Thursday, November 09, 2017

California sea lions and Baja 1000 on foot

Tuesday we went to San Rafalito Island, a protected island that is part of the Balandra protected area of La Paz. We did what Steve calls Gorilla Diving. More precisely, Steve and Dr. Sluka gorilla dived, I "gorilla snorkeled". This is when you kayak out to the area you want to dive at, drop anchor (carefully, so as not to damage the coral reef, by finding a spot among rocks), and put your scuba gear on all from a kayak. It's much cheaper than paying a charter boat to take you out, in fact, it's free! And the joy of kayaking a little over 3.5 miles round trip from the beach to a 50x50 ft island with a small lighthouse on it in open water that is 60-80 ft. deep is half the fun! Oh, the beauty of enjoying God's creation! Wow! I wish everyone had the privilege of this. The fact it, there is so much of creation that we can enjoy if we will just take the time and praise God for His creation and the glory it brings Him!

It was a beautiful time of seeing sea lions up close and personal--more than most people are comfortable with--but they are curious animals. The important part it to let THEM approach you, not you them. We have to remember that they are much more graceful than we are in the water, quicker, and often weigh two times or more than us...so it's always a good idea to be careful around them. What you DON'T see in this video is what I was holding my hands up at the beginning of this video: to the right of the view are hundreds of tropical fish along the reef which I spent close to two hours diving down (just with my own breath) to look and marvel at. I'm not sure which I was more impressed by: the sea lions or the hundreds of fish!

Later in the evening, we went out to Rancho El Camino, a ministry TEAM has outside the city of La Paz. This last year, they have had over 1200 people pass through the ranch--from kids in the surrounding area, or from La Paz, or adults and different groups coming for a retreat, the impact they have in the community is very significant.

Two things I want to write about here: the surprising benefit of a hurricane, and a faithful follower of Jesus.
First, the hurricane. Out at the ranch, water has always been an issue. You see, it's really a desert out there! In fact, the only reason they have had water since the day TEAM purchased the land for this ranch was because there was an earthquake that brought water to the surface and provided a means to have a well! Otherwise, it would be very challenging to live and do ministry out there! However, the well was getting quite low and since it rains very little in the desert, the well wasn't replenishing itself. Then came hurricane Lidia with heavy rains and did something amazing for the ranch, and in fact, the whole Baja peninsula which turned vibrant green and still is green today, when normally it would not be. As you can see from the pictures below, there is water in the "arroyo" behind the ranch. An Arroyo is simply the riverbed or creek where water "sometimes" flows. I say sometimes, because it's a desert, after-all.  When I visited the Ranch in October 2015, this was all sand, not even rocks. Plain old sand. Any water that existed was in the dam of the land owner up the creek from them. He had dammed the riverbed and trapped any water that might come to the ranch. All the ranch had was sand all the way to their dam lower down the river bed. What the hurricane did (a merciful act of God?) was to wash all the sand down from the mountains and fill the upstream neighbor's dam with sand, and push all the sand out of the ranch's riverbed downstream, and filled their riverbed with water! They used to play beach volleyball in the riverbed, but as you can see from the photos I took below...they'll have to find another place for that!


There were hundreds of little frogs because of the life the water brings! Praise God!
What a blessing then that the hurricane did bring some good to the ranch even though it was a hurricane!

Now, onto the Baja 1000. No, not the race coming up this month here in Baja, but the story of a faithful follower of Jesus, a man named May (pronounced "My"), who walked/hitch-hiked the Baja peninsula. I met him last night at the Ranch. I had heard about this call he says he received from Jesus to basically travel throughout the Baja peninsula telling other about Jesus. He is on staff at the Ranch and is a very kind, genuine person.
He told me stories of him traveling, hitch-hiking, and asking God to provide for him during the journey. It was amazing to recognize a young man who had matured so much and grown so close to Christ in faith through obedience. Through what he went through, he has learned more than the average pastor does in a lifetime pastoring a church: what it means to really have community, to depend on God for your daily bread, to truly show the love of God to others. He said his trip was sad and joyful in many ways. Joyful that he grew so close to the Lord through it, yet so sad because he saw the Christian churches act like a club, a private gathering of people that are like-minded but will not do what Christ commanded them, even when May showed them how and opened up many possibilities for outreach that were so simple. It was hard to listen to his stories and the sadness it brought him, but it was a joy to hear of God's faithfulness to May because of his faith. Oh, that more of us would be like this young man! I respect and look up to him (though I am indeed taller)!


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Swimming with sharks and a NT Church

Monday was quite a treat--I got to swim with the largest fish in the world! In fact, the largest shark in the world! The whale shark! It's not a whale, it's a shark--notice the gills. It's called a "whale" shark because it's so large! The largest ones I swam with were about 22 feet long, and they are juveniles...teenagers. They come to feed on the plankton (not humans) in the Fall here in the Sea of Cortez. People didn't know about them coming here to feed in this area until only a few years ago...now it's a tourist hot-spot. Even so, there are regulations for swimming with them, such as keeping your distance and not touching them, and not getting in front of them while feeding. Our guide, Benjamin Duarte, did a great job teaching us about the sharks and finding them in the open blue so that we could swim with them. He charges double what the normal guides charge, but he's up to date on his certification, and he spends twice as much time with us out in the water, making sure we have a good experience. He also doesn't rush back to town once we've swam with the sharks but lets us enjoy our time, while giving the sharks a break from humans as well by finding other sharks to swim with, not always just one. What a magnificent creature!! 


Later that afternoon/evening, we got to meet the friends of Steve and Lois who have become their "Bible exploration friends" on Monday nights. Most of these people they have met from kayaking and scuba diving. These are people who would never step foot in a traditional church building, but because of the relationship they have with Steve and Lois, they open up their lives to them. That tends to happen when you spend hours on the water, talking about life...sharing your own life, and listening to them talk about theirs. It has been refreshing to see a NT model of church being done here. In fact, the Mexican non-profit Steve has started, called Reconciliamar (the combination of reconciliation and loving in Spanish), has as its goals to develop Community, Conversation, and Conservation. Through this non-profit, which works to care for creation from a Christian perspective, Steve is drawing attention from even the most staunch opponents of the gospel. This is to the point that one of the men he has connected with has even told Steve how to evangelize him!
Fellowship time over food to start the evening off.
This is the point of ministry here in La Paz for Steve & Lois: changed lives. What better way to do that than living life with people through community, and taking care of what God has given us? How great it would be if more of us Christians did this even in the US by taking simple steps to talk with people, to build community with them (even if we're so different), and to care for God's creation around us?! It would certainly open the door to share about Jesus and the hope we have for changed lives and changed situations.

The lighthouse and atheist activism

Sunday we went to a church that is called El Faro, or The Lighthouse in Spanish. The service was very similar to church in Brazil, where I grew up, and I could worship along pretty well and understand almost all of the sermon. It helps when the preacher speaks slowly. :-) The church is located on a hill at the center of the city--everyone sees it as they drive by the main drag. Quite significant that the name of the church was El Faro, as they want to be a lighthouse in their relationships with people, but they are also located in a physical location that serves as a lighthouse! The church is not yet completed, but is building as they have the resources.
Walking up to church building.

Inside the church--missionaries are usually the last to leave!

Myself at the church overlooking the city in the background.

Dr. Bob Sluka, A Rocha Marine Biologist
After church, we had fish tacos (not myself, actually--I took a PB and J), and I hear they were delicious! It's a hotspot for many people on Sundays, including most of the TEAM missionaries! So I got to meet a few other TEAMers while there.

Later in the afternoon we went to meet with a British couple who's retired here, they've been diving their whole lives as well as commanding a yacht and taking people on expeditions. He even had a house full of museum quality items before there were rules about shipwrecks. Look at these portholes from old ships:
Portholes from ships that went down all over the world.

Can you imagine wearing one of these to explore the underwater world?

They even had their own "pirate" bird--this is Gnasher, he's 37 years old, just like me!

Gnasher was a great companion during our visit.
During our three hour conversation, we talked about many things related to stewardship of the environment, specifically in this area of La Paz. The couple we met are atheists, but they have continued to seek interaction with Steve & Lois, knowing full well that they are Christians and live it out. But that's the thing, being Christ followers doesn't mean we shun those unlike us, it means we should love them even more and truly seek relationship with them. We all agree on the challenge it is to bring this community to value what they have; the couple we met with were exasperated on the lack of progress, wondering what it would take... As Christians, we recognize that what it will take is a change of heart--for values to change, it has to come from the heart...and the King of heart changes is Jesus! So, this is what we pray for for this couple, as well as the Church to have a change of heart regarding stewardship of creation, as well as those who do not know our Savior yet and the reconciliation he brings to ALL of creation which allows us to joyfully care for creation as we point others to Jesus!

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Cabo Pulmo National Park & Pizza

Today we headed to Cabo Pulmo National Park, a protected marine area, for scuba diving (Steve and Dr. Sluka), snorkeling (myself), and data collection.
Steve, Dr. Sluka and 4 others heading out to scuba in two locations.

We wanted to know what the condition of the reef is, the status of aquatic wildlife, and what is being done for conservation here. This month the National Park is opening a simple educational center to explain why conservation is important to this area, underwater as well as on land. You can see some of the videos we are taking here.

Cabo Pulmo is a small protected area declared a National Park for Mexico.

If we are to start any type of work/ministry here dealing more specifically with conservation/research within our church-planting movement, we need to better understand what the ocean issues are that affect this part of Mexico on the Baja Peninsula. Plastic trash is a large problem all over the oceans. However, microplastics are the bigger issue. Microplastics are pieces of plastic 5mm or smaller that have broken down from larger pieces of plastic floating in our waters, or plastics that come from other sources, such as our laundry water from washing machines with minuscule particles of plastic that flow into our watersheds.
Steve Dresselhaus looking for microplastics in the sand

You can read up on microplastics here. Download the the fact sheet on microplastics to see what YOU can do to better steward your watershed! It was very eye-opening for me to learn more about this today. There are so many ways we DON'T steward creation wisely, often times because of our consumerist lifestyles. Regardless, plastics are built to NOT breakdown, and is having a tremendously negative impact on all of creation as a result. We can all do something about it.

However, here, locally in Mexico, on Baja Peninsula, how do we get the people to care about the creation they live in? How do teach them to value it? One proven way is to help the younger generation... We can take them out to the water...to kayak, scuba, snorkel...to see the beauty of God's creation, to realize that this belongs to THEM, this is their land, their waters, their wildlife! We want them to experience the beauty and glory of God's creation and understand the reality that their choices have consequences. We want to help them become educated about their situation instead of ignorant about what's here. One of the challenges is over fishing, as well as poaching at night by fishermen who come into protected waters to fish. Ever since the area of Cabo Pulmo was protected 22 years ago, the density of the biodiversity has grown over 200%! This is when you start to think what creation was like BEFORE sin, the abundance of life, the flourishing of creation...how do we get people to think about valuing/stewarding creation? What do we do?

I believe it all comes down to the heart. And how do we get at the heart issues with people? Through genuine relationships--that's how we do our work, God's work, of taking the message of forgiveness to those who have not heard. Let me give an example: 
On our way back up to La Paz, a little over two hour drive, we stopped at a local pizza place in the middle of nowhere. This is the 11th best pizza on the country of Mexico--we know because they competed on the mainland this year. The pizza place is even listed on Trip Advisor as a great stop! It's called Pizza Gourmet San Antonio. Cesar and Trini are the owners, and they are great people!
Menu

Open air eating area, in their yard. Very relaxing.
Cesar went to Spain for culinary arts school, and Trini is an architect.
Here's the thing: people only come here by word of mouth! It's gourmet pizza, custom made if needed--like my pizza. Since I can't have salt in my diet, and very little sodium, he made me a crust made from blue maize (corn), shredded tomatoes as a sauce layer, and loaded it with flavorful veggies and herbs. Steve and Dr. Sluka had their own gourmet pizza with spinach and honey on one half and pear slices on the other.
No-salt pizza for me.

Gourmet Pizza for Dr. Sluka and Steve.
The way Steve and Lois found out about this place was driving by one Saturday in 2016 when they saw a hand-written sign and thought nothing of it. The next day they met a couple at an event in a town down the coast, found out it was the restaurant, owners, and came to visit the next day. They became great friends as a result, kayaking often with Steve & Lois and going on outings when they can, and now are part of the Monday night Bible exploration group that meets in the Dresselhaus' home. I'll see them again this coming Monday and look forward to it.

You see, it is in the context of relationships, of real life, that we best share Jesus with people. There's nothing special per se about us missionaries, other than that we try to share life with people, be genuinely interested in them, and shine the light of Jesus to those who have not met him yet! This is what it's all about friends. What a privilege to be called one of His own children and to welcome others into God's family!

Flights, Headache, Baja California Sunset

Yesterday I arrived in Mexico. I flew into Cabo San Lucas, on the southern tip of Baja California Sur penninsula, then took a three hour shuttle ride up to La Paz in classic style...in the back seat sitting next to a big American guy on my left (a bit taller than me, but add an extra 60 lbs or so...), and a short, recently retired Mexican business man on my right coming back to La Paz from the US to visit his mother and family here in Mexico. I say classic style because it was extremely bouncy in the back seat of the shuttle, going an indecent amount over the posted speed limit, and without a working seatbelt. I've lived enough, and been through enough experiences, that I don't stress about the seatbelt not working anymore. No amount of complaining was going to fix it--and even IF I had a working seatbelt, it would do nothing to save my life if we were to get into an accident at the ridiculous speed we were going at. The trip usually takes three solid hours, our driver got us to our destination in about 2 hrs 20 minutes. If you ever come to La Paz from the airport in Cabo, ask for Ricardo when you get the shuttle. If you aren't ready to meet your Maker, the ride quickly will help prepare you for that day.

Here are some photos to help you better understand where I'm at during this trip.
La Paz is located at that blue circle.

Close to the bottom of the Baja Peninsula but in the Bay of La Paz.

Here is La Paz


Once I arrived in La Paz, I had to wait an extra 40 minutes for my missionary colleague (Steve Dresselhaus) to pick me up, since I got there in record time. Not a problem--I enjoy watching people. However, after traveling all day and not sleeping long enough the night before, and not being hydrated enough, my head started pounding. Finally, tonight it's almost gone.

After a delicous meal prepared for me by my hosts (Steve's wife, Lois Dresselhaus), we headed to the waterfront here in La Paz for some ice-cream and to watch the sunset.  The ice-cream was refreshing in the warm weather, and the sunset was beautiful, as only God can do.
Sunset in La Paz, Mexico
No, I'm not here on vacation. Nope. I don't consider it a vacation if my wife and four kids aren't with me. In fact, I miss them so much, I'll put a picture of each of them here I took at the airport before leaving:
My beautiful bride, Becky

Caleb, 10 years old

Samuel, 7 years old

David, 5 years old

Lilianna, my princess, 3 years old

Now, is it beautiful here? Yes! But this is work. I know, many people would love to work here! If you haven't read it in our regular updates yet, which you can access here, I'm down here looking into how we at TEAM and RECONCILIAMAR (a Mexican non-profit started by missionary Steve Dresselhaus) can work together with A Rocha at stewarding God's creation and sharing the gospel with a broader scope and deeper impact.
Myself on the left, Dr. Bob Sluka in the middle, Steve Dresselhaus on right.
We had some good initial conversations last night--but my head could only take so much in when in that condition. The ice cream helped, but still... I'll be here in La Paz interacting with these two men and many others as we seek to steward God's creation wisely and be a witness for Him in this world by sharing the hope we have in Christ and the reconciliation He brings to ALL of creation. I'll post here as often as I can about this trip the next 9 days.

Chicago has their "Bean", La Paz has their "Pearl".



Friday, October 27, 2017

Messy lives, effective ministry

This past Sunday I preached at the opening of a missions conference at a church in the suburbs of Chicago. The passage I preached on was Luke 10:25-37, where Jesus answers an expert in the law's question about how to inherit eternal life. He taught on the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the man's question about who his neighbor was. The point Jesus was making was that to gain eternal life, one had to love God wholeheartedly (Deut. 6:5-9) and love his neighbor as himself (Lev. 19:18). They are two separate commands in the Law, yet Jesus puts them together as the two most important commands to obey! Problem was, no one could do either of those perfectly. Put them together, it seems even more impossible! That's why we needed a Savior! Jesus IS that Savior, thankfully! He fulfilled the Law's requirements on our behalf!

Problem is, today we tend to either "spiritualize" our walk with God to the point that we ignore the practical needs in society, or we make it all about the "good works" we do, and fail to recognize the need for us to rely on the power of God's Spirit. Jesus makes the point through this parable that our walk with Him in this world isn't only about the life we'll have with Him after death, but the life we have with him NOW! He was teaching that eternal life starts here on this earth when we accept Him as our Savior! There is no dichotomy in our spiritual/physical walk. Eternal life is lived in the spiritual realms as well as the very mundane things of this world.

Hillside erosion

Deforestation
This reality is why Creation Care ministry is so crucial to our witness in the world. As we care for very mundane things, such as improving soil fertility in impoverished communities, reducing pollutants entering rivers and oceans due to hillside erosion, or actively doing reforestation efforts, we are caring for people's very basic needs (as well as doing our job as good stewards of God's creation). But as we do this, we are also entering into relationship with the same people those issues affect.



By the way, how do we most effectively share the gospel? By preaching on a street corner with a bull-horn? No, not really. It's by being in relationship with people--genuine, real, messy, relationships. That's where people see Jesus, that's where they see God's love, if it is indeed in us.

It's so easy for us to do what the priest and the Levite did in the story of the Good Samaritan...real ministry is uncomfortable at times, awkward, messy... That's part of the point of the story I believe. We all need to get into the mess--we are not perfect people, yet we are being sanctified as we walk with Jesus and in genuine relationships with others. Because of Jesus, we CAN love God and our neighbor as He asks us to.