Friday, January 30, 2015

The Day After Tomorrow : A Night with the Mayor

"Leadership is more than technique, though techniques are necessary. In a sense, management is prose; leadership is poetry. The leader necessarily deals to a large extent in symbols, in images, and in the sort of galvanizing idea that becomes a force of history. People are persuaded by reason, but moved by emotion; he must both persuade them and move them. The manager thinks of today and tomorrow. The leader must think of the day after tomorrow."                 -Richard Nixon
Otto Pérez Leal, Mayor of Mixco, Guatemala
Second largest municipality
Containing the city of San Cristobal
Son of Guatemala's President, Otto Pérez Molina
When my phone woke me with the Shire's Theme from Peter Jackson's film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's the  Lord of the Rings, I had no idea the unexpected journey I was about to step into. Each day here is unique, but some are more so than others.

A invitation was placed in my hand by the owner of Christian American School. We were invited to attend the annual State of the Municipality address. It is the equivalent of being invited to the Governor's State Address in the U.S. 

Our school, Christian American School, has seen dramatic increases in test scores over the past year, with literacy rates improved from 26% to 90%, and math achievement that rose from 8% to 73%. Our school is also unique as a fully accredited Guatemalan school that is full English, using U.S. standards and curriculum, with a foundation of the teachings of Jesus.

Over the past year we've been humbled to find ourselves featured in local print and media, with the mayor choosing our campus as the location for a televised speech last fall. God has given this place His favor and we are speechless and amazed to see His hand at work.

It was a grand event with soldiers of the Guatemalan Army guarding the perimeter in full gear and weaponry. Security included a metal detector, bag search, pat-down, invitation presentation, and a quick I.D. scan and computer check. We were in the Tikal Futura Expo Center connected to Mira Flores Mall. We were surrounded by the power brokers of the city, and even of the nation.

As a pale, long-haired, bow-tie adorned gringo accompanied with my beautiful gringa wife... I was noticeably different in appearance than the average attendee. Kellie and I found ourselves surrounded with cameras while we made our way through security, and again while being seated. Eventually someone learned that we weren't important and the novelty of our weirdness wore off.

Mayor Pérez made a spectacular entrance to thunderous applause, we all stood for the Guatemalan National Anthem, and then he gave his address. Emotion ran high with cheers and applause along with video and powerful audio. Many good changes are happening here, and this night was a time to celebrate.

"In the United States everything is a line, but not in Guatemala, you get to shove it wherever you want!" These were the words that our Director gave us as we made our way to the hors d'oeuvres. She was correct! We elbowed our way through the room, learning the pattern of arriving trays stacked with delights, and eating our fill along with thousands of hungry guests. I was surprised to see how quick and efficient this method worked. No lines needed, although I did see a friend stabbed by a toothpick.

Kellie immediately tweeted,
"So the First Lady of Guatemala just kissed me. ‪#‎quechillero‬ ‪#‎guatelife‬
We ended our night with a private meeting with the Mayor. While we were waiting, his mother made her way out. During his speech, he had made frequent references to her and his wife. His mother, Rosa Leal de Pérez is the First Lady of Guatemala and is a prominent and visible force improving conditions for the marginalized of Guatemala. To our surprise, she came our way, welcoming each of us with a hug and a kiss. We were stunned by her easy and warm personality. She seemed like a grandmotherly friend that had known us our whole life.

Finally we were greeted by Mayor Pérez. To my great surprise, our school director, Vivian beginning telling him all about Journey Church! She invited him to our service and informed him that he would be receiving a formal invitation at his office. His English is phenomenal and who knows... we might put him to work as a translator or at the door to greet people as they come in (if you read this Mr. Mayor, it's only a joke... but you will have to listen to me preach).

"Alcalde Leal. He's tall..." -Kellie posted on Facebook

Our little group: Erico and Vivian, David and Claudia, Kellie and I rode back together and recounted the events of the evening. What an incredible day. Our work here provides some really cool moments when we're willing to accept the invitation. We are reminded over and over that this is God's plan and His doing... not our own. 

I don't know what will come out of our little encounter, but I know that Journey Church, Big Student Ministries, and Christian American School have twice caught the attention of the mayor. We are reminded that our actions are more than just what we do in the moment, but we are working towards the future. We are servants of God and this journey is His.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Notes from Seminary (8): What of When We Are Struck Down?

Pretty little girl and her puppy in Cerro Alto, Guatemala
The past two weeks have been a refreshing reminder of both what I am doing, and the purpose behind it. Life can get busy, and certainly painful. In my reading of Trull and Carter, I wrote in the margins of the book, "Knowledge and practice, combined with responsible behavior." 
This caught my attention because of a flurry of recent discussions I have had with various individuals that seem to revolve around a theme of circumstance giving people the right to respond in a defeated manner. I reject the notion that attacks destroy followers of Jesus, or that people, happenings, and hurts can ruin our ministry. I do not believe that is biblical. 
In the scripture, we see the greatest examples of faith in the lives of the persecuted, attacked, imprisoned, wounded, harassed, and even killed. Somehow in our modern day life of comfort, convenience, and safety, we believe that painful times justifies our negative reaction or our retreat. No. 
We are given knowledge and we are expected to practice it during the tough times to produce responsible behavior. This illustrates our relationship with God, and highlights His strength in our weakness. 
I do not write these words as a naive or untested person. I have scars that remind me of those times I lost focus, and the God who lifted me up to do more than I was able to accomplish. 
What I loved about Willimon's book this week was his statement that if we desire to please God in ministry, then we will desire to acquire the skills that will make us effective. We cannot claim ignorance, and we do not have the luxury of forgetting knowledge and skills simply because the going gets tough. Rather, it is in those tough moments that we are accountable and responsible to utilize those skills that have been rendered to us by the grace of God.
Joseph Bush, Jr. wrote about societies' efforts at Justice falling short when they lack a foundation of Jesus Christ. If we open our eyes even just a squint, we see that society is lacking a sense of Justice even now. Whether you live in the U.S. or a third world nation, you will hear cries for Justice!
And yet, when those who cry out are not standing on a foundation of the covenant God who created the universe to glorify Him, the God who seeks to restore creation and reconcile humanity, the god who redeems us and ignites a fire in us to redeem others... then this cry of justice becomes a distorted scream of entitlement and self-soothing demands.
In the lecture by Dr. James Massey we were given the questions: Who are we as clergy called to be, and what are we as clergy called to do? We must answer these questions daily as we make intentional effort to live lives of integrity in a challenging, broken, and hurtful world. We are a covenant people. Our reaction is not optional. We don't get to receive a mortal wound and fade into the shadows, abandoning our calling. We must face the crow of the rooster, and when we fail, we must then face the questions of Jesus when He looks us in the eye and asks, "Do you love me?" 
Yes. Yes Lord, you know I love you. "Then feed my sheep."

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Notes from Seminary (7): On the Challenge to be Wholly Holy (Holy-moly)

What a powerful challenge, to be wholly holy. I think of myself as more wholly broken. I realized that God was looking for me after I made a mess of my life. I first really saw Him in my most broken state. I haven't let go of that moment and that is the way that I still see God. I see Him available and reaching to me when I felt I was the most worthless and lost.
It changed my life that day. I realized that God was real and that His existence meant more than my circumstance. I knew Him to be holy, and I felt Him seeking me. It was His great and unexplainable love for me, even in my broken state, that shattered my hard heart and made me desperate to live my life for this Holy God who loves me. 
When I meet people, they're nearly always hurting. I usually find myself telling them that I know what it is like to be broken. I tell them of my experience with God who seeks us in our broken state. He did not intend for us to be broken, and He has been seeking to restore us since the day that humanity turned its collective face away from Him, seeking knowledge, fulfillment, and meaning elsewhere. The tree in the garden was our first idol. We've made countless ones ever since. 
How then should I live? I live in desperation to seek the face of the One who made me. Who came to restore me at the cost of great sacrifice. I seek to live a life that is patterned after God the Son who walked this earth. And I don't measure up. Ever. I'm a hard-headed, conclusion-jumping, misstepping goof-ball who gets something wrong every day. I am still in the process of being restored. I wander at times for months as I must be further discipled. 
God's grace has brought me to a place of restoration, and His great love compels me to seek Him deeper. This leads to an ethical life. My walk must have integrity with my belief. It's no different no matter where we find ourselves. As we pass by, do people know that they were near a God follower?

Notes from Seminary (6): The Ocean Is Calling

 Lately I have been considering where exactly I am called to serve? The easy answer is that I have moved to Guatemala, and so this is where I am called to serve. But it's really not that simple, is it? What if I go to purchase vegetables in the farmer's market. Am I not called to serve there? What if I take my family in to the city to view a movie? Am I not called to serve there? 
Recently we tried to get away for an afternoon. We spent 5 hours on the road to enjoy 3 hours at the beach on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. After arrival, I was hot and tired... frustrated and slightly nauseous from the drive. I sat underneath an umbrella that had been woven by the locals from palm branches. My thought was to read from a book (Dr. Agee's most recent novel) and just wind-down for a few minutes so I could then go enjoy the ocean. I never made it to the water. A series of 3 people sat down and began to have conversations with me, all about the nature of God and our experience in relating to others. 
I got back into the van and realized that I had missed my narrow window to enjoy the beach. It's not that far, but our work does not allow us to get away more than a couple of times a year. I began to feel sorry for myself, and frustrated that I hadn't just pushed away and enjoyed the water. We all deserve that for ourselves right? 
It was at that moment that I realized the answer. No, we don't. What we deserve is separation from God. What we deserve is death. Instead, what I received was an incredible day of conversation beachside, listening to the surf, and feeling the salty breeze blow my hair. I had to repent and thank God for this incredible experience. God gives so much more than what we deserve. 
Where are we called? The answer is just "yes." That's where you're called. Right where you are. And so, our ethics are of vital importance. We don't get to just clean up and spit-shine ourselves behind a pulpit. We aren't just pastors when we're at the church. Being a pastor doesn't even necessitate that I am employed by a church. I don't even see myself primarily as pastor. I reject the title of missionary. I might work at a school, fulfilling the role of principal, but these roles no more define me than sitting under that palm umbrella made me a surfer.
Conversely, we don't have to get in the water to be immersed in our calling.  
Writing this made me thing of a Seinfeld episode, "George, the ocean is calling. They're running out of shrimp." In our calling, we can be assured that the supply will never run out. The Holy Spirit knows your needs and communicates them to the Father, before you are even aware of the shortcoming (Rom 8:26).

And thank goodness... because we sure don't always know what's best for ourselves!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Best Times of Life Include Ramen

I first ate a Ramen Noodle with my Mammaw Ruth. It was love at first slurp. I stayed with her a lot that summer as my parents both worked and Ramen was a treat for lunch. She had just purchased an appliance that had gained popularity in kitchens across the U.S. We were all convinced that staring into the glass would give you eyeball cancer. 

The microwave made the enjoyment of Ramen quick and delicious. Those days were some of the best of my life.

That summer of bike rides, snuggling puppies, ice cream and Ramen with Mammaw passed quickly, and Ramen ceased being a novelty as I grew older. There were other things to explore, like pizza rolls and Hot Pockets... 

Until I went off to college at age seventeen and would rapidly eat up every point on my meal card by mid-semester. It was at this time that I rediscovered the wonder of Ramen. A block of Ramen was 18¢. Combined with a little shredded cheese, an egg thrown in for protein, and a diced up jalapeño pepper, I had a tasty bowl that filled the stomach. Ramen was my staple diet for the 2nd half of each semester for four years.

Again, I found Ramen during an incredible time of my life. My college years were the first time I began to love learning, and started figuring out what life was about. Those days were difficult, but they were also filled with friends, laughter, and some of the best memories I've ever had.

And then life happened and we all get much more sophisticated. Ramen again fell to the background as I worked for a grocer and became trained in gourmet cooking and tried to keep up with my fabulous wife who has a natural knack for creating great meals. Ramen was forgotten.

Fast forward about 15 years to a night at the house of a friend. Kayci asked me if I wanted to share some noodles with him. I shrugged and said, "yeah sure." To my amusement he went to the garage and carried back a shoe-size block of Asian Ramen. He dropped it into a pot of boiling water, added hot peppers, dehydrated mushrooms, and it was a delicious mixture of spice, memories of old, and a new shared experience. Once again, Ramen was a component of one of the best times of life.

I do miss seeing my friend. Our families were together every Friday night. Of all the things we left behind, that companionship is what I miss the most.

January is a tough month for missionaries. Funding is always tight. In addition to this I miscalculated our cut-off at the end of December and $1,200.00 that we were expecting this month will not arrive until the first week of February. It isn't a crisis, but it did cause us to reshape our January budget.

And so... I am re-united with Ramen. And once again, Ramen does not disappoint. This time it is a Guatemalan brand, and if you add the spice packet, be prepared to sweat and snot. I like it with a fresh avocado sliced into the mix. And again... Ramen is a side item of an incredible time of our life. 

Our mission has taken real focus and direction, our kids are doing great at school, and our souls feel at rest with the work and challenges of each day. Life is busy, life is full.

And Ramen is once again filling my belly.

Notes from Seminary (5): When You are Excused from God's Will

Life can get busy, and certainly painful. I've been considering the phrase, "knowledge and practice, combined with responsible behavior" as a workable formula for facing disaster.  This caught my attention from of a flurry of recent discussions I have had with various individuals that seem to revolve around a theme of difficult circumstance giving people the right to respond in a defeated manner. 
I reject the notion that attacks or circumstances destroy followers of Jesus, or that people, happenings, and hurts can ruin our ministry. I do not believe that is biblical. In the scripture, we see the greatest examples of faith in the lives of the persecuted, attacked, imprisoned, wounded, harassed, and even killed. Somehow in our modern day life of comfort, convenience, and safety, we believe that painful times justify our negative reaction or our retreat. No. 
We are given knowledge and we are expected to practice it during the tough times to produce responsible behavior. This illustrates our relationship with God, and highlights His strength in our weakness. I do not write these words as a naive or untested person. I have scars that remind me of those times I lost focus, and the God who lifted me up to do more than I was able to accomplish. 
If we desire to please God, then we will desire to acquire the skills that will make us effective. We cannot claim ignorance, and we do not have the luxury of forgetting knowledge and skills simply because the going gets tough. Rather, it is in those tough moments that we are accountable and responsible to utilize those skills that have been rendered to us by the grace of God.
Societies efforts at Justice fall short when they lack a foundation. If we open our eyes even just a squint, we see that society is lacking a sense of Justice even now. Whether you live in the U.S. or a third world nation, you will hear cries for Justice! 
And yet, when those who cry out are not standing on a foundation of a covenant God who created us to glorify Him, a God who seeks to restore creation and reconcile humanity, a good who redeems us and ignites a fire in us to redeem others... then this cry of justice becomes a distorted scream of entitlement and self-soothing demands.
In a lecture given by Dr. Massey, I was given the questions: Who are we called to be, and what are we called to do? We must answer these questions daily as we make intentional effort to live lives of integrity in a challenging, broken, and hurtful world. 
We are a covenant people. Our reaction is not optional. We don't get to receive a mortal wound and fade into the shadows, abandoning our calling. We must face the crow of the rooster, and when we fail, we must then face the questions of Jesus when He looks us in the eye and asks, "Do you love me?" 
Yes. Yes Lord, you know I love you. "Then feed my sheep."
Further Reading:
Gentle Shepherding by Joseph E. Bush Jr., Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders by Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter, Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life by William H. Willimon, The Gospel According to John, Chapter 17.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Residency: "Your Extension Has Expired."

"Your extension has expired on your passport." This was not good news at all when we were greeted by our attorney, it was devastating. We would be required to immediately exit Guatemala, fly to Ohio, and begin the whole process again.

The morning began with an early start, kids melting down around the house, the dog barking, a quick shave, a cup of coffee, load up the Terracan, drive up the lane, clear the guard... and crawl into traffic. Our 20 minute drive into the city was a merciful 40 minute trip. Often it can take a great deal longer. 2 closed streets, 1 police checkpoint, countless maneuvers that would land me in jail were I to drive that way in the U.S.

We pull into the parking garage deep into the Capital, get our ticket to reclaim our car, make our way up to ground level, navigate the structure, and find our way to the attorney's office fifteen minutes early. Of course we are in Guatemala, so this means that we are more like 30 minutes early. Time is a bit more relaxed here.

Sterling plopped down onto the couch in the attorney's office while Kellie and I were signing the freshly translated documents. I looked back to see her flopped and relaxed upside down and I felt the tension fly away as I laid my head back and belly-laughed. 

Mr. Morales, our attorney was laughing along with all of us, then he turned with a smile and said, "a small problem, I noticed that your passport extensions expired last week." The air was sucked from my throat as laughter turned rapidly to shock and then acceptance. We've been here nearly two years and we've weathered our share of storms and setbacks. This would just be another tale on an incredible journey.

Mr. Morales continued with a smile, "but it's not a big deal, I think I can get them to accept it, you'll just need to pay a small fine, about 100 Quetzales total (about $13.00). Kellie and I just smiled and laughed an easy sort of laugh. Yes, God's got this... even when we goof on the easy stuff.

We took the elevator from the 6th floor back down to the lobby, walked through the mall, onto the outside walkway, and crossed the street below, exiting down to the street level. We walked through a parking lot, two blocks down the street, and entered the Guatemalan Immigration office. The metal detector buzzed red as I passed through it like always... and again the guard waived me through (I've actually twice entered with a knife). I love this country.

"No Photography Please"
This is a covert shot with my phone resting inside my read of the day,
The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World, I am always captivated by the
different sorts of people immigrating to Guatemala. You can see a lady head-to-toe
in black fabric, a world-class dread-lock dude, a hippy chick, a red-head, and our attorney
on the right, holding a green folder of great value to our family.
Kellie went to pay the fine and Mr. Morales helped her navigate the official. A couple of hours later our packet went for review. We nervously waited because it was essential that their were no errors. The clerk called us up with an announcement... 

...Kellie's passport number had been recorded incorrectly on a document from one of our verifiers.  After all the ups and downs, this was enough to invalidate our application. Our eyes turned downward as we inhaled deeply. Of course it couldn't be this easy. Well, so it goes. We'll get through this.

Mr. Morales, never losing his smile, stepped forward and said, "you'll need to get it corrected and forwarded to Immigration for the file, but they still accepted your application. You are now in process."

These words were what we were most hoping to hear. Our application has been accepted! This means that we don't need fingerprints again, we don't have to spend the $800 per person to fly to Ohio. We don't have to exit Guatemala this month for a mandatory exit. We are on the path to residency!

Once again we are reminded by God that He makes the way. We simply must be willing to say yes. Even when we misstep, or mistakes are made... God makes a way. We are thankful for our attorney, a follower of Jesus, Mr. Morales. For an added bonus, he and I even got to talk U.S. politics on the walk back. 

God's hand has woven our lives, for 20 years this coming May, and the weave is resting here in this place as our family together takes this essential step in our participation in the story of God. It is no mistake. Our extension has expired. And that's just ok... because we don't need it anymore!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Life Viewed by Trees

On the lower corner of our lot is a giant of a tree. It's a grand old tree, a thing of true beauty. And it's a tree that has come to the end of its days. The roots are beginning to upset the foundations of our neighbor, and branches are breaking and falling down onto their rooftop. Our neighbor kindly offered to hire a crew to take it down and we accepted. 

I am conflicted with both awe at the bravery and skill of the men who climb well over 50 feet to take the upper branches out with simple rope and machete, and I also grieve for the loss of such a majestic tree. Like so much of life, I look at the tree and I am overcome with conflicting emotions. There is the timeless nature of its beauty, the spectacle of the fearless men, and the sadness of its passing.

I thank God for the balance in living. The sadness focuses my mind and gives perspective for the beauty. I think back to the days that our family has planted trees: when Aleksandra came home from Russia we planted a white birch, when Sterling came home from China we planted a cherry blossom tree, and I spent and afternoon with Caleb at our old house in Ohio planting a maple tree that he brought home from school. Three children, three trees that signified our thanks.

Without a doubt we will soon plant a new tree here in our yard. It will be a moment of reflection. We'll give thanks for the life of that giant tree and reflect on all the changes it has seen in this country. It has stood above decades of war, and it has seen peace and renewal begin to spread across the land. We'll give thanks for the trees we've planted and the events they signify. Those trees still grow in Ohio.

But our gaze will not extend only backwards. As our shovel turns over the ground that will cradle a new tree, we know that time will continue to pass and that tree will now bear witness to the coming days. It will stand above our little family as we seek out the will of our Father. 

God seeks to restore all of creation back to Himself, and we are all here as His creation. May the growth of this tree shade us as we yield to Him and find reconciliation, back to a perfect state of a man and a woman in a garden. 
Caleb | April 2011

May our lives grow to be giants of beauty. May we grow strong and tall, with smooth branches and sometimes gnarled roots. Let us be branches that comfort and shade. Let us give life to our surroundings. Let us continue to bear witness to the glory of our God and to His story unfolding in our lives. And when that time comes, may we fall softly into the arms of God.

The old Shep House (Aleksandra's Birch visible in the center).

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1 ESV
(It was Pop's favorite)

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's No Mistake that You are Here

Left to right: Antony de Leon, David Toledo, David Prado, Alan Valasquez
Journey House Band Members
"Wherever you're from, whatever your language, culture, or background, I am sure of one thing; it is no mistake that you are here this morning." Somehow this has become a phrase that I use each and every Sunday morning gathering at Journey Church | Guatemala. 

The world is full of things that divide us and it's so easy to lose track of what we should be about as we concentrate on what we should be against. I think of the powerful prayer of Jesus that is recorded as John 17. It is the heart of Jesus that we all become one in Him, just as He is one with the Father. 
"...pray also for those who will believe in my through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
This thought was present in my mind as my eyes looked across our congregation. Skin tone, language, income, politics, vocation, and denomination divide us. As a group I'd say we could disagree on most any subject. The differences in our gathering of doctrine are enough to split the average church wide open. And yet... we worship together as one.

Somehow in this place, we know that there is value in simply letting the main thing be the main thing. We agree that God loves us and that the Bible is His story of redemption. We agree that we all must yield to Him daily and seek His face. We agree that we are broken without Him. We agree that we all need to love each other: this is how we reflect God's love for us, and besides... we really do need each other.

Being the church is about loving God and loving each other. But it's also more than that. We must keep His commandments. We must be obedient to His calling. We must put others before self. We must be vulnerable and be willing to risk: comfort, security, and happiness. Our thoughts must be in agreement with our stated beliefs, because our actions bear evidence of those thoughts.

And so our group gathers to worship, to lift hands to a Holy God. We drink deep and we carry our worship with us as we pass through the steel gate and step into the mission. It is a blessing to be a part of God's church. Our little group continues to grow. Our partnerships with the local schools are flourishing with shared equipment and facilities. 

Left to Right: David Toledo, Gloria Shearer, Chad P. Shepherd
Journey Church | Guatemala Pastoral Staff
God's timing is everything. My two associates were both in the United States while my family still lived there. At the same time I wrestled with God about a calling to Guatemala, He was also dealing with them. The three of us landed in this place with no idea of what God had in store. This story is echoed over and over and over among our people.

It's no mistake. Where you are... it's no mistake. You are being shaped. Where you are... it's no mistake. God can use you. Accept His love. Become overwhelmed and love Him back. Be blown away by His grace in your obedience and then give that grace and love to others.

Last night I read the passage of the Elder in the throne room of God asking John, "who are these clothed in white robes?" and the answer that was given stripped me to my core as I shed tears at my desk, these are the ones who made it through great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb (my paraphrase).

This time that we are all in together is our great tribulation. We must walk through it together now, so that we can stand side-by-side at that moment. I want to be beside you as one of the white-robed giving praise to the God that is saving us.

It's not about our differences. It's all about us having the same Father. It's no mistake that you are here.

"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Never again will the humber; never again will the thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eye." 
Revelation 7:14-17 (Ps 23:1, Jn 4:10, Isa 25:8)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gringo Killed the Video Star

The rainy season had passed and cooler temperatures were a welcome invitation as I sat at my desk with the three buttons of my sport coat fastened. It was a neat and typical sort of day as I sat with a bow tie straightened in contrast to a head of untamed hair. Sunlight warmed the room and Chopin may have softly played out from my MacBook. It was a calm, predictable Tuesday.

A voice filled my office and captured my attention, “Good morning Pastor Shepherd, you are going to film a commercial. Please write the script and we’ll film in 20 minutes. Thank you.”

This is the sort of spontaneity that I love about what I do. I grabbed an ink pen, a crisp, white sheet of typing paper and begin to write out what I needed to say. After getting it proofed and perfected, I typed it into a word document, enlarging the font to create a cue card that I could tape underneath the camera lense.

Down the hallway I went with my neat bow tie and wild hair. Balance in life is important. The lights began to warm the air as the countdown hit zero and I delivered my lines. After a few takes and coaching of: talk louder, be more animated, use micro-expressions (what is that anyway?) and… “In Guatemala we like to talk with our hands,” I had an acceptable shoot.

I was grinning with happiness with the relief that it was over. It was at this euphoric moment that the voice again filled the room. “Pastor Shepherd, that was fabulous, now you’re going to do it in Spanish!” He said it with such exuberance, like it was an amazing idea that surely would change the world! I was not the least bit enthused, but I forced a smile as I said, “but I can’t.” He said, “oh yes, you can.” 

The countdown began and he pointed to me.  I stared at the camera and stumbled through my name and then my brain was unable to access a single Spanish word.  They shut off the camera and I exhaled with relief. I was surely off the hook. But no, “Pastor Shepherd, I am going to speak what you need to say, you will write it down like it sounds to you, and then you will say it for the camera.”

And so… with a single take that left the entire room laughing hysterically, here is the result. 

His final words to me were, “Pastor Shepherd, it is PERFECT! You’re accent is fabulous, people will LOVE it.” Apparently he was correct. It has had over 21 thousand views on YOUTUBE and is still climbing! 

I was sitting again in my office several days later when a prospective family walked past my office. Suddenly the elementary aged son shouted out as he pointed at me, “LOOK! There he is, it’s the funny Gringo from the video!”

I am famous.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Freshest Coffee in All the World

There is something almost spiritual about the coffee in this land. You can pick a bright red berry, shine it against your shirt and place it in your mouth. When you carefully bite down, allowing your teeth to pop through the skin and find the bean inside, a kind of bitter-sweet juice fills your mouth with just a hint of the potential that can be unlocked through a centuries old process of cleaning, drying, roasting, grinding, and steeping.

We have a giant coffee tree in the back corner of of yard. It gets a few hours a day of direct sunlight that is filtered by the high tree above it. Since it grows in the corner of two concrete walls, it receives necessary shading for most of the day. In its unlikely location in the middle of the city, it yields thousands of beautiful red cherries.

We have several friends in the coffee business, and after a few quick chats, Kellie decided that she'd like to roast from our own coffee tree. We grabbed the necessary tools: two ladders, two ice cream containers, one large bucket (used the night before as a barf-bucket) and diva eleven year old, and a cranky fourteen year old.

It took some practice to remove the cherry from the branch without causing damage and leaving the green cherries. The best quality coffee is always hand picked, selecting only the dark red, plump cherries. Our respect for local coffee farmers soared. When a harvest is ready, a family often will come to pick, bringing all members. Father and mother will pick alongside their children, and infants will often be tied in slings around either mom or one of the older siblings. Large baskets that weigh 80 to 100 lbs are carried on heads, and an entire day's pick can earn the family around $6.00 per day per person for each adult size harvest.

Caleb and Aleksandra picked for about 3 hours to yield 12 pounds of coffee. I don't think this rate of 2 pounds an hour would be considered productive up on the mountain.  But, for gringo-kids this will have to do for now. From what I've learned, a good picker can pick up to 200 pounds in a very long day, which then would yield down to about 40 pounds of dried beans. So, using this same equation, we'll get around 2.5 pounds of ground coffee. 

Fresh grinds for a fresh start with a new year. Our concrete wall is finished thanks to our partners back in the U.S. and we've broken ground on the plumbing to convert a tool shed into an apartment. 

January is our lowest month for funding with our partners recovering from Christmas, preparing for taxes, and resetting budgets. Last year we nearly hyperventilated from the lack of funding. But this year, we move forward in faith. God has brought us this far, and He will not abandon us as long as we continue to seek His face.

And so, for a few weeks we tighten the belt, move forward on faith, and enjoy a great cup of coffee. I believe that God has more in store than we could possible ask or imagine.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

More than Meets the Eye

While I won't tell you that every detail in this story is true, I do give you my word that there is truth in this story. You see, this is a thirty-year reflection of a ten year old brain, and all I can offer you is an account of the way I remember it.

My Grandpa Shepherd was named Harry. While he had great hairy arms, and a silver-haired chest that burst from his v-neck Fruit of the Loom t-shirt, his jet-black hair on the top of his head was a bit scarce. While I wouldn't say he was bald, his hairline was like the current Russian economy, in deep recession.

Grandpa Harry was a World War II veteran, had a big green tattoo on his bicep to prove it, had an old Coke machine filled with cold bottles of soda in his garage, and smoked like a chimney. He kept his Pall Malls in the glove-box of his old Datsun car, and he'd send me out to retrieve them for him... much to the dismay of my mother. Contrary to popular psychology, this did not make me a chain smoker. While I don't care if you smoke, I think they're too expensive and generate bad breath.

What I remember the most about him was the sound of him peeling and slicing an apple. He had this old pocketknife with a stag handle. When I'd visit, he'd have a bright red apple on the pedestal that held his ashtray and lighter. I remember with distinction every move and sound...

...he picked up the apple like he did so many times before and he polished it against his shirt until it reflected the sunlight. He opened the larger of the two blades of the knife and began by pressing the blade into the top of the apple, near the stem. The knife would crunch through the skin and a fine mist sprayed out, visible in the dusty rays of the sun. The knife remained in a solid, stationary grip in his hand while he rotated the apple. The knife made a wet, crunchy sound as it slide through, creating a single long spiral that fell to his lap. He handed it to me and like always, I held the empty skin in my hands, and marveled at how it could be formed into its original shape, a perfectly formed apple, that was nothing but a red shell.

I looked up to see him smiling and chuckling at me while he held up a perfectly peeled, pure white apple. Like every other time, he sliced the apple, bringing the blade through it to his thumb, and together we ate the best tasting apple the world had to offer, always crisp and juicy. But this day would be different that our normal routine. Instead of folding the knife and placing it back into his faded boot-cut jeans pocket, or using it to clean his fingernails, I was surprised to see him holding it to me.

"Chad, you know I've carried this knife a long time. I even used it to skin a bear... inside-outwards. It's a good knife, and I want to give it to you." I wasn't sure what I felt in that moment, but I remember being surprised by the gesture. I accepted the knife and quickly shoved it into the pocket of my chunky boy jeans.

The problem with this story is that I was ten years old, and I had a ten year old brain. 

The year was 1984. While the things that Orwell foresaw wouldn't come to fruition for another thirty years, there was a very significant futuristic occurrence. I'd come home from school every day, run to the television, adjust the dial to channel 45 to hear, 

"The Transformers! More than meets the eye! The Transformers! Robots in disguise. Autobots lead their battle to destroy the evil forces of... THE DECEPTICONS!"

Mom liked to shop at a department store called, "Hills." Hills had a full aisle of Transformers and every time I'd go in there, I'd salivate at the sight of them. Now, my parents loved me and I knew I could score one or two for Christmas, but I knew one wouldn't be going in the cart any time soon.

Preston Brewer was a friend of mine that I'd met in our small town at the Camden First Church of God. Preston's family lived in the village of Jacksonburg, population 84, in a perfect little wooden A-frame house. Preston and his whole family wore perfectly pressed button-up collared shirts and shiny shoes. And Preston had a bedroom full of Transformers. 

But what Preston lacked was a pocket-knife. I showed him mine at church and his eyes lit up. Preston told me that his dad wouldn't allow him to have a pocket-knife, but he really wanted one. At that moment my brain conceived a magnificent and perfect plan. I would just have to play my cards right, and I'd have a Transformer to take to school on Monday. And so, I immediately put my plan into action, arranging for my afternoon to be spent at his house.

I kept my plan private, riding in his families immaculate car to the little burg that held his pretty little house. I minded my manners and made sure I ate everything on my plate. When dinner was complete, our napkins property folded and our fork and knife placed in an x on top of the empty plate, we were dismissed from the table and we went up the stairs to his room in the peak of the house.

As Preston ran to the shelf to take down his transformers, I reached into my pocket and took out the knife. When he turned around with Optimus Prime and Megatron, I was shining the blade on the top of my jeans like I'd seen Grandpa Harry do so many times. Preston stopped in his tracks. "Can I see it?" I paused and looked concerned before saying, "well, I guess... yeah, sure." I showed him how to open and close it safely, how to keep it shiny, and how to always be sure to cut away from your self, never carving towards yourself.

I waited for it... and then I knew the deal was sealed when he said, "man, I'd love to have my own knife."

He took the bait and I pulled up hard on the line... this was the moment! "Ya know, maybe we can make a trade." He looked up with big eyes and said, "no, my dad would never allow it." I immediately replied, "well, my dad won't buy me a Transformer, and I think me and you can just make a deal."

Preston was more savvy than I anticipated. He was willing to make a deal, but he wasn't as desperate for a knife as I was for a Transformer. Before I knew what was happening, I had been negotiated down from Optimus Prime, a large silver, blue, and red eighteen wheeler truck that stretched across the whole table, to a small orange and blue truck with a broken smoke-stack.

At first I was frustrated and disappointed. But I held the truck in my hand and looked down at the Autobot sticker on the top of the cab. I could hear the Transformers theme song playing in my head. I could picture myself playing with it by the Big Rock in the West Elkton Elementary school yard with my buddies Jerry Schul and Kevin Dyehouse. At that moment I knew that I had to have it!

I said, "DEAL!" shook his hand, and the trade was complete. Huffer was mine, and life was good. Life was very good. In fact, life was perfect. I took Huffer to school and I was able to play Transformers with Jerry and Kevin. I came home from school and held Huffer in my hand while I watched him on television and sang "TRANSFORMERS, ROBOTS IN DISGUISE" at the top of my lungs. Life was perfect for exactly three days.

It all ended on Wednesday evening when my dad said, "let me see that knife." To this day I don't know if he somehow was aware of my covert deal, or if it was just a chance question to pass the time, but I remember my blood freezing and my heart exploding in that moment on the couch.

I didn't dare lie to my father, and so I had to find the perfect answer to divert his attention and get myself off the hook. I thought of the perfect answer, "I really don't know where it is." It was the perfect most brilliant response to my ten year old brain! My dad didn't see the brilliance of my response. Instead he replied, "go find it."

And so I decided to 'fess up. I muttered to him with downcast eyes that I had traded Grandpa's knife for the Transformer in my pocket. I showed him Huffer and he saw that Huffer had a broken part. He shook his head as he said, "so you traded your Grandpa's knife for a broken toy." I felt regret sweep over me as I allowed myself to accept the ridiculous nature of my action. I wanted the idea of owning a Transformer so badly, that I had been willing to pay any price. I'd given away the heirloom of my Grandpa for a broken piece of plastic.

Dad picked up the telephone and had a conversation. He told me, "get your coat and bring that toy, we're going for a ride." 

I knew the back roads well enough to know we were driving to Jacksonburg, population 84. I wondered if now it was population 83. We pulled into a local pizza joint, Marcum's,  and I saw Preston's family car. We walked into the shop and I saw Preston and his father standing at the back of the shop. I glanced at his father's face. Our dad's had the same unhappy expression of disappointment staring down from their faces. 

It was like a scene from a movie with the mob on one side and the fuzz on the other. Preston and I slowly walked to the dead zone in between. Without making eye contact I lifted Huffer out of my pocket and took my knife back in my hand. The exchange was made and I looked up at Preston, we both quickly glanced away. I walked back to my Dad and we went back to the car in the silence of that dark Ohio evening.

I'd survived. I considered all that had happened, and I leaned back against the seat with a sigh of relief. It was over. Life again was good. 

Until suddenly again it was not. We passed the turn to our house. Dad kept driving and I felt dread grip my heart again as I realized where he was taking me... to a place that normally generated happiness in my heart, but now filled me with dread. I knew that I had wronged my Grandpa, and I was being taken to face him. 

I remember that small living room. The last time I had been there it was filled with sunlight and a bright red apple. I felt special and loved. But this time the room was dark with the static filled light of the television blinking out towards me. My dad said, "you know he traded that knife to a kid for a broken toy." My mouth suddenly was dry and I gulped. Grandpa Harry turned to examine me as I stood there exposed. He said, "you traded it for a toy?" All I could say was, "yes." 

He said, "do you have it back?" Again, "yes." He nodded and responded, "well then, let's see it." I dug the knife out of my pocket and handed it back to him in sadness. Through my own bad choices I now had lost both Huffer and the knife. I watched him take it into his hands and examine it with an easy familiarity. He opened each blade and cleaned them against his jeans.

He looked and regarded me for a moment in silence. He took a breath and said, "do you think you'll trade it away again?" I said, "no." He said, "I gave it to you because I want you to keep it." Again with the one worded answer I said, "yes." And then he reached out his hand, extending the knife back to me and said, "so keep it."

Life again was good. In fact, life was now perfect. My Grandpa had given me exactly what I needed. I thought I needed a Transformer. But what I really needed was something worth far more in value. It was exactly what he gave me. He gave me love, grace, and forgiveness.