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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Exposure

I recently had the amazing privilege to walk on Honduran soil for five days as I visited a dear friend from Wheaton who currently works with streets kids in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

It was an incredibly filling time of friendship, inspiration, and joy (and yes, Tyler, I’m aware all those things are found in My Little Pony). Or maybe it was incredibly filling because of all the food. Wonderful, blessed, ultra-tasty food. (I must comment on the amazing fact that, for all the sixteen countries I’ve been to, I don’t recall ever disliking the local cuisine. Obviously I haven’t been to England.)

Tegucigalpa sits in a valley bowl, which is brilliant for night-time views of glittering lamplights and torturous for walking. The roads appeared to be in competition with one another to see which could be the most vertical. They were all winners.

My host took me down those streets, through the markets, and brought me to some of the common haunts of the runaways – the drug-addicted, rejected children of Tegucigalpa, his friends.

I had never talked to someone as they drugged themselves. Sure, I’d worked with drug-addicts in South Africa for a few months, but always in the context of recovery. This was different. It would make for more dramatic prose to describe the feelings of shock and revulsion I experienced while watching twelve year-old eyes film over from the effects of the yellow glue, but then I would be writing fiction. I didn’t really feel anything more potent than a familiar sadness.

Drug-addicted homelessness, twitching survival, was simply their reality, and I was merely a guest. They didn’t seem to mind.* Some of them even wanted me to take pictures of them with their quarter-full drug bottles as one does with a close friend. That’s probably not far from how they see their relationship with the numbing inhalant. It makes sense.

Moving between the streets and The Micah Project, a community in which teenage boys can come out of alleys and addictions and be trained and nurtured, provided a nice counterbalance of hope, but the distressing ratio of success stories to crushing tragedies never totally faded from memory.

Living, as I do, in a closed compound with over 100 kids can make one (or maybe just me) a little complacent. Sure, we don’t have a lack of needs and struggles within these walls, but it goes a long way toward making the problems of the world feel “out there”, separate, un-urgent. But the trash-filled streets leave you as exposed to the real weight of brokenness and suffering as their inhabitants are to the cold night air.

Complacency is a defense mechanism, and it’s starting to weary me. It is, of course, entirely impossible to be fully aware of every injustice, and even if it were possible such awareness would crush us in a second, but I think we fear the discomfort and demand of exposure more than we should. We don’t serve an isolationist God who is afraid of pain, who shies away from the stark ugliness of our suffering. As he was willing to take a spear to the side for us, I marvel that we are often unwilling to get up off of our couches for others.

I had to ask myself why I should let the tragedy of what I saw in the streets of Tegucigalpa sink into my soul when I can’t really do anything about it right now. Why complicate my life with something beyond my ability to deal with? Wouldn’t it just cause unnecessary tension? No solid answers came, as they rarely do, but I was left with a distinct impression that, at least maybe for now, allowing their pain to disturb me, to linger in my imagination like a piece of dust behind my eyelid, is enough.

I can let their lives crack the shallow calm of my complacency. I can let the visions of scabs and scars and chapped lips and ever-present toxins remind me, whenever they come to mind, that, no, everything is not ok, that the world is a tortured hell for many, and that we can never tire of doing good. I can give them the dignity of changing me, of spurring me to love with greater abandon those who my hands can touch and my words can reach. 

I feel like I’m throwing in a mere penny in self-offering, but it’s all I have at the moment. And I praise God for the fantastic men and women who are daily giving all of themselves to serve those lost in the margins of society, and I hope my life, whatever direction it takes, will do justice to the examples they’ve shown me of grace and faithfulness for the sake of the suffering.

____________________

* Except for that one drunk lady. She did seem to mind. A lot.

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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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