Sunday, July 31, 2016

Racing Along the Treetops While Standing Still

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”  -Henry David Thoreau 

I remember riding in a car as a child. I was amazed to see the moon chasing alongside of us. No matter how fast my Mom would drive, the moon effortlessly and flawlessly kept pace with us above the blurred treetops.

Cognitively, I knew that this concept of a moon in pursuit was ridiculous, but my eyes were convinced by its steady pace. Time and perspective remain as tricky concepts throughout life. We stand on the sidewalk and the moon stands still. We race through the night and yet still it remains at our side.

While seen as both still and in motion, the true movement of the moon remained constant. In the same way, we sometimes measure the movement of God. Perhaps He is neither fast nor slow. Maybe our perspective is simply skewed by our surroundings.

The decision to return to the US to wait on the call of the LORD seems like a drastic and all too fast change for those who observe our lives from a distance. Perhaps you see us racing along the treetops while we view ourselves as standing still. 

We do not run to change our course. We seek to remain constant in the steady will of God. Those who know us most have seen this coming in the movements of God in our life. We've known that He was arranging things for a shift, we simply did not know the direction. I think perhaps God allows us to see only just enough to take the next step.

Within the last year we have felt a Holy unease in our hearts. We have felt the Spirit stirring us while we have continued to seek His face. We thought that perhaps He wanted us to be more flexible with our schedule here, and so we began to make changes. 

Last year I resigned as the Principal of CAS, this year Kellie resigned from her teaching position at CAG, we registered our children for online learning, and our role become more distinctly defined as pastors. Journey Church has found its place and God provided me a strong associate and a team of preachers. He has refined us to lead, and to train others.

Realization flooded over us that God has prepared the way, He has provided closure in every direction. He has called new men and women to continue His mission in this place. This has been no rash decision. This is nothing more than a continuation of faithful steps. 

This decision was made months before we realized it. God has made the way straight. He has aligned countless variables. We are sure that we walk in His will. We sometimes think that we race so fast in our lives, and yet God remains constant, shining His light into our lives.

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.” C.S. Lewis

We're down to less than 48 hours now before we depart. We need you to know that we are at peace. This is not a moment of worry, of stress, or even anxiety. Our hearts are calmed with the peace of God that falls on us like cool rain from a sticky night sky. We are not moving so fast, God is only turning us, ever so slightly, into who He made us to become.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Shawn David Jerry Gonzalez: BEAR VALLEY (Our Final House as CRI Staff)

Our final week in Guatemala we get to go out like we first experienced it, a one week mission experience with Catalyst Resources International. 

God's timing is amazing. Our family has been affirmed over and over that we are following His path. This week has been extra special as we've been able to step back and enjoy the week as members of Bear Valley Church. 

The foundation was completed as pre-work, and our team meets the family for the first time as we begin the work.


My friend from Anderson University, and pastor at Bear Valley Church, Jason Lee, begins the construction with a heartfelt, and anointed prayer.


Meet Aleksandra and Janna. They didn't know it, but God somehow created them as twins. It has been absolutely hilarious to watch them as they operate like a single girl with a mirror. My daughter has always liked to see herself in a mirror, now she has a friend that does just that. 



Within a few days... things developed to this exchange.


And... although she was only two when we first moved to Guatemala, Sterling was able to drive her very first nail, contributing to the family's new house.


The Lee family has become quick friends to our family. Without a doubt these experiences have contributed to another new foundation, and who knows where God will again cross our paths?




Together we raised walls and created some shelter and shade... even the old grandpa dog rested comfortably under these blessings that God has provided.



The Lee family is, ah... creative in problem solving. There simply was never a nail out of reach. 


Janna and Aleksandra may have created a new craze in Villa Nueva. Their secret handshake has gone viral. 



The twins were able to lend some assistance to Antony, who had developed a couple of gray hairs during the week. He no longer has them.


Jason had a temporary stint as a clothing model in Panajachel. This may seem surprising, but it is common for folks to end up broke here and need to find another way to earn a living. We were relieved that this was all he had to do.


Our day in Pana was made perfect with a boat ride on Lake Atitlan. Of course the twins were in top shape.


Another gray hair? He doesn't seem to enjoy this as much as before. I'm not sure if he really had so many gray hairs? After he was nearly bald and ran out into the rain to escape them, the twins added lyrics to their secret handshake.


Shawn David Jerry Gonzalez, who was once a small boy without a home in Villa Nueva, Guatemala... now has a house where he can sleep in a bed a night, behind a locked door. He can go to school and even come home to find a small desk under a window where he can do his homework.

Shawn David's life has dramatically changed... through the help of a couple of old friends, a mission, a church, and two identical friends.  

Shawn David... we owe you our thanks for bringing our team together for this final tour of Guatemala. Like you, we're all stepping out into new things. And, Shawn David... P.S., you're about to be known to hundreds of people across the United States. We promise to continue to pray for your family. Grow up and shake the world, little man.


Even Edgar Ramos LOVES Jason Lee.


CRI, thank you for this final week. I'll see you again soon, and I'll bring new friends. 

-Shep

Monday, July 25, 2016

Go Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams





How fitting it is to say goodbye from this ancient place. The very first words that I wrote for others to read were after a day spent here six years ago. It gripped my heart fiercely then, and has never let go.

Go fiercely in the direction of your dreams, words penned by Henry David Thoreau, and echoes of truth from God. We dream because we are created by an imaginative God. The One who made the colors of the earth and carved adventure into our hearts.

With the memory of our arrival still fresh from a mere three years ago, we transgress this departure with eyes that now see deeper, farther, and sharper. I stare with wonder at the vastness of it all.


The fruits of our yard are ripening. We've watched with anticipation for the coffee tree and the banana tree to yield a harvest, and the beans and young bananas shine radiantly in the sunlight. What has been planted, nurtured, and cultivated is now coming to fruition.



Journey Church Guatemala has become a place reflective of the imagination of God. A team of leaders stand, shoulder to shoulder, embraced with the singular identity of sons and daughters of God, a gathering brought together with the purpose of connecting people to Christ and the Church.


Kellie and I walk away with a bittersweet mixture of tears for the beauty we're leaving behind, a thrill to know that God has prepared them to continue to walk faithfully, and a confidence that even better days are to come. We leave this place, tightly embracing those whom God has allowed us to walk beside for a time, and embracing in our hearts for all eternity.

Even though the goodbye is difficult, we are heartened to see that God has made the way straight. A new Principal is in place with the school. A new Pastor has been raised up for the church with a group of leaders who now carry the banner with him. A new family is coming to the mission, and our belongings that we leave behind are going to bless others.

And so it is not so hard to step into the unknown as we travel to Ohio to wait on the direction of God. We are humbled to know that we walk away during a time of blessing. We are thankful to know that we leave it better than we found it. We embrace this time of walking by faith. Our God is with us. His timing is perfect. We give Him our faith.



This final week we are blessed to walk with our friends from Bear Valley Church in Colorado. I get to spend this week with Jason Lee, a man who has become a dear friend. We leave this country as we first encountered it... through the experience of a one week mission trip. We once were the visitors, and now we exit as those with a little experience.

It is a great joy to spend our final days in service, building a family a home, exactly how we first came. God is good.

August first will find Kellie and the girls boarding a jet to the US where they'll reunite with our son, Caleb, and stay with Kellie's parents. I'll be on the road with my uncle Stephen as we begin a 3,000 mile, 52 hour road trip into the northern highlands of Guatemala, through Mexico, and then across the southern states as we make our way to Ohio.

From there, our family will wait on the Lord. We will be obedient to His call, whether it is a congregation in Ohio, or a distant place such as South Carolina or Colorado. We're at peace. God is with us. 

Yes, we go confidently in the direction of our dreams. God is the God of imagination. He spoke the universe into being. He created us in His image. We can dream because His dream lives within us. And so we walk with boldness. He has already made the way before us. We step out into the unknown to meet Him. 

We end this chapter where we began, we simply read the words with greater care, and with a deeper understanding. God has used this place and these days to refine us, to shape us, to chisel away hard edges, to discipline us, and to love us. 

We give Him praise for the days to come as we boldly step out in confidence... in the direction of our dreams.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Shepherd Family Returns to the US

Little is Much, When God is in it.
Labor not for wealth or fame.
There's a crown, and you can win it.
If you go in Jesus Name.
~Kittie L. Suffield

I can remember my Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa, Eldon and Elsie singing that song around the old upright piano in their Baltimore Street house in Middletown. Those words have echoed in my mind through the years during times of transition. I hear them strongly today. 

Kellie and I have tried to live life boldly and obediently. The most significant times of our life have been marked with affirmations of prayer. About ten days ago, Kellie and I agreed to both retreat into prayer on a matter, asking God to speak to our hearts and provide His direction.

This has been a holy moment for our family. It reminds us of several crossroads that have defined both who we are, and to whom we belong. We prayed this way when we were considering adopting a little girl named Aleksandra. The doctors told us that she might die... and the judge said we had to make a choice. 

We prayed this prayer before traveling to China to adopt a little girl that had been abandoned for dead in a public park. And we also prayed this prayer when we were struggling with the conviction that God might be calling us to work for Him in Guatemala.

Each time we sought the face of God, He answered with a solid affirmation. Each time Kellie and I were given the same strong answer... "Be Bold. Love. Adopt. Go." Even when the way has been unclear, we've moved forward and we've met God along the road. 

And so... as we faced the knowledge of Towne Boulevard Church of God without a pastor, we agreed once again to dedicate a week in seeking the face of God on the matter.

I had been quietly wrestling with the question on my own, not knowing that it had also been on the heart of Kellie. I had a friend ask, "Why haven't you applied?", and I had a list of reasons ready that I could rattle off: (1) God is blessing our work here in Guatemala, (2) I'm already a pastor, (3) No one could ever fill Mitchell Burch's shoes, (3) I'm not qualified, (4) I'm too young, (5) My life isn't perfect, (6) We have everything planned out already. It is so easy to give reasons of why not.

And yet, the question nagged at my soul. And so, Kellie and I agreed to pray on the matter and I submitted my name to the Pulpit Committee at Towne Boulevard Church of God in Ohio.

After several days of silent individual prayers, after returning from leading Emmaus (a group of 10 students from the US) through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador for five weeks, Kellie said to me, "So, I think God has told me something." I held my breath because God had also spoken to me... but, what He told me sounded ridiculous!

I said, "Ok, let's hear it."

Kellie said, "I think that God has called you to be a pastor for your whole life. Just like Brother George Mitchell, Clifford Hutchinson, and your grandpa Carmel always tried to tell you. I just think that it's taken Guatemala for God to finally get you to believe it. I think we've been sent here to be shaped for that purpose and to learn to be obedient. Now we're meant to go and pastor where we're called to go."

I was trembling and in shock... I had felt God reminding me of the stories of Abraham, of Moses, of even Paul. Stories where God had to get their attention, sometimes through the desert, the wilderness, or facedown on the road. God reminded me of the Children of Israel who had to be discipled  as they wandered for forty years while He shaped them for their purpose. God told me that He had used this time in Guatemala to prepare me... and for me to learn to yield to His voice.

And so... within the last 48 hours Kellie and I have consulted with pastors that we trust, and dear partners here with whom we walk. We have made plans to sell two vehicles, made arrangements with our mission to take possession of our house, sold appliances and furniture, and our family will return to Ohio on August 1st to begin exploring a relationship with Towne Boulevard Church of God, or wherever God leads.

My heart is with Towne. I am their son. I sat on those pews listening to the Spirit of God through Billy T. Ball, the teachings of Henry Howard, George Mitchell, and Clifford Hutchinson. I saw my great-grandma, grandma, and mother sing from that stage. I learned under Charles Tarr and then Kellie and I were married by Tom Planck while Frank Curtis was the pastor at Towne. 

I was baptized there. I met my wife there. I dedicated my son there. And I hurt with them as they still face a series of difficult loses. It's no mistake that God is speaking to my heart now. It's no mistake that this moment is here. It's no mistake that I've spent the last three years in Guatemala reconciling relationships, healing divisions, and bringing together churches, schools, and organizations to focus in on the mission of God... restoring humanity back to Him.

My heart is yearning to walk with His people in Middletown and Franklin Ohio as together we find, healing, peace, and restoration in Him. Even so, I humbly submit to the wisdom of those women and men whom God has placed at the church to also yield to His divine calling. All I know... is that I must be willing, obedient, and display full on a heart that shouts out, "Here am I, LORD. Send me!"

I don't know the outcome, but I hear God commanding me in obedience to extend my heart, my life, and all that I have to them in this moment. Where He leads, I will follow. I trust His outcome in this moment. 

Sometimes God commands us like he did Abraham. "Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you" (Gn 12:1). 

In my words... "Go and I will explain more to you along the way. But first, you must step out."

And so... to our friends here in Guatemala, our walk with you has been invaluable. You have our hearts. You have captured us fully and we will continue to send support to this beautiful country and God's great work here. 

To our family, friends, and supporters in the US... our mission is not changing. As always, we seek obedience above anything else. All that is changing here is our geography.

To everyone, we ask for your prayers along with ours as we step out in obedience, seeking the face of God, and we pray for continued discernment as we boldly live out lives of faith.

Below is my letter to our friends and our congregation here in Guatemala. Kellie and I invite your conversations, questions, and we make ourselves available to all who love us and seek the face of God. You can also hit the link HERE to see it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Light that Pierces the Darkness


Every picture has a story, but some are better than others. The Polar Bear, the official 15 passenger van of Emmaus, was cooling its V-8 engine in the concrete and concertina wire lot and the crew had unloaded the bags from the roof-top carrier with skill gained by the past four weeks of practice. The air was cool with the promise of a coming storm.

Pastor Ayala shoved his mobile phone into his pocket and spoke quietly to Antony who relayed the rapid Spanish phrase to me in English, "Pastor Isaias has had an accident and they want you to go to the scene of the crash."

The advice from the American Embassy regarding an automobile accident in Central America is to remove yourself from the scene as soon as possible so that you aren't caught up in an emotional exchange of retribution or misplaced blame. I knew that the practical thing was for me to say, "No."

But I am a Pastor. The world needs those who can run towards the hurting rather than those who run away. I ran into the church to grab my Passport and then joined Antony and Pastor Ayala in his car. 

We approached the scene. Pastor Isaias was driving his motorcycle with another young man who is a member of the church riding on the back. The front of their motorcycle struck a man as he stepped into the street, drunk. The force bent the front forks of the motorcycle and shattered the headlight. 

Stretchers were already being lifted into an awaiting ambulance. Pastor Isaias friend was dripping blood from a busted leg and the intoxicated man was unconscious. We learned that the police were taking Pastor Isaias into custody. He would spend the night in jail.

As the police began to complete their reports, I stood silently at the scene of the accident, praying that they would release him. Pastor Ayala seemed calm, but sure that Isaias was going to jail. Even so, as I prayed, Pastor Ayala began to speak with the police.

During that conversation, the police officers decided to release Isaias and the also agreed not to confiscate his motorcycle, even though the documents were not in order. 

I slipped my phone out of my pocket and took a single photograph blindly, just touching my thumb to the shutter icon. The result was this photo that captures the police officer as he completed the paperwork to release Isaias as Isaias held his cell phone for light.

I watched the officer masterfully sketch the accident scene on a grid with a worn pencil and a white gum eraser. The clipboard was worn thin and the officer's posture pointed to a more innocent time in his life as he drew with his tongue slightly protruding from his lips. 

I wondered if he dreamed of being a police officer when he was young? I wondered if Isaias had always wanted to be a pastor? 

The wind began to pick up as the night grew darker and quiet. Somehow in this chaotic night, a few disjointed souls gathered to find a peaceful solution as a beam of light shone to remind us all that we are more than the situations that surround us. 

In the threat of the night, we are called to pierce the darkness. I am thankful tonight that we answered the call. There is still a hope for this sad world.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Declaration of Mourning

7/4/16 United States of American Declaration of Independence Anniversary (1776)

240 years ago today the 13 colonies sent out a Declaration of Independence from England that would reshape the world. A Holy God and self-evident truths were the foundation of the recognized most basic rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It may be interesting to some that the original document did not list pursuit of happiness, but instead identified land ownership as the third basic right. 

In today’s America, we no longer identify life as a right guaranteed by God as we neglect to protect the most defenseless and innocent of live... the unborn baby that is being fearfully and wonderfully knit together by the God who already intimately knows that soul. Liberty has largely been traded for perceived security by the federal government that now participates in aggregate taxation that exceeds the amount that precipitated the Boston Tea Party. So what of pursuit of happines? Well, only if it is inoffensive, inclusive, fair, and available to any person who feels entitled or minimized. If you have too much pursuit, now you’re going to be forced to give it up to those who don’t have enough. 

Surely this United States of America would not be recognizable to the group of men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to give her birth by their blood. Today is a day of celebration for many across our nation who so carelessly refer to the day as The Fourth of July. We’ve reduced the significance of this great sacrifice, stripping even its name in exchange for a neutered date on a calendar.

And so I present to you our national day of mourning, recognizing that what was once a great nation was born on July 4, 1776. I am a patriot of that nation. While my generation failed at protecting her for the next generation, I make my own pledge of life, fortune, and sacred honor to pass her heritage to my children. There was never a nation so great.

As we move forward in this fundamentally changed society, may those of us who remained citizens of the nation that has slipped into shadow, resolutely stand to honor her and influence others even now with our pledge to protect the God given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

I fear that God can no longer bless the United States of America, she has turned away from Him, abandoning truth, and now He has turned her over to the desires of her heart. Even so, as in the days of Israel and Judah, when a nation turns its collective face away from God, a remnant of followers remains.

It is time for us to be that remnant.

We are His people.
He is our God.
We are to love Him with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.
We are to seek His face above all other things.
May His word reside in our hearts and on our tongues.

We are called to be men and women who engage in the mission of God to restore all creation and reconcile humanity back to Him.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Tired.


The days are moving quickly and I find solace in the night. I long for solitude, isolation, and silence. I just need some time to forget myself and seek God. The voices of those who proclaim to follow God seem to never stop chattering, and the spinning of the chaos of the world has advanced to the doorstep of my heart. I cherish these days of intense fellowship with our group of ten students with Emmaus, and I recognize that I feel thin, and I pray for strength, energy, and wisdom. 

From where I type I can see the roof of a man known as the Chief Witch Doctor. The group that I’m leading this week is uneasy about his proximity to where we sleep in unsecured huts. I am deeply fascinated by this man. I would love to encounter him. I imagine that I would find in him a sincere belief. There are times that I think that sincerity is absent from most Christian circles. I think that an intense encounter with this man of false belief could be enlightening. I think of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al. I think it likely that Elijah would never had been so bold to call down the fire of heaven had he not seen the futile, desperate fanaticisms of the lost.

Surely I can be more committed to the one true God than the man that swirls with paint, feathers, and potions.

There are times that I am sure that I think far too much of myself. How many of us would like to do great things for God, while we’re not even willing to be obedient with the basics like sharing our love for Him with the people we encounter during the rush of the day? How many times do we long for a refreshment of the Spirit, or a change in the direction of society, while we drive past men and women on the side of the road, dismissing them with a blanket statement and pre-judgment that does nothing more than stick to the dirty and broken places of our own imperfect souls?

I work with pastors down here in Guatemala that wake up and walk for miles just to meet with people that are hurting. If you ask them why they’re going, they won’t give you the generic response that we love to give within church circles in the US, “I’m going to pray with them.” Sure, there will certainly be prayer, but the pastors know that they can pray for the person from a distance. Prayer is better than WiFi, you don’t have to be close. They are going to see them, to embrace them, to cry with them, to spend our most limited commodity of time with them, and to live out the love of Christ through actions.


It’s not about saving the world, how much you "Just love Jesus!", or how well you evangelize. It’s about pressing into a life, touching a soul, deeply and truly loving a neighbor. Yes, I’m tired. I’m exhausted from rhetoric and sermons. I’m impatient with those who would exclude a person from the kingdom by a word they speak, a place they would go, or the appearance of their body. I’m looking for the man, Jesus, that ate with the dirge of society, pulled water for a morally questionable woman, allowed a devoted servant to wash his feet with her hair in public, and touch the unclean.

I don't see Jesus in clean or pristine places... I see him along the rough edges of a muddy road, caked in the dirt underneath fingernails, in a shared bottle of water, and in the desperate eyes of those who know death all too well. 

I see Jesus through the lives that rely on Him, that bleed for Him, that exist in the mud, the heat, and know that He is their comfort. The rest of us get blinded by the comforts of life and we forget that we too need Him to survive.

And so... I'm tired of my own heart that sometimes casually seeks Him. I'm tired and I'm going to fall back into Him... for rest. I need to again throw down my own plow, and slide in beside Him and allow Him to pull the weight. 

I want to be Paul when he was facedown on the road, Moses when he had to remove his shoes, Mary when she wept at Jesus feet and dried them with her hair, Peter when he was restored three times... I just want to stay broken.

Maybe it's just me, but I only really see Him in my brokenness.