Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Turning Point

Looking back over the last few months, I feel a deep sense of gratefulness at how God works to carry me through hard times...God is good.  We've done a lot of grieving in our time of ministry, come to think of it!  When we went to Venezuela way back when, we were entirely committed to living and working there with NTM for the rest of our lives and well, things didn't work out that way.  We took a huge hit when, barely two years later, we were facing the decision of leaving to go work somewhere else.  We arrived in Mexico hopeful that perhaps God was leading us to stay there, although Miguel still sensed a strong desire to return to his home country, understandable certainly, but was it God's calling or just a human desire?  We weren't certain...and then sure enough, two years into our time in Mexico, there we were, packing up another household of stuff and stepping out in blind faith. 

At the time, I was rather terrified of stepping out like that because it meant facing a future that I wasn't at all sure that I was willing to face, but if I hadn't been able to let go of our ministry in Mexico with NTM, God wouldn't have been able to lead us to the ministry that He has had waiting for us.  It is interesting how God writes our stories, brings opportunities to our door and then allows them to step away for a time if we are not ready to open that door.  He is faithful to work and then bring these opportunities back another time when we're more ready to answer the call.

We have known for years that our sending church has been greatly involved in a church planting partnership with a local church in Puebla, Mexico for several years now...Miguel has, in fact, gone on three different short-term mission trips as a translator to this ministry site, but we hadn't had much thought about it other than acknowledging that it existed.  Three years ago, Miguel brought up the idea of going to live and work there, but since it implied leaving NTM and I was not ready to face that choice yet, we declined that opportunity, stayed with NTM and went to Chihuahua instead. 

When we left Mexico last August, we went through a strong grieving process because not only did we grieve leaving Mexico, which we have come to love, we grieved the loss of friends both in and out of the mission community.  We had many good friends within NTM and had connected so strongly to the community of believers in our local church that it was like leaving family, a truly painful process that was difficult to recover from.  But it was a necessary step as God directed our path and moved us towards His plan.

2010 was an interesting year for us because it marks a turning point, a time of real growth and change in Miguel and I, both personally and in our ministry.  In many ways, I think we finally 'grew up', if you will, emotionally as we began dealing with some deep hurts of our past and in our marriage.  And this healing seemed to open the door to some true growth in our ministry and we found ourselves disatisfied with the 'status quo' of the mission world we found ourselves in and yet not really sure we were able to make a decision that would mean some radical change.  God used those experiences to sharpen our vision for ministry, define how we desire to work and to help us know what to look for in our next ministry. 

And then something pretty amazing happened and God showed us very clearly that our time with NTM had come to its end.  It was a painful process, weaning always has its moments of distress as we break some of the strings of dependency that might have formed with such a partnership.  A friend describes the relationship between a mission agency and its members as a 'marriage' and he noted that when that relationship breaks down, it can be compared to a 'divorce'.  Such a 'divorce' between an agency and a member can produce some pretty strong emotions and feelings of loss and grief and abandonment, true, but sometimes is necessary as the member seeks to follow God's plan for their lives.  We learned that our identity needs to be solidly placed in Christ and not in a membership in a mission agency or church or in anything other than Christ, really.  And we have certainly learned that God is sufficient for us at all times and in every circumstance.  All in all, I think we're handling things pretty well, even though we have had some ugly moments in the middle of it...we are very thankful for having had this place of rest and retreat and are thankful that God knows what we need even when we don't have a clue. 

As we contemplated our resignation from NTM, however, we weren't really sure where God was leading even though Miguel still had a strong desire to return either to Venezuela or the Amazon region.  So we explored some of those ideas and continued to pray and ask for wisdom.  And then our home church brought back the Puebla ministry to our attention again and I remembered something...I remembered that back in July when Miguel had last gone to Puebla, he came back energized and excited and interested and I had wondered at that point whether God was leading in that direction.  I remembered having privately surrendered to God in that moment...having said to God "I'll go!" if he asked us to go.  And isn't that where God wants us anyway?  Willing and surrendered? 

Miguel wasn't visibly responding as quickly as I was, though, so I stayed quiet, watching and waiting and praying and resting in God's will.  Besides, I wasn't at all sure that God was leading us to Puebla, it could have just been me and I didn't want to influence Miguel's decision, I wanted God to confirm this in a big way for both of us.  And I'm learning that my husband doesn't make decisions as quickly as I do, he likes to take time to think these important things through rather thoroughly before committing, but soon enough, there we were, entirely in agreement and with a peace about pursuing this ministry.  I was a little surprised because I knew that Miguel is still so attracted to hot and humid tropical places with rivers and fish and outboard motors, and yet he, too, is willing and surrendered to God's will. 

So here we are, preparing to return to Mexico sometime in the next few months, so excited we can hardly stand it!  In fact, if it weren't for some boring details such as joining another mission agency (NTM doesn't work in this area) and raising more prayer and financial support, we'd be leaving, like, tomorrow!  We feel so blessed at how God has been so faithful to work in us and through us and we can't wait to serve Him back.  We find in interesting how God has brought us full circle back to Mexico, a country we both love.  Our new place of ministry is not very tropical, being in the mountains of Puebla with a cool, temperate climate and really no navigable rivers to speak of...but it IS green and humid! 

So here's the scoop...there is a church in the city of Puebla called El Camino Bible Church that wants to plant churches.  They are ambitious, they desire to have a church planting ministry in every state of Mexico!  Anyway, a few years ago, they were able to send a missionary couple from their church up to the mountains of the state of Puebla (about four hours northeast of the city of Puebla) to live and work in a small, remote community with the intention of starting a church planting movement among the Totonac people group. 

Our sending church has come alongside El Camino to help and facilitate in any way that El Camino feels they need help and it's been neat to see our sending church take a helping role and not a leading role in this partnership.  Our sending church sends teams down to Puebla three times a year to help with community outreaches, medical outreaches, children's ministries and construction projects.

Totonac man in traditional dress

The Totonacs are an ancient people group who co-existed alongside the Mayans and the Aztecs.  They have their own language that is not related to other language groups in the area.  They were actually enemies of the Aztecs and joined Hernan Cortés in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs back in the 1500s.  The Totonacs were incorporated into the Spanish regime, but since they traditionally lived in remote mountainous regions, they have maintained a lot of their traditional customs and culture.  There are roughly 200,000 or more Totonac people in this region with several dialects.  Along with many other indigenous groups in the Americas, they have adopted folk-Catholic religious beliefs while retaining animistic beliefs alongside.  There are very few evangelical churches or believers among the Totonac.

Totonac women in traditional dress

Franco and Barbara, missionaries to the Totonac, have had a successful ministry and now have several believers who are even beginning to teach their own people.  They do work in Spanish with bilingual men, who teach their own people using a New Testament that was translated by Wycliffe years ago.  There is a church building in the town where Franco and Barbara live, but they are seeing that churches could be planted in other towns and that the believers need more discipling.  Franco and Barbara are also getting up in years and are thinking about retiring in a couple of years and they are naturally concerned about continuing the work. 

And that's where we come in...this is exactly what we've been trained for, cross-cultural tribal church planting!  And Miguel's gifts lie in teaching and discipling, as well as in community development.  We are also good language learners and I suspect that we'll be moving beyond working in Spanish to learning and working in the Totonac language eventually.  Miguel has already seen and experienced the work first hand and is well-liked and respected there, not just by Franco and Barbara, but also by the tribal people and El Camino.  Our sending church and we, too, think it's a good 'fit' for us and we're pretty excited about getting there and getting to work! 

L-R: Miguel, Hiram (pastor of El Camino),
Franco (missionary to Totonac in Puebla)
and Jordan (Missions admin. assistant
from our sending church here in AR)

There is so much more I could write about this ministry and the Totonac, but this is getting long, so I'll save it for upcoming posts.  I will write some of our objectives for the next few months, though, things we need to do and accomplish...

  1. Join a mission agency...we have it narrowed down to two and are applying to both, waiting for God's direction there...
  2. Raise needed prayer and financial support...we already have a pretty good base of support in both areas, but are just working to expand it...
  3. Obtain a vehicle, preferably some sort of SUV that can handle mountain roads, but isn't so new or nice as to call a lot of attention to it.
  4. We're praying about possibly fitting in a visit to Venezuela this year, but not sure that's going to happen...
  5. Spend time in Puebla getting to know El Camino and allowing them to get to know their new missionaries.
  6. Find a place to live in the mountains...we will most likely be living in a small town close to Franco and Barbara.

Small town in the mountains

There are still some unknowns and a lot of questions to answer, but we'll get there and God will provide.  The important thing is that we're on the move and have a goal that we're working towards...in a sense it is a dream come true, an answer to something we've prayed about for a very long time! 

So thanks for being excited with us!  And plan on coming to visit us soon!