Monday, December 4, 2017

Adventures with Baby Beluga

Never have I loved a set of struts more!
We started this blog wanting people to get a glimpse into what life is like on the mission field. One of the things that can be really tricky is car repairs.

First off, no one likes having to find a new mechanic. They rank up there with proctologists and OBGYNs - the types of folks where you want to be sure to find a great one for emergencies, and then never, ever have to search for a new one again. Now take that "fun," but in a foreign nation. There are hundreds of tiny, one-man mechanic places here. I'm sure there are some great ones, and some not-so-great ones. Our quest to find a reliable place to take our car started with checking word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and trying a couple locations out before settling on our current place. They were good to us when we needed new brakes in a hurry, did good quality work, were less expensive than others, and the front-desk guy is nice. Bingo. I think we've found our people. 

The next hurdle, though, is that every new experience here requires us to check and double check our Spanish. As the designated speaker in the family when push comes to shove, this lot often falls to me. Now, this is fine, except that I don't even know car part names or understand their functions in English, let alone Spanish. Mostly, a trip to the mechanic ends up being Mark (who was a mechanic for three years, and really does know what he's doing) being under the car and pointing, while I attempt to identify and understand the non-technical words enough to be helpful. 

Now, for easy car repairs, this is where the challenge ends. But, we're dealing with not-so-easy things on both our vehicles, including our current challenge of trying to get new shocks and struts for our van. (For those who are interested - the word for both is simply amortiguador.) Now, we drive a 2006 Chrysler Town and Country minivan. It's silver. We lovingly named it Baby Beluga. If you live in the U.S., and were on the road for more than five minutes, chances are good that you saw about a dozen of these today. In the States, they're everywhere. Here - not so much. Monday two weeks ago, we were told by our mechanic that he was sure he'd be able to track down and have the parts by that Wednesday at noon. I called on Wednesday at noon, only to find out that there were only 3 of the 4 parts that we needed in the whole country. No problem. He was going to widen his search to southern Mexico as well. Thursday I called. His connection hadn't called him back. Friday morning I called. No parts in Mexico, either. 

<whammy>

This is where creativity and problem solving are really required. I made a flurry of phone calls (thank you Jesus for the limited international calls we get per month!) to find the parts we needed in the States, near a friend of ours, who was actually flying down the following day. (It's asking a lot of someone to scurry at the last minute, but missionaries' friends are accustomed to being put out when coming to visit, unfortunately.) Found the parts! They were about 40% cheaper than the quoted price for here! They were in stock and could have been picked up within the hour! Turns out, our friend had already left the area to be closer to the city where she'd fly out. So, then what? She was willing to look around in the place they're staying tonight. (We are literally less than 17 hours from her leaving at this point.) After her own flurry of phone calls, she found out from a relative who works in a manufacturing plant that you can't take struts on an airplane because of the compressed oil inside. 

<double whammy>

I'm telling you - sometimes the most mundane parts of life become exhausting emotional roller coasters on the mission field! The drama continued with emails back and forth with a mechanic in the States who tried to figure out what it would cost to ship parts down. (That was a no go.) We thought about friends or ministries who would be driving down within the next month or six weeks who might be able to bring parts. (That was a no go.) We checked websites and made more international calls and finally <insert the strains of angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus> WE FOUND OUR PARTS!!!! So, our friend, who had arrived by then, got a whole new country in her passport and a glimpse into life in the fast lane as we headed down the mountain and into a southern Mexican border that had three Auto Zones, one of which had our parts.

<sweet, sweet success>

Two days later we had our mechanic install the parts, and we've been gleefully driving terrible, pot-holed, speed-bump-laden Guatemalan roads without dragging bottom ever since! Oh, thank you so very much, Jesus!! Like so many other things on the mission field, what should have been a simple drop off / pick up situation turned into a couple weeks of a lot of effort and tracking down leads, but IT WORKED OUT! Funny how things have a way of doing that, even if the road to success (literally and figuratively in this case) can be a bumpy one! 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Brain Dump

Alack and alas... we started out so well on writing on the blog regularly. :) But, these things tend to happen. Lately it's been hard to find inspiration and time, and especially the two simultaneously. We've also really hit the wall where our daily life is, well, just daily life to us now, so we don't ooh and ahh over the little things nearly as much as in the past. However, it is important to keep our faithful readers updated, and to ruminate on our ministry and all of its blessings and challenges. So, here goes - another brain dump of ins and outs of our life on the mission field.


  • This year we've had more visitors than ever before, and we're super stoked about it! It started with fun times with some old friends from a church we attended several years ago, continued with an amazingly encouraging time with our dear pastor friend from our home church, then the fun kept rolling with an impromptu visit from the son of a friend of  friend. (You know how that works...) Within the next week we're having family friends (including kids - yaaaaay!!!) visit us, and then another faithful servant of God a month later. What's so fun is that all of these folks come with a heart for (or at least curiosity about) missions. It's really cool that we get to be a link in the chain of God's plan for their lives and in wooing them into walking out the Great Commission even more. We hope the visits can continue!
  • It took us 12 hours to drive 306 miles last week. Part of it was rough mountain roads. Part of it was construction. Most of it was the fact that most Guatemalan drivers don't follow rules or practice courtesy. That gets old. 
  • Graduation for the Bible school went super well - the best of the four we've attended, in my opinion. Honestly, there is a sense before that it is soooooooo much work, and can be something I kind of start dreading a little bit. BUT - there is nothing quite like the looks of pride and accomplishment on the faces of our students as we help them into their robes and hats and see them walk across the stage and receive that diploma. For many, this will be their only graduation. In Guatemala, only 59% of people finish the equivalent of 9th grade. The disparity between rural and urban populations, indigenous and ladino, and male and female is especially alarming, with only 30% of poor, rural, indigenous girls enrolled in junior high or high school. (Source) Our Bible school is rare in that it accepts people regardless of education level, so our graduates are defying the odds in earning a diploma, and choosing to do so in the most important area of all - the Word of God! 
  • Our Thanksgiving will probably be just another day of home schooling, etc.. Or, maybe we'll buy a live turkey at the market and butcher it. Could go either way. 
  • Having a kid in the U.S. is strange - for her, and for us. She's currently being drenched in the decadence that is America. The struggle is real. Sometimes she feels like she's drowning in it. It is hard for any parent to see a child experiencing the bumps and bruises of early adulthood, but our situation adds another dimension. Some days I am tempted to pray she can just "fit in," but what I really pray is that she never will. I don't mean that as a judgment, but the reality is that third-culture kids (TCKs) learn a lot of things that many adults never do, and I don't want her to lose that bone-deep wisdom, even though it makes life harder there. I am afraid that we've made our kids perpetual outsiders, yet I rejoice that we've made our kids perpetual outsiders. Hmm...
  • The money part of ministry is still hard. I was hoping at some point it no longer would be, but that's not the case. Prospective missionaries - just be aware, prepare yourself, build your faith.


  • God is expanding our vision. Refining? Clarifying? Not sure which verb to use - probably all of these and more.The long and short of it is that we wake up every day increasingly aware of the people who need Jesus in the world, and we ache to do something about that. To do more. Always more. We pray for more resources, more wisdom, more time, more spiritual gifting, more open doors to walk into the areas He's showing us. The mere fact that we own Bibles (let alone multiple Bibles) is an absolute miracle, and knowing our Bibles well, and having had the chance to study and teach the Word of God, and being able to gather and talk about it with others - these are rare, precious, amazing things. May we never, ever take that for granted!
  • Xela is cold in the winter. Today I left at 7:15 in the morning to go deliver bread to the shelter, and it was 39 degrees. It does get down cold enough to frost. That's not awful compared to where we come from, but it does make for a cold house when you have no heat or insulation or carpet. 
  • I'm super pumped about what's happening at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala! We have a friend who used to work for the State Department whose job it was to visit and assess embassies. She told us about two years ago that Guatemala ranked way down the list in terms of service, and we had experienced that ourselves and heard MANY horror stories from friends as well. This weekend we attended a meeting of the ambassador and embassy staff here in Xela. They are all new - there's been a lot of turnaround the last few months - and they are awesome! They listened. They cared. They are already making changes. It's super comforting to know that these folks in particular are there for us if we need them. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Happy Reformation Day!

Yeah - I know. Today is more commonly recognized as Halloween, and not Reformation Day, but the former is not exactly a holiday I embrace. (Not judging - just stating. For what it's worth, I am still a bit unsure of Christmas and don't even observe Valentine's Day at all, so holidays and I have a complicated relationship in general.) However - one holiday I'm excited about this year (by which I mean I'm blogging, not making special food or dressing up or anything) is Reformation Day - and I'm not even Lutheran!

I am a home schooling mom, though, and we're knee-deep in European history right now, so the battle for the very hearts and minds of medieval European people has been a big topic around our house and table lately. You can't study Europe without studying the Reformation after all, and our timing couldn't have been better. (Totally didn't plan it, but will totally capitalize on it, like any home schooling mama should.)

You see, it was 500 years ago TODAY that Martin Luther - a man totally and completely devoted to God and the Roman Catholic Church - nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, and changed everything. What would prompt a man like this to do such a thing? In short, the Bible. It was not long before this that Luther was tasked with teaching Biblical studies at a religious institution, and was given the right/responsibility of thoroughly reading the Word of God himself instead of just repeating and teaching church doctrine. And what was he so upset about? Briefly, the corruption of the Roman Catholic church, starting at the Vatican (which he had visited and was shocked by the decadence he found there) and filtering all the way down to local monasteries and churches, at which he had lived and labored for many years. Most specifically, he railed against the practice of selling Indulgences, or papal-approved pieces of paper that people could buy to save their own souls or those of their loved ones.

In some ways, what Luther did was inevitable. After all, the runaway train of debauchery and anti-Biblical teachings of the church at the time were bound to be noticed and stopped, on a natural level if nothing less, but especially because of God's desire that people should know the truth of salvation and have access to it. Jeremiah 1:12 says that God watches over His word to ensure that it is done, and He is not endlessly patient with those who stand in the way of that happening. On the other side of the coin, though, what Luther did was impossible. The Church was wrapped up in, nay, at the very heart of literally everything then. Government and politics. Birth. Marriage. Death. Planting and harvest. The natural, spiritual, and eternal were all absolutely controlled by the Catholic church throughout all of Europe. When the pope excommunicated Luther for his refusal to recant, that left him destined to hell, but also open to arrest at any time and for any reason from any religious OR secular law enforcement body or official. I'm sure there are better ways of putting it, but I can't help but think that Luther sure did have a lot of chutzpah! 

So, now I'm pondering, on the 500th anniversary of this important event - do I? Do we? As Christians, do any of us still have that chutzpah today? After all, we have unfettered access to the same life-changing Word of God that stirred Luther to radical change, and there is certainly still room for improvement in the modern church. Please don't misunderstand - I'm not saying that we should head to services this Sunday with a hammer and nails. But, maybe there are things we can do and places we can start to at least keep that same spirit of reformation alive and well in our times just as it was in Luther's heart five centuries ago.

Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Write your own theses about things you know you can improve or change in your own life. (Note - this is NOT about changing others...)
  • Create a family purpose statement together. Stir up your vision!
  • Read (or re-read) your church's mission or vision statement or statement of belief. Pray over it, and get behind it with your time, talent, and treasure. 
  • Write a scripture-based declaration that you read aloud each morning. Remind yourself of who you are in Christ and the promises He has for your life. 
  • Be honest about the things you've been critical about in your marriage, family, or church, and then commit to praying instead of griping or gossiping about those things. 
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to show you if you're are trying to "buy" forgiveness for something instead of taking it to Jesus. 
  • Consider what unBiblical or unspiritual "indulgences" you have in your life. Are you willing to let God show them to you? Are you willing to give them up if asked? 
  • Nail (or tape) scriptures up around your house - even on your front door! - as a reminder of what matters most in your life. 
It may have been 500 years ago that Luther changed the world, but that doesn't mean we can't continue to do so each and every day! 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Prayer Cards

I can do without flushing toilet paper now. I've become accustomed to mudslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The crushing poverty that is the norm here is at least familiar and no longer quite as overwhelming to my senses as it was at first. And, I've made my peace with only getting to see my family and friends once a year. So, you want me to tell you what really, truly, and honestly is the hardest part about life on the mission field?

Are you ready? You sure?

Lean in a little...

Prayer cards. 
It's prayer cards.

Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. Missionaries are called to be a lot of things to a lot of people. We stand daily (hourly!) on the promise that God will equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17), 'cause there's always a lot of work to be done.  We pray, worship, preach, teach, cry, build, encourage, disciple, clean, fix, create... Oh, and then there's also the PR side of this "job." Newsletters. Flyers. Blogs. Emails. Fundraisers. Communication of all sorts. Honestly, that is one of the most time consuming and challenging parts of the work we do. At least I've done all those things before, but but this is my first go around with prayer cards. 

Prayer cards are those glossy, pretty cards that missionaries hand out like candies when they're on furlough so people can put them up on their refrigerators and remember to pray for their friends in the field. All the ones I've ever seen are stunning and clever and crisp and lovely and even seem to smell faintly of exotic locales. (Can you sense the envy?) In theory, I love this idea for our ministry. There's something very appealing about knowing people are seeing us and thinking about us and praying for us every morning when they get milk for their cereal or are indulging in a midnight snack. The problem is, I'm not sure we're cute enough for a prayer card. 

Don't get me wrong - I don't mean our looks. Granted, we don't have grinning toddlers or wide-eyed babies anymore, which automatically raise the cute factor of any picture. Still, I like to think we're a pretty darn cute family anyway, if I do say so myself. No, the kind of cute I'm talking about is the coordinated sweaters, adorable fonts, burlap and lace, Pinterest pro, essential oils type of cute. 

I know you know what I mean. 
That's just not me. 

So, I'm trying to put together a prayer card, 'cause I believe in them and I want to be on people's fridges and I'm getting ready to go on furlough and the clock is ticking! But, we don't have services down here that do cute stuff like that, so it's all on me. How do you make a good prayer card? Well, it has to start with good pictures. Unfortunately, professional photography is not widely available, and not in our budget, so all pics for this project are selfies or photos taken on the run on my cheap cell phone camera. Hmmm... So far I've pulled a blurry pic of a volcano for our backdrop and a smattering of closeups of our more-or-less in-focus faces. <sigh> This is where I start thinking I should be doing a better job of documenting and photographing our life instead of just focusing on, you know, living it.

Still, I am trying to remind myself that I'm not trying to sell an image, literally or figuratively. In fact, I'm not selling anything. I'm giving people the chance to pray for us. To join us in the often not-so-glamorous trenches here. I'm good at a lot of things that matter to ministry. I teach well, including Bible classes that change lives and eternities. I pray with people readily, frequently, and fairly comfortably - in two languages no less. And, I am big enough (a giant here, really) to wrap my arms around people and give hugs that make them feel safe and loved. Those things are what are important, not my lack of tech skills or resources when it comes to making these prayer cards.

Right?

So, despite the fact that I have neither essential oils nor an avid and sizeable Pinterest following, I'm going to finish these darn cards. Whether they will be stunning and clever and crisp and lovely, I don't yet know. (I will spare recipients the smell of Guatemala, though, since it is more pungent than exotic, to be perfectly frank.) They might not be super cute, but they will be from the heart, filled with love, and hopefully appearing soon on refrigerators all over as a reminder that we're here and we do so appreciate your prayers and support.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Perspective

Sooo.... here's something to think about: Our oldest daughter, who is 17, just returned to the States to go to college. She searched diligently for well over a month and applied to dozens of jobs, eventually landing a fantastic one as a housekeeper at a bed and breakfast. She makes $15 an hour, which is AWESOME and she's super duper grateful for it, but it's also not that much above the going hourly rate for the many other entry-level jobs she applied for (most were between $10 and $12). 

Here in Guatemala, the official minimum wage is 2,500 quetzales a month ($342.47), but many, many, many people (including a whole lot whom I personally know) actually only make 2,000 quetzales a month. It's pretty standard, actually. This includes entry-level workers, certainly, but isn't exclusively the young or unskilled. I have a friend who is a trained teacher with20+ years of teaching experience working full-time at a private school who makes 2,000 quetzales.

That's $273.97 a month.
$68.49 per week.
$13.70 per day.
$1.71 per hour.

Now, of COURSE, plenty of people do make more than that, and do not ever think that there aren't wealthy people in Guatemala! But, 2,000Q is the norm for a vast, vast, vast number of Guatemalans trying to feed their families and keep roofs over their heads. Keep in mind, this doesn't include the huge percentage (probably majority) who can't get steady jobs. They farm, sell products on the streets or markets, and (yes) work as housekeepers, though they're not making $15 an hour. Or even 2,000 Q a month. These people usually make even less.
 
Granted - some things are cheaper here. Fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, are less. Whereas an avocado in my local grocery stores in Iowa often ran $1 each, I can buy 7 for $1 here. A big head of broccoli is $0.68. Onions are sometimes as cheap as $0.21 per pound. Housing, too, is a LOT less. You can rent a 3 bedroom house here for $150 a month, though it will most certainly leak in the rainy season, not include a place to park, have no closets or cabinets or appliances, and be in a very questionable neighborhood. Still, it is possible to rent a perfectly respectable and safe (though by no means luxurious) 3 bedroom house for $350 a month, plus utilities, of course. (Electricity - $62.00, cell phone, single line - $27, gas - $28, etc.) Clearly, some things cost much less here. Then again, others cost more.

Luxuries like electronics are a lot more. Computers, for example, tend to run 30 to 40% higher here than in the States. But, the prices of things we consider normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff can be quite startling sometimes. A 750 ml (25 oz) bottle of mid-range shampoo (Pantene, for example) is $10. Butter is almost $2.00 per STICK. Gasoline (regular, not premium) is $2.74 a gallon right now, down from $4.38 a year or so ago. 18 regular rolls of toilet paper - the kind that is not so thin that it disintegrates on contact, but not plush by any stretch of the imagination, either - is $8.90.

Honestly, I don't know how people do it. We are really frugal people, stick to a strict budget, try to steward what we've been given very well, and are supported by many very generous folks in the U.S. Despite that, there are still challenges even for us to make it here, and we receive far more than 2,000 Q a month in donations! I try to imagine what it would be like, though, if I was like so many women here, abandoned by husbands who have either left for the States, died, or just walked away from their families. I just don't see how they manage.

Even IF a single mama can get a job making 2,000 Q a month, and IF her kids (let's say there are 3) can attend school for free so she doesn't have to pay for childcare, and IF everyone stays healthy, she will spend 55% of her income ($150 a month) on just putting a very, very modest roof over their heads and having basic utilities. That means she's already down to less than $125 for EVERYTHING else. For the whole month. $31.00 a week. $4.43 a day.

A bag of beans, a bag of rice, a couple veggies, a dozen tortillas, and one egg per day for each member of the family will cost her $3.25 daily, or $22.75 per week, or 73% of everything she's got left after paying for shelter. (Yes, people can and do sort of survive on that diet, but it makes sense why Guatemala has the 4th highest rate of chronic childhood malnutrition in the world.) Remember, though - this doesn't include soap, toilet paper, bus fare, laundry detergent, school books and supplies, clothing, healthcare, or anything else. For allllllllllll that and more, she has to use her remaining $1.18 per day.

But here's the real kicker - that mama, statistically speaking, is almost equally likely to be happy as the average American mama. The U.N. surveys 155 countries and creates a comprehensive raw happiness score which combines many different factors. The 2017 report rated U.S. as the 14th happiest country, and Guatemala as the 29th, but there was only a difference of 0.539 in the overall scores. Guatemalans had higher happiness scores than France, Spain, Italy, and Japan, among 120 others, despite having FAR lower GDP, life expectancy, fiscal mobility, etc.
So - here's my take away message for today - 

1.) Be happy with what you have. You can do it. Honest. You probably have more than you realize.
2.) See #1

That's it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Brain Dump

Hey. Life is busy. Time is precious. Thoughts still happen. Here are some of mine recently:

  • Our early missionary photos were mostly us taking smiling selfies with whatever / whomever on whichever mission project we were doing. Lately I've noticed that we just don't seem to be in the picture that often any more. I really haven't worked out a commentary on it, except that I found the presence of the 'smiling missionary self' vaguely troubling when I saw it recently in pictures taken by a short-term mission team. Is that rumbling feeling of unease justified? Have I just become too sensitive or jaded? How much of ourselves should we be inserting in the midst of what we do, and how we present our work on the mission field? Hmmm.... 
  •  I'm so grateful for technology. I have heard stories of missionaries who had to pay hundreds of dollars for a 10 minute phone call to loved ones. I can use email, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Google, or a myriad of other options to communicate and even have real-time video chats with my friends and family. It truly is astonishing, and I don't ever want to forget it!
  • I, personally, am in a season of contemplation and transition. That's hard for me. I don't like it. I'm most comfortable when I am throwing all of my emotional, social, intellectual, and physical energy at a project I believe in. When God asks me to withdraw all of that and sit.rest.listen.pray.heal.wait. - ugh. It's not my favorite. But, I know He's got plans for me that are better than what I could come up with for myself. So, I'm sitting. Resting. Listening. Praying. Healing. Waiting. It feels, in a strange way, like both self indulgence and self discipline or self denial at the same time. Maybe that's the point - to let Him strengthen and renew my true self, and discipline or deny the things I think to be true about me, but which are really distractions that I've allowed myself to carry but were never meant for me.
  • We had a job offer (of sorts) in the States last month. It made us really, really dig deep and consider what we want (people to know Jesus!), how we're doing here (mostly well, with some sort of hard stuff mixed in), and what we want to do with our lives (something that matters for the Kingdom!). On the mission field, there is ALWAYS the nagging question and possibility of, "When are we going to go back?" I still don't know the answer to that (maybe next year, maybe never), but I can say we've at least looked that giant square in the face one more time and felt the odd comfort of knowing the answer is, "Not right now. This is where where we're supposed to be."
  •  We're coming up on the end of our 3rd year here. (Wow!). One thing we've learned is that year 3 is very different from year 2. Most mission organizations characterize a person as 'short term' if they are on the field for 2 years or less. At first, this didn't seem right or fair to us. I get it now. There really is a significant difference between year 2 and year 3 in your effectiveness, your connection with the culture, your commitment to and understanding of missions generally and your calling specifically, and your emotional and social comfort on the field. I don't know if that's always true, but it certainly seemed to be a sentiment echoed by many 'old timers' around here. 
  • If you're a missionary parent (especially a missionary mama) please here this: investing in your kids is valuable. Investing in your kids is important. Investing in your kids is the right thing to do. Yes, it seems logical, I know. But, trust me - it's hard to walk out. I feel guilty for taking more time for my kids because it means less time for "ministry" work. I'm telling you, but I'm also giving myself a much-needed reminder - your family, regardless of where you live - is your primary ministry in life. 
  • So, we're doing furlough in a month. This year we're doing it differently, and not going as a whole family, and not going to make it a six-week, 10,000 mile marathon, and not going to feel like we have to connect with every person / church / relationship / place.  It's still going to be long and busy, but hopefully less challenging than furloughs in the past. The folks we don't get to see this year, we'll try to see next year. Or maybe they can come see us here!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Never Alone

My baby just left home for good.

She's the one who made me a mom.

Of course, like everything, this is infinitely more complicated on the mission field - logistically, financially, emotionally. Even though the baby she once was still peeks out in her smile, and she has only just celebrated her 17th birthday, she is also tenacious and strong and driven, and we've known this has been coming for a long time, which helps. She's getting ready to breathe deeply the air of her own dreams, and I'm so excited for her.

That doesn't dull the hurt, though. It has, however, allowed me to participate in an interesting phenomenon. Friends and family - the older, wiser women in my life - have circled my emotional wagon, as it were, in a new and different way recently. Just as women stick close to a new mom with a watching, knowing gaze when a baby is about to be born, they almost do the same as that baby is being birthed into adulthood.

They know the pain I am feeling. They see the restless shifting of emotional weight I am doing as the waves of joy and pain crash and reside during this transition. They know what it is to try to hold on to what is right now even as I seek to embrace a reality I have never experienced and don't understand. But they do.

As with labor, this is a shared and careworn pain. It is as personal and individual as any experience can be, yet it is also universal in an uncanny way. The rip of the fabric of our family being torn in two is fresh and sharp for me, but the edges have already frayed for the wise women who have come alongside.

This gives me hope.

I see the fabric of these women's lives frazzled but not undone, and I know the edges of my pain will soften as well. I am grateful for these women - these mothers - who have been where I am and have done what I am doing and who silently, knowingly come alongside.

I can sense that it costs them to do so.

Last night - my last night with all my babies sleeping under my roof and close enough to touch - I know the women who love me were also hurting. They, too, grieved a little all over again for their babies who have gone on and moved out and who are far away. They count the time since last their babes were gathered and when they might gather again. I feel it. These women's hearts rebreak a little each time they rush to try to soothe another's. The ones whose children haven't yet left join in, too, thoughtful and contemplative and pulling the covers up a little more snugly under little chins.

They do this because mothers are tough and brave and strong. We each hurt alone, but we always do so together, too. Fraternity is important - that great brotherhood of fathers, who have their own hurts and struggles and pain, but maternity also births us into a great sisterhood. I'm grateful for it right now.

I know that the edges of my pain will also fray and soften, and it will be yet another mark in the tapestry of my identity and motherhood. And, when it has softened enough, I will be able to be a watcher and a waiter and wise woman for some other mom in my life. Then, too, I will revisit this place of knowing and grief and in-between-ness. I will count days and mark time once again. Even though right now I would never want to experience this ache again, I will. And it will be good for me, and remind me that I have healed - if not completely, enough - and that will give someone else the hope that they will someday heal as well.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

San Pascual el Rey

If you think witchcraft is dead, you're wrong.

When we moved here, we knew that locals venerate and worship a pre-conquest Mayan god called Maximon or San Simon. There is an idol that is passed around among devotees, and they make offerings like alcohol and tobacco in exchange for favor, health, and good harvests. There is also a lot of belief generally around here in things like evil eyes, curses, superstitious practices, etc. There are caves in the mountains from which you can frequently see smoke from animal sacrifices being made.  In short, witchcraft happens.

Today I encountered a new example. We were shopping at the market in a little town near us called Olintepeque. Amid the usual colors, sights, smells (!) and sounds was the music of a mariachi band. We discovered its source - a little chapel just off the main square and behind the city's main Catholic church. We'd walked by this chapel dozens of times before and never noticed it. This time, the music and all the colored candles inside drew our attention. The sign read, "San Pascual el Rey." To have a saint's day celebration is not unusual at all. The difference was what kind of saint this was. I asked the vendor just outside the church about this 'saint.' She grinned and held up one of the candles she was selling. On the glass was a picture of a skeleton in a crown. That's who San Pascual el Rey is. He is rey (king) of the graveyard.

When I got home, I did some checking. It turns out that this ghoulish saint is worshiped in our part of Guatemala and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Deathly saints are much more common in Mexico than here, hence the abundance of skulls in Mexican iconography. However, they're relatively rare here. That little chapel in that little town just a couple miles from my house is the main shrine to this skeletal saint. The story goes that in the 1600's a particularly nasty sickness swept through the Mayan countryside. A dying man supposedly had a vision of a glowing skeleton in a crown and cape claiming to be associated with a dead friar who was (or had been?) canonized by the Catholic church. In all probability, this bony vision was yet another attempt to cross Catholicism with pre-Columbian religion. The skeleton told the man that he was going to intercede to stop the spread of the disease. He said that the man would die in 9 days (which he did), and then the sickness would abruptly stop (which it did) IF the people would continue to worship him.

And worship him they did, and still do, almost 400 years later.

There are special prayers to be said to this saint, and the color of candle a worshiper burns corresponds to their request. One color for love. Another for health. A different one for revenge. All to a skeletal saint and king of the dead. This is witchcraft, pure and simple, and it's still very much alive and well. I know it's out there. I see hints of it woven throughout the culture and celebrations here all the time, but it is strange to encounter it so openly and unexpectedly in daily life. Thankfully, the official celebration for this dude isn't until tomorrow, so we were spared any further introduction. Personally, that's just how I plan to keep it!


Friday, April 21, 2017

Visa Runs

Oh...Visa runs. They're a curious type of travel, and one which we've gotten quite familiar with. You see, our way of staying legal in the country is to leave it every 90 days. Now, laws are tricky things in developing nations, and we've *heard* (though been unable to confirm anywhere in writing) that it's required that we stay out for 72 hours. Of course, that might not be true, but it's what an immigration lawyer and border agents tell us, and generally keeps us from being harassed for a bribe when we leave. So, 72 hours it is. Because Guatemala shares open trade with most of its neighbors, it also doesn't count to go to those countries to fulfill the law. We can either go to Belize (expensive and much father away) or Mexico (only 3 hours up the road). We choose the latter.

A lot of missionary friends of ours tell us they absolutely hated border runs, and did what it took to relieve themselves of the requirement as soon as possible. We're leaning toward doing the same ourselves, but I must admit, I've kind of come to enjoy our Visa runs.

First off, they're not as scary as they used to be. Crossing the border used to be (and sometimes still is) an intimidating process. You have to go up to the immigration window in Guatemala - all the while having people yelling at you, tapping on your car window, and otherwise aggressively trying to "help" you and/or sell you things. At first, I used to be able to go and take all our passports, but they've tightened security lately, and each person must be present with his or her own passport, so we all pile out of the car, wade past the money changers, and go to the window. It is agony and torture while you wait to see what will happen. Usually they scan your passport, find your last stamp, scrutinize it for a minute, and then give you a new exit stamp. Sometimes they ask for a "fee" for each passport. Once I got pulled in to the supervisor's office for a 30 minute lecture from two different agents about how I could save money by just paying a fine to them instead of leaving for 72 hours. Generally, though, we've been getting to the border earlier lately and haven't had any issues.

Next up, you drive across the bridge to Mexico. (There's a 5Q fee to drive over it.) It's a strange thing to not be anywhere, at least on paper in your passport. They've changed our border recently, so now we can do a drive-through insecticide spray, and pay at the window immediately after. (They also raised the fee, from 75 to 95 pesos.) The next part can get a big dicey. The girls and I are told to exit and walk to the immigration office by the first guard, who then waves Mark, the driver, on to the next guard, who does a check of the vehicle. Sometimes it's barely cursory. Sometimes it's every nook and cranny of the vehicle. You never know what you're going to get. That's part of the fun. When he's done, he parks on the other side of the building and then walks back to the office to fill out paperwork, which is a standard immigration form and not challenging. We get our passports scanned and get an entrance stamp, then are given the bottom half of the form (DON'T LOSE THIS!) and sent on our merry way. The town we go to, Tapachula, is just 10 minutes or so up the road.

Now, I love, love, love saving money, and this is where the fun part comes in. Yes, it costs us money in going out to eat, getting groceries (we get a room with a kitchenette so we can cook most of our meals) and for our hotel, but everything in Mexico is so much cheaper than in Guatemala that I can save a bit of grocery money each week between Visa runs and really stock up. Also, the exchange rate from dollars to quetzales has been really bad lately (7.3 instead of 7.5), so the money we receive hasn't been going as far. BUT, the exchange rate between quetzales and pesos is really good right now (2.5 instead of 1.9). Already lower prices and a great exchange rate makes me very happy!

On this trip alone, for example, I spent about a week and three-quarters' worth of grocery money - approximately 1750 quetzales, or 4,460 pesos. If I would have purchased all the things I bought in Mexico at our usual places in Guatemala, it would have cost me 3,850 quetzales. (That doesn't even count all the things we buy in Mexico that we just can't find in Guatemala, like canned clam chowder and liquid coffee creamer.) In other words, I save enough money in groceries to pay for our three nights of hotel, we get to enjoy some foods (sushi!) and experiences (beach!) we wouldn't otherwise get to, it's quality family time together, and it keeps us legal so we can continue doing good work for Jesus in Guatemala.

The border process of getting back into Guatemala is pretty similar to the process of getting to Mexico. You start in the Mexico office, where you give back the paperwork and get an exit stamp. Next, we lumber over the bridge (no fee this time) back to Guatemala, where we once again wait with baited breath at the mercy of the folks in the immigration window. It's never been an issue, but it always feels dicey, and we're always super happy to be through. Then it's simply a bug spray (sometimes - if the guy is there) and a car inspection (ditto, though this one *could* be rigorous and the agent might decide to charge taxes on what we bring in), and then we're on our way. To be honest, we always breathe a sigh of relief when it's all said and done and we're back on the familiar road to Xela.

And just like that, the visa run is over! Granted, it's our only "vacation" time (unless you count furlough, which is a whole other beast), we always have to go to exactly the same place no matter what, and we have to take it every 90 days whether we want to and it's convenient or not. Still, I've grown to love our Visa runs (or at least not dread them like I used to) and I'm grateful that God allows us the blessings that we have on these trips.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Love Me? Love My Kids!

Before we made our final decision to move to Guatemala, I sat down and had a long talk with God. I was okay with not flushing toilet paper (you get used to it),  having to learn a whole new language (still in progress), and even facing the possibility of getting amoebic dysentery (not fun, but we survived). I was okay with all that stuff for me, that is. But, as any parent will tell you, it's a lot harder to watch your kids go through rough things than it is to go through them yourself. That's why I had a heart-to-heart with God.

I reminded him that he promised to lead gently those who have young (Is. 40:11). He reminded me that he loves my babies even more than I do. Chit chat. Yada yada. You get the idea. It didn't take long before I felt at ease taking my kiddos to Guatemala, and I've never regretted it for a second. (Although, I will say that since living here I can confirm a thousand times over how hard it is to watch your kids go through really rough times. But, I digress...) Part of what's made it do-able is that there have been people along the way who have loved my children well, and I'm coming to realize just how much that means to a missionary momma.

How do you love an MK living abroad well? (I'm so glad you asked!) Here are a few suggestions I would offer:

1.) Support MKs specifically. I cannot overstate how much financial and prayer support mean to missionary families. It is literally what makes our work possible. Finances are usually reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallly tight. One of the things that a friend of ours did was donate an extra $30 so our girls could each have $10 in allowance per month. It made me cry when he did that. Up to that point, we were scrimping to save 15 quetzales ($2) for our 15-year-old, 11 quetzales ($1.32) for our 11-year-old,  and 8 quetzales ($0.96) for our 8-year-old. Per month. That extra money - $10 per child per month - made them feel like they had some independence. Some options. Some freedom. Remember - there is no chance to get a paper route here, so they couldn't even go out and get a job if they wanted to. They usually use the money for practical things, but sometimes pay to have some comfort food that reminds them of home or to rent a movie that they really want to see. It's awesome that they can do that stuff because someone thought of them specifically.

We have other friends who pray for our kids, and they tell me so. They ask, "How can I pray for Rachel today? For Rebecca? For Sarah?" They remember what we discussed in the past. They ask about progress in certain areas. They connect personally via email or FB (when possible) with my girls to let them know that they are being looked after and cared for. You want to bless a missionary family? Support MKs.

2.) Visit, but thoughtfully. Home sometimes seems like a loooooooong way away, and having people from there come to visit means so much to missionary families, including MKs. BUT... with some caveats. First off, if you're planning a visit, ask ahead about accommodations. Often, having guests means that MKs end up giving up their rooms, spots in the car, precious time with parents, etc. I'm not saying you shouldn't come, but try to be sensitive. Ask if it would be easier if you stayed in a hotel room instead of with the family. Offer to sit in the back of the car. Give kids time with their parents. Make sure they have space and time to keep up their routines. Of course your visit is a blessing, and of course you (and the missionary family) will want to maximize every moment you can on the trip. But, being an MK can be rough, so try to be thoughtful about their needs, including asking the parents ahead of time what you can bring along that would specifically bless the kiddos.

3.) Recognize that they're missionaries too. I hate to say it, but one of the things that MKs struggle with is people trying to tell them about their host country. Or missionary life. Or travel. Or... you get it. I think one of the phrases all MKs dislike hearing is, "Did you know that <insert random, often wrong, fact>?" I'll let you in on a secret - it's one of the things they talk about when they get together, because it's so frustrating for them. I know it comes from well-intentioned people who are just trying to find ways to connect with an MK, but it's way better to ask and listen than to talk and inform. Try, "Tell me about...." rather than "I read on the internet..." Yes, MKs are just kids, but they've also had real-world experiences that most adults can't even imagine, both in regard to cross cultural travel and living and ministry. Missionaries work hard to teach their kid how to be polite and respectful, especially to adults, but it can be legitimately difficult in light of ignorant and dismissive comments. If you get the chance to chat with an MK (which I highly recommend), ask them about their lives (politely, of course). I bet you'll be surprised at how many interesting things they have to say.

4.) Give them space on furlough. Furlough is rough, folks. It is often week upon week of strange beds, unfamiliar foods, visiting tons of churches, way too much time in the car,  no privacy, busy schedules, and more. It's especially hard on kids. Don't get me wrong - we LOVE getting the chance to connect with friends back home, and the generosity that people show us by opening their homes to us is humbling and amazing. One way to make things even easier on MKs is to try to be clear about your expectations if they're staying with you. Set out a basket of snacks and tell them they can eat whatever they want from it, whenever they want. Tell them when meal times will be. Whenever possible, give them their own space where they can hang out. Don't judge them for just wanting to play on electronic devices or watch TV. A lot of times there are options available in the States that they can't get on the field, and they're trying to soak up as much of that as they can while they have reliable wi-fi and down time, two things that can be REALLY hard to come by. I once had someone lament that our kids wouldn't be around during their church's VBS because the church "could really use the help." My kids were polite about it, but I could tell that they were cringing a bit inside. Furlough is no vacation. It's already a really challenging work trip, so if you have a chance to give kids worry-free relaxation, it will mean a lot to the whole family.

5.) Ask them what they need. The best thing of all is helping MKs remember they're not forgotten. Let them know you're thinking of them. Ask MKs what they need. A friend of mine once blessed my socks off just by offering to take my daughters shopping for clothes. (I cried then, too.) The key here is to ASK, though! Remember - parents have specific things they need for their kids. Let them tell you what is needed, and then let the kids pick the items out if they're old enough. Take into consideration that there may be cultural factors, tax issues on purchases, space and weight limitations, etc. that you're not aware of. Sometimes we've had people get frustrated at us for not taking gifts along that they've purchased for our kids, not realizing that we didn't need that stuff or that it would be difficult or expensive to transport it. Just a simple thing like offering to buy shoes or get haircuts for MKs can be a tremendous financial blessing for the family, but it's also a chance for the kids to feel special and have their needs met in a personal way.

There may also be things throughout the year that parents don't mention in the monthly newsletter but that kids would really appreciate. Maybe there's a camp they could go to if they had the funds, school supplies they need, a musical instrument that they'd like to try, lessons they want to take, etc. Missionaries are often reluctant to bring up the 'extra' things like this because they don't directly relate to ministry work, so they don't want to ask for money for "personal" things. If you ask specifically what MKs need or want, it will help parents feel free to bring those things up. Trust me - this is a challenging, stressful thing for missionary parents, and they'd love it if you were the one to ask.


Of course, there are a lot of other ways to bless MKs. You know, the normal things that bless any kid - remember birthdays and special events, take them seriously when they talk to you, notice what they do well and tell them, be interested in what they're interested in, pay attention to their pets or stuffed animals, etc. Also, don't forget that your outdated technology might just be a huge blessing for an MK. If you have an old smartphone, tablet, portable DVD player, or laptop THAT STILL WORKS WELL but you no longer need, consider offering it to an MK (with parents' permission first, of course)!

It really doesn't take much to make a difference. Just doing the simple things listed above will guarantee that you will bless the MKs in your life, and by doing so, you'll bless their parents, too. Want to love a missionary well? Love their kids! That's the truest way to anyone's heart no matter where they live.