“O, GIVE THANKS UNTO THE LORD…FOR HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER” Psalm 136:1
As another year draws to a close, we have so much to be thankful for in 2016. As Thanksgiving gives way to Christmas celebrations, we need to not leave our giving of thanks behind just because November has turned to December.
THANKING GOD FOR MINDANAO
This year has been a time of great blessing and provision for Mindanao. Through your generosity we were able to build churches in tribal area. New churches have been planted in Kiamba in Sarangani, Prosperidad in Agusan, Amaga in Surigao del Sur, and Mati City in Davao Oriental. The churches in Panabo, Tubod, and Samal Island continue to grow and prosper, and a new Bible school has been established in Tagbena. With your help, we have been able to repair and upgrade all our established churches because the people on the ground were eager to do their part and you helped supply their lack. We were also able to acquire land for a church in Davao City itself.
Our Philippine Director Albert Asang and the Church Planting Team led by Pastor Ernie Balong wore out their motorcycles traveling all over Mindanao planting new congregations, teaching in the Bible schools, and encouraging and training pastors and church planters. With your help we were able to provide them with new motorcycles to continue the work unhindered. We were also able to provide motorcycles for other key pastors and leaders as well. We praise God for His abundant provision through your faithful giving unto Him. We look forward to building even more $600 churches with your help.
THANKING GOD FOR MIRACLES
Without a doubt, the greatest miracle this year did not happen on Mindanao but in Romania. We were caught completely by surprise in February when we received a message via Facebook from one of the graduates from Logos Christian High School in Timisoara by the name of Florin Topolovcici. Many of you may remember Florin’s testimony. He came to Logos as a 9th grader from an unsaved family. He was not really interested in the things of God but he loved English, especially American English. This was during the mid-90’s when we were living in Timisoara and Howard was preaching at Logos Church as well as the weekly chapels at Logos High School. Florin was saved under Howard’s ministry and by his senior year often served as Howard’s translator, especially when we ministered in the villages. On one such trip God worked through Florin to heal a young girl who was born deaf.
The reason Florin had contacted us was because he had come back to the Lord after wandering away for many years. He had led his girl friend Ovidiana to the Lord also. She had grown up in a secular home with a nominal Orthodox mother and an atheistic father. Now they wanted to find a church home, she wanted to be baptized, and they wanted to get married and establish a godly Christian home. Because we had been like spiritual parents to Florin, his greatest dream was that we return to Romania so Howard could marry them. As soon as I shared Florin’s request with Howard, he immediately said “Yes!” What Florin didn’t know was that, when we last visited Romania in 2006, God clearly spoke to our hearts on the flight home that we needed to be prepared to return to Romania at a moment’s notice. Our next question to Florin was “When?”
After prayer, Florin knew he needed to return to Logos Church. When they arrived at Logos, they were welcomed with open arms and felt the joy of restored fellowship. Ovidiana fell in love with the people at Logos that first day. She was baptized in March and the wedding was set for April 16. God had already provided the funds for the airline tickets so we left for Romania on April 12 by way of Houston and Munich on United and Lufthansa, arriving in Timisoara on April 13.
Howard preached at Logos for their midweek service on Thursday. Everyone was overjoyed to see us again after being gone for 10 years. The young people we had led to the Lord were now grown, many married with children of their own. It was a time of great rejoicing, yet we could soon see that, while we had come for the wedding, there was another reason God had brought us back to Logos.
When Howard served as founding pastor for Logos Church together with Ghita Catana for the first six years of its existence, he had faithfully preached the foundational truths of God’s Word to the people. As a result Logos Church had remained doctrinally pure. But with time and circumstances, many had fallen back into religious tradition and had lost their First Love. Many of the young people had been drawn away by worldly cares and pleasures. The core leadership had become discouraged but it had driven them to their knees in prayer. Florin’s return and our coming to visit were a first fruits answer to those prayers.
On Saturday April 16, Florin and Ovidiana were married at Logos Church. Their families and friends who hadn’t been to church in years, if ever, were welcomed with the love of Jesus by the congregation. It was a beautiful wedding in which Howard preached the Gospel and spoke of God’s covenant love for those who would come to Him by faith. Afterwards we all posed for pictures in the park like back yard of the church before going to the basement of a larger church for the wedding feast.
As word spread that we had returned for a visit, the size of the congregation began to grow with every service. Sunday, the singing was filled with new joy and expectation. Then on Monday we went to visit Logos Christian School where we visited with the new principal and shared at the chapels for the high school and the middle school students as well as visiting many classrooms to greet the elementary and preschool teachers and students.
In addition to starting Logos School and Church, the Lord had enabled us to bless Mana Ministries, an outreach to street children started by our friend Nadine from New Zealand and her husband Cerbu. They had started a Girls’ Home in Timisoara and a Boys’ Home and Farm in the nearby village of Ianova. They had returned to New Zealand to get specialized medical care for their daughters, but we were able to visit the Girls’ Home on Tuesday and the Boys’ Farm on Thursday and to bring help from America to the precious German and Romanian couples who now oversee the work under their continued leadership.
Wednesday and Friday we were able to minister in village churches, ministering at Logos on Thursday evening. Each day we were also able to minister to families in their homes.
CHANCE FOR A MIRACLE
Everything changed completely on Saturday morning, April 23. Howard went for a walk on the terrace overlooking the back yard. He leaned over the railing to watch a cat playing down below. Suddenly the wooden flower box he was leaning on gave way and he fell about 5 feet to the cement sidewalk down below. Dazed, he rolled over onto his back on the grass, got up, and walked upstairs to our bedroom and office area on the second floor of Logos Church. He sat down on the couch but that hurt too much so he went to lie down. That was better but when he got up to eat breakfast the pain was excruciating.
Concerned, I called our friend Gabi who was an RN and explained what happened. She immediately called the EMT’s who arrived about 30 minutes later. By then Howard had gone back upstairs to lie down because it hurt too much to sit upright. They insisted on putting a cervical collar around Howard’s neck even though he insisted that his neck didn’t hurt, just his back. They helped him get up and he walked down the narrow stairway. They then had him lie down on the gurney and took him to county hospital by ambulance. Ghita, Miriam our translator, and I then drove to the hospital, actually arriving before the ambulance.
Howard was rushed right into the ER where x-rays revealed he had broken three vertebrae in his neck and two in his upper back. The doctor told him that he needed to be admitted but Howard objected that he had to preach the next morning. Because Romania was historically an Orthodox nation, they follow the Orthodox calendar so the next day was Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Finally Howard agreed to be admitted to the neurosurgery ward. He ended up staying in the hospital Saturday through Tuesday. The technician didn’t come in until Monday to do a CAT scan and the radiologist didn’t come in until Tuesday to read the results. The results were not good. The CAT scan confirmed that Howard had broken his neck and his back. All the doctors agreed that surgery was required to bring the broken bones into proper alignment. Until that happened, any movement of the bones could result in instant paralysis or even death. The doctors did admit that the broken bones appeared to be stabilized so the surgery could take place there in Romania or back in America but needed to be done as soon as possible. Since surgery in Romania is very expensive for foreigners and Medicare won’t cover it, Howard decided to return to America. The doctor told him that he needed to fly First Class or Business Class so he could lie down for most of the trip. So they gave him a prescription for some mild pain pills and sent him home, reminding him to wear the neck brace at all times.
In the meantime I sent out an emergency prayer request to all the email addresses I had of people who knew how to pray, as well as posting a prayer request on Facebook. With Howard hospitalized, I preached on Palm Sunday. In times of crisis such as this, you gain a new appreciation of what it means to be a part of the family of God! We were deluged with hundreds of messages of encouragement and prayers went up on our behalf literally around the world.
Instead of becoming discouraged and downcast, the people at Logos came together in greater unity and faith than they had experienced in years. Howard was deluged with visitors bringing food and comfort. When he was discharged from the hospital, Logos insisted on paying all his medical bills! Village churches we had ministered to in years past held special prayer meetings just to pray for Howard’s healing. We even received emails of encouragement from other missionaries we had never met, in countries we had never visited. When you are a part of the Body of Christ, you are never alone and forgotten.
We contacted United about getting an upgraded ticket for Howard but they referred us to Lufthansa who operated the main parts of our flight home. Lufthansa said that they would work with us on such an upgraded ticket for medical reasons but first we needed to fill out the required medical forms to be signed by the attending physician, along with an English translation of the hospital discharge papers. The US Embassy provided us with a list of qualified translators for medical records. Ovidiana just “happened” to work for a translation firm. One of her friends and coworkers just “happened” to be on the list. Florin traveled all over the city to get the papers translated, printed, officially signed and stamped, as well as scanned onto a flash drive.
Because it was Holy Week, the doctor in charge of Howard’s case was out of town on vacation, but Dan one of the deacons at Logos had worked at the hospital for 30 years. He left word with all his friends and they contacted him when the doctor was called in on another accident. He quickly printed up the forms, had the doctor fill it out and sign it, stamp it with his official seal, and then Dan scanned it onto a flash drive. Thus I was able to get all the required paperwork emailed to Lufthansa 6 hours before the deadline.
In the meantime, Howard spent most of his time lying down to minimize the pain, except to eat or visit with guests. He insisted on preaching Thursday night so we tried to prepare a place for him to lie down on the front row of the church. The pain was his constant companion but, as soon as he stood up to preach, all the pain left his body and he was able to move about freely. Thus he was able to preach the Good Friday service as well as Easter Sunday morning and evening. Easter Sunday also happened to be Howard’s birthday so they had birthday cake along with the traditional Romanian Easter feast. The service that night was especially meaningful as it was to be our final service before flying home.
Lufthansa sent their response to our email – they would not allow Howard on the plane unless he was carried on a stretcher and attended by a private nurse from their approved list! We had no choice but to buy all new tickets with another airline. First Class or Business Class was no longer an option. We found tickets on KLM and Delta out of Budapest to Omaha by way of Amsterdam and Detroit. The connecting flight over the Atlantic was shorter. Generous churches and individuals in America covered the cost of the new tickets and the Catanas offered to drive us to Budapest in their SUV with the reclining back seat.
Tuesday morning began at 5 AM and we were on the road by 6. The new autobahn from Timisoara to Vienna made this the easiest part of the trip. KLM and Delta bent over backwards to make our flights as comfortable as possible. They provided Howard with transport between gates at both Amsterdam and Detroit, enabling us to go through customs without waiting in line or traveling up or down stairs which was potentially dangerous for Howard in crowded conditions. We were hoping for empty seats where Howard could lie down but it didn’t happen except for one hour while crossing the Atlantic.
By the time we reached Detroit, Howard was in agony. Then they announced that our flight would be delayed 6 hours because of mechanical problems. Again the gate staff did all they could to help. We were beyond exhausted and stressed beyond endurance. I used my cell phone to call for emergency prayer. Within 30 minutes the Holy Spirit showed up and filled us with such peace it was like we were carried the rest of the way home “on eagle’s wings”! We finally arrived home and collapsed into bed after a 28 hour day but we were safely home!
The next morning we went to the ER as instructed by our family doctor. They were already expecting us. They took x-rays, a CAT scan, an MRI, looked at the CD with the CAT scan results and the translated discharge papers from the hospital in Romania, then took another CAT scan just to be sure. The doctor came in shaking his head. Their test results confirmed the diagnosis from Romania – 3 broken vertebrae in the neck but they found 4 broken vertebrae in the back and they were all in PERFECT alignment. No surgery would be required!! There was no evidence of nerve damage. Howard had to continue wearing the neck brace for three months and follow up with a spine surgeon. The doctors all called it incredible good luck or amazing good fortune, but Howard told them we knew better. It was a miracle from God in response to the prayers of His people. For the next three months, Howard had the opportunity to share with everyone who asked about the brace and tell them what God had done in answer to prayer!
THANKING GOD FOR YOU!
Most of all, we thank God for you. Without your prayers and your giving, Church Triumphant could not exist. You are the ones who believed God with us, encouraged us, empowered us for ministry with your prayers, and helped us to take the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ to those who have never heard. You made it possible for us to take the vision of Christian schools to Romania and to establish churches on solid biblical teaching, encouraging those who have grown weary. Howard is alive and well today because you stood in the gap when we needed it the most. Words can never accurately convey how grateful we are for each of you.
Whatever you may be going through right now, please know that, if you are born again into the family of God, you are never alone or forgotten. You have family all over the world who will hold you up in prayer when you cannot go another step in your own strength. If you are not yet born again, there has never been a better time than right now. Open up your heart, let Jesus come in, forgive every sin, every failure. Let Him heal your broken heart and rule upon the throne of your life. Welcome Him as your Savior and King this Christmas and fill your heart with His wonderful peace! May God bless you abundantly this Christmas season and throughout 2017.
Howard & Barbara Gard