Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ibarra and What We Learned There

     A couple weekends ago, we had the opportunity to visit Ibarra, Ecuador. The Extreme Team in Ibarra is a little over halfway through their two year assignment. We got to observe and help them with their normal and extra activities to learn what our jobs will be like in the future. There were extra activities this particular weekend because it was the first anniversary of their church, The Open Door Church of the Nazarene. Before we got there, the team had already held several evangelistic events throughout the week. We helped with a special children's event and a youth event.

We sang many silly songs about Jesus. I think this one involved an elephant.
     In the morning, we hiked a ways from the church to a neighborhood with a preschool the missionaries had rented for the children's event. It was a small building with a kitchen, a classroom, and a bathroom. The outside space had a playground and a large cement area. We split up into teams to prepare the game materials, bag the snacks, and promote the event. Kensley, Damaris, and I were assigned to a promotion team with two missionaries from the Ibarra team. We walked up and down hills through the neighborhood avoiding dogs and knocking on anything that resembled a door. We talked with those who opened their doors and shouted with those who opened their windows inviting all to come to the preschool. We couldn't help but giggle at how absurd (and a little creepy) this would be in the states. Every person we invited smiled broadly and spoke enthusiastically about sending their children to a public space with complete strangers for the morning. The event itself went very smoothly and all the kids enjoyed themselves. My favorite part was watching the missionaries present the gospel and surround the children with prayer. They prayed over their hearts, their futures, and their families, making it very clear that God not only loved them, but wanted to comfort them and give them His purpose for their lives. My other favorite part was seeing a couple of the neighborhood kids at church the next day.

Missionaries and children praying together
     In the afternoon, we went to a nursing home with the youth group. The guys broke off to play card games with the men, and we went to a different section to paint nails and chat with the women. I sat with one lady for a long time while she told me part of her life story. It started in Quito and ended in Ibarra and there was something about her son and selling meat, but the rest was a bunch of Spanish words mumbled barely above a whisper. I nodded and mirrored her emotions to the best of my ability, praying I wouldn't offend her in the process. After she finished, I excused myself to go talk with someone else. Krista then informed me that I had been sitting where another lady had had an accident right before I walked in. On average, I spent the entire day with small children and old ladies and I only sat in pee once, so I'll have to be content with that. Abi, one of the missionaries, was trying to talk with a woman in a wheelchair for a long time. The woman didn't seem too affected by the presence of visitors. When I walked by later, I saw the two embracing. The woman was crying and seemed to be trying to pull the young missionary into her. Abi told us later that she had finally tired of trying to engage the woman and had said a simple "God loves you" before standing up to leave. The woman had instantly burst into tears. It was a powerful reminder to us all of the need for God's love and the need to speak His love into each others' lives.

     Extreme churches run on small groups called houses of prayer. Damaris, Rachel, and I got to go to one of Abi and Michaela's houses of prayer. These missionary partners are now attending the group as one of their disciples has taken over the leadership. Her name is Cecile. She is the oldest of four sisters. When Abi and Michaela first met Cecile's family, both parents and all three younger sisters were excited to devote their lives to Christ and begin learning more about the Bible. Cecile was the only hold out. She really wanted nothing to do with God and avoided the whole thing as much as she could. Months went by as Abi, Michaela, and the whole family continued to pray for Cecile. Slowly, her heart began to soften, and her attitude changed. She went to a couple events and then a couple services. Finally, Cecile surrendered her life to God. Now all six members of the family are strong leaders in the church. After telling us her story, Cecile begged us to have patience with the people of Cordoba. "Persevere! Please persevere! You will meet people like me. Don't give up on them! If Michaela and Abi had given up on me, I wouldn't be here. I never would have changed. Please have perseverance and patience. It will be worth it." We expected to learn from the missionaries in Ibarra. We never thought we would be so encouraged by a new Christian in Ecuador with such a heart for the lost in Argentina. We intend to follow her advice and make her proud. 

     The Sunday morning service was standing room only. The missionaries in charge of each ministry shared their goals for the future and introduced the local leaders who were in the process of taking over the ministry from the missionaries. I can't wait to hear what happens in this church during the next ten months that the missionaries are stationed there and what amazing things the local leadership will continue to do after they leave. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Teleferico; How I climbed a mountain

Last Friday, I started to climb a mountain with seven other people. Four of us made it to the top. As you can probably imagine, I was not the most physically fit of the bunch, but I climbed every last foot of that mountain. How? I had practiced and prepared, yes, but I had another, more powerful asset; Brian Johnson.

One of my best claims to fame is that Brian Johnson is technically my godfather. What I mean is, since I was sixteen, Brian and Dena have agreed to care for my brothers and me if my parents died. This has always been a morbidly exciting prospect for my brothers and me because Brian and Dena are awesome. If you asked any of us who we want to be when we grow up, the answer would be more or less Brian Johnson. To be fair, we were very lucky to grow up with many amazing role models in our church family in Lewiston. However, on the list of who the Thomas children think is cool, Brian has always been the top.

I found out recently that Brian and I committed our lives to God in the same year. I was thirteen and just figuring out what a personal relationship with God was like for the first time. He was thirty and recommitting his life to God with a fervor I don't think even he realized then. It was around this time that our families and three or four other families in our church started a favorite tradition of going to McCall for New Years. My mom started teaching, and Dena took care of Max after kindergarten. Skiing trips, volleyball games, bunco nights. All in all, the Johnsons were just another great family in our church, until Brian and I went on our first international mission trip to Madagascar.

At that point, we had both been journeying with Christ for four years. We had grown a lot, but it is amazing to look back and see how much we have changed since then. At the time, we shared a love for card games and quiet working space. This led to us taking it upon ourselves to trim out every room with paint before the rest of the work crew came in. I don't think we had any particularly important conversations, but we built a friendship on hours of careful work on precarious scaffolds and playing poker with salt water taffy. (you may already know this, but I have learned since then that most pastor's kids learn how to play poker on missions trips)

Since then, I have moved out of town for college and a teaching career. Whenever I went home to visit or Brian and Dena brought Ashley to Nampa to see NNU, they have been some of the few who have consistently treated me like a friend. Not their kid's friend, or their friend's kid, but their friend. Many changes have occurred in our church and in our separate families, but our friendship has always been constant. They are both an incredible model of Godly joy through struggle, honest compassion for people, and passionate zeal for living life.

About a year and a half ago, Dena went to our church's general assembly as a missions delegate and learned about Extreme Nazarene for the first time. She fell in love with it, as we all do. When she returned home, she told Brian and my parents it was something I should consider doing. I blew it off because God didn't want me in missions anymore.

My mom and me with Brian and Dena on the right and
Jeff and Susan Weiner on the left somewhere in the Caribbean on our cruise
Last March, I met Brian Tibbs for the first time and learned all about Extreme Nazarene.
In April, my family, the Johnsons, and two other families went on a cruise to celebrate our graduating seniors; my youngest brother and their oldest daughter. We reminisced about Madagascar and talked again about what a great organization Extreme Nazarene is.
In May, God turned everything upside down by letting me in on His little plan for me to actually join Extreme Nazarene as a full time missionary.

In June, I visited Lewiston for Max's high school graduation. It was my first time home since applying for Extreme Nazarene. We had his graduation party on my 26th birthday. I got to talk with Brian for what would be the last time. I told him that if I was approved for Extreme most of my training would be in Quito, Ecuador. He had been to Quito five years earlier for a missions trip, and loved it. He said his favorite part of Quito was this thing outside of town that had a sort of theme park at the bottom and carried you up a huge mountain on a thing, he couldn't remember the word, like a ski lift. At the top, you can see all of Quito, and it's amazing.

In July, I was approved as a 40/40 missionary with Extreme Nazarene and quit my teaching job.
In August, I got the text that silences the world and brings us all to our knees-There's been a car accident. Call me as soon as you can.

Dena, Ashley, Amber, and Alicia lost their best friend, husband, and dad. The rest of us lost an incredible friend and role model.

When the numbing grief finally started to allow other thoughts in, I remembered that last conversation. For months, I asked anyone who might know about the ski lift/roller coaster in Quito. I got a lot of blank looks until I finally met with someone who went on that same missions trip with Brian. They told me all about Teleferico and showed me pictures of Brian at the top of the tram. They had hiked around a little but were not acclimated to the altitude enough to actually climb the mountain. This was the first I had heard about a mountain. I knew, as you do, that Brian would have loved to climb that mountain and, if it were at all possible, I was going to climb it.

When I first got here, our trip to Teleferico was planned for April, giving me three months to prepare. Four weeks ago, we moved the trip up. I ran and walked up the steep hill on campus almost every day, desperately trying to strengthen my legs and lungs for the four hour hike from an elevation of 13,500 feet to an elevation of 15,400 feet (essentially hiking without oxygen). My constant prayer was, "I know this won't bring Brian back or make me feel better, but if Brian were here, this is what he would be doing. Please, God, bless my efforts." Nothing could have fully prepared us for what we faced on Friday, but at every incline I felt my muscles performing better than they ever could have a month ago. We wanted to turn back at every step, but we walked and climbed and walked and climbed until we had no where else to walk or climb.

I didn't think climbing the mountain would have any effect on how I felt about Brian, but it did. Being able to see sights he saw and physically do something he would have loved to do brought some unexpected peace. I have also learned a great deal about ambition and perseverance. When I started training, I figured there was no way I would ever actually be ready to climb a mountain. It would have to be done in faith. With that knowledge, I tried to do something in my daily workout in faith. Everyday I went farther, faster, or longer than the day before. Everyday I pushed my limit a little bit further, never knowing if I could go a little bit further, and everyday I could. And then I climbed a mountain. I can't wait to see what God does through us in Cordoba when he pushes us farther than we think we can go day after day for two years.

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.   Phillipians 4:13

Every time I exercise, including part of our mountain climb, I listen to Tenth Avenue North. I always look forward to this song, especially the lyric "Heaven sounds like we're finally breathing" while I'm gasping for breath.

From our darkest alleys
To our stained glass walls
However high we climb
No matter how many times we fall
From our greatest trials
To our deepest defeats
There is a song forever being sung by the redeemed
We can lift our voices
The strong, the weak, come on

We will cry, fill the sky with the melody
‘Til our chorus shakes the ground
We are known, we are loved for all eternity
Let this breath join Heaven’s sound

In our secret addictions
Let mercy flood in
And out of forgiveness
The power to break the chains begins
In our driest wheat fields
Let the brush fires burn
And out of the ashes
Beauty of love and life returns
So let us lift our voices
The strong, the weak, come on

Heaven sounds like we’re finally breathing
Heaven sounds like the guilty made clean
Heaven sounds like the rolling of thunder
Heaven sounds like prisoners free
Heaven sounds, Heaven sounds