Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Used Canvas

The brokenness of our world has struck me especially hard in these past weeks. That of the world and my own brokenness and imperfections. How easy it is to let life progress without stopping and really taking the time to examine your own life? In the face of tragedy or incredibly difficult times, perhaps we are jarred to do so. But what about in the times of monotony? When life is simply moving forward and we are meeting the status quo? I was recently very convinced by this.

In the history of art, there have been periods where it was not uncommon for artists to reuse canvasses. The implication, then, is that there are ‘ghost paintings’ beneath the painting we see on the surface. Perhaps a layer of paint exists between the two paintings, giving the artist a ‘blank canvas’ before painting on top of what once was. 

I always found this concept not only useful, but fascinating. Imagine the number of potential ‘masterpieces' or at least well-known paintings hanging in galleries around the globe that may have other paintings just below the surface. Images and concepts that we’ll never see. To the naked eye, they simply don’t exist.

Today I have been preparing two canvasses. I, myself, have used this technique a number of times and thoroughly enjoy it. I like the fact that the first (or second) painting below gives a layer or base of texture. The canvas is unique and before ever applying the first brush stroke to the repurposed canvas, there is character and personality.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 it says, 
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
I certainly believe these words to be true. The interesting thing to me has always been the fact that we have our past lives, our past failures, our personal history that we can’t erase. There are many analogies that have been used over the years to teach us that we’re completely wiped clean, seen as entirely new in the eyes of Christ when we put on the new life. Only He can erase our past and make us a new creation. I myself have used these word pictures— we are blameless, white as snow, seen as God’s perfect child. And yet we don’t forget our past. Certain events, perhaps, but we are marked and influenced by our past actions. I don’t say this as a discouragement, but to highlight the fact that we are molded and impacted by our experiences— be them good or bad.

But walk with me through the analogy of the reused canvas. First of all, the artist recognizes that the canvas still has worth, potential, and value. A bad painting does not warrant throwing out the canvas. The canvasses I prepared just moments ago had paper and other things glued to the surface. I painstakingly peeled off paper and glue with my fingers for quite some time. I took a tool to the surface to scrape off the parts that were too hard to peel off with my own hands. And the truth is, I didn’t scrape off every raised bump. I left some of it— intentionally. As I mentioned earlier, it will provide a base of texture and depth to the canvas that I actually want. 

After I peeled and scraped everything undesirable off, I took out my white paint. With a thick brush I applied a healthy layer of white paint over every inch of those canvasses. In spite of the fact that I used a thick layer of white paint, you can still see a faint image of what was previously there coming through. I could add another layer of white on top. But I won’t. I’ll start the painting with that faint image slightly showing through. But it will quickly be covered up. I’ll apply several different colors, potentially even layers of paint over the entire surface of the canvas, transforming it into something beautiful. I’ll take advantage of the bumps and glue and raised paint texture from what was previously there and work with it to create something of worth and beauty.

And God does the same with us. He takes care and time to bring healing and restoration. He chips away at the pains of the past. At times it hurts. And at times he has to use more heavy duty tools that we feel more distinctly to rub away the ugliness that was once there. And we don’t forget every poor decision from the past. In fact, we are fortunate to benefit from the good things that took place in our past and we hold on to the lessons learned from the hard times. The canvas of our lives doesn't become completely smooth upon receiving salvation. Our memories aren't wiped clean. God restores the canvas— He restores us. And he cleans us and does see us as his perfect, blameless child. But we’re still formed and influenced by our past and past experiences. And some of those hurts are still visible, even when the new painting has been laid on top of what was previously there. But God works with it. He paints over and uses the bad and ugly to make something beautiful. We may still limp from our past, but there is good thatch come from those things. 

We aren’t discarded. We are imperfect beings that have been declared as having worth, and then reclaimed, restored, and recreated as something beautiful. 

I am imperfect. Our world is certainly broken and it’s hard to believe at times just how much pain and filth exists. It’s humbling for me to take the time and examine my life, only to find that there are habits I’ve let develop and attitudes that have taken root that are less than admirable. And it weighs on me. I’m not proud of my brokenness. Especially because now I have to do something about it. I realize that I need to lift my eyes to the artist who created me and has been working on my canvas for a while and ask Him to re-work some of me. I am no masterpiece and there are parts of my painting that need to be scrubbed out. And together we’ll move forward in this process of sanctification. 

But I take comfort in knowing that He won’t throw me out. He won’t say it’s not fixable. We’ll get there. And I’ll keep trying… and He’ll keep painting. He’s not done with me yet. And though the painting is not yet finished, He sees me as beautiful, having great worth, and He is proud of His creation. 

He is proud of you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


This is the road just outside of our house in the dry season
I'd say that we had lived here in Ecuador for six months before I learned what the word 'polvo' means. Our summer months here can get pretty dry. So, when all of the dirt roads turned from packed, hard dirt to light, dusty powder, I learned the meaning of 'polvo.'


I can't tell you how many times that word has come out of my mouth over the past three months-- and especially during the last two weeks. Our house is currently under construction. It's a very old house, which means that the walls are made of adobe. Adobe is basically dirt. And our house has been filled with it.

Let me step back. God has blessed us with an incredible house to rent here in Calacalí. We love the house, we love how close it is to El Refugio, we love that there's a yard and that several of our Ecuadorian neighbors are El Refugio workers. The only downside to the house is that it only has two bedrooms-- one for us and one for kids. We do plan to have more kids, and it's nice to have space to host family and guests. From very early on we've said that if there were just one or two more bedrooms, we'd love to spend all of years here in Ecuador living in this house. That's how much we love the place.

So we thought we'd bring up the idea to our landlords. To our surprise, they were completely up for making an addition (with two bedrooms!) and were happy to front the money themselves to make it happen. When they found out we'd be in the States from October to December, they decided that would be the ideal time to do the work. They thought three months would be more than enough time.

We just entered month 7 of construction.

The back of our house, where the addition is being built
They're building up, so the nice thing was that they just used ladders and scaffolding to get up there to work. So although we've been living in a construction zone since January, they haven't had to walk through our house to do the work until last week. Last Monday they started busting down the wall to connect the two floors-- and thus began the dust.

So, we relocated our family to a cabin at El Refugio for the week leading up to Easter. But I (Jim) spent the work hours each day at home-- to keep an eye on our things, answer questions, make calls when things were needed, and attempt to keep the place as clean as possible.

We put up a big sheet of plastic in the hallway where the main demo was taking place, hoping to minimize the amount of mess/dust. 

It probably would've been worse had we not hung the plastic. But I vacuumed about a quarter inch of dirt off of the carpet in our bedroom (which we had cleared out, anticipating how bad it would be) after that first day. Every day when they went home I would sweep, vacuum, and dust to try and keep on top of the mess. And each new day, within the first hour, the layer of dust would be back.

In some ways it was quite appropriate that we were displaced during the week leading up to Easter. The workers didn't work on Friday, as Good Friday is a holiday here, so that was our first day back at home. I couldn't help but think of why Christ went to the cross for us. We are sinners. We are filthy. Though at times we think we can contain our sin and keep the 'dust' in a small, sealed space, we can't. It's just like the dusty dirt in our house that we have tried to contain and not allow to seep into every room in our house. But it does. Even when we got a big panel of plastic and duck-taped it on all sides, somehow the dust still has seeped into every inch and corner of the house.

But Christ has made a way for us to be clean. Try as we may to be perfect, we will fail. There is only one who is sinless, perfect, and clean. And He made it possible for us to be wiped clean-- forgiven. 

We're still (at least) a few weeks out from being able to move into the new section of our house. The wood floors upstairs need to be sanded (more dust...), the electrician needs to put in all of the light switches, outlets, and lights, and the floors need to be finished. The end is in sight-- but there's still dust ahead. 

I was reminded of 2 Corinthians chapter 4 as I've been reflecting on all of this. Verses 17 and 18 say:

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

The great thing is that when the construction is over we'll enjoy this wonderful house even more than before. We'll have additional space for our kids (and kids to come!) to play, for guests and family to relax and be comfortable, and to continue hosting those we build relationships with here in Ecuador. It has been a pain, but we look beyond the dust and hammering, knowing there's a purpose. We will have trying times in this life. But Christ has overcome the world. He has cleaned the dust away. He has made us clean. And there is an eternal reward waiting for us. For what is unseen is eternal. Even though at times it's hard to see past the dust.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Oyacachi: Stuck in the Muck.

As the shouts of joy died down, I will never forget the sound of all of the little voices yelling, ‘Noooo!!!’

Thirty five of us pulled into Oyacachi on a bus just two days earlier, with about five of us having visited the town previously. The group I was with is from Camp-Of-The-Woods, a camp located in Speculator, NY. They have a discipleship program (called LIFT) for young adults who want to spend a semester or two to intentionally grow in their relationship with the Lord, be mentored and discipled, experience outdoor adventure and God’s creation, grow in their understanding and experience of missions, all the while serving at the camp. We have hosted this group at El Refugio every year for about the past five years.

Part of their time here is always spent connecting with two of our ministry partnership sites: the towns of Chaco and Oyacachi. On the day mentioned at the start of this blog, we were less than an hour away from leaving Oyacachi to head back to El Refugio. What had happened was that during our three days in Oyacachi an excavator had come through and dug a trench between 5 - 6 feet deep between the road and the parking area where the bus had been sitting. The bus driver had finally gone to turn the bus around, after having sat in the spot for 3 days. When he went to pull out, the two front tires sank deeply into the loose dirt (that had turned to mud from all of the rain) where the trench had been dug. The nose of the bus sat squarely on the ground while the wheels were halfway submerged in mud. It appeared we might be staying a little longer than we had anticipated.

It was lunchtime when all of this happened, and our group had several tables end-to-end located right alongside two rows of other tables end-to-end. The difference was that our tables were normal height, while the other two rows were built for children— very low to the ground. Their tables were filled to the gills with little kids who are part of the Compassion program in Oyacachi. Ranging from three years old up to around ten or so, these were all children we had been playing with ever since we had arrived. The first night we held a service at the church where special music was shared as well as many testimonies. We began all together in the sanctuary, but split up halfway through the service with the second half catering more specifically to each group: young adults in one location and the adults remaining in the sanctuary.

The following two days were structured similarly as we had an hour at the public school each day to play games, share skits, and give simple english lessons, followed by partnering with the Compassion program hosted at the church. Students helped pass out the food to all of the kiddos, and the second day we were given time to teach the children. Following the meal the team put on a skit that connected to a Bible lesson and then all of the children made a craft alongside the team that related to the Bible story. Once the craft was done, everyone ran up to the community volleyball court for games that we had prepared, and many of the kids stuck around getting piggyback rides, laughing, and running around until we had to leave to eat dinner. We held another service the second night, and I practically had to beg a few of the young girls from the town to head home at the end of the night, as all of the team members were going to bed.

One thing I so appreciated about the LIFT team was their intentionality in deciding to make the gospel message central to all of the interactions and opportunities they had. Whether we were at the school, with the Compassion kids, or in an evening service, every chunk of time we spent with members of the community a clearly thought-through presentation of the gospel was plainly laid out. I should know, as I translated half of the testimonies, a sermon, and multiple drama presentations.

The Church in Oyacachi
In the short spurts of 'free time' that we had, I visited with the Pastor of the church and other members of the congregation. I even had a chance to ask a few questions and videotape the Pastor and another member of the community on our final day. When I asked the Pastor about the benefits he saw of teams like ours coming to do the types of things we had done, he enthusiastically responded by saying how clear it was to see the impact. He mentioned that when groups like ours come in we have access to a much wider base of individuals in the community. He even went so far as to say that those on the fringes of society are willing to come out and interact with us, and they're often harder for the church to draw in. It was obvious how dearly the children loved being with us, and he ended by pointing out the fact that when people from a different walk of life and place in this world come to visit, it opens up opportunities simply because locals have an interest in finding out who these people are and what their experiences are like.

We did finally get the bus out of the mud. Though the excavator tried pulling it out with a metal cable, we watched it snap twice and finally Rick jumped into action. He called us all outside and half of the team got into the back end of the bus while the rest of us pushed as once again the excavator pulled using the metal cable. It heaved, heaved, and finally lurched forward out of the muck! We all went back inside to finish lunch, and just a minute or two later heard the bus get ready to drive fully across the trench. As it plunged forward, it cleared the muck fully without getting stuck and came to a halt on the other side of the trench. All of the LIFT students cheered! And as their cheers died down, there were just as many of the Compassion children yelling, 'NNoooooooo!!' knowing that this meant we were, in fact, leaving. And it struck me.

Although we weren't even there for three full days, a connection had been made. Those kids loved being with the team, and simply didn't want us to go. I have never in my life experienced such a long goodbye as I did that day. Kids running, spinning, gifts being given, hugs everywhere, pictures being taken-- and neither side could easily say goodbye. Guillermo had found me at every turn throughout those three days and I was happy to be able to at least give him our family's prayer card and truthfully tell him that we as a family would be back again to visit in the coming months. Even still, that didn't make it easier.

As I reflect on those days today, a verse from John comes to my mind. In John 13:35 it says, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There was no shortage of love during those days in Oyacachi. And it wasn't simply all action/service-- there was a healthy helping of truth given with it. And as the team stopped at an overlook on the way out of town to look back, pray over the town, and sing a blessing upon it, I was reminded of what a beautiful picture it is to be in the family of God, carrying each others' burdens, lifting one another up in prayer, and being willing to give all of yourself through love in the name of Christ. Needless to say, it was a wonderful three days.

The town of Oyacachi, nestled in the valley of the neighboring mountains

Monday, March 16, 2015

What Does Love Demand?

As I took in the stares of about 30 onlookers and felt their hatred towards me, I believe that I experienced a glimpse of the way our Heavenly Father sees us in our brokenness and sin.

It hasn't been a fear of mine, per se, but I've really wanted to avoid becoming known as or referred to as the 'missionaries with all of the car problems.' But it might be time to lay that down and let it be what it's going to be. The irony is that we've really been the victims every time. The first time there was perhaps a level of misjudgment or naïveté after the initial breakdown of the car-- but the last instance and this one were simply outside of our control. Perhaps that's why I don't want to have this 'car trouble' reputation.

 I digress. Our car is still in the shop. On Saturday night we hosted a dinner for our latin american interns along with another missionary family. The dinner took place at their house. When it was time to go home, we were given the opportunity to drive their car back to our house in place of walking through town late at night. We would return their car to them at church in the morning. 

It rained after church. So, we got lunch, ran the errands we needed to, and the plan was to drop off Suzy and the kids at our house, bring the car back to them, and walk home after returning the car. 

I should mention that drunkennes is a problem in our town. I had commented to Suzy several times that morning how I had never seen so many people so drunk, wandering around and congregating in the streets of our town. We were a distance of about two blocks from our house when there was an impasse in the road. Several cars parked on the right side of the road, 2-3 cars parked on the left, and about 15 people clearly inebriated huddled right in the middle of the road. I give two short beeps of the horn, as is customary here, and the group started moving off to the side of the road, hugging the parked cars. I crawled forward, driving between a mile and two miles per hour.

Our neighborhood, where the incident took place
And then we heard the noise. What noise, you ask? Well, a drunken individual who owned one of one of the parked cars on the right side of the road decided to get into his car. As we drove by. He threw his door open, directly into the side of our friends' car as we drove by. When it made contact, his car lurched forward about a foot or so and rolled onto the foot/ankle of one of the inebriated women that was hugging his car.

I was greeted by many, many drunk individuals saying things like, "Nothing happened," "be on your way," "Keep going." I should mention that this was a brand new car our friends had bought just about a year ago. It's in pristine condition. Also, the husband of the family was actually in the US, as his grandmother had passed away just days before. After calling the wife of the family, her/their desire was that we take pictures of both vehicles and write down names, phone numbers, and license plate numbers. 

Let's return to where I started: the angry, drunken mob. After getting Suzy and the kids home, calling a couple of our Ecuadorian co-workers, and getting the police involved, tensions continued to rise and opinions on whose fault it was became more and more engrained. That, and if you've ever interacted with very drunk people, they're not the most reasonable to deal with. The owner of the other car took a running start with fists flying at me numerous times, every time getting restrained by the police. Many drunken rants, aggressive fingers being pointed, and very offensive accusations as well as comments about skin color were thrown about, willy nilly. I chose the very few words I used carefully, kept incredibly calm, and tried to maintain a controlled, neutral demeanor.

The panel that was damaged on our friends car will probably cost a few hundred dollars to replace at their dealership. If we take it to a local place, it could potentially be repaired for $100 or less. So that was the suggestion-- they pay $100 and we all walk away. Someone suggested a 50/50 split, meaning they contribute $50 and we all walk away. They were unwilling to try and gather this amount, saying that they had mouths to feed and didn't have $50 to their name-- which could have been true. I should mention that here in Ecuador it is customary and even expected for the parties involved to bring things to an agreement without getting insurance involved. With police present, they even stress and push for money to be exchanged on the scene for damages incurred rather than going to court or taking things to insurance.

As I looked at my neighborhood, all gathered around, drunk, I couldn't help but think of all of these individuals and this being where we live. These were our neighbors. Their relatives. Was my reputation worth the $50 (or less) that I would receive as compensation? The police sided with me, and wanted to help reach an amicable agreement, or we'd all go to court in a month-- incurring lawyer fees, fines, and more. I reached a moment of clarity where I really feel God was prompting me to do what I did. So I tried as hard as I could to get everyone to quiet down in order to speak and address everyone.

Here's more or less what I said: I've lived here for almost three years. We live in this neighborhood. I work just around the corner at El Refugio. I got the police involved because I am not the judge, and we needed a chance for both parties to present our stories and let the law act as  the judge. In my opinion, I wasn't at fault. I was simply trying to bring my family home from church. And perhaps you should be willing to admit that some of this, or all of this was, in fact, your fault. Regardless of that, here is my decision. I am a Christian. Today I am choosing to extend grace to you. I am not going to make you pay for the damages to this car. We will cover the cost of the repairs, though this doesn't seem just to me. For me, it's not worth making enemies. You are my neighbors. I want to live in peace with you and maintain a good reputation... 

At which point, the now 40 individuals gathered essentially cut me off, began embracing each other, me, shaking my hand, cheering, etc. He didn't deserve that grace. In fact, when he had to present his car registration and papers to the police, his car wasn't even insured, up-to-date, or in legal standings. They threatened to take him to the police station and lock him up several times.

Christ is love. He forgives us and extends us grace when we certainly don't deserve it. There was a whole lot involved in this terribly ugly afternoon-- and perhaps some of you reading this will think that I made the wrong decision. And perhaps I did. But Christ came to earth and extended his love to us. And sometimes choosing the loving response, even if undeserved, is best. 

I am going to pursue relationships with the individuals that were involved in this incident. I know that God was involved in all of this. And though part of me wishes it simply hadn't happened, I know that God is in the midst of all of this and that He will redeem the situation to draw people to him.

So, maybe we'll never shake the reputation of being the 'missionaries with all of the car problems.' But if people can receive the love of Christ and come into a relationship with Him through events like this, a less-than-ideal reputation is something I can deal with.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Supporting Ana Galindo

Last week we were blessed to have Ana Galindo visit and spend the week at El Refugio. We have been bringing short-term teams down to the Shell/Puyo area of Ecuador for several years now, yet I can still remember the day when we heard about Ana. I remember someone saying, “There’s an Ecuadorian woman who has picked up her life, moved down to Rio Negro, and is living there as a missionary to her own people! How great is that to have someone there year-round??” I had the blessing that same summer to head down to Rio Negro with a short-term team and met Ana for the first time. Since then we’ve had several opportunities to visit and connect, but none quite like this past week.

We visit our ministry partners throughout the year, continuing to build our relationships and seeing how we can best support them. I’ve been to several sites with other team members and the same invitation is always given: If you’re ever in Quito or want to make a special trip to come visit us at El Refugio, please come, let us know, and we’ll take care of you! To my knowledge, Ana is the first to actually take us up on this offer.
Ana has been in Rio Negro for 2 and a half years now and has done a myriad of different things. She started sewing classes with women in the community. She opened her home to youth of the community to play, use her computer, and learn about the Lord. She held informal church services in her home on Sunday mornings. She guards the famous hockey sticks of the town (donated by some Canadian mission team) and brings them out periodically for all of the kids to use and play floor hockey in the community gymnasium. She has distributed food and clothing to those in need. She washes dishes. She gives water or food to those working in the fields. She has given her life to see Christ move in this community.
Her most recent venture has been intentional discipleship with 4 boys around 13 and 14 years old. These boys have recently accepted Christ and Ana sees great potential in them. She has known about our ministry, and decided it would be a great experience to get these boys out of their normal routine, away from their parents for a week, and experience adventure in the mountains of Ecuador. So, Ana brought these boys to us and they headed out with our backpacking guides along with three other youth for a 4 day backpacking expedition.
All of our staff spent time with Ana while she was here: walking around the property, sharing a meal together, inviting her into their homes for dinner. At the end of the week I sat down with her and a videocamera, hoping to capture a glimpse of what it is she does in Rio Negro. I also interviewed the boys after they got back from the backpacking trip. It hit me when I asked Ana how she has felt about her relationship with El Refugio. She broke into tears as she quoted the scripture in Isaiah 55:8,
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
She explained how she had been praying and searching for some place to help and support what she’s doing. God connected her with El Refugio, and she shared with me,
"This has been the perfect place. The boys are happy. They have discovered a reason to enjoy this journey. And the Lord blessed me as well– allowing me to be here. I’ve had many hopes, many dreams– many things I had thought were crazy. But talking with Jim, talking with Paul; The Lord has given me His response: They’re not crazy. They’re possible.”
 This is why we partner with people like Ana. She has dreams. She has been faithful to God’s calling. She is investing in lives and making an eternal difference. It is our joy and privilege to come alongside her and others like her to provide the resources and tools we have at our disposal. That is the body of Christ.