Sadly, our country seems unable to address the random violence lashing out at our most innocent ones.Read More
In a perfect world children are loved, protected, cherished and nurtured. But, in an imperfect world of populations that are seismically shifted by war, economic instability and prejudice, some 26 million children are lost, expatriated, refugees, displaced, exiled, vulnerable, exploited, and often unaccompanied. There have never been so many children in this condition in the history of the world!
Recently, while I was in the Dominican Republic with other women on an Awana vision trip those statistics became flesh in the form of one young boy’s story.
We were visiting Fountain of Love Church, They have an Awana program and preschool. Johan was there to welcome us. He told us his story. He is a doctor and cares for a lot of children. But one day, as he heard the pastor speaking about the negative things happening in children’s lives — the exposure to things on the internet that destroy their innocence, the exploitation of and lack of care for children in their own town who were often left to roam the street unsupervised — he realized that he needed to do more.
Listening to that sermon, tears came to his eyes. He knew that if someone had not been there for him, he would have been lost himself.
He began to volunteer at Awana with 10-14 year-old boys. One of the boys was 12-year-old Jeremy. Jeremy, his father and two other siblings came to Dominican Republic to find work and to escape the economic instability of Venezuela. Unfortunately, his mother was not able to get a visa and she was left behind. This family had to make an excruciating choice between starvation and separation. Jeremy often cried when he spoke of his mother. He was deeply worried about her. Johan felt an immediate connection to him. Johan noticed how quickly he memorized his scripture verses and how he was always asking questions about God. Johan’s heart was deeply moved by this boy’s displacement and separation from his mother.
One night, when the Awana Director asked the boys who loved them besides Jesus … Jeremy pointed to Johan, his small group leader, “Johan is my best friend.”
This story touches me. It puts flesh on the 26 million children in the world with torn up and displaced lives. It shows that what the experts are saying is true. One caring adult can make all the difference in a child’s ability to cope and survive their life circumstances.
But that is not the only reason I am moved. I sense that God has a plan for Awana in 2017 and beyond. It involves a unique space in children’s lives that He is asking us to fill. What does Awana have in abundance? Caring adults. Every week 450,000 adults in over 120 countries show up to minister to 3.7 million children!
I take comfort from knowing that God is not surprised by this crisis in the lives of the world’s children. Sixty-seven years ago He creatively prepared a highly relational kid ministry, one with a high adult to child ratio to fill in the gaps for children. Awana, through the local church is the most stable, most present, most loving adult presence in thousands of child’s lives.
And whether these children are ever asked, “Who loves you besides Jesus?” they will know a place where they are loved, sheltered, treated with kindness, and where Jesus looks a lot like a caring adult who shows up in their lives every week.
Viral. That was the word they used.
Viral. That was the word they used to describe what they are seeing. When I attended Awana’s International Summit in Korea recently, our internationals were full of viral stories. They weren’t describing the movement of a super bug or spread of disease, but rather the movement of God’s spirit in the world…revival starting with children.
What did they report?
- In Africa 1,366,955 kids are coming to Awana clubs. That’s a 38% growth over last year.
- South Asia, including India, has nearly a million clubbers with also a 38% FY growth.
- China is experiencing a 41% FY growth.
- Latin America is up 51% over last year.
If these were stocks experiencing this kind of growth, we would be rushing out to buy them. From my vantage place in the kingdom growth is approaching revival levels in some parts of the world.
Let’s talk about Vietnam for a moment.
In just four years Vietnam has gone from no children to 47,500 clubbers. The leaders from Vietnam told us it is common for a club to run 500 kids with all of them coming to Christ.
“Are they coming as individuals, or en masse?” I asked.
“Both.” they said but then added, “It’s the strangest thing. When they come to Christ, they fall down on their knees…not something that is usually done in the Vietnamese Culture.”
“Why do you think they are doing that?” I wondered.
They answered. “After years of communism the hope they are finding in Jesus is just overwhelming.”
What are we seeing? What are the reports indicating to us? We may not know what to call it, but the Spirit of God is alive, moving and well as children all over the world are coming to know, love and serve Jesus.
Whatever your vantage point is in the kingdom, we hope this viral report gives you great encouragement and hope in your own world.
Words are shifty things—they morph. Time messes with their meaning.
For instance the word meat used to mean all food; but now it means just edible animal product.
In Roman times addicts were debtors who sold themselves into slavery to the people to whom they owed money. But by the 1600s its definition broadened to mean enslavement to someone or some practice.
Then look what happened to the word awful. In the 1300s awful originally meant inspiring wonder and was a short version of full of awe. But now…well, it’s awful what happens to some words.
So, in light of languages ability to morph, I would like to nominate a couple of words for a meaning makeover—an upgrade, a lift, a redo.
Look at the words volunteer and amateur. See how they shrink in the shadows of a word like professional—which is loaded with greater perceived value and prestige. But let’s reexamine. A volunteer chooses to enter into service of his or her own volition, free will and without pay. The word amateur comes from the Latin word “amo” which means to love. Amateurs are the ones who do something for the pure raw love of it!
For the love of children, all across the world this week, volunteers and amateurs will show up to run children’s programs in churches, Sunday School classes and mid-week ministries.
Because she cares, a young mom will hurriedly feed boxed mac and cheese to her own kids so she can make it to church this Wednesday night to grease the skids of the children’s ministry at church.
A man will rush home from work, wishing he had more time to prepare his lesson for the children he will shepherd before the day is through. He hopes he’s doing enough.
Everywhere this week people will turn down invitations to a night out with friends to keep their regular commitment to the kids at church. Instead, they will drive the church bus to pick up children in outlying neighborhoods and drop them off for kids’ programs at church. They will greet and register children with welcoming smiles and high fives. They will lead games and sing silly songs to delight children. As they teach and listen, they will take children into their hearts and surround them with prayer and care. Then they will top it all off with ice cream or cookies and candies. Then they will repeat it all again the next week.
And more. This week global volunteers will take hope into slums, refugee camps and places unnamed but all sharing the common characteristic of danger. They will reach out to kids who are hungry, oppressed and forgotten by an achy world. They will meet resistance, intimidation and threat… all to help kids come to know, love and serve Jesus.
Volunteers are my heroes. They are the secret sauce that brings hope to this achy world. They are the unmatched global force of love and caring. That’s why the word volunteer needs to include the idea of being held in high regard. Weekly, these amateurs bring it all…their hearts, their enthusiasm, their dedication and their high prioritization of their time and focus.
So let’s morph the word volunteer to mean hero—for that’s what these people actually are. A million thanks to you volunteers. And I literally mean a million! Soak in my words as an enormous appreciation from me for the more than 400,000 Awana volunteers across the globe who work with 3.5 million children every week. Thanks for giving your heart, your life, your all. I hold you in high esteem!
Your awesome faithfulness, enthusiasm, dedication, love and in some cases bravery is so enormous it can’t even be measured.
If you’re a volunteer, take this appreciation into your heart.
And, if you know another hero who needs to be thanked…pass this along when you tell them you couldn’t agree more.
Or if you’re not yet a volunteer…think of investing your life for something you will love…open your heart wide and become a volunteer.
There was a lot of clutter noise in the world this week: pampered American Olympic swimmers behaving badly in Brazil (and lying about it,) political noise that most of us hoped the Olympics would drown out for a blessed while, firestorms in the west and dust storms in Arizona, flooding in Louisiana.
And buried beneath this global noise, news surfaced –at first far from the front page and the international press corps convened in Rio—news from the four and five-year-old world.
His five-year old face stares out beneath a mask of blood. He is obviously in shock, past crying, rescued after an hour of digging to free him from his Syrian home turned rubble by bombing. His face looks unsure . . . as if his deliverance into a world gone war-mad might not be such a good thing after all.
Omran. You break our hearts. You are too young to carry the weight of our insane adult world on your small dust and blood covered shoulders! We cry out for the children of the world caught up in our adult hatred and wars. Oh God! Omran is every child. We want to take him in our arms as if he were our own and comfort him. We want his innocence restored. We want him safe and protected. Still, I thank God for giving us this image. Omran, stunned and covered in blood, woke us up to the fragility of a child’s life in a war zone.
Then a friend, Pastor Shawn Thornton, sent me this news report. The headline from the Washington Post shouts domestic evil if ever I’ve seen one: A 4-year-old found beaten and abused said she thought her name was ‘Idiot,’ according to police.
Covered in bruises, a black eye and ligature marks on her wrist from being zip-tied for punishment, this little girl suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. When this wounded child was asked by police her name she actually told them, “Idiot.”
The boyfriend said he thought calling her Idiot was a joke.
In 2012 child protective services report 3.4 million children were abused or neglected. 80 percent of the perpetrators were parents.
Oh God! This is the American child. A vulnerable little girl (not much more than a baby) in the merciless hands of sadists, awakens us to her unthinkable every day horrors. We want to rename her Cherish, or Precious or Jewel. We know this child. She is a neighbor, a school mate; the child we sometimes suspect is not OK at home, the child attending an Awana club with a friend.
That’s the sad, sad news from the four and five-year-old world. The world should pay more attention. It should care more and stop the madness that costs thousands of children’s lives or well-being.
The news from the four and five -year-old world this week was not good. But if we are paying attention it will drive us to our knees. It is a week to say a prayer, to cry a tear. It is a week to take the disgust, anger and repulsion you feel and reach out to a child in need somewhere in the world or right next door.
Lately I’ve been asked a lot of similar questions:
“Has it been hard?”
“Are you overwhelmed?”
“Are you feeling exhausted?
Since taking the leadership role of CEO at Awana Clubs International, friends often wonder if I am surviving such a large responsibility. No wonder.
My answer is simple.
I tell them, “Yes. All of the above. But most of all, It feels like coming home.”
It seems to me, at least, that I’ve been coming home to this place most of my life. When I was in 7th grade a guidance counselor asked me the standard question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a lawyer for children,” I answered, feeling an urgent gnawing inside.
She said, “There is no such thing.”
“Well,” I asked, in surprise, “who fights for children?”
I grew up, forgot that conversation, became a teacher, a singer, a wife and mother.
On weekends I would travel to places singing. I thought I would do that for the rest of my life until one awful weekend. 4,000 women had gathered on the east coast to hear a famous national speaker. I was to provide special music for the weekend, including a large concert on Saturday night.
At 6:00 Friday night there was a knock on my hotel room door. Standing outside in the hallway was the conference committee. They looked sick. “We have a problem. The famous speaker’s plane is grounded, she won’t get here until tomorrow. Do you think you could do your concert tonight . . . in an hour?”
What choice did I have? So, with a few minutes of practice (with two women sitting at a piano to accompany me) we tried to pull off a concert. I never even had the time to ask, “Why are there two women accompanying me?”
To put it mildly, we pretty much stunk. Truthfully, we were just plain awful. The accompanist struggled to stay with me. I became rattled and forgot words to songs I had sung for years. Afterward, we escaped the hotel and went to a place where no one would know us to grab something to eat. We were laughing at our humiliating, thrown-into-being-heroes experience.
With tears running down my face, I finally asked, “How come both of you were playing for me tonight?”
One of them started speaking. “I used to be an accomplished pianist, but treatment for breast cancer has left my left arm paralyzed. I was just sitting beside my friend tonight trying to help her stay in the right place.”
Oh yes, Valerie, I thought. This is just the frosting on tonight’s craziness cake. This woman could be dying! And here you two are, hanging out and laughing your heads off! What a spunky gritty one she was! She touched me deeply.
The next day the famous speaker made it to the meetings, but she paled compared to the music. My new friend played a trumpet solo. She explained that when cancer robbed her ability to play the piano, she’d asked God, “You’ve given me all this musical ability, isn’t there an instrument I can still play?” The trumpet is such an instrument. She played it beautifully, as if she had been playing it all her life.
On the airplane returning home from that disastrous weekend, my body was shaking as I settled into my seat. “Oh God . . .” I prayed. “What was that about?”
Immediately my new amazing friend, the one-handed trumpeter came to mind. I saw her bending to God’s purposes for her life, lifting her trumpet in praise to the heavens and doing his work in the world in the way that most glorified God.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I sensed God asking me, “Valerie, will you bend to me? Will you let me tell you want I need you to be in this world?” Again, that urgent gnawing was so strong.
It wasn’t long after that I began to write. The books and publishers came to me and I bent, unsure of where it was all leading, only aware that God was changing my definition of who I thought I was.
Today I am keenly aware that, once again, he has asked me to bend my plans to his. Leading a wonderful ministry at this stage of my life was not on my bucket list. God has asked me to change my plans, and at this late date, my definition of my place in the kingdom. This calling came with that same familiar urgent gnawing feeling.
Perhaps he is asking the same thing of you and of Awana. Do you feel the urgency? Will we bend to him? Will we let him tell us who he needs us to be in this world today?
Might he be asking us to be the ones to fight for children?
Are we being asked to bend our messaging to his heart?
Is he asking us to speak prophetically to the church about the needs of children, increasing their desire to want more for their kids, more for their church and more for God’s kingdom?
Are we being asked to bend our hearts to be in sync with him?
Might he be asking us to fall in love with kids again, to fall in love with club again so that his enormous capacity to love kids would grow in our own hearts . . . and then flow from our hearts to our country and the world?
Are we being asked to bend our passion to fall in love with our mission again?
Might he be asking us to follow him across the world wherever he leads so that children will have a biblical foundation to face whatever evil may arise in an increasingly dark world?
I believe, in the coming years, that is what we will get to do . . . bend to God’s purposes and definitions of who we are.
We will step up to fight for children. We will love with God’s heart and message that passion to a 21st century global church.
And we will get to that together, in God’s way, bending to his purposes as God’s people . . . one-armed trumpeters, you could say, the ones who fight for children.
Looking back on the past four months I have become highly aware that God is still in the surprise business. Somehow, in God’s mysterious plan for my life, I have gone back to work, leading a wonderful ministry called Awana. As my pastor wrote me, “Well, I didn’t see that coming…”—nor did I or a lot of other people. It’s as if a big holy “Surprise, I’m not done with you yet!” was shouted from heaven at me by God himself.
I am beyond thrilled, enjoying the challenge and surrounded by a great team of people who love the Lord and children. This is my kind of place! Awana Clubs International is a 65-year-old ministry and the Global Leader in Child Discipleship. We serve more than 3.1 million children weekly in 115 countries through more than 42,300 church partners worldwide.
The scope is large, but I have found that God is in the small details (to put a holy twist on an old adage.) Every week amazing stories from across the globe come across my desk. These stories bring me to tears, make me laugh, or humble me…in that God has given me a front row seat to His extraordinary work in the world.
The stories themselves seem to be indwelt by God in amazing ways.
Recently, I was with a Canadian donor in Vancouver. I spoke about Judah Mooney, a man in South America (I couldn’t remember the exact country) who decided to take Awana to a tribe living deep in the jungle. The area was so remote that people didn’t even speak Spanish. They were tribal people cut off from the world. There were no roads going to the villages along this river. You can imagine the setting.
Travelling along in the boat, Judah finally came to a place where a village existed. He landed his boat and walked into the clearing and, to his amazement, in the center of the village there was an Awana game circle! The local pastor explained in broken Spanish that he had attended our recent Seed Planters training in the North. He had walked for days to attend and afterward brought Awana back to the villages along the river for all the children in the area. That training was put on by Jesus Responds as a part of a strategy to start Awana in 400 churches in two years.
The pastor blew a whistle and children began running to the game circle from the forest. It wasn’t Awana time but the kids knew the whistle meant Awana was on nonetheless. Judah watched the kids run around doing Awana games as though their club had been going for a long time. Afterward the pastor said he was so thrilled with Awana that he was planning to plant a church, two hours walk up river, using Awana as the primary vehicle.
Amazing story, right? Well there’s more . . .
When I finished telling the story, our Canadian Executive Director, Jon Imbeau, smiled and asked, “Valerie, didn’t that happen in Paraguay?”
“Oh, that’s right…I remember now, it was Paraguay.”
There was a pregnant pause. Then Jon spoke.
“Well, Valerie, this donor gave the money for the Seed Planters training in Paraguay!”
“No way!!” We all smiled; the donor with sudden awareness of the ROI on the money he didn’t spend on himself; the Executive Director wondering how I knew to tell THAT story; and the newbie CEO aware that a special holy moment had just happened. I opened my mouth and a God-indwelt story precisely fit for the moment came out!
Well, I didn’t see that coming! The God of surprises is ordering my days.
Oh God, what next? Bring it on…I’m ready and waiting! If God can use a Canadian donor to bring Jesus to a remote tribe in Paraguay and then bring that story back to Canada in such a surprising way, what might he have in store for you and me in the coming days?
My parents and grandparents have been gone for decades, but it is amazing how the Christmases of my childhood have stuck.
Gram, my maternal grandmother, was a professional seamstress. Christmas gifts from her were a winter’s supply of flannel nightgowns, or men’s briefs she mischievously decorated with zigzag hearts. I remember her laughter when my father opened his. Every year he was a little embarrassed. Every year his mother-in-law enjoyed her little joke at his expense.
I remember their laughter and conviviality. It has stuck with me all these years.
My Aunt Bon, Gram’s daughter, had a glamorous side. She loved the holidays and showered her love on us by gifting us with Christmas trees . . . but not just ordinary trees. They were blue or white flocked ones, even a metal one that rotated in projected lights. We were fashion forward for our times!
I remember the extravagant deck-the-halls beauty and fa-la-la love she brought our family. Every family needs an Aunt Bon.
Our father was a church Minister of Music and a college voice professor. This meant our front door was a magnet for musicians. During the Christmas season, choir members and college students dropped by to carol for us. Some nights I drifted to sleep with the sound of my parent’s friends singing around the piano downstairs.
Joy to the World . . . Silent Night . . . Away in a Manger.
I remember the comfort of those ancient carols that cradle the world with hope. Their voices wafted up to the bedroom I shared with my younger brother. I have never since heard them rendered as sweetly.
So here is my confession: The world seems like a dark place this Christmas, not at all like the Christmases of my childhood memories. Daily we cope with sickening videos of police brutality coming at us in unending waves on the nightly news. Global terrorism’s evil is ever closer to home. Anger is the bedrock of our political discourse. Fear has closed our hearts to the “huddled masses longing to be free.”
And into this confusion enter my precious grandchildren—five of the dearest humans in the world to me.
I wish I could change the world they are inheriting. If possible, I would put a bubble around them and shield them from harm. Really, I would. Their Christmas presents are waiting for them, but I’m aware I offer them in hopes of brightening the world for a day, like frosting on a burnt cake.
They will forget these presents no doubt. But I hope some things stick from the Christmases of their childhoods. I hope they will receive a legacy from me. I want them to remember the courage their grandparents’ Christian faith took in these dark days. Let them remember our laughter in the face of evil. Let them recall how we celebrated family and refocused our lives from despair to hope in remembrance of our Savior’s birth. May they know we never lost sight of God’s good intentions for our ever-hurting world.
So grandparents . . .
Bring on the carols and refuse to let fear muffle our joy!
Gather together in sweet bonds of family and friendship!
Fa-la-la and deck-the-halls in defiance of the hatred in the world that would destroy all that is beautiful!
Proclaim faith to your little ones and by so doing shatter the darkness surrounding us with a million points of lights shining from homes of Christian faith this Christmas.
Like our parents before us, who also lived in a world of unthinkable evil, let us be sure in faith, unwavering in hope, trusting in God enough to have exceedingly great joy this Christmas season.
Your grandchildren are equally dear to you, I know. Leave them a faith legacy. It is the gift that lasts their lifetimes.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to me
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men
To read more practical and inspiring thoughts on grandparents and grandchildren at Christmas, please follow the following links by my friends and founding members of the Legacy Coalition--Grandparenting that Matters movement.