“Do Not Be Anxious About Anything.”

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Today at International Christian Fellowship, which had many fewer folks than usual, I gave a meditation.  Pretty sure others would still call it a sermon, but 1)I didn’t use a manuscript, which I do 99% of the time and 2)I was working my way through chapter 3 and the beginning of 4 of Philippians, giving some commentary to build to a point about how we apply Philippians 4:6 in our current context…this political crisis

Sound starts at 0:00(!) but goes in and out a bit in the first few minutes–that’s what I’m commenting about.

Hitting My Wall–Plus Good News!

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The stove and TV are gone.

The eph key on my computer doesn’t work anymore.

I gave away our second dog today.  That’s when I almost lost it.

I’ve said “goodbye” to some of the best people I’ve ever met, many of whom I–optimism aside–may never see again in this life, and hadn’t cried for one of them.  Part of it is how I’m wired:  if you’re right in front of me, I don’t miss you. If I’m still hugging you, you’re right here.  Even after we’ve said “goodbye” and I’m driving away, part of me thinks, “You just them like 30 seconds ago.”

Also, I think trying to do this transition in the midst of Nicaraguan’s violent upheaval, I have my emotions packed down tight into my abdomen.  I can feel them there.  It could get scary when they come up again, but not yet…except when I drove away after telling Sonny what a good dog she is.  I don’t know if she believed me.  She looked like she had doubts.*

We’re trying to use up everything.  We’re trying to limp by on what we have left–you don’t buy more when you can’t take any of it along.  Moving out of the country is different than moving across the street or city or nation.  Kim and I moved 9 times in our first  4 1/2 years of marriage.  I was in seminary and a lot of that was campus housing changes.  We loaded up pickup trucks or just carried boxes until it was all movd.  But we weren’t deciding among the art we brought with us, kitchen appliances, and keepsakes.  What’s replaceable?  How much to replace it?  Is that cheaper than the space it’s going to take in the suitcase? I have two full suitcases of books left

I realized as I was again going through my clothes to make another cut for tomorrow’s yard sale–our third, second in the barrio–that getting rid of things falls roughly between sense of direction and handwriting, both in order of what I’m good at and my emotional response to them.  If you don’t know me, I’ve been lost more times than I care to remember and a sixth grade teacher told me I would not pass college classes because my handwriting was so bad (she failed to foresee the microcomputer).  I was also raised by a packrat father and have the same tendencies.  So forcing myself to get rid of socks, t-shirts and ankle braces that I may or may not have money to replace kind of twists my guts.  You’d think I was raised in the Depression.

On the upside, we ventured out today and make it to the movie theater.  That was our second “long” outing in the past month, what used to be a 12-15 minute drive that now takes 25-30 because we have to take a route that goes literally in the opposite direction of where we’re actually trying to reach.  But I’m not complaining; I’m grateful we could get there at all.  We saw Solo for our last $4.50 movie tickets.  Ah, I will miss that.  A lot.

Last times, goodbyes, narrowing, and getting by on what’s left.

These aren’t real hardships, but I can feel myself hitting the wall.

Now I’m going to say a few blunt things and then something hopeful.
Most of our gringo friends have already gone.  I have mixed feelings about that.  I’m not judging; they have to do what they believe God leads them to do, just as we do.  But it’s weird.

People are expressing a lot of fear and concern for us.  I deeply appreciate the love behind that.  But we’re not afraid.  We’re not in direct danger.  We’re scared for the Nicaraguans who have no choice to leave if it gets worse.  We’re concerned for the people who are working for a meal today and there is no work.  Our beloved neighbors across the street who have become family to us had us over for dinner tonight, as part of our extended “goodbye.”  They are beautiful people who love God deeply.

They’re also so poor we bring plates with us when we come to dinner because they don’t own that many.  But this week, a man has been working for them, helping build an interior wall for the house renovation they have going–slow going, to put it mildly–and he is literally working to eat.  That’s what I’m afraid for.  So yes, pray for our safety and wisdom and discernment–but please pray for people to have enough to eat and for justice and shalom in Nicaragua.

ON that note, I’m going to end with the news I just read: the dialogue between the Ortega government and protesters went well today, for the first time!  I’m cautiously hopeful.  They are calling for an end to all forms of violence by all sides, independent human rights officials are being invited back in, they will dismantle barricades …and tomorrow they will discuss calling early elections to elect a new president and congress and that Ortega would not be allowed to run for reelection.

Wow.  I’ll end on a good note.  Pray.  Please pray.

 

Oh, and yes, I am pasting in the “f.”  Every single time.

*  As it turned out, she had serious doubts and bolted on her new owner.   They couldn’t catch her.  Kim had to go help them get her back.

Strangest Day

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It is severely stressful to live here right now. Today I said “goodbye” to a dear friend and one of my most valued ministry partners. We had a great conversation which all returned to “But who knows what will happen next?” “But who knows how things will be then?” “But we’ll have to see what’s happening by that time.”

Today, meaning 6PM Wednesday through 6PM Thursday, is officially my strangest day of being a missionary.  It’s all been strange, if I’m honest; I write my blog, in part, to convey how differently life runs here than in the U.S., at least than the U.S. of my experience.

But today, we have a paro nacional, a nationwide strike.  Have you ever experienced that?  I’m gonna say if you live in the US, you haven’t.  Nicaraguans may have.  I have not.  What will happen?  Maybe nothing, more literally nothing than most other days, if all businesses stay closed, as they might.  Will the outbreaks of violence increase?  Who knows?  Will it help?  We’ll have to see.

Our school went to online classes a month before we finished our semester, but Nicaraguan public schools, which have a school year that runs from february through November, still have kids going to class (I’m not sure about tomorrow; universities will close).  Seeing them appear in droves on their way home looks shockingly normal.

My Nicaraguan friends I saw today continued to be kind and generous and helpful.  Also, someone snuck into our house and stole Kim’s computer.  We don’t know how.  I tend to remember on some level that a spiritual battle constantly rages out of sight of most of us.  Good or bad, I don’t focus on it as much as some do.  Today, though, in the midst of all this chaos and violence and uncertainty, when I came home and Kim told me someone had stolen it, that felt like an attack from Satan.  And, of course, someone doing a bad thing to us.  She’s very sad and discouraged.  We walked around the house for a while looking for it because it didn’t seem possible.  But it’s gone.  It would take a miracle for it to come back, so I’d ask you to pray for one.

In perspective, of course, people are suffering much worse here.  It feels like a spiritual attack because it comes at such a vulnerable, difficult moment. That’s my experience of the enemy, to kick you in the gut or the teeth when you’re down.

When I say “strangest day,” I mean being face-to-face with a national crisis like this. Living in the midst of it, where life feels both normal and really freaking strange.  I mean try to imagine a US national strike in which all businesses close.  Right.  So do we hide inside tomorrow?  The Nicaraguans with whom I play ultimate invited me to their spontaneous practice tomorrow–they’re playing because hey! it’s a day off.  Will I play?  We’ll have to see.

I played with them today, which is their regular day to practice.  I can’t put into words how good it felt to run and vent off the accumulated stress.  I’d noticed my nerves were frayed and I had to control myself not to yell at my kids for things that normally wouldn’t even catch my attention–and at which I should not be yelling.  I even told my son today that a few times when I had to stop and recenter and calm myself, those were not his fault in the least, but simply an affect of the tension we’re all living under now.  Ultimate players, we played threes.  Non-ultimate players, three on three means a lot of running–I mean a ridiculous amount of running.  I loved it.  I needed it.

I don’t know how our Nicaraguan friends are coping with the stress.  I think, as my friend Eric pointed out, US folks believe  we have a right to choices, to control, to getting to decide how things go for us.  I believe many Nicaraguans, especially those who live in poverty, have fewer expectations (or illusions) to be in control of every situation, or to have the power over their circumstances to choose as they please.  I mean, like we do.

But I can say, not as a generalization or stereotype but thinking of each person with whom I’ve spoken today, that my Nicaraguan friends remain positive and hopeful.  When I ask, “Are things calm in your neighborhood” and the answer is, “Yes, they’re fine, just one truck drove by with seven guys with their faces covered shooting guns, but just that one time and otherwise it’s calm, everything else is good, gracias a Dios,” I’m pretty sure that would sound different being described by gringo friends. Or me.  

So we keep counting down days, we keep breathing in stress, we keep trying to love the people well while we’re still here.  Tonight our friend Aaron bought pizza for everyone (thanks, Aaron!) and we had two Nicaraguan families and a temporary bachelor over for dinner.  We had a blast.  We laughed.  Of course we talked about the situation here, and about our stolen computer. Not everything was light-hearted.  But we celebrated being together while we still are and we enjoyed our friendships even though tomorrow is completely uncertain.

“I came to you…”

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My emotions are so overwrought tonight I don’t know if I’ll be able to write anything coherent.  But I can’t keep going around the same circles in my head and if I read any more news I might explode or have an aneurysm.  So here we go:

Jesus always, and I mean always, takes the side of the oppressed and the persecuted.  Always.

That is what the Gospels say.

In fact, the suffering human being is Jesus.  That is what Jesus says in the Gospels.

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”

“When, Lord?”

“Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

When you fed that hungry person, you fed Jesus.  Symbolically, metaphysically, literally, I don’t know, but you fed Jesus himself.  That’s what Jesus says.

When you did not feed that hungry person, you did not feed Jesus.  “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat.”  He says nothing about whether you saw him or lived in the same country or had the same color skin or agreed politically.  That doesn’t come up.

I believe this about Scripture: we have to understand the context of what is written and then apply it to our own context.

So, the context of Matthew 25?

Jesus is telling his disciples the last things he wants them to hear and remember.  In chapter 26, they share the Passover meal (we often call it “The Last Supper” or “The Lord’s Supper”), and then Jesus prays in Gethsemane, is betrayed, and arrested.

In immediate context, Jesus says “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him…”

 When we interpret Scripture, we discern between passages directed to a specific context and from which we glean general principles, and those that have transcendent or universal truth, meaning they apply, basically as stated, to all times and places.  

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Transcendent.  All times, all places.

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”  2 Timothy 4:13  Specific context, not to be applied universally.

“No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” I Timothy 5:23  You tell me.

Thus, when Jesus says, “all the nations will be gathered before him,” we conclude, with confidence, we apply it universally.

Now, Jesus gives a range of examples in this passage.  I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger (which, in biblical context, means I was a person from another country now living in your country), naked, sick, in prison.

Question: does Jesus mean rape victims?  Is he strictly limiting this teaching to these six categories?  How loosely or strictly is he defining his words?  Lots of people go hungry every day.  Does he mean the ones who are starving to death?  Only those?  The child on your block who is malnourished?  The alcoholic who begs for change, who has not eaten in a day and a night but might take your quarter and use it on more booze?

Here’s what I think about these questions: read the Gospels and tell me Jesus’ intent.  What is his heart?  How does he treat the woman caught in adultery?  The woman bleeding for twelve years?  Peter, after Peter said, “I swear to God I have never heard of this man Jesus!”  What does Jesus tell us the father of the prodigal son does, says, is?

This isn’t a test, much less a test with tricky, loaded questions.

YES, rape victims.  Yes, children who have enough to eat and drink but who receive no attention or love from parents or teachers or anyone else.  Yes, for the love of God, suicidal teenagers.  YES, transgender kids.  Yes, middle-aged, successful-appearing alcoholics, and yes, porn addicts and gambling addicts and…  Yes.

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

So come back now to how Jesus always sides with the oppressed and the persecuted.  Who is Jesus?  What is his heart?  Would Jesus side with the bully or the victim of bullying?

What a stupid question.

Yes, I know.

Now tell me what we do about refugees.  Tell me what we do about victims of rape and domestic violence who seek asylum in the US.  Tell me, on what do we base that decision?

Tonight, I am watching the news blow up.  Tonight, in Nicaragua, innocent people are being attacked by the police.  But worse, they are no longer waiting for cover of darkness.  Now they are attacking in broad daylight.  It’s not really safe to talk about it, but neither is it safe for my neighbors for me to keep silent.  I can’t do anything to stop the riot police from attacking innocent children–my friend Andres said his brother was smashed in the face with a gun and two of his teeth were broken but he was not protesting, he was just at work.  All I can do right now is pray and ask you to pray.  Are you praying?  Do I side with the bully or the young man getting his face bashed with a rifle butt?  Which side is Jesus on?

The United States, as I understand it, just changed the law so that women who have been raped or brutalized by gangs in their countries, whose lives are in danger, will not be granted asylum in the US.  Yes, we condemn those gang members as “animals” and decry their violence, but we will not offer protection to their victims?  No?

“I was raped and I came to you for safety and you…”

Finish that sentence.

 

Plans and Life

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Commencement speech at NCA, Annalise’s graduating class of 2018.  You can also see and hear it by clicking here and going to -51:43 for however long Facebook keeps it posted. 

[Last time, student self-rating, one through ten.]

Thanks for having me speak, Guys. This is an honor. Of course, no one listens to a commencement address, since you’re sitting there thinking, “OH. MY. GOSH! I’m finally graduating!” So thanks for the honor of making me the last person in high school you don’t listen to.

C.S. Lewis writes, “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.”

Now I know it’s difficult, but try to imagine what it would be like if your plans didn’t work out exactly the way you wanted them to. I don’t know, I’m just—let’s think of some hypothetical situation in which you had worked really hard on something and it didn’t turn out at all the way you wanted.

Imagine if you were seniors in high school and had a month left of school, just an ordinary day, classes going by slowly, and then suddenly it turned out that was the last day you’d ever have classes together. Imagine if you were trying to teach a Bible class and all you needed was to be able to be in a room together—and then you can’t be.

It’s not that hard to imagine, is it? Everything is interrupted right now. In fact, we’re having trouble now imagining a life in which everything goes the way we plan it.

So this is what I want to tell you, and it’s one simple thing that I honestly hope you remember for the rest of your lives: Life doesn’t go as planned. Plans are a fantasy. Lewis calls it “ a phantom of one’s own imagination.”

Now that I’ve told you the simple thing, here is the paradox: Of course we make plans. You had a whole Senior Presentation Night—I mean, morning—so you could share your plans for your future. You’re going to college. You’re going to work. You’re going to meet that beautiful person and marry them, or marry the beautiful person you’ve already met, and have beautiful kids. I mean, Mario has a girlfriend.  (I got Mario’s permission to say that.)

That’s the plan.

But life doesn’t go as planned. Life is the constant back and forth, the tug of war, the push and pull, between what we want try to make happen and what actually happens. Life is the dialectic between our plans and our lives.

Dialectic,” in case you happened not to be listening to Miss Pasker that day, either, is a reasoned argument between two sides holding opposing views. Like when Santi and Juan P didn’t agree and argued. Every class.

I could stand up here and tell you that everything will come out perfectly for you if you just work hard enough. Or pray hard enough.

But you know my testimony. That isn’t true. Imagining that if we just pray, God will make all our dreams come true is fantasy.

Jesus gives us a very clear picture of what will happen. In Luke 6, Jesus says, 46 Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

The most important word, for us, is “When.” When the flood arose. In every life, the flood will arise. How can we live in Nicaragua right now and not know that? Did any of us plan for this. I’m being completely serious—did any of foresee what the last month of your senior year would be like? What kind of storm we’d face?

Some of you have already faced storms and that’s why it’s hard for you to trust God. Some of you have had smooth sailing, no big floods, no nasty storms, and you don’t really want to give up running your life because you like how it’s going.

If we know the storm is coming, then we prepare for it. Jesus says that acting on his words is building a house that has a foundation, that can stand through a flood. Because the flood will come. We know that. It’s here now.

Jesus also says that not acting on his words is like building a house with no foundation. It might look nice. It might look beautiful. But when the flood comes, that house doesn’t have anything to stand on, anything to hold it strong in place. The flood just carries it away. “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

I know some of you don’t believe this, and I respect that, because I respect that you have to make your own decisions about your lives. Part of what we’re doing today, handing you your diplomas, having you flip those tassels from one side to the other—don’t mess that up, Gabe—is symbolism that you have made it through this preparing time in your lives and you’re ready to make your own choices for your lives. Or you’re not ready, but it’s time, anyway.

I have only this to offer you, and I sincerely pray you remember it: God loves you. God loves you if you are following Jesus and doing your best to live by what He says. God loves you if you aren’t following Jesus and doing your best to live by only what you say. God loves you.

That’s the one thing I can promise you will be constant in your life. That’s the only plan I can tell you for certain will work out.

When you set out in your little kayak, you expect to paddle out and paddle back. That’s your plan. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

But it doesn’t always, does it?

Life doesn’t go as planned.

I trust you all remember what X is?

This is your calling. This is where your passion, the thing you love, the thing you were made for that grabs your heart, intersects with the world’s needs. Where you are able to do the thing you love and use that to help others.

But we don’t try to say that’s going to happen on these exact dates, doing this exact job, with these exact people. Because life doesn’t go as planned. If we get locked into “It has to happen in a certain way, exactly like this,” then we get frustrated and discouraged. We can get cynical.

As Lewis said, “the interruptions are precisely one’s real life, the life God is sending one day by day.”

Live that life. Don’t let the interruptions knock you off track from your calling. They are your calling. Your X is where your passions meet the world’s needs IN REAL LIFE. If you have this perfect picture of how you’re going to carry out your X but then it never works out that way so you never really do anything, you are missing your real life.

Some of those interruptions will turn out to be your husbands and wives. You’re going to get knocked off your plan, you’re going to go paddling out into the Laguna, and in the midst of being off course and stuck, you’re going to run into someone just as off course and stuck as you are. That’s your real life. Live it. Build on rock and live it. We can get angry that we don’t get to have the graduation party you all planned, and that’s fine, that’s legit, but don’t stay angry, don’t get so stuck in your anger that you miss the party we’re going to have right here. Because this is the party you get, with your classmates, one last time, and then everyone goes their way. This is the interruption. This is the life God has sent us and we can embrace it or we can reject it, but we can’t send it back for a better one or hold out for the one we planned on.

Last thing. Because life doesn’t go as planned, the things you need most are God’s love and true friends. Most of you already know that. Some of you know you made it through because you have true friends. That’s a good thing. Find those friends. Keep those friends. Friends who will love you unconditionally, who will stick by you, who won’t bail on you when life gets ugly. God shows us his love through one another, through our friendships. When you are praying and asking God to reveal himself and you have real friends, God has revealed himself to you.

Let’s get you diplomas.

Pieces of My Life

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Yesterday from 5 to 5:45 I walked home from school.  I’ve done this walk approximately countless times.  

Today, in the late morning, a good friend was robbed by people with machetes.  She was mugged next to a coffee shop that’s on my route home.  In daylight.  Kim was at another coffee shop about 200 yards away.  

A convenience store (super-mini) on the route got held up at gunpoint a few nights before.  We stop in there all the time.

Protests in Nicaragua continue with no end in sight and no visible evidence of progress.  We talk every day about how this might come out, trying to imagine scenarios in which the situation improves.  But none of us can see a realistic way back, while forward is murky and uncertain.  Nearly every day, protesters die at the hands of government enforcers wearing one uniform or another.

I’ve spent seven years trying to convince people in the States that “No, Nicaragua is not at war, it’s not violent, that ended thirty years ago.  Nicaragua has the lowest violent crime in Central America.”  Now, everything that I’ve been convincing them isn’t happening…is.  

The protestors are demanding that the President and Vice-President leave.  They are arguing for immediate new elections, rather than waiting for the next election cycle in 2021.  

I don’t know who would run if the government agreed to excelerated elections.  No obvious leader has emerged among the protesting groups.  

Police are no longer enforcing traffic laws.  They aren’t present to keep order.  Conditions are becoming increasingly uncertain and dangerous.  We’re all trying to figure out how dangerous, what precautions to take, and whether this is our new normal.   

The bigger problem is that businesses are flatlining.  People are afraid, they’re staying home, and they’re not spending money on anything but necessities.  The more this happens, the more it happens.  It’s a spiral.  Our neighbor has no one coming to get a motorcycle repaired. Therefore, they have no money coming in.  They can’t go out and buy anything.  

Poverty has so many dimensions you might never consider.  We went to the zoo last Sunday, our biggest outing in weeks.  We heard that the zoo is not getting enough visitors to be able to feed the animals.  There are so many aspects to this crisis, so many dominoes falling, hitting other dominoes, which then hit more.

Most people here live in poverty.  They don’t have margin for weeks or months of unemployment, de facto layoffs, reduced hours, business slowing to a halt.  But here we are and people are adapting, figuring out how to keep going.  We’re asking when it will end but so far it’s just getting worse.  Tourists aren’t visiting.  Of course they’re not.  Short-term mission teams are canceling. Of course they are.  Health clinics rely on the funds and people power that these teams bring so that they can keep providing medical care in impoverished communities.  Now they’re scrambling to continue their work.  

For years we’ve seen people living at subsistence level, maintaining a precarious stasis, while parts of the infrastructure slowly improve.  Roads.  New businesses.  

Photo taken today.

But now it’s this downward spiral.  The pictures we keep seeing of nearly empty airplanes mean more than lost business for airlines.  Those are breaks in the chain that so many people here depend on, including many who don’t realize they do.  The US surfer or backpacker or bird watcher isn’t on that plane, so the restaurants where they eat and the hotels where they stay don’t have their business, so the restaurant and hotel employees are losing work hours and they can’t even pay for the gas to put in their only family vehicles, their motorcycles, much less bring them to my neighbor for repairs.  

That’s just one link.  I heard the biggest car dealer in the country is down 70%.  Not at seventy percent, down seventy percent.  Surviving at thirty percent right now.  Imagine how that ripples through the economy.

I don’t know if things will get better before they get a lot worse.  The business owners may apply pressure for change.  Maybe. The general population suffering is not the same thing as the wealthy suffering.  But the ninety percent living in poverty have less voice than the ten percent who own most of the businesses and property in the country.  

So we wait.  And we pray.  I don’t mean the types of “thoughts and prayers” which actually mean that people merely feel badly and are commiserating.  I mean we pray as a wailing cry to the living God who sees this suffering and increasing misery.  I mean we beseech God to act, to bring peace and justice–and soon.  

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”        Luke 18:7-8


Meanwhile, meanwhile, we’re moving back to the States.  Yesterday, I gave ten boxes of books to our school library.  Boxes.  We sold our dining table.  Someone bought our favorite plant, a beautiful white flowering tree.  Our dog Zoe went to the farm–no, an actual farm, a finca where someone was happy to adopt her.  Those are holes in my life.  Those are pieces of what has been my life that aren’t here anymore.

It’s just a move. People move all the time. Part of the mission experience is the revolving door of folks who come here for so many different reasons…and then leave.  We’ve seen it, a lot.  We knew eventually it would be us, unless we felt clear God was calling us to stay forever…and “eventually” arrived.

But I’m losing pieces of my life, of the life that we’ve built here, and I’m grieving that loss.  Last night we said goodbye to Bella, Tino, and Tadi Ndoro, who have been our neighbors and ministry partners in the barrio these past three years.  I’m having my last times with young adults who have shared their lives with me and whom I have grown to love.  

This was going to be hard and painul no matter what, and I’m an emotionally-oriented person, so I don’t have the option of just “doing what needs to be done.”  Bibliophiles, you’ll get this: giving ten boxes of books felt like cutting out a piece of myself.*  

But the “normal” leave-taking involves a few of the adventures you wanted to do one last time or left until last. Instead, we’re making certain we’re home by dark and carefully checking the latest before we go anywhere.  I was walking home yesterday because the Tuesday evening basketball game was cancelled, so I was trying  (and failing) to have a Tuesday afternoon game. 

Everyone feels like they are losing pieces of their lives right now, not just we who are moving.  So many have lost family members.  So many have been put in jail without explanation. The front page of today’s paper tells of the death count, tRelated imagehe tranques (road blockades), and the tumbling economy. Friends who were here have gone; friends who planned to come back are not.  The city feels different, more unpredictable.  People are cautious and tense.  The guy carrying my groceries hugged me yesterday. The strangest part is how normal it is most of the time, even as we pray and hold our breath.    

As an irony, our barrio feels much safer than the city in general.  When we’re coming home, we turn the corner onto our street and breathe a sigh of relief.  I can feel the tension seep out of me, back here with our borrachos, where we can hear the church across the street most every night, where people are still sitting out on their chairs in front of their homes and talking after dark.  

So home is the closest that we have to normal right now, though the possessions that made it homey are slowly trickling out the door.  Pieces of our lives shifting, changing, disappearing. 

Meanwhile, Annalise’s graduation went from an evening ceremony with a banquet across town to a morning ceremony with a banquet at the school.  Not worth the risk to try to cross the city, they decided.  So we’ll celebrate and make the best of it.  

And pray for God’s  redemption for all that we’ve lost.  

 

 

 

*Am I too attached to my books?  Of course I am!  Who said otherwise?

 

Light and Darkness Manuscript

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“The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Matthew 8

This is a very simple sermon. It is this: light is life. When we come into the light, when we live in the light, we have life.

Romans 1 describes darkness: “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” That darkness. The darkness of sin, the darkness that makes us think wrong. Darkness is death. Things that stay in the darkness fester and rot and lead to death. Staying in darkness kills us.

Jesus is light. When we are in Jesus, we are in the light.

That’s as simple as it gets.

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

The Gospel is simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple. Yes, we can complicate it, and yes there are mysteries beyond our comprehension. The Trinity is a barn burner, something I believe without claiming I can fully understand it. But sometimes, we need to return to our basics, our grounding, what roots us.

When we allow darkness in our lives, when we conceal what is evil or what pulls us away from God, we are at a double risk. The first is simply that we do ourselves damage. The darkness has a powerful appeal. An old lyric by the Indigo Girls captures it:

Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable/
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear

That’s Gospel truth in secular lyrics. Darkness has a hunger that is insatiable. It will eat you alive. What it offers to satisfy us only leaves us hungry for more, because it can never fill that space inside us. But man, it feels like it can. That’s the lie.

So the first risk of darkness is that it hurts us. We may not feel it, know it, or recognize it. But Jesus is pretty clear about what happens to us in darkness: “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

The second risk of darkness is that we feel shame and want to keep hidden. The common condition of all humanity is that, when we step into the darkness, we have the urge to go further in so that we don’t have to face our shame.

You know why I make so big a deal of grace? Because it’s the truth. And because if it’s our habit to acknowledge that we are sinners and that we sin and fall all the time, then repenting gets easier. If we create a reputation for ourselves that we do no wrong, it become harder to confess when we’ve fallen. If what we know about darkness is that God rescues us from it, then coming back into the light is cause for celebration, not shame. If you put the shame we feel on one side of a scale and put the delight God takes in us on the other side, our shame is as nothing. Not even a feather. But that’s not always how we experience it, is it?

I’m being totally serious here. People commit suicide because they can’t bear the shame they feel over having sinned, especially sins that lead to public humiliation and/or many damaged lives. But you know what Jesus says? “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.” And if you hear that and think, “Yeah, but he’s talking about sinners who are repenting and become followers of Jesus, not Christians who aren’t supposed to sin,” then I think you’ve misunderstood who we are. Church is the gathered sinners. We aren’t the righteous, except in Jesus Christ. Jesus gives us his righteousness—that’s part of the deal—and takes our sin upon himself. We’re still the sinners who repent.

This is what the Apostle John, who really got it that he was a sinner loved by Jesus, wrote in his first Epistle: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

You and I are sinners. We fall into darkness sometimes. No, that sounds too passive. We dive into the darkness sometimes. We go plunging into darkness, chasing things that promise us life but deliver death. The wages of sin are death. And then we go, “Oh, crud, I’m in the darkness again. Don’t I know better? How many times is this?” Then we have a decision to make. Every time, we have a decision to make.

God loves for us to live in the light. Jesus died for us so that we can live in the light. And still, if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. Living in the light, for us, means constantly returning to the light after we’ve strayed in the darkness and, over time, growing in our belief that God knows what he’s talking about. The hope is that we come to recognize the signs when we are creeping toward the darkness and start to turn back sooner. The day when we turn back from the darkness before we enter the darkness is a great day!

As I said, this is all simple stuff. I’m not telling you this because you’ve never heard it, I’m telling you this because there is darkness in our lives. We have allowed areas of darkness to enter our lives. Jesus calls us back into the light. Here’s a verse I love—Colossians 1:13

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.


Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness. Darkness has power. If you don’t know that, you have not understood our enemy. Darkness has such power that we could not free ourselves from it but needed rescuing. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus died and resurrected and through that act, rescued us from the power of darkness. Darkness now has no power over us, meaning it cannot control us unless we give it control, and Jesus can always bring us back. When we say “we were dead in our sins,” we mean we had no way out of the darkness. But Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus gives us a way out. Jesus Himself
is our way out.

God has not only rescued us from the power of darkness, “the dominion of darkness,” he has also transerred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. We are taken out of the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. 7”In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.

That means our lives, which were being used for evil, are paid for by Jesus’ suffering and transformed into forces or good, for light in this dark world. That’s redemption.

Trusting that you’re tracking with me, I want to get very specific and then look at this broadly.

In a rental car driving back from Costa Rica, I talked with three friends about some darkness in my life. Now, glory to God, it was darkness in my mind and not in my actions, darkness that was calling me with a hunger that’s insatiable, and I, being me, a redeemed mess if ever there was one, chose to talk with my brothers about it. I kind of presented it as a hypothetical, but they’re my friends and saw through me. I needed them to. It was a good discussion, and we all chipped in, but the crucial part of that transaction was that I brought some darkness within me into the light, where Jesus can give me life. Literally, by speaking those words I was following Jesus, choosing not to walk in darkness, and having the light of life brought into me by my brothers, jerks that they are. They asked good questions. They made bad jokes. They did what friends do. They asked what would have happened if I had continued in darkness, which honestly is a great question to ask, especially when I haven’t made the wrong decision, because it allowed me to look down that road and say, “Oh, yuck.” They empathized with my struggle, which is nice. Having people sit loftily above you and fail to imagine how they could be that bad a sinner, well, if that’s what your friends do, may I recommend new friends? That’s what Job’s non-friend friends did.

Here’s my list: I recognized that the thoughts I was having were darkness, not light, Satan calling to me, not Jesus. I chose not to follow them. But that wasn’t enough, so as an act of will, I chose to speak them out loud to my brothers in Christ, my fellow redeeemed compatriots, because darkness cannot bear light. Jesus’ light brings healing to anything we’ve kept in darkness. Anything.

Here’s the other list. Check it for yourself.

I could have told myself it was not that big a deal. I could have rationalized that it was just bad thoughts, so what? We’re in a very stressful time personally within a very stressful time corporately and it’s understandable that my brain might go sideways. I could have told myself that I’m too mature still to be dealing with this. Obviously, I’m not, but aren’t I supposed to be? Or shouldn’t they think I am? What will they think of me? Will they think less of me? Will they tell people?

Those are all such reasonable-sounding thoughts. But none of them are the voice of Jesus. That’s the darkness calling.

This is not a sermon on accountability or on having good friends—pretty sure I’ve given that sermon here at some point—but I’m very blessed with good friends and I pray God blesses you that way, too.

One more point on darkness. Being in the darkness, as it sounds, means we will have trouble seeing. We’re talking symbolism here, something we can understand to help us grasp something that we cannot yet understand. To me, the scariest part of being in the darkness is convincing ourselves that we’re not really in the darkness at all. It usually happens by degrees. I hate seeing this and I’ve definitely seen it too often.

In Matthew 6, right smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this: 22 The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

In context, Jesus is talking about money and possessions. Immediately before this, he says, 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Then he says the eye is the lamp of the body and a healthy eye will make your body full of light but an unhealthy eye will make your body full of darkness. Right after this, he says No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

So how does the health of our eye relate to being in light or darkness? Remember, Jesus is using symbolism. This is not an optometry lesson, it’s spirituality. It’s discipleship.

If your eye, the part of you that registers and seeks and brings in light, is healthy, then you will be full of light—the light we’ve been talking about, Jesus’ light, the light that gives us life. But if your eye is unhealthy, instead of bringing light into your body, it will bring in darkness—but you’ll think it’s still light. That’s why Jesus says, “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Being in darkness is bad, but to be flooded with darkness while you believe you are in light? What’s more dangerous? How will you repent? Why would you repent?

The strongest example we have of this is the Pharisees, who believed that they knew God better than anyone else, but were completely blind to God incarnate, standing right in front of them, calling them to repent. They told Jesus his power came from Satan. The Son of God comes directly to you, demonstrates his power, and says, “Come, love people like I do,” and you say, “No, you’re the devil.” If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

I want you to note that their version of being in the darkness but refusing to see that they are in darkness, is all religious. It isn’t that they no longer believe in God; they believe that they know God better than everyone else, better than Jesus, the Light of the world as he stands there talking to them; that’s exactly what keeps them in darkness. This is utter blindness.

 

It can go either way, of course. I’ve also seen people decide that what they used to call “sin” was actually just fine, after all, and the only real problem had been feeling bad about it in the first place. I call that tragedy.

But if we’re going to be honest about the world we live in, I’ve also seen people freed from legalism and guilt over things that I believe had nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but were exactly the empty law-keeping Paul talked about. Colossians 2 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”?22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”

So here we are, trying to walk with Jesus in the light, and we need to discern what is light and when we are in darkness. We need faithful friends who sin like we do, love Jesus like we do, and can speak truth to us: “Yeah, that’s darkness, Come out of there.” Even better if we have the friends who can also say, “Dude, you’re being a Pharisee. Come out of there, too.” The good news is that, astoundingly, Jesus wants us in the light even more than we want to be there. We’re all conflicted and want to have life in Jesus but also sort of flirt with the darkness; Jesus, in whom there is no darkness at all, is not the least conflicted. He just wants us in the light. Ultimately, that’s where our hope is. John experienced this personally: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Even if this starts to seem complex, it’s still simple. Recognizing darkness and loving light comes through loving Jesus. When I spend time with Jesus, when I immerse myself in the Gospels, when I give myself to the things that help me know him more deeply—for me, loving young adults, recreating, writing in my journal, reading spiritual truth from good writers, hanging with the other faithful, redeemed sinners—I grow in my ability to distinguish light from darkness. I grow in my love for being in the light with Jesus, doing his Kingdom work.

I want to close with a glimpse of the big picture. We all know a lot about what’s happening here right now in our beautiful, beloved Nicaragua. It’s horrible and it’s scary. I believe it is also a picture of walking in darkness instead of light. John 3

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

It may have started with some small darkness. It may have started with some minor-seeming self-deception. I’m guessing there were moments when people could have spoken the truth and challenged the darkness, but that didn’t happen. Or it was rejected. And it grew. It multiplied. There is a dominion of darkness and a Kingdom of light. Those aren’t just physical realities, nor merely when people decide to do good stuff or bad stuff. Those are spiritual realities, spiritual realms in warfare. When mothers whose children have been killed march in protest and people murder some of those marchers with sniper rifles, we’re seeing the kingdom of darkness right in front of us.

Going back to our first two verses: “The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

People are walking in darkness all around us. That’s always true, but it’s out in the open now. Jesus is the light of the world and He shines in the darkness. The darkness has not and will not overcome it. We follow Jesus. We are in Him, in his light. We do not walk in darkness, even when the darkness is all around us. When you see darkness like this, there’s nothing appealing or tempting about it. It’s ugly and brutal. This is what darkness really is, no matter how it dresses up.

Our job, as I see it, is to keep on being light. I know a lot of us feel helpless and scared. It is scary. Nothing wrong with feeling scared. That’s common sense. But letting fear control us is different. I know we’re praying, and that’s exactly what we have to do, that’s what we do first and that’s no small thing. In truth, that’s the biggest thing. To quote John Bunyan, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.” That sounds pretty good right now.

The other thing I know to do is keep calling people back to focus on Jesus. With my human eyes, I can’t see right now how God is going to bring peace and justice here, but I am believing he will. Ultimately, our hope is not in human solutions, but in God’s love and grace. People come to know Jesus in crisis, when they know their need. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. This is the time to speak up about our hope. Share your light. Come, Lord Jesus.

Thirty Things about Coaching

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Today, we had our final end-of-the-year basketball party.  It marks the end of my time coaching in Nicaragua.  Bittersweet.  I gave out awards.  They gave me a signed basketball.  I prayed for my team.  They prayed for me.

I didn’t coach all that long, but it quickly became a central part of my life.  

So here, then, are thirty things about my experience of coaching basketball.  Some I love, some I thought might kill me, and some…

  1. I didn’t really enjoy making my team run, but I liked seeing their courage when they were tired and pushed themselves a little more.  To their credit, I don’t think we ever lost a game for lack of conditioning.  
  2. Sometimes, you have to enforce discipline when you actually think your guys are hilarious.
  3. It’s stinking hard to see guys making the same mistakes over and over and never figure out how to help them change.
  4. The worst feeling in coaching, to me, is when the refs are making not just bad but clearly biased, unfair calls and my guys know it but I can’t do anything to fix it.  It’s having to look injustice, minor as it is, in the face with no recourse.  Losing is never fun, but that’s life.  We had some games in which we were just cheated, and what is the pep talk after that?
  5. In our win at the Kaiser Tournament we overcame bad reffing, poor sportsmanship by our opponent, and our own emotional response.  I felt like a true coach then, not simply because we won–we’ve done a lot of that–but because we overcame it all, together, as a team.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt prouder of a team.
  6. I hated not being able to get all my players real playing time.  I never got comfortable with that, even when I believed I had to make that choice for us to have a chance to win.
  7. Making free throws to earn being done with sprints was probably the best thing I ever came up with as a coach.
  8. I always felt like we should have been better at free throws than we were.
  9. The strangest thing for me about coaching was grasping that it didn’t matter what I ate beorehand or if I was rested enough or any of the physical preparations I focus on when I’m going to play.  Because the coach doesn’t play.  It took me my first three years of coaching to stop longing to put myself in.
  10. I like being friends with my players.  I’m sure some coaches would say this is a bad way to do it.  But I wouldn’t do it any other way and it’s the only way I could do it, because I had to do it as me.
  11. Coaching in Nicaragua, where one finds out the schedule a week–or a day–ahead, was hard on me, and I’m the most spontaneous, non-scheduled person I know who is still a contributing member of society.  
  12. I’d rather have guys who will play hard than more talented players who won’t.  Every time.  
  13. A team in which every single player gives it his all every time he’s in the game is a rare pleasure.  We had that this year.   
  14. We also had the necessary corollary to that: when you need a break, let me freaking know! We had that this year, too, which is a big indicator of maturity.  
  15. I enjoyed practice more than games.  In that, I was more into the process than the results.  
  16. We won more than we lost, but of the games in which I felt proudest of our team, the majority were losses. Going after a team that has us badly outmatched and refusing to let down, give up, or even give an inch shows me much more about our guys hearts than our wins do.  
  17. It was, nonetheless, also really satisfying to beat schools that had beaten us year after year.  
  18. I can remember only once that we poured it on (rubbed it in) too much in a victory.  It was conscious and intentional, in response to how we had been treated, and I still feel a twinge of guilt about it.  I did the wrong thing.
  19. I also have one game that I know I lost through my coaching. Every game you lose, you second-guess and try to figure out what you might have done better.  But one, early on as head coach, when we had a big lead, I flat-out blew.  Not singlehandedly, but for certain I could have prevented the loss with better decisions.  My guys know which one.  I don’t still feel guilty…but I still wish I could do it over.  
  20. It can be hard to find the balance between keeping the focus on God and being too preachy as a coach, at least for the guy who is a pastor first whether coaching or teaching or doing anything else.  Not sure how well I did at this, but Ioved how consistently during scrimmages our guys would say, “No, that one was out on me.”  Character.
  21. My dad taught me not to shout at nor disrespect referees.  He was very strong about this.  I may have raised my voice at the refs once or twice, but I always kept this in mind and tried to show respect.  That was pretty difficult sometimes.  
  22. I never got a technical foul as coach.  I had the ideal that none of my players would ever get one, either, but then I discovered for what ridiculous things we could get them: patting a guy on the shoulder, trying to get a basket with a continuation play, asking a question calmly and respectfully, trying to take a charge…and I stopped worrying as much about that.  
  23. I’m a reasonably patient human being, all credit to God, but the thing at which I’d get most angry was when our players weren’t taking practice seriously.  That didn’t mean no jokes–we made jokes all the time–but screwing around and playing lazily or half-heartedly, ignoring instruction and then going in and having no idea what to do, that lit my fuse.  There’s a balance in sports between having fun and working hard.  Most of the time, we got that balance. 
  24. Trying hard and hustling is more important than shooting well because hard work is more a transferable skill than being coordinated.  
  25. One of our rallying cries was, “Every loose ball is…ours!” You can’t always make the ball go in the basket, but you can always dive on the floor to get to the ball first.  When our big guys–6’5″–started doing this and our previously slower guys started being first down on the fastbreak, I knew it was getting through.  
  26. Our players don’t yell at one another.  There are moments to correct teammates but never to tear down or criticize them.  That’s counterproductive to winning and, more importantly, counterproductive to becoming a team.  
  27. The flip side of this is mutual respect.  The guys don’t have to be best friends.  They have to respect one another.  
  28. I believe in encouragement.  Coaching is a great opportunity to encourage.  We all need to be built up.  I’m extremely vocal as a coach and always make a point of affirming the good plays I see, especially the ones that demonstrate effort.  At one of our scrimmages, I noticed that a young assistant coach was shouting out the positives he saw in a steady stream.  That warmed my heart.  
  29. I started coaching because I didn’t have a good experience playing high school basketball.  I wanted to make certain my players experienced something better.  I would say it’s harder than I realized, and I understand much better now what happened to me.  But it’s also very simple: This is a very vulnerable time in a young guy’s life.  You earn your players’ trust.  Then you keep earning it.  You do that by showing them they’re more important than winning and losing, even when you’re trying to win.  
  30. Guys, I hope you know that.  I don’t coach for wins.  I coach for you.  

Thanks, Gentleman.  You’ve made my life a lot better, letting me be your coach.  

 

Oh, and one more, in case they’re still reading:  you really do play better if you eat better.

A Last Hurrah and a Tribute to Friends

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I just got back from Costa Rica last night. I went with three guys, Boone, Norman, and Dalke (not their real names).  We went for an ultimate tournament. Since Kim and I are moving back to the U.S., my friends suggested one last big adventure, our last tournament together, maybe our last time to have real, focused time together. We’re all husbands and dads, all in ministry, and always have multiple things vying for our attention. Uninterrupted time together becomes rare.

Four days to hang out and play ultimate? A treasure.

The timing of our trip seemed dubious, since Nicaragua is suffering severe political turmoil and violence right now. We were deciding day-to-day whether we would go;  finally, the night before, we determined that we could.  It probably sounds crazy that we decided to take such a trip at this time, but the truth is, choosing not to would have changed nothing here.  Everyone was fine while we were gone.  The hardest thing to explain is how normal things feel in Nicaragua right now, except when they’re not.  Horrible things are happening, yet our families are safe. Panicking or creating more drama helps no one.  We keep praying.  

Had we planned to drive, as we have on every other trip to Costa Rica,* we would have canceled. The roads are not safe and we could not have gotten through.  But because this was the last hoorah, we had decided, before any of this broke out, to fly. So we went.

We departed Managua from an empty airport. I estimated a five-to-one ratio of employees to travelers…at 6:45 PM. We could each have had a row or three of seats to ourselves, had we wanted.

Costa Rica, after a month of unpredictable violence and instability in Nicaragua, struck us as bizarre. Visiting Costa Rica always feels closer to being in the US than it does to being in Nicaragua, and even more so this time. Three hundred kilometers seemed worlds away from our turmoil here. Many Costa Ricans asked us, “How are things there? What’s going on now? It’s so sad, all that’s happening.” They care, but they asked as you would ask about any far distant, tragic yet personally unrelated situation. Our problems had not touched their world.

Most of our guy time together would sound boring if I described it or tried to write it up as dialogue. You had to be there. Being there, it was utterely hilarious. Being there, I felt so grateful for these three men, for what great friends they’ve been to me for the past seven years. Inside jokes, inappropriate comments, sudden, insightful depth in the midst of an ordinary-sounding conversation. Kindness, generosity, encouragement, affirmation. Truth-telling.

I’d never played cribbage before our trip. By the flight home, I was watching Boone and Dalke play. Cribbage went from a card game I didn’t understand to a spectator sport for me in the space of four days.  I still suck at it, but the key– and maybe a key to life–is that I was playing with people I really enjoy. If they had been excited about tiddly-winks or Go Fish, we might have played those all weekend.  I’m sure it would have gotten competitive.

Another lesson I remembered not to forget was to live in the present.  It would have been easy for me to have felt so nostalgic about our trip that I forgot to enjoy our trip.  Instead, I focused on enjoying each little moment as it happened.  The breakfast burritos and incredible coffee on Thursday morning.  Learning about Arenal Volcano and how it buried 15 square kilometers of Tico farmland under lava and ash.  Realizing that we were sitting at that breakfast within range of that volcano. and the rocks weighing several tons that flew out of it at–ready?– 600 meters per second would have smashed us before we had time to insult one another one final time.  We talked about those rocks the rest of the trip.

Other moments, lived in and remembered:

*The three of them had burgers and fries on Friday right before the game; I ate salad.

*On Saturday night, which is classic ultimate party scene, we were happily in our beds by 8:30, watching the Warriors beat the Rockets by 30, playing some cribbage, laughing about our old men selves.  Crazy that our wives risk letting us go out.

*All the time spent talking and laughing in the pool and the hot tub. Norman asked me what I’ll miss most about living in Nicaragua.  That was good to reflect on.

*Three of us predicted the Celtics would win Game 7, while one successfully called the outcome.  A modicum of boasting ensued.**

*Sunday afternoon, post all games, sitting at our traditional Tico steak joint we always go to, reviewing the one-sided finals in our minds and what we needed to do differently to have won it all, playing–guess what?–and eating, drinking, laughing, and getting too full. We declared Sunday-afternoon-onward as the “Replenishing” portion of the trip, which sounded better than “gorging,” “bingeing,” or “drowning our sorrows.”

*The huge, bearded iguanas that came right up to us to share our breakfast on Monday morning.  From there, talking about Komodo Dragons, and then all the topics that we tangented on to, one after the other.


Now I’m going to indulge a bit. You don’t have to read about the ultimate tournament (technically speaking, you don’t have to read any of this), but I am going to write about it. This was my last hurrah with my friends and my last hurrah to play an ultimate tournament here.

Dalke and Boone were on one team and Norman and I were on another. Of the eight teams, ours both made the semi-finals.

I’m forty-nine. I’m a good ultimate player, but these days I keep having to overcome the doubts that while I may be a good forty-nine-year-old ultimate player, I’m no longer competitive with the younger folks.

Hat tournaments have their own unique make up. Rather than having pre-established teams come in, for the “Volcanic Tournament,” two people maximum can request to play together  and the organizers pick the teams “from a hat.” They are “randomly” put together in the sense that players rank themselves and then get placed on teams in an attempt to balance beginner, intermediate and advanced players, tall and not-so-tall, throwers and cutters (less-throwers or faster-runners-arounders).  The question I always ask when ranking myself is “compared to whom?” You just guess.

Silver Foxes!

I loved our team. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a hat team more than I enjoyed this one. I always enjoy playing with Norman.  We had one elite player who was fantastically talented, tall, humble, and fun. We had a 25-year-old gal, just diagnosedas cancer free in February, playing with her PICC line still in her chest. She got Spirit of the Game. But most importantly, we figured out in a very short time how to play together and each find our role.

We played a game on Friday night, which I’d never done in a tournament before, ever. Since we arrived late Thursday, we had all Friday to relax and prepare. We prepared by sitting in the hot tub in the pouring rain for three hours.

I played awfully. I was pressing too hard, my timing was off, I messed up a couple plays I should have made and then couldn’t get those out of my head. First games in hat tournaments are notoriously ugly because the teams are just figuring out how to play together. That was us. Games were to eleven points which meant half-time at six–and we were losing 6-1. At that moment, I wondered if we would suck and if, ultimate-wise, this might be a long, rough weekend. I don’t, after all, love losing. But we fought back well in the second half and even got to 9-7 beore losing 11-7.  I was bummed but not crushed.

Saturday, though. Saturday was epic.

I’ve played in a lot of tournaments, so many I’ve lost track. I’d never had an experience like Saturday.

On Saturday, our team won all five of our games. That’s a good day.  We won four games at universe point. That means we were tied at the end, with time having run out and next point wins. Four times.

And we won.

All. Four. Times.

Not only have I not done that beore, I’ve never seen it before. Winning two games at universe point in a tournament is pretty darned good. You might win three, over the course of two days, if you had a clutch team.

We won four out of four that way on the same day.

The other game we finally got a blow-out, winning 11-5 (I think).

I must add that in two of our four universe point wins, we could
have won more easily but let the other team get close after we were well ahead.  I realized then we loved drama.No automatic alt text available.

I won’t go through a play-by-play of each game. I could.  I had a good day. On Saturday, I caught the ones I dropped or mis-read on Friday, made the throws my team didn’t yet realize I could throw on Friday night, and somehow, to my amazement, became our go-to cutter.

See, that’s weird, because I’m a thrower. A handler. I’m older and slower but I can throw better.  That’s my role in ultimate for at least 10-12 years now.

But something strange and magical happened on Saturday in Arenal. I got fast again.

In case you’re wondering if I’m deluded or letting the stress get to my brain, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My team, who had not played with me before, just decided I was. But my friends, who have played with me for seven years and watched me get slower, also commented, in their affirming-but-jerky way. However, the real proof was that I cut deep and caught several hucks (US football translation: went long and caught several bombs). I beat a Tico guy who had beat me deep back in our Nicaragua tournament in November. I was getting to the disc and getting to it first. So, since we had other players, especially two gals and the aforementioned guy, who could throw well, I traveled back in time about 12 years to when I was more valuable to the team as the guy who could run fast, cut quick, and get open to catch the disc first. Then look for a throw. Or just give it back to the handlers and cut again.  By the end of the fifth game I was finally cramping in both legs and had to sit out the last third of the game–which we still won on universe point!

Now remember, I went into this tournament wondering whether I could still keep up. To find out not only could I keep up but often beat much younger players shocked and delighted me. I had trained pretty hard coming in, within the confines of what my time allows and my body will put up with.*** I lost a few pounds, which sounds like no big deal but those suckers really don’t like to come off at this age like they used to when I was younger. I also think I had “home field advantage” in the sense that Costa Rica and Nicaragua are both crazy humid and most of the US players were not acclimated to the tropics. Nonetheless, having my twenty-to-thirty-years-younger teammates comment on what good condition I was in felt great. One teammate even commented on my abs…and that’s when I realized they were all BSing me.

I’m going to say three more things about our games.

We lost in the semi-finals, to a team we had beaten (by 1!) the day before. We had plenty of chances to beat them and just didn’t capitalize, but that is life and sports.

Second, I didn’t play enough in that game. In spite of having a great Saturday and gaining the confidence of all my teammates, I still was hesitant, partially pacing myself for the final game I still thought we’d have, partially not wanting to assert myself too much. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and I should have played a lot more points than I did and taken more of a chance to win it or blow it or us. Even having played for so many years, I shrink back sometimes from putting myself on the line, not wanting to risk being the goat. I played several of the crucial points, but there reached a point when I simply should have stayed in or all I could, and I did not.

Which brings me to the last thing, which may be my least favorite thing about playing ultimate: I cannot stop replaying what I could have done differently. This has always tortured me after tournaments. Relatively speaking, this was a mild one because I had much bigger things going on this weekend than simply playing ultimate and because Saturday was one of my favorite days playing ultimate, ever. But I’m still seeing a bad pass I threw, remembering when I should have gone in and knew I should have and didn’t, I’m still feeling how much energy I had left after we lost the game, which tells me I did not do what I always coach my players to do—leave it all out there! No changing any of it now, of course. The best I can do is learn from it and try to recognize the situation next time so I can make different choices.


Boone, who is arguably the best player among the four of us,**** had been nursing a nasty and strange injury coming up to the tournament.  He was hopeful he might still recover and play, but I’m sure by the time we left he knew he would be very limited.  He ended up playing only a few points in each game, if that.  I mention this because he might have chosen not to come, realizing he would mostly be watching (torture for any of us, especially because he could have helped his team make, and possible win, the finals). I consider it a profound gift that he did all the organizing and came to spend that time with us, even though he could not play.

As we were driving back to the airport to come home, two things happened which capture both the trip and my friendship with these three. First, we “happened upon” a bungee-jumping operation. It was impressive. The jumps were 143 meters, which is a LONG way up there. I bungee jumped once, many moons ago, during the first year of our marriage, and Kim was not thrilled.  It’s still one of those stories we tell.  So if you’re wondering what she thought of this, she’s finding out as she’s reading, just like you are. It cost $75…

And we didn’t do it. We didn’t really have time. We hit some traffic on the way back to the airport and had some difficulty getting the car returned (we think that’s part of their racket to get to charge extra), so it was a good thing we didn’t try to squeeze it in.

But we would have. Even though it scared the bejeebers out of me the first time, I could feel the group testosterone building to do it. Dalke said his palms started sweating as soon as we drove in.

On the drive, after we didn’t bungee jump (honestly, Love, we didn’t), we talked about a deep, perilous, more-sensitive-than-I’ll-share-even-on-my-blog issue. I started it, because these are the men in my life I can trust. Yes, they’re idiots, yes, they tell more bathroom humor jokes than I’ll ever appreciate–and don’t even get me started on the country music!–but they are also the guys to whom I can speak the truth and know they will speak truth back to me, without judgment or condemnation, yet also without sugar-coating, downplaying, or evasion.

The epitome of our time together:

“Okay, I’m going to bring up a serious topic. Ready?”

“Ready.”

Serious topic introduced.

Joke.

Joke.

“Sorry, I’ll be serious now, and–”

One more joke.

Then (and only then) we proceed to have a great, honest conversation for over an hour. Things in the darkness came into the light and we become more whole, maybe a little closer to God, and more trusting of one another, even as our time together (well, mine with them) dwindled.

Plus, they kept making stupid jokes.

 

 

 

*I’ve made 10 trips to Costa Rica in the time I’ve lived in Nicaragua: 1 family trip with in-laws, 2 youth team ultimate trips as coach, 3 ultimate tournaments for “grown-ups,” and 4 trips to coach the basketball team. In peaceful times, it’s a 3-hour drive to the border.

**Which one?  Well, history is written by the winners.

***I’ve learned that if I train as hard as I can, I will injure myself and not get to play at all.  I’ve therefore toned down my training to find the balance between getting in shape and overdoing it.  I now save the overdoing it for the tournaments.

****If I were a captain picking teams, I would pick him first over the rest of us. Do feel free to argue otherwise.