Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back From Cape Town

I realize that I sort of fell off the map this week, but I assure you that I'm still alive and well! This past week was spent driving over 3000 miles around South Africa with two other J-Life staff members, meeting with pastors about how J-Life might be able to partner with and help their churches establish healthy disciple-making youth ministries. We traveled from Mpumalanga (the province in the northeast where I currently live) all the way across the Karoo down to Cape Town, a beautiful city that lies in the mountains along the coast in the Western Cape of South Africa. We spent most of the week staying with friends in Cape Town in a township called Ocean View. We then traveled the Garden Route along the coast to a town called Plett, in the Eastern Cape. Finally, yesterday we drove for about 16 hours right up the center of the country back to our farm in Mpumalanga. In ten months, I have now been to all 9 South African provinces! It goes without saying that I'm super tired now, but it was a really great trip, as we were able to make several positive contacts with churches along the way.

No time to rest, though, as tomorrow morning I'm running my very first marathon! I'm not exactly in the best shape right now as I haven't been able to train much in recent months, but I'm gonna give it my best shot. More on that soon!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Top 25 Places: #s 5-1

#5. Ecuador
June 2002
The summer before my senior year of high school, I took my first overseas mission trip, to Ecuador. This trip proved to be a major turning point in my life, as it was on that trip that I first felt God's calling to ministry and my eyes were opened to missions. As far as I can remember, it was also on this trip that I preached the gospel for the first time in my life.

#4. Jamaica
April 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001
My family was pretty darn spoiled growing up, as one of our favorite vacation spots was the Caribbean island, Jamaica. For me, Jamaica is synonymous with beautiful beaches, awesome food, super friendly people, and lots of great family memories!

#3. Chicago
Several times a year.
Ever since I was a kid, Chicago has been my favorite city in the world. After now having traveled all around the world, it continues to hold that title. Chicago is a beautiful city, home to all of my favorite professional sports teams (Bulls, Bears, White Sox, Blackhawks), as well as the best pizza in the world, Giordano's. I find any excuse I can to make it up to Chicago several times a year.

#2. Florida
About a dozen times growing up.
Another favorite family vacation spot growing up was Florida. These vacations included multiple trips to Disney World, staying at beach resorts in places like Sarasota and Panama City, and visiting my grandparents in Sebring and Avon Park.

#1. Home Sweet Home!
Birth-Present Day
The more I am away from home, the more I realize what an awesome place it really is to live. There's nothing like being close to family and friends. Home-cooked meals every Sunday with the family are nothing to be taken for granted. Several friends of mine from South Africa are interested in visiting the States someday, and I often get asked about the best places to visit in the U.S. Somehow, Indiana never quite makes the list of exciting places that I would suggest for other people to visit, but yet it's my home and I love it!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Top 25 Places: #s 10-6

#10. Beijing, China
September-December 2006
I spent the first semester of my senior year of college studying abroad in China, where I lived in the capital city of Beijing. Beijing is one of the biggest cities in the world and home to thousands of years of history. A few of the more famous sites to see in Beijing are Tiananmen Square, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, among many others. A piece of my heart will always be in China, and I would love to go back to Beijing someday!

#9. St. Thomas/St. John, US Virgin Islands
May/June 2006
For my parents' 3oth wedding anniversary, our whole family spent a week vacationing in the US Virgin Islands. We stayed at a resort on the island of St. John, one of the most amazing places I have ever seen and home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I wish my parents had 30th anniversaries more often!

#8. La Republica Dominicana
July 2004
The summer after my freshman year of college, some friends and I went on a sports mission trip to the DR with an incredible organization called SCORE International. We played a ton of basketball and shared the gospel all over the island country. It was a blast!

#7. Noatak, Alaska
May 2004
Also during the summer after my freshman year of college (it was a busy summer!), I took a trip to Alaska with several other students from Bethel College, most of whom were basketball players or members of the Chapel Band. We spent two weeks in Noatak, Alaska, a tiny village located 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle! Literally, the only two ways to get to the village were by bush plane or snowmobile. We flew in on a bush plane and spent two weeks running VBS and a basketball camp for the kids there. I'm convinced that God did some of his best work when he created Alaska, and it's probably the only place I have ever been to that is still almost entirely unadulterated by humans. A couple interesting funfacts from my time in Alaska: 1) The sun never went down while we were there--which was a lot better than the alternative of never seeing the sun!; 2) I walked about a mile out onto the ocean off the Alaskan coast, which was completely frozen!

#6. Honduras
April 2003
My senior year of high school, I passed on the standard spring break vacation and went on my second mission trip instead, to Honduras. The 6 months of mental and spiritual preparation for this trip, led by my youth pastor, Terry Bley, were a time of immense spiritual growth for me. The trip itself challenged my faith and furthered my passion for cross-cultural ministry. I believe God was laying the foundations for my future ministry throughout this trip.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Birthday Par-tay!

I've seriously got some of the best friends in the world. This past weekend, my friends here in South Africa threw a big party for my birthday. My friend Sue even baked an awesome South African flag cake! Check out the pics!

The multicultural birthday banner had an American flag and a South African flag. My friend Michelle made the American flag, complete with 15 stripes and 35 1/2 stars! Pretty close, Michelle!

Apparently I turned one this year!

Seriously, how awesome is this cake?!?!

Top 25 Places: #s 15-11

#15. India
January 2008
Through a series of events that only God could have orchestrated, I was blessed with the opportunity to be the youth speaker at a family camp in Raghunathpur, a small town in the West Bengal province of India. It was on that trip that God clearly confirmed my call to missions. I absolutely fell in love with the Indian people, and at first I was convinced that God was calling me to India. Here's a short excerpt from my journal while in India:
"I feel so incredibly blessed right now. The last few days have been some of the best of my entire life. I have been literally pouring my life out to the people here--especially the youth and children ... It is such a blessing to minister and to share God's love with the nations..."
It was through that experience that I seriously pursued opportunities in missions last year, which led me to South Africa this year. India continues to be on my heart often.

#14. Mexico
June 2007
This was my first mission trip as a youth pastor. I had the awesome opportunity to spend a week investing in the lives of some pretty incredible young people from St. Mark Missionary Church, while also investing in two Mexican families for whom we built homes. What a great experience!

#13. Hawaii
December 2006
Quite possibly the most perfect place God ever created. I got to spend a few days there with some good friends on our way back from China, and I used the opportunity to catch a few waves!

#12. Shanghai, China
October 2006
While spending a semester abroad in China, our group was blessed to be able to travel quite a bit. We traveled 13 hours by train from Beijing to Shanghai, where we spent a week being tourists. Shanghai immediately became one of the coolest cities I had ever been to. One of the biggest cities in the world (pop.>20 million), they call Shanghai "The New York City of China" because it's the biggest city in China and also the center of fashion and pop culture. Check out the futuristic skyline!

#11. Great Wall of China
September/October 2006
Quite simply the greatest man-made structure I have ever seen. Construction on the wall began in the 7th century B.C. and continued on for several centuries through many different Chinese dynasties. For anyone interested in history, this place is a must see. The Great Wall stretches over 4000 miles across the northern border of China. Simply amazing. I had the opportunity to go to the wall on three occasions during my time in China, spending the night in watchtowers on the wall two of those times. Pretty awesome!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Top 25 Places: #s 20-16

#20. Cape Town, South Africa
May 2009
Spent a week on vacation there with my friend Tara and one of my favorite families in the world, the Linharts! Cape Town, located on the Western Cape of South Africa, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world...for good reason!

#19. New York City
August/September 2008
Spent a week sightseeing there last fall with my buddies, Teddy and Jordan. NYC is a stinkin' huge city, home to quite a lot of history and several sports teams that I love to hate!

#18. Iguazu Falls, Brazil
July 2008
Popped across the border into Brazil for a day and night during a short-term mission trip to Paraguay. Iguazu Falls, located near the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, is quite simply one of the most amazing natural phenomenons I have ever seen. God saw what He had created and said, "It is good!"

#17. Paraguay
July 2008
I spent a couple weeks there on a short-term mission with some of my favorite people in the world from St. Mark Missionary Church! I fell in love with the kids there--especially this little guy, Niko.

#16. Israel
March 2008
I got the awesome opportunity to spend a week there at a conference called Global Youth Initiative, with youth workers from all around the world. Israel opened my eyes to the Scriptures in a whole new way--an amazing experience that I would highly recommend for every believer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top 25 Places: #s 25-21

In honor of my 25 years of existence, I've compiled a list of my 25 favorite places that I have visited in the world. And, since it was nearly impossible to rank these places, I simply put them in reverse chronological order, starting with places that I have recently visited and moving backwards. Enjoy!

#25. Zanzibar
September 2009
Spent a weekend exploring there with a couple good friends. Beautiful island, interesting culture, great people, incredible food!

#24. Tanzania
September 2009
Taught youth ministry classes there for almost 3 weeks. Tanzanians are some of the friendliest people I have ever met!

#23. Zimbabwe
August 2009
Helped lead a short-term mission trip there. Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries in the world, torn apart by 30 years of dictatorial rule. Still, the people are resilient and also among the friendliest people I have ever met.

#22. Namibia
August 2009
Took a short-term mission trip there with my church from South Africa. I never knew the desert could be so beautiful!

#21. Kruger National Park, South Africa
July 2009
Spent a weekend safari there. Kruger is one of the most incredible national parks in the world. We saw lions, elephants, rhino, giraffe, hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, water buffalo, fish eagles, and a whole lot more!

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Planned Re-Entry Into American Food

I've been in Africa for about 9 1/2 months now, and that's just a pretty darn long time to be away from home. I find myself thinking about home from time to time, and one of the things I'm planning immediately upon arriving in the States is a blitzkrieg on all of my favorite American foods. The following, in no particular order, are some of the foods that I will be dominating upon my re-entry into American society:
  1. Giordano's Pizza in Chicago. I have yet to have anything close to good American pizza in Africa.
  2. A burrito from Chipotle.
  3. Fajitas from Mazatlan.
  4. Chips and salsa. I seriously miss Mexican food on a regular basis here.
  5. Anything from Taco Bell. I even miss fake Mexican food!
  6. A big juicy steak from Outback Steakhouse.
  7. My dad's spaghetti.
  8. Chinese food from Empire Express (which my friends and I affectionately refer to as "5/10 mini" because when you ask the waitress how long it will take to get your food, without fail she answers "About 5/10 mini").
  9. Our family's "chicken in a pot" Sunday dinner.
  10. Bruno's Pizza.
  11. Miriam Wertz' homemade chili.
  12. The Grand Empire Chinese Buffet.
  13. My dad's grilled chicken.
  14. Wendy's dollar menu.
  15. A foot-long sub from Subway.
  16. My homemade Chinese food.
  17. Dairy Queen ice cream. I know it'll be cold when I get back, but I don't care!
  18. Fruity Pebbles.
  19. Jack's frozen pizza.
  20. Thai food.
  21. A big juicy hamburger. For some reason, they just taste different here.
  22. Frosted Mini-Wheats.
  23. Wings from BW3.
  24. Papa John's Pizza. Seriously, I need pizza!
  25. My mom's hot deli sandwiches. Luckily, these are a Christmas Eve tradition!
I'm sure this list will be expanding, but these were the first 25 things that popped into my head. With this game-plan in place, there's a good chance that I'll gain about 50 pounds my first week back home, but it'll be so worth it. My mouth is totally watering right now!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spiritually Influential People

As I mentioned previously, as my 25th birthday approached I was able to reflect a little bit on the past 25 years of my life. One of the things that stuck out to me was how many people have invested in my life in some way or another. Here's a short list of a few of the most spiritually influential people at different stages in the first 25 years of my life.

1. Mom and Dad (Birth-Present Day) - My parents have by far been the most influential people in my life. To steal a line from Proverbs 22:6, since my childhood they "trained me in the way I should go," and I haven't turned from it. I've been really blessed with parents who love God and love people and have passed that heritage on to me. I could really include my whole family in this section. My sister, Emily, recently reminded me that she was the one who prayed with me to accept Jesus when I was four years old. My brothers and sisters (including the ones that married into the family) have all had a profound impact on my life and on my faith. I owe much of who I am today to them!

2. Derry Prenkert (The Middle School Years) - Derry was my first youth pastor when I entered the youth group at Nappanee Missionary Church as an awkward little 7th grader. I honestly don't remember too much about middle school, but one thing I do remember is Derry taking the time to invest in a little punk like me. I remember in 7th grade getting a letter in the mail from Derry, encouraging me and telling me that he was praying for me. I remember spending the night in Derry's dorm at Bethel College, staying up all night watching Monty Python and playing the classic board game of world domination, Risk. I remember going to Wing's, Etc. with Derry, where he taught me the "No napkins until you're finished" Rule...a rule which I still strictly follow to this day! And somewhere in all those seemingly insignificant moments, Derry taught me what it really meant to have a relationship with Jesus. I'm reminded today to never get caught thinking that middle school ministry isn't important, because Derry's investment in my life over those years played a huge role in shaping my faith. Derry's impact on my life continued into high school, as well. Other names that should be mentioned here are guys like Matt Maloney, my first small group leader, and Shawn LaRue, among many others.

3. Terry Bley (The High School Years) - No single person impacted my life and my faith more during my formative high school years than Terry Bley. I entered high school thinking I was big stuff--the stud athlete (at least in my own mind) from the biggest school in the area. Honestly, looking back, I'm not sure what Terry saw in me at that time, but for whatever reason he took me under his wing and invested in my life. Terry constantly challenged me to live more radically for Christ throughout my high school years. Terry's greatest impact on my life came during my last couple years of high school. First, he challenged me to be a leader. Then, the summer before my senior year, Terry challenged me to consider going into ministry. Honestly, up to that point in my life, I had never even considered ministry as an option for my life. I had been thinking more about going into business and making lots of money for myself--what a wasted life. Anyway, I believe that the Lord used Terry to plant that seed in my heart, and it wasn't long after that that I felt God's calling on my life to full-time ministry. Needless to say, Terry's investment in my life over those years played a huge role in shaping who I am today.

4. Terry "T-Money" Linhart (The College Years) - I first met Terry the summer before my senior year of high school. That summer, Terry joined our youth group at NMC on a mission trip to Ecuador. He was doing some field work on the effects of short-term missions in the lives of young people for his doctoral dissertation, and I just happened to be one of the students that Terry used as part of his study. Anyway, I remember Terry interviewing me a few times on the trip, trying to pick my brain about the experiences that I was having on my first short-term mission. I thought Terry was a pretty cool dude, and we struck up a friendship. The following year, my senior year of high school, I teamed up with Terry to lead a small group of freshman guys. That was quite an experience, and looking back I can see that Terry was intentional about investing in my life over that time. When it came time to choose a college, then, I had narrowed my options down to a few schools. While sports was a factor in my decision, I made up my mind that I wanted to go to the school that offered the best Youth Ministry program. And, after visiting several colleges, I was convinced that Terry's YM program at Bethel College was just that--the best. Long story short, I chose Bethel, never looked back, and spent four years studying Youth Ministry under Terry. He's been one of the most encouraging people in my life--I've often found that he believes in me a lot more than I believe in myself! He has taught me, mentored me, challenged me, and simply been a great friend. Terry also took me along on a trip to a Youth Ministry conference in Israel last year, where he got me connected with J-Life, the organization that I currently work with in Africa. Needless to say, Terry has played a significant role in shaping who I am today, and the fact that he lets me call him "T-Money" makes him just that much more cool!

5. Chad Meister (The College Years) - No person in my life has taught me how to really think more than Chad Meister. I took my first class with Dr. Meister, Logic and Critical Thinking, during my second semester at college. After that first class, I knew that I wanted to learn as much from him as possible. For the next three years, any chance that I got to take one of his classes, I took it. Philosophy, Apologetics, Metaphysics--you name it, I took it. I even got the chance to work for him one semester, helping him edit a philosophy textbook that he was compiling and editing. Chad is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met, yet he's incredibly humble. Later on in college, Chad played the role of a formal mentor in my life. He poured out so much wisdom to me about life and ministry over those years, and he truly challenged me to dive deeper into my walk with Christ. I consider him a great friend. Much of who I am today, I owe to Chad!

Like I said, this is the short list. There are so many more people I could include--from Sunday school teachers, to small group leaders, pastors, professors, and even friends and peers who have consistently challenged me to greater faith in Christ. Again, to those of you out there who have invested in my life, I just want to say "thank you." And, as a way of saying thanks, I want to take what you have given me and invest my life in other young people.

For the Kingdom,

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

25 Years of Awesomeness!!!

Well, today marks a pretty big milestone in my life...I have now officially hit the quarter-century mark! The past few days I've had some time to reflect a little bit on the past 25 years of my life, and to be honest I'm overwhelmed by the life God has given me and the blessings He has poured out on me. I couldn't ask for a better family or better friends than what I've been blessed with. And I wouldn't change the calling God has placed on my life for anything. I love my life!

Okay, enough of the sappy stuff. I've put together a small photo album for this occasion. Enjoy.

The early years.

The high school years.

The college years (and, yes, I was flexing in this picture).

The caveman (post-college) years.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a picture from my awkward middle school years. So, we'll just consider those the forgotten years!

Thanks so much to all of you who have made an impact on my life, whether great or small, over the past 25 years. I wouldn't be who I am today without you! Here's to the next 25 years! May they be as incredible as the first 25 years!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Harrismith Mountain Race

Some friends and I did something stupid and awesome last Saturday. We ran the Harrismith Mountain Race, a nearly 10-mile course that runs OVER a mountain. They call it "The toughest cross country race in the world." It was pretty intense.

There was a large group of us from five different churches that went down to Harrismith for the race. We decided to have a friendly competition between the churches, with a trophy for the team with the lowest combined time. I nearly had to drop out after my bout with malaria, but I went against sound judgment and decided at the last minute to run it anyway. I ran with my friends from Acts Family Church in Extension 23.

Team Extension 23 before the race.

The Harrismith Mountain. This picture was taken at the finish line. We ran nearly 6 kilometers, mostly uphill, to the base of the mountain, at which point the running stopped and the climbing began! We bear-crawled up the side of the mountain on hands and feet for almost another kilometer. We then ran about 2.5 kilometers across the top of the mountain, followed by a steep decline back down the mountain, and then another 4 or 5 kilometers back to the stadium. In total, it was the toughest 15 kilometers (9.4 miles) of my life!

But it was worth it! Team Extension 23 takes the championship!

Four Africans and a whitey!

There's something about running over a mountain that makes you feel like a man!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Faith, Hope, and Obama: Part 1


Honestly, I'm not very big into politics. Every four years, our entire country gets caught up in a frenzy over the elections, to the point where it just gets ridiculous, in my opinion. Interestingly enough, I've found Christians to be some of the biggest culprits in this over-hyping of our political process. Right-winged Republican Christian radicals are all over the news, proclaiming that the "evil" liberal democrat will ruin the country if elected (in fact, he just might be the spawn of Satan himself). Sound ridiculous?...or just familiar?

Okay, to prove my theory, I've designed the following test:

Raise your right hand if during this last national election you received over 100 emails (many of which annoyingly were missed by your SPAM detector) that proclaimed Obama to be a Muslim who was planning a jihad to take over and/or blow up America. According to these doomsday prophets, if Obama became president, the world as we knew it would be officially over.

You can put your hands down now.

Again, raise your right hand if another 100 or so emails proclaimed Obama to be the antichrist, and voting him into office wasn't just going to be the end of the world as we knew it, it was going to be the end of the world! (If you are currently holding your autographed copy of Left Behind, first put the book down, and then raise your right hand).

Good, you can put your hands down now.

And, finally, raise your right hand if you forwarded on these emails to all of your friends, filling their inboxes with these ridiculous, fear-filled messages. Okay, hands still in the air...hold them up high so I can see them. Now, with your hand, slap yourself as hard as you can across the face. I'm sorry, but you deserved that.

Okay, I'll admit, maybe I'm the one being a little bit ridiculous now, but I think I've made my point clear. Christians put way too much faith in politicians and political parties, especially around election time, and not enough faith in the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator of the Universe. We replace our faith with fear, even though God's Word clearly tells us that we "did not receive a spirit that makes [us] a slave again to fear, but [we] received the Spirit of sonship" (Rom. 8:15). If we truly believe this, that we are God's children, then what do we have to fear?

When I look at the life of Jesus, I see a man who was clearly unimpressed by the political institutions in his day. The people actually wanted to hand him a crown and make him the king, but he wasn't really into their political agendas. He had put his faith in something, or Someone, larger than a political leader with a worldly agenda. In one of his few discussions on politics, Jesus simply said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mt. 22:21). Translation: pay your taxes, but remember that your kingdom is not of this world.

When it comes to politics, I often find myself embarrassed by Christians. It's like we're still trying to save the world through the kingdom of this world, rather than by bringing the kingdom of God to earth. I'm not saying we shouldn't get involved at all in politics, but we need to ask ourselves: in whom do we place our faith?

So why am I getting on this soap box nearly a year after the national elections? I'll get to that.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tiniest Lizard Ever!

Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved lizards. We used to take family vacations to visit my grandparents in Florida, and I would always spend hours outside trying to catch those elusive little reptiles. Recently, in Tanzania, I found the tiniest lizard EVER. I was fascinated by the little guy. Enjoy the pics.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Modern Maasai

The first time I ever heard of the Maasai people was a few years back when Caleb Bislow started bringing the Gospel to some of the unreached Maasai tribes in Kenya. The Maasai are most often associated with Kenya, although, as I recently found out, they also have a large population in Tanzania.

Traditionally, the Maasai, a nomadic people group, are known as great warriors. In fact, the historical rite of passage into manhood for a young Maasai boy was that he had to go into the wild, with only his spear, and kill a lion. Only then was he circumcised and considered a man.

Well, I ran into quite a few Maasai in Tanzania, but these Maasai weren't what I expected!

An old Maasai man walking through the small town of Mlandizi. Many Maasai are now migrating into towns to find work. Notice his stretched earlobes, a common body modification among the Maasai.

I found this Maasai "warrior" dominating the pool table at a local bar, where they were betting on their games. Notice he still wears a traditional Maasai kikoi.

This young Maasai man is now a believer, and he's studying at the Mission to Unreached Areas Church (MUAC) training center to become a missionary. He let me wear his shuka, the most common dress of the Maasai people.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pink Chicks?

At the training center where we stayed in Tanzania, they help support their ministry by running a chicken farm. Now, there's nothing unusual about that, except for the fact that all the little baby chicks are PINK! I know, crazy, right?! I have multiple theories...

Theory #1 - They mate the hens with male flamingos, thus making these hybrid little "chickingos" or "flamickens."

Theory # 2 - They feed the little chicks with a steady diet of Pepto Bismol tablets. In related news, the chicks are found to be very "regular," if you know what I mean.

So what's your theory???