Hey folks! Over the past couple of weeks we’ve received some news that is difficult to swallow. At the same time, we are seeing God every step of the way. For more details, see our video blog here.
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Piles of rocks.
If you were driving by Don Davis’ house, you probably wouldn’t even notice them. And if you did, you likely thought those jagged stones had been deposited there for some sort of project. Heaven knows, when you’re on the ranch in rural Oklahoma, the work never truly ends. It just lingers like old friends at the main street diner, long goodbye-ing until they meet again tomorrow morning.
Indeed, those piles are a work in progress, but they aren’t for a project that anyone had planned. Least of all, Mr. Davis himself.
You see, Don spent his life working the land. A petroleum engineer by trade, he began his career drilling holes in the earth to tease out the nectar beneath, providing heat for homes and fuel for freeways. And, after climbing the ladder in his chosen profession, even owning his own drilling company, he ultimately retired to the family ranch to focus his efforts above the ground, raising cattle and operating a bulldozer business.
The venues may have been different, but it was all rewarding work.
However, as the years passed, time was a double-edged sword for Don. In one sense, it was kind. Giving him a proud list of accomplishments and a growing circle of friends. In another sense, time was cruel. Slowly taking away his mind and the treasures held within.
His daughter, Shannon, is a nurse. Gifted with a nurturing spirit, she was well-equipped to handle the challenges of his failing health. To hear her tell it, even in his decline, there was a part of her dad that never left. As she cared for him over months and years, his easy-going style, salty language, wry sense of humor and warm spirit were all intact. Even as the fog began to roll in and cloud his memory, he continued to show his love in small ways. Washing a load of dishes for her. Leaving a kind note. Or sharing quiet evenings with her on the porch while the dogs and roosters milled about their ankles. Theirs was a special relationship. Dappled in ordinary kindness made extraordinary by time and circumstance.
Eventually names and faces began to fade from memory for Don, replaced by somber silence in response to a world that grew ever more confusing. Moving was a challenge. Communication was labored. Planning was impossible. It was evident that he still wanted to contribute to the good of his farm and family, but his mind and his body simply wouldn’t cooperate.
Except for that one thing.
There you would see him. Head down. Propped up by a walker. Taking short strolls around his property, meandering in ways that would fool even the wisest of GPS systems. Sometimes he might randomly hop into his truck, keyless and curious, examining whatever might be in the glove box. Other times, he might check on a wayward cow or lazy dog. Whatever the case, when his gaze came upon a stone on the ground, he would pick it up,
slowly walk it over to the front of his house,
and drop it on the ground.
At first, it wasn’t much. Just a scattering of rocks. No rhyme or reason. More accident than intention. But slowly it changed shape. One by one. Stone by stone. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Growing. Forming pyramids until he placed his final stone just a few short weeks ago – his soul passing on from this world to the next.
Although Don’s not here to tell us, I’m fairly certain that as he picked up each rock, he wished he could do more. After all, what’s a single stone to a man who has drilled holes through bedrock and moved mountains of dirt with a bulldozer? Still, he kept at it. Doing this tiny job day after day.
Maybe you’re like me. You feel a nagging pressure to do something significant with your days on this planet. Something to make your mark. Write a bestseller. Save a life. Rescue orphans. Invent something to change the world. And every day as you tear off another page on the calendar, you’ve squandered yet another chance to move a boulder. So many things to accomplish. And so little time left.
How wrong I’ve been.
The way I see it, Don built those piles to show his daughter – and all of us – how to build a life. Over time. Little by little. Each rock representing a small act of kindness.
A smile to a stranger passing by.
Encouragement for a friend who is losing hope.
A hug for someone who hasn’t felt love in a long time.
It’s true that casseroles and compassion may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things. Just pebbles on the earth. But taken together, over the span of a life, they add up to something weighty and meaningful. You might even call it a legacy. Life’s work that lives on.
How do I know?
Because these days, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can find Shannon taking short trips to a tiny cemetery in Ingalls, Oklahoma. It’s peaceful and quiet there. A good spot to talk to God and say whatever she feels. And she talks to her dad, too. Depending on the day, she might even ask him how he feels, just so she can make a joke that he’s likely feeling a bit “stiff”.
After all, Don never wanted things to be too serious.
And there amid the tears and the laughter, you might just watch as she gently opens her hand and lays one of his rocks there beside him as she says good bye. A small gift before heading off to her next shift at the clinic. Where she can offer a hug. Or a smile. Or a joke.
Paying it forward.
Stone by stone.
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. “I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it.
Luke 6: 31-35 (The Message)
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You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but I pinky swear on Mother Teresa’s grave that it happened. When I was nine years old, my parents abandoned me at a convent.
Just dropped me off and drove away.
I know. It sounds like the discarded plot of Sister Act 7, but it’s true. I’m still not sure how it all went down, but I suspect my parents were itching for a date night at Steak & Ale. Either that, or my mom thought it would be the best way to encourage me into the priesthood.
Both are equally plausible.
Whatever the case, one Friday evening, duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I met my Aunt Margaret at a convent somewhere in central Oklahoma. She was a bona fide nun from Ohio, in town for what I can only assume was the ecclesiastical version of a student exchange program.
Even though my parents tried to soft-peddle the whole engagement by saying things like, “Spending time with your Aunt Margaret will be fun!” my nine-year-old self had seen Sound of Music and knew that a convent was no Chuck-E-Cheese. Sure, I had fond memories of her singing and giving me handfuls of root beer candies to keep me quiet during mass, but had never considered her for the role of weekend cruise director. I envisioned myself spending two full days in forced silence, praying a lot, and avoiding ruler slaps to the knuckles.
So, imagine my surprise when my convent sleepover turned into a rollicking episode of VH1’s “Behind the Cloister.”
Forgive me if I’m blending my nun encounters here – it’s all a bit of a blur – but one of the first things I recall upon arriving at nun camp was going to the kitchen, where one of the sisters stood in front of a bunch of hole-filled (but not holy) sheets of wheat cracker dough. They looked like a bunch of unleavened Connect Four games. It turns out these were the leftovers that had been discarded from baking the round wafers used for Holy Communion. When I asked about them, she explained what it was, handed me an entire sheet, and said I could eat as much as I wanted. Knowing how they ration the communion wafers in church (one per worshipper), I dove right in, chomping on a smorgasbord of Savior sandwich crust. Not because it tasted particularly good, but because I felt like some sort of edgy altar boy.
But the excitement was just getting started.
After stuffing me full of wanna-be Jesus crackers, all of the nuns changed out of their habits and donned blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy hats. They drove me to a small town rodeo, bought me some candy, and sat me down in the stands to watch the proceedings. As the dust wafted into the bleachers, the sisters hooted and hollered at the barrel racers and bull riders, YeeHaw-ing in the name of the Lord. It was surreal. The only discernible difference between the nuns and anyone else is that they sported wads of popcorn in their cheeks in lieu of the Red Man tobacco preferred by the local women. We stayed out well past my bedtime, and I think I fell asleep in the car on the way back to the convent.
I rose early the next morning, a little unsure of where I was. I stumbled into the kitchen and had some non-sugary (sin-less) cereal to get my juices pumping. Once again, the sisters chose to deviate from the wardrobe norms, opting for sweats and T-shirts, informing me that the day’s adventure would be a trek to Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Once we had established our campsite for the day, we went on hikes, scouted for arrowheads, and played Frisbee golf. The icing on the cake – and what could only be described as a preview of the afterlife – was Aunt Margaret giving me access to a seemingly unlimited supply of Shasta soft drinks and generic-brand potato chips.
It was the weekend changed my little nine-year-old world.
To this day, every time I look at a nun, I silently wonder what’s behind the habit. Is she into improv comedy? Can she dance the Macarena? Is she a closet fan of WWF’s Monday Night Raw?
After my time with Aunt Margaret, anything’s possible.
I wish I could say that this experience has extended beyond my encounters with nuns and changed the way I see everyone I encounter. But sadly, that’s not the case. Too often I allow one thing to define a person for me. It’s ridiculous, I know. But what’s even more ridiculous is that we all do it.
Every one of us.
A few years ago, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov wanted to see how long it took people to form a first impression. So, they showed people photographs of random faces for a fraction of a second and asked the subjects to form an opinion as to the person’s trustworthiness, competence, likability, aggressiveness, and attractiveness. Not surprisingly, the judgments made in a fraction of a second correlated highly with the impressions of people who looked at the photos for as long as they liked. Secretly, I’d like to think that any nun faces scored well.
In a follow-up study, the researchers wanted to see if these first impressions affected our actions. In trial two, they again showed split-second images. But this time, unbeknownst to the subjects, some of the faces they judged were actually the frontrunners in major US elections.
So what happened?
Two weeks after the study, the faces people judged as more “competent” after viewing them for only milliseconds won roughly 70% of the races.
I’m sure none of this is surprising to you. Big deal, right? We are hard-wired for snap judgment. And, when you consider it, this is actually very helpful in life-or-death situations. If you’re being charged by a wild rhino or facing down an avalanche, you wouldn’t want to think long and hard about what is right or what is wrong. Such painstaking deliberation could mean the end of your existence.
But avalanches aren’t people.
And rhinos aren’t relationships.
With each passing day, I am starting to realize that the reflexes that save me in these life or death situations are a danger to me in my everyday life, keeping me from connecting with the Body of Christ. I sometimes find it incredibly hard to see beyond the superficial into the deep marrow of that which makes us all unique. And maybe you do, too? And I’m not talking about looks. I treat the entire human race as some sort of paint-by-numbers set. Taking a tiny bit of information and allowing it to color your entire perception of a person.
The article they share on social media.
The political sign in their yard.
The church they attend. Or don’t.
And it needs to stop.
Lately it seems that our shortcut world is Hell-bent on encouraging us to confirm the worst in others while ignoring the good. New math is all about simplification and division. The quicker I can pigeonhole a person, the easier it is for me to shun my enemies and find my friends. This all sounds simple in theory (like spotting a nun at a rodeo) but much harder in practice.
The truth is, God created us to be in community, and my pre-judgment of people only serves to separate me from the Family of God. Billions of us, give-or-take. With two ears to hear, hearts to heal, and arms to embrace.
So my prayer today is this: That I can recognize my snap judgment when it closes me off, and do my best to prove myself wrong. That I can be the one who looks for the good in a sea of negativity. Looking past my silly stereotypes to see the person underneath. In the words of 1 Samuel 16:7. Not seeing as mortals see, but seeing as the Lord does. Looking at the heart. My heart as well as that of my neighbor.
Breaking habits one at a time.
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The clock stared me in the face.
I didn’t set this alarm, but it rings on a regular basis. Sometimes, like last night, it comes mercifully, with nearly three hours left before I have to start my day. Other times, it’s cruel. Pulling me from my slumber when I have just twenty or thirty minutes left to sleep. My wife calls this affliction TTS.
Tiny Tank Syndrome.
But this is not a post about frequent urination. Though, if this post finds its way to any fellow TTS sufferers, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone (and, there is likely a bathroom near you right now. So go!)
When I woke last night, I couldn’t feel my right foot. It was completely numb. For some-odd reason I was sleeping with my ankles crossed, restricting blood flow. So, when I finally swung my legs over the edge of the bed, I felt that not-so-pleasant tingling.
I walked gingerly to the restroom. It was painful. Not like childbirth painful, but probably pretty close to what childbirth would feel like if men who do drug research and make pharmaceutical policy were also the ones in the stirrups.
Like any of you, I’m not a fan of pain. But last night, if I was going to move forward – and eventually get back to bed – I knew I was going to endure some discomfort.
You can’t stay numb forever.
So my real alarm went off this morning and I drove to the gym at 5:30. As I lifted (super heavy) weights and sweated profusely, TVs hovered overhead. Each one blaring the same story.
Kids. Teachers. Seventeen of them.
In their own high school.
And while the news blared, we all went about our business. Lifting. Sweating. Running. Crunching. Cycling.
Now, do I think that we’re all heartless people? Absolutely not. The gym this morning was filled with people who care for elderly parents, volunteer at the food bank, and donate money to charity. If I know one thing about my community, it’s that it is filled with loving, caring individuals. And, no doubt, yours is just like it.
But most of us also live in communities where it hasn’t happened to us. So it makes it easy to become numb. We have the luxury of forgetting the names of the towns and the people who have been impacted over the years. Because thinking about it brings about that not-so-pleasant tingling. It’s easier to stay numb.
But the people affected don’t have that luxury.
They have to push through pain I cannot fathom.
Which makes me feel ashamed that I’ve been silent this long.
It’s no secret that I’m not a gun owner. Heck, I hardly trust myself when using a staple gun to hang Christmas lights. That alone should tell you I don’t have all the answers. And I’m not naïve enough to believe that any single law would have prevented yesterday’s shooting. Or the one before that. Or any of the shootings that will happen today, either intentional or accidental.
But it’s also naïve to think that no action at all (or more guns) will help. I have loads of friends who own guns, and I cannot think of a single one of them who opposes common-sense gun laws. In fact, an overwhelming majority of gun owners are in favor of background checks for private sales and at gun shows (77%), and preventing the mentally ill (89%) and people on no-fly or government watch lists (82%) from buying guns. And, due to the fact that over two-thirds of gun owners and non-owners alike believe that family instability contributes a great deal to gun violence in our country, it stands to reason that most of us would be in favor of restricting access to guns to those under suspicion of domestic violence.
The time for working through those icky, tingly feelings is long overdue. We must move forward.
So what can we do?
The first thing is easy. Refuse to stay numb. If you are one of those who agree with the stats above, then copy and paste them into an email and implore your representativesto draft and pass common sense gun legislation that protects the rights of responsible gun owners AND makes us all safer. It’ll take you five minutes.
But the second thing is so much harder. Without a doubt, we all sympathize with the victims of these unspeakable tragedies. None of us wants to see our fellow man experience such depth of sorrow. Yet, as soon as our conversations turn toward solving the problem, our hearts seem to turn as well. And this is what has to change.
We must stop dehumanizing one another for the sake of a cause.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. As we work our way out of the numbness, it’s eventually going to be prickly and painful. I will read articles I disagree with. A good friend will post an opinion that contradicts mine. And, in these moments, it is easy to form camps of us vs. them. We see it all too often. A dialogue becomes a disagreement. A disagreement becomes a debate. And the debate grows defensive. Pretty soon, when statistics and rationale don’t persuade the “other side”, I start to see the other person as my enemy. Calling them mindless sheep. Dirty, lying snakes. Ignorant jackasses.
And it has to stop.
Because when I do this – when WE do this – we become the problem we are trying to solve. The truth is, dehumanization is at the heart of every violent act that floods our newsfeeds. Shootings, Sexual assaults. Racial injustice. The only way our reptilian brains can justify the mistreatment of another person in this way is to see them as something less than human. And when we start to see one another as predator and prey, we feed this beast of conflict and division.
And it gets us nowhere.
The truth of the matter is – we need each other. None of us is going to solve this problem on our own. And, I’m sorry, but we cannot work through the gray by standing across from one another, fist to fist, in a race to see who can debase the other side the fastest. Nor can we afford to wait for the day when everyone is personally touched by the tragedy so we are forced to act.
No matter your position on this issue, we must remember that we are all children of God, and worthy of love and respect. If we hope to make progress, we have to work from passionate points of agreement. Standing side-by-side. Wrestling with the difficult issues, but never losing sight of the common goal.
Because we’re all in this together.
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If you are a parent, you’ve seen it at least a squillion times. You’re working in the kitchen and your tiny child’s cherub-like face looks up at you and says,
“I want to help.”
In the idyllic households, the parent looks upon the child, acknowledges his servant’s heart, cradles his cheeks, and invites him to the table. Bathed in filtered light and surrounded by flitting hummingbirds, you make a delicious pan of brownies together. You crack the eggs into the bowl. You delicately measure the ingredients. You taste the batter, licking the giant spoon simultaneously. And let’s not forget the giggles when you, the parent, dust some flour on the tip of your little angel’s nose.
Yes. It’s always the nose.
If your house is anything like mine, the scene above couldn’t be further from reality. When my kids say “I want to help,” my brain’s KIDSPEAK translator shouts back “I want to see if we can make this basic task take seven hours longer than it should, and DESTROY our house in the process!” So, I drape the entire kitchen in plastic tarps as if we’re going to spray paint an ’86 Buick. I change into the same clothes I use for yard work. I watch my child lick his hands before touching every ingredient. He stirs the concoction with the handle of the wooden spoon he just sneezed on, and we place the mix into the oven. We bake it at a temperature high enough to kill most of the bacteria. There are no pauses. No breaks. Impatient, my child convinces me to cut the brownies before they have cooled, creating oddly-shaped, barely-edible lumps of congealed chocolate. He tastes one of them, puts the half-eaten blob back onto the plate, and rushes off to play, leaving me slumped over in a kitchen chair, looking like Al Pacino in Scarface, surrounded by mountains of white powder.
This analogy came to mind as I reflected on our family’s recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic. A few months ago, we were among the roughly two million annual short-term American missionaries with good intentions and servant’s hearts who said, “I want to help.” So we packed up roughly 73% of our household belongings and flew to the middle of the Caribbean Sea to do the work of Jesus.
Only we’re not Jesus.
Besides being the Son of God and Savior of the World, Jesus was also a carpenter, which is the cat’s pajamas in terms of valuable skills to bring on a mission trip where your main job is to pour a concrete roof on a school and build a couple of bathrooms at a church.
Much like the Son of Man, I spent my youth working for my father. However, that’s where this analogy breaks down. Even though dad was a self-employed general contractor and God-like in my eyes, my apprenticeship was devoted largely to honing my skills in complaining and “half-assing” a job. Mission trips don’t have much use for that.
Now, before you get the wrong impression, please realize that my wife and I aren’t novices when it comes to international mission. We spent a full year working as missionaries in Guatemala. We know a thing or two about ministry in a foreign country. Still, culture is a powerful force. The rugged individualism and “you are what you produce” mindset of our American upbringing can easily overshadow the best of intentions, transforming an opportunity to share God’s love into some warped quest to demonstrate how much “work” I can accomplish. It’s a weakness, for sure.
The good news is, God is pretty good at using our weakness for His purpose.
Our mission trip was well-coordinated by the host organization, Praying Pelican Missions. Still, like most service trips in a developing country, there were deviations from the plan. Our objective was to host a Vacation Bible School at a local school in the mornings and do construction projects in the afternoon. However, unexpected weather changes, transportation issues, and a limited number of tools meant that there were breaks in the action. Schedules got shifted. Plans changed. Work was left undone.
At one point, I became a bit cynical, wondering what we were truly accomplishing. After all, we came to the Dominican Republic to produce a tangible result. Build a roof. Construst some bathrooms. And, while we were productive, I would be lying if I said we were completely effective. We made mistakes that required rework. We labored alongside Dominicans who were far more skilled than we were, and were gracious to fix our errors. And, there is no doubt in my mind that our free labor likely replaced a paid Dominican job or two, at least for a couple of days.
Needless to say, it was messy.
Like baking with a toddler.
So why do it?
Halfway through our trip, I walked into the sanctuary of our Dominican church and heard my 11-year-old son doing a decent job of playing an old drum set. He had some lessons a few years ago, but he’s not a drummer. In fact, Jake rarely seems interested in music, which, as a guitar-playing father, is a bit depressing. I’ve always dreamed I might one day play some songs with my kids.
Without saying a word, I picked up my guitar and started strumming along with him. Jake looked up, smiled, and kept tinkering. A brief jam session turned into a full song. And then a second. Before I knew it, we were knee-deep in a “Sweet Home Alabama/Friends In Low Places” mash-up, having a ball. No one passed out any Grammy Awards afterward, but it was quite literally a dream come true.
When we finished, I asked him “So… what made you decide to start drumming?”
Jake answered, “Victor. He showed me a couple of things. Said he would give me a lesson if I wanted.”
Just then, Victor walked in. He’s a Dominican, and a high school senior. And, like most high school kids, Victor is busy. He is busy with studies and the church youth group. He even plays drums in the church praise band. Still, he had sacrificed his time during the week to help us, bringing us water, chaperoning us around the town, finding us medicine, and food.
As the week went on, Victor and I connected. He befriended my kids and shared his music. He listened to my stories. Then he told me about his family. His hobbies. His desire to learn to play guitar. His dreams of becoming a medical professional.
As the week came to a close, I left a donated guitar with him (with the blessing of our hosts, of course). It was a small token of my appreciation for facilitating a beautiful moment between me and my son. And in that moment I was reminded of the purpose of short-term mission.
It’s NOT about coming home and realizing how blessed we are. If this is all we take from mission, we relegate these trips to a form of self-indulgent tourism.
It’s NOT about seeing how joyful “those people” are. If this is all we take from mission, we blind ourselves to the reality of poverty.
It’s NOT about all of the work we produce. No more than baking with your toddler is about the quality of the brownies.
And surprisingly, it’s NOT about bringing God to a developing nation. After all, there are more Christians in the Dominican Republic than there are in the United States.
So what’s it all about then? Well, much like shared moments with those you love, mission is about making connections. Over time. It’s about staying curious – realizing that everyone you meet knows something you don’t. It’s about seeing how God works in the lives of those who are different from you. It’s about true partnership – not paternalism. It’s about service. It’s about sharing, growing, listening, and learning. And taking this new learning and applying it by giving when it’s not convenient, standing up for the marginalized, and giving a voice to the forgotten.
And for me, it’s also about texting back-and-forth with Victor about the right chords to that song he’s trying to learn. It’s him asking about how my kids are doing in school. It’s checking in to make sure his home didn’t get flooded in the latest Caribbean hurricane. And him responding by telling me he’s donating his time to help rebuild a neighbor’s roof. And both of us feeling more connected than before.
But most of all, mission is about experiencing God in unconditional kindness shared between strangers. Now brothers and sisters in Christ.
And with this foundation…
with true relationships as the starting point…
the future is filled with hope.
*Below are some things to consider before your first (or next) mission trip.
The DO’s and DON’T’s of Short-Term Mission
- DO educate yourself on the people and the community you will be visiting, it’s cultural norms, and how your own country may have positively/negatively impacted their history
- DO work with a local agency leader who knows the culture and the true needs of the people you will meet. Don’t assume you know what they need based on your experience in the United States.
- DO contribute in a positive way to the local economy. Avoid bringing Rubbermaid tubs of toys/crafts/gifts/balls/equipment that can be purchased in country. This can have a devastating effect on local merchants. Instead, take the time and effort to support local businesses, and multiply the positive effects of your visit. Consider having the local agency buy your materials ahead of time if they have the time and resources.
- DO look for ways that your trip can facilitate the short or long-term employment of local people. Odds are good that the short-term missionaries on your trip are not experts in local building techniques, farming practices, or teaching styles. Stay curious, and hire local labor/talent/expertise to guide you and sustain the project once you are gone.
- DO spend time getting to know the local people on a personal level. Use translators. If you’re wondering what to talk about, you can instantly foster connection by talking about family, friends, and asking others to tell you what they appreciate most about where they live, and what worries them.
- DON’T take photos of people/kids without their consent, and without knowing their names and stories. It’s about mutual respect.
- DON’T be afraid to show up empty-handed (i.e. without food, treats, crafts, or trinkets to give away). It’s amazing what God can do when we have nothing to offer but ourselves.
- DON’T give gifts without the consent of the host church or sponsoring agency. Better yet, provide gifts that the host agency can distribute based on need. This empowers the local agencies and reduces the risk of developing the much-maligned “North American Savior” complex.
- DON’T go unless you are at least CONSIDERING a long-term partnership with the host church/sponsoring agency. “One and done” mission trips rarely produce lasting positive impact. And sometimes, the best way to serve is to use money you may have spent on airfare to simply provide long-term financial support to the local agency, and have them visit regularly to update you on progress and share how your church is helping facilitate growth for the Kingdom of God.
- DON’T stop with this list. Do your research to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of short-term missions. Indeed, God is in control, but it’s up to us to be as informed as possible.
* This is a piece from a number of years ago, but a fitting repost on this day when we commemorate Jesus’ selfless act of washing the feet of his disciples. I’m still learning. Still searching for that servant’s heart.
“You ready to go to lunch?” Gabby asked.
“Not yet.” I said, straight-faced. “I just need to pick a homeless man’s toenails out of my hair.”
She nodded in agreement. Like it was no big deal.
This is not a typical conversation. But yesterday was not a typical day. Allow me to explain.
I know I’ve told the story a million times. Like the million times your dad told you how he used to be so poor that his mom packed baked bean sandwiches in his school lunchbox. OK. So maybe that’s just my dad. But you get the idea. In the context of our latest escapade, our story bears repeating.
Seven years ago, Gabby and I quit our kooshy corporate jobs, sold the house, sold the cars, and spent a year as missionaries living with a Mayan family in the highlands of Guatemala. The book should be out sometime next year if I could only stop blogging long enough to write a few more chapters. Meantime, the Cliff’s Notes version is this – it was an intense year filled with miracles as well as faith-testing moments.
Prior to Guatemala, Gabby and I hadn’t done a lot of service. So, when you embark on such a life-altering adventure your first shot out of the gate, it can leave you feeling a bit like Norah Jones whose first album won eight Grammy awards. While I don’t really believe our mission year is Grammy-worthy, we’re similar with respect to anything we do after that makes people say, “But what have you done lately?”
My cynical self says a full year of third-world mission service should add up to 52 years of week-long mission trips. So, when anyone comes looking for volunteers for a canned food drive or a United Way campaign, I should be able to say, without remorse, “I gave at the office.”
But it doesn’t work that way.
My heavy guilt and foolish pride don’t let that happen. I firmly believe that these are emotions that God puts in my soul to remind me that He’s still in charge. So, instead of feeling content with what could arguably be called a selfish year of service (yes, you read that right), I am left wondering what else I could do. How can I truly be selfless? What opportunities exist that could be God-centered enough to help me develop a deep spiritual connection, while at the same time be challenging enough from a service perspective to scare the Baby Ruth out of me like Guatemala did?
I got my answer a couple of weeks ago via email from my fried Jeff.
“I have a great opportunity for you service-minded types. Nashville’s third annual Project Homeless Connect is coming up Wednesday, December 8. This is a day when the community comes together to offer numerous services to those who are experiencing homelessness.
I am coordinating Room In The Inn’s foot clinic, and I need volunteers to help me. Volunteering would entail offering basic foot care–washing feet, clipping nails, and giving a foot massage. For anyone who is a little squeamish about feet, there are ways you can help as well. It really is not as bad as you might think.”
I had to read the email twice.
Is this a God-centered opportunity? Sure. The Bible says that Jesus performed just such a spa treatment for his disciples, complete with exfoliating brush and tea-tree oil . (John 13: 1-17 SNRS Scott’s New Revised Standard)
Is this a challenging/scary opportunity?
I’m not sure where you stand on feet (pun intended). If you are a nurse, masseuse, podiatrist, shoe salesman, or freak with a foot fetish, this is right up your alley. You probably wouldn’t think twice. You could just go on auto-pilot for the day and handle hundreds of feet like a baker handles buns.
Touching feet is an intimate thing. Think about it. How often do you touch someone else’s feet, much less a perfect stranger? Besides, I have a long list of fears. Ignoring my OCD compulsion with the number 7 and multiples thereof, allow me to showcase just a few of them here, in descending order from heart-stopper to rash-inducer.
1. Eating food on or past the expiration date
2. Not having lip balm
3. Being trapped with a bad smell (except my own B.O., oddly enough)
4. Going a full day without showering
5. Hanging Christmas lights on the tallest gable of our house
6. Clipping the kids’ (or dog’s) toenails
7. Forgetting to put on deodorant on a muggy day
7a. Tapioca pudding
7b. Being sweaty without a change of clothes nearby
7c. Confronting my wife about something when she’s stressed
As you can see, five or six of these have to do with hygiene in some form. And this service opportunity would have me facing several fears head-on. Then I read something else Jeff sent us.
“Organizers are expecting between 1,500 and 2,000 people to receive important services that will help them on their journey toward obtaining housing. The foot clinic can be an important part of this process. Physical needs are met, but more importantly it is an experience of sanctuary for our guests, a place where they are cared for as individuals and experience a few moments of unconditional love and respect that can help sustain them in the difficult experience of homelessness”.
Here I am, worried about my crazy phobias while someone. Some person. Flesh and blood.
Has no home. No roof. No place to feel safe.
For me, it now becomes a simple math problem to be solved. True or false.
Is love greater than fear?
Time to find the answer for myself.
I sent Jeff an email to let him know that Gabby and I were in for the foot clinic. Granted, I hadn’t confirmed this with Gabby, but I figured it was only fair that I sign her up for the foot clinic as payback for her volunteering me to be a youth group leader. Not once, but twice. In truth, I needed her support. Gabby is the strong half of this marital union, and strangely attracted to physical abnormalities of all sorts. A menagerie of corns and calluses could be right up her alley.
The day arrived, and Gabby held my hand as we walked into the building.
“Deep breaths, “ she said. “No big deal.”
As soon as we entered, I immediately excused myself to the bathroom.
Gabby supported me by stifling a giggle.
The event center was a large exhibit hall. It was an incredible sight. Different services and ministries had their own designated area. There was a place to get your hair cut. Another area for medical questions. A section for legal services. A place to get new ID’s. All things to help the homeless get back on their feet (pun intended). As we looked around the hall, the most startling thing is how it would have been next to impossible to distinguish the homeless from the volunteers had it not been for our free brightly-colored T-shirts.
Children of God.
Then we found Jeff. He gave us a brief orientation. I figured I would start small. Help people fill out the intake form. Wash the trimmers and pumice pads between sessions, etc. You know. Ease my way into it.
Then, thirty seconds after removing my coat, Hillary, a volunteer coordinator, taps me on the shoulder.
“We have a space open for foot care. Can you help out?”
Round One begins: Fear just hit Love below the belt.
Gabby smiled. Why shouldn’t she? She had been standing there, and would have been more than willing to jump right in. But who does Hillary tap? Me. Mr. Weak Stomach.
I would have thought it comical if it hadn’t been so personally mortifying.
My heart began to race. The next thing I knew, I was seated on a stool in front of a metal folding chair. On the floor was a washtub filled with warm water. Another volunteer came by and gave me three towels, rubber gloves, nail trimmers, a pumice stone, a nail file, soap and lotion.
“Do you need a cheat sheet?” he asked.
He brought me the instructions. I tried to commit them to memory. Soak feet. Wash feet with cleanser. Clean out around and under toenails with cuticle stick. Really? Clip nails. Be especially careful with diabetics. Apply callus remover and scrub with pumice stone to remove calluses. Not sure about that. Massage feet with lotion. Try not to look like you’re going to soil yourself.
OK. So the last one was mine.
When I was finished reading, he asked, “Are you ready?”
“Then I’ll go bring you a client.”
I said a prayer. Not the prayer you might think. I prayed for God to settle my nerves. And perhaps, if it wasn’t too much trouble, he could do this by sending me a client with dainty, pretty feet. Like Jennifer Aniston. Or Halle Berry. Or Ashley Judd. I’m not picky.
“Hi, this is Raymond.”
Raymond did not bear any resemblance to the aforementioned women, and had feet the size of canned hams. I squashed my squeamishness and shook his hand. Motioning toward the chair before me, I said, “Make yourself comfortable.”
As Raymond removed his shoes, I asked him if he had any special requests, or if he had any spots on his feet that I needed to be careful with. Sore tendons. Twisted ankle. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. As he removed his white athletic socks, he pointed to piggy #2 on his left foot.
“You see that one right there?”
“Yes,” I replied, gazing at a thick, discolored nail.
“That one has a fungus on it. If you could smooth that one out a bit, I’d appreciate it.”
Fear staggers Love with a right cross to the jaw!
I got right to work. Raymond and I chatted a bit. He was in construction, but lost his job in the economic downturn. Now he didn’t have a place to live. As I scrubbed his size twelves with Cetaphil cleanser, I smiled at the sight of myself. Here I was, a goofy, skinny, pale corporate consultant seated opposite a large, homeless, African American man, caressing his sudsy feet. Not an image I could have conjured up just a few days before. But now, it had an air of normalcy to it.
Love stands up straight, ready to take on Fear once more.
Normal, until I started cleaning with the cuticle stick. I know my own feet can harbor a veritable treasure trove of goodies beneath each nail. But prospecting for gold underneath a stranger’s toenails is another adventure entirely. The big toe was particularly awe-inspiring.
Love takes an uppercut to the ribs!
After the cleaning was the clipping. This wasn’t a huge job, as Raymond took decent care of his feet. I moved on to buff out some rough spot with the pumice stone, and smoothed out the offending fungal nail with a file. Next up was the massage, and Raymond was very appreciative.
“Man, I spend a lot of time on my feet walking from place to place. This is just what I needed.”
Twenty five minutes after we started, Raymond was breathing a sigh of relief, looking more relaxed than before. He gathered his things and shook my hand.
He left with, “God bless you, sir,” and slowly walked away.
Ding Ding! Round one is a draw. The fighters move to neutral corners.
With one client under my belt, I was gaining confidence. The churning in my belly was reduced to a gentle kneading.
My next client was Kathy. She was a heavy-set woman from Florida with brown curly hair who walked with some effort. She had only been in Nashville for the past two months, and was living at the women’s shelter. She had come to town to look for work and escape unspoken troubles. She was chatty at first, but as time went by, I caught her leaning back in the chair and closing her eyes. A soft smile drew across her cheeks.
“I don’t know if I ever remember someone taking care of me like this,” she said. “This is fantastic.”
Love takes round two!
Thirty minutes later, I was tending to James, a wiry Tennessee native. Compared to Kathy and Raymond, his feet felt like they were filled with helium. James admitted he had never had anyone tend to his feet before. A proud man, he mentioned several times how he took very good care of himself, and was only sitting here because a friend recommended it. He talked about losing his factory job in the recession, and living at the mission because “I can’t go home and stay with my family. I just get in trouble there. If I can stay away from them, I’m much better off.”
In that moment I realized how tough this must be for the homeless. During the good times, you have a steady job and the means to put a roof over your head. Then something happens and the rug gets ripped out right beneath your tired feet. Now, you must swallow your pride and admit you can’t do it alone. I can only imagine how much I would resist that. Heck, I have a hard time admitting when I’ve had a bad day, much less anything worse.
But here was James, reluctantly accepting grace. I easily saw myself in his chair.
Fear is knocked on its heels in round three!
It was nearing lunch time, so I mentioned to the coordinator that I would likely take one more person before a quick break to grab a bite. James left with a handshake and I started to replenish my supplies.
“Hi. I’m Charles.”
Charles was about 6’3” with plenty of gray hair on his temples. I’m not sure of his age, but his skin showed that whatever years he had spent on the planet had been hard. He spoke in a rapid-fire staccato. He was missing several teeth, which gave him an interesting inflection that colored his speech with a mixture of lisp and drawl.
“Hey Charles. Nice to meet you. Get comfortable. I’ll be right with you.”
As I said this, Gabby came by to tap me on the shoulder. She had just finished with a client and heard that I was about to take a lunch.
“I’m just going to do one more and then I’m taking a break,” I said. “Could you get me a couple of fresh towels?”
Gabby obliged. I turned back toward Charles, who had removed his shoes.
“I want them two things gone!” He said with authority as he pointed to his left foot. When I looked down I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Just when Fear looked like it was down for the count, it connects with a right hook to Love’s jaw. Down goes Love! Down goes Love!
“It’s been years since I’ve done anything to that one there,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding. He touched the nail on his big toe, which, like all the other nails, had outgrown the limits of his shoes and retreated downward, covering the front of every toe like giant thimbles as thick as wooden spoons. The only thing that prevented them from growing even more was that the bottom of his foot had acted as a file of sorts. Otherwise, the nails would have covered the soles of his feet.
On his second toe was a growth the size of a marble. As he touched his big toenail and the growth, he repeated, “I want them two things gone.”
My face must have looked as if I had just witnessed a sea cow riding a unicycle. Completely dumbfounded.
And the referee is counting! 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5 ,6 ,7 ,8…
Gabby came back with the towels. She said in a tone of great understatement, “I’ll go help with intake. Let me know when you’re done.”
I turned toward the woman seated on the stool at my right. She was a registered nurse who had also been providing foot care throughout the morning. She had heard my conversation with Charles.
“Anything special I need to do here?” I begged, secretly hoping she would take my case as a research project. She only giggled at my novice fear and said,
“Nothing special. Just trim the nails as best you can, and get a few medicated corn pads to help with the bump there.”
And Love somehow staggers back to his feet!
Charles seemed pleased with the response and settled in, soaking his feet in the tub. Meanwhile, I was petrified. I scrubbed his feet with the special soap, hoping against hope that the concoction was something akin to Toenail Nair, which would just make them disappear in a flash of light.
No such luck.
After the soap, I was supposed to use the cuticle stick to get under the nails. I looked down at the poor stick, and I heard it faintly whimper. So I instead opted to work off the calluses with the pumice stone to allow each foot a bit more soaking time.
The rough side of the stone was like 100 grit sandpaper. Before I went to work, I asked Charles, “Let me know if this is too uncomfortable for you.”
He replied, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna’ hurt these big size thirteen canoes, boy. You doin’ a fine job. ”
I worked his foot like an auto body mechanic sanding paint off a Buick. The pumice wilted under the pressure. I commented to Charles, “I think I may rub off a size or two of foot here Charles. When you walk out of here, you may be an eleven and a half.” He laughed at the comment, and added, “Sho ‘nuff. It’s about time them feet had some work done on ‘em. This feels real good. I really appreciate you doing this.”
When the scrubbing was done, it was nail time. I steadied myself to tackle my fear head-on. When I grabbed the toenail trimmers, I saw the nurse glance my way. I believe she was watching to see if I would fold under the pressure.
I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle this. Because of the unique growth of the nails, there was no way to just take the nail off in one clip. I would have to take them all off a quarter-inch chip at a time. The trimmers were the kind that look like a pair of pliers. I grabbed them firmly in my right hand and settled in on the first chunk of the first nail.
I may not be the strongest man in the world, but I’ve done my fair share of working out. Still, when I pressed down, the trimmers merely made an impression. Like I was notarizing his big toe. It didn’t budge.
Refusing to yield, I grabbed on with both hands and clamped down. There was a sound like someone snapping a pencil, and the first chunk of nail flew off and hit the nurse in the cheek.
“Hold on there now!” Charles joked. “I don’t wanna’ be responsible for hurtin’ nobody.”
What’s this?! Love lands a right cross to Fear!
I had to laugh, and so did the nurse. I continued chopping away at the nail. As Gabby can attest, the big toe alone took four minutes. Stuff was flying everywhere. The area around my seat looked as if someone had been whittling one of those bear statues out of an old stump. Toenail chips hit me in the eye, the cheek, and the lower lip. My waxy hair care product, an unfortunate choice this day, was trapping slivers in my coif.
And my hands got tired.
As you might imagine, a couple years of growth can trap quite a bit of interesting stuff beneath a toenail. I was quite certain that I would unearth the contents of Al Capone’s vault. It made Raymond’s cleaning look like a speck of dust. This rattled me, but I pressed on, frequently cleaning my supplies and focusing.
And Fear takes one on the chin! Up against the ropes! Will this be the end?!?!
As I worked, Charles continued to voice his appreciation, and an occasional hint that my grip might be a bit rough.
And God was blessing it all. Beauty for ashes, as they say.
Because as tough as this was for me, I can only imagine that it was ten times as difficult for him. If you have no money and no place to live, the last thing you’re concerned about purchasing is a pair of nail clippers. And when you look like Charles, out on the street, it’s likely that you would go weeks, if not months, without feeling the physical touch of another human, save for an occasional police officer lifting you off a bench and pointing you elsewhere for the night.
Can you imagine?
And it must be very lonely. Enough to make you feel less than human.
Like I had treated Charles. As a pair of feet instead of a man with a soul.
When Charles’s feet were back to normal, I felt beads of sweat on my forehead. He looked at my handiwork and said, “Those babies haven’t looked that good in years! Thank you!”
“But we’re not done yet, Charles,” I reminded him. “We save the best for last.”
I poured peppermint-scented lotion into my hands, and got to work on the feet. For ten minutes they soaked up a quarter-bottle of the stuff. Like Kathy before him, he leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes, and sighed. It was the sound of pure peace. Breathing in a pleasant scent. Both of us drenched in human kindness. Bringing a subtle smile to my face as fear melted into the floor. Showing. Telling. Proving that when you push yourself to the edge of your faith.
No matter the odds.
Love wins. Every time.
If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
Loss is a funny thing. It leaves you with an emptiness that you know nothing can fill. But you still try to fill it anyway.
Yes. The little dog our kids had both secretly wished for over that broken wishbone. The one who arrived Heaven-sent, with a wishbone tattoo on his nose. He left us just after Christmas. Way too soon. We found ourselves saying things like, “I miss Smooch.” And, “I wish he would just come back.” Gabby and I felt like the worst parents in the world. Who the hell gets their kids a dying animal for Christmas?!
One night, Jake innocently asked asked, “Dad, can we make another turkey for dinner?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I think we need to do another wishbone.”
I know most psychologists ask you to take time to grieve a loss. Heck, there’s probably a scale somewhere that gives you a recommended duration. Granted, Smooch was no goldfish (43 seconds), but he wasn’t a spouse either (Umpteen years). It wasn’t a week before I dove head-first into searching for another dog for our family. This time, the criteria were simple. I was now looking for another Smooch. A beautiful dog who behaves perfectly, bonds instantly, loves unconditionally, and brings joy every moment they are alive.
The task seemed impossible. Until the day I was on a business trip in Florida and spotted this guy on the Williamson County Animal Shelter website.
I called Gabby immediately! “Hey babe! You have to go to the shelter NOW! They have a dog named Junior that looks like he could be Smooch’s twin!”
Gabby, ever the practical one, was guarded. She wasn’t sure she wanted another dog so soon.
“OK. I’ll go look.”
Junior looked just like Smooch, if Smooch had spent 20 minutes in an oven at 325 degrees. Gabby’s report was that he was friendly, but guarded. He was also a bit smaller. A little slow to warm to people. But he was a very sweet pup. When she asked the shelter staff about Junior, they told her that he was two years old (just like Smooch) and picked up on December 29th, the day Smooch died, and he was found at the exact same intersection of Columbia Pike and Spring Hill Circle where Smooch was picked up.
In my mind’s eye, I could read Audrey’s words. The ones that closed out her goodbye note to her beloved pal.
“We don’t want another dog. We just want you to come back.”
Could it be?
Gabby put a “hold” on Junior until I could come home and met him. Meantime, she did a Google search on the location where both dogs were found.
“Who knows?” she mused. “Maybe there is some crazy underground lab there where they breed beautiful, perfect dogs that look like ‘forever puppies’, and they just come springing up out of the ground. We can just drive by every month and get another one!”
When she pulled up the aerial view, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The major streets in the neighborhood where the dogs were found were almost a carbon-copy of our kids’ names.
Jake Way and Audelia Way.
Ordained by God.
Gabby and I talked that night on the phone. What a story! I know we are fairly hard-headed, but we suspected that God was going the extra-mile to give us such a blatant sign that we were on the right path. The buried note. The date Junior was found. The location. The street names. The uncanny resemblance.
“What should we name him?” Gabby asked.
“I say Toasty. Since Toasty is the other name Audrey gave to her blankets, and this dog looks like Smooch has been lightly toasted.”
Then Gabby offered, “But Junior isn’t quite as perfect as Smooch was. He’s a little more shy. Not quite as lily white. Maybe we name him ‘James’ – like from the Bible. You know… Jesus’ brother.”
Now that’s funny. Talk about a guy who could never live up to the expectations. You can hear Mary now.
“James? Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
We agreed to let the kids pick the name.
The next day, I went to the shelter as soon as it opened. I couldn’t wait to meet Smooch’s twin. I burst through the door, filled with excitement.
But when I took the dog for a walk, he wasn’t Smooch. Sure, he looked like Smooch. He behaved a bit like Smooch. But as much as I wanted him to replace what we lost, he wasn’t the same dog. Then again, he was a sweet dog, with a wonderful story. Yes. The story.
The signs from God.
We signed the adoption papers immediately. We knew the kids would fall in love with him. After all, he was so close to the original. Before bringing him home from the shelter, we wanted to run him by our vet’s office. It was important to us to get a clean bill of health from the shelter. We didn’t want to put our kids through the trauma of another sick dog.
Our vet marveled at the uncanny resemblance.
“They had to have been from the same litter,” she said.
But that’s where the resemblance stopped. Junior was not a compliant dog. He was scared. And aggressive. It took a muzzle and three people just to hold down his little 30-pound body and take his temperature. Sure enough, he had a fever. And then he tried to bite the vet. The same one who showed incredible patience with Smooch, and even donated to the UT school of veterinary medicine in his honor.
“James, why can’t you be a little more like your brother.”
Sadly, as much as we wanted this dog to be Smooch 2.0, he wasn’t. With the constant parade of kids coming in and out of our house, we couldn’t trust this little guy not to snap at someone. Disheartened, we returned Junior to the shelter an hour later. We found out later that Junior was adopted by another family the very next day.
A good story for Junior. But not the one we expected.
Truth be told, I think I was the one most devastated by all of this. Ever since I was a kid, I always dreamed of having a dog who was truly my best friend. One who never left my side. One who looked at me with eyes of pure devotion, undistracted by anything else around. A yellow lab, to be exact.
When you hold one of your deepest wishes in your hand, it can feel like such a gift. A God-ordained blessing.
And when that gift is gone, you wonder what you did to lose it. Or what else you couldhave done to keep it. Then trying hard to fill the hole left behind.
As if we’re in control of such things.
Some people say that dogs are heaven-sent. After all, the word itself – DOG – is just GOD spelled backwards. And funny enough, I think this whole experience has taught me that I had been doing things backwards all along. Taking control of the situation. Making decisions. Forcing the issue. Manufacturing signs and coincidences to somehow prove that God had a hand in my life.
Instead, I think God would have preferred that I just rest. Let Him take charge. Basking in the glow of a blessing, however fleeting, and showing gratitude in both the gain and the loss. Because, in the end, I don’t believe God cares so much about the minutiae of everyday decisions we make. It’s not like he’s some great GameShow Host in the Sky who blesses us for choosing Door #1 and sends us away penniless if we choose Door #2.
Instead, I believe God is someone who walks the many-forked path of life with us, following us wherever we go, and encouraging us to look his way from time-to-time so he can remind us…
“Enjoy the view.”
We met Frank a week ago. He is the world’s oddest looking dog. Fifty-five inches long from nose to tail, and only seventeen inches tall. The canine version of a platypus. He is part Basset hound, part Australian shepherd, and part “cousin-who-you-shouldn’t-take-to-fancy-parties.”
Even so, when we looked past the imperfections (the inappropriate man-spreading, the sloppy drinking, and other rough-yet-fur-covered edges) we saw a blessing in disguise. No back story. No miraculous signs. Just an imperfect dog that was looking for a perfect home.
When the kids came home from school to find this crazy mutt wagging his giant tail in the doorway, they were beyond thrilled. He greeted them with kisses. They greeted him with smiles and laughter. They named him Frank after St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, the frankfurter (due to his hot doggish shape), and Frankenstein, since he looks like he was created in a mad scientist’s lab.
Later that evening, Frank got settled in for a nap in his new living room. He was soaking up the soft rug while the kids scratched behind his ears. It was peaceful.
And as we looked on, enjoying the view of happy kids and a happy pet, Audrey pointed to the top of Frank’s head. Her sincere, sweet voice cutting the silence.
“Oh my gosh! A wishbone!”
And if you look close, you can see it, too.
Enjoy the view
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27 NIV
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