Triumph From Tragedy

As I sat and looked into the puzzled eyes of Brandon, a college age young man, I had to keep the smile on my face from turning into a full fledged chuckle.  God's timing and how He takes the most awful circumstances and turns them into a blessing to use for His glory and to bless others can be beyond miraculous.  

Brandon lived through an incredibly horrible event which he had just shared with me, one that was right out of the scariest horror flicks. He was just a teenager when his father, estranged from his mother, in a drunken stupor, walked into his house in the wee hours of the morning and stabbed to death Brandon's mother and little brother while they slept.  His father proceeded to set their house on fire and in the process set himself on fire, severely burning himself.  He was later arrested in the hospital and eventually found guilty of killing his wife and son, Brandon's mother and brother.

Brandon happened to be living with his father in a separate apartment at the time so he slept through the tragic death of his mother and brother.  

There was one other person at the house that night, Brandon's young 12 year old cousin, Joey who happened to be spending the night in the house with Brandon's younger brother.  Joey escaped being a victim, as Joey explained to his mother, "I used my basketball moves to get away." He had awakened to see Brandon's father stabbing his cousin in the bed next to him and when he ran from the bed, was chased around the house by the man with a bloody knife.  He ran from the house to a neighbor's where he summoned the police and his parents. 

Brandon was sleeping soundly when he was awakened early in the morning by the police, along with Joey's father, Brandon's uncle Neal. Can you imagine being awakened to the news that your father was in the hospital with third degree burns and your mother and brother are both dead, killed by your father!  

Fast forward four years, to our meeting. I had been told there was a young man named Brandon who wanted to spend some time on the mission field in South Africa. I was to interview him and get an impression whether he was mature enough and capable to spend the summer with Pastor Willie Dingler in Johannesburg.  So I had called and set up a meeting at a coffee shop in San Antonio.  When I told my wife about the meeting and the name of the young man, she quickly remembered the name and the story. You see, Neal, Joey's father,  is Barbara's step brother, and we were well aware of the tragedy. We had attended the funeral of his mother and brother.  Neal and Patty had taken Brandon in and raised him through his high school years.  They were a strong Christian family and along with their two teenage sons and daughters, provided a safe and encouraging place for Brandon to heal from the awful tragedy. 

As I sat with Brandon in the coffee shop, he shared his story about his dad killing his mom and brother and burning down the house.  When he got to the part where he said he was awakened by the police, he hesitated just long enough for me to break in with, "and your uncle Neal?". He couldn't figure out how in the world I could have known that detail. This is where I had a good laugh and explained that I was related to him in a round about way and that I knew the story. 
After we talked some about his adopted family, he went on to describe how God had healed him and then shared how he was in the process of trying to forgive his father.

I gave the thumbs up for him to go to South Africa and he spent the time there ministering to all types of people.  Especially powerful were the many times he shared his story in the prisons of Johannesburg.  Pastor Dingler told me he had never seen one person have such an impact on people, especially the prisoners.  Many would be weeping as they listened to the unbelievable tragedy that Brandon experienced and the healing, restoration and forgiveness which God had provided.  

God's story is still being written about Brandon as he prepares for married life. He's engaged to be married this summer.  And God's working not only in his life but also in the family of Neal and Patty as they and their children, including Joey, serve God in ministry in unique and incredible ways.  I seldom doubt that God can turn tragedy into blessings but I'm often surprised and amused with how  He does it!
We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:28

God's miraculous directing hand in a South African Prison

God answers prayers in many ways but one powerful means is the way God directs us to the people who need Him the most. I had the fortune to see how God provided miraculous direction through an answered prayer during a mission to a South African prison during a mission trip to Johannesburg. 
Our mission team had just held a worship service in the recreational yard of a prison in Johannesburg.  There were around 200 inmates who gathered to participate and over half of them responded to the invitation to accept Christ.  It was an awesome time, especially afterward when we broke up in groups and encouraged the men in their walk with Jesus.  As we closed and gathered to leave the prison, one young inmate approached me.  He had a pained look on his face and introduced himself as Viano.  He explained that he had recently been transferred from the juvinile prison and his parents lived in another country in Africa and didn't even know he was in prison.  Viano asked me to help him.  I didn't exactly know what to do.  I only and a minute or so to talk to him as our team was leaving.  I asked Viano if he had made a decision to follow Christ.  He said that he had.  I pointed out the many inmates who were Christians and told Viano that he needed to find a friend or two that he could trust from his fellow believers.   With them, I explained, would he find strength, safety and encouragement.  I prayed with him and then looked for my team who was heading out.  
As I made my way to catch up to my team, another inmate jumped down from a platform in front of me and said he wanted to share very quickly about his time in the prison.  I told him, "please hurry, my team is leaving and I don't want to be left behind in this prison!"  He told me his name was Collin and his countenance was just the opposite of Viano's.  He had a smile from ear to ear and he quickly explained that he had been in this prison for five years but had become a Christian during his time in captivity.  He was dicipled and now is discipling several other inmates himself.  He believed he was exactly where God wanted him to be.  What a contrast between prisoners, Collin and Viano.  
Suddenly it hit me that Collin was just who Viano needed.  I turned around to find Viano to introduce him to Collin but he had left the area.  I explained to Collin about Viano and asked him if he would find him and disciple him.  Viano's reply shocked me.  His smile evaperated and with a serious face  he proclaimed, "I do not hear you speak."  He paused and I wondered what in the world he meant.  Then he added, "I hear God speaking and I must do this".   Praise God!  I said thank you, prayed a quick prayer and ran to my team wondering how all this would turn out but not expecting to ever know the answer.  
The following day our team returned to the prison to minister to a select group of inmates who had signed up for a Master Life discipleship study.  I did not know that we were going to return to the same prison and hadn't considered that I would see Collin again. We walked into the prison, down a long hallway and then were directed to a room that was packed with about 40 inmates, shoulder to shoulder.  They were standing and singing, How Great Thou Art as we walked in.  There on the front row was Collin.  As he sang, he noticed me, smiled and pointed down the row.  Three men over was Viano!  
It wasn't until we had a break that I had a chance to talk to Collin.  He rushed up to me and excitedly said, "pastor, I must tell you what happened.  When you told me that I must find this man and disciple him, I thought that this was not possible.  There are 5,000 inmates in this prison and I don't even know if he is in my section.  But I prayed that God would direct me to him.  This morning when I went to eat breakfast, I noticed a man sitting up against the wall, his head down.  He was very disturbed and I walked up to him and introduced myself and asked if I could help him.  He said his name was Viano.  Viano?  I asked, did you attend the service yesterday in the rec yard?"  
"Yes", he answered. 
"Did you talk to the pastor and are you the one who needs help?"  
"Yes, I believe so," he said. 
"I couldn't believe God had answered my prayer and so quickly", Collin explained, "but he is a big God and I now I realize he can do anything." 
 Out of the thousands, God directed Collin to exactly the one who could help him.  What a miracle.
God does anwer prayers and I would think that He loves to bring us together with those who need Him the most. As I recall God's miracle in a South African prison, I am reminded that I should ask God every day to direct me to the ones who are searching for Him, to those to whom I can help bring closer to God.  And, as Collin, I should be looking for those who need Jesus and be prepared when I meet that someone to do whatever possible to help them to know Jesus.  

God's Miraculous provision in Honduras

This story is still being written and we have yet to see God's fruition but as you read I hope you'll see God's love for children and his desire for us to take care of those precious little ones.
It started on our first mission trip to Honduras in 2002 to support our missionary Teresa Devlin.  During that trip, a young girl, no older than 6 wandered into our camp with two little brothers that had been abandoned by her parents.  It was hard for me to imagine a six year old taking care of two younger brothers.  Teresa confirmed that there were many homeless children in Honduras.
This experience inspired a dream to establish an orphanage for children like this.   But I must admit my motives were not just to provide for orphans but also provide a ministry opportunity for mission teams coming from the United States.  The travel to Honduras was easy and the cost was reasonable.
The beautiful property for the orphanage
As I suggested the idea to our missionary there, Teresa seemed to act as if it were a plan straight from heaven.  She began to look for property where we could have an orphanage. Two years after we began to talk about the orphanage Teresa found a piece of property about 10 miles outside of the city of La Ceiba where she had her music conservatory and about a mile off the main highway.  This beautiful piece of property, about 50 acres, butted up against the Pico Bonito National Park.  It had water and access to electricity.  There were few trees and seemed like a perfect place for an orphanage.  And the price was right, just $16,000 which we had raised.  Not bad for 50 acres.  
When we went to make an offer, suddenly the price went up to $26,000.  This was out of our budget and right after Teresa informed me of the price increase, I wrote in my journal that I guess God didn't have plans for that orphanage after all.  Two days after I wrote those words, Teresa called and said she had met an American businessman, Charles Button who was interested in helping us.  She had taken him to the property and he loved the idea of an orphanage and the land and offered to pay the balance.  I was a bit skeptical because she sometimes hears what she wants to hear, so I asked if I could talk to this Mr. Button.  She said sure, his office is across the street from my house and in a few minutes Mr. Button confirmed that he was serious.  We now had our land.  God apparently did want this orphanage built after all!
Over the next few years we have raised money for buildings and the process of completing the Living Water Children's home has been slow and steady.  We are close to completing the last building before the children arrive.  God has seemed to step in every time we began to get discouraged and brought just the right people or resources to help us along the way.  
One such occurrence was just as we were about to begin the construction of our first cottage.  I was preparing our Grace Point spring mission trip to Honduras and recruiting our team members.  I had asked one of our members, Michelle Brand if she would consider going.  She told me she would pray about it.  A couple of months later she confessed that she had other ideas for spring break and asked her middle sister if they could do something together, go to the beach or other vacation spot.  Her sister replied, "doesn't your church do a spring mission trip?  That would be fun to do together."  Soon they had recruited their father, Othal Brand, Michelle's Aunt, her younger sister and one brother to go.  Her youngest sister was in high school and her brother had just returned from Iraq. Othal, a businessman from McAllen recruited two of his employees to come along.
I did not know any of her family members but we needed them to fill out our team.  And I was soon to learn that this family was not just your ordinary group, God had prepared ahead for them to be there.
Othal, I learned on the way to Honduras, actually lived in Honduras and had a fruit and vegetable business, exporting to the U.S.  When I told him that he needed to meet the Living Water Children's Home board president, Rene Lafitte, he smiled and said, "I know Rene.  I think he purchased some of my land when I moved back to the states!" My jaw dropped.  What are the chances that this could happen?  What was God up to?
Living Water Children's Ranch 

Our biggest dilemma at this time was a serious erosion problem with the orphanage land.  A river that bordered the north part of our land was quickly eroding the land and we needed to find a solution quickly.  Othal was working on this project for us but he realized the scope of the problem was bigger than we could handle and we needed some heavy equipment to solve it.  Othal's sister was wondering what her purpose was to be on the trip and so decided she would do her part by writing Standard Fruit Company a letter requesting their help.  She said they had worked with Standard when they had their business in Honduras and perhaps they would help us.  I thought it was a very long shot but it didn't hurt to ask.  

Much to my surprise we received an answer in two days.  "Come on out to the plant and we will see what we can do".  So three of us went to the plant where we were met by a manager of Standard, Jorge Williams.  He said, "jump in my truck and let's go see the land."  It was only a few miles away but on the way to the land, Mr. Williams shared his story with us.  He said he had discovered several years ago that he was HIV positive.  Not long after that he gave his life to Christ, became a pastor and started a church under a tree.  Along the way God cured him of the disease and now his church was thriving.  It was an amazing story and an even more amazing turn of events.  
baptized in this waterfall
When we got to the property, Jorge was moved by the vision of an orphanage and told us he wanted to help us and could even envision preaching some day at the orphanage.  He gathered us together and prayed for the land and the problem and the eventual children that would grow up there.  Wow!  Tears were flowing down my cheek as he prayed.  Never could I imagine that God would take such care of the details to work to bring us this man.  
When we arrived back at our camp, everyone was asking, "how did it go?"  All I could think of was Ephesians 3:20, that "God will do exceedingly more than we can ask for or even imagine."
Standard Fruit helped stop the erosion and Jorge has become a ministry friend and partner.  And
one of the workers that Othal brought along accepted Christ and I had the opportunity to baptize him in a waterfall not far from the orphanage!

During this process God continues to do exceedingly more that we could imagine and in the most incredible, unpredictable, miraculous ways.   It really confirms that He wants this orphanage and his heart is for the children!

In The Crossfire in Rio

     "We are not in Texas anymore!", I recalled one of our team members remarking as our mission team sat in a church in the heart of Rio de Janiero, Brazil trying to make sense of the crazy events of the past three days. We were getting some counsel from two different Brazilian pastors concerning two hair-raising experiences since we had arrived in Rio four days earlier.  The first occurred following a Sunday night worship service in the small Juaniza favela (Brazilian slum).
We had divided our mission team into two groups for worship at two different churches.  The larger group went with pastor Daniel Camaforte to his church in the favela.  We were doing most of our work with his church.  I kept a smaller group with me as I was preaching in the church which was our lodging for the week, located closer to the downtown area.
     The team at Pastor Daniel's church had a great worship service and were fellowshipping with the members of the church outside in the courtyard beside the main road of the favela when the Rio police drove into the favela.  All of a sudden, shots began to ring out coming from the drug gang in the favela directed at the police.  The church members were suddenly in the crossfire of a shootout between police and the drug gang.  
     Pastor Daniel quickly and calmly urged everyone back into the church.  He directed all of our team into a back room to avoid being hit by stray bullets and waited for the shooting to die down. During a lull he tried to get our team to leave but the shooting started once again, and so the team returned to the room.  Finally the shooting stopped and Pastor Daniel got our team back on the bus and walked down a couple of blocks beside the bus to the exit of the favela to make sure we were safe.
     You can imagine how disturbed and worked up everyone was when they returned to the church where we were staying.  Two of the young ladies explained that they had just returned from the small store a couple of blocks from the church before the shooting occurred.  If the police had come in a minute or too sooner, they would have been right in the middle of the shootout.  
Needless to say, our team spent a restless night but got back to work the next day doing some construction on the church in the favela and ministering to children.  
Grace Point mission team to Rio
     The following day, Tuesday our team took the morning off to go to Copacabana beach.  On the way back to the bus, about 10 of the team were walking through a nice neighborhood.  Four of the team had stopped in a magazine stand to buy some refreshments.  I was about 20 feet back from the stand when I heard a shot ring out.  Now we were all very sensitive to the sound of gunfire, and so my first reaction was someone was shooting at us, the Americans.  I heard someone yell get down, and I fell face first beside a tree.  I looked up and saw a Brazilian man staggering from the magazine stand muttering something in Portuguese.  The front of his chest was covered in blood. Obviously he was the one who had been shot.  Todd Riddle, our Singles minister hollered "let's get out of here.  Run!"  I wanted to help the man but I couldn't understand just what was happening.  I'm sorry to say, my fear took precedent over the care of the man and I along with the others took off toward the bus.  As I began to run I saw some police on the far corner of the street and hollered for everyone to walk fast.  I didn't want the police to think we had committed the shooting.
     We made it back to the bus where we met the rest of the team.  There I found out what had happened.  Those that were in the magazine stand said a young Brazilian man was in the stand with them.  He pulled out a gun and shot the manager in the chest and took off running.  They didn't know exactly why he had shot the manager, perhaps he had been caught stealing something.  But you can imagine how distraught they were.  One of the ladies on the team who was in the magazine stand just wanted to go home.  She had been involved in two shootings within days of the mission trip.  
     We had planned to go to another favela to do a sports camp with kids that afternoon.  But the shootings had unnerved the team to the extent I thought it best to take the afternoon off and allow the team to process what had happened and pray.  I asked both the pastors, the pastor of the church in which we were staying and Pastor Daniel from the favela to talk to the team to help us understand what had happened.  It was interesting the different perspectives from the pastors.  The pastor of the church where we were staying, which was in an upper income area of Rio, was very surprised at what had happened.  He said he had lived in Rio a long time and never had witnessed anything like this.  Pastor Daniel, on the other hand, said it occurred all the time in the favela and it was something that those who lived in the favela dealt with on a regular basis.  He assured us that God was in control but that we should realize that we were in a dangerous place.
     We prayed a long time and then talked about how none of us had been injured, that God had protected us.  We prayed for the man that had been shot and later heard that he was in critical but stable condition.  We prayed for the people in the favela, for Daniel's church members who lived in the danger zone.  We prayed that our mission would not be deterred, that fear would not cause us to divert what we were called to do in Rio.  
That night our plan was to go to the Favela in which we were to work in that afternoon, where I was to preach.  I told the team that I was going to go and anyone that wanted could go with me but if there were any that felt uncomfortable, they could stay behind.  Everyone would understand. All but a couple of the team went with me.  We had a tremendous service where I challenged the men to step out and lead their families and the church.  Afterward the pastor of the church took us to a house which had an open porch that overlooked the city of Rio.  A lot of the favelas as this one are built on the side of the mountain.  The view was unbelievable.  The pastor introduced us to a man who had once been a drug lord and sold drugs from this very spot.  The former drug dealer explained that had given his life to Jesus Christ and walked away from his old lifestyle and now led a Bible study on this porch where he once sold drugs.
The pastor then asked me, "Pastor John, would you like to meet the Drug Lord of this favela?"  The question caught me somewhat by surprise.  My wife, Barbara was with me and I glanced over at her to get an idea of what she thought about this.  I could tell she was very concerned but she gave the approval, saying "I understand, it is up to."
     I looked over the team and asked Nick, one of our young guys if he wanted to go.  He agreed and we took off along with the pastor, our Brazilian guide,Cesar and a female translator.  There are no roads in the favela, just a small path up through the neighborhood.  It was dark and very creepy, the only light coming from inside the houses.  We would stop from time to time to visit with the neighbors as we made our way up the mountain.  
     After some time we stopped to talk to some men that were sitting on a porch alongside the pathway.  They were dressed in army camouflage, three on the porch with several others hanging out behind them.  I leaned over and asked our translator if this was the man.  She said yes, he is the Drug Lord.  I still remember his name, Carlos Gabriella, and he was much younger than I anticipated, in his mid twenties.  
I was introduced to him and I began to tell him about our interesting adventures with bullets and shootings.  As I told about the shooting of the magazine stand manager, he looked very agitated and indicated he would like to find the man who did the shooting and deliver the punishment.  I was to learn that the drug gangs acted as the police of most of the favelas.  They keep order and control over their neighborhoods.  
     I remember talking to him about King David of the Bible and how David was a leader but was not a perfect man.  In spite of his sin and shortcomings as King, the bible said he was a man after God's own heart.  I told him that I realized he was the leader of this favela and I urged him to be a leader like David.  I encouraged him to be a man after God's own heart, that God would forgive him of his sins if he just asked.   I asked if I could pray for him and he said yes.  I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him.  I was told he had just become a new father and so I prayed for his new baby boy.  A funny thing was that the translator told me that Carlos' baby was a girl, not a boy, but she had translated girl for me!  Whew.  Thanks for catching my mistake!
     As I think back, this was an incredible opportunity to speak not only to Carlos but to all those who were around listening in.  This would have been lost if we had decided not to go back into the favela because of the shooting.  And the shootings actually gave me a story to sort of break the ice with the Drug Lord.  
     I recalled the words I spoke in a sermon recently which so applied to this mission.  "God has prepared you for something great and He wants to be your guide. And If you are not pursuing a dangerous quest with your life, well, then you don’t need a guide.  If you’ve settle in your mind to live as though this is a fairly neutral world and you are simply trying to live your life as best you can, then you can probably get by with the Christianity of tips and techniques. But if you intend to live in the Story that God is telling, and if you want the life he offers, then you are going to need more than a handful of principles. You are going to need a guide. There are too many twists and turns in the road ahead, too many ambushes waiting only God knows where, there is just too much at stake for the enemy. 'Narrow is the way', said Jesus. How shall we be sure to find it? We need God intimately, and we need him desperately." We certainly needed to to rely upon Him totally this week in Rio!

Miracle On An African Safari

     For many people, one of their life long dreams is to take a safari in Africa.  On my first mission trip to Africa, I was fortunate enough to get to experience a safari, something I did not expect, just a really nice bonus, icing on the cake.  What was even more of a surprise than the safari itself, was the miracle God did on the safari.
     I must admit that I didn't rough it much on my first trip to Africa.  Actually it was a planning trip for my first mission to Kenya, leading a group from Grace Point along with a team from Houston Northwest Baptist.  But God taught me an amazing lesson on the trip, experiencing what I consider a miracle and encouraged me that I was on the right course and in his will.  
     I had recently taken the missions pastor position at Grace Point in San Antonio, moving from Hyde Park in Austin where I'd spent 20 years on staff.  I had to fill some high expectations as it was Grace Point's vision that everyone in the church go global at least once in five years.  So our first trip to Africa needed to be a success to give us some momentum.
     I traveled to Africa with Pastor Dwight Davis from Houston Northwest Baptist.  We stayed in a 3 bedroom lodge at a large national park in South Africa north of Johannesburg.  We were joined by two other pastors from Africa, one from Kenya and the other from South Africa and we spent three days planning our mission trip and how we were to help an orphanage in Kenya.  
     On the second day we got to experience a picture safari, no guns on this trip.  So we loaded up in a Range Rover which had three bench seats, open air for great viewing of the amazing creatures.
The three other pastors jumped in the top row, which left me to sit on the second row with a couple I didn't know, a mother and son from Scotland.  The son was about 30 years of age and this was their dream vacation that they had been planning for years.  And the safari was the highlight of this trip of a lifetime.
We took off and made our way through the park stopping to see zebras, giraffe, rhinos and all sorts of animals and birds.  Near the end of the trip we pulled up along side of a mother lion and her cubs, which were just off the road about 15 yards away.  We were instructed to stay in the vehicle and not to make any sudden moves.  We were very exposed, with no top to the Range Rover, so it was an exhilarating, yet unnerving experience.  
     During the safari which was about two hours long, I got to know the couple beside me.  I talked mostly with the son and soon found out that he had become a Mormon about two years earlier.  I asked him questions about his faith and then shared what some of the differences were between my Christian faith and Mormonism.  I told him the biggest difference was that Mormon's believed you had to earn your way to heaven.  Their faith was like most all religions in that it was based on works.  Where the true Christian faith is based not on works but on God's grace as I shared from Ephesians 2:8-9.  
He readily agreed with my assessment of the Mormon faith, saying he could see that they were very strict about following rules that would lead you to salvation which was what he didn't like about the religion.  
I'm not sure how it happened, but by the end of the safari this Scottish Mormon wanted to accept Jesus Christ and be freed from the rules and legalism he was experiencing.  He prayed to receive Christ and agreed to meet with us again the next day.  
     I just couldn't believe what had happened.  Here we were experiencing a trip of a life time and this young man was receiving a gift of eternity!  Even on a trip when all of your attention should have been on these incredible animals, I was far more interested in sharing the living water with this man and what was more incredible was that he was not distracted by the beautiful scenery or the amazing animals.  
But God was about to do more.  This new believer came to our lodge the following day and we talked some more about his new faith and encouraged him.  The lodge had a small swimming pool on the porch.  It was smaller than a lap pool and just a little larger than a whirl pool sauna.  Almost like a large baptismal, provided just for occasions like this.  I baptized him in the pool and we prayed with him and his new life in Christ.  What was also amazing was that Dwight Davis had brought one book to read on the trip, thrown into his suitcase as an after thought.  It was The God Makers, a book about the Mormon church and what they really believe. Dwight said he didn't know at the time why he brought the book along, but does now.  
     This experience really encouraged me as I could see God's hand directing me to follow Him.  It was an affirmation that I was in the right place and God would provide me many more opportunities, adventures and miracles along the way.  For the former Mormon, he and his mother came to South Africa to experience God's wonderful creation and in addition got to experience God for eternity!