How Should We Respond To The Huddled Masses?

Unless you’ve been holed up in a concrete bunker for the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard how US Border Patrol detention centers are overflowing with immigrant kids from Central America. While we’ve all been poolside sipping Orange Crush and lamenting the limited effectiveness of aerosol sunscreen, little Lupita has been traveling from Guatemala in a sweltering boxcar, followed by a fifty mile march through the desert in triple-digit heat.  It’s kinda’ like an Outward Bound summer camp adventure, only your counselor is a coyote named Miguel who demands $4000 for delivering you to a safe house outside of Tucson, provided you agree to smuggle a couple of pounds of heroin in your Hello Kitty backpack.

And believe it or not, this camp has a waiting list a mile long.

There have been over 57,000 unaccompanied children apprehended by US Border Patrol since October. That is twice as many as the same period last year. Some of the children traveling alone are preschool age. It’s a crisis of Biblical proportions that is bringing the topic of immigration to the forefront.

Many Americans are taking a compassionate approach, asking the Federal government to do everything in its power to assure these children are kept safe here in the states while we evaluate their circumstances, or reunite them with their parents abroad. Some governors are even rolling out the welcome mat to temporarily house immigrants. Churches are opening their doors to the kids to offer sanctuary.

Others are adopting a no tolerance policy. Residents of towns such as Murietta, California have blockaded roads to keep these children from taking refuge within their city limits. They argue that the situation magnifies our existing border control problem that is overcrowding our emergency rooms and social services, and putting a strain on the US Border Patrol. The belief is that anyone who wants to enter our country to work should follow the proper channels which include waiting in a 5-10 year queue, ponying up hundreds of dollars, obtaining a formal job offer, and proving that no one else in the U.S. could perform the job. Otherwise, they need to go home.

As an American, I can see the validity of both responses.

As a Christian, I can’t see how intolerance wins. Whether the immigrant is five years old or fifty-five.

AM statue of liberty2

Don’t get me wrong. The border situation is a real problem. Some years ago, my wife and I heard from both sides of this debate at a conference in Arizona. Local residents shared tales of gun-toting smugglers knocking on their doors in the middle of the night demanding money and shelter. The US Border Patrol told stories of rescuing immigrants near death and assuring they were sent back home safely. They also explained how they had apprehended bad guys crossing the border, bringing drugs and preying on the addicted. Some of them even intended to do our country harm.

But the truth is, the vast majority do not.

Our family has spent the past few weeks living and serving with some amazing missionaries in one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles. A place made up largely of undocumented immigrants. It’s not an area that shows up on tourist maps. It is the most densely populated neighborhood west of the Mississippi, with 150,000 people in a two square mile area. The streets are marked by gang tags and poverty.

Yet we celebrated the most joyous Fourth of July we have ever experienced, surrounded by immigrants who see their current situation as far better than their lives of the past. They basked in the glow of their freedom and opportunity, playing music and lighting fireworks until dawn. Their BBQ grills were working overtime, perched precariously on narrow apartment balconies. The coals were still warm in the morning as they left for work. Work that most Americans don’t want to do.

Picking our vegetables.

Landscaping our lawns.

Cleaning our homes.

They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and cousins of the current wave of immigrants. Most of whom are poor and hungry, fleeing abject poverty in countries where there is absolutely no opportunity to improve their standard of living. Others are running from corrupt governments or police forces. Children face rape and death threats if they don’t join gangs and agree to participate in the violence. Coming to the United States is their only alternative.

But some argue that they have broken the law, so we should round them up and kick them out.

As an American and a Christian, I can’t help but think how wrong this is.

For one, it goes against our quintessential American “Bootstrap” belief. This new wave of immigrants is crossing deserts, dodging drug dealers, swimming the Rio Grande, and scaling 16-foot fences to find a better life. The only thing the rest of us had to do to gain citizenship was successfully traverse the birth canal while our mothers’ feet were firmly planted in stirrups north of the border. It confuses me that a culture that has a core value of hard work and determination would criminalize the former yet reward the latter.

Even if your mom had narrow hips.

Second, if we let our laws dictate what is “right”, we run the risk of criminalizing compassion.  While it is true that many of our Founding Fathers were Christians, our country was not necessarily founded on Christian principles.  In fact, our closely held values of freedom are rooted in the idea that we may believe whatever we choose to believe – the separation of church and state.  When we confuse this idea, we start to believe our laws might be a good litmus test for determining what is ethical.

And it simply isn’t true.

Consider this big bucket of crazy:   It is perfectly legal in most states to sell drug-free urine. While such a sale could jeopardize the health and safety of the public should, say, an addicted bus driver pass his drug screen, we chalk it up to creative capitalism and look the other way.

However, if a flesh-and-blood human being can save the life of his child by crossing an imaginary line in the desert sands of Arizona, we cannot allow it. Your peril is not my problem. Stay out of my country. The one my ancestors stole from the Native Americans and carved out of the land God created.

Using laws to define what is “right” in the eyes of Jesus is about as accurate as flipping a coin.

Finally, Christ calls us to love our neighbors. The Jesus we profess to follow based his entire ministry on transforming the law into compassionate, uncommon sense. If Jesus had been about the law, he would have come to us as a congressman. Instead, he was a humble carpenter. A carpenter who saw himself in the faces of the stranger, the marginalized, and the misunderstood. A carpenter who threw banquets for the downtrodden. He never calls us to protect our borders. Instead, he demands that we protect our hearts from callousness and shield ourselves with grace. His words tell us this is how our time on earth will be measured:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.  Matthew 25: 34-40

What are we so afraid of? Speaking some Spanish? Increasing insurance rates? Crowded emergency rooms? Clearly there is a cost to each of these, but it seems like a small price to pay to assure that my brother in Christ has a roof over his head and enough food in his belly. But fear?

Fear is for the faithless.

Certainly, we need to protect our citizens from danger. And some people do wish to harm us, whether directly through bomb blasts or indirectly through drug deals. These are the ones we should pursue with vigilance.

But the determined father?

The desperate mother?

The frightened son and destitute daughter?

They are here. Among us. Christ in our midst. And for them we should open our arms wide. Like a Good Shepherd. Offering a warm embrace. A safe place to call home.

If only for a while.

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There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor

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* The Homeless Jesus statue in Toronto

I remember my first time like it was yesterday. I was fifteen years old. It was Christmas morning. As a gift to our entire family, my mother had the brilliant idea to go down to the Annual Red Andrew’s Christmas Dinner and help feed the needy in Oklahoma City.

You can imagine our reactions. All of us had made lists and checked them twice, and I can promise you this: hairnets and homeless people were not what any of us wanted in our stockings. But we couldn’t say no to Mom, so we sucked it up and got in the car.

All the way there, mom was saying, “It’ll be fun! We’ll meet some new people. We’ll get to serve some food. We’ll probably even get to hand out presents!”

Mom was wrong.

By the time we arrived to the volunteer booth, all of the good jobs were taken. They had plenty of people to hand out gifts and fill trays with mashed potatoes. We even offered to wash dishes, but those jobs had been gobbled up as well.

“So where else can we help?” my dad asked.

The volunteer coordinator said, “We need people to make sure no one cuts in line. You can help us there.”

“Is that really a problem?” dad asked.

“You better believe it.”

So Christmas morning 1988, our family celebrated the birth of Christ by bouncing homeless people to the back of a two-hour line. There was very little peace on Earth and goodwill toward men that day. People would tell lies to move to the front of the line. Others would send their kids as mercenaries. Each time my dad would politely tell them to move to the back. When they wouldn’t comply, we would enlist the help of a security guard who told us,

“A lot of the people could probably afford a meal for themselves, but they just want to bum a free ride. It’s ridiculous.”

The outing had the opposite effect of what Mom had intended. She had hoped we would feel nourished with the love of Christ by helping serve our fellow man. Instead, we felt jaded.

Since that time, I’ve had to work hard to shake that feeling. But it creeps up again when I’m serving food at the soup kitchen and someone complains that there aren’t enough dessert choices. Or when I’m approached by a man in the parking lot who says he needs money for gas, but I know it’s just a lie.

Maybe you feel the same way.

I’ve noticed lately how Christians, myself included, feel incredulous when we run across a person who is asking for a handout but doesn’t seem to deserve it. It’s just not fair. There are people who are worthy of our charity, and those who are not. Why would I give to an able-bodied person who could get a job when there are so many others to help? Innocent children. The disabled. The sick.  Those are the ones we are called to serve.

So we categorize the poor as either worthy or unworthy. And you know what?

We need to stop it.

There is no such thing as the worthy poor.

Don’t get me wrong. I see how the book of Proverbs is strewn with verses that trumpet the virtue of work and warn of the dangers of sloth. Hard work is indeed a virtue. And we should be leery of scams.  But the problem is that too many of us assume that because a person is poor, then that must mean he or she just isn’t working hard enough.  Though a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows these attitudes are shifting, there are still far too many of us in this camp.

The truth is, even if a person works full time at $10 an hour, that still puts them below the poverty line. And in most US cities, basic needs for a family of four costs over twice that amount. So, when we assume that poverty is the result of a person’s laziness, we run the risk not only of being wrong, but driving an even deeper wedge between ourselves and those we profess to love as children of God.

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But wait! What about that other verse?  The one we’ve been hearing congressmen and preachers cite when referring to this subject.

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”    2 Thessalonians 3:10

The words are clear and unwavering. It’s un-Biblical if you fail to use your God-given gifts to make a living and support yourself and your family. Right?

Only that’s not what Paul was saying at all.

If we dig deeper, we see that Paul wasn’t necessarily condemning lazy people who were asking for handouts. He was warning people who were lazily waiting for Jesus return, and using it as an excuse to avoid putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.

Our job is not to determine who is living by the Bible and dole our rewards accordingly in an effort to win their gratitude. Our job is to be Christ’s hands and heart by following his words. The words that speak of the craziest of crazy love.

30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.   Luke 6:30-35

And this is what Jesus did. Even when exposing the sins of others, he still offered freely. He never withheld the living water. Never held back his healing touch. He gave without condition. And when we do this, we shatter the barrier that prevents us from connecting with the family of God. All of those who are created in His image:

  • The single mother living on food stamps because her paycheck won’t stretch beyond day care and diapers.
  • The man begging on the street who lost his family, leading to an avalanche of depression that he could not afford to treat.
  • The neighborhood gangbanger who joined because he had no family of his own, and now can’t leave for fear he will be killed.

Jesus’ words cut to the bone, exposing how our scorn has nothing at all to do with the “unworthy” among us, and everything to do with the condition of our own hearts. Our hearts that hold expectations of thanks and gratitude. The ones that expect a return for our investment of time and effort.  The hearts that judge the worthiness of the need.

So my prayer today is this. That I may see the face of God in the eyes of others. That I may give without condition. And in so doing, that I may finally feel the freedom of a heart that beats with the love of Christ.

For that is what our God expects of us. And that is what our God has given.

Unconditional love.

Whether we’re worthy or not.

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What’s An Accidental Missionary? (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 of this story, you’re going to want to check out last week’s post. Otherwise, you might feel a bit like the guy who shows up late to the picnic and samples the French Onion dip after it’s been sitting in the sun all day.

Trust me. You don’t want to be that guy.

For those of you who have actually returned for Part 2, thanks in advance. I hope you don’t leave feeling like the French Onion dip guy. But I’m not going to make any promises.

Last week, I shared how my missionary hopes had been extinguished by unrealistic expectations, and then rekindled again when I met Josue, a blind eight-year-old boy from Canton Los Angeles, a tiny village tucked away in the seldom-seen landscape between the jungle and endless sugar cane fields.

When I left my first music class at Josue’s church, I had visions of teaching him how to play the piano. My mind was crazy with the possibilities. Maybe he could give a recital at the end of the year? Maybe even travel to other churches to perform to show what the disabled can do?

Though I was supposed to serve 25 different communities in the country, I had “accidentally” planned some extra sessions in Canton Los Angeles. This convenient scheduling snafu put me in Josue’s church once every three weeks or so, versus once every quarter in the other locations. Josue was front-and-center on my first trip back, and I was able to give him a little special attention. The pastor’s son even agreed to work with him when I wasn’t around.

A few weeks later, it was time to return to Canton Los Angeles. After a 90 minute ride in the back of a pickup, I arrived at the church to find Pastor Pedro unlocking the door.  Remarkably, I was on time, which made me twenty minutes early according to the Guatemala clock. I made small talk with Pedro, immediately asking how Josue was doing.

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* Me and Pastor Pedro.  Such a wonderful dude.

He told me that Josue had recently traveled to Guatemala City to see a doctor. He had been having headaches, so they performed a procedure to relieve pressure. He was now at home recovering.

“But we can go see him after class,” he said.

Bueno!

So after class, I asked everyone if they would like to visit Josue.  It was unanimous.  They all wanted to go.  So we piled eleven people into someone’s ’88 Toyota 4Runner and drove to the entrance of the jungle path that led to Josue’s house.  We parked and walked under cover of thick foliage and calling birds.  It was like being inserted into the pages of a National Geographic magazine, only this one was filled with scratch-and-sniff stickers.

After ten minutes meandering on the trail, we came upon a small square hut. A floral bed sheet hung in the entrance, serving as the door. I ducked my head to avoid tattooing my forehead on the crossbeam.

Inside the hut was dark, but my eyes soon adjusted. All eleven of us were standing in a 15′ x 15′ room, constructed of plywood nailed to four corner posts.  The roof was made of sheets of corrugated fiberglass.  The dirt floor was cool and smooth. The room was like a crowded elevator, with a cabinet against the wall, and a rough wooden table with four plastic lawn chairs.

Josue was the only one home. He was laying on one of three beds in the room. His head was wrapped in a dish towel that served as a bandage. Not knowing what else to do, I announced my entrance and took my guitar out of its case.  When I sat on the bed next to Josue, I noticed that the mattress was just wooden planks covered by thick blankets.  It must have been like sleeping on a picnic table.  Not exactly a “get well soon” kind of environment.  I felt a momentary rush of frustration.  Though I was now accustomed to the “decor” of poverty, it was still hard to imagine raising a child like Josue, or any child for that matter, without having access to health care, steady work, clean water, or even food.

I touched the boy’s arm. “We missed you in class today, Josue.”

He smiled in return.

Immediately, kids started requesting songs, like some sort of missionary “stump the band” competition. We sang four or five tunes when Pedro interrupted.

“Josue, would you like to say anything to the group?”

Josue labored to an upright position and recited a Bible verse. Half of the participants mumbled “Amen” when he was finished.

Pedro interjected again. “And anything you would like to say to brother Scott?”

He paused. Then turned in my direction,

“I just want to know when he’s coming back.”

Feeling like I had swallowed a golf ball, I managed to mutter that I would be back in a couple of weeks. At this, Josue smiled and lay back down. Pastor Pedro took this as our cue to leave.

“We’ll let you rest now.” He turned toward the door. “Come on everyone. Let’s go.”

It was a special visit. When I got back to our casita that evening, I highlighted a date on the calendar two weeks later, looking forward to my return.

Fast-forward fourteen days. I was back in Canton Los Angeles, hopping out of the back of a pickup truck in front of Pastor Pedro’s church. He was waiting for me inside, along with a dozen women and children.

I greeted everyone, enjoying the buzz in the room. People were excited to sing together again. I chatted with Pedro while unpacking my guitar.

“So, how is Josue?” I asked, grinning.

Pedro’s face bore a twinge of sadness.

“Brother Scott, Josue’s condition has gotten worse – much worse.  He won’t be coming to class this day.  His tumor has grown considerably,” He spoke the words without hesitation.

“…and his doctors say that he will be lucky to live through the week.”

I felt like I had just taken a bowling ball to the gut, yet Pedro shared the tragedy with the same tone of voice as a waiter informing me that the kitchen was fresh out of the blue plate special. I have since learned that this direct manner of communicating heartbreaking information is common among those who have endured great suffering. When you’ve witnessed genocide, volcanic eruptions and gang violence, death is just another topic of conversation.

I was numb. I had been filled with hope at the prospect of teaching this little boy. Now that hope was gone. He was my purpose for being here, right?! I silently cursed God with a mix of selfishness and righteous indignation.

But I still had a job to do.

So we held the music class as planned, learning new songs and enjoying the old ones. People sang loudly with hopeful voices. At the end of our session, I exhaled heavily and asked,

“Before I leave, who would like to go visit Josue?”

Every hand went up.

Mine did not.

I don’t do bad news.

And this was not part of the plan.

But my friends led me down that same well-worn path to the small wooden hut that held the promise of my mission year. We walked in silence, with the occasional humming of a hymn gracing the air, an echo from our class.

When we reached the house, I ducked through the doorway once again. This time, Josue’s mother, aunts, and siblings were there. We packed the room, yet Josue didn’t move an inch.  His eyes were closed.  He was breathing heavily through a small tube that a local village doctor had inserted into his throat.  The nearest big hospital was two hours away.  But it wouldn’t make a difference now.  Perhaps four years ago when the tumor was first discovered, but not now.

Seated next to the boy, I placed my hand on his leg and just looked at him.  I had no idea what to say.  I was deeply moved yet immobilized. There was a good 20 seconds of silence in the space, as if people were waiting to see what the gringo would do. I wanted to sprinkle pixie dust and fix it all.

But I had no pixie dust.

And I had no medical training.

I’m just a guy with a guitar and good intentions.

I finally told him how much we missed him in class.  I think he sensed that we were all at his side, but Pedro told us the boy couldn’t see, couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak.  I pulled out my guitar and asked the people in the room what song they would like to hear.

They said that it’s my choice.

So, I started to sing every Spanish song I could remember.  Twice. Everyone sang along.  We sang about being lifted up on the wings of eagles.  We sang about being wrapped in the arms of angels.  We sang about love and Heaven and Hallelujah-filled-joy. I could hear about half of the room crying over my shoulder.  I held back tears and kept on singing with everyone else.

I would like to say that Josue joined in the singing, or that his foot started tapping, or even that when he heard our soothing voices his breathing became more relaxed. But, this isn’t that kind of story.  No jokes or happy endings.  All I can say is that I sat in a room with 17 other people as we sang to a little boy who was fighting to stay in a world that gave him no reason to do so.

Soon after we started, the gringo with the guitar was out of songs. Nothing left.

Pastor Pedro, always one to challenge me, cut through the silence.

“Brother Scott, is there anything you would like to say to Josue’s mother?”

No pressure.

There is a lot I wanted to say. I wanted to scream to the Heavens that we need to find a way to make affordable health care available to everyone.  Decry the deplorable living conditions that plague villages like this one.  Shout in anger at the injustice of hunger. Beg God to bring an end suffering.

But I didn’t.

Because all that means nothing in moments like this where grand ideas for saving the world aren’t worth a hill of frijoles. No matter what we might do to “help” the situation in Guatemala and elsewhere, it wouldn’t change the fact that Josue wouldn’t be around to hug his mom by the end of the week.

So I looked her in the eye and said,

“God is here.”

And

“I’ll never forget your son.”

And Josue’s mother did something that no other Mayan woman has done for me before or since.

She approached me.

Looked in my eyes.

And embraced me.

Embraces me!?

The stranger.

And with her mouth by my ear, she whispered,

“Dios le bendiga.”

“God bless you.”

Josue died two days later. There was no Hollywood ending. No life-saving surprise. No superhero intervention.   But there was a miracle.

The miracle was not a flash of light that would make the boy whole again, or a shower of money to buy his family a suitable home.  It wasn’t even the promise of a better future.

No, the miracle was us.  All of us.

The truth is, we are all Accidental Missionaries. We stumble upon situations on a daily basis that bring us face-to-face with a lonely, broken, hurting, needy world, and we feel grossly unequipped.

Maybe it’s a family member.

A co-worker.

A neighbor.

A grieving mother.

Or a stranger.

Whatever the case, in those moments we are to be the hearts, hands and healing words of God.   Made in His image to do His work.  When things happen around us that we can never comprehend, God doesn’t expect us to solve problems or find reasons.  He only needs us to be there for each other – sharing in the joy, the pain, and the everyday.  Stepping outside ourselves.

Accidentally.

For His purpose.

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*With my friends in Canton Los Angeles

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June 16, 2014 · 11:58 pm

What’s An Accidental Missionary? (Part 1)

I recently received an email from a reader. She had a question for me.

“So what’s an Accidental Missionary?” she asked. “I want to follow your blog, but I’m a bit confused about what it’s all about.”

So here’s the answer in two parts.  To understand the roots of this blog, we gotta’ go back a few years.

(cue dream music and wavy screen distortion)

The Accidental Missionary: Part 1

As you have heard, Gabby and I went on a long term-hiatus from our corporate jobs roughly ten years ago to spend a year doing mission work in Guatemala through the Presbyterian Church USA’s Young Adult Volunteer Program.

We were not qualified.

Sure, we had both gone to church all our lives, but never prepared for official spiritual service. To give you an idea of how green we were, one day we were scrolling through a devotional together and ran across a reading from the book of Amos.  We looked at each other and said,

“There’s a book of Amos in the Bible?”

You get the picture.

My job in Guatemala was supposed to be to teach leadership and project planning to a group of pastors in the Southwestern part of the country. This was totally in alignment with the work I was doing in the States. The idea was to encourage the pastors to transform their tiny churches into outlets for social service. Nutrition projects. After-school programs. Preventive health education.

The sponsoring organization through the Presbyterian Church told us ours was a “ministry of presence.”

“Just be there,” they said.

Who wants to “just be?” I thought.  Where’s the glory in that?!

So I devised a plan to save the world. Upon arrival, I was dismayed to learn that the pastors simply didn’t have time for the training I could offer. Most of them worked 6 days a week in back-breaking labor on the coffee farms, earning just 2-3 dollars per day to feed their families. On Sundays, they spent time with family and worked at the church.

They were dismayed to learn that I had the Spanish skills of a cashier at a Taco Bell drive-thru.

Given these realities, my plans to save the world were quickly scrapped.  At the urging of my supervisor, we agreed that it was best if I just taught music instead. My Guatemalan supervisor thought there would be a lot of benefit in teaching songs about Jesus. Songs with a positive message. It will be “una bendicion”, he said.

A blessing.

So that’s what I did.

I made phone calls to the various villages and schedule classes. Sometimes when the phones wouldn’t work, I would have to send messages the old fashioned way by word-of-mouth. When the agreed-upon day arrived, I would hop a chicken bus crowded with my fellow Guatemalans and accompanying poultry or livestock and cross my fingers that I would arrive in one piece.

It was amazing.

No matter how delayed I was – sometimes one or two hours – I always found the tiny churches full of women and children ready to sing with me. Seeing a tall, gangly, red-headed guy was such a novelty that people would often gather at the open air windows of the wood or cinder block churches to catch a glimpse. I felt a bit like a gringo Garth Brooks. I was surprised at how overwhelmingly generous people were. One group even handed me a live chicken before I left as a thank you for my visit.   I nearly peed myself, both from excitement at the gift and terror at trying to corral the still-clucking bird.

But I still wondered what I would accomplish during my year as a missionary. What good is music?

One week in the month of November I traveled to the village of Canton Los Angeles, a tiny place tucked away in the trees just a dozen miles or so from the Santa Maria Volcano. I had been there before and noticed that the people loved music and responded to it with tremendous energy.  However, most of their songs reflected struggle, pain, and hardship.  It’s what they related to the most.

Preparing for my visit, I made sure to select some positive stuff, per my supervisor’s instructions. Songs of hope.  Songs of happiness.  Songs of joy.  With Christmas fast approaching, I yanked a bunch of tunes from Kasey Kasem’s Holiday Favorites list and rode 90 minutes by bus and pickup truck to the village.

When I arrived at the church, I greeted everyone face-to-face. Shouting “Hello Everybody!” to the room was viewed as cold, so I made sure to shake every hand and exchange pleasantries.

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* The church

After meeting everyone, I looked around the room.  Roughly twenty people had arrived.  Some were there as participants.  Others were there as tag-alongs.  Everyone was eager and attentive.  However, I noticed one boy in particular sitting next to his mother, staring off into space.  He was probably eight years old, wearing a pair of brown, well-worn jeans and a hand-me-down plaid shirt that was misbuttoned.  His mother would lean over and say a few words to him every so often, but he was unresponsive.  He had a blank look on his face, and looked completely miserable.  I wrote him off as someone who simply didn’t want to be there and focused on the others who were engaged.

For the next two hours, we talked about joy, empowerment, fulfillment and relationships.  We used songs and spiritual passages to punctuate points.  There was a lot of activity.  Everyone tried their hand at playing a tiny electronic keyboard someone brought from home.   We belted out happy Christmas songs until we were hoarse.  Most sang loud enough to rattle the tin roof.  Though many couldn’t read (including the boy’s mother), they participated by quickly memorizing songs.  The energy in the room was contagious.

Still, the boy was a lump.  A complete void.  Never moved.

Once we had finished, I gave the floor to the pastor of the church.  He was incredibly gracious and thanked me for being there.  There was genuine appreciation in his voice.  What’s more, he wanted the group to pray for my health and safety for my remaining time in Guatemala.

“It can be dangerous here for tall gringos like Scott” he said.

Everyone laughed.  My face turned red.

Then, he motioned to the mother of the boy.  She took her son by the arm and led him to the front of the church to stand next to me.

I thought, what’s this all about?

The pastor then looked in my eyes and said,

“Scott, I’d like to introduce you to Josue. He fell down an incline four years ago and badly hurt himself.  Three months later, he lost his eyesight.”

He then pointed to a six inch scar on the boy’s head, visible through his close-cropped hair.

He continued,

“The doctors in Guatemala City operated to remove a tumor that had formed, but that’s about all they could do.  So… today, we would also like to pray for Josue.  If you would be so kind, we would like you to say a few words in your own language.”

I was floored.  What an ass I had been! I finally realized why Josue was so miserable.  Poverty is hard, but it is especially hard on the handicapped.   The expectation is that a disabled person is a drain on society as there just aren’t enough resources to provide adequate care and development.  Josue had been tossed aside.   He had spent the past four years sitting around the village or being led around by his mother on her errands.

Humbled, I prayed for the boy. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for healing. And I silently prayed for God to open my eyes to the world around me.

When I had finished, many people came up and touched Josue and said “God bless you”.  There was a lot of pity and compassion for the boy, but it was obvious that they didn’t see much hope for him, save for some miracle from above that would give him new eyes.

The people continued to mill about.  In the crowd, a man invited me to join him for lunch at a his family’s house.  Another asked for music.  Another woman asked when I would be coming back.  Through it all, I noticed Josue sitting in the corner by his mother.

That’s when I heard the voice inside. A powerful voice. Like James Earl Jones mixed with Charleton Heston. It was prodding me to action.

So I walked over to Josue and said,

“Josue, would you like to play the keyboard?”

He didn’t respond.  He wouldn’t talk to me.  Then, his mother turned to me and said

“El no puede.”

He can’t. 

I stared.

Normally, I wouldn’t challenge a mother.  However, this was different.  By pure luck, I was born in a country where Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles do American Bandstand and sing Pepsi jingles.

I grabbed the boy by the arms.

“Tu Puedes!  Ven Acá!” 

You can!  Come here!

I basically kidnapped the kid and carted him up to the front of the room.  There, the keyboard sat on a table.  Josue was still expressionless.  I took his hand and ran it around the perimeter of the keyboard.  Finally, placing his fingers on the keys.  I said,

“Tócalo” 

Play it. 

He was incredibly shy. Understandably so.  After an uncomfortable moment passed, he pressed down on one of the keys and it made the sound of a pipe organ from a tiny speaker.  He giggled as the corners of his mouth turned upward.

We spent the next fifteen minutes running his hands across the keys to learn the difference between the black ones and the white ones.  We learned where middle C was.   I asked,

“¿Puede sentirlo?” 

Can you feel it? 

He answered me,

“Sí!”

As the minutes wore on, he responded more and more. Then, he started pressing the keys without prompting.  He was smiling and giggling the whole time.  I stood behind him with my arms around him, holding his hands in different positions so he could play actual chords.

Finally, I asked Josue if he wanted to play and sing “Silent Night.”

He agreed with a big nod.  So, with my hand over his, we played and sang the song.

Noche de paz
Noche de amor
Todo duerme en derredor…

When I looked up, I noticed the whole room was watching us. Silent.   How long had they been standing there?

Someone motioned to me that we needed to leave. It was getting late, and darkness was not a friend to guys like me, so I walked Josue toward his chair.  I asked him if he had a good time.

“Sí”, he said.

As he sat down, Josue’s mom was smiling. A tear hung on her cheek.  She put her hand on his head and mussed his hair.

Like moms do.

It was then that I realized my calling for the year. It was not to create huge training programs. Or teach leadership.

It was to give Josue the gift of music.

Click here to read Part 2

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The Hidden Dangers of Defending Beliefs

Going viral.

It’s what every writer dreams about, right? Creating something out of nothing, and then having that “something” work its way around the globe and touch lives. That’s what I used to think until I had something go viral. That’s when you learn the term “virus” is very appropriate.

Virus
/ˈvī-rəs/
noun

Something that spreads fast and makes you feel like crap
(Definition courtesy of Scott New Revised Standard Dictionary)

I wrote what I thought was a fairly harmless piece about how Christians misuse the term “blessed” when referring to material windfalls. It was a self-deprecating, reflective rant.   I posted it to my blog without half a thought then wandered to the kitchen table to enjoy a chili diner with my family. My indigestion was still in its infancy when I wandered back to my computer, but my email box was already filled with comments from complete strangers.

Some positive.

Some not.

You know that feeling you get when someone at work lovingly points out your mistakes? Or when your spouse tells you your favorite shirt is an embarrassment to clothing?   Multiply that times one hundred.

It’s a hopeless feeling.

There were dozens of people praying for my soul. Others called me a heretic. Still more were concerned about my relationships. Whatever the case, every time I opened my inbox, I was greeted by a barrage of Christian brothers and sisters who had devoted paragraphs to explaining how misguided I was.

Here’s a sampling:

     “Sounds like a load of crap to me.”

     “(Your post) shows what an empty “religious” spirit you have regarding your understanding of this area of God’s awesomeness.”

And my personal favorite, which showed up numerous times in reference to my alluding that my friend and I engaged in some back-and-forth “Yo Mama” jokes:

          “So Mr. Dannemiller, you haven’t yet addressed my question: why is it okay to minimize the sin of disparaging your mother by treating it with a casual offhand remark that makes it seem okay?”

There were still more people who were “concerned for my heart” and worried that “the Enemy had won the battle for my soul.” I felt like I was floundering under an avalanche of negativity. So I did what any good husband would do.

I forwarded all of the incoming mail to my wife’s inbox.

Gabby happily served as a sponge for the comments. I’m not sure if this was because she was able to disassociate from the barbs, or because she saw it as some sort of karma payback for my refusal to lower the toilet seat these past twelve years. Whatever the case, she graciously held on to the comments until I was ready to absorb them, and then shared them with me.

I wasn’t surprised that people had alternate points of view. That was to be expected. And I guess it serves me right, given that my article took such a strong stance, pointing out how even the most well-intentioned words can actually push people away from faith.

However, two things did surprise me.

First, I noticed that some of the most encouraging notes came from atheists. They were defending my honor like a big brother. Sending private messages and sharing public comments validating what they saw as an open, self-examined faith. One posted on a public site for non-believers:

“If more Christians believed like this, maybe there wouldn’t even be a need for this forum? We could all just have honest conversations and get along without judgment.”

And another private message:

“Sleep well tonight knowing that you have witnessed well for your Lord.”

None of them converted to the faith, mind you. But I did enter into a number of intriguing conversations, sharing perspectives and learning. It seems there was something about this distinctly spiritual post that spoke to something universally human. A source of hope and promise that resides in all of us, no matter what name you give it.

Second, I was surprised by the comments from the most devout believers. I certainly expected different points of view. Any article that ask people to examine their beliefs should prompt discussion, right? What I didn’t expect was that the nuggets of condemnation, guilt and shame would come wrapped in scripture. Like receiving a steaming pile of poo in a Jesus-themed gift bag.

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* Warning:  Open at your own risk.

I reflected on these messages and saw hypocrisy in my own words. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to cherry-picking a red-lettered quote to prove my point. But this was more than just a mirror reflecting my pride. This was a magnifying glass exposing a larger problem.

We spend far too much time defending our beliefs at God’s expense.

And it needs to stop.

We think faith is certain. Well-defined. Concrete.  So we spout black and white answers in a gray-green world. We use The Word as a hammer to encourage a new way of thinking. And in doing so, we become ever more certain of our beliefs, basking in self-righteousness and judgment, all the while forgetting that God dwells in the uncertain, ambiguous places filled with question and doubt. Still we swing that same hammer at nails that are already driven flush into the wood.

And we’re missing the point.

Every day we come face-to-face with people who are searching for hope. They are facing trials and disappointments we cannot fathom. And in these trials they need more than words. As Christians, as much as we would like to bring an end to their suffering or right past wrongs, we can’t guarantee the rosy outcome through platitudes and pithy quotes. It’s in these moments we should be reminded of these words.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone
who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
1 Peter 3:15

When I search for the seed of hope, I never find it in words alone. Nor is it found by recalling times in my life when good fortune has miraculously come my way. No, the tangible seed that sustains – true hope – is found when logic fails and all seems lost. And here, the hope arrives as flesh and bone. A real human being, who listens first. Someone who dares to sit with me in that uncertain place. Not trying to drag me out, but instead, willing to stay there for as long as it takes. To truly understand where I am. Motivated by a Spirit that defies explanation.

So today my prayer is this:

Let us not be so certain of our beliefs.

Instead, let us be certain of the God who sees the beauty in our mess. Let us be certain of the God who comforts us in our brokenness. Let us be certain of the God who gives voice to the voiceless.

And with this certainty, may we become more than words.

May we be human.

May we be hope.

The hands and heart of God.

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The Power of Weakness

“You need glasses.”

Gabby commented as she watched me poring over the Sunday paper last month. I went on the defensive.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do!” she replied.

“Glasses are for old people,” I said.

“Have you seen the color of your hair at your temples?”

I stayed on message. “I don’t need glasses.”

“Then how come every time you start to read something, you make a face like you are about to sneeze?”   She demonstrated for effect. Exaggerating the move.

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“High pollen count,” I answered. Then I faked a poop attack to get out of further discussion.

Later that day, my six-year-old daughter tried to punch me in the face. At least that’s how it felt when she held a bottle of Gatorade fifteen inches from my nose to show me something printed on the label. Apparently I reacted as if she had fired a canister of mace into my eyeballs.

“What’s wrong daddy?”

“People don’t like it when you shove things in their face, honey.”

She just stared at me for a minute like I was a crazy person, and then went on asking her question.

I don’t need glasses.

I have repeated this mantra to myself for the better part of six months. Sure, I can only read a few pages of a book before I fall asleep, but who doesn’t get tired after working all day and corralling kids into bed? And halos around street lights when driving at night?

It’s angels. My guardian angels.

A few weeks ago, I took Jake to the drug store. He wanted to use some of the money he got for his birthday to buy some sunglasses. He’s been talking about them for weeks. As he stood in the aisle contemplating the cool factor of $6 mirrored lenses, I noticed the display of reading glasses. While he deliberated over his purchase, I reached down and grabbed a pair of 1.25’s, selecting a minimalist style made by Jonathan Something-or-Other.

This should prove it once and for all, I thought. Glasses will only make it worse.

For grins, I put them on my face.

What happened next can only be described as witchcraft. Words on the display shelf began to dance and sing. The edges of shapes were so sharp, they looked as if they had been carved by a diamond-tipped blade. I glanced down at Jake’s eight-year-old head and watched it double in size. He was growing! When he looked up at me, I could see every pore on his face. I was certain they would soon be sprouting beard hairs.

What the hell is going on!?

Jake laughed. “You look funny, Dad.”

That’s what happens when you’re possessed by a demon, son.

I took off the glasses, and things returned to normal. A slightly fuzzy normal in my close-up vision.

Do I need glasses? I wondered.

I put them on again. The clarity and sharpness returned. It was like a new world had opened up to me. And I kind of liked it.

“Do they really look funny?” I asked Jake, who was grinning at me through tinted shades.

“Yeah. You look weird.”

“Maybe you’re just not used to seeing me in glasses?”

I grabbed an identical pair from the shelf and noticed that the Jonathan Something-Or-Other label actually read Jacqueline Smith.   She makes a fine pair of glasses.

For women.

Jake got a real kick out of this. Nearly wet his pants laughing. He also got his glasses. But I didn’t get mine. It got me to thinking.

I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that I need help. It happens all the time. And even though I know the improved vision would make things easier, the thought of it leaves me feeling vulnerable somehow. Like admitting a weakness.  And I pride myself on being able to handle anything.

Muddle through.

Get by.

And we’re not just talking about the glasses. That’s what being a strong person is all about. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Manning up. Going it alone. It’s the mark of a courageous person to suffer thorns and arrows and emerge out the other side a better person. Right?

Dead wrong.

This is the place where our American ideals butt up against our Christian principles. We firmly believe our worth is wrapped up in what we can produce and what we can endure as individuals. It can be as simple as glasses, or as complex as cancer. There is something scary about admitting that we need help. So we refuse.

And it has to stop. I’ll give you three reasons why.

First of all, refusing help denies the opportunity for someone to be Christ for another person. Deep within each one of us, God has planted a desire to make a difference. You have felt it, haven’t you? We try to scratch that itch by building careers, making our mark, or making a name for ourselves. But nothing satisfies so much as the feeling you get when you truly help another person. It’s not a fleeting pleasure like a lick from and ice cream cone. It’s lasting fulfillment brought about by knowing you are temporarily inhabiting that glorious place where the barrier between you and God is as thin as Saran Wrap.

Second, saying “no” to a helping hand denies us the opportunity to experience God’s grace. Some folks think Heaven is a place you go to when you die. I prefer to think that it’s a place that exists when a person truly experiences unconditional love. Selfless service with no strings attached.

Finally, hanging on to our burdens is like letting go of God. Trying to control everything in our lives is a recipe for failure. No matter how hard we try, we can never maintain a perfect home, a perfect marriage, or perfect health. Sure, we can put up a façade, but it’s impossible. We can point ourselves in the right direction, but the wind will blow us wherever it pleases. Faith is not being certain we can handle whatever storms come our way. Faith is trusting that the family of God is there to save us from drowning in our own selfish pride.

The hands and heart of God are all around us. Tucked away in the body of our neighbors. Ready to wash over us like a cleansing rain. All you have to do is ask.

I can see that clearly now.

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* The first of many reading glasses on my night stand.

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The Secret To A Happy Marriage: (What I Learned From Busting My A55)

I love my desk chair. It’s like an old friend.

We met fifteen years ago in an office supply store. There were many choices that day, but something about the chair spoke to me. Maybe it was because it was covered in puffy “Dude Black” leather that reminded me of every piece of furniture from my first bachelor pad, and had countless levers and knobs to adjust to varying degrees of comfort.

Not surprisingly, Gabby is not a huge fan of the chair. She never said anything to me for fear of hurting my feelings, but I noticed the subtle way she would close my office door anytime house guests came calling. Or solicitors. Or the UPS delivery guy.

Still, my chair and I have bonded. I have fallen into the seat each day and it has hugged me like an overzealous grandmother. It has adapted to my propensity to recline while on phone calls, giving way with ease.

But over the past few months I noticed a change. The hugs were still there, but my old friend seemed to wither under my weight, reclining past a level that felt comfortable. I adjusted the levers and knobs to try and relieve my muscle fatigue, but nothing seemed to help. I chalked it up to my own weak abs and vowed to “blast my core” on my next visit to the gym.

Then it happened.

I sat down hard today and received my customary hug, forgetting that aging, overzealous grandmothers sometimes develop hip problems. A millisecond after settling in, I heard a snap and felt myself accelerating backward. I called upon ab muscles that haven’t seen action since the Reagan administration, but they were away on vacation, so I just flailed my arms, plastered a terrified look on my face, and yelled,

“Oh no, here I go!”

Gabby heard my screams and turned to see me crash to the floor and come to rest in a position with my back to the ground like an astronaut awaiting liftoff. She immediately ran away. I called out to her and said, “I’m OK! Nothing’s broken!” hoping to catch her before she had amassed an armload of first aid gear. My assumptions were nullified when I heard her yell back between fits of laughter,

“Shut up! I’m going to pee my pants!”

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* Reenactment:  Do not try this at home

Luckily, neither of us soiled ourselves or incurred an injury. But I learned a valuable lesson.

For months I had parked my keester in that chair, knowing deep down it was dying. I glanced underneath a few times looking for trouble spots with the same sense of urgency that one might look for a glass of chocolate milk at Mardi Gras. I hoped the remedy would be as simple as finding a giant toggle switch labeled, “Broken – Fixed,” tripped in the wrong direction, but I never found the problem. Soon, content to let life run its course, I got distracted by other more important things. Like work. Or watching funny cat videos. Or saying I was working when I was really watching funny cat videos.

And this is what led to my demise. Contentment that becomes complacent. And I’m not just talking about chairs here. I’m talking about everything.

Like houses.

Or cars .

Or marriages.

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* Honest-to-goodness wedding cake topper from www.theweddingspecialists.net

It’s all too easy to coast through a relationship. In the early days, fueled by constant togetherness and that “new chair smell”, we are enamored with the things we love about our spouses. The way he laughs at all your jokes and hangs on every word of your stories. The way she pushes you to try new things and show you what it means to be truly selfless.

As time marches on, things change. You still love these wonderful things, but you simply don’t notice them as much. It’s not that you take them for granted. No. That would imply that you’ve forgotten their value. The little treasures have simply faded from your consciousness. Like the beautiful painting over your mantle, or the lovely view from your backyard deck. Your friends mention them and ask about them every time they come to visit.

And you reply,

“What? Oh… Yes… It is wonderful. Thanks for noticing.”

What we fail to realize is that this noticing is the first step in preventive maintenance for a relationship. Not just noticing that something has changed, like a faulty bolt on an office chair. These things obviously need attention so we can fix what’s broken. But there’s something even more important.

Noticing those things are exactly the same.

Because noticing breeds acknowledgement. Spoken words of support. And we underestimate the importance of verbalizing the good that you notice. It feels like overkill to mention yet again how much we love the little things. The way she tucks her hair behind her ear. Her ability to remember everyone’s birthday. Putting extra chocolate chips in your pancakes. The way she remembers to thank you for the little things.

It’s nothing new. So why bore her to death with the same old compliments?

Dr. John Gottman has been studying relationships since 1972. One of his most impressive skills is his ability to watch married couples fight and then predict with a 90% degree of accuracy whether or not they will stay married. While I don’t recommend inviting the guy to your next date night, you may want to check out what he has learned in studying relationships.

What Gottman discovered is that there is a magic “positivity ratio” in marriages that stay together. His research found that lasting relationships tend to have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one.

And marriages bound for the scrap heap? 0.8 to 1.

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking:

Great! I am about 25 compliments in the hole, and it’s not even lunch time! Time to call the attorney!

But here’s the thing. We shouldn’t get hung up on the numbers. None of us can continue to reinvent ourselves every day and do dozens of new and surprising things to wow our wives. You would pull a groin if you tried. And we shouldn’t expect such variety from our spouses, either. It’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t keep an office chair from squeaking by oiling a different piece every day, and never returning to repeat the process.

Marital maintenance is about the tried and true. Not growing content with it, but noticing it. Putting on a fresh pair of eyes and seeing the things that have been there all along. A steady, day-to-day process of showing your appreciation through words and actions. And there can never be enough of this kind of love. A love that is patient and kind. Not envious, prideful, or boastful. A love not easily angered. One that keeps no record of wrongs.

So my prayer today is that I remember these words written nearly two-thousand years ago. The words spoken time and time again when people stand before God and unite themselves in marriage. It’s not flashy or fantastic. It’s a simple, selfless, plain-spoken love.

A love to bore you to tears.

Tears of gladness.

Tears of joy.

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