Competing for Unity

Competing for Unity

The school year is well underway.  Being year two, everything seems similar and different at the same time.  Each day presents the unknown disguised in the clothing of the familiar.  We’re done with the first quarter, and I feel as though I’m tremendously more prepared than I was last year, but I’m also regularly caught off guard by new challenges… or opportunities.

One day a week, we have two class periods in a row in the higher level science classes that I teach.  Surprisingly, students don’t often articulate their excitement on those days.  However, this year, we were having a particularly interesting class on a day when we did not have those back-to-back periods.  The bell rang, and a student asked me with wide eyes and genuine hope if there was another class period coming.  I did my best to disguise my giddy self-satisfaction, and calmly said that no, we wouldn’t be having another class period right then, but that we’d pick up where we left off tomorrow.  I’ve rarely been so proud of myself, and that’s coming from someone who’s proud of himself pretty often.

Stephanie worked through three full weeks of medical brigades at the clinic.  She even worked late on a Friday night to unload and start organizing this year’s shipment before the teams arrived.  And by shipment, I don’t mean a few boxes on the porch sealed with amazon prime tape… I mean a container the size of a semi, full of more than 300 boxes of medical supplies, which needed to be ready to be used in surgeries about 60 hours from the time of arrival.  All in all, the brigades went really well, and we’re looking forward to more in January.

At school, Sam and Evie continue to amaze me.  They have their school uniforms now, so in addition to looking incredible, they just blend right in with everybody else… kind of.  Sam is a diligent and intelligent young man, and Evie has a Spanish accent (or lack thereof) that would make you think she was born here.  I’m learning a little, too, but both of them can run circles around me, and they even translate simple things for me once in a while.

One night, Stephanie was helping with medical training for a missionary who trains pastors in the area.  That left me in charge of dinner, so we had the same thing we have every time I’m in charge of dinner… something you buy.  We went to Casa Pizza and continued our tradition of being the only people in the country to order a plain cheese pizza.  After dinner, we needed to get some air in the car tires, so we went to the gas station.  As I was filling up the tires, Evie asked me, “How do you say ‘llanta’ in English?”  Llanta is Spanish for tire.  She was serious.

When we got home, it was pouring rain.  We ran from the car to the porch.  We got soaked.  And then immediately, it stopped raining.  Sam pointed that out, but then said, “It’s ok… I kinda liked that.”  His attitude is often more mature than mine.  Sam has already revealed to me his plans to bring his family to Honduras someday.  Sometimes I see my life like I’m just watching someone else’s.

There was a night early on in the year that I got invited to go play soccer in the park.  I was ready to defend the honor of gringos everywhere by putting in a good showing, so I was planning to be pretty competitive.  There were all sorts of different ages playing, so at one point, Sam joined in.  Suddenly, the game was no longer about scoring goals, but became about spending time with him… it became about being with my son.  Attempting to score goals together was an excuse to just be together.  He followed me around, which isn’t ideal for team performance, but it’s perfect for building our relationship.  He even kicked the ball right back to me when I lost control of it.  And I couldn’t have been more excited.  I think God is the same way with us.  He may have just a few other things to do, but when we’re in the game, we’re the most important thing there is to him.  So go play.  You might even truly be able to help God’s plan when he needs you, just by kicking the ball back to him like Sam did for me.

Another weekend, we got the opportunity to go run a race together as a family, and with a bunch of other teachers, too.  Stephanie ran a ways with Evie, and there was a 5K that Sam ran and an 11K that I ran… one of the worst decisions of my life.  My strategy was just to keep up with the person in front of me.  When they would get too far ahead, I would find someone closer and try to keep up with them.  That cycle repeated about 70 times as my opportunities for humility stacked up.  Eventually, I made it, but I limped for about a week and a half after that.  Before the race, Sam saw the trophies for the top 3 finishers in each category, and he set his mind on getting one.  After the race, when he realized he didn’t earn one, he said, “So I did all that work for nothing?!”  That’s one perspective.

Playing soccer in the park wasn’t about scoring goals, it was about being together.  Running the race as a family wasn’t about winning a trophy, it was about sharing an experience and growing closer together.  This life isn’t about accomplishment… it’s about drawing closer to our God and one another in the process.

But if that’s what it’s all about, then this can feel like a pretty frustrating time to be alive, especially if we can’t see past all the worldly garbage in our face.  Migrant caravans bring up the complexity of how best to help the poor and vulnerable, drawing sharp divisions between us.  Political elections either do or don’t go our way, and we find our relationships with our neighbors are strained either way.  Unpredictable actions by the governments of our own or other countries around the world hang an unwelcome burden of fear on our backs each day.  It’s all overwhelming… what are we to do?

The reason politics is so divisive is because the forces of evil figured out long ago that humans are easily enticed to attack a false enemy.  The devil can trick us into thinking that the other side is wrong, and we are right.  He can take all our righteous anger that should be directed toward him and deflect it toward our fellow human beings who happen to be on the other side of the political aisle.  This is exactly what he wants.  We certainly can’t fix the world by ourselves, but we have remarkable efficiency when it comes to using the world’s problems to drive permanent wedges into our personal relationships.

I’ve seen good people on both sides of the aisle in two different countries.  I’ve seen amazing Christians look at other amazing Christians with contempt when they differ on purely temporal issues.  I myself have felt that contempt for others who don’t agree with me… as though I am some sort of moral authority with the clarity to sort out global complexity and somehow know better.  It’s simply not the case that one side has it figured out and the other doesn’t.  It absolutely is the case that the devil knows this trick works on humans, regardless of the country or the time period they happen to live in.

Life is a soccer game we are supposed to play together, not one we are supposed to win.  Life is a race we are to use to grow closer together, not one in which to earn a trophy.

When Sam expressed his disappointment in his trophy-less futility, it made me think of Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians in Philippians 2:16, which says, “…And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.”  He was encouraging them to do everything without arguing (verse 14), continuing with his theme of humility and unity (verses 2-4).

In Ephesians 4:2-6, Paul also says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

I think as human beings, we have a responsibility to be decent to one another, and as Christians, we have an additional responsibility to be in unity with one another.   And don’t get me wrong… that definitely doesn’t mean agreeing all the time, but rather expressing our differences in a constructive way.  If we’re serious about our faith, we are going to bring up issues to others that challenge them, and that’s healthy.  We should also hope that people bring up things to us that challenge our own assumptions.  It’s not the challenge itself, but rather the way we react to those challenges that will determine whether a spirit of unity reigns in our relationships.  We need to work these things out, often in a thoughtful debate.  But if we let division supplant unity, then the devil has won, hiding his own evil behind the false front of the other side.  The fact is that we need the other side to help us.  This world’s problems are so big, that the only thing that can solve them is God himself.  And the way God works is through people.  People on the left and people on the right.  People born north of the border and people born south of it.  Broken people like you and I, who can often think too highly of themselves when they take their focus off the God who is so much higher than us all.

I’m so very grateful to be surrounded by people who don’t always think the same way I do.  I’m grateful to be forced to think about the other person’s perspective before I react (most of the time).  I don’t think everyone has it as easily as I do right now, living in a foreign country.  But I think it’s incredibly important that we all recognize our own foreignness on this planet.  It’s also incredibly important that we recognize the true nature of others… glorious eternal beings temporarily trapped in these weird bodies in time and space.  If we don’t, we run a high risk of dismissing the eternal value of a relationship on the basis of something superficial and eternally trivial.  The more we do that, the more awkward it’s going to be when our mansions are right next to each other in heaven… forever.  Ok, so we really don’t know exactly what that will be like, but I don’t think that’s too far from the truth.  Jesus himself confirmed to us that the most important things in life are to love God and love your neighbor, so I think we are free to use whatever imagery helps us remember to do that on a daily basis.  Because just knowing that we are supposed to live in unity isn’t the hard part… it’s the doing.  Good luck out there.

Grand Plans

Grand Plans

We’re back in Gracias, Honduras, and I can only assume that God must have big plans for us this year based on how well everything has gone so far.  To start, somewhere around 30 people from around the world flew in to San Pedro Sula on the same day without a single flight delay and got on the same bus headed to Gracias for general teacher orientation before heading to the towns where they’ll be teaching, if not staying in Gracias.  They came from Houston, Atlanta, London, and everywhere that connected to those airports before that.  Do you think other people may have been praying for safe travels?  It’s still a long travel day, but I’m very grateful that everything went according to plan.

I also had some classroom sets that I was worried about getting through the flight in my checked baggage – specifically a chemistry set – but it was all there when we unpacked.  Everything got through security, even Evie’s toy horse Spirit, which set off some sensor and required a half hour wait in security while a specialist was called in from another building at O’Hare to inspect it.  Eventually, Spirit got the all-clear, and all five of us headed to our gate.

Near the end of the day, when we got close to Gracias, I was able to hop off the bus and grab our car from our mechanic, who did some minor repairs over the summer.  And it was a good thing he was around, because my car keys had our house keys on them, too.

Then, when we got to our house, everything was already up and running.  No water problems, no electrical problems (even though we weren’t here last month to pay the bill), and our phones picked up the wifi right away.  Water, electricity, wifi… that’s really the second most holy trinity I’ve come to appreciate living in Honduras.

At school, there have been a number of great logistical things happening that might be boring to explain, but that make me very excited about this year.  And it’s not that I don’t absolutely love my coworkers from last year – because I do – but there are also three new North American dudes on staff this year.  Not that I mind – at all – but I’m guessing I’ll being hearing fewer discussions about clothes this year… not because they won’t be taking place, but just because I’ll be busy talking with the guys about man stuff like sports and motorcycles and lifting heavy stuff… so there.  (Maybe just talking about lifting heavy stuff, not actually lifting heavy stuff.)

I spent the first week and a half in orientation at school, and decorating my classroom (which this year, I knew was a thing), and Stephanie has a brigade at the clinic already.  We had a couple girls from our neighborhood watch Sam and Evie for three days in the mornings while we were both tied up, and they all had a great time.  That’s one of those things that just would have been impossible last year, so I’m so grateful to already be established.

Things that were once highly concerning or unknown are now normal and solvable.  When there’s a mouse in the corner, you open the door and chase it out.  When a massive bug falls from the ceiling while you’re watching TV at night, again, you open the door and kick it out.  When you have a little problem to follow up on with your car, you quick run it to the mechanic after school on Friday and use your best Spanish – until he gives up on you and calls out his son who speaks English.  Either way, there’s lots of stuff I can do now that I simply couldn’t do at the beginning of last year, whether that’s ordering food in Spanish or running errands or knowing where to get something in town… the stuff that should be easy is a whole lot easier now than it was last year.  I’m just brimming with self-satisfaction in my independence.

Which is ironic, because I just sat through cultural training last week emphasizing the value of interdependence over independence.  Don’t miss that, let’s say it again… interdependence over independence.  Why am I even here?  To prove to myself that I can buy groceries by myself in a country where they speak another language?  In context, that’s more than just slightly unimpressive.

I’m here to be part of something bigger than myself.  I’m here to be in community.  I’m here to be part of something that God is doing.  Something he is doing through a whole bunch of people that need to rely on each other and on him in order to get it done.  I’m here to be a part of something bigger than any one person or any one language or any one earthly culture.

And it’s not just me.  That’s exactly why any of us are anywhere at all.

Those grand plans that God has for us this year are no doubt just a small subset of the grand plans he has for everyone everywhere.  We either believe that God can redeem nothing or that he can redeem everything.  Is there anyone out there who would admit to believing in a god capable of only the partial redemption of his creation?  We should talk.

And there are some incredibly encouraging things about God’s grand plans for redemption.  They include everyone.  Everyone.  They are for here and now.  Wherever here is, and whenever now is.  And they are guaranteed.  God is nothing if not reliable.  Even (and often especially) when it doesn’t feel like it.

In the US, we focus so much on independence and our own unsure future success.  I’m glad to allow God to teach me through this place the value of interdependence, especially in the context of the guaranteed success of his kingdom and his grand plans, not my own.  I’m glad to see myself as part of the thing, and not as the thing, because I would fail on my own.  But with God, I can’t fail, because his plans can’t fail, and I become a part of them.  And we all can do that, but only if we allow ourselves to.  Wherever, whenever, whoever.  His plans are for all of it, and all of us.

Christian Examples

Christian Examples

We’re back in the states after a delightfully uneventful trip home.  We’ve seen some friends, and there’s more to see.  We’ve renewed driver’s licenses and passports and insurance and all that.  Stephanie is back to work for a bit, and I’ve taken the kids to the playground… the lone father in a sea of moms.  We’ve eaten McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A in the same day, and then immediately regretted it… ok… only I did that.

Things seem a little different, but basically the same.  Our friends’ kids are bigger.  I’m sure we’ve missed some good times with them, but we’re very grateful for the time to catch up this summer.  We’ll be hard-pressed to catch up on everything with just words, so we’ll be sure to enjoy being together.

There’s so many things I learned in Honduras, but one big one is to just be.  Culturally, most Honduran people are so much better than me at being patient (not a big accomplishment) and likewise at being present with one another.  They’re rarely thinking about the next place they need to go or the next thing they need to do.  Now sure, you may be able to think of some downsides to that, but that way of living is packed with benefits.

Last week, as we traveled, I was given a great example of this from my own children.  For me, when we have a day to travel, I view it as a task to get from point A to point B, something only to be accomplished.  When my children travel, they view it as an opportunity to ride in a car, go up and down escalators, fly on a plane, watch movies, fly on another plane, eat snacks, play games, and just enjoy being together with friends and family we’re traveling with.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of miserable moments that day, including a sleeping, cry-screaming Evie that needed to be carried off the plane, continuing to sleep-cry-scream all the way up the jet way and into the terminal before waking up several people trying to sleep there at 11:30 at night.

But the point remains.  They enjoy just being.  Sam and Evie don’t yet have this all-consuming task-orientation beaten into them by society.  Now I could make excuses for my own task-orientation by saying that my kids aren’t the ones who are responsible for getting to the airport on time or for getting to the next plane, but I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t just accept it for what it is and try to learn something.  We are all expertly good at justifying our own imperfect actions, but we don’t learn and grow through post hoc rationalization, no matter how good it is.  We grow through thoughtful vulnerability coupled with an honest willingness to change… and it doesn’t hurt to have a teacher or at least some sort of example.

So in my children I find my example.  Is this life we live just a big travel day, consumed by the task of getting from here to heaven?  It may be that indeed, but you need not believe that to have a profound sense that this life is also something greater.  Our travel day last week was indeed a day to get from Honduras to the US, but my kids also knew it was something greater than that… something to be enjoyed… something to be filled with joy even if it had its own hardships.  A day to discover that sitting in the row just behind first class means that your video screen pops up from below your seat, which is basically the most amazing thing you can discover if you’re a 6-year-old boy.  I think so often God looks on us in the same way, and says, “I have things for you so much more amazing than that if you’ll just trust me and come along for the ride.  But you have to really trust me and let me teach you what you’re ready to learn… one step at a time.”

Now, I think I also have a few things to teach Sam and Evie.  Sometimes, they have a hard time putting on their own seat belts in the car.  When I put it on for them, they watch my hand where the buckle is being clipped in.  Then the next time, they pull harder and harder on that same spot, trying with futility to pull more on a seat belt that’s getting bound up in the car seat.  What they don’t see is my other hand that’s pulling the seat belt behind the shoulder, relieving the tension and making it possible for the first hand to snap in the buckle.  They won’t be able to see this hand from where they’re sitting.  Maybe they can watch me buckle the other kid and learn that way, but most likely, they’re going to have to listen to me explain the process and trust me if they want to get good at buckling themselves.  And for a while they might still need my help.  They might get frustrated, give up, or even yell at me.

We do the same thing to God.  He says, “I can show you, but you’re also going to need to trust me, accept my help, and learn from me.”  We respond with confusion or anger when we try to do it ourselves and things don’t work exactly how or exactly as quickly as we want them to… like pulling harder on a bound-up seat belt, doing the exact opposite of what is necessary, and then being upset about the results.

So many of the things God has been teaching me this year seem contrary to my natural tendencies.  And they don’t necessarily follow my earthly obsessive-compulsive logic, but they’ve all had the same tranquil and transcendent “feeling” to them.  Like, “It’s a journey.  Trust me, I’m the one in charge, so you can relax.  You can’t learn it all now.  Just do this for now.  Be faithful in the small things.  You don’t need to change the world, just love me and love the people around you.  And you’re not here just to get to heaven.  You’re here to be here.  So be here… or else you’ll miss it.  You’re already passing through this world incredibly quickly.  Your true home is not in the US or Honduras, and you will be in your eternal home before you know it.  And even though that will be unimaginably wonderful, you won’t then have the opportunity to experience joy in the day you have today.  It is a gift from me to you.  Find me today.  Find me now.  I’m right here.”

So wherever “here” is, I want God to be with me in it.  It’s just immeasurably better that way.

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.