Sunday, March 29, 2009

The More Things Change...

[Here is something I wrote for our next team newsletter. KK asked me to write something about awaiting our first child, being back from furlough, etc...]
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It really is true. Erin and I have now been living and working here in Puebla for nearly five years. We now live in a little house in a little neighborhood with families and kids – instead of upstairs from the OXXO a block from the campus house with neighbors who max out their stereo volume and drunk guys outside. We now drive around in our own car more than we take buses and taxis or even the ministry cars. Favorite restaurants and caf├ęs have closed down, but others have opened to take their place. Teammates have come, and teammates have gone – we are the only two who remain of the original six. Students we knew as freshmen have graduated and gone on to jobs or Master’s degrees in other places. We’ve unplugged, gone on a furlough to the USA, come back, and plugged back in. UDLA (the university we target) has changed administrations, shut down a dorm building, and built another entrance, among many other changes. Our community has grown to include folks from several other universities who are deeply involved, along with several young professionals who have caused us to rethink our “target audience” a little bit. Our number of student leaders and event attendance have gone up a lot, then down a little, then leveled out while the quality of our ministry has continued to improve. Our budget has gone way up while the strength of the peso has gone way down. The dreaded gate has been built at the end of the street, but the students just keep coming. We’ve sent three girls to Africa and are sending one to Thailand. We’ve taken first mission trip as a community. We’ve baptized seven people. We’ve laughed, cried, cursed, sang, preached, and worked ourselves to the point of exhaustion. We’ve also relaxed some, too, and enjoyed the perks of our line of work, such as being able to travel and visit with friends and coworkers around the world. Friends and family have come to visit, then gotten on busses and planes and headed back to their lives and homes. And now, here we are, awaiting the biggest adjustment yet – the little girl who will come into our lives in late August or early September, capture our hearts, add another member to our little family, and change everything. Do we know what we are doing? Nope. Do we know what to expect? Barely. Are we thankful for our great teammates and students and friends and family here and far away who will support us along the way? You bet. Do we trust God to be with us every step of the way as we try to figure it all out? Of course! As we helplessly and prayerfully await this momentous occasion, we are comforted by this thought: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Come September, we’ll have a baby, and that will mean that much of our life will be uncertain and up in the air. But another major part of our lives will be comfortably familiar, because there will still be a bunch of college students who will need love, truth, comfort, purpose, forgiveness, friendship, and refuge. There will still be a staff that needs to be challenged, led, and empowered. There will still be supporters who need to be informed and appreciated. And there will still be one God to be glorified through it all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

God's Faithfulness - Right on Time

Sometimes working in ministry feels a little like banging your head against a wall, day after day after day. Sometimes – all too often, actually – it feels like all of our efforts are in vain, like not a single one of these students whom we love and serve and pray for and cry over and can’t get out of our minds, day or night, is ever going to take a single step of faith. Not even a small one. Sometimes, this is a hard job. I’m not whining, I’m just saying. But as my pastor says, quoting his recovering addict friends, we have to “stick around for the miracle”. Because, you see, sometimes you have a day like today, a week like this one. Sometimes God comes through like Michael Jordan in the clutch. Sometimes God knocks us to our knees with the beauty of His faithfulness and the perfection of His timing. I feel like that’s where I am today. As I type, it is early Friday morning. Let me tell you some stories of God’s faithfulness from the past few days:

Exhibit A: It’s Tuesday morning, I’m doing my weekly Bible study with our two interns. I think they are learning something. I hope so. I do what I can. We come to our time of prayer. One of the main things we’re praying for is this weekend’s annual beach retreat. We have two students who are strongly considering baptism, and I pray for them by name. But then, I think led by the Holy Spirit, I add something like this: “And Lord, we not only pray for these two students to decide once and for all to be baptized and proclaim to the world their faith in you, but we also pray to be surprised as other people we’re not even thinking about right now also step forward to take this important step of faith…” We finish our Bible study. A former student and former intern has been waiting patiently for me downstairs. She wants to talk. I wonder what’s coming. We sit down and she begins by saying “Today I’m not here to talk about myself. Actually, I have some great news for you! [A girl that we will call ‘Peanut’] wants to be baptized on the retreat this weekend!” I immediately break into a huge smile. You see, Peanut has been coming around our campus ministry for probably three years. Peanut always asks great questions. She’ll be a regular for a while, then disappear for long stretches. Usually, the disappearances mean that she’s fallen back into some bad habits and feels unworthy to come before God and be a part of El Pozo. But eventually, she comes back around, and needs to talk, to confess, to hear words of love. Over and over, when given the chance, we tell her that God’s love is unconditional. At the same time, we challenge her to step up and ditch the bad habits. You know the message: God loves her exactly like she is, but He loves her too much to let her stay that way. It’s the truest thing in the world. So last week Peanut had a great conversation with Erin. Erin was fed up. With tons of love and grace, based in a friendship that has now been build during three years or so, my beautiful wife said, “You know I love you, Peanut, which is why I have to tell you – every few months or so, you come to me and we have the same conversation. It’s the same old struggle. You know what you need to do.” Back to Tuesday morning: I give Ms. Former Intern some stuff for Peanut to read about baptism. Peanut comes by later and talks with MFE and Erin. MFE has been a superstar in the whole process – making triple sure that Peanut was making this decision for herself and not hooking up with Jesus on the rebound. Erin confirms that Peanut knows what’s she’s doing. She comes upstairs and shares her news with our staff. We pray, cry a little, hug a lot. In this moment it all seems worth it. I’m ready to bang my head against the wall for a few more months.

Exhibit B: Wednesday morning. I have breakfast with a staff member who’s been having a hard time. Tensions have been growing. Relational damage is beginning to be done. I’m not looking forward to the conversation. The time has come for some honest words. This could go either way – either he/she owns up to the issues or he/she gets his/her butt kicked by me (in the most loving way, of course). It’s time to poop or get off the pot with this ongoing situation. I ask a couple of people to really pray hard between 9 and 10 A.M. We’re drinking OJ, the conversation begins, and … my friend comes through like a champion. He/she says all of the right things, and it’s so genuine. He/she has already taken major steps to address the problem. He/she admits it, names it, owns it, and commits to move forward, with the help of God and his/her teammates. A major corner is turned, just in time. An individual and a team grows and matures. My friend takes a giant step toward wholeness and healing as a person and effectiveness as a husband/wife, friend, teammate, minister. I am so proud of this guy/gal in this moment. We finish breakfast and go share the good news with our team, who immediately pray prayers of joy and make promises to go through this together. My friend struggles to find the right words, but that’s okay. I remember when Erin was struggling and we rallied around her. I remember when I was the one walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I can still feel Satan’s darts and arrows – but more than that my memory clings to the grace of teammates and friends and family a living Savior who loved me through it all, loved me right back into the light. This is how a team works. This is why we make the investment in each other. This is why I accept God’s calling to be a leader, even when it’s lonely and unfair. This is why it’s all worth it. I was starting to forget.

Exhibit C: Thursday morning. Checking my email. A dear old friend who we’ll call “Mr. Elf” pops online and congratulates us on the pregnancy, then shares the great news that he and his wife (another dear old friend) are due one month after us. We talk about how the new 3-D ultrasounds make it basically impossible to argue that that’s not a little human being in there, from very early on. We chat about my golf tournament fundraiser. [SHAMELESS PLUG in 3, 2, 1… – FRIDAY MAY 29th – ORCHARD HILLS GOLF CLUB – NEWNAN, GA – Come support El Pozo and have a blast while doing so! And/or spread the word to friends who might want to play, sponsor, donate, volunteer, etc. Talk to me for more info!] We’re chatting casually about golf when out of the blue, this conversation transpires on my computer screen:
* Mr. Elf: you think you could make the time to Baptize me the next time you are in town? I could do it at Church, but you and [other dear old friend] were so important to me even though I've never told you guys.
* Me: YES! it would be one of the biggest honors of my life, man.
* Mr. Elf: I can't wait!!
* Me: me neither. wow man you just made my day, week, month. congratulations. awesome decision. i have seen God at work in and through you for a long time - i'm glad you're ready to recognize and proclaim it, my friend.
* Mr. Elf: Along with my beautiful wife, you and [other dear old friend] were such great role models.
* Me: man i have learned so much and changed a lot, but it's good to know that God uses us even in our youthful and immature days. and you certainly did marry well, that's for sure. wow man i'm so excited.
It goes on, but that’s the best part. I have tears in my eyes. I tell Erin – immediate tears as well. I just put my head in my hands and don’t know what to do. I guess you could say I’m basking in God’s faithfulness. And his grace – I mean many of you knew me in middle and high school… It blows me away that God was using me – sinful, bonehead me – even then to plant seeds of faith in the lives of others. I’m certainly overwhelmed by the perfect timing, the rapid answer to a simple prayer, the joy that comes with seeing a treasured friend acknowledge Christ as his Lord and Savior. Yeah, ministry is worth it. Bring it on. Now I’m remembering why I was ordained back in November – why I have committed my whole life and career to being a pastor, mentor, friend, preacher, servant, pray-er in the name of Jesus.

Exhibit D: Earlier I mentioned two students who are at the point of baptism. One of them wants to do some more studying first – and probably wait until his girlfriend can be here for the baptism in May. And hey, that’s cool. We’re going to meet several times a week and dig deeply into Scripture in the meantime. Nothing wrong with that. I love it, actually. We started this intense study this morning, and it totally fills my tank. I’m thinking, what hard days? What challenges? This is what it’s all about. So then the other student who’s thinking about baptism – we’ll call her “Kelly” – steps up bigtime. She’s working hard on her thesis project (Note: “I have to work on my thesis” currently ranks #1, by far, on the El Pozo list of reasons/excuses for not going on the beach retreat.), and we the staff have been offering to cook her meals, clean her house – whatever it takes to free up some time for her. But then the due date gets moved up a week to this coming Monday. Oh crap, no way she’ll go on the retreat now, right? Wrong. She has made a decision, and she wants to be immersed in water and proclaim her faith to the world. She stays up until five A.M. working. She still finds time to come to our leadership meeting. She pays her money and says she’s coming on the retreat. I cry tears of joy as I think about it because THIS is what we’re working for, praying for, sometimes suffering for. A young person growing closer to God and backing up her words with actions. With bold steps of faith. At this point, I’m pushing “all-in”, as they say in poker. What else can I do? I’m renewing, with everything in me, my commitment to God, to Jesus, to the pursuit of truth, to the ministry of the Good News. Yeah, ministry is hard. But it’s worth it. As we say in Mexico, “Vale la pena”. It’s worth the pain/sorrow/heartache/distress/misery/embarrassment/forfeit/penalty/labor/trouble. Yeah, it really is. Yeah, bring it on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Exotic Locale

I recently found myself in an exciting, exotic locale. Let me describe it for you. It’s not far from the equator, but very high in elevation, so the climate is wonderful. Sunny and warm, except for in the rainy season. The people in this place have darker skin than mine, and there are a lot of them! They are always moving – walking, riding bicycles, and piling into trucks, vans, taxis, and buses to get from point A to point B. There is a small minority who drive around conspicuously in their Mercedes or big SUVs, but these folks really stand out. Many people – not just these rich folks – live in the houses hidden behind walls with sharp metal or broken glass on the top and large iron gates, sometimes with live guards, separating them from the outside world. Unfortunately, this kind of security is somewhat of a necessity. The huge gap between rich and poor is a real problem here, and it doesn’t take a long search to run across someone suffering under the weight of serious poverty. Another major problem is the deep-seated political corruption, and the fact that it’s difficult to really trust the police. One is not sure if they are there to serve and protect, or if they will instead rob and harass. In this place, there is a mix of many tribal, national, and cultural heritages, and therefore it’s easy to find some very good food! The beautiful climate means that it’s always easy to find some yummy fresh fruit – passion fruit, mango, and pineapple abound - and there are all kinds of beautiful, brightly colored flowers all around. Bougainvillea is one that particularly flourishes here. The traffic is crazy, and it’s an amazing thing to ride with a taxi driver who confidently bobs and weaves with a terrifying yet beautiful mix of grace and aggression…

Oh, and by the way, I also recently left Puebla, Mexico and visited Nairobi, Kenya, which was also a great place – but I’ll have to write about that later…