On Cups, Happiness, and Joy

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[Portrait of the Apostle John, Laura Kranz]

My sister Chris’s favorite saying is, “If you can’t change something, change the way you think about it.”  She didn’t originate this saying but she definitely lives it.  

On the flip side, this lyric from a song I love by Ray LaMontagne:

Never learned to count my blessings/

I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.  

How can I appreciate both of those when they say opposite things?  

Two days ago I wrote about a beautiful day I had.  I don’t have many beautiful days.  I have many beautiful moments in the midst of my messy, grace-filled, tortured days.  I suffer insomnia most nights.  I nearly always feel like I’m falling short or failing, in the midst of which I love people and try to speak life to them.  I’ve learned not to live according to those feelings–I don’t spend my days in the fetal position–but that whole “ignore them and they’ll go away” strategy has yet to work for any extended period of time.  Prayer restores my perspective.  It helps me remember that those are mostly lies and, even if they are true, God covers my shortcomings

This next may cross the line of telling you too much about my inner workings–“What?  Mike thinks there’s a line?”–but one reason I love playing ultimate is that after a good game, I get a few hours relief from all that noise in my head.  That post-game high just quiets things down for a while.  Winning the tournament a few weeks ago?  Feeling so good gave me three days of relative quiet!  I asked Kim, “Do people experience this all the time?”  Dang!  No wonder some people can get so much done!  

Now let’s be clear on three things

1)I don’t have it as bad as many other people do, 

2)Too often I contribute to my own struggle,* and

3)God redeems this in my life by using it to give me compassion and empathy for others.  

A friend who was in recovery from alcoholism once told me, “You get it like someone who is in recovery.  I don’t know anybody else not in recovery who understands what people go through like you do.”  I still count that among the best affirmations I’ve ever received.  

On Sunday, my cup ran over.  I could say that it ran over because everything went right, which in Big Picture terms was certainly true.  More, it spilled over because I got to see God’s goodness to me in such profound ways and in so many faces.  

Are all my days that full of God’s goodness?  Could I see it on Sunday because it was writ large in my son’s baptism, in my friend’s son’s miraculous recovery, of which his baptism was the consummation and fulfillment?  


Cup half full, cup half empty.  That talk relates to whether we focus on positives or negatives, whether we feel hopeful or hopeless about what is and what might be.  But all of this addresses what happens.  

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.

Happiness, literally, was what happened to us, and that was ultimately out of our hands.**

There are other views of happiness, of course, but this one remains a foundational perspective for most of us.  

“How’s it going?”

“Good.  It’s been a good day,” usually meaning, “Things have gone well today.”  

I have some of this mindset, as well, but I try to resist its pull.  The wisdom of my sister’s saying is that if things are bad in a happenstance sense, I’m not stuck being miserable. Not every bad thing or difficult situation can be reframed and thus improved.  A lot can.  

I approach it differently, though.  Henri Nouwen, my all-time favorite spiritual writer (I think), gave me the framework for how I view good and bad events in my life.  

“Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.

“Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together…Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”

 

*See LaMontagne quote above.  I don’t like it because it’s a great idea that I recommend; I like it because it speaks a truth about my, and many others’, existence.  Real art does that.  

**From Yes! Magazine, “A History of Happiness.”  

My Cup Runs Over

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 107

 

Today has been a great day.  I don’t know how many great days I have.  Not as many as the struggling days. I embrace the struggle and try to share it openly, even when it sucks, even when I might throw some people with the depth of my inner turmoil, because I know there are others who need to know they’re not alone in that fight.  

But today, I’m going to tell you about my great day!  

Corin got baptized today.  That was, undoubtedly, the highlight of a great day.  We’d been talking about it for a while and he had expressed interest, but we were giving him space to make up his mind.  As I was sitting in church, waiting for my time to preach (meaning sitting there with my stomach going crazy and trying to focus on God and breathe deeply), Kim pointed out the door and said, “Go talk to Corin” in her serious Mom voice.  

Okay. Corin’s in trouble.  In trouble for what?  No clue.  

So I’m out in the corridor with Corin and I have to ask, “What did you do?” because I’m responsible to take care of this.  

“Dad, I’ve decided I want to get baptized today.”  

Ohhhhh!  I almost start laughing out loud, which if you’ve heard me laugh, you know isn’t the best idea within 100 feet of a worship service in progress (or is that yards?).  

Shift gears.  Move nerves to backburner.  Laugh with son quietly over misunderstanding.  Get serious and talk about baptism.  

He gets it.  He really has made up his mind.  We talked a little about what baptism means, about how going under water symbolizes not just being cleansed, but dying with Jesus and then being raised to life with him.  We talked about why we need that.  He got it.  

Some part of my brain thought “how did we get here already?”  But I’m thrilled that he means it, that he’s ready.  For all our kids I’ve trusted that they would know when it’s time and I’ve never wanted to push them.  What we want to do and what we do as parents are sometimes different.  For this one, I’ve really tried to be careful; making someone get baptized makes no sense.  

So I got to tell a couple of the other elders quickly and then I preached.  I’ve posted quite a few sermons here but I don’t think I’ve ever described the experience of preaching.  That needs to be its own post.  I preached on Isaiah 58, the Kingdom of God and breaking chains.  I preached hard today, perhaps the hardest I’ve ever preached.  By that I mean I may have expressed what I understand to be the truth more forcefully than ever before.  That’s a little weird and I felt strange afterward, but encouraged, as well.  God always sides with the oppressed and calls us to take their side, too.  Impoverished people’s bad choices are not the sole, nor even the main, cause of poverty.  I said some other stuff, too.

The people whom I knew would like it told me they liked it and the people who didn’t like it didn’t tell me.  

Then we rushed home to get clothes to get wet in, because I didn’t dress for preaching and baptism.  

The baptism was beautiful on so many levels.  Nine kids and Corin’s teacher got baptized today!  Each one is a story in itself, of course.  I got to stand in the water with my friend Dave while he baptized his son who miraculously survived a horrific head injury earlier this year.  

And we baptized Corin.  When asked if he believed in God, Corin declared, “Absolutely!”  When asked if he knew that he needed forgiveness for his sins and if he had repented of his sins, he carefully parsed the questions, answered, “Yes…and sort of.”  Everyone laughed, of course.  But you know, I’m going to argue that, though not the classic answer, my son gave the theologically and pastorally astute answer.  Have I repented of all my sins?  Not do I desire to or would I like my heart to be in a place where I have, but have I?  

Sort of.  

So we laughed and then we dunked him and prayed and rejoiced.  

We finished up the baptisms and the kids all swan dived (swan dove?) back in the pool and started splashing around.  Then a twenty-seven-year-old, a friend of one of our elders, decided to get baptized, too, right there and then.  He’d been thinking and praying about it and said, “Okay, it’s time.”  Like I say, I think people know when it’s time.  He did.  So we did!  

Afterward, we headed home, I snuck in a nap*, then zoomed off to play ultimate.  I love ultimate.  I got to play with some Nicaraguans I love and love to have as teammates, notably Zeke and Andy.  I’ve talked about Zeke before.  Andy is a 15-year-old rockstar ultimate player who should get a full ride scholarship to play college ultimate…when such things exist.  We had a mighty comeback victory in which I made a pretty decent layout (diving) catch for an old guy.  Then we got trounced but still had fun and made some good plays.  No kidding, I love ultimate.  Oh, and Aria and I got to play together.  I love playing ultimate with my kids!

We zipped home, cleaned up, and hurried back to our annual International Christian Fellowship Thanksgiving Celebration,always held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, always one of our two biggest events of the year.  I emceed, which is not my gift.  I’m a better preacher than an emcee.  But it went great.  Hundreds of people, gringo and Nicaraguan (mostly gringo but a good number of Nicaraguans), feasted together on traditional Thanksgiving food, sang of God’s faithfulness, shared around the table about what we’re thankful for, and a few gave testimonies, including a poem of gratitude to a loving husband and a journey-in-progress of a young woman whose sister is recovering from cancer.  

It was a beautiful day.  Corin and I prayed together at his bedtime and already his prayers are more mature.  We pray together almost every night.  I’d never heard him pray like this before.  He’s thinking beyond himself, bigger picture.  

I thought my cup was full and seeping over the sides.  Then a dear friend I’ve mentored for years wrote me and overflowed completely.  Mentoring is a painful joy and a joyful pain.  You invest your life in someone and become invested in their progress.  You remember the bigger picture but you also suffer the ups and downs.  Yes, like parenting, but different, too.  

Here is joy:  “I forgave people who hurt me, I reconciled, I made deeper relationships with others who will encourage me to seek God with my whole heart.   And oh, yeah! God used me in this crazy way to bless a guy I just met whose estranged father recently died but turns out I knew the father through work and could tell the guy about his father things he would never have heard otherwise!”  

I officially declared him a Jedi.  That cool.  That nerdy cool. 

I love mentoring.  The best part, the very best part is when you get to step back and say to a guy who used to be a lost, confused kid, “Okay, adult to adult, father to father, friend to friend, you are there. You are living this life to the fullest, God is bursting through you, and I’m just grateful to have seen it all up close.”  That was this weekend.  That was tonight.  

In the midst of this, I cannot fail to say, Kim once again demonstrated what an incredible wife and partner she is, what a servant and mighty woman of valor, and I’m reminded how lucky/blessed/freaking fortunate I am to have her in my life.  

Tomorrow, my self-doubts will come crashing back in, I’ll dig in, pray hard, and return to the daily battle.  There will be small moments of grace and some ugly reality I’ll need God to overcome.  That’s fine.  That’s life on this side.  But today?

 Today was beautiful.  

 

*Did I mention I slept very poorly the night before?  It’s kind of my normal now, but there are more and less convenient days for my insomnia.  

MIGRACIÓN Y EXTRANJERÍA

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 103

Picture your most challenging day at the DMV, the day you were most tempted to express profanity in public.  

Now picture the hottest classroom in which you’ve ever sat, wondering why this school can’t have air conditioning.

Add that the people sitting behind the glass get to decide whether you stay in the country or not.  

Welcome to Migración.  

Yesterday, my children had an appointment to renew their cedulas.  Cedulas are the Nicaraguan version of U.S. Green Cards, the identification card that means you have legal residency in the country.  

Many of us in the U.S. have experienced a moment at the Department of Motorized Vehicles that felt like a Catch-22.  Or we’ve just sat for what felt like an insane amount of time for the simplest request.  Gringos are not good at waiting.  We’re not trained for it and we’ve been inculcated with sayings like “Time is money,” so that sitting and doing nothing for extended periods of time for no evident reason hurts us. Irritates us.  May even infuriate us.  

If you can’t endure sitting and waiting for no obvious reason, I’m going to recommend not moving to Nicaragua.  Sometimes, that is just life here.  

La  Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería is such a place and yesterday was such a time.  In fact, every visit I’ve ever had to Migración, as we fondly refer to it, has been such a time.  

Now let me say here that I am an advantaged gringo.  Our school, Nicaragua Christian Academy, International, walks us through the process of getting our cedulas, keeping them renewed, etc.  NCAI employs one person, Jairo, whose job is largely to keep the working gringos legal and squared up here, and God bless him.  I’ve talked with friends who were visiting  Migración without the benefit of such expertise who looked like they might blow all their fuses.  The section for nationals always looks even busier.  

One of the biggest challenges with remaining a legal resident here is that the rules keep changing.  Maybe they’re always changing.  Last year, we were unable to obtain appointments to renew our cedulas–including that we had several appointments scheduled which were then cancelled–and I had to travel to Costa Rica twice with an expired cedula.  I was warned that an official at the frontera might confiscate it.  Would that make getting it renewed even more difficult? It was expired anyway, I was told, and I’m already in the system, but no one knows for sure and I would be walking around without any form of legal ID to be in the country.* Though I got raised eyebrows and warnings, especially at the airport, no one took my cedula.  

The kiddos’ appointment yesterday was to get theirs renewed from when they expired last January.  Understand, this is with our friend Jairo, who knows the system, doing everything in his power to get them renewed. For about six months, none of the teachers had been able to get renewals and we were starting to worry that the government had decided to stop granting them. We’ve seen other signs that the government is getting stricter with foreign workers. Again, the rules change, usually unwritten, and then you try to adapt.  

That’s all big picture.  Small picture, we came in, took our seats, and waited.  The girls do pretty well with their books–one even took a nap–but it’s a long stretch for my 10-year-old.  There are vendors inside, ice cream and “American Doughnuts,” among others, and then rows of little food tables and stands outside.  We have a “you get one thing” rule for Migración days and we try to bring snacks and plenty of water.  Did I mention it’s hot?**  

Mostly, it’s just enduring the wait–time may be money, but if you lost your flexibility and humor, you’ll also lose your mind.  After about three hours, I went out for a walk.  Though being inside  Migración feels different than any office I’ve experienced in the States (the bathrooms are notably rougher), the walk outside really drove home that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  Imagine very busy sidewalks, bustling with people going in both directions and dozens of food stands selling fruit, baby formula–I mean towers of formula cans–pop, snacks both packaged and being fried, signs for fotocopias scattered throughout, and then at least half a dozen little stands looking no different than the others except they had signs advertising “Abogados y Notarios.”  I bought six buñuelos (fried yuca balls), but I could also have stopped and gotten a consultation with a lawyer.  

Of course, this felt discordant to me, because we have different images of lawyers in the U.S. (“different” doesn’t always mean “better”), but it also speaks volumes about the situation: Nicaraguans trying to find their way through the red tape labyrinth.  

We succeeded yesterday.  It took about four hours of waiting (we left school about 12:30 and got home a little before 6) but the bar is very low for a successful visit–if we leave with our ID’s, we win!–and we’ve waited longer than that without success.  The action of the appointment was this: we waited two hours, the kids got their pictures taken, we waited two more hours, we received and signed for the new cards.  And truly, we’re grateful to be received here, to follow God’s calling in a place that has no obligation to host us but has allowed us to call this home.  

Oh, and they each had a doughnut.  I just had the buñuelos.

 

Buñuelos

 

PS I hope the tone has come across that, though this is a challenge of patience, as long as we’re allowed to stay and continue our work in Nicaragua, it isn’t a serious problem.  In contrast, the crises over legal, long-term residents in the US being deported are very serious problems.

 

 

*Yeah, I could carry my passport, but it doesn’t give me the rights a cedula does.  Frequently, when making any transaction–banking, purchasing, getting insurance–the first question is “may I see your cedula?”  

**To be fair, I don’t think it’s as hot as the police building where I had to pay my ticket.  That was more uncomfortable, but this has more at stake.  

Adding My Voice

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“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

A wise friend of mine once said, “Sexism, like racism, works for some, but not for others.”

She meant, of course, that some people are on the side that benefits from sexism, or racism, while others fall on the side that does not benefit.

In a spiritual view, no one benefits from racism or sexism.  Inequity of power and injustice against people who lack power damages people on both sides of the equation.  Frankly, that’s much harder to see when you get the benefit of the doubt, when you are on the receiving end of advantages.  It’s harder to see when you don’t feel like you’re the one being hurt.

Jesus said “you cannot serve God and money, because you will hate the one and love the other, or love the one and hate the other.”  One aspect of this word is that I must speak against injustice, even when doing so threatens to cost me my advantage–or perhaps especially when it does so.  Unless I see our lives through spiritual eyes, I’m always going to believe that I just deserve what I get, that I worked harder and, perhaps, that the person complaining just doesn’t follow the rules or the law or know the system as well as I.  Is that my fault?  Am I my brother or sister’s keeper?

If being the “beneficiary” of injustice harms me, then I’m working for both our good when I seek to acknowledge and correct our unlevel playing field.

Men, in my experience, generally do not like to hear the term “rape culture.”  It sounds accusatory.  It puts us on the defensive.  It suggests that the nice guys among us, who believe we’ve never committed any of these acts of sexual harassment or sexual violence against women, still contribute to the problem.  We’re still guilty.

When I first heard this term, I had to read and study.  I had to choose to keep an open mind to hear their voices above the voice in my head shouting “Nuh-uh!  Not me!  I advocate for women!  I believe in equality!  I hyphenated my name!”

Now I believe sexism is so woven into our cultures–here in Nicaragua and the U.S., the two I can speak to–that most of us men remain comfortably oblivious to something so shocking as “rape culture.”  We’re not forced to be aware of it.


Today, I’m watching my Facebook page roll by with woman after woman, friend after friend, posting “Me, too.”  #metoo.  Men and women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted are posting “Me Too” as a status to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  A few women report being sexually harassed by other women.  I’ve seen a few men speak up.  In college, I was sexually harassed by a man, so yes, #metoo.

But though that matters, and I needed to work through my trauma and seek healing, that’s not my point today.  In fact, one stumbling block for men is to convince ourselves that we have it just as bad, that we, too, have suffered just as much.  In this, I don’t want to diminish anyone’s struggle or their journey.  But white men are not oppressed in the United States.  The loss of some privileges that we have above others, no matter how normal they seem to us, no matter how much we’ve rationalized that we deserve them, does not equal persecution.  It doesn’t.

Likewise, while some men have suffered from women being sexual predators, rape culture is a culture perpetrated primarily by men against women.*  It’s a culture that degrades and diminishes women by conveying that they are less than men, that they are objects rather than subjects, and that they must accept living in constant awareness (if not fear) that any man with whom they come in contact with might choose to use his power to hurt them for his gratification.  It also belittles these acts of violence, which are always a sin and frequently a crime, by making light of them and turning them into jokes.  Sick jokes.

When my wife and I watched the news of the rape case in which a male Stanford student sexually assaulted an unconscious female Stanford student, everything about it horrified us.  The details turned our stomachs.  The court proceedings outraged us.  We were most upset by the defense that this poor young man might have his life destroyed by a harsh sentence when he was such a promising athlete with such a bright future, the justification that this was all too much for a boy’s “twenty minutes of action.”

Okay, that’s a nightmare.  That’s rape culture.  Describing your son’s sexual assault against a helpless, unconscious human being as “twenty minutes of action” when he was convicted of three felonies—assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object–that is the epitome of rape culture.  In this description, the woman victim is a lesser human being, of lesser value than the man attacker.  This point is driven home when you read her letter to the court.

The assailant faced up to fourteen years, the prosecution asked for six years, and the judge sentenced him to six months in county jail and three years of probation, saying a harsher sentence would have a “severe impact” on him, a star swimmer who could have made it to the Olympics.  That, in my opinion, is rape culture.

But this is a nationally publicized case.  How many of the women and girls who are my friends had their cases tried?  How many saw their attackers brought to justice or received justice for themselves?  How many of them suffered silently?  How many took years to recover, to gather the courage to tell anyone?  How many were believed when they tried?  

As I’m reading these stories today, I’m seeing:

“10 years ago I took out a restraining order on a pastor for sexual harassment. He still tried to contact me. #MeToo”**

and

My first job out of college was as an ESL teacher. A 50-year-old businessman was in one of the classes that I taught. He turned in homework with threatening and sexual comments to me. When I complained to my supervisor, they did nothing. Then I overheard my supervisor telling someone else about it in a joking way. 

 I’m seeing workplaces that did not believe the women, workplaces that threatened to fire the women for not reporting quickly enough (imagine being caught between those contradictions), and a huge number of cases in which absolutely  nothing was done.  
Reflecting on her experience of sexual harassment in Nicaragua, my friend Katie wrote this post.

Then one friend posted this:

No automatic alt text available.

And so I’m writing, because writing is what I can do.  It’s not the only thing I can do, but it’s a tool that I can bring to bear, a voice I have with which to advocate for my friends.

I’ve been in vocational ministry most of my adult life.  I’ve lost track of how many girls and women I’ve prayed with over their sexual abuse, how many struggle with cutting or eating disorders or depression or suicidal urges because they’ve been sexually abused.  We must face this reality and we must change it.


Two personal experiences to conclude:

A situation I was part of many years ago in which a man in ministry abused his power by making sexual advances on a minor.  He was well-loved and charismatic; people were upset by the news and didn’t want to believe it.  He did it, he confessed to it, and people did not want to believe it happened.

What is that, when people, both men and women, desire to remain in denial rather than look this sin, this crime, in the face and shout their support and defense for the girl?

 

A woman, a friend I love dearly, had a restraining order against the man who had sexually harassed her.  We were talking and praying about it.  The restraining order had expired and the court, the judge, decided not to renew the order, in spite of her pleas and evidence.  She was struggling because she felt guilty that she was not being forgiving.

I had one of those moments where either God is speaking to me or I really am losing my mind, because the compulsion was so strong that I had to tell her, “This is not your fault.  You are not to blame.  You did nothing wrong and forgiving does not require putting yourself in a position to be abused again.”

 

Refuse to accept denial.  Refuse to remain in denial.  Speak up.  Speak out.  Advocate!  What is your one tangible action?

If you’ve suffered harassment or abuse, this is not your fault.  You are not to blame.  You did nothing wrong and forgiving does not require putting yourself in a position to be abused again.

And we hear you.  We are with you.

 

 

*Some studies suggest boys experience sexual harassment or abuse at a rate much higher than reported, still largely at the hands of men.

**Quoted with permission.

Bugs

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 51

Last night, I was sitting in our living room when I felt something brush my right foot.  I thought it was a mosquito and looked down to see if I could swat it.  It wasn’t a mosquito.  

It was, however, a tarantula.  

We’ve lived in Nicaragua for over six years now.  I haven’t had that many tarantulas brush up against me.  I haven’t found that many scorpions in my shoes or towel or sports bag.  But there have been some.  I wouldn’t quite call it commonplace.  

My response last night was “Whoa.” 

Insects are a way of life here.  They’re such a constant that we take their presence for granted.  

I remember when we first moved here, probably my first week in the country, and our kitchen was covered with ants.  At least, it seemed to be seething with insects to me.  This was the tiny, red variety we call “psycho ants” or “spaz ants” because they dart back and forth randomly, looking like they’ve lost their miniscule minds.  When I say tiny, I mean just above microscopic.  I’m not exactly a clean freak (my wife is biting her tongue right now), but seeing these bugs zipping all over the where we prepare our food upset me.  How could we be so slobby?  

Now if you hate insects–and are reading this the way other people watch horror movies–prepare yourself.  Cue the creepy organ music.  

Kim and I barely notice little ants anymore.  But we do notice them.  If I find, for example, that a box of cereal has been discovered by ants, I pull out the bag…and put it in the freezer.  The ants die.  We eat the cereal.  

If that freaks you out, Kim sometimes won’t do that.  She’ll just eat the cereal.  Certainly if she sees a few ants in her coffee, she’s not about to sacrifice a nice cup of Nicaragua coffee–they grow excellent coffee here.  “Just a little protein,” she declares, and drinks it without another thought.  In case you think we’re exceptional–or exceptionally gross–I’ve swapped this story with many other missionaries.  Almost all of them have some version to tell, the adjustment and the laughable newfound ability to disregard these critters.  

We do, however, each have our weak spots.  I have a lifelong loathing of cockroaches which Nicaragua has not cured.  I’d rather see a tarantula than a roach.  I know that’s not rational, but we all have our kryptonite, don’t we?  

Kim’s is the deadly Randall.  That’s probably not the scientific term.  Entomologists call them centipedes.  We call them “Randalls” after the purple antagonist in Monsters, Inc.  Kim hates them.  

There may have been a day–whether in legend, myth, or history–when I killed a Randall but did not remove it quickly enough from the kitchen.*  In retaliation, one of my daughters who is not squeamish may have thrown a live cockroach at me.  And hit me.  And I may have made a sound that some would interpret as a gasp or scream, though I’m certain it was more of a manly bellow.  

Mosquitoes and ticks are another subject.  Mosquitoes have caused us more misery here than anything else (except a few people**).  The Big Three that mosquitoes carry in Nicaragua are dengue, chikungunya, and zika.  I’m guessing you’ve read about zika, and it’s probably worse than you think.  A doctor friend recently told me that we’re still discovering what effects zika has on newborns whose mothers have the disease, and microcephaly is the tip of the iceberg.  

For others, the danger appears minimal and the symptoms hurt much less than dengue or chikungunya.  But zika is also asymptomatic for many–possibly up to fifty percent of those who have it–and worst of all, zika can be sexually transmitted.  All humor aside, for expecting mothers, zika is a nightmare and I would urge pregnant women to avoid countries with high reported incidence of zika…then pause to remember that poverty means expecting mothers here have no such choice.  

I’ve described chikungunya.  Remember that Princess Bride line, “Wallowing in freakish misery forever”?  No, not forever, but Kim continues to feel the effects many mornings when her feet ache as she climbs out of bed.  I don’t recommend it.  Dengue comes in second place, agony-wise, unless you get the hemorrhagic variety, which I also don’t recommend.  

So mosquitoes are the actual worst.  But if you’re a genuine bug-hater, ticks win the day.  There are many times when I have to bite my tongue because living in Nicaragua can make it easy to play the one-ups game.  “Oh, you think it’s hot there?  Let me tell you about hot!”  “Oh, you think the driving is bad where you live?  Try living here!”  I’m sure his technique is featured in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”  So I try hard not to diminish other people’s experiences by one-upping them.  Someone finds a tick on their dog and posts about it.  A tick.

So I don’t sound like I’m exaggerating here, I’ll tell you this story.  One day at a previous house, the back door got left open and one of our dogs came in and laid down on the tile.  I was  very annoyed–okay, angry–and for the heck of it, decided to count how many tiny little ticks I had to kill that had come swarming in off this dog.  That day, that one day of the six years and three months we’ve lived here, I killed over 800 ticks.  No typos there.  I don’t know how many ticks I’ve killed since we’ve moved to Nicaragua, but if it turned out that I’ve killed 10,000 ticks off of dogs, I would not be surprised.  

No, our lives are not endangered by these icky creatures from hell.  I’ve never heard a report of lyme disease from anyone we know here, and statistics show it is extremely rare in Nicaragua.  Thank God for that.  The nastiest bug experience we’ve had was when we had a tick infestation in our home.  They were an army, attacking in waves, and of course seeing ticks crawling all over your floor makes you feel like you have ticks crawling all over your skin.  You’re probably feeling them right now, just reading this.  You’re welcome.  We finally found some anti-tick medication for our dogs that works, and for the last year have seen very few.  Thank God for that, too.  

There are a few other insects I should mention, though they are not such regular visitors for us.  Fire ants, so named for the burning sensation their bites cause, are tiny red ants that look like the ones that frequent our kitchens.  Some of them live on the field where we play ultimate, so now and then, especially  if one of us decides “what the heck, I’m going to walk here barefoot,” a hopping and thrashing and desperate self-slapping occurs.  Everyone knows what it means.  Fire ant stings burn for 5-10 minutes, though some people are more sensitive and get huge welts to go with their burning.  

Our good friend, Jeff, once got bit by a bullet ant.  I’ve never heard of anyone else here seeing a bullet ant here.  But for perspective, Jeff is our friend who last year competed in Fuego y Agua, a race that is, frankly, insane.  Probably the description “24+ hour endurance survival race” tells you all you need to know.  Jeff said it was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced and hit him almost instantly.  He experienced waves of pain and nausea the rest of the day.  Jeff told us that after it bit him, the ant swaggered off, as if to say, “Yeah, I’m a bad ass.”  Jeff was in far too much pain to argue.  

 

I know this has probably made a few of you vow never to come visit us.  I understand.  Though bugs are a constant in our lives, other than when they are giving us nasty diseases or invading us, they are not an influential part of life here.  They’re another example of how you really can get used to almost anything.  

 

PS After I’d started writing this, I went outside to feed the cats…and found another tarantula.  The cats had already killed it.  

 

*Reports vary.  Remember that not all narrators are trustworthy, and some trustworthy narrators aren’t entirely objective.     

**Wait–did I type that out loud?

3 Medical Cases in One Day

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[Waiting room, Clinica AMOS El Samaritano]

Nicaragua Journal, Day 48

As we began today, our son had conjunctivitis (pinkeye), a daughter could not hear out of one ear, and another daughter still limped from a knee injury she suffered Sunday.  By the end of the day, I’d done a clinic visit, a hospital appointment, and a good old homeopathic treatment.  

We ran to the clinic for Annalise, who still can’t hear properly, first thing this morning.  We were the second people to arrive at the clinic and waited about 40 minutes for our appointment.  It was completely full by the time we left, with all the seats taken and folks sitting outside.  I was glad we’d gone early.  

El Samaritano Clinic is run by a medical ministry here, AMOS Health and Hope, which is directed by friends of ours.*  Samaritano is always our first stop here when we need medical care.  It’s clean, well run, and inexpensive.  A while back, they raised the fees for foreigners.  A doctor visit became $10 (300 cordobas).  I was pleased to pay all of ten dollars for a reliable doctor and, in a small way, to help Nicaraguans afford decent medical care.  

During our vist, we were the only patients who had driven a vehicle.  Though I can’t be sure, it’s a decent guess that we were the only patients there this morning who own a vehicle.  In the doctor’s office, while Annalise described her ear discomfort, I read the sign in front of me that explained the benefits of family planning (in Spanish), which included “You can choose how many children you have” and “having fewer children means more time and money for each child.”  This was addressed to someone who might never before have considered these benefits.  There were signs for new mother support groups and lists of all the prenatal services available.  

As I said, I am happy to pay $10 to receive competent medical attention at a clinic that cares for the poor.  Today, I’m not sure why, we were charged only 80 cordobas for our doctor visit.  She told us Annalise’s ear is not infected, which is good news.  She prescribed some ear drops, which we purchased at a nearby pharmacy (the third we tried, as it turned out) for 30 cordobas ($1).  Our entire medical journey cost us less than $4, plus a little fuel.  

Conjunctivitis is raging through our school and neighborhood like wildfire.  Our neighbors have been suffering it and we’ve tried desperately not to catch it.  We’d succeeded until this morning.  Corin woke up with an itchy, sore eye.  It wasn’t hard to diagnose, especially when we heard that the boy he was guarding at his elementary school basketball program yesterday had it.  Bummer.  

We talked with Phyllis, our school nurse and a close friend, and she told us there is a viral and bacterial strain and it’s hard to tell without testing which is which.  She said the ophthamologist at Metripolitano, the best hospital in Nicaragua, is prescribing antibiotic drops with steroids.  We’ve experienced that medical personnel here are quick to prescribe, often giving us four or five different medicines to take for any condition we or our kids are suffering.  Phyllis said that another parent had tried essential oils tea tree oil combined with lavender, and had quick, positive results.  We decided that was worth a shot in case we could skip one extra antibiotic with a steroid.  We’ll see.  Corin’s eye seemed better when he went to bed tonight.  

Then, this afternoon, I took Aria to Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pelas see Dr. Dino Aguilar, a well-known orthopedic surgeon here.  Another player had run into Aria on Sunday while Aria was jumping for a disc (that she caught for a score, in fact) and the collided knee-to-knee.  Aria’s knee swelled up and she couldn’t bend it much at all.  My daughter loves playing soccer and ultimate and is in the middle of her soccer season right now.  We gave it a few days to see if the swelling and pain would subside on their own, and decided today it was not improving very quickly, so we needed to find out if she had torn her ACL or miniscus or suffered some other structural damage to her knee. 

We’ve gone to Metropolitano for every serious medical issue we’ve faced, from my concussion and broken rib to Aria’s 2-month ear infection (after we tried another specialist and she was misdiagnosed for 6 weeks).  It’s a full-size, high-tech hospital, nearly everyone visiting there drives nicer cars than we have, and the waiting rooms are huge and air-conditioned.  We waited perhaps ten minutes for our appointment, which we had managed to secure this morning (and we felt very fortunate).  

Dr. Aguilar, who is a very kind and soft-spoken man, ran an ultrasound on Aria’s knee.  We were immensely relieved that he found no tears, no breaks, no indications of internal damage, simply severe bruising.  He told Aria no activity for another week and then come back to verify that she is fine and can play again.  Thank God!  

As we left, I discovered that I’d done our visit in the wrong order and was supposed to have gone through insurance first (not sure why the information desk didn’t suggest that, but they did answer my question, which was, “¿Donde esta la oficina de Dr. Aguilar?”).  So we sat down to find out that we had actually done the process completely wrong.  According to insurance policy, we were supposed to have taken Aria to the emergency room immediately, at the very latest within the first 24 hours after her injury.  Failing to have done so, we now had to pay for everything gastos de bolsillo (out of pocket) and we could then try to convince the seguro (insurance) to reimburse us.  

As you might imagine, my efforts to explain that we had been waiting to see whether the injury actually required this level of medical attention did not inspire a change in the insurance policy.  As they explained it, since we didn’t report to the emergency room and file our insurance claim immediately, they couldn’t be certain it had happened on Sunday.  I suppose that’s true.  Or, we could have reported to the emergency room on Sunday about an injury Aria had sustained some other time.  If they lacked confidence in our veracity now, why would they be certain on Sunday that we’d told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?  I didn’t press that point.  

Out of bolsa, it turned out, was $60.  That’s not meaningless for us, but to see an excellent orthopedic surgeon and get an ultrasound, that’s an amazing deal.  In truth, had we gone to an emergency room, we would not have gotten to see Dr. Aguilar and Aria likely would not have received an ultrasound, especially if we went to any other hospital.  

Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas

Clinica El Samaritano

Today was a medical day and it was a strange day, yet the strange that has become normal, seeing the opposite ends of the spectrum consecutively.  But that is only on our spectrum–Samaritano is a lovely clinic and most poor Nicaraguans experience a much lower, much less professional (and sanitary) level of care.  I’ll save those stories for another time.

We’re grateful for medical care we can afford.  Yet again, I’m reminded that these things we can access when we need them are far out of reach for many of those living around us.  May we never take them for granted, ever again.  

 

*I’ll dedicate a whole post to them sometime.  They’re amazing.  

Best Taxi Ride Ever

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 46

I don’t like taking taxis in Managua.  I would rather walk 5-6 kilometers in the heat and humidity than take a taxi.  Some of that can be attributed to my own personal version of crazy.  But there are various other issues, from feeling taken to experiencing my least favorite turn in the passenger seat while a stranger decides when it’s safe to go.  I do ride in taxis here, sometimes three times a week.  But I prefer to avoid it, when I can.  

The best taxi rides usually happen when the taxero is friendly and wants to talk a little.  I almost always ask how long they’ve been driving and if they like it.  The neutral ones occur when they don’t want to talk but we just go straight to my destination safely.  Sometimes they pick up another passenger and we take a circuitous route, once or twice I’ve offended the driver and gotten an earful (I do try to learn from my mistakes), and more than once I’ve had a strong hunch that my driver would not pass a breathalyzer/substances test.  I do pray a lot on those rides.

Then today happened.  Raindrops were falling on my head.  I signalled, the taxero stopped, I explained where I needed to go, he asked me how much I thought, which might have been a first, then tried to overcharge me.  I told him that was too much and offered 20 cords less, which was still more than I should pay, but I’m not here to haggle cordobas and I needed to get to school.  He tried to insist and I told him that my offer was already “un precio gringo,” a gringo price, meaning already inflated and an attempt to overcharge me.  He accepted my price.  I got in.  

Then I saw the taxero’s daughter.  

She started talking to me instantly.  She smiled at me.  She laughed.  

For the next nine minutes, I fell in love.  

“Cuantos anos tienes?” I asked.

“Cuatro,” she said, holding up five fingers, then four, then five again.    

“Tres,” the driver told me.  

“Como se llama?” I asked.  

“Naomi, Naoooomi, Naomiiiiii!” she exclaimed.  

Naomi’s father has driven a taxi for 10 years and Naomi has a brother who is 18 months older.  The best part of the best taxi ride ever was when her father encouraged her to practice her counting in English.  Naomi can count to five, and on five, she gives you a high five.  

I have had some nice conversations with taxeros.  I’ve met a few very strong believers and really enjoyed our brief conversations about God and faith and Nicaragua.  I’ve enjoyed several of my rides.  But only today was I sad it was over.  I tipped enough to give him his original price.  

I wish I had a picture of Naomi’s smile to share with you, but that would have felt invasive.  I’ve just got this image in my mind of her beaming and talking and telling me about the tooth she just lost.  You’re going to have to trust me what a beautiful child she is.  

Now it’s Nicaragua, so everything is a mixture of joy and sadness.*  Naomi rides with her dad every day from 2PM to 3PM because her mother gets off at 3PM from her job, so she spends an hour each day making friend and brightening people’s lives (that’s my loose translation of what her dad said).  In Nicaragua, the people in the front seat must wear seat belts.  If there is a law regarding baby or child car seats, I’ve never heard it nor seen it enforced.  Naomi was standing between us the whole way, her feet in the backseat but her little body hovering between the front seats.  

I’m used to Nicaragua.  It will freak you out to know that we don’t use seat belts in the back seats of our cars, but we don’t.  Our van–that is not currently running–has one out of the back five that works.  I tell you that knowing I’m going to get lectured, but you need to get that this man wasn’t doing anything unusual.  We see tiny babies riding on motorcycles between Mom and Dad.  We see little ones holding onto Dad’s waist on the motorcycle.  I’ve seen a family of five on a motorcycle here.  Those scare me much more.  

But it reminded me today what a bad idea this lack of seat belts is.  The same way I feel whenever I see a baby sitting on a lap in the front seat here, which is too often.  

Every day for an hour going through traffic all the time.  

Thanks, Lord, for the beam of sunshine you gave me today in Naomi.  Please keep her safe in her daddy’s taxi.  

Amen.  

 

*Maybe that’s true everywhere.  It’s true here.  

Friends Come Back

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 45


Sorry I haven’t posted lately.  I don’t live in delusions of grandeur that people sit around wondering why I haven’t posted.  I do imagine that, eventually, someone notices.  

Sometimes the darkness overwhelms me.  I tried to write a post about the school shooting in the Spokane area and about a horrible response to the young woman who was murdered in Charlottesville by a white supremacist who attacked a group of pedestrians with his car.  If that’s not an act of cowardice, I don’t know what is.  Someone from our county posted a meme mocking victims of such violence on an official county law enforcement page.  I dug for a response but couldn’t find it.  Maybe I will.  


Today, we had brunch with friends, the Whitings.  The Whitings lived here and served as missionaries with Servant Partners.  Then the Whitings moved. 

But the Whitings came back!

Part of missionary life is learning to live with the revolving door of gringo friends.  I’ve had three sets of what I would consider best friends here who all moved.  (Yes, it might be me.)  Now that just sucks.  Developing the trust and openness and honesty, figuring out if you’re safe to be honest and open, finding those people who will love you back and have your back and laugh at your stupid jokes, that’s hard.  And costly.  

I have some close Nicaraguan friends. Some of my Nicaraguan friendships continue to get closer, 7 years later.  Praise God. Very few of them have moved away.  

But these stupid gringos keep coming and going again.  Plus, as I’ve described, I do student ministry, so I’m setting myself up to say goodbye to young adults in whom I’ve invested my heart, time, and energy every single year.  That’s just the cost of using the gifts God’s given me.  

Today, though…today we celebrated good friends, great people who love Nicaragua who had left but came back!  Their story isn’t mine to tell–

Who am I kidding?  I’m a writer; we steal everyone’s story.  They left because their situation here was not working for their family.*  We grieved their departure.  It came as a shock.

Here is the normal process:  People decide to leave.  They either have a clear idea of where God is calling them “back home” or they don’t.  If they do, it’s easier to bless them, though not always easy to let them go.  Often I’ll have a conversation with them about how they hope to come back to Nicaragua.  We pray for them, they leave, they’re gone.  

One of those stands out as the epitome of these conversations:  a gal who had been working with girls rescued from prostitution told me how heartbroken she was to leave and described her plans to return. She had done a fantastic job of pouring out God’s love to those girls.  I gave her my advice about keeping that connection from a distance and the focus that she would need to come back.  Not long after that (by my time) I saw she’d gotten engaged.  She got married.  She had a baby.  She’s not coming back.  

I’m not criticizing her.  She went on with her life.  I trust she’s following God.  My point is, gringos rarely come back to Nicaragua once they’ve moved away, even if they think they will. 

Except that our friends did!  You learn how things work, you adjust your hopes and expectations, and then–surprise!  

When these friends left, they were also heartbroken.  We talked together and cried.  They knew they had to go, but they were miserable about it.  The fascinating thing is, they did need to go. We didn’t even talk about their coming back because that didn’t seem possible.  

As we talked today, as I got to hear the whole story of their coming back and not merely the Facebook messages version, it became clear that there was no route from where they were to where they are now without going back to the U.S.  They had to leave for this to work.  

In their case, they knew they loved Nicaragua and they had developed profound relationships here, but they needed a clearer sense of purpose.  We’ve experienced Nicaragua as wonderful at times and overwhelming most of the time.  There are too many people you can’t help.  To live here as a foreigner in the midst of such poverty, you must either find a way to make a difference or learn to look away and ignore the suffering around you.**

I’ve certainly experienced depression living here.  During one dark period, we seriously discussed leaving; I would have quit and left at a moment’s notice.  One of the things that helped most, perhaps my crucial turning point, was reaching the point at which I could accept my limitations and focus on doing what I do well rather than on how badly I was failing at what I don’t do well.  

Our friend had gotten discouraged.  He needed to return to the States, find his way back out of the darkness, and then let God show him how to use his gifts here.  They’re going to live in a poorer barrio again and he’s going to start an ESL program.  He’s going to help people learn English so they can get better jobs and he’ll try to give them a glimpse of God’s love in the midst of that.  

It sounds like a simple decision, to return.  It isn’t.  We live here primarily on financial support from individuals and churches.  Leaving the nation and the work for which you’ve received support, explaining to your supporters why you needed to leave, then explaining how you feel called to go back and asking for support again, that in itself seems miraculous to me.  Simply considering logistics, it’s not surprising how few people come back once they’ve left.  

Now here’s the truth:  I prayed they would come back.  It seemed like a stupid prayer.***  But I knew they wanted to be here.  I couldn’t see how it could work, but they’d left so prematurely, so abruptly, under such difficult circumstances…and I wanted them back.  I figure God knows best and we can pray for selfish things that are out of our power to control.  I didn’t tell them they were wrong for leaving–we all figure out how to deal with our own struggles–but at the first hint they might consider returning, I jumped up and down.  And I admitted I’d been praying for that.  

Having them to our house for brunch today felt a little surreal.  When people go, they go.  

But the Whitings came back.  They remind me that God can do more than we imagine–we were just talking with them about this today!–and just because I’ve seen things happen a certain way here doesn’t mean things always will.  That way lies cynicism.  

So welcome back, Whitings!  Thanks for the hope!

 

 

*This story is stolen with permission.  

**I’m oversimplifying, of course.

***Are there stupid prayers?  I’ll leave that to you to answer.  

Seeking a Level Playing Field

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(Samuel and Julio.  Samuel and I were teammates, Julio was the opposition.  Selfie credit: Julio)

Nicaragua Diary, Day 39

I’m going to say some simple, perhaps obvious things about one of my favorite topics. Perhaps you have not thought of them in this way.  

Today [Saturday] we had a “hat tournament,” an ultimate tournament in which people sign up and then are divided into teams that are roughly equal (that’s the idea, anyway).  This is different than a team tournament, in which pre-established teams sign up together to play other teams.

We played at Kaiser University in San Marcos.  They have a beautiful campus and maybe the nicest fields I’ve played on in Nicaragua thus far.  They really are level!  It is a very upscale college in Nicaragua. They were a wonderful host.  

I love playing ultimate in Nicaragua because 1)I love playing ultimate and 2)playing here almost always means playing with a mixture of Nicaraguans and gringos.  I like that cross-cultural experience for myself, for my daughters who play, and for our Nicaraguan friends.  In the last pick-up game we played a week ago, my daughter and I were each the token gringo or gringa on our teams.

Many of the Nicaraguans who played in the tournament today live in poverty.  A few who played are closer to middle class and maybe a couple are better off.  The most athletic player on our team played in tennis shoes all day and still outjumped and outran the competition who were playing in cleats.  That wasn’t a strategic decision; he can’t afford to go buy cleats.*

I have a drawer full of quick-dry sports shirts.  In fact, I have two drawers full, because the nicer ones I wear for my daily life, while the stained and aged ones I wear for sports (have I mentioned this is the tropics)?  For our Sunday games, I often bring 4-5 white ones and 4-5 dark ones, so that when we play light shirts against dark shirts, the Nicaraguans who don’t have a spare light or dark can borrow them.

A wonderful thing about sports in general, and about ultimate in particular, is that it takes no account of socio-economic standing.  If you can run, throw, catch, and play defense, you are an ultimate player.  If you can do those things well, people want you on their team.  Everyone can improve at those things by practicing.  Not everyone is naturally or temperamentally inclined to play ultimate, but for those who are, it’s a great leveler.

Today we had quite a mixture of players on our team.  I know some of them come from abusive homes.  I know some of them don’t always get enough to eat.  I can’t solve those problems in a Saturday afternoon.  But I can play hard with them and high five them; I can affirm them and share life with them–one of my favorite parts of life.

Trying to build relationships with other people always has its challenges; trying to build friendships with those who live in poverty can be even more complex.  This needs to be its own post, but the constant awareness of inequity, the vast difference between having some margin financially and surviving day to day brings another set of hurdles to authentic, mutual understanding and trust.   Sports don’t magically erase those, but sports do allow a space in which they can be set aside while we connect.  Running to exhaustion while chasing a disc together bonds us.  

I love that my daughters play and keep getting better.  I love that we got to be on the same team today.  I love that they get to be part of this intercultural experience.

I also play fútbol (soccer) with Nicaraguans sometimes, but I’m not very good.  That means I don’t have the same currency to spend as I do playing ultimate.  If I tell a Nicaraguan teammate in soccer, “Hey, great play, you’re amazing,” he or she is thinking, “Uh, yeah, thanks, Gringo, you suck” or “isn’t that cute?  The old gringo thinks I’m good” (except in Spanish).

But I’m good at ultimate.  For the level we play here, I receive a certain level of respect because that’s how sports work.  This means I can spend that currency of respect given to me to puff myself up or to empower and affirm others.  I’m an enthusiastic teammate.  A teammate of mine in the U.S. once declared, “You’re the adrenal gland of the team!”

A fellow gringo player here once speculated on how many high fives I’ve given out in my life– on every point I play, I almost always give every person on my team a five after we score. Usually I give a few when we get scored on.   Often I’ll give them to opposing players as we’re passing to prepare to start the next point.

These are the obvious things I’m saying: First, sports works in a developing world cross-cultural setting because they offer everyone with athletic ability (or even just cussed determination) a chance to participate.  Today’s was a tournament particularly geared toward new Nicaraguan players put on by an organization called Breaking Borders.  The entry fee was 60 cordobas ($2).

Ultimate is particularly cheap because you can play the whole game with no special equipment other than a round piece of plastic which you can get for $5 to $8.  Cleats help but you can play without them.

Second, ultimate offers me the opportunity to build others up, to encourage and affirm and teach them.  Is it a big deal if someone is good at ultimate?  I’ll answer the question with a question:  is it a big deal if people feel loved and accepted and empowered?  Ultimate may be the only place in some of my teammates’ lives where that happens.  I’m 48, I’m slowing down, I’m not cool, and my Spanish still sucks.  But I can try to be the face of Jesus to a few young people because I can throw a disc well.

I like winning and sometimes I get a little distracted from what’s really important in being on the ultimate field.  I do play hard because in sports I believe this is respecting yourself and your opponent.  But today was a good reminder of what else ultimate can offer: a chance to be on equal footing in a country, in  a world, where people are valued for what they have and not who they are.  

 

 

*Playing ultimate, which requires sprinting, cutting, stopping, and jumping on grass, works better in cleats. 

A First (For Me)

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 33

I preached yesterday.  It went well, thank God.

Before I preached, I had a first.  

I’ve been preaching for a long time now.  I’ve had a flat tire when I needed for church.  I’ve been pulled over on the way to church.  I’ve left my zipper down and had my wife point it out right before I went up for the sermon.  I’ve had a printer fail to produce my sermon manuscript and gone without.*  I’ve misnumbered my manuscript pages, spilled water on them, had the wind blow them all off my lectern.   

I’ve jettisoned the sermon I’d written and preached on something else entirely, on the spot, I believe at God’s prompting.  

And fairly recently, I all but face planted while walking up to preach.  

So I start to imagine that I’m running out of new experiences for what can go wrong or make those last, already-nauseating moments right beforehand even more exciting.  

At International Christian Fellowship, we have headset mics.  They work pretty well.  I always struggle to put them on right.  It’s just one of those things. One of my worst preaching experiences–not at ICF–I put the headset on wrong and spent the entire sermon tugging it back down while the mic tried to climb up my temple.  So I’m always a little nervous to get them on correctly.  Even though I’ve put them on a bunch of times, I always get them on wrong at first and then I’m wrestling with them and trying to adjust them. 

Consequently, I’ve stopped using the men’s restroom in the auditorium where we meet to make these adjustments/have this wrestling match because I’ve learned that a)it always happens, b)having other guys walking in and out, watching me, maybe saying, “Good luck up there, you’ll need it,” does not, in fact, calm my nerves.

Instead, I grab my wife’s keys–ICF meets at our school–and head to the administration building where I can let myself in, have a restroom all to myself, take as long as necessary to put my mic on wrong then relearn how to put it on correctly, and triple check my zipper.  I usually go during the offering song so  that I can hear the progress, plus we’ll have another song before the sermon, the one we sing while the kids are racing off to their Sunday school classes.  

One final detail:  Kim’s keys are on a long, red loop string, basically a shoelace with six keys on it and no ends.  An eternal circle.  

I had the keys and the headset in my hand, I was hurrying to unlock the admin door, and just then I noticed that the key string had somehow closed in a perfect knot on the headset cord.  I mean beautiful, the kind of knot I could have instructions to tie and would still fail.  

Now understand, if you’ve never preached before, that the last 5-20 minutes before preaching I forget why I enjoy my calling and work very hard to keep down my breakfast.  Sometimes I feel exactly the same as when I’m on a boat on choppy water–and I’m badly prone to seasickness.  

So when I noticed this lovely knot, my reaction was not, “Hm, that’s not good, I should carefully examine this and untangle it in the exact same pattern but in reverse, because that would be a good, rational strategy.”  No, I thought, “Oh, Dang!’ and pulled on it.  The headset cord is attached to the little box you clip to your belt.  The ends of the headset cord are these flimsy little wire-and-plastic hooks that go your ears to position the mic correctly.  There is no proper end anywhere that you can just work carefully through the gnarl.  I did learn, though, that the hooks can somehow make the knot worse, since the cord runs off in two directions to meet up with them, lots of slack but nothing small enough to thread through.  

If you’ve ever fought with Christmas ornament hooks or old wire hangers, you probably know the sensation I experienced next, which is “This isn’t possible.  There isn’t enough available material to make such a huge tangle.”  Somehow the sum total of shoe lace and mic cord had tripled and most of it was now in a ball that tightened no matter which direction I pulled or pushed.

I suppose now is a good time to mention that, while God bestowed upon me the gift of gross motor skills which enable me to catch a disc and a baseball and shoot a basketball, I did not receive fine motor skills in equal abundance.  Or any abundance.  My handwriting is atrocious, I despise playing Pictionary, and art was the class I came closest to failing in grade school.  Threading a needle, for me, is the equivalent of hitting a bullseye on a dartboard from fifty yards away.**

Did I mention that I could hear the song being played back in church?  It was now half over.  I’m still standing outside the admin building, wondering with that stupid part of my brain how this will look if someone walks by.  I finally fumble for the keys so I can unlock the door and go inside to face my Gordian knot. 

Oh, yeah, one more thing.  Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month, which meant there was no Sunday school nor Sunday school dismissal song…which meant when the current song was over, I was up.  

Have you seen the movie Dunkirk?  It’s excellent, truly a work of cinematic art, in my opinion, though very violent and disturbing.  No spoilers, except this one:  the soundtrack is a masterpiece.  A ticking begins when the conflict starts and it exacerbates the tension.  I heard that ticking in the bathroom.  

Song is now nearly over, I’m seriously considering leaving Kim’s keys and this ball of disaster and just getting one of the handheld microphones, which would appear bizarre to the sound crew but perhaps slightly less bizarre than having a red shoelace keychain jingling between my chin and chest while preaching.  

Tick, tick, tick…

At this moment, with less than sixty seconds before I need to be walking up to preach, it occurs to me:  I can unplug the cord from the little box. Yes, I’ve been praying–fervently–this whole time, and yes, that thought just hit home.***

…tick, tick, tick…

The next forty-five seconds are a blur of clumsy fingers and wires and string and keys.

…tick, tick, tick..

And then somehow, the keys disentangle and fall to the floor.

…tick, tick, tick…

I’ve got maybe 15 seconds and my mic isn’t on yet.  Slam it behind my ears and hope it’s right the first time, this once.

…tick, tick, tick…

 Snake that blessed cord down through my shirt so I don’t catch it when I’m gesticulating and have it rip the headset off, like that one time.

…tick, tick, tick…

Back through the doors, last note fading, musicians just starting  to exit the stage, and I’m scooping up my Bible, manuscript, and water bottle as I stride by my seat and my kids to (don’t puke) stand up in front and, 

“Good morning.”  

 

And the sermon went really well.  God’s funny like that.  

 

 

 

*Of course, once that happened, I never left printing to the last minute ever again.  Yep.  And once I realized it was embarrassing to be late, I was never late again.  

**Okay, that’s hyperbole.  Forty.

*** In fairness to me, some of the headsets unplug and others I’ve tried but those cords would not come out for me.  They probably all unplug, but some come out so hard it feels like I’m about to rip the wires out instead of the plug, so I don’t try.