Ecuador – Day 8 (Final Day)

ecuador-344Well, the amazing week was coming to a close.  This was the final day of an incredible journey.  My emotions were so mixed….I was super excited to see my family back at home, yet I felt like my heart had planted roots in Ecuador.  I had new family there and saying goodbye to them bummed me out.  Another full day was ahead of us though and I couldn’t wait to get moving.

We had the opportunity of checking out project 542, ALC’s 2nd funded project.  Construction had not begun yet, but the plot of land was acquired (after some drama – see day 5 for details).  We had a small church service and hugged a lot of great folks….notice the hugging theme?  🙂  It was cool to envision what the new project would look like and what memories would be shared there.

ecuador-514These projects are placed in great locations, right in the middle of impoverished communities, which is ideal.  They serve as great hubs and resources for those in need.  I love the way God works and I love the way He uses His people!

Speaking of God using His people, I have a cool story for you.  After we said our goodbyes at 542, we broke up into groups and visited a few more homes.  My group had a special mission.  There was a little boy named Freddie who just had a birthday about 1 week before.  A little before Freddie’s birthday, his dad started a new job working in the mines.  The job wasn’t close to home, so he had to travel.  Although it’s great that his dad found a job, the family hadn’t heard from him in about 2 weeks.  They didn’t know if he was just unable to make a phone call, in trouble or dead.  Freddie’s birthday came around and he was really hoping to see his dad…..well, the day came and went and the family still had not heard from him.  Understandably, Freddie was very bummed about this and he missed his dad very much.  This story laid heavy on the hearts of the staff of 542, so they decided to do something so special…..they threw him a surprise belated birthday party and we got to be a part of it!!!!  They went to a bakery and purchased a cake made just for him.  They also brought some drinks and decorated the walls of the house with cool kid stuff.  To top it off, they had this awesome sparkler candle to place on the cake and those pull-string little firework confetti things.  Although the folks from 542 had limited resources and funds, they still gave what they could in order to pour out God’s love on this little boy.  Inspiring.

ecuador-549I’ll never forget walking down the dirt streets to his house, cake and supplies in-hand.  Then entering his house and seeing his smiling face light up.  He was surrounded by people who loved him, family and strangers alike.  I couldn’t believe that we were standing in a house in Ecuador, eating cake with beautiful people, witnessing God’s love in action….I was standing on holy ground…truly.

After our little party came to a close, we took the last bites of cake and it was time to head out.  We visited a couple more staff houses to meet their families and pray with them.  I was reminded once again of how dedicated these folks were to serving and pouring out every resource that they had.  They hold on loosely to their lives, knowing that God will provide.  I want to be like that.

After some great visits, the trip was officially coming to a close.  We were saying goodbye to our friends and driving to the city.  The plan was to head to the market to buy some souvenirs for our friends and family.  It was a great time and fun to negotiate prices with the vendors!  I wish we could wheel and deal like that more in the states!

The next stop was back to the hotel…the same one that we stayed in at the very beginning of the trip.  We organized our luggage there and ate some dinner.  For me, this was a sad time.  We were heading directly to the airport from the hotel and I couldn’t believe that the journey was over.  After months of preparation and prayer, God’s agenda had been accomplished and we had the divine opportunity of being a part of it.

ecuador-564Well, it was about time for our team to pack up and head to the airport.  The anticipation of going through customs and security became our new focus.  Eventually, we all made our way through the ticket line and it was time to say goodbye to our leader, Liz and the translators.  They became family to us and saying goodbye was harder than expected.  They were amazing people and we couldn’t have made it through each day without them.  They wished us well and we made our way through customs, through security, to Miami, to Dallas and finally, to Portland.  The trip was smooth coming home (thank goodness!!!) and we were ready to see our families.  When the plane landed in Portland, we all knew that it was time to apply all that we had learned in Ecuador to our daily lives.  There was so much to share with our loved ones!

After tons of hugs from our families, we gathered one last time with our group to pray.  We thanked God for an unbelievable experience and our strong team.  We thanked God for His protection and for the opportunity to be loved and to love in a whole new, powerful way.  I’m grateful for my amazing team and the memories that we shared together.

ecuador-572Looking back to about a year ago, I never would have pictured myself traveling to Ecuador.  I’m just a normal guy who goes through the daily grind like everyone else.  Being interested and responding to God’s call to go abroad never seemed like an option or a possibility.  Boy did that change!  It just goes to prove that God can use any of us to make an impact around the world.  There are folks struggling out there, doing their best to make it through another day.  They need hope and joy and comfort and food and care and love just like we do.  Getting to that point of thinking outside of our little boxes is hard, but it’s necessary if we want God to make an impact through us.  It takes intention and it often takes God slapping us across the head to get there.

So how do I conclude such an awesome trip?  How do I sufficiently portray what’s on my heart?  I guess I’ll just leave you with some great words behind why I went: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Matthew 28:19-20

As a Christian, the Great Commission lays heavy on my heart and truthfully, it scares the crap out of me sometimes.  God calls all of us to “go.”  It’s not always pretty or organized or perfectly planned, but neither is life.  God uses normal people to accomplish miraculous things, He just needs folks who are willing to take steps in faith and trust Him.  So I ask you this: Are you brave enough to go?  Are you willing to stretch yourself and risk being uncomfortable?  I encourage you to let these questions sink in.  God’s inviting you to join Him in transforming lives…in transforming your life.  Take the invitation.  Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks so much for following me along this incredible journey!  It’s been fun!

ecuador-585God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ecuador – Day 5

ecuador-229Day 5 presented a really cool opportunity.  Our team was invited to a ground-breaking ceremony for another church.  Basically, the church owned the plot of land and they were close to starting the building phase.  The ceremony consisted of some prayer, worship and a great faith-filled message.  A small hole was dug and a rock hung from a string directly above the hole.  Towards the end of the ceremony, the string was cut and the rock dropped into the hole, signifying the first stone being laid as part of the construction process.  We were a part of history….God’s history!  What an honor.

Pastor Alejandro planted this church and is also responsible for training others to branch out and start churches.  A good example would be Pastor Jonhny from Project 534, where we spent most of our time serving on the trip.  It was a pretty powerful thing to witness and I’m grateful that they invited us along.  Although we had no affiliation with that particular church, they considered us family…being brothers and sisters in Christ was the glue that bonded us.  The bible in action…awesome.

After the ceremony, we headed back to 534 to finish up some of the lesson plan stuff from day 4, go to some more home visits and prepare for another fun day of VBS with the kiddos!  Shortly after we arrived, we received some bad news….

Project 542 is the newest project for our church.  This is the 2nd project that our church has funded, along with 534.  Project 542 hasn’t started the building phase yet, they’ve only acquired the land…or so they thought.  In a nutshell, Kerly, Pastor Jonhny’s wife (from 534) was the main negotiator for the land.  From what I understand, it is pretty difficult to find good land and close good deals in Ecuador.  Negotiations are primarily sealed with a handshake agreement until things are made official via a notary signature.  Apparently, the seller of the land changed his mind and backed out of the deal.  This happened just before they were to meet with a notary to make things official.  Understandably, Kerly was pretty upset and frustrated because of this.  The first thing we all did together was pray…..we prayed for the guy selling the land, we prayed for peace and we prayed for God’s will to be done.  I love how prayer was the life-line in all of this.  Our Ecuadorian family didn’t have much, but they had God and that’s all they needed.  Inspiring.

ecuador-340Later in the afternoon, we received some great news!  Kerly decided to meet with the seller one more time.  I’m not sure of the exact details of the conversation, but she explained that her church family from North America was visiting and that she would really like him to rethink the whole deal.  He seemed pretty shocked that we were actually there in Ecuador as all of this happened.  I’m not sure what his main motivation was to change, but he decided to stick with the original deal and go through with the sale of the land….just like that.  It was one of many examples during the trip of God intervening when obstacles presented themselves.  So cool!

After some good news, it was time to start VBS with the kids again.  For some reason, I remember this day being pretty hot and humid.  Amidst the basketball and soccer games, I was a sweaty mess….like super sweaty….like really sweaty….like, ok you get the point :).  Even amidst the “steaminess” of the day, it was such a joy to see the kids again and make new friends.  I was also able to hang out with our sponsored kids, Alan and Nicole again and I could tell that they were getting more comfortable with me.  There were more high-fives, hugs and I even scored a couple of kisses on the cheek from Nicole….talk about melting a dude’s heart!  Have I mentioned that I love these kids?!

ecuador-273After another great day of VBS had ended, we had the opportunity of going on more home visits.  It was time to visit Alan’s house and I was so excited.  Because we went right from the project to their house, Alan, his brother and mom got to ride with us on the bus while his dad was waiting at the house.  As we approached their home, Alan’s eyes lit up with anticipation and he gave me a “here’s my house!” look as we began to exit the bus.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in regards to conversation because Alan’s family was pretty quiet.  To my surprise, as we entered their home, I was greeted with a thoughtful “welcome to my little house” sign on their wall and smiles flashing everywhere.  I felt so loved.  On top of this warm greeting, Alan’s mom gave me a bouquet of flowers entirely handmade of paper and other various materials.  It was for my wife, Pam.  I was floored and humbled by such thoughtful gifts.  We made small talk and I talked some trash with Alan about beating him in soccer…pretty funny.  As we talked some more, I discovered that his dad walks about 1-2 hours to work everyday and once he’s at work, we walks some more….he’s a street sweeper.  I developed so much respect for him and all of the hardworking folks in Ecuador who are struggling to put food on the table.  I couldn’t help but feel convicted regarding my attitude towards work sometimes….I added it to my list of things to work on.

ecuador-295Unfortunately, it was about time to leave.  Towards the end of every home visit, we always closed our time together with a group prayer.  During this time, we asked the family if there was anything in particular that they needed or maybe if they had specific prayer requests.  Almost every family either prayed for health and/or for their family to stay together.  Alan and Nicole’s families were no different.  Never once did I hear somebody ask for material things, handouts or pity….only the essential, tangible things that were lasting.  In North America, we have so much already and we have the habit of asking for even more.  These folks just wanted to survive and stay together.  How simple.  I appreciated these times of prayer together…..all of us in a circle, joining hands with one common thread: JESUS.  Chokes me up just thinking about the power in that.  It was beautiful.

ecuador-085It was now time to head back to the hotel.  Another great day was in the books!  Every day provided me with a new lesson about life and faith.  This day showed me that when folks gather together with God as the focus, powerful things can happen.  God is always present, but His powerful hand is even more evident when His people unite in love.  “For where two or three gather in My name, there am I with them.” -Matthew 18:20

Stay tuned for day 6!!!

God Bless,

Paul

Ecuador – Day 3

Ecuador 020Things were about to get real.  Days 1 & 2 consisted of travelling, overcoming, vision-casting, introducing, laughing, crying and resting in preparation for what was waiting for us on the next leg of our journey.  The clouds were beginning to lift in Guayaquil and we would soon hop on the bus and take a 2 hour drive to Santa Elena!  This would be our new home for the rest of the trip.  My stomach was churning with excitement…only God knew the powerful time that was ahead of us.

As the bus rumbled through the streets of Ecuador, past banana tree farms, past street vendors, past iguanas on walls, past homes, mostly small and broken, I knew that our team was ready for a new adventure.  We would soon be arriving to project 534 where we would be greeted with smiles, hugs and the presence of Jesus.  It was time to hang with some kids!  Not yet though….the bus began to slow down a bit and suddenly, the roads were solid dirt, the homes became smaller, wild dogs wandered the streets and it was obvious that we were taking a quick detour before the project….

Ecuador 038The bus rumbled to a stop and the lingering dust cloud behind us began to settle.  Little eyes, both big and small peered at us with curiosity through bamboo fence slats and door openings.  They must have been thinking things like; “Who are these people?”  “Why are they here?”  Well, to my surprise, we were there to visit a few homes of the kids that we sponsored, woo hoo!!!!  I knew that we would be visiting, but not this soon!  Although I was beyond excited, I have to be honest about something…..arriving to these poverty-stricken areas via a large bus embarrassed me a little.  I felt unworthy, spoiled and humbled.  The folks living in the community didn’t seem phased though…..just excited that we were there.  Unlike North America, every “hola!” was exchanged with another.  Every wave was returned enthusiastically.  Folks were human to each other, even amidst rough conditions.  How refreshing and inspiring!

Ecuador 145We broke up into 3 groups and ventured off to visit a few homes.  I had the amazing opportunity of visiting my sponsored child, Nicole.  As my group and I strolled down the streets of Santa Elena, I couldn’t fight off the nervous feelings.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Would they welcome me with open arms?  Would we have enough to talk about?  Would Nicole be afraid of me?  My anticipation turned to joy as soon as I was embraced by Nicole’s mom upon our arrival to their home.  I met Nicole’s dad next as I approached the door to their home.  Hiding sheepishly behind him was Nicole.  She wore a pretty white dress and was just plain adorable!  Understandably, Nicole was very shy at first.  We exchanged hugs and had a seat in their home.  I couldn’t believe that after a few years of mailing letters and praying for this little girl, I was sitting next to her, my shoes touching her floor, my arms hugging her, my team being a part of it.  God is so good!

Ecuador 046Our conversation was pretty simple.  It consisted of basic questions regarding school, food, pets, etc.  My man Fernando was translating for us (thank the good Lord!) and did a great job of bridging the language gap.  There may have even been a little ballet dancing going on between Nicole and I…maybe 😉

One last thing about the visit blew me away…in the middle of their main living space, there was a table with a photo of our family on it…yeah, our family!  Also, Nicole had multiple pictures of our family in her bedroom, strategically placed in a certain area right next to a little box which contained all of the letters we had written her.  Man, we were a part of her family!  They love us!  It was an amazing reminder that the simple things like sending pictures and writing letters to these kiddos means the world to them.  What a humbling and encouraging feeling!


imageAfter an amazing visit and big hugs goodbye, it was time to head to project 534.

I had heard about the experience of pulling up to the project for the 1st time and couldn’t wait!  Kids and families were just waiting for us to arrive.  Welcome signs were held and smiling faces lit up the space.  As we exited the bus, it was as though we were famous or something.  I wanted to shout, “we’re not that special, really!” but I just enjoyed the moment and grabbed all of the hugs, kisses and high-fives that I could get.  I let their love penetrate my heart.  There’s no words to explain it, only gratefulness.

imageAfter we all got settled, these beautiful people held a “welcome to Ecuador” church service for us.  They waited a day to hold the service due to our travelling delays, so thoughtful.  There was preaching (by Bryce), singing, dancing and American / Ecuadorian flags being presented together, united as one.  Powerful.

We had the opportunity to meet a lot of kids (including my other sponsored child, Alan) and reunite with the project staff that we had met the day prior.  It was a great day.  One full of anticipation, love and joy.

After this awesome evening, we headed back to the hotel and ate dinner, debriefed and prepared for the next day.  Day 4 presented the opportunity of teaching the staff how to structure a fun bible lesson for the kids.  We were all a little intimidated…it felt beyond us.  You know what, it was.  God stretched us and taught us something very valuable….to just trust….not only in God Himself, but the skills and abilities that He has given us.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on our own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” -Proverbs 3:5-6

Stay tuned for day 4!

God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing That I Struggle With Daily

trustingThis morning, I was taking some time to pray, read and just take some deep breaths before the day started.  I need these times to put my head on straight and focus my heart on what’s important.

As I sat on my couch, I prayed for God’s direction and that He would simply guide me in the way that He wants me to go.  This is a pretty common prayer for me, but this time my stomach started to twinge a little….I got nervous.

That nervousness led to uneasiness, then to worry, then to fear, then to doubt, then to distrust.  But why was I so anxious?

I’ll tell you why.  To state it bluntly, I struggle with trusting God sometimes.  I pray for direction, but then I’m afraid of the actual direction that He might take me!  You ever do that?  Questions roll around in my mind like:  “What if He moves my family?  What if we don’t have enough money?  What if I’m not good enough?  What if I don’t hear God correctly?  What if?  What if?  What if?

From a natural standpoint, my concerns over trusting a God that we can’t see would seem legit and understandable.  I get it.  But, I have a relationship with a good, big, powerful, loving, generous, righteous God who’s completely overtaken my life.  He’s my heartbeat.  He’s never let me down and He’s always provided.  Sure, many times His answers are different from mine, but He always comes through, always.

I’m learning that fear often doesn’t make much sense.  In this case, I’m anticipating God to move me in a direction that isn’t cool.  Maybe to a place where I’m uncomfortable and stretched (sometimes this can be a good thing)…..or to a place where my family suffers and struggles….seriously?!  It’s almost as though I forget that He created me and knows me better than I know myself.  I forget that I was created for a reason.  I throw every Bible verse aside that encourages me to trust and not worry about the future…..it’s messed up.  So I confess it, ask for help and move on.  Tomorrow is a new day to trust.

Friends, if you struggle with trusting God sometimes, no matter what it is, know that you’re not alone.  Join me today and everyday in throwing our arms wide open, in faith, knowing that our God and Father is calling the shots.  Confess it, turn the other direction and keep moving.

I’m confident that even a broken guy like me can learn to trust better.  You can too.  One step at a time.

God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

Why Being A Christian Isn’t Cool

Not CoolI’m a Christian, believe in Jesus, trust the bible and the whole bit.  I pray, often out loud, while driving down the road, for all to see.  I listen to a lot of Christian music with sometimes cheesy, weird beats and no cuss words.  I go to church and worship a Man named Jesus who I believe has saved the world by dying and coming back to life.  Yeah, to some people, I guess I’m pretty weird….at least in comparison to our culture.

I’m especially weird because I’m a dude and I’m trying to follow the ultimate Dude, Jesus who is more dudical than any other dude.  He teaches us men to be loving, to be humble, to be leaders in our homes, to fight against lust, to respect our wives, to discipline our children, to be generous, to be full of character, integrity and grace…..I guess it can sound pretty lame when you consider the alternative that our culture offers:  sex, lust, pride, status, greed, promiscuity, divorce, pro-choice, pro-marijuana, pro-equality, pro-everything.  Man.

So here we are, as Christians in this spot of tension.  Do we keep our mouths shut, comply with culture and try to remain neutral, hoping to keep our Facebook friends, Twitter followers and social circles intact?  Or, do we lovingly make known our Christian views, sharing the Good News about Jesus’s saving grace, while risking the title of “bible thumper” or “holy roller” or “hypocrite?”  Pretty dang tough.

I think we need an uncool revolution in this country, in this world.  Seriously.  We, who label ourselves as “Christians” need to re-focus.  We need to speak the truth, even when it hurts.  We need to replace the luke warm water in our mouths with hot sauce baby, confidently sharing God’s peace, grace and power.  Remember that moment when Jesus spoke to you?  Where He changed your life?  Dwell on that, draw your fuel from that, share that, invite others to experience that!!!!

Don’t get me wrong, this is a wake up call to myself as I write this.  I’m as messed up as the next guy.  I’m broken, but loved.  I’m a sinner, but forgiven.  I was lost but now I’m found.  I need to share this more.

Let’s be uncool together friends.  Let’s be different.  Let’s allow God to guide our conversations and interactions.  Let’s be light in the darkness, knowing that in the end, our “uncool” God wins.

God Bless,

Paul

 

The Day I Witnessed Freedom on the Dance Floor

Kid DancingWe went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago and we had a great time.  It’s always a beautiful thing to see two people come together, in love, with Christ at the center.

My youngest son, Will didn’t care much for the ceremony, the sitting and the waiting.  I guess you can’t blame him for that.  He was only concerned with one thing…….when the dancing would start.  The dude loves to dance.  Seriously, his little 2-year-old body is a never-ending ball of energy.

When the evening sky grew dim, the overhead lights became brighter and the temperature began to cool, it was time.  It was time to get down on the dance floor!

From the second the music started, to the second we left, the dude was cutting a rug like no one else.  Jump’n, jive’n, shake’n, spin’n, you name it, he made it happen.  He was a dancing machine and quite the popular fellow.

I found myself joining others in just staring at him, smiling, clapping and cheering him on.  There was something so simple and refreshing about observing him just being a kid, oblivious to the world around him, lost in the beats and the rhythms and the lights leaping off the floor.  He was free.  Perhaps our admiration of him had something to do with our own desire to let loose.

Dang, I want that kind of freedom.  As adults, I think we would all give our left arm for it.

Somewhere along the line, we lost the ability to fully relax, kick our feet up and just be ourselves….the once-common freedom that we had as kids seems to be buried beneath the responsibilities of life.

So we’re left searching for those moments of inspiration, sometimes vicariously through little kids.  Thank God for them.  They’re great teachers.

Sure, I’m partial to my little guy, but honestly, he inspires me.  Through all of the “why’s” and “how come’s” and “what kind’s” and “why not’s” lies an innocent, joy-filled heart that’s made of gold.

I think there’s a reason why God uses children as examples in the bible.  He wants us to be simple like them.  Not only in our faith, but in the way we question, in the way we interact, in the way we love and in the way we live…..maybe, just maybe, that’s the beginning of true freedom.

“For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.” – Matthew 18:3 (MSG)

God Bless,

Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Out What We Believe

HelpingHave you ever read a great story, watched an inspiring movie or heard an amazing testimony that compelled you to take action in some way?  Maybe your perspective was changed.  Maybe you felt encouraged to take a leap of faith.  Maybe you felt empathy for someone or something because of your experience.

What you witnessed left you with the desire to act.  I would even venture to say that inwardly, you had no choice but to act, to change, to rest in the revelation.

For those of us who fall under the label of “Christians”, what does our faith look like?  Are we walking witnesses, trusting Jesus to guide our steps or are we tired and timid, wearing the name of Christ as clothing, easily removable at will.

I have been a Christian for a long time.  I was raised in the church and surrounded by “all things Christian” my whole life.  Becoming complacent is definitely something to watch when you’ve been around a belief structure so long.

It’s so easy to fall into the comfortable trap of doing Christian things, checking off the list for Christ.  Going through the motions without allowing the heart-change.

Unfortunately, I think there are many Christians who fall under this category.  Wandering around like a bunch of zombies, following tradition, rules and procedures, all the while, forgetting about their 1st love, Jesus Christ.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there.  Looking back, I was a judgemental jerk at times.  Using my bible as a weapon, not for love.  I’ve grown up since then, but I’m certainly not perfect either.

Here’s the thing, when we’ve been gripped by God’s love, it SHOULD transform us.  It SHOULD mold us.  It SHOULD flip our freaking worlds upside down!

I’m not saying that we suddenly become theologians or scholars or saints.  What happens is actually quite simple.  Our perspective is altered, our heart is more sensitive and our love for others increases.  Most importantly, our view of eternity and God Himself becomes more intimate and real.  It’s a supernatural thing, not a common sense thing.

What we need these days from Christians, more than ever, is conviction of the spirit and the courage to love boldly.  I speak for myself here.  It’s something that I pray for constantly.

By conviction, I mean the yearning or urging to live out what God has worked in.  To be a witness in our words AND deeds.  That’s the key.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” – James 2:18 (NLT)

To clarify, it’s not just a do-good thing.  It’s a have-faith-in-Jesus-and-the-rest-will-follow kind of thing.  It comes naturally over time.

The world is dark.  Would YOU be bold enough to be the light that brings hope?  Would YOU be bold enough to be the love amidst the hate?  Would YOU be bold enough to share the story about a man named Jesus and why you have chosen to follow Him?

Faith without action is dead.  Action without faith is dead.  Let’s let others see Jesus’s imprint on our deeds, our words, in our lives and sparkling in our eyes.  It’s what we were created to do after all.

Let’s live up to the label we place on ourselves, by God’s grace.  Go get ’em.

God Bless,

Paul