Thursday, December 31, 2015

An Afternoon in Antigua Guatemala

We don't always attend fairytale weddings in Guatemala, but when we do, we always pretend like we've got money.

Ok, so Kevin isn't our child, but he's like a brother to Caleb and so that makes him family. Besides, how else would we ever have convinced Caleb to smile for a photo? 

To the shock of us all, lately... this one (Aleksandra) has also become reluctant to sit for a photo. This is a rare, direct snapshot that does not include the palm of her hand. She is wearing the glasses that I helped her pick out. She's moving out of that annoying little girl phase and I like her better. 

On the other hand... this one is full blown little girl phase. I will admit that I like her better than when she was in square mouth screaming baby stage. I have great hopes for this one. I will admit, she teaches me how to enjoy life.

This day was a special time and place. We gathered with friends who have become family, the Greenes. We celebrated with them the marriage of Katy and Nathan. The day was perfect. 

The ceremony included distant canon explosions, several rounds of emergency vehicle sirens, a lizard that ran up the wall, and a cat that perched above and ignored our festivities with a typical arrogant indifference.

It also included tears, beautiful dresses, dear friends, a snapshot of life in perfection, and an overall assurance that amidst the chaos of life, there is still a goodness to the world.

As I look back on 2015, this day was the most beautiful. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Church of God Ministries Guatemala Seeks to Join the Movement

There are a few brief moments in our lives that we were created to hold. We are shaped, forged, and sometimes crushed into the pieces that gear the universe. We are fearfully and wonderfully made for a purpose. Today was one of those moments that I was grateful to witness.

Ministerios Iglesia de Dios Guatemala was formed today, December the 29th, 2015 over lunch in beautiful Tecpán, Guatemala, with a small group of pastors led by the Spirit.

Left to right: Pastor Fontaine Greene, Founder of Catalyst Resources International, Pastor Samuel Hernandez of Iglesia Evangelic Genezareth de Zona 6, Pastor Mainor Marroquin of Iglesia de Dios Galilea de Tecpan, Pastor Chad & Kellie Shepherd of Journey Church San Cristóbal, Pastor Julio & Juanita Nolasco of Iglesia Cristiana Familiar Bethany de San Bartolo Aguas Calientes, Pastor Augusto Hernandez and Pastor Gudiel Lemus of Iglesias y Ministerios Cristianos El Santuario Evangelistico de Villa Nueva, Pastor Edgar Ramos of Catalyst Resources International, and Pastor Mike Claypool of Carolina Ministries of the Church of God.

The pastors gathered at the fountain above represent over thirty congregations that identify themselves as Church of God in Guatemala. While many of these churches have had a connection with our reformation movement in the past, there has not been an autonomous Guatemalan association. 

Within the past several years, local churches have expressed a yearning to be connected to the international body of the Church of God, and also to be recognized as a self-governed fellowship of Christ followers who are guided by the very Spirit of the Living God.

The challenges that we face in the world today require that followers of God work together. The time of petty differences or territorial claims has ended. We can do so much more when we work side by side. We are here to declare a new fellowship.

Pastor Mainor's story is like many others that we've encountered. He has served faithfully for the past twenty-two years after a disagreement with the property owner of the church resulted in his disfellowship. With no building, a fractured congregation, and no formal recognition from a church organization, he rebuilt. Pastor Mainor now has a congregation that continues to grow near 500. He has planted and continues to support additional congregations. He explained today that he has prayed for many years that God would make a way for him to again be in a fellowship.

Or consider Pastor Julio who has a vision that stretches for days. His congregation outgrew their building and so he began multiple services. By faith, he and the men of his church are completing an auditorium that will seat 1200 people... using concrete and block. He has contracted with the city of San Bartolo Aguas Calientes, and has built a certified water filtration. He too has been seeking and praying for fellowship as he expands the kingdom in the surrounding mountains and pueblos.

Certified Pure Water!
The initial plans for the new building at San Bartolo Aguas Calientes

God has brought together mission organizations, churches from both the US and Guatemala, and key members of Anderson University School of Theology, and the US National body of the Church of God to break new ground. Simply stated, we are here to serve as witnesses of the work that God has already completed.

This is a historical moment for the Church of God movement as pastors in Guatemala form their own legal church association and seek fellowship from the National Church of God. Like state level organization of the church in the US, they are selecting delegations from each congregation, electing a panel of regional leaders, and will elect a National Director who will coordinate information and resources, serving in 2 year terms.

The leadership group will exist for the consistent training and ordination of pastors, and will coordinate the fulfillment of needs within the congregations. The churches celebrate wins together, join together in projects, and help each other out in times of need.  The Leadership will rotate every two years to maintain integrity and to insure that ultimate leadership remains with the Holy Spirit.

Specifically, the pastors of Church of God Ministries Guatemala want identification and belonging. One pastor explained that "belonging to the Church of God is like having a last name that people recognize and respect." With emotion deep in his voice, he explained how it felt to live without a last name.

Ordination is another component that isn't available to an independent pastor in Guatemala. The Church of God, Anderson, Indiana offers Leadership Focus, an online ordination track that pairs pastors up with mentors, coaches, and resources. Recently, material has become available in Spanish. This group of pastors here in Guatemala is seeking an ordination track, and I believe that it is no mistake that they ask for it in such a time as this.

The first Convention of Church of God Ministries Guatemala will take place on March 10th through the 12th, hosted by Pastor Mainor Marroquin at Iglesia de Dios Galilea, located in Tecpán, Guatemala. Already, over 500 people have committed to attend, flights are booked, and hotel rooms are reserved.

The pastors are hereby requesting that the National Church of God in Anderson Indiana send a delegate to the convention in Tecpán to welcome them into the movement. It is my prayer that this happens. We are also requesting recognition as Church of God congregations in the yearbook and in the online directory. We want to be counted.

The moment when the pastors committed to be a fellowship.
Yes, this is a historic moment. I am reminded by the boldness of D.S. Warner when he began challenging the status quo near the turn of the 20th century. The Holiness movement was gaining steam, and he had a deep desire to engage the people of God in not only Holiness, but also unity. The truth is that the Church of God can only exist when we have both. 

This is a historic moment for the pastors in Guatemala as they lead a nation that still climbs from the desolating clutches of decades of civil war, political corruption, and dark violence. These are pastors who have personal stories of torture at the hands of guerrillas. They have experienced personal loss and sacrifice, sometimes even by the hands of men they trusted.

And even so... they extend hands of fellowship again, and welcome us with open arms, shared prayers, and even shared meals from their own fields and farms. I have found comfort and welcome under their roofs.

But, we cannot miss that this is also a historical time for the Church of God Reformation Movement worldwide. This is a time of definition. This is a time to practice holiness and unity. This is a time that we ride boldly like D.S. Warner on the Floating Bethel, shining our "dazzling light" and "glory bright" as together we walk as sons and daughters of God. 

We seek to join the movement. We seek to change the world. We are committed to make Jesus the subject. We are ready to join hands with churches across the world who share this mission. We want to expand the Kingdom of God and make a difference together. 

We are about breaking down barriers and crossing borders. We are the hands and feet of Jesus to a nation. Hand in hand. Missionaries, churches, the city, the pueblos, we are uniquely positioned in this time and place, working together.

We are united as a global body of believers. We hold to the doctrine of the Church of God. We are serving together to equip others as we advance the Kingdom together.

We are here to boldly claim unity and holiness as we proclaim with you, we're here to take back what is ours. Hell cannot have our fellowship. Hell does not get our division. 

I am confident that it is no mistake that now is the fullness of time. God has put together this unique group in this place from distances around the globe. God has prepared this way and I know that a new wind is blowing.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Death of Fear: Diving into Amatique Bay

"Do the thing you fear
and the death of fear is certain."
-R.W. Emerson

Before this moment, I was unaware that starfish existed larger than my face. Of course, this was a day of many firsts. Fifty foot depth in Caribbean waters is a good teacher. 

A few weeks earlier I was panicking with full gear strapped on in the bottom of a four foot pool. The basics are the same at any depth, and fear is always your chief enemy. Fear drives up the heart rate and increases breathing. Oxygen floods your lungs and empties from your tank. Buoyancy is destroyed and you rapidly start to rise.

We practiced techniques that served to alleviate panic: lose of the mask, water in the mask, the regulator pulled from the face, a dropped weight belt, and even oxygen failure. It's the same each time... you panic, you can die. If you stay calm, and remember what you've been taught, you can survive most anything. 

I found myself on my knees on the ocean floor, completing the exercises for PADI dive certification: removal of the mask, clearing of water, breathing through the regulator with my eyes and nose exposed, clearing the regulator, using a buddies regulator, dropping weight, and practicing signals. These things had all caused me great distress on the bottom of that four foot pool, but here at depth, I'd mastered my calm. Breathe, steady, in and out. Breathe deep. 

I'd had to practice this, hoping no-one else noticed me in the corner of the pool with my eyes closed, concentrating only on the draw and push of air from my lungs. I'd force my breathing to calm as my body began to realize it could survive.

Entering open water this was critical. I found myself feeling the grip of panic as the current pulled me away from the boat and I couldn't find my regulator. I snorkeled as I calmed my breathing and heart rate. Then I was able to regain perspective and rationality. Again I felt panic as we swam near the foundation of an ocean beacon. Current pulled me between the beams of the steel structure and into coral. My training kept me calm through the danger.

In my life, I seem to always fear the things that I need to conquer in order to grow as a person. I've feared public speaking, the dark, crowds, talking to people I don't know, driving, heights, cities, and certainly the idea of diving into the ocean. But I've learned that when I can gain perspective within the fear, the fear disappears. 

I've learned that when I fear something, it controls me until I face it. I don't think that's unique to me though, I think living is about overcoming fear. We must be willing to bleed, to fail, to fall, and to pull a little water into our lungs on the ocean floor. What I can tell you with certainty is this... the things I've enjoyed doing the most, the things that have helped me to become as a man, and those things that I've feared.

The truth is, I still fear them at some level... but it's an inanimate fear, a dead fear... like a dead virus converted to an inoculation. I remember being afraid of a kid named Chris in high school. We fought one day and became friends thereafter. I think that was one of the first times I learned to face fear, survive it, and realize that I was ok. There's just something assuring about that. 

Whenever I face fear, I know that I must calm my emotions. I love the way that a young man learned this... thousands of years ago when his mentor wrote to him, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." His name was Tim and Paul told him this in a letter.

An ocean floor with a rubber tube in your mouth is a good place to be reminded of this simple truth. We must not be influenced by the terrors that surround us. We must remember our training. We must remember the truths that are constant. We must remember our identity. 

In those tough days, when the pressure and the threats are just too much... when you feel your resolve shatter and you are near panic... that is the moment when you can witness the death of fear. Don't miss it. That moment is where you grow. Where you realize that you can face the thing that grips you.

And that is the moment where you can begin to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. The warm current that softly carries you along with schools of vibrant, shiny fish. Corals and starfish of endless varieties that are at your fingertips. You look up and see the rays of the sun flickering down through the depths and you give praise to the One that holds it all.

Whatever fear you face in your life, I offer you this. It is real. It is present. You are correct that it is a danger. So now, consider the threat, and be bold like Peter and John as they faced trial before the religious leaders (Acts 4). Remember who you are. Remember whose you are, and who sends you.  Remember what you've learned. Finally, know that He offers you power, love, and a sound mind. 

Breathe steady. Breathe deep. Find your calm in Him. He has created you to do great things. Far greater than you can imagine. Don't let fear hold you back. There is beauty at the bottom where the light shines through.

Friday, December 25, 2015

We Will Always Remember THIS Time as Perfect: Christmas 2015

Christmas as a child was a time that made it easy to believe in a silent night. With the warm glow of the tree I could imagine a baby away in a manger, a small family seeking solace from the night while angels sang in the sky. The world seemed to slow for me as a child during the week of Christmas. School was out, family gathered near, snow would softly fall, and nothing was better than the broadcast Christmas Specials of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and A Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I can still quote those characters and run the scenes in my head. 

Somewhere along the ages of my life, I lost the belief. The warmth of Christmas that was joy, peace, and hope, somehow was robbed from my life by the urgency of profession, success, and my endless search of happiness. Christmastime just turned into a list of obligations, bills, and uncomfortable days of over-indulgence.

I pray that this Christmas is the start of something new. While I am hyper aware of the state of the world, I have again caught sight of the message of that baby that came into the world on that night, shattering the silence... God proclaiming that He had returned to take back what was stolen. Yes, peace, joy, and hope have come back. 

My children have helped me rediscover the magic as I experience it again as I watch them, unafraid to embrace the goodness in life, basking in the glow and accepting gifts with open arms. I am reminded of how great is the gift we all received when God came down to reclaim us as His own.

Aleksandra has wanted a bunny for two years. This Christmas she got her wish. I have so much to learn from her response. This time is a special time. I have no doubt that we will all look back on this year as a highlight of our life. Kellie and I have been married 20 years, we're nearing three years in country as missionaries, our kids are fifteen, twelve, and (nearly) five. We are drawing deep at the well of life. This life is rich. I wrap my arms desperately to the God that gives it.

There is so much that my ambition wants to achieve... so much undone... sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But, today I again learn to rest. To remember. And... to enjoy a good sword fight. Yes, the force is strong with this little one. Check out her Yoda move.

I'm in love today. I feel like a little school-boy crushing on the new girl. The way my daughter loves her new bunny is the most beautiful thing I can remember. I'm thankful. I'm not sure what the future holds for our little family, but in so many ways, it just doesn't matter. We're in God's hands. We'll take it as it comes. Life is here to be embraced. 

For today, we reflect on our God, his gifts of joy, peace, and hope. I believe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The US Embassy and My Christmas Miracle (with a hint of Star Wars and Steve Harvey)

I remember the question a new intern gave to me, "When am I going to see miracles?" I was slightly irritated. I just don't have those on tap. Sure, we've seen some, but I guess I'm just not missionary enough for those to be a daily thing.

I like the answer Han Solo gave to the newbies he found on his ship, "It's true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They're real." That's it, yes its all true. We have tough days, we have boring days... and then there are days when we just need a miracle.

I woke up before my alarm and watched the digital figures with dread. It was just two days before Christmas and the idea of driving through the capital to reach the US Embassy worried me to my core. Throw me out in the bush and I'm comfortable, maybe that's just my country upbringing. But I detest driving through Guatemala City. 

Last night I knelt at my bed and I prayed, "Lord, I need a Christmas miracle on this."

My US Passport expires on January 5. The matter is complicated by a couple of factors: the Embassy is changing their procedures, and our Guatemalan residency is about to process. The change in procedure is effective January 1, 2016 and requires all passport renewals to be done by appointment. The first available date is February 17. Our residency will be completed before then, and so I am in a bind.

The website of the Embassy gave conflicting information and the links to the necessary forms were broken. Nonetheless, I found an old link, completed the form, printed it out, and decided I'd just wing it. I'd walk into the embassy and plead my case. I've psyched myself up for this for the past week. I knew that I would have to go in with a determined, humble boldness.

Waze didn't fail me and I parked in a safe location and walked towards the hardened location of the US Embassy. Massive crowds stood in long lines. It was 7:40 in the morning, and it looked like I was the last to arrive. 

I heard a voice to my left. It was a Guatemalan woman. I can't explain this, I didn't know her, but she felt familiar. I knew that I needed to trust her. She spoke only in Spanish, and it was difficult for me to understand her, but from where she stood, she guided me past the masses, into the express line for US Citizens, and I was on the inside within a few short minutes.

You have to guard against unfortunate oddities here than can unintentionally wreck your day. The security of the Embassy is high and I wasn't permitted to enter with my mobile phone. The guard took my phone, and seized my passport. He said that he had to keep them both. This was a problem because I needed my passport in order to renew it. He held his ground. I could leave, or give him my passport. Day-wrecker! 

I reached into my wallet and gave him my US Driver License. Like a Jedi I waved my hand across the air between us and I said, "This is sufficient." I nearly burst out laughing as he said, "Esto es suficiente." Apparently I have both Jedi mind skills and the gift of tongues today.

Now, all I needed to do was convince the agent that I was an exception to the rule. This could go either way, but it was safe to say that I had a bad feeling about it. 

To my surprise, the clerk, a young man from the US, was immediately agreeable. Then he attempted to scan the QR Code on the form, and it could not be read by the system. Although I had successfully arrived, entered with my passport, and convinced him of my situation... I was being rejected because the US system did not recognize its own code. I was inwardly seething as I calmly asked, "How can we solve this?"

He pointed me to a pair of dinosaur computers against the far wall. "Complete a new DS-82 over there." Those were some pretty obscure instructions, but I'd figure it out. I found the switch to awaken the screen, located the correct form and begin filling it out as two babies competed for the I Can Scream the Loudest Award. Things went well until I came to the field that required an email.

The @ key would not work. When I punched in the command, it typed ". I tried the control key, the alt key, I tried every combination I could imagine. Everything worked except the one I needed. I cut line, feeling a million stares into my back, as I asked, "How do you type the @?" Of course the clerk couldn't hear my asinine question, and so I had to say it loud enough for the room to hear. This was a new clerk. She was Guatemalan, and she looked like she was having a bad day, and I'd just made it worse. Of course... her answer back was a very loud, "You press the shift key, and then the 2." 

Disgraced, I walked back to the computer and stubbornly tried it again. Of course, it yielded the same result. I had to go back to the window, again cutting in line, and went back to the clerk whose day I'd ruined with my stupid question. She says, "I told you, press the Shift key and the 2." I explained that the computer yielded the incorrect symbol. Her eyebrows dropped as she huffed air at me, shook her head, and said, "Well then, I don't know what to tell you. You'll just have to come back another time."

"Thank you," I replied as I walked away... feeling like I needed a Kylo Ren hissy fit. Instead... I again approached my nemesis, the DS-82 unit, and had no tangible results. One of the screaming infants was on my left. Her mother had plopped her beside me, shoving in the corner the other PC that was turned off. Her husband was crowding me on the right side, shoving my papers at me. I was incensed.

I took deep breaths and prayed. My blood pressure lowered as I tried to regain perspective. My life isn't bad. This is just a tense moment. The screaming baby and her mom left... and so did the pushy dad... I imagine his day was about as good as mine.

With no other options, I'd tried everything,even changing the language of the computer in hopes that it would activate the key, I moved to the other computer and located the power button. It took 5 painful minutes to slowly boot. I relocated my friend, DS-82, and came to the dreaded email field. I took a deep breath, knowing that if this didn't work, my day was likely a failure. I'd have to wait until February. This could jeopardize our entire families Residency application. 

It was my own fault for waiting so long. I was resigned to either outcome. We'd get through it. Worse things have happened. I pressed the shift key, and I pecked the 2. BOOM. There was the most beautiful ampersand that I have ever seen. Yes... that was a nice @.

Of course then it took a few minutes to teach myself how to print it. I had to convert it to a PDF and send it to the listed printer. I glanced through the glass wall across the room and I saw pages coming out of the printer. I took the chance that those were mine... and then for the third time, I cut the line.

This was the do or die moment. I made sure that I had an assertive posture, and stood expectantly at the counter. Here came my favorite person, the lady who had twice humiliated me. I smiled and said, "My documents are on your printer. The computer to the right is broken. I powered up the one on the left." To my surprise, she thanked me and walked away. 

She was calling for a repair on the computer. Ha! Well, things were ending well. My passport would be renewed, and my perseverance would benefit the poor souls who came after me to this frustrating place.

And then came the unexpected turn. As we pulled my photos out of the envelope from Quick Photo, an official Passport Photo Processing Center... They. Were. The. Wrong. Size.

Mic drop moment. Epic fail. 

I felt my entire body sag. I closed my eyes in silence. She asked if I had any other pictures and I made a show of searching the envelope. I knew there were none, but I didn't know what else to do. She said, "You're going to have to go get new pictures, ok?" I replied, "Sure, yes. I have no other choice." I gathered my things and took a step away.

"Sir." "Yes," I said as I turned back. "Where did you have these processed?" I said, "San Cristobal." She said, "I'm going to call them and let them know this isn't acceptable." All I could say was, "thanks."

Then she said, "Wait a minute and let me see if we can use these. I'm going to ask the 'Official Photo Specialist.'" I watched her as she walked away from the counter, paused at a doorway, and then spun around walking back to me. I couldn't even look up. I didn't want to see the disappointment on her face. I felt like Ms. Columbia about to have her crown revoked by Steve Harvey. 

To my absolute shock, she said, "I consulted the 'Official Photo Specialist' and she said that we can use this." I was slack-jawed before I could mutter out, "This is my Christmas present." Her response was immediate, 

"No, this is your Christmas Miracle."

When am going to see miracles? When you ask for them. When you put ourselves out there and need them. When you open your eyes to see them. Today was nothing less than what I'd ask for... a Christmas Miracle.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Go and Wait... when the phone rings.

.... the phone rang for us. Kellie walked over to lift the black phone from the wall mount. I saw her expression shift to relief. We were going to see Sterling. 

The procedure had gone without complication and the Doc reported that it was fully successful. We walked down the hallway where Kellie was fitted with booties, an apron, mask, and hair covering. She went inside while I waited for the Doc to come give me the results. He came out, still in his scrubs, complete with a specimen dish that held the enflamed tonsils and adenoids, resting on a sterile paper towel.  He insisted that I photograph them. 

I laughed because having surgery here works the same way as when you have a part replaced on your car. They bring you the defective parts so that you can be assured that you received the service you paid for. With the evidence under my nose, I was fully satisfied.

Inside the recovery room, Sterling awoke, opening her eyes to see her mother. Sterling immediately examined Kellie and asked, "Why did you change your shirt?" Kellie laughed, realizing that a very clear thinking little girl had noticed that she'd removed her long sleeve shirt as the day warmed. 

Within the hour we found ourselves back in the room where Sterling had began the procedure with her own change of clothes. Tucked under the clean, white sheets, Sterling leaned up to break her fast since dinner the previous day.

Fresh from surgery, Sterling showed that no small operation was going to slow her down. Bottled water, a green Popsicle, and a cup of green Jello soon disappeared to her eager appetite. Sterling then started to wobble a little and said she was tired. We layed her down on the clean sheets and suddenly a fountain of green sludge erupted from her mouth!

The nurses came in to change the sheets and examined the content. They said that the results were perfect... all green, no red. Who knew that vomit was a good thing? We waited about an hour, and Sterling again had her dose of green, and this time it stayed in her stomach.

The next morning I found my way back to the hospital, made my way to the room... to find it empty. Kellie and Sterling were happily playing in the play room. 

Sterling Mei Shepherd, the strongest little girl I know. You're an odds beater. I have no doubt that God has plans for you. I felt the tension of the past 24 hours suddenly leave me as I got down on my knees and played with my daughter. 

This room was a sanctuary against all the angst and fearful hope that fills this place each day. The sounds of Frozen in español seemed to dance with the smiling voice of my daughter and the soothing backdrop of the freshwater aquarium. We allowed this moment to pour over us as we drank deep the relief.

This moment and space gave us the needed adjustment to view life with a thankful heart. Suddenly it felt like Christmas. My heart felt whole. She was beautiful. It was my job to be there. I was thankful that she was a priority in my life. 

Kellie negotiated the paperwork hurdles and the nurse came in to remove the line from Sterlings left wrist. I explained to Sterling, "They're going to take the line out. It is taped to your skin, and goes inside of your arm a little bit. They're going to put a little pressure on your arm, and then just pull it right out. It will feel a little funny. It won't hurt, but it will be weird." 

She looked at me sideways. I'm constantly kidding her and she thinks this is a funny joke. I explain, "No... really. The cool thing is that you can watch if you want."

And indeed... she did watch. And grinned. The whole time. The nurse was incredibly gentle and kind. She cleaned all of the "sticky" left on Sterling's arm and gently removed the line just as I'd described. 

I watched in awe of my brave little girl. Sterling teaches me how to engage life. Even the tough stuff, she somehow greets it with humor and enthusiasm. I know that she's changed me, made me a better father and human. I look back at the things that have shaped me over the past three years... moving to Guatemala, learning to be a pastor, "principaling" a school, saying good-bye to my grandparents, and countless new experiences. I've seen some miraculous things here. But... nothing has affected me so much as this tiny little human with the soul of a dragon. 

I see so many parallels in our life with these past 24 hours. "Go and wait." Yes. This is the command that God has wanted our entire family to learn. Our piece in life is simply to go and wait. The rest is up to God. 

Oh yeah... here's the last bit. When the phone rings, be ready to go. You'll see what bits He's removed from your life, and then you can begin to recover while He meets you, embraces you, and takes you home.

Merry Christmas. May the joy and peace of the season embrace you... and may you reach to embrace it back.

Checking out with a final reminder
of where our perspective should remain.

This was part 2 of 2. If you missed the first part of the story, just click

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Go and Wait. We'll call when she is in recovery."

"I think that was the entrance." The faint rays of sunlight failed to hide the annoyance on my face. This was my third missed turn of the early morning. I was exasperated at my own inability to drive from point "A" to point "B" without spinning in circles and I decided that I wasn't going to circle the block again. I hit my emergency lights, slammed the lever into "R" and we shot backwards down the thin road, came to an abrupt stop, hit "D" and bounced into the Emergency entrance of the Hospital. How fitting... I still missed the correct entrance. Oh well, at least the guards who came walking quickly our way were assertively helpful.

Kellie took over from here. We made our way into the lobby where I held a pink Barbie backpack, a grumpy four year old, a mug of coffee, and fumbled with my mobile phone so that I could enter the coordinates into Waze. I might as well be in Egypt. Without technology it would be quite an adventure to find my way home. I could hear Kellie up at the counter, patiently providing all our information to the intake clerk, executing the conversation in spanish.

I checked my watch... 5:30 a.m. The door opened as a white coat stepped out, "Sterling Shepherd." It was time. Kellie took Sterling and I stood, checking that we'd left nothing behind, and then hit double time to catch up with them as they went down that hallway, that one that we all are thankful we have, and yet still dread to walk. It's just never a good time when we enter a hospital for our child. We're thankful for the technology and the doctors, and yet we'd rather be anyplace else. We saw this knowledge reflected on the faces of each parent we encountered. It's like an exclusive club that no-one wants to join.

The smell of astringent and bleach coated my throat as my ears filled with sounds of crying children and the whispered words of the adults that loved them. I felt relief when we were shown to our little room and the door clicked shut behind us. I'm not sure why, but this small space that held us felt like a refuge from the events that we knew were to come.

It wasn't a big deal, just tonsil surgery. Routine and common for the doctors, but it was the first time for Sterling. She'd overcome so much in her life: born premature, left alone to die in a public park, delivered by a police officer to the nearest orphanage that happened to have just received a new incubator for preemies, and then she'd gone from survival to growth in the months before we took her home. I knew she was a survivor. I knew that the outcome is always in the hands of God. He gave her to us, he certainly can take her back. I wondered if I could withstand that. I don't know.

Sterling wasn't happy about the loss of her Frozen themed pajamas and undies. I snickered a little as I saw her hatred of the hospital smock. Anyone who has had one of those paper thin, butt-vented, excuses of modesty can relate.

Sterling suddenly went through the full five stages of grief in a two minute blitz: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each step played out on her face... "No, I don't need my tonsils out... I don't want my tonsils out... I promise not to get sick again..." and then a big tear ran down her cheek as she pulled up her legs in a protective posture.

Then it was time. The usual questions: allergies, reactions, history (of which we have nothing), and the waiver signature. She was transferred to the transport bed and we walked alongside her down the hallway, into the elevator, and just outside of the operating room. In this moment I looked down, she was on bed number 13. 

I quickly banished superstition. God owned the number 13 before King Philip IV ordered the assassination of the Knights Templar and tainted the number as unholy. Thirteen had been the number representing God himself: 12 tribes of Israel plus God, 12 disciples plus Jesus." Sterling was riding in the hands of God. As always... she has endured so much. This child is his. 

We were told, "Go and wait. We'll call when she is in recovery." And so... we went to one of the worst places in the world, the waiting room of a pediatric hospital. I personally have no belief in purgatory, but time here may be that place. We had nothing to do but observe other waiting parents who were also observing us. We all stared at the black phone on the wall. Each time it rang, we'd all exchange glances. No-one wanted to answer it. The news that phone delivered was potentially life altering. 

I reminded myself: (1) it's just tonsils, (2) she's survived tougher situations, (3) she belongs to God. 

The phone rang for us. 


Catch the conclusion at:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Journey is Expansive: Presenting Journey Church - Magdalena

How remarkable it is when I stop to consider the preparation that God has made. I can see at least six years deep, but I know in my heart that it extends for generations. I feel the gaze of my grandfather and my great-grandmother in these quiet moments. I am in awe of how my God works.

The year was 2007 when my friend, Tom Planck, the lead pastor at a little church plant outside of Cincinnati, Ohio felt compelled to challenge his small congregation to have a heart for an international mission. A family in that small church had recently adopted from Guatemala. Their names were Mike and Aimee Davis. 

Amy connected Tom with a place in the world that had seized her heart, Magdalena, Milpas Atlas, Sacatepequez, Guatemala... the mountain pueblo where she had adopted her children. Tom went and made a connection with Fontaine and Paula Greene, and Edgar Ramos, the founders of  Catalyst Resources International (C.R.I.). Tom told me that within the first day, the team was certain that C.R.I. was our churches "laser focus."

At that time, Kellie and I had absolutely no vision or passion for missions. We were bystanders while the hand of God began to make a path straight.

Tom and his team made their way to the little mountain town where Amy and Bruce had found their children, and they worked with a pastor named Mario. The pastor had a vision from God to form a congregation. Tom and his team helped lay the tile floor in the newly constructed church.

Fast forward four years and you'll see our little family stepping off of a Boeing 737 with 15 suitcases, big dreams, and a lot of unknowns. We'd begin to find our way in this new place, starting with a month of language school while our kids were kept by a Guatemalan lady who came well recommended... but we'd never met. It was a time of letting go of a lot of worry... and simply learning to trust God.

The past two and a half years have been exactly about that... learning to trust God. We've had to yield our plans to Him over and over. He has been gracious to teach us that He is enough. Our job is singular: be obedient.

For the past three months we've had a young man of God serve with us, Donavan. His boldness has been an inspiration. He has taken on long term assignments in the Pueblos and stayed with some of our key pastors. About a month ago I dropped him off at a pastor's house in Magdelana... and discovered that he was staying at the very house of the same Pastor Mario where Tom Planck had helped lay the foundation of the church floor.

While we were there that day, I encountered Pastor Mario's son and daughter in law. I was thrilled to realize that I'd met them earlier at a C.R.I. hosted pastor's conference earlier this summer. Marito and Kara shared their heart that they'd love to have the church that I pastor, Journey Church, come and help with bilingual worship on Sunday afternoons.

I was immediately captivated with the idea, but I realized that I could not take it on. Even so, we chatted about the possibilities and my heart was stirred. 

The church plant that we have here, Journey Church has peaked out with our missionary community and the Guatemalan families that are in our circles. We've just not been able to grow beyond 150 members. It's good... it works... but I've been frustrated that we've not continued to grow. It's been a whisper at the edge of my thoughts.

At the same time... the timing and plan of God seems to be pursing me. I started to notice a consistent message coming from multiple locations. A church in Magdalena, a coffee shop in Antigua, another coffee shop in Las Charcas, a ministry in Jocotenango... places that had groups of people, that were seeking connection. Suddenly, they had my attention.

The mission of Journey Church, from the start, has been to connect people to Christ and the church, to then inspire them to live big. I realized that God was giving us connections. It occurred to me in bed one night as semi-trailers engine-braked down the mountain outside our house, that this was His plan. 

I shared with Tom, and our leadership here in Guatemala that I believed God had given us a vision of expansion for 2016: to solidify and invest in our core congregation here in San Cristobal, to establish a gathering in Magdalena, and to facilitate core groups in Antigua, Las Charcas, and in Jocotenango. 

This was such a crazy vision though... and yet, I knew it was not of my own creation. It was the vision God was handing to me. I was excited to know His will... and yet, I was afraid that others might find it ridiculous, or too aggressive. It can be difficult to get missionaries to trust other missionaries. It can be even more difficult to get churches to trust other churches. With all of our talk of unity, we are like little protective camps sometimes rather than a united movement.

And so... today I found myself in the home of Pastor Mario, talking with him, his son Marito, and his daughter-in-law Kara. Marito of course is Guatemalan, and his wife Kara is from the U.S. They had invited me to share the vision of Journey Church partnering with Mt. Sin to form a bilingual church in the afternoons at their location.

I was nervous. Even so... I presented the concept of Journey Church - Magdalena. It would be an autonomous congregation, headed by Marito and Kara, under the guidance of Mario, and supported by Journey Church. As the lead pastor of Journey in Guatemala, I would supply graphics, logos, branding, a vision, materials, sermon series, and small group material, but I would require nothing in return. Our congregation in San Cristobal would  support their launch, and be supportive when needed... but the church would be fully theirs. 

I was careful to be respectful, and to let them know that we're simply a catalyst and a resource. I acknowledge and yield to their leadership. I was sure that I sounded ridiculous. This plan that I was presenting... was one that I believed I'd received from God. I thought that sounded crazy. There are sidewalk prophets everywhere that claim to talk to God. I really don't want to be just another whack-job.

And then... pastor Mario brought tears to my eyes and relief to my soul as he began to pour out his heart. He said that for 21 years, God has impressed on him that churches and missionaries need to reach beyond their comfort zones and boundaries, make themselves vulnerable, and walk hand in hand in partnership to spread the good news of Jesus. 

In a moment that will forever resonate in my soul, we realized that God had aligned us... over years... over generations... for this moment. Our God is real. He is working. He is here.

And so, on this eighth day of December, 2015 in the family room of pastor Mario, the same man who had encountered the founder of Journey Church, Tom Planck so many years before... we founded Journey Church - Magdalena.

God has placed key families in this place, for this time. It is no mistake that we are all aligned for this purpose... right now. I'm amazed again at this story that God is authoring. I am so absolutely blown away to see see how he whittles and chisels away, shaping us to perfectly fit together to advance His kingdom. 

Our role here... is to simply say, "Yes."

To the nation of Guatemala... I am thrilled beyond measure to present to you, Journey Church - Magdalena. Hold on tight, here we go.