Month: June 2012

Oh, look. A church.

I still can’t get past the hugeness of Mexico City. You can go to the top of a hill in the center of town and see glittery lights stretching in every direction as far as you can see. Or you can just close your eyes and smell it. Exhaust, spices, incense, and typical huge-city smell speaks as much as a panoramic view stretching for miles.

The team took a “pilgrimage” to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Watched pilgrims and devotees praying through their rosaries, climbing dozens of stairsteps on their knees, sprinkling themselves with water flowing beneath the feet of a fading statue of the Virgin.

Somehow this basilica was different than any of the dozens I visited in Europe. In Rome, Assissi, Pisa, Venice, Lucca, France, and London, the vast majority of the people in each place of worship wasn’t there to worship, but to take photos, buy entrance to the cupola for a view of the city, and maybe pray a haphazard prayer for some sick loved one.

But the people in Mexico City are for real. There are few tourists, but tons of worshipers. They wait in real confession lines and murmur their prayers in the chapels and sacred spaces. Hoping to have their sins pardoned, their time in purgatory reduced, extra blessings to counteract their own sins. What a mission field.

At one point when we were visiting, I had to turn away from the mobs of the faithful, feeling sick to my stomach at the hopelessness of these millions of people. Shutting out the only real hope of salvation–faith and trust in Jesus Christ–in favor of a whole lot of works that they’re still not sure will save them. In disgust, I walked away and bought a liter-sized styrofoam sup of horchata for 18 pesos.

I found myself humming “Rock of Ages” as I walked away from the church, a place that can never provide any kind of security. How blessed I am to know the truth.

Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to the cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die. –Augustus M. Toplady

Get out.

I woke up to near darkness out the windows of the van. The landscape must have been interesting, because dozens of lights scattered the night sky with white and amber dots. I had to blink a few times to confirm they weren’t floating lanterns.

Crawled into my pallet on the floor of the primitive dormitory around 3 a.m. Woke up to the sound of insect wings beating the air around me around 4:30. Massacred a 2-inch bug when it got too close to my pillow at 5:17. Such was my welcome to Tamaulipas, Hidalgo.

When I walked out the door the next morning, the source of those floating lanterns became clear. Steep mountainsides stretching thousands of feet above us boasted brightly-painted concrete homes. No discernible roads–just lush plátano, citrus, and guava trees, impossibly bright flowers, and homes barely clinging to the hillside.

Losing a comfort zone or two behind on the streets of Chapulhuacán

I spent hours walking the steep, curving streets of Chapulhuacán last week. Climbed the mystery staircases I’ve come to associate with the best kind of travel–the ones that can’t help ending up somewhere very interesting.

I found some of the most breathtaking mountain views from the porches of those who live in the deepest poverty. Despite the lack of material resources, residents of the town have painted their homes in very bright, very Mexican colors. Pepto-Bismol pink, lemon yellow, tangerine, and cantaloupe-colored stucco and patched-together wooden walls hang onto the hillside at ridiculous angles.

Some members of our group hiked from Chapulhuacán to Tamaulipas, where we were staying. With hopscotch skip to avoid a steaming pile of cow manure, loose rock, or poisonous plant, we got farther and farther out of our comfort zones and lost our breath to the views and the thin mountain air.

How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”

–Isaiah 52:7

Ready for anything

Me and Montserrat, my new Matamoros friend.

I think it’s pretty earth-shakingly awesome that my God can hold the water of every gulf, sea, and ocean in the palm of His hand. Today, a few drops of that salty water–well, drops in comparison to whole seas–pushed me around and let me bob along powerlessly along their edges.

More than once, I felt the power of eight to ten foot breakers on South Padre Island’s seashore. More than once, thinking I’d be able to ride a particular swell, I found myself folded under tons of water that turned over before I thought it would.

It was a day of relaxation (read: tremendous energy expenditure) after a week of holding Vacation Bible School services for the children in Matamoros. I’ll miss those kids. Yesterday evening a girl, probably 11 or 12, asked me if I have any niños. I told her no, and she said she would like to be my hija. Then she wrapped her skinny arms around her waist and gave me a legit hug. None of that “I’ll-just-touch-your-shoulders” fake hug-ness they do  in South Carolina.

We prayed as a group tonight after watching a Dispatches from the Front video on Micronesia. We prayed about missions. Tears came to my eyes out of nowhere, along with a mental instant-replay of all the things I know to be true that I’ve been reminded of in the past few short days.

How great God is! How blessed we are–but how comfortable we tend to get in our cushy Christian community bubbles! I prayed aloud that the Lord would keep us from getting too comfortable to do whatever He wants us to do. That He would teach us how to reach out to hurting people. To remind us that we’ve got to hold on to His promises, His strength. And my voice cracked, because even as I was praying, it hit me in a very un-ignorable way how very inadequate I am.

Because I even have the opportunity to go on this seemingly canned missions experience that at times seems more for my benefit than for the missionaries and children we’re working with. I feel like I’m being given so much more than I’m putting out. Because even during my prayer this evening, I was pridefully trying to choose the right words so I’d sound thoughtful and sold-out for the Lord. What a joke! It reminded me of Paul’s statement in Romans:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I… For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.

–Romans 7:15-19

Inadequate? There aren’t words to describe how completely inadequate I am to be a recipient of Christ’s grace. But He handled that (Romans 8). I am resolved to go or stay wherever He wants, for His glory. By His grace, I’m resolved to hang onto His promises with all that I’ve got–living life like a game of sand volleyball, like I’m going to dive for that pelota no matter how unlikely it looks or how much micro-glass is going to end up in my eyes as a result.

All in. Ready for anything.


The more I travel internationally, the more I realize that some adventures recur.

First: mystery toilets. Those times when chains, levers, and foot pedals in the most unlikely places initiate the flushing mechanism. Sometimes, entire mystery bathrooms.

At a restroom in a shopping mall yesterday, a woman informed me–right before I went into a stall–that there wasn’t toilet paper. A single roll was mounted beside the sinks, and visitors had to grab a handful before getting on with business. Blessings on that woman–how easy it would have been for her to laugh at the gringa! I could have hugged her.

Second: seating areas. Where do you go when you don’t want to spend your hard-earned pesos for a place in a coffee shop? To the ground, of course. And then an ever-so-polite security guard saunters up, says “Buenas tardes,” and informs you that the ground is not the place to sit. I had the same problem in Europe, but obviously I still haven’t figured out how not to get evicted from curbs.

Third: time. In Hispanic culture, time is a cultural construct, not an absolute. The term “ahorita,” used to signify “right now, give or take twenty minutes,” takes on a different meaning with the Saldivars, our team’s organizers. Everything happens thirty minutes to three hours after it was planned. It’s driving me crazy. This is a lesson in something very like patience.

Through it all, the beauty of praising all that the Lord has made–from the sweltering sun south of the border to the new friends with whom I’m learning to make balloon animals–doesn’t change.

My responsibility to honor Him is the same, even when I’m in places where there are a thousand different ways to flush a toilet.

The Hunger Games–An Unpaid Debt

I will have finished all of the Hunger Games books by the time I leave for my mission trip to Mexico tomorrow morning. Right now, that has one stark implication: I have to find something else to read on the road to Mexico City. And it’ll have to be good to follow Suzanne Collins.

As I’ve been reading Collins’ riveting trilogy, I’ve also been brushing up on a much more important, true story: the basics of the Gospel.

Interestingly, woven throughout The Hunger Games series is a thread of recompense that holds all the characters together. The theme of debt and repayment form a vital part of the plot and the characters’ lives. And deaths.

At first, Katniss owes Peeta for taking a beating to give her the bread that saves her life.

Later, she owes Peeta for saving her life in the arena. Later, she owes Finnick for saving Peeta after he comes into contact with the force field.

As Katniss works to escape from this debt to others, she falls into circumstances that domino into an entire rebellion–thousands of citizens dying more or less for her.

Because of her.

She’ll never be able to escape that kind of debt.

Sort of like I’ll never be able to escape the debt to the One who never did wrong yet died a most humiliating, painful death on the cross. For me. Because if a sinless substitute–God’s Son–hadn’t taken my place, I would be spending an eternity in hell, starting now.

I’ll never be even with God. I couldn’t die a thousand deaths to make up for what He’s given me. Just like Katniss couldn’t truly make up for the deaths of thousands by putting an arrow through the heart of President Snow.

And…. you know what? My very inequality with God is what makes Him trustworthy.

Because I could never trust a God to whom I don’t owe more than I can pay.

Culture not included

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

Romans 11:33

The only comfort zone we’re supposed to stay in is the Lord’s.

Last week, I went to The Wilds Christian Camp (for the first time) to be a counselor (for the first time) for a mission board I’ve never been associated with. My job was working with a diverse group of missionary kids, ages 6-18, for the week.

Out of my element? I think…yes.

I had every reason to feel out of place at that conference. But before the first day of setting up was over, I had been welcomed by the best, biggest clique in the world: brothers and sisters in Christ, culture notwithstanding.

They even taught me how to play volleyball, to shoot assault rifles, and to walk on stilts (yeah, that sort of failed). I have the bruises to show for all of it.

My red team co-captain for the Gospel Fellowship Association’s family week was particularly concerned about a little girl I hadn’t really even noticed. I thought she was shy. He thought she wasn’t participating because there was something on her mind. I thought she had a bad attitude. He was worried about her.

Toward the end of the week, I spent an afternoon of free time with the girl and got to know her a little. The guy I was working with was incredibly perceptive. It turns out, she didn’t just need an attitude adjustment. She needed someone to shut up long enough to listen.

She needed to know there was someone else there who “fit in” even less than she did. To be pointed back to truth: who cares about comfort zones? Life following the Lord is a grand adventure for His glory, not our comfort.

Over cream sodas at Cool Beans, river tubing,  and a long walk around campus, I told her about being dragged around the world when I was a child–not for missions, but for phone books. She had to laugh at that one.