Tuesday, September 9, 2014

DAY 2 - BACK TO SCHOOL


My first morning of the trip began just as I had hoped:  with the whole team gathered around one long table in the hotel cafe enjoying made-to-order omelets of a peculiarly dark shade of yellow-orange and eggy pancakes that, this time around, came with the accompaniment of good ol' American syrup --proof they're getting to know us northerners at La Quinta Porra.

After filling up with food and prayer, half of us were off to a K-12 school to promote the upcoming festival.  Upon arriving we were informed that we would only have about 5 minutes in each classroom as classes were still being held at the moment.  In order to cover as much ground as we could, we split up into teams of 2 to 3 and dispersed to various parts of the campus.  Michael and Antonio, however, were asked to speak in front of a group of kids the administration had deemed "most troubled."  They were given an entire hour of class time to speak. 

My buddy for the morning was a plucky girl from Evoke named Stephanie.  As often the case in my experience of Evokers, we complimented each other swimmingly.  Where I'm introverted and stand offish, she's warm and inviting.   Where the only dancing I do is figuratively --around any invitation to do so physically-- she is a breakdancer, essentially the pinnacle form of kinesthetic awareness.  Where my brain seizes up any time I attempt to talk in either Spanish or Child, her's is fluent in both.  

Given this dynamic, when it was my turn to speak to a class, Stephanie would take my rigid, cumbersome description of the festival that I essentially hurled at the kids like a sack of old cantaloupes, and transform it into something much more palatable and enticing. 

Overall, the kids seemed really receptive to the invitation.  The biggest response always came when Stephanie would mention that there would be breakdance crews performing at the festival, and the students would almost loose their minds when she mentioned that she was part of one of the groups.  Immediately they would clamor for a demonstration but Stephanie had neither the proper attire nor space, so she compromised by teaching willing volunteers how to do a "freeze."  Attempts by the volunteers weren't lacking enthusiasm, but came up short in execution.



After we had visited all the classrooms we could, the group reunited in the foyer of the front building.  As we gathered, the class bell happened to ring.  Floods of students of varying ages filled the hallways and we immediately became the topic of every passing conversation as well as the recipients of noticeable giggles and stares. 

The younger ones had no qualms about approaching members of the group.  Soon I had a posse of 6th grade boys bombarding me with questions.  Our conversation consisted mostly of battling for common-ground between my attempted Spanish and their English peppered with helpful interjections of charades.  When I saw an opening to could pull Stephanie from her own gaggle of children in order to translate, I found out they were interested in two main things:  One,  if I had children of my own, which turned to if I had a wife, which turned to if I had a girlfriend, which turned to what I perceived as a subtle sense of pity.  And two, how to find me on Facebook.  I felt like a relief pitcher for the Miami Marlins as about half a dozen anxious hands scrambled for pen and paper as I agreed to relay my contact info.

Soon after, my celebrity continued as I was hailed by Stephanie who was knee deep in teenage girls.  "They want you to speak English!"  She said with a smile.  Pretty accessible entertainment business in Colombia, I guess.

"Hey… I'm speaking English…"  I said with a shrug.  My audience erupted with giggles and buried faces.  Nailed it.  


Antonio drew a crowd with his choice of headdress. 








Nakeisha's hair was a big hit as well.



Once all the hubbub finally settled and kids found their classrooms, we headed for the taxis.  As we gathering outside, Michael and Antonio were able to share about their experience speaking to the "troubled" group at the first school.  The most striking story coming from the experience came when they asked the students if they needed prayer for healing or freedom from anything.  One brave young girl burst into tears, admitting that she had been sexually abused growing up and that she need freedom from her past.  I am baffled by the courage of this young woman and I know God is doing a good work to free her from the shaming chains that have shackled her since childhood.

Soon we were off to another school to do the same.  Again it was the same progression of door to door, except this school had way cooler topography.  I mean, check out the volleyball/soccer/basketball court:



After the schools, our afternoon was mostly spent back at the hotel.  There I got to know one of our translators that was new to the group.  His name is David and I am super impressed with this kid.  He's only 14 years old and his English is impeccable.  And by impeccable I mean he can speak in a British accent on cue.  Though we only spoke briefly, I could tell his mind works very similar to mine.  Perceptive, analytical yet open minded, he was a kid after my own heart.

Soon, dinner was waiting at the food court in the mall.  And as we embarked, David and I were approached by a young man holding a collection can.  He explained that his name was Johnny and that he was collecting money for a program that helped rehabilitate young men who have problems with addiction.  Though I couldn't figure out if he was in the program or just helping out, it was apparent that he himself had fallen on hard times as well.  There was something about his eyes that I've noticed in many of the people we run into on the street.  There was a distance to them, like some kind of void existed between his true self and the person that stood before us.  We talked with him a bit and  managed to give him a small donation as well as pray over him and the program.  We also handed him a flier for the festival, telling him we'd love to see him there.

Once at the food court, the same one we had visited last year, I immediately remembered three things:  1.) Asian stir-fry has achieved international transcendence in the food court world.  2.)  This particular food court has the best view of any mall food court I've been to.  3.) Plating goes way beyond food court level.  


After tapping out about half way through my smorgasbord of denseness, David came over to join our table.  We picked our conversation right back up, as we talked a little bit about where we came from and what our future aspirations looked like at the moment.  His revolved around the medical field, and to that I say more power to him.

Then David said something that I've heard few times now on these trips, something that is really affirming to the work being done in and through our group.  He said, "You know, I took this job thinking it would be just that.  I thought I would be translating for some North Americans for a couple days and that would be it.  But I find myself just wanting to be around you guys.  Like, I don't want to leave.  It stinks that I only have one day left with you guys!"  I found myself saddened by the same thing.  I really wanted him to spend more time with us as well. 

After dinner we were off to an evening church service where Scott was asked to share a message of empowerment to the congregation.  The message Scott gave centered around the local church taking responsibility for the change they wish to see in their city; that they are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the city of Armenia; that the festival we are hosting is just the beginning.  Yes, we expect to see God move in a big way during the festival and we expect to see may hearts and lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but after the festival is over we will be flying back to the U.S.  It is the local church that is tasked with the work of disciplining those that responded to the call heard at the festival.  And it is the local church that is tasked with continuing the work of reaching out to those in need and those still in darkness.

As the message was wrapping up, Scott asked all of those willing to say, "Yes," to such a calling to line up in the front of the room.  There the Evoke team set out to pray for empowerment over each and every one of them. 

With the shimmering of Alexsa's flute peacefully swelling the hearts within every chest about the room, the dull roar of feverish supplication saturated the entire space to the point where the walls seemed to give way to the sound --allowing such a sweet and candid harmony to spill out onto the streets. 

And at some point amongst the song and sermon, the surrender and the call, Nakeisha came across David.  He had tears in his eyes and was exclaiming, "I know Him!  I know Him! I felt Him!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DAY 1 - COMING BACK

 

Preface:

So as many of you know, I've been back from my trip to Colombia for about three weeks now.  And to be honest, I still feel like I haven't processed the trip emotionally.  I can say, without a doubt, that the entire trip was indisputably good, and that God moved in a huge way through Festival Vida by eliciting transformation in countless lives.  I have a sneaking suspicion, and blatant hope, that in beginning the process of recounting this year's trip, I will also set in motion the unpacking of my own experience and bring to light what God has instilled in me.  In doing so, you will see two stories unfold.  You will see the story of Festival Vida and all the events surrounding it, the people involved and the hand of God at work in the city of Armenia.  But as I relate this to you, you will also be witnessing a part of my own personal story -- participating in my uncovering of the things God wishes to teach me through this trip.  My hope is that as I write, things still congested within my own head will come to the surface and you all will be able to experience and glean from them along side me. 

Day 1

Boarding the plane this time around was much less of an ordeal -- at least as far as my emotions were concerned.  Externally, it was a harried dance of ticket lines, Spirit reps, and distributing obscene amounts of lentils and luggage to make the 100lbs weight limit for our small army of bags.  After a Usain Bolt-ian sprint through security and a short requiem for the backs of the baggage handlers unfortunate enough to be assigned to our lentil bricks, we made it to our gate even with a handful of minutes to spare.

My thoughts, as we hung over the gulf, were in stark contrast to last year's as well.  In some ways, I'd say I was excited.  I looked forward to having fond memories evoked by familiar faces, sights, sounds and smells -- to witness again God at work in the hearts and lives of a people with which I've gained a kinship I previously wouldn't have thought possible.  With a team of almost twice the size sitting around me, and with a festival of two years in the making, planning, and praying slated for the weekend,  I was ready to get to work.  

Landing and disembarking was as scenic and laborious a usual, and soon (used loosely) we divvied up into taxis and translator's cars and were off to La Quinta Porra -- our hotel and home base for the week to come.  As I rode middle seat in the back of John's (one of our translators) car, two things most effectively made me realize I was back in Colombia.  1) The reckless abandon, yet striking skill with which everyone drives, especially those on motorcycles/dirt bikes -- which is basically about 75 percent of the population.   2)  The ubiquitous smell of exhaust presumably caused by the cyclist-heavy population.  I also had the privilege of riding with two team members who were new to the Colombian experience.  Seeing their wide eyes and excited expressions drinking in every undulation of the mountain-clad terrain revived pleasant memories of my own maiden taxi ride from last year's trip. 

As we entered the city, we were unexpectedly struck with an inconvenient detour.  The road in front of us had become congested and as we inched along we noticed a cop, appropriately clad in safety vest and full-faced helmet as he was on foot,  weaving between the cars.  He stopped at John's driver-side window and asked for his license.  After a lengthy exchange that I had no hopes in understanding, John was left with a ticket and instructions to take a different set of roads into the city.  As we assumed our new route, it was explained to me that you had to have special registration in order to use particular roads within the city.  I didn't have the thought to ask if this was commonplace in Colombia, so I just chalked it up as another peculiarity to the country. 

After some added time due to our detour, we finally made  it to the hotel.  There I found out my roommate was going to be a recently made friend of mine named Michael (easy enough.)  I was excited about this.  I found him easy to talk to right off the bat, likely due in part to the fact that we had recently found out that we had gone to the same high school. 

After unpacking, we were asked to meet in front of the double doors leading to the dinning area.  This was nothing too out of the ordinary considering this was the common congregating area during last trip.  Once everyone was present, the doors were opened to reveal a whole party of old and new faces surrounding a spread of chicken wraps and coffee milkshakes, complete with balloons and a banner offering a heartfelt welcome to the Evoke team.  From translators to church admins, the welcome party was a warm mixture of familiar friends and easily made new ones.  Each of these faces adorned with an infectious smile that immediately made it's way onto mine.  The kind of feeling that came over me in that moment can really only be summed up in one word: family.  A word that would become a theme over the course of the coming days.

Once the hugs and hellos subsided, the majority of us decided to go grab a bite to eat.  We landed on a place called Alta Vista, which would end up being the source of a majority of our meals over the course of the week.   The owner was super gracious to accommodate such a large group of rambunctious Americans and actually happened to be from Jersey, so ordering a breeze.  I actually didn't know this fact, or that he spoke perfect English, until later on in the meal, so I let my new friend and translator, Mafé, order for me.  I told her to surprise me.  This is what I got:


Essentially a pile of melted cheese dotted with corn and ham.  The bed of lettuce essentially only existed as satire.

After setting the precedent for my body for the coming week, I turned my mind toward prepping for what was next on the schedule.  Neatly wrapped in a ribbon of parody, our mission for the night was to minister to the homeless under a bridge, the exact same scenario I was thrust into the first day of my last trip.  This time, however, the nervousness and feeling of inadequacy that once draped over my shoulders, was replaced by a sense of confidence and maybe even the early stages of excitement, or at least anticipation --anticipation birthed out of what I had witnessed the last time I was under that bridge:  hope, love, restoration and a breaking off of chains that have bound so many for so long that some may have simply forgotten that freedom was even a thing.  All of this set into motion by the word and love of a God who has not forgotten them, not even in the least bit.   This is what I saw last time, so this time I had no reason to expect anything less. 

As we approached the bridge, memories began flooding back.  I saw the nook where Lirio once lay embracing a woman emaciated by AIDS, lying in her own filth.  I saw a grungy spot on the ground where I once sat talking with two homeless men, one who thought he was destined to be lost and unreachable to God and the other who was HIV positive a filled with questions.  Any doubt  I may have been harboring about coming back this time around was obliterated in that moment.

We kept walking until we crossed the street and rounded the corner of a sketchy, assumedly abandoned building.  There we were met by a moderately sized gathering of homeless who were patiently awaiting service from another American missionary group who had arrived earlier and were tending large pots of stew. 

Before we had a chance to start conversing with anybody, we were motioned by a woman to step inside the aforementioned sketchy building.  With surprisingly little hesitation, we walked right into an almost pitch black corridor that was partially subterranean and had the dirt floor to match.  As we fumbled with our phone lights, the lady that invited us in explained that she and her husband have been living in this building and using it to shelter the homeless for 14 years.  The build does not have any power or even light fixtures for that matter (apparently someone stole the fixtures/wiring a while back.)  As we stumbled down the hallway, we came to a opening on the right side of the hallway.  By this time, I realized we really have no way of knowing there's not some collection of miscreants hiding in the shadows waiting to offer up some kind of Colombian-style beat down on us.  As if sensing the vibes of hesitancy from delicate American constitutions, the homeowner lady informed us that no one uses the building at night since there is no power.  For some reason, everyone seemed to be satisfied with that conclusion and we pressed on. 

As we passed the doorway, I caught a glimpse of what looked like beds made solely of large bamboo pillions.  My attention was quickly diverted, however, by the rickety spiral staircase now before us at the end of the hallway.  Again undeterred, we proceeded to wobble our way up the stairs into a large center room that looked like some sort of dining area.  Like I said, we were relying mostly on phone flashlights so the layout could only be revealed in about two square foot portions at a time.  At some point during our urban spelunking, I noticed the district sound of dogs barking was echoing from somewhere within the building, like the potential shadow dwelling miscreants I guess I just figured if they were going to attack, they would have done so by now.  So, again, we soldiered onward and upward.



After traversing another sketchy set of stairs and some form of industrial baby gate, we were now in a large room on the third floor.  Barred windows situated at the back of the room let in a dim orange glow from street lamps as well as the occasional passing headlight from a car.  The building backed up against a hillside, so though we were three stories up, we were still at street level.  It was in this room that we decided to gather in a circle and pray over the building and it's owners.  

As we finished, the woman who owned the building was in tears and saying she had been praying for this day to come.  As dispersed, Antonio was left kneeling on the floor in the center of the room.  He later explained that he felt stuck there.  He didn't know how else to say it, but he just felt glued to the floor.  Even when the dogs were, for some reason, released from their pin and came running in from down the hallway, he remained there in that position for a good while. 



Eventually we exited what had now become, the oddly tranquil environment of the building and dove right in to the bustling scene outside.  By this time, a good portion of the crowd had received their bowls of stew and were now congregating on the open grass.  Some stood in little pockets of conversation often attend by a missionary or two while others slumped over their meal, protecting it with knees and elbows.  Either way, our group immediately set out to meet the locals.

In what I consider God jabbing at what had happened last year in this situation, I found myself only taking about two steps before a boisterous black man hailed me from the food line.  He walked up to me and without so much as an introduction, he asked me straight up how he can pray for salvation.  Taken aback and slightly suspect, I pumped the brakes for a second.  "What? Wait, yes!  I mean, hold on a sec'.  Yes, I'd love to pray with you for salvation, and we will, but can I explain something first?"  I had my new friend and translator, Mafe, relaying to the man for me.  "You see, I will pray with you, but there is nothing magic about this prayer.  It is through knowing and having a relationship with Jesus Christ that we are granted salvation from our sins.  It's about trusting that Jesus was sent to earth to die in our place.  And if we believe God raised Him from the dead, and if we set Him as Lord of our life and choose to follow Him, it is then we are given the assurance of eternal life."  (Note:  The words in this scene are  likely much more eloquent than what I spoke at the time, but the same general message was conveyed.)  I asked Mafé to share a bit of the Gospel with the man and together we explained how it was not by any work of his own that he could somehow "get right with God," that doing good will not earn him salvation, and that salvation lies solely in the person of Jesus Christ. 

He acknowledged that he understood what we were saying.  I asked him his name.  "Carlos," he replied.  

We huddled up to pray.   I told him to repeat after me, but to speak the words to God, not to me.  We began, "Lord Jesus, I give you my all…" 

In the next few minutes, Carlos dedicated his life to Jesus, recognizing that he has sinned and fallen short of God's standard, but trusts that the work Christ did on the cross has restored his relationship with God and that he need only believe to receive salvation, and that it is his intent to follow Him all the days of his life. 

When the prayer ended, Carlos grabbed my hand.  With a firmness that radiated all the way up his arm onto the kind, soft features of his face, he shook it and thanked me.  I pulled him toward myself and embraced him. 

"Mi hermano," I addressed him. 

"Mi hermano." He replied.  With a quiet solace in his voice. 

Carlos then left to go get his food so we decided to walk over to the bulk of the crowd.  There my roommate, Michael, shared a bit of his testimony to the nearby crowd.  He then gave an invitation of prayer to anyone who needed healing.  A few came forward and he proceeded to pray over each one of them with an intense confidence that I admired. 

Since each interaction was literally face to face, I don't know too much of the intimacies of what was exchanged but I do remember seeing a man walking away after having his knee prayed for.  As he rounded the corner he hopped a couple times on the ailing joint, assumedly testing it. 

Soon, my attention was drawn to another small collection of people sitting in the dirt.  Two from our team, Antonio and Llalyle, plus a man laying on his bag, were clapping along as another man pounded a rhythm on his chest and wailed out a melody in either muddied Spanish
or gibberish.  Regardless, the laughter and connection they were sharing transcended any hindrance set in place by language or cultural barriers.  



These where the kind of things I observed all night.  Real interactions and real connections between people of very distinct and seemingly disparate backgrounds.  It really spoke to the power of intentionality and how simply listening to a person's story can go a long way in connecting with them and showing them they have value. 

Something that really spoke to this notion was the unexpected reunion some of our team had with a little girl of about 14.  They had met her last year under the bridge as this shifty eyed, feral thing with heroine in her veins.  Skittish and distrusting, she would recoil at the slightest human touch.  Antonio recognized her right away and approached her.  He tapped her should from behind.  She shrugged it off at first.  But as she turned around she realized who it was and her face lit up.  She flung herself at him and embraced him with every inch her spindly little body hidden beneath an over-sized sweatshirt.  By the time I arrived, a small group of our team members had formed.  Bouncing around like a little mop-topped imp, she giggled and made faces at Tyler, the 12 year old son of one of the group leaders.  After a jovial urging from the group, she gave Tyler a bashful kiss on the cheek, then quickly retreated to hide behind the legs of our team members on the other side of the circle.  She was the epitome of a little girl, a far cry from the creature encountered this time last year. 

And this is how I'll choose to end Day 1.  With themes of family, restoration and reunion already presenting themselves, I will go ahead and say that there are many more stories of this kind to come.  Many of which, I have yet to grasp the depth and implications of.  Making for an interesting journey over the next few weeks.  Please know I appreciate all of you who have the patience and willingness to come along for the ride.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

AS IF ON CUE...

So, if you've trudged through my exhaustively long account of last year's mission trip to Colombia and/or supported me on said trip, first of all words cannot express how thankful I am for your contribution.  And second of all, you probably know where this post is going all ready... 

That's right!  I'm headin' back ya'll!  

May I introduce: 
 
Feel free to check out the website for more info.  Just make sure you have your Spanish speaking and/or in-browser translation on.  

Essentially, the Evoke Ministries crew will be heading up a city-wide festival in the heart of Armenia, Colombia!  The festival will be a platform to share the love of Jesus through various forms of art and music with the goal of, not only bringing a message of Hope to a city know for rampant drug use and suicide, but to rally the creatives who call Armenia home and instill in them a call to bring hope and revival to their city through the mediums they already love.  We want to show them that they can glorify God and bring about tangible change through their art, and that there is a real place in the body of the Church for their unique and individual gifting.  

We've been in relationship with the city government of Armenia for a couple of years now, and we are seeing so much favor around this festival --evidence that God is doing a good work in this city and preparing for, what we expect to be, an outpouring of His love and revival through this festival.   Supported by effort of local believers taking responsibility to see their own city transformed, a revival that will sustain far beyond the weekend of the event.  Through this, we are hoping and praying for the entire city to be saved!

Here's the other part you probably saw coming.  I will be traveling to and staying in Armenia from July 22-29, and will need 2,500 U.S. dollars to fund the trip in it's entirety.  Any donations are HUGELY appreciated and regardless of whether or not you donate anything, I do ask that you be praying for myself, the team, and all of those we come in contact with during the trip as well as those attending the festival.   Investment over there will see returns all over the globe, for God's work will be carried in the hearts of those affected.  I thank you guys in advance.  Your generosity means more than either you and I will likely ever know!

If you care to donate, please feel free to either:
  1. Use this link.  (Click my name at the bottom of the article to donate.)
  2. Write a personal check to Evoke Ministries and add my name in the memo and mail it to my house (contact me via Facebook or email and I will send you the address.) 
Either way, you will receive a contribution statement for your tax write off come next tax season.

I appreciate you all locking arms with me in this journey.  I am so blessed to have such an amazing community of friends who give so generously, not just monetarily, but of themselves.  Please know that I appreciate each and every one of you!

Love you guys!
-Michael

Saturday, March 15, 2014

DAY 8 - IN CONCLUSION



Well, we finally made it.  Day 8, the last day of the trip.  For the five of you that have persevered through this 6+ month long production, you have my deepest gratitude. 

Since the eighth day mainly consisted of checking out of our hotel, saying goodbye-for-nows, and traversing a couple airports, I'll just leave it up to you guys to fill in the details of said events.  Really, I'd like to take this post to recap the whole experience and relay what I have learned, and continue to learn, from this trip.

I will start by saying, if you haven't deduced already (those of whom this isn't the first blog post of mine you are reading), this was one of the most formative and perspective altering experiences of my entire life.  I could risk to say, from my relatively narrow point of view, and based on the sheer density of experiences, it has been the most potent week of life I've experienced to date.  I find it funny to hear myself describe this trip in such a way since I am not one to exaggerate my feelings towards something (that is, if I have them at all).  In fact, it is much more likely that I'd heavily suppress my feelings rather than hyperbolize them.  So, to say something of this nature towards this trip is very uncomfortable for me, but it deserves it. 

And you know what?  There were a lot of experiences on this trip that warrant a language and vulnerability that I am uncomfortable with -- something that, I think, points to their very legitimacy.  I never thought I would be one of those people who comes back from a trip and starts using phrases like, "I just fell in love with the people," and, "I left my heart in 'X' country,"  when describing their experience.  I always thought that those were Christian-y platitudes that people used to puff up their own person by making them seem all kind-hearted and saintly.  But after coming back from Colombia, I get it. 

The first week back in The States, I was a wreck.  I felt like my emotional capacity had increased fivefold and I didn't know where to put it all.  It just kept oozing through the gaps between my fingers and running down my arms.  My friends had to run for cover lest they be engulfed in an hour long deluge of Colombia-centric anecdotes.  I mean, you've seen the amount of web-space just this textual recap has taken up, imagine when my recollect was fresher and I had the more fluid medium of spoken word. 

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that during that trip I experienced the Love of God in such a tangible, first-hand way, that it enacted something inside of me.  That's not to say I hadn't had similar glimpses of God's love before this trip, and I do not, in any way, debase anything I've experienced beforehand.  But there's something about the concentrated aspect of this trip that essentially connected all the elements that God had been putting into place in my life and figuratively plugged them in to a power source.  

Like, this love thing, I feel like I get it now.  At it's most basic level, I get it.  When I looked into that kid's eyes in Cecilia and saw, in some ineffable way, God working in his spirit, was when I understood, likely for the very first time, the very fact that every single person matters to God.  No longer was, "Go and make disciples," (Matt 28:19)  just an airy notion of conviction applied in some rudimentary attitude toward the general population.  No, the disciples had faces now. 

That's really one of the biggest take-aways from this whole trip, the incentive behind the universal call of Christians to love.  I used to think it was based in conviction -- that a "good" Christian was supposed to show love and share the Gospel because the Bible said so.  And I wanted to be a "good" Christian so I manufactured such performance in order to validate my faith.  I figured that if I just tried hard enough, I could get to a place where I felt relatively good about my usefulness as a follower of Christ.  Very plainly, sharing the Gospel was very much about myself, and only consequently about whomever was on the receiving end.

But once I got a glimpse of the Father's heart, that whole framework fell away, and I saw the true intent behind the mission.  We are called to love others because God loves them, because God loves us.  Just recognizing this has brought me so much peace.  No longer am I acting out of a sense of slavish obligation, out of fear of not acquiescing and wallowing in guilt when I don't.  Rather, action now comes from a place of confidence.  A place that knows God's love for me is real and immovable and that that very same love is also reserved for every single person on this planet.  And that is exactly where our commission comes from.  We who have received and accepted the Gospel already have the life it imparts, therefore we do not share the Gospel in order to receive something that has already been given to us, rather we share it because that very same life is also reserved those who have yet to receive it.   Only then, does it become truly about God and them, and only consequently about ourselves.

So what does loving people look like?  I feel the application is unique to each individual and situation.  The key is intent.  Are you approaching the situation with that person's best interest in mind?   Are your actions toward another motivated by the fact that he or she is dearly loved by the God of the Universe -- The God who gave his very Son unto death in hopes of winning back His lost son or daughter?

C.S. Lewis sheds sobering light on this notion in his sermon, "Weight of Glory":

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption  such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

All this being said, do I still mishandle tons of opportunities to love people?  Yes.  Am I still amazingly cowardly sometimes?  Of course.  But I no longer derive my value from how well I adhere to convictions or how righteous I feel at any given moment.  And it's in this freedom that I feel God has allowed me a much greater effectiveness when it comes to loving people. 

Now, I believe this realization could have very well played out without having to travel to a third world country and immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture.   A fervent seeking of The Lord and loving of people should be the focus of our everyday and should play out in and around our homes and workplaces.  That is, of course where the majority of our time is spent, so it should be the grounds on which we hash out most of our revelations and breakthroughs, deepening our knowledge of the God who made us.  It is also the area in which we have specific influence that others may not have.  We are in a position to more effectively and intimately love the people God has placed in our immediate vicinity than those coming from outside a specific idea-set or culture and likes that particular point of relation. 

So then, why go on a mission trip when there are people right in our own backyards who need the love of Jesus just as desperately?  Three things come to mind: 

Firstly, it is an overt way to break a trend of stagnation in which one is simply going through the motions.  It causes a jumping of the tracks for a life suffocated in safe complacency and predictable mediocrity.  If you desire to go deeper into the things of God, but you can't seem to find any headway and have exhausted yourself within your current environment through various attempts to break a routine you know is lacking in fervor, then a perspective altering trip might be beneficial.  However, if you are simply discontent with your current situation and looking for a change of scenery and some excitement in your life, then a mission trip is not a good idea.  A vacation would be better suit the need.

Secondly, the nature of a mission trip is very conducive for honing your focus on Godly things.  While on trip, almost all distractions of daily life are stripped away, leaving you with entire days to be in constant communication and contact with The Lord through either work, relationship, or quiet meditation.  By definition, everything you do will be "on mission."  You are there for one purpose, to participate in the work of the Living God.  A mission that often plays a secondary role in our daily lives is now primary and solitary on a mission trip.  This, with the hope of bringing such a directive and intentionality back into everyday life, one full of distractions, and applying it as we go, rather than just during weeks-long bursts speckled throughout a lifetime.  And that can be the beauty of missions, it affords you time enough to see God at work and the intention behind His work -- something you may have been too distracted to see back home.  And once you get a glimpse of that, you can't help but to continue to see things through that lens once you get back.

Thirdly and most importantly, is that there are people in dire need that simply do not have the means around them to seek help.  Due to poverty, oppression, or isolation there are those, in every single nation, who are both physically and spiritually deprived that require some sort of outside support.  I'm not just talking about starving orphans and beggars, but those in abusive relationships, those who are too afraid or ashamed to ask for help and feel they have no worth, those who feel that depression is just a fact of life and that God has just simply forgotten about them.   Sometimes, self prescribed isolation is the hardest chasm for help to cross.  A need for revival is not just reserved for the impoverished parts of the world.  It exists in the most affluent of nations and in the palaces of kings as well.

Again, this is all something we experience in our own cities, but when it comes to mission trips there is a unique element that I have observed and it is somewhat in contrast the notion cultural-centric influence I spoke of earlier.  The very foreignness we experience on such a trip, that sensitizes us to God's hand and His revelation reciprocates within the person we are interacting with.  The different-ness of someone from outside a person's daily routine and realm of influences can be enough to derail them from their current schema and enact a receptivity to the message you bring.  This was very evident with one of our translators.  She flat out said that she does not want to listen to what her own people have to say.  However, she could not get enough of what our group of foreigners had to say.   

Now, this notion kinda makes sense to me.  My guess is that she has already built up associations and assumptions based on past experiences within her circle of relationships.  We all do this.  After getting to know the people around us we can usually predict, with pretty reliable accuracy, what a friend or acquaintance is going to say or how they will respond to a particular situation.  We already have a grasp on that person's role and investment in the relationship and weigh it accordingly. 

However, when someone completely new, and in this case, likely from a completely different culture, shows a legitimate concern and interest in you as a person, you don't have those assumptions to rely on.  You have to actually listen to them in order to gauge where they are coming from.  This is where we, as missionaries HAVE to come from a place of love, because the instant a person feel as though they are just another potential client of a door-to-door salesman or the next sequin-clad assistant you are going to practice your saw trick on, you might as well be pushing a vacuum cleaner in their face. 

This brings me to my next point.  A mission trip should be for the benefit of those whom we have come to serve.  I know this should be a given and number one in priority, but sadly, I can attest that it was not for me upon going my trip.   Being introspective in nature,  I found it very easy to recognize my own needs and where I wanted to grow coming into this experience, but I really struggled to recognize the needs of those I was coming to serve.  And it's a very real danger with these types of trips.  Someone coined the phrase "volun-tourism" and I think it is very poignant in describing the way in which we tend to us trips like these groom our own character and add to our spiritual tool belt, all at the expense of the very people we came to "serve."

On the other side of the coin, given our sinful nature, I don't think we can come to a place where we will be 100% selfless in our approach to missional work.  I know if I tarried until I felt like my intentions were pure enough for me to go, I'd currently be writing my 8th blog entry about how I'm still not quite ready to go to Colombia yet.  What I was finding to be the biggest hurdle was that I didn't have a face to put to the people I was coming to serve.  They weren't necessarily people yet, just a concept. 

Almost immediately upon arriving however, God gave me faces.  Like I mentioned in earlier posts, a face for each day.  And my heart broke.  I love how this is designed in us --that our hearts look for faces.  If we can put a face to a name, that name is given a beating heart and a soul and value beyond anything this Earth has to offer.  Something as beautifully simple as eye contact covers more than a 300-page biography. 

If you struggle with selflessness in this realm like I do, I encourage you to pray it out and press on expecting God to give you faces as well.  Just know that this trip cannot and will not be about you.  Mission trips are intended to show and instill God's love in areas and situations where it is not readily found.  It is profoundly about the lives of those being served.  But God, in His goodness, takes the opportunity to work on ours as well. 

In conclusion, I want to thank all of you who have given both financially and prayerfully to me in this trip.  Please know that every dollar was poured into both the lives of the citizens of Armenia as well as the lives of each Evoke team member.  Without your help, I couldn't have experience one of the most formative weeks of my entire life.  And if anyone reading this feels any inkling of compulsion towards their own mission trip, I encourage you to go!  Even if you don't feel like you have figured out everything motivationally or feel like you aren't "spiritually strong enough,"  all I can say is join the club.  A phrase that is often uttered in Evoke meetings goes a little something like this:

"God doesn't called the qualified.  He qualifies the called." 

Love you all,
Michael

Sunday, December 22, 2013

DAY 7 - REVISITATION


Day seven began similarly to the rest, and I wasn't complaining.  The thin eggy pancakes, the squeeze bag of raw honey, Tyler stockpiling the strawberry jelly packs, all were becoming a welcome and comforting routine.  I needed that little bit of comfort that morning for I knew what the coming day held.  That day was going to be take-two of the door to door evangelism thing. 

Soon we were off to what I would consider, at least in appearance, the poorest neighborhood we encountered on the trip.  To further punctuate this thought, Fabio decide to come along with us, just in case.  Upon arriving and scoping out the area, two things became apparent:  1) corrugated aluminum seemed to be the building material of choice for most of the residents and, in some cases, just leaning a few pieces together constituted a room.  2)  This particular neighborhood was just the tip of the impoverished iceberg.  For running through the valley below was what looked like a river of makeshift shanties, even worse off in appearance the homes above. 



As I stood surveying the slums below, it didn't feel real.  I felt like I was in some incredibly immersive movie.  Yet the reality persisted, as sounds of vitality rose from the rag-tag neighborhood.  A hailing neighbor, a barking dog, children shouting in play perfumed the air with glimpses of everyday life.  It's moments like this that offer perspective and ever elusive sobriety in regards to the privileged conditions in which I live.   And from that, the door to door just sort of amorphously commenced. 

With my trusty Karina at my side, we addressed our first home.  An older woman answered the door and upon hearing we were missionaries, welcomed us inside to pray over their home and her sick daughter.  The woman called for her husband and daughter to come and join us.  After introductions, I placed my hand on the daughter's shoulder and we began to pray.  As I was praying for healing over this woman, she began to sway in tight, little circles which became larger in larger as the prayer progressed.  Soon she was whipping around pretty significantly.  When I finished praying, she stopped.  It was peculiar, and I don't know what else to really say about it.  Anyway, I thanked the family for allowing us in their home and the pastor of the church we were partnered with for the day shared with them a little information about his church while Karina and I headed to the next house. 

It felt good having a door opened up to us right off the bat.  In fact, soon after, Karina and I were engaged with another homeowner just down the road.  Though he did not let us into his home, he did grace us with a good twenty minutes, or so, of conversation.  His name was Alberto and I have to say, the conversation we had was probably the first "real" feeling interaction I've had during a door to door session.  After getting over the initial wrenching of the conversation into the deep end of things, the situation really seemed to open up.  I no longer felt like I was giving some sales pitch or presenting my argument in a debate team competition, and his responses weren't drenched with staunch overtones in an attempt to politely to shoo me from his porch. 

As we talked, he wore the common shoe of the people we'd been meeting.  He was Catholic in the sense that he owned a Bible, and stuttered when asked about where he felt he'd go when he died.  I, in turn, explained to him the assurance we have in Jesus Christ --that know matter the misdeeds of our past, no matter how badly we've screwed up, our citizenship in Heaven is affirmed when we come into relationship with Jesus and acknowledge Him as our Savior.  He seemed to hear me in a very real way.  Then he asked me an interesting question that I, in some way probably due in part to my own occasional wonders, somewhat expected.  

"So, you say that Christ forgives all sins.  That no matter what you've done, you are forgiven and are going to Heaven if you accept Jesus as your Savior?"  Alberto asked.   I affirmed.  He continued,  "So, say a man, (he referenced a historical figure but I forgot the name) in his past, murdered hundreds of children, but before he died he accepted Christ as his Savior.  What happens to him?  Is he in Heaven or Hell?"

I kind of laughed at the question, applauding him for the difficulty of the premise.  You know what I told him?  Something I feel Christians don't say near enough are often too prideful to admit --I don't know. 

"I don't know," I admitted.   "There's know way I can know the condition of the man's relationship with Christ, but I will say this.  I feel that the Grace that God provides is bigger than any of us can ever fathom, or even want to fathom in some cases."   And I left it there.  I was okay with not knowing the answer.  

And in regards to the example Alberto provided, I trust that God, in his infinite wisdom and character, would judge justly, and that justice may very well look differently than we, as creatures hindered by our fallen nature and finite state, might expect.

He seemed satisfied with my admission and the conversation continued.  Talk continued to touch on the realm of salvation and at one point I asked him if he'd like to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his Savior in that moment and, consequently, have assurance of where he'd go when he died.   Again, the realness of his response was refreshing.  He explained that it is something that he'd like to think some more about.  He mentioned maybe going to a Bible Study the local church was hosting, or talking to someone in the church.  I encouraged him to do so and lauded him in his approach to a decision such as this. 

"Please, do take your time in deciding this.  This is the most important decision you will make in your life, it warrants contemplation.  Take all the time that you need, but no more than you have to."  I also explained to him that this is a personal decision that he was making, one between him and God.  He does not need to seek out a pastor or deacon in order to make this something official.  He can talk directly to Jesus Himself.

As we were saying our goodbyes, Alberto asked a question that sent a warmth throughout my entire being, "Will I see you again?" 

I smiled as I responded,  "I don't know.  I'll be back next year.  If we come to this neighborhood again, I'll look for you.  I expect great news next time I see you."  Then I added.  "You know, if you buy into this relationship with Jesus thing, then I have no doubt we will see each other again, in Heaven."

By this time, I was feeling it.  Real conversation and real good can be had with this whole door to door thing!  Who'd a thunk?  Even when we'd get the, "Go away!' from the back of the house, or the I'm-pretending-I'm-not-home-but-doing-a-bad-job-at-it-by-still-making-noise charade, my confidence was still brimming.  God was working in these interactions --door to door, done in love, and God was showing up! 

Soon, Karina and I were at the porch of a little old lady's home.  She was very sweet and greeted us through the bars of the window we hailed her from.  She apologized for not going so far as to invite us in and explained that the last time she let people claiming to be missionaries into her home, they robbed her -- a notion that I still have a hard time stomaching.  So we settled for relating across the window sill. 

Our interaction was more stereotypical of the many we experienced that trip.  Again, we found someone entrenched in religion, offering rather passive and automated responses to our inquiries.  We did get to love on her though, and pray whilst holding her boney little hands through the wrought iron.  As the conversation wrapped, she offered us some homemade popsicles.  Weary of the water source, I passed, but Karina happily obliged.  She opted for coconut, which was literally pulverized coconut frozen in an upside down cup shape, with little chunks of the hairy, brown exterior and all. 

The final interaction we had that morning was with a kid likely only a few years younger than myself.  Again, the barred window was our medium and after some initial hesitation/suspicion, he really started to open up.  His name was Leonardo and he was currently studying engineering at what I assume was the university level.  As conversation turned God-ward, he revealed that he felt that there was a distance between himself and God.  When asked who's fault he felt that was, he admitted it was probably his.  As he acknowledged this I noticed a distance in his eyes, as though that admission had struck something deep within himself. 

"You know,"  I started.  "God is always right there.  No matter how far away you think you've run, you can simply turn around and find Him standing right beside you." 

He seemed to agree with me.  Then he asked me one of my favorite questions of the trip.  "How do you pray to God?"

"Just like you are having a conversation with a friend."  I replied.  "Just like you and I are talking right now.  Be real.  Be honest.  It's not like there isn't anything he doesn't know already.  Let him know how you really feel.  Your thoughts, your fears, your anger, your doubt.  He can take it."

Again, I could feel him listening.  There was that beautiful discomfort in his face that told me God was at work.  That his very spirit was responding.  There's such a profound meaningfulness in experiences like that.  It's something that I can't describe and am really only beginning to recognize myself.

By that time the rest of the group was gathered about half a block away and motioned to me that it was time to go.  The three of us prayed together and then Karina and I headed back to the group. 

On our way back to the city, we stopped by a Chinese restaurant for lunch, at which Fabio joined us.  Much to everyone's excitement, Fabio's girlfriend agreed to meet us there as well.  She was welcomed with open arms, as Fabio beamed with pride introducing her to everyone. 

Due to the cancellation of a mural we were scheduled to paint in a local skate park, we had the afternoon free.  Being that we were leaving the next morning, many of us took the time to peruse the shops around our hotel for gift to bring back to family and friends. 

After managing to end up in a shop by myself attempting to buy four bracelets for five thousand pesos a piece and having the shop worker thinking I was trying to haggle with him, a group of us went on a quest to find Alexsa an indigenous musical instrument to bring back to the States.  As we walked to a music shop north of our hotel, we came across a rather large group of people gathered in a circle in the plaza with the large tree mentioned in a previous post.  These spectacles weren't uncommon in a city that had mostly B-grade street performers seemingly on every corner.  However the performance at the center of this particular circle was rather unsettling.  Two men had constructed a little altar on the ground with various trinkets and what appeared to be a Bible.  They proceeded to theatrically buzz about the space provided by the crowd, uttering incantations and pouring water on the ground.  The whole display really messed with me, it just felt dark.

After shaking off the uneasiness caused by such a scene, we continued on to the music store where Alexsa purchased what I would describe as a crude version of an auto-harp.  I forget what it's actually called but it had a cool, rustic look to it. 

On our way back, we came across some street vendors sitting on the corner of a high foot-traffic area and decided to check out their wares.  There were two jewelry vendors who I assumed were together based on their matching hippie exteriors/vibes.  They had a huge array of really well done bracelets, necklaces, and the like.  Lirio, being a jewelry maker herself, jumped right into conversation with the two.  Meanwhile, Janice and I decided to talk to the third, likely unrelated guy sitting down at the same corner. 

His name was Juan and he wielded a classical guitar and a love for '90s grunge music.  He asked if we knew of Nirvana, we nodded, and after explaining that he knows very little English but will attempt to sing in it anyway, began to play.  Though the name of the song escapes me, I was impressed with his rendition of it.  Firstly, because I'm impressed with anyone who can sing and play guitar at the same time, but mainly because his minimal grasp on English actually aided him in his emulation of Kirt Cobain. 

The next song on his playlist came from a genre I'm much less familiar with, Argentinian grunge.  Again, I really enjoyed the performance.  As I sat there listening to this grubby street performer, flanked by hippie jewelers in the middle of a shopping district in downtown Armenia, Colombia I had yet another one of those God-is-so-good / How-could-I-have-even-imagined-an-experience-such-as-this moments. 

After Juan finished and we applauded, he began to explain to me that he desired to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, that as far as he was concerned, it was the hub of musical talent in South America.  I, in turn, told him about the city of Nashville having a similar accolade in the States.  This peaked his interest greatly.  The proceeding few minutes consisted of him inquiring about the so-called Music City, including how to get to said place.  His eyes glistened as I regaled with talk of talented musicians on every corner and recording studios on seemingly every street. 

As it came time for us to head back to the hotel, Juan gave me his Facebook information while the girls finalized their purchases from the assumed hippie couple.  I particularly enjoyed that interaction.  In some ways it was a slice of normalcy.  It felt like a conversation I could easily find myself in back in the U.S. 

The remainder of the night consisted of dinner at one of the larger local restaurants --at which I had a rather odd turkey sandwich swimming in an orange glaze-- along with various conversations and mulling about the hotel lobby.  An obvious undertone however, was the fact that tomorrow we were leaving to go back to the U.S., a notion that, to my complete surprise, made me rather sad.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

DAY 6 - INSIGHT


Okay, Day 6.  Sunday.

We started the day by attending a service at the loft-space church (not to be confused with loft space-church) we were at the night before.  The whole experience was just really cool.  It was super similar to some small-budget church services I've experienced in the states, except in Spanish and without air conditioning.

Anyway, part way through the service, they had the children perform a choreographed dance to some sweet, kids-bop worship song.  While almost all of them, except for the obligated youth staff, one slightly more ambitious kid, and Antonio, proceeded to mull about and wobble as the music played, I still felt a warmth in my heart that affirmed the goodness of the whole experience.

Afterward, an amazingly courageous little girl sang a solo for us.  Even when the music cut out once or twice, she kept on truckin'.  It's amazing how we can unlearn such courage as we get older, and then spend a good portion of our life attempting to get back to where we essentially started.

I also enjoyed the surreal experience of the band playing "Our God is Greater," and finding myself alternating between singing in English and attempted Spanish.

Scott was slated to give the message that morning.  He taught from Ezekiel 34, about getting out of the church and into the streets, seeking the lost.  At the end of the message, he gave an illustration using a baton (a.k.a. a broom handle that he American-ily snapped across his shin in the hotel lobby.)  He spoke of how each generation of believers is like a runner in a leg of a relay.  Every other runner on the team could have run their lap well but if just one of the runners falters, or doesn't deem it necessary to run with urgency, the whole race is lost.  He then asked for those of whom were ready to run to grab on to the baton.  We prayed over them and asked for a mobilization in the body of believers in Armenia.

Afterward, Jerryl, who had been doing a live painting of a Jeepao, and gave a word to the congregation of how they are to carry the burdens of their city.

Once the service was over, be were treated to empanadas and a dixie-cup of bubble gum flavored, powdered milkshake.  All and all, the whole service was a blessing to be a part of.

Now, there is a story that basically began on Day 4 that I haven't mentioned until now.  This is partially because I kinda forgot about it when I was writing Day 4's entry, and partly because I don't know if I have the writing gumption to keep more than two story lines open at the same time.  (Remember George from Day 1 / Day 3? I thought not.)   So, back while we were at the Christian school, Jim began to not feel well.  Now, this was not uncommon given Jim's gluten influenced sensitivities, but as the day went on, he wasn't feeling any better.  In fact, this sickness he was experiencing continued for the next few days.  So, while we were at the church service that morning, Jim stayed back at the hotel.  About half way through the service, we learned that Jim was being taken to the hospital.

After a three-hospital adventure involving speaking to a receptionist through broken glass, climbing over piles of clutter to get to a room, and full-automatic toting government police, it turned out he had some type of stomach amoeba.  They gave him some meds and sent him on his way.

Soon, he met up with us at this mountain-side restaurant called El Tejar.  There we were served breathtaking vistas of the valley it overlooked, as well as portions of food sized to match the view.  Even the petrified bacon must have gone through a slicer with the thickness set to "bungee jumping cord."

I finished about 1/3 of my plate.

 

Upon "finishing", we all romped around the mountain side a bit until a snide threat from a machete wielding kid who looked like he belonged in a Colombian version of Jughead, decided it was time for us to head back.

That afternoon, we chilled in a little coffee shop called Cafe Quindio where they sell these amazing little coffee flavored cookies called Cafecitas.  Fabio, the cop that was rocked by God earlier in the week, joined us as we hung out at the cafe.  A little while into our visitation, a little kid of about 8 to 10 years old approached the table where the bulk of the group was sitting.  Though I didn't hear all that went on, I deduced that the kid was asking for money.  I think is was for his mom who was waiting outside in the square.  Either way, I remember Lirio sniffing out the ploy and told the little guy that if he was honest with them, then she would give him some money.  Soon enough, Fabio was suddenly praying with the kid for salvation.  Remember, this is the same guy who just recently began his own relationship with Christ that week!

Later that night, we had scheduled to hold a creative meeting (something we do monthly in The States) in the dining/common area of the hotel.  Throughout the week we had been inviting any creative, Christian or non, that we came across, including the vagabond musician kids we jammed with earlier.   We were hopping for, and expecting, a good turn out.

While we set everything up, Scott charged Karina and I with getting ice-cream to pass out during the meeting.  Karina (being the local ice-cream aficionado) took the lead.   We landed on a little walk-up place nestled on the corner of a strip of various eateries.

As we waited for our order to be filled, a homeless man approached us.  He sweetly asked us if we could buy him some food.  "Sure thing!" I told him.


I asked him his name and he responded with a very regal, "Dominic Hernando Jimenez." 

I replied with mine and thought for a second, "Wait, do you want ice-cream?"  He chuckled and explained that he would rather have some rice for himself and his family.  So, after we received our grocery bag of ice-cream pops, we followed the man to little shop that was basically a walk in closet lined with sundries and protected by a prison-grade, barred facade.

Approaching the ordering "window," I told Dominic to get whatever he wanted.  He settled for a humble bag of rice and two liter of Coke.  Once supplied, Dominic began showering us with thank-yous.  He explained that he asks for food specifically instead of money to show that he is not about to go off and buy drugs or alcohol.  I told him that is a very honorable and wise thing to do, and before I could begin to give credit to Whom credit is due, Dominic asked if he could pray for Karina and me.  Surprised and ecstatic at the request, we happily acquiesced.

Dominic's prayer was beautiful.  He asked that The Lord bless us with good health and long lives, that we would have and keep our jobs.  Very practical, down-home blessing kind of stuff.

After he finished, I asked him which way he was headed.  Turned out we were traveling in the same direction, so we walked and talked a bit more.  I inquired as to how he came to be a Christian.  He explained that when he was young, he began to read the Bible.  He grew up in a Catholic family, but upon reading the Bible for himself, he decided to stop attending Mass, much to the chagrin of his mom and sister.  The then proceeded to express the reasoning behind his actions.  He referred to the divine regard in which the Catholic church he attended held Mary.  "I just don't think it's right to worship idols like that," he explained.

Again, Dominic's insight was surprising, if not refreshing.  Throughout our entire stint in Colombia we saw a people generally entrenched in hollow reverence to religion.  An activated, reciprocal relationship with the person of God had been replaced with a sterile, regimented interaction with a mere image.  The Almighty God, Who gives life and breath to all living things, had been reduced a talisman used to quell fear and bring about prosperity and good fortune.

As we continued to walk, Dominic explained how he felt like God puts certain people in our path for a reason, an encouraging thought that I find to be true as well.  Our interaction that night proved fine evidence.

Once back at the hotel, Dominic prayed over Karina and me again.  Asking God to bless us with beautiful dreams.  Upon finishing, Dominic thanked us once more and asked another favor of us.  He asked for a little money in order to buy oil to cook with.  Made only a tiny bit leery by his request, and coupled with the standard I hold to about not giving money out, I had to think about it for a second.  I told him that since he showed a faith in God, a relationship with Christ that I trusted was genuine, and that I had confidence that he would use the money honestly, I would give him some money.   He promised me that he would not use the money for drugs or alcohol and ensured me that his intentions were pure.  So, I handed him a 2000 peso bill (about 1 US dollar.)

At the exact moment I was placing the bill in Dominic's hand, and as if on cue, another homeless man walked by.  Of course, his eyes locked right on to the paper and he stopped dead in his tracks.  After saying our goodbyes to Dominic, I turned back to see the other homeless man staring at me blankly with out-held hand.  I asked Karina to please explain to him that what he saw was a very special case, that I normally don't give out money and that I apologize.  He gave me a look that assured me he wasn't buying it.  I didn't know what to do.  I tried explaining to him again that I couldn't give him money.  I offered to buy him something to eat or drink, but he wasn't having it.  So, we were at a stand off.

A few minutes into our stalemate, like an answered prayer, George (the homeless man from Day 1) happened to come walking by.

"George!" I hailed.

George quickly turned to see us.  "Hey!  Hey! How's it goin'?"  He replied brightly.  "Oh, man, Alexsa around?  I want to talk to her.  Maybe see if she can buy me something to eat?"

(Now, when recalling this dialogue, for some reason I think George actually was specifically asking if Alexsa could buy him some cookies and milk.  It sound's weird, I know, but it's that very strangeness that, I think, made me remember it as such.)

"Yeah!"  I replied.  "Alexsa is upstairs in the hotel.  I can go grab her for you.  But first, can you please let this man know that I won't give him any money.  I can buy him food from a place around here, but just no money."

"Sure thing."  George said with a smile.  And proceeded to explain, in a little rougher tone albeit, to the man the options he had to choose from.  The man seemed to lighten his stance and soon agreed to let me buy him something from Q'bano, Colombia's version of Hardee's.

The group of us walked the 50 yards or so to the restaurant and I told the man to get whatever he wanted.  He said he'd just take a burger. I told him he could have more, but he didn't really seem in the mood for talking.  He also didn't want to step into the restaurant even though it was open faced, like most of places we had come across.  So, Karina and I ordered a burger and threw in some fries for good measure.  We explained that it was for the man outside standing by the lamp post and to give it to him when it's ready.  While they prepared the man's food, Karina and I asked George to stay with the man to ensure he gets his food while we ran to get Alexsa.

After apprehending Alexsa, who jumped at the chance to see George again, we returned to find George and the man still waiting for the food.  George and Alexsa greeted each other like they were old friends.  As they caught up, I notice something about George that really struck me.  His face.  It had life to it.  There was a brightness about his features that I hadn't noticed in our previous meetings.  Something had come alive within this man.  What drug abuse, isolation, and social deprivation had attempted to kill, was now beginning to thrive once more.  You could see it, right before our very eyes, this man was becoming human again.

George explained how he had been sober for two full days and was connecting with his uncle to help get checked in to a rehabilitation clinic.  He also revealed that he was able to talk to his wife and kids via Skype earlier that day.  The whole time it seemed like he was floating 2 two inches off the ground.  I wish I could adequately explain to you how striking this man's appearance and demeanor was when contrasted with the dire and soul-numbed personalities that often inhabited those of which we came across while walking the Armenian streets.  God was working in this man in a way that you could quite literally see it in his face.

At some point, conversation turned to the man still waiting on his food.  George said while we were away, he was able to coax the intentions of the man out into the light.  The man admitted that he was going to use the money to buy alcohol.

While all of this was going on, another familiar face happen to show up.  His name escapes me, but he has basically been Mr. Consistency on all of Evoke's past Colombia trips.  This man, homeless as well, was known for the amazingly fast and amazingly expressive paintings he does on little strips of cardboard he finds laying around.  It seems like every time he'd see the group walking by, he'd hand us three or four of his paintings.  So, true to his nature, he greets us with a warm salutation and politely asks if we could get him something to eat from the adjacent fried chicken restaurant, Kiss Pollo... (Your guess is as good as mine.)

After we handed off the chicken, the homeless cardboard painter showed his gratitude in his usual handful of paintings.  They really are pretty cool.  I wish I had a sample to show you.  They often involve sunsets.

By the time we had the painter dude squared away, another man came walking up to us.  He looked to be in his twenties and rather strung out.  He had a shaky shamble and noticeably distant look in his eyes.  He approached our group and sheepishly mumbled something in Spanish.  It turned out George actually knew the guy and informed us that he was a friend of his.  George translated for us, saying that the man was requesting something to eat.  So, I made my way back to Kiss Pollo and got him whatever version of a #1 they had. 

I returned to find Alexsa praying over both George and his friend.  When they finished, I supplied the man with his chicken.  He seemed to be very appreciative.  We soon said our goodbyes and recommenced our quest for George's milk and cookies.

As we turned to head towards the store that George had in mind, we noticed that the man from earlier, the one waiting on the burger, was still standing outside the restaurant.  However, he now had his bag of food in hand.  We approached him and George asked him what was up.  Apparently, the man thought that the food was for us.  We happily corrected him, letting him know that the food was in fact his.  He subtly showed his understanding and appreciation with a nod and went on his way. 

We finally arrived at the store, which bore resemblance to the shop we bought the rice from earlier in the night.  Once George had his snack, he returned with us back to the hotel front.  As we walked, Alexsa spoke up.  "You know George, we're not just here to feed your stomach.  We want to feed your soul as well."

George was quick to respond.  "I know.  But by filling my stomach, my soul is being filled as well.  I don't know what it is, but I haven't felt this way in a long time... I feel like I'm falling in love with you guys!"

It was my turn to chime in,  "George, I can relate to that feeling!  I've described it the same way.  I've only been here a handful of days, but I feel like I'm falling in love with the people of Colombia!"

We encouraged George some more and prayed for his steps toward rehab.  Before he left to go back upstairs, George revealed that he had found a way that he could get back to the States before the ten years were up.  He said he had to raise 12,000 US dollars and once he got there, could not get as much as a speeding ticket, or he would get the boot. 

Finally, we were able to make it back to the creative meeting, and much to my delight, the room was packed.  On top of the twelve or thirteen from our group, was about fifteen others who we had met over the course of the week.  Since our ice cream endeavor took about an hour longer than we had anticipated, we only caught the closing minutes of the meeting. 

After a closing prayer, all were encouraged to mingle and connect with once another.  While I initially hung with my safety net of Karina and Janice, I eventually struck up a conversation with one of the traveling gypsy band kids.  His name was Samuel and he played the cow-skin drum that I had mentioned earlier in my posts.    

Conversation with this guy was so cool.  Not only did he speak pretty solid English, but he was also about my age and seemed to share in an affinity for deep thinking. 

He shared a bit about his troop and their wanting to see the world.  Then he asked me what my group's mission was.  I explained to him that, as a group of artists, we felt called to use our gifts and talents to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ, often, but not exclusively, through creative mediums.  The whole time I was explaining our directive, he was very engaged.  I felt like he was truly listening, rather than just hearing. 

Then he asked me a question that really caught me off guard with its insightful nature.  "So, America.  It's a capitalist country, no?  Capitalist, the capital of sin?"  I chuckled as he continued.  "So, with your mission, how do you reach a people who essentially have everything they feel they need?"

I lauded him on the thoughtfulness of his inquiry.  It made me stop and think.  It really was something to ponder. 

Though I don't think I responded in this manner during this particular conversation, I do believe every human being has an inherent longing for their Creator.  A need, though not always recognized as such, for the restoration of the relationship that was broken when sin entered the world.  A need that cannot be met by anything or anyone besides God Himself.  Knowing that there is an eternal longing that surpasses any finite and temporal need, I have confidence that whenever God's love is presented, regardless of the recipient's situation, it is received at some level, even if undetected by either party. 

Anyway, Samuel and mine's conversation continued for a good half hour or so before his troop informed him that they had to get going.  I really enjoyed the time I had with Samuel.  Though culturally disparate in many ways, the areas in which we found relation allowed for an ease of conversation that was often hard to come by during the trip. 

With that, I will leave you with another thank-you for your tenacity in reading this unnecessarily drawn out saga.  And encourage you to stay tuned for Day 7! 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

DAY 5 - PAINTER'S TAPE



The morning of day five was met with the usual breakfast and prayer, followed by the just as usual scramble to get everyone and everything gathered in one place in order to make it to our destination in a timely manner.  Today's routine had the added complication of finding and buying an above-ground pool's worth of paint for a mural we were scheduled to create in the adjacent town of Barcelona. 

So, George, Jim, Scott and I set out to find said paint.  After shopping around for the best price-to-paint-quality ratio, we landed on a little corner shop.  The paint vendor didn't even see it coming.  His little pencil could barely keep up as Jim and Scott railed off color after color with generous quantities attached.  The proverbial kid-in-candystore syndrome (a.k.a KICS) soon kicked in.

"Ooh, what about that color?" 
"Yes, we definitely should get some of that." 
"And this one?"  
"I dunno, why not?  Let's get two."

Soon we had amassed what was probably a weeks worth of sales for this little shop. 

While, the businessmen mulled over the totals, I involuntarily occupied my time by playing ambiguous body language charades with the local horse and cart drivers across the street who had undoubtedly notices my whiteness. 

Once the final bill was tallied, we left the shop to go gather the rest of the group, pile in the bus, and come back to fire-chain the paint into the back of the vehicle. 

We arrived in Barcelona to find a rather cool little town square.  Nice and shady.  Shady as in obstructed sun rays, not shady as in neglected upkeep and ill-intending patrons.  There were some cool little cafes and empanada shacks, clusters of interlocutors, and kids at play; an all around bustling little scene. 

Soon, we were ushered into a church sanctuary that formed part of the square's perimeter.   This was the church that was sponsoring our mural within the city.  It was one of the larger churches we encountered while over there, about 200-300 members.  After introductions we enjoyed a complementary plastic cup of Coca-cola, which was a common theme while we where there.  I don't know they were really into the Coke thing, or if they just assumed thats all American's drink.   

We then began to scope out our mural wall.  Though not the most primo surface to paint on, the location was perfect.  It was right next to the church and facing the epicenter of the town square.  Jim took charge of administering the painting instructions to the laymen painters of the group while the rest of the group helped with supplies and mingled with the church volunteers and random passers-by. 

Upon finishing my duties as paint can opener, and after taking some obligatory action shots of the painters, I noticed Jennifer sitting by herself on a planter/bench.  I walked over and asked her how she was doing.  Immediately she responds with a pent up restlessness, "Argh, I wanna do something!  Look!  There's a guy sitting by himself!  Let's go talk to him about Jesus!"  Knowing my fate was sealed, I just went with it. 

We wandered over and sat down next to the kid and asked him what he thought of the mural.  " 'ts good." He replied nonchalantly.  I started asking him some questions to get to know him better.  I found out his name was John (Juan) and that he was just passing through town, whatever that meant.  All of his answer's were rather terse.  However, it wasn't the I'm-uncomfortable, go-way-kind of terse, but more of the I'm-not-a-big-talker variety.  As we talked, I could see the restlessness bubbling up behind Jennifer's eyes again.  She breaks from her translating for a sec, "When are you gonna tell him about Jesus?!" 

"I'm gettin' there! I wanna get to know the guy first!"  I replied.

Soon enough, we did get on the subject.  Good conversation.  I felt John was hearing what I was saying.  Jennifer told him about the analogy of the parachute and I asked if he would like to pray a prayer with me to begin his relationship with Jesus.  He said yes, so we prayed.  Now, I don't how it happened, but, of course, Karina ended up being the one translating for me as I prayed with John.  When we finished, John and I shared a smile as I welcomed him to the family.  I asked him if he wanted to paint with us.  He politely declined, siting that he is not a painter.  I encouraged him, "Most of the group consists of non-painter types.  Come on, we'd love to have you!"  He eventually acquiesced.  In fact, he ended up spending about an hour and a half painting with the crew!  A notion I find particularly powerful because he will now have a physical reminder of his encounter with Jesus that day.  Not only that, he had a very important hand in painting that very reminder on a wall in the city square.


That's John, on the right!

Now, back when Karina and I were praying for John, Jennifer was approached by a woman and her family of two boys and a husband.  The woman, Liliana, requested that I pray for her and her family as well.  As I inquired about her need, she revealed to me that they had just arrived in town that day and, aside from that night, they had no place to stay or really any means of getting their feet back under them for that matter.  So, I prayed with Liliana and got her in contact with the pastor of the church we were working with. 

While Liliana and the pastor talked, I conversed with her husband, Luis.  He told me that they were expecting a third child and were hoping for a girl.  Soon, Liliana returned saying that though the pastor didn't have a solution for their housing problem, he did give them some amount of pesos.  I continued to encourage them.  Liliana was so gracious and continued thanking me over and over for the prayer.  Soon, the subject of their third baby came back up, and Liliana asked if I could give them an American name for the baby.  I flipped through my mental Rolodex for a second and decided on the name, Rachel.  I've always liked the name Rachel, and Liliana and Luis seemed to like it as well.  They asked me to write it down for them so they wouldn't forget it. 

As Karina scrounged up a piece of paper for me, she asked me why I landed on that particular name.  I explained that it's a name I've always like then asked her why she was wondering.  She showed me the inside cover of her Bible.  There, was the name of the missionary who had given Karina her first Bible upon her nascent relationship with Christ.  Rachel.  Love it when God makes connections like that.

After providing the family with the Rachel reference paper, I offered to treat them to lunch at one of the empanada shacks.  Soon, we were all hanging out in the standing space out in front of the stand, enjoying a staple diet of Postobon and empanadas.  Once we finished, and after I was though being chastised for attempting to leave the premises with the glass soda bottle in hand, (apparently they recycle them, or better yet, reuse them) we said our goodbyes and wished the family well.

It wasn't until after our interaction with Liliana and her family, that I realized I didn't exactly impart the clearest sense that the name Rachel assumes that their child will be a girl.  Oh well, the name is already an outlier to the culture, being an outlier to gender wouldn't be too much farther of a stretch. 



Once we got back to the mural side of the square, I noticed Scott and George were praying with a police officer, and it wasn't until after the trip, that I learned of the significance of this interaction.  Prompted by conversation, the man had revealed that he struggled in maintaining a relationship with God.  He found it hard to do good and seek Him.  Scott had been praying that morning that those we came across would know and find strength in their lives, so he was well equipped to speak to this man's specific need.  The man appeared to be deeply affected by this conversation, and viewed it as no accident.  You see, that day was actually scheduled to be his day off, but he call called in.  Even after being called in, he was assigned a different city entirely, plans changed last minute and he was dispatched to Barcelona.  Again, tangible, God orchestrated connections.  Love 'em.

So, eventually the mural was finished and after getting the overtly obvious stink eye from a little kid circling me on his bike, we took both some group and in-situ photos of the mural and then piled back into the bus to head to the pastor's house for lunch.





The pastor's house actually fulfilled and exceeded my mental model of a less than wealthy Colombian pastor's home.   I'll let the picture speak for itself.


I can't decide which is my favorite, the family painting or the giant plastic wrapped puppy portrait.  Maybe it's the parody between the two that is my favorite.  Either way, both of those would have easily made it up on the walls of my apartment in college. 

Our lunch started with a super-broth of potatoes and chicken parts.  Tyler, being somewhat picky when it comes to chicken bits, decided his new favorite game was Let's See What Gross Parts of the Chicken Michael Will Eat?  Much to his delight, it turned out to be all of them.  After ingesting various heart ventricles, assumed intestine parts and other various valve-laden mystery chunks, I graciously welcomed the more familiar looking and less mineral-ly tasting main course.  The main course had become a familiar one by now: currasco, rice and beans, a plantain slice and a vinegar based shredded salad.  We finished what we could of the gargantuan portions, expressed our gratitude to the pastor and his family, took some pictures with the neighbors who had never seen North Americans before, (Tyler was a regular James Dean among the neighbor girls) and saddled up for the trip back to the hotel. 

That night, we went to a local church for a night of worship.  Forgive me if I've already described this church in a previous post, but I'm too lazy and have to much recollective momentum to stop and plum the depths of my previous ramblings.   Anyway, this church was the second story of a random store in the middle of the commercial area of downtown Armenia.  It also happened to be surround by intimate apparel shops, which says something.  I'm not sure what exactly, but it does say something.  The entrance was literally a corrugated aluminum door that you lifted up like the door of a garage or loading bay.  Behind it was a dark stairwell that had a height limit of about 6ft at some points, so I had to scrape in. 

Once inside, I discovered the sanctuary to be a large, white-tiled room filled with classic white plastic chairs and a stage area with your typical youth-band spread.  Overall, it felt intimate and inviting; that simple, kids-chasing-each-other-through-the-rows-of-chairs-while-the-parents-caught-up-for-the-week type of feeling.  I liked it. 

After everyone filed in, Scott gave a few stipulations to the night.  He explained that tonight was about interacting with God; stepping into His presence, focusing on worshiping Him alone, and if anyone could not take that charge seriously, they were welcome to step outside.  In fact, if anyone was tempted to talk their friends, they should go to opposite ends of the room.  It sounded stern, but that staunchness was just what I and, most likely, many others needed to put a right focus on the night. 

I already had a laundry list of things I was prepared to pray about for that night, things I felt I was doing wrong or being distracted by, things I've seen in those around me that I know they were struggling with.  However, upon hearing the charge over the night, that pensive, anxious feeling of having to hash such things out before moving forward, suddenly fell and a new mission was set before me: just sit in the lap of the Lord who loves you;  a Father who went to unfathomable lengths to ensure you come home.  Dad. 

So, as the music began, I sequestered myself in a corner with some of the aforementioned plastic chairs and began to just worship.  Not pray about what to do about (x) or how to be better at (y),  not think about who I've met that could use prayer, not even ponder what worship should look like at the moment, I just… was.  In the presence of the Almighty; I was.  What that looked like, was up to Him. 

I remember kneeling on the tile floor and repeating words of adoration to God.  About five minutes in, I began to feel a tingling sensation come over me.  Now, my head was lowered and as I raised it, I could have been experiencing some sort of physiological response to blood flow redistributing through my head and body.  In fact, I often jump to those types of conclusions in many cases to avoid the trap of sensationalism.  However, this feeling was different than what I usually would experience in such a scenario, so I pressed in.  "Come on, God.  Come on, God."  I began to repeat.   The tingling intensified.   "I know this is You.  This has to be You."  A warmth enveloped me.  "This is You, God!  It has to be!  It has to be, You!"  Tears were now beginning to trickle down my face.  By this time it felt like my shirt was floating up off of my skin.  "This is You.  You are real, God!  Thank you, God!  Thank you, God."  I doubled over and sprawled onto the floor and began weeping;  a deep, resonate sobbing from a depth in my spirit that pinned me to the floor, cheek against the dirt laced tile.  I laid there in this state for a good while.  Any time I attempted to sit back up, I would soon be toppled back over by another wave of emotion. 

This emotion was rich in timbre, something that can't really be described without debasing it.  I will say that it rooted in a particular theme that I, and likely the entire human race for that matter, have a deep sense of relation to.  The concept of being told, "You are valuable.  You are loved.  You are my son.  You are worth it.  I am proud of you," when everything in your own head is telling you the opposite.  When you feel like you will never be or do enough, like you are a wretch no matter how hard you try.  And then all of that is shattered when the God of the Universe tells you, "You were enough before you even took your first step toward me.  When you were dead in your own sin, I still deemed you worth dying for.  I have never had an ounce of regret about choosing to create you."  Trust me, believing Him when he says these things to you can sometimes be the hardest thing in the world, but when you do, it will drastically change how you see both yourself and those around you. 
 
To further instill in me this truth, God gave me a vision as I laid there with snot and tears adhering my face to the floor.  The picture He painted was the crucifixion scene.  After the ultimate scene where Christ voiced, "It is finished." (John 19:30),  as His lifeless form was being taken down from the cross, and as Jesus' body slouched under its own weight, his lungs compressed, and the remaining breath they held was relinquished.   As it crossed His tongue and escaped His lips, it formed the syllables of my name.  It formed the sweet, soft sound of my name!  Your name!  This, again, sent me back into a fit of audible, guttural sobbing.

After, what my best guess would say, an hour had passed, the sobbing subsided.  The second hour or so took on a very different appearance.    The second half had me alternating between pacing back and forth in my little corner, and sitting with my head draped between my knees, all the while babbling in what I can only describe as tongues. 

Now, I've dabbled in tongues before and from what I understand, I view it essentially as a way of expressing what the current language I am limited to cannot adequately portray.  I see tongues as a language that more effectively and immediately expresses cries of the heart.  It engages the mouth, heart and brain in a more open manner.  Avenues usually reserved to focusing on diction and exposition, are freed up to receive information as well.  In many ways, speaking in tongues gets me out of the petty and myopic scope in which I sometimes pray and opens me up to focus on God and his Will, allowing the Spirit, rather than my limited and distracted brain, to dictate the nature of my supplication as well as more adequately express my adoration. 

Anyway, in this instance, speaking in tongues proved very effective at keeping me in the presence-of-God-first mindset, instead of slipping back into a what-to-say-next, presence-of-self-first mentality.  So, there I was, babbling like a fool.  Some times singing, other times murmuring, all in apparent gibberish.  Whenever I slowed down enough to attempt to speak in English, it felt unnatural, oddly enough.  It felt cumbersome on my tongue, like it just didn't have the horsepower to keep up with what I wanted to express. 

After about an hour of this, the music ended and the lights came on.  Everyone collected themselves, found their buddies, and began to mingle.  I, on the other hand was till essentially out of my mind.  For the next fifteen minutes or so, I continued to murmur in tongues under my breath.  I also could not stop moving.  I meandered about the colonies of people with a wild, distant look on my face.  I know of the look I wore because of a group picture we ended up taking, in which I look like I'm about 100 miles off somewhere else. 

Finally, someone addressed me and I came to a little bit, though I still walked back and forth and in circles around them as we interacted.  After sobering up a little further, I proceeded to help set up chairs for the upcoming service the following morning.  As I grabbed chairs from over where I had had my episode, I noticed a spot on the floor in which a ring of dirt had been washed aside by my snot/tears.  There was also a small pile of coins that had fallen out of my pocket as some point.  I decided to consider it an offering. 

Later, I learned that while the worship was going on, a man had walked in from off the street at some point.  He sat in the environment for about thirty minutes before Scott approached him.  Scott leaned over and asked the man what he need Jesus to do for him.  The man said he had wrecked every area of his life and he needed Jesus to save him.  Scott shared the gospel message with the man and he received it.  The man wept in Scott's arms.   I don't know how the man found his way to such an unassuming location, my guess is that he heard the sounds of worship coming from the second story windows as he passed by.  Either way, the man did not leave that room the same.   That simple act of faith, to respond to that inkling and walk up those steps, and now that man's life is very well changed forever.

That night I laid in bed with a refreshed and renewed sense of God's active relationship with me.  I understood the value in just worshiping God for God;  not so that..., or in order to…., just... because.  If we are able to get our mind off ourselves, even just for an instant, an avenue is then opened up for God to do his work in us.  That is why I think God longs for and demands our worship and love in wholeness of heart;  not for his own benefit and promotion, but for ours.  He, in his omniscience and goodness, knows that He is the single best thing for us.