An Honest Survey

Last night I posted a new status update on my Facebook page and, after rereading it this morning, I’ve decided to post it here on my blog, too. I’m doing so because I’ve realized that there really is a big picture sense of truth underlying each step in my existence. Surely, others have experienced far worse than I have and I’m sure there are higher peaks yet to come on the other side of eternity, but, it is clear to me that God is faithful. As Jesus explained in the sermon on the mountain in the fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, we are all blessed in our brokenness. We are never alone. He is always there for us, waiting to take our hand, if only we will accept the offer.


For many of you who know me in the flesh, as well as those who’ve been my Facebook friend for any length of time, it isn’t news that The Hands & Feet Project has become a notable focus in my life over the past five years. I realize that I may even run the risk of turning people off from paying attention to my posts due to the sheer frequency of my Hands & Feet Project-related posts. But, it’s almost as if I can’t contain it inside of me! Some folks just don’t realize the magnitude of change that happened and is continuing to happen in my life! It is a transition that I firmly believe God has been orchestrating behind the scenes from well before the day my biological mother put me up for adoption.

While it is true that my biological mother nearly jumped off a bridge with me in her arms when I was an infant because she didn’t have the mental fortitude to face motherhood, it is also true that God used my soon-to-be aunt to help facilitate my nearly immediate adoption by two parents who provided a sound foundation to grow from.

While it is true that, as a young child, I was sexually abused repeatedly by somebody that, at one point, played a significant role in my life, it is also true that my parents were able to provide the right setting for me to be able to move on.

While it is true that neither of my parents were particularly spiritual, my mom provided me with a religious foundation and surrounded me with a church family that would be able to provide a positive spiritual influence in my life.

While it is true that my parents and I had very rough ride through the years that it took for their separation and divorce to become final, my relationships with both of them solidified shortly after. My Dad went on to become my best man in my wedding and was the best grandpa I could ever ask for for my kids. My relationship with my mom has recovered to a point that is greater than I ever thought possible and I love her dearly.

While it is true that my Dad and I lost everything in a house fire on a six-below-zero January night in 1996, I learned a priceless lesson about how unimportant our possessions really are.

While it is true that I engaged in all sorts of college-aged experimentation and boundary-breaking, a pineal gland brain tumor rupture in 1998 shook me up physically and mentally and, ultimately, helped me to settle down so that I could finish college with honors and start teaching.

While it is true that I was adopted and had never known, beyond infancy, anyone that was my own flesh and blood, I’ve been blessed, through my wonderful wife, with two kids of my own who, despite resembling me in many ways, consistently inspire me to be more than I am. They amaze me!

While it is true that the sixteen months of decline from brain cancer that my Dad went through, and the many months of mourning after his passing, encapsulated the darkest time of my life, they also proved to be the fertile soil out of which a brand new sense of hope and purpose was born — supporting and participating in the critical work of The Hands & Feet Project to care for orphans and keep families together in Haiti.

I’d never sought out or had any kind of prior inclination toward the nation of Haiti prior to the experiences that I was forced to walk through as my Dad’s primary caregiver when brain cancer robbed him of his ability to do anything for himself. I simply fell (because it was all that I could do at that point) forward through doors graciously opened by God, through others, to whom I will eternally be grateful.

I went to Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project for the first time in 2014 and again in 2015 with my wife (her first time). In just a couple of weeks my wife, my kids (for their first time), and I will be in Haiti with Hands & Feet again. We will be there to continue to build relationships, support the long-term missionaries of The Hands & Feet Project, deliver supplies, learn, and further experience the God-given beauty that exists in the land and people of Haiti.

If you’ve ever experienced the gutters of life only to, later, also experience the peaks, you might have an idea of how I feel. The opportunity that I’ve been given, to be able to play even a small role in serving the mission of The Hands & Feet Project has God’s fingerprints all over it. From the connections with people who’ve opened doors, to the opportunities, time, and ability to donate, sponsor, and fundraise, there has been one source: God’s grace.

Jesus never said that life in this broken world would be easy, but, He did say that we can come to Him and that He will take our burdens. If you knew the sheer contrast exposed in my life from the depths of where I’ve been to the blessings that my family and I now experience through our support of The Hands & Feet Project, you’d be supporting them, too.

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 1:6

“I’m Not Afraid. No, I’m A Believer,” is an older post from my blog that explains more about the story of how I came to be involved with The Hands & Feet Project.

For more information on The Hands & Feet Project, visit http://www.handsandfeetproject.org

The View From The Valley

Today I read the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the eleventh chapter of the gospel of John and gained a greater appreciation for the manner in which our schedule (as human beings with limited perspective) often fails to line up with God’s. Concerned and worried, Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, sent word that their brother Lazarus was sick. But, when Jesus received the message, He responded in a manner that gave no sense of alarm or panic. Instead, He seemed to have a sense of peace with the situation, despite the fact that Lazarus and his sisters were close friends of his, saying instead, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it. (John 11:4). As verses five and six state, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when He heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”
So, not only was He not alarmed or panicking, but, he didn’t even leave for Bethany until two days after he heard that Lazarus was sick. Having heard that He was finally coming, Martha went and met Jesus, who was still on his way, and declared, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But, upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus, sure as He was in what was yet to happen, was emotionally shaken by the mourning and grief evident in the friends and family of Lazarus. As John states in verse thirty-three, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled,” and it was then that Jesus asked them to take him to where Lazarus was buried and proceeded to raise him back to life.
I was struck by two main points while reading this passage this morning. First, we have a lot to gain if we can learn to trust God’s plan and His timing. We may not understand it all. It might make no sense. The dying loved one we’re praying for may not heal. The big job promotion we’re hoping for may not happen quick, or at all. But, sometimes it takes time for the growth that God knows we need to go through to happen.
But, I also learned that, while it is true that trusting Him during challenging times is, most certainly, critical, He is not unmoved by the trials that we face and the pain that we sometimes must endure in the midst of those trials. He is with us, more than ever, in the darkest moments. Whether we feel His presence or not, He knows that it is our choice to trust that He is there and that it is that choice we make, in faith, that provides the fertile soil out of which even stronger faith and the purest, eternal joy can be born, “for God’s glory.”

To Cover Your Crime

I arrived at the vanishing point just to find myself
dancing around it
I wear the scars of the evil you turned into me then
as perspective
They lent a fist of confidence to the humility
From which I flew
The seeds of perversion you planted
Never took root
The fiftieth chapter of Genesis sings my life song
Verse twenty dawn
While this still mourning light lets me not see far past my feet
His blazing pace
Sure relieves my burden and directs me through what I can’t
Yet understand
On toward that place where I will at once fall down at His feet
Full with His grace

Light of the Mountaintop, Dark of the Valley

There is no doubt, now that I’m getting older and I’ve had the time to reflect and realize, that my personality is, at best, quirky. Finding the appropriate medium with which to communicate with others around me doesn’t come naturally to me and quiet, personal time when I can have a chance to relax my spinning brain, refocus, and renew, is critical. I could reveal a laundry list of notable events and circumstances in my life that have likely contributed to shaping (or, perhaps, misshaping) the person that is typing these words today, but, I’ve come to relate my life, in retrospect, simply, as a series of peaks and valleys that I have stepped and staggered through. Indeed, when going through one of my deepest, darkest valleys, I found a good deal of hope in these Psalms:

23:1-6

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

18:16-19

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.

Certainly, at 38, I have yet to amass the wisdom and experience of someone in their final season of life. But, I’ve walked this road long enough to be able to realize that giving in to self-serving inclinations is an addiction that I’ve failed to break. In combination with circumstances beyond my control, such breakdowns have often lead me straight into the many of my life’s valleys where it was too dark to see and too cold to feel anything, but, the fear induced by the vacuum in my mind and spirit where I’d closed the door to God’s guidance.

On the other hand, it has been the humbling process of my own confidence breaking down, time and again, that has caused me to seek God, my Abba, and then to turn in accordance with His infinite providence, and often, experience the highest peaks and the most beautiful vistas that I’ve ever seen.

Such ascents have sometimes happened in quiet isolation and prayer while others have been climbed walking alongside friends who have taken the time and extended their hands long enough to compel me onward and upward in my journey. But, surely, all such help has come carried on the winds of His grace and I am thankful.

Kevin Max’s new song “Light Me Up” is a victorious celebration of God’s strength, providence, and mercy, wrapped up in an infections pop groove that is hard to deny. Give it a listen. But, more importantly, I hope you’ll give God a listen so that you can find your own way out of whatever valley your walking through.

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

A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 2)

Market in Grand Goave

Market in Grand Goave

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.

It didn’t take long once I first started taking an interest in the plight of people living in Haiti to realize that there are more than just one or two of my fellow Americans that think focusing on needs in Haiti is, at least, a case of misplaced attention. “We have poor people right here in North Carolina,” they might say. Indeed we do! In fact, in fourteen years of teaching in a public school I know all too well that there are plenty of families that live below the poverty line in the United States. In my classroom during any given school year and on any given day one can find a kid who gets free lunch based on coming from a low-income home working in the same cooperative group as a kid who only wears name brand clothes, has an iPhone, and gets picked up in the car rider line each afternoon by a parent driving a Lexus. Surely, there are people in need right here. But, after spending the last week in Haiti I can say with confidence that the gap between poor American citizens and the average Haitian family is huge! Regardless of what words I choose and how I decide to arrange them in an attempt to blog about just how serious the need is in Haiti, you will never truly understand just how big the gap is between how they live and how we live unless you are there to see it for yourself. At 80%, Haiti has the second highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line in the entire world. In the western hemisphere of the globe, no other country is poorer. In the United States only 12% of citizens live below the poverty line. The cause of such poor living conditions consists of a litany of variables ranging from generations of corrupt government and no public education or social services to natural disasters like 2010’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

IMG_1478

Market in Grand Goave

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

Just over a year ago, though, knowledge or concern for the plight of Haitians was the farthest thing from my mind. What was on my mind was my dad’s battle with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer. Diagnosed in the fall of 2010, after surgeries, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, he passed away in a hospice bed in his living room while I had my head on his chest and his lone surviving brother, my Uncle John, sat nearby. My dad had been my best friend. I always looked up to him and he always had time to listen. He was the best man in my wedding and, just a few years prior to his diagnosis, he’d moved south to North Carolina from upstate New York in order to be closer to my wife, my kids, and I and to help provide daycare for my son who was born in 2007. The kids were his pride and joy and it was clear that, after living a life in which he seemed to always get the short end of the stick, he’d finally found a patch of happiness.

With Hands & Feet Project Director Mark Stuart (April 2013)

With Hands & Feet Project Director Mark Stuart (April 2013)

After the diagnosis in 2010 he did his very best to “just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” as he would say, but, on February 20, 2012, during the only snow that winter, we lost him and, even though I had sixteen months to prepare, I’ve never experienced a darker period. But, as is often said, the darkest time is right before the dawn and, as the dust began to settle, I realized that I’d acquired an altered perspective on life in comparison to that which I had before. The thin, quiet, golden thread of faith that I’d clung to, even when it made no sense to do so, was still there and, for the first time, ever, my focus was crystal clear. My priorities were newly shifted and, in large part, thanks to a groundswell of support and compassion from friends and family, I realized that people and the relationships that connect us, are more precious than almost anything else we waste our time entertaining our restless minds with.

The Hands & Feet Project's new building on the mountain at Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be in the room on the first level, where the furthest left window is.

The Hands & Feet Project’s new building on the mountain at Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be in the room on the first level, where the furthest left window is.

It was this new perspective that provided the fertile soil for several variables to be planted in, just right, and in a manner that I could’ve never imagined. A bible verse, James 1:27, to be exact, a connection made by a friend, some divine intervention, and the grace and compassion of God, flowing through The Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart, led to the idea of honoring my dad’s memory by naming the kitchen in a new building to be constructed on a mountain in Haiti. The new building on Ikondo is part of The Hands & Feet Project’s plan to provide a facility for older boys who were starting to age out from their program to live and learn vocational trade skills to prepare them for productive lives living as adults in Haiti. While talking on the phone with Mark, immediately after receiving his e-mail delivering the idea of honoring my dad, he suggested that, “Maybe you can come down to see it sometime?” In my head, at the time, it was a ridiculous idea. Yeah, like I’m just going to get up and fly to a third-world country. I soon realized, though, that my perspective wasn’t done evolving.

With Vaddy, the local Haitian artist who made the plaque for the kitchen

With Vaddy, the local Haitian artist who made the plaque for the kitchen

It was toward the beginning of my week in Haiti, Monday or Tuesday evening, I think, when I was taking my day’s end cold shower (hot water was not on the list of available amenities at Ikondo) and I heard my teammate James telling me to hurry up and to come out to the back patio. When I did I found Angie Sutton, one of the site directors, along with James, Marian, and a local Haitian artist who presented me with a hand-made wooden plaque that said, “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.” I was deeply touched by the Suttons’ sentiment. They’d contacted him a week or so before to make it. I gave him a sincere hug of gratitude for his fine craftsmanship, we took some photos and, before week’s end, we hung it up temporarily for photos in the room the guys on the team had been sleeping in which will eventually be “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.”

The view of the ocean off the north coast of Haiti, just outside "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen"

The view of the ocean off the north coast of Haiti, just outside “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”

Once construction is complete at Ikondo, the kitchen will be right next to a breezeway in the two-story structure which will serve as the main eating area at Ikondo. From the doorway of “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen you’ll be able to look to the left through the breezeway to see the ocean on the northern coast of Haiti, and then to the right where you’ll see beautiful Haitian mountains.

My dad was a hard-working, practical guy who grew up on a farm, served as a baker in the Air Force, loved spending time in the kitchen, and, during his years in North Carolina, would often pick me up early in the morning on Saturdays so that we could serve breakfast at the homeless shelter in Salisbury. My son and daughter, the main reasons he made the move south from upstate New York where he’d spent his entire life up to that point, were the joy of his life.

The view of the mountains, just to the right, outside "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen"

The view of the mountains, just to the right, outside “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”

As I told my wife, it’s very possible that, for years to come, visiting missionaries (another purpose of Ikondo is to house  mission teams) will wonder why there’s a kitchen on a mountain in Haiti named after “Grandpa Rockwell.” They might not all get the full story, but, I know he would be proud of the idea of his name being associated with a kitchen (his favorite room in our house) in a building where hard-working kids will have the opportunity to learn practical hands-on skills in order to make a living.

My family will forever be grateful to Kevin Max for putting me in touch with The Hands & Feet Project and to Mark Stuart and all involved with the organization for the work they do. Sincere gratitude for the burden-lightening gift of honoring my dad with “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” was surely the spark that lit the fuse leading to my first trip to Haiti. However, the experiences I had being in the Hands & Feet Children’s Village serving and spending time with the children growing up in such a desperate country, but, thanks to The Hands & Feet Project, doing so with hopes and dreams, will be the undying fuel that will keep me doing everything I can to continue supporting them and, God-willing, return to Grand Goave, Haiti in 2015.

My heart has been broken and my joy now soars higher than I ever thought it could before. All of my senses have been heightened on account of the trip and I am thankful for the opportunity. I have plenty of room to grow, but, I will continue to offer what I have. Christ has, indeed, given me abundant life and he will do the same for you if you open yourself up to Him.

Part 3 coming soon…

Final design for Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

 

With Angie and Andrew Sutton, long term American missionaries and directors of the Grand Goave/Ikondo Hands & Feet Project Children's Village sites

With Angie and Andrew Sutton, long term American missionaries and directors of the Grand Goave/Ikondo Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village sites

Drex Stuart (team leader and father of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart) looking over the new plaque for "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen." Drex and his wife Jo have been coming to Haiti for mission work since 1979 and actually lived there for nine years.

Drex Stuart (team leader and father of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart) looking over the new plaque for “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.” Drex and his wife Jo have been coming to Haiti for mission work since 1979 and actually lived there for nine years.