January 30, 2011

Day in life

Today started with me lying in bed, as most days do. Jon Marshall was at my door. He told me through the shutters "We need to leave by 8:30 because we need to be at Second Union Church in San Juan to make an announcement by 10:00."

Information from that statement that was new to me:
-Leaving by 8:30
-Going to Second Union Church in San Juan
-Making an announcement
-Ten O'Clock.

It was 8:15, and I was still half asleep. I said "Okay. I'll be ready," and I said it with tone that clearly said "I'm still in bed but I'm going to try to sound like I'm not." Being confronted with the information that you're going to address a large crowd of strangers in about 100 minutes helps wake you up fairly quickly. I sprang to life. Scarfed down a bowl of cereal. Took a lukewarm shower. Checked the email and the Amazonmp3 deal of the day, and bolted for the office to get some literature to share with the fine people of Second Union Church.

We didn't leave at 8:30. This wasn't entirely my fault, but I certainly didn't do anything to help. We go to San Juan most every Sunday for church. It's a great church, one with a big building, a fairly diverse English-speaking population, and a pastor I already think is pretty cool. That's not new. Stopping at a church to promote an upcoming retreat would be new.

Jon dropped us off in front of the church. Theresa laid out the details. She'd talked to someone earlier in the week about the possibility of us coming to make an announcement but never quite connected to solidify it later in the week. They may or may not know we're coming. This didn't bother me too much. Roll with it. It's much easier to not make an announcement and just hand out fliers and a poster. Easier, but not more effective. And so we met our contact (This makes it sound like we're spies) and she introduced us to the youth pastor. We handed over our promotional materials. They said they'd make sure everyone knew about it. Thusly, I was saved from making an announcement.

We went on to our church. I told you I liked the pastor there. I do. Not that he blows my mind every sermon, he doesn't have to. It's because he has nothing at all resembling pretentiousness. He's just humble. He's not a stage pastor, he speaks off-the-cuff, almost to the point of awkwardness. But he's not awkward, because awkward people make everyone uncomfortable. This guy puts everyone at ease. He's been there for years and years, and he stops mid-sentence to tell you stories and throws songs in there that no one is expecting, sometimes ones we already sang. I wish more pastors were like him.

We went to Little Caesar's for lunch. This is probably the cheapest way for missionaries to feed multiple kids. We waited a while, and I broke out The Dot Game to play against Ben, who is 11 and a boy and lacking social grace in all the places an 11 year-old boy should. Logan, his 5 year-old brother, literally crawled over my chair and dug his elbow into my forearm as he watched our contest with great interest. He always does this. It's annoying, but it's funny. Moments before, I shocked him by removing and reattaching my thumb. Eli, their 8 year old sister, wanted a shot at me in The Dot Game. She beat me.

We made our way back to camp, an hour-plus drive that takes us up into the mountains and back down along the Caribbean. There's one spot where you round a bend and see the sea in the distance, far below you, and the sun shines off it it looks like glass. If you catch it at sunset, it's amazing. You need to come see it.

I craved a nap, but I'm no good at napping, so I watched a few episodes of Community. This is the most ridiculous, clever, hilarious show on TV right now and you should give it a shot.

I went to work out. I started P90X four weeks ago. I'm amazed that I've stuck with it this long because I didn't feel terribly driven when I started. I just knew I was out of shape and hoped I could change that at least a little. P90X has a pretty bold reputation of being quite the butt-kicker. It is. But you just keep showing up and hoping they get easier. They do. Today was Core Synergistics. It works your core. Synergistics is a big word that means it works all of it. I think. It involves types of push-ups I can only assume were invented in prison yards or by drill sergeants and something called the "Superman Banana." You pretend to be Superman. Then you pretend to be a banana. It's harder than it sounds.

After that, dinner. I didn't really feel like cooking. And I wasn't about to go out. So I stuck some chicken tenderloins in the oven and baked 'em. Not bad. Dry. If you know how to get around this, let me know.

Then I started writing this blog. Can you tell I've run out of gas by now? After this, I need to call my parents. I do that most Sundays.

January 20, 2011

Trees and Choices

I ran into this question the other day, about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:

"Why would God keep Adam and Eve from consuming knowledge?"

It came in a dialogue with an atheist. It's a fair question, one I hadn't thought about before. And having already been convicted to know The Word better - a lot better - I saw it as a perfect opportunity to probe Scripture a little more deeply.

Before this question came up, there was another - how many people did Satan kill in the Bible? This often gets paired with "...and how many people did God kill in the Bible?" It's a question I think is usually intended to bait us into realizing that God did some disagreeable, some would say nasty, things in the Bible. Satan didn't outright kill anyone. God was smiting all the time, 24-sev, it would seem. But Satan helped ensure long before we were born that we would all die a very real death.

Long and short of it: God gives Adam a beautiful garden chock-full of tasty fruits.

"Go, children, run amok! Except... That tree over there in the middle, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it's got special fruit. If you eat it, you're gonna die."

All things considered, it was a reasonable request. I think I could have lived with it.

Satan comes and helps Eve out a bit with some crafty wording. "Pshhaw," he says, "God knows if you eat it, you'll be like him. You'll know the difference between good and evil."

And what could possibly be wrong with that?

Eve bites it. Shares it with Adam. Just like that, models number 000000000001 and 000000000002 have blown it fairly quickly. Fast forward a few thousand years, and the world is a really messed up place. Clearly, eating the fruit had some consequences.

But - death? For knowing good and bad? Aren't we supposed to know that anyway? To a skeptic, it's all pretty harsh, Bro.

I like talking to atheists because they ask "Why?" where I never thought to. And then I need to go read the Bible. Which I clearly need to do a lot more. So I read Genesis 1-3. Again. umpteenth time.

God gave Adam everything. Nice spread, tasty fruits like I mentioned. He was sufficient. Adam was one happy, naked dude. Blissfully ignorant too, I think. And yet - there was another tree there, a choice.

"Eat whatever you want. But there's a tree right over there, and if you eat its fruit," - here, I think, God issues a warning, not a threat - "It will kill you."

The death comes not so much from God's smiting, with Him being bent on destroying his woefully curious and skeptical underlings, but from the choice of separation from Him. You can trust Him and enjoy Him, be satisfied by Him and find yourself whole in Him. You could eat the fruit forever. But to eat fruit from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was to want to be like Him, to call Him insufficient. It was arrogant, it was prideful, it was rejection. And that rejection bringeth death.

Pursue God, and things fall into place. (...He will make your paths straight.)
Reject Him, and everything falls apart.

Israel did it over and over again. Adam and Eve did it, too. God kicked them out. Their garden and its tasty fruit were gone forever. But - lest you doubt that God is good - he hooked them up with some clothes before they left. I love that.

You can't come back. But you're gonna need these...

January 19, 2011

Culture Day: Arecibo

Yesterday, I went with Julio, Jon, and Jon's kids to Arecibo for a culture day. I shall henceforth refer to the Marshall kids as a single entity, known as Benellogan (Ben + Eli(zabeth) + Logan).

Along the way we stopped at Cueva Ventana again, which Julio and I had gone to back in November. Great view from up there, and it's always fun to see how other people respond when they see something you already know is beautiful.

In Arecibo, we went to check out another cave, Cueva del Indio, this one right on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Two culture days so far, and three caves... I'm garnering some advanced spelunking skills. It's kind of a non-descript place, like something that might have been on Route 66. Pay $2 to park and see something kind of neat. This place, which I think is legitimate, has carvings in the rocks from hundreds of years ago, put there by Taino Indians who lived here before the Spanish arrived. There's a sort of sand/dirt/gravel parking lot and a bunch of palm trees with spray-painted imitations of Indian carvings on them. The guy who collected our money was lying in a hammock, and barely slipped off his headphones when we greeted him. There was a little open-air shelter next to him, and the ground was littered with beer cans. There was a table of coconuts with shoots growing out of them, ready for planting. I think he was selling them. It wasn't the most tourist-friendly welcome scene. It feels weird to notice this. Normally, I don't pay a whole lot of attention to that sort of thing. But on culture days, I guess we are sort of tourists.

The cave itself was pretty cool, but only for about a 5 minute diversion. Far more interesting was the coast around it. I haven't spent a lot of time in the Atlantic Ocean. Not far off Puerto Rico's northern coast is the deepest part of the Atlantic, the Puerto Rico trench. On shore, the waves were huge, and they came crashing up against the side of the bluffs. Watching them was more fun than diving into the cave. A little down the road from here was a much cooler spot, where the surf came up over 30 or more feet of rock and trickled down in a foam onto a sandy beach, where it streamed around the rocks back into a cove with a private beach. There was no one there, just lots of signs advertising beer. It looked like the kind of place college kids go on Spring Break. It might be busy in a few months.

Anyway. Watching the waves crash, simple as it sounds, was a ton of fun. When we left, we all were pretty sure we'd waste no time in coming back.

One wave was particularly huge. Check it out, but wait til the end: (Couldn't find the song without dialog. Kind of annoying, deal with it.)

January 10, 2011

Someplace Else

We were in Mississippi a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit. There was a big group of us led by a friend of mine, with our trip commissioned by Campus Ministry at GVSU. We had been doing work in a neighborhood in a small city, painting houses and shingling roofs and laying tile floor for some nice, poor folks. One day, a few of us drove far away from the freeway to a small farmhouse where an elderly couple lived. A car or two that had lost a battle with nature were sitting in their yard, along with a few bags filled with thousands of beer cans. There were steps without a railing leading up to the porch, which was lined with a tattered screen with several holes that let the bugs in. Inside the house, a wood-burning stove filled the air with smoke and lined the walls with soot. It looked like the sort of house you picture people living in during the 30s, in the Great Depression. They had closets with dirt in the bottom where a floor used to be. In their living room was a small TV and an ancient couch, and propped up in the corner was a musket that stood at least half a foot taller than me. When the owner wasn't looking, we took pictures with it.

We did what we could in a few hours. We put a railing up on the steps and patched the screen around the porch. We put a floor in the closet and put boards over gaping holes in the side of their house. When we were finished, we drove back through the countryside, to the freeway, to the city of Jackson and back the camp where we were staying. Along the way, we rolled through some beautiful suburbs and stopped for groceries at the world's largest Walmart. There were neighborhoods like any other back home, people of the same social standing, the same religious conviction, much the same as me. (Except they call pop Coke.)

I wondered how it was that people could live in such strange, desperate poverty near people just like me, how people who lived so close to each other could have such glaring differences. I wondered why we had to drive across the country to help them when there were people right nearby who were fully capable of helping out.

Naturally, I thought about West Michigan where I lived. I wondered if there were people living in poverty like that near my home. I know there are. I know there are kids in West Michigan who sleep without blankets on cold nights.

I went on Spring break trips each of my four years at Grand Valley. And I'm pretty sure that on each one, we all went home swearing up and down that we were going to get involved and be missionaries back home, too. Some of us made really good efforts at it. Some of us didn't. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't. I've learned and forgotten the importance of being a missionary at home several times.

One of the best ideas I ever heard was when a friend of mine took his youth group on a mission trip from Hudsonville, Michigan all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Round-trip, it's about 20 miles. I can't say I would have been very excited about it had I been in the youth group. Actually, I'm certain I wouldn't have been. In college when I chose my Spring break trip destination, the order of preference was: 1: Warm; 2: Big crazy city on my bucket list; 3: Wherever my friends were going.

Our generation dreams big. We want to fix the world. We love the causes with the most buzz and the ones that, hopefully, no one else has heard of yet. We'd love to get out and go somewhere far away and exotic and just serve – they don't have to pay us! Seriously, Just get us somewhere far away from boring old here and we'll do whatever they want!

There's nothing wrong with wanting to help people in far away places. But I wonder sometimes if the reason that the world stays the crappy, broken place that it is might be because we're all too busy dreaming about fixing someplace else. We all want to fix hunger and save souls and bottle-feed orphans someplace else, even though there are hungry, lost, and hurting people at home too. While we dream about finding a way to make a difference someplace else, we neglect to find our mission field at home.

The irony of me saying this from thousands of miles from my home isn't lost on me. I'm glad I'm here in Puerto Rico. I'll do my best to serve around what is, for now, my home. But if nothing else, I hope that when I go home, I'll be a better missionary there, too.

January 8, 2011

Thoughts on Soda.

I describe the end of the tour at the World of Coca-cola in Atlanta as the greatest room I've ever been in. After being steadily indoctrinated with Coca-cola propaganda you paid to see, including a cheesy "4-D" film and awkward brushes with the Coca-cola Polar Bear (is he a mascot?), you're given a plastic cup and set loose in a room with several fountain stations, each representing a continent of our fine planet, and each has several different kinds of soda from that continent. You're encouraged to sample as many as you'd like. As I've already told you it's a dream for me, but it's a nightmare for dentists and recovering sodaholics. I have never seen so many wide-eyed kids running around, elbowing grown-ups out of the way to fill their cup yet again with every bizarre soda pop from Poland, or Cambodia, or Suriname. But on the Africa station: Tangawizi. The finest, most delicious ginger beer in all the world, straight from my beloved Tanzania. I would pay the admission and have awkward brushes with the bear again just to regard it with my taste buds.

I have done worse for soda. I drove across the country for Dr Pepper in college. Not just any Dr Pepper, Dublin Dr Pepper. I would do it again. Here in Puerto Rico, Dr Pepper is incredibly difficult to come by. If I were to find out there was a place in San Juan that maintained a regular supply, I would happily drive across this tiny island for it. I would drive to Cuba for it if I knew it were there. Dr Pepper is good. Coca-cola is no slouch. My main beef with Coca-cola is that they've successfully convinced everyone living south of the mason-dixon line that every kind of pop should be called Coke. It's as though Coca-Cola was the original and all else are imitators. It was called "The Real Thing," after all. But 7Up is not a type of Coke. 7Up is a crisp and refreshing lemon-lime based beverage. Sierra Mist can probably be called 7Up in more vulgar, less refined circles. But neither one is Coke. It's not cola. In fact, 7Up is Uncola. Not all pop is Coke. Even in parts of the world where Coke is pretty much the only option, they call it soda. Come on, American South, you can figure this out. But I digress.

Like all good things, Soda pop must come in moderation. After all, it's no good to bathe your teeth in acidic sugar every day. So recently, I severely cut back my intake. No pop, Monday - Friday. I've given up pop in the past for a month or more at a time. But I always come crawling back to its crisp, cool, refreshing sweetness. So I thought it was a good idea to not cut it out completely, but continue my relationship with it in moderation.

For the last week, I've gone each day without it. And the weird thing is, I didn't miss it that much. Sure, there comes a point each day, often in the late morning or early afternoon, when I need a pick me up and my taste buds cry out for something cold, sweet and bubbly. Soda pop, for the record, is only to be consumed in its coldest form. Warm soda is like swill, the sweetness and bubblyness is only good when the coldness is there, too. But at those times when I want to reach for a pop, there really is no substitute. Not tea. Not kool-aid. Not Tab. Not crab juice. The only option is to say no. You can't really be creative. You just have to say no.

And that concludes my thoughts on the matter. Somewhere in there is an object lesson. I don't know where. I didn't put it there. That's just how it is.

January 1, 2011

2011, so far

There's something unjust about leaving on a flight at 7:45 in the morning on New Year's Day. It's not good planning, especially if you're going to try to ring in the new year the night before. And it's after writing this sentence that I realize it's 2011.

The whole New Year celebration has lost considerable meaning in the last few years. People make New Year's resolutions because they open another calendar and it's a new chance to start over, a fresh year, a fresh start. We all get a do-over. Somehow, the first few hours and days are loaded with opportunity and meaning. But for me it feels like New Year's Eve is really just another midnight, another excuse for a social gathering. I used to take it more seriously, used to marvel at how my parents could sleep through it, could go to bed before midnight.

A few years ago, I was moved as near to rage as I can remember. It was following a year when I had rung in the new year in a Grandville family's home, waiting for a mom to sign a check. The kids were devouring then unpaid-for pizza, oblivious to the ball-drop in the other room. I informed them that it was 2007. They said, "Cool," and continued grazing while mom handed me the check. Five dollar tip. Not bad, but I wondered what the sacrifice of my social life was worth. So the following year, I told my boss that I would work but I wanted an early shift so I could be out in time to enjoy the reveling with my cohorts. At 10, when I was supposed to be released, we were too busy for me to even consider leaving. At 11, I started having car trouble. At 12, I was in my car, on 28th Street, cursing my fate of searching for a house and hearing someone on the radio count down the new year while my friends partied on. At 1, my car broke down a mile from my house. I walked the rest of the way.

It was the kind of night when so many buttons are pushed you can't help but surrender to its awfulness and wait for it to end.

Now I don't think New Year's is such a big deal. Maybe this year it was because I had more on my mind, that early morning flight. I was on a schedule the night before. That's never a great way to get rest. I had a few things to pack, so I left them out and set the alarm on my iPod for 5 AM and went to bed. I would wake at 5, pack, eat, hit the road by 5:45 and be at the airport by 6:15, the recommended 90 minutes before departure.

At 5:55 AM, I woke up and looked at my iPod. There was no way 5:55 was right. In my confusion, I refused to consider that I had overslept. Was there a time change? Was my clock wrong? Surely mom and dad would have woken me up if it was actually almost six. As I finally fully emerged from sleep, I saw the truth that I had, in fact, overslept. (Turns out, lots of people relying on an iPhone/iPod touch as an alarm had the same issue today.) And had to shower. And eat. And pack. And be at the airport in 20 minutes. Not gonna happen.

I power-showered, stuffed my belongings into my bags, and plopped down at the breakfast table. I shared the news with Mom and Dad that we were gonna be late. Looked for DVD that had come to Michigan with me in my drive. (Sorry, Julio, we should get It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia disc 2 from seasons 1-2 in the mail in soon.) We left for the airport at 6:25, arrived there close to 6:45. The lady at the check-in desk told the guy in front of me to get right in the TSA line because it had been long.

The line was indeed long. It wound its way back into the waiting lobby and up towards the check-in counters. I had about 35 minutes before they shut the doors at the gate. As it turned out, there were 34 minutes of line there. I was the last person to make my flight. Several people behind me didn't make it.

As I write this, I'm sitting on a plane flying directly over the Bahamas. We've got a stop in St Thomas, then we backtrack to San Juan. The first flight was brief, and my layover afterward wasn't even long enough for me to stock up on overpriced Dr Pepper at O'Hare. Right now, this is the first chance I've got to reflect on today and this young year. To summarize it: So far, looks like there will be a lot of oversleeping (something I almost never do), bidding a good-bye to my parents, waiting in long lines, and narrowly making flights. I'm not sure what to make of it if these first few hours are any indication of the year ahead. If everyday is like this, expect me to be bald next time you see me.