Overcoming Discouragement By Our Faith – Pt. 4

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Previously, I mentioned that from an early age I felt a strong sense that I would be involved in mission work.  (Read it here.)  At the beginning of this series, someone asked me how I dealt with discouragement, realizing that it took me 20 years until I became a Bible translator in PNG.  Putting it that way, it does sound rather discouraging.

And yet I believe that God was working within me to prepare me for all that I would do for Him in the future.  Even bad choice I believe can come around to be important building blocks in our life-long goal of becoming godly.  But you must believe that God is with you, and will not abandon you as you search for the path of life that is best suited for you.

In Deuteronomy 31:6, as Moses was approaching his death, he gave instructions to Joshua who would lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Despite the obstacles, the fortified cities and fierce armies to fight, Moses said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

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Let me now reflect on a few decisions that I made when I was 18 and 19.  I had finished one year of studies at University, and even though I pursued some courses which could lead me towards Bible translation work, I was quite discouraged by the extreme humanism that was being taught.  Even though I had won four different scholarships that would have paid for my four years of University, I didn’t have the heart or passion to continue those courses.

Instead, I went after an idea I’d heard in the previous summer.  There is a mission group called “Teen Missions, Int’l” and they accepted youth from 13 to 21 years old, to go to their Florida “Boot Camp” training to learn how to be a teen missionary.  Now that sounded exactly like what I was interested in.

So I applied to go on the team that would help build block houses for a mission down in Brazil, just off of the Amazon River.  WOW!!  What a fabulous experience that was for me.  And when I got back to Florida at the end of the summer, I decided to stay with the mission for four more months to join a young adult “Travel Team” that would visit churches and Bible schools all over the country to promote the mission.

Teen Missions

That summer and fall of 1979, I felt like I was in Heaven on earth.  I got to follow my dream of doing overseas mission work.  I realized that I had just thrown away three years of free tuition at University.  But I decided that following after God and the passion of my heart over-ruled a possibly wise choice to finish a university degree.

At the end of my six-month mission experience the mission leaders approached me and asked if I would be willing to join on staff with them as part of a year-long “Staff Travel Team”.  I immediately jumped at that chance.  There were six others who also accepted this invitation, and after a brief orientation, we toured through much of the United States.  We became Assistant Leaders to teams the next year, and I went to help lead a team of teens to build a mission hospital wing in the interior of Honduras.

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Now all this sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  But let me share the difficult side of this experience.  It surprised me that I found I was missing home and my family.  I had been going on “adventures” and doing travel around North America on my own for some time already.  But being away from home for another year, and going all the way to Honduras in July/August, and then to Scotland in November, made me feel the distance from home.

What compounded this was the fact that our Travel Team of seven young adults (from age 18 to 24) had a tremendously hard time getting along with each other.  We seemed to argue about things all the time.  I had never dealt well with tense relationships, so I felt even lonelier and cut off from my family and people back home.  I remember crying on the phone and saying I wanted to come home.

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It was at my lowest moments that God reminded me of the things that were most important.  First, He showed me in a variety of ways that He truly loved me and would be with me through this experience, just like He had been with Joshua.  Secondly, He reminded me that what I was doing was very important work for Him, which included what was going on inside of me.  I turned to God more in prayer, and I was building character through a tough time.

God also would remind me of how incredible it was that I was on this Staff Travel Team.  As a Canadian, I had to enter back into America and be allowed by U.S. Customs to stay for six months to be with this team.  But at the airport in Calgary, I was detained for almost an hour and a half answering all kinds of questions to try to prove that I was not coming into the country illegally, or that I would work at a job while there.

One Supervisor, “I wouldn’t let this guy through, but that is up to you.”  The man I talked to flipped through two six-inch Immigration Rules and Policies books to find all the reasons why I shouldn’t go through.  But suddenly an odd expression came over the man’s face, he closed those big books, and then said, “Oh go on, get out of here.”  I literally ran all the way to the airplane and got on just as they were closing the door.  So why was I on that Travel Team?  Because God wanted me there.

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Overcoming Discouragement By Our Faith – Pt. 3

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I ended the last article by saying, “It comes back to whether we really are trusting God to have the full control over our lives or not.”  This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Christian way of life for many believers today.  Our western culture has taught us how to be “independent”, “self-sufficient” and “successful”, which has at its core the fundamental belief that we can accomplish anything we want to in our own strength if we will put our minds to it.

The problem with this is that we usually leave God out of the situation, until something goes terribly wrong and then we look to God to “fix it”.  No wonder people today are over-worked, stressed out and living with high levels of anxiety, and/or guilt.  Mankind has never been able to control the world around him.  That was certainly true in past centuries, but even in our modern day we can never be fully prepared for the sudden loss of a loved one through death, an abrupt change in our economy, a fractured relationship with someone else we care about, or a myriad of other crises that can hit us at any time.

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It’s at this very point that we ought to be turning to God.  But this doesn’t mean that we are to look to God like He is a giant ‘band-aid” who treats our “owwies” when we feel hurt, or a genie in a bottle that will do anything we ask of him when we rub His magic lamp.  No, we are to come to God and trust that He really is the Author of all we can see, and that just as He takes good care to hold the Universe together, we trust that we can put our lives in His hands, and He will watch over our lives as well.

So when I feel discouraged in life and wonder what it is that I am doing now and what it is that I’m supposed to be doing, I remember the words of Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  Many Christians know this verse and understand that it is as we read the Bible and come to be more familiar with God’s Word that God will help to direct us in our daily lives.  That is exactly right, but there is so much more in this verse.

I’ve had the privilege to work for five years in a remote jungle area of Papua New Guinea.  It was during these years that I really truly understood the words of Psalm 119:05.  There were a number of times that I had to walk down a jungle trail after sunset and only had a small kerosene  oil lamp or a weak flashlight to light the path in front of me.  I literally could only see a few feet ahead of me, and even less could I see behind me.

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Try to imagine what that is like for a minute.  You are absolutely and totally surrounded by pitch black darkness.  If we put our lights or lamps out, I could not see my own hand even if I put it in front of my face.  So that small amount of light from my oil lamp or my mostly dead battery flashlight was my only hope for finding the path forward to take me back to my home village.

Now I could have let my fear of the dark, that fear of the unknown beyond my little cone of light, immobilize me there and stop me dead in my tracks.  All I really knew was that it was safe for about three feet in front of me.  I believed though, that there was a safe passage out there in that darkness ahead, even though I could not see it.  So what did I do?  I took one step forward.

And guess what I saw?  As I took a step forward, I was able to see a couple more feet in front of me.  It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to keep me safe from making a step in the wrong direction.  And every time I kept taking one step forward, I saw more of the path in front of me and the closer I knew I would be to my destination.

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That I believe is how we are to manage the decisions in our lives.  We are not God, and will never be able to see the “whole picture”.  But we almost always know and can see just enough ahead, that we can dare to take a step forward in one direction.  Psalm 119:105 tells us that it is God’s Word that will help reveal to us what steps and what direction to take.

Therefore, it is an act of faith for us to put our lives into God’s hands, trusting that He will guide us step-by-step that will help us to overcome the obstacles of life and to find the direction we need as we make our choices in life.  But remember too, that it is as we read and study God’s Word that we can best get our bearings in life and be steered clearly in making good and wise choices.

In further articles, I would like to share with you some of the decisions and cross-roads that I encountered as I grew up.  I can’t say that I always made the best decision.  But no decision can sometimes be worse than a bad decision.  At least we can try to learn something after making a bad decision.  Keep reading these articles then and see how my faith in God and my life decisions all turned out.  See you in the next article of this series.

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Overcoming Discouragement By Our Faith – Pt. 2

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“Would you be willing to share with us some of your story of the difficulties you had on the journey to PNG, the doubts or discouragements that came up in those years? How did you keep “the big picture” in view while being a pastor, a youth leader, a “regular employee”, a student for years in different cities? How did you deal with having that dream interrupted when you came back to Canada?”

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This paragraph was posted on the top of Part 1 of this short series on “Overcoming Discouragement By Our Faith.”  It would be wonderful if I could just say to others who are facing disappointments and discouragements in life to “just believe”, and have everything turn out alright.  But I have lived long enough and been through enough experiences of life to know that everything does not always work out alright, or should I say, the way we had first wanted things to turn out.

And even as I say that, I think I am partly able to answer the questions being asked above.  There is nothing wrong with a person having a dream of how their life will turn out.  I believe that we were built this way, and part of us dies when we allow our dreams to die.  There is a verse in the Bible that I think is helpful, but can be misunderstood.  Proverbs 29:18a says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (King James Version)

Some speakers have made a lot out of this verse.  They will say, “You need to have a BIG idea.  You need to have a “dream” for your life.  You need to have a goal, a sense of purpose, something that will be your driving force.  And if you don’t have that, then your life will be doomed for failure.  So figure out what you want to do with your life and get out there and do it.

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Now I suppose I am over dramatizing this viewpoint a bit, but maybe not for some people.  I do think there are some young people out there today who think that if they don’t have the direction and the vocation of their life figured out by the time they are 24, then there is something wrong with them and they will probably end up wandering aimlessly about in life.

First of all, let me correct the idea above of what Proverbs 29:18 actually says.  To do this, it would be best for me to show how other English translations of this verse have handled the Hebrew.  Compare the following:

NIV:  “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.

TEV:  “A nation without God’s guidance is a nation without order. Happy are those who keep God’s law!

NLT:  “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is happy.

It is not hard now to see the common thread here.  Whenever people are unwilling to look to God and listen to His divine guidance for their lives, that is when they will run into all kinds of problems in life and end up running around aimlessly, and without purpose and meaning.  To counter this, one needs to get into God’s Law (the Bible) and see what He has to say about how to live one’s life.

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Therefore, when I say “have faith” and mean by this that things will turn our alright, we need to define what (or whom) we have faith in.  Proverbs 3:5-6 helps us to properly define the content or object of our faith.  It says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths.

So it really is not left up to us to have to “figure it all out” when we are young.  If we have made the decision to trust God with our lives, then the Bible tells us that He will help us by directing us in making these important decisions of life.  We have to get this one thing straight first, who is really in control of our lives, us… or God?

If the answer is God, then we can properly understand and be encouraged by a couple of other key Bible verses.  Take Psalms 37:4 for one, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires.”   When God is truly first in our lives, then we will be so in tune with God that His desires will become our desires, and God will inevitably fulfill the desires of our hearts, for they are the same as His.  This protects us from the danger of reading into this verse that God is obligated to give us whatever selfish desires we may have in our hearts.

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This leads us to one final verse that I want to look at in this article.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”  This is such a powerful verse, and I think one of the verses of the Bible that helps me the most to be able to deal with disappointments and discouragements in life.

There is no question that bad things do happen in life, and that not everything works out exactly the way we had hoped.  Sometimes, not even close to what we hoped for.  But God is promising us in this verse that He can take any situation in life, no matter how bad, and bring good out of that situation.  It comes back to whether we really are trusting God to have the full control over our lives or not.  More on this in the next article.

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God Opens Doors and God Closes Doors – Pt. 1

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“GOD’S STORY, your story” – Pt. 15

What does it mean to say, “God opens doors and God closes doors”?  This sounds like a highly cryptic and spiritual saying.  In practical life, this means that when we get blocked from doing something, it is very possible that it is God who has shut out that opportunity, no matter how hard we want it and how hard we try to get it.  We can’t obtain or achieve something we wanted.  And that frustrates us.  A lot!

But then there are times when everything seems to just go perfectly.  Every piece of a complex puzzle will fit right into place, and just at the right time, often at the very last opportunity it still comes through for us.  We are glad for that.  But do we ever stop to wonder and ask, “Is God behind all of this and that is why the path to this was successful?”  In spiritual terms, did God open all the right doors at just the right time to make this all happen and pull together so well?

These questions are important ones to ask, for it can shed light on our lives in a way we may not have considered or had forgotten.   That God can and does interact with us, His creation.  What does draw our attention usually is when things don’t go well for us.  Max Lucado points out some examples for us on page 122 of his book*.  He says:

You try one door after another, yet no one responds to your résumé. No university accepts your application.  No doctor has a solution for your illness. No buyers look at your house.

     

Another important question is to ask if this idea is Scripturally sound?  Does God interact with humanity and does He do so in an individual way, guiding and leading individuals to specific goals?  It seems to me that the obvious answer in the Bible is “Yes!  He does!”  Throughout the early books, God is seen to have interacted within the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, the many prophets, and more. God continually offered  instructions and guidance to help the nation of Israel to grow and to flourish.

One of the greatest examples in the New Testament is how God specifically guided Paul and his small band of missionary friends.  They prayed to God to show them where they should go, and God would reveal that or impress that upon them and all went quite well.  But there was one period of time that totally stumped Paul and probably got him quite irritated and maybe even frustrated with God.  In Acts chapter 16, Paul and his team kept trying to enter into a new section of Asia, but somehow God blocked that at every turn, and they didn’t go that way.

While wrestling with these disappointments, Paul suddenly then had a vision of a man who was standing in Macedonia (a Roman province in the country of Greece) who was calling Paul to come there to help them.  Paul understood that to be God’s leading and the next day his team crossed the narrow strait which separates Asia from Europe, and he began to teach about Christ and the Kingdom of God.  The message hit home.  A woman responded in faith, was baptized and became the first European convert to Christianity.  The closed door to Asia led Paul to bring the Gospel to Europe.  And the world history has never been the same.

     

Now some may say that all these are stories that belong to history and the ancient peoples contained within the Bible.  And yet, if one was to ask Christians around the world today, he may be surprised to hear the testimonies by the thousands that clearly point to an outside benevolent being (namely, God) who was not only there, but He is very active in their day-to-day activities.  Max Lucado shares a story with us in Chapter 16 of what happened when he and his congregation tried to go ahead with a building expansion project for their church.

The people had prayed and believed that God would have them go forward.  But then a number of obstacles kept hitting them so that the money they raised was never enough to go forward with.  Prices on all materials kept getting pushed higher and higher so that they found it would be too difficult to purchase the material.  In the midst of all this, Lucado was diagnosed with a serious heart condition.  Then later that year, the recession hit North America which spread world-wide.  Wow!  The church expansion ideas were put on the shelf.  But think of what it would have been like if they had tried to push through the door that God had closed on them and which never opened to go ahead with the building project.

Lucado wrote this on pp 124-135:

It was a classic God’s story/our story contrast.  From our perspective we saw setbacks.  God, however, saw an opportunity to keep us out of dangerous debt and bolster our leadership team with a new senior minister.  A plan to protect us from a budget-busting mortgage and to grant us fresh leadership.  God closed the wrong doors so he could lead us through the right one.

I don’t know where you are at on all of this.  If you don’t believe in God, then you will have trouble with all I have written and suggested.  But even some Christians who read this may have difficulty believing that God interacts with us in our daily lives.  I challenge you to really go out there and listen to the thousands of stories of people who can testify that if it had not been for God opening or closing some door in their life, then they would have been so much worse off.

And consider Lucado’s last words on page 131, “And this is what God is trying to teach us.  Your blocked door doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you.  Quite the opposite.  It is proof that He does.

     

* [God’s Story, Your Story] Max Lucado.  Copyright [Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2011]  Used by permission.

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God’s Little Detours – Part 1

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Expect Detours – Part 1

The last two articles in this series on “Hard Road Journey” gave us some hope and showed that we can expect some periods or moments of refreshment, even through the most difficult experiences of life.  I’ve touched a little on the difficulties we experienced when our oldest son went through the 30 moths of chemotherapy for his leukemia, in the article “It’s Not My Fault“.  But when I get to writing more about that period, you will also see that those three years also contained many moments of blessings from God.

We must treasure those good moments and count them as blessings.  That does not negate the fact though that life has thrown us a curve-ball.  We find at those moments that whereas we may have been counting on having a smooth, straight road, instead, we find that we have all of a sudden found ourselves on a major detour and we don’t know what to expect ahead of us.

Now if a detour was simply that, a detour off of the main course we have charted for our lives, then all we need to do is to get back as quickly as we can to the main path of our lives.  But what if that detour happens to come while we are slowly making our way through a difficult period.  Now that can really get us discouraged.

The book we have been following on this series is called “Walking With God on the Road You Never Wanted to Travel“.  Our author, Mark Atteberry, has this to say about detours on page 114:

Few experiences are more disheartening, especially when you’re already growing weary.  Just the thought of a longer road with even more challenges can break your spirit.

I would compare it to the idea of having a major paper cut on your hand, and then just before it heals, you get another paper cut right on top of it.  Yowwee!  The first cut was bad enough, but the second one is even worse and  makes the healing process take that much longer.  Atteberry recognizes the danger of this.  But he advises us to expect detours.  They are a part of life.  And so to help us, he gives us four facts to think about that will help us when we encounter a detour in life.

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1.  Detours Can Trick Us

Probably the most dangerous aspect about a detour in life when we hit one, is that they can trick us into thinking either one of two possible incorrect conclusions.  We may think that we have done something wrong and God is punishing us for our bad behaviors, our “sins”.  Or we might think that God has abandoned us, which really says we believe that God does not care about us.

The first conclusion may have some truth in it seeing as it is also true that there are always consequences to sin.  But to assume automatically that when something goes wrong that it must be because we have done something wrong, is to assume the wrong thing about the character of God.  God is not a vindictive God who sits up there somewhere with a big stick in His hand, just ready to hit us and punish us if we step out of line.  If you believe this, then you have not understood the Good News of His great love which is written all through the pages of the New Testament.

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And as far as the second conclusion goes, the idea that God has abandoned us, I think is often the result of us not waiting long enough to let God move and work out a wonderful solution to our situation.  Or put it another way, I believe that there is always something else going on, and maybe many things going on, that we are not aware of, and so because we cannot see the bigger picture, we start to lose our faith in God.

I think that Atteberry has a very good point when he says on page 116:

Isn’t it interesting how quickly we can go from blaming God to praising Him?  One little fact–one little nugget of truth suddenly revealed–is all it takes to completely transform our feelings and show us how wrong we were to assume the worst.

Don’t let your circumstances fool you into believing the wrong things about God.

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2.  Detours Can Teach Us

It follows then, that if the detours we encounter are not mistakes or punishments from God, that there must be some purpose to them.  It is quite true to say about me that I am an optimist.  And so I embrace a verse like Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  This does not say that all things are good (because bad things do in fact happen), but it does say that God can bring good out of every situation,

The question here is: do you believe this or not?  Actually, I can be even more bold as to say “Do you believe the Bible to be true?  Do you believe God to be a good and loving God as presented by the New Testament passages or not?”  If you say yes to these two questions, then you will have to also believe that God can teach you something very important in life, and often it is through detours that He can teach us the most.

If you are still not sure about all this, then I ask you to go back and read my last two articles about my personal journey in life.  The first one is “Humbled by God” and the second one is “God Restores My Passion For Missions“.  Talk about a major detour.  But also, talk about God’s tender care to teach me something important.

The next two facts about detours will be in two weeks from now.  So stay tuned.

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Remember the Good Moments

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Who Am I?  Part 15

Two weeks ago I made brief comments about how God provided for our needs, even if the situation was less than ideal.  One thing is for sure, God did take us out of a bad situation and He did provide a new setting where we could be a family and be active in ministry.  (You can read about the last chapter of my life story by clicking here.)

Unfortunately, it did not last a long time.  From the time I was interviewed until the time I left for Prince Edward Island driving another U-Haul truck was just less than two years.  On the one hand, I could say that it was a good thing, as moving to PEI ultimately led me to discover and join Pioneer Bible Translators.  On the other hand, I can look back with regret and consider this church experience as the next one of my great failures.

And yet, even as I say that, I know that neither statement is completely true nor completely false.  As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I do know that at the one year mark there was a Board meeting to decide if they would keep me on as the minister for another year.  The vote was “yes”, but it was not a majority vote.  Nine months later, I decided that this was not the place for me to stay.  So what really happened?

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The history of the church is a bit fuzzy now for me after all these years.  I can tell you that this church was built in the mid 1800s and was the first church of our movement to be built this far west in Canada (Manitoba was considered “Pioneer Country” at that time).  The stone work and the wood crafting was phenomenal, and it had an overarching balcony over the main sanctuary that allowed for a capacity of over 250 people.  It was considered a grand church in its day.

There had been some great preachers there over the years, but as is the case for most small towns, the number of attending members continued to decline over time.  By the time I came for my interview, the church had an average attendance of 25 people.  It was rather sad to see such a grand hall be so empty looking, not just during the week, but even on a Sunday morning.

When I was interviewed by the Search Committee, I expressed my desire to come and be a Preacher / Church Growth Evangelist.  It was very evident that the members of the committee were quite excited about this prospect.  They recommended me to the church at large, I preached on Sunday, and then flew back to Alberta to await their decision.  It came back within a few days – they voted unanimously to hire me.

And so in December of 1990, we arrived and stayed in one member’s house while they did the finishing touches to remodel the suite that took up most of the church balcony.  One month later, our second son Glen was born and we moved soon after that into the suite.  There is no doubt in my mind that Glen’s birth and then living as a foursome in the small but quaint balcony suite were the most positive aspects of life for us at that time.

It didn’t take long though to see that the energies I was attempting to pour into revitalizing the church were meeting some opposition within the small group.  Of the few families that were left, there was one “clan” still there who had some powerful people, at least in terms of their opinions.  I came to realize the truth of a saying that one of our Bible College teachers used to say, “The young are out to change the world; the old are out to change the young.”

Interestingly enough, it was the middle-aged clan members who showed resistance to trying new ideas and welcoming new people as I worked at growing the church.  In fact, the hand full of old singles ladies and I got along very well.  I recall with great fondness how I would hold my mid-week Bible studies, working our way from Genesis to Revelation, and it was the same 4 or 5 old ladies who would come out and catch my vision and passion for teaching God’s Word.

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I believe it was when I moved the piano to the side and introduced some choruses while playing my guitar that was the beginning of the end for me there.  The “power players” resigned from helping with worship, and the older people were not able to lead or assist.  And so I was left alone in that ministry.  Jill saw the end coming, and hung on with me for a number of months more.  It ended up that she moved with the kids first to PEI while I stayed to end my 2-year commitment to them.

In between the beginning and the end though, I do remember the family moments we had there.  And there were some young couples that we really bonded to while there.  And certainly our “Old Ladies Bible Study” held precious moments, and I still use some of those materials today.  I haven’t mentioned about the outreach I had with a friend in town for a year to young people at a  Christian drop-in center.  Some of those young people gave their lives to Christ.  How precious is that?

And so I have a choice.  I can remember this 2-year experience as one of my great failures, where not only did the church not grow, but a few years later had to close its doors.  Or I can remember the special intimate times I had with family, and with dear old saints, and with brand new young Christians.  So you tell me, what really happened there?  I may not have built up the church building in that town, but I do believe I helped build the Kingdom of God in the hearts of those people who mattered most to me.  That is what I will remember most.

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