On Identity

On Identity

We’ve been back in the US for about two months now.  In the selling, packing, traveling, and unpacking, it’s clear that God is still helping us along.  So many things worked out so perfectly the last few days in Honduras.  I kind of blacked out with a house full of stuff and kids about three days before we had to fly, and then when I woke up, I was in Chicago with four suitcases, two kids, and a wife.  It was nuts.

And even in the unpacking, God was there.  I couldn’t find the screws to Sam’s bunkbeds anywhere, and I was anxious about it, because they’d be a real hassle to replace.  As we unpacked and assembled other furniture, Stephanie found them at the exact moment I was finishing putting together the last other item to be assembled.  I think there is a lesson in there that I’ll let speak for itself.

Also while unpacking, I thought I had lost a small collection of notes I had gotten over the last two years… notes of encouragement or thanks or things like that.  I was very relieved to eventually find it, and when I did, I took a minute to go through it, and I noticed a pattern.  “It was great to get to know you and your family….”  “I really enjoyed spending time with your family…”  “You have such a nice family…”  Ok, I get it… I think they’re wonderful, too.

Now, our kids just started at a bilingual school and Stephanie is back at work and looking to start her own schooling at MSU very soon.  We’re slipping back into real life in Michigan one step at a time.  Externally, much is similar to the way things were a few years ago.  Same house, same town, old neighbors, old friends.  And it’s great.  But this similarity seems eerie to me because of the incredible change that I know has taken place internally.  So while I can tell stories or point to souvenirs, there’s no short way to communicate this change to others, and perhaps no great long way either.

In Honduras, I knew who I was.  I was Mr. Joyce, science teacher.  I knew exactly what I needed to do each day to be successful, although that definitely wasn’t the case at first and I need to remind myself that that went very poorly until I began accepting God’s help on a daily, even momentary, basis.  In this way he forms our identities through our developing relationship with him.  But what is the source of my identity now?  Everything is so much like it was two years ago, but why is identity so much harder to find now?

Much of my time this summer was spent looking for a job.  You know that feeling when you’re standing on stage or someone is taking your picture and you don’t know what to do with your hands?  That was my life for about a month.  That constant feeling of, “This?  No.  This?  Yes… oh no?  No.  Ok, this?  No.”  But perhaps if I found a job, I could find identity there?  Certainly God has a plan, yes?  In this instance, I think he did indeed have a plan, but I sure would have liked him to let me know the plan earlier than he did.  But that’s not the way he works.  Eventually, and at just the right time, a position opened up at AJS (Association For A More Just Society), where I started working a few weeks ago.  They are primarily a Honduran organization with a large work force in Tegucigalpa.  A quick description will be lacking, but they conduct research and develop solutions to problems like corruption and violence in Honduras, which so disproportionately impact the poor and vulnerable.  Then they work alongside the government, other institutions, communities, and individuals to implement these solutions and track their performance over time.  There is so much more to their story, so I encourage you to check out their website and get involved if you feel led.  They also have a US-based 501(c)(3) with an office in Grand Rapids, where I work, and I am personally just thrilled to be involved with people who are passionate about showing God’s love to the Honduran people… the same people for whom God put inside me an indescribable love just a couple years ago.

So is that my identity?  Does that define who I am?  While I think it does give me a tremendous sense of purpose and I do find contentedness there, I can only do so because I get my identity from Christ first.

That period of time between jobs allowed me to struggle with identity without the specters of purpose and contentedness to blur my vision.  Am I valuable to God without a job?  Can I find contentedness without accomplishing something humanly measurable each day?  The answer to both questions, of course, is yes.  But the path to accepting those answers is a much more difficult personal journey that is only possible when we accept the great love the Father has for us… a love not due to what we have done, but because of who we are… because of our true identity as his image bearers.

So while we do need a way to pay for homes and food and raising kids, if we conflate a job with our identities as humans, created in the image of God, then we’ve missed the point.  Our jobs can offer purpose only after we’ve found our identity in Christ.  If we think contentedness comes from being happy and static all the time, we’ll never find joy and we’ll miss what God is doing in the dynamism that is real life.  Our lives can only be filled with contentedness after we accept Christ as the unique source of our identity.  The 9-5 should be filled with purpose and meaning, but only because we get a tremendously overwhelming sense of our identity and value from the love Christ has bestowed upon us as his creation.  Being made in him gives us an identity and a value and a purpose and a meaning and leads to a contentedness that nothing else in this world could even come close to offering us.

By now, it’s clear that I’m someone who struggles with mixing up my identity with my job… but there are many other false sources of identity we trust… our cars, our homes, our clothes, our phones, our material possessions, the expensive food and entertainment we can afford, how athletic we are, how good-looking we are, how smart we are, how funny we are, how much other people like us, etc.  The list goes on and on, and it’s all superficial and fleeting.  All those things can change dramatically in just a little bit of time.  Our focus as humans is so narrow, and especially so with respect to time.  We get so focused on our little definition of ourselves in our little day that we forget the fact that we can be eternally rooted in the one who sees all time at a glance.  He is the one who allows seasons of all kinds in our life that we may come to trust him and rely on only him.  Life itself doesn’t last forever, but our true identity – one who is loved by God – does.  And we can use that true identity to understand everything around us… good or bad, easy or hard, joyful or upsetting, long-lasting or fleeting.

Time will continue to flow, and we will all continue to change to some extent, but our true identity need not.  You are not who you were, you are not who you will be, you are who you are.  You only have the choice to accept your identity now, at this moment, and true identity can only come from relationship with Christ.  Who you were and who you will be will change.  Who you are, as one who is loved by God, will always remain the same.  And when we accept ourselves at each moment as one who is loved by God, everything else around us has a way of aligning itself with that truth.





The Right Kind of People

The Right Kind of People

We’re back in the US, and two years went by in a snap.  It’s a little like waking up from a dream… a really vivid, meaningful, and beautiful one.

With a few weeks left to go in Honduras, Stephanie flew back early to be with her Grandma who is very sick.  And so the great experiment began.  One day, Sam said, “I was worried about it just being us here.”  Presumably, by “us,” Sam meant the three of us… Evie, Sam, and myself.  To be honest, I was very worried, too, likely more so than Sam… However, luckily for both of us, “us” in Honduras means something different.  Now it’s unfair to make generalizations about the people in any country, but there are clear differences in the societal norms between these two places I have lived, so I am speaking generally, not to accuse or celebrate one geographically distinct group of people, but rather to point out differences that we all can possibly learn from if we choose to do so.  Students have babysat my children.  They have helped them find me after school and put Evie’s hair in a ponytail.  They have said hello to them.  They have smiled at them.  The genuineness of community here is not taught through a lecture at school… it is passed on through the example of your grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, mother, father, cousin, brother, sister, all of which are willing to put aside their personal concerns at a moment’s notice in order to help you with whatever it is you need, especially if that something is making you feel bad or sad or mad.  I had challenges in Honduras every day.  I usually had more help than I knew what to do with.  My cultural experience tells me to tell other people to leave me alone, and I’ll handle it, even if it’s awful.  Cultural experience in Honduras doesn’t let the individual off the hook so easily, which can be extremely humbling, especially if you’re as self-proclaimedly self-sufficient as people like me.

I have actually intentionally avoided people so that I could avoid accepting their help.  How messed up is that?  It’s just that if you tell people a minor problem you are having, they will make it their life’s mission to solve it for you.  For instance, if I can’t find butter on my own at the store, I’m not going to buy butter.  I’ll go home and make something that doesn’t require butter, or more likely, I’ll go buy food at a restaurant.  But if someone sees me looking for butter, and asks what I’m looking for, then I’m screwed.  If that store doesn’t have the kind of butter that I’m looking for, it’s entirely possible that this person is going to walk to other stores with me until we find that butter.  This makes me extremely uncomfortable… both because I’m messed up, and because it undermines the independence that I’ve been trained to value so highly, even above the relationship that another human being is offering to me, and that’s the part that’s really messed up.

But by accepting some help, we made it through the end of the school year and the packing and the traveling.  Through it all, I was reminded that the people who surrounded me in Honduras are really the right kind of people.

At the end of my last class with the seniors, I asked them if I could pray for them.  Bad idea… I couldn’t.  I choked out a few words and wrapped it up.  They applauded.  I do believe in high school, I would have just felt awkward and then made fun of the teacher later, but they met my vulnerability with applause.  The right kind of people applaud vulnerability.

Then on the last day of school, the 9th graders threw me a surprise party.  Now I kind of saw it coming based on some stuff they had been saying before, but when they came to me and told me that they had broken some stuff in my room and I needed to come immediately, I got mad… really mad.  And I scolded them the whole way to the classroom, where I switched to a different kind of mad… being upset with myself for getting duped.  Eventually, I mellowed out and it was awesome.  The right kind of people take your bad and give you good.

Then on the day we were scheduled to fly back, I didn’t feel so good.  I’ve heard about people dealing with illness while traveling before, and it always sounded like the worst thing in the world.  I can confirm now… it is.  We got to the airport and I figured some coffee would set me straight.  And it did… after it made me puke in the airport bathroom garbage can, because all the stalls were full.  A nice stranger handed me paper towels.  The right kind of people hand puking strangers paper towels.  But it didn’t stop there.  After getting through security, we had a while to wait, because we had gotten to the airport early.  I spent most of the time sleeping or trying to sleep close to or inside another airport bathroom.  It was as awful as it sounds.  But luckily, we were traveling with six other people who were able to take turns watching Sam and Evie while I took turns in and out of consciousness and the airport bathroom.  By the power of the almighty alone, the worst of it wore off by the time we took flight, but the flights weren’t exactly fun.  I’m still shaking the effects of that virus 4 days later.  Trust me, Honduran viruses are strong.  So thank God I had friends there to travel with.  The right kind of people buy your kids drinks and toys when you’re indisposed.

We all have the opportunity to be the right kind of people every day.  It is not dependent on our birthplace or ethnicity or living situation or current country of residence, but rather on our intentional choice to be someone who lives for others instead of living for oneself.  I spent 31 years living for myself.  I’ve spent 3 years trying to live for others.  It is perhaps appropriate or not quite enough to swap those numbers when quantifying the overall amount of joy I have experienced while living through them.

And that joy may seem to come from within, and it sort of does… but specifically, it comes from the place within where God himself implanted it.  And it is only expressed because of the other people God has placed in my life.

But the world around us does not know this joy.  The world around us can choke out this joy.

Today is actually the 10th anniversary of the coup in Honduras, where one government was removed, and another took its place.  So on this day, I’d like to point out two things.

First, Honduras is not known to me by the anniversaries of political unrest.  It is known to me by the beauty of the mountains and the trees and the rivers.  It is known to me by the great coffee served with great frequency.  But primarily, it is known to me by the kindness, empathy, genuineness, and beauty of the people I came to know there, who redefined for me the meaning of the word community.  I share with the hope that it will be known to you in a similar way.

Second, the kingdom of heaven does not deem significant anniversaries marked by the passage of time.  It’s completely arbitrary, really, to say that some particular time is significant because the earth has revolved around the sun exactly ten times since it happened.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a birthday or a wedding anniversary or whatever, but let’s keep in mind that these human observances are minutia in the grand story of God’s ongoing redemption of the world.  Tick marks on the wall lose their power on the day the prisoner is set free.  When it seems the world and all its negative influences and horrible situations have power over us, we need to remember that we serve one who has overcome the world.  The bad things in life aren’t “punishment” from him or things he “allows to happen,” but rather they are an indication of the distance to which we have intentionally stepped away from him and his love and his perfect plan for our lives.

In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

There aren’t just problems in Honduras.  There are problems in the United States… there are problems in every country in the world.

And there aren’t just problems in other people’s lives.  There are problems in our lives… every one of us.  No matter how debilitating or overwhelming those problems seem, we need to continue to choose to have faith that God is near, whether we can feel him or not.  Sometimes we will… sometimes we won’t.  But luckily, we serve a God whose presence isn’t subject to the current state of our emotions, but rather dictated by an enduring promise from the all-powerful.

In the last half of the last verse in Matthew (28:20), Jesus tells his disciples, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

There is no place and no time and no feeling beyond the reach of our God.  There is no global nor personal crisis he can’t transform and redeem.  He does, however, leave the decision to us to either reject him, or to allow his loving and healing presence into our lives, day by day, moment by moment.  It’s what I keep trying to do, and it’s my prayer for you.

So pray for God’s presence in your life, and please pray for God’s peace in Honduras.

Just Be

Just Be

It’s been over 3 months since I last wrote, and I’d love to blame it on being busy, but that’s not the real reason.  The fact is that I’m having a tremendously difficult time coming to grips with the idea that this is all going to be over.  If I don’t talk about it, then maybe it won’t be true.  I mean, hey, that approach has served me well when dealing with emotion throughout my life, so why not give it a shot?

And we really have been busy.  Stephanie had several more brigades and she’s wrapping one up right now.  We had visits from friends and family.  We had another successful science fair at school.  Sam and Evie are learning and growing so fast, it blows me away.  We even got to travel to Cayos Cochinos, which is a collection of smaller islands off the northern coast of Honduras.  I mean, there’s an island nearby where they film Survivor, if that gives you any idea how awesome it is.  It felt like being on Lost, except that there was no plane crash or smoke monster or polar bears or “others,” and someone made all our meals for us… so not like being on Lost.  But it was a beautiful place.  This whole country is beautiful.  But I don’t feel drawn to Honduras for the landscape or the view.  I feel drawn to the people.  Even for someone emotionally stunted like me, I know my purpose here isn’t to enjoy the sites… it’s to impact the people… and let them impact me.  I’m not ready for that to end.

Now, it’s not all bad when looking at moving back to Michigan.  It’s a pretty awesome place to be for three to five months out of the year.  But truly, there are so many wonderful people there, too, that I can’t wait to live near again.  There’s really a great deal to be excited about… like hopefully no longer finding cockroaches on my toothbrush in the middle of the night.  And Stephanie will be going to Michigan State this fall to continue schooling to become a Nurse Practitioner.  This isn’t just an ending, but also something of a new beginning.

But I have no idea what’s next for me.  I don’t have a job, and without a job, I lack purpose, and without purpose, what’s the point?  That’s a nasty spiral, and I do have many very obvious purposes to serve (especially for the humans that live with me), but to be in this position can feel unsettling to say the least.

Now I know God has a plan, but if he could just tell me what it is, that would be great.  He sure made it clear when we were supposed to move here… I mean, I didn’t hear an audible voice, but when we were visiting Gracias a little over two years ago, I looked at the mountains and he spoke so clearly that it was scary… I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.  He used Psalm 121 to help me look up to the mountains and hear his direction.  And now here I am without a message from the sky, and what, I’m supposed to have faith or something?

In a little less dramatic revelation, I think God pointed me toward Isaiah 40:26 the other day, which says, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?”  I think he’s saying, “Hey man, you won’t only find me in the mountains… you’ll find me everywhere you go… going before you, standing behind you, and right by your side.  Mountains were a symbol I used to guide you, but don’t just look to them… look to me, the one who does the guiding.”

And who am I to demand the kind of answer I want from God?

In John 14:8, Phillip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Wow.  The balls on this guy.  Looking Jesus in the face and telling him he’s not enough immediately after Jesus had just said that he is the way and the truth and the life and if you know him, then you know the Father.

I often wonder about the real-world delivery of some of the conversations people had with Jesus.  They’re all written so innocuously in small black (or maybe red) letters in our Bibles, but I can’t imagine that this conversation wasn’t highly animated.  I feel like Jesus’ response to Phillip should at least be in all caps.

And yet I do the same thing.  “God, I’ve seen you work miracles in my life and provide for me in unimaginable ways… but maybe just prove yourself to me by telling me what’s next.”

As a human, I feel like I need to get something done, to solve the problem, to achieve something measurable.  In the process, I completely look past where I am at the moment.  The truth is that it’s not over… God has a month and a half planned for me to be in Honduras, and I can’t “be” well if I’m preoccupied by figuring something out for which God already has a plan.  And even after we move to Michigan, nothing is over.  It’s still a continuation of the plan that God already knows, and I’ll still struggle with wanting to know what’s next on my time, rather than waiting for God.  It’s not like God tells you that one thing and you’re happy forever.  We must learn to be content with just “being” with God and enjoying his relationship with us.

That state of being isn’t really ever achieved, but rather maintained and grown… just like a human relationship.  Which makes sense, because the point of life isn’t to GET to God, it is to BE with God.  And being can’t be accomplished.  Being just is.

I often ask Sam and Evie if they know what my favorite part of being in Honduras is.  They’ve heard it enough times to roll their eyes and fight against a small smile and reply, “Being with us.”  How much more intense must God’s love be for you and I… and I assure you, that’s saying something.  Evie will even occasionally give me back the same line of questioning and response, which is truly one of my greatest honors in life.  Just think how much we could honor our Father by echoing back to him that same sentiment.

So I’m gonna try to just be where God has me.  Right now in Honduras, definitely… in the future in Michigan, sure… and also hopefully everywhere every day for the rest of my life… wherever he has me… the places he already knows.  I trust he’ll tell me what’s next when the time is right, right up until it’s time to really be with him… and won’t that be something.

Just a Resident Here

Just a Resident Here

It’s amazing how much Honduras feels like home.  And yet, there are still many things very foreign about it.

Sam and Evie don’t look out of place to me amongst their Honduran classmates, as they seemed to be at first.  Sometimes I can’t distinguish Evie’s voice from her little friends when they are playing together and speaking Spanish… although keeping up with their conversation is increasingly taxing on my old-man, overly-plasticized brain.  Watching Sam make brand new “inventions” with discarded electronics brings me both nostalgic feelings of my own childhood and an anticipatory pride for the person he is and is becoming.  The rock wall, banana trees, and blackberry bushes that once stood out as foreign now blend right in and serve as support structures for his electrical wiring.

Stephanie is in the middle of 6 weeks in a row of brigades at the clinic, and it is way less challenging than last year (for me anyway).  We know the routines, and we don’t have to think as hard to plan for the daily requirements of running a family.  It’s certainly not that we’re not busy, but the stress I have had before about being busy with new things has given way to a sense of purpose in execution without becoming monotonous in the least.  We’re in a sweet spot.

At school, the documents that I saved from last year are finally becoming usable in their original form.  I can see on paper (and recall vividly) the progression I went through as I navigated the learning curve associated with being a first-year teacher.  At the very least in all of this, I have a tremendous new-found respect for teachers, and at best, I hope to seek to fundamentally understand people better as a result of this experience.  There’s a great quote hanging up in one of the classrooms at school from the psychologist Carl Rogers:

“Being empathetic is seeing the world through the eyes of the other, not seeing your world reflected in their eyes.”

I hope I can do that better going forward.

We got to go back “home” to Michigan for Christmas, experience the cold, see some snow, eat Chick-fil-A, and hang out with a lot of friends and family.  Arguably, friends and family are a great definition for “home,” but now there are a lot of those wonderful people surrounding us in Honduras, too… this is tricky, and continues to confuse me.  Getting back “home” to our house in Honduras felt right, but it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t later get to go hang out with all our friends who had gone separate ways for Christmas break.  I just really struggle with the ideas and feelings surrounding that word “home.”

I mean, I love the four seasons, but it’s also awesome to be able to ride a motorcycle in January.  I bought a small one last year, and finally learned how to ride it.  Now fundamentally, motorcycles are dangerous and awesome, which makes me a perfect fit for one.  However, as it turns out, motorcycles are actually able to make some people look even nerdier than they were before.  I’m not sure how that’s possible, but that’s just a reality I have to live with.  And it did come in very handy when we had to leave our car with the mechanic.  Stephanie was not scared at all to ride on the back of it… with me driving… in Honduran traffic.

But so much is still so foreign, and I’m reminded of it regularly.  Some Honduran music still makes me feel like I’m on vacation, even though the truth is that I’ve never worked harder in my life.  There’s snow all over my friend’s pictures on facebook, but only about 3 of my 32 eleventh graders have ever even seen snow in real life.  I know the names of most of the exotic fruit here now, but I still sometimes find freakishly big foreign fruit I’ve never seen before.  But then I realize, it’s not the fruit that’s foreign, it’s me.  The cows that “get in my way” on my drive to school were walking that same path long before the road was even paved there, and my car is really the invasive one here.  And even though I know exactly what I’m doing in town, I still get the stares that remind me I’m something of a novelty… even though there’s more of us gringos here now than ever.  And don’t get me wrong… I don’t blame people for staring… I do exactly the same thing when I see a gringo that I don’t know in town.

When God began to call our family to Honduras, he gave me an unsettled feeling with our life in Michigan… a discontentedness.  Even though everything was pretty textbook American dream, I felt a lack of depth.  Now in Honduras, I’m absolutely content in my sense of purpose and confidence of calling here, but I’m surprised to find that a certain similar lack of depth remains.  If I look to the deepest levels of myself I think I can access, I don’t believe there’s anything anywhere in this world that can fill this void… no person, no place, no thing.

On Wednesday, I have to go to Tegucigalpa to renew my Honduran residency.  It’s a timely reminder of my temporary status here.  And that’s not very different in the US.  There’s the same paper trail there that ultimately just says that I happened to be born there.  While I have great pride in both countries, neither of them define me.  Furthermore, not even this physical body I was born into defines me… which I find reassuring at this time in life as my bald spot begins to take on an existence of its own.  The fact is that we are eternal creatures meant for an eternal home with Jesus and our Father.  The Spirit right now seeks to remind us of that no matter what country we reside in or what body we are stuck in.

Our circumstances and our bodies and minds are gifts he has given us in order to fulfill our purpose and carry out his will in this world… a will that we can often catch glimpses of, but that sometimes defies our stereotypes and prejudices and requires the faith of a child.  And while these things are gifts, it’s very important to recognize their limitations.

After Paul gives the Galatians the fruit of the Spirit, he says in 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  Our physical bodies limit us, they hold us back.  He continues in verses 25-26, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

Isaiah 5 speaks of the risk of destruction from trusting in our own plans.  Verse 21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.”

And I don’t know if you’re allowed to critique the Bible as a self-proclaimed good Christian, but I think Proverbs can often seem disjointed if not schizophrenic, so I really enjoy the exceptional flow in Proverbs chapter 3.  Verses 5-8 say, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.  Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.  This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.”

I think there are real connections between faith and physical well-being.  Just like the Jews couldn’t have understood germ theory, but prevented disease by observing the “religious” practice of hand-washing.  Just like we are seeing how bad stress is for your body as we discover the health benefits of meditation (prayer).  Now, there is much more to prayer than just that, but some of these things we have confirmed through human study.  There is no doubt in my mind that there will be more to be revealed.  I suspect much of it, no human will be able to confirm in this life.  God knows a lot.  We would be well served to trust him.

When I struggle to make sense of where God has me, or strain to figure out where he wants me in the future, I hear him say: “Just trust me.  You’re my child.  I’ll always take care of you.  Serve me today, where I have you.  Show me to the people around you.  Don’t worry about the future.  If you don’t feel totally comfortable or at home, that is because you are not at home.  Your home is with me.  I will bring you to myself at the proper time, but for now, you have a purpose right where I have you.  Trust me.”

So I’m glad to be here, for so many reasons.  I pray that I remain glad to be wherever God leads me, and I pray that you accept his purpose for you wherever you are.  Have no doubt, there is one.  Trust him.