A Grief Preserved

I’m one of them.

You know, them, those Americans that flooded our orphanage with boundless enthusiasm and big-bright-smiles that scarred our retinas, who fueled our knowing eye-rolls and starred in our barely exaggerated horror stories for which we only felt the most comfortable kind of shame. Them.

Those people I arrogantly tried so hard not to be.

Because, my god, remember when they made that whole room full of Guatemalans sing “God Bless the USA” twice in one hour? And how they snapped pictures of the kids so frenetically that the clicking shutters could have easily been the beat of whatever peppy Chris Tomlin anthem they were probably going to use for their slideshows? And, holy crap, that one time when…

…well, nevermind, that’s not the point. See what I’m doing? Always trying to distance myself, convince myself I couldn’t possibly be like that. That I couldn’t possibly merit such damning italics.

But here I am, sitting in my overpriced IKEA chair, writing about a place/people/life that is slowly shrouding in fog. I didn’t realize how dull my memory of working in Guatemala had become until a warm twilight rain brought it all back into startlingly sharp focus. Does rain hold all of your memories, too?

It barely rains here in Los Angeles, so I’m forgetting things.

I’m one of them because I left.

I had to, of course. I knew I couldn’t stay forever; I was enrolled in grad school, was starting to feel restless and cramped, was confident God was calling me back to the States. And yet…

Do you ever wonder if maybe you made a huge mistake? How are we supposed to know? Does it even matter?

I’m sorry, those are stupid questions. It’s just that a few months ago I watched a documentary about this disaffected American guy who, in every sense of the phrase, found himself in an AIDS orphanage in India. He’s still there; he couldn’t leave the place in which he learned how to truly give and receive love, couldn’t ignore the broken systems he would reinforce by going home, couldn’t be just another fading photograph haphazardly glued into the orphanage’s book of “visitors” – those who came and went and forgot.

Thirty minutes outside of Guatemala City, on a dusty closet shelf, there is a book with my picture in it.

I’m being pathetic, I know. Life is complex, I am finite, we all need to have patience, untempered passion will just consume me and weaken my ministry where I am now. Yes, of course, I believe all of that. Maudlin nostalgia is useless. Leaving wasn’t a sin.

But even if I didn’t sin I still think I need to be forgiven.

I need to be forgiven for the inescapable self-centeredness of coming and going with all the impermanence of one of Guatemala’s innumerable summer storms.

I need to be forgiven for asking the kids and staff to live with me, to be my family, to pretend four months could last forever.

I need to be forgiven for being just another opportunity for the kids to believe that growing attached to someone isn’t worth the trouble.

And I need to forgive myself for leaving the place that made me feel fully alive.

A year ago I wrote that the only way I could adequately say “thank you” was to become the kind of man whose life does justice to the hospitality and grace I was shown. Over the past few months it has also become the only way I can adequately say “I’m sorry.”

I am slowly learning that gratitude and grief bloom with the same flush of color, the way rising and setting suns are equally astonishing, each drawing me out of myself in aching wonder.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Maybe it shouldn’t.

Either way, I hope you are well and that you have grown in warmth and passion, daily encountering the hidden graces of this absurd thing we call life. And I hope, for both our sakes, that somehow in the midst of this process of learning to mourn our limitations we will dare to believe that we are more forgiven than we could ever imagine.

Your friend,

Matt

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Genios

My boys are all geniuses, apparently.

The past few weeks they’ve had end-of-term exams, which are always the prelude to end-of-term grade reports, which result in end-of-term anxiety.

But they passed. They did better than pass, actually. They succeeded and excelled against some serious odds. The school these boys attend is one of the best colegios in Guatemala; it’s a fairly rigorous, demanding school with reasonably high standards. To do well in school is one thing. To do well in this school is another. And they did it while needing to overcome some real social obstacles that come from not having spent much time outside the orphanage’s walled, 13-acre compound for much of their lives.

So we’re unbelievably excited. When we got the report cards and saw the good news, the other American volunteer and I felt like proud parents. All the late nights we’ve spent cutting paper, teaching fractions, explaining english pronouns, helping with the computers, feel like they’ve been given a retroactive injection of purpose and value.

And, simultaneously, all the struggles and frustrations that come with sending sheltered, hormonal, slightly rebellious teenagers to a new environment seem more manageable and worth it – because to see these distressingly passionless boys actually reach for something, actually want something and set their eyes on it, and then achieve that goal is exhilarating in a unique way.

It’s thrilling to see these solid manifestations of hope start blooming through the thick asphalt of these past few weeks that have been, at least for me, a bit difficult. And even though I’m leaving before I can claim any sort of significant influence, it’s nice to know that they’ve made a pretty great start for themselves.

And I’m praying each boy will realize his arms are a bit longer than he may have thought, and that he’ll become aware of the host of beautiful things that have been within his reach all this time, shrug off the numbing apathy of his past, and stretch far and high and defy the bitter odds.

 

 

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Gratitude

Sometimes I am treated with such grace and generosity that any notion of “repayment” just falls to pieces, and the only thing left to do is marvel that I should be so blessed to have encountered something so rare and profound.

But it kind of ruins my day.

You see, reciprocation is easy. You only have to quantify the approximate value of what was given to you and respond with a gift of your own, a pure-motive token of appreciation that also levels the scales and removes the lingering weight of obligation.

But what happens when you can’t reciprocate? When not only the worth of what you received is too great but any attempt to “break even” would somehow corrode the beauty of the gift?

I turned 23 two weeks ago. On that day, I was called into the apartment of one of the orphanage’s cooks whose daughter is attending medical school with some support from my family. She handed me, amidst numerous apologies for the paucity of the gift, a large coffee mug filled with candy.

I wanted to cry.

She had figured out when my birthday was, remembered it, and then gone out of her way to communicate to me that I was known and appreciated. It was totally unexpected, totally unnecessary, and totally wonderful. And now I can drink 50% more coffee each morning without trespassing into the realm of the addict’s “third-cup.” I was suddenly staggeringly deep in grace-debt, and began trying to think of at least a small way to say thank you.

Then, a week later, she assassinated any chance of “getting even” like some sort of master hospitality ninja.

As I picked up lunch for the kids she asked if I would be able to stop by the kitchen around 6pm that night “for a surprise.” Right on time, I walked into the magical wonderland of food production expecting, I don’t know, cookies or something.

But these cookies looked suspiciously like a tabled covered in a white cloth and laden with all my favorite food.

Oh no she didn’t.

Apparently for the past month she’d been slowly manipulating me into confessing what I loved to eat here and simply needed to wait for a time when she and her daughter would both have the dinner shift so they could make it all for me. Eggs covered in a meat sauce, black beans with cream, fresh bread, rosa de jamaica to drink, and, dear lord, a cheese cake from an amazing nearby bakery. It was all perfect.

I really, really wanted to cry.

We ate the overly lavish meal together at the makeshift table, laughing and trading stories as I also tried to express how thankful I was in as many ways as I could. But eventually I needed to return back to the house to help with homework. Saying goodbye and, for the millionth time, thank you, I stepped out into the chilly night air.

And I cried.

I couldn’t handle it. It was too much for me. Gratitude was crackling through my synapses and inciting such a firestorm of emotions that I could only stand and stare up at the roiling, misty sky and wonder what on earth was left for me to do.

The obvious thing would be to look for creative ways to thank them, and I’m doing that. But the sheer force of their hospitality and generosity requires something greater of me.

It requires that I change.

It requires that I become the kind of person whose life reflects and embodies the grace I have received.

When I left Wheaton, I felt the same about the mentors who poured hours and hours into me, sharing wisdom and passion far beyond their requisite classroom quota. I can no longer just stop by their offices whenever I have questions about life, purpose, God, human origins, political witness, inspiration, wealth, social justice, sexuality, or whatever else, but I can be someone who treats each topic with care and solid theology, always with a commitment to growing in love, never losing sight of what truly matters. I can be someone who learns with the grace with which they taught me to learn, who goes out of his way to communicate to others their overwhelming worth, even when they may not believe it themselves.

When I left South Africa, I felt the same about my coworkers and clients and new friends who welcomed me into their lives. I can no longer walk down the streets of beachside Muizenberg to the rehab clinic or chill in one of the many wonderful coffee shops talking about the bewilderment of existence, nor can I sit by the waves and listen to men and women who have been through numerous hells often of their own design speak of the cataclysmic power of the gospel, but I can be someone who doesn’t allow another’s brokenness (or my own), self-inflicted or not, to fully limit the hope I have for them in the present and future, to dull my holy imagination that sees into and beyond their chaos-fraught lives.

And now, as I am in the slow process of leaving Guatemala, I am daily confronted by my need to be someone who includes others with a free and easy joy, who goes out of his way to affirm and encourage, to give and to help. My time here has been as wonderful as it has because blessed men and women made me a part of this place.

Basically, what it all comes down to is that I need to become the kind of person whose life does justice to the innumerable gifts of grace that have been given to me. I can never say thank you enough to adequately communicate my gratitude, but I can try to embody that gratitude in a life spent in loving service of those around me; I can demonstrate my thanks by allowing their actions to shape and conform me more into the likeness of Christ.

And that is the ultimate example, isn’t it? Because of the infinite worth of his life and death and resurrection, for my and our salvation, there is no hope of repayment. But that’s not the point. In the wake of his lightning intervention we are to live as he lived – we are to allow his existence and work to form us, to be people who display the grace of his gift by living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received in which we become like him in his love.

And maybe that kind of life starts by buying that precious women some flowers.

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Wake-up Call

Remember how I once said that I kind of enjoyed (in an ironic sort of way) the early morning mental haze and the creeping exhaustion of getting up before nature intended? Boy, those were the days.

Three weeks in and my life now resembles a war of attrition with energy. My morning routine, which starts at 3:55, usually involves groggily snoozing both of my urgent alarms with a whisper of the perennially convincing lie that “I’ll get up in just a second,” and then flailing out of bed in a semi-aware panic a few indeterminate minutes later unsure if I overslept. After the blood drains from my head and my heart-rate comes down from “hunted rabbit” to a more sustainable “moderately apprehensive mid-sized domestic animal” I shuffle around in the dark trying to figure out where those thrice-cursed gnomes hid my flip-flops. Once successful, I throw a blanket over my shivering shoulders (inevitably hitting the low-hanging light fixture and scaring myself) and step into the hall – a shambling nightmare with plaid pajama bottoms, a striped hoody, a shroud of chaotic fabric, and, the coup de grace of my ensemble, socks with flip-flops.

I get my stylish self to the kitchen where I am faced with the moral dilemma of having to decide if it’s more important to provide orphans with food or to make myself coffee.

Ten minutes later, thankful for an endlessly forgiving God, I make some sandwiches and warm up breakfast. Then I put on some upbeat music and prepare to go to war.

The kids’ morning-personalities range from basically-levitates-out-of-bed-with-sunshine-and-smiles to might-have-a-knife-under-his-pillow. It doesn’t help that my spanish abandons me during the night so my first few sentences are always, shall we say, more on the “creative utterance” end of the communicative spectrum. I don’t really blame the kids who refuse to get out of bed; if I woke up to a pale, babbling manifestation of fashion-unawareness I would decide I’d rather not be conscious in such a world, too.

But thanks to some kind of operative universe-magic the kids make it to school on time, and I have some empty space on the schedule to fill as I want. I’ve started to write poetry. Sorry, world.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, I head down to the on-campus school to engage in some good-ole neo-colonialism: teaching english to fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders.  I’ve never taught ESL before, so it’s been quite a learning experience for me. I can’t say the same for the kids. But there have only been three classes so far, and I guess I’m moderately hopeful about the whole thing.

My respect for school teachers is definitely increasing with each session. I don’t understand how they do it, day after day after day. But thank God for them, seriously, brave and crazy and possibly masochistic sociopaths that they are.

I think it requires a certain possession of grace that I don’t yet have. I still find myself unpracticed in the blessed art of meeting people, especially kids, on their own terms. I marvel at my selfishness, wondering why I keep reflexively demanding people prove themselves worthy of my love and affection and attention when it’s not my decision in the first place. I am not the border-guard of grace, I’m the courier, and my little occupational delusion needs to end. I’m seeing some encouraging signs, and praise God for that, but I have a ways to go.

Oh, life, you maddening, wonderful thing.

Please pray for my house. We’re undergoing a change in leadership and the smoother it goes the better. My job will be the same, but the house dynamic will be different (in a good way, I think) and sometimes the kids take a while to adjust. Fun times await!

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Back to School

I know, successfully making one batch of Muddy Buddies (a.k.a. Puppy Chow) without burning down Guatemala doesn’t make me a domestic god, but I definitely feel like I’m well on my way. And, by next week, I will have successfully made two batches (fingers crossed, everybody). These are exciting times.

The reason for the culinary expeditions is the beginning of a new school year here in Guatemala (they do this bizarre and illogical thing where school starts in January and ends in November; what madness!). We have five kids attending a private school about 1.5 hours away, which means by 5am I have probably already downed two cups of coffee, with a third on its blessed way. The second round of school-goers, who study at the orphanage, departs at 7:15, a much more Christian hour, leaving the house empty and clean (by fourteen-year-old-boy standards).

So far, I love the whole process of shipping them off to knowledge-ville. I love the cognitive haze that comes from waking up before God intended and exorcising said haze by the sacrament of coffee. I love gently shaking the boys awake and then, when they fail to display signs of consciousness, flipping the lights and becoming un-ignorable. I love going back to their rooms five minutes later to find them sitting in bed motionless, possibly dead, with one pant-leg halfway to the knee of the wrong side. I love how their speed in preparing for school increases exponentially as time goes by, with one or two in full sprint as the minute-hand slides to “late.” I love saying adios to the last to leave, I love finally sitting down in peace to read my spanish Bible, and I love waking up an hour later in a pool of caffeinated saliva.

I love my third (or fourth) cup of coffee.

The whole process of becoming a part of these kids’ daily routine is a bewildering joy. I’m learning, slowly, what it means to really serve them, to live into the reality that I came here to support them and point them toward God, to model Christlikeness to them in a compelling, authentic way, and to be there for them in whatever capacity my limited spanish allows. Some days I forget. But some days, when my memory doesn’t fail me, I’m thrilled to experience the little graces that come from cleaning the windows, folding the laundry, helping with homework, and trying to explain negative numbers without knowing the spanish word for “anti-matter.” Tiny things they may never realize are all done for them, with love.

Yes, mom and dad, I’m thinking of you as I write this. Thanks.

I still have lots to learn, but what a privilege to be learning here, in this place, with these boys.

Anyway, back to my exhilarating home-making exploits. I remember how much I loved all the little snacks and stuff that would sometimes await me when I opened my lunchbox or returned home, and I figured I might try and give the kids here a taste (kill me, please) of that memorial childhood staple. After all, why not?

So if you have any awesome snacks for teenagers that are easy to make by a young twenty-something on the path to culinary theosis, please send them my way.

Peace!

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Just Three Months…

One of the nifty things about being me is that I don’t wait until sad things happen to feel sad about them. Not wanting to waste a moment in which I could be sorry for myself, I start the mourning process as early as possible. This is why, two days ago, I could barely handle the fact that three months from now I would be back in the States.

See, the day was just too good, too much fun, too full of that thrilling peace of being included. And, of course, when things are so fantastic I am obliged to reflect on the fact that they will come to an end.

And they will, at 8:30 AM on Monday, April 1, 2013.

Maybe it’s just because I’m craving stability and the freedom to really put down roots, but the act of leaving is starting to wear me down. And I’m only twenty-two. Kyrie Eleison. Seriously.

I imagine my life here in Guatemala will follow a similar path as my time in South Africa: I’ll be surrounded by a community of kind, inclusive men and women who fill me with warmth and a sense of belonging, I’ll develop a comfortable fondness for the country and realize that I would enjoy living here, I’ll begin to open up and experience the life-giving rush of new friendships, and I’ll slowly become a part of the furniture – an assumed part of the daily routine. And then I’ll have to find a way to live without any of it, and I probably won’t be totally successful.

There is, of course, a way around much of the pain; disengage, pull-back, reserve a little bit of myself, dissuade my obscenely affectionate heart from its usual exuberance. I could turn down invitations to impromptu worship and prayer sessions, go to bed early and neglect late night conversations with the kids in their rooms, care less about others, reveal less about myself, and generally convince myself that “it” simply isn’t worth the trouble.

But then what would be the point of even coming here? So, really, there’s no way to avoid it: I’m going to dig deep for as long as I’m in this beautiful country, press hard into this place even though I know I’ll lose a bit of myself when I peel off and board that airplane.

I’ve found in my limited experience that there is a blessed encouragement in the fact that it hurts so terribly to leave: it means that I managed to encounter a vibrant community into which I was welcomed. It means that, for all my fears of rejection and loneliness, I have never once left a place in which I felt unknown and unloved. It means that, when I head off to Pasadena, CA for seminary, I can happily expect to discover a community that makes my heart turn to ash at the thought of being without it.

And, I think, that’s a really good thing. (Or it’s psychotic masochism – I’m often confused.)

So even though it’s inevitable that I’ll be sitting in another spontaneous worship session or running around worthlessly in another game of soccer and sense that all-too-familiar twinge of panic, I hope it will only inspire me to sing loudly and play passionately, for my time here is too short and too precious to waste on fearful apathy, and the greatest tragedy would be to leave here and feel nothing at all.

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Idioma Idiota

Things were going wonderfully until I forgot the word for “kitchen.”

That one inexplicable failing of my brain turned what would have been a simple communicative utterance into a veritable train-wreck of confusion and garbled syntax, as if the little workers that maintain my language center decided that if I couldn’t even remember “cocina” they may as well just abandon the obviously doomed ship.

I barely slept that night. Despite having only been back in Guatemala for three days, despite not having practiced spanish in a year-and-a-half, and despite some other, more successful, linguistic escapades, I concluded that I was quite probably the world’s dumbest person and that my interactions with the kids at the orphanage I now call home would be relegated to pointing and disappointed smiles for the remaining four months.

That was two weeks ago. I’m happy to admit that the future appears rosier, and that I only lose sleep when I have a virus that demands frequent quality time with the bathroom. The language barrier still frustrates me, as I’m sure it will for as long as I am here, but the, you know, soul-crushing angst doesn’t loom as large.

And so I go about my day, slowly progressing in the happy enterprise of understanding. Learning a language is a lot like receiving corrective lenses, only more gradual and more likely to expose you to rather humiliating social transgressions. The world around you becomes sharper and more intelligible. The personalities of those in your community subtly shift, develop previously unnoticed nuances, and gain that uniquely human depth that is so often flattened by non-comprehension. And you yourself navigate the socio-cultural obstacle course with greater confidence, avoiding that curb, dodging the ever-present edge of that table, and in general finding the world around you to make increasing sense, as if multiple times a day you are waking up to a startlingly beautiful existence about which you had only previously heard second-hand accounts.

I love it. I really, really love it. Every time I successfully make a joke, or am so unsuccessful that laughter still fills the air, I feel more alive, more awake, and less a stranger to this blessed place.

I arrived on December 8, squarely in the middle of academic vacations, and so I’ve been able to spend almost all day every day with the ten teenage boys that share a house with me. I don’t think I have any official job description, or if I do no one has told me what it is, so I simply “do life” with them – play soccer, dig up concrete, eat meals, joke, wrestle, laugh, discipline – and try to be a source of love and friendship. I have such a small amount of time here that I sometimes wonder what good will possibly come from it. I don’t know. But I have no doubt that being here, for as short a time as it is, is good, and so I look forward to seeing God work.

I imagine I’ll leave here still in many ways a stranger; I’ll never know the kids as well as I would like to pretend I do, I’ll never see much beyond the orphanage walls, and I’ll never be able to express myself with the confident ease of fluency. But there is so much life to be had in the process of it all! And to focus solely on what I’m sure I am missing would blind me to what I can see, and merely heap tragedy upon tragedy.

So, for these first three weeks that I have been here, patience and contentment have been the name of the game, and though I play it about as effectively as I bowl (i.e. it’s a miserable spectacle of incompetence) I am having a blast.

Anyway, I gotta go find out who stole my phone.

Peace.

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