It was always a special gift. Once the tree was up and the ornaments were on, or perhaps we were getting a bit rambunctious and bored, she would pause the activity and begin her presentation. It was the “special ornament” giving time. Mom and us. We loved it! We couldn’t wait to see what she had so carefully chosen. When we were very young those ornaments were often themed, which somehow connected our experience for that year, that moment…for forever. She created something we could never forget.
I don’t always put up a tree. Occasionally I decide to let the trees I pass while driving be my “Christmas tree”. If I’m spending time in Guatemala, I let that be my “Christmas tree”. And for the past many years…being with the church community serving, worshiping and celebrating together with parties, feasts and special music…that all serves more than enough for any Christmas decoration for me. It doesn’t bother me a bit to look at my schedule and determine a more minimal approach like setting out a nativity, hanging my stocking and using some Christmas napkins to call my home “decorated”. But it’s 2020. I’m not traveling. I’m zooming from my home or office for most everything. Any COVID “risk taking” is reserved for the most important in-person moments. And I need the Christmas tree!
So it is up! The lights are shining. Every ornament is hung; each with its own memory. The tattered and fragile ones are from my childhood. I hang each one with memories of my brother and sister, mom and dad; the family celebrations – all complete with tears and meltdowns; laughter and love; the life-shaping ordinary moments. There are ornaments from special places I’ve traveled; places or memories I wanted to remember every year for the rest of my life. On this tree are ornaments my friends have given me over the years that add grace and joy to not only this moment, but all the ordinary days too.
For this Advent season of 2020, I am grateful for the many ways memories and people are woven into the fabric of life that a global pandemic cannot unravel. I’m glad the tattered ornament that looks like nothing to someone else, still causes my heart to fill up with hope that just can’t stop. I’m humbled to see that over a lifetime of years that were challenging, amazing and all uniquely blessed, there is a theme of Joy running through that I cannot miss. The tree is up! Ornaments are hung. Nativities are placed to make the true visible. We are blessed beyond measure. Advent has begun. Come Lord Jesus, come!
Prayer: God help each of us and all of us to know what to do this week to increase our sense of wonder, hope and joy. We know you are here. We trust you are guiding us and shaping us for heaven no matter how tattered or worn we may be on any given day. Thank you for the ways you are coming to us right now…making sure we know how deeply we are loved.
After Labor Day we rush into the months forgetting quickly the blessing of days and moments. Help us, Lord, just today to take the moments into account; hold each as precious gifts; stop to tend to the neighbor whose name we still don’t know. Protect us from filling our months, seasons and remaining year with frivolous busyness while you are inviting us into something bigger than we can see. Help us, Creator, just today to appreciate conversations that shape us for peace; to love without question; pray without ceasing; plan without striving. Let this “after Labor Day” moment be like no other leading us into Grace for these days. Amen and Amen.
Is there a way for Monday to be something more than the onslaught of email, social media messaging and weekly expectations that no human can possible do? Good news: the answer is “YES!”
I recently had an experience in silence at the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY. A time of retreat, praying the psalms with the monks who live there and getting back in touch with what some people call “God’s first language”: silence. Somehow in silence our inner voice becomes clearer. Moving through the noise in my mind, passing through those moments of “what now?” and persisting in the journey, actually leads me into the gift. Eventually the mind begins to settle: we are here. stop the striving. just be here. let it be.
From that place of “let it be”, I hear the psalms differently. I hear the chants of the monks crying out my human heart – our human hearts – with all of the joy, fear, doubt, confidence, questions, strength…and eventually: trust. My voice joins the song.
The “songs of ascent” is what it’s called – these psalms (Psalms 120-134) that voice our deepest thoughts and brings them raw and real, to the Creator of the universe. These ancient prayers are powerful in every generation; we need only to pray them. When the weight of the world or the constants in our minds becomes overwhelming, this is a place to turn. A way to voice all that is in us and ultimately help us fall into the arms of grace, trusting the hands of our Creator to catch us as we fall.
So this Monday begins differently. With a song and prayer of trust, my voice gives rise with all the other voices who need to be reminded: God’s plans will prevail. Nothing will remove the foundation of God’s love for you, and for the world. Let’s trust this.
Those who trust in GOD
are like Zion Mountain:
Nothing can move it, a rock-solid mountain
you can always depend on.
Mountains encircle Jerusalem,
and GOD encircles his people –
always has and always will.
The fist of the wicked
will never violate
What is due the righteous,
Provoking wrongful violence.
Be good to your good people, GOD,
to those whose hearts are right!
GOD will round up the backsliders,
corral them with the incorrigibles.
Peace over Israel!
– Psalm 125 THE MESSAGE
Whatever our weeks hold – we can trust that no evil, no disappointment or chaos or tragedy will STOP the amazing love and grace of God. Period. Just keep going. Here’s to another Monday…another choice to trust…another week of wonderful, full and amazing LIFE! Live the days well in whatever way your path asks of you. Trust the rest to God.
The trucks are blaring through the trees at Bambu; there is no sound barrier. The birds are singing and flying all around. I search out coffee and explain why I need it “to go” so I can be outside.
Snow at home; heat and sun here. A bit of travel later today and the heat will be gone. I love the way God created nature.
I’ve had three dog encounters this time that have been unusual. The K9 officer, an angel of mercy; Lucia’s two companions who didn’t want me to leave yesterday morning; and Manuel’s dog, whose name is Michael, who lay down at my feet and wanted to play. Perhaps they all know I come as a friend.
We visit with scholarship students this morning. And Norris, Dr. Robin, John Hembree, Woody…the crew. We are talking plans, again. It is a day of grace unfolding. I miss my church family in this moment and am grateful for the body of Christ that is connected across the world. All is very well.
Prayer: God, thank you for the way you work all things out for good..and for your glory. We trust you with all that has ever been, and with all that will ever be. You are faithful and we are yours. However and wherever we worship you today – thank you for hearing our hearts and praise. Amen and amen!
It’s the simple things: clean water, health, a safe place to sleep at night, education; and even more important than all of that: a community of relationships that help us navigate life. Right? We all need it.
The team at ACD devotes their time and talents to moving the needle of these basic issues in the lives of children in Guatemala. Everyone’s life is changed along the way, especially anyone who gets near the realities of life.
Migration is an issue. We know that too. The current culture in Guatemala has become: finish 6th grade and then find your way to the USA. No one tells you what that means, what risks are involved, what it’s going to be like when you arrive or what happens beyond the journey. And there are not many voices reaching other options. ACD is in this conversation and educating the little ones so they have choices and are prepared for life success in Guatemala. It’s is a beautiful gift – and it takes being “all in”. This is joyful but very tough work.
Children have dreams and someone needs to hear them. Hope comes when we believe something could be different. We humans will go to amazing efforts when a glimmer of hope is present. So – if there is no hope that life will ever be any different, and there IS hope that somewhere else you might have a chance of: work, water, safety, health, peace…. then you will risk your life to find it. It’s not hard to see how the cultural shift has happened. And who will help the little ones envision a different future? Who will encourage them to dream and then care enough to help them prepare to reach those dreams? Who will give their time and talents, gifts and love day in and day out? ￼In this little spot of Guatemala, the team at ACD will. For us to be allowed a close up glimpse into their lives and the families they serve is an honor. They change our hearts and grow our spirits. Who would we be without them? It sobers me to even imagine.
The Lord hears the cries of the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18
I will attempt to offer a glimpse of reality. It is only a glimpse and my knowledge is always incomplete.
Water in this community comes from one spout on the main road. All water. So you walk and carry it back. Every day. For every water need. For months there is no rain so you do this in heat and dust and dry conditions. A bit like walking in the desert.
Cooking in this community happens over open fire inside the home. Smoke is a daily presence. Respiratory illness a norm. Cooking all day to feed the family is the work of the day. Getting water. Making food. Cutting wood. Carrying everything on your head or back. Every day. Every generation.
Homes are made from tin and wood. By hand and a machete. Sometimes plastic if tin or some other material is available. What you want is a house with solid shelter. What you have is more like a shed or barn.
Vegetables grow well here when there is enough rain. Big beautiful vegetables! Water must be carried in these poor areas where there is no irrigation. Farmers tend the crops. Agriculture is life. The fertile ground in the shadow of Santa Maria’s grand presence is a gift of God. The land is life. Water is life for land and food and all creatures. But water is not always available; droughts impact life & death; creatures suffer.
So the walk through the desert and paying someone to get you to a place of hope and peace is really not a big decision; it is survival and not wanting to wake up tomorrow to something you don’t imagine or think or dream can ever be different. Because it hasn’t been different for any generation before you.
And so…the trek begins. There are two priorities once you arrive; if you arrive. 1. Work to make enough money to pay the coyote who got you there (even if it cost you all of your dignity and spirit).
2. Work enough to send money “home” so they can start building a house.
And this is what brings hope that something might be different. A home means shelter. A home may have water near. A home, water and land may mean growing crops that someone will buy if the drought doesn’t kill them first.
When I spent a month here in 2011 my Spanish teacher shared that she had spent 2 years in the USA to earn enough money to buy a home. That home made all the difference for her family. And “family” included 3 generations who had a home because she bought it. With USA earned dollars. As a teacher. Legally. She had 2 things going for her: education and a skill that was needed. It changed the course of direction for 3 generations, and all those that follow.
It’s not an easy fix, and certainly not as simple as I may be painting the picture. Suffering is never easy. Solutions are often slow and small. But someone has to be willing to make one decision after another that leads to change.
The mining company that is getting rock from this land is part of the issue. They could put back into the community, something that improves the life of the people who are affected by their mining. For example, help the community have easy access to clean water. They could put some protections in their operation so when the rainy season comes there are not mud slides that literally displace communities that will be completely abolished with one slide. They could engage with living wage jobs, make infrastructure improvements (roads; water; etc.) … but instead, they mine in the poorest of communities where the people have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
And so…trying to get to the USA ..land of the free and brave sure seems like a better way than staying. Land of mountains and valleys and rivers and wildlife and parks and beauty and …peace. Even in the bad days, we have peace as part of our way of being.
The ACD staff team is “all in”. But they are not the only ones. These children have begun to dream. They tell us they want to be teachers and doctors and wildlife managers and engineers. They are also going “all in”. And one day… life will be different around them. Hope is rising. God is stirring their hearts and surrounding them with a community of people who will take the journey. And this journey is filled with Hope.
Here is an article recently published that shares about the situation in Guatemala.
I never get tired of the joy that comes when we pour into young people. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Franklin, TN or Guatemala. There is something so good that happens in our adult spirits when we invest some time and love in the life of those who are “becoming” who God created them to be.
Can you remember someone that invested time and love in you? Keep passing that on to the young people in your life; they need it! And for us adults… we need it even more.
Check out these smiles! I am grateful for the chance to visit and see the investment in the children of Guatemala. Their joy increases my heart and strengthens my spirit. What is strengthening your spirit and increasing your heart?
ACD Facebook Page. Click here to see recent posts and photos from ACD:
Lemoa is a sacred spot in Chichicastenango. It’s a retreat center belonging to the Metodista Iglesia. A small lake, giant pine trees and a stillness that brings peace. The Annual Conference gathering is here this week and we have come to participate today. Here we meet new friends and connect with old ones.
A highlight for me today was a conversation with the young adults who God is stirring into relationship and service.
They shared the story of how they organized themselves into a group of 9 youth and then they began to reach out to others and invite them to come join them. They serve together. They pray together. They keep inviting others and they tell us that “God is creating a connection”. This is what the God of heaven is doing! Even though they are in different places, the desire to connect is strong. Their peers are responding. “I see a new generation rising up to take their place!” What a joy to encourage and pray with them. We hope to connect them with our students at Franklin First UMC this summer.
The new Volunteers in Mission (VIM) Coordinator, Lourdes Mroczka, (LuLu) is here and she is awesome! She is a missionary with the Global Missions of the United Methodist Church. She is from Mexico and has served in Nicaragua, USA, and is now assigned to Guatemala. She gave an incredible report today about transparency, accountability and working collaboratively with many churches. Very encouraging.
The Call to Worship brings people in from their lunch conversations. The Bishop has taken his place. Presenters are sitting on the sides. The business of Conference takes place. Sometimes it helps perspective to see how other cultures express their faith and live their rhythms.
Dinner at Hotel Santo Tomas tonight with an FSU team working on their Masters in Urban Planning. Guatemala is their learning ground. Very good to see these students learning and becoming the leaders of tomorrow. God sure is changing our world. I hope our eyes and spirits are wide open.
It has been so long! I knew the volcanoes and mountains would be shouting “Bienvenidos!” before the airplane finished its landing. And I was sure my spirit would dance as I walked through the airport and felt de colores de Guatemala wrap around me like a blanket of friendship. I knew deep in my mind that it would feel different because I am different – but also so much like a second home. Well…it was all of that, and a little something more!
Usually there are officers with machine guns at several places in the airport and they may have been there today, but I didn’t see them because there were so many officers with K9 partners. Seriously, this is all new. I must have passed 8 officers with dogs between deboarding and baggage claim!
So when this one female officer and her K9 partner were close to me I just thought the dog liked me. (I clearly was not thinking). I stood and watched the belt full of bags rolling by and the dog came up behind me and nudged my backpack. I still didn’t think a thing…at all! I just thought the dog was cool. But I also wasn’t giving them any attention; I just thought they were doing what they do, and we’re not supposed to distract them from their work. I was watching for my bags; one of which was full of meds for the clinic. I was focused on retrieving that bag; I didn’t even turn around.
And then, in the nicest voice she could offer, the officer said, “do you happen to have any food in your backpack?” And I said, “yes; do you think he smells it? I have all my snacks in there”. She looked curious, “like what do you have?” “Well, my fitness bars, some peanut butter, almonds…that kind of thing.” The dog was looking so hopeful at me. I was still clueless.
And then she said, “Do you have any fruit?” I didn’t understand her at first and then I repeated…. “Fruit? Yes…I’m pretty sure I have an apple….” She asked if she could see it.
I opened my pack and there it was. My big beautiful apple that I was saving for after the flight. And then I remembered! And she was kind to say, “you can’t bring fruit into the country. There are diseases….” Her K9 partner sniffed my apple and got his well deserved treat; actually he got several treats. He was very young, so I think he passed this “on the job training case” with flying stars! She took my passport and went away, taking the dog with her. It was my first time to ever be sniffed out by a K9 officer. I’m glad my suitcase full of meds hadn’t come out yet!
Good grief; It’s been too long! I had forgotten the fruit checkpoints and soldiers and inspections that I’ve experienced many times out on the roads here. I was grateful for the grace and had a great conversation with a different officer who returned with my passport and explained that the disease alerts had become really intense. I shared that although I’ve made this trip about 18 times in the last 9 years, I totally was not thinking about the rule of no fruit. I brought meds for the clinic with no search. But the apple…. It’s great to be “back”.
So K9 officers have been added (which I applaud and welcome) but let me share what is still the same endearing experience. The drive to Chichicastenango held enchanting scenery of hills and crops and forests and farmers working in their fields. Traffic was intense and the smell of burning rubber as the trucks took the declines was so familiar. Tension and clutches screeching as everyone climbed the mountains, navigated the curves and swerved to miss the vehicle that just stopped in the middle of the lane; not budging.
And then…we came upon a festival! I love the celebratory nature of this country. Two live bands setting up. Cooking pots over fire. Every roadside stand with flashing lights. A food truck – Guatemalan style. And a giant firework display that will keep the whole village up all night. What is it?? Cesar rolled down his window to ask the truck full of people about 2 feet away from us on the highway.
“Es bendiciones de la semilla!” It is the Blessing of the Seed! Of course. It is planting season, so it begins with this blessing of the seed. Food, music, fiesta and prayers. All night. And then planting can begin. And now that it is late at night, the trucks are pulling the hill outside Hotel Santo Tomas and it sounds pretty much like they are driving right through this room every time. Yes, I am back in Guatemala!
There is a reason it’s been a while. I had to set aside several things in order to finish school and keep work and life moving forward. There are seasons when we just have to adjust priorities so we can do something else that requires our attention, and this was my season. For the past two years and ten months I’ve tended to my learning and experience so I can share from a well that has been a bit more deeply primed. I’ve followed through one of Paul’s missionary journeys to Greece; visited the Holy Land with colleagues; spent my days in community ministry with the YMCA and finished my doctorate in ministry.
And now…in such a very short time really, I am back. Different and better. Grateful and ready. Amazed at all God has done with the church in Franklin, Tennessee; with Guatemala; and with me. The journey just never stops, friends.
So, if a K9 officer nudges your backpack, turn around and see if he’s looking for something you forgot that you are carrying. His nudge might be important; a gentle reminder you didn’t even know you needed. That dog may have saved me from a much different experience on the road tonight. A very special kind of welcome! Grateful.
Many people were dressed in black as we gathered for the Celebration of Life. Flowers were placed, the guest book was ready and the screen scrolled pictures of a life well lived. We came to celebrate the life of Karen; to grieve and to honor the gift God gives us in life on earth. Her roles were many, her zest for living contagious. Friends of old and new shared stories with one another. A family with heavy hearts held hands to strengthen their spirits for this day. We dressed in black to express our mourning, and black allows the Light to shine so well.
When he walked through – also clothed in black – we didn’t think it was that odd. There is a ministry here for such as him and there are people who come each week with helpers. Perhaps he belonged to one of these. He walked right through the crowd and slipped into Asbury Hall as if he knew exactly where he was supposed to go. He sat down. Handsome, strong and solid black. He made no sound. He was not confused or lost. He was present.
Someone guided him out a few minutes later as the music began and people were settling into their seats. We looked at his tag. With a CT address and a Predators symbol on his collar, we followed the clues and called. His master was hiking near the creek. He said he would come to claim him. We explained it to our visitor: “your master is on his way so just sit right here and he will come to claim you.” Our friend – solid black – sat down and waited. He knew.
As the service began and the stories were shared, Karen’s love for animals became a consistent theme. Her daughter carries on the tradition through her work at a local vet clinic. She even remarked that the dog looked a bit familiar. I wonder. I wonder if she is going to be at work one day and see the dog that attended her mother’s funeral? I wonder what it was that compelled this handsome creature – all clothed in black – to find his way from the creek, into the building and all the way over to Asbury Hall – to be present at this celebration of life.
Sometimes blessings just walk through the door and find their way to the spot they have been summonsed to go. We don’t always have to understand why. Appearances of grace…and a Master that is always ready to come and lead us home when our mission is complete.
What if the narrow door is not so much about WHO gets in or out but WHAT we let go of as we enter? Scripture paints a picture of holy space as being pure and safe and complete in love. Light is present and darkness has vanished; it is no more. Who doesn’t want to be in that space?
The “narrow door” Scripture reminds me of an experience with a group of students. We were on a youth overnight retreat, spending the night in a cave and exploring the next day. The place we slept was big and cavernous. Moisture dripped from the roof of the cave during the night. Sleep was fleeting and dreaming scarce. The tangible presence of excitement and fear set up with us as we settled in for the night. The next morning we embarked on our exploring. Moving through dark wide-open spaces and shining our flashlights to see the wonder of all that resides under the ground, we were mesmerized! Then we came upon some tunnels. And then we came upon a tiny, narrow passage – one we all had to move through.
Our guide let us know from the start: “you can get through this narrow place”. We weren’t all sure about that but we began – one by one – to attempt the passage. The smallest ones among us slipped through without much effort at all. Some of them were gymnasts whose bodies were already trained for challenging feats. Others were just small and limber; the fearless ones bounded to the front of the line.
As we waited for each one to pass through the tension grew. The bodies were bigger. Those with anxiety of tight spaces lingered toward the back of the line. I began to pray for each one, knowing we might be here a while. The last few students who entered this narrow passage had to let go of a LOT to pass through. We were all speaking words of encouragement and hope. We were praying underneath our breath. We were doing everything we could, but it was each person’s body that had to keep squishing through that narrow place. There may have been some tears. We all made it.
Jesus said the gate is narrow…
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
– Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 7:13-14
I wonder if it is what we hold on to that makes finding our way through the narrow place so difficult? The less we carry, the freer we become. The more we let go of, the easier it is to embrace the faith that moves mountains. Letting go of resentment and bitterness and betrayal can feel like giving up – until you feel the freedom of not carrying that weight! Offering forgiveness so you can let go and move on is a powerful way to lessen your load. Shedding the lies of shame and guilt makes space in our spirits for hope and restoration. Releasing ourselves from the structures and relationships that shut us down rather than empowering us to fly is not easy. But stepping into that narrow place leads us to full life.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Is it time to let go and squish on through the narrow way? Yes, the road is hard, AND there sure is a lot of freedom on the other side of grace! Can you release your grip on one thing that is holding you back today?
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt