Sunday, August 30, 2015

When Your Dad Looks Like Chuck Norris

Tom Shepherd                   Chuck Norris   

It's happened as long as I can remember. I'd be walking with my Dad and someone would stop him and say, "Hey, are you Chuck Norris? You look like Chuck Norris!" At this point I'd step back and watch to see what happened next. 

Sometimes Dad would drop into a classic defensive posture, one leg back, the front one bent at the knee, weight on the rear leg, fists raised, chin down while he eyeballed them with a cool response, "Yes, that's me... Chuck Norris."

Chuck Norris represents a good deal of what is right with the world. Everyone knows that you don't mess with him, and he's going to put a hurt on the bad guys as he saves the day.

That's also how I see my Dad. Whenever he enters a situation, it just gets better. He has a quick wit, a disarming smile, and integrity as strong as the steel he manufactured at AK for 30 years.

Chuck Norris once said, "Men are like steel. When they lose their temper, they lose their worth." 

Living 2000 miles apart from Mom and Dad can be tough sometimes, Chuck Norris tough. As I get older I find more and more of my personality reminds me of my Mom and my Dad. There are times when I need a little of both of them to get through the day. 

Chuck Norris said, "A lot of times people look at the negative side of what they feel they can't do. I always look on the positive side of what I can do." 

Sometimes I wonder if my Dad secretly is Chuck Norris. While I haven't heard him say those words, I've seen him live that life. I've never seen him take down a Soviet spy, take down a ninja, or save a President... but he's built a treehouse, hung tire-swings, laid down giant trees, dug a fence line, restored an old coupe, taught me how to shoot, and lets my daughters paint his face.

I've come to the conclusion that Chuck Norris looks a lot like him.
A Composite Photo
"Tom Norris"
It happened to me for the first time a few weeks ago. I was walking in a village in Guatemala, tools on my belt, torn jeans with a leather cowboy hat. I heard two guys on a roof alongside the gravel street talking about me. The other laughed as the first said, "Se parece a Chuck Norris" or, "He looks like Chuck Norris.

Now whenever I visit Bola de Oro, Chimaltenango, Guatemala... I frequently hear, "Hey... Chuck Norris."

It's a great reminder for me... and quite the challenge to live up to. Someday my son will be measuring his own life against my own. I hope he thinks I look like my Dad*.

*Shepherd family... insert jokes about the size of my nose here. How is it that I didn't get Dad's blue eyes, but I got Harry's nose?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

What if the Pastor Followed You Around? | Love Guatemala

As the campus pastor of a multi-cultural, English-speaking, post-modern, American-Style church on the outskirts of Guatemala City, I needed to invest more relationally with our team leaders. This is my approach...

No agenda. No talking points. No expectations. Just a shared day, me tagging along like a shadow, walking beside them in a day of their life. This is day two, with Ben Kunkel, director of Love Guatemala.

The contrast of red caught my eye against the bleak concrete floor. The red shoes were too worn to have their heels clicked together. The road had been followed and "no place like home" was tired commentary rather than promise.

At the foot of her bed was an old General mechanical sewing machine that reminded me of my Great-Grandma's Singer. I sat there in the dim light, breathing heavy and stale air as I remembered Grandma Elsie smoothly pressing that treadle as she guided material through the needle. I smiled. Her house was a lot like this one.

Things were piled up in that small space. I sat next to my friend, Ben as he listened to a story of lumps, a year long-wait for a doctor, surgery, biopsy, and now she must wait a month to learn the results. Tears flow unashamedly down her face as she tells us that she may be facing cancer. 

Above her bed hangs two small oil and canvas paintings. Her son painted one in a summer art program. The other was painted by her sister who attended that school. It's the school that Ben runs, Love Guatemala. We are here because she is studying in the cooking school there, and Ben is delivering a basket of food for her and her family. We end the time together in prayer.

There is hope in this heavy place. The paintings on the wall symbolize the bright colors of their lives that splash the promise of a better life for her children. Ben and his mission partner, Carlos are doing far more than teaching skills, they are walking beside families with sincere relationship, teaching them about the love of God, and providing generational change through education.

They began the day with teaching and worship. Carlos led his teachers in devotion, prepping them for a day of pouring into students. This critical moment sets the tone for the day. Love Guatemala is more than just a vocational school... it is a mission... it is about discipleship... it is a family.

My first stop inside greeted me with memories of shop class in high school. The smell of pine was in the air as the door opened and I could see uniformed young men cutting, planing, sanding, and finishing.

When I arrived we first visited the carpentry school. Ben and Carlos introduced me to Pedro, the teacher. Last summer Pedro and his shop built the drum shield for Journey Church. Their craftsmanship is solid and highly skilled. When the young men complete Pedro's 2 year program, they are ready to create their own furniture and have learned a meaningful trade.

From the rugged smells of a woodshop, a few steps down the central corridor brought me to our next stop, the Cooking School. We opened the door to see the ladies sliding sweet bread loaves into a heated oven. My mouth immediately began to water. 

The ladies introduced themselves to me, one by one, telling me their children's names, husband's names, and a few facts of their lives. Many of them told me how they want their children to have a better life than they'd had, and how faith in Jesus had given them hope.

Antoinetta is the master chef, teaching two separate groups of ladies, providing instruction with baking, candies, general cooking, and specialty pastries. The fondant work looks absolutely amazing! I expected Woody to jump up and yell for Buzz! 

Antoinetta told me that it is a great joy for her to volunteer her time to teach skills to the ladies that will enable them to start their own business, as well as invest into them through discipleship and relationship.

From the Cooking school, we once again made our way back into the central hallway, and I was greeted with a beautiful sight. The Art School was my favorite stop of the morning. 

Carlos and his wife, Thelma have placed color and creativity into the hands of these young men and women who bring light into dark places. The talent in this room felt inspired and perfectly at home in this school, on a majestic mountain that overlooks the capital city of this nation. 

I had to be nearly dragged from this room, and I will confess to making a purchase of a small canvas before leaving. There is just something organic and good about this young men and women capturing the beauty of their country. Our vision often directs our steps, and so... I think their steps should lead them to beauty.

This was the source of hope that shone in that little cinder block room where we prayed for a kind and brave lady who faces four weeks of laying awake at night, wondering if cancer is in her body. I remember the smile that broke out over her face and pushed fear out of the room as she talked about her sons who now have a better future. 

I know that Ben, Carlos, Thelma, Antoinetta, Rosario and Pablo will walk beside her. Their prayers of hope, peace, and healing lifted out of that room and were received by the God who created us all. He suffers alongside of us. He gives us a way. He gives us hope. Our praise lifts to Him. 

I give thanks to God for this experience today, walking a alongside my dear brother for just a few hours gave me such perspective for the scope of this ministry. No matter where you are, there are people to serve, to love, to just do life beside. We are called to bring solutions to the problems of life. Color to dark places. May our prayers rise to God like the fragrant smell of a sweet-cake from an oven. May we craft and build beautiful relationships. 

My purchases of the day:
Student Oil on Canvas by
Andy, and a water jug holder
by the carpentry school.
For more information about Love Guatemala:

What if the Pastor Followed You Around? | GuateJava

All photos credit: Candy Siklosi

As the campus pastor of a multi-cultural, English-speaking, post-modern, American-Style church on the outskirts of Guatemala City  I often seek advice from those who are native of this area. This past week I received some advice that I needed to invest more relationally with our team leaders. It was well timed feedback because I had been challenged by the notion in my own devotionals.

Added to this my recent resignation from the Christian American School, of which I remain a devoted advocate, I find that I have some time at hand to utilize. After some additional consultation with a couple of my mentors, I decided to reach out to our team leaders and simply devote to each of them a single day.

No agenda. No talking points. No expectations. Just a shared day, me tagging along like a shadow, walking beside them in a day of their life. After a quick email, I had my first two appointments. This is the first of those encounters: Gabor and Candy Siklosi, Journey Church Volunteers, Founders and directors of Global Community Works & GuateJava.

My day began in Gabor's office at Christian Academy of Guatemala where he serves as Chaplain and teacher. He was wrapping up a discipleship curriculum for the school, emailing it out to his team. From there we loaded up in his SUV, picked up Candy from their nearby residence, and began the high altitude, winding Pan-American Highway drive to Antigua.

We parked along the ancient street, still cobblestone like it was five-hundred years ago, when the city was the capital of a nation. A short walk along the colorful streets, rich with sights, sounds, and wonderful smells of international restaurants led us to the corner shop of GuateJava Roastery.

I was excited to be part of a "Cupping" experience for potential international clients. Guatejava warehouses coffee in the US and can roast and ship by the order. The roaster was heating up and the air filled with an aromatic burst that reminded me of holiday baking, family, and soul-warming comfort. It was the smell of Guatejava Coffee.

Gabor inspects green coffee beans
Tastings of different regional blends
Sifting for size and quality
Releasing a fresh roast
As the roaster turned, beans popped, and steam burst from the hopper, we tasted different blends of regional coffee that filled the air with hints of chocolate and goodness.

Gabor and Candy source their coffee from all over Guatemala, identifying small coffee farmers that are struggling to survive in a global market. Introducing techniques and practices to revitalize their plants, Gabor and Candy also offer relationship as they come along the families as partners and mentors. They share their faith as they commit to walking beside a family as they lift themselves out of poverty. This partnership is beneficial for the farmers, the local economy, and provides an amazing coffee experience for anyone that walks into the door of Guatejava, or orders their product online.

Afterwards I had two separate experiences that illustrated their approach of sharing faith through relationship: a weekly business meeting, and a discussion of how the lives of their employees are changed as they learn the values of the GuateJava family. It's so much more than a business, the Siklosi's are investing into families surrounding Antigua, providing stable employment, discipleship, and compassion.

All in all, it was a pretty incredible day for this pastor who needs to improve his relationships with volunteers. I learned several things today: the Siklosi's are dear friends, they have a powerful vision, they are very effective, and their coffee is ridiculously good.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How To Kill a Bat (and Scream Like a Sissy Girl)

I decided to give the kids a break and I was washing dishes like a champion, music blasting, towel whipping, and silverware sparkling. 

Antony suddenly comes up behind me and says, "Come here. You have to see this." We've had a mouse problem lately, and while I thought we'd killed the last one, I think that he must have killed another one. He's already leading the count, so I'm feeling a little ashamed that he's increased the lead.

He shines a light up on the wooden beam of the ceiling and I see a brown mass and I shiver as I think it's a tarantula! As I looked closer I realized it was not that, but something equally disconcerting... a large, brown, bat.

Like any good post-modern citizen of the United States who finds himself in Guatemala with a buddy while a bat is in the house, I grab the camera. 

Witness my heroics.


After this traumatic moment, I finally take a bat down with a pillow. It's the third time this beast has been taken out of the air, and I pin him with a pillow as I call for back-up.

With Antony standing by with a raised shoe, I slowly peeled back the pillow until the creature of the night's head was exposed. "THWACK, THWACK, THWACK."

Like a scene from a Vampire move... it lay lifeless on the tile. However, I didn't want a repeat of my shriek, so we nudged it with a hammer before I put on thick leather gloves and pitched it out of the house.

We are pretty sure we saw three bats. There are two clearly seen at the same time on the video... and yet, a 30 minute search of the house, room by room, corner by corner... revealed no more bats to be found.

Maybe it went out the door? 

Maybe it's waiting for me to fall asleep?

Antony and I, along with Aleksandra, went outside to see if the bat was still dead.

Who knows what other adventures this night holds?

Disclaimer: One bat was harmed during the making of this blog. In fact, it was killed. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Praising God, Dancing with Arabs

Manuel parked the bus in a field alongside the Pan-American highway that runs through Chimaltenango. We parked in a rough cut cow-field as a man in typical dress and a large hat lay on a dirt mound watching us unload.

In his eyes, I imagine we were just another bus-load of foreigners come to talk loud, pick up garbage, cry in the face of poverty, and then roll off with our backpacks, water-bottles, sunscreen, bug-spray, and mobile phones in a dusty puff of sunset drama.

This group was different. This group has changed the way I see everything. I am made a petter person from walking with them for the past week. 

Walking down that rabbit trail through the cow-field, heading towards a shanty town village with me were young men and women from Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Israel. Their families fled their home countries because evil was at their doorsteps. They were marked for persecution and death because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

I have never had to run for my life. I have never had my faith challenged by militants that would kill me and rape my family. As I walk beside them, my mind is overwhelmed as I look at them. They wear jeans. They smile and they tell jokes. We work together, we sing together. There is so much about them that is exactly like me. But for them to live no differently than I do, nearly cost their families everything.

This reality shakes me to my core, because just yesterday I learned that another 65 Christians were seized by ISIS and are being tortured as I write these words. ISIS now controls territory that is larger than the land mass of England. 

Maybe I could ignore the news reports. Maybe I could try to claim ignorance of the atrocities being committed in the opposite hemisphere of the globe... but I cannot ignore these people that walk beside me into poverty.

They have lost so much. And they are here to serve others. Their faith is a mountain of a testament. Their faith in God cost them everything, and yet, here they are praising His name, and serving others as they serve Him.

This is such a powerful posture of prayer. They remind me of Daniel. Even in the face of death, he prayed, giving thanks to God. I am walking with giants. The history of the people of God shouts out to me from their steps. I am blown away.

We made our way through the scrap and board neighborhood down narrow streets. We walked into the church that our mission helped found and build years ago. We learned from the pastor about the growth of this congregation and the impact in this place. And then the group asked if they could sing. 

To my great surprise, despite a light rainfall, they stepped back out into the street. A small guitar was brought out from a soft-case, a bucket was turned upside down, sticks were carved smooth, and worship came down as their voices were carried up with the rhythms of the strings and the pulse of the bucket drum. Worship in Arabic filled those streets as curious faces peered out from doorways and around corners. 

The music swelled as unfamiliar cadence, tempo, and harmonies flooded through the streets. Some of the ladies began to slightly dance and suddenly I was moved beyond circumstance. Time and place disappeared as I stood in worship like it must have existed in the time of David. Spanish and English began to add into the sound as a familiar song pulled my mind back to the present.

The street had filled. Families had came out to join us. The pastor was working the crowd, children were watching with candy in their hands and bubbles blowing through the air. What was once a dusty narrow street, had transformed into a surreal mix of nations praising God openly and without fear.

Vitamins for the mothers and babies.
For two hours we all filled that church and those streets, those who had been persecuted were praising God as they danced and held the hands of those who suffered. 

With so much darkness in the world... with the American Holocaust of 55 million murdered babies while we worship in our padded seats, with the beheadings of men and women throughout the middle east while my own nation refuses asylum... it would be easy for my own countenance to be dragged into a dark place of bitterness and disillusionment.

And yet... here are those who have known the fear of death, dancing with those who know the sting of hopeless poverty. And like Daniel, I know that I must praise the name of God. Blessed be the Name of the LORD. 

He is worthy to be praised. And so... I joined the nations and lifted my voice up to Him. 

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed Be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness

Blessed Be Your name

Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's 'all as it should be'
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

-Lyrics by Matt Redman

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Along the Way at Ciénega Grande (Photos of Kids wearing my shades)

Lots of kids want to try on my sunglasses.
Here's a few of their faces.

“For God so loved the world, 
that he gave his only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should 
not perish but have eternal life. 

For God did not send his Son 
into the world to condemn the world, 
but in order that the world 
might be saved through him.

John 3:16 & 17

The mission of God.
Be about it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Maria, Dominus Tecum (Tears of Joy in Deep Mourning)

How can it be that we give thanks with these shattered hearts? What is this laughter of joy that escapes in the release of tears? How is this broken and dark world so filled with beauty? Do we really want to see with the eyes of God? The pain is unbreathable, and the glimpses of hope and love are both a fresh wind of life, and a harsh reminder of our present state.

We run to a hurting God. We find shelter in the arms that were stretched and pierced. We turn tear-drenched faces to the One who can make beauty from our ashes. He doesn't bring the darkness, humanity has ushered that in for centuries, but He can illuminate that darkness, and banish even the cruelest day to the cowering corners of our deep praise and celebration.

My fingers tremble and my throat constricts as I allow the emotion of today to flood back through my being. Its like a great torrent being suppressed by a collapsing dam. 

The air of Cienaga Grande was hazy with wood-smoke from lunch-time tortillas. The sun illuminated the dust from the rain-desperate ground. A steady pat-pat-pat-pat could be heard as the Mayan mother in the adjacent adobe and corn-stalk house formed corn tortillas in her hands. Soon we would smell their goodness as they heated over the wood fire.

Maria sat in a new plastic chair, on the porch of her new home. She held her three grandchildren with desperate hands. Their mother was gone. To where... no-one knows. They only know that she won't be back. The kids have no father. Tragedy has taken him in some unspeakable way. They are orphaned. 

Maria raises them alone, along with her adult, special-needs daughter. This story is repeated countless times across these small villages. That knowledge alone is enough to shatter my resolve and to question faith at every step. With each step I find the answer in the face of God whose tears fall down on me like fresh rain. 

We need rain in this place today. The air is dry. The land is parched. We are desperate for relief. It is no-where to be found as we consider the plight of Maria.

Maria also is dying. She's been examined by the best of doctors, even one this week. Oh, I give thanks to God for Dr. Tom. He represents love, patience, and kindness to us all. A smiling face and his hand to hold hers even as she faces certain and approaching death. Maria's cancer is far, far too gone. Her liver is devastated. Her abdomen is cruelly swollen. The beautiful mayan fabric that she has woven can no longer hide the manifestation of her mortality that catches the eye of even the most casual glance.

Maria and everyone here is forced to stare death in the face as it begins to pull her back to the earth. Nothing short of a miracle from God can save her. The brokenness of creation, the brokenness that tears at us all, is standing in full, terrible sight. Death is mocking us like Goliath towering over Israel in the battlefield. We are powerless in this moment.

Maria listens to members of the group as they express deep appreciation for our week together. Then Maria begins to speak. Her voice is weak, tired, and trembling. She gives in to a soft cry, and the dam violently and suddenly bursts with full throated sobs. We no longer hear the pat-pat-pat-pat from the neighbor. Its like all of creation hears the emotion that is wrenched from deep inside of Maria.

Photo Credit: Michael Pak
We are mortified. This is to be a day of celebration... and yet it is a day that death boldly stands among us, daring us to give thanks. No-one moves while she wails. 

I felt my heart explode as Edgar Ramos, my dear friend and ministry partner steps forward and stands with her and her remnant of a family. "Everyone, come in a circle. Let's pray." And so we did. Slowly at first... everyone was stunned. But we gathered around Maria and her family... and we prayed.

This was no timid prayer. It had to be shouted to be heard above her weeping. And shout he did. Edgar prayed with the power that is found in the boldness of throwing ourselves at the feet of an almighty God. Suddenly our timid group heard the spoken words of Maria as she prayed out to the God that held her soul. The mighty prayer of Maria, coming out from that broken body, shattered the presence of Death.

We all began to pray. Mighty and bold prayers ascended from that little dirt lot as we found ourselves shaking with the intensity of the presence of God who we met on the battlefield as He banished the darkness.

We would not be robbed of this moment of celebration! Maria expressed that she had been given an unexpected hope. She had dared not even ask God for such a thing. But now, she gathers her loved ones under the new roof that will hold them even after her body is laid to earth.

I fell to my knees and palms directly into the dirt as I gave a fearful thanks to my God. He wept with us in this broken place. He weeps for all the pain and suffering throughout this world, and He weeps for Maria. He weeps for creation and when we turn our faces up towards His, the darkness around us disappears with the light of His face.

Maria has been given hope today by those unlikely people from Seattle Washington that found themselves in a dirty little village. They took time to step away from the complications of their own lives... to cry beside Maria as they raised walls for her family.

This is the love of my God. He weeps with me in my pain while he builds the walls of the Kingdom around me. We are meant to walk together, you and I. He turns our mourning into tears of joy. 

Your suffering is not forever. The pain will end and the God who weeps with you will dry them with his nail-scared hand. And so... we stare death in the face and we breathe deep the presence of God. We can face this. We can face this with confidence and boldness together.

Catalyst Resources International will walk beside this dear family. We will hold weakening hands and weep together as we celebrate the hope that goes before us all. We find tears of joy in our mourning.

We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!

Diane Herman, founder of House of Hope, Dr. Tom from Seattle, and Edgar Ramos
surround Maria as they discuss how to provide needed comfort and care for the days to come. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Naming of Xandalf

At some point in the course of the one week mission, someone in the group declared that there would be a "Spanish Word of the Day." It so happened that the word on this most special of days was, "Zapatos", the Spanish word for shoes.

A couple of hours passed and it was declared to now be verbal pop quiz time. And so... the man whose name was about to change opened his mouth to give voice to that name.

There is something significant that happens surrounding the changing of a name. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Saul became Paul, Gandalf the Grey became Gandalf the White.... and Gary became Xandalf.

Each character had a significant life event that brought about the change. Abram's name was changed to signify a promise from God that he would be the father of many nations. Jacob's name changed to show that it was God who provided  his power and position. Saul's name changed when he began witnessing to the Greeks. 

Gary's name changed when he incorrectly identified shoes.

It should be noted here that no disrespect is intended. Surely this event simply merits a record. My interaction with the one who would become Xandalf this past week has left me convinced that he is one of my favorite humans on the planet. I respect deeply his scholarship, intellect, wit, and willingness to dig in deeply. 

He pursues life with enthusiasm and gusto. Something as simple as a game of Frisbee somehow swells to epic proportion when he takes the field. 

The question was asked, "Gary, what is the word of the day?" The response came after a thoughtful pause, "Zandolf." He said it with a created confidence that added to the hilarity of the moment. Zapatos had become Zandolf.

We all immediately thought of our favorite wizard, "Gandalf." We all began hopping about with our best hobbit voices. Frodo, Sam, and even Gollum could be heard. 

The parallels were too funny to miss. Our dear Xandalf was older and wiser than those standing around, and he had been guiding us as a mentor and leader. All week long he had been harassing those in the group that wore gear from Ohio universities other than his own. 

Xandalf graduated from Xavier. He had been proudly proclaiming it every time someone wore an Ohio State or University of Cincinnati shirt. So... naturally, the "Z" in Zandalf had to be replaced with an "X".

Xandalf was born in that moment.

Those of us on this trip will never forget all the transformational moments. We saw lives changed with the building, giving, and receiving of homes, small businesses, and efficient stoves. We shared prayers, exchanged tears, and felt the Spirit of God renew our souls. 

And... we will always remember the naming of Xandalf.

"Xandalf is thirsty."
Xandalf likes bananas.
Xandalf builds houses.
Xandalf inspires us all.

Thank you Xandalf.... we look forward to your return.