Friday, September 8, 2017

1000 Miles to Sidney

The sun crested over the horizon and began to cast its beams onto us in the West. It's been a week since we set out from Connection Point Church of God in Sidney, Ohio. The day finds us with our part of the mission accomplished... at least for this trip. 

Security Door & new walls.
Unusable porch

The two buildings have been structurally refitted to serve as a women's dormitory and a men's dormitory that will be able to comfortably house up to fifty team members who come and serve at Pass Creek Mission through the summer months. Our own team will be returning, with a goal of 30 team members on June 23, 2018.

We'll return to adopt a Oglala Lakota family to walk alongside for a week, to play with their children, share our life-stories, pray together, eat together, and meet some of their physical needs by making repairs and improvements on their house. We'll also host a Bible School for the kids at the mission church, teaching them, feeding them, and by exchanging with them Christ's love and compassion.

And, we're likely to also catch some sights along the way. On the way home this morning, we swung up north a bit to view Mount Rushmore. Next year our hope is to also see Crazy Horse and to learn more about native history and culture.

You'll want to reserve your spot soon, June is only nine months away and we will begin planning in January. For now, our group heads East as the sun again warms us as it edges along the opposite horizon. To our friends and family, we hope to see you mid-day tomorrow. We'll drive through the night until the sun catches us again. Godspeed.

Me, writing in the back of the van as we travel East.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Where the Losses Are Personal

The hammering and sawing has gone silent for a few brief minutes as our team of ten, The Get'er Done Gang gathers around a few tables in the kitchen of the Pass Creek Church. Although we won't depart until tomorrow, we're already aware of closure. Nearly all of the work has been completed and the clock is accelerating.

Tim and Kim, the pastors and missionaries here to the Oglala Lakota tribe, both have oncoming pressing matters. Another recent death has the native community honoring her life with their traditional three-day wake. They have asked Tim to accompany the body along the route, and to act as pastor. He'll be leaving early this afternoon to honor their requests, engaging in a three-day wake and shoveled burial. 

Our team sees the love and compassion of God lived out in the lives of Tim and Kim. She's leaving as well to make a trip into the city to take care of some necessary business. And so we find ourselves here in this room, in this moment, so that we can pause to give thanks, recognize the work done, and hand over some cash to cover some immediate needs.

I begin by presenting our letter of gratitude and Dan hands over the financial gift. Connection Point Church of God was asked to raise $2,500.00 and they gave generously, donating over $4,000.00. What a blessing and joy it is to see their gift go to spreading hope here in this beautiful and desperate place.

I comment that our recently articulated vision for Connection Point is to be "An army of God's servants, doing the work of God with love and compassion." Kim speaks up and adds (my paraphrase) "Yes, that resonates strongly with us here. What you've seen here, now you must take it back with you to your community."

With a nod to the words of Jesus, "... you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth," 

Kim says, "This place is your Samaria. The culture is a little different, the customs and languages are different, and the people's skin are a slightly different color. When you go back home, that's your Judea. There the culture is like you, the people speak like you, and their skin color is the same as yours. Your challenge now is to take that love and compassion that you've lived out here in this place, and to offer it to your neighbors, your city, and to your family."

"You must take it home, and live it out where the losses are personal."

Whoa. That's really it isn't it? How difficult is it for a group of people to go to a faraway place and exercise love and compassion? How much harder might it be to risk extending love, generosity, and compassion in your own backyard? You don't get to love'em and leave'em. You have to live with them every day. If they humiliate you, reject you, or threaten you... you can't just jump back in the van and travel away. 

Faith must come home. The losses must be personal. This is how we fulfill... no, how we live out our mandate to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep, and to comfort those who need comforting. This is how you and I bring light into dark places. We have to risk. We have to give. We have to love. Sometimes we even have to sweat, bleed, or die. We have to be willing to get down in the dirt right where we live... because we all need the love of God.

Our eyes must be open to the reality that our homes are also the mission. If we aren't living to reach others right where we live, then we aren't really doing it at all. What is it costing us? What are we risking? What might your co-workers, neighbors, and family say about your mission? Are you willing to lose, to sweat, to bleed? How much do you love Him? How much do you accept what He has given you?

The hammering, the sawing, and the sounds of building have nearly gone silent, and now our real work is about to begin.

And Still We Persist (Darkness is Here)

"Do you see that girl over there to our left, all dressed in black? She is the one that was raped by several drunk men earlier this week. There she is, walking along as if nothing has happened. They go numb. They just go numb."

"That house over there is abandoned. It was a Meth House and now there is no money to renovate it. It just sits empty while dozens of families wait to receive housing."

"That building was a youth center, but the directors were fired. They lost control and the kids just began to go in and fight. Now it is unsupervised and the kids are running wild."

This is life in the Pine Ridge Indian (Native American) Reservation, the poorest city in the United States were the median income of a family is barely $3,000 per year. Like all reservations, its technically dry, but alcohol flows like water here as alcoholism powers despair. Poverty is cyclical here and the young are caught choosing between honoring their people's tradition and seeking to find their way in a modern society. There can be shame in rejecting poverty here.

Being a Native American means that you've been oppressed, side-lined, bought-out, and held exile on your own land. I am reminded of the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity. There is a sorrow that tarnishes daily life. But hope also resides in that story. When God is again discovered, a new hope rises. 

Our team is here to lay the groundwork for that hope.

Johnathan and Darryl have been the kitchen crew, transplanting cabinets from a demo'd kitchen to the remodel. They completed their work today while the rest of the crew finished the men's and women's common rooms, installed the new washer and dryer, re-routed the main hallway, and prepped for tomorrows final projects.

Josh patching holes from the former kitchen.

Dan and Terry running power & water for a washer & dryer.
Yes, we are in a dark space. The family structure in this little town is destroyed. Lives are all in a sort of transient dislocation, living on land that is rightfully theirs, but legally someone else's. And yet the work this team is engaging in will enable two missionaries to continue to live here, adopted as family by the Native American people.

This is true and undefiled religion, loving the widows, the orphans, and the wanderers in their distress. Abiding with them, weeping with them, and even laughing with them.

Because it is a great joy to break through the barriers, and to see new possibilities emerge!

And so still we persist. With great expectation and joy. The darkness will be shattered in this place. We've only just begun to strike the flint. Light has come.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cowboys Like Us

My friend died today. At least today is when I heard of his death. He died several days ago but was just found today. I'm not surprised that he died because he's been evading death for decades. Still, I am shocked that he's so starkly gone. The last thing he said to me was, "Good morning Brother," on July 29. It's evening here tonight, and now and he's gone.

In Allen, South Dakota today our team continued the work. Inside the building we're refurbishing, more walls went up, doors were framed, plumbing completed, and electric was rerouted. Sharon and Jenny invested some care into the flower beds. The prairie winds caused the flowers to softly rise and fall. In my mind, they were a remembrance to my friend. 

He would have loved to have been on this trip to South Dakota. His life was one of odds-beating. As a child he survived cancer, being ran over by a car, and the loss of a kidney. Later in life he survived multiple high speed motorcycle crashes and always seemed to fight his way back. He knew more scripture than anyone I know. He inspires me even now.

Sunlight from the horizon shines light through an open door. The major parts of the work here are complete and our team already begins to discuss our return to Sidney at the end of the week. Sometimes we can't see what lies beyond the threshold of the door, but we have the promise of the light that shines through it to illuminate us where we stand.

I'm so thankful today for the smiles of these ladies. They gloved up and dug shoulder deep, clearing out the overgrowth to reveal flowers and fertile soil beneath. They cleared the way for new beauty. I love how they embrace life, celebrate relationship, and keep their eyes focused on God.

Earlier this morning, me, Tim, Darryl, and Terry all went to move some furniture for a friend east of the mission. Against his house leaned this 1974 125cc Harley-Davidson bike. I hadn't learned of Eli's death yet, but my mind focused on him when I saw the motorcycle. Harley's were his great love. I have a photo that he secretly gave me that has him roaring down a state route country road, standing on the pegs, with both arms spread open wide. That's how Eli lived his life.

His horizon has been extended. Our battles here are only temporary. Tonight the moon rose full and the road stretched into an endless horizon. Eli's road work has ended, but the rest of us are still here to carry on. Surely I'll miss my friend that I've loved for 30 years... even so, my soul is at peace. Tonight he touches the face of God. 

Cowboys like us sure do have fun
Racin' the wind, chasin' the sun
Take the long way around back to square one
Today we're just outlaws out on the run
There'll be no regrets, no worries and such
For cowboys like us

Sometimes I feel like Jesse James
Still trying to make a name
Knowing nothing's gonna change
What I am
I was a young troubador
When I wrote this song
And I'll be an old troubador
When I'm gone

George Strait, Cowboys Like Us & Troubador... songs Eli texted to me earlier this summer. He said that me and him were like souls, and man... we enjoyed our journey together. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Rebuilding the Bentley Bunkhouse - Reclaiming Hope

The sound of the wind has an organic sound to it, almost as if it were alive. Wildfires burning in Creighton give a surreal haze both in the distant horizon and in the pull of each intake of breath. In this strange light the flowers seem emblazoned with color.

I was captivated by the nature of beauty among evidence of the fires of destruction. We don't celebrate the pain. We don't glorify the struggle. But we would be blind to miss the grace among the ashes. 

Life seems to be lived in the tension that exists between darkness and light, ashes and growth, even death and new birth. As far as I can see in this place, there is evidence of both polar pulls. Oh, the darkness is so strong.

Just today we've learned of the death of a Lakota lady from cirrhosis, a young woman was thrown from her horse and trampled, and we've heard of other domestic tragedies that seem too dark to bear. Evil seems to stalk this place, dressed boldly in garments of death, shredding and tossing lives no less violent than a lion in a coliseum. 

Allen, South Dakota on the hilltop.

But the One we serve is greater. The One who holds us is stronger. This broken place suffers with the wages of sin, and all who are here cannot deny the press... and yet, we serve the one who promises eternal life. What is valued most cannot be stolen, cannot be killed, cannot be destroyed.

I miss my dog, Bentley. I had to give him up before we moved to Guatemala. Today I met a new friend here at the Pass Creek Mission. He was skeptical of me at first, but I eased into his territory and sat on the steps. He circled me, sniffed my neck, and then laid his head on my shoulder.

There's just something deeply good about a dog. Somehow his acceptance brought an affirmation that there is still good in this world. He must have felt the same way because we paused and smiled to take a selfie.

And then I think we both felt a little embarrassed about the selfie, and so we began to play around the yard. I'd made a new friend, and then he ate my sunglasses. Well... worth it.

Meanwhile the reconstructive work had began with the unloading of purchased supplies from Rapid City last night. Old doorways would be boarded over while new doors would be made where before there was no way. 

Rooms that were once dark would be receiving windows that would allow the sunlight outside to illuminate what once was filled with shadow.

Our team is able to make a way where there once was no way, and to bring light into darkness. How powerful it is to see the darkness immediately cease to exist the moment the saw blade penetrates the once darkened wall.

Work also began on the outside with damaged panels being torn out so that the walls will once again stand strong. The wind is picking up outside as I write, and Reg is preparing coffee for our evening meal while chili simmers on the stove-top. We serve a God of light, of life, and of renewal. 

This week we are reminded in a tangible way that we are citizens of His Kingdom and we are here to push back the despair, to boldly shine with color among desolation, and to repel the darkness with His light. 

It's not about the struggle... its about His grace. He is here. And, He is with you. Don't believe the darkness, it is powerless to His light. Seek Him for yourself and you will find Him. Seek Him with all you are. 

Find Him.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you. The name of the bunkhouse... it's the Bentley Bunkhouse. That was the name of the former occupants, and yeah... also the name of my given up dog.

How cool is that?

The Gitter' Done Boys (Gang)

Today was the day that our team received its name, "The Gitter' Done Boys". There's a lot packed into that name because well, none of us are boys and two of us are women. But, there's been a great deal of "gitten it done" all around, from food preparation, kitchen management, supply runs, relationship development, some deconstruction, and even a supply run into Rapid City. 

The bottom line is that team, let's call them, "Gitter' Done," is a full day ahead of schedule and the work is getting done under budget. These ladies and gentlemen are an incredible team! 

The work being done is converting two abandoned buildings into functional, secure, and comfortable housing for teams who will come to serve alongside the Wardell family, missionaries to the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Next summer, Connection Point will be one of those teams as our work will then take us out into the homes in the reservation. 

Today we shared the Sunday Morning Service with Pass Creek Church of God and we were challenged deeply by the words of Pastor Tim.

"Here's what I've learned: there is a God, and I am not Him."

In spite of our circumstances, our "Yes" to God must remain on the table. Our faith in God requires it. 

If we lack faith, then we lack teaching. Faith comes from the Word of God. It isn't a matter of how much faith we have, it's merely a question of where we place our faith. What is seen was not made by what is visible. Each and every one of us must search God out for ourselves.

God, what would you have me do?

Here in Allen, we only need to be willing to look despair full in the face, engage children of God in their need, and love them while we suffer with them a bit, and reach out to be present and let them know they are not alone.

Is it really so different wherever you find yourself today? At Connection Point we'll be talking more about how you can offer hope here in Allen... and I know it will also affect how you live your life in Sidney.

"Gitter done" team, we've got work to do.

Addendum, September 4, 2017: The Team Name has been changed to "The Gitter' Done Gang."

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunflowers in the Badlands

It's good to get back in the saddle again. Ironically, the Connection Point van is a Chevy 3500, the same as I drove in Guatemala, and it feels like an old friend. We left the church on Friday evening at 6PM, right on schedule, and completed the 1100 mile drive in 21 and a half hours. 

South Dakota is breath-taking with endless fields of sunflowers that tilt their heads toward the sun as they boldly shout yellow on the edge of the gray and dead badlands. South Dakota is filled with hope and it is filled with death. This is the reality in which our team finds itself this week in a small town called, "Allen."

I suppose we had a bit of foreshadowing when we first crossed into South Dakota much earlier today. A local saw our van and asked where Connection Point was from... and then asked where we were going. When we answered, "Allen," he first asked, "What state is that in?" and then replied that he'd lived in South Dakota all of his life and "never heard of Allen."

With a population of 420, Allen is listed by the US Census as the poorest place in the United States. It is the closest settlement to an area that is considered to be the North American continental pole of inaccessibility. Yes, our team found that it is very difficult to reach. Right here in the heart of the US is a place that reminds me of some of the most difficult places I've seen in Central America.

The landscape is beautiful... as far as our eyes can see... and just as present is a sense of death that pervades the spiritual environment of the populace. Suicide resides here as a known and yet impossible to evict tenant. Of all the families we have met here today... not a single one of them has escaped unscathed. Not one. Suicide has touched them all. 

I type tonight in the sanctuary of a small beacon of hope, a little Church of God. The team is sacked out around me as the temperature plummets outside. In the past year this congregation of seventy has buried 38 people.

And yet... I am here to report that God is here. His voice is unmistakable. His fierce hope pierces the darkness. Tonight our team witnessed boldness of Biblical proportion and we saw God's Spirit begin to shape the lives of those who are turning to see Him. 

In the shadow of the Badlands, the faces of the sunflowers turn to seek the Sun. Their radiance casts away the darkness.