This is a Story about Grace (Pt 2)

I stepped into a sufficient amount of new experiences our first few months in Mexico: I nearly flunked out of language school — during the entrance exam; I learned to feel the same way about a clutch as I do vegetables (hate it, but need it), culpa and pulpo are not synonyms, and not all green salsas are created equal. I also learned that at the bottom of all my reluctance over coming here was really reluctance about how much “say” Grace had in my life.

For the better part of a year before we moved, I tried to stiff-arm what was happening. I’ve since learned I wasn’t stiff-arming my passionate wife or an organization both committed to this world turning a much needed corner. I was coming up against the momentum of a sovereign Storyteller, whose passion for His Story — for Shalom — will one day cover the cosmos like the waters cover the sea. And the momentum of this story, the plot, is the momentum of Grace.

Grace is great, but it’s dangerous. It’s scary.
Even death looked at grace and said, “You’re too much for me.” So there I was, little ol’ me trying to push against a tsunami of grace.

Grace is stubborn, like a hurricane.
You can board up the windows of your heart and stack sandbags around your story, but it’s a losing battle. Grace will out stubborn you, every time. When grace comes and we hear the shutters of our stories crack against the walls of our hearts, our knee-jerk reaction is to hide. We scramble to grab whatever vestiges of our personal narratives we can salvage and batten down the hatches. But what sounds devastating and scary and brutal isn’t the sound of destruction. It’s the sound of a new story.

But Grace isn’t a bully. It’s as stubborn as a hurricane, but it’s as careful, intimate, and personal as a good storyteller.

At first, it seems like it has no regard for your dreams or desires. Like an arrogant actor, it seems to shove your carefully crafted script back in your face. But Grace isn’t an actor in your little narrative; it’s the director. And your script isn’t being shoved back at you. Rather, you’re being offered a part and invitation into a story not less than yours, but so much bigger. It’s a story you may know nothing about, but you’ve always wanted. It’s a story more ancient than the cosmos and more new than morning dew. It’s a story that knows the depths of human suffering and the astronomical heights of joy. It’s a story as everyday as grocery shopping and as outrageous as climbing Everest. It’s a story that knows the pangs of division, racism, and human brutality, but glories in reconciliation and resurrection. It knows the powerful may appear to have all the cards, but the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s a scary, foolish, subversive story, and is full of surprises.

I’ve seen Grace take a young boy isolated in hardened, confused fear and change him into a team player on the soccer field. I’ve seen grace use bunk-beds to remind a mom her kids have a Father who cares for and sees them. I’ve seen Grace take a sewing class and make it ground zero of empowerment and dreaming in an impoverished community. I’ve seen Grace take a five year old’s ashamed, rotten smile and give him the biggest set of chompers you’ll ever see. I’ve seen Grace give a young girl new life in Christ the same week she welcomed a new baby brother. I’ve seen a young boy with special needs have the best day of his life carting around a stalk of plantains. I’ve seen grace transform a young girl from someone who thought she’d never get through high school to someone who was signing up for her first university class. That’s a tip of the iceberg from my two cent vantage point after a meager eight months. Grace scares us from the stories we want, and surprises us with stories we could never ask for, nor imagine.

Grace was here long before we were and Grace will be here long after we’re gone.

Truth is that Grace surprises people everywhere everyday. And these surprising narrative twists happen in-between the hard and dark plot points. But that is the point. Grace isn’t writing a clean, tidy, white-washed, quarantined story that’ll drop out of the sky one day. It’s an inside job. The story of Grace is mysterious and transcendent, but it knows the dust of the earth. Grace knows a world where life, justice, and beauty flourish all the live long day, and Grace put on flesh to bring it here. Grace came from the extravagance of Heaven into the everydayness of Earth. Grace knows the depth of a tomb so we can know the heights of the Kingdom.

Grace saves because Grace was sent. And today, Grace saves because Grace sends.

So, wherever Grace sends you today — a college classroom, an office, a newborn’s crib, a bus stop, a funeral, a doctor’s office, a community center, a hard conversation, an urban elementary school, a church building, a grocery store, a nursing home know this: Grace will not send you where it will not surprise you.

And that’s good news.

This is a Story about Grace (Pt 1)

When Em and I moved to Mexico, I self-identified as a reluctant missionary; God called us to the mission field, but I didn’t go singing like an astronaut in the movie Armageddon.

When I stepped off the plane in Cancun with an overpacked carry-on filled with a stack of records and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed version of adventure, I immediately began sweating. We hadn’t even been outside.

It’s been eight months, and I’ve sweat more than I thought possible. But much of what I was reluctant about, good, bad, or otherwise, I’ve navigated with forward momentum. Sure, I’ve bumped my head a few times (even caught it on fire), stalled a van filled with manly men roughly eight times, and now have the language capacity of a 3-year-old with a speech impediment, but things are good.

Emily and I have learned a lot about each other, marriage, mission, and traffic patterns. One thing I’ve learned about more than most, though, is my reluctance.

At its core, my reluctance wasn’t about language barriers, selling my truck, or an inordinate amount of sweating. It wasn’t about disputed dreams. It wasn’t about leaving craft brew for the “Costco quartet” (Tecate, Dos Equis, Indio, Corona). Sure, those things were there. But at its core, my reluctance fundamentally was about grace.

Grace is scary.

Tim Keller, a minister in Manhattan, writes in The Reason for God about a women who gets her heart around grace. She realized if she can earn grace, she can demand of. If she can crowbar Gods love, then God is in the hot-seat. She’s paid her tax and got skin in the game, so God needs to ante up. But, if God loves us, saves us, by grace — due to nothing on our end — then there’s nothing He can not ask from us.

If you’re like me, that’s comforting at first, but immediately terrifying.

I want grace, but, if I’m honest, I only want a kind of grace that steps in to rescue, but then leaves me alone. I only want grace to write a dramatic, perfect sentence in my story. I don’t want to relinquish the whole thing.

But grace doesn’t co-author.

That was my predicament: I wanted a sentence about grace, but God pens entire stories with it. And when your story is penned by grace, it means your story is not about you.  Grace is so scandalous that it enters your story without permission. And, grace is so scandalous it will send you into others’ stories without permission.

I’ve learned grace not only saves; grace sends.

And grace sends wherever grace saves, which, again, makes us uncomfortable.

Grace goes “far as the curse is found.” Grace goes and sends us into every nook-and-cranny of the world that’s been warped, desecrated, and bothered by sin, selfishness, and stupidity.

Grace isn’t shaped or stopped by geography, class, race, intellectual status, plausibility structures, income level, or click-bait. Grace isn’t skeptical, which means grace walks up to whoever grace walks up to and says, “Follow me.”

And grace doesn’t only send cross-culturally. For most, grace won’t send you farther away than family, friends, neighbors, school, though, it very well might. But it will send you deeper into those people and places. Grace is extravagant, but grace dwells in the everyday.

Grace sends us into the extravagance of the everyday, which is the hardest place. Because it’s in the everyday that we’ve grown accustomed to “this is just the way things are.” But grace isn’t content with “the way things are.” Grace won’t be content until things are “the way they ought to be.” Grace hears through the white-noise of life. Grace hears and sees the vulnerable, the overlooked, the unjust, the crooked, the condemned, and the mistreated who’ve faded into the everydayness of our lives. And grace sends us there.

Wait a second…,” you may ask. “You moved to Mexico.” Yep. Sure did.
Did you move only to learn you could have done the same things back home?” Great question, question asker-person. Honestly, I’m a bit thick. At this point, I’m fine with admitting it may have required an overhaul of our lives to learn something so basic.

Things might be a tad more dramatic, at times, for the cross-cultural missionary, but so much of what happens are the same rhythms of relationship, trust, conversations, patience, prayer, and more patience that are part of the “sent” life anywhere.

Here’s my point: Grace isn’t isolated. You can’t quarantine grace to one sentence. It will grab your whole story. It can send you overseas or over the white picket fence. It can call you to global orphan care or to end-of-life care. It may call you to a community center in Tres Reyes, Mexico, or one in your downtown. It may call you to the arts, or a spreadsheet. It may send you into a classroom or into a nursery. But wherever it sends you, it should be part of the divine collision between “the way things are” and “the way things ought to be”.

Because we’re saved by grace, there’s nothing it cannot ask of us.
Grace scares us from the comfortable, predictable stories we want…

But I’ve learned that Grace not only scares us; it surprises us.

More on that in part 2.

Just Write.

I found Stephen King’s On Writing in a used book store. It was shoved between two books whose titles boasted I could write a book in a week. To this day I wonder how many weeks it took them to write those books.

I cracked On Writing open, ready to take writing seriously after years of flirting with it. Today, the spine is creased in numerous places and the front cover has curled in on itself. Upon my first reading, though, one comment seared to my conscious, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” (emphasis mine)

Without hesitation, I got to work on the first part: read a lot. Amazon’s ‘One-click’ became like a bag of Doritos, you pay the price for constantly saying “Just one more.” Brown packages sporting Amazon’s mocking smile (“We have your $, sucker”) carried recommended treasures with time-tested writing and experience-tested writers to my front door. Like an introvert with a little bit of alone time at a party, I threw myself into them. I began to taste the sweetness of syntax, the loose and periodic sentence, and the proverbial wisdom of sages Strunk and White, Roy Peter Clark, Tracy Kidder, Veryln Klinkenborg, and others. With all this input, I felt ready for some output. My cup overfloweth. Time for the writing to floweth.

I sat at my computer, watching the small vertical blip wait for something — anything —  to begin filling the blank page. It blipped. I blinked. It blipped more. No letters. No words. No forward momentum.

I could hear the “pffff” as air leaked from my confidence. Where were the streams of seamless prose? I’d written nothing, but suddenly the blank page began to speak for itself. Seconds whizzed by carrying the scowls and shouts of an audience I’d never met. I was alone, but their glares felt closer than my ideas. I tried to stifle their noise, but their disdain grew with every attempt at a key stroke. I stood, and walked away from the blank page.

The blank page is the Jekyll and Hyde of writing. It offers a sweet invitation, but get close and it’s a siren song. Ideas become ship wrecked against its reef. The small space between your fingers and the keys, or pen to the paper, feels further than the distance between galaxies. Dead stars feel more productive, even their light still shines. I learned the blank page is the most crowded and loudest venue on earth.

What happened?

Others have said this more eloquently, but here’s my take. I neglected the gigantic, underrated, unavoidable chasm between wanting to write and having written. All my reading, I thought, would lead me to the precipice of prose. What I gazed into was the giant blank space of (lofty) expectation. Echoes crept up from the abyss, critiques from those who’d already read what I hadn’t written.

Across the chasm lied the land of ‘having written’. It’s a welcoming place. It comes with the accolades, Facebook comments, and Pulitzer prizes you don’t have yet. But it’s over there, beyond the void. I stood on wanting to write with no where to go.

What was I to do?

It’s funny. Despite all that reading, I was still asking the basic question of how to get from wanting to write to having written. It sounds silly, laughable really, but I realized neither wanting to write nor having written will put words on the page. I do. How was I going to cross this chasm? Writing. Just writing.

Under the fog and frowns that fill this chasm, there’s a bridge. You can’t see it until you take a step, until you write a word. First step. Write another word. Another step. You’ll hear it creak and sway, but with every word is a step. Your hands will sweat; your lungs will feel heavy; and you’ll probably look down. Just write. The bridge isn’t pretty but it’s sturdy. It’s the sentence, and it’s the only way from wanting to write to having written. No short cuts or detours. It’ll get you across — every time. You only need to write.

You see, I had an idea of what good writing looked, sounded, and smelled like. Mistakingly, I thought “read a lot and write a lot” meant “(when) you read a lot you’ll write (well) a lot”. I believe what Stephen King meant was “read a lot (of good writing) and write (poorly) a lot.”

What about craft? Craft exists. It’s wonderful and wildly important. It’s what put the bridge there in the first place. The late William Zinsser equated writing to carpentry. Get familiar with the hammer, nails, and 2x4s first. Learn beveling and fancy tricks after you’ve built up calluses. I’m not advocating for craftless writing. I’m advocating against passive writing, which isn’t writing.

Want to write? Just write. Write poorly. Write words you’ll delete the moment you’re done, but write. Get across the chasm. Travel back and forth. Step through the faceless critiques and, soon enough, you’ll trust the bridge.

This is a Story about a Parking Garage

It was our 4th wedding anniversary, and we were in Cancun. I wish I could say I planned an extravagant getaway worth a lifetime of husband points. Instead, it was our 2nd week living in Cancun. Regardless, what’s better than a relaxing night in one of the world’s most beautiful destinations?

Week one was a mad dash from the airport to our new apartment, finding a rental car, and welcoming a missions team. The day they left was significant: I wasn’t sent home with them, and it was our anniversary. 4 years of marriage later and look where we were.

So I donned the only button-up I packed, and we set out for dinner and the mall. You’re thinking, “You went to the mall?” Sure, it sounds like a sitcom husband move, but it’s a straight shot from our apartment, which meant I could find home. And it’s a nice mall. So there’s that.

The night pleasantly slowed life’s pace. We sat and kibitzed about our new adventure during dinner then went to the mall. We snickered at stores with the name, “Poupou” and smiled at reminders of home like “Johnny Rockets”. Slight exhaustion set in and we walked to the car.

We pulled into the parking garage exit and the barrier between us and outside didn’t budge. I thought a sensor might be a tad off. Headlights approached from behind. Tension escalated. Suddenly, I remembered the parking ticket we got at the entrance. I noticed a small metal box to my left with a slot for my ticket. Reluctant of the truth, I inserted it. The machine read “Boleto no valid” or “Invalid ticket”.

The picky machine spewed it out like a child with their first mouthful of mashed peas. I snatched it back. I couldn’t find any place to pay. Only the thin, dark crevice for paid tickets stared at me. So I did what any adult does when things go awry: I tried it again. And again. And again.

The heavy blare of frustrated honks yanked me from my stubborn stupor. Perturbed and paid up drivers flickered head lights to announce their displeasure. Thankfully, I saw a lane to take us back into the garage. For me it was an escape route; for everyone else, the dunce cap. We only needed to back up a little to turn into it. The car behind us didn’t help, leaving the width of dental floss between our bumpers. I stepped out to motion them to back up, but found a trail of cars reaching into the far recesses of the parking garage.

I learned then how finicky hand gestures are cross culturally. Who knew aggressively waving your hands — palms forward — in Mexico could be offensive? I didn’t. Thankfully, before shots rang out, someone finally got the idea. They all reciprocated. I jumped in the car faster than you could say “lo siento” and turned into the other lane.

I texted a Back2Back staffer asking what to do. In the meantime, we found a store we hoped could help. Emily asked at customer service where to pay. They said they’d validate our ticket then and there. I thought I heard the Hallelujah chorus. I’d show that ticket machine who was boss.

We returned to the exit like a battered football team after halftime: validated and ready for victory. The barrier stood before us like Gandalf, but would soon do my bidding. I inserted the validated ticket. The machine read, again, “Boleto no valid”.

Not only was salt added to the wound, but, again, an exodus of cars swarmed behind us. I kept my palms to myself.

To appear proactive, I repeatedly tried to insert the ticket. No dice. Suddenly, a horn that would make a cruise ship jealous pierced the awkwardness. A large white SVU lurked behind us. I motioned, least offensively as possible, to move back. My attempts were met with more fog horn. Suddenly, Emily jettisoned from the car and marched toward the SVU like Miami P.D. at a drug bust.

I watched her, albeit without audio, command the situation in the rearview mirror. She came back to the car with a swagger and smirk like she’d won the Powerball. I looked behind us to see the driver of the SVU now directing the cars.

We retreated through dunce cap lane. While verbally apprehending the man behind us, Em learned pay machines littered the parking garage in rather obscure places. And even with the ticket validated, we needed to send it through a machine.

We made our third approach to the exit, validated twice over ticket in hand. The blank, antagonistic stare of the machine beckoned a rematch. I looked at Emily, hoping we’d exit before our 5th anniversary. I inserted the ticket. Convinced we’d be sleeping in the garage, the dreadful barrier began to lift. We could finally leave.

I pulled into traffic as my phone buzzed with a text message. It read, “You need to pay before you leave, even if you get it validated.”

This is a Story about an Octopus

The kids lined up ready for a balloon and an American counterpart. Alex had no idea his soon-to-be partner, despite being a (3 week) resident of Cancun, spoke little Spanish.

We’d taken a missions team to Tres Reyes for a work project and a game with the community kids. The goal of the game: don’t let your pair’s balloon hit the ground. Under the shade of the palapa (a Mexican gazebo), the kids scrambled to find an adult teammate. Alex, a 10 year boy, ran straight to me, grabbed my hand, and started whipping through gobs of Spanish. I’m not sure if it my tan plus semi-sturdy facial hair or my ‘staff’ shirt, but he was chatting it up. Language school was over a month away. So I smiled and rationed what little Spanish I knew. The game began. Chaos ensued. Kids and balloons and gringos flew everywhere. Despite the language barrier, unbeknownst to Alex, we gelled quickly; our balloon never come close to the ground. Until, that is, I popped it.

It happened fast. The balloon slowly jettisoned toward me; Alex turned his back for a brief moment; I swung to send it back to him; my watch hit the balloon. Pop. As soon as he heard that distinct sound of joy ending, Alex turned and watched our shard of rubber tumble to the earth. His eagerness dissipated as fast as the balloon’s air.

To make light of the situation, I tried the oldest trick in the book: blame shift. I found a friend nearby to accuse. I told Alex it wasn’t my fault — in Spanish — and went to pass the blame. Alex’s face filled with a perplexed, blank stare. My awkward smile, the kind you wear in a situation you know was your fault, was replaced by concern. For me in Mexico, stumbling into an offensive situation is like running through a minefield wearing clown shoes; I don’t intend to step on one, but it’s bound to happen.

I rummaged through my catalog of potentially offensive things. None of the obvious ones qualified, but the possibility was ever-present. Alex’s face transitioned to outright confusion, the kind that tilts the eye brows, slowly narrows the cheeks, and finishes slightly pivoting the head.

I needed to clear the air. I went to the one person who could clarify my misguided verbal transgression and still receive me as I was: my wife, Emily.

A seasoned translator, and wife of four years, she saw me and immediately knew. “What are you trying to say?” she yelled at me yards away. I explained the scenario and Alex’s reaction, waiting till the end to say what I said. She broke out in laughter. “Are you sure that’s what you said?” she asked through giggles.

Yes, I’m sure,” I told her. “Isn’t that how you say ‘It’s not my fault?’ “

She replied, “No. ‘No es mi culpa,’ means ‘It’s not my fault.’ “
“You said, ‘No es mi pulpo,’ which means ‘It’s not my Octopus.’ “

My face went blank.
—————————–
3 months later, Alex and I have long since cleared things up.

He regularly asks if I’ve found the Octopus a good home.

This is a Story about a Haircut

Choosing a place to get my haircut feels like diffusing a bomb. There’s a choice to make (red or blue wire, Great Clips or Sports Cuts), and it’s obvious if it doesn’t go well. Typically, I clip the wire that’ll cost me the least. It’s safe for my money, but a gamble for my hair.

That said, I wish I’d been more discerning after my first haircut in Cancun. It was in a grocery store (the story tells itself), and the price was hard to beat. Emily was skeptical. But to our surprise I liked the price and Em liked the haircut. I left confident we’d found our place, after only one visit.

The time recently came for another haircut. I avoided it as long as possible, but Em employed the adjective “shaggy”, which is code for, “You no longer have a say in the matter.” She suggested somewhere less grocery store. I figured I’d go back since it went well. If it didn’t work out, I’d go somewhere else, which is akin to saying if the bomb goes off then I should have clipped the other wire. What could go wrong?

Rain clouds opened up as we pulled into the parking lot, to set the scene. We walked in and I was immediately seated; no one else seemed to want a hair cut in a grocery store that day. Emily graciously explained what we wanted, using a picture from her phone to be crystal clear. She sat in an empty chair next to me. I heard the deep, mechanical click and buzz of the clippers. The hairdresser steadied my head like a captain at the helm of an insubordinate ship. She took her first swipe, and what looked like a dark brown gerbil landed in my lap. Emily, only looking down for a moment, stood up and began to talk to the hairdresser as I felt the A/C on the back of my scalp.

I’m not sure what she said, but I know she wasn’t talking about the weather. Emily took her phone back out; the hairdresser kept a firm grip on my head; and I was bummed I couldn’t see Finding Nemo without my glasses. A moment later, the hairdresser continued to carve out small animal chunks from my hair. Emily leaned over and quietly said, “We’ll get it fixed. Don’t worry.” All I could see were brown clumps in my lap.

The clippers turned off, and Emily handed me my glasses. It didn’t look too awful, from the front. It was different — I normally had hair above my ears — to say the least. We walked out. Emily said again we’d get it fixed, but we’d have to wait till after we got back from Tres Reyes. I knew it wasn’t great a haircut, but I wasn’t excited about spending more money.

Funny enough, the kids in Tres Reyes were full of compliments. Granted, I only understood part of what they said, but I definitely heard “haircut” and, what I thought was the word, “cool”. On the way home I asked Emily if it still needed “fixed”. The kids liked it, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Emily smiled and pulled out her phone. She handed it to me and confidently said, “We’ll be getting it fixed tonight. Here’s why.”

I told her to hang onto the photo. We may need it at the next place.

IMG_3459Needless to say, we’ve gotten it fixed.

This is a Story about Kick the Can

Peeling potatoes isn’t something I do often, but when I do, it’s because I’m not able to do much else. I was helping Emily; we were responsible for the mashed potatoes: the holy grail of side-items. I stood over the garbage can, forcing the dull peeler along the dry skin of the potato when, suddenly, I saw myself standing at the top of the basement stairs at my grandma’s house. I was propping a Ginger Ale can upright at the edge of the stairs where, to the left, stood an old, faithful coffee can full of potatoes.

Memories are powerful. A mundane activity can take you somewhere miles and years away, but make it feel like home. I was peeling potatoes in Cancun, Mexico, of all places, and was immediately in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, playing kick the can in my grandmother’s house.

It was the premier way to get a empty can or milk jug to the basement, which was a tad closer to the recycling bins in the garage. It was also the way to stay out of the basement at night. I don’t care who your grandma is, I’ve never met a welcoming basement after sunset. Anyway. Kick the can was a big deal. My brother, our cousin Zack, and I would drink Dr. Pepper and Ginger Ale like water for a week, store the cans next to the kitchen sink, and when the pile grew too large, we’d open the basement door. The first thing you’d see was the can of potatoes.

I’ve never kicked a football, decently, but standing at the top of the stairs felt like trying to score the last point at State. Once your can was ready, a hush came over the crowd, you’d begin your approach, gauge your strength, give it a good kick, and then, “Plink!” Noise was a way to gauge if your kick was bogus or not. If it tumbled down the stairs like a blind man on roller skates, you needed work. If it went straight to the floor, you were on your way to NFL draft. Noise was helpful, but the bonafide determiner, the score keeper, was the pro herself: Grandma.

She was the cream of the crop of kick the can referees, and cheerleaders. She gave a fair score, dropping as low as 4 — on a scale of 1-10 — when it was called for (don’t argue with the ref, FYI). Regardless of the number, though, she was your biggest fan. She’d root for you like she did the Steelers against the Ravens. If she gave you an 8 or up, you’d want to go tell all of Yale Dr. She had a special way of taking something  ordinary and turning it into something you’d tell your friends about after winter break.

I haven’t heard that distinct “plink” in some time. As I peeled potatoes today, it was almost like I heard it from inside our little apartment. On days like today, you think of things you’re thankful for, big and small. For all the things I’m thankful for today, I’m thankful for memories of a beautiful, feisty, and polish grandmother — who I miss a ton — who cheered  for something as small as her grandkids kicking a can down her basement stairs.

Happy Thanksgiving.