Hard Rain

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Photos: Periódico Hoy

Nicaragua Diary, Day 8

It’s raining again tonight.  My wife doesn’t want to go out for date night because she doesn’t want to go out in this rain, and she’s not afraid of rain.  But it’s coming down.  

I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, but one measure of wealth is how much we’re protected from the elements.  When we’re wealthy, only the most severe weather affects us.  Tornadoes and earthquakes might get you, but very little else.  

I have friends who pile sandbags in front of their home and try to prepare for this season.  If you have a dirt floor and live in a place where all the rain water runs downhill toward your house and it rains 150 inches a year, then the weather always affects your life.  If you have a makeshift roof of scrap metal through which the water leaks and pours, then you’re constantly dealing with its impact.

Leaks happen, but the difference between discovering a leak and running to Home Depot the next day versus scouring the debris pile to find a better piece to fit in the hole…  Homeowners insurance, disaster coverage, these make for a much more secure disposition toward a rainstorm, even one that threatens flooding.  

We don’t like to think too carefully about how our lives are different than people living in poverty, even less about the specifics of their living conditions.  It makes us feel guilty.  It’s much easier to decide that the poor are poor because they’re lazy or they make terrible choices or in some other way deserve it.  The people in Jesus’ time believed straight up that God loved the rich and disliked the poor.  Otherwise, how can you explain the contrast? 

And to be clear, when I saw “we” I mean you and I, and I live right here.  

But tonight, as I’m lying in my hammock with a cat on my lap (making it significantly more challenging to type), listening to the rain fall on the roof above my head, I’m thinking about what this rain that’s been falling steadily for the last several hours might be doing to my neighbors.  I’m wondering what will happen if it rains all night.  It sounds like it will, if you know what I mean.  

And this is part of living in Nicaragua, too.  Things may affect me one way, but for others they mean something else entirely.  Things that do impact me often have much stronger repercussions for those who have so much less.  If food prices go up, we’ll have a tighter budget but they’ll go hungry.  If it rains all night, we might have some mildew or leaking but they’ll have a swamp for a floor.  

That’s true for you, too.  What affects you a little might affect someone else much more, maybe disastrously.  Proximity just makes it easier to see–or harder to look away.  

It’s still raining.  

Caught in the Rain

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 7

I like walking in the rain here.  It rains hard.  I’ve walked in everything from the lightest mist to a lean-in-at-45-degrees-to-keep-from-getting-blown-over gale. 

Getting caught in the rain used to carry a negative connotation in my mind.  I’ve lived places where sleet and freezing rain can kill you.  But in the first months we were here, our friend Samuel made an acute observation:  walking in the rain is exactly like walking not in the rain, but cooler.  Either way, you quickly become soaking wet.  But when the rain soaks you, it feels nicer and smells better.  Granted, your shoes might sploosh and squish more.  There’s a bit more likelihood of rubbing a blister if you’re walking a longer distance, but other than that, plus the looks you get from Nicaraguans and gringos thinking you’re crazy, walking in the rain beats walking in the sun and heat.

I’ve never seen a game of ultimate cancelled here, nor failed for lack of participation, due to rain.  Let me say that again: in the six-plus years we’ve lived in Managua, where it rains six months a year and forty-five inches in those six months, not once have we called off a game.  Ultimate is highly impacted by rain, considering we play with a light, aerodynamic piece of plastic, and running up and down a field also changes quite a bit when the field is mush.*  But I’ve seen twenty people sitting under cover, watching the downpour, all look at one another and then stroll out into it for a game.  That may prove nothing other than that I’m far from alone in my insanity, but I found it encouraging.

Today I was walking home after an appointment, a fair distance.  When I started I could barely detect the rain.  But it slowly increased, whether because I was walking into the storm or because it started coming down harder.  In the last two kilometers, it seemed to get stronger with every step.  By the time I reached the last, steep uphill before our street, I could barely see and had to keep wiping water from my eyes.  

But I was happy.  I’d had a really encouraging time with someone I mentor who is growing and making great life choices.  That gets me high like nothing else.  Transformation is my drug of choice.  I was praying and using my hands as windshield wipers and, by the time I got to our front step, I was actually–wait for it–chilly.  A little bit.  Our son saw me and, while I unlaced my sopping shoes, ran and got me a towel because I needed to warm up.  

That’s a treat here.  Something worth writing home about.  Kim made soup tonight and it was perfect.  

Tonight it is seventy-seven degrees and though it’s eighty-nine percent humidity, the heat index feels like…seventy-seven degrees.  The late afternoon rain did its job.  

I hope I get caught in the rain tomorrow.  

 

Post-Script:  No, I don’t carry an umbrella, unless I’m protecting my dress clothes.  Yes, flooding is a different story.  This is just rain.  

 

*Personally, I far prefer playing on the soft, squooshy, even standing-water field over the baked-like-concrete field we get in the dry season.  My well-traveled legs vastly prefer the wet field.

Costurera

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 5

Seamstress.  

We have a neighbor about three blocks up the street who has a sign out offering mending and alterations.  

She looks about fifty-five to me, but I’ve been fooled before.  I know people here who appear ten to twenty years older–to me–than they actually are.  Lack of dental care, poor nutrition, too many years of too long hours take a toll on the body.  Living in the barrio can take a toll on the body. 

She has a beautiful smile and, when she smiles, which is frequently, her face brightens.  Her wrinkles are adjusted for smiles.  She is clearly one of those people who has smiled a lot in her years.  

Today, I had to pick up six pairs items, pants and shorts, school uniforms* that she had hemmed for us.  They huge road machinery is still working on our street–paving!–so I had to tiptoe around the work site by the side of the road; a big stretch of the road is now wet cement.  

I got to her house and she greeted and welcomed me, smiled at me, then went through five or six plastic grocery bags, seeking to identify the clothes that belong to us.  She found them and laid each one out for me, showing me what she had done.  I then handed her a shirt that my son had just gotten that had already opened up a hole in the seam at the left shoulder.  She waved her hand and told me that she would fix it but would not take anything for it, that it was nothing.

Then I handed her two hundred cordobas, asking if she had change.  Two hundred cordobas is just over six dollars (30 cords to the dollar right now). She gave me one hundred eighty cordobas in change.  That meant she had done the altering for sixty cents. 

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Shouldn’t it be more than that?”

“No.  And this shirt is nothing.  It will be done this afternoon.”

“Okay.  You’re sure?”

Now even by the standards of our barrio, that is too little.  But she wasn’t changing her mind.  So I thanked her and clasped her hand and blessed her and tiptoed my way back through the road crew and tools and crying concrete.  

About 45 minutes later, our neighbor Mileydi tapped lightly on my door.  

“The costurera is here.”

I went out and greeted her.  She asked me how much I had paid for the mending and I told her twenty cords.  

“Okay,  My daughter asked, ‘Momma, how much did he pay you?  You only got twenty cordobas.'”

“How much was it supposed to be?”

Cien veinte .”  

Fortunately, I still had the 180 cords of change in my pocket.  I took them out and handed her the hundred cord bill.  

She hesitated.  Asked how much the change should be.  I showed her the hundred cords in one hand, the eighty in the other, said, “I gave you cien cords, so veinte more, one hundred minus twenty  is eighty.”  

She kept smiling but didn’t seem convinced.  I walked her through the arithmetic again, then twice more.  Finally Mileydi walked over and, as far as I could hear, repeated the same thing I had said but in better Nica Spanish, without the gringo accent.  

Our costurera smiled at her and closed her hand on the hundred cord bill.  

“Si.  Gracias,” she said.  Then she handed me the shirt, already stitched.  

Nada,” she insisted.  

Now during all of this, I offered all hundred and eighty cords, and then the fifty and then the twenty in addition to the hundred she accepted.  Repeatedly.  She wouldn’t take them.  But she smiled bigger and told me her daughter was right.

“Tell her I kept asking.  Tell her the gringo is not a ladrón!” I said, smiling back.  Mileydi laughed at me.  

And our neighbor walked back home.  

You would imagine, before you entered this culture, that you could just insist on overpaying.  And you could.  And we do, sometimes.  But doing so can risk damaging the relationship.  There are Nicaraguans who see all gringos as rich and seek to overcharge at every opportunity.  And there are also Nicaraguans who refuse to take even twenty cordobas extra, because her price is twenty cords per garment.  She doesn’t do math well.  But she’s rightfully proud of her work and she won’t take more from us than from her other neighbors. 

Because she sees us as neighbors, too.  

Humidity

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 3

Humidity

We base the humidity comfort level on the dew point, as it determines whether perspiration will evaporate from the skin, thereby cooling the body. Lower dew points feel drier and higher dew points feel more humid. Unlike temperature, which typically varies significantly between night and day, dew point tends to change more slowly, so while the temperature may drop at night, a muggy day is typically followed by a muggy night.

Managua experiences significant seasonal variation in the perceived humidity.

The muggier period of the year lasts for 9.2 months, from March 22 to December 28, during which time the comfort level ismuggy, oppressive, or miserable at least 73% of the time. The muggiest day of the year is September 23, with muggy conditions100% of the time.

The least muggy day of the year is February 1, with muggy conditions 64% of the time.

https://weatherspark.com/y/14372/Average-Weather-in-Managua-Nicaragua

 

First, this is not a whining post.  Please don’t hear my tone that way.  To describe living in Managua without discussing heat and humidity would be like describing living in Breckenridge, elevation 9,600, without mentioning thinner air.  It becomes the constant of your life, your normal, but it’s also the underlying factor that impacts almost everything.  There are studies linking climate to a culture’s characteristics, but that is beyond my expertise.  I’m just talking about living with humidity.  

It rained this morning.  That cooled things off and I thought we might have a cooler game of ultimate today.  I was wrong.  The sun came back out by 8AM and the heat spiked.  When I checked the weather report at 1PM, it said 79% humidity, 93 degrees, “feels like 103.”  Not a dry heat.  If you live in a tropical climate, you get used to heat, you suffer, or you leave.  

The Nicaraguans I know are adapted to the heat and the humidity.  I believe every Nicaraguan I have known feels cold when it gets below 80 (which it doesn’t that often).  Adults don’t wear shorts much, except when playing sports.  I consider myself playing sports all the time.  I tried for two years to adapt to wearing pants and failed.  I wear them only when my social situation absolutely requires it.  

My son has also adapted to humidity.  He prefers wearing pants to school over shorts. He dislikes hot showers, even when we’re back in the States and they’re available.  He and my middle daughter (who is simply cold-blooded) use flannel blankets here.  Did I mention it rarely drops below 80 degrees?  

Humidity drains energy.  For me, it erodes patience.  We’ll be home for dinner together, it may have been a perfectly fine day, and I will feel myself growing irritable.  My kids haven’t done anything wrong, certainly nothing unusual or unreasonable, but I’m hot and sticky and when you add that to tired and hungry, it can go south quickly.  I’ve learned to recognize that and do what I can to cool off.  

When people tell me they could never do what we do, sometimes they mean “I could never live someplace that hot and humid.”  I understand.  Humidity holds heat in the air.  Probably the hardest thing about living in Nicaragua for me has been suffering insomnia; I think the hot nights cause it, at least in part.

I talked with friends yesterday who moved back from Matagalpa, a city in the mountains of Nicaragua with a much more temperate climate.  They’d been in the States for a month and he said when they got back “There was an inch of mildew covering everything.”  Humidity.  The first apartment we lived in here had poor ventilation and though we would scrub the floors with fungicide-laced cleaner, by the morning the grout of the tile floor had a strip of mildew again.  Every morning.

Our first year here, the heat shocked me.  I vividly remember sitting in our second house here, a much cooler, better ventilated, nicer home, at dinner time, so about 6PM.  The sun had gone down.  We were eating salad.  In a few minutes, sweat began to roll down my temples.  My arms started to shine.  I wasn’t playing ultimate, I wasn’t walking, I wasn’t even eating hot soup–I was eating cold salad.  The exertion of lifting the fork to my mouth caused me to sweat profusely.  

I’ve adapted since then.  Bodies are amazing.  I remember when we moved to Breckenridge, CO, and I was freezing all the time.  I don’t know if the temperature ever reached 80 degrees in the three years we lived there, but we definitely had 9 months of winter.  After a while, I could climb stairs without panting and would take off layers when the temperature got up to 45 or 50.  Likewise, though this morning I felt out of shape from our U.S. visit and certainly felt my age, I could also feel my body already readjusting to the humidity.  

Now, as I write this, the rain has come back.  We are having a genuine thunderstorm (not one of the wild ones, just steady thunder in the background and hard rain with a light breeze).  This is precisely why I prefer rainy season.  

Nicaragua has rainy season, dry season, and the end of dry season in which the rain doesn’t fall but the heat and humidity creep up and up and up some more.  I’m sure I’ll describe each of them in detail.  The saving grace of rainy season is that sometime every one to three days, the rain falls and knocks some of the heat out of the air.  If we don’t have rain, as in the drought we suffered last year, the heat just keeps climbing to miserable levels.  In August so far, the percent of relative humidity has bounced between low 70s and high 80s. The day I flew back, we had 89% humidity, without rain. 

Right now, of course, we have 91% humidity because there’s water falling through the air.  Even with this, and the temperature plummeting to 81, the  Weather Channel still tells me it “feels like 91.”  But to me, it doesn’t.  Thanks to this breeze, I feel cooled off and can bear this furry cat cuddled up against me.  If it keeps on like this, I might even drink a cup of tea.  I love hot tea but probably drink fewer than 10 cups a year here, because if you can’t eat salad without sweating…

 

Post-Script:  The water is off again.  I think they broke another pipe.  Feeling cooled off with this rain helps a lot, though.  

 

managuahumidity

Average-Weather-in-August-in-Managua-Nicaragua

If you do check out this link, scroll down to the humidity section and check out the “Humidity Comfort Levels” graph.

 

No Water, Day 2

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 2

The first day without water, everyone groans.  It’s an inconvenience.  Often it happens late in the day, so we might come home from school or sports practice to discover it.  We still have drinking water and, almost always, our back-up tank has plenty, we just have to fill buckets.  Flushing toilets means hauling those buckets back and forth.  Washing dishes becomes more complicated.  

But today we don’t have water again, and this starts to become a challenge.  Buckets get hauled to the showers.  Sinks get water containers for hand washing.  But the real issue is laundry.  We’re in the rainy season.  We don’t have a dryer, so once clothes are washed we need them to dry in the sun.  Plus, having them sit around dirty isn’t always a pleasant prospect, because did I mention it’s humid here?  When we do have water again (tomorrow, Lord hear our prayer), it’s not so easy to do multiple loads because that requires multiple loads to dry–did I mention it’s rainy here?  

A dear friend and mentor of mine, Rowena, who died many years ago now, once described a conversation she had with God about being with people who are suffering.  She told God, “You know I can’t do that, because I love them too much; my heart is too soft and I can’t bear to see them going through that.”  And God told her, “That isn’t love.  See the person you think is cold-hearted?  The one who is actually with them?”

“Oh,” Rowena said.*

We don’t live in poverty, we live near poverty.  We live next to people who live in poverty.  The difference is monumental, perhaps incalculable.  Living in Nicaragua, we face some inconveniences, like going without running water.  We lack some gadgets that make life more comfortable.  Air conditioner, dishwasher, dryer come to mind.  These do not qualify as real suffering and are well worth getting to live where we live and trying to be the neighbors we hope to be.  

I got to buy five tortillas this morning from our neighbor across the street.  She doesn’t have running water, either, but got some from somewhere to make her tortillas.  We compared notes on being without water, pondered if the huge bog in the middle of our under-construction street explains where our water is going, and speculated when they might finish the road work.  

I have, in moments of desperation, washed my hair with drinking water:  I discover too late that we have no water, our back-up tank is empty, I need to be somewhere looking halfway presentable, and there I am.  It feels ludicrously extravagant–like buying nice stationery to use as napkins–and drives home that I live in a developing nation, and in a barrio that is definitely still developing.  It also proves the point that this is not poverty for us.   

For our inconveniences, maybe even more for the sake of our neighbors, I’m praying for water to start running through our pipes again.  

 

 

Post-Script:  Long after I wrote this, just before we left for our back-to-school open house, I heard that glorious sound of a faucet left on!  The water is back!

 

 

*She was one of my favorite storytellers.  I miss my friend.  

 

What Does It Matter (or It’s My Dollar)

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Okay, I’m going to start this broad and angsty, but it’s going to end up making you feel uncomfortable, unless you just dismiss it. Who wouldn’t want to stick around for that?

I assume, unless we are utterly narcissistic, at some points in life we ask if we matter. If our thoughts tend to run dark and deep, we move from there to questioning whether anything we do matters. Over seven billion people live on this planet and my little contribution makes less than the smallest ripple in the pond. My “big splash,” as I once imagined it, can’t move the water’s surface even to be detectable to the naked eye.

I don’t live there, in that thought bubble, but it passes over from time to time, like that moment you’re driving and you hit the fog bank: suddenly you can see nothing beyond your headlights, literally nothing. The fog reflects your beams directly back at you. You slow to two miles an hour because you won’t know if anything is in front of you until you collide with it. If you’ve driven in that, you don’t forget it.  These thoughts are definitely not a faith view, and fog does clear eventually, but in the moment it’s stinking hard to see.  

These thoughts can justify any number of horrible actions or decisions. “If there are that many people and I don’t matter anyway, who cares if I…[insert your most easily rationalized selfish choice].” Once we start down that road, many things previously unimaginable become possible, restrained solely at the discretion of our whims or our unwillingness to face possible consequences.* Imagine for a moment how many marriages have ended and how many children have been abandoned because someone simply decided, “It doesn’t matter whether I stay or go. Not really. Not in the big picture. I might as well do what I want.”

Oddly, paradoxically, the same destructive line of thinking can also feel freeing.** Perfectionists have notoriously narrow vision when driving themselves insane: “I must get this right!”  Why must we?  Those seminary papers I stressed and sweated over, I did get “A’s” on most of them, but were they all, always, worth the price I paid?  Had I hit “save,” closed my books, printed, and gone to bed for six hours instead of staying up all night, even knowing that I would likely get a “B” anyway, would the world—or even my world—have collapsed? Here I’m reflecting on a time I was very driven, based on the belief that I had to do that…or…what?  Well, I think I would not have gotten the perfect ministry positions, lived the ideal life, and had God love me more than anyone else who ever lived except Jesus. You can see why I stressed over these things.

Again, there are other arguments for doing our best, seeking excellence in our calling, as a student or a pastor or mom or dad or President. But if we allow ourselves, remembering the big picture can let us off some pretty gnarly hooks of our own making. Can I say, “This project I’m working on does not merit wrecking my health and neglecting my family because in the big picture, I’m just a guy doing a project” without slipping down the slope of “Come to think of it, nothing I do matters because I’m just a puny guy doing a meaningless project?”


A faith position, simply stated, is “We matter to God.” Amazing. Almighty God, creator of the universe, infinite and unsearchable (we can’t wrap our minds around Them), thinks fondly of you and cares about your day, about your breakfast, about your child’s crisis that you can’t solve. Believe it and your life changes. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so–and the fog lifts. I can see ahead of me, I can see purpose, I can measure my actions and even measure the values behind my actions. I can read Jesus’ words and talk to Jesus and get input from people who embody Jesus’ values and spirit of love. His holy Spirit, in other imperfect people.

This will sound like a leap, but hang with me.  

I live next to poverty. Poor families live across the street and sometimes share their food with us.  That’s humbling (and it’s wrong to say “no.”)  We hire them to do work we could do ourselves because we can afford to and sometimes that money they earn means that they eat and can feed their children.

I come back from a neighborhood where people never have enough to a place where people always do. These are the same world but sometimes we refer to them as separate worlds because they contrast each other to such an extreme and, maybe, because that allows for less responsibility toward that other “world.” Perhaps.

I like it here. I like the conveniences. I like Grocery Outlet where I can buy all the neat-healthy-organic stuff (and some not-so-healthy) at big discounts. I like roads that don’t tear my car apart. I like breathing cleaner air. I like filling a cup from any faucet and not wondering what parasites I’m drinking.

As I just told someone last night, in Nicaragua I always think about what others don’t have; in the States, I always think about what others have.

Here comes the make-you-uncomfortable part.

I could just keep quiet about this. After all, we’re able to do much of what we do because people here share their resources with us. By the end of our U.S. visit I’ll have a large running tally of how many different vehicles I’ve driven here, none of which belong to, nor are rented, by us. Our friends and family and church “cousins” lavish upon us and I gain weight. Every year in my six +/- weeks in the U.S., I gain weight, as does most every missionary who comes back for a visit.

But we matter to God, so I’m talking about this.

We matter to God, and so do my neighbors who can’t afford adequate dental care.

What I do does matter. It matters if I’m faithful to Kim. My choice to love or neglect my kids matters. Whether I work at something that builds God’s Kingdom or hurts other people matters. In fact, this all matters so much, in the eyes of an infinite God who cares about sparrows and pygmy shrews and babies with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, that we have to talk about grace right here, before we go any further.

Grace means so many things and covers so many things, but in this context it means we can make choices with our resources without torturing ourselves because we know God understands and allows for our mistakes. And our selfishness. We know God accepts our efforts to be faithful with what we have and forgives our failures to be faithful and just and merciful with all that we have. Grace here means God loves us even when we care too much for ourselves and not enough for others, too much about our comfort and not enough (or at all) about their suffering.

Like I said, I could have skipped this. It would be more comfortable, and less judgy-sounding, for me to thank everyone for all that they give us and keep my mouth shut about responsibility. It’s nice to think, “We are generous folk who share some of what we have with the the needy and less fortunate.” Does grace mean however much or little we decide to share, that’s good enough for God?  Or that God doesn’t really care how much we share of what we have, as long as in our hearts we’re not “too attached” to it?  I’m going to say, “no” and “no.”

Being here, in the U.S., now makes me uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, and I expect that sooner or later I will live here again. But I feel the discord. Play three notes together on a piano and then add a fourth that hurts when played with the others, that harmonizes badly. Discord. 

So what am I to do? I matter to God and I’m one person among a whole mess of people. Both are true. The former matters more than the latter in terms of how I think eternity will go for me or for any of us. These are real questions I’m asking:  Do we spend too much on our cars, our toys, our selves?  As others have suggested, is spending all our money on our families another form of selfishness? Might being “responsible” by investing everything so there’s nothing “left” to give not equal being responsible in God’s Kingdom?


I don’t feel important when I say these things, like I’m going to make any splash or ripple. I certainly don’t feel like I know exactly how to be faithful with our money. But I do feel responsible to say them, anyway: God cares about other people, not just us, and God gave us all the money we have, all the wealth, all our possessions.  It’s no argument how hard you or I worked for them; that is not the discussion, because they are God’s resources, entrusted to us (when Jesus tells the parable, the master sends the slaves and entrusts them with his money, not the slaves’ money) in a world—all one and the same world—in which some children will go hungry tonight.  And tomorrow night.

I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, but I know we’re supposed to do something. I know Jesus well enough to know that much for sure. I’m doing what I know to do, imperfectly, relying on grace like a tightrope walker over a chasm with a net strung across—grace catches me or I’m dead when I fall—and part of what I’m to do is live among people suffering poverty and talk to others about it. Talk to you about it.

So I’m sorry if you feel uncomfortable now, yet I hope you choose that over dismissing me. You might be pouring out all the resources God sends your way, doing the best drink pitcher imitation there is. I don’t know. I’m not judging or comparing. But I am saying this:  only if we see a brother or sister in need and do something for them can we say that God’s love dwells in us.*** I don’t think the variable here was the seeing people in need, but the response to them in their need.

Holy Spirit of Jesus, guide our steps. Guide our thoughts. Guide our giving, especially of ourselves.

 

 

 

**And if we’re bad at foreseeing or grasping consequences, we’re in serious trouble.

**I’m not going to delve into whether walking away from all commitments and life responsibilities is a form of freedom. One big, angsty question at a time.

*** “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  I John 3:17.  Rhetorical question.  It doesn’t.

A Reminder

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Recently I spent time with a person whom I have gotten to know well over the last several years.  We’ve been meeting together regularly for at least two years and have done activities, school stuff, and church together.  I’d say we’ve been very involved in each others’ lives and have a lot of mutual trust.  

Then, last time we met, I discovered that, up until then, I’d seen only the tip of the iceberg.  

Boom.  

This will be short and sweet, but I wanted to say this to you and to myself, because it’s a big deal:  

Building trust is walking together.  

If you blow it, or if they pull back, you may not be walking together anymore.  I have people whom I once trusted but will no longer open up to, and I’m the guy always talking about opening up!  Not everyone is safe.  

But if we do keep trust, walking together means that this journey doesn’t really have a destination.  We’re just hanging out, moseying or strolling or marching along, because being together is good and life-giving, not because we needed to get from Point “A” to Point “B.”

Here’s the epiphany that splashed me in the face, the reason I’m writing today:  trust is an ongoing, cumulative process,  a LONG walk, and you may think–I certainly thought–that most everything that could come out already had.  

Not.  Even.  Close.  

I thought we were cruising along, checking in about things, doing good maintenance.  Turns out what I didn’t know was crucial, as in, the interpretive key through which everything else makes sense.

Oh.  

I wasn’t pressing to go deeper because I thought we were there.  But we were still walking.  I forgot that there is no destination in relationships.  Yet this happened, this moment of deeper trust, because we were still on the journey together, even though it turned out I thought we were somewhere else on the map.*

Remember: we know people because they trust us.  I mean know people, not greet each other on Sunday morning or make small talk.  Trust may be the most precious, fragile gift anyone gives. 

But we never fully know people.  We just walk together.  

 

Remember that, Mike.  

 

 

*Not the first time in my life to experience this, either literally or figuratively.  

Present or Vicarious?

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“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  

–Terence McKenna

I read this quote recently and it won’t stop playing in my head.  I’ve learned to pay attention when this happens, when words keep echoing and reverberating around and around (and they aren’t telling me that I suck).  Obviously this quote is dated and now we’re worrying about Beyoncé and Donald Trump and Lebron James and Stephen Curry and Ariana and Taylor and Selena and Drake and…

If I didn’t get yours, fill in the name.  Here is my takeaway, and I’m not the first to say it–we live vicariously through people who have nothing to do with us, who care nothing for us, and who will never meet us nor think of us.  I remember listening to a radio call-in show in which Paul McCartney was answering callers’ questions.  A woman got to speak to Sir Paul and gushed that this was the greatest moment of her life.  “Uh-huh,” he said, “and what was your question?”  Paul McCartney, from what I can tell, seems like a perfectly decent person, but that wasn’t the greatest moment of his life.  That wasn’t a memorable or meaningful moment in his life.  That was barely a moment in his life.  

I’m far from the first to suggest this, but our condition appears to be getting worse, so maybe it bears repeating:  Our real lives are the lives we live with the people we know and touch and talk to and love or slight.  The opposite of love is indifference and celebrities don’t love us.  Living vicariously is, to a large extent, the opposite of living in the present moment.  

Quickly, someone is defensive.  “You’re saying I should never watch movies or basketball or youtube or…”  Nope, I’m not making vast generalizations about how we should never make contact with entertainment or the internet–though Terence McKenna was saying that–and I’m not claiming that I’ve ignored the Warriors-Cavaliers series.  

I’m saying our danger is that we get consumed by lives we’re not living and we neglect to live our own.  “The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe,”  which means your part in the Kingdom of God is exactly the space in front of your nose, everything within arm’s reach.  

I’ve been saying goodbye a lot lately.  As Billy Joel said, “So many people in and out of my life/some will last, some will just be now and then/Life is a series of ‘Hellos’ and “Goodbyes,’ I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”  And it is.  I’m saying goodbye to some folks whom I’ll see again in August and some whom I don’t know if I’ll ever see again.  And I hate that, and I embrace it, because this is life.  

Advertising, in my view, seeks to cause discontent, to tell you what’s wrong with you or what you lack so that you will spend your money to compensate for that gaping inadequacy that you didn’t know you had sixty seconds ago.*  Celebrity culture takes that a big step further:  you will never be this–this beautiful, this rich, this famous, this important–but you can live vicariously through them and, by identifying yourself with them, somehow be part of that life, that wondrous life so far beyond your mere mortal reach.  If you just worship them, you get to share in their glory.

Skubala, skubala, skubala.  

I know, “worship” is a loaded word.  That might be hyperbole.  The word that should frighten us, however, is “vicariously.”  Whether you love or hate certain celebrities, whether you cheer for or oppose a particular professional athlete or sports team, the question I think we must raise, and keep raising, is “am I living their life or mine?”  

McKenna’s point, if I understand him, is that all of this “diversion” tempts us to engage their lives and not ours, to become immersed in what is not us, for the profit of others.  But even if we never spend a cent (or centavo) on these diversions, the danger is just as real if we focus on their being instead of our own.  

I want to make two more points and then ask a question.  

First, as I understand life, loving God and loving others are the deal, that’s what matters, and they only come as a package deal.   The whole, “I really love God, I just can’t stand any of these people God made” doesn’t hold water biblically:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  Heck, we can’t even claim to love God if we refuse to help the people around us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”**

We spend our lives–I mean this literally, we pay with the coin of our time, which is the only currency we’re given–on what matters to us.  We can’t really say, “I spend only .002% of my time on this, but it’s the most important thing in the world to me.”  It isn’t.  Of course, we can say whatever we want and delude ourselves in whatever manner we choose; I mean, the evidence that tells the tale is how we invest ourselves, and our time reveals our hearts.  

McKenna writes, “You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  As a Jesus follower, I agree.  If God and people you know and love–or are called to love–matter, then getting sucked into this empty, meaningless, celebrity-worshiping or -crucifying Matrix diverts us from the Kingdom of God, from what and who make our lives meaningful.***

Second–and we always have to say this, for every one of these conversations–legalism kills.  Making rigid rules for these things does not lead us to a fuller, more joyful, more present life, but it does make us smaller and more judgmental–and as a special bonus, we often end up cheating on our own rules, anyway.  

Many of us are probably far more consumed by “cultural diversion” than we want to admit.  But we can also enjoy some of our entertainments as one aspect of our relationships with the real people in our lives.  My friend Jeff and I talked about the Yankees last night while sharing dinner.  We enjoy that as a mutual interest.  Sharing music, watching and discussing movies together–Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, for example, is brilliant, hilarious, and painful and raises so many cultural and racial issues–shouting together at other people playing basketball or baseball better than we will ever play them, these can be tremendous, life-giving ways to build our relationships.  They can even lead us to a deeper understanding of God and ourselves.  

Or they can turn us into “half-baked morons, consuming all this trash.”  

How do we know if we are enriching our real lives together or living vicariously and missing our lives, the only lives we get?  For most of us, it’s probably not one or the other all the time.  Some of us may be pretty far down the rabbit hole and don’t want to hear it (if you’re pissed off at me about this post, good to ask why), while others may just get lured once in a while.  I don’t have answers or even guidelines.  I’m vigilant with myself about this because I know I can get sidetracked and obsessed–obsessed is one of my specialties–and I want to live being present to the people I love.  

My question, then, is simple:  Are you living your life or someone else’s?  

 

*If you want to reflect more on this, this book will give you plenty to chew on:  https://www.amazon.com/No-Logo-Anniversary-Introduction-Author/dp/0312429274

**Rhetorical question.  It doesn’t. 

***This is a side note, and needs to be its own post, but arguing with people on social media whom you will never meet or know is similarly a means of distraction and unhealthy misdirection of time, energy, and emotion from our real–present, physical, relational–lives.  Even if you argue “only” in your head, not on the screen, I still think this is true.  

Goodbyes

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It’s that time of year for us here.  School ends tomorrow.  I’m relieved, because my daughters will have survived finals, which was a little touch-and-go this year.  I’m having my last mentoring times with the young adults I’ve invested in for the past year or two or three.  I’m trying to be a little Jesus-like and leave them with the most important things I can think of.  No, even more important than ultimate.  Good guess, though.  

Being a missionary in Nicaragua also means this is the time of year when we say goodbye to a bunch of missionaries who are moving back to the States or Canada or from wherever they came.  While people might leave any time, the end of the school year always sees the highest concentration of departures because 1)many of them have kids in school, 2)many of them are teachers, and 3)somehow the beginning of the summer just seems like a natural time for people to transition.  

One of the things you don’t realize before you start working internationally is the revolving door.  

Nicaraguans, from my personal experience, are probably less likely to move than folks in the U.S.  Poor Nicaraguans who are able to buy, or build, or even squat to obtain homes, tend to fix and improve them over time, as they can afford to.  In the U.S. middle class, we think in terms of “starter homes.”  Here, Nicaraguans take their starter homes, often much rougher than you would imagine living in, and slowly turn them into a decent place to live.  Further, Nicaraguans are, in general, very connected to their extended families, so they will often choose to stay in close proximity to one another.  I don’t have a large study to back me on this, but in the six years I’ve lived here, only one of my close Nicaraguan friends has moved (not counting students going to college), and they moved to Leon to be closer to his wife’s family.   Counting the eleven years since I first started coming to Nicaragua, one other family built a new home, which took several years, and moved into it shortly before we came to Managua.  

IN sharp contrast, my best gringo friends, in a few weeks, will have moved away three different times.  I mean, I made best friends, they moved, and made new best friends, and they moved, so I made new best friends and guess what?  Moving.  

Now I realize that some people have it harder in this.  Certainly people who work as seasonal laborers in agriculture live this way, constantly moving, constantly saying “goodbye.”  So I’m not feeling sorry for myself–okay, no, that’s a lie, I am feeling sorry for myself, but I’m trying to keep this in perspective and limit my self-pity.*

The combination of doing student ministry, which inherently involves sending kids off into the world to take their next steps and pursue their calling, and being part of a community of expat folks who seem to come and go with the wind, leaves us in a continual state of letting go.  Since I get so much opportunity to practice this discipline, I’ll offer a few reflections on what God is teaching me through this.

  1. Choosing to keep an open heart to new arrivals becomes harder–and more important–with every departure.  We discuss this a lot, how seeing folks come and go for years can tempt us to close down.  “Oh, you’re new here?  How long do you plan to stay?”One of our early close friends, who arrived at the same time we did and left a couple years later, really suffered from not feeling included in the missionary community.  At the time, that looked shocking.  It’s still painful, but I understand much better now why it happened.  Am I willing to invest in people who won’t be here–who may not be part of my life–for very long?  

2. It’s tempting to make people lame ducks the moment you hear they are leaving.  You may have been close before, but they’ll only be here for another six or nine months, and this is the fifteenth close friend you’ve said goodbye to in the last 3 years, and they’re already focused on living elsewhere, and…  Very tempting.  It sucks for the people leaving, who are already going through a tough transition…and it’s still very tempting.  

3. Probably the biggest danger is simply limiting how close we get to people in the first place.  I mean anyone.  Yes, as a Jesus follower, I believe that people are eternal and we will spend that together; yes, I know all about God giving and taking away–more than I wish I did, I know that–and nevertheless we start to employ defenses to cut down how much pain we endure.  That’s how defenses work.  

 

Those are the temptations.  They each get stronger as we live here longer.  As I mentioned, for me they also increase because I’m already investing deeply in the lives of the young adults who are almost certainly leaving, or at the very least transitioning to other communities here.  I can easily feel like I’m already maxing out by sending off kids I’ve taught and coached and walked with through their joys and miseries.  I’m not going to stop giving my heart to them, so maybe I’ll just pull back from everyone else.  

 

Living in the present means little if we aren’t valuing the people around us.  Being mindful, paying attention, remembering that life is lived only one moment at a time, here and now, none of these have the same impact if we’ve drawn back from those sharing our present moment with us.  Pulling back from everyone is another version of refusing to live in the present, refusing to be present for others.  

I believe that God calls us to suffer for one another.  That’s how I’ve learned to understand goodbyes.  When people leave here, especially when I’m not convinced that God is calling them elsewhere (and obviously God tells me these things), letting them go is a version of laying down my life for them.  I’m giving up what I want and prefer for their good, and choosing to continue to love them and not lame duck them up until the minute they leave is a form of “being devoted to one another in love.”  

If I believe people matter more than anything else in life other than loving God–while understanding that the two are inextricably connected**–then I see these temptations I described for what they are.  They aren’t just a minor temptation to pull into my shell a little more, to be a touch less open, a tad less vulnerable.  Changing how I relate to people because I’m protecting myself from the pain of their (potential) leaving is going back on my calling.  It’s not doing to others as I would have them do to me.  It’s a big deal.  

So I’m recommitting myself to loving others the way Jesus loves me.  Specifically, I’m choosing to take on the suffering of letting go of friends, of the students I mentor, of the amazing people called to other work in the Kingdom and even the wonderful people who may be bailing early on their calling here.  As C.S. Lewis described, the only way to be protected and safe from emotional pain in this world is to close yourself off to everyone, and that turns out not to be safety but entombment and death.

 From one perspective, life is simply a long series of goodbyes: to the fathers and sons who die and leave us here, to the children who grow up and need to become their own and not ours in the same way anymore, to the friends whom we help get married and will never be as close again as when they were single, to the disciples we do our best to love and prepare and send out because we’re all “sent ones” and we’re not supposed to keep disciples for ourselves, even the ones whom we enjoy the most, even the ones who make us laugh the hardest.  We’re supposed to send them, in Jesus’ name.  

People aren’t ours.  That’s where I’ll end.  The people we love the most may feel like they’re ours, but in the end even our husbands and wives aren’t ours in the sense that we get to choose not to say goodbye.  If while I’m with you I can be present, see you for who you are and not who I would make you, and give you a little bit of grace to take with you, then I’m living my calling.  Letting you go is also my calling.  

Goodbye, Friends.  I’ll miss you.  Go with God.  

 

 

 

*If one is really committed to self-pity, I would not recommend moving into a poorer community.  It can really screw that up, seeing others go through much worse.  

**And I’m less convinced than ever that we all believe this.  

Questions without Answers, Part 2

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These are hard stories. We can describe our life in Nicaragua in different ways:  we eat fresh mangoes, we’ve met some of the most gracious, beautiful-hearted people of our lives, I never wear long sleeves.  All of these are true.  So are the following descriptions.  

Yesterday afternoon, I walked home in the rain, which isn’t that unusual.  Seeing that I was getting rained on, the father of one of my students stopped to pick me up and gave me a ride partway home.  The rain let up by the time he let me off and I was damp but not soaked when I reached our street.

On our street, a man who lives nearby caught me.  He was drunk, as he often is.  He has a small business, which we often see one of his young children attending; when that happens, I assume it is because he is “indisposed.”  Yesterday, he wanted to talk to/at me.  He wanted me to give him money.  He introduced me to his father, who was with him and also drunk and who left immediately. We don’t hand out money to anyone on our street because we’ve learned (the hard way) that this is the quickest and most efficient way to ruin relationships.  I offered to buy him some food, which he waved off dismissively.  But he was more interested in a “refrescante,” a soft drink.

I directed him to the pulperia (small convenience store in someone’s home) up the street, but yesterday happened to be Mother’s Day in Nicaragua and they were closed.  So we took a walk down the back road behind our close friend/neighbors’ house to check a different pulperia.  I say “walk,” but it was more of a stagger/stumble/wrap his arms around me or grab my hand or arm and refuse to let go.  If you’ve spent time with someone drunk who is trying hard to convey something to you, you probably have the picture.

The second pulperia had no soft drinks, no drinks of any kind except what the woman working/living there called a “jugo natural,” but was a rice-drink with some juice.  They sell it in a tied-off baggie for five cordobas each (30 cords to the dollar currently, so say a touch over three cents) and it is a shocking pink.  I’d had it before and while it’s not my favorite, it’s certainly fine and much healthier than either the cola I was expecting to buy or what he’d spent his day drinking.

He wasn’t thrilled, to put it mildly, but he ended up accepting it when he understood there was no other choice.  So we walked back to my house, carrying our pink baggies of liquid, which neither of us started drinking.  I’m sure he was trying to ask me for something else, but I couldn’t understand him well enough to know exactly what, and I knew the answer would most likely be “no” (to either money or alcohol).  So I asked him different questions.  I tried to ask him about his children, of which he has quite a few.  He kept wrapping me up–picture a boxer in a clinch–and three different times after I said “goodbye,” he reacquired me.  I finally had to beg off that it was Dia de las Madres and therefore I needed to talk with my wife.

If you’ve ever spent time trying to help someone in this condition, you probably know the mixed feelings I had:  I’m doing my best to pay attention to him and show kindness, but there’s a strong possibility he won’t remember the interaction at all, and there’s a vague feeling of…not threat, exactly, but certainly awkwardness and discomfort.  I’m never quite sure what he’ll do.  Those are a small price to pay if I’m doing any good, but it’s hard to see that I am.  Maybe God is planting seeds that I can’t see.  Certainly that’s worth praying for.

Not long after that, Kim gave me an update on a dear friend of ours who also lives in our barrio.  She has an exceedingly difficult situation, with a husband who not only drinks but goes on benders in which he is gone for days or weeks at a time.  She struggles to feed her children and keep her home together.  If I’m honest, hers is the situation which reminds me that virtually all of my problems are first-world problems.

She finally, finally got a job, Kim told me.  But.  But her job is working at a fast-food restaurant a long way from her home and her work schedule is–no, I’m not exaggerating this–10 AM to 10 PM, six days a week.  With transportation, meaning city buses, she will be away from her home a bare minimum of 13 hours each day, six of the seven days.  She won’t be traveling at a safe time of the evening.  And though we don’t know exactly what she’ll be earning, as Kim described it, we do know it will be almost certainly be peanuts.  I mean, it will be.  That’s how such jobs pay here.  She’ll bring home two hundred dollars a month for these hours.

As I describe this, I’m not suggesting we do no good or accomplish nothing here.  We do.  God is working through us.  Kim is having a major impact on the kids coming to preschool and their moms.  I’m very encouraged at how the young people I’m mentoring are growing and maturing.

But these are the questions without answers.  This is what poverty looks like at our eye level.  It has many faces in many different cities and nations.  But I had never seen this face of it until we moved here.  

The man I described must make different choices before we can help him in any meaningful way.  Perhaps my conversation with him–and our ongoing presence here–helps him to know that we are available if he is ever willing to try.  Our teammate, Phillip, has attempted to approach the men who spend a lot of their time drinking on our street.  Unless and until an addict is willing to recognize the addiction and seek real help, a refrescante, or a cup of cold water (which we frequently share with them), is an act of mercy but only that.

In his case, the answer is clear and straightforward, though very hard.  I’m contrasting his situation with hers.  The rule, for very good reason, is that we don’t give people here money directly.  We make exceptions to that, but sparingly, carefully and cautiously.   We’ve successfully made two loans to friends in our barrio, both of which have been repaid in full, one quickly, the other over time.

But this friend of ours, this mother, doesn’t need a loan; she needs a job, one with which she can feed her children and keep them in school without it costing her being present to be their mother.

What should she do?  This is the rock and the hard place where poverty traps people.

Why are we here?  For her, specifically, why are we here?  We don’t have a job to offer her.  I wish with all my might that we did.

The principle of not giving handouts is good and wise and we have learned the hard way how badly it goes when we disregard it.

And yet…

And yet, this is a different situation, we have a different, closer relationship with her, and watching her try to keep these hours, to run herself ragged because she is stuck between these two miserable choices, also seems wrong.

So what is the answer?

What do you do when you have the means to help, but you know that just pushing in and trying to fix the problem will not fix it, and in fact could potentially make it worse?  Yet neither can you just stand by wringing your hands.

I don’t know.  We’re praying.  We’re praying for her and we’re praying God will show us what to do.  I know that God loves this woman and the fact that we’re here and friends with her, seeing this up close, means that He has  some purpose of which we are a part–though as yet I have no idea what part.

There are also many others here in similar or worse situations.  Over fifty percent unemployment and a per capita income of less than $300.*  What happens to them and their children?

Those are the real questions without answers.

I would not trade the time we’ve spent here.  I sometimes love it, though it’s almost killed me (literally), and I know we have good purpose here in God’s Kingdom.  I wish I could do more.  I often feel lame and helpless.  

Yet “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  I’m leaving you without answers for this one, because I don’t have any at this moment, and cheap answers are worse than no answers because they try to minimize that which needs to be faced not brushed aside.  But I do have faith.  We have faith enough still to be here and to believe God will intervene for our friends.  

I’m asking you, please, to pray for them. 

 

 

 

*Meaning after weighing in the income of the 10% of the population who are very wealthy, it’s still this low,