Broken Branches

Broken Branches

Last Friday was the seniors’ last day of classes.  The rest of us all have a couple more weeks.  Even though we’re returning next year, these last few weeks have provided a time of reflection during which I’ve been able to look at what we have done, what we’ve left undone, what we might be able to do next year, and even the things that I thought we could do here that will probably never happen.

As the seniors approached the end of their last day, their classroom just got a little louder by the minute.  Before the final bell rang, there were underclassmen lined up outside their door to congratulate them, and we teachers were just a little concerned about how exactly this was going to go.  The bell rang, and they came running out, then they promptly gathered together in the middle of the plaza… and prayed.  It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen all year.  Here they are, free to act as they please in the world without the threat of consequences from a school staff that has respectfully held them accountable for years, and what do they do?  They collectively, genuinely, and publicly exercise humility and offer thanks to the one who really brought them to where they are today.  Good stuff.

And God has brought our family through a great many things lately as well, including two more weeks of surgical brigades at the clinic, and a successful science fair at the school… both at the same time, no less.  Dr. Post, who headed up the brigade even acted as a guest judge for the science fair, which just happened to end up being scheduled for the brigade’s day off.  And we also had more help from some others that just happened to be in town, with the Poage family visiting the Slyker family (a missionary family living here in Gracias), and arriving just in time to be guest judges for us.  And Sam and Evie even got to participate, as the younger classes got a chance to visit older classes and watch some of their presentations.  As I got to watch Sam and his class watch 11th graders measuring the pH of different solutions by changing them all sorts of different colors, I was reminded of the way God weaves our stories together in ways we couldn’t anticipate or imagine.  This was really a small example of that, but it was a very fun day.

And this past Saturday, I did something even more incredible.  I went for a run.  Now, once you get a hundred yards or so from our house, you’re running in a national forest, so it’s really quite amazing.  It’s insanely steep, and I don’t always make it very far, but I think that’s ok.  I find God speaks to me through the trees, but perhaps it’s just that when I’m running, my mind is quiet, and when our minds are quiet, I think God can finally speak to us as he pleases… that is to say, we can hear him because we are finally listening.

So with respect to a year that is almost over, and another year to come, and an unknown future beyond that, and a great unknown glory even beyond that, I think God just wanted to tell me a few things through the trees.

“First, even though you will try to support all the branches growing from you, some, even many, may seem to break along the way.”

There was a skinny tree with a bunch of skinny branches growing out of it.  Some were long and healthy and produced a bunch of leaves up above.  Others were short, stunted, or even broken off.  No matter how hard I try, there will be students I can’t reach.  I’m not perfect.  I’m not God.  Thank goodness.

For many students, maybe I am reaching them, but I may never see the fruit that comes to bear.  And that’s ok… that’s great actually.  Our lives are not intended for our own glory… they’re intended for God’s glory.  Recognition should be fine, but it can misdirect glory in an unhealthy way at times.

“Second, you’re not the tree… I am.  Just don’t be a broken branch.”

There was a second tree, far thicker, fuller, and healthier than the first.  But it still had some broken branches.  A lot of people say that their biggest problem with Christianity is Christians, and in many cases, I can’t blame them.  Now I know enough Christians to know that the world is full of wonderful, Jesus-seeking humble spirits that encourage me, but that’s not always obvious to the outside world, and we need to be honest about that.

What does the world see when it looks at the body of Christ today?  Do they see pews full of hypocrites acting one way Sunday morning and living as they please every other moment?  Do they see a faction of people that has been reduced to an American political sub-unit, only to be appealed to for capturing votes at the next election or to avoid a boycott on a product they’re trying to sell them?  Man, I sure hope not, but it’s up to us.

It’s up to us to be a reflection of our creator.  It’s up to us to shine his light to the world.  He is there to help us, but it’s our decision whether or not his light will shine in our lives.  We are indeed broken branches… under our own power, we’re helplessly broken.  It’s only by accepting his power and love and joy that we will grow into the eternal living glowing beautiful creation he intended us to be.

“Third, when you look at me and all you see is broken branches, know that I am still faithful, and keep your trust in me.”

There was a third tree… old and huge, but probably actually dead.  All the branches were broken off, but it towered over others next to it.  What do we do when we look at the body of Christ and all we see are broken branches?  Do we blame the tree?  Yeah, we do.  Should we?  No.

In this is actually one of the most beautiful things about following Jesus… no one else matters.  Well, I mean, others matter a great deal, but none of their opinions determine your relationship with God.  We fall in love with him alone.  One of the most difficult things to explain to someone is how to hear the voice of God, but I have a theory.  It’s like falling in love.  If I explained to someone what it was like to fall in love with my wife, my goal would not be to have them fall in love with my wife.  My goal would be to explain to them the things that they can watch for as they seek out their own journey of falling in love with someone else.  Our God wants you to fall in love with him.  He wants to fall in love with you.  Others can help us on the journey, but the path is yours alone to walk.  God still would have created this entire glorious universe even if you were the only person in it.

So there it is.  God used my insecurity about my accomplishments and my worry about the future to draw me back to himself.  To bring me closer to his heart.  To remind me that he hears us and sees us and knows us and loves us… all the more in spite of ourselves.  Somehow, the more I get to know God, the more questions I have, and the more peace I experience at the same time.  His unknowable depth overwhelms me and his infinite love envelopes me.  This guy is all right.

Recognize Your Eternity

Recognize Your Eternity

I had this idea before moving to Honduras that life would slow down and I would have time for all those things I wanted to do someday… not so much.  On all fronts, the pace of life continues to accelerate.  But mostly in a good way.

This Saturday, we’ll be moving into our fifth semi-permanent home within the last year.  This is why God doesn’t tell us the whole plan up front.  I would have said, “No, thank you.”  But this new house is where we will be living next year also, so when we return after the summer, we’ll already be all set up, which will be great, actually.

And I mean we might as well move right before Stephanie has more brigades in town for 2 weeks, and I have the science fair at school at the same time… it’s possible we’ll be a little busy the next few weeks.

At least getting around town with my broken Spanish has become a little easier… except not really.

We got invited to a quinceañera for a girl at the school who is a neighbor of ours, and it was really an awesome experience.  In the process, we needed to buy a quinceañera card to give to her.  I went to the store and asked if they had quinceañera cards there, which I’m sure is a question they get all the time from tall skinny white guys.  Either way, the very nice lady at the store said, “Para invitaciones?”  I thought about it for a second and tried to think about how best to politely explain that I wasn’t actually hosting a quinceañera, but I also didn’t know the words to explain that I needed a card for a gift… So I just said, “No,” and we figured it out together pretty quickly from there.

Another time, I went to the grocery store to buy a few things, including band aids, which are behind the counter where you can’t just grab them yourself.  I asked for band aids using a description and hand motions, and was met with success.  Then the lady behind the counter asked me, “Cuántos?” or “How many?”  This was a question I was not prepared for.  I wanted a whole box, but it was pretty clear from her demeanor that no normal human being would conceivably need to buy an entire box of band aids.  Ok, that’s fine… I’m still learning normal, so I said I didn’t really know, maybe 50?  Then she proceeded to count them one by one… which made me immediately regret not saying a lower number.  So I went to buy some other things and then went to the front counter, where they had delivered the band aids.  They were the last thing to be rung up, and the cashier opened the partial box to count them and called out to the first lady to ask her how many there were.  She said 50.  Then the cashier asked, “Why didn’t you just give him a whole box?”  And the first lady called back out across the store, “He only wanted 50.”  I just acted like I didn’t understand their exchange and waited patiently for the band aids to be counted a second time.

And then today at school when I ordered a little extra food in the morning, I explained to the lunch lady that, “You are very hungry.”  At least I realized my mistake long enough later that I didn’t have a chance to correct myself.

I’m sure I’m gonna laugh about all this someday, even the truly difficult situations here, of which we’ve had a few.  And I really think we’re all gonna look back from heaven on the difficulties of this life with the same perspective.  You know how you got in trouble as a kid, and it was truly awful at the time, but then you grow up and you talk to your parents about it and you all laugh?  I think it will be like that.  I don’t mean to trivialize some of the truly devastating things that happen in life that many people are going through right now… instead, I mean to emphasize the immensity of the otherworldly perspective we’ll gain in eternity.  All of this temporary bad will pass away and be superseded by something currently unimaginable and eternally good.

But then why is life such a struggle?  Just so we can work to fix it?  Why do we want to fix it anyway?  Wouldn’t all this busy-ness in our lives right now fade away if God actually was who he says he is, and didn’t allow all these difficulties into our lives, and just made things easy?  Wait, who does God say he is really?  Does he ever promise to make things easy?  No??  Crap.

During a Bible study recently, we were talking about this idea of “alignment” or “realignment” of our will with God’s will.  I think it can be a useful concept, however, perhaps more useful would be the “uncovering” of God’s will already within us.  I don’t really think that we need to make a big shift from one intrinsic position to another.  In some sense, we do, but instead, I think we really need to unveil the true desires of God’s heart which he implanted deeply within us before he laid the foundations of the earth.  I think we need to pick off all the garbage this life has piled over our God-given desire to live a life rich with eternal love and joy.

I think we see evidence of this in our passions.  We might say we want things to be easy, but who doesn’t want to be creative or inventive or pioneering or discovering or known as someone who accomplished something great?  Deep down, we all do.  And the accomplishment is even sweeter and more admirable in the face of difficulty.

We are eternal creatures.  Don’t let these temporal bodies fool you.  They grow weary of effort, but the spirits within them are driven by a force so infinite that we can’t truly understand it while bound to this life.  But we feel it.  And it drives us on.

At our very essence, we are a natural outflow of God’s existence, not just a side project of his.  He wanted to share his joy, so he made us.  And the wanting to share this joy was not only his desire, but his very nature, a condition of his very existence.  That isn’t to say that he didn’t consciously choose to create us out of love, either, because he did just that.

And because he loved us so much, he gave us a choice.  A choice to be with him and complete our joy and his… or not.

And now we’re here.  Bound by our choices to allow temporal suffering to compete with eternal joy.  Stuck with a mind whose gears grind to a halt when presented with the idea of eternal things.  Trapped in a body that exalts ease and instant pleasure over determination and eternal impact.  All in a world where bad things happen and the only one who can supposedly do something about it seems distant at best, malevolent at worst, or perhaps just plain non-existent.

So what then?

Well before you feel defeated, don’t forget, none of this will last.  And even in the process of the worst of it, we will learn more about the God who loves us, but only if we choose to do so.  It is this choice that allows struggle into the world, the very choice that God gave us because he loved us so much.  It’s not the existence of this choice that causes pain, but rather, what we’ve done with it.  And we have the opportunity every day to do something different with it.  Something that was intended for it.  Something that will lead to peace in the presence of suffering and joy in the face of sorrow.

How do I know?  Because I’ve experienced it.  God wants all of us to experience it.  That’s why we’re here.  What will you choose today?

Soy Sordo

Soy Sordo

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say God still has more to teach me in this life, because things haven’t exactly been going my way lately.  Among other things, we’ve had some car issues, and I got sick the other night and missed a couple days of school.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was one of those “Which way should I face the toilet now?” kind of nights.  Ok, maybe I didn’t actually spare you the details.  Much like the people here in Honduras, the viruses are very strong.

I can’t say I’ve been “religious” in my commitment to daily devotional time lately, so maybe that has something to do with it.  Sometimes, God has a way of working through circumstances to get our attention to bring us back to himself.  Maybe it’s not that quid pro quo.  But that’s probably a discussion for another time.  Thinking that way can just help me rationalize things.  And there’s yet another discussion for another time… or I might just keep that one to myself.

But it’s not all bad… in fact, a lot is really great.  Our neighbor has a pool on her property that is filled naturally by kind of a lukewarm hot spring, which is absolutely perfect for the kids and the weather here.  All we had to do was clean out the leaves, rinse it all out, throw down some powdered Clorox, and let it fill up.  And by “we,” I mean Stephanie and about a dozen kids from the neighborhood.  So now we have a natural, beautiful pool we can walk to anytime for free.  And that’s incredible timing, because it’s starting to get just plain hot outside, and I haven’t heard one person yet even try to put a mild twist on what the weather is usually like here in April and May… I take that as a significant warning.

So in regard to the car, I’ll admit, I bought a cheap one.  We have a 1997 Toyota 4Runner with 160K miles on the odometer, which I don’t think means a whole lot.  So I guess this all goes with the territory.  But we needed some work done on the steering, so we took it to a shop out of town that also did some brake work, alignment, oil change, etc.  Good to go.  Except not.  About a week and a half later, Stephanie comes to pick me up from school, and says, “There’s something wrong with the brakes.”  I get in the car on the hill it’s parked on to test it out and discover that, indeed, she is right.  The problem is that there are no brakes.  The emergency brake being on was the only thing keeping it from moving, and brake fluid was all over the inside of the front left wheel.  I consider it a miracle of God’s protection that she was able to get it stopped there at all.  We called our guy, who called his guy, who was able to come up the hill and get the brakes sealed and get us moving, but there was still some work that needed to be done to secure the brake lines properly.

I think in any country, it’s fairly important to have reliable brakes.  Maybe that’s just me.  But in Honduras, it’s very important, especially when you live 1500 feet in elevation above town, and getting groceries means entrusting your life to a car that is kind of fixed.  For about a week, for one reason or another, each day, we couldn’t get the permanent repair done.  Now, the brake line was basically in a spot where it might interfere with the suspension, but it should be ok.  Maybe that’s ok for a day, but that’s something that even in all my humble graciousness made me increasingly exasperated as time went on.

Finally, I got the car to the shop.  I was still kind of sick, and I was trying to explain the problem in Spanish.  And by “Spanish,” I mean three or four Spanish words and a lot of hand motions… which is an improvement from where I was a couple months ago with one or two Spanish words and a lot of hand motions.  It’s so hard to communicate in Spanish… hurts my brain just thinking about it.

So while I’m doing this, a lady who looks a little down on her luck comes up to us selling stickers.  I don’t normally know what to do in these situations anyway, and I definitely don’t know how to deal with them in Honduras, so I follow the mechanic’s lead.  He buys a sticker, so I buy a sticker.  He doesn’t really say anything to her, which I think is weird, so I try talking to her in my best Spanish.  She smiles.  Actually, she smiles really big… really really big… oddly big… I’m missing something.

After she leaves, I look at her stickers, and there’s a note on the back of them that says in Spanish please help me out because “Soy sordo,” which google translate told me means “I’m deaf.”  She wasn’t smiling at me… she was laughing at me because she knew this gringo couldn’t read Spanish and didn’t know she was deaf.  Well anyway, I guess I’m glad it brought her some amusement.

On the way home, brakes repaired, sticker in hand, I was dwelling on how hard it is to communicate in Spanish.  Then it struck me abruptly that this is the way I’ve been trying to communicate with God for so long… in a second language in my head… which can be difficult at best (like talking to the mechanic) and utterly ineffective at worst (like talking to the deaf girl).  I felt like God was saying to me, “Just talk to me in English, son!”  That is to say, talk to me in the native language I put in your heart, which is actually more intuitive to us than even our first spoken language.  The whole reason we are here is to fulfill our role in our relationship with Christ and he put inside each one of us a method of communication more rich and robust than even the most sophisticated collection of words in any spoken language.  It’s just that the way the world communicates has taught us to smother these divine soulful impulses and trade them for crass, rudimentary words… blah.  There’s a language in each of our hearts that has no possibility of miscommunication and no levels of proficiency.  Even the most basic utterances we choose to make with it are understood and embraced and redeemed by our loving heavenly father.  We just have to talk to him.  We just have to want to be there with him.  We just have to want to use the beautiful eternal language he blessed us with in order to communicate with him… whatever that looks like for you.

Maybe communicating with God is hard for you to wrap your head around.  It is for me.  There’s a reason for that… our heads have very little to do with the process.  Not that the process doesn’t make sense… it’s just that it does so much more than make sense, that it’s not limited by your little human brain that can run a billion billion calculations per second.  Not impressive… regardless of the magnitude of the number, it’s still infinitely smaller than God’s infinite capacity to meet you where you are… wherever that may be.

So I think a little differently as a result of that experience, and I believe the way God wants us to think in every area of life is not exactly traditional, to say the least.

When we are caught up in sin, I don’t think he wants us to focus on “not sinning.”  Of course, we should try not to sin, but our focus should be on talking to the God who has power over sin.  In that way, don’t let yourself be overwhelmed and anxious every time you fail, but spend time with the one who will never fail you.  Your story is so much less about sin’s power over you, and so much more about God’s power over sin, and his great love for you.

And while we’re at it, don’t just focus on whether you’re getting into heaven or not, focus on the one who can bring heaven to earth… now… through you.

We need to stop talking about trying to solve our problems, and instead focus on communicating with the only one who can solve all our problems.  You may ask, “Then if he can solve all our problems, why hasn’t he already?”  Well, maybe he wants us to grow… or something… I really don’t know… I have the same question.  But maybe you should put some of these ideas into practice and just go ask him for yourself.

Control, Understanding, and Hope

Control, Understanding, and Hope

I feel like our plane just landed back in Honduras after Christmas, but it’s been over a month and a half… an absurdly busy month and a half.  We have a couple days off school this week Thursday and Friday, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.  I know many of you who aren’t teachers lack sympathy for me, and that’s fine… I’m ok with it.  I also understand people may lack sympathy for me if I chose to complain about the cold 55 degree weather we had to endure in January, so I won’t bring it up.  Because now, it’s more like 75 degrees most of the time, so I just won’t complain or rub it in about how beautiful the weather is here right now.  And I won’t mention how if it gets closer to 80 in town, it can be a little too warm, but our house is up the hill another 1500 feet in elevation, so it’s always just perfect there.  I won’t bring it up.

If it makes you feel any better, there are some trade-offs to life here, though, and that includes occasionally having a lot of air in your water pipes.  It’s not the end of the world, except that the way you get hot water in the shower is based off a little heating element that is wired right into the shower head.  And this heating element only kicks on when it senses sufficient water flow.  And then when there is a lot of water flow, it’s not nearly enough heat to warm the water.  So the last couple days, we’ve taken showers that are marked by periods of slow trickles of warm water, great rushes of cold water, and brief moments of no water, all in rapid succession with no indication of what’s coming next.  It’s one way to get yourself going in the morning.

So since Christmas, we’ve been hard at work at school and at the clinic.  At school, we just finished the second quarter.  I’m beginning to understand Spanish just a little bit, precisely when I don’t want to understand what 15 year olds are talking about… just before Valentine’s Day.  “Tiene novio?”  “Quien es?”  A few feet away, in the midst of giggles, students are asking each other who they’re dating, presumably because they think I don’t know what they’re saying.  This time, I almost wish I didn’t.

At the clinic, five weeks in a row of medical brigades wrapped up a couple weeks ago.  Stephanie was busy, and extremely helpful for the teams.  There were actually some teams that were cancelled over travel concerns, but because she was there, they were able to keep doing surgeries with a smaller crew than expected.  There were even some seniors from the school that got a chance to be translators for some of the medical teams that traveled to some villages around here.  And there is also a likelihood of more brigades coming in May, which is possible partly because of Stephanie being here and being able to facilitate some logistics.

And as for the kids, they are both learning Spanish at an unbelievable rate.  They can speak fluent little-kid Spanish with their friends, and it’s so cool to watch.  I can understand what they’re saying, but I can’t really contribute to the conversation because it’s so fast.  Evie especially is a natural.  I knew she was doing great, but then one day she fell down and hurt herself and was basically crying in Spanish with her little Honduran friends around.  I think she’s using a different part of her brain to learn than I am.  And a few weeks ago, Sam switched from going to school half days to attending for whole days.  I noticed a major change in him for the better, because I think he thrives on structure and predictability.  I’m just not sure where he gets that from.

I think it’s that structure and predictability in our lives that gives us a sense of control, and often a false one.  Just because I know how the work week is going to go doesn’t mean I’m in control of my eternal trajectory.  Coming back to Honduras after Christmas has not been the same as coming to Honduras for the first time.  This time, I thought there were more knowns than unknowns.  There was a greater sense of structure and predictability.  There was a greater temptation to get a false sense of security from thinking that I was in control.

But, I think I was able to recognize that, at least a little bit, and let God teach me what he had for me.  I’m sure like many others, I go through periods of growth and closeness with God and periods of misunderstanding and distraction.  I think God is helping me to level those out.  I’m learning what it’s like to live where feelings and situations don’t alter my view of God, but rather reinforce and enhance it.  I feel that I’m gaining a greater understanding of God… but not by figuring him out in my head… it’s more by letting him speak to my soul.

Even as I feel a greater understanding of God, I find him more difficult to explain in words.  And I think that says less that God is beyond logic and reason and more just that our human language lacks the sophistication with which to properly describe our Lord.  Our powerful, loving, forgiving God who is full of grace, compassion, empathy, and understanding.  Our Lord who invented these concepts to which we haphazardly assign empty words nearly devoid of the eternal meaning intended to be behind them.  Sure, they are useful in conversation, but I’m not sure that they really even scratch the surface when we use them to attempt to describe our God.

We don’t even have the capacity to totally grasp the goodness of God mentally.  And we certainly don’t have the capacity to be in “control” of our lives.  It’s only when we give up that control to God that we can even begin to understand what that means.

We don’t grow in our faith by narrowing our field of vision to things we can control.  We don’t nourish our souls by clenching our fist more tightly around our limited idea of faith.  We don’t do ourselves any favors by pretending like it’s our job to save the universe and everyone in it.  We may want to, or even feel that we should be able to… but we just can’t… and thank goodness that’s a job reserved for our Savior.

And we’re not admitting defeat when we recognize our limitations.  Quite the opposite, actually.  In humility, we must take our rightful seat at the table that was set out for us before the beginning of time.  We must trust God to be who he promises to be, and know that when we commit to him faithfully in the limited roles he has prepared for us, that he intends to use those for both the advancement of his kingdom, and our own great inner peace and joy… purposes for which he felt the need to create us in the first place… to share in his transcendent peace and inexpressible joy.

Although it’s not always easy, I’m glad to let God worry about the big stuff, and I can walk with him in faith and maybe even get something little done once in a while.  We just bought some desperately needed new tires for the car, and I went to Santa Rosa last Saturday to get some more repairs done.  Santa Rosa is a bigger town about an hour’s drive from Gracias, and it’s of special significance because both the clinic and the school just opened operations there.  The clinic has a small office there now, and the school is going to have an elementary school there next year.  Pray that God guides these efforts, and that while his love is spread through healthcare and education, that not only bodies and minds would grow, but that souls and spirits would grow closer to him.

I think our family came to Honduras under the guise of humanitarian efforts, and that’s wonderful… but God has shown us over and over that there’s more that he has for us all.  These earthly lives are important and meaningful, but they’re merely a dim reflection of the eternal glory he intends to share with us.

In Luke 7, John the Baptist sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus if indeed he was the one they had been waiting for.  Jesus told the men, with a sort of oddly-ending crescendo, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”  As though the healing of the natural body, even the raising of human life from the dead was somehow less impressive than this idea that hope can be given to the hopeless when we proclaim the peace of Christ to their souls.  The body won’t last.  Hope is forever.  The message of the hope of Christ gives us the peace we can’t possibly wrap our minds around, and the joy we can’t possibly keep to ourselves.  There is indeed much that God would like to bless us with in this lifetime, but there is also an incomparable promise that we’ll just have to wait a bit longer for him to fulfill when we finally see him face to face.