Fearless Warriors and the Picket Fence

Casting Crowns has a song, Somewhere in the Middle, in which the chorus goes as follows:

Fearless warriors in the picket fence
Reckless abandon wrapped in common sense
Deep water faith in the shallow end
And we’re caught in the middle
With eyes wide open to the differences
The God we want and the God who is
But will we trade our dreams for his
Or are we caught in the middle

I’ve heard this song hundreds of times before, but this morning it hit home for me.  The Christian society of the United States is playing it safe.  We have so much potential, so many opportunities to make a difference, but we don’t want to risk everything that we have. 

In the missions field I found people who learned to live, not because they didn’t know how to before, but because they gave up everything for something more than material possessions.  We have the passion inside us, it arrived when we accepted to follow Jesus and when the Holy Spirit came upon us.  We have the ability to live out our faith.  We are warriors because our faith has given us the strength. 

But our American society has caused us to put limits on ourselves.  We don’t give until it hurts, because we fear we won’t have anything left.  We don’t want to give up our comforts because we enjoy them more than the unknown of following God.  We surround ourselves with the Picket Fence.  The retirement savings.  The luxuries of life.  Good food and great friends. 

I’m not saying that these things are bad, but look at what Jesus taught as he walked the earth. 

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  then come, follow me.”
 – Matthew 19:21

“Truely I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age; homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
 – Mark 12: 29-31

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
 – Matthew 8:20

Jesus sat down opposite the place where offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.  Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truely I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
 – Mark 12:41-44

And he [Jesus] told them this parable:  “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘ This is what I’ll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘

“But God said to him, ‘ You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
 – Luke 12:13-21

These are just some of the things that Jesus told his disciples.  Go back and read the full context of these verses and find what Jesus was teaching, and is still teaching us today.

The American society seems to have forgotten what Jesus taught his disciples.  We are so focused on money, on wealth, on education and comforts that we have forgotten that we are warriors.  We have restricted ourselves and our faith by the way we live.  God gave us fearlessness, yet we hide behind the picket fence. 

We have faith, but we do not want to test it because we fear the unknown. 

I have learned a lot from the men and women in the missions field that I have served with over the years.  From the small group of college students that ventured into the heart of the unknown in Uganda to the men and women that I served with aboard the Africa Mercy, I learned that the only difference between them and myself and the American Christian society is the fact that they jumped in knowing that God would provide when their feet no longer reached the bottom.  With them, I learned to swim. 

I will leave you with a saying that someone once told me:  When you step off the cliff of life and begin to tumble down, God will teach you how to fly or provide you with a soft landing.  All you’ve got to do is trust in Him for everything. 

God Bless and PEACE


The Meaning of Christmas

A couple of years ago, I got the opportunity to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) live in concert down in Greenville, SC.  As it was their Christmas concert, the first half of the show was a story, in which an angel was searching for the meaning of Christmas.  (note: the story can be found on their CD, The Lost Christmas Eve

Many of us search for the meaning of Christmas, but often are confused by all the traditions.  It’s the old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”  We are surrounded by what society believes is Christmas, that we have lost the story that came from Faith. 

In the Children’s Mass (Catholic service) this afternoon (Christmas Eve Service) the priest stated that everything about Christmas pointed towards Christ.  The Christmas Tree, an evergreen, represents the tree of life, which is the cross, the Crucifix.  The lights represent the light of the world, which is Christ Jesus.  The ornaments that adorn our trees represent the gifts and virtues that God has passed down to us.  The white snow, purity.  The presents, the sacrifice of the Son of God. 

All this is good, but I think we have missed the point.  We are taking things that society has deemed about Christmas and making them symbols.  In short, we are making excuses. 

What is the meaning of Christmas, you ask, if all our decorations, our trees, our presents, our lights, our festivities have nothing to do with it?  Why am I being a spoil sport for all the kids?  Let me ask this: What has any of this (Santa, the decorated tree, the lights, the candy and sugar treats) have to do with the Christian Faith?

Christmas is a celebration of faith.  Christmas is about the birth of Christ and his entrance into the world as a child, fully God and fully human.  It is a celebration because the Kingdom of Heaven came down to us.  Christmas is about God and his gift to the world, his one and only son. 

In Christmas, we see a celebration of family.  We witness the sacrifice of Joseph and Mary, and the love they had, not only for one another but for God.  We see their willingness to lay down their own plans and follow God, the ultimate example of Faith. 

The meaning of Christmas is the coming of Jesus into the world.  The beginning of a redemption.  An example for the world to follow.  The word made flesh. 

As you open your presents and spend time along side family and friends, remember the gift that is the cause for your celebration; the child, Jesus of Nazareth.  Find him no longer in the manger, nor on the cross, but within your heart.  It is there that you will discover faith. 

God Bless and PEACE

The Collision of Faith and Society

Over the years I’ve come to the understanding that my faith and the way I live my life leads me in a collision course with the ways of the world.  I’ve come to notice it more since I’ve joined AmeriCorps NCCC, in the way I interact with people, in how others act, in how we talk and walk, in our differences in the way we live. 

As a follower of Christ, I have high standards for how I live my life.  In how I live, work and relate to others.  I have high expectations for others, for myself, for leaders and for teams and communities. 

In following Christ, we not only have all the rules of religion (the Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Prophets seen in the Old Testament), we have standards of faith.  Look at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7), Jesus calls us to live above the laws of the prophets.  And yet, I find that many people strive for so much less. 

Our society doesn’t even strive for the law, let alone the calling of Jesus to go above and beyond.  Look at his words against murder (Matt 5:21-11), adultery (v. 27-28) and divorce (v. 31-32), just to name the first three of a long list.  He calls us to strive for something more, but I find that many Christians, those who call themselves followers of Jesus, don’t even strive for the laws of the prophets. 

I see to many people going out each night going out to drink and to get drunk.  That is their goal, to get trashed.  I hear so many people saying that they have faith, then they turn around and crack jokes about Jesus, disrespecting everything that they live for.  Adultery, divorce and sexual relations outside marriage have become societal norms, and we Christians have adopted them saying that “Our culture is different from that in which Jesus was talking to.”  We make excuses.  We convince ourselves that it doesn’t apply to us. 

Like everyone else, I am far from perfect.  I am a sinner.  I have made mistakes.  I will continue to make them until the day that I die.  But that doesn’t give us the ‘right’ to wallow in our sin.  despite the fact that we are imperfect, we should strive for perfection. 

We call ourselves Christians, followers of Christ, so our lives should reflect that of Christ, Jesus.  I attempt to live so that my faith is relevant to my life.  I try to live out my faith.  And in doing so, I find myself farther and farther away from many of those that are around me. 

I don’t drink.  I don’t do drugs.  I refrain from putting myself in certain situations that could jeopardize my integrity.  I refrain from going to bars for this very reason.  I try to respect those that I work for and with.  At times, I hold my tongue despite what I really want to say to people.  I try not to call people out in a group, to back them into a corner. 

I try to pray.  To reflect on things that have passed and things that have yet to come.  I have learned to enjoy the silence, because that is when I feel most at peace with God.  I see things differently.  I try to focus on God first. 

As Christians, we should be focusing on God in everything we do.  This will set us apart from everyone else. We are different.  It should reflect in the way we live our lives. 

Our faith and the world should be at constant war with one another.  When the conflict seems to fade, something is wrong.  Following the life example of Jesus will lead you into battle and into a daily sacrifice of your own life.  It will lead you to death, so that you may find life. 

God Bless and PEACE

Reflections Across Houston

Just over four weeks ago, the AmeriCorps NCCC teams based in Denver, CO headed out for their first round of Spike (projects that ranged from environmental to urban development, disaster relief to conservation work) across the lower mid-west.  In just a few days, we will all converge, once again, onto the peaceful campus that is a home base for us all.  We will share stories and experiences before many of us depart for the holidays. 

For the group of us that have become Sun 7, we will be departing from Houston in the morning.  For the past month, we have called the Houston Parks and Recreation Conference Center Home.  We have become a family, brought together by the forces of those in higher management, that conquered the challenges that were brought before us with lifted spirits and iron will power. 

After our first day on the medians, we learned the skills of spreading mulch.  From shoveling to raking to the proper use of the wheelbarrow, we excelled at them all. 

We learned.  We came together.  We left our mark on Houston.  And at the same time, Houston left its mark on us. 

Our time together has changed us.  We are no longer eleven strangers living together in one room, sleeping on cots that squeak and listening to one anothers chorus of snores.  We have grown, discovered who we were ment to become. 

The following images are reflections of our experience here in Houston.  The good, the bad and the (not-so) ugly.  They reflect our experiences and remind us of who we are.

 This image, captured at one of Houston’s Historic Graveyards that we worked at one weekend for ISP (Independent Service Project), is a simple necklace left on a tombstone, a gift to one who passed away long ago.  Moments and images like this are simple, yet they carry so much more.  Our work may have seemed like nothing mattered, but like this gift, we gave something back to Houston.  And in the same moment, Houston gave us back something that we cannot repay, the experiences that shaped us in the past month. 

Simple as it seems, we don’t notice these small things in life until we look back and realize how far we have come.  I cannot speak for each and every member of this team (nor the other 300+ young adults that are serving out of Denver), but each of us learned something about life these past four weeks.  We served, giving something to the communities that we are in and, in return, learned the life lessons that guide us home. 

 Above, our team leader cooked for us a wonderful Thanksgiving meal.  One of the simple acts that proved how blessed we are to have Meg as our Team Leader.  Her presence was enough to bring joy to any situation and a firm guiding hand to lead us with a constant smile.  Though soft-spoken, she has earned the respect of us all. 

 Later that night (Thanksgiving) we headed downtown to the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.  To best describe it would be the brain-child of a Thanksgiving Feast, Christmas Party, 4th of July celebrations and a Carnival, all in one.  Despite the drizzle that turned into rain, they still lit up the sky (and 24 Christmas Trees lining the streets) with hundreds of fire works, shot off from behind and the tops of buildings. 

 We also got the opportunity to explore the Aquarium.  While we have all seen bigger and better, we all enjoyed ourselves, dispite not seeing any sharks or dolphins.  We all enjoyed the oppertunity to touch the small sting-rays and other aquatic animals in the shallow pools.  It was fun watching my fellow team members become kids once again, enjoying themselves immensely. 

 Despite our many weeks on the medians, along with all the complaints and grumbles that came with them, we got the opportunity to celebrate the removal of non-native invasive species from Keith Weiss Park, just north of the main part of the city.  Above, Emily celebrated her conquest of a small tree that she personally removed.  Small victories like the one above brought us together and pushed us forwards.  Some of the guys even celebrated axing down some of the larger trees, even though there was a chainsaw available. 

 We even found an old shopping cart to lug all of our tools around in while we traversed the park.  Even though it made us look like homeless bums with an abundance of tools, we each enjoyed the opportunity to push the rickety old cart. 

 One one of the weekends, we traveled down to Brazos Bend State Park, where we encountered a number of smaller gators.  While none of them were especially impressive in size, it was a fun oppertunity to see the wildlife and capture some images of these magnificant creatures. 

 I also took a couple of pictures of the native birds, in honor of our Unit Leader, Vaughn, who told us about the park in the first place.  If it wasn’t for his encouragement, we never would have known the park was there in the first place.  At the moment, the park is in the process of applying for a team to work with them in some of the upcoming rounds (3rd or 4th, not exactly sure). 

 Despite working really hard, I found time to be artsy.  Above is some of the teams water bottles and Nalgenes, each of them made unique and individualized by stickers and attachments like ribbons and string.  After taking this image, I wrote a small page about each persons identity and how that is reflected on the surface of their individual Nalgenes.  It will be submitted to the Denver Campus NCCC Newsletter, The Altitude. 

 As we headed out to the medians, our constant companions, on loan from Houston Parks and Recreation, were four rickety wheelbarrows which slowly deteriorated.  By the end of the month, only one of them had an inflated tire and all of them were leaning to one side or another.  Some of them were better off than others, but we made it through the month, covering about ten acres of land with mulch (according to our sponsor and Team Leader). 

 Just this past weekend, I took the morning to myself (as everyone else still slept) and headed down the railroad tracks just outside our compound.  I made my way towards some graffiti covered box cars.  I’ve always enjoyed this illegal form of art, but have not participated, unless photographing it is considered participating. 

The different colors of paint, overlapped with precision across the metal sides of the containers reflected the diversity of this crazy place called Houston.  Like the clash of cultures and the stark differences of communities separated by meer blocks or streets, the graffiti was a beautiful macabre facade that stands out for all to see. 

 Along the road that paralleled the railroads stands an old abandoned car wash that I partially explored.  (note: I didn’t explore all of it due to the fact that I didn’t want to disturb a homeless man who was sleeping in the back)  One of the windows (above) caught my attention as it was reflecting everything around it, like a mirror that only partially showed all what was behind.  Like each and every experience that we encountered in the past month, we reflect each others emotions, while the reality of the stories fill in behind our spoken words. 

 On my back to the compound, I came across several dead animals (some fresh, but mostly older remains) but none of them caught my eye like the scattered bones that were littered across the railroad tracks.  A small dog or canine by the looks of it. the jaw bone, ribs, vertebrae and legs were scattered over 25 feet down the tracks (the skull could not be found).  Despite the scene of death, I found it disturbingly beautiful. 

Even though we are leaving this place, a death to some extent, we are looking forward to the adventure that lies in wait.  Next round (project / Spike) will have it’s own challenges as we face sharing a community with another team, taxes, and, for me, missing the first week and a half to train along side Sun 3, the Fire Management Team (as I am an alternate).   Though part of me is excited, I am not ready to leave this disfunctional family we have become here on Sun 7, even if it is only for a week and a half. 

All the packing is done.  The vehicles are ready (for the most part).  And we are prepared for the return journey back to Denver and the couple of weeks we have off for the Holidays. 

God Bless and PEACE

Striving for Something More

Today we headed back to medians, moving mulch from the piles where it was dumped and spreading it around the trees in the area.  While it is not the most glamorous of jobs, it felt good to be back in the habit of hard work, shoveling and wheel barrowing tons of mulch.  For me personally, I was just glad to get away from all the poison ivy. 

Each and every person on the team has worked one-hundred and ten percent, each and every day.   We have struggled through waking up before the sun rises, long hours of labor that seem pointless, and learning how to deal with the stress that comes from days of continuous work that never seems to have an end.  We have learned to work as individuals and as a cohesive unit, how to spot invasive species and the importance of lunch-time naps. 

We have worked together for four weeks and even though we have learned to work well as a team, we still hit snags.  We argue over which end of the median we should do first, whats the best way to spread mulch, and whether or not an action is necessary or just a waste of time.  Sometimes we talk it out, other times we raise our voices.  We argue and bicker amongst ourselves, but we have learned to listen to one another. 

Some words were said today that caused a bit of a disturbance.  Words can be extremely powerful, both in a positive and negative ways. 

One of the team called another out, saying that they were not working hard enough, that they were slacking off and that they should try harder.  (note: I did not hear what was said, but I heard and saw the impact of this statement.) 

This got me thinking, do we judge others work based on our own?  If we do, what do we base our own work off of? 

Too many times I find myself looking at the work someone else is doing and saying “They are doin’ nothin’ compared to what I am doing.”  Then I write them off as slow workers, incompetent or just plain lazy.  Unfortunately, I don’t happen to see the whole picture.  If I could I just may see the fact that they are working as hard as they are physically able, but because the differences between them and me, our pace, work ethic and motivation does not line up. 

I strive to work my hardest each and every moment because my faith calls me to be excellent in all that I do.  God’s call to follow Him goes beyond the walls of a church building, but into our daily lives.  To follow Christ is to example our own lives off of his own.  He glorified God, his (and our) Father in everything that he did.  We should too. 

We should not be basing anything that we do off of any other human, but we should be looking and striving to God for our bar of excellence. 

I will be the first to admit that, despite all my efforts, I still have bad days.  There are days where we just don’t want to be working.  Sometimes it’s too hot (or cold).  Sometimes we are bored with what we are doing.  We find ourselves wishing we were somewhere else.  We ache.  We are sore.  We are sick and tired of mulching medians.  But it is our job.

Be excellent in all you do.  Not for your own sake, so that your actions will glorify God. 

God Bless and PEACE

The Long Road Home

For years now, I have been constantly on the move.  Traveling has become a way of life that has led me to discover who I am as a person, an artist, a follower of Christ.  It is a struggle and a blessing that I have learned to embrace in the past couple years. 

I’ve written about home before, defining what home is for me, but I’ve come to the understanding that, maybe God doesn’t want me to settle down. 

To many Christians play life safe, and I don’t want to fall into that same trap.  In finding a home, we forget to rely on God for our every need.  I know from experience that I to often forget to allow God to provide, even on the road, in Africa, or wherever I am serving.  How much harder would it be if I were not on the constant move?

While spending a couple minutes of quiet time today, I came to the realization that life is more than a destination, but it is the journey that gets us there.  I want to constantly live in that journey, because its the closest I have ever been to my Father in Heaven. 

My home isn’t home anymore, not because it is distant, but because my heart is no longer there.  There is a saying, “Home is where the Heart is”, and I’ve come to realize that my heart is scattered as far as the people of this earth are scattered.  From across Africa to my own back yard, there is no single place to call my own. 

My heart cries out for the people of this world and for the love of Christ to be shared, through the simple act of living in community. 

My dream job would be traveling around Africa and the surrounding continents, living among the people and staying with different missionaries for 3-4 months at a time, telling the story of God’s work through writing and photography.  To share who the missionaries are, more than their name, age and sponsoring/home church, but their lives and how they live.  To share the stories of the people that their lives (and my own life) touch. 

I want to keep traveling, always moving and experiencing the wonders that God has placed in life.  I want to rely on Him and His grace for my every want and need.  I want to experience what it means to rely on the generosity of others.  I don’t want to be comfortable and to settle somewhere God does not want me to be. 

Life is a journey, and I know what is at the end of the road.  Home is not a place I will get to in this lifetime.  If “Home is where the heart is” then my home is with my Lord, Savior and King.  Whether I will see it in this lifetime, or the next, is up to his grace and mercy. 

God Bless and PEACE