COVID-19

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It’s been a full and rewarding month of ministry. We started things off by participating in the virtual Missionary Training program, where two new missionary units destined for Mexico joined the dozens readying themselves for global ministry. Later, we took part in our LAC Leadership Meetings, where we discussed initiatives to encourage resilience in our missionaries during these difficult times. We also had the chance to encourage some itinerating missionaries headed to Mexico City (see photo) and finished off the month advocating for Mexico and missions at Northland Cathedral in Kansas City, MO. However, one of our more surprising activities was a guest question and response session with students from Instituto Bíblico Bethel in Merida.

Encouraging and having fun with missionaries, Crag and Natalia Baumtrog and their kiddos!

When I (Dave) received the message from Fernando Diaz, pastor and Bible School administrator, I had feared the worst. The coronavirus pandemic has entered a third wave in the state of Yucatan, and I was concerned that he was reaching out with bad news. Instead, I was pleased to learn that it was an invitation to share with his church planting class.

I logged on, not knowing what to expect. Bethel had been meeting virtually for over a year. I had wondered what the dynamic might be after so much time online. Would Zoom fatigue have taken its toll?

The class was a lively one. Following a brief introduction and recap of our experiences stimulating church planting with the district evangelism department, we launched into our time of questions. There were many, and they were varied, and extremely practical—”When should I move from Bible studies to weekly services? Which workers from my home church should I invite to accompany me in the church plant, how should we divide the responsibilities?” In our conversation, I found that the students were actively involved in starting new works, deftly navigating restrictions placed on them because of the pandemic, while reaching out to share the gospel message to friends, relatives, and neighbors. Needless to say, I left our session extremely encouraged. Despite the pandemic, the church is growing in Yucatan!

Still, the price to be paid to the pandemic has been costly. Nationwide, the church in Mexico has lost 270 pastors to COVID-19. In addition, Tomás Vera, the minister who succeeded me as the leader of the evangelism department has been diagnosed with cancer and is very ill. Won’t you join us in praying for their health and strength even as they work to extend the reach of the gospel?

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We are on our way back! After a year of quarantines and travel bans that have kept us socially and physically distant from the nation and people of our calling, we can finally trace our organizational and personal route of return.  It’s happening in five steps.

Bonus: this month we joined missionary to Honduras, Jessie Harshbarger, and her dog, Zoee, in the Central Kids’ Missionary Spotlight.

1. The release of stateside missionaries. Since March of 2020, while almost half of our Mexico missionary force has been stateside, only two missionary families have been released to the field. Finally, we are in a position to see others return! We’re happy to report that four families are on their way back, traveling this summer to Chihuahua, Chiapas, and Mexico City. Another couple will finish language school in July and make their way to Oaxaca! We’re so glad to see these families return at such a critical time.

2. Missionary Training. At the same time that missionaries are returning to the field, we will be involved in the training of two new missionary units making plans to serve in Mexico. They will join with the dozens who have answered the call during the pandemic to take the gospel message around the world. This two-week period of training will help them deepen their understanding of the critical competencies that will guide and support their future work on the field.

3. General Council. Following Missionary Training, we’ll be headed to our last opportunity for advocacy in the US at the in-person Assemblies of God (A/G) General Council. At this national event, we’ll be working with others from our region at our Latin America Caribbean booth to connect with interested individuals and encourage participants to engage in missions at all levels.

4. Missionary Retreat. Hard on the heels of that event, we’ll be traveling to the Mexico Missionary Fellowship Retreat. This will be the first such physical gathering of missionaries in Mexico since 2017! We’re looking forward to meeting together to hear from each other, our US and Mexican leadership, and from God.

5. Relocation. Finally, in September, we make our own trip to Mexico City as we fly the nest (our three MKs stay in the US) to live and minister in this megacity of 21 million, which serves as the home of the    A/G of Mexico. 

We appreciate your prayers as we navigate this active summer! 

Note: this post is just a portion of what we share in our quarterly newsletter. If you’d like more information from the Godzwas or would like to print this update, take a look at the full PDF version of our quarterly newsletter or, better still, sign up to receive our newsletters direct to your inbox!

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March marks one year since the coronavirus swept through the United States and changed our lives forever. In times of crises like the last 12 months, it seems as though all we can do is worry. But then we read the words of Philippians 4:6:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 

We have not been unaffected by this tragedy, but as we have increasingly turned to prayer, we have found that God is the one providing for and protecting his people.

As we watched the virus spread through Latin America and into Mexico, our thoughts went immediately to our friends in the Yucatan. The churches planted during our last term, especially in the extreme south of the state, were extremely fragile and isolated. Their people are poor, largely dependent on what they can produce with their hands or grow in their fields. As the pandemic took hold and the economy came to a standstill, we wondered how they would survive. Then, when five named tropical storms passed over the peninsula, we feared the worst. 

In Blanca Flor, the floodwaters destroyed crops but they also brought fish!

The damage was considerable. In Blanca Flor, where our students Lily Dzul and Kary Yam began their work, floodwaters had not only cut off their access to the village, they had totally washed away their crop. Still, even though they faced the worst they prayed for the best, and God answered! 

While the floodwaters had destroyed the corn in the fields, they brought fish with them. So, instead of harvesting a crop, they fished for their food! Meanwhile, Lily and Kary were able to overcome their lack of access to the congregation by recording their messages and sending them via social media. Those with cell phones gathered with others to share their messages of hope and encouragement. Despite the storms and the isolation, God had provided! Despite the threats to the church, God had protected his people! 

Yes, the past year has been disastrous in many aspects, and we continue to ask God for mercy on those who struggle with COVID-19 and its after-effects. Still, although we may be tempted to wring our hands in worry, we are reminded time and again that it is far more productive to fold our hands in prayer. He is the one who is providing and he is the one who is protecting his people.

 

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While there are a number of reasons that I’m sure we’d all just like to forget 2020, as we’ve had some time to reflect on the past year, we can certainly say up to this point the Lord has helped us. So, we felt that it was important, with this final newsletter of the year, to raise our “Ebenezer.”

2020 brought with it completion. This summer marked the end of our itineration cycle, which began in June of 2019. Although our agenda was altered by the virus, we met our financial goals on time thanks to the response of so many wonderful friends both old and new. With the conclusion of our itineration, we also complete our 13-year span of ministry on the Yucatan Peninsula. Come 2021, our return to Mexico as Area Directors will expand our previously regional vision to a national one and move our base of operations from Merida to Mexico City.

2020 brought with it a new sense of community. True, the coronavirus has kept us physically apart, but as need caused us to increase our communication with our Mexico Missionary Fellowship, a sense of community naturally followed. Our monthly Zoom meetings now bring opportunities for encouragement, fellowship, and prayer, and our social media groups provide instant contact with our colleagues in times when intercession or celebration is in order.

2020 brought with it acts of compassion. There is no question that the current year has been one of Mexico’s most difficult in recent memory. Not only has it had to deal with the pandemic, but it also faced the devastation of five named tropical storms. Thankfully, the missionary body and our ministry partners were willing to rise to the challenge. In April, our missionary fellowship was able to sponsor 200 pastors to help Mexico “flatten the curve.” Later, we were able to give generously to help those hospitalized due to COVID-19 and those who, unfortunately, lost loved ones because of the virus. When the storms came, we were able to partner with Convoy of Hope to bring relief to those affected and with the AGWM Recovery Fund to help repair damage in 13 churches throughout Mexico’s southeast.

2020 brought with it renewed confidence. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 2020 has taught us that our hope lies not in human effort, but in the Lord’s ability. Never have we been so aware of our dependence on Him and our gratefulness for your continued prayers. Thank you for your faithfulness in 2020!

By the way, this post is just a portion of what we share in our quarterly newsletter. If you’d like more information from the Godzwas or would like to print this update, take a look at the full PDF version of our quarterly newsletter or, better still, sign up to receive our newsletters direct to your inbox!

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Follow Me!

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” … Then he said to him, “Follow me!” —John 21:18-19

Prior to our quarantine, our regional leadership team met in-person for the first time in over a year. It was a much-needed gathering of prayer and planning. 

I’m writing this update from our second quarantine cycle, this time because of a positive test for the coronavirus within our household. Jonathan, our youngest, was complaining of some symptoms on Monday morning. We had thought then that it was just a 24-hour bug, but, when the results came back, he was positive for COVID-19. Because of the result, we’ll be housebound until the 16th.

This return to confinement is frustrating. Kelly and I hadn’t been infected last month at our first in-person leadership meetings in a year (photo). We hadn’t become ill as a result of any of our missions services. It was our high schooler, attending classes only two days a week, sitting at a six-foot distance and masked that was sickened and, for that reason, we’re back where we were in March, watching our plans being altered against our will.

After such a frustration it’s easy to call “foul,” to look at others’ situations and complain that it’s not fair. That’s precisely where this month’s scripture comes in. Here, in John 21, Jesus reveals to Peter the fact that he will suffer and die as Jesus did. Peter’s immediate response to Jesus was to compare. He looked to John and asked, “What about him?”, but Jesus dismissed the question. His command was not to seek out the best circumstances—it was, rather, “Follow me!”

As this pandemic began we reassured ourselves that we were in this together, but as this crisis has persisted, we’ve seen how divided we are. We’ve observed how some have had their fortunes increase while others, like our friends in Mexico’s southeast, have dealt not only with disease but also disaster as four named storms have struck the Yucatan Peninsula. Is it frustrating? Yes. Could we say it’s unfair? Yes. Nevertheless, the command to all of us, rich or poor, US or Mexican, remains the same, “Follow me.”

And so we follow, loving God and others, although we’re housebound. We respond with compassion, coordinating relief and reconstruction efforts, although we must do it remotely. At the same time, we thank you for your participation and we encourage you, despite your situation, to hear and respond to Jesus’s command, “Follow me!”

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Mexico City stretches on as far as the eye can see. To reach it, we’ll need the Spirit’s strategy.

As we shared in our previous prayer update, there has been a growing hunger in our lives to see God’s kingdom break through in power in Mexico and beyond. Still, in the face of the pandemic and the tremendous need (see photo) there is an acute awareness of our inability to satisfy this hunger through human means. It’s for that reason that we are excited to join with missionaries around the world, from a variety of organizations, for the united goal of taking “40 Days to Listen” for the strategy of the Spirit. We recognize that Missions is God’s heart. Therefore, we take this time to intentionally focus on Him, allowing Him to direct us to accomplish his purposes.

During these 40 days, starting August 24th and extending through October 2nd, we’ll be working to align ourselves with the Holy Spirit. We’re laying aside the regular routine and rhythm of life and ministry so that we can pick up the practices or disciplines that will give Him a dedicated space to speak to us individually and corporately.

The cornerstone of our practice is the dedication of extravagant amounts of time. Our missionary fellowship leadership team has committed to tithe our waking hours, giving God 1 hour and 36 minutes, even though He owns it all, to pray and listen, read and memorize His Word, and intercede for the salvation of 10% of the yet unreached people of Mexico. We will be focused on the gospel of John, reading it through twice with a challenge to memorize Chapter 17, Jesus’ High Priestly prayer. For devotional reading, we’re using Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship.

To allow for this shift, we’re drastically reducing our use of media, limiting our time on social networks and eliminating entirely other forms of entertainment. When it comes to food, we have decided to forego sugar and everything processed for the 40 days and go without for a 24 hour period each week, finding our satisfaction increasingly in Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Do you long to see God’s kingdom come? Do you long to hear the Spirit’s voice? We invite you to join us in any or all of these practices. We’ve created a calendar to guide your reading and prayer emphasis. Download a copy and be a part of these “40 Days to Listen.”

Thanks for joining us during this special time. If you’d like more information from the Godzwas or would like to print this update, take a look at the full PDF version of our quarterly newsletter.

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Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 

—Hebrews 4:1

As the sun sets on our short-term expectations,
let’s fix our hope on the future being worked out in and through us.

In recent days I’ve been questioning my future hopes. As the pandemic took hold, I experienced an intense longing to get back to the life that I had known. Quarantine living brought with it an endless list of things that I’d given up to flatten the curve that someday soon I’d be able to enjoy again. I looked to the “new normal” as a finish line that, in just a little while, I’d be able to reach.

But as this crisis worsened, exacerbated by many of the conditions that had existed pre-COVID-19, I began to realize that the life that we knew was no paradise; it was at best a life “in-between” and there was yet a work to be done, not only in the world but also in me.

Such was the situation of the original recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. Facing increasing persecution, they were tempted to abandon their commitment to Christ. Therefore, the author takes them on a journey through their history and ritual, encouraging them to persevere in the faith that was not only transforming them but also the world around them. 

He encourages them not to wax nostalgic for the “good old days” of Moses or Joshua but to look toward the kingdom that cannot be shaken and the cessation of their striving that is God’s promised Sabbath-rest. He exhorts them to do so by remaining sensitive and obedient to the word of God, alive and active.

That same word is alive and active in our day. As a real crisis tested the Israelites in the desert, so this pandemic has revealed our American situation. It has highlighted our connectedness even when we’d hoped to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. It has emphasized our vulnerability even as we’d once considered ourselves impervious, and it has displayed our inability even as we imagined ourselves the most capable. 

But our response, as the Hebrews’, must not be to shrink back but to lean in to the uncomfortable, exposing work of the word of God. We accept its findings as it reveals our faults, acknowledging them and repenting of them. We hold firm as well as it strips away our false hopes, placing our sights not on the “new normal” but on the new creation that awaits those who persevere. And, in the meantime, wherever we find ourselves, we do God’s will, praying that in all things he might be glorified.

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Growing up in catholic schools, we frequently sang, “Channel of Your Peace,” a hymn taken from the poem, “The Prayer of Saint Francis.” One of the verses reads:

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness, ever joy

Of course, I had no idea how that prayer would become a reality some 32 years later, but I am humbled to see how the Lord is using me and my family to bring hope in despair, shine as a light in the darkness, and serve as a source of joy in sadness.

And in Mexico, there has been much sadness. Because of the slowness of the response and the impossibility for many to shelter in place, the country struggles to contain the virus. Add to this Tropical Storm Cristobal, which has left much of southeastern Mexico, including the state of Yucatan, underwater.

It is in times like these that we are thankful to be a part of the strong networks that exist within the Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) organization. Even as the crisis in Mexico deepened, our missionary fellowship partnered with the national church to sponsor over 1000 of the neediest pastors within the fellowship and joined fellow missionaries, Paul and Sandy Kazim, in their effort to provide personal protective equipment for some of those on the front lines of Mexico’s COVID-19 response.

Since that initial effort, we’ve sent emergency aid to district officials who were gathering relief supplies for flood victims. We’ve continued our conversations with those who are responding to Network 211’s online gospel presentations throughout Mexico. And we’ve coordinated the prayer response within our missionary fellowship, ensuring that our co-laborers have the support they need to sustain the effort.

Still, we are aware, now more than ever, of the need to do more to reach the lost of Mexico. That is why we’re excited to serve as facilitators in this year’s Missionary Training where two additional missionary units will be joining us to prepare for their service in Mexico and to add their effort to the work.

A channel of peace—the fourteen-year-old boy who sang those words had no idea what they truly meant. Now, this 46-year-old man is beginning to comprehend. It’s hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, and joy in the midst of sadness. Thanks for your prayers and support that helps us to be just that in Mexico.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you’d like more information from the Godzwas this month or would like to print this update, take a look at the full PDF version of our quarterly newsletter.

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We’re all healthy, even the dog!

From church to school to check-ins with the office, everything has gone “virtual.” Screens, which had dominated our lives prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, are now taking up every waking minute and often putting us to bed at night. As we immerse ourselves further into this digital world, we find ourselves longing for “real” experiences. We’re anxious for the day that we’ll be able to break out of quarantine and get back to living.

Still, although we’re not asking for these stay-at-home orders to be extended, our family has found that gratitude for what we can enjoy in the meantime has helped ease the sting of our restricted lifestyle.  So we thought we’d share with you some of our real reasons for thanksgiving in this increasingly virtual world in which we’re living.

First of all, we’re healthy! Yes, although we’d been potentially exposed to the coronavirus, none of us have exhibited symptoms. Instead, we’ve been able to enjoy some special moments, like Dave’s 46th birthday and a trip to a local park. And, although she had to undergo oral surgery, our dog, Kaixin, is doing fine as well. 

Second, our 24 missionaries in Mexico are OK! One of our more pressing concerns has been the missionary body in Mexico, especially as the situation has worsened. We’re happy to report, however, that they are well and, although some have had to make moves because of the virus, they are continuing to engage in ministry as their situation permits. BTW, Greg Mundis and Thomas Carpenter, mentioned in our previous newsletter, have made miraculous comebacks!

Last, but certainly not least, your generosity is paying dividends! Through your support, we’ve been able to participate in a program that is giving assistance to 1,150 pastors throughout Mexico as services are suspended and businesses are closed. We’ve also been able to participate with missionaries Paul and Sandy Kazim as they provide funds for personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals. These doctors and nurses, who had worked with them in outreaches, are suddenly on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.  These PPEs are helping them stay focused on meeting the need. 

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On the Road to Emmaus

Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him… Luke 24:31

This verse marks Jesus’ climactic revelation in the story of the Walk to Emmaus. This story strikes a chord with me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s odd; the resurrected Jesus walks along with his former disciples and they don’t even recognize him. Second, it speaks to our moment, this period between Easter and Pentecost, as well as the current situation we’re facing.

As it opens, the disciples are expressing their regrets. Their hopes are dashed. Their lives had been turned upside down overnight. As they walked along, they were struggling to pick up the pieces, trying to make sense of their experience and move on. The amazing thing is that they were expressing their disappointment to the one who had already accomplished what their wildest imagination couldn’t begin to comprehend.

They were dealing with death:

  • The death of their political messiah. Jesus had been on their side, and, just the week before, he had been riding into Jerusalem. All that was left, they thought, was to determine who would sit on his right and left.
  • The death of their professional status. As Jesus’ disciples, they had access to resources: funds, houses, front row seats to all of the exclusive events. The shameful death of their leader had turned the tables on them. They were now the accomplices of a condemned criminal. There was only one sensible thing to do: get out of town.
  • The death of their personal savior. When Jesus was with them, he was calming the storms, healing their sick relatives, and providing their food. Now, it seems, they would have to fend for themselves.

The cross had killed their messiah. The amazing thing was, he was standing right in front of them, and they didn’t even recognize him! We ask ourselves how could they have been so blind? Yet perhaps this moment shows us to be more like them than we’ve realized. 

As I reflect on Jesus’ activity during this Coronavirus pandemic, I can’t help but think of a scene from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In that particular scene, Indy saves his father who had been held prisoner inside a tank. Just as he succeeds in getting his dad off the tank and fighting off his attackers, the tank goes over the cliff. As it crashes on the rocks below, we wait with bated breath, thinking that he’s gone over with it. At that point, Indy’s father and their friends gather at the edge of the cliff, straining to see a glimpse of his dead body among the wreckage. We think he’s been killed. But, just as his father stands to eulogize him, the camera pans out and Indy appears, standing there looking at the same wreckage.

We’ve been asking, “where is God in all of this?” wondering if we’ll see him tangled amidst the disaster that is the Coronavirus. We stand, looking out over the wreckage, only to conclude that the Coronavirus has killed our messiah.

  • It’s killed our personal savior, the one who we thought was at our beck and call.
  • It’s taken away our ticket to professional status, the one who made us look good when he “showed up” at our events and worked on our behalf.
  • It’s overthrown our political messiah, the one that supported our American exceptionalism and partisanship.

Or at least it’s killed what we thought was our messiah. In reality, he’s here standing before us.

There’s a song that our MKs know fairly well: ‘Little white box”

“If I had a little white box
to put my Jesus in,
I’d take him out and kiss his face
and put him back again.”

While I understand the intention of the song, I’m not a fan. Whenever I hear it I ask myself, “what kind of Jesus is this one that we can put in a box?”

  • He’s one that’s decidedly small, one that’s our very own, personal, even miniaturized to meet our needs.
  • He’s one that acts the way we expect.
  • He’s one that we can take out and put away when we decide.

Perhaps that Jesus is similar to the messiah that the disciples had created: one after their own image, one they expected to save Israel. It should be no wonder, then, that they failed to recognize the risen Lord. It should be no wonder, then, that we too may find ourselves looking for our Lord when he is standing right here with us.

And so, there on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains the necessity of the cross to his disciples:

  • It was necessary to remove our sin and our shame from us.
  • It was necessary to restore our relationship as a corrupted people with a holy God
  • But it was also necessary to destroy the misconceptions both past and present of a God limited by race, nationality, political persuasion, professional aspiration, or personal expectation.
  • As they said of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion.”

Yet that same Jesus arose. He stands now before us. And as he reveals himself to us anew, we are left asking, who is this one that now greets us on the way? How do we recognize him?

  • He’s still our personal savior, but instead of working for us, we find he’s working through us.
  • He’s still granting us professional status, but instead of leaning on him to prop up our self-esteem, we find he’s redefining our purpose.
  • He’s still our political messiah, but instead of believing that he’s on our side, we set aside our prejudices to work with him in his program to redeem the world.

Instead of trying to bend his ear to agree to our plans, we bow our knee to submit to his command.

In this Eastertide 2020, we walk with the disciples, identifying with their sense of loss, but my prayer is that we too might discover their wonder as we see Jesus truly risen, having conquered death and the grave and perhaps even our preconceived notions of who he was to us before this Coronavirus pandemic. I believe that, if we seek him, we’ll find him, like they did, to be far more powerful and far more capable than we’d ever imagined him to be.

These words are simply a devotional. There isn’t a lot of opportunity in this type of media to develop some of the ideas that I’ve brought up, but I welcome your questions or comments in the upcoming days and weeks. Maybe we can pursue some of these arguments to their logical conclusion or perhaps discover some new ones.

Still, I know, I’ve besmirched what some might consider a beloved song of their youth, and far be it from me to leave you without a proper replacement.

Here’s one I’ve heard, some 25 years ago. If I remember the title correctly it’s called “God in a Box.”:

“You can have a big box,
you can have a small box,
but if your god is in a box,
your god is very small.
You can have a plain box,
you can have a fancy box,
but if your god is in a box,
he isn’t God at all
he isn’t God at all.

Photo Credit: Neil Alexander McKee on Flickr.com

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