November 26, 2011


The nature of spiritual growth is such that you have to learn things again and again that you thought you already knew.

For example: "You have to trust God."

Amen! Yes, of course!

Or if I'm being honest: Duh.

I've been hearing that since life got real, since I was confused and self conscious in Jr. High, since I was in High School, since I was in college, since I graduated, since I decided to move to Puerto Rico. That last one, especially.

I remember speaking at our service retreat shortly after I moved here last year, about finally trusting God with three things when I decided to come here: Relationships, finances, and my career. And I believed it and I thought I understood it because I had been hearing it for so long and by now it had just become common sense. Leaving life behind was a leap of faith - I was abandoning any hopes of establishing a career path in my 20s, or erasing any of that big dark cloud of debt that (still) hangs over me and my wallet, or keeping up with others who were getting married and establishing families. Also, I was leaving my immediate family again. Double-whammy on the relationships.

I said to God, "You're putting my life on hold, and I'm okay with that. Sure I'll go." I knew he'd provide. I knew that if I had no money, there would be food. I knew that if ever I felt unqualified or unprepared, things would be okay. For the most part, yes, I trusted him.

But trusting God is no temporary thing.

"...You're putting my life on hold."

No. That is not how this works. No matter how big or crazy or different or life-altering your decision might be, it doesn't work that way. Obedience and trust to God are not temporary things. You don't put your life on hold.

You abandon it.

And so every time I sit here and plan my next move, and consider what job offers might come up, and daydream about Sunday football with my family, and start to silently spend the imaginary money I'd make at my imaginary job, and wonder why I'm not on the normal schedule as I see my friends get married,it shows that I am still missing something, that there is some little or big piece that my sinful little heart does not yet believe God can handle.

God has not brought me here to be normal. Normal was gone a long time ago. Stop expecting normal. If you want normal, you might as well go home now.

I read a verse a few years ago that shook me. I thought I understood it then but apparently I didn't because I'm still discovering it, and I'm still working on it.

Psalm 71:18: Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, until I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.

That "until" in there, it's significant, it's heavy, it's bold, it's scary.

Do not forsake me


I declare your power


I've done your work.

Then, I guess... do whatever you want with me. If I'm reading the Psalm correctly, forsaking is on the table. You don't owe me anything. Totally up to you.

...And how could anyone ever believe the Creator of the universe owes them anything? He has no debts. We're the ones with debts.

In the very least, David's asking God not to let him get feeble and old and gray and useless until he's totally spent (broken, spilled out) doing God's work.

In recent weeks, I've spent a lot of time deliberating my future, wondering how long I'll stay here, how long I'll stay in camp ministry, or in ministry in general. If you'd have asked me a few months ago where I thought I was going to be in a year, I'd have told you I'll probably be in Grand Rapids working, paying off debt, back with my family and friends and life will be...


But enough people have pushed me to question that, some on purpose, and some not. And I think there are enough people praying for me that God must be having mercy on my soul and teaching me, again, those things that I probably should have known by now, that no one could ever have told me, in ways no one else could have taught me.

And so now I don't know where I'll be in a year. But I believe that I am nearer than ever to genuinely trusting God. I picture myself with my face hidden, covering my eyes, having long held stubbornly to my own neat ambitions and plans, holding one hand aloft offering the last of them to God, the fingers one by one losing grip on them as he gently takes them, takes my future, and in doing so allows me to truly live as he has planned all along.

I haven't left life behind. Relationships, careers, finances... I've begun to see that being single has allowed me to be free. I thought I abandoned establishing a career path but it's more accurate to say I've started one. I have known very little hunger or need since I've come here, and that cloud of debt is shrinking ever-so-slowly.

While accepting this goes a long way to calm my present anxieties, the greater comfort comes in the realization that God is calling me to greater trust and deeper faith.

November 23, 2011


It's flyover country and I love it.

I once had a teacher who ripped on Iowa, saying there was nothing to see there, nothing to do except drive through it. I came to its defense, said there were wonderful things there but you just had to get off the interstate.

I'll stand by that. For me, I can't have a Thanksgiving and not think of Iowa. I'm in a bit of a different setting this year, just as I have been a few years. But when I was a kid, it was an annual pilgrimage.

Exciting, far away.... Iowa.

About this time each year, my parents corralled four kids into a station wagon or minivan and headed west to Tipton, Iowa where my Grandma lived. To me, it was exciting - far away, different, exotic. For Dad, I know it holds a particularly special meaning. Enough to tolerate the freeway around Chicago and the endless straits of freeway over the Mississippi River into his home state. That's where he was born, where he grew up. And because it's part of his history, it's part of mine too. So I can't let anyone rip on it. And I have to support the Hawkeyes, unless they're playing the Spartans.

I can picture all of it:

Tipton, the island of a small-town in the middle of nowhere. Grandma's old house on 2nd Street, with its unplaceable, inimitable smell and the football player wallpaper in the bedroom upstairs. The enormous old library and its huge yard right across the street where we'd play baseball. Her little church a few blocks down. The butcher behind her house, where every so often they had an animal awaiting its conversion to meat. The Tractor Dealership where we'd go and stand inside the huge tires. The gas station where somehow we were could still get Pepsi and Mountain Dew in glass bottles. Happy Joe's pizza. The mile walk to Walmart when we got bored.

And Thanksgiving Dinner, with the gathering of all of the cousins, aunts and uncles we usually only saw that time of year. Turkey, Rolls, Stuffing, Jello Salad, the usual, the bubble bread, and Aunt Helen's turtles (I don't suppose those would survive a shipment to Puerto Rico?) The seemingly eternal devotion from Our Daily Bread after breakfast. A rousing game of Chinese Checkers. Dated toys. That weird, aged exercise bike. A newspaper from 1903 that I kick myself for not asking Grandma for.

The occasional trip out of town to Mechanicsville, where Uncle Joe lived. Or Center Point, where Aunt Carol and Uncle Larry live. The admittedly more exciting trips to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where we wandered onto the field at Kinnick Stadium or the court at Carver Hawkeye Arena, where my soft spot for Iowa Athletics was born. The way there on roads surrounded with outstretched fields and demarcating trees, and the farm houses and silos and barns, and small towns where everyone just has to know each other.

You get off the freeway, and Iowa's not so bad.

The world has seen many wonderful ladies. I'm just not sure any of them stack up to my Grandma Gamble. She did what Grandmas are supposed to do, always overflowing with kindness, you couldn't not love that lady. She sent a birthday card each year with a one-dollar bill in it. She had a little sign on her door that said, "In this house, you can sing and pray, but please don't smoke and swear." She was a gentle woman but an aggressive Skip-Bo player.

You know what? Grandma was awesome.

Thanksgiving, Iowa, Grandma Gamble, they're all neighbors in my brain.

November 21, 2011

CDC Men's Retreat 2011

Here at CDC this weekend, this happened:

We hosted our first ever Men's Retreat and some of the guys went on an Iguana hunt. No, we didn't eat them, but we would have tried if we could have gotten the meat off the carcass. And before you cry foul for killing off ugly but exotic animals without getting some protein from 'em, they're an invasive species and you're supposed to shoot 'em. In case you don't know how big an Iguana can get, that shows you the scale. Each of those is about five feet from head to tale. They're heavy too.

Also there was some of this:

But it wasn't all high-flying chess action. There was also some of this:

That ball probably weighs at least 30-40 pounds. Look at the next picture and you'll see Lawrence Trumbower, who has been a missionary here running the radio station for nigh 40 years. He's rocking Air Jordans. I've also seen him jump into a creek from a 30 foot cliff.

But of course, we had to get fed, and since we couldn't have Iguana, we had Pinchos. They're really just deliciously grilled meat on a stick. And what's a men's event without consuming burned meat? We thought, we have 20 guys, 50 pinchos oughta be more than enough. Not necessarily.

You cook 'em like this:

Taaaan sabrosa.

But we had to get fed in other ways:

Pastor Miguel Ortiz from Iglesia Biblica Juana Diaz spoke about being Men of Power.

...and we had some great discussion.

It was a great weekend. Men's fellowship is really important, and is overlooked far too often. We got great feedback from the guys who attended, and we'll definitely do it again, even better, next year.

November 14, 2011

The way to Bayamón

Saturday was one of those rare days when the skies were clear enough over the mountains so you could see the peaks and the radio towers and houses, and could be reminded that people actually live up there in the clouds. I drove up to San Juan, and the highway there keeps the mountains on your left and the Caribbean on your right until it veers left and juts right up into the hills.

I know the way up to San Juan by now, but I was headed to Bayamón, another metro area just to the west of San Juan. Never been there. As I left, I wondered - should I have brought someone along? I don't really know where I'm going. 

I replayed little sound bytes in my head of Julio and others talking about places you're not supposed to go. "What if I accidentally go there?"
"You won't."
"Well. Okay..."
They left it at that.

Also, the radio wasn't working* and the drivers side door of the pickup no longer closes. So I drove with my left arm out the window holding it shut, up to the crest of the mountains and then descended into Cayey, then Caguas, and into San Juan metro area.  

There, 52 becomes 18. You take 52 to 18 to 22 West to 2 West to 176 south. Not far down, on the right, there's a little purple building where they'll fix my projector. I know the numbers in my head, but I don't know the exits and I've never seen anything past 18. I had seen the map, and could actually visualize it in my mind. Years of pizza delivery helped me develop this skill.

52 to 18: check. Done this before a hundred times.
18 to 22: check. Now into new territory.
22 to 2: Oops.

There was a sign for 2 north, but nothing for 2 west. Well, crap. I know how the freeways here go. Like most places, it's easier to take the earlier exit and get back on if you're wrong, rather than pass the correct exit and have to double back a long way down. I dropped off early, directly into new territory with unrecognizable streets.

A note about streets in Puerto Rico: All the urban roads have numbers and names. Most maps have the numbers, but the signs have the names instead of numbers. Locals know the names. Also, this is not a flat island. There are no straight roads here. So while I can usually navigate pretty well, it becomes really tough when the road you're on winds all over the place and very soon, you might be heading the wrong way.

Here, I found myself on just such a road. Fortunately, even windy roads go somewhere. So if you stay on them long enough, you'll find your way to another busy road, which will probably take you somewhere recognizable. 

I like to say that I'm never lost, I'm just in a new place. And you really aren't lost as long as you know how to backtrack. Which is possible, but not easy, on windy roads.

I took the road to another major road and worked my way toward what I knew to be the general direction I wanted to go. But I didn't trust my instinct. I stopped at a gas station and went in to ask the clerk for directions. I wanted to be on highway 2. I didn't think I was. I asked the clerk if he spoke English and he said no. "No problema," I said and plopped down my map. "Yo quiero ir pa alla," ("I want to go there") and pointed on my map. "Donde esta carreterra 2?" (Where's highway 2?) He pointed outside to the road I'd just gotten off. That didn't seem right. I'd been on the right road all along? "Este calle aqui es carreterra 2?" (This street here is highway two?) I pointed out to the road. "Si!" he said. "a la derecha" (to the right.) 

Well. Okay. I got into the truck, held that door tight and wheeled out into traffic. Now, highway 2 goes all the way out of the city, to Arecibo and beyond to the northwest corner of the island. So when after one stop light this street, which the clerk had told me was highway 2, ended at a T, I knew there had been some communication breakdown somewhere. I took the T to the right (because why not? I had a 50-50 chance) and soon found a strip mall with a starbucks and a few cafes and a convenience store.

Two boys at the intersection out front were selling muffins and pastries. I asked if they knew where carreterra 2 was. They said no. Of course not.

I pulled into the parking lot and immediately found myself in one of the more nightmarish parking lots traffic jams I've experienced in Puerto Rico. After about 15 minutes, I parked. My transition from naive explorer into frustrated traveler was now complete. I went in and to get directions from a patron there. He spoke English. I handed him my map. He said, "Go out, take a right, take a left at the second light, go over the hill, and you'll be there at highway two.

"Great!" Sounded easy enough. "Thank you!"

I pulled out, took the right, saw no stoplights, and quickly found myself on a freeway on-ramp. 


I recognized this freeway. I was going the wrong way, but I recognized it. I turned around at an exit, backtracked, found highway 2, and followed it to highway 167. After about 15 minutes, I landed at the small purple building. 

Now, I know where I went wrong in all of it. But the odds were in my favor. Had I driven around long enough, I would have found my way. I'm sure there's a lesson on stubbornness in here somewhere. But I can't find it yet. So for now, I leave you with:

This is why men never stop and ask for directions, and why we don't need to.

*The radio works. The rear speakers don't. Someone had the faders turned to those non-working rear speakers. I only discovered this today. I spent all day on Saturday driving without a radio, with only my thoughts to listen to. Sometimes that's not so bad.

November 8, 2011

One Year, Today

A year ago today, I arrived at CDC a little after midnight, tired and sweaty, with no soap. Dave gave me some, and today that same bar is sitting on the sink in my bathroom. Bachelor move, I know.

It's smaller now, cracked and discolored. But it still gets my hands clean and I think it'll be around for a while longer. I don't know how long a bar of soap is supposed to last. I swear I've been using it regularly. But things like that – the longevity of a bar of soap – make you realize a year really isn't all that long.

It looks a lot longer beforehand than afterward. For most people, it goes by and life changes imperceptibly. Not much is different when it's over. Your age is +1 and there are new songs on the radio and your nieces are talking a lot more.

Life kind of plods forward. That's true for the people back home who must think I'm living some crazy, exotic life, and it's true for me here. It's not everyday that I'm swinging off ropes over waterfalls into jungle pools. That was last Tuesday. It's not everyday that I'm rescuing baby sea turtles. That was a few weekends ago.

Leaving home is a sacrifice, no matter where you land. There are trade-offs. I would trade jungle waterfalls for just one afternoon of lazy football-watching with my family.

I still consider Grand Rapids my home and I'm realizing that, though I've only been in PR a year, I've actually been gone a lot longer. In 2008, I was in Africa. In 2009, I spent a summer and fall at Grace Adventures then moved to St. Joseph to work for Whirlpool. In 2010, I left St. Joe to go back to camp and then moved here to Puerto Rico. For much of the last three years, I've been away.


Sometimes I get the feeling that while everyone back home is putting down roots and getting married and taking big, giant steps forward in life, I'm missing out on something. Most of my friends and family are back there, and most of the people I'm close to here are married or in a different stage of life. As a result, there have been some lonely days.

“Lonely,” for the record, is a terrible word. Just saying it, confessing it, affirms and exacerbates the feeling of it. But if I'm going to be honest, it's been a reality for me here that has colored my experience. I don't like being gone, being alone. But, you ask...

“How do you like Puerto Rico?”

Puerto Ricans ask me this all the time. It's usually a question rooted in pride in their island, especially for the older ones. I can tell that “You just love it, don't you?!?” is on the tip of their tongues.

Sure, I like Puerto Rico. I like 85 in February and never having to worry about icy roads. I like frappes and festivals and salsa and merengue music blaring from oversized speakers pretty much everywhere. I like waking up with the Caribbean lapping up just beyond my back door. I like exploring and the unpredictability and relaxed pace of island life. I like the creativity afforded me by a job that is directly related to impacting people's lives.

But there's still this big part of my heart that's stuck in Michigan, with its seasons and icy roads and – it's just home for me, and I've been gone for a long time. I can't help but look forward to returning someday.

My life hasn't synched up very well with everyone else's since I graduated from college. I've taken a different path, one with more miles traveled, more debt, less dollars earned. But I have to remind myself – don't take this for granted. These are good years and I'm hardly missing out. Someday, I'll miss the Caribbean and the salsa and jungle waterfalls, and I'll curse the biting wind and cold of Michigan in winter.

Tell ya what, I won't take this for granted if you, wherever and whoever you are, won't take yours for granted.

Scattered thoughts and further reflections on one year:

  • I thought I would know Spanish by now. I don't. Learning a language is a long and difficult process.
  • Top five frappes, in no particular order: Strawberry Oreo, Banana Oreo, Strawberry Cheesecake, Chocolate Coconut Banana, and Strawberry Kiwi (if the strawberries and kiwis are sweet.)
  • I really don't mind public speaking anymore. At least not when I'm flanked by a translator.
  • Dreaming and pitching new ideas is fun, but following through is far more difficult.
  • I will never stop hating plyometrics, but I'm slowly growing more and more fond of P90X. Thanks, Tony.
  • I cannot overstate the impact a package or letter has on me, no matter what's inside it. I've gotten a few from Michigan, one of which had a Tigers playoff towel that I will cherish and enthusiastically wave whenever the Tigers are playing or when I miss baseball, and a few letters from India. All of them were wonderful.
  • Nobody is perfect. Not even missionaries.