Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How to Cook Chicken "Camp" Kirkland

Caleb and Aleksandra of course ran for the back seats, claiming them with their friends. Kellie was somewhere safely in the very social middle of the pack, and I made my way in the solitary last of the line. The leather roll-up hat gave witness to the nature of our trip. Lunches were loaded and cameras of course were at the ready. The brakes hissed, released, and the engaged diesel engine pulled us forward. 

We made our way through the outskirts of San Cristobal, up the mountain to San Lucas, past Sumpango, and wound through the sharp and curvy passes to Chimaltenango. I have come to know this way so well... right at Mega Paca, a quick left, another right, and then wind back to the chicken farms, leave the blacktop behind and wind up the mountain to the place that holds our hearts: Labor de Falla and Cerro Alto.

The sky was like a blue crystal with painted clouds of cotton white. Volcanos Fuego, Pacaya, and Acatenango stood majestically with better than HD clarity. Fuego greeted our arrival with a solid column of smoke and fury, filling the sky above with a sea of billowy velvet. The rains of the summer have given way to the dry, cooler air of winter. The mud has turned to dust and the dust rises, carried like electrified filaments in the sunlight, announcing our arrival as it rushes out from our now motionless tires.

I remember Pastor Solomon's church when it was a raggedy empty lot on the side of a ditch line. Today it stands nearly complete. The front is bricked and painted. Doors and windows are pristine and tiles cover what was once a dirt floor. Simple bulbs hang from the ceiling, providing light, and the stage is decorated with local plants and flowers. 

Every brick, every yard of concrete, and every block has been laid by the men whose families worship under this roof. The women keep it clean, secure, and beautiful. I look up again to the rafters and remember the story...

There is a man who lives about 400 yards up the gravel and dust road. He is a metal-worker who survives by welding window-frames, doorways, and limitless repairs to trailers, automobiles, or anything steel. I look around the church and see evidence of his handiwork. His hands have shaped the windows and doors. His work gives strength to the paneled glass and allows this sacred place to be sealed and secured against the wind and rain. 

He did this out of love. Love for his God, love for this church, love for this community that is rising out of the dust. He never took any payment for his work. Rather than receive money, his reward was to see a temple rising to the maker of the universe by his own hand. I look at his work and I think of the builders of old: the great temples and cathedrals of time. This man is every bit as much of a builder as the hands that created those monuments. I stand inside a masterpiece.

This past June we had friends from our university days at Anderson come and spend a week with us. Brendon and Jennifer were our first married friends. It was incredible to reunite with them after 18 years. While they were here they financed and build a chicken business for the man who had provided the steel for the church. To the man who had given so much for his community, they were able to be an act of a loving God, providing blessings back to this family.

The chicken project is a large structure with a concrete floor and deeply anchored corner posts. It is roofed and enclosed with chicken wire. It is fitted with hanging feed troughs and roosting boxes. We completed the project with them in three days and installed about 20 hens. 

Along with Pastor Solomon, Kellie and I walked to the project to see how it was providing. To our great joy, it had more hens in it than when we last saw it. The family had been able to expand their chicken business. Dozens of eggs were produced daily. This allows the family to eat fresh eggs, give eggs to their neighbors, and also to provide eggs to the church for distribution within the village, and for sell in the nearby market.

I was standing inside the pen when suddenly Pastor Solomon began speaking with rapid excitement. "Ahorita, ahorita" or "now, right now!" My eyes followed his pointing finger as I turned to see a hen inside one of the boxes stand up, tremble... and produce a beautiful and perfect egg. I shouted, "oh wow!" causing the hen to startle and jump out of the box, running chicken past my feet. We all laughed and shared in the warm hilarity of this special moment.

The hens began to gather around my feet. The boldest of them turned her head sideways with one eye focusing on the brass loops on my boots. Suddenly she straightened her head and gave me one solid peck. The observing chickens now actively joined in and I was surrounded with pecking heads bouncing against my boot laces. It tickled! I was hen-pecked!

After handshakes, back-pats, exchanged words and hugs, we made our way back towards the church. We were filled with happiness to see this family thriving on the labor of our friends. God had provided their needs from a family in Indianapolis, Indiana. They had first given to the kingdom of God through their faithful work, expecting nothing in return. This is Kingdom living. I gave silent thanks to be a part of this great fellowship.

On our way to Pastor Solomon's church, we saw a large green tour bus backing across the ditch and into the gravel lot beside the building. My friend Edgar was directing them. I had known that we were scheduled for a concert at the church today. While not typical, it also was not entirely unusual. At times we will get some local groups or maybe a bunch of hillbillies from the U.S. that want to come down and play guitar and sing for the good people here. It is always an amazing experience seeing cultures meet and worship together. But... clearly this was something different.

The bus parked and musicians began to exit carrying trumpets, trombones, saxophones, percussion, music stands, and equipment. This was a 20 member jazz band. The members had three requirements to be a part of the band: (1) they were professional musicians in a major orchestra such as New York Philharmonic, D.C., etc., (2) they were followers of Jesus, (3) they all participated in a local church in the U.S. 

They were all here, volunteering their time. They had come together as a group for the first time 4 days ago. Their group was organized by their conductor, Camp Kirkland. Camp Kirkland! Are. You. Kidding. Me? CAMP KIRKLAND is in Labor de Falla!

I have sang Camp Kirkland music nearly all my life. I have seen him direct at Praise Gathering events, Gaither events, as part of major symphonic productions, and throughout my university study as a music minor. He is a premier orchestrator and arranger, recognized throughout the professional community. Previous to today I have only seen him in formal tails, or at least in a shirt and tie. 

And here he is... proclaiming the gospel of Jesus along with 20 music professionals from the U.S., in the middle of Pastor Solomon's church in Labor de Falla. The sounds of Jesus and Jazz blasted out through the mountains of Guatemala. People came from miles to here the sounds. There was a shortage of chairs and so I knelt in the middle of the church, in a posture of prayer and praise while the music fell over me like rain. I have nothing to give but thanks and praise.

Amazing Grace

The God who provides was very visible and present today. In the provision of a chicken farm from college friends from Indiana, and in the servant heart of a man who brought his friends to cross culture and political boundaries to share the love of God to brothers and sisters in a faraway place.

Silent Night

My soul was fed today. I felt blessings going down and coming up. In the midst of it all my family did our own little project, installing a stove for a family. I watched Caleb spread mortar and lay brick, Alexandra and Sterling spread the small stone and clean the surfaces. There is a family who made breakfast this morning using far less wood, with a stove vented outside of their home for the first time. 

Drying for next planting.

Traditional Kitchen, open flame inside of house.

Chickens, Ducks, Turkey: kept mostly to sell.

Inside of home: kitchen, common area.

Chino was our helper. He's the youngest son of Pastor Solomon and somehow that fact just made the entire day fit together like a perfect puzzle. Chino is 14, the same age as Caleb. It was such a meaningful moment to see him train us how to perfectly lay the block and level the cooking surface. 

Cinder block foundation, secured with mortar: daughter of family in background.

Ashes Box assembled in stove body
Tinder chamber opening/ash removal access
Fully assembled fire chamber
Side view: back shelf and steel top had not yet been installed
And so we all loaded back up into the big blue bus, covered in dust and covered in God, and made our way back to the house. It was the perfect end to an incredible year. God knows our needs before we ask. Once again we are amazed as pieces of our past converge into a single moment here in this anointed place. May we continue to walk in His favor. Thank you for sharing this year with us. -Sheps

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Shepherd Boy Can Abide (keeping watch over flocks by night)

And there were in the same country,
Shepherds abiding in the fields.

There are four things stuck in my head in this moment. They shouldn't be related, but my mind has brought them together:

(1) abiding shepherds on a hillside, keeping watch over their flocks by night;

(2) memories of my 13 year old past singing Ray Boltz, "Shepherd Boy" at Towne Boulevard Church;

(3) Hank Williams Jr., "A Country Boy Can Survive" is running on repeat in my head;

(4) Quentin Tarantino's movie, "Inglorious Basterds" with the often quoted line, "Now that, I can't abide" runs counterpoint with Boltz and Williams.

It's two days before Christmas and I'm in Central America. "School is closed for the holidays" is printed on my Google calendar. This innocent little phrase carries a great deal of meaning:

(1) The kids are home 24/7. Twenty-four seven;

(2) Kellie isn't at school teaching;

(3) I'm not a school principaling;

(3) I'm in between seminary classes.

All this means that we are in a three week period of pause. This is a time for us to rest, to reflect, yes... to abide. The past four months have been solid action. Suddenly we are all expected to just stop and rest. This is not a reasonable request. It's like running the 400 and then sitting down for a banquet. Your chest is still heaving, sweat is rolling, and adrenaline is pumping. You try to lift up your fork and your hand trembles. 

Those close to us have been watchdogs, cautioning that we not tackle too much. I know their advice must be heeded, and priorities must be protected. But here's the deal, we didn't come here to rest. Even so, my pastor sent me this note:

"My demand...gets some rest and love on your family over Christmas break." -Tom 

Sterling described best the state of our family. Monday night while we all wandered around the house lost with nothing to do, she asked with her customary loud and shrill voice, 

"Mom, we didn't we go somewhere today? Why are we all here for so long? Can't we go somewhere? I want to go back to school!"

Her exasperated exclamation perfectly verbalized the restlessness of us all. We don't know how to relax. We all felt stir-crazy and anxious. And this was after only ONE DAY of Christmas break. We have three long weeks ahead of us! It feels too open, even intimidating. I don't know how to cope with a blank schedule. 

I wake up and lay in bed, unsure of what to do. Is this break over yet? It is odd being in this place without demands pressing on me. I feel like I can't abide it. I search for things to do. And I recognize that I have to stop. If I want to witness the promise of God, I must be willing to find myself quiet on a hillside, keeping watch. 

The preacher man says it's the end of time
And the Mississippi River she's a goin' dry
The interest is up and the Stock Markets down
And you only get mugged if you go down town

I live back in the woods, you see
A woman and the kids, and the dogs, and me
I got a shotgun rifle and a 4-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive
Hank Williams, Jr.

I don't have a shotgun here. It's not permitted. But the days feel pressed like the lyrics of that song. Chaos in the city, chaos in the nations, we all feel it sometimes. A 4-wheel drive can only take you so far. I need something to re-capture the focus of my mind... the songs are running together as noise. I pull out the quietest lyric...

"And it came to pass that in those days that there went out a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed" (Lk 2:1). The world was just as busy then. There were politicians and preachers and teachers with their schedules full and their days stacked... but the angels did not appear to them. The angels appeared to shepherds abiding on a hillside, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

Even though your life seems filled
With ordinary things
In just a moment He can touch you
And everything will change
-Ray Boltz

There's something I need to learn about shepherds. I think I've been given this last name as a constant reminder. I am most at home on the quiet hillside. I must return there from time to time to remember the quiet of the night. To rest my head in the soft grass and gaze up at the stars. I have to clear the noise to see the vision, "Fear not. For behold I bring you tidings of great joy..."

There is turmoil touching my family back in Ohio that is an oppressive darkness that would threaten my joy. It is real, it is tangible, and unspeakable. Those who observe my life see only a part of it and the judgment they cast is faulty, even though their hearts are pure. I pray that the darkness can be shattered by angelic proclamation of peace. But the peace shines only on those who have the favor of God. 

And so I run to the quiet of that hillside and I turn my face up to the singing angels. Glory to God in the highest. The light shines brightest in the darkness. The inglorious is shattered by the glorious. This Shepherd boy can abide.

Yes now, I can abide that. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Fences: Life Unbounded

"Good fences make good neighbors" -Robert Frost

The hammer falls, connecting wire to wood and the sound takes me back to an endless row of posts standing like sentries across our backyard. A gallon-sized jar of tea brews in the sun and I watch sweat run like rivers between the strong shoulder blades of my grandpa Harry. The blue fishing hat on his head looks like it was dunked in water. He and my father are putting in a row of cattle fence. 

At the time I was convinced that it was to keep out beasts, monsters, and criminals, but I suppose it was just to contain a young boy and his dog. That fence marked the boundary on my world for years. When I crossed it, I was setting out into a conceived wilderness that was merely a few acres of woods surrounding a creek. 

It must have been the summer of 1979, but it still stands on that Preble County acre of dirt today.

Our life here in Guatemala draws more than a few parallels in my mind from those decades passed. Today I sit inside and watch through sun-glared windows as my children battle imaginary foes in an unbounded kingdom... which, to my grown-up eyes is simply a walled garden.

A walled garden with a fatal flaw... our backside is mere chain link. And here, the villains are real. A family playing in the backyard can be watched by the eyes of those with ill intent. A crowd of men after a hard days work, relaxing with adult beverages can see young girls playing with ribbon on a hillside and begin to entertain unnecessary thoughts. Mice or even rats can pass freely and our family is on display. Every other side is solid concrete wall, but our back is open.

And so a solution was necessary. Even so, I wrestled with the concept of perceived safety. Certainly we did not come here to be safe. We don't operate that way. We came here to be obedient. We do take reasonable precaution though, and we reduce risk with preventative measure. Our mission director, Fontaine, stated it like this, "Now, if someone wants in, a wall won't stop them. What a wall does, is keep an honest man honest."

And I'm sure that the men living next door are honest. I just want to keep them that way. The cost of digging a footer and laying block is substantial, so we've found a way to get it done for about a third of the cost, right around $1,000.00, and the work is underway.

This is our first completed section. Two men, Byron & Diego, are using the existing chain link as rebar, pouring concrete around and through it to form walls set between the existing concrete supports. It is ridiculously difficult and tedious work. As our project manager, Edgar, often laughs and says, "In Guatemala, everything is possible. Nothing is easy."

Plywood forms are prepared.

Forms are installed with tire wire and lengths of rebar.
Cement is hand-mixed with sand and water
to form concrete, which is then poured by
bucket and trowel into the form.
The form is secured and the concrete is allowed to dry, forming a
solid wall, with the existing fence providing an internal support.
A second layer will be added to bring the height of the wall to a minimum of 2 meters, with razor-wire across the top. This will then provide privacy from the apartment complex, and a uniform degree of security around the entire perimeter of our property. We have armed security at the front gate, and upon completion, enough of a wall to keep an honest man honest, and to keep wandering eyes off the activities of our children.

Love your neighbor as yourself, but don't take down that fence. -Carl Sandburg

We don't live in fear, but we understand that precautions are only wise. Things are different here than in the U.S. No-one here assumes that society will keep you safe. It is understood that common sense and providence are better anyway.

Somewhere up the mountain, a party has started with a strong latin-beat that covers up the sounds of construction. The sun will begin to set and we'll look towards the red glow of Volcano Pacaya as the temperature drops and we settle in for the night. My mind again drifts back to my childhood and cool evenings sitting within a secure yard that was unbounded by the release of my imagination. 

As the kids tuck into bed tonight, I know that I want them to have that same experience of childhood that I enjoyed. I am also keenly aware that this simply is not the case for much of the children of the world. We hope that our obedience here can shine some light into those dark places.

The simple truth of it is that our world is covered with fences: things that restrict us. But we are created by a God who offers us life unbounded. We simply must yield to Him in order to release this limitless life. 

This project was not in our budget. You can help us complete this wall, and provide a meaningful salary for the families of Byron & Diego by clicking the link below and hitting us with a tax-deductible contribution.

CLICK THE LINK, CONTRIBUTE, & we'll put your name on the wall!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Volcano Fried Bacon (Move aside KFC).

This was my sixth trip up Volcano Pacaya within the past year. Typically I take a horse, but this time I wanted to walk it. This meant that I needed to pack wisely. My pack included: a hatchet, a first aid kit, and Ace bandage, two jugs of water, a multi-tool, some fruit and nuts, a frying pan, and a pound of bacon. I've always wondered if it was hot enough to cook.

There are shafts that run up through the depths of the volcano where heated gases escape. The vapor splits through the molten lava as it cools and hardens it into vents. I've had my shoes melt around an entrance to a vent before, so I thought there might be a chance I could fry some bacon.

Skip is a buddy of mine that worked as a teacher last year in Cambodia. His heritage is Native American and I find him to be a deeply spiritual person. While we have quite a few differences, it's the commonalities that have drawn us together. We sat in a lava field together for a good long time, and we had some pretty amazing conversation. 

Skip didn't know about the bacon though. He knew I was searching for a vent, and he found one that was the hottest I'd ever felt. Skip has done extensive hiking, climbing, and traveling. This past year he climbed Everest. I figured I'd be pretty intimidated climbing with Skip, but it wasn't that way. His careful and relaxed demeanor made the day feel... somehow authentic.

I joked, "I wonder if this is hot enough to cook bacon?" He replied, "I bet it is." I smiled and then said, "well then, let's try it." I removed the frying pan and then a box of bacon out of my pack. His reply, "you've got to be kidding!" Skip held the pan while I unwrapped the first layer of bacon. Leaning down through the top of the vent, I held my breath and lowered the pan into the heat. It was intense. I could feel it burning up through my shoes, and scorching around my gloved and wrapped hand. I was leaning into the space, pressed against the opening to keep from falling.

The bacon sat about 3 feet into the opening and in less than a minute it began to sizzle! We were thrilled, we would soon be eating bacon on the top of a volcano, about 2 miles above sea level, in Guatemala. In case you don't know, it's difficult to get bacon in Guatemala. This particular bacon was hand delivered by my mother-in-law from Cincinnati.

I'm not sure if it was the mouth-watering smell of bacon frying of volcanic heat, or if he was led by God, but over walked my Guatemalan friend Otto. What an incredible moment. I laughed to myself as I thought, "A Gringo, a Native American and a Guatemalan were sitting atop a volcano." Surely this must be the start of a good joke or story?

Otto showed up on the day we launched our church in the city. He walked in, shook my hand and said, "My name is Otto. I found you on Facebook. Can I help?" He sat up chairs that day. Now he is my right hand. He advises me on cultural issues and he manages all media for the church.

So there we were. Three very different cultures and heritages, sitting on a volcano as I lifted out a pan of perfectly cooked, golden, crisp bacon. As we reached into that bubbling hot pan with our fingers, dripping hot grease, and enjoying each crunchy bite, something bigger than us somehow happened. 

Suddenly we were sharing the food from all of our packs. A peanut-butter and jelly sandwich was torn, a cookie was split, and marshmallows were passed around from an old stick we found. We no longer were different at all. We were just three guys having lunch. It felt like we'd been friends forever.

It was silent up there. And in the silence we all could hear the wind whispering through the field of petrified lava. We noticed the hawks circling the sky and commented about the barren landscape that was again finding life. Lichen and moss were giving a foundation for growth. Soon we were talking about the passage of time, family, the perspective of aging, the nature of time, and then eternity, heaven, and the nature of God. We we just three created beings, sharing a meal in a crater of an active volcano, contemplating our place in the universe. It was no longer about our differences.

I know we all grew a little this day. I know that I gained a new level of respect for two men that I now view as brothers. I wonder what my days would be like if I had more of this perspective? It's so easy to be negative in this world. It's so easy for us to see what is wrong. What if we spent more time sharing meals and finding commonality?

Now sure, tomorrow I'll be standing behind the Bible and preaching to a church, and Otto will be in the back making everything look and sound good. And that's as it should be. But I also know that I have more questions than answers in life and I'm comfortable with that. Somehow the questions make it feel authentic and precious.

Yeah, I have questions. But I also have answers. I know for sure that I don't want this to be my last excursion with Skip and Otto. We're talking about a 5 hour trek through the thick jungle above Tekal. There is a Mayan ruin there that few ever see. I think we'd have some time for some interesting conversation. I'm sure we'd share some meals. I wouldn't be surprised if we could even find a place to fry some bacon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Speaking English in a Foreign Land

To be clear - that is my index finger.
This past Sunday was another new experience, not only for me, but also for an incredible congregation here in San Cristobal. For sure, they've had gringo-speakers before, but perhaps not one quite like me. I was described as "a sort of Harley-Davidson rider meets Hipster meets Lumberjack, that is a pastor and somehow makes it all work."

Eddie is to my right, and thank goodness for Eddie... he's a translator. I thought I'd start out in Spanish and so I tried a couple of quick sentences. Nothing complicated, just sort of a "Good morning, my name is Chad Shepherd. I am the Principal of Christian American School and also the Pastor of Journey Church." 

<< Chirp, chirp. >> Dead silence and blank faces. Eddie bales me out by saying what I swear sounded exactly like what I said (to me) and suddenly the room is smiling and nodding. Well... I guess I've still got some learning to do.

And so full English it was! Eddie and I had fun, we even taped our Styrofoam cups of water together and in unison said, "cheers!" Thank goodness, some things are universal and we were met with enthusiastic laughter. After that, Eddie and I found a rhythm and things went surprisingly well.

They did not throw me out, and I think we have an excellent partner church for Journey. Iglesia Fresca Presencia is very active in local missions, and we're going to do some team projects! It is amazing how God works things out. In 2015 we expect do share in some construction, some feeding, and some life change as we walk some paths together.

These past few months have had in-roads with community that I never could have organized on my own. This life here is just a constant speaking of "yes" as we learn to walk in obedience to the path God lays ahead. 

This past Thanksgiving was an opportunity to share a worship service with the families of Christian American School. My friends David Toledo & Chad Meers (Uno) sang with us before I stood up to speak. I shared a story about my Grandfather, the story of creation, and the story of God coming to earth to restore us back to a face to face relationship of walking with Him. My attempt at Spanish somehow went over better here, but I still used a translator for nearly everything.

Oh... just to clear up any confusion about my Spanish, check this little gem out. It's bringing smiles and laughter to Guatemalan households every day. I've even been pointed at in public TWICE now by children. For sure, we've had new families come to the school after seeing my video, but I think it's kind of like, "hey... let's go see the funny Gringo-man." 

Whatever it takes...right? God is using our feeble efforts. We couldn't be happier. So here I am, speaking English in a foreign land that is now my home, and I'm bringing laughter across the city as they listen to my "Perfect American accent" as I do my best to be a Chapin.

I'm off to jump on my hogg, wearing a bow-tie, so I can cut down a tree and yell "Yo soy Americano!" Hasta la vista, baby. Peace out.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Diamond Shaped Opening: The Covenant

I frequently have vivid dreams. My dreams often inform my decisions, or show me solutions to problems. Sometimes however they are not so clearly understood. 

The conversation began with my pastor and the board of elders from our church. We spoke in hushed tones. The situation was critical. One of us would need to be crucified. God was demanding it. We didn't question why, it was simply understood.

Our reaction was to pray with desperation, seeking obedience and guidance. Which one of us was to suffer the experience? I felt deep in my heart that it would be me, but I silently pleaded that it was one of them. Maybe it would be someone else? We continued to pray until we were exhausted. In part terror and part affirmation, all hands pointed to me.

They said that it was due to the nature of my spiritual walk, my willingness to serve in a foreign place, and it just seemed directed by the spirit. I collapsed with the news, but agreed that the spirit had told me as well. 

In a surreal conversation my pastor explained that he felt it had been pre-ordained. My name, Shepherd, pointed to a relevance that led back through the ages. The covenants of time past had been through keepers of flocks: Abraham, Moses, David, the Israelites, even Jesus was known as the good Shepherd. Although it sounded ridiculous for me to be included in this group, I nonetheless found consolation in the imagery.

There was no time to spare. I was stripped to my shorts and they began a pre-binding on each arm with a dark brown, thin rope. They wound my wrists just beneath my hands in an x pattern that left a diamond shaped opening in the center of my wrists that would support the spike that would be inserted between the bones.

I began to tremble and weep, understanding the coming trauma. The nail was held against my flesh, taking measurement. I began to cry out to God. I did not want to do this. I was not worthy. I am not a perfect lamb. I am not capable of atoning anyone. I am scared. I fear the coming pain. I wonder how soon I will die? Will it be from loss of blood? From shock? A heart attack? Or will I slowly drown as the fluid builds in my lungs while I struggle to breath?

I want out. I want to run. It is too late. I am not worthy. Is this how it ends? I just weep as they begin to bind my legs.

I am left alone in a white room. God draws near to me. He comforts my soul. He gives me resolution and calms my heart. He tells me that He is enough. The sacrifice has been made. The group comes back and shares the same revelation. God does not require this thing to happen. 

The atonement of the son of God was enough. I was set free.  I woke up. The dream was over.

I lay in my bed thinking through the scripture that I had encountered the previous day. It had been heavy in my mind, I felt unable to grasp what seemed to be a significant concept. 

 "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams."
1 Samuel 15:22b

God wants my obedience. He wants my attention. He wants me to listen to Him, and to obey. He could require sacrifice. But even in the old covenant, sacrifice was not want God wanted most, He wanted obedience. The law was the path back to God who called His people back with mercy and with grace.

There is nothing that I can accomplish on my own. I truly am not worthy. He is the atonement. He is the spotless, blameless one. He was the sacrifice. 

We are to be obedient. This is our path to Him. Whatever you are searching for, wherever you are, no matter what your story... listen for Him.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Discovering Eden: A Mayan Excursion

Backpack strapped on with an indigenous woven blanket tied across the top. Leather mail carrier back slung across my shoulder with 2 guidebooks, a worn out Bible, college textbooks, and my Macbook tucked inside. A canteen for water and a few granola bars. The bus is at the top of the hill… it’s go time.

Kellie and the kids walk with me up the gravel drive towards highway CA1 that slices above our house. The night is humid and rain falls that the locals call chippy-chippy, which is an ever so detectable mist that blankets in a gentle touch. Dogs are barking across the city-edge neighborhood and Spanish language echoes down the pavement from the local tienda. We board the bus. We find our seats. It’s going to be a long night, 10 hours of treacherous mountain driving in a retired school bus. We trust Manuel who sits in the driver seat. I’ve seen him back this bus down impossible trails with no room for error. A mistake equals a 200 foot free-fall. This drive is no different. A two lane highway with no painted lines that will carry cars, buses, and trucks three wide on hairpin curves with no guardrails. The pavement is cradled between sheer rock walls that often collapse, and black abyss that seems to beckon like a black hole. It’s best not to look out.

The trees meet above the road and black out any chance of moonlight. The road can suddenly be blocked with rock, fallen trees, stalled vehicles, random livestock or road-kill, or a times even on oncoming semi-truck, filling your lane. You say a quick prayer, suck in your gut with clenched eyes and listen as the wind whips between the heavy vehicles. Once again… you’ve cleared. Twisted steel and nightmares avoided. You chuckle to yourself. This life is insane.

Sleep comes. Despicable Me Two has been playing on the screen to keep the littles from getting restless, and now it has ended. Most of our crew of around 30 are asleep and the Main Menu sequence is playing over and over and over. I roll the blanket up and place it behind my neck to reduce the back of my head bouncing off the glass. I’ve been sick. I’ve had 4 hours of sleep in the past 3 days. I had to complete my Exegesis paper on Deuteronomy 30:11-20. I’m exhausted. I sleep.

I feel myself falling forward as I instinctively reach out to stop my pack from falling into the floorboard. My head is tucked down so my forehead rests on the standard school bus green seat back. Somehow most everyone is asleep. I look up to see soldiers. We are at a military check-point. Our bus has been stopped for search.

I stand up and here the helmeted man with the gun say that everyone must get out. I turn and begin to address my friends. “You have to get out. We all have to get out. Right now. Get up. Let’s go.” They look worried, I suppose I do as well. But I know that this is standard. They say they are checking for unauthorized transport of fruit, but I think that it is also drug trade and sex trafficking that they are thwarting. They are the good guys. We are in safe hands. Just don’t do anything stupid.

I locate some restrooms at the end of the guard plaza. There is also a shanty of a tienda, wood planks strapped together with twine and covered with sheet metal. You can buy Limonada, Naranjada, Grapetta, Coca, and most any alcohol. We buy no alcohol. We are good church people, after all.

Restroom… no, that word misleads you. A wooden door swings open to reveal a wall of stench that violently rams up both nostrils. A concrete pedestal rests on concrete floors. The light of my mobile phone reveals smeared and streaked walls. I look down and find that my feet are resting in liquid. I have to breathe and I resist the urge to add to the filth with a lurch. Mission accomplished a fumble at the door latch, thinking of what germs are on the surface and I make a desperate retreat. 

The bus restarts and the voyage continues. It’s 3:30 a.m. I fall back asleep.

I blink awake on occasion to catch glimpses of scenery. I see broken down trucks, closed tiendas, small shack houses along the road, and deep wilderness. Lights flash across the narrowing road and I see a parked semi truck with his hood up. A man is laying across the roof. I silently play a frequent game called, “Dead or Drunk?” I determine he is likely drunk as our bus blows by.

It’s still dark but the horizon is waking with a soft pink glow. We’re crossing a bridge. Welcome to the Isle of Flores. We’ve arrived around 5:30 a.m. We aren’t expected until 7:00. And so we turn off the bus and sit as the island comes to life. The sounds were deafening. I’ve never heard anything like it. Try to  imagine sounds from Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. In the cacophony I could hear birds, thousands of birds, countless varieties, frogs from the brackish water below, and a roar of insects. Welcome to the jungle.

7:00 comes and the group must abandon the bus. We have the option of riding Tuk-Tuks, which are lawn mower engines mounted on an over sized tricycle. The driver sits along up front and a small bench seat holds passengers. Kellie, Aleksandra, and Sterling mount a Tuk-Tuk while Caleb and I decide to walk it along with our mission partners Justin and Kevin. Of course we walk past the place and have to double back to find it, but we reunite with our clan and enter the lobby.

We’re there on time, but we’ve forgotten the rule on time in Guatemala. Being on time is way too early. Our 7:00 breakfast is ready around 8:30. We’re tired, cranky, and hungry. We devour the scrambled eggs, plantains, refritos, and red sauce. The rooms are available, we toss our bags in our rooms… and head back toward the bus. Peten and Tikal awaits. There’s no time to spare. It’s back on the bus for another hour and a half. We’ll see our beds later tonight.

How do I describe the most otherworldly, epic-movie looking place I have ever seen? Tikal is so much more than you can see in a picture or on a post-card. It is expansive. It is vast. To see everything that has been excavated to date you must hike for over 6 miles. And there is much more that remains unearthed. The heart of an empire. You can still feel the power it wielded. 

Our guide gave us a brief history of a people rising to power. The Mayans worshipped multiple Gods with one as the head. Their beliefs were based on the alignments of the planets and stars, and cyclical to harvesting and planting. Overall they were a peaceful people, but special occasion could result in annual human sacrifice. To be the sacrifice was considered a great honor. You blood would be spilled down the steps of the temple. Your sacrifice would ensure the prosperity of your nation.

And then came Aztec influence. Things became bloody. Sacrifice was no longer an honor, it was a terror. We stood in the shadow of Temple One and listened to the screams of history. I reflected that those cries were not unique to this culture. We all have our demons. The beauty here was absolute and overwhelming.

We climbed two of the temples. The views were simply arresting. We would reach the summit and we would be silently transfixed as we were captivated by the rising temples from the canopy of the wilderness. What must this have been like when it was inhabited? I imagined myself as a Mayan warrior, reflecting the sun with steel in signal to Temple One, over 1.5 miles away. 

While we were at the peak, there were about 30 small, steep stairs that lead to the upper chamber. I grabbed Sterling in my arms (she is my most daring child) and together we climbed to the highest point. It was being balanced against the spire of the top of the world. The wind blew strong and we were at the level of birds. I sat her down on the ledge beside me with a grip on her hand. If we fell, we would fall together… having witnessed something that very few people have ever seen. 

We watched great birds soaring in the distance. They had vibrant red tails and splashes of yellow in their green feathers. I don’t know how long we were there. My legs began to grow weak and we began our descent. It was at this point that my right knee suddenly was swollen and could not be bent. With Sterling in my arms, I hobbled and hopped down the sharp incline. One missed step would send us tumbling towards the six foot unguarded ancient stone platform, and then over the ledge into the treetops below.

Of course this little drama is tempered with the reality that you are reading my words and so the conclusion is foregone. We made it safe. My footsteps were sure. The day was spent exploring carvings, passageways, foot-trails, ridiculously intricate architecture that harnessed sounds from shouted voice, knowledge of the stars and alignments of planets. The intelligence of this ancient race still bears respect. 

The Mayans believed that the square between Temples One and Two was the cradle of creation. For them, it was Eden, the center of the universe and the resting place of the Great God. While their religion is not my own, I could not find criticism for them as I stood in the shadow of their achievements. As to whether an ancient people encountered the one true God in this place, or if they simply constructed a tower of Babel, I cannot say. 

However, we do know that it ended abruptly. A people vanished. By conquest, pestilence, poisoning from building materials, blight, or a religion gone fanatical and violent… the end is not known. Nonetheless, if you stand in that place, you will feel the power of that ancient culture. In it’s time, it cannot be denied that it was indeed the center of their known world.

And so I found myself reflecting on my own view of God. There could be a day when someone stands in the ruin of my own life. I wonder what will be seen? This place is a place mixed with beauty and blood. The best of humanity mingled with the worst. Too often our own lives are no different. We all seem to think the world spins on our own understanding. I think there is a lesson here. 

I reflect back to my completed paper, discussing a remembered covenant between God and His people. Promises kept by a faithful God to a people who would seek His face and place nothing else before Him. I consider the faith of the Mayan. I consider the faith of the Israelites. I consider my own faith. 

I want the remains of my life to be a monument that points to God.

“For this commandment that I command to you today 
is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 

It is not in heaven that you should say,
“Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us,
that we may hear it and do it?”

Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say,
“Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us,
that we may hear it and do it?”

But the word is very near to you.
It is in your mouth and in your heart,
so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today
life and death, good and evil.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God
that I command you today,
by loving the LORD your God
by walking in His ways and 
by keeping His commands, statutes, and His rules,

then you shall live and multiple
and the LORD shall bless you in the land that
you are entering to take possession of it.

But if your heart turns away
and you will not hear,
but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them,
I declare to you today that you will surely perish.
You shall not live long in the land that you posses.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today,
that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.

Therefore chose life
that you and your offspring may live,
loving the LORD your God,
obeying His voice and holding fast to Him,
for He is your life and length of days,
that you may dwell in the land that the LORD
swore to your fathers,
to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob
to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-20