Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the Occasion of my Fortieth Birthday

I sat in the passenger seat as the diesel pulled us back up the mountain with Antigua visible in the left side-view mirror. Relief finally popped in my ear as we reached an accustomed altitude. I noticed a small creamy skinned boy with his hands clasped by his mother and sister walking alongside the mountain pass wearing baby blue and a matching wool cap. The sky was easy and the sun was warm. I breathed in the thin, cool air as I realized that I felt healthy enough to write.

The past summer has been fast paced. What is often called vacation was an essential and meaningful sprint. We've laughed and loved, shared powerful moments of mission, and made essential contacts. I am very thankful. We've also carried the weight of family disputes in the U.S. and I've lost  essential lifelong connections that have been foundational to my life. My soul feels scorched. The price is high, and yet it is nothing at all. God has given far more than I could ever lose.

All these thoughts float through my head like road-dust in the haze of the morning sun. The tires hum over the asphalt as road-side vendors of paintings and tortillas blur along the side. Living panoramic stories of the individuals we pass cause me to reflect on the decades past.

Kellie returned home from volunteering at the Christian Academy yesterday with instructions for me to be ready with an "overnight bag." I jumped in the passenger side and our wheels began to roll towards Antigua. I loved being stolen away with an unawareness of the destination. It felt like a welcomed escape.

As we left San Lucas I thought to myself... I am content. If I died today, I would leave this world with no present regret. We make our choices the best that we can and we try to release those things that we can not control. We fall to our knees in dark moments and seek the face of God. He is sufficient.

Most of our days consist of a simple breakfast in the morning, PB&J sandwiches for lunch, and a fresh dinner using local ingredients; usually some combination of chicken, beans, rice, tortillas, cheese, veggies and avocado. We live with sparse belongings, but in relative comfort with typically dependable power and water. We love it and have found more with less.

But today was different. We came to a simple door on a street in the ruined city of Antigua that opened up into a beautiful garden. Eight small rooms surrounded a fountain and beautiful manicured topiaries. Great care had been given to the placement of each stone and seemingly even every blade of grass. Art dominated my vision in the form of paintings, sculptures, water, and architecture. 

Our evening began with a walk across the ancient cobblestones to a small bistro ran by a frenchman. My date had on a dress and braved the broken and erratic surfaces wearing high heels. We walked through the sights and sounds of tourists, street vendors, and ambiance that is Antigua. 

Our meal began with a small dish of marinated olives and ended with a jazzed up version of Guatemalan hot chocolate. Everything was expertly prepared and unbelievably seasoned. We had arrived earlier than the rush and we selected our own table beside an ancient and thick window. We stretched dinner out to three hours as the world moved by outside with the shadow of the sun creeping down the pane.

A walk back to our storybook hidden garden room meandered past Central Square with illuminated fountains and couples huddled in starry-eyed embrace throughout the soft shadows. Marimba music laced the air in a perfect soundtrack.

The night was surreal. I felt the nagging of concerns from reality trying to crowd into the moment, and I was aware of the poverty that exists so nearby as we walked in the cool air of a tranquil night. Our appetites were sated and we would sleep on pillow top luxury. Even though the price was far less than it would cost for a hotel stay in the U.S., it is still difficult to take a night of rest in a world that burns.

We slept in twilight throughout the night, listening to the cannons on the quarter hour at La Merced Church just a stone's throw from where we lay. Soft bells also chimed on the hour and on the half. A cool breeze kept the warm air pleasant as moonlight brought the stark white sheets to a nearly animate state.

Sunlight warmed our faces to welcome the morning. I found a folded note from my wife. My dislike of cards was taken into account as she listed on plain, white paper, "40 Reasons I Love You." I found her waiting for me at a table in the wooden cathedral ceilinged dining room where we sat side-by-side with dishes of fresh local fruit and coffee. 

Breakfast came with the room and was served on white linen, porcelain, and silver. A crystal glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice was a perfect counterpoint to the earthy darkness of the coffee. I ordered the house specialty, (always a good idea in Antigua) poached eggs on tomato with pesto drizzle. I laughed as I shared a memory with Kellie from my mental healthcare days...

...I was helping Albert with assisted daily living skills in his residential care facility. Albert had been diagnosed with a mental illness that came with a side of personality disorder. It was my job on this particular day to teach him how to cook breakfast. We were following a pre-planned menu that was carefully prepared by our overweight dietician (I always found that ironic). I announced to Albert that we were going to poach eggs.

Albert immediately turned to me with a very concerned look on his face. "It is illegal to poach in Indiana!" We decided to scramble them instead.

Our turn off approaches and my mind is brought back to reality. It's time to return to a house full of wonderful and very noisy kids, return to fundraising, sermon-writing, study, and preparation for service. Our schedule is about to heat up to a 4 month frenzy that will find us collapsed into a warm Christmas.

And I contemplate the number 40. I think it is a good number. In fact, I consider that I have spent my entire life leading up to this moment. While I acknowledge the absence of time passed, I more strongly gravitate to the awareness of the days to come. Forty is not a marker of days behind, it is the beginning of everything that is to come.

We pull into our stone drive and I realize that we have been prepared for this time. I am thankful for the struggles, the loss, the pain, the heartaches... they shape me. They prepare me. There is a darkness that comes for all of us. We must not give in. Every day is a day to daily die to self. 

I am thankful for moments that remind us of the strength of goodness in the world. Moments as simple as 40 sentences on a page, or a perfectly poached egg. 

Among the pain of your life, search for the beauty. You will find yourself there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Band of Gypsies

We were due for a re-acquaintence with Highway 122. We loaded up our sweet ride and we hit the open road. The bright morning sunshine gave way to a thick misty fog that hung over the pavement.

I pointed the vehicle north and became one with the highway... man, metal, and asphalt blending into a beautiful road grit symphony.

Alison Krauss & Union Station played from the CD player as the kids fussed and Sterling sucked her thumb. We were on the first leg of a three church Sunday.

I floated along the familiar curves and bends that I know as well as I know my name. Our family and all of our dysfunction rounded a ridge and we looked into the face of Bambi.

Bambi was a bit more started than I was, but not as started as Kellie. As Kellie grabbed the Oh Crap Bar above her head, Bambi ran from the left, to the right, back to the left, turned and faced us, and then began to run straight down the middle of the highway away from us. 

Our tight jawed faces surrendered to laughter as I began toot-toot-tooting the horn to quicken his pace. Bambi survived our encounter and we all seemed a bit more awake.

About 5 minutes down the road I drove into a bird. THUMP!

Two small birds... sitting in the middle of the road, seeming to be at some sort of game of nerve. One flew left, the other flew into the bumper of the Shepmobile. I'd say the winner is the breather.

Our safari was made complete with the sighting of not one, but two large hawks, a fast running squirrel, and what was either a piece of tire or a dead black snake. I'm pretty sure I saw the splatter of the squished out insides, and so I'm calling it a snake.

A mandatory country detour and nearly two hours later we pulled up to our destination, The First Church of God in Ansonia, Ohio.

What an incredible morning! They are sending 4 people to serve with us next week and they had the mission table set up and donations were being collected! We joined them for introductions and Q&A, and then jumped into the service. It was VBS celebration Sunday!

Sterling fit in well... the theme was Weird Animals. She seemed most content in the center of the stage. She had to wait her turn until after the multitude of kids completed their songs! The students knew their daily Bible verses and sang all the songs from the week. It was beautiful moment that ended with our family up front and prayer.

The best part about joining churches on Sunday is that church people like to eat! We dove in to foods that we just can't find in Guatemala: fresh sliced turkey breast, smoked ham, swiss cheese, honest to God homemade salads, mac 'n cheese, and little old lady made desserts! Heaven.

We made many new friends, and soon will welcome them at the airport in Guatemala. We look forward to an incredible week! Soon it was time to pack up.

A beautiful day, a beautiful drive, a beautiful church, and a beautiful lady at my side. This was a good day.

And so back down 122 we rode, with no more animal encounters and me the sole conscious human. I smiled as I dropped into cruising speed, avoided cops, and we made our way to the next two churches: Poasttown Church of God that blessed us with a donation, prayer, and even let me preach (brave souls) and then on to Breiel Boulevard where I peeked into their production of Weird Animals.

I ended the night kidnapped by my uncle and zooming back down some of those same country roads in his bright yellow Boxter, hands in the air...

...thinking that we'll be on a plane heading back to the mountains of Guatemala...

On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends...

(Thanks Mr. Willie Nelson. BTW, you look really different now. It kind of freaks me out.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Walking through the Valley

Anderson University | the valley

She runs through the valley like time on fast approach. Arms flailing and staccato laughs as she pink-shoes across the grass.

I consider my own four year sprint through these grounds as I desperately pursued direction in the shadow of the theology school. I was sure I was aimless, but those years prepared me for such a time...

Eternal Flame | outside of Decker Hall
I am drawn deeply to this place. I hope to contribute to it some day. I feel powerfully drawn to the legacy that founded it and a degree of accountability to see that the horizon remains level with the foundation. 

Helios |  in front of Hartung Hall

I smile, realizing the distance we've covered since Kellie and I were undergrads on this campus. We laugh as we recount the unveiling of this fountain. It is surreal to see Sterling reach across the sunlight and ripple the surface.
Adam W. Miller Chapel  |  Stained Glass

A distant touch on the veil of our souls still creates concentric rings in our own lives. This place shaped us. Truth imbedded within seems to resonate stronger with the proximity of our origins and the convergence of our path.

There is a peace here where Russia, China, and Guatemala all run home. This day is just a simple handshake and soul refuge. 

Garden  |  outside of Byrum Hall