Saturday, September 27, 2008

Going MAD

On October 17 I will leave for Cape Town, South Africa, where I will spend nine weeks volunteering with Living Hope, a ministry that my local church supports and partners with. Living Hope’s stated mission is 1) to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way and to encourage people to follow Him; 2) to play a vital role in the prevention, care, treatment and support of people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS and other chronic illnesses; and 3) to undertake the development and promotion of community health through educational and health-related programs. I will also spend some time with one of Living Hope’s sister ministries, Living Grace, which serves the homeless in the town of Muizenberg.

I suspect some of my friends are wondering, why leave a paying job and travel thousands of miles for a non-paying one, even if it’s only for a temporary period? And if you want to care for the sick and the poor, why can’t you just do it here in the U.S. in your spare time? True enough, I certainly can, and I should at every opportunity. But this special opportunity will allow me to devote more time and energy to the effort. And please understand, I’m not doing it for accolades, and I’m not writing about it to draw attention to myself. God has been good to me and I simply want to share that love with others, in word and in deed.

Regardless of where we are, Jesus’ followers are called to live out their faith – to put into practice His commands to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “to love your neighbor as yourself.” That mandate forms the core of LowCountry Community Church’s mission program, and LCC's goal is for every one of us to go “MAD” – that is, to Make A Difference in the lives of people we touch. (Incidentally, I believe we are called to make a difference as individuals, rather than leaving the job to the government, as some politicians would have us do.)

John Thomas, the visionary founder of Living Hope, visited LCC last January and delivered a sermon that made a difference in my own thinking, prompting me to pursue this return to South Africa after first going there on a mission trip in September 2007. (That's one of teammates, Jen Harsta, pictured above – the image is one of my favorites from the trip.) Pastor John challenged his listeners to not just talk about caring for the poor, but to do something, citing God’s words through the prophet Isaiah – “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke … to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter .. to clothe [the naked]” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Interestingly, almost immediately upon returning home after my two weeks in Africa last year, I came across the band Caedmon’s Call's just-released CD, Overdressed, and was stunned to find it included a song titled ... Two Weeks in Africa! It’s about a girl who goes on a mission trip – a trip that sounded much like my own experience – but when she came home, she got caught up in everyday life and almost forgot about the experience. The song played a big role in keeping the trip seared into my consciousness, along with the possibility of a longer return stay. Its lyrics are displayed below.

Two Weeks in Africa

By Andrew Osenga/Caedmon's Call

Johannesburg to Cape Town
The plane had barely touched down
She was taking photos for her friends back home
This was always where she felt her heart belonged
She was finally here
The sky was bright and clear

Two weeks
And we all can feel the calling
Two weeks
To make the world a little smaller
And so a girl got on a plane
For two weeks in Africa

Johannesburg to Houston
She came home on a mountain
But school was starting, things kept moving on
Before you knew it, seven years had gone
She found a picture of her, standing, smiling
Arms around the starving kids
She swore to not forget
She swore to not forget

Two weeks
And we all can feel the calling
Two weeks
To make the world a little smaller
And so a girl got on a plane
For two weeks in Africa

And if we follow our dear sun
To where the stars are not familiar
Faces turn to numbers
Numbers fall like manna from the sky
Why, oh why?
Oh Father, why?

One village in Malawi now has water running pure and clean
One church alive in Kenya 's full of truth and love and medicine
We put the walls up, but Jesus keeps them standing
He doesn't need us, but He lets us put our hands in
So we can see, His love is bigger than you and me

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

I'm feeling nice and refreshed after a long weekend of backpacking in the hills of western North Carolina. Breathing in fresh mountain air, rock-hopping over fast-flowing streams, drinking in 360-degree views from 6,000 feet, and sharing it all with a group of guys I love like brothers - good times.

Thanks to Pastor Brian Rose of LowCountry Community Church for leading the excursion and making sure we had some discussions that ran deeper than a backpacker's frying pan. Using Jesus' Sermon on the MOUNT, Brian devised a study that helped us learn some essential qualities of a MOUNTain Man. I think we all came away feeling closer to God, and closer to one another. And there was plenty of time in between to laugh and act like 5-year-old boys, which we did our fair share of as well.

See below for a few snapshots of this memorable time in the wilderness.

MOUNTain Men

Pisgah National Forest, Transylvania County, North Carolina

From left: The Right Rev. Rev. Brian Rose, Jamie "The Pirate" Bodie, Doug "I Guarantee You That's Being Honest" Bleam, me, Shannon "Fire Master" Shea. Not pictured: Jeff "My BFF" Armstrong.

Posing on the East Fork of the Pigeon River

Lunch break!

Jeff and Doug practice for the Scottish Highland Games

Jeff and Doug practice Leave No Trace ethics

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hometown Hero

Like most golf fans, I’m an admirer of the big stars, guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But one of my favorite players has always been Kenny Perry. Those with only a passing familiarity with the game might say, “Kenny who?” and indeed, he’s not a household name. But in an age when professional athletes too often make news for the wrong reasons, Kenny is a true hero, although he would surely resist that label.

Despite more than $26 million in career earnings and 12 tournament wins, Kenny Perry is as humble an athlete as you could ever meet. And his off-the-course deeds are as impressive as anything he’s accomplished with a golf club in his hands. He funded and built the first public golf course in his hometown of Franklin, Kentucky (located about 40 miles north of Nashville, Tennessee). He has been a tireless fundraiser for the local Boys and Girls Club in Franklin. He goes to church every Sunday when he’s not on tour and gives back to God generously. Plus, he donates 5 percent of his winnings to Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville, as an ongoing fulfillment of a pledge he made to a friend who loaned him $5,000 when he was struggling to keep his PGA Tour playing privileges.

I first took note of Kenny when I learned he was from Franklin, for I too have family there and it’s always been one of my favorite places to visit. Franklin is a traditional small town, like something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. By all accounts, Kenny is adored by the locals, and at the same time blends right in as one of them.

With the biennial Ryder Cup Matches being played a few hours to the north in Louisville this weekend, the spotlight will be on Perry, one of 12 players representing the U.S. team. Sports Illustrated this week did an eight-page feature story on Kenny and his life in Franklin. I loved what he had to say about keeping his word to his friend via the Lipscomb pledge, which is now approaching $1.5 million in contributions: “A deal’s a deal. … I’ve tried to honor that spirit of giving, but whatever I’ve given, I’ve gotten back tenfold. God’s shovel is a lot bigger mine.”

I met Kenny a few years ago when I was assigned to write a profile on him for the golf magazine I was working for. True to form, he made a similar statement about his stewardship of his riches: “Sure, I’ve made some money, but I believe it’s really God’s money and it’s been given to me with a responsibility to make sure I use it properly. God has put me in a situation where I can help people. I’ve had to work hard to get where I am, but too many neat things have happened in my life for it all to be coincidence, so I try to give Him the glory.”

Regardless of how Kenny Perry and the U.S. Ryder Cup team fare against the Europeans this weekend, he will remain a hero to those who appreciate traditional values.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Love in Action

Our local paper features a call-in “vox” section for readers to anonymously voice their comments, opinions and complaints about everything under the sun. One recurring theme is the question, "What good is religion?" Some critics lump all religion together and argue that the world would be better off without it. The more cynical and hardened ones take it a step further and level that charge at Christianity in particular.

The argument is certainly not new, nor is it exclusive to the little local paper in my community. But there seems to be an increasingly vocal outcry, as evidenced by big-selling books such as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Granted, religion has caused some problems throughout history. And some not-so-nice things have been done in the name of Christ. But to say the world would be better off without a belief system that mandates love of one’s neighbor – and not only that, but love of one’s enemy – is simply off base. Those who truly follow Christ and live out His commands have surely made this broken world a far better place to live than it would be otherwise. Just consider a few examples of Christian ministries that positively impact the world today:
  • Samaritan’s Purse, devoted to disaster relief, HIV/AIDS relief, medical missions and children’s care both nationally and around the world.
  • Wellspring International, providing care internationally for at-risk women and children, particularly those in prostitution and sex trafficking.
  • Living Hope Community Centre, specializing in care and support for those affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa’s Cape Peninsula.
  • Cry of the Orphan, a network of Christian churches and organizations devoted to awareness and advocacy for orphan and foster care.
  • The good old Salvation Army, whose mission is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

These are but a handful of examples. Obviously there are many more. And certainly there are non-Christian organizations that do good in our world as well. My point is that it is irrational to claim that Christianity makes our world a worse place rather than a better one.

On a local level, I’ve seen selfless love in action this week through the work of Family Promise. This is a nationwide interfaith program that builds networks of local congregations to care for homeless families. Each congregation provides overnight lodging and meals for three to four families for one week every quarter on a rotating basis. A day center hosts preschool children, provides showers, and serves as a resource center with phones and computers for adults looking for long-term housing and work.

LowCountry Community Church is one of 13 participating congregations in Beaufort County, and it was our turn to serve as host this week. Two families with children of varying ages were our guests. I’m pretty sure the hospitality was a blessing for them, and I’m certain it was for the volunteers who made it happen. If your local church is not involved in Family Promise and you would like to know more, go to

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Searching for the God Particle

CERN, Switzerland (CNN) – Scientists Wednesday applauded as one of the most ambitious experiments ever conceived got successfully underway, with protons being fired around a 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel deep beneath the border of France and Switzerland in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the universe.

The Large Hadron Collider – a $9 billion particle accelerator designed to simulate conditions of the Big Bang that created the physical Universe – was switched on at 0732 GMT to cheers and applause from experts gathered to witness the event. … In the coming months, the collider is expected to begin smashing particles into each other by sending two beams of protons around the tunnel in opposite directions.

[Experts] say the experiment has the potential to confirm theories that physicists have been working on for decades, including the possible existence of extra dimensions. They also hope to find a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson – sometimes referred to as the "God particle," which has never been detected, but would help explain why matter has mass.

The collider will recreate the conditions of less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, when there was a hot "soup" of tiny particles called quarks and gluons, to look at how the universe evolved, said John Harris, U.S. coordinator for ALICE, a huge detector specialized to analyze that question. …

A few questions occur to me. First, if there even was a “Big Bang,” how did the matter and conditions come to exist for such an event to occur? To say “it was simply there,” as some scientists contend, does not suffice. Something cannot come to be from nothing. Only the existence of a divine creator who is outside the laws of nature – aka God – could be the “first cause,” i.e., the beginning of the universe.

Second, if there was a Big Bang and it was orchestrated by God, can we can really understand how it worked? Can man actually recreate the conditions of the universe "less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang"? How can we be sure that what the Large Hadron Collider tells us is how it really was?

The Bible simply says God spoke and things came into being. With God being God and all, I’m inclined to believe that His spoken word carries considerable weight, so that scenario is entirely reasonable to me. Whether it occurred via a Big Bang is irrelevant. What I’ve learned is that God wants me to know Him personally, and He has made that possible through the death and resurrection of His Son, if I will just believe it and submit my life to Him as Lord.
In Romans 11:33, the writer, Paul, proclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" Paul then refers back to Isaiah Chapter 40, where the prophet asked some pretty pointed questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
or with the breadth of His hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?

Who has understood the mind of the Lord,
or instructed Him as his counselor?

Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten Him,
and who taught Him the right way?
Who was it that taught Him knowledge
or showed Him the path of understanding?
(vv. 12-14)

And later:
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of His great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
(v. 26)

When men build an incredibly complex and expensive machine and talk of trying to discover a “God particle,” I sort of wonder if God is looking on all this and chuckling to himself.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Games People Play

It’s week 2 of college football season and as I write this, kickoff for Georgia’s game with Central Michigan is less than two hours away and I am greatly looking forward to watching it. The Bulldogs are favored to win, but it’s not expected to be a cakewalk. And if they should lose? Well, a lot of people are going to be very disappointed. In fact, it would ruin the day, even the entire coming week, for some people. The same is true for rabid fans of any team from coast to coast.

I’m finding that as the years have passed, I’ve become much more attuned to the fact that “it’s only a game.” Not so 13 years ago when I walked out of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium on a frigid November night following a narrow loss to Auburn. The Dawgs had not enjoyed a significant home win against a ranked opponent in several years, so after missing out on a goal-line chance to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the game, this loss hurt. For me, it really hurt after I kicked a concrete wall while slinking away down the exit ramp in an extremely foul mood. I’m fortunate not to have broken a toe, although I would have completely deserved it.

I look back on myself then and think, "What a knucklehead!" But I don’t mean to demean anyone whose fanaticism over college football exceeds mine. It’s just a fact that some people base much of their identity on their favorite team, and if that team loses, their mood, and even their self-esteem, drops. Of course, this is true not only for football, but in other sports as well. The spirit of competition, the loyalty to their teams, the energized atmosphere of a live contest – all inspire people to heightened levels of emotion, and it’s fun to be part of that. But in the big scheme of things, there are much more important issues in life, while football remains, truly, only a game.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Talkin' about the Weather

All the talk here in the Lowcountry has been on hurricanes this week. Is Hurricane/Tropical Storm Hanna coming our way? Will we have to evacuate? At my office, after numerous meetings and email notices the past two days, word was passed along that evacuation discussions have been suspended as the storm appears to be tracking toward a landfall well north of us. Seemingly everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

I mostly trust the experts, but I find it a bit unnerving to see the storm's actual location is still hundreds of miles southeast of us and moving northwest, thus retaining the potential of coming ashore near Savannah or Hilton Head. Using a Google Earth-derived storm tracking map, one of my co-workers noted that at one point yesterday, the storm's path took it almost directly over the complex of "modular buildings" in which we work. Brings to mind a song by a band I used to see when I went to school in Athens: "A trailer's a trailer, even when it's a doublewide."

Assuming Hanna does miss us, we still have to watch and wait to see what its successors, Ike (now a Category 3 hurricane) and TS Josephine, are going to do. But am I really worried? No. If a storm threatens, there's nothing I can do about it other than pray, pack up my valuables (of which there are few) and head inland. It's all in God's hands. Psalm 147:17-18 says, "He hurls down His hail like pebbles. Who can withstand His icy blast? ... He stirs up His breezes and the waters flow." He can make the wind blow, and He can also calm it. And even if He chooses not to, He can still calm me in the midst of it.