Saturday, November 30, 2013

N̶O̶ DIVING (Łɨvɇ ᵾnđȺᵾnŧɇđ)

Live undaunted. When life tells you, "NO DIVING", sometimes you need to step to the edge and plunge in headfirst.

We each have birthdate to celebrate and approaching numbers that will represent our end. Like a plunge into a pool,  we broke the surface into life, and then we emerge out the other side. It is what happens while we are submerged that determines the span. There can be power, grace, and beauty in the swim. Dive deep, pull the water past you, open your eyes, and feel the momentum of the water rushing past.

We can live this life with safety, and look back at our success and accomplishments… wondering "what if", or we can reflect back on a life lived in pursuit of our passion. 

Now, I'm not talking about living foolishly, or taking unnecessary risk. No, I'm talking about living a life that is simply consistent with what we say we believe. I'm talking about footsteps that understand that we hold some things even more dear than life itself. We find the passion in life when we find something that is worth the cost of losing it.

Leave it all out there. Give until you're spent. Are you willing to give away what you value, or do you just give away what you don't need? Which do you think leaves a greater impact? Are we willing to give when it costs us? Have you found something worth the struggle? Do we understand that this idea of a safe life is just a mirage? We were created to live!

We just need to look fear in the face, understand fully the risk, acknowledge our own weakness, and know that we are fully dependent on the God who created us… and then dive with abandon. We weren't created to live quiet, safe lives. It isn't enough to pray in the shadows. Our faith demands that we pour from our hearts the abundance of the love of God.

My goal is to leave this life empty. The promises of God that are available through my ultimate yield to Him, and my obedience to His will… this is enough. There is nothing else that compares. 

I want to surface the water at the end of the pool fully spent, with my lungs desperate, even burning, and rise up with a gasp as I collapse exhausted on the other side. 

How we cross the distance… the lives we touch, the words people speak of us after we're gone, the difference that is made that extends beyond our swim… this is evidence of a life well lived. These are the goals of living our faith, of knowing our belief, of valuing it enough to let it cost us.

Don't be mislead. We must live. We were created for this challenge. Dive. Dive deep. Live life undaunted.

"The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."
-Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Book of John 10:10
circa 28 AD

Friday, November 29, 2013

4 Chicken Wings in a Stilt Shack - Exit to Belize

Wednesday was a busy day that ended with Caleb and I arriving home in San Lucas at 10:00, after Big Student Ministries. I dragged my carry-on bag out of storage and threw in 2 pairs of shorts and a random stack of t-shirts. I decided to read a while and finally pulled the 3 blankets up and shut my eyes. It was 12:17 and the alarm was set for 2:15. Only a couple of hours, but I wasn't worried… having learned from our last road trip, we had hired a friend to drive us. He is a professional driver, a mechanic, and a Guatemalan. He had made the 5 hour drive many times. I didn't even bother to look at a map. We were in good hands. I only had to drive us to the Puma gas station. Then he would drive… and I would sleep.

As it turns out though, at 3 a.m. we waited at the Puma gas station in San Lucas while he waited at the Puma gas station in San Cristobal. I couldn't reach him. And so… at 3:30, we powered up a digital map, and hit the road for our longest road trip yet. 2 hours of sleep after a 17 hour day with 5 hours to go on the road. Here we go.

Fear not. I won't subject you to an 8 series serial novel. This was a perfect trip. Finally. We had guidance via our friends, Edgar & Fontaine… and I had two chargers so that we didn't lose contact. 

I hadn't had any coffee, and was planning to find some along the way, but the road was deserted and shops closed until we nearly reached our destination, and by then we were too close to stop. We drove a full 5 hours, in the dark, through the mountains, in the rain, with insane semi-truck drivers 3 wide on a 2 lane road… all without incident. Well… nearly.

This happened in front of us. We were not involved and we were ok. It was far enough ahead that we came to a controlled stop. As Kellie said, this driver was fortunate. What you can't see is that his trailer is resting on a narrow ledge of land, being held by a tree. A tree that grows on the ledge of a cliff that overlooks a beautiful valley, several hundred feet below. Just a foot farther… and it would have been his last ride.

We have to have some adventure… right?

Edgar had a friend meet us at Puerto Barrios Izabal, the port city on the edge of Guatemala. Before leaving the country for our mandatory exit for visa renewal, we had to: get our exit stamps, pay taxes, purchase boat tickets, securely park our car, and make our way to the port. At the time I didn't think we needed help… but now I am thankful that we had her. Through her bad English, our bad Spanish, a lot of hand-gesturing, some patience, and a lot of laughs and smiles… she and her husband navigated us successfully through every step. 

Hopefully we will still have a car when we get back.

Everything here is done with a handshake and trust in each other. I find that both refreshing and unsettling! I handed over my car keys to a stranger without a receipt, and we bought passage on a small boat and received no paper tickets. The boat was set to leave in three hours, and so we dragged our luggage down the few blocks to the port and waited.

The local activity was amazing. The culture here is wildly varied from the area of Guatemala of which we are familiar. My attention was captivated by a very dark skinned man who looked to be of african descent, but spoke beautiful English and Spanish. He wore typical short sleeve shirt, woven with local cotton and tied at the chest with cord. His pants were hobbit length and the muscles rippled in his calves when he walked.

He was barefooted and his feet seemed hardened like mahogany. He was completely at home on the dock, carrying cargo, networking with the locals, and managing the loading of his craft. He approached Caleb and struck up a conversation that I found entertaining… but Caleb just seemed concerned and nervous! 

Kellie told me later that Caleb had been praying the night before that the the boat wouldn't sink. What must his thoughts have been as he watched that boat sink lower and lower with the enormous load? I think the entire moment was overwhelming for him! But Caleb is a survivor, and soon he was tossing luggage.

In just a few short words and toothless smiles, Mr. Mahogany Feet was showing Caleb how to load the boat. With about 30 minutes before departure, Mr. Mahogany Feet and crew allowed us to board.

This boat ride was incredible. It was amazing. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my life. And… like most things that fit this category, it was slightly insane. We were so ridiculously overloaded that we would have never left the dock in the U.S. It looked like one of those refugee boats of desperate people escaping Cuba. The front of the boat was headed full of goods and cargo, rising above the 8 foot canopy. 

Our luggage was strapped on top of it all, and three men, including Mahogany Feet were sprawled across the top. It seemed it was their job to make sure the cargo didn't fall off, and also they were the eyes of the captain. He was at the rear of the boat, with his hand on the massive outboard engine. I climbed in the boat and we made up the Gringo section… right in the middle, full row. 

This was our view facing forward. And so we sat there in our American-ness as Guatemalans and Belizeans boarded and packed stuff all around us. The immigration officials approached and gave a roll call, verifying our right to passage. One man was pulled off and required to pay more. I have no idea why. I felt oddly relieved when we pushed off and turned into the Caribbean for an amazing ride.

There are two quick videos to show you. First, how the family looked when we first launched.

And then how they looked about 30 minutes into the crossing.

Asleep! Tarps were available and most people used them because the spray was heavy. But the water was warm, the sun was shining, and the salty taste of the spray was perfect. I held Sterling in my arms, the tarp covering her while she slept and I let the spray cover me like a summer kiss. The boat would crest with the bow rising out of the water before it would fall back into the next wave with each impact sending a terrific explosion of water rushing past my head. Sometimes the angle of the impact or maybe the force of the wind would be enough that it would reach over the side of the boat and quench me with a covering like a warm blanket of summer.

Suddenly I realized that I was weary. I was tired. Tired deep to my core. Tired with the worries and the struggles of the last 6 months. It was a good tired though, the kind of weariness that you feel after a job is complete, or you stand back and see the result of the effort and you know that it was worth it. You know that somehow it was worth even more than you put into it, so much more than somehow it even could be. I let the waves fall into me and run down as salty tears on my face.

I was so thankful. The waves came on and on, each one of them somehow cleansing away the worries and the tensions that came packaged with the journey. I felt the spirit of God calming the noise of my mind like a gentle hand hidden in the spray. I allowed myself to become soaked.

As we climbed out of the boat and collected our smashed luggage, I realized that my hair was glistening white with salt that had collected. My face was covered and even my eyebrows were filled with salt. What an amazing metaphor. When we are touched by the hand of God, we carry away evidence of his presence. Everyone could see the result of the encounter. I smiled as I thought about the words Jesus spoke about salt and light.

We made our way through immigration and gained another stamp in our passports after answering the obligatory questions of "do you have: food, plants, animals, weapons, etc." It was wonderful to hear, "Welcome to Belize."

We walked a quarter of a mile, pulling our gear and me with Sterling riding on my shoulders. We crashed into our room, went for dinner, and came back to swim. Of course the day was Thanksgiving, our first major holiday without our families, and the emotion of that was silently resting on the periphery of our day. We gave thanks for them from here. 

We have so much for which we give thanks. The journey has been amazing. It continues to be so. The vision that God places before us just seems to inexplicably continue to open up in front of us. We thank you for your prayers, your love.

My Facebook post today kind of caught my emotion at the moment I wrote it, and I leave you with those words:

"Had 4 chicken wings in a local barbecue sauce in a small wooden shack on stilts over Caribbean water last night. Had to hike into the village square to get some local cash, because no-one uses credit cards. The nearest city is 2 hours away over rough terrain. There are no retail outlets, no malls, no restaurants. It was an hour boat ride to get here and our transportation mode is a group of pink bicycles. Our family of 5 sleeps in 2 full size beds. It is minimal, it is beautiful. It is perfect. It was the closest place to go to in order to meet our visa renewal requirement. This is the most remote place I have ever been to. Our family has a few short days to just spend together in isolation. This seems to be the perfect place to be on "Black Friday."

Kids crashed out after a full day of travel.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Finally…Home for Christmas

Playroom #1 of Casa de la Abuelita

We have white Christmas lights and wire and plastic garland twisted around our handrail on the stairs. I have been listening to Christmas music since August. I have longed for this Christmas for over a decade. Perhaps for even longer.

I remember our first Christmas together in a one-bedroom apartment… in an attic of a run-down cape cod style in Anderson, Indiana. We had a tree we bought at Walmart for $14.99. We only had few ornaments and the furniture was scarce. We were college students and life was new, fresh, simple, and full of endless possibilities.

Over the years we edged farther and farther away from that moment… and a large, secret part of my soul mourned it. There was something deeply real about those days. They felt risky and we felt alive. I remember looking back and thinking that those days were the best of our lives. That was how to live. Those simple days of bleakness, and the reality of the two of us, alone, and left to our imagination in a small wooden house.

How is it that we lose sight of what made us feel alive as we go about the business of living? I lost Christmas years ago among the rush of a career in retail management. All the nastiness of the holiday was grinching my heart beyond the 3x shrink. And… the rest of the days of the year just somehow lost their spirit in a downhill crash.

I type in the darkness. The decorations are once again sparse and furniture minimal. Our future echoes with the familiarity of times without limit and also seems ready to swallow us whole. Again we find each other… now with 3 children that represent the absolute best of us… this is our family. 

Like our early days, there are moments that push us beyond our limits. Full days that turn into weeks where things just look impossible… and then there are those tiny moments where the light breaks through and we are ready to sing in the morning sun in the empty town hall of Whoville as we finally realize that all that we need is found outside of ourselves and our circumstance.

We sit here in the silence, contemplating the path of the last 18 years and we are amazed to find that we posses the desires of our hearts. We once dreamed of adopting children… and we once imagined the impossible idea of running an orphanage.

We are busy my friends. The days are tough. Sometimes to such a degree that I am paralyzed into nothingness. The barriers are from everywhere at once sometimes. It is easy to see the beautiful photos we post and not grasp that those are moments of release and healing after warfare. There are days that leave us in a heap and not even sleep is a solace.

And the joy… it is immeasurable. Knowing that we do something that is bigger than ourselves causes us to be willing to lose everything a thousand times. I want to run until I collapse with nothing left to give and fall on the grace of God to refill my emptiness. After all, the sweetest memories are somehow from those times of near nothingness. We make sweet memories now.

Don't forget us friends. Don't think we are fine without our family. We need you. Your prayers. Your email. Your calls. Your pledged support. If we run out of money… don't expect us to run home. We are here to stay. God has called us here. These past 5 months have solidified, verified, and confirmed that calling. 

At the end of the day, whether I sit in a heap or I fall into bed with laughter, I know that it is no longer about success or failure. I am happy to fail here. There is enough to be done even in failure that the effort, the heart, the pursuit, the following, the calling is worth it all. God is doing amazing things.

I see a church rising from nothing, as Guatemalans and missionaries raise hands in worship together. I see a youth group that can surge to over 100 students. I see a young adult group forming, we bear witness to students in the two schools we volunteer at giving their lives to the call that echoes from centuries… "follow me."

We sit in a big empty property with huge vision and unlimited potential… with pockets as void as the rooms. Even so we can nearly hear the chaotic sounds of 30 babies echoing off these now unpainted walls. There is paint to be purchased, a van to be purchased, beds to be assembled, attorneys to be paid… all while there are months when our income is less than our expenditure… and still we know it will happen. We know because God birthed this vision in the hearts and minds of two college kids 20 years ago.

Our challenge to you… is a simple invitation. Be a part. Don't let this pass you by. God will continue to be our provision. Please don't miss out. We dare you to step into this time with us. Do you remember a time when your life was simple? When things were truly scarce and you just had the embrace of each other?

Help us to give that simple embrace to a child. We hold them daily. We feel the painful tear away of a 3 year old embrace as we set them back on the dirt and walk away… walk away. Please don't walk away. Find a place where you can give. If you don't have a place… give here.

We are here. We are ready. The resources are at our fingertips and we are locked in for the long haul. True and undefiled religion is here. It is here. Christmas is coming, and you will find me with a heart 3x overflowing, singing at the top of my lungs as we bask in the simple clarity of coming 20 years and 2000 miles to find ourselves once again home for Christmas.
This room alone will sleep 10 abandoned babies, while they await adoption.

Come and give a bottle to a small life here, in the sunlight or at a toasty fire.

A large yard to play in, with 15 varieties of flowers.

Home for Christmas at Casa de la Abuelita (Mammaw's House)
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Texture of the Earth | Test of my Soul

I have never fought in a war. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I think any man worth his salt should have to defend his country. To learn the value that there are things worth more than our personal safety, comfort, and security. It seems to me that we can't really get about living until we find something  we valued more than our life. Something worth even the lives of those we love. What if a Ram doesn't appear in the bush?

I have looked at my boots a lot though. Examining closely the texture of the earth as I drag the tread, slowing making a line. I have never fought in a war… but I have seen the empty claw marks it leaves when the dust settles. 

I have stood inside the chambers of Dachau with its large drain in the center of the space that echoes still with the sounds of gasping, screaming, fists pounding on steel doors, and bodies falling to the concrete. The silence there is nearly deadly as a room full of tourists are afraid to breath the air. The place is sterilized and white… but it still reeks of death. There is a stench there that suffocates the soul and aches deep in the bones. I remember the piles of shoes… of gold tooth fillings. The pictures.

I have stood on top of new tiles in Tiananmen Square that were replaced because the blood would not come clean from the original cut rock that held the smashed bodies of the fallen who stood for freedom in the face of tanks and guns. I stood there and nearly wept, knowing that I was not worthy to stand where they fell.

I have stood over the mass graves of clergy in ruined Cathedrals, wondering of their steps hundreds of years before mine. I listen for their stories in the wind and the shift of the earth. I think of religion gone bad, the corruption of many, and the boldness of a few. I think of what their sacrifice meant to them. To have faith and belief so powerful, that it is worth more to you than your life. 

And… as I child I sat in the lap of my grandfather. He was a giant in my eyes, and as such he will always remain. He wore jeans, leather boots that zipped up the inside, and a white A-shirt (we called them muscle shirts). His body was carved over his time as a metal worker. His eyes were piercing and true. He smoked Pall Malls and while I am not a smoker… I am forever a fan. 

I would watch the blade of his knife slice through the red, juicy core of an apple as he removed the entire skin with one slice. We would share bits of that sweet apple as he told me of days gone by.  Pappaw Harry stormed the battlefields of WW2. He faced young men who were wearing the swatsika… eye to eye. 

My Pappaw is my hero. He faced evil. He lived to hold his grandson on his lap and share an apple. I am so grateful. 

My Grandfather Carmel fought in the fox-holes of Okinawa. I have sat at his feet as he told me of the bombs raining down from the sky like a never ending storm… and seeking refuge as he dug into a tomb. He fell on his face and communed among the dead with God. He shared with me that he dedicated his life to God in that moment… and I have no doubt that I am a product of that prayer.

And more than anything else… I feel deep within my core the truth, dedication, and undying love of my father. I love to speak his name… Leo Thomas Shepherd. The thing I like best about my heritage is that I am his son.

His walk has affected my own more than any other. He causes me to strive with everything I am to bring honor to the Shepherd name. It reminds me of my duty to my heavenly father.

My dad was drafted and fought in the Vietnam War. I could stand for hours and look at his medals. I know that they represent moments in time that can not be described by words. I just know that his character shines out from them. When his number was called, he was faithful. Through all the nastiness of that time… he was true. His life challenges me to consider the sacrifices that make us better men. He had a mother who prayed for him and my uncle daily. They both made it home. I am speechless and eternally grateful for the prayer warrior that was my Mammaw Mack. 

And then… I consider our walk today. I hear so much talk of entitlement and how this new generation out of adolescence is missing out on the American Dream of being better than their fathers. I think to myself… we simply are not.

I listen to so much bickering, complaining, and disagreement among so many that have so much… and I become bitter myself. I understand why so many reject the message of Jesus. It is because of so many of us. We fuss and complain and whine and disagree about theology, or about the faults of one another… while people starve, while people are gassed, and people are flattened by tanks, while girls are sold to sex traders, and people are executed daily for their belief.

What a great sadness. What a poverty we posses. 

I am shaken by this reality that my footsteps are not worthy. A life of comfort is no way to live at all. There is too much pain in this world for us to be so inactive. And there is such incredible beauty! The simplicity of a lily astounds me. The shape of the sky as it rests against the outlines of a mountain is nearly incomprehendable in scale and color. The gaze of a starving and abandoned child when she is suddenly fed, held, and loved makes them all look like ugly lumps of dirt.

But nothing to me is as beautiful as the steps of those who loved and lived and believed so deeply that nothing could separate them from their faith. As I search and wander through the fray… one simple truth reaches out to me, it echoes at me as I stand in the places where the faithful have fallen. It is all that keeps me focused.

The price has been paid. Are we willing to yield to His authority? Are we willing to bow to a King and feel the embrace of a Father? Do I believe enough to lay everything down to feel His embrace?

It is a simple question. 

Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.  -1 John 2:3-5  (NKJV)

or even more simply stated

"If you love me, keep my commandments." -Jesus (John 14:15)

If we know Him. How could we do anything else?