Wednesday, October 22, 2014

There's Wifi at the Mayan Ruins (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Our last full day in Belize.  That Tuesday morning, I greeted some of the children as they made their way to the bus stop for school.  And I could hardly believe it was the last full day there.  

Apparently, our team is made up of complete rock stars because we had managed to accomplish the entire project list for our trip, plus some bonus projects:

Construction on fish shack where tilapia will be processed.  CHECK.

New fish pond cleared of brush.  CHECK.

100 pounds of tilapia harvested.  CHECK.

Respite for house parents by caring for kids.  CHECK.

Broken thatched roof on one building, nearly all pulled down.  CHECK.

Bonus projects:  Two new gates built because cows had escaped.  CHECK.

Barbed wire fence repaired where escaping cow got caught.  CHECK.

All escapees (cows and a horse) returned to Hopewell.  CHECK.

In our first four days at Hopewell, we had managed to see howler monkeys, cows, pigs, horses, geese (very mean geese who chase you down...I made the oldest girl Shauna* always stand between me and them, which made her laugh every time), chickens, more mosquitoes than we ever hope to see again, tilapia and more tilapia, and even a rather large tarantula right outside the bunk house.

Listen, while my phone caught this photo, I was otherwise occupied and have no regrets about not witnessing this spider first hand.  And I'm no expert on spiders, but the girls at Hopewell were able to identify it as a "red booty tarantula."  I'm sure they are accurate in their assessment.  For the record, the oldest boy at Hopewell, Nathan*, showed his fearlessness by stomping on this spider in his sandaled feet, thus saving all Americans from sure death.

And so our adventures at Hopewell had been rather full of tasks and projects and fun with the kids that had included school projects, home work, legos, the Lego Movie, a bible study, more legos, some yummy meals together, singing, dancing, a glow stick dance party, crafts, more legos, and sass-offs to end all sass-off because "Mr. Rich-man" beat those girls like he'd been sassing off all his life.  We have video to prove it, but it has yet to be released in order to protect the innocent.

It was thus time for us to venture away from Hopewell.  We had originally planned to take a half-day to sight see, but due to our awesomeness and productivity, we had nearly the whole day.  

Off we went.  Piled into this van.

And driving on roads like this.

Let me offer a side note here on this road.  THIS stretch of road was actually some of the smoothest road on a rarely paved section on the way TO the Mayan Ruins.  However, whilst we traipsed about the ruins, this was happening to the road.  And so, our return trip included this sight--the road being literally torn up as we traveled along.

I think it's fair to say that we were all looking forward to a day to explore and see the area.  We'd all agreed to spend our time going to the "near by" Mayan Ruins (it's all relative) and perhaps a stop at the baboon sanctuary if time allowed.  Because our other main priority for the day was to visit the Prison Gift Shop.  We'd been talking about since we saw it on our way to Hopewell that first day.

And of course, Jonathan, the house dad, knew the warden of the prison.  Have I already mentioned that Jonathan knows everyone and has a story about everything in Belize?  So apparently, this new warden has brought self-sustaining farms to the prison and other such improvements.  And according to Jonathan, people are actually committing petty crimes to get INTO prison because the conditions are reportedly that good.  

Thus the legend of the Prison Gift Shop grew in our minds.  Could we score t-shirts that might read, "I Went to the Belizean Prison...Just visiting?"  Or maybe hats or key chains?  What souvenirs might we score for our children there?  

So our day of sight seeing would thus include the Mayan Ruins and the Prison Gift Shop.  I have to admit that I thought I'd feel a huge relief on this last full day.  A bit of "I did it!  Now, I can go home."  Just 72 hours previously, I thought being home sick was quite reasonable and I just honestly didn't understand when our team leader said that Belize felt like a second home to her.

Really?  The heat and humidity and bugs?  And how rural it is?  A second home?  It all felt so foreign.  I mean, how does one live so far apart from others and from resources?  How, for the love, does one survive without a nearby Starbucks or Target?  I didn't get it.

But, as we passed the lush green jungle and the small square houses, spread quite far apart, I somehow felt right at home.  I cannot even begin to explain what happened during those 72 hours because I honestly don't know myself.  I just know that once I slowed myself down and prayerfully began to seek to embrace the experience, asking God to help me not just get through it but to enjoy it, something changed.  My perspective changed.  Instead of seeing my life as superior, I began to simply see it as different.  I began to see the beauty and allure of the slower pace of life in Belize.  The simplicity there.  The hard work and resiliency in the people.  Freed from the trappings of city life and keeping up with the Joneses and an "entertain me" mentality and the pressure of social media distractions.

There is a strength here that we wimpy Americans lack.  There's a quiet strength and a wisdom in these people.  There's a freedom -- an appreciation for life -- that we are too self-absorbed to gain.  I realized all of this as we drove along.  I realized that I get it.  I get a love for this place.  A joy and contentment in the people that spoiled, entitled, obsessive, distracted Americans lack.  Myself included. 

But I can do without the crazy Belizean roads.

So there I was, lost in thought about the culture and the people and all that I had gained in the last few days.  About how the lightness I thought I'd feel at the end of the trip had turned into a heaviness about how to leave. 

And I was ready to see some ancient Mayan Ruins and be amazed at the primitive culture it represented. 

But I saw this sign when we pulled up.

And I did totally LOL.

Perhaps I do oversimplify and romanticize my impressions of Belize.  There were, after all, a fair share of dish satellites attached to the small, simple houses we'd seen.

After my "yes" day the day before, I felt empowered somehow.  A sense of new freedom and potential.  A sense that I can do things I never thought I could do.  I was beginning to ponder what I am still considering--what might come next for me?  What might this trip be a stepping stone to for the future?

So I climbed to the top of the tallest ruin, ignoring my fear of heights.  I stood at the top and took in the view that I would have otherwise missed.

There I was, a world away from my usual task lists and car pools and the trappings of the tyranny of the urgent that cloud my perspective.  I thought of my family and my life back home.  And I whispered a prayer that I would never forget to push back fears and take the climb to enjoy the view.

That I would not miss such opportunities.

Having conquered the Mayan Ruins, we were off to the Prison Gift Shop.  Once we arrived, we parked next to a car full of men who took a good long stare at us.  I felt a moment of anxiety, wondering about what I was doing stepping into a prison gift shop, but then I remembered.  I'm here to see it all and do it all and take every opportunity.  

So we entered through the fence with barbed wire, passing the Visitor Processing Entrance, complete with elaborately carved wooden doors.  Tucked just to the left of it was the gift shop.  The shop was manned by a very polite young man in an orange shirt and shorts with his number stenciled on the front.  The items, we were told, were all made by the inmates.  Listen, I don't know if that was true--just like I had no idea if the items I purchased at the little market by the ruins were all made by THOSE shop keepers.  

But I loved the idea of it.  These beautifully carved doors like I'd just seen.  The paintings and other items.  All created by inmates whose worth and value can still shine through, despite their choices.

I just loved the idea of it all.  I wanted something for my house to remind me that all people have a creative beauty and worth.  Prison inmates or not.  So I chose two little heart shaped cheese plates that the store clerk so carefully wrapped up for me.  I use them for trivets on my kitchen table every night.  And I love to remember that Belize is simple yet complex.  Beautiful in its hidden treasures.  And people are people...whether sitting in prison or not.  We all have something to contribute.  

Our day of adventure brought us back to Hopewell, just as the kids arrived home from school.  I was tired and groggy from the bouncing car ride in the heat of the afternoon, but the end of our trip loomed ahead of me.  This was my last afternoon to help the kids with homework and spend time with them.  Time to pull it together and push on.  After all, these kids were quick to change out of school uniforms and into play clothes and then rush at us in the dining hall with their back packs to tackle their home work right away. 

I felt the clock ticking all afternoon and evening with a growing sense of dread.  How could I tell them goodbye?  How does one leave a place that they originally feared being and now cannot imagine leaving?  True, I was ready to see my husband and kids.  But I texted my husband this message:

"Parting will be very hard.  Packing tonight so I can get up and see kids off to school in the morning...don't know how to leave these kids...or come back from this experience."

It's still true.  I don't know how to shake the sadness I feel to be separated from the kids who stole my heart.  I'm not even sure how they stole my heart in such a quick time, but they did.  And I think of every one of them many times a day and say endless prayers for them. I don't want to come back and get "back to normal."  Because I want to be changed and different...I want to be impacted by this experience. 

And in this frame of mind, I found myself on bedtime duty with the girls this last night in Belize.  I negotiated a tiff between two girls and continually reminded them to stay on task.  Just like at home.  Except totally different.  Because again, I was reminded of the injustice that these kids have already survived.  

Perhaps sensing the finality of this last bed time, I was inundated with questions by the six girls once they finally climbed into bed.

--"You mean, EACH of your kids has their very own room?"

--"Your shirt says Team Willow...oh, your friends adopted a girl named Willow?  Did she live in an orphanage like us?"

--"How long have you been married?...nearly 20 years?...Even if I do find a husband, I'll end up separated and on government help."

--"What color is your house?  It must be white.  Tell me it's white!"

I sensed that they were indeed stalling their bed time, but also seeking connection.  And I was grieved by what I read between the lines of their questions.  Their pains and perspectives. Then, they asked me to recite every one of their names and the boys' names and everyone at Hopewell.  As if they hoped to sear them all into my memory.

How could I effectively communicate that I would never forget any of them?  How could I possibly express my appreciation and love for them?  My dreams for their future?  My hopes for their well being?  That I was leaving a part of my heart with them?  I felt I needed to keep it light and not add to the weight of this moment for these kids who have already said too many good-byes.

So I prayed a prayer over them all, asking that the Lord help every one of them see his great and powerful love for them.  Asking him to remind them every day of their great worth to him...that he loved them to death by sending his Son.

And then it was time to visit each of them, bending into their beds, as they each called me to them for a hug.

When I reached in to hug Keisha*, she whispered a quick and quiet, "I love you!"  And I whispered it right back to her.

Keisha. Fearless.  Mischievous. A smile to light the room.  In my journal, I have written impressions of each of the kids.  About her, I wrote: "fiesty, firecracker, fearless.  Gives the hardest stares and the hugest laughs and smiles.  Leader.  Survivor.  Strong and brave.  And expressive bundle of energy who can light up a room."

I saw it as no small gift that she, full of vigor and energy, should quietly and shyly whisper her feelings in such a way that she must say it quickly before she backed down.

I turned off the lights, uttered one more good night, and headed to the bunkhouse with a heaviness I still can't explain.  

Because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was leaving more than a suitcase full of crafts and necessities with these kids.  

I did not know how to do this.  To leave this trip and re-enter a world that was my security when I left but now had a bit of unfamiliarity to me.  Because in these few short days in Belize, I had gained a perspective and an understanding that I seem only able to express in inadequate cliches.

It was a sleepless night for me.  As I tossed and turned and prayed for help and strength for the following day of good-byes.

And the only thing I knew for sure is that I would not cry in front of the kids. I would hold it together for them.    

*names of children changed to protect their identity

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's Like I Don't Even Know Myself (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Monday, October 6, 2014.  It was a watershed day for me.  (No pun intended as you read more details).  A day so significant that I am still trying to sort it all out.  Yet, for all that I have yet to discern, I am completely confident that it was a day of great meaning and a point of reference from that day forward in my life.

First, I guess I should set the stage a bit.  In some desperate hope that I can accurately relay the significance of this day...I have to help put it in context.  I was a painfully shy child.  (Don't worry!  You won't be getting the ENTIRE life story).  From my perspective anyway, I was timid and held myself back tremendously, as a result of pretty tenacious bullying throughout elementary school due to a severe speech impediment.  I was slow to open up and terribly girly.  Okay, I was prissy.  My mom insisted on a boy haircut for me and my sister for many years, so I wouldn't be caught dead in anything less than a dress.  Lest my lisping-speech impediment-sorry-shy self ALSO be mistaken for a boy.  Growing up an Army brat, I had to refine my skills at making new friends, but I never felt I belonged. I think I still have a sense of guarding myself to some degree.

In other words, I held back as I wrestled with insecurity and I never liked to play in the mud.  I think I've mentioned on this blog a time or twenty that I lean toward OCD, as well?  Comfort zone is a big thing for me.  I play it safe.  Have never been accused of being a risk taker.

So when our team leader started our morning team meeting and devotion with a question that left that pit in my stomach where I knew I had to speak up...I was totally thinking, "Oh DARN!"  But as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I had ignored that prompting in church the day prior, so I knew I was stuck.  

I tried to summarize what I felt led to say.  But no can do.  I had to go all in and spill my whole story.  I have in the past been able to do so without crying.  But, no such luck on that day.  With 8 of my closest new friends, I laid it ALL out there.  My Beaver Clever church girl childhood as a goody-two-shoes and then my dad's death that left my entire life on shifting sand.  Then, finding that Jesus really was the Rock at rock bottom.  And the gracious gift of a new boyfriend, Chris Enright in the middle of all my ugly.  (Yes, husband to be). My whole faith journey and the latest crazy journey of the last two years.  As God has sought to unwind and unravel my empty and burdensome religion in exchange for staking all my hopes on a faith steeped in grace and firmly footed on His love.  I told my new friends about how coming to Belize was a step WAY OUT of my comfort zone.

So, there you have it.  To say that sharing my story was carthartic would be an understatement.  It was a burden lifted.  It was public declaration that I have chosen to believe that if God were small enough to understand than he wouldn't be big enough to worship.  And I will choose to worship and obey until my dying day.  Maybe not always without grumbling.  Perhaps with great fear and trepidation.  Stumbling and fumbling. But, I will not run from him.  I've learned instead to run to him.

I knew even as we broke for our day's tasks, wholly concentrated on projects that day since the kids were in school, that it was signficant.  To be that vulnerable.  To obey the prompting to share.  To go all in.  To say yes.  Yes, God.  I'm yours.  I'll go where you call.  I'll be available.  And I stepped away to hear my day's assignments feeling energized.  Free.  Light.

I think that Chris, our team leader, maybe saw an opportunity?  Or God prompted him to ask, anyway.  

Was I really going all in?  Did I mean it when I told the Lord I'd try to take the plunge of where he wanted me to go?  That I'd try to choose His power and strength over fear?  

"Hey, Heather," Chris called, "I need help in the pond.  Peto is clearing the brush for the pond that will be stocked next.  Can you help clear it out?"

Um.  Did I just say yes to God?  

For real?  Going into a dirty nasty fish pond?  

"You did say you'd work on saying yes," whispered a voice in my head.  Otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.  

Sorta hard to argue with that logic.
Off I went.  To grab my new red muck boots and to LITERALLY take the plunge.  Because Chris said something about the pond being chest high in some spots and some vague promise of no snakes.  

The team members at the fish shack construction site had a few comments to make.  About all the mosquitoes that were bound to be at the pond.  And how they couldn't really believe I was doing it.  
"This is me.  Convincing myself," I replied.

And so I did.  I tried to convince myself.  I can do hard things.  I can say yes.  I can get out of my comfort zone.  

I thought about how I'd walked the pond's perimeter the day before with three of the girls who live at Hopewell. How they bragged about swimming in the pond and how awesome it was.

I realized something then that I am still pondering now.

Knowing the Hopewell kids has made me brave.  Or braver, anyway.  Because they are so brave.  They have taken the hand that life has dealt them.  And they have pressed on.  They greet the hot, humid days in Belize, devoid of so many conveniences and comforts we enjoy, and they smile.  They march forward.  They find reasons to laugh.  They live in the day--in the present.  Not the past or the future.  They are content.  And joyful.  

So, if they can swim in the pond, then I can jump in to work there.

I can't be outdone by a teenager, after all.

You may look at that picture and think, "Big deal.  A girl in a pond."

But I look at that picture and it's powerful.  It carries great meaning to me.

Because I look at that picture and think, "It's like I don't even know myself."  How funny that God is trying to teach me to face fears and take risks and take a plunge.  And I'm thigh high in pond water. I got into that water--yes, chest high on the sides--and it was a moment of epiphany.  It was a moment of saying that I can't wait for the fear or anxiety or discomfort to pass before I do things. I do things and then the fear and anxiety and discomfort will pass.  And God will never lead me anywhere without him. Because he makes me stronger than I think I am.  He makes me braver than I imagine.

I won't be skydiving anytime soon, mind you.  But, I'm starting a journey.

I'm starting a journey of realizing how God sees me.  Of seeing the walls of old scars and wounds and deceits about myself begin to crack.  I'm praying they will keep crumbling.

Because I don't have to be defined by other's opinions.  I don't have to make choices based on emotion.  I can do things on the power of Christ alone.  I can get muddy and dirty and haul brush.  I can face a day of hard labor with dread and ask God to help me embrace it.

And he will.  About two minutes into this task, I realized the joke was on the rest of the team.  My time in that pond was the coolest I'd been all week, except for the sleeping hours when we had air conditioning.  Not a mosquito in sight.  And if there were snakes, I never saw one.  I'll choose to believe that there weren't any.  I wore my back brace--as you can see in that middle picture above--and this task also proved how far my back has come since my December surgery to repair a ruptured disc.

Seems God was showing me that he is healing more than my back.  He is healing my broken and distorted perspectives.  

Because he doesn't see me as a lisping timid prissy little girl.  He doesn't tolerate me or put up with me.  He doesn't endure me with a roll of his eyes.

No, he took me into that Belizean pond to prove and emphasize that he sees me like an athlete's parent at a big football game.  You know, those parents who wear their son's jersey with his number and a big button on their shirt with his photo.  And you know exactly who their child is because every person in the stands hears the parents cheering every time their son takes the field.  They scream and yell about their boy and what he accomplishes.

And I stood in that pond and I knew.  I knew my Heavenly Father is just like that.  He is wearing a big photo button with my picture, and he was elbowing the angels to say, "THAT is MY girl.  Will you just look at her?"

My word for 2014 is love.  I've spent this year dwelling on sitting at his feet and believing his love for me and praying it will spill over.

And he broke through some old junk to fill me with an assurance of his love when I chose to obey and say yes. I waded back and forth, hauling out brush and had an overwhelming sense of awe at what God was helping me do. 

Hauling out the brush in my heart.  Hauling out the disbelief that constrains me.  Hauling out the actions based on feelings and instead choosing to act on his power.

What more does he have? This is the question I'm still asking. 

That sense of euphoria carried me throughout the rest of the day. In fact, I still feel it when I think on this experience. I can honestly say that I enjoyed grabbing and sorting dozens of flopping slimy fish with my work gloves, as we harvested the first batch of tilapia for Hopewell.  As we were covered in the mud the fish flopped all over us. I laughed and smiled and drank it all in.

That evening passed quickly with the kids, eating dinner and playing games and doing a craft together.  And I felt different somehow.

At our evening team meeting, the leaders joked about it being my yes day.  Because I had said yes to whatever was asked.

Indeed.  October 6, 2014, was my yes day.  Because when I whispered a tenative yes, unsure and apprehensive, my Father shouted a YES, I'll help you.

Listen, I don't know what fish ponds taunt and intimidate you.  I don't know what wounds and past history still haunt you.  I don't know what deceits about yourself won't quit visiting you.

But, if I learned anything that day, I learned this.

When I am willing and weak, He is strong and able.

"For all the promises of God find their YES in Him, Christ Jesus.  That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory."  2 Corinthians 1:20   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday Worship, Rainstorms & Jungle Tours (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

My pastor often speaks of the big "C" Church.  Meaning the global church.  The beautiful body of Christ made up of all believers and confessors of Jesus Christ.  Beyond denominational labels or other differences.  All around the world.  I've grown weary of denominational labels and fussing and feuding.  So I love to consider the global Church.  Eyes fixed on the Jesus we love. In the past few months, I've been able to witness the beauty of the big "C" church and to see how very alive and well it is all around the globe.  First at Hillsong Church in London, where I was moved to tears to sing songs and praise the One who united all of us there, regardless of color or nationality.  Then, in Canada at family camp, where I worshiped nightly with many I hold so dear, enjoying their genuine and authentic faith free of the strongholds of Bible belt appearances.  And then, most recently, that Sunday morning at Doublehead Baptist Church in Doubleheaded Cabbage, Belize.

We piled into the two vans at Hopewell, children standing or on laps, not due to neglect but just because that's the way it is.  Some things just don't exist in Belize (that's a whole other blog post for coming days).  We made our way to the church where the pastor is the father of Kendra, the house mom.  Familiar praise music blared from the efficient square green cinder block building.  One room, except for the little room attached on the left and the two small bathroom stalls attached on the right.  

Our crew of nearly thirty, with all the Hopewell kids and our own team, more than doubled the little congregation.  There was a word from a church member on shame, as the young man encouraged us all with this question about being timid about Jesus:  "Why be ashamed when you follow Someone so great?  So don't put on a coat of pride that leads to shame.  Be proud to be a church girl or church boy."

Amen.  Indeed.  We then introduced ourselves to the smiling faces and began singing together.  Ceiling fans whirled to combat the heat in this simple building.  Free of any need to outdo or outshine other local churches.  No fancy programs or huge production or extensive events.  Just worship.  Gathering.  All in one room, people of all ages.  

In the midst of the service, all of a sudden, the temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees.  And a sudden and short-lived hard rain began to fall.  As if on cue, several children popped up to run into the rain and close car windows or pull their bicycles out of the rain.  Again, I was impressed with how these kids just do what has to be done.  Without prompting.  Without complaining.  They just handle the needs they see.

I must admit that I do have one regret about my time at the Doublehead Baptist Church that Sunday.  When the pastor asked if any of us visitors had a word of encouragement to share, I sat still.  Despite the sick feeling in my stomach, which I knew well enough to know was a prompting to speak, I ignored it.  Oh, yes.  Just after the young man talked about being bold. 

You see, my pastor and elders had come to pray with our family about my trip.  To cover us in prayer.  Psalm 20 was a specific passage that was prayed that night, and I knew it was a Word not just for me.  But, I couldn't seem to get up the guts to stand up and share.  I was further convicted of my own self-consciousness when the reserved house mom, Kendra, stood up to sing.  I had no idea that she had such a beautiful voice.  All of us were in awe of her gorgeous singing.  Thankfully, someone got it on video.

Just before the sermon, the children were dismissed to the adjoining room, where we could overhear their low rumbles and teaching while the pastor shared his sermon.  I loved that.  Knowing that the children were being taught just as we were.  Separated only by a small wall and window.  

As I said already, lest anyone think differently, the worldwide church is alive and well.  And Belizeans, living in the heat, doing hard and honest work--living simpler lives devoid of big city trappings--they gather to praise God.  To thank him.  To worship him.  Convenience and comfort are not things they seem to consider, much less demand.  They just come to gather together and hear the Word and worship the One they choose to follow and trust. And I loved the pastor's encouragement about seeing wounds we endure not as set-backs but as set-ups for better things to come.  I loved his advice on how to find the real simply go back to the Word.  I loved that he reminded us that we are all afraid of change, yet we must remember change brings about newness.  And newness should be encouraging.  After all, when we choose to follow Jesus, we are told we are a new creation.  

I cannot really express what it was like to be embraced and welcomed and encouraged by the people that Sunday morning. To see the world and our differences shrink in the enormity of our commonality.  To experience a simpler worship.  Which reminded me again about how the tables were turned.  Because I tend to think America is such a great land.  And that arrogance leaves me ignoring the wonders of other cultures. They, in fact, have so much more figured out than I had ever considered. Once again, I found I was the student and they were the teachers.  Not vice versa.

That Sunday after church, we drove back to Hopewell for another incredible lunch prepared by Rosa.  And just like my own kids, I saw these Belizean children run to change from their Sunday best to play clothes.  

After lunch, we saw an opportunity for the much spoken of "jungle tour" to check out what was rumored to be a freshly cleared section of jungle around the perimeter of the current buildings.  So, at the advice of our fearless team leaders, we changed into long pants, boots, and layers of 98% deet mosquito spray.  And off we went.  Traipsing into the jungle behind the fish ponds, with the oldest daughter of the property manager leading our charge.  Did I mention that she was wearing her Sunday dress still and her sandals?  While we, the Americans, were suited up for some big adventure? 
You can see that sweet girl off to the left in her sleeveless dress.  You can also see Chris, the team leader, just behind her.  He brought his machete, just in case parts were not cleared well.  Since Peto, the property manager seemed a bit confused about where this newly cleared area was?  (THIS should have been a huge clue to us about how this would go).  You can also see in this picture the other three kids who joined us.  In shorts.  No bug spray.  No fear.  No problem!

Listen, us city folks considered ourselves quite adventurous.  We also completely overestimated our ability to explore the "wilder" areas of the Hopewell property.  We got a little stuck in some deep mud on the way in and pushed on.  Then, approximately every mosquito in Central America got word about the ridiculous Americans.  They saw that our pampered selves were no match for their jungle savvy.  So, we began to mutter and admit that maybe this wasn't such a good idea?  There was Chris, cutting back some brush with his giant machete.  The kids were completely unaffected, and we began to consider a sudden ending to our approximately nine minute jungle tour.  Tracy, Chris' wife and the other team leader, got a "really cool picture" of us with some big palm leaves all around.  And there we were, about 100 yards into the jungle, knowing we were no match for the elements.

We turned around and now, Tracy, who had been in the rear, was suddenly in the front.  She began to high tail it out of the jungle as our clothes became covered--and I do mean COVERED in mosquitoes.  Dozens hundreds THOUSANDS of vampire mosquitoes seeking to drain us dry.  As we began scrambling to run out of the jungle, poor Karrie, another member of our team who had been just behind Tracy, kept getting her boots stuck in the mud.  Chris was trying to help her, while Joana and I were swatting away the surrounding bugs by frantically waving our arms around us like we were performing some crazy new dance.  All the while, Karrie is apologizing for holding us up and we are trying to calmly say, "It's okay!"  Except that I think we all felt we'd entered the sequel to that creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds.  Those were some big mosquitos, I'm telling you.  

So basically, we are all squealing and laughing and screaming and causing a ruckus while the kids were perfectly calm.  

Yep, 'Merica.  Proud to represent you there in that Belizean jungle.  Happy to become comic relief to the children of Belize.  As we sacrificed ourselves to be mosquito bait in order to spare the children of this fate.

That is my arm.  Post jungle tour.  In my defense, do you see how bad it was?  My other arm and neck and any exposed skin looked very similar.  I believe I have been so tired since I got back because of the blood loss that day.  

You might understand, based on that picture, why I was content with the assignment to journal in the afternoon since blogging this trip was part of my tasks for the team.  

While the day before had dragged endlessly, this day passed quickly.  The kids played Legos and then dressed in their BRAND NEW soccer uniforms donated by a youth league in California.  Imanie, the high school senior on our team, had also brought donated goals and balls.  

It was like Christmas.  Those kids so proudly walking around in their spanking new soccer jerseys, shorts and socks.  Even the skeptics in the crowd couldn't help themselves and joined in the soccer drills and game.  It made me wonder, as I sat near by, listening to their screams and yells and laughter.  How often do they get brand new things?  Not because they live at Hopewell, but because this is not a part of the world with a Target on every corner.  These kids take pride in their appearance, the girls braiding their hair or pulling it into buns.  The boys tucking in their shirts.  But I never saw a mall there.  Anywhere in the city, much less the rural countryside where we were.  There was no quick, "hey, let's run to Walmart and grab whatever we need."

Yet again.  Another moment of epiphany.  We think we have it all figured out.  But maybe, just maybe, they are the ones with superior perspective.  Because they find contentment, not in things or possessions.  But in the simple joy of living.  

This day, of Sunday worship and sudden rainstorms and jungle tours gone awry, quickly came to an end and I was assigned to the bedtime duty team.  At my house, all too often, I find myself rushing my kids into bed, eager to bring the day to a close and glossing over the opportunities to linger with them.  I was determined to not have that attitude here.  I mentally chastised myself and reminded myself to give them my full attention. To make the most of this moment.

So, the six girls, ranging in age from seven to thirteen, followed their known routine, grabbing their toothbrushes from their lockers, and dressed in long pajamas, then settling into their beds to tease and chat and giggle.  I sorta smiled internally to see this slumber party of sorts.  

But then it hit me.  As I listened to one girl pray and answered calls to tuck each girl in and give each one a hug.  I bent over Rachelle*, my crafting partner from the day before, and tucked her in just like I do my own daughter.  I pulled the sheet over her head and then pulled it back, tucking her in tightly and telling her that it's just like I do for my girl.

And my heart hurt with the sudden realization.

How can I convince my own kids to not take for granted that their mom is there at bedtime?  These girls deserve that. Every child should have the love and security of doting parents. Yes, they have a loving house mother who pours herself out for them daily.  But there is still the harsh reality of their forced separations from their own biological family.  

It's such a simple ending to a day of fun and worship and laughter.  A mom to kiss their cheek.  A mom to banter with them and reassure them of her enduring love.  That they belong to her and vice versa.  

This was no slumber party.  As I tried to cover my comment about my own daughter, praying it would pain no one in the room, I felt a deep stab in my stomach.  These girls don't have that basic thing...their own biological moms to offer protection and assurance.  And because their own families could not care for them or did not protect them, they are here.  

I hugged each girl as they called my name with their request to have my individual attention.  And I fought back tears and an anger.  I couldn't help but think of what those mamas are missing.  The pain inflicted on these girls.  These sweet precious girls did not complain or cry about what they were missing out on.  I never once heard an angry word about their biological families or rantings about how unfair life had been for them already.

And so my mama's heart hurt for them.  That they'd ever had to be separated from the women who birthed them but couldn't care for them.  I drank in the joy of tucking these girls in to wish them sound sleep with sweet dreams and an anticipation for a new day. I saw it for the privilege it is.  Because these girls are treasures.  They are miracles.  Just like the boys who live at Hopewell.

Turning the air conditioner on and the light off, I whispered a prayer as I walked back to the bunk house.  It's a prayer I've repeated dozens of times since I left Belize. I asked God to pour out his grace and his healing to fill the voids and cover the wounds of these precious kids.  Be their hope, Lord Jesus.  Be their future. 

Sing your song of love and grace over them so that they know how treasured they are.  So that they know that they belong at the banquet table of the King of Kings.


Friday, October 17, 2014

When Orphans Aren't Orphans (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Rarely, in fact nearly never, is life like a scene from a movie.  Complete with sound track and profound moments of epiphany.  You know, those movie moments where the main character is so impacted in an instant that the plot twists and the conflicts come into focus.

But, I had such a moment as my third day in Belize began with the bright sunshine of a new day.  A sabbath day, in fact.  While we ate breakfast with the kids before heading to church.

We were all gathered in the screened, second story dining hall.  I was still shaking off the long day before and praying for a better attitude...better coping skills...a better day.

I got up to grab more water, with the music playlist of another team member playing on the blue tooth speaker.  In my morning fog, I looked across the room, and my eyes connected with Shauna*, the oldest of the girls at Hopewell.  Shauna.  Nearly fourteen, she is half-child, half-woman.  When I had met her two days prior, the first thing she told me was her age and that she didn't want to grow up.  She had no desire to be an adult.  It was said with great defiance, a tough "I don't care" demeanor.  

But, in the end, her joy and laughter and her wicked sense of humor and good nature win out, despite her best efforts to the contrary.  She's been wounded and abused by adults who seem to have sparked her cynicism about anything good coming in adulthood.  I think her mind tells her to be callous.  But her heart says she just can't completely succumb to that.

And so, as our eyes met, there was that hard look on her face.  A tough, distant look.  I offered her a smile and her face suddenly lit up with that gorgeous smile of hers at the exact moment that the song playing offered these lyrics:

Girls will be queens
Wrapped in Your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free
Shout your name in victory
When we love when we love the least of these

It's a moment hard to convey.  Because it was like the veil of heaven was slipped back ever so slightly and I saw this song coming to life.  I saw a young lady, striving to be brave and free and to shout Jesus' name in victory, weighed down by all that she has endured.  Teetering on the fence between her past and a hope for a better future.  And I saw that these moments in Belize were precious.  They were the stuff of heaven.  That I would be given the opportunity to love these kids.  To know these kids.  To be part of what God wants to do in their lives, to claim them as his kings and his queens and his dearly loved children--redeeming them from their past.

I thought I was going to an orphanage.  I knew it wasn't exactly that...I struggled to describe it before I left, and even more so since.

Because the truth is that not one of the eleven kids is a true orphan.  Not a single child at Hopewell has lost both parents to death.  The more complicated reality is that these children have been brought to Hopewell because of abuse and neglect and parents who are very much alive but unable to care for them. That is why I cannot share their names or their faces.  Or their beautiful smiles with you.

So, what do we do then?  What is the best way to help when orphans aren't orphans?  Why is there not a word for that?

There should be a word for that.  

Here I was, meeting these children whose smiles and demeanor and friendliness and all appearances of being normal kids--it all belies the trauma and unimaginable history they've survived.  Because they are survivors.  From the youngest to the oldest.  Surviving being harmed by their parents.  Or at the very least, being harmed by others while their parents did nothing.  Found begging on the streets as the breadwinners at age 8.  Trying desperately to care for their parents.  Victims of the lack of resources when their families could not afford to feed them. 

Children whose parents have left them true orphans have endured great loss.  Children whose parents are living and have abused and neglected them and failed to protect them leave a wake of confusion and pain and a lack of closure.  How can a small child reconcile that they actually do have whose hand many of them have suffered?  What then?  

There's not even a word for that. 

Because they aren't really orphans.  They are just displaced.  And my eyes were open in Belize to this reality.  Because I wonder of the estimated 127 million orphans in the world, how many fall into these complicated categories?  I know speculation projects many of them are not actually true orphans.  Many have parents who are so bound by poverty and lack of opportunity that they cannot provide for their children.  Many of them have parents who came from abuse and carry on that horrible legacy.  Many of them have extended family who wish they could parent.

So what then?  

Places like Hopewell are trying to fill this gap.  To shape and rewire these hard places by offering loving house parents, food, education, warm beds, safety, and normalcy.  A pseudo family.  It can be easy to forget why these kids live here at all.  Because their resiliency shines when they grab your hands and form a circle and play a dancing game.  Or spent hours playing with Legos.  Or dive into their assigned chore with a polite, "Yes, m'am."  Or run off down the road to try to round up the escaping cows. (True story!)

But still, throughout my time at Hopewell, the scars became visible.  When I was tasked with helping the kids fill out new forms about themselves for their files.  And the young man who used to beg on the streets to try to care for his mother is asked, "What would your 'someday' wish be?"  And he says, "that my mom would come," as he fights back tears.  Or another young man, who has lived on his own in the city, dabbling in gang activity says that he knows God loves him because he's still alive.

My heart breaks to see the dichotomy of a child trying to enjoy care-free childhood days while working to heal from burdens no adult should endure. 

My heart broke further as the team learned more about the kids' histories.  And then it shattered when I heard that while international adoption is possible in Belize, the adoptive parents would have to live in Belize for twelve months with the child before their case could be considered.  

There you have it.  The harsh reality that is coming to light more and more.  We are told that an estimated 127 million orphans live around the world.  However, many of those children are not true orphans.  And many countries around the world have such complicated adoption processes that even if adoption were the solution, it's pretty much impossible.

So what are we going to do?  Something is better than nothing.  And one child helped could be the start of a ripple effect.  Eleven children raised at Hopewell could grow up to help eleven more each and so on and so forth. So we can't be intimidated by the sheer volume of the problem.  We gotta figure out where to dive in with our unique gifts, talents and resources.  So we can do something.

There needs to be serious concern and conversation about this global problem.  Families in crisis need to be supported and equipped so that their children can move from being vulnerable to being healthy and avoid being labeled "orphan."  Places like Hopewell and Abide Family Center in Uganda are doing amazing work, teaching struggling parents how to be great parents and giving them life and job skills so that they can always care for their children.  Places like Hopewell, or the private house in Ethiopia where 13 former street boys now reside with house parents--these are the places that need to become the trend.

Because God says in James 1:27 that pure religion is caring for the widows and orphans.  And we, the church, need to start thinking globally and outside the box.  

Here is the international trend as I see it.  International adoptions, complicated by the Hague Treaty and political struggles, are becoming more difficult.  Meanwhile, children remain at risk.

If we are looking at a generation of children who are labeled "orphans" and will never be adopted, then I believe passionately that we need to respond better.  We need to be part of a trend of finding better solutions than overcrowded, dirty, inhumane government orphanages.  We need to be part of places like Hopewell, where non-orphaned orphans can find a home and security and ultimately hope.  

We need to be part of avoiding toxic charity.  We need to be part of equipping and raising up nationals to care for their own children, within the context of their own culture, and aimed at the best opportunities that their country can provide. We can't have the superhero complex.  We can't throw money at the problem if we even acknowledge it in the first place.  Instead we need to be part of efforts to help local organizations be empowered to become self-sustaining as they care for the children of their own country.

That.  All of that.  That is what happened when I looked across the room during breakfast one hot Sunday morning in Belize, and I saw a girl with a tough exterior melt into a huge hopeful smile.  

I saw that girl become a queen.  Oh, yes, Lord, wrap her in your majesty.  Help her become brave and free and shout your name in victory.

Because she is so much more than the least of these. 

She is the future of Belize.

*Names changed to protect the identity of the children.     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Longest Day (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

I remember when my kids were little and the days seemed SO. VERY. LONG.  The hours would drag as I tried to keep a preschooler, toddler and infant alive occupied.  My husband knew the sure sign of a long day.  If he came home and the children were in the bathtub, wrinkled with pruny fingers, while I sat against the wall next the tub--it'd been a long day.  Because I had resorted to my old trick of "hey, kids, climb into this contained space and play and splash and I won't even attempt to wash you."

My second day in Belize felt a little like that.  Okay, a lot.  Except that you can't exactly throw fourteen children, ranging in age from four to seventeen, into a bathtub to pass the time.  Nor can you sit them in front of a television or use the crutch of electronics.  Because these things were not part of the equation.

Listen, I'm not proud of my response to that second day. But, I'd like to pretend that I kept my issues contained and internal, away from the kids and the team. Because our only assignment, being part of the "kid duty" team, as opposed to the construction team that day, was to play with the kids.  Enter their lives.  Get to know them.  Show them love.  

You know, in other words, the very reason I came to Belize in the first place.

I started strong.  I had actually gone to sleep the night before in the blessed air conditioning that we enjoyed only during sleeping hours, on my top bunk and cool sheets, thinking about how repulsed I was by my excess.  Impressed with the simplicity of what really matters.  On that emotional high of hearing those Belizean beauties and boys singing about their love for Jesus.

So after a delicious breakfast, prepared by the amazing Rosa (how does she pull off meals for thirty in a hot kitchen less than half the size of mine?  I can hardly pull something together for my family of five?) was play time.  Or rather, homework time.  Because the kids all had homework to do on that bright, hot Saturday. As soon as Kendra, the house mom, gave us the list of homework for the various kids, we shooed her away for a day of respite.  

First on the Noah's Arks.  Um, what?  It took some clarifying from the older kids to understand that yes, indeed, the majority of the kids were tasked with building models of Noah's Arks.  For school.  Public school, at that.  Because apparently, in Belize, public school education includes stories from the Bible and assigned Scripture memory.  Who knew?  

So, like McGyver, Tracy, the team leader, and I bee lined for the building that is currently storage to see what craft supplies we might scrounge up.  Okay, I can do this, I thought.  I'm crafty.  Surely, I can figure this one out.  

Here is the random assortment of goods we scored from the stash of things other teams have sent and brought for the kids:  paper plates, felt, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, tape, glue, scissors, a little cardboard, and construction paper.  Oh, and by the way--the ark should include animals and of course, the eight people who were on the ark.  That was the assignment. These kids had their Biblical facts straight:  you must have Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives.  

Alrighty then.  We laid it all out and began the mission impossible.  Like any other siblings, there was the mad dash to claim supplies and fight over them while we adults attempted to negotiate and tackle how to help about eight kids make replica arks out of the supplies on hand.  Yi yi yi.

But, as it sorted itself out, I was amazed at how quickly the kids divided into groups with adult helpers and began working on either their arks or their spelling or their reading.  Diligently working.  On a Saturday morning.  Initial groaning (and who could blame them?  I was sure my teenage sons were still asleep back home)...quickly evolved into diligent work.  Showing what I would come to see is an amazing characteristic of Belizeans.  A strong work ethic and industriousness.  

(Author's rabbit trail note: one of the girls kept repeated the theme for the 33rd birthday of the country of Belize.  We kept hearing her saying, "Injustice hands, intelligent minds, together for Belize" in her Creole accent...We later figured out she was actually saying industrious hands.)

These kids were creative and took pride in their work.  One boy, I will call David*, carefully constructed his ark like a trained architect.  He seemed to have a mental blue print immediately, and tenaciously spent the next three hours bringing his plan to life.  His intricate framing became a strong structure.  Others worked with cardboard or felt or craft sticks.  And somehow, in the hands of these strong and hardworking children, a pile of random craft supplies became a wide assortment of completed Noah's arks.  

I spent the entire morning helping one little girl, Rachelle*.  This little girl is first of all, gorgeous.  She could be a model for sure.  She is sweet and kind and helpful beyond words.  If you're looking for her, you will likely find her in the kitchen helping with dishes or toting the house parent's one year old baby on her little hip.  

Rachelle was not convinced when I initially suggested we use the paper plates as a frame.  She let me know how skeptical she was, but also that she was willing to give it a go.  And so, we slaved over the coveted hot glue gun I had broughtWord quickly got out about this useful tool, and so a little crowd of kids crammed into the tiny kitchen to get a turn.  

As the morning progressed, Rachelle and I bonded over hours spent with paper plates, brown paper bags, craft sticks and hot glue. She offered the ultimate compliment when she expressed that she wasn't sure of my idea at first but that she was glad she had gone with the choice of paper plates as a frame.

 Rachelle's finished ark

The morning wrapped as the kids fawned over our assistance to draw the animals they needed for their arks.  Side note: no animal artists were part of our team. The kids giggled over our attempts and graciously accepted the animals they deemed worthy.  I was still doing pretty good emotionally at this point.  I was still in awe about how I tend to dread school projects at home.  But here, stripped of distractions and agendas, I found that I welcomed the project as an opportunity to bond and as something to do.  I loved seeing the quiet and hard work ethic of some,  and the energy and mischief channeled into the creativity of others.  

After lunch, we brought out the toys.  THE TOYS.  Y'all, THE TOYS that were sorta a "time filler" in our minds -- something to do in between our other planned activities with the kids over the weekend.  But, these kids--all of them--would spend hours, literally hours, playing with them. They went from being a side note to the main thing.

The toy that was such an instant hit?  Legos.  Yep.  A few bags of discarded or borrowed legos became THE THING.  The kids were plopped all over the dining hall, in little groups or solo, building with legos.  From the four year olds to the teenage girls.  These simple toys became not just hours but days of distractions for the kids.  There were fights, of course.  From subtle negotiating and trading by one boy to full on grabbing out of each other's hands.  But, they sat, oblivious to their sweating in the afternoon heat under the ceiling fans stirring the air.  

Here's where things started getting ugly for me.  The heat.  And humidity.  And the afternoon lull in energy began to wind me up. Or rather, unravel my resolve.  The day began to feel endless.  I began to miss the comforts of home.  I am sad to admit that I began to count down mentally how many more days until we could go home.  I mean, the kids are awesome and all.  But, when is bedtime?

How double minded I was, as I helped Tracy lead a Bible study with the kids on the fruits of the spirit (while they played legos, we spoke and they listened). Even as I was teaching a song about patience and self-control, I was wishing the days away until I went home.  Oh sure, I marveled at the seeds of faith obviously planted in the fertile soil of their open hearts.  These kids spouted off answers throughout the lesson that showed that this was not their first Bible study rodeo.  

But still, I found myself overcome with waves of irritability and frustration.  Even a touch of homesickness.

Here is the only thought that pulled at me throughout this first full day, fourteen hours with the kids.  I had a choice to make.  All of us who visit foreign countries or volunteer or enter the difficult lives of others.  We can complain and moan about the heat and bugs and work and discomfort.  Or, we can remember that WE actually have a choice.  Because we can go back home to all of our creature comforts.  We can go back to air conditioned expansive homes with luxuries these kids couldn't fathom.  We can enjoy opportunities that these kids might never see.  We were born in a privileged America.  And we are wimpy.  And we gotta get over ourselves.

Because we can endure for a few hot and sweaty days and pour ourselves out--working heartily as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23).  Putting our comfort aside for the sake of others.  
Because if we are going to attach ourselves to the name of Jesus, we must remember, after all, how uncomfortable he became for our sake.

THIS, this train of thought, pushed me through the long afternoon of negotiating legos and playing with the kids and finishing homework and then setting the table for dinner.  

And God whispered some truth to me as I battled internally, placing these thoughts in my head.  I had overcomplicated things.  I worried that the older kids wouldn't like the song I taught or the crafts I'd planned...or even me.  

Here's the simple truth.  The simplicity of the worldwide church.  Loving joyful kids plus an obedient heart to do so equals God's greatest blessing -- hearts united and new connections.  Children like Rachelle* who would sneak up behind me to throw her arms around my waist and offer a huge smile.  Jesus is our common ground.  Beyond language barriers or cultural differences or age differences or racial differences.  They have a need, I thought.  I can meet a need.  

Yet, I was discovering that actually I am the needy.  They are the need meeters.  They have much to teach.  They have much to offer. It's the reciprocal rhythm of living out the gospel.  

Before I knew it, the sun began to set on that very long day.  And while their unusually late 10 pm bedtime still loomed hours away, the dark of the evening became the light at the end of my tunnel.  The kids fought over which adult sat next to them at dinner.  Obvious attachments had grown throughout the day.  And I realized that these kids, of all ages, had just passed a day with great contentment without an electronic or even air conditioning.  With simple toys and tackling school tasks.  Not once did anyone complain about being bored. 

Yeah, my kids are not going to like some of the things I will go home with from this experience.

After dinner came the big treat we had planned for the kids.  We played The Lego Movie, projected on a sheet hung on the wall of the dining hall.  Amazed that I had wifi there, I was able to sit in the dark at the back of the room and text with my family at home. This helped me pull it together so I could get over myself.  And then, before I knew it, I was told I didn't have bedtime duty and I could go shower and go to bed whenever I wanted.

Oh yes.  Once again, I felt an internal scolding of how much I had mentally complained. Unnecessarily. I fell into my bunk and prayed that I could endure with more grace and finesse from here on.  I had come all this way.  I didn't want to just get through the experience.  I wanted to enjoy it.  To soak it all in.  To run this little six day race with endurance.  Lord, help me!  It may not always be comfortable.  But it is only temporary.  

I reminded myself that I was right where I was supposed to be. Where I was meant to be.  

And so I prayed for new mercies in the new day to come.  

Because that is, after all, what God promises for each new day.

New mercies.  Fresh faithfulness. 

*Actual names of the children have been changed.  Tomorrow, I will dive into why.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Indescribable: Trying to Find Words (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

How do you find and form words for that which is indescribable?  How do you summarize something like a trip of a lifetime?  A trip in the making for decades?  A trip filled with thoughts and revelations and reflections and insights in which I still feel I am drowning as I seek to process?

Being concise is not my strong suit. And I feel at this point as if I could blog for months about my trip to Belize.  Trust me when I say that I want you to feel and know every nuance of this experience.  Because it was so rich and impactful. Yet, I know that sort of ad nausem writing would probably lose its efficacy on you, my audience.

So, bear with me as I attempt to explain my introductory day to Belize.  My flights there took me through Miami, where I met up with the two teenage girls on this trip.  We then met up with the other six team members at the Belize City airport.  Our luggage went on to Hopewell with Peto, who cares for the property.  And we went on with Jonathan, the house dad at Hopewell.  

Jonathan grew up in the area and seems to know ALL the ins and outs of the country of Belize.  I think that he may be the six degrees of separation in that country as opposed to Kevin Bacon here in the states.  After a quick lunch at a roadside restaurant (Did that cook just offer us rodent?!  No thanks, I'll take the chicken--if that's what it really is....), Jonathan drove us all around to give us a perspective of the culture, complete with his own color commentary.

I had never considered these things about Belize:  One Eyed Jack, the huge alligator in the river; powerful Chinese merchants who run many prominent businesses there; and some potentially sketchy Mennonites who may or may not have connections with crime rings.  As Jonathan said when it came to the Mennonites of which he was speaking--"all is not as it seems."

I'll just leave it at that.  For those on the trip with me, stop and remember the detailed descriptions of all this and how the story changed as it was related from the front row of the van all the way to the back.  Good times.  Good times.

Belize. Hot.  Humid.  More hot.  And more humid.  I found Belize City to be busy and colorful.  A city by Belizean standards...but nothing like American cities like Houston or Dallas.  I loved seeing the kids in various school uniforms--little girls in matching uniforms holding hands and walking home with perfect little black braids down their backs.  Houses in every hue of the rainbow, most of which were made with cinder blocks.  Busy streets, bustling with people in all shades and colors.  Crazy traffic and bicyclists and pedestrians, with plenty of round abouts and not a traffic light in sight.  I was so glad for the context of this introduction to the country before we headed out to Hopewell.

On the long drive out there, I watched lush jungle and palm trees and small houses (by American standards) spread out over the vast expanse of the countryside.  We passed little stores with hand painted signs announcing their goods and people walking, riding bikes or sitting in one of the covered bus stops.  

The first picture is a roadside store, build just to the right of the home
The second picture is a house we passed that is similar to many we saw
We also passed the Belizean prison, complete with its own Prison Gift Shop, at least according to the sign.  More on that later!
And then, the long bumpy gravel road to Hopewell (1.6 miles to be exact).  Beautiful lush green jungle on either side of the road and orange flowers that resembled birds of paradise. Towering palm trees and simple square homes, many built up on stilts and some with unfinished second stories.  We had learned that it is common to work on house additions on the weekends, so many homes are continually in progress. 

When we pulled into Hopewell, it looked like the pictures, but yet not.  The reality was more quaint.  More of a community.  Not as spread out as I'd imagined.  Sure enough--horses and cows and chickens and pigs and the buildings, from the front "Crystal's Palace"-- to house interns, to the two story bunk house for visiting teams, the main house, the school house, the former aquaponics building, and then at the back, the fish house for processing fish and the home where Peto lives with his family. 

The kids had just arrived home, and I must admit that my initial reaction was to feel a bit intimidated.  Would they like what we had planned to do with them?  Would it be awkward?  What were they like?  They offered shy smiles and waves and went on about their normal Friday afternoon routine to change out of school uniforms while we took a tour of the property.  

One of the impressions that I have of Belize is that it is an expanse of nature and the outdoors, while the homes and buildings are simple and efficient.  Despite the heat, the people seem to live outdoors, seemingly immune to the weather.  It's just part of their life.  Nothing to complain about. Which I tended to do.  A lot.  But, as one of the girls told me on the last day when I asked if she was hot (she was sweating in her heavy school uniform, after all)..."Have you forgotten that I am Belizean?"

On the tour of Hopewell, I was impressed with all of the careful consideration for using the land, the animals, and the resources to their maximum ability.  Nothing goes to waste, unless it cannot be avoided.  The chickens offer eggs to feed the twenty-one full time residents of Hopewell, and the extras are sold at market.  The pigs are another source of both food and income.  There are also cows roaming about and horses in the pasture, with a luscious backdrop of thick greenery and palm trees.  Howler monkeys live in the uncleared acreage of Hopewell, and I'll tell you later about getting to see them.

Toward the back of the cleared acreage, we found the fish ponds.  The key to attaining self-sufficiency for Hopewell.  Harvesting the tilapia.  Part of our task -- and privilege -- would be participating in the first harvest.  

The final stop on the tour was the main house. Home to the house parents and their three small children, as well as the current eleven children of Hopewell.  Americans would think it necessary that a house for sixteen people should be huge.  But, this spic and span house has got to be about sixteen hundred square feet, I would estimate.  To me, another example of where we tend to convince ourselves of necessity while the rest of the world would see luxury.  

The main house has charts for chores and behavior and systems to organize the family formed by circumstance here, united by divine appointment.

It was impressive to me, to say the least.  That someone with a full-time job and three young kids of her own is mothering eleven more.  Care taking those who are have endured heartbreak like I've never known (more on that tomorrow). These children, rescued from deplorable government orphanages and horrific circumstances, are welcomed with love and a commitment to serve Jesus.  They are managed with responsibilities that convey an obvious belief in their potential.  And there, in the middle of the house, is the table long enough to seat sixteen.  A symbol of Hopewell, to me.  One long table where they sit and break bread together.  Sharing meals as families do. 

Because that is what Hopewell believes they are.  That's what I think Hopewell dares to claim as a promise.  That no matter what these children have endured or survived or came from -- they now belong.  And in that belonging, they might find hope.  And healing.

How can I NOT be part of that?  I was humbled.  That I fuss over every square foot of my house.  And at Hopewell, they instead believe there is room for love and a future.  And it has nothing to do with how big the house is.  But rather how big the faith and dreams are to create a self-sustaining sanctuary.  How big the hearts are who would dare to invest in these children's lives.

And, as the kids were introduced and quickly pulled us into a circle, holding hands to play a game, I saw something so huge that it still unwinds me.

These children, who by all accounts have every reason to distrust and be angry and mope around and complain, offered the biggest gift of all.

A smile that spread from ear to ear.  A smile that says I choose to be content in today.  A smile that says I choose to not dwell in my past.  A smile that says I trust and welcome you when I have every reason not to trust.  

Smiles that lit up the darkening Belizean sky.  

So, the game began.  Struggling to understand their rapid speech with a Creole accent (English is Belize's official language, as it used to be under British rule), I could hardly believe the song that started.  A sign from God that I was actually not as far away from home as I thought.

Because they began to sing:

"Little Sally Walker, walkin' down the street...Didn't know what to do so she stopped in front of me...she said, "hey girl, do your thing, do your thing, do your thing" now switch."

The exact song and game my own daughter played with her friends at church camp.  In Glen Rose, Texas. And so, we, the American grown-ups, seemed to win over the Belizean children by making fools of ourselves with our best dance moves.  

Author's note: there may or may not be video evidence of my own Sally Walker dance thing.  To date, I have yet to become a YouTube sensation, and I am not certain it will be shared publicly.  Perhaps the world is not ready for my retro moves.

This first day in Belize, full of stories about Belize and experiencing the sights and sounds, ended with a moment that I think I will vividly carry with me till my dying day.  Thankfully, I caught part of it on video.  And it makes me tear up every time I watch it.  I can't post the kids' photos so I will have to simply explain it.

The mosquitos were hitting their twilight fever pitch and so we all ran into the screened veranda of the main house.  We sat on various benches and chairs and then the children asked if they could sing for us.

These gorgeous Belizean children, pretty much strangers to us, stood in front of us and burst into praise and worship songs.  Beautiful worship songs, sung with loud proclamation.  Declaring Jesus' name.  

How could I not love these kids?  I still didn't really know them, but I was completely won over.  Amazed.  Inspired.  Challenged.  Changed.  The stuff of goose bumps.

Because they bore their souls and declared their belief and their faith.  Unashamedly.  Bravely.  Courageously, in my estimation.  

And while I had just met the kids, I can see in hindsight that at this moment, I was the student.  

They were the teacher.  

I was the one learning and growing and being changed.

And they were simply being themselves.  No pretenses.  

Nothing but hugs and smiles and vulnerability.  

What could be more beautiful? 

It's nearly indescribable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When We are Faithless...and Fearful (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

Hey--just a note of warning.  When you find yourself facing fears and anxiety and fighting a sense of dread, struggling to convince yourself to step out of your comfort zone, I've learned what should NOT be part of that equation.

Your child coming in the night before your big departure, crying HYSTERICALLY because of the nightmare she just had.  With sobs that make her muttering unintelligible, you finally get hear what her nightmare was.


That you never made it home from the trip that you are convincing yourself will be a-okay.  The one far from home, with no one you know and all sorts of crazy fearful thoughts haunting you.

Yep.  It's a kill-joy to say the least.  Or a fear feeder, I should say.  

Listen, I WISH I could say that I was all sunshine and roses and ready to conquer the world I was about to enter on Friday, October 3 when I set off for my first international mission trip, headed to Belize.

But, I cannot lie to you, bloggy friends.

I was terrified.  That may sound ridiculous to some of you brave souls who have long intimidated me.  But it's the truth.

So my daughter puddling with great fears and nightmares about my demise really was not what I needed.  My husband surely saw the look on my face as he quickly instructed our girl to give me a quick kiss because she'd see me in a few days and then he rushed ushered her out of our room.  Looking back over his shoulder, he threw out a, "Hey--it's just a dream!  Go on to sleep, babe.  It's all going to be fine."

Really?  Really?  What if our daughter is some modern day Joseph?  With dreams predicting the future? 

And so, I attempted to sleep and to continue to convince myself.  

But the truth was that I was suffering from a severe case of feeling chicken.  Fearful.  Faithless.  Anxiety has been a lifelong foe, in case you missed that memo about me.  

My husband returned to play some Scripture on his audible Bible, which I've found has been quite effective in lulling me to sleep when I'm troubled.  

I fell asleep reminding myself how this trip lined up initially--before the only person I knew on the trip had to back out.  I fell asleep reminding myself it was time to do it.  Just do it!  Be like Nike.  

I woke up with stomach churning and a shaky resolve.  In that spirit, I quickly shooed my husband from the security line when he dropped me off at dark thirty.  I knew a lingering good-bye would only make me cry.  I bit my lip and headed on, fighting back tears.  

As I reached my gate, feeling there was no turning back now, the sun began to rise.

A wink from heaven.  

Reminding me of His new mercies for each day.  To which I was claiming and clinging. 
Listen, I don't know where each of you are in life.  But, I think maybe I'm not alone in facing a situation with fear and trepidation.  The giant of a situation calling down any sense of faith or power or assurance.  I know in the big picture that my own little giant of this trip was not a big deal...when some of you are facing a health crisis or ongoing struggles with mental health issues or relationship struggles.

So maybe our circumstances are not the same.  But, our God is.  And so, I am writing this rather detailed post about the start of my trip to Belize.  (And, I promise that I will not drag out every detail of the 6 day trip for you faithful readers).

But there it was.  The light of a new day, beautiful and fresh and reassuring...breaking into my fear.  Giving me the courage to get on that darn plane and GO.

That would have been enough.  If God had only given me that one little sign of his faithfulness, it would have been enough.  Should have been enough. Oh, but how God goes beyond good enough. 

Because I have got to tell you what happened next.  

I've been very slowly reading Christine Caine's book Undaunted: Daring to Do What God Calls You to Do.  Real slowly.  So as the plane took off, I distracted myself with mindless magazines that a friend had given me.  Having read them all cover to cover, I decided it was time to chew on the deep stuff, and I pulled up Undaunted on my Kindle app.

You are not going to believe the chapter that I had come to.

"God knows my FEAR."

Oh, yes.  And to make it even better, the chapter begins with a retelling of a story of fear whilst flying on a plane.

Isn't God funny that way?  To sorta hit you over the head sometimes?  To throw an exclamation point on your stubborn struggle, lovingly and with grace addressing your own humanness? 

It is as if Christine Caine knows me and wrote this chapter specifically for that exact moment, as I sat on a plane, heading into the unknown, fighting back fears.  Just check out these sections that I highlighted.

"...For me, there is nothing simple about complete, unquestioning trust, and I've wrestled with God over this much of my life. Even now, after decades of seeing how God never leaves nor forsakes us and always works all things together for good, I catch myself having to consciously choose to trust."

"...When you allow fear to dictate how you spend your days, you allow life to pass you by...When you let fear run your life, you close yourself off from anything that might hurt or cost or make you uncomfortable -- including opportunities to serve God and claim his promises."

And, I kid you not...THIS.  Seriously.  THIS.  At that exact moment...

"...You don't allow yourself to consider the mission trip you would love to participate in because you fear the unknown in a faraway land."

Oh, yes, bloggy friends.  I pray that you are encouraged, in your own battle with fear and anxiety.  I pray that you see what I saw.

If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.  2 Timothy 2:13 

Whatever plane you are being dared to board, whatever trip you are feeling challenged to take, whatever circumstance you have nightmares about, I pray you are encouraged.  

Because our compassionate Father knows that we are formed but of dust (Psalm 103:13-14). 

He doesn't laugh.  Or roll his eyes.  Or say, "For the love.  It's just a few days helping some people.  Get over yourself." 

Not at all.  He paints the sky with brilliant colors and leads you to words that pierce your fearful soul.  To let you know that His faithfulness does not depend on your faith. 

He says instead, look at me!  Don't fix your gaze on the seen.  SET YOUR EYES on the UNSEEN.

"...When Jesus asks, Do you love me? he is also saying: Then keep your eyes on me.  Keep believing in what I have created you to do.  Turn over your fear, and hold fast to faith in me.  Replace that fear -- fear that I did not give you -- with the love, power, and sound mind that I have given you.  Know that my presence is your antidote to fear" (Christine Caine, Undaunted).

Peace washed over me.  God had shown up, in my faithless and fearful state, and he reminded me that he is faithful.  And he was taking this adventure with me.  

An adventure that I am so excited to share with you here.  Because, as Undaunted declares, "When we keep our eyes on Him...we go places we never imagined without sinking or being swallowed by our own fears." 

The places I was about to go.  The things I was about to experience.

It's good stuff.

May I never be the same. 

Stay tuned!