.  And when were you the new kid and we invited you to play with us—I mean we invited everyone but I know we’d never forget that face.  And when were you weird and we stood up for you.  I mean that doesn't even seem right to say. Holy, Awesome, Majestic, but weird.  . .Lord, that couldn't have been you.  And when were you annoying or have trouble with Your homework and we helped you?

And the King will answer them saying, “Truly I say to you to the extent that you did it to even one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me."

Then he will say to those on His left. “You thought detention was bad? Depart from me accursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you shared nothing with me.  I fell down and you mocked me.  I was new in school and you ignored me because it was easier to just hang out with the people you were already comfortable with.  I was weird and when the other kids bullied me, you did nothing.  You were mean to me because you thought I deserved it for being annoying and you did not help me with my homework."

Then they themselves also will answer saying "Lord,  when did we see you hungry, Lord.  Are you hungry now?  Someone want to run out and get the Lord a hamburger and a coke?  And when did you fall down and we didn't pick you up. Lord, I’m sorry.  I don’t remember that.  I mean there was this one kid, and it was so funny. [snicker,snicker, snort,snort]  Sorry, sorry.  Was that You? Oh, Lord I didn't know.  And when were you a new kid?  Lord you know how it is. . . .And when were you weird or annoying.  That’s not fair.  We didn't expect you to be like that!  And Lord one more thing.  When did you ever need help with Homework? I thought you knew everything!"

Then He will answer them saying, “Truly I say to you , to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”

And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.

May 16, 2014

Putting the Fun in Fundraising

It's hard to believe that exactly one month ago we were back at the place we called home for eleven years--the island of Saipan. And it's all because of the most thrilling--and even enjoyable--fundraising campaign I've ever done.

The truth is I've always hated fundraising. Which is ironic because I've spent much of my adult life engaged in some type of fundraising activity.  There always seemed to be a reason to pass the hat around--8th grade class trips and drama tours have been annual events and we always need help to make those events happen.  Selling hot lunches and snacks or holding car washes was easy enough, though often stressful because I never knew how much we were going to make and the return was usually small per event compared with the thousands we were usually looking to raise.  The most effective means of fundraising was also the one I dreaded the most: direct solicitation.  The letter writing campaign became the backbone of our funding for REAL Christian Theater for years when were in Saipan.  I had about twenty people who were regular supporters of the team.  I solicited them once way back in 2002 and then for the next seven years simply kept sending them quarterly newsletter updates on the troupe, always with an enclosed self-addressed stamped envelope as a gentle reminder.  And they came through, year after year sending hundreds individually and thousands in total.  That support team made REAL Christian Theater possible.  One donor, Dr. Vernon Luthas, even went further, making it his personal mission to raise funds for us to have our own sound system to take with us on tour.  What a blessing it was!  I came to feel that rather than merely asking for something from my donors, I was offering them the opportunity to be a part of something truly special.  To  me they really were more than just sources of money, but actual partners in ministry.

In Saipan, the 8th grade class used to sell snacks, mostly purchased from Costco from the counter in the lunchroom.  Now at CAA we have the snack cart, a rolling bounty of goodies regularly stocked from the shelves of Sam's Club

This will look familiar to any of my former 8th grade students from 2007 onward.  We started the all important inventory after we realized we were losing a lot of money from what's known in the retail business as "shrink."  Product and even cash somehow wandering away, often sad to say, with the help of the very people who were raising the funds!  The inventory helped cut down on shrink and the students who used the inventory experienced record-breaking fundraising years.

Still fundraising has remained difficult for me.  I always feared I might be bothering potential donors--after all people put up those "No soliciting" signs for a reason right?  And I feared the dreaded "no".  Nobody likes rejection and in asking for funds I was setting my self up for that awful feeling of being refused.  Still real monetary needs always seem to be at hand so I've pushed through my fears and kept writing those letters, kept asking, kept trying.

There are a couple of things I've kept in mind that have made fundraising, if not exactly fun, at least bearable over the years.  These principles guided me in this most recent push for the Saipan trip as well.  And just as the amount of money I had to raise and the short time frame I had to do it in made this fundraising effort the most daunting ever, the principles that have always guided my fundraising were also magnified.

I always ask myself how I would feel if I were solicited.  This always helps boost my courage because I never mind being asked, even if I'm unable to give.  I often have this irrational vision of people from whom I solicit support becoming enraged at my temerity in even asking.  I remind myself that this has pretty much never happened, and that in fact most people are like me.  Unoffended by the request and often wanting to help.  Granted I know there are those who feel "pressured"when solicited but I think that comes more from a feeling that they must give to every request and thus feel aggravated when it seems that there's always someone raising money for something.  I often want to give to every request that comes my way but I don't feel guilty if I am unable to do so.  As such the requests don't bother me.  I like to think most people feel the same way.

When it came to raising funds for our mission trip to Saipan this was easy.  I thought of all the people we came to love from our time in Saipan; people who like us have left their island home for a more ordinary life here in the States and I knew that I would joyfully lend my support to help any one of them return "home."  I trusted many would feel the same about me--and they did!

I don't take it personally--whether people give or not.  I've received donations from people who I barely know and never received donations from some of my closest friends and family.  Either way it's not personal for me.  I don't make someone's giving a referendum on our relationship, nor do I feel that those who give "like me" better than those who don't.  While I always have a deep appreciation and gratitude towards those who do give, I never think any less of those who don't.

With this Go Fund Me campaign, one of the greatest rewards was the connections with people that I made in the process both among those who gave and those who didn't. Much of my individual solicitation was through Facebook messaging and the best thing was when people wrote back.  I was able to reconnect with former students and colleagues, high school and college friends--all kinds of people that I hadn't had regular contact with in years  Often it was people who couldn't give, writing back a regretful explanation.  But those so-called nos became wonderful "catching-up" conversations that meant more to me than any donation.

Our GoFundMe page.  I came across this fundraising website through my good friend Pastor Chris Thompson, who was using it to raise support to fund his PhD program. I found it unbelievably easy to use and gave a little on the spot.  So when it came time to start raising funds for our return to Saipan, GoFundMe seemed like the perfect tool.  I researched the company, confirmed it was legit and set up my own page.  I've been very pleased with the site. It made it easy for me to keep my pitch in the public eye through Facebook and e-mail posts and giving was just a few clicks for our supporters. You do lose a bit on every donation as the GoFundMe does take their cut, but I found by setting my goal a little beyond what I actually needed more than made up for the loss.  I was so happy with our results from the Saipan trip that I set up another one to raise some more funds for this year's 8th grade class trip!

I offer an opportunity; I don't just ask for money.  Throughout the years I've always believed that what I'm fundraising for is something my potential supporters will want to be a part of.  Just as I feel a sense of ownership in organizations as diverse as Adventist Frontier Missions and NPR that I've supported over the years,  I want my supporters to feel like they are part of our project.  So I send them a postcard or a newsletter--something that enables them to see where their money went and how it's being used.

I had a strong sense that I was taking our donors "with us" on this trip.  Each person who added a donation was one more person "going with us" to Saipan.   I determined to share a lot through Facebook on the trip so that our supporters could feel they were experiencing this epic adventure with us.

God sends the money.  Donors are His means of doing so.  This has kept me from the sense of desperation; that any given donor must help.  I know I'm not really depending on any one specific person, so if they are unable to give it's no big deal.  Because one way or another I know God will bring the funds.

This campaign for Saipan has truly felt like a miracle.  Once I signed up for GoFundMe I'd get occasional e-mails from the organization trumpeting this or that person who raised $3000 or $4000 for their cause.  It made me realize who huge my goal really was.  If they were using amounts less than what I was trying to raise as promos in their e-mails (when it's given that the fine print disclaimer "results not typical" generally holds true), how on earth was I going to raise $5000.  The whole thing seemed like an impossibility.  But of course God specializes in the impossible--and by His grace and through the generosity of dozens of giving people the mission to Saipan became a reality.

And when all is said and done, the best thing about fundraising is always how I feel at the end.