Saturday, March 26, 2016

Where in the World Will My Children Go?

Those where the days of racing a tricycle down the sidewalk when dad would drive off in his brown step-side pickup to work a double shift at the steel mill, sitting at the little red, white, and blue plastic table set with mom as we’d sample the coffee that he left behind, and playing on a mound of dirt with die-cast cars and our German Shepherd laying at my side. What I remember most is thinking that I just wanted to grow up. As I remember it, I didn’t like being a child. 

These days are better. 

The best part of life has been watching my own children reach toward being adults. I hope childhood isn’t passing too slowly for them… contrary to what most people say, there is nothing I anticipate more than seeing my kids reach adulthood. I want to see them tackle life, gain skills, experiences, and engage the world. I love the possibilities that are in front of them and I see them beginning to explore the periphery, as their vision gets stronger. 

They have such fascinating timelines. Caleb as our genetic child carries with him some of our best and worst tendencies. He has equal parts of our virtues and our neurosis. We’re doing our best to equip him to go far beyond our own reach. I am eager to see him launch off into far away places, travel, and a thirsty pursuit of life. Anything you pursue with passion will be yours.

Aleksandra, oh how you’ve exceeded my expectations! You’re a straight A student… that surprised me! I should have known better because your tenacity and iron will have always delivered you to your desired outcomes. But… then again, you surprise me often with your pursuits of basketball, soccer, baking, debates, and even a fierce entrepreneurial spirit. You are the full package and a true beauty.

Sterling, the girl who beat the odds and enjoys life more than anyone I know. Everything is a curiosity, every face is a potential smile, and every day is beautiful. I’ve never seen anything change who you are. You are light for this world. 

Being your parents is certainly the best part of all that we do. I’ve carried you all from such far, far away places. You all find commonality in the fact that your mother and I have displaced all three of you from the land of your birth! I blame that on my own inner unrest. I’ve always wanted to see beyond the sidewalks and dirt-mounds of familiarity. 

I have these visions of the three of you growing up and living in separate regions of the earth: Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I imagine that your mother and I will just migrate from place to place like gypsy parents sojourning to see their offspring. Of course, I’m wise enough to know that this probably means that you’ll move to town I was born in and all settle in a cozy cul-de-sac… and you’ll write about how you long to settle down and live together with your children racing tricycles and playing on dirt mounds. 

You’ll think the jokes on me… and then your kids will want to know what all Grandma and Grandpa did… and I’ll fill their minds with crazy stories… and take them to see the world.

Friday, March 25, 2016

5 Shepherds in a Row - A Complication at the Border

Five Shepherds all in a row, sitting remarkably peacefully in 16A-C. This is my solitude. Of all the places I have been, jetting at 30,000 feet is the only place where I am absolutely unreachable. There is a total absence of telephones, email, and social media. This particular plane doesn’t even have WiFi. 

I suppose this is a fitting transition for the next ten days. I find myself in an odd vacuum of no sermons to write (Journey has guest  preachers for the next two Sundays), no assignments due (I’ve completed the next two weeks in advance), and absolutely no obligatory visits (my family is joining my parents among strangers in Nevada, USA). I may just go mad. Or perhaps, if I’m fortunate, I’ll find some solace.

This missional life is an artform. I find myself with no particular skills of excellence, and yet adequately equipped for all occasions. In those moments where I fail absolutely and entirely, I am surrounded by those who perfectly fit the scenario. Most often this is my friend and travelling companion, Antony who in a Guatemalan National and beautifully bilingual. However, today I found myself in un navigable waters and I was rescued by two companions who are even more constant: Kellie and Jesus. 

It’s odd really… I’ve found myself in difficult border crossings before… and yet every time it just feels unnatural to me that an official has the authority to deny my exit or entry. I’ll just chalk that up to an overblown sense of American entitlement. Surely that is something that I need to release. Cognitively I know that I am entitled to nothing.

Even so, at the risk of sounding campy, or giving a naïve Sunday School answer, or sounding like a teen-age girl proclaiming that life will be peachy because, “I just love Jesus so much,” I have to tell you that time and time again… amidst situations that seem absolutely hopeless, a sincere and direct plea to God has resulted in a way.

My Passport expired in December and I had to apply for a new one at The US Embassy in Guatemala. While that was a God-story in itself… I had it today and presented it to the Immigration official in Guatemala. I was denied exit. 

We have 5 tickets purchased to join my parents and I feel like I really need a break. Denied. You can’t fly. You can’t leave. You have to go to the immigration office and get a special stamp.

The problem was that I was denied that stamp last week. Kellie was denied it as well. Our three children were granted it… but Kellie and I were assigned an interview date with Immigration. While the interview means that we’re being accepted as Guatemalan Residents and this is good news… it’s not great news if you want to travel. 

We were given an official letter of explanation by our attorney, and it even had the colorful seal and official sticker… but I was stopped dead with a very forceful “No” by the assertive Immigration Officer. Something broke in my head and all I could do was just step back, close my eyes, tell myself to just breath, and I prayed.

“God I need you now. I need you always. I just need you here. Help us.”

I felt Kellie step up beside me and began speaking in Spanish to the official. The official again said, “No.” Kellie stepped up closer and told the official that she was mistaken, that we had already been to Immigration, that we were processing for Residency, and that the letter granted us permission to leave.

I watched while holding my breath. This was remarkable. I did not expect this reaction from my wife and I have never witnessed her appear so commanding. It was like a presence of authority just draped over her like a uniform.

Without even reading the letter, the official that had said nothing but “No” suddenly nodded her head in approval, stamped our passports, and wished us a good trip.

If you know us… you know this type of thing happens over and over. While God has taught me to ask, and he gives me situations often to remind me that I have to ask, and He intervenes every time… I still find myself in awe.

I know that God isn’t our cosmic wish-granter. I understand that life isn’t always easy and certainly I don’t claim that my own is always a sunny day in the park. I’ll confess that these stories even sound a little campy to me and I never want to oversimplify my complicated and sometimes failed walk with God.

It’s just that I can’t deny it either. 

Me and Aleksandra... can't stop the style. Ha!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ancient Sacraments in a Tired World

Tired feet scattered dust as the group climbed into the dark and stale room above the stairs. Wooden chairs slid against the plank flooring as the men exchanged glances that told of the difficulty of keeping faith in a modern world that seemed to outpace tradition. 

Are we really so different? 

The men tried to initiate small talk, but the night seemed shallow and fragile as they contemplated the state of the world around them. At times it just seems like everything we know is being challenged. We don't know whether to run or to fight. All the men could do in this moment... was eat in silence. Sometimes it just has to be enough to simply be present. 

The night was pressing in too heavily. The air was thick and heavy. Sometimes life just feels pointless. 

Then a single chair scraped back from the table. The night was captured by his actions as he took it by storm. Removing his robe and wrapping a towel around his waist, he knelt on the floor and one by one, and he washed their feet. 

This was ridiculous, offensive, and shocking. They resisted, and still he demanded it. As they began to yield, they began to see the night differently. They saw Him differently and they realized how He saw them. 

We are not so different. 

It remains nearly impossible to keep faith in a modern world. We climb up the stairs and we slide up to the table and we only see the darkness, feel the grit on the floor, and sweat against the stuffy air. The reality that He brings is that we can only be made clean and alive when we lay ourselves bare to His ridiculous offer. 

Is there still room in this conflicted world for a sacrament? I will confess that I silently consented that there was not. And then... on night on the porch of Catalyst Resources International, sitting at wooden tables so much like that upper room so many years ago... I was shocked to discover that I was in the presence of the very One who turned the world upside down as a crucified, resurrected Messiah. 

I stood and silently wept as I watched the scenes from the Gospels played out by pastors who had never met before, coming from Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the US... coming together and enacting these sacraments.

There is healing here. The debris of life falls away as we collapse into the available grace. There simply is no room for this tired world for anything else. 

Again I thought of that night in the room with the thirteen men as One lifted up the cup used for passover and made a claim that put all of creation on notice. God's promise to the world was fulfilled in Him. What was once merely the passing by of death, was now being filled by the One that defeated death, and reconciles us to new life in communion with God.

I had contemplated the events of these past days, making space in my life for the ancient sacraments of a broken world. Again I found myself feeling comfortable on the porch of the mission, the group that had challenged us to foot washing and eucharist were scattered by to their homes across the nations of Central America... and a team from the University of Kentucky again shook my world.

A night of worship was winding down again, when a young man named Logan unexpectedly took the mic. He looked directly at me and said, "Pastor Chad, I'm going to ask a really big favor of you right now." My heart did a flip when I heard him reference the small pool at the top of the property. 

He said that he felt led to rededicate his life to the way of following Jesus, and he'd like to make it public by being baptized. Four others stepped forward, some making new life choices and other's declaring that this day was a point of new departure. 

I stepped into the pool as my five year old, Sterling, nearly fell in at the opposite end. She was perplexed as to why I was still wearing my socks. But, I had taken off only my outer jacket, emptied my pockets of money and electronics, and stood waist deep in the cold water in the beautiful cool Guatemalan night.

I thought of John in the wilderness, living off the land and walking by faith in God. I thought of Peter who asked Jesus not to just wash his feet, but to wash all of him. I thought of Blind Bartimaeus who said at the side of the road until he heard Jesus walking by. 

Surely, this is a time to re-engage in the ancient sacraments of a living God, to proclaim the day of the LORD, to fully take on the love of Christ, to serve others, and to cry out to Jesus, "I want to see."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Life Beyond the Closed Door

When you think about someone you love that has moved beyond this mortal life, what is the first thing you remember? For me it is an overwhelming burst of who he was. It’s not a single thing, and yet it hits me all at once. The color of his coat, the tilt of his hat, the smell of Old Spice and the gnarled toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth. He wore wing tip lace-up shoes, the kind with the little symmetrical holes punched near the toes and heels made of thin layers of lacquered wood that was silenced from harsh contact of the ground by a layer of rubber attached carefully with cobblers nails. I miss my Grandpa Mathis.

He would tell me about how someday I was going to be a preacher man. I would try to explain how I could serve God right were I was… and he’d just laugh. He always was convinced that one day I’d find my way.

Death has a way of framing the important parts of life.

While at a gathering of pastors this week my attention often turned to a man from El Salvador. His singing was a bit louder than everyone else, his prayers a little bolder, and when the music played he was the first to raise his hands and worship consumed his entire body. It all just seemed excessive to me.

Then I learned that his son had been murdered just six months ago. He was shot for no better reason that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A random, meaningless, violent act had stripped his life from all who loved him. He was a pastor like his father.  He was a pastor like his father… like his father who was near the front of the church with his hands raised high, dancing and singing praise to God. 

I nearly wept. I nearly wept at the gravity of his loss. I nearly wept at the beauty of his worship. I wondered if it was a desperate realization that God really is all we can cling to as our loved ones can only be held with a gentle grip. I nearly wept because I realized the ugliness of my own spirit as I had watched him with a critical eye while my own son was resting safe in his bed at home. 

My God, we all need your grace. 

Thoughts changed in my head with dream-like distortion and I remembered Eldon. He had married my Great Grandma Elsie after cancer widowed her from Jim. I regretted that I’d never met Jim, my Mom had told me that he would have really loved me. 

I felt his loss even though I’d never met him. 

But I really loved Eldon. He used to tell me stories about being a missionary. He had a secret room in the attic of their house that was filled with African artifacts. It had things like a tribal shield and spears. He also had photo albums filled with thousands of black and white photographs of him surrounded by dark skinned, scantily clad people.

He always told me that I wasn’t allowed in that room. But… sometimes I’d hear him unlock the door, and then he’d go sit in his chair where he’d quietly squeeze a tennis ball to ease the pain of Parkinson’s Disease as his eyes would close and I’d watch his chest until his breath was slow and steady. 

That’s when I’d sneak into the room.

I didn’t know it then, but my heart was being stirred for the future. I write tonight in the darkness from a cinder block hotel room in Tecpan, Guatemala where I’ll get a few hours rest before rising to an early start of day three of a pastor’s conference that has gathered followers of Christ from Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States. 

I’m an observer in the corner that understands that God has shaped this moment over decades… probably longer than I know. I learned last week that Eldon’s mother was named Grace and that Grace served with a lady named Faith. Together they worked at an orphanage in India. 

My mind goes back to a rush of awareness. As 60 pastors prayed out loud in a Guatemalan church today, I closed my eyes and I was sure that I could hear the voice of Grandpa Mathis giving thanks to God that I had found obedience. I can see the steady rise and fall of Eldon as he waits for my feet to enter the path he helped me to find.

We all need the grace of God to frame the important moments of our life while He quietly unlocks doors that lead to dust covered wonders beyond.