Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Shepherd Family Marks 2 Years in Guatemala (or, Golden Retrievers Have to Let Go).

La Recoleccion Ruin, Antigua Guatemala
Faith is a journey. If we aren't moving, I think we might be dead. There is no such thing as being a comfortable follower of Christ. While there is joy in the LORD, there is also great sorrow over the state of the world. I live in this expanse between the two. Recently I've identified this place as the Kingdom of God.

I don't see the world like most people. I come to understand that suffering, while a misery and never chosen, is in fact the place that I can oftentimes best be used for the good. It must be our expectations that we get so out of whack. Somehow we end up in these bleak places where we mutter to ourselves about equality and fairness. What happened to humility and sacrifice? 

I think it's been stolen from us. And it is time we take it back. There's so much chatter now about what is right and what is just. The world has changed fundamentally, but my relationship with God is unchanged. My identity is intact. Faith is a journey, our family has been in Guatemala two years now, and it's time for us to transition to the next level.

We stood underneath the patio as the teams from several U.S. churches waited in line for their grilled burgers. Burger night is always a special night because it reminds us of so many memories from the past. It's a common thing that binds us. My mission director was challenging me to shift my focus. For the past 18 months I've been the Principal of Christian American School, putting in at least 40 hours a week. I'm also a pastor of Journey Church Guatemala, a missionary with Catalyst Resources International, a graduate student, and husband and father of three.

A year and a half ago our funding was failing and our plans were falling apart. God provided Christian American School as a place where I could pick up a stipend that covered our rent. I think he also provided me to them. It's been a beautiful labor of love. 

We've seen enrollment skyrocket, teacher retention climb dramatically to 87%, student grades increase, national test score ranking rise, and student's give their lives to God. The state of the school is very good. I have been looking forward to enjoying the fruits of the labor next year. It's a staff that I've built... well, we've all built together. I am deeply grateful for the time I have been able to spend with people who have become family.

God has blessed our ministry this past year. We've added 4 new supporting churches, and people seem to believe in our hearts, mission, and calling. We feel established. We know our purpose. 

This year has also been exhausting. I am tired like I've never felt. It's like my bones need sleep. I haven't had a day off since April 4th. That was spring break week. I had time off and I nearly went crazy. I've forgotten how to take a day off. I sleep 6 hours a night at most. I love the work, and yet I feel my body and my mind growing heavy. I've been wondering if the summer will be enough.

My mind shifted back to the present. As we stood under the patio, with me defending why I should continue this pace, I heard the words fall from my own lips, "Maybe the time is coming again that I just need to let go, and to trust God." His response was, "Exactly, now is that time."

He went on to describe me as a "Golden Retriever." He was being careful with his words, and I knew where he was driving. I said, "I've been told that I am loyal to a fault." He said, "Yes, exactly." You have a hard time letting go. Once you believe in something you are intensely loyal, I've seen that in you."

I felt it hit me. It was a moment I've learned to identify. It's that moment when the Holy Spirit of God makes its way through my defenses. All the tension and stress and effort suddenly disappears with an instant calming, reassuring knowledge that I have fully yielded. How ironic, this passed Sunday I preached on how the Courageous Ones of the Bible embrace the unknown.

And so I am releasing my role at Christian American School. It's a better place now than it was 18 months ago. They are strong. They are moving together as they follow God. It's a relationship that we'll continue to foster, but I'll no longer be their employee. I'll be their pastor, friend, and occasional consultant.

Last night was my last official act, graduating students and closing the school year. I have felt exhaustion leave my body as I've yielded to the will of God. I know we are taking the correct steps. We've been exactly where He's called us to be, and now He is again showing us the next steps.

Kellie and I are very happy to announce that our interns have been wonderful. Sam, Leah, and Caden have experienced teaching at Christian American School, clerical work for Journey Church, leadership in Big Student Ministries, field work for Catalyst Resources International, interaction with PILAS Ministry, and precious days of love at House of Hope. 

Our intern apartment is completed and we have visions of building a second. Our internship program this year was a huge success. Next year, we will expand this, with openings for 10 interns, beginning this December. We are signing up interested young men and women now. They must be Christians, mission minded, and with significant work experience or at least one year of college.

In addition to this, I will be able once again to join Catalyst Resources International in leading short term mission teams from the U.S. I am thrilled to be able to jump back into direct interaction with our friends and pastors in the villages and mountains. New Church of God connections are also coming together, with exciting interaction between our churches and our connections in Anderson.

As I work with teams from the U.S., I will be able to identify those who are skilled, willing, available, and interested in exploring missions a little deeper than a one week trip. This will be a significant base of generating internships. Those who want to experience a little bit more with Catalyst Resources International can do so as Kellie and I continue to develop and expand this program.

As Journey Church continues to grow, I'll be able to dedicate more time into my volunteer team. I look forward to more discipleship and volunteerism with this team. Journey Church has partnered with Light for the Future, a Christ based english academy for children who live in the tin city outside of the capital dump. One student recently was able to gain employment at a call center, speaking English, and now begins to lift his family out of generations of poverty.

Journey Church's relationship with Christian American School and Christian Academy of Guatemala continue to run strong as we meet at each location and enjoy the fellowship of shared goals. Together we are fulfilling the mission of connecting people to Christ and the Church."

As part of my re-alignment I've also reduced my class load from the seminary, taking 4 hours per semester instead of 7. This pace will enable me to graduate with my Master of Christian Ministry Degree from Anderson University School of Theology (SOT) in the spring of 2017. I am humbled that God has made this path possible.

My good friend and mentor, Dr. Gary Agee of the SOT was just confirmed and installed as the official Historian of the Church of God. He's coming down to spend a week with us here at the mission, and we'll be discussing possible documentation of the history of the Church of God in Guatemala. I'm thrilled for the potential collaboration!

So, we continue to walk in will of God. It is my deep desire that we remain in walking in the blessing of God. This October I am eligible for ordination, the final step of my credentialing as a pastor. It's been a challenging and rewarding process since 2013, and it will be sweet to feel the hands of those ministers covering me in prayer. 

Faith is a journey. I thank God that we're still moving. I praise God that He doesn't allow us to become comfortable or complacent. I am grateful for the stretching and the growth. I praise God that He has revitalized my spirit, and that He continues to shift our focus as He sharpens our edge. 

Now more than ever before, we are leveraged to be a part of generational change with families here in Guatemala, walking with them in powerful faith. And we need your support. We need you to send us interns. We need you to walk beside us prayerfully, and financially. I am confident that greater things are yet to come.

Just in case you're worried that I'm tired, please know that it is the type of tired you get after doing something you love, and know that beginning mid July, we'll be taking 4 nights away as a family at the nearby Pacific coast. 

Just in case you're one of those murmurers that say missionaries shouldn't be frivolous and wasteful, please know that the cost is very cheap, and the time together with family is vital.

And if you're down in our neck of the woods, we have a bed with fresh linens waiting for you. I promise you a trip of a lifetime.

Las Capuchinas Ruins, Antigua Guatemala

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Just Add Chicken: Carmelita & Jorge get a Hen House.

We were just a bunch of poor college kids. Kellie and I would hang out with Jennifer and Brendan on the weekends: watching movies, playing board games, and cooking on a tiny grill. We'd talk about what life would be like when we were older. While we dreamed of many fantastic things, I don't think we ever talked about doing missions together in Central America.

The weeks we've spent together here in Guatemala have topped any and every dream we ever shared together as we sat cramped in those tiny little Anderson, Indiana apartments. The riches we've encountered in the mountains in the land of eternal spring have surpassed all expectations.

This land has a great deal to teach to those who are willing to listen. The richness of a culture, a people, and a great faith that runs like a common thread in us all. This is our story in pictures: A Hen House for Jorge, Carmelita, and their beautiful children.

It's cool here tonight. Rain threatens as it does every day during the rainy season. Jorge and Carmelita are safe in their home, with the sounds of the hens shuffling into their roost for the night. Tomorrow morning will bring a basket full of eggs. Enough to fill their bellies, donate some to others that are hungry, and even some to sell at the market at the base of the mountain. 

They have hope. And their great love and faith has revitalized our own souls, feeding us with a greater understanding of what it means to be brothers and sisters. We're still just a bunch of poor college kids, finding our way home.

4 x 4 posts concreted 18" into the rich soil.
Everyone helps to mix all the concrete and mortar by hand.

The sand must be sifted for a smooth mortar.
Children come to play and to meet us!
Two levels of cinder block rest on a concrete footer
Mortar is carefully filled between the blocks.
While the base wall rises, the roof is raised.
Nearing the end of Day One, great progress.

Concrete is mixed and spread for a 4" thick floor.
The sides are up, chicken wire is installed,
and Ramiro adds the door.

Of course there is always time to play.
Time for Jorge to sit with his boys.
Time for Brendan to make a friend.
Time to work with Carmelita and make her babies eye's healthy again.
And... of course to hand out some goodies!

Zachary adds some finishing touches.
While this little guys steals our heart.
This is why we come.
Just add chicken.
Build a roost.
Build and hang a feed trough.
Edgar tells us, "Happy chickens lay lots of eggs."
Jorge & Carmelita have very happy chickens!

Carmelita is happy as she holds the first egg.

As soon, she holds many more!
The chickens are VERY happy.

Jacob is happy too.
This is the happy face of a hen.

Zachary wants to hold a hen.

Jacob wants to hold a hen.
Caitlyn wants to be near a chicken.

What thoughts are in her mind?
In his mind?
We huddled inside during a storm.
This is more shelter than many families have.
We give thanks for friends.
There is pleasure in the simple things of life.
A prayer of dedication and thanks.
All lives here have been changed.
Brendan and Jorge as we prepare to say, "see you later,"
to new found friends.
Thank God for these few days that have drawn
these three families together.
We load up a few extra chickens... Zachary and Brendan deliver them to another family.
We're just people helping people,
following the footsteps of
the one who saved us.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Negative Christian Haters Helped a Family

Every so often I have to read someone on Facebook that seems to miss the irony as they slam social media on social media. Typically it's because they're tired of all the haters. Well, this little story is to tell you why the haters can do some good (in spite of themselves).

About this time last year I came across an acquaintance from school years past that had a bit of a mental meltdown about some mega church that had invested millions into a crime-ridden, impoverished city of the U.S. It read something like... how dare they claim to be Christians and invest millions for entertainment while people starve around the world. Rant. Rant. Rant.

I was feeling particularly cranky that day, and so I engaged the hater. We exchanged several dozen comments back and forth about how the hater felt it was ok to spend a hundred thousand dollars on a statue of a sports figure, but not Jesus Christ, how dare a church give a poor city a safe place to bowl and even DANCE (oh... the nerve) and basically unleash his view that all mega churches are evil empires of corruption that will split Hell wide open, dragging humanity with them in a fiery, sulphuric crash!

Don't you know they should give that money to charity?

Finally, I asked the honest question that ended the conversation, "So where do you donate money?" I figured that I'd try to patch up the relationship (it was quite heated) by giving a small amount to his charity of choice. I was met with several minutes of nothing... and then the response, "I don't give to anyone, I pay taxes."

Go. Figure.

The hater didn't give a penny of his income to anyone else. At this point I replied that I found it interesting that he who gave nothing wanted to direct others how to spend their millions. Now... grant it, I should have been more loving, more compassionate, and less willing to rub his nose in his own excrement. I'll admit that I was feeling a little bit like I needed to ask forgiveness....

...and that's when I received the instant message from Jason Lee. Jason also was an old school acquaintance. Jason told me that my approach was refreshing, and it was about time that someone said it. He then went on to tell me that he was the worship pastor at Bear Valley Church in Colorado, his lead pastor had directed him to find an international mission to visit, and since I'd provided him such an entertaining afternoon over my exchange with the hater... he wanted to invest into Guatemala.

Are. You. Kidding. Me? This is evidence that God can use anything for His glory when we are willing and available. 

What Jason didn't know was that I wanted to be him when we were at Anderson University. He had natural talent and charisma that just dripped from his fingers. He could play the piano and sing.... absolutely rocking it out like Billy Joel and  Elton John. His rendition of I Guess That's Why They Call it The Blues had stolen the show at an Agathos (think fraternity, except without booze and debauchery) 80s Encore, a talent show. 

Of course, we were a CHRISTIAN university, and so I'll never forget that after the line, "rollin' like thunder, under the covers" he shouted.... "of course they were married!" Jason Lee was everything I was dying to be, but I lacked the talent. I walked away from Anderson with a music minor, and my pride partially intact. He was a superstar. He had my admiration from across the 18 years since our graduation.

Jason came to Guatemala this past week and he brought his wife Ann. He volunteered to lead worship one night at our mission. I was afraid to hear him again. I thought... what if I have some warped memory from our college days and he really isn't that good?! I mean... it's been years and I've heard a lot of great performers since then. Maybe he was just a big fish in a small pond.

And then he began to sing. Haters of the world... I had an authentic Jesus-tingle moment. Tears fell down my face as his voice ripped out across that stormy night with the rain slamming down on the laminate roof and he absolutely rocked the piano. Better. He was better than I had remembered. Dude was KILLING it. The teams that were gathered from three different geographical locations in the U.S. were suddenly united around the throne of God. 

For the next 25 minutes we were transcended from that stormy porch, around 80 sons and daughters of God singing as one strong voice, led by the vocal giant of my memory, and my Facebook brother in arms. Life in that moment, singing beside my wife and family, along with his family... just seemed somehow perfect.

We went on that week to serve together, and I watched Jason and Ann change the lives of a beautiful family. God is good. And that's how Negative Christian Haters Helped a Family! So... the next time you're frustrated with those nay-sayers out there... remember the Stove Project of Jason & Ann Lee.

First shovel into a concrete mixture

He said he'd never done it before...

...and yet he had that concrete folded like a Frosty!

It all begins with a solid foundation.

Now Jason becomes a mason.

Ann comes over to make sure he doesn't foul it up.

Foundation complete. Base unit installed.

Assembling the fire-box.

Ann, Jason, and Brayan smoothing out the insulating composite.

The counter stone is layed (all local materials).

The vented stove top must be level and flush.

Ann inserts the steel stove-top.

Jason placing the chicken-wire protector over the stove-pipe.

A family comes together to fire it up.

Anna lights her brand new stove.
Smoke will no longer fill their home.
The amount of daily firewood is radically reduced.

This small amount will burn for half the day.

Grandma & Grandpa, Mom & Dad,
& 15 kids, some from aunts and uncles
now have a little more hope for the future.

The Lee family testified of the great love of Jesus Christ,
prayed, and together we all dedicated this home in obedience to God.

May our work and praises rise like the smoke
that blows from this pipe.

And may we all be more affirming in our words, and thankful for the many different ways that God advances His kingdom. And please.... don't be a hater. Nobody cares about what you're against. Seriously, that list is endless.

It's what you're willing to bleed for that will get their attention. Where do you give? If you don't have a place. Find a place. I don't care what place. Just find a place and give until it hurts.

Don't wish it away
Don't look at it like it's forever
Between you and me I could honestly say
That things can only get better

And while I'm away 
Dust out the demons inside
And it won't be long before you and me run
To the place in our hearts where we hide

-Elton John