the engineer of the cancelled flight

It’s been said that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

And so there we stood, haggard and tired, outside the locked airport. The swelter of the breezeless pre-dawn humidity rising with the sun. Waiting and exhausted. Our reused clothes sticking to our dampening skin.

But I should back up.

Over the past several years, I’ve been working alongside my father in Equatorial Guinea to see the Bible school campus completed. Biannually I find myself back in the heart of the rainforest, preaching a passion for the lost, teaching a new generation of men, women and children about the mission of God and working toward a completed Bible school campus.

For several days we had busied ourselves with hauling gravel and dirt, placing a drainage system around the six-building grounds, cleaning their roofs from the encroaching layer of rainforest growth and overseeing the installation of new windows.

Along with our plans to preach, teach and work we had set aside a single day to fly from Malabo, the capital city on the island to the mainland city of Bata to meet with the Bible school director and other key pastors.

Saturday morning arrived and we boarded our plane to Bata. We enjoyed a meal and fellowship with a group of pastors. We walked the Bata Bible school campus and visited a church. We talked about the coming school year and drove to the airport for our evening flight.

But, if I might, “the best laid planes of mice and men…”

Our flight back to Malabo was cancelled leaving us stranded in Bata until Sunday morning.

We checked into a building that rents rooms (the state of the rooms causes me hesitation to call it a hotel…). The night passed restlessly in the heat and the chaotic sounds of drunken shouting from the street and hallway. Without a working shower we arrived at the airport praying to make the early morning flight in time for church.

We walked through the airport exhausted, tired and hungry. Unshaven and sweaty we sat down to wait for boarding.

And then, a nicely dressed woman invited us to the VIP lounge!

What? Did she the state we were in? Did she smell the state we were in? And yet, there we were, walking into the VIP lounge where a spread of breads, pastries and coffees greeted us.

Within a few moments, we were sitting down into the comfortable chairs of the cool air conditioned room with our hands holding coffee and fruited-cakes. Finally about to rest we watched as a 25 year-old Dutch engineer came and sat next to us. In moments this towering European began to open his young life to our witness.

How many times have I seen God engineer my days into His plans? And still, it surprises me every time. I bowed my smiling head, surrendered the cartography of my life once again to His plan and asked Jesus for wisdom with the right words to share with this searcher.

A few hours later we boarded the plane, made it home in time for a quick shave and shower, and I preached my heart out to a beloved church family. But the richest part of the day, the fullest memory of that day, are those redirected by the Engineer of the cancelled flight.


burning bush legacies

There it was. A book.

It will come as little surprise to anyone that a book caught my eye. Saying a book captured my attention is like saying that a New York cab shockingly found an opening in traffic. My eyes are trained to find books.

And yet, there it was. A book, perfectly placed on a crowded shelf, like a burning bush in a desert, it's gilded lettering set against the fading maroon cover, "Africa is Waiting.” I opened the yellow pages to find the story of Talmage and Marjorie Butler. I could hardly believe I had stumbled across a biography of early missionaries to Senegal I didn’t know existed!

Before coming to Senegal I had spent hours and hours in the Assemblies of God World Missions archives. I’d read the first letters from Charles Greenaway as he surveyed the land and sought permission for missionaries to come. I’d read field reports with names like Lasley, Herndon, Corbin, and of course, Butler.

Page after page I consumed the life story of the Butlers, missionary heroes who gave up the comforts of their Texas home, the easy graces of ministry in the Caribbean, to plant the church among the unreached of Senegal. And although Senegal is transforming into a modern state, the author’s descriptions of Dakar and life here in the 60s were as current and fresh as if they’d been written today.

My soul swelled as they pioneered the first church in Kedougou. My eyes blurred with tears with joy as they purchased 25,000 square feet in Dakar for $2. My heart sank as the Butlers and their 11-year-old son died in a tragic plane crash, days before returning to Senegal. Their plane came down 50 years ago this month.

I sat there before God asking, “What legacy could a couple who gave their thirties to birth a church among unreached people leave behind?”

Talmage and Majorie Bulter were catalysts. Their words sparked a passion to reach the unreached. Their love lit into flame the souls of lost African men, women and children. They saw the burning bush of God’s calling and with their short lives they pointed others to see it too.

Speaking at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in 1967 Talmage incited a rising generation of students that:

"We must love the world that we face today. We must carry a burden for men that weighs heavy upon our hearts, that causes our hearts to bleed with concern. We need a love strong enough to cause more than just an occasional salty tear to trickle down our cheeks. We need a love that will move us to action; a love that will drive us forth so that we cannot remain still."

A burning bush. A passionate appeal. A little dusty book. In the challenging words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Our legacies await our actions. Our legacies await our courageous response to Jesus’ divine calling. Will we hear the Holy Spirit’s whispered call to witness among the unreached peoples of Senegal? of Chad? of Washington DC? Will we see the bush ablaze with divine purpose as God calls us to the nations crying out for a Savior?

What will your legacy be?

Will you take off your shoes?

Will you say yes to reach the nations?

backward canvasses

We always have canvasses around the house. Plain fabric stretched and nailed to wooden frames waiting to be transformed. And of course our walls are covered in canvasses too. Paintings from around the world. Reproductions of Dega and Van Gogh and original paintings from across Africa. Once white cloth now fully soaked in brilliant colors. Each one with a story to tell on its surface.

We learn so much about a culture by searching out the soul of their art. With dye and resin people tell us the surface stories of their existence. The artist places brush to cloth and pours his soul into each shape, each stroke a symbol of his humanity, each movement a searching out of meaning.

The guard who watches our house during the day is a canvas. His life is lived in color. His clothes burst with greens and browns. His face is filled with character and experience. Talking with him you can feel the structure that carries him from day to day, like the wooden frame beneath canvas. His canvas is fully painted. And yet, his piece is unfinished. His life is Christ-less.

Recently I noticed he was having difficulty with his lower back. Moved by the Spirit I asked him about his back and if I could pray for him in Jesus’ name. He said yes. When I returned from a nine-day trip serving and connecting with the Chadian church, he came up to me rejoicing. His back was healed. His face was radiant with the joy of Jesus’ healing. He took out the arabic tract our friend gave him months ago and said, “This Jesus, the one from the Injil, the one who’s name you prayed, He is the same?”

It was like watching brilliant color seeping through from within. As if God was painting beneath the surface, on the backside of the canvas. Those colors are beginning to bleed through his life.

The University of Valley Forge sent a team to work with our family for half the month of May. Day after day they met new people and each day they allowed the colors of Christ pour out from their canvas. They took what God was doing on the inside, on the backward wall of their canvas that has been signed with the love of Christ, and expressed it to the unreached peoples of Senegal. A great example of that was how they loved our bus driver.

Day after day they painted our bus with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Every day was a new expression of what Jesus was writing beneath the surface. We invited him to help us with French as we taught children memory verses. We invited him to the walk with us, laugh with us, experience his country with us. We invited him to our table to eat with us, to sit around the rice bowl and consume the Bread of Life.

His canvas is transforming. He has seen colors bleeding through like he’s never noticed before. In his heart he has a clear witness of Jesus. In his hands he holds our greatest gift, the Word of God. With prayer and practice the team from Valley Forge wrote the love of Jesus Christ on the inside of his life’s canvas.

An artisan friend gave me a gift of a painting he’d recently completed. Without my knowing it, the team from Valley Forge signed the back, between the wooden frames, beneath the bright paint. It now sits along my office wall, backwards, as a prized possession and constant reminder to look beyond the surface, beyond the facade on display, to see what God is doing deep within.

karate kids and a future hope

There's a narrow stretch of winding road that cuts through Golf Sud, the neighborhood between our home and our church. Driving toward the northern shore I cut my way across the deep sand dunes that swell above the hidden paved road beneath. Along this road buses and taxis bob and weave shuttling the urban dwellers around the city. Shacks and high-rise concrete apartments alternate along the thin passageway. At the end of this road are a long row of ladies sitting behind ramshackle tables laid high with every kind of fresh fish. And at its start is a little welded cage no wider than a phone booth packed with sheep pressed against each other. This street is never empty. Men, women and children walk, ride, live on this street.

For me this street is the perfect image of urban Africa. Making my way down this road all the senses are constantly engaged. The smell of fresh bread at a corner bakery. The feel of sand shifting beneath your feet. The sound of people calling to one another. The taste of the ocean’s salt in the air.

This road never ceases to impress me with its life and vibrancy, but the other day it gave me the most powerful image of a city's potential to bring the worlds colliding into each other. Looking into the courtyard of a small mosque I saw a gathering of boys learning martial arts. The sight of these karate kids, these miniature West African Ralph Macchios, show the power cities have to bring distant worlds together. African cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. Men, women and children are leaving their villages with hearts filled with expectation and hope for the promise of the city.

As my American eyes drank deeply of these Africans in a Middle Eastern house learning an Eastern art I asked myself, "How are we using the confluential power of the city to expose people to the gospel?" Men, women and children are converging on Dakar and cities across Africa in search of hope and future. As much as we face opposition for our faith, we find ourselves in a city desperate for hope, searching for a future.

As the city grows so our efforts in planting the church must grow. Led by the Holy Spirit we must plant new churches among the existing neighborhoods, like Golf Sud, like Citie Alioune Sow, like Guédiawaye. Led by the Holy Spirit we must anticipate where the city is growing and place our feet squarely on the land. We must plant the church in the days, months and years to come on these streets that are never empty; these streets where men, women and children walk, ride and live.

the uptick of time

One by one people trickled in. Two by two they filled the rows and by the third song, lifted with swells of drums and voices, our small rented space was packed to capacity. Men, women and children pressed together to celebrate our church’s anniversary. The room overflowed to the point where all the children had to go up onto the roof to make room for everyone. Even still, members of our church gave up their seats to guests and sat in our courtyard singing in through the windows.

One year ago our small band of believers were gathered together on the top floor of a hotel. Now, located in the heart of Parcelles Assainies, we are seeing our church building filled to capacity on these celebration days.

Each celebration, every Christmas service and Easter morning, our church grows. Every anniversary and Pentecost our church reaches further into the community. Birthdays and anniversaries, holidays and festivals are important because they help us mark the passage of time.

We so easily lose ourselves in time. The mundane tasks drone from one day to the next. The months and years slip away. If we don’t stop to celebrate victories, great and small, we disillusion ourselves of our purpose and God’s glory. The grandeur of time and space can disjoint us from reality. The contemplation of eternity can give us headaches. Celebrations help us ground the steady uptick of time toward eternity.

This is nothing new. Our Creator, fully aware of our finite limitations, calls us to celebration and worship. In Numbers 28 the Lord lays out for Moses an anchor for the people as the waves of time wash by. Daily offerings rose up to the Lord like a pleasing aroma. A Sabbath day each week was set apart from the rest. Every month ushered in a new opportunity to glory in the presence of God, as the phases of the moon reflected the passage of time. And as each month brought closer a new year, a series of festivals were established to bring the people of God together in worship and celebration.

The new generation of God’s people were standing before Moses. Their numbers were fully counted. They were equipped with the direction to the promised land and how to rightly divide the land (Num. 26). And Joshua, their next leader was standing before them ready to lead the conquest (Num. 27). But chapter 28 isn’t about the next strategy to occupy the land. Chapter 28 isn’t the work of conquest. Chapter 28 is about celebration and worship.

We are preparing the church of Parcelles Assainies for a future that endures the good times and bad, the seasons of struggle and success. We are equipping them with the wisdom to celebrate in all the victories God brings our way, great or small, so that whether in hundreds or in ones, we are redeeming the time as we journey toward eternity (Eph. 5.16).

a third culture church

Daphne’s raised arms caused shades of light to fall across her blonde hair sticking to her tear-filled cheeks. Her lips poured out floods of worship as the Spirit of God washed over her. Her English words of praise mixed with the concert of French exaltations. Her small white face and little hands lifted among a glorious crowd of African brothers and sisters.

I watched as my oldest daughter met with the Spirit of God and the wonder of His presence in a new way. I thought of my own father as he stood in an African pulpit watching his son worshiping at the altar. Like a powerful missionary cycle carried from generation to generation; from missionary to missionary kid and back again.

From generation to generation we long to see Christ glorified, to see His name lifted high in the praises of every tongue and tribe. We long to see every people and every place our soles touch soil transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Dt. 11.24). As a fellowship of missionaries we are creating a third culture as “we are pursuing God together, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for an increasingly redeemed and transformed Africa.”

Our third culture is born where we stand. We stand where heaven touches earth. Where the ladder of Jacob’s dream connected the heavenly presence of God to the hard ground of Earth (Gen. 28). Messengers sent up and down in brilliant light against the dark shades of night. We stand where the cross of Christ stands, rooted in the earth, lifting up the Son of glory. Where God reached down and made the way clear through his death, washed clean in his eternal life. We stand where Jesus ascends to His holy throne and speaks his message to the nations into our hearts.

As missionaries we are concerned about the effects of our obedience on the lives of our children. Because from the hour we land on distant shores our children cease to be monocultural kids. They are now embraced in a multicultural society that transforms their worldview forever. Displaced from their parents culture into the everyday foreignness of their new environments each missionary kid is pressed into creating a third culture, an assimilation of worldviews and reconciliation of cultures.

We are parents raising third culture kids and we are missionaries fostering a third culture church. As a father, watching my oldest daughter meeting the Spirit of God in this special way in this special place is a joyous moment for me because her worldviews and culture are being shaped. A little American girl worshiping with her older African brothers and sisters in Christ. Our family’s vision is to be a personal link from the local church to the unreached and watching our children encountering Christ among African followers of Jesus enlivens us all to carry forward the kingdom of God to those still far from the cross.

Here in Senegal our mission continues to be creating space to grow a movement and with hearts and spirits raised we are planting a third culture church made up of men, women and children, across generations, from across Africa and across the world. We are lifting our arms in praise and our voices in intercession for the nations still lost and peoples still unreached.

Led by the Spirit our third culture church is better prepared to relate to the lost nations, to assimilate worldviews and reconcile cultures. As a third culture church, the arms of American missionaries are linked with African leaders, and we rejoice in the increasingly redeemed and transformed Africa we have already seen. We pursue God together, in the power of the Spirit, into the resistant and unreached nations.

beyond a hammer's limit

The new year always affords us a fresh chance to begin again. January with its cool breezes brings with it an environment of newness. The beginning of a new year dawns like a farmer preparing to his fields for a new season. Even if we’ve led the same plow and team across the same field, the new season invites us in with an occasion to look afresh.

I’ve been reflecting on Abraham Maslow’s famous Law of the Instrument which he stated simply “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail.”

As missionaries we know that our goal is to plant the church of Christ where the church has not been before. Like farmers at the plow lock their eyes on the far-end of the field, as missionaries we set our sights on the far end of history. We turn over the ground, sow the seed of the gospel and steadfastly set our eyes on Jesus, our eternal Lord.

But at times we set out to build the church with a simple hammer/nail mentality. We mistakenly believe that every problem, every challenge, every situation is a nail that must be hammered into submission. But as we mature we begin to recognize some things are not nails to be driven in, but clawed out. And other things are not nails at all! Rocks in a field must be dug out, and some strongholds must be torn down to make way for the kingdom. As powerful as a hammer may be some rocks need pickaxes and some strongholds need backhoes. Hammers have their limits.

Too late, we may find we’ve wasted our lives slowly hammering away at boulders, disregarding with our pounding stubbornness the Lord saying, “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.” (Ps. 127.2a). I am more and more convinced that approaching the great mission of God with our weak little hammers of self does more disservice to the planting of His Church among the unreached and resistant peoples. We desperately need to Holy Spirit to imbue us with power and equip us with gifts and tools for ministry.

Hammers cannot replace apostles and prophets in building the Lord’s house. Hammers cannot do the work of an evangelist, pastor and teacher. Before us is a field ready to be worked, cultivated and bear fruit, but beneath the surface are stills old roots and boulders to be removed.

The work of destroying the boulders may be hard, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, we know that we are not laboring in vain. We can rest assured, as His beloved, we are equipped by His Spirit. We will not be put to shame in the presence of those that oppose us; and even more so, in our hard work He will give us rest.

wide open spaces

I am increasingly convinced that missionaries are modern-day cowboys. It may sound crazy but the more time I spend traveling across the transatlantic planes, chasing the sun around the globe, I’m more and more persuaded.

I’m not talking about the lone ranger types that roam the valleys in search of solitary justice. I’m talking about the men who rode in packs, crews of hardworking, hard-riding men who transversed the length and breadth of America guiding the herds.

Yes, I grew up in a Southern-gospel-country-music family. My ears grew up accustomed to the dulcet tones of Patsy Cline and the Gaither Vocal band. And yes, being from proud Southern Missourah stock I love the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Down the Mississippi and up the Nile I can’t count the times I’ve journeyed around the world (including all those times as a hop-along missionary kid with my mom and dad). But that’s not why I think missionaries are the natural descendants of the old West cowboys.

I believe that missionaries are modern-day cowboys because we long for wide open spaces. We long to name the unnamed.

Its not just the sweet African valleys peppered with acacia trees and Baobabs. Not just the cattle that still roam the fields (and city streets for that matter). Not just the vistas and the views.

The life of a cowboy is one where a man and woman can put their shoulders into the work. It’s where the impossible is possible. Where the desert gives way to the oasis. Where dreams can still be dreamed under the wide open skies.

Isaac the son of Abraham did his own share of cowboy roaming (Gen. 26). He drove his herds to a new valley and settled there. And it seemed like every time Isaac (the Ancient Near Eastern Gary Cooper) tried to put down his roots somebody was pushing him along, eyeing his herd, eyeing his wife, eyeing his wells.

He’d dig a well and people would show up to claim it. So he’d dig another and more folks came round to dispute his claims. So our cowboy pulled up stacks and moved along. He came to a new place, dug a new well and this time no one came, no farmers or Philistines, robber barrens or Amorites.

He called the place Rehoboth. The Lord makes room.

God made room for Isaac. He made room for his kids and his cattle. He provided a wide open space for Isaac to name.


As missionaries, crew-riding cowboys, we pass through difficulties and dangers seeking out the place where the herd can graze and grow. We are looking for the fields that are ripe with fresh grass and clear clean water.

We live in villages and cities, we travel through rainforests and deserts, we speak in a thousand broken tongues so that we might find the places ready to be named. We ride like Paul who found wide open doors in Ephesus to plant the church (1 Cor. 16.9).

As a new year begins Elise and I want to thank you for letting us be a personal link from the local church to the unreached. Thank you for making our obedience possible to find wide open spaces and name the unnamed.

baptized by waves

One foot at a time. One foot in front of the other.

Every missionary loves the great commission. Jesus stood on the mountainside surrounded by His disciples; encircled by the men, women and children who had chosen to walk His path, to follow His voice, to practice His resurrection.

Go.

Make disciples of all nations.

One foot at a time.

I remember my short twelve year-old legs walking into the rolling waves, in a group of new followers of Jesus, alongside my father. Looking toward the shore we saw a great cloud of witnesses standing beneath a canopy of tropic green, celebrating our confession. I stood there shoulder-deep awaiting resurrection.

My life is the product of a missionary who heard the Lord say, "Go and make disciples." Surrounded by the nations, men and women from Guineano tribes, I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

One foot in front of the other.

Our feet carried us to Northeastern Africa. We walked down into the Nile baptizing, and celebrated the public confession that comes through discipleship. We have brothers and sisters in the deserts of closed countries because men and women heard the Lord say, "Go and make disciples." Today we lift our praise together with people who have heard the good news of the Messiah, men and women who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

One foot at a time.

From the heart of Parcelles Assainies, one of the most populous arteries of Dakar, we made our way from the church to the shore. Before a cloud of witnesses, six men and women stood facing toward the crowded buildings along the coast and confessed the Lordship of Christ.

One foot in front of the other.

Our toes slipped into the shifting sand. Our feet, our knees, our waists submerged under the rich blue waves rimmed with white foam. Our bodies rocked by hard waves. Our eyes tight as sun rays pierced through the sky and bounced off the water like crystals.

We walked down into the breaking waves, backs braced and feet set against the surging sheets of water peeling away from the undertow. Half swallowed by the waves we baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the heavy lifting waves we found ourselves sharing in their baptism, soaked with resurrection, filled with rejoicing. We lifted up our brothers and sisters before the watching world as new creations, peace-filled peacemakers, reconciled sons and daughters called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.17-18). We stood there, drenched in resurrection, commissioned ambassadors for Christ.

And now, their new journey begins anew—disciples called to go and make disciples—to the unreached frontiers. One foot in front of the other. One foot at a time.

a window to heaven

Do we ever doubt the power of God?

We've all had those wonderful experiences resting in His presence on a Sunday morning. The music lifts the poetry of our praise to the heavens like incense coolly rising from the ash and embers. We rejoice looking toward the sky. Our eyes might see stage lighting and the soft color of faraway stucco but none of these can distract us from our upward gaze and serene worship.

But what if the ceiling fell out?

I was looking at the drop ceiling in our largest room at the church, the room where we've been gathering on Sunday mornings. The heavy plaster was drooping, pulling at sagging concrete like an impetuous child on a tired mothers arm. We spoke with the landlord and removed the ornate canopy. As relieving as it was to see the heavy blanket above our heads gone it exposed a network of cricks and cracks. We roped off the sanctuary and moved into the smaller room, packing in like sardines in the hottest, most humid time of year.

The landlord promised he would come and make the repairs. Days joined days forming weeks. Nearly a month passed on the promise that he was coming. Every day I looked up at that ceiling nervously; that larger room, enviously; the electrical sockets and fans we'd installed, longingly.

Waiting.

Doubting.

One sweaty Sunday after service a large piece broke free from its rusty rebar prison and smashed with its full force into the tile below. I felt my heart sink and shatter like the bludgeoned ceramic tile.

And then something miraculous happened! The building owner flew into action. He rushed to the church with a crew of workmen with new support beams and hardhats, who immediately began tearing away the dilapidated roof.

Looking up from our sanctuary and seeing blue sky was worshipful. That sagging ceiling had hung heavily around my shoulders, worrying me about what might happen if a piece rained down during worship; questioning, even after we'd roped off the area if a child might wander in under the precarious roofing. In a small, almost excusable way, I had begun to doubt. A snowball effect of more unlikely events that exposed the cracks in my own belief. As if the building were falling down around us my heart began to question if we would ever see revival.

And then the ceiling fell out.

Something that should have sunk my emotions deeper opened up the heavens, like an open window exposing the limitless power of God. I stood there looking through the open ceiling of our church with all my doubt laid bare. I'd felt like the people of Israel returned home from exile to a kingdom with no king, a promised land with barren vines. They sat in their homes doubting the power of God and started robbing the Lord of their tithe, their worship, their trust.

And then the word of God broke through the ceiling of the heavens. Through His prophet Malachi He threw down a concrete declaration challenging their doubt, challenging their faith. He called His people to bring in their tithe and offering, to step out in faith and believe.

And God still challenges us today. He calls to believe, to trust, to hope. Even now Jesus is creating windows through peeling plaster and bending rebar to pour down His blessings, His promises, revival. We rejoice in the broken, even as we rejoice in the rebuilding. We rejoice as we wait for the floodgates to burst through and the Lord pours out revival.