Three Moments of Serendipity

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The transition, as anticipated, sucks.  We’ve experienced many good things, including some powerful moments of kindness and generosity, but we’re homesick for our adopted country, we’re stuck and waiting for some things that are out of our control (selling our house), and the Nicaraguan government continues to abuse and murder its own citizens.

How we see the world affects everything:  what we believe, how we feel, how we live.  In my post about Mom I acknowledged that choosing to see things positively–even when they aren’t all bright and sunny–impacts us over the long run.  

Thus, three glimpses of seeing the world as a place where God moves.

1)We went to the farmer’s market Saturday.  I love the farmer’s market.  It’s a glimpse of the America I want to live in.  I went buy lemon-blueberry scones for my daughter who is recovering from knee surgery while trying to start at a huge new high school (did I mention about “sucks?”) But the woman selling her baked goods was having an excellent morning and was mostly cleared out.  Bummer.

But I’m a dad trying to help, so I asked, “Do you have any more of those lemon blueberry scones?”  She looked at me funny, hesitated, then said, “My daughter cut the scones this morning.  We cut them into eighths, but she accidentally cut them into sixths.  She was embarrassed, so she set them aside.”  Then the woman reached down and pulled out two enormous scones, the biggest scone portions I’ve ever seen.  Lemon blueberry.  

The moment went from Dad Fail to bringing my recovering, discouraged child these monster scones. I explained our situation and told the woman, “Let your daughter know that her embarrassing miscut was a serendipitous blessing for my daughter.”*

2)Yesterday I took a walk to clear my head and try to replace some of the bad thoughts with better ones.  I saw a yard sale sign and thought, “Nah, I don’t need to go to a yard sale.  We need to get settled first. We don’t have anywhere to put stuff yet.”  I kept walking.  

But somehow I felt an urge to go, anyway.  So I turned around and followed the sign to the sale.  

It was a big sale, but nothing I was very interested in.  I realized she had set up inside as well as in her yard and driveway.  Lots of stuff.  I bought a few vintage magazines for the sports articles and a Kubler-Ross book for a buck.  I chatted with the home owner and her friend for a moment, mentioning that we had moved recently.  

The friend asked, “Do you want to help her move?”  And the woman asked, “How much do you charge an hour?  Do you have a buddy who could help, too?”  

Uhhh…

She explained her situation, how she must get out of the house quickly because it closes in two weeks even though her next home is not ready yet.  I took her number and told her I’d let her know.  

But as I continued my walk, I felt very clear that I should help her move and that my eldest child might join me.  So forty-five minutes later, I went back and said, “Sure, I’ll help,” and gave her my hourly rate, which she readily accepted.  She showed me all the things that need to be moved and explained her situation in more detail–she got screwed, knowingly and intentionally, by the seller of the home she’s moving to.  

As I was leaving, she said, “Thanks.  Now I’ll sleep better, knowing I have someone who can help,” and her friend said, “It wasn’t a coincidence that you came by here.  What church do you pastor.”  I don’t right now, of course, but I told her we go to New Song and asked her if she has a church.

“No, but I need one.  I’ll come visit.”  

I’ve been back since June 29.  I haven’t gone to a yard sale until yesterday. I had no plans for that one–even reasoned why not to go.  Then I went and saw why.  

I think that was my first moment since returning of seeing how God is working through me.  The hours of work will do me good. Helping will be great.  

But being the answer to someone else’s prayer, the instrument of someone else’s serendipity?  

3)This morning I hiked with Brady, a dear friend, a guy I’ve mentored ten years, the one who calls me “Yoda.”  I pushed the time back twice and when he came to pick me up, it took me a little while to get out the door. We hiked up Saddle Rock, possibly the most frequented trail in Wenatchee.  As we neared the top, we passed a group and someone yelled, “Mike!”  

I turned and saw Emily, who spent a year working at our school in Nicaragua!  She goes to college in the Seattle area, but the odds of being in that same place at that moment–she’s never been to Wenatchee before, Brady and I haven’t hiked together in years, the time of our departure changed repeatedly–were still astronomical. 

Emily is extra.  Her laugh and smile light up her surroundings.  We did that everything-at-once catch-up-in-passing and apologized to our companions, who seemed able to share in our delight of that unlikely encounter.  

 

I haven’t written much recently (see first sentence). I’ve started several posts and gotten nowhere. But as I was telling Brady about the yard sale, my brain clicked: that’s three in three days.  

Maybe they’re all coincidences.  But I see them as serendipity.

How we see changes who we are.  

 

 

*Yes, I used “serendipitous.”  It’s like cowbell–you don’t get that many opportunities and have to take full advantage when you do.   

 

Precious

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I’m tired.  It’s hard to adequately describe or even summarize the last two weeks.  I chose not to write about it at the time because I wanted to live it, instead, and my time felt limited and stretched as it was.  As always, I tried to create more time by sacrificing sleep, with varying results.  

I’m tired but happy.  it was a great trip.  

I’m 49 and my mom is 78.  I think she’s past the age where she’s offended by having her age revealed.  I hope so.  I think she should be proud of how active and amazing she is.  As I watch people age, I see characteristics intensify.  A touch of bitterness in the twenties can look surly in the fifties and full-on curmudgeonly by the seventies.  Mom is sweet and kind and generous and happy.  I think there was a time—okay, I know there was a time—when I thought she was a little too happy and positive and not shrewd or aware enough.  Those can be nice words for jaded and world-weary.  Seeing my mom at this age, I think she has chosen wisely.  Yes, you can see the worst in people and guard yourself all the time…and fifty or seventy years letter, the results will show.  The results show in Mom, too.  

We walked a lot.  We took a daily walk and I lobbied for two.  We talked about how many steps she was registering on her Fit Bit (note—steps actually happen whether or not Fit Bits score them.  I know, surprising.) and her most-steps competition with my brother-in-law.  We talked about people we know from my growing up years.  We talked about moving back from Nicaragua and my daughter’s return to Nicaragua.  We also talked about her health.  

I am not superstitious, so I don’t believe talking about being in the later or last stage of life will jinx anyone.  I don’t know how much time Mom has left.  I hope a lot.  I miss my dad a lot, crazy and difficult though he could be.  He was also my biggest encourager in my first twenty-eight years of life and generous beyond belief.  Generous with himself as well as generous with his money and things.  I visited his grave while I was there, which of course does not mean I visited Dad, merely the place where we most directly remember the joy and grief of our life together.  

I don’t know how much time Mom has left (nor how much I have, when we come to it), but I’ve learned that these visits are precious and they are the best way I can love her.  I mean, yes, coming to her house and having her feed me and spoil me.  That’s how how I love her. That’s how I let her love me.  If she were bitter or cynical, that might not work.  But she’s joyous and hopeful.  So we walk and talk and work off the cookies and brownies she makes and I eat.  (And eat.)  I’m going back a little heavier than when I arrived and at this age I’ll have to work pretty hard to take those pounds off again.  But Mom visits are feasts, not fasts.  I don’t know how many I have left, but I tried to make that the best one yet.  

My kids didn’t come along this time.  I don’t remember the last time I visited Illinois and brought none of my children.  It’s a little disappointing for Mom not to have any grandchildren running around, riding my old bike, helping eat the cookies, showing her how much they’ve learned and matured since last time.  But they are all deep in the midst of life transitions, moving countries, starting new schools, starting new jobs (I have kids starting jobs. Wow.).  So I got Mom to myself.  

On this same trip, I heard a friend describe time with her mother and frankly, it sounded awful.  I’m not someone who has only Norman Rockwell fuzzy-warm memories of family time.  I get it.  Heck, I’ve been the cause of more than one unhappy family story.  But at this stage, when “value each moment; you don’t know how much time you’ve got” is no cliche, I’m unspeakably grateful for the mom I have, for the love we have for each other, and for a visit when, amazingly, I got to know her a little bit better.  

And I think to myself…

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  I see  trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom, for me and you

and I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”

Today, I found out that my good friend Pastor Bismarck’s mom died. I want to be there for the vela.  I want to mourn with my brother and his family.  I want to give him a hug.  But I’m here.

Will and Barry clasping hands in victory(?), Davey looking holy. Characteristically.

Today, I learned that Will, one of my basketball and ultimate players and the only person who has ever given me bacon socks, is not returning to Nicaragua for his senior year. When I was praying about staying for another year–even though Kim had committed to returning–I had three senior guys I envisioned working closely with this coming year, Barry, Davey, and Will.  They will be in Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States, respectively.

Today, I heard from a former student, who is dear to my heart, who is having a hellish time.  I tell my students that when they hit the hard times, I expect to hear from them.  I am a good foul-weather friend.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white

The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night

And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”

The age my girls were yesterday.

Annalise, our daughter, our Miracle Girl, is returning to Nicaragua to work with the SOAAR program (Students of All Abilities Recognized) at Nicaragua Christian Academy.  Her words:
“SOAAR helped me get through school, academically. It gave me the extra help that I needed to be able to achieve my absolute best in my classes. I’m going back, to be able to give students that know me a perspective of someone who personally knows what they’re going through, and to give back to the program that helped me out so much in school.  
Even though Nicaragua is going through a rough time, I feel like that is where I’m supposed to be, and God has made it clearer to me over the past few weeks. I feel like I can help people that are going through a rough time there, and be able to give some stability to people that really need it.

How did we get here?

Yeah, that scares us, and yeah, I wish with quite a bit of my heart that I were going back, and yeah, I’m trusting God for both of us.  Before you ask, “How can you let her do that?” or if you already asked it in your head, 1)She’s 18 and we’re committed to her making the decision, 2)We’ve talked with the NCA director, the SOARR director, and the family with whom she’ll be living, all close friends of ours, all gringos who are going back, 3)We believe this is how God is leading Annalise and we’re not going to veto that.  I don’t want to teach our kids about faith and then tell them not to live it.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
Meanwhile, I’m living in Disneyland.  I love it here, but it’s bizarre.  I love the people here, but it’s hard for them to understand what I’ve seen or why I’m not just relieved to be here.  I read bad news about Nicaragua every day and I pray and at some point soon I will start trying to raise support for a ministry there because I have to do more than I am now.
Finally, I’m scared about what’s going on in this country.  Do people hate one another more than they ever have before or is it just louder?  How do I respond faithfully to what I see in love, as a Jesus follower, not returning hate for hate, but with courage and boldness and grace?  I’m seeking community because I know I can’t do this on my own.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

Image may contain: 3 people, including Annalise Rumley-Wells, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

Police Summons or Why I Left the Scene of an Accident and What Happened After That

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[I told a version of this story in my last International Christian Fellowship sermon, if you prefer to hear me tell it.]

I left the scene of an accident.

I consider that one of the truly horrible things to do, ranked somewhere in the range of mocking disabled people and hurting children.

But I did it.  I drove away.

I did return, but the other car was gone by the time I got back.

Now I don’t blame you for judging me, but unless you’ve lived through a collapsing government, I’m going to suggest you hold off.

I’m writing this with one week to go in Nicaragua but I’m not going to post it until I’m out of the country.  Do I think there could be retribution?  I do.

I pulled out to turn left on the same highway where I had my horrible accident because it’s also the place I had to drive every day.  But his time, our country was in upheaval because the government had been directing violent backlash against the protestors. This also led to a lack of police presence and neglect of protecting citizens, which meant random crime and violence was on the rise.  I’m describing June 1st.  It’s still happening.

I used what I have come to consider a Nica driving maneuver for a left turn, pulling out across lanes of oncoming traffic and waiting there, so that I can slip in when there’s an opening in the lane into which I’m turning.  Is that a dangerous move and emphatically illegal in the States?  Maybe.  I’ve become accustomed to it; I’ll need to unlearn it.

An oncoming car slowed for me—which is normal since I’m in his lane and all—and I saw a sufficient gap where I could enter, so I pulled across—and got hit.  Slammed my front passenger corner, shockingly loud, and suddenly I’m sitting still in the lane and have just shouted something and my girls are silent and what just happened?  How was there a car coming at me where I’d already turned left?

I broke a Nicaraguan rule immediately: I pulled off the road.  I sat there and breathed and prayed and groaned and probably said a few other things.  Then I got out to look at the damage to our car.  It was surprisingly minimal, considering.  Our car has headlights and also lights below.  The collision took out the passenger side foglight and scratched and dented that corner, but the bumper and the actual headlight were, to my great surprise, intact.

I then looked out at the car that had hit us/we had hit, sitting stopped in the lane, as they’re supposed to.  Someone had gotten out and was walking around the car, leaning in through the window, walking around some more.  We looked at each other.  They didn’t approach me.  I didn’t walk back out into the road.

I circled our car some more.  I breathed some more.

Now what?  Call the police?

The police had stopped functioning as police.  I hadn’t seen a single traffic police officer in over a month, since we were in Ireland and it all went crazy.  It’s not like the States, where police cruise and patrol and you might see several randomly or not see one. Here they stand by the side of the road.  In fact, about 150 meters up the road from my accident, there was a police station.  I say “Was,” because protesters burned it while Kim and I were in Ireland.  Burned it completely inside, so that there’s still a building but it’s just a shell. Before things fell apart, I’d see at least two policia transito at that station, sometimes six, at any hour, standing there waving people over, doing their thing.

But last week our friend got mugged in broad daylight, literally across the street from where I just got hit, because the police were no longer a presence.  No, that’s not true.  The police were no longer a presence restraining crime and violence.  They continued to be a presence threatening and attackingn protesters, shooting at unarmed civilians,* and guarding areas the government does not want protesters damaging. The police would dress up as civilians and commit crimes and hurt people to discredit the protestors.

Do you call the police?

Here comes the kicker:  I didn’t have my license.

Context:  I’d left my backpack, including my wallet, at our basketball team goodbye party the day before.  Stupid, but such is life.

Context: Kim had stopped carrying her license or purse at all when she drove, because again, no police on duty, and having her purse taken now seemed more of a danger than getting pulled over without it.

Context: Kim’s first week-ish driving in Nicaragua, she got pulled over without her license and the policeman immediately threatened to put her in jail. Just a threat to get a bribe? Maybe.  Probably.  Scare the gringa.  She was scared then.  Since then, she’s become such a BA she would not have blinked at that—I mean, before this all went to hell and now we’re all afraid of the police because they shoot into crowds and use sniper rifles on unarmed protesters. Because just yesterday another child, eighteen months old, was shot and killed by police.

So there I am, with two daughters in the car, trying to figure out how I got hit, trying to grasp my new situation, and I realized, “I cannot have the police come talk to me without my license.  I can’t.  I will be in a potentially bad situation that I am not prepared to put my family through—I’m not going to risk going into police custody for that.  Not now.   Not with the reports we’re hearing.”

I stood there for a while and prayed the other car would drive away.  But they didn’t.  They just looked over at me, then the person standing outside the car got back in the car and they sat there.

I drove away. We drove to school in absolute silence.  But the thought kept blaring in my head, “My daughters now think I’ll leave an accident!”

I got my backpack.  A few people spoke to me and I acted like things were normal, because AAAAAAHHHHHH!

Then I drove back.  Crazy, wild thoughts banging in my head.

When I got there, the other party was gone.  Normally, meaning back when Nicaragua was its version of “normal,” the police would arrive, eventually, talk to both parties, look at things and take pictures while traffic somehow weaved its way around.  Leaving cars exactly where they got hit is one of the Nicaraguan rules of the road I have to question, but you could always count on that it would take a long time.  Usually hours. I was composing the Spanish to explain why I’d left, which would include neither “I ran to get my license” nor “I don’t trust the police not to hurt me.”   But no one was there.  So I drove home.

I told Kim I’d been in an accident.  To her credit, she didn’t freak out at all.  She agreed that I had to have my license.

Oddly, bizarrely, I then jumped back in the car and drove the same route an hour later to pick the girls back up from youth group. Because life goes on, even when the country is coming apart.

“I had to get my wallet,” I told them.  “I couldn’t talk to the police without my license.  I felt like it was the wrong thing to do but there were no right options and I couldn’t just see how the police responded now without having it.”

“Yeah, of course,” they agreed.  Then we talked through the accident.

“How was there someone there?  Wasn’t I on the other side of the yellow line?”

“Yeah, you were.  He shouldn’t have been there.”

“Okay, that’s what I thought.”

“He came out of nowhere.”

“So…he pulled around the person who waited for me and tried to pass there?”  Because that’s a really busy, crazy place to try to pass, even for traffic here.  I mean, a motorcycle still would, but a car?

We all concluded that’s what had happened.  The fact that they hit my passenger side meant they had to be way over there, because I was turning left, remember—they should have made contact with my driver’s side.

I still felt freaked out and bad, because that’s something I never thought I’d do, but the mitigating factors remained  1)the police here, 2)I thought the other driver was at fault, 3)it was too minor of an accident to have caused injury.

I was nervous for a couple of days, just moderate anxiety to blend in with the overall anxiety of living in increasing violence and chaos.  Or disintegrating society.  Or bordering on civil war. Call it as you see it.

But really, since they were on the wrong side of the road and the police can’t really be trusted, they weren’t going to tell the police. I thought.


Last Thursday night, I came home from a wonderful, gut-laugh-filled dinner with what I affectionately referred to as “Last Gringos Standing.”  Not literally, of course, but a handful of the remaining gringos of our community.  I had been fed and loved, which felt exceptionally marvelous because 1)my family had been gone from me since that Sunday, 2)I had gotten nasty sick with some chikungunya knock-off that was still close enough to cause me misery for four days straight and this was my first day back eating a real meal or, for that matter, seeing the outside world.  Not exactly how I’d planned my last hurrah in Nicaragua, even my adjusted last hurrah within the crumbling world around us.  But there I was, glowing with amistad and choosing to focus on how great Katie and Amy and Nate and Claire and Landon are instead of “Was that my last time hanging with them?”  That was a choice.

I got home and my neighbor immediately messaged me that he had something for me.  Cool.  Totally full, but our neighbors really love me, far beyond anything I deserve, so I was nearly sure they were bringing me food, since I’m living as a bachelor without a stove.

Juan Carlos walks across the street and I make a joke about bringing me more cats.  But it’s not cats.

It’s a summons.  I’m to report to the police at 8 the next morning because of my traffic accident.  It has my name on it.  It has the license plate of my car on it.  How freaked out was I?  I went over and checked that it actually was my license plate.

Since the country erupted on April 18-19, I’ve felt moments of real fear two or three times.  Mostly, I’ve just carried the vague anxiety/trauma that it’s coming apart, people are getting hurt, and it’s impossible to know exactly how to stay safe or to help.

But when I read that, I immediately felt scared, and more than a moment’s worth.

I ran from the scene of an accident, no one knows that I came back, and this accident got reported by the guilty party—which could only mean they were prepared to lie boldly.

Possibilities:  I’m put in jail.  In Nicaragua, during crisis, while uncounted hundreds (or thousands?) are being held in secret, indefinitely.

I’m not allowed to leave the country.  Kim and kids flew out on June 18th and I could have been in the US on that date and never have seen this piece of paper.  But now I’m here.

Is the other driver going to try to shake me for everything he can get?  That’s done a lot here. Some good friends just went through that, including coercion and threats, false witnesses, police seeming to have been bribed, and ended up paying over $4,000 on false accusations.

Or did the other person get hurt?  Is that somehow possible after all?  

Lord Jesus, hear my prayer.

I think you’ve grasped context enough to know that I’m not making up bogey men here.  My Spanish is still only passable if I’m with Nicaraguan friends who adjust to help me understand them.  I can’t go to the police station alone.  I mean, besides the obvious it-would-be-good-for-someone-to-know-if-they-jail-me.

I’m writing this calmly because it’s now, but I was Freaking. The Heck. Out.  Racing, spinning, cartwheeling thoughts of worse-case scenarios.  So do I not go?  What happens then?  Do I change my ticket to fly out tomorrow? Will they stop me at the airport because of this?  Who knows?  Sometimes information enters the “system” here and a lot of times it doesn’t and who can tell which, especially now?

Again, I’m not talking about “I did something wrong and now I want to evade responsibility.”

Just to bring that into focus:

I wrote my good friend, one of the best friends I’ve had in my life.  He’s been here longer than I, dealt with an accident or two, navigates the culture far better than I, and is not one to get ruffled easily.

He wrote me this, and I am quoting it verbatim except the names–

Listen, I hesitate about telling you this, because I’m not sure if you have a choice, but want you to be prepared and to be able to get Jairo’s opinion on this. This is a message that [a woman] sent my wife two weeks ago: “We changed our flight and left Friday. Last week was a very strange week for us. Last Monday a pastor friend of ours took our vehicles to transit to finalize the registration for them to get them out of [ministry’s] name. He let us use his name since we don’t have residency. The police ended up setting him up by putting drugs in the cars. They surrounded him after he left transit and pulled him and his friend out of our cars, beat them, seized the vehicles, and took them to chipote. Now they are charging him with drug trafficking and money laundering since he was receiving the vehicles from a non profit. It is a mess! We reported the vehicles stolen to embassy but not sure if we will ever see our cars again. [My spouse] was concerned about getting out of the country because his name was on the original donation contracts that we used to get car insurance. And then afterward found out the two attorneys that told us we could own vehicles without residency were wrong. It’s like we’re in a drama movie or something. Last week was rough. So we are thankful to be out of there right now.”
I think you need to be very careful at Transit. Just rely on Jairo for communication and be very aware of what’s going on around you.

Nope, not nervous merely about a visit to the police station, not even “just” a reckoning with having made a lesser-of-two-evils choice and seeing if I made the wrong one.

You get now why I decided to wait until after flying out to publish this?

My good friend also urged me to get everything that could be construed as anti-government or pro-protesters off social media. There are rumors the government is black-marking people who post about them. Who knows what’s true?

But I’m slightly ahead of myself, because I heard back from my friend the next morning.  I still had the night to survive.

I prayed fervently whom I should ask to help me and decided I had to ask Jairo to come with.  Jairo has become a dear friend and is extremely knowledgeable in the inner workings of immigration, police, and most of the other sources of red tape and tension experienced by expats here.  He’s also calm, godly, and bi-lingual.  He said “yes.”

That was my first moment of feeling slightly better.  Slightly.  So I did some anxious organizing, just for the sake of movement, prayed with intensity and clarity that I rarely experience outside of, well, crises like we’ve been going through here, and got all ready to go see the police the next morning.  Then I went to bed.

I tossed and turned, as expected, but did fall asleep, then woke up in the middle of the night.  Yep, that’s normal for insomniac me.  Okay, so I went to bed about 11:20 and now it’s…12:50AM.

Oh.

And that’s the last I slept.  Or I might have for tiny bursts (do you sleep in bursts?), but I’m pretty experienced at sleeplessness and this was not dozing on and off.  This was intervals of praying, futilely trying all the relaxation tricks I know, and having my mind generate new worst-case scenarios.

I gave up and got up at 6:30.  Then I read my friend’s message.

Imagine if I’d read that message before I tried to sleep.


We arrived at the police station. Everything seemed normal. It was much less crowded than any of my previous visits there. We were told I had to pay 100 cordobas as an automatic fee for the incident, regardless of fault. Then we waited for a long time, at least 45 minutes to an hour. I kept watching for the other drive. At last, a policeman came out, called me into his office, and asked for my version of the story. Jairo translated. The policemen showed me the drawing of what the other driver had reported, which was not how I experienced the event at all. Then they told me to wait.

So we waited. We sat and watched grainy (World Cup) soccer on an ancient TV. The police came and went. We waited for the other party to arrive. I tried to unclench my teeth. We chatted. We waited some more.

A younger officer came out and told us to go with him. Where? He needed to look at and take pictures of my car to help them decide who was at fault. So we went out and watched him take photos.

When we came back in, a larger, much more scowling officer asked me a question at a speed and with an accent I could not understand at all. I asked him to repeat it, which seemed to anger him more. He then stood a few feet from us and reviewed papers, seemingly on my case, for a very long time. Occasionally he would stop to watch the soccer game, then return to his papers and his scowling.

Two hours went by like this. Jairo was calm. My heart felt like I was playing ultimate. The pounding part, not the joy part.

Then a policeman, a different one than , came out and explained that they had found me at fault. Okay. No mention of leaving the scene. Okay. My multa (fine) for the accident would be 350 cordobas.

The cord is presently thirty-two to the dollar.

But no, that was not all.

As we were waiting for our next instructions, a police woman came out of her office and started to talk with Jairo. She asked a question that I didn’t understand and he said Yes, of course, and the next thing I knew, we were in her office helping her with her English homework. Active and passive voice, to be exact.

The last twenty to thirty minutes of our time at the police station was spent (passive voice) helping her complete several worksheets on English grammar.

When we finished doing that (active voice)—Jairo asked, “Do we pay the fine now? Are we done?”

And she said, “No, don’t worry about it.”

Then I breathed for the first time in sixteen hours.

So that is how I paid three dollars for my accident. Plus our labor, of course.

I am certain God answered many prayers for me. It could have been a horrible situation, and as we hear new reports of violence and cruelty every day, it’s clear this wasn’t just silly worrying.

I felt so grateful to be free and alive and not scared. Breathing free air was wonderful. Is wonderful. Freedom!

But I also remember and carry heavily that over two hundred Nicaraguans have been killed by the police in the past seventy days not for crimes but for trying to speak against injustice, for trying to have a voice, or simply for being in the wrong place when the police started shooting.  This week an 18-month-old baby was shot and killed by police while being carried to his babysitter.

Therefore, I decided not to post this until I departed.

 

*This video was taken at Metrocentro, a shopping mall we’ve visited a hundred times.  A friend who was there that day told me it was a normal shopping day, then suddenly stores were closing and owners were leaving with their arms full of merchandise.  Ten minutes later, the shooting started.

I Am Crucified with Christ

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My final sermon at International Christian fellowship, on Galatians 2:20.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It includes the story of my recent police station visit after my accident.

My Twisted Ankle Vs. Your Broken Leg

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“How are you guys doing?  How’s the transition going?”

This is a good, right, and considerate question people are asking us right now.  We hear it a lot.

Here’s the problem:  Nicaragua is a mess right now.  Our “civil unrest,” which might be too euphemistic, keeps spiking.* Protestors keep getting murdered.  Right this second, I’m praying for a friend who is driving home from his ministry.  He works out in a remote pueblo in the campo, where he visits once a week.  The drive typically takes three hours.  But many of the main roads here have roadblocks where those protesting hold traffic for two hours.  Stop and imagine that.  His drive home–it’s 6PM now–will likely take between six and nine hour.  I’m praying for his safety.  I believe he’ll be fine.  He’s not in imminent danger, certainly not compared with many who are speaking up, putting themselves at risk by seeking justice and regime change here.  

Meanwhile, in our little lives, we’re moving back to the U.S.  That matters.  It matters to us.  It matters to some people here.  To a few people here, it matters a lot.  But in the big picture, it is not the big picture.  

How does this work?  How do we think about this?  How do we do it well?  

A brilliant Episcopal priest friend who died many years ago taught me a truth I found profound yet simple and, in my experience, rarely taught.  He said, “My twisted ankle hurts me more than your broken leg hurts me.”  

He was right.  That isn’t a lack of empathy or compassion.  This is not to say that I believe my twisted ankle is worse than your broken leg, which would be self-centered and immature.  I get that you are in more pain than I am.  

But I cannot feel your pain the way I can feel my own.  I just can’t.  To be a mature human being means acknowledging others’ pain and not merely my own; to be a Jesus follower means to embrace the radical teaching that I am to measure my response to your pain based on how I would have you respond to my pain.  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This does not mean discounting or ignoring our own suffering, but it does mean seeing beyond just myself, even when I am suffering.  

Transfer this now to our situation here:  I’m living my life, ridiculous as it is.  We’re in the final months and weeks of seven years loving and failing and be-neighboring in Nicaragua.  I hate that we’re leaving, and I especially hate that we’re leaving now, in light of these terrible circumstances.  But I believe God is leading us back and I’m choosing to try (or trying to choose) to trust God in this.  

I know me and I wouldn’t be having an easy time of this in ordinary circumstances.  I’ve watched a lot of missionaries and ex-pats come and go in seven years.  I haven’t seen the perfect way to do depart, though I’ve seen a wide range of approaches; most people just stumble through, trial and error, trying to figure out the best process for them.  

Last Thursday, the remainder of our school year on campus was cancelled and we are finishing school online.  I can’t tell you how much this sucks for our kids, especially the seniors.  Some people have left abruptly while others are considering doing so now, since online school is, you know…online.  At one point not long ago, I thought we had an outside chance for one final basketball game for our team.  Nope.  Currently, I’m praying about how to give a commencement speech for a class whose final year has been so truncated.  

In the midst of all this, that voice in my head keeps saying, “This is your last time to get to…”  “You only have so many more chances to…”  “Do you honestly think you’ll see him/her/them again?”  

This is a stupid and bad time to be going through such a transition.  What’s happening here, the horrible fractured femur Nicaragua is suffering, matters so much more than my ridiculous twisted ankle.  

Yet all I can do is live this, moment to moment, as present and invested as I know how.  Pretending my situation doesn’t matter, or is meaningless in the face of Nicaragua’s misery, only cuts me off from anything positive that could come through this closure process.  

Here I am, therefore, trying to keep all of it in perspective.  I hate to see the agony this beautiful country suffers.  I cry to Jesus for peace and justice, over and over, and ask everyone who prays to join me in seeking God’s face.  I’m limping, because my twisted ankle does hurt,** and I’m a little better able to resist self-pity because this pain is a small discomfort in the face of what swirls around us every day.  

Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our son’s 11th birthday, his party hosted at the home of one of his best friends, whose mother generously offered to let twenty-odd ten-and-eleven-year-olds rampage around her property.  They are a Nicaraguan family.  The party-goers will be a wonderful mix, boys and girls, Nicas and gringos.  I’ll remember one of the reasons God moved us here, right before my eyes.  I’ll grieve that this will likely be the last birthday he celebrates in Nicaragua.  

And I’ll pray that there are no more murders of college kids or any other protestors or police.  I’ll pray that somehow negotiations will lead to a better government for the people here.  All of that together is how the transition is going.  

 

Post-script: My friend made it home in  8 1/2 hours.

 

*Nicaragua’s crisis in numbers: 76 dead, 868 injured, 438 detained in a month of protests, according to prelim report by @CIDH, concluding 4 day visit to 4 cities and hundreds of interviews. #SOSNicaragua

**By the way, thank God I mean this figuratively and I’m still able to exercise and stay sane that way while going through this.  

The Art of Following

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I have some big thoughts building.  They haven’t quite coalesced yet, but they will soon.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow, we ride a bus to Costa Rica for our high school teams’ basketball tournament.  Everything I’m doing right now feels like it’s my last time.  We’re in Transition.

But this one had an added complication:  Nicaragua unrest continues and we had to decide whether we should cancel the trip due to all the protests and the threats (and sometimes acts) of violence.

Our school’s board, administration, and athletic director prayed about it and weighed all the pros and cons and concluded we should go ahead with our trip.  But it drives home that we’re in a very tense time here and need prayer.  I’m glad we’re going; this trip is the culmination of our basketball season and we’ll get to spend concentrated time with our players for these next five days.  God does great and surprising things on trips like this.

But in the bigger picture, Kim and I are preparing to leave a country that feels like it has a very short, smoldering fuse.  We’re not leaving because of the current tensions and I feel inordinately offended when people ask, “Is that why you’re leaving?”  “NO!”

I’m offended because this is such a crucial, volatile, and shatterable time for our adoptive country (though more accurate to say that the country adopted us).  I’m offended because I don’t want our neighbors, or any Nicaraguans, to believe we would bail when things start to look tense.  I’m offended because it’s hard to leave and even harder when so much seems at stake for this country we’ve grown to love.

Kim started talking with me about how we might need to move back at the beginning of last school year.  She was right, as she so often is, but I’m struggling with the decision nonetheless.  Perhaps the biggest issue for me is trusting God: with this timing, with the transition, with letting go of things here.

Then you add what Nicaragua is going through right this moment–tomorrow could be a crucial point in this developing conflict–and I understand the timing even less.

Pastor Bismarck, in his signature pose.

Following God is an art form, not a science.  Hearing from God is more like learning music than learning math.  I recently spent some time with Pastor Bismarck, one of my closest friends here, and he encouraged me, as he always does.  He reminded me of some crucial things–even quoted to me from a sermon I preached four years ago!–and helped me get my focus back where it needs to be.

The circumstances don’t make a lot of sense to me.  But they don’t have to.  We pray and we listen and we walk where we believe Jesus tells us to walk.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear anything, maybe because my own thoughts are so loud in my head.  I was just talking today with a young man who expressed that it’s so hard to trust God with the things we care about most.

But as Bismarck reminded me, we see only a small part of the whole picture that God sees.  God can see this whole, enormous painting, and how each thing we do adds a dot, like pointilism.  The painting belongs to God, not us.  God is the artist.  God is Creator, not just once but always.

Therefore, the fact that sometimes even big decisions won’t fully make sense to me should come as no surprise.  I can’t see what God’s painting.  I can’t see how the little dots of my calling add to the whole.  I love this country and I don’t want to move away, especially when they are on the verge of either a great step forward or a very different step.  But I’m not saving this country; I never was.  I’m walking with Jesus.  Trying to follow, trying to hear.

I’m loving the people I’m with, as long as I’m with them.

The rest of this week, that’ll be basketball players.

 

After that, God knows.

 

 

“God Is” Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon “God Is’]

 

God is

It’s been a very strange couple of weeks for us. We went on a trip to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. Two days later, the protests began. Some of the seniors in my Bible class accused me of timing our trip to get away during the trouble. I absolutely did that. We took this trip on our anniversary, remember. Twenty-five years ago, when Kim and I were deciding on the date of our wedding, we looked into the future and saw that this would be the time to get away. In fact, I was remembering that some friends of ours, Eric and Karen, asked if they could have our originally planned wedding date, April 3, and we swapped them for April 17. So when I mention up here that I’ve had people suggest I have the gift of prophecy, clearly this is what I mean. I foresaw that we would want to say “yes” to them and change our date for when we’d live in Nicaragua and this would happen. It’s actually pretty impressive, when you think about it.

It was odd being out of the country on this trip and trying to track with all that was going on. I know many of you experienced difficulty keeping informed on what was happening. Hearing all this news and reading updates and trying to figure out if we needed to make decisions, well, that definitely added another dimension to our trip.

Because of that, I feel a little out-of-step preaching this week. The 20th Century theologian Karl Barth said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” So as I was praying about what to say, this is what came to me. I hope you can apply everything you hear to our current situation.

God is.

God is real. God existed before we did. “IN the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

I had a fun talk with our host in Dublin. During the conversation, he said he thinks people have a right to their religious beliefs: “If they want to have an imaginary friend, that’s fine.” From my perspective, that’s kind of funny, but it’s also extremely sad. And it’s foolish.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Proverbs 9:10

God is real, God existed before we did, and knowledge of God is insight.

The fear of the Lord, proper awe of God Almighty, is where our wisdom begins. There are many voices, some of them are loud, some of them are urgent. Wisdom begins with God.

God is Good. Psalm 134:6 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”

God is good and we experience God’s goodness:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.”

God is a refuge.

A refuge is a place we go to be safe when we are in danger, a place of peace, and place of Shalom.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

God himself is our refuge. If you think God is an imaginary friend, that isn’t going to work very well. But God is real, and this means that anywhere we are, no matter our circumstance, no matter what we’re experiencing, we can take refuge in God.

There is so much in this one.

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is present. God is a very present help in trouble.

And Therefore, because of all those things, we will not fear. That doesn’t mean “shame on you if you fear,” but “God is bigger and more powerful than the things that frighten us, God is with us and he is our help.” So even if the earth should change, even if the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, even if—fill in your own blank here—God is right here, right now, with us, and He is our strength.

God is strong in our weakness. It isn’t a fifty-fifty thing, a matching grant where if you can pony up X amount of strength, God will match that. God is strong in our weakness. When we are weak, we are strong because God’s strength is in us. That sounds paradoxical, like how can those possibly work together. It’s experiential. It will never make sense in theory. In practice, it works. Have you experienced that?

God is just.

God is merciful.

God is forgiving.

All three of those are true. I don’t always understand God’s justice, but I believe in God’s justice.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

I’m not focusing on what we’re supposed to do that much in this sermon. I’m starting with God because everything starts with “God is” and only after we learn who and what God is do we move to what we do, and who we become, in response.

But who is God, that this is what is he tells us is good and what he requires of us?

For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.”

I could get focused on God’s justice, of course. You’ve heard that from me more than once. God’s justice matters so much to me because there is so much wrong with the world, and only if God is truly just can we have hope that all this will come out right in the end.

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

That’s a rhetorical question.

7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

God will bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.

He will see that they get justice, and quickly!

I don’t know what “quickly” is. But I believe God that he will bring justice. I want justice. Mind you, I want a whole ton of grace for myself and I’m quicker to seek justice for others. That’s one of the biggest reasons I try to be all about grace, because I recognize my heart’s tendency to desire justice for others but grace for myself. But do to others as you would have them do to you I think also means seeking the same grace for others that I claim for myself.

I can’t figure out where the line is between grace and justice. But God can. Because God is just. And God is gracious. And the injustices we see, God’s children crying out to him day and night, we know god will answer. He will see that they get justice. So we pray. There may be other things we must do, but we know for sure that we pray for God’s justice.

I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth.”

Now that question, I’m afraid, is not a rhetorical “of course he will.” But here is what I know of God. God is faithful.

II Tim. 2:13 “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s what grace means. Jesus wants us to have faith. Jesus asks, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith? He tells us that even if we have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, a tiny little dot, that will mean we can move mountains. Yet here is the message: If we are faithless, if we blow it, if we completely lack faith, he remains faithful to us. God is always faithful. He will not leave us or abandon us or give up on us. Ever. Even if our faith tanks. For he cannot deny himself. God’s very nature is to be faithful to us. That’s wild.

Well, how do I know God won’t get weary of me and sick of forgiving me for the same sins over and over?” He remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. God will not, wildly God cannot, go against his own nature. He will be faithful to us.

Now I want to step back and acknowledge: some horrible things have happened and more may happen. I’m not making light of any of it. I’m saying our trust must remain in God, in God’s nature, in God’s character, in God’s faithfulness.

What else is God?

Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. What is the truth in our present situation? Jesus is the truth, always. If you want to know the truth, seek Jesus first. Then research what is going on.

God is our rock. God is our fortress. God is a strong tower in times of trouble.

Jesus said to his disciples, and so he says to us, his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The disciples thought it was the end of the world. They thought it was the end of their world. They had good reason. They had seen Jesus die. They had seen him tortured to death. The ones who had the courage to stay close had watched him, apparently weak and helpless, mocked, spat upon. They saw him breathe his last.

But while on the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers. While on the cross, Jesus offered life to a thief being crucified. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Again, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” but he doesn’t just expect us to conquer fear on our own. He gives us his peace. Not the world’s peace. Not a false or empty or temporary peace. True peace. Therefore do not let your hearts be troubles and do not let them be afraid.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Death has no power. Life is in Jesus Christ. If resurrection is true, if eternal life with God is real, and I believe it is, then as devastating as death is to us, death has no hold on us. Death has no final say.

I want to be really clear here: I am not speaking cliches, I am not saying nice-sounding empty phrases to give you false hope. Jesus defeats death. Every one of us here has some experience with death. Some of us have faced death. Every one of us here will die. We’re not trying to rush it, but it’s inevitable. By my understanding, over sixty people have died related to the protests. That is a tragedy. We must grieve and mourn and cry to God for justice day and not. But that is not the final word. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Paul writes:

 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Whose enemy? God’s enemy. Death is God’s enemy, because death tries to destroy what God has created, death tries to steal what God has given. Jesus overcame death, he defeated death through his resurrection. In the end, God will destroy death. All the suffering, all the grief, my mourning over our son, the anguish over these murders, God overcomes all of this. Christ has been raised from the dead. There is hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. God has destroyed death.

Do you know what God destroys death with? Love. God’s love destroys death. God refuses to let our sin, our self-destruction, our hatred of him, separate us from him. God loves this world so much, God loves these students so much, God loves these protesters so much, God loves the police and the military so much, God loves us so much, that he gives himself in our place.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God proves his love for us. God demonstrates and reveals and manifests his love for us. Do you know why? God is love. God himself is love. God isn’t merely loving, but God, in his very nature, is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus didn’t only come into the world to die for us, Jesus came into the world so that we might live through him. This is the love that destroys death. We don’t wait until heaven to have life in God, we live in and through him now.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” I John 5

This is what we remember and remind one another when riots start. This is what we hold to when we see injustice, when we suffer tragedy. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We have hope. Our God is the God of hope. I’m not saying this makes it all better or takes away all the pain. I’m saying this is the bedrock, this is the foundation that we stand on, because we have built our homes, we’ve built our lives, on rock, not on sand. That’s what Jesus promises.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

The Crying Prophet

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It’s first light, just coming over the horizon, but you’ve been up for an hour already. That’s early, even for you. Your brothers must have had a surprise, jumping on your mat to wake you and finding nothing except mat to land on. You’re on your second trip back from the well now, so your hardest chore is almost over. It’s a little risky, hauling water in the dark, especially now, when the city is going so crazy with Passover coming, but it’s obvious you don’t have anything of value, unless some lazy thug decides the water in your bucket is worth beating you up. But now home is within sight.

Today is the day. People have been talking about it all over your neighborhood. It’s actually funny to hear them talk about him because there’s always a better story. It sounds just like fisherman or hunters who keep outdoing one another.

“No, I heard he told the Pharisees they were children of hell.”

“Yeah, but my cousin said he heard directly that he walked on water. On top of the water!”

“Your cousin didn’t see that, though.”

“No, but he heard it from the guys who follow him everywhere.”

“So? We heard he cast a demon!”

“One? My aunt who lives in Galilee, where he spends all his time, said he cast out a whole legion of demons!”

“That’s just crazy. Nobody has a legion of demons.”

“Yeah, but that’s not crazier than Lazarus. You know what they’re saying about Lazarus, right? That’s a respectable family. They’re not gonna make something like that up. There were like a hundred people there. Who would make that up? I think that might be true…”

Then, every time, the talk turns to what he might do to the Romans. It’s always funny to hear adults whispering just like kids. That’s when you have to turn invisible to get to hear. Nobody does that better than you. How many hundreds of times has your mother told you never to speak to an adult except when the adult speaks first? You just took that as a strategy. Stand still, or sit silently, look away from the speaker, act like your attention is elsewhere, never ever make eye contact, and it’s like they can’t even see you. You’ve even heard some neighbors hint that you aren’t all that bright. Nobody cares if the slow child is hanging around, playing in the dust. Poor slow child. If they only knew how many secrets you’ve heard.

Today, you’re also telling a little bit of a not-quite-truth. Of course, it could be the truth.

“I got my chores done early. Can I spend the day with Daniel?”

Daniel might be there. If he was smart, he would be. But it’s not that likely, because Daniel is a little too cautious. But he’ll be out chasing around, playing hide with the others, so it won’t be obvious to anyone that you’re not with him.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy. But your mother is just happy the chores are done. Your dad won’t be back until late. He won’t even know you were gone. And one fewer child around to fight and get in the way? Mother’s fine to see you go.

The leaving part is easy. The arriving might be something different.

Everyone in town and every stray dog knows he’s coming today. The rumors about him disagree and conflict sometimes, but somehow there’s a one-hundred percent certainty he will arrive in Jerusalem today. They’re even sure which road he’s coming by. It’s as if runners are going ahead, announcing his coming, but that’s not something to say aloud. That’s what they do for victorious generals and, of course, the Roman Emperor, may the Almighty One remove him from that accursed throne.

But that’s why it’s irresistible. How many false Messiahs have come through Jerusalem? How many claiming they are “The One?” How many strong men have gotten killed in doomed uprisings? Too many.

But what if…? What if this really is the one? Today might be the day! There’s something different about this one, if any of the stories have any truth to them. He doesn’t claim to be Messiah loudly and proudly like they all did, but he’s done ten times more to make people think he is. He calls himself “Son of Man.” What does that mean? The old men debated that passage from the Prophet Daniel. How could this man, this son of a laborer, claim to be what Daniel describes? That’s impossible.

Unless…

So no one really knows who he is, not really. Maybe his closest followers do, but nobody here. The whispers have gotten louder and more excited; there might be ten thousand people in the streets when you get there, even going as early as you possibly can.

As you get closer–and it is a long walk, even for you–you can hear the crowd well before you see them. It’s loud, like a buzzing, like what they say locust sound like when they come in clouds, just like you’ve always imagined happened in Egypt. How many people can this be?

Too many. Change of plans. There’s no way you’re going to get even a glimpse of him unless he’s riding into the city on an elephant, like they say that one general did against Rome. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Then everyone would know his intentions for certain!

You’re doubling back on your path now, because the further outside the city you can intersect with his path, the better chance you’ll have to see him. Then what? Maybe try to walk along with the crowd? Not for the first time, you consider this could get dangerous. What if it turns into a riot? What if—just what if—the Romans have heard, since everyone knows, it’s the worst-kept secret ever—and they bring their centurions? That seems unlikely, but there are rumors…

Still, that’s exactly why you can’t miss it. What if…never to be said aloud, just in your own thoughts, and the Almighty’s ear…the centurions do show up, and he…he…someone who can overpower demons and tell a storm to stop, could he…could he wipe them out?

Any risk is worth the tiniest chance to see that happen to these evil dog occupiers. Right? After all they’ve done?

When you reach the road going this way, further from the center of the city, there’s still a crowd, but not as big yet. Oh, but they’re excited. It’s like one of those high holy days when everyone starts in early: people shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else’s shouting. It’s funny to watch grown-ups behave like this.

A bunch of them are waving branches around that they must have just cut down from the palm trees near the road. The smell is really strong and green. Is green a smell? They’re waving those branches around, fanning themselves, and it’s almost like sea waves. Crazy.

You keep pushing up the road, and there’s the Eastern Jerusalem gate where the Mount of Olives comes down into the city. You’ve come too far to hesitate or second-guess, but if your parents ever heard you had gone outside one of the city gates by yourself… Better not to think about it. You say a quick prayer that you won’t have the dumb luck of being seen by someone you know.

You pass through the gate, which is wide and if there are guards anywhere you can’t see them through all these people. He’s got to be close now. Everyone’s waving those branches and some are tossing them out on the road. But there’s something else on the road. What is that? You’re hiking up this hill and everyone here has committed to holding their space, so you have to squeeze in between people, but you’re really good at that, almost as good as you are at becoming invisible. You take extra care not to step on anyone and keep weaving in between families and shouting men and other kids jumping up and down, trying to see, even though there isn’t anything to see yet.

As you weave, you pass really close to the road. Those are people’s coats! Cloaks and shirts and all kinds of clothing, folks are just tossing them into the road. Crazy! You see a nice one that might be your size but it’s probably a really bad idea to grab it.

The shouting suddenly crescendos. People are going crazy now. You chose well. If you stop right here, you’ll be able to see him for sure. Especially if he’s on an elephant, or, more likely, a stallion or maybe an ox. But something in you, some weird urge, refuses. You push on, now bumping into people, but everyone is bumping and colliding. It’s that kind of crowd now. You’re not a pickpocket and you better not be mistaken for one now or you’ll get beaten or killed.

There he is! He’s on a…wait—he’s on a tiny horse. No he’s not; he’s on a colt. Maybe a yearling? Hang on—that’s a donkey colt! It’s too sturdy in the legs to be a horse colt, but it’s really young.

People are whooping and shouting and you’re laughing and you literally can’t hear yourself it’s so loud, but that is not an elephant! Why would he choose that? And he’s not…he’s not handsome. His eyes are…

“Hosanna!” everyone shouts around you. More cloaks thrown into the road. More branches. “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Stop, stop!” someone yells behind you. You look back and almost jump into the street. It’s a Pharisee, a whole group of Pharisees, with their special cloaks which they have not thrown and they are not waving palm branches. In the midst of everyone screaming and crying out to the Most High, what are they saying?

A stout one who bellows like a shofar overpowers everyone around him: “Teacher, make them stop! Order your disciples to stop! This is heresy! What they say is an abomination!”

The colt is walking so slowly but the man stops it. He looks right at this Pharisee. What words could describe this man’s eyes? The crowd isn’t quiet but it’s maybe half as loud, with people pausing between shouts to see how the man will answer. Everyone says he doesn’t get along with the Pharisees; some even claim they want him silenced, or worse. But now you aren’t hearing stories, now you are seeing—and hearing—for yourself! No one will believe this. But that’s okay; you could never risk telling anyone, anyway, because if this got back to your parents…

“I could tell them to be silent. I could. But I tell you, if these were silent,” and he gestures with his arms at all of you standing close by, “the stones themselves would shout out.”

He didn’t say it loudly but everyone explodes with screams and hollers and “Hosannas,” what feels like ten times louder than before. Except you. You turn to look at the Pharisees and they are huddling together, no longer looking at the man, talking amongst themselves.

You aren’t yelling because you’ve determined you’re going to get as close as you possibly can now. There’s no way you’ll be able to follow along through the crowd, even though he’s going slower than slow, because their stacked up too dense and wild and that won’t work to sneak through, even for you. The only other choice is to go out into the road with him and his followers. You don’t belong there and they’ll throw you out the second they notice you, so that’s crazy and stupid…and here you go.

It’s not hard getting out there. Nobody’s pushing against you, once you take that step, but with all this wild crowd on the sides, there are only a few big clumps of people out in the road. You’re not going to blend in with any of these huge guys with beards and–

He stopped. He just stopped in the middle of it all and got down from his donkey colt. You freeze dead still. You’re about four people away from him, big burley men, but that close. If anyone looks at you now, you’re done. Maybe this is the time he does something powerful? But since the moment you saw that donkey colt, the military attack has seemed unlikely. Who attacks on a little colt? You’re just a kid and even you know that.

The man turns his head and for a split-second, you think he’s going to look right at you. But he’s looking down the hill. You suddenly realize there’s a tremendous view from here. You can see most of the city. You might be able to find your house if you looked long enough.

You’re not making any sudden moves, because this is how you’ve learned not to be noticed. But when you shift your eyes you can see the man’s face and when you shift them back, you can see the whole city.

He’s looking out at the city, then around at the group of men and women with him, then back out. He puts his hand on the nearest man’s shoulder.

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

And he cries. His voice choked while he said that and now he’s standing there, crying. In the middle of this frenzied parade, you see tears dripping off his face. His followers are staring at him. You’re staring at him. Of the things you’ve seen today, this would be the hardest to explain, the hardest for people to believe; yet for some reason, this is what you most want to tell. Who is this man?

Then he looks at you. Not maybe. He’s looking right at you. His followers are staring at you.

Panic rises in your chest. He steps over to you.

And then he puts his arms around you and hugs you. His arms feel strong enough to snap you, or to lift the entire world, but his hug is gentle…and then he lets go and climbs back on the colt and he and everyone else move on. One of his disciples, a really ugly one, nods at you as he goes, like he knows what you know, what you now know.

But you stand there, alone, on palm branches and cloaks, as their shouting moves off into the distance.

Is that the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is he?

What’s going to happen next?

You start back for home.

Primal Scream

Standard

There are times when I sit down to write and I just want to utter this guttural scream, like

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGGGGHHH!

Somewere between Charlie Brown flying through the air after missing the football again (I know, utterly dating myself) and this guy.

I look back on my day, in my calm, I’m-not-breaking-dishware-nor-writing-emails-I’ll-deeply-regret-later reflective mode, and start noting all the things that contributed–and built up to–that scream.

Some days, many or most of the contributors are self-inflicted.  Those are fun days.  It takes special grace to let yourself off the hook when you’re directly responsible for all the blood-spurting bullet holes in your own foot.  Of the Jesus followers I know, most are better at extending grace to others than receiving it for themselves.  On those self-injuring days, there’s an argument in my head that boils down to: “But it’s true.  I did screw up.  I deserve to feel miserable.”  This logic would suggest that grace somehow depends on having a reasonable alibi: If I’m feeling bad but can explain why I shouldn’t, then I can receive grace.

But this is, in fact, the opposite of how grace functions.  I don’t need grace if I have mitigating factors for why I screwed up.  The argument “but I have it coming” does not render grace null and void.  The prodigal son’s speech, “Look, I deserve all this, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I should be demoted from beloved son to ordinary servant,” does not win the day.  He doesn’t even make it to the end before his father rudely interrupts him with an embrace and a robe, a ring and a party.

So if you step back and run that parallel, when you are castigating yourself and arguing for why you don’t deserve grace, God isn’t listening through the end of your speech.  He’s already getting the sandals for your bloody, bare feet, when it was entirely your fault they got bloodied.  Yes, you did this to yourself, so you must know that “I told you so” speech God has prepared for you?

God doesn’t.

Grace means that the almighty God of the universe has chosen forgetfulness.  Grace means God acknowledges that you screwed up, sinned, betrayed him, let yourself down, probably did some damage to other people, and now God is going to bless you instead of punishing you for that.  Sure, you can punish yourself. Free will means you can keep whipping yourself over those failures and refuse to take the robe God is offering to cover your wounded, emaciated body.  But you don’t have to.

However, grace requires acknowledging that you need it.  You can’t keep your prideful self-image and receive grace.  You can have one of those.  Choose wisely.

 

Today, however, was a different kind of wounding day.  (Yes, that was a long tangent, albeit a passionate one. I hope it was a helpful one.)  Few of them today were self-inflicted.  The scream at the beginning was pain that my soul absorbed today.  Sorry if that sounds overdramatic. It was a rough day.

I love young adults.  God has given me something, some combination of empathy and an 18-year-old’s sense of humor and compassion and a constitutional inability to grow up that, when combined with the trust many of them extend to me, blends into this alchemy of relationship.

 I also stopped playing God about…I’d like to say 30 years ago, but we’ll say 10-15 years ago, to play it safe. It’s been a process.

Therefore, when I hear an agonizing story from a young adult, I’m less likely to go into savior mode and more inclined to pray and listen to God for ways I can help.  Sometimes I get a nudge, or I intuit how to respond.  Sometimes I can’t do anything more than listen, which I’ve come to believe is love, in and of itself.

Sometimes, though, I want to yell at God.  I know that’s not very pastorly-sounding when I’m being all calm and composed and not breaking anything, but seriously.  I told my wife tonight that my biggest question I have for God might be why some people experience God’s presence while others never do.  I’m on the outside, only seeing it from my point of view and not through their eyes, so I don’t know if God is constantly seeking them, sending thousands of signs and they are choosing to ignore all of it.  That may be.  I’m big on the whole free will thing.

If, however, as this person described, they ask and ask and never experience the presence of God, never see anything that they can recognize as communication, and have no sense of God’s reality—GAAAAAAAH!!!!!  I. DON’T. GET. THAT!

Sorry.  *Breathe.*  *Breathe.*

I don’t get that.

I really don’t.

There is an approach to following God that says, “Never question God, because God always knows and you don’t, God always does what’s right while you don’t have a clue.  Trust God, give thanks for literally everything, and keep your doubts to yourself.”

That isn’t my approach.

I think hearing what I heard today tapped into deeper, built up pain over hearing similar stories from too many people who are dear to me, who are still lost/struggling/wandering far from God/deeply in pain.

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  Most of the time, I’m too guarded and self-protective to let it hit me as hard as it should.  I’m afraid it will capsize my little boat.  I don’t have any advice on this, though I’m told sorrowing over others will expand our hearts.  

 

That was the worst of it today, but by no means all of it.  I took a score of other emotional hits, some related to our current situation, some to other people I love.  Then, as a grand finale, my “therapy” for the evening backfired.  

Which brings me here, on my couch (literally), writing this as therapy.  So thanks for reading and helping.  Thanks for letting me scream a little in a non-destructive way.  

If you pray: Pray for my friend, whose family has been through a nightmare and who has basically given up on God.

 Pray that I would have a bigger heart.

And maybe pray that I can see how God is present with people who feel so abandoned.