Friday, April 30, 2021

Change of Plans...Nepal April 2021

A man’s heart plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps. Proverbs 16:9

This may seem like an appropriate Scripture to describe much of this past year. It is certainly a comfort to know that the Lord is before us and behind us and by our side to direct our steps. He directs them in such a way to serve His ultimate purpose of bringing us to be with Him forever to gather around His throne in worship for eternity. 

It is not always for us to understand or explain why things don't go the way we have planned. This is true in so many areas of life. When earthly explanations fail to materialize, this is when our Savior's faithfulness is such a comfort! Faith provides us the strength and resolve to say and believe what our loving Lord has promised and made clear...

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8–9

"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11

He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love... Colossians 1:13

These last couple of weeks have proven to be a challenge for me as I have struggled with the debate in my own mind about the Lord's wisdom versus my plans. As my sinful flesh rears its ugly opinions and doubts, I have questioned God's ways and wisdom in allowing me to travel to Nepal only to have most of my scheduled activities and plans canceled.

I have waited more than a year to begin the work of visiting, encouraging, and assisting our fellow Christians around the world with the goal of training more faithful preachers and teachers of God's saving Word. Several weeks ago now I received notice that Nepal had begun issuing visas again. So I eagerly and immediately began to research the possibilities of travel to Nepal again. It didn't take long before I was convinced that this was looking very possible. I sent off my application to the Nepali embassy in Washington, DC thinking that this was the first step and if not approved, then I would know that a visit to Nepal just wasn't yet meant to be. The application was sent with prayers for the Lord's blessings that if it was His will for me to visit Nepal, then the visa would be granted. About three and half weeks later I received a package from the Nepali embassy in the mail. I didn't even wait to bring it into the house before tearing the package open to flip through my passport to see if indeed the Lord had answered my prayer in the affirmative. And sure enough, there it was, a thirty-day visa to be used within the next ninety days. I was excited and relieved that some of the crazy and frustration brought on by the pandemic was finally starting to diminish and maybe this would be the beginning of several more trips overseas soon. 

I purchased airfare that I had been pricing the past few weeks that very same day and began the two-week countdown to departure. The only hurdle that still remained was a negative Covid test within seventy-two hours of departure. My flight was scheduled to leave on a Sunday evening so I scheduled the Covid test for Friday morning. Here was another chance, I thought, for the Lord to bring my plans to a screeching halt if He didn't want me to go. But later that day, the results came back negative and it looked like I was ready to roll. Now, all I had to do was get through the next couple of days, spend 40+ hours in travel and layovers, and then a five-day quarantine once I arrived in Nepal. 

Raju had a busy schedule all laid out for us that would include pastoral training seminars in four districts of the Himalayan Church of the Lutheran Confession of Nepal (HCLCN) along with a long-postponed graduation/ordination service for the graduates of Himalayan Bible Institute (HBI) who had successfully completed their three years of training. 

Everything seemed to start out so well as I was allowed to leave the Kathmandu (KTM) valley a couple of days early to finish my quarantine in a less populated area. This allowed us to make our way west to the city of Pokhara where we were treated to some incredible early morning views of the Annapurna range of the Himalaya. Stunning doesn't even begin to capture the majesty of God's glory in the most prominent peak of this range called Machhapuchhre or Mt. Fishtale. As the early morning sun begins to rise and shine on the western slopes of this majestic mountain peak I can't, at the moment, think of a more beautiful place on this planet.

Machhapuchhre (English: Mt. Fishtale)

Annapurna Range of the Himalaya from Pokhara

Everything seemed to be going according to "our" plans as we made our way to the Chitwan District after a short stay in Pokhara. Chitwan is a district that is somewhat centrally located to the other districts of the HCLCN. This is where the first seminar and the HBI graduation service were to be held. I was officially done with my five-day quarantine when we first began hearing rumblings about the government reinstating Covid restrictions and possibly another lockdown. We joked that it would be ironic if a lockdown was imposed the very day I have finished the mandatory quarantine and I was officially free to roam the country. 😕

It wasn't long before we began to get word from the districts further west that the local governments had already decided to restrict gatherings and travel to and from these districts in an attempt to keep the virus from spreading to their mostly unaffected regions. This included the canceling of all business meetings, seminars, religious gatherings, and school classes. Hindu religious priests would still be allowed to practice daily rituals but no gatherings. All of this meant that we would not be traveling to the districts to the west following the HBI graduation and seminar as we had planned. 

The next announcement we heard was that leaders of the Chitwan District had issued an immediate order that no gatherings of more than twenty-five will be allowed. This would be a change of plans for the graduation and seminar that was scheduled for the next day. Raju began making phone calls. After talking to his father, brother, and several HCLCN leaders and pastors, it was determined that the thirteen graduates should continue to make plans to attend and that we would limit the number of visitors and other HCLCN pastors who would attend to keep the number of attendees at twenty-five. It was also decided to provide funding so that those coming from other districts could rent a vehicle and driver rather than rely on public transportation (buses) that might be shut down before they were able to return home.

The next bit of information we received all but nixed all of our plans as the government announced full lockdowns on all major cities and a halt to all public transportation beginning the next day at 6pm. In practical terms, this meant that we had just enough time for a half-day seminar and graduation service to allow all the attendees who had traveled a distance to leave by noon so they could return to their homes before the lockdown was scheduled to begin. 

I got up early the next morning to spend some time with my teaching notes as I realized that I would need to whittle down two days' worth of material into about two hours. 

Early morning view from the hotel balcony as I reviewed/revised my teaching notes for the day.

The seminar certainly didn't go as I had planned and the graduation was rushed, but in the end, God's truth was taught, thirteen men graduated and were sent into the public ministry as faithful preachers and teachers of God's saving word. 

For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10–11

2nd Graduating Class of the Himalayan Bible Institute of the HCLC-Nepal

Graduates, Pastors, and Visitors at the Pastoral Training Seminar

Everything else we had planned was canceled due to the government-issued lockdown orders.  And with that, my work in Nepal was finished. I had traveled half the way around the world, spent five days in quarantine, traveled several hours by car through the winding, bumpy, dusty, traffic-filled, traffic-jammed roads through the Himalayan foothills to teach for two hours and assist in handing out graduation/ordination certificates. Not exactly what I had in mind!



With all the other seminars canceled and having just one day to get back to Kathmandu before all travel in and out of the valley would be shut down, we made plans to leave the next morning to get an early start on the three-to-four hour trip back to KTM. The afternoon and next morning provided the opportunity to visit the HCLCN/HBI building project that is located in the Chitwan district not far from where the graduation and seminar were held. Praise God for this and for the progress that is being made despite the challenges that the pandemic has presented. This building is being partially funded through a grant from the CLC Mission Development Fund. Construction has been slow and the completion timeframe has been extended by about two months, but they hope to be moved in and conducting HBI classes by October. Continue to pray for the Lord's blessings on this project for the furtherance of His kingdom in Nepal.




Raju...in what will eventually be the HBI main classroom

We planned for a few extra hours of travel for the trip back to KTM assuming that traffic would be heavy as everyone tried to make their way out of the city to escape the upcoming lockdown. Little did we know that our trip would take more than ten hours and we would spend hours waiting in traffic jams. As soon as we were checked and questioned by the military or police at the KTM checkpoint it seemed that the traffic jams, cars, and trucks suddenly and almost completely disappeared. Everyone who had the means and somewhere else to go seemed to have left in an attempt to avoid the lockdown. And when they say lockdown in Nepal, they mean it. They don't mess around. All stores are closed, everyone is required to stay in their homes, there is no public or private transportation allowed, and only emergency vehicles are allowed on the streets. 

Vehicles in Nepal all have different colored license plates. Private vehicles have red plates. There are no red plates allowed on the roads during the lockdown. The only vehicles on the road are emergency, police, and a limited number of pre-paid taxis that have been issued a special permit, displayed on their dashboard, for transporting people to and from hospitals and the airport. 

I've been sitting in a hotel for the past day and a half now since Raju dropped me off late Wednesday evening. Since he is not allowed to leave his home except for food and groceries until the lockdown is lifted I won't be seeing him again until I am able to return...probably not until early 2022. So it was a strange and quick goodbye knowing that I would still be here in KTM for another three days but we would not be able to see each other. I had hoped to see his wife and son and to meet their new baby boy Joshua, but by the time we finally arrived in KTM Wednesday night, it was too late. Disappointing, but that's the way it had to be.

Since I am required to produce a negative Covid test no more than 72 hours before departure to be able to fly back to the U.S. I had to figure out how I was going to get this done without Raju's help. I asked the clerk at the hotel desk about this when I checked in and was told that they would be happy to schedule a test for me the next morning. They informed me that they had done this many times since they are close to the airport. She said that someone from the clinic would come to the hotel to collect the sample. Sounded much easier than I had anticipated. So, I ate a little snack, checked my email, and went to sleep for the night. The next morning I went to the desk to get my test scheduled. I was told that the government is no longer allowing Covid test samples to be collected at hotels during the lockdown and that I would need to find a facility on my own. They gave me a list of about twenty hospitals and clinics to call and told me that many of them were probably not open for testing since the virus was spiking and many hospitals were at or nearing capacity. I went to my room and began making calls. The first few places I called were either completely booked or they told me that there were already several hundred in line waiting for the test and I should come quickly to get in line. Then the hotel room phone rang and the front desk clerk informed me that she had just arranged a pre-paid taxi for three foreigners who were leaving soon for a Covid test. She suggested that maybe I could ask them where they were going. So I hustled down to the lobby and found them waiting for the taxi to arrive. It was a group of photo-journalists who had just arrived here last week to work on a documentary on high altitude aquatic life in mountain rivers, streams, and lakes of the Himalaya. Their trip had been cut short too. Two of them were returning to France and one was returning to Dubai. The journalist from Dubai spoke good English and told me that he had been online and on the phone trying to find a test location all morning. The one they were going to was at a very good hospital in town and he was told that there were only a few people in line. The taxi arrived soon after that, we hopped in, and off we went. There was no traffic and no one on the streets except the police. We were stopped and the driver's credentials and permit were checked at almost every intersection. It was an eery ride through streets that were familiar to me but strange with zero traffic and no horns constantly honking as I have always, always experienced before. 

We got to the hospital and sure enough, there were only about four or five people in line. We filled out our forms, paid the 2100 Rupees ($17), made our way through the registration process, and then had our sample collected. It only took about thirty minutes. 


There was a little store located on the hospital campus that sold food, drinks, and toiletries so I was able to purchase a few things to snack on for the next couple of days. 

On our way back to the hotel I thanked the journalist (and the Lord) for doing my research for me! I received the results of the test by email this morning and they came back negative. So, other than waiting another thirty hours or so, I am ready to go home. 

It's been a frustrating and disappointing couple of weeks and I certainly am not thrilled with going home a week early and not accomplishing all that was scheduled for my time here in Nepal. 

I have this feeling gnawing at my heart that all of this has just been a big waste of time and resources and perhaps I was too hasty in my decision to make this trip. And maybe I shouldn't have rushed things and I should have been more patient. But at the same time, I have been encouraged and comforted as the Lord reminds me that this, along with all things, has been and continues to be in the His loving hands...the same hands that were nailed to the cross to pay for my sins and the sins of the whole world. Knowing that His love and faithfulness willingly went through the suffering and death of the cross to save His enemies from eternal destruction as He held nothing back to accomplish my salvation overwhelms me with the privilege it truly is to be called by Him and to simply follow Him, serve Him, leave all things to His direction, and patiently and completely trust that His will is being done and His kingdom is coming according to His plan...and thankfully, not mine.
  
So, what are God's purpose and plan in all the frustration and changing of my plans and the canceling of worship services and Bible training seminars? I'm not sure that I can answer that question with any specificity. I do know that I have been encouraged in my faith as I've had extra time to read my Bible these past couple of weeks. I have had the privilege of discussing God's word and will with Raju at length as we've spent hours and hours together in travel. I've had the joy and privilege of teaching God's word (even if it was only for two hours) to individuals who are eager to hear, and learn, and grow in their understanding of God's word that they may better serve the Lord in their calling and vocation as pastors and evangelists. I've been humbled and overjoyed to see and be a part of the graduation and ordination of thirteen men who have sacrificed much over the past few years to dedicate themselves to classes and study so they would be better equipped to preach and teach the truth of God's saving Word in a land that is overwhelmingly held captive in the darkness of unbelief and idolatry. I have been encouraged by these very men who came to be taught and encouraged by me!

Would I change how things went the past couple of weeks if I could? Probably, because I have this old sinful flesh that still wants to call the shots. I'm also deeply disappointed that I didn't get to spend more time with so many of the amazing people I have come to know and love in Nepal. And I didn't get to meet Raju and Sanju's new son Joshua. 

Am I thankful and full of reasons to rejoice to have been a part of these past two weeks as I've experienced the unfurling of God's plan for me to be encouraged in my faith and to encourage others through the teaching of His word? Yes, I am! Why? Because I am God's own child, I will gladly say it...I am baptized into Christ! This means that through His life, death, and resurrection, I am redeemed, restored, and forgiven and the new heart that my Savior has given to me has replaced that cold, dead heart of sin and unbelief. This new heart, and His love dwelling in me, alone leads me to rejoice always in Him. This new and living heart also finds contentment and purpose in His faithfulness and the forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that only He can and did and does provide. What a privilege to serve Him!!!!

By His grace...

...I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me. Psalm 13:5–6 


God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!

He, because I could not pay it, gave my full redemption price.

Do I need earth’s treasures many?  I have one worth more than any

That brought me salvation free, Lasting to eternity!


Sin, disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ!

I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.

Should a guilty conscience seize me, since my baptism did release me

In a dear forgiving flood, sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?


Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!

Drop your ugly accusation; I am not so soon enticed.

Now that to the font I’ve traveled, all your might has come unraveled,

And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!


Death, you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ!

When I die, I leave all sadness to inherit paradise!

Though I lie in dust and ashes faith’s assurance brightly flashes:

Baptism has the strength divine to make life immortal mine.


There is nothing worth comparing to this lifelong comfort sure!

Open-eyed my grave is staring: Even there I’ll sleep secure.

Though my flesh awaits its raising, still my soul continues praising:

I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of paradise!

© 1991 Robert E. Voelker 

Title:God's Own Child, I Gladly Say It
German Title:Lasst mich voll Freuden sprechen
Author:Erdmann Neumeister








Thursday, April 22, 2021

Sent to Nepal...APR/MAY 2021

It was a little over a year ago that I was scheduled to make my annual visit to Nepal but as we all now know, nothing about 2020 went as planned. After being detained by India Immigration and eventually having my visa revoked and then deported I returned home for a few weeks before heading to the D.R. Congo in late February. It wasn't long after that the world shut down and Nepal closed its borders to all visitors...the trip was canceled.

Phote Cred...Raju
Photo Cred...Raju

Fast forward to today and here I am riding out a mandatory five-day (?) quarantine in Kathmandu. After 40+ hours of air travel and long layovers, a couple of days of quarantine, and lots of sleep, I am more than ready to get things rolling. And it looks like that might happen a couple of days sooner than I had anticipated. Let me explain...before leaving the U.S. I spent a lot of time researching what I needed to do to get my visa, purchase airfare, and actually travel to and be allowed to enter Nepal. It would seem that all of my research has paid some dividends. The official Nepal Covid response website led me to a link that listed all the necessary steps for visiting Nepal. It was only about five weeks ago that they began offering visas again so everything on the website had been updated. Requirements included a negative PCR Covid test no more than 72 hours before departure, a pre-paid reservation at a government quarantine-approved hotel, and I had to fill out an online government Covid 19 health tracking form. This form required proof of a hotel reservation at one of the several hotels listed. The form was to be printed out in duplicate with the barcode clearly displayed. All of this paperwork was verified at check-in in St. Louis and again in Chicago and one more time before I boarded the flight from Doha to KTM. The KTM airport has no jetways so the plane simply parks on the tarmac and the passengers walk from the plane to the terminal and proceed to the immigration hall to begin the chaotic process of obtaining a visa and then being cleared by an immigration officer. I had read that Nepal was not offering visas on arrival due to Covid, I had applied and received my visa through the Nepal Embassy in Washington, DC through the mail. (it took nearly four weeks to process). As I walked from the tarmac to the terminal it became very evident that things were not like they had been the other dozen or so times I have been here. There were two lines of people waiting to get into the terminal. I was seated near the back of the plane so I was one of the last to get off. Most of the passengers seemed to be in the long line and only 5 or 6 were in the short line. In front of these two lines, there was a table with two medical personnel dressed like they were ready to go into surgery...masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, etc. I watched them as I approached and I could see that they were looking at everyone's paperwork and then determining which line they should go to. When I arrived at the table I had all my paperwork in order and the nurse scanned the barcode on the Covid tracking form I had filled out and took a copy and placed it in a big pile, she then looked at my hotel reservation and compared it to the form, and then scanned my Covid vaccine card and sent me to the short line with out asking me anything other than where I was from. I walked straight into the terminal without interruption, made my way to the immigration officer with no one ahead of me in line, and two minutes later I was waiting for my luggage, and a half-hour after that I was headed outside to be met by Raju. Easy Peasy!! Thank you Lord!!!

Now I have been sitting in this government-approved quarantine hotel (pretty nice digs by the way for $23/night) wondering if I am supposed to get a Covid test and if I am really required to stay for the full five days. From what I had read online, I had originally thought that I would be required to get another Covid test on arrival, and then if the results came back negative I would be cleared to go after five days. But once I was told to go to the short line at the airport not one more word about Covid was mentioned to me. I asked the front desk clerk at the hotel who checked me if she knew anything about it and she said that if the government wanted me to get tested they would have given me the paperwork. I think I am in the clear.

With Covid surging in India, the Nepal government has reinstated some lockdowns and restrictions that will prevent live worship here in KTM this weekend. Since broadcasting me preaching live on Facebook would bring unwanted attention and scrutiny to the local congregation, I will not be preaching here this weekend. The plan right now is to head out into the more rural areas of Nepal immediately following Raju's work on Saturday instead of waiting until Monday. This will shorten my quarantine by two days with the hopes that the government doesn't come to check on me.

Our agenda for the next couple of weeks will involve a lot of travel as we make our way out of the Kathmandu Valley and through the Himalayan foothills to visit several different districts of the HCLC-Nepal. We will conduct a pastoral training seminar with the students and graduates of the Himalayan Bible Institute on Tuesday. The next day will be the graduation and ordination service that has been postponed too many times over the past year. Wednesday we will travel to the next seminar location. Then a couple more days of travel as we make our way to the village of Siddi on top of a hill for worship on Saturday. Then another long day of travel to the Dang district for another seminar before we begin to make our way back to Kathmandu so I can get the required Covid test a couple of days before my departure. As usual, here in Nepal, there will be lots of travel as nothing comes easy on the steep and winding roads, trails, and paths that lead to HCLCN congregations. 

I am also super excited to see the progress on the new HCLCN/HBI building in the Chitwan area! 

HCLCN/HBI Building Project

There is some uncertainty about our plans as the government could reinstate travel restrictions between districts at any time if Covid cases begin to rise. One of the ways they have kept it from spreading here is to shut down borders between districts to keep people from passing back and forth. If this happens, I am not sure what we will do. Fortunately, our Savior knows exactly what the future holds and how everything will work out for those He has called. So my confidence is in Him and His perfect plan for my time here among my brothers and sisters of Nepal. Please keep all of this in your prayers, asking our Savior to clear the way of any obstacles in proclaiming the truths of His saving word and that His will be done!

I've met with Raju a couple of times since I have arrived but none of the other family members, friends, or church members yet. The government has limited the number of attendees at religious gatherings so I most likely won't get to see everyone this time around. On Saturday we will have a small gathering after church before we head out. I am excited to see Raju and Sanju's sons and the other kids!

One thing I have learned in my first couple of days here is that quarantine is not conducive to adjusting to a new time zone on the other side of the world. It's just too easy to sleep during the day and be awake all night long when there is nothing of importance going on. Hopefully, tonight is the night I get on track. 

Your prayers are requested and much appreciated!