"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Ecc 1:1
I awoke at 4:30 am this morning thinking about the woman's magazine Vanity Fair and a man named Fred. Now that’s weird even for me.
I'm a geek at heart, and I love things like etymology and word studies. As it turns out, Solomon uses the word "vanity" in the book of Ecclesiastes at least 30 times. The Hebrew word is "Hebel" for vapor, breath delusion, emptiness, fraud, futility, folly, worthless. I wonder if the publishers of Vanity Fair were intentionally ironic or if they even had a clue.
We have been in what has felt like suspended animation for the last two months. Some of you know there was a small hiccup in our mission plans due to pre-cancer that turned out to be cancer. Cathy had a total hysterectomy, and we waited for the pathology results that would determine whether or not she needed further treatment. We got the call the other day. All cancer was completely removed during surgery. "Yei" God we are moving on. Was I afraid? Maybe a little. The reality of our mutual and individual mortality certainly became more concrete. I don't care how faith-filled you are. The reality of James 4:13-14* is going to have an effect when you come face to face with it.
Other than that, my days have been consumed with chasing annoying roosters and trying to score small animation jobs while avoiding spending money. We've also had a special time with family and especially our grandchildren. Some of them are doing well while others continue to challenge the laws of probability. I won't go into detail here but suffice it to say that surviving childhood ought to be all the proof one needs to believe in a loving God. That so many do not is a reminder that we live in a world of absolute truths, one of which is that none of us is getting off this perfectly, positioned rock on the edge of an otherwise hostile Milky Way alive. Everyone knows this. But as Neal Wagatsuma, the Warden at our local jail puts it, “Never underestimate the power of denial."
I was hanging in the back yard with my two granddaughters ages eight and thirteen the other night. They were busy taking selfies and making Vines to post on Snap Chat. I was questioning the value and purpose of Snap Chat. I think it's just another way for kids to foster narcissism and further reduce their already shortened attention spans. But according to them, Snap Chat is an indispensable tool, "you can tell everyone about your life." said oldest. However, they both agreed it was something I couldn't understand because "Snap Chat isn't for old people." They looked at each other and rolled their eyes when I said that I am not old. Now I'm a fairly young grandfather and a pretty techie guy, but even I find myself lagging at times when it comes to keeping up with teenage tech trends. It's also a biological fact that a child can learn new things faster and more efficiently than a fifty-something-year-old man. My granddaughters are aware of this. Hence the rolling of the eyes whenever I attempt to impart some grandfatherly wisdom. But awareness and understanding are not the same.
Yes, the reality of becoming a marginalized old dog is starting to set in. Rather than struggling to curb my tongue as I should have when I was younger; I find myself not wanting to speak at all. Maybe I'm just fishing for excuses to be lazy or worse starting to enshrine the apparent apathy of my father and grandfathers. But it seems that, like them, I have less and less to say as these days which is kind of ironic given what we just gave up our life to do.
Anyway, I didn't say much that evening when my granddaughters grabbed a plate of macaroni and cheese and took it on the trampoline. Years ago, I would have approached the situation differently. I would have demanded that they give me the plate before someone choked, or they ruined their expensive, backyard toy; or else! Instead, I took out my phone and started filming saying "you know... " at which point the eight-year-old cut me off. "I know what you're going to say, Poppy." "What's that?" I asked. "It's probably not a good idea," she laughed setting the plate down on the already bouncing trampoline floor. I'd venture to say it took less than 60 seconds before macaroni and cheese were everywhere and Kyah was crying and hysterically screaming at me to stop filming.
I'd post it here but like I told her, I'm saving it for the wedding. The cries soon turned to hysterical giggling as she tried everything in her power to wrestle the phone out of my hands to delete the video. It didn't work. I'm still a buffed Poppy. It occurred to me that a lot of people are like my granddaughters, eating their proverbial mac and cheese on trampolines, knowing perfectly well what is coming but choosing to pretend that it is not.
Physical and intellectual prowess and ensuing pride during youth is often the foundation for this delusion. Our societal desire and propensity for discovering creative ways to avoid pain via instant gratification form a near impenetrable structure. Confirmation bias and the overwhelming need to fit in forms the roof. We use words like socialization, integration, and enculturation to describe the relative health of this process. Those who fail or lack balance in one or more of these areas go to therapy. We call this normal. People reside in this construct for years in relative illusory peace until the inevitable storm comes and blows it all away.
It feels like only yesterday, but it's been close to thirty years since I worked as a nursing assistant on a cancer floor at the Genesee Hospital in Rochester New York. My job, in a nutshell, amounted to helping people cope with the process of dying then wrapping their bodies when they did. Fred was one of the many people I served. He was 67 years old and had worked hard his whole life with a solitary goal of retiring and finally having fun. He got two years out of his investment. Now Fred had cancer and six months to live. All he could do was sob and say "you don't understand." I was twenty-three years old. What was I going to tell him? I did mention God once, but that didn't go over very well at all. So, I did what I was trained to do. I acknowledged the truth with detached compassion. "Yes, Fred you are dying. I'm here for you. If you want to talk I will listen." Over the next few months, I bathed him, fed him and changed his bed pans. Fred never talked. He just cried when I walked in the room. One morning I came to work, and Fred was gone. Part of me wondered if Fred's tears were a result of some deep dark secret he was afraid to confess. But I suspect that he would look at me at 23 then look at his own life, and that was just too much to bear. Either way, Fred seemed to value his own worldview, whatever that was, more than anything else and certainly more than anything I had to say.
Now after a decade of counseling kids and living with inmates to help them "reintegrate," I have concluded that most people don't want to hear about absolutes let alone have their worldview questioned. Never mind the adage about leading a man to water. In my experience, you can't convince a drowning man who doesn't want to believe it that he is in fact drowning. Telling him, he needs a savior when he thinks he is just fine is beyond ridiculous. If you try, he will likely ignore you at first, then mock you, and then attempt to drown you. By the same token, while there is ample evidence both historical and scientific that Jesus is who He says He is, no amount of it will ever convince a person who doesn't want to hear it and even more, doesn't want it to be true.
There is a guard who is an avowed atheist at our local jail whom I have always liked. Like us, he seemed to have the heart for helping inmates. He doesn't believe in God, he believes in science. That's fine. He has that right. He has always been there to dispute and counter me whenever I speak at the jail. I think he considers it his moral duty to tell the inmates they don't need God just as I consider it mine to tell them they do. One of the last times I spoke he stood up and began with "Now everyone knows I don't like Brian Gray." Strange as it may seem to some, I was surprised. So, I approached him when he was done and told him that I didn't know he didn't like me. "Really, I'm surprised you didn't know that" he said. "Well I know we disagree on some things but..." He cut me off. "Well to me that's hate," he said and walked away.
He is not unique. This mindset is found in our most prestigious educational institutions as well. Don't debate these people says renowned evolutionary biologist, and atheist Richard Dawkins just "mock them." But people don't mock or suppress things of which they are certain are not true. People mock things that cause them discomfort and fear. Richard Dawkins repeatedly declines invitations to debate Christian apologists and philosophers like Dr. Ravi Zacahrias because he knows he can't win. It's not that Ravi Zacharias can scientifically prove the existence of God. No one can. We haven't even done that with gravity. No, I haven't lost my marbles. What most people call the Law of Gravity is actually the Law of Gravitational Effect. The fact is there's still more recorded gravitational effect in the universe that there is recorded mass to account for it. The bible says we know God is real because of His effects. Rom 1:18-20*. What Dr. Zacharias can prove is that the world view of those like Richard Dawkins is completely unscientific and requires more blind faith to maintain than does the Christian worldview. The argument is not that complicated. Even so, most so-called secular intellectuals seem to maintain a position of "contempt prior to investigation."
At any rate, I am convinced that we are moving into a time where telling someone in America what they don't want to hear, that they were born to die in a dying world, where no amount of good deeds or Karma can save them and that Jesus is their only hope of salvation, will get you killed.
The question for me, for us and our mission as we reflect and prepare to debark on May 3rd is; what have we learned and which is the better way? We aren't going to run in fear of death or of being hated.
But what is the best way of explaining the futility of folly and that eating mac and cheese on trampolines is not going to end well? Ecc 12:14
It is finished. Twelve years of ministering to inmates and helping them reintegrate into society has officially come to a bittersweet end. We packed up and left the home in which we had lived for 11 of those incredible years. It was Feb 28th, the same day we were due to fly to Honduras. Then everything came to a screeching halt. Cathy’s doctor confirmed that she had to have a total hysterectomy or face life-threatening cancer in the not too distant future. Our Honduras move has been officially delayed for at least six weeks. Now, what to do; no home, no job, Yay God!? There must be a lesson in this. Perhaps it’s in the twelve.
Some numbers are very symbolic in scripture and twelve is one of them. According to Patheos.com the number twelve represents perfection and authority. Like seven it is also the number of completion and is mentioned 187 times in the Bible. For example, there were 12 Apostles. There are 12 Gates, made of pearl and guarded by 12 angels in heaven. There are 12 precious stones to be used as the foundation of the New Jerusalem. Jesus spoke His first authoritative words at the age of 12. The list goes on.
Still there is another more personal significance to the number twelve. Cathy and I celebrated twelve years of marriage on Feb 5th. We have been engaged in ministry together since the day we met at Kapaa Missionary Church on Kauai. Cathy felt called to prison ministry since 1991, yet the door of opportunity had never opened. One day after church she was speaking to a mutual friend who ministered at the local jail and asked how she could get in. He pointed at the crowd and said, "go talk to that guy." That guy was me. It's been an adventure beyond my wildest dreams ever since.
You've learned a lot about me in recent blog posts and I think this brake time is a good time for me to tell you a little about the woman who I promise you is my better half. As I always say, if you don’t like me, I get it. You’re probably right. Please take a number and get in line. But if you don’t like Cathy, you should seek professional help. I was basically a hammer living a world of nails when we met. That no one has killed me is just one of the many miracles that have resulted from my marriage to her.
Cathy’s primary gifts are in the area of compassion and mercy. She has an incredible capacity to love the unwanted, the unforgivable, the unlovable. It's ironic that while I am the trained and certified counselor when given a choice, most people prefer talking to her. Maybe because she is so genuinely interested in literally everyone she meets. As my good friend, Dan says of his own wife Carol; “she has never met a stranger." The same applies to my wife.
It was no surprise that the Harvest school of missions in Pemba Mozambique where the operative words are “stop for the one” was paradise for Cathy. The problem for me was that Cathy did not stop for the one. Cathy stopped for everyone. Every child, every widow, everything with a pulse got her full and undivided attention. In fact, every single act of kindness from us that you read about, or saw on video while we were in Africa only happened because Cathy stopped. People naturally seek her out when they are in need of love, patience, and kindness. People look for me when they need to move a rock or maybe kill a snake. Granted there might be one or two out there who have a slightly different view of me. That’s great if you do. I am growing. But only because being in the presence of others with my wife convicts me and pushes me to be a kinder, gentler, more patient man.
Please don't misunderstand. Cathy is not your average bleeding heart "softy." My wife is a fireball. She moved from Arizona to Alaska when she 13 and spent a summer in a tepee after graduating high school shooting animals for food and making clothes out of animal skins. After that, she moved to Hawaii and sailed through a hurricane to Thailand in a thirty-foot sail boat. She'd been fasting for ten days when we went on our very first excursion/date, a sixteen mile hike to Hana Koa valley and back along the Kalalau trail on Kauai. I might pull that off on an empty stomach if I were fleeing a battalion of ISIS fighters but only if I were sure they were going to behead me. It kind of goes without saying that Cathy was wired for missions from the start.
Now we are making our way to Honduras. Cathy has been their four times. I have been there eleven. Each time I return I am greeted by hordes of excited children with one and only one question on their minds: "Where's Cathy?" I guess I could be offended or hurt. But honestly, I am proud. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” (Prov 18:22) My wife is the real deal and I am a blessed man as are all who encounter her.
This brake time is not exactly a break time. We still have lots of work to do. We still have lots adventures ahead and people to love. Even so, this upcoming surgery is a 1 Peter reminder that “as for man his days are like the grass, like the lilies of the field he is born to flourish and die." Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. One thing is for sure, Cathy and I have fewer potential tomorrows than when we were first married. “Brake time” is a reminder time. A time to remember to be grateful, a time to appreciate and embrace the flourishing Lily and gift that God gave me for a wife while we both still have the breath of life.
I could go on ad infinitum about the endless qualities and complimentary talents possessed by my Cathy, but that would probably be irritating. At least now you have a snapshot of the best part of Gray Hope Missionaries and one I give my life for. (Eph 5:25)
Thank you, Jesus!
The final uprooting of our lives on Kauai continues as we prepare to be transplanted to Honduras. Meanwhile it has become apparent that many of our friends and family are regarding us with a mixture of marvel and incredulity. Others just think we are insane. How in the world could we leave careers that we love, our family, grandchildren and friends? What kind of nut job spends their retirement on an obscure missionary school in Africa and then moves from the paradise where darn near everyone in the world dreams of visiting one day to live in a third world country with zero income? "What are you thinking?" they ask. "Aren't you afraid?" Well, yes and no. The truth is; most of the people we know don't have a grid for this. After all it's basically the antithesis of the American dream.
There is a scene in the film "The last Crusade" where Indiana Jones finds himself pinned to a cliff and faced with nowhere to go but across a bottomless chasm or down. It looks impossible and the internal battle plays itself out in his breathing and facial expressions as he closes his eyes in preparation for the inevitable plunge to his death. "It's a leap of faith" he says as the camera zooms and freezes on his foot suspended in mid air. Then wincing, he steps or rather falls forward only to land on solid ground as a land bridge to the other side mysteriously appears. That's a pretty fair description of how the process of becoming a full time missionary feels at times with the only difference being that Indiana Jones didn't have the assurance and peace that comes with knowing Jesus.
I realize the last statement might seem a bit pollyannic as we born again Christians are prone to sounding when we attempt to articulate our experiences with God. I certainly do not mean to imply that I have transcended normal human emotion and weakness or that I have all my ducks in a row. It's just that that explaining Jesus to someone who has never encountered Jesus personally is like trying to explain a double rainbow over mountains in Hawai`i to a blind Eskimo in the Arctic. Why in the world should he believe you. Believe me I know.
You see I didn't grow up in the church and I didn't like Christians when I was young. In fact I persecuted them more than any atheist I've ever known until I finally met Jesus at the barrel of a shotgun and landed in jail. Instead I struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for over 20 years. I basically tried everything you can think of to get clean all the while struggling to maintain a facade of functionality that was finally torn away in an instant. I was in a blind drunken rage and definitely not looking for Jesus when I charged a guy with shot gun all the while screaming "shoot me!” All I know for certain is that he fired. I saw a blinding white flash of light and a thought that was more like a voice roared through my mind "this is the last time!" The deeper implications of those words are too much to cover here but suffice it to say that I did not get shot even though he fired at point blank range and I never had a desire for a drink or a drug again. My point here is that I am not special in any worldly sort of way. I know where I came from and I know where I have been. I know that I know within the depths of my soul that everything I am, have and have achieved since that last drunken day has happened in spite of me and not because of me.
But that's not all. I have other problems too. In fact I have an orphan spirit that periodically rises up within me. I am ashamed of it. Missionaries are not supposed to have it. If you mention it, I will almost always deny it. But it’s there. It is rooted in a time filled with rejection and abandonment. It manifests as a voice that says "don't you dare ask for...you are a burden; a loser and everything you touch turns to $#@!" It is a mindset rooted in a lie that is itself the root of addiction, poverty and failure. It forever declares that God won't provide even though He always has. It is a proverbial “thing" that pins me to a wall like Indiana Jones with nothing left to do but take the next step or die. It is something that must be confronted with faith and the revelation of my true identity as a son of the Most High God even though I might FEEL paralyzed with fear. In the end it is the actions we take often in spite of what we are thinking and feeling that determines what we actually believe. Jesus said to "seek first the Kingdom of God and all His righteousness and all these things will be added onto you" Mat 6:33. He did not say to get all your ducks in row before you go. Remembering our previous steps of faith as we overcome fear within the context of obedience to the call of God can require a serious leap yet it is also the source of paradoxical provision.
I suppose I could write a more flowery, testimony of faith filled with inspiring prophetic poetry. Honestly I'm still pretty rough around the edges. I also recently read that the top reasons people are turned off by Christianity is that they feel shunned by Christians who seem fake and act like they don't have any problems. That’s not to say that all Christians are fakes only that the rule of approach determines response is always in play. My audience is often composed of people who are completely turned off by the church. So sometimes it’s best to just keep it real. Apparently the Apostle Paul thought so too. (2 Cor 11:30)
At the end of the day I’m not much different from you. I’m certainly not better because I’m going to live in third world country. If anything I’m probably worse. I just happen to be blessed with the knowledge of my need, that God's miracles in my life have been the result my most glaring weaknesses and that my Father’s blessings for me in spite of me are proof of His great and abounding love for me. I’ve found freedom in gratitude and obedience beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve found peace in the midst of turmoil, His strength in my weakness, provision in poverty. I know there will be bumps in the road. I know there will be days when I want to quit. Heck I might even die. Even so, I fully expect that in writing this; I am laying the foundation for a powerful testimony of God's guidance, provision and miracles in our mission one day. It is in losing our life that we will gain it. Mat 10:39.
Taken in its most literal form, the missionary walk is as fantastically paradoxical as it is adventurous. It requires ridiculous supernatural assurance and trust that transcends discursive thought and emotion and makes absolutely no sense in the natural until after we take the leap; a leap of faith that gets a little easier each time we leap. I highly recommend it. But only leap to where you are called.
People need redemption. Even renowned atheist Mathew Parris, understood this when after returning from a visit to his boyhood home of Malawi he stated:
"I have come to a conclusion that staggers me. The impact of the missionaries with their message of Jesus Christ with its redemptive foundation seems to be the only thing that has effectively worked in order to change the hearts of some against the other in their antipathy and hostility towards one another - the redemptive aspect seems indispensable to the transformation of this. I find myself surprising myself in having to the say this." "I truly believe Africa needs God".
We Christians understand this. The book of Romans says that atheists do too. The hunger of one's heart must change before anything else will. It needs to change in Africa, in the Americas and everywhere else in the world.
People need Jesus and the fullness of Holy Spirit. They need people to carry the message of their testimony. They need people to teach them and give them hope; people who will love them. In fact people need love more than anything else. This is true regardless if one is living in a mansion in Beverly Hills or a card board box at a dump. As it happens God is calling us into the dumps right now. Who knows; he just might call us into Beverly Hills one day.
But people also need to eat. They need a place to live and rest, to work, to earn a living, to create, and communicate. People need a place to study and learn, a place to come together to worship and soak in the presence of God, a place that is safe and accommodating with the potential to expand; a place where anything and everything good can be done. A place that influences the surrounding culture with the love of God until the love of God becomes the culture.
"Why Honduras?" you ask. Well I guess I could give you a monologue about why the 2nd or 3rd poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere needs our help more than the wealthiest; how helping the 3rd world to prosper solves issues like illegal immigration and makes the world a safer place as a whole. I guess I could rant about how the first world has heard the gospel message time and time again only to reject it. But that's really not it at all. We are going because that is where God told us to go.
This is how Cathy and I have operated for as long as we have been a couple. We have testimonies galore of how God has spoken to us over the years. Suffice it to say that one of us usually senses a decision or a change needs to be made, then prays and gets a word or an answer. The other does the same often without knowing what the other is thinking or doing. It's pretty amazing when we finally talk and find that we are both thinking about the same thing. When we both get the same word or answer we act. If we don't then we wait.
There were so many times over the years when we wanted to abandon what frequently felt like a fruitless ministry to inmates and addicts. Even so God had more for us to learn and every time the word was a resounding "no". Until last year that is when we both clearly knew that it was time to go to the nations.
Our plan was to move to Honduras in December of 2016. Yet the Bible clearly states in Proverbs that we might make our plans but the Lord directs our steps.
One day in September Cathy was on her usual prayer walk listening to a podcast as she was accustomed. This one featured Rolland Baker on "IRIS AFTER HOURS" She then returned home and adamantly stated that "We can't go yet. God has a work to do in our hearts."
I listened to the same podcast; Google searched IRIS Global and learned about the Harvest School. I then heard myself saying "honey they have a school. I think we are supposed to go." "Really?" she asked. She didn't tell me she'd already heard the same thing in her heart. "Yes!" I said. "Let's do it! The rest is history much of which you can read about on our previous Wordpress blog posts. See https://grayhopemissionary.wordpress.com/
Africa was amazing and the need there was seemingly even more profound than in Central America. We thought we might not be going to back to Honduras after all. But we prayed. We asked God to show us both individually and together exactly what our next step should be. At one point while in a South Sudanese refugee camp in northern Uganda we thought for sure that God would call us there instead. Yet by the end of three months the message was clear.
We were to return to Honduras as originally planned.
I'd like say I know for sure why aside from loving our friends, God has us going back to Honduras; that we will be ones who bring the City of Refuge model to Africa one day. That would be very neat indeed. But that would also be several steps ahead. If there's one thing I've learned about walking with God it's that thinking about the second step while still engaged in the first frequently results in a fall.
Some might disagree but for us the anatomy of a call has more to do with "who" is calling and "when" we should go than it does with where, what, and how. That's how faith works. At the end of the day I'd rather be in the will of God under machine gun fire than apart from it on a beach in paradise. That doesn't mean some are not called to a beach in paradise. Some are called to go. Some are called to support those who go.
IRIS has the motto that "Love looks like something." It's more than just an idea to them. We would agree. Right now love looks like a City. Still it’s only because God has called us there. It’s kind of exciting that while we are pretty clear on the "what" and "how"; we don’t yet know the full story of "why". That is the anatomy of our call.
You have probably already figured out that Our Wordpress blog is moving. You can follow our continued journey here. I may double post for awhile but this will be our new official online home when we get to Honduras next month.
Well it's almost official. Gray Hope Productions on Kauai is a thing of the past.
We are now Gray Hope Missionaries. We used Wordpress while we were in Africa. https://grayhopemissionary.wordpress.com
We are moving to Honduras at the end of Febuary and Our blog is also moving here.
We are Brian and Cathy Gray formerly of Gray Hope Productions.
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