Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Groove or rut?

There are obvious negative connotations to being “stuck in a rut,” but at the same time we say someone has “found their groove” when things are really going according to plan.  Interestingly, there really isn’t that much difference between a groove and a rut - both are a track in which one can find himself. 

During our many excursions to “town” in Malekula, more than once we’ve found ourselves in a truck that is stuck because it unintentionally drifted into the muddy ruts of countless previous vehicles.  At other times it seems as though things are just falling into place and we feel like we’re in much-sought-after groove.  I guess the only difference between a groove and a rut is desire - you long to be in one, but despise being in the other.  But could Satan trick us into thinking we’re humming along nicely, when in reality we’re missing out on all that could be happening were we to realize we’ve become complacent?

Having now spent several months in the village, I have become aware of how susceptible we are to getting stuck in a proverbial rut.  Daily living takes effort and time, and you could mindlessly monopolize both of these allotted resources with simple, necessary chores.  Furthermore, I find myself becoming content teaching classes on Sunday and Wednesday nights, leading youth group meetings every Friday afternoon, teaching the younger kids after our worship service each Sunday morning, and conducting a gospel meeting once a quarter.  Those are all good works, but I fear that there comes a point when this seemingly “grooveful” pattern transforms into a mere rut.

I realize that in said scenario, we are influencing 30-40 people each week with the truth, which is a blessing and well worth any effort we expend - there is no work greater than that of edifying Christians and teaching young people.  But I don’t want to become satisfied with what we’re doing to the point that I forget the bigger picture - all those lost souls that surround us.  At the risk of sounding corny, I want to dream big.  I want God to accomplish great things here in Malekula, rather than me holding things up with small thinking.  There are at least 250 people in our immediate vicinity, thousands in our region, and tens of thousands on the island.  How many “are very religious in all respects” or “have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.”  It breaks my heart to know that so many seemingly good people are traveling along in what they perceive to be their spiritual groove when in reality they are in a religious rut - one that will ultimately lead them to eternal “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  And how many are, perhaps, seeking the truth without someone to teach them?

We’ve gotta do something!  Our God is an awesome God, and it’s my prayer that He can utilize you and me to bring about His ultimate will - the salvation of mens’ souls (1 Timothy 2:4).  To assist in reaching this goal to dream big, I am going to start focusing more on spending time each week in solitude - hoping that through study, prayer and thought I can come up with creative ways to share the gospel more effectively in Malekula.  Would you being praying to that end as well?  And while you’re at it, it probably wouldn’t hurt to assess the spiritual track in which you currently find yourself in regard to the work of a Christian - groove or rut?

Let’s dream big!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unexpected blessings [8.9.11]

[Originally intended to be uploaded on 8.9.11]

Isn’t it great when God does something in your life that makes it better?  We’ve experienced two such “somethings” in regard to our work in Malekula, and wanted to share them with you in an effort to encourage you to think about all the little ways God works in your own life.

Our first story actually starts with another unexpected blessing: up until the last year or so, the internet has not been available outside of the two main cities in Vanuatu - Port Vila and Luganville.  Would you believe that Telecom Vanuatu decided to place the country’s first two outer island internet cafes in Malekula and Tanna (where are co-workers, the Baker family, are now living and working)?  One day during our first trip to Malekula as “island residents,” I went to the internet cafe in Lakatoro (about an hour’s drive from our village) with Titus and met a man named Howard.  [There’s a running joke that if you want to meet a westerner that’s in Malekula, chances are you’ll run into him in the internet cafe.]  We exchanged the normal pleasantries, and then Howard invited us to lunch at his house.  We certainly didn’t have anything better to do, so I accepted his offer.  We set up to meet at his house at 12:00 (even though I had never met or even seen him before, I already knew which house was his - Lakatoro’s a small place!). 

Howard’s wife, Jacqui, fixed us a lunch of beef sandwiches and grapefruit.  It was nice to have some “western conversation” - not to mention it being in English!  I learned that they were from New Zealand, and are in Malekula as volunteers with a group similar to the US Peace Corps.  Howard is on a two year contract with the Malampa Province Tourism Office - trying to promote Malekula and its fellow Malampa islands as tourist destinations.  Jacqui is fluent in New Zealand sign language and has a real heart for the deaf.  As you’ve probably already guessed, they are an extremely hospitable couple.  In fact, they told us that we were welcome to make ourselves at home any time we needed their place - including showers, beds, etc.

The next time our entire family went to town, Shawnda met Jacqui at the market (again, they had never seen each other, but “recognized” each other nonetheless).  In fact, Shawnda even had to borrow 20vatu (20 cents) from Jacqui so Lexi could use the public toilet - talk about fast friends.  Though we didn’t know if they’d be able to handle all four Brandells at once (we’re a pretty boisterous crew!), we went ahead and took them up on their offer to come and “hang out” at their house until the transport was ready to return to the village... and have been once a week since we’ve been in Malekula.

This all may not sound like a big deal to you, but to us it is HUGE!  You see, weekly “town day” means that we wake up at 5:30am, get everything together and walk out to the road to catch a truck.  There are usually about 3-4 trucks that go to town each day from our area.  We ride in the back of the truck, holding on for dear life, along with 20 of our closet friends :o).  We arrive in town by 7am or so.  All said, we have only about an hour’s worth of things we need to do in town (internet and groceries).  Problem is, the trucks only make one round trip per day, and they usually head back to the village at 3pm at the earliest (sometimes as late as 5:30).  That means we have to find something to do for 6 to 8 hours.  Before using Howard and Jacqui’s, we would just hang around the market (sitting on the cement floor, with everyone staring at the white people).  Obviously, this quickly got very boring for Titus and Lexi, and thus no-fun for mom and dad.  Thus, being able to be at the house gives us the opportunity to enjoy great company, a toilet and shower, and even a bed for Lexi to get her afternoon nap in.  What a difference these simple pleasures make!  We now feel that our town visits are more enjoyable and less stressful.  We are glad that we’ve been able to return the favor by hosting Howard and Jacqui in Vila a few times.

Second, we are blessed to have come into contact with Brad and Amber (and their three beautiful daughters).  We actually first got to know them when they sought adoption advice from Shawnda and me a few years back.  They are in the country as Bible translators, and subsequently found themselves in Malekula.  As part of their plan, they are spending a year in the United States, and were kind enough to allow us to “babysit” their gas-refrigerator.  And let me just tell you... what a difference refrigeration makes!  We’ve only had it for a week now, but we’ve already fallen in love.  We can now have fresh meat a majority of the time, instead tinned meat (e.g. “SPAM” and corned beef).  What’s more, fresh meat is actually cheaper than the processed stuff.  We also appreciate being able to save leftovers instead of having to throw them out for the dogs.  And I won’t lie - a cold Coke every few days certainly doesn’t hurt my feelings!

And so, as you can see, our lives are getting easier in the village.  And believe it or not, those conveniences actually make us that more effective as missionaries - sort of like a lumberjack sharpening his axe.  Thanks to Howard & Jacqui and Brad & Amber!

Howard, Jacqui, Eric, Shawnda, Nancy, Mike (Shawnda's parents) enjoy dinner together in Vila

Us with the Jones clan - Brad, Amber, Zoe, Piper & Lola

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fridays are still fun

I vividly remember how excited I always was about Fridays when I was younger. Everyone was excited about the weekend, the 5th graders sold suckers for a quarter, and I looked forward to pizza and Friday night television (Full House and Family Matters!). As I grew older, it meant spending a few hours playing basketball at the Simmons Center, and eventually High School football games.

Interesting that all these years later, Fridays are still fun. It doesn't really have much to do with the weekend, but rather the activities we enjoy on this day each week in the village.

Our youth group meetings are held at our house at lunch. We eat, sing, study and play together each week. Yesterday was especially good as we had a record attendance - 15 teens (9 of whom were visitors). I was impressed by how well they all paid attention to the study, since they are joining in the middle of what we started months ago. Hopefully they will keep coming, and perhaps will begin attending our worship services as well. I introduced them to kickball yesterday, which of course they loved (and I'll admit that I had fun too). It's so great to get to spend time with these young people, and I hope that we can have a positive influence on their lives for the Lord.

We also conducted our second "movie night" on Friday. Several of the teen visitors came to this event as well, as did a few other visitors from the community (though not as many as last week). We're watching the Gospel of John, which acts out the text word for word, with no additional commentary whatsoever. It's gone well so far, and I've been especially pleased with the questions that are asked afterwards.

A lot of effort goes into set up, cooking, cleaning and tear down, and by the end of the day we're all exhausted, but it's a very good sort of tired!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Technical difficulties :(

It was bound to happen, and now it has! No Internet in Malekula. It's actually a double-whammy. The Internet cafe is based on a password system, and you get that password by purchasing a small scratch-off card. Problem is, they ran out of cards four weeks ago. But, even if I had a card, TVL's server has been out this week.

How am I posting this you ask? Well, our cellular provider now offers a prepaid data plan, which I am trying out. It's nice, but I don't want to have to type an entire blog post on the cellphone.

So, we have entries ready to post, but no avenue to post them just yet. Thanks for your patience, and hopefully you will all enjoy getting caught up when we have access again. Until then...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Looking forward

We’re busy gearing up for another trip to Malekula, set to fly out tomorrow.  We’ve spent the month preparing, and are looking forward to being back in our village home.  We will be continuing the ministries we’ve done in the past, as well as adding some new opportunities.

Our Sunday and Wednesday night Bible studies are scheduled to continue.  I will be teaching a course entitled “Luksave Sin” and “Christian Marriage.”  Luksave means ‘recognize’ - and we will spend our time together considering actions that have become acceptable to the culture, but that are still abominable to our Master.  In the Christian Marriage class, we will talk about biblical principles and their associated practical applications, in an effort to strengthen marriage relationships and prepare the unmarried for the future.

We will also continue conducting our youth meetings every Friday.  After lunch together, we will build on last term’s studies of the Old Covenant and begin studying the change over to the New Covenant.  I continue to very much enjoy teaching these classes, because they remind me of the simplicity and completeness of God’s plan.  I am hoping to secure a solid biblical foundation in each of these young people’s lives, that they can build on for the rest of their lives.

The brethren and I tentatively planned to conduct a Good News Meeting during each of our visits to the village, but we did not nail down a specific date or topic for this time.  I am prepared to teach a series of lessons on baptism if given the opportunity.  These lessons are very simple and straightforward, and I look forward to presenting them at some point.

We will also continue conducting a Bible club for the younger kids after Sunday morning worship.  To date, we’ve been teaching them songs, the books of the Bible, and some basic Bible facts (how many books, the common divisions, who wrote the 5 books of Law, etc).  This term, I will be using a flip-chart Shawnda made to tell the “one Bible story” (in Bislama).  I am planning to tell that same story every Sunday for the eight weeks we’re there, and expect that the kids will practically be able to recite it themselves by the end.  Such an understanding provides a great foundation for placing more in-depth stories in their overall context.

We also look forward to including a couple of new items this trip.  First, we borrowed an idea from the Bakers’ playbook and we’re going to start conducting a movie night once a week, in which we invite the public to come and watch a series of Bible-based videos.  This trip will be the gospel of John, which is a video that basically speaks and acts out the gospel narrative, with no additional commentary at all.  The videos are in English, but I think they will still serve as a very appealing activity to many, including some that we might not otherwise be able to reach.  We will watch 3-4 chapters each night, after which I will teach some high points from the text.  We will then open up for questions pertaining to the section covered that evening.  This scenario has worked well for the Bakers in Tanna, and we look forward to implementing it in Malekula.

Second, Shawnda has made copies of several issues of “Yumi Ol Mama”, which is a series of newsletters she and Cindy worked on for a couple of years.  They are designed to present a biblical approach to common issues ni-Vanuatu women face on a regular basis.  She will also be meeting with the women once or twice a month for fellowship and Q&A.

Please keep us in your prayers over the next two months as we continue our work in Malekula.  Lord willing, we’ll return to Vila on October 5.

We look forward to continuing our studies with the youth in Tulwei Village.

Another look at the congregation that meets in Tulwei.