Just In Time

The Glorious Unfolding is Steven Curtis Chapman’s newest album and, since the first day I pressed play, it has become a go-to album for me, in particular, because of the profoundly relevant and comforting message that is conveyed throughout many of the songs on the album. Without a doubt, despite the fact that I’ve had a number of notably difficult periods in my life, being my dad’s caretaker for the final sixteen months of his life, as his health and independence declined after diagnosis of a stage four glioblastoma brain tumor, was the darkest and most difficult experience of my life. I can definitely speak from experience when it comes to the notion of trying to maintain some thread of faith in God’s providence at a time when it was so dark that I couldn’t see my own hand if I waved it in front of my face. Surely, there were momentary flickers of light from caring and gracious people who knew about his situation that would briefly reflect off the golden thread that God had hanging for me where I was at every moment of that journey. But, it was all too easy to lose my focus and to not be able to find it again when I was at my weakest and in my greatest need. I was broken and empty and felt, surely, like I had nothing to hold onto. But, His thread of hope was still there whether I could see it in a given moment or not. He never left and, because I had nowhere else to turn, I never gave up seeking Him. While I often felt like I was lost in a free fall, he was holding me and carrying me through. Eventually, a new purpose and peace would be revealed (read about that part of my story here, if you’re not already familiar), but, it was only in His time, just in time, that I would learn just how powerful faith in His plan can be. 1 Kings 17 reminded me of that dark period in my life as I read about the widow that the prophet Elijah met at the gate of Zarephath of Sidon. During a time of famine and weary from his journey, Elijah asked the widow for a drink of water and a piece of bread. Verses 12-16 reveal the widow’s circumstances and lay the foundation for a lesson in faith that she learned by trusting God despite her struggles:

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat and die.” Elijah said to her “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

My dad passed away February 20, 2012, but, not before accepting the idea that God loved him and that he had good reason to accept hope in Christ. In fact, the last thing that I said to him that I’m confident he actually heard and understood was that my uncle (who was there in the house with Dad and I at that time) were doing all that we knew to make him as comfortable as possible and that the rest was up to Jesus and that He would take care of him. Dad had been extremely restless and agitated that morning and he couldn’t talk due to the brain cancer’s progression, but, after assuring him that Jesus was in control, he settled down and rested through the rest of the day until he eventually breathed his last breath around 12:30 AM with my arms around him for the last time. His present peace and eternal future is brighter than any of us here can even imagine. The nearly two and a half years since my dad passed away have been tough at times, to say the least, but, in that time I have also experienced a gradual increase in my awareness of the beauty of God’s glorious unfolding story. I know that there will likely be challenges ahead in my life during which times I’ll need to remind myself of this life lesson that I’ve been learning, but, it is certain. He knows what He is doing and wherever you are in your journey, you need to know and remember that “this is going to be a glorious unfolding…just wait and see…and you will be amazed…

Reimburse

Thanks and gratitude I have
Most frequently leaving me
Powerless to reimburse
Creditors who gave free
Grace
The form of any good
At my side and in my wake
The fruits of seeds they scattered
At my feet despite the odds
Levied by drought-stricken soil
Long parched and left barren
But never beyond the reach
Of strong and ever-growing
Roots that lead down and below
The thin top layer of parched
Ground on which I chose to tread
Drawing from a living well of
Water that will surely quench
My thirst and ever sustain
Steps taken toward a city
That I can only reach by
Letting Him carry me

Which Criminal Would I Be?

It occurred to me this morning that the thieves that hung on crosses on both sides of Jesus serve as a clear example of the choice we all make at one point or another, if not every day, in relation to the role we invite God to play in our lives. The first criminal cynically mocked Jesus saying “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!” He didn’t recognize Christ for who He really is, but, instead, took the popular position of mocking Him, with a complete absence of humility.

But the second criminal took ownership of his own failings and, in humility, said, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I need to take ownership of my selfishness and shortfalls on a daily basis and acknowledge that He suffered through what I deserved. I need to make that daily decision to turn from myself in humility and accept the gift that He, though I certainly don’t deserve it, has given me: His love and the hope of paradise.

Which criminal are you?

Written in response to Luke 23:39-43

An Ancient Lady, A Megachurch Man, A Skateboarding Folk Singer, and Getting What I Deserve

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading the book of Ruth from the Old Testament during breakfast. I’ve also been reading The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson when I’ve had a moment here and there over the past week. In addition, I had a good talk with one of the pastors at a church that we’re in the process of settling into about faith and figuring out what God has in store for us. It is the convergence of these three influences that has me blogging this morning.

I’ve found myself inspired, at times, by points that Batterson makes regarding faith, prayer, and God’s vision for his followers. From what I’ve read so far, the theme of The Circle Maker has been the important role that faith and prayer play in growing our ability to reach out to others. Many of the examples the author gives are focused on the way that his church, National Community Church in Washington D.C., has been able to grow from a small group of tens to a mega church with multiple satellite sites around the D.C. metropolitan area. The most compelling aspect of this book for me, so far, is the idea of how important it is to not underestimate God and that tasks He’s called us to. Batterson makes the point that God doesn’t necessarily call the qualified, but, instead, He qualifies the called. I’ve seen God work so far beyond my means already on multiple occasions over the past few years of my life and I certainly want to be available to do whatever He calls me to do. What will that be? I’m still trying to figure that out. But, without doubt, Batterson believes that the act of prayer and our willingness to pray persistently with passion has been critical to his church’s growth. Admittedly, I’m only about halfway through the book and I look forward to having a clearer understanding of the book’s overall message once I’ve finished.

Josh Harmony

The book of Ruth, from my perspective, addresses a similar theme in that it tells the story of Naomi and Ruth and the difficulties that Naomi had to endure en route to a gracious miracle that she and Ruth experienced in the latter stage of Naomi’s life through Ruth. It was a song called “Mara Naomi” by pro skateboarder and musician Josh Harmony that I first heard the story of Ruth and Naomi from. But, the good book verified Harmony’s account. It was the selfless faith of Ruth through years of difficulty that they both endured after Naomi lost both of her sons (one of them being Ruth’s husband) that proved to be so critical in extending the bloodline that would soon give birth to King David and, eventually, Jesus. But, the fact that so many generations preceded Ruth and Naomi and that many more would have yet to come and pass before the birth of Jesus, struck me. These two individuals struggled and endured in faith throughout their lifetimes, but, because they did, forged a critical link in a long chain of events and lifetimes through which God would, eventually, release those who believe from the chains of destruction that selfishness (also known as sin) has and will continue to confine so many with.

So, seemingly anyway, there is something to be said for persisting and following God beyond what we can see with our own vision. But, earlier this week I was talking to one of the pastors of the church that we’re now attending about good books to read when I mentioned The Circle Maker. After noting that he wasn’t familiar with the book, he explained the conclusion that he recently came to after finishing a book study on another well-regarded book by a Christian author with a few other church members. I can’t remember what the book was that he said they were studying, but, he made a point that, after I thought about it, seems to be true: a lot of the best-selling Christian authors write books that contain some kind of formula or multistep process intended to help the reader move closer to God or achieve greater success as a Christian. The problem here is that, while such steps may be productive, it tends to bolster the idea that we, as people, can do something that will earn more love from God. We can ascend the ranks of Christianity if we just follow certain steps.

I’m not a theologian, but, I know enough about the life I’ve lived and the beauty of the gospel to tell you, confidently, that it has been by no means of my own that I have survived this long, that I have so many blessings (e.g., family, friends, career, purpose, etc.), or that I’ve been able to witness the miracles that I have. In my wildest dreams I could never have predicted the joy that I have in my life now as a consequence of God’s good grace – His unmerited, unearned favor and love. It is out of gratitude and thankfulness that I live and breath. Should you see me stumble or screw up in some way shape or form, know that it is because of my own weakness, but, that it is by His grace that I can have peace and get back up and keep walking where He wants me to go. I’ll be the first to admit, that I don’t often know quite where He’s taking me, but, I trust Him and I’m having the ride of my life.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

-Ephesians 2:1-10

So, I’m not sure if the key to life is simply persisting as I walk forward through life or seeking earnestly with blood, sweat, and prayers, but, if you have some perspective on the topic, I’m all ears. In the meantime, I’m just going to do my best to heed the words of Micah 6:8:

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 1)

About to land in Port-Au-Prince

About to touch down on Haitian soil

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Port-Au-Prince

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Port-Au-Prince

One in a series of posts reflecting upon the week I spent on a short-term mission in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project in January 2014. For Part 1 click here. For Part 2 click here. For Part 3 click here. For Part 4 click here. For an afterthought reflection about the topic of heroes in relation to addressing needs in the country of Haiti click here. 

Its been a few days since the final leg of my flight back from Haiti touched down in Charlotte and, even before then, I’d been wondering just how I could possibly take the week’s worth of experiences and translate them into meaningful words that could carry, at least, a fraction of the substance that the actual experiences formed in me. I had no misconceptions about being able to come back and just magically broaden everyone’s understanding of just how tough circumstances are for the average Haitian citizen or just how amazing and meaningful the work of The Hands & Feet Project is to the children that it cares for when people ask how the trip was. But, my hope remains that at least a few folks, even just one, will find their interest piqued by my experiences and, perhaps, become motivated to take action for the people of Haiti – whether by committing to their own short term mission trip or by simply contributing financially to those who are down there doing what truly is God’s work – being His hands and feet on the ground to a country so desperately poor and in need of help.

My first impression of the country was made when I looked out the window of the plane while descending to land in Port-Au-Prince. It was a stark contrast to the view I had when I landed in Miami for my connecting flight earlier that morning. Expertly organized, clean, brightly colored Miami stood at one end of the spectrum while the dirty and grungy, trash-laden, and haphazard complexion of Port-Au-Prince sat at the other. It became pretty clear, by the time we got to the airport that, while it was clean and adorned with pro-Haiti tourism advertisements, nobody comes to Haiti for a vacation. The vast majority of people on the flight were missionaries or people in the medical field. The two hour ride from Port-Au-Prince to Grand Goave, site of the Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village where we’d be spending the week, offered plenty of evidence as to why tourism isn’t a thriving component of Haiti’s economy, but, events yet to unfold in the coming week would make it clear that some of the most meaningful and priceless experiences come, not when we are out seeking entertainment and relaxation, but, when we allow God to empty our hands.

(l-r) Pastor Lex (interpreter), Drex and Jo Stuart

(l-r) Pastor Lex (interpreter), Drex and Jo Stuart

I was a missionary for a week, but, not the kind you might think of when you first hear the term. I didn’t bring salvation to a previously undiscovered aboriginal tribe. I didn’t go as a doctor to perform critical life-saving surgeries to those who don’t have access to medical care. No, I was probably one of the least-qualified on our team which consisted of multiple people with many mission trips to Haiti already under their belts. In fact, our team was led by Drex and Jo Stuart, who’ve been coming to Haiti since 1979, spent nine years actually living in there and eventually helped establish The Hands & Feet Project. Drex, at the age of 72 still pastors a church in Illinois. Through an interpreter he delivered the sermon at the Mission of Hope Church that we attended on our first full day in Haiti. The sermon itself was an interesting moment when, Drex pointed out a person in the congregation to stand up and hold their bible up high as an illustration for a point Drex was making in his sermon. Unknowingly, though, the person Drex randomly chose to stand and raise his bible was actually a recent convert to Christianity from Voodoo – the most prominent religious influence in Haiti. This guy wasn’t just your average convert, though. Apparently, just months before, he was one of the most prominent purveyors of Voodoo in the region. Being there to witness the moment, brought about by none of our efforts, but, by God’s providence alone, and for His glory was simply awesome.

Other members of the group had a good amount of background experience in general contracting which proved to be critical in working our way through the list of to-do items that Hands & Feet Project site directors Angie and Andrew had for us to work on. I was in awe of people like my new buddy James who was able to just listen to what the Suttons wanted, envision it and build it. I found myself, at times, just trying to find something I COULD do. For me, there was a lot of holding boards in place while screws were put in, moving wood and bins, tool-fetching, sorting, painting, and, in general, taking direction from the guys who actually knew what they were doing. As a teacher for the past fourteen years, I can state authoritatively that I haven’t worked harder, in terms of manual labor, for so many days in a row, in my adult life. The heaviest thing I ever carry on a routine day might be a stack of quizzes from the photocopier to my classroom. I slept well almost every night that I was there despite the heat because I was simply worn out. I know that, if some of my teammates read this, they’ll chuckle at this admission. I have no misconceptions about the fact that there are manlier guys out there than I am.

By week’s end, though, with all of the to-do list items checked off (plus a few that were added) I knew that what our team accomplished was helpful. The Hands & Feet Project’s vision for the care of orphaned and abandoned children in Haiti is one that is in constant motion. Thozin, the Children’s Village site in Grand Goave where our team worked throughout the week is in the process of transitioning from a campus with temporary wood-structure homes for each house family of 6-8 kids to permanent concrete structures like the Hands & Feet Project’s Jacmel site. Thozin was established when the Hands & Feet Project took in, all at one time, a group of children who’d apparently been mistreated by a less reputable orphanage. So the temporary wooden structures were the most efficient way to go. Now, however, they’re moving on and I know that the work that our team accomplished throughout the week was, at least, helpful in moving the Children’s Village further forward through this transition and I’m thankful for the hard work that my teammates invested to make it happen.

For Part 2 click here.

James on top closing in the shower stalls

James on top closing in the shower stalls

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Office and storage depot exterior painting in progress

Switching the girls and boys bathrooms

Greg rehanging signs after the boys and girls bathrooms were rearranged

Hanging doors

Drex checking out Jewel’s door-framing/hanging skills

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Greg reassembling a bunk bed to serve as shelving in the storage depot

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Site director Angie Sutton sorting supplies in their supply depot

 

Untamed

Lord help us take on
Taurus untamed
That is your will
By the horns
And let it turn its head
From side to side
Swinging us onto its
Sharply undulating
Back where we will hold on
For life more abundant
Forsaking our comforts
Our convenience and luxury
In the face of those who
Need somebody to be
Your mercy
Your hands
Your feet
The peace of home
To those left out
On the street
Though we know not
Where it will take us
What words you’ll have
Fall from our mouths
What fulfillment
Of needs
We will be
Lord help us ride your will
Far beyond a rodeo
Seven seconds
Into
Eternity

“I’m Not Afraid. No, I’m A Believer”

“I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.” Those were the most honest words my dad ever uttered to me with regards to the cancer that was, at the time, just a few short months away from finally robbing him of his life. My dad was a product of his generation: a man who worked hard and didn’t talk about his feelings. It was an extremely difficult pill for him to swallow. He had an amazing track record of getting the short end of the stick. He wouldn’t have been a good poster child for the notion that people get what they deserve. It was a horrible way for his life to end and anyone who reads this blog or who knows me at all, knows that the seventeen month journey that I endured, from the moment my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer until the midnight moment when he passed away as I sat with him in his bed, was a terribly dark, trying, and painful journey for me, too. It was like watching a fatal car crash happen in slow motion over the course of over a year’s time. As his main caretaker, I was there at every turn carrying a progressively heavier load as his condition worsened to the point where he couldn’t talk or do anything for himself. The description of those months as the darkest period in my life is, to say the least, an understatement.

As dark as it was, though, the backdrop of shadows revealed a thread that was just beginning to strengthen and glimmer intermittently, reflecting a faint, still, small hope that peace would be found, at some point, further down the road. It wasn’t, however, a hope that relieved my pain or a miracle that washed all of my stress and fear away. Nor was it a time machine that could beam me to some future point and time in my life when I would be stronger. It was, simply, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). I can’t remember exactly how or when, in the midst of that journey, I came across Psalms 18:16-19, but, when I did, it was immediately relevant and became the main security handle that I have held onto tightly ever since:

“He reached down from on high and took hold of me;he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

The identity and timing of “a spacious place,” however, remained a mystery to me until the naming of Kevin Max as the new lead singer of rock outfit Audio Adrenaline.  Heartfelt encouragement from Kevin to consider “the least of these” set off a series of events, one of which was an introduction to the work of The Hands and Feet Project. As described in a prior post titled, “How To Live Life,” I was inspired to step out in faith and commit to donating profit from the sale of my Dad’s house to The Hands and Feet Project. After making the donation and relaying my Dad’s story and an explanation of how the donation came about, Hands and Feet Project director Mark Stuart extended a generous gesture by asking if they could name the kitchen in a new building that is currently under construction in honor of my dad.

Without going into too much detail, the redeeming and burden-lightening effect that his gesture had on my family and I with regards to the memory of my dad, a guy who always worked hard and looked out for others, but, seldom received his due, was nothing short of monumentally life-changing. Almost instantly, the weight of several months of my life characterized by mourning and wondering how to navigate life without the man who was the best man in my wedding, my best friend, my Dad, started to lift and a new and inspired life swelling with purpose and hope began to emerge. With one kind gesture, my Dad’s legacy would be  shifted from one of loss and emptiness to one of eternal hope in a vocational school kitchen from which teenage Haitian orphans would be receiving their daily meals as they developed skills to become productive Haitian citizens.

I know that Audio Adrenaline’s (the band that started The Hands And Feet Project in 2006) new song “Believer” is being explained by the band as the story of blind surfer Derek Rabelo, but, it wasn’t long after the album’s release that I found my own story told in the lyrics of the song. From an adult life characterized at first by complacency, and then by utter darkness, to a life of purpose and meaning, learning how to step into places where Jesus wants those who are His to go,  mine has changed significantly. Now it is I who am finally “giving up, letting go of control,” not only as I make preparations for a January 2014 short term mission trip with The Hands and Feet Project to Haiti, but, also, in my daily life. I’m learning that my personal comfort and convenience are not a priority, but, that loving others as myself, and in doing so, honoring God above all, are the priorities that matter. In fact, I’m learning, now, about what living life more abundantly really feels like. Each moment spent in my classroom teaching fifth graders is more passionately invested. Each hug and kiss from my wife and kids is more distinctly savored.

Like Derek Rubelo, I can’t necessarily see the waves of life coming, but, learning to feel my way through, with faith,  “I can walk on the water with You, Lord.”

I want to live this live unsafe, unsure, but not afraidWhat I want is to give all I got somehow, giving up letting go of control right now‘Cause I’m already out here, blind but I can see, I see the way You’re movingGod how I believe that I can push back the mountains, can stand on the wavesI can see through the darkness, I’ll hold up the flameTake me to the ocean, I want to go deeper, I’m not afraid no, I’m a believerAnd so I lose this life to find my way and come aliveThey can try to deny what’s inside of me, but there is more, can’t ignore all the things unseenOh I believe I can walk on water with You, LordWhen I walk through the valley of the shadows, when I’m trapped in the middle of the battle, I will trust in You‘Cause trouble comes, but you never let it take me, I hold fast ‘cause I know that You will save meI will trust in You, I will trust in YouOh here I stand all alone waiting on you, Lord, waiting on You

Learn more about The Hands & Feet Project at http://www.handsandfeetproject.org/