31 October 2011

To Live is Christ

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me." (Paul's letter to the Philippians, 1:21,22)

Beginning in October, I began taking our 'conTagious Students' on a journey to explore the Bible, teaching them to mine the Scriptures, ask questions, use tools to dig deeper. So, we journeyed to Philippi, in Macedonia. I prepared a fusion Greek meal for them, and as we learned of the region and enjoyed it's tastes and smells, we received a letter all the way from Rome, delivered by Epaphrodites, from our spiritual father the apostle Paul. There are no chapters and verses... just the complete letter as originally intended.

The following week we journeyed to Rome and visited Paul in his 'prison' apartment, to hear him begin to read the letter to us aloud. We didn't get far before the questions started flying, "why do you call us SAINTs?", "why do you say 'grace & peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ'?", "how did Paul meet the Philippians in the first place?" and so on. I suppose the fun discovery was about the word "AFFECTION" which actually is translated from the word, "BOWEL"... so Paul's love for the holy ones/saints in the church at Philippi flows out of the depths - the bowels - the seat of passion... of his love in Christ. WOW.

That got me to thinking - do we all as followers (those who are holy because God dwells in us) love one another with that sort of affection? Then I remembered Jesus' words,
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34, 35)

The mark of following Jesus is LOVE! If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. May our labours be a labour of sincere, abounding love!


Springtime in New Zealand is temperature-mental, very similar to my 50 year old female moods! But this year has been special, and I continue to have a silly grin on my face as I drive through my little city of Palmerston North. The picture below was take from the edge of The Square, the centre of the city.

September and October have been packed with excitement. Rugby is the national sport here, and the grand royalty of world rugby hit our shores in early September for several weeks of competition in the Rugby World Cup 2011. All hopes were riding on our NZ All Blacks to win the cup, an honour that we haven't had since 1987. The further we went in the competition, the more nervous the entire nation became. Injuries plagued our team and we were calling guys up who weren't selected for the team. But... for the joy of New Zealand, just after 80 minutes of play and holding our breath in the final, the All Blacks held on to win 8-7 over France. I think the collective JUMP and SCREAM shook both islands...

But, even better than the Rugby World Cup was our very own 'conTagious Student Group Quizz Night 2011'. Team members from around the world battled it out for the coveted prize... the golden iPod trophy. The theme was 'Return of the Decades' - and teams arrived on the night dressed from their favourite decade theme. Cowboys, politically incorrect Indians, 80's punks, 50s ladies and greasers, were among the competitors.

It was truly a blessing, and the 'conTagious 2011 Band' raised their voices to the Lord in praise (they even let me sing). I think the best part were the weeks we spent together preparing for the event. It truly was a joy to see the students come together as co-labourers in Christ. They continue to grow more and more in knowledge and depth of insight as the love one another and work together for God's glory. My love for them has grown so deep, as I sense our unity in Christ. They are learning how God has gifted them and how to use those gifts to serve together, and most importantly they have grown in their faith and dependence on the Lord. And of course, the laughter makes it all the more fun.


The photo you see above represents the lives that one young woman has touched in only a few years. Jingxiu (front row centre, white shirt) returned to Malaysia to carry on with studies towards teaching English as a second language. I met Jingxiu in at a student conference in 2006 (she was my roommate)... and after she graduted from university in Dunedin, she came up to Palmerston North to do our ISMNZ Ministry internship. I became not only her ministry supervisor, but "MOM".

Jingxiu has a unique gift of motivating others, connecting people to one another who may not have normally met, and seeing people grow in their knowledge of the word of God and in Him. As you can see from the photo above, lots of people love her and have been blessed by her selfless and relentless service to them.

For me it is such a joy to see one of my daughters impact so many lives. I certainly don't have her energy, but God has reminded me once again of the importance of investing in one life at a time. Because in doing so, we are discipling disciple makers, and developing generations of labourers for the Lord's harvest.


J2 Leaders planned a special get-away. We loaded the cars and drove 2 hours to the east coast. About 20 minutes from our final destination all cell phone and internet coverage disappeared. What a wonderful weekend being truly together with God, His creation, and one another.

For once there was no "programme" - just a quiet weekend to spend in prayer, devotional time and recreation. The funny thing is, we ended up doing most things together even though there wasn't a schedule. It is so important to spend time just 'being together' rather than always 'doing'.

The photos below are of our walk up to the lighthouse, and the view from the top. What a beautiful place!

Below... Shota, Laurel, me and Kenny

19 October 2011

Abounding Love

And this is my prayer: that your love for people may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight about what love truly is, so that you may prove pure the things that are the best of the best, and be sincere and not offend in your love for others (for the rest of your lives and beyond ‘til the Day of Christ) – I pray that you will be filled with the fruits of righteousness, fruits that grow from the seed of Christ’s righteousness in you – in order that God would be glorified and praised. (Philippians 1:8-9, Janeen paraphrase).

2011 has been like a roller coaster ride, not only due to world events and natural disasters, but here in New Zealand as well. As summer begin in New Zealand, Christchurch was just beginning to heal from a September 2010 earthquake that did major damage, but no lives were lost.

Then came the big one… The February 22nd 2011 earthquake that rocked Christchurch and 181 lives were lost, a large percentage of those were international students. In the months since the quake, people are still dealing with the aftershocks… not just the earth shakes, but financially, emotionally, and day-to-day.

Then when Eastern Japan was rocked by a triple tragedy less than one month later, there began a sense of ‘kindred’ love between the two nations. Still today their citizens are coming together here or there to bring hope in the midst of recovery.

“Experts” really can’t say how long the rebuild of NZ South Island’s largest city will take, but we do know that thousands of homes are ‘red zoned’ and those neighbourhoods will never be rebuilt. The soil is too fragile to support any kind utilities infrastructure. Some people only began using their indoor plumbing and toilets in the last couple of months. However, they are not keen to give up the port-a-loo’s in their front yard, being always wary of another quake that could knock out the system once again.

It was a real blessing to watch the Rugby World Cup Game between NZ’s All Blacks vs. Japan. Once again those emotions were raw as a moment of silence was observed before the start of the game. Now, as the Rugby World Cup comes to a close, with our mighty All Blacks making it to the finals (for the first time in 16 years) to face France, the nation is distracted by another ecological disaster which was purely the fault of man.

The Rena, a container ship, ran aground on a reef off the coast of the Bay of Islands. Between the 90 containers which have already fallen off the ship and floated to shore or sunk, the tons and tons of thick ‘marmite-like’ oil that has poisoned our beaches, and the risk that the ship will break apart on the reef… it’s been a real drama. Yet, the thousands of NZ citizens who have signed up as volunteers for the clean up effort is a real blessing and warms the heart of world. And in the midst of it all lies the hope that our beloved All Blacks could win the Rugby World Cup, right here in Auckland!

So, what does this have to do with Paul’s prayer in his letter to the Philippians? Nothing on the surface, but as I study the prayer, I see it somehow being modelled by people who are united through tragedy, trials and triumph. I know personally these events have given me a depth of love I never had before for the people of New Zealand, Japan and indeed around the world. It’s not a natural feeling at all. It’s something that can only be explained as divine.

The Apostle Paul understood where the seed of that love comes from. It is truly a part of the nature of Christ – God with us – and for Christians, God-in-Us through His Holy Spirit. Jesus’ love was so deep, so compassionate, so full of tender mercy, that He sacrificed His life for the very sinners who want nothing to do with Him. He loved His enemies purely, He continues to bless those who persecute Him, He continues to do good to those who hate Him.

The Apostle John says it best, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.” And Paul echoes that reality, “But God demonstrated His deep, unconditional love for us, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

So as I my love has grown deeper and deeper for others, I am also growing in my understanding of it and am able to discern when I am ‘faking it’ or truly experiencing deep compassion from the core of my being.

I pray that it doesn’t always take the extreme joys and sorrows and tragedies and triumphs in life to move us to love one another. I pray that our love may abound more and more because we truly understand and experience the deep love of Jesus that He sacrificially gives to us each and every day.

Oh, and one more thing... GO THE ALL BLACKS!

The All Blacks Haka in the face of their opponents... Australia. Ka Mate!
Aaron Cruden, a graduate of Palmerston North Boys High,
is THE MAN... A true inspiration at 22! Drop kick - SCORE!

12 August 2011

Japan Reflections

There is no way to sum up how much my trip to the Tohoku Area impacted me. Four months after the devastating tsunami it still leaves you speechless. My experiences and emotions shifted as much as the ground. Aftershocks were a continuous reminder that life is not business as usual. People cautioning us to take our “kasa” (umbrella) in case of nuclear filled rain, relief trucks passing you on the road… There is much to be hopeful about in the Tohoku region, but it is mixed with an immeasurable sense of sorrow and loss.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the devastated areas because the relief efforts are very controlled and monitored. You can't just walk in and start helping. God was gracious and through Kei, my Kiwi friend Greg Mackay and I were blessed to see things first hand, and get involved through the Reformed Church of Japan. Even so, the two days that we did experience were enough to overwhelm a heart for years and give me the desire to encourage others to get involved.

Day 1: E-sensei (Kei's pastor from Sendai Eiko church) drove a few of us out to one of the hardest hit towns called Minamisanriku. Oki-sensei commented that it looked ‘a lot better than before’. Perhaps that is because since the March 11th tsunami, they worked tirelessly to separate and clear tons of debris.

On the flatland, there is nothing else but debris. A few shells of buildings, ruined vehicles, and from time to time in piles you’ll see personal items like a kimono slipper or a CD or a broken china tea pot. The silence is deafening to the soul.

Yet, as you look up into the hills above the valley, you see beauty and life going on. Homes overlooking the devastation are still lived in, and because it is summer – it is lush and green. Such a contrast, and still there is much to be thankful for. In a township of 18000, 1200 lives were lost that day. As you view the links I put in this blog, you’ll recognise just how much of a miracle that figure is!




this was a hospital - all floors were impacted by more than one wave.

I’m no expert in Japanese culture (only Japanese food LOL). But as I met people throughout the area I was touched by their openness to foreigners, as well as the way they have become a family of people once again. Japan can be a very isolating experience, even in the midst of the crowd. But this tragedy has created a new sense of connection between people that humbled me to witness.

Notice the homes overlooking the devastation. Families still live there.

We also travelled that day to an area in coastal Sendai. That had an entirely different impact on me, especially my nose. The concrete foundations were split and lifted and dotted the landscape with concrete slabs. Water that could not recede, mixed with months of rain have kept the area a swampy stinking mess… like sauerkraut, rotten banana’s, pig pen, stinking.

The site of a church... you could sense the heart of God's mercy in the midst of tragedy.

nothing but decay and destruction...

There was an elementary school amongst the buildings left standing. Below are the before & after photos of the school – which just by its location and height saved a lot of lives.

Above - the school building stood defiant against the waves.
Disbelief as residents take refuge on the school's roof.

Day 2: After a short train journey to Higashi Sendai station, we arrived at the Higashi Sendai Reformed church for our day of volunteer work. Talk about organised. If you want to read more on their work go here: http://hopechurch-nj.org/646018.ihtml

The government is working very closely with relief groups, and the team at Higashi Sendai Church are partnered with Samaritans Purse and other reformed church groups throughout Japan and the world.

We drove an hour to Tona, a sea village that brings hope in the midst of chaos. There are dozens of homes still standing, although because of the tsunami stood for a long time with their first floors submerged in sea water. Some homes were hit by debris and fishing boats and motorboats. Some have cars swept into their yards, making it look like a junk yard. But miraculously, one-by-one many are being cleaned out with hopes by their owners to move back in.

In the photo above is the 'barber shop'. The owner was very grateful that the team came in and helped him clean his shop so he could begin to restore the building. He gave the team from Higashi Sendai Church his permission to use his building as their base for as long as they are doing relief in the area. It was quite nice to have a chemical toilet to use during the day... and they can lock things up inside if need be.

Akiko was one of our team leaders and very patient with us newcomers who dropped into the team that day! THANK YOU AKIKO!

M-san is one such ‘obaasan’ that hopes to move back into her home one day. She was trapped upstairs as she watched the tsunami pour into her area. She now lives in an evacuation centre. But the volunteers through Higashi Sendai Church have removed the debris from her yard, opened up her flooring and removed the water, sludge and rotting wood and insulation, replaced the floor (with about a 2x2 foot square vent hole in each room, salvaged the items that could be kept, and now the ladies have begun the big job of cleaning inside and out the entire first floor.

if you look closely, you can see the line of how high up the water
was as it flowed through the first floor of this home.

Some of the ladies helping on M-san's home were in their late 60's!
Amazing servants of Christ! They took good care of me too making sure I had better gloves, a good head covering, and lots of water.

I never knew how much sea floor you could remove using a toothbrush and paintbrush, but they are quite handy tools to have. Because there is no electricity, the limited numbers of generators are being used on the hard labour of taking up floors and pumping water. So, we get the buckets, the handmade brooms, the putty knives and wire brushes, and begin to clean away. M-san is brought to the home each day to oversee the work being done, and she is not a spectator. She’s in there cleaning with the rest of us. And while she didn’t confirm it, we believe she is about 75 years old, and a widow.

The owner of this home did not survive. Family members aren't
sure whether to try and restore the home or give up.

When they introduced me to her, and she found out Greg & I came from New Zealand and just wanted to help any way we could, she grabbed my hands and tearfully kept thanking me. She didn’t know a lot of foreigners before this happened, and she didn’t know many Christians either. But she is so happy now to allow Christians to help her and comes to greet every new person and foreigner who is helping restore her home. Just seeing her joy and hearing her laughter filled my heart, and for the first time I had a sense of what Jesus must of felt when he ministered amongst the poor and broken lives of His day.

The team is on a very strict and wise schedule. Begin work at 10am,
must drink lots of water, must have a substantial lunch, and must finish
work at 3pm and team leaders must check in with relief coordinators by 4pm.

The reality of the consequences of the devastation were not far off. As we were restoring three homes that day, another was being demolished. And fear is always a factor. They told us if we felt an aftershock to get to higher ground… which was either an over-bridge near the water, or upstairs. We did feel aftershocks, and were grateful for safety.

I will never forget M-san, and look forward to returning one day to Tona to see life restored in her neighbourhood. There is much more to do, many more homes to restore, many more neighbours to help.