Monday, September 26, 2011

When All Is Said And Done

Paul in the village of Noiadi, 2009
photo by Tim Harold
In a few hours, people will begin to gather in an open air structure at the foot of Mount Cyclops in Papua, Indonesia to thank God for the life Paul Westlund.  As many of you know, Paul died in an aircraft accident last Thursday.  For those who knew Paul, these past few days have held such profound sorrow.  There's not much one can say or do to mitigate the sadness of losing a friend...and I sense that God would have us fully embrace the sadness.  And yet, even as I do just that, I find my spirit encouraged and comforted by glimpses of the Master's redemptive hand beginning to use Paul's death to do some truly beautiful things.

One of the ways Paul would get his shoes muddy was using video to bring to life what God was doing at the very end of the earth for far-away-others to see.  Paul shot this video a number of years ago.

He'd want you to watch it with a soft and open heart.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Muddy Dancing Shoes

Paul took life's bumps with a smile.  He often said
"You just can't ruin my day."  We worked together
a full day on a misbehaving airplane back in March.
One of God's greatest gifts to His followers are the encouragers that He gives us.  Papua lost one of God's gifted encouragers on Thursday.  My friend and fellow pilot Paul Westlund perished in an aircraft accident, along with his two Papuan passengers.  Our hearts are heavy.  We do not grieve as those who have no hope...but we do grieve.  I ache for Paul's wife Lavonne, their grown daughter Joy, and their teenage son Mark.

As God now has Paul with Him, I suppose there's some danger for those of us left behind, that as we remember Paul, we glorify the person and God gets lost in all the accolades for the one He created.  But God also gave us each other to "spur one another on to love and good deeds," and as I remember Paul, that is exactly what my spirit is longing to do...follow the example that Paul set for me in so many ways.

Paul was without a doubt the most encouraging person I've ever been around.  God would plant harebrained ideas in Paul's head about how to love on someone and, unlike me, Paul gave the matter no further thought: he simply went out and did it.  He would walk into my office with no other purpose than to say a kind word to me...and then leave.

Can you read my favorite verse?  Langda 2007
Having worked with Paul for almost 14 years, I can say that he was one of the most upbeat and carefree people I've ever known.  One of his favorite parts of the life God gave him was participating in the celebrations when a people group received God's Word in their language for the first time.  At the celebration Paul would always get a copy of the newly printed Scriptures and begin grabbing everyone he came upon and ask them to read his favorite verse.  Then he'd have them sign their names in the front of the Bible.  His favorite verse?  I Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

Paul was locked into that amazing truth...God cares for us.  And what a gift that promise is to those of us left behind.

At the end of my last post, written four days before Paul's death, I wrote the following:

So I live my life here with the knowledge that my days on this planet are limited.  My opportunities to fully submit and follow hard after God, in this place, are numbered.  I can tread water until that day when my body quits, living an average life, on a pleasant path of my own choosing.  But what an opportunity I have to make the most of these short days to enjoy the adventure of following Him fully.
Paul fully enjoyed the adventure that God laid out for him.  He was just your average American, living an average American life, when a man walked into the motorcycle shop he was working at and challenged him to follow God into a life of missionary service.  Paul didn't give the matter another thought.  He dropped his tools and followed Jesus down the path.

How about you?  Is Jesus calling?  Are you giving it thought?  Or, are you, like Paul, ready to drop everything when the Master calls, and follow Him?

The path ahead?  Who knows.  That's what an adventure is all about.  You're following Jesus, not blazing your own trail.  His path is one of satisfaction and significance...a deep sense of meaning in a broken and chaotic world.

I'm convinced that God is calling more Paul Westlunds out from among His people.  Don't turn away in sadness like the rich young ruler...take a deep breath, get off your path, take Jesus' hand and follow Him.


If you've read this far, you may be wondering what does Muddy Dancing Shoes have to do with all this?  I'd like to leave you with a beautiful piece that my friend Scotty Wisley wrote yesterday.  I post this with Scotty's permission and his express desire that God get the glory.
Every time Paul Westlund landed his Porter in Bokondini I smiled.  He was one of the most positive, upbeat, enjoy-life-to-the-full guys I’ve ever met.   I never thought about it till yesterday, but it was sort of like he was dancing through life.  I would never think of him as a dancer.   Pretty much every time I saw him his shoes were muddy and he had part of his shirttail hanging out from a long day of work.  He would uncoil his lanky body out of the little cockpit and say something like “you should have seen the waves we had last Saturday, your brother got one of the longest rides I’ve ever seen.”  You didn’t have to spend much time with Paul to see that most of his enjoyment of life was cheering others on.  The next time he would land he would say “hey Scotty, I just had the coolest experience, I got to haul in a whole bunch of people for a Bible dedication in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere.  Those guys now have God’s word in their own language.  How cool is that that!!”
Paul often got his shoes muddy giving kids 'free flights.'
I don’t know how many times Paul has pulled us out of Bok.  Each time I looked forward to sitting next to him.  I was always drawn to Paul because of his positive attitude, I wanted  some of that to wear off on me.  I am so negative and critical and so easily discouraged and then comes Paul, brightening up my day and just showing me that it isn’t nearly as bad as I’ve made it out to be.  This last year Paul shared with me how he had been terribly hurt and wronged by a fellow missionary a number of years back.  He didn’t share enough details to make it gossip but he shared enough that I could see myself in his shoes.  Then he shared his path to forgiveness and how God freed him from lugging a load of anger and resentment.  He hadn’t always danced through life.  Paul’s positive attitude and joy were not just natural, it was a choice.  He intentionally chose how he was going to live and then he did it and we all benefited from that choice.
In The Mission the bishop dude says “this building of a paradise on earth, how easily it offends.”  One time when I was bitter and angry Paul showed up all happy and positive.  I laid into him.  “You are just happy cause you have everything you want.  You love your wife and there is nobody on earth you enjoy more than your son.  You live in a mansion, you have all the money you could want.  You get to surf every weekend and there is nothing you would rather do than be a jungle pilot.”  Paul just shrugged his shoulders, “what’s wrong with that?”  And Paul was right.  My theology that we are suppose to suffer and be miserable to somehow earn something or do penance had no place in Paul’s world.   Paul’s world was one of joy, a place where every set of shoes he owned were for dancing.
And those shoes have left footprints in all of our lives.  I don’t know how many tiny villages in the middle of nowhere Paul regularly landed at but he brought a little joy to each one.  Paul impacted the lives of many missionaries.  Maybe none are as bitter and angry as me but I know I want to be more like Paul.  I want to change shoes and get into a pair like what Paul wore.  Paul loved life.  His boy Mark was the apple of his eye and there are few kids on this earth who have had more great dad time than Mark enjoyed.   I didn’t really know Paul’s wife but he never said a negative thing about her and it was clear in every conversation that he loved and respected her.
When Paul died yesterday in his little plane with two passengers, I know he was bringing joy.  I know right now he has got on his dancing shoes before the King and he is doing what he did best on this earth.  He is cheering God on and totally enjoying his new life.   Paul Westlund danced through this life and he is still dancing.  I can just about see him leaning over to the guy next to him and saying, with that big smile on his face, “did you see what God just did?  How cool is that!!”
Please praise God for Paul’s life as a good husband, dad and jungle pilot here and please pray for his family and friends who grieve his death.  Please pray for the families of the two passengers who died with him.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Life Is Terminal

I wrote the following post on September 18...four days ago.  I woke up this morning to the news that one of our pilots, my good friend Paul Westlund, had perished in an aircraft accident in the mountains of Papua.  I'll post more about Paul in the near future...but for now, here are the words that I am reminding my stunned spirit are still as true today as they were four days ago. 


Recently Sheri and I spent part of an afternoon walking through an ancient cemetery in Stark, New Hampshire.  We wandered through the markers, reading the names, while a warm wind blew through the huge pines.  Fascinating.  Some folks didn't make it to their 9th birthday.  Some lived into their 90's.  Some of the gravestones, dated in the mid-1800's were so weather-worn they were hard to read.  Some markers were brand new.  Some people, judging by the size of the rocks stuck in the ground, were wealthy.  Some were poor.  Some were kids, some were soldiers.  All of their lives had one thing in common: they ended.

Why is it that the one thing I know with certainty will happen to me I spend so little time thinking about?  I know almost nothing about the future, but, intellectually at least, I know my days are numbered.  But my response to that knowledge isn't what it should be, I think.  If I knew for certain that a stock was going to rise 400% I think I'd probably spend some time rearranging my meager resources to try and make them less meager.  Knowledge of the future influences our actions today.  Yet, there's only one thing I really know will happen in the future and I don't let it have the influence on my day to day activities that it should.

Life on this planet is terminal.

To be a little more precise, life in the skins we're in is temporary.  Life itself isn't temporary...only our skins are.

Cameron, when he was around four, asked me what dying was.  I told him, 

Cameron, you will always be.  But someday, your body is going to stop working.

And I think this sense of continuity is what brings the proper perspective to death.  J.R.R. Tolkien blessed us with a few profound sentences when, at a particularly dire point in one of his stories, when there was almost certainly no hope, Gandalf turns to Pippin and says:

The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take.  

So I live my life here with the knowledge that my days on this planet are limited.  My opportunities to fully submit and follow hard after God, in this place, are numbered.  I can tread water until that day when my body quits, living an average life, on a pleasant path of my own choosing.  But what an opportunity I have to make the most of these short days to enjoy the adventure of following Him fully.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Two Murderers

note: this was originally written in November 2010

Final approach to Daboto is always an edge-of-your-seat affair. The short shelf of dirt rushes up at me at 75 miles an hour. Clouds on my left block the escape route. I’m committed to land.
Lord, help me not to bend this thing ... especially in front of all these people.
Seems like well over 100 Moi people have converged on the Daboto airstrip this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 20 here before.
Stepping out of the airplane, I see Rich and Karen walking up the airstrip. Funny, their feet don’t seem to be touching the ground. They are beaming. “What’s with all the people?” I ask.
“God is doing an amazing thing among the Moi!” says Rich with a face-splitting grin.
After years of language learning and preparation, the missionaries among the Moi were finally able to begin their chronological teaching through the Scriptures. They started with the creation story and were moving through the narratives to end up at the resurrection of Christ. People had come from all the far-flung hamlets of the Moi territory, some hiking five days to get there.
The initial plan was to have teaching sessions five days a week. Soon after beginning, though, the Moi insisted that the storying be done six days a week ... and they refused to return to their hamlets to tend their gardens and get food.
The people were literally going hungry so that they could hear the Good News.
On the day I arrived, they were finishing up the teaching of the Law ... and the Moi were profoundly convicted of their sins and convinced that they stood under God’s judgment. They were urgently pushing the process forward so that they could get to the part about the promised Redeemer they kept hearing mentioned in the stories.
“Nate, we’ve got all the people here, and I don’t think any of them understand why you came to them with the others in that first helicopter 10 years ago, and I don’t think they have a clue why you keep coming back here. Would you share your story with them so that they might understand what drives you?” Rich puts me on the spot.
Backtrack to the year 2000. I’m standing in a small clearing in the rainforest, high on a ridge in Moi territory, without another human being in sight. An hour earlier we’d gingerly dropped out of a helicopter onto a knife-edge ridge that a lightning strike and fire had cleared of trees. I’m waiting for my GPS to pick up a satellite fix. The rest of the team has hiked ahead, slowly clearing a path on a compass heading that we hope will someday turn into an airstrip to reach the Moi.
The hairs on the back of my neck rise as I sense that I am not alone.
I turn to find that a Moi man has crept up behind me without me ever hearing the slightest snap of a twig. I am the first outsider, the first white man Piato has ever seen. Now as I stand at the top of the Daboto airstrip, in a crowd of Moi, I turn and find, once again, that Piato is standing right behind me. I put my arm around this warrior, and my heart begins to speak while Rich translates into Moi.
“Some of you have murdered.” An image of Piato finishing off one of his wives with an axe flashes across my mind. “I have not killed. But I have hated others in my heart, and the Redeemer has said that I am guilty of murder—I lacked only the axe.”
One murderer embracing another, I continued.
“My heart was black, and I stood under the judgment of the Creator. But I have met the Redeemer, and He has paid my penalty for murder and washed my heart clean. This is why I have come. This is why I keep coming back. So that you also may meet this Redeemer and have Him carry off your sins ... that you may walk with Him in the light.”
I released Piato and picked up a tiny little boy at my feet, buck naked. Made in the image of the living God.
“I have come also because I have a dream that this little boy will be part of the first generation of Moi to grow up in the light, free from the constant fear and oppression of the evil spirits. The Redeemer will give you victory over the evil spirits. Please, listen to the stories and follow the Redeemer when you meet Him.”
Praise the Lord. The word we continue to hear out of Daboto is that the vast majority of the Moi are embracing Jesus and breaking free from bondage to evil spirits. The Light has come!
Watch testimonies of Moi people who committed their lives to Christ as a result of these teaching sessions. (Filmed by missionaries from New Tribes Mission, which helps plant churches among unreached people groups.)
Read more about the first contact with the Moi in "Getting There" ( Rev. 7, Spring 2006, pages 4–6).

Friday, September 9, 2011

What Dying Men Talk About

Imagine that you knew you only had a few hours left to live.

Imagine that you got to spend those last moments with Jesus.

In what has got to be one of the most fascinating interchanges in the entire Bible, Luke records the words of two men who got to do just that.  Two criminals hang on crosses, the life slowly seeping from their bodies as they pay for their crimes.  Between them hangs this Jesus, also dying.  You'll find these words in chapter 23:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:

"Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 

But the other criminal rebuked him. 
"Don't you fear God," he said, 
"since you are under the same sentence? 

We are punished justly, 
for we are getting what our deeds deserve. 
But this man has done nothing wrong."  

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 

Jesus answered him, 
"I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." 

In the chaos that led up to Golgotha, it's as if God handpicked these two men to die with Jesus to again show us the two ways men respond to Jesus.

The first bad guy, knowing that he has but a short time to live, doesn't soften his heart but remains hard and unbelieving.  His insults are laced with unbelief and his spine is stiff with unsubmission.   Men still approach God the same way.  

You're God, huh?  Prove it.  Heal my kid!  

We've got blood all over our hands but we approach God as if He owes us something.  The way to God is a faith that's marked by humility, brokenness and gratitude.

The second bad guy is, well, a bad guy.  But facing the end of his days he is much afraid.  And, he believes.  One simple statement, packed with meaning:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom

With these few profound words he recognizes that this really isn't the end--that there is something more waiting for him after he takes his last breath.  He also recognizes that Jesus is the true King.  And, in this same little sentence, he entrusts himself to Jesus, placing his eternal destiny into the hands of the man dying beside him.

One of the things that continually strikes me as I read the Gospels is who gets it, and who doesn't.  Most of the highly educated religious establishment of the day didn't get it.  Even this late in the story, it seems like some of Jesus' own disciples didn't get it.  A poor blind man on the road to Jericho got it.  And a dying convict got it.

No pit too deep.  No moment too late.

Monday, September 5, 2011


I'm reading Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion in chapters 22 & 23 of his book.

Sometime sit down and read this story like you've never heard it before.  Chaos is in absolute control.  Ever been to a riot?  I've been up close and personal with a few in some of the far corners of the world.  Reading Luke's story I get that same pit of the stomach sense of something taking on a scary life of its own, with no idea of where this thing is headed next, but knowing that it's going to be awful.

Out of control.  I know that if I had been a groupie through the night and morning that Luke describes, I would have been convinced that God was nowhere in the neighborhood.  Random chaos.

And yet...millenia before the night of chaos, God had carefully thought through an audacious plan to pick up the tab for the sins of the world by allowing a mob scene to throw Him up on a cross.  In the middle of events spinning out of control God was there.

And this brings great comfort to my soul.  It reminds me that when my life feels like chaos and I know instinctively that God has vanished because He certainly wouldn't be party to the looting, burning and teargas that's shredding my life...He is there.  I know this to be true, because when the smoke cleared three days later, the most beautiful thing had happened.  The world, quite literally, was a different place.

Looking back on those lost times of chaos in my own life, I'm prone to think that it is precisely the dark nights of chaos in my life, when God seems to have gone AWOL, that produce the most profound and positive changes.

God is there.