Following the Lamp Light to Guatemala… the complete story!
Psalm 119:105 “Your word is lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.”
In a few short weeks, I am moving my family to Guatemala to serve as a team coordinator at an orphanage named Casa Shalom (house of peace). Casa Shalom was founded in 1986 in response to the great number of orphans as a result of civil war in Guatemala. The children served are victims of neglect, mental and sexual abuse, or simply abandoned. Some of them were literally found, naked on the side of the road. The government-run orphanages are overcrowded and loosely governed. Many of those children continue to be abused by the workers, or are allowed to be abused by local gangs in an effort to keep peace from the outside. Casa Shalom receives no government funds and exists to give these children a safe alternative to a government facility.
Right now, Casa Shalom can house about 120 children. The vision is to double that. My wife Melissa and I will be the liaisons between churches in the United States and the orphanage directors. Primarily, our responsibility will be to coordinate work teams that will partner with the orphanage to fund and complete projects designed to maintain and grow the facility.
The Lamp Light
As I sit here and drink my coffee, I think about how I got to this moment. This is the biggest leap of faith I have ever dreamed of taking. I never could have simply intended to be in this position or mapped out how to get here. The expected route is to choose a major in college, graduate, and then look for each job as a stepping stone to that dream job you always had in mind. If only life were that straightforward for me! Some people knew at age ten that one day they wanted to do something and they chased it until they got it. Lucky, I guess.
For me, it’s been much more like backpacking in the forest at night. You think you have everything you need in your pack. You aren’t sure what is on the trail ahead. All you really have is the light from a head lamp illuminating ten feet ahead of the current step you are taking. You don’t really know when you’re going to drop that heavy pack and set up camp… or where your destination will be. In backpacking, that’s pretty exciting! In life, it can be terrifying. That scenario has made Psalm 119:105 come alive. My desire has always been for God to just point at a map and say, “You need to work here! Do this! This is where I am leading you! Don’t worry: you will make really good money, support your family well, and I will worry about how you get there.” But it is more like the stories we read in the Bible. God says, “Go to this place and wait, then I will tell you what to do there and when to move on. Don’t worry about how you will make it; besides, you don’t really know where I am taking you anyway. Oh, and you might need to sell some stuff.” Excuse me? I’d like to get the full picture, if you don’t mind, Lord. Do you expect me to change my life with no guarantees? No sign-on bonus? His word usually does not go forth with a spotlight on my destination. It’s a lamp, and it is pointed at my feet, showing only the ground just a few steps ahead. Only faith lets me know when I have arrived at a place to camp. Now I’ve come to a fork on the trail. One way is financial security, comfort, and wealth. The other is vastly unknown, probably not very safe, and promises to be a punch in the gut of my pride and hole in the armor of my financial security. It’s really a no-brainer on paper.
So, this path… the one filled only with His lamp light… it feels like a new trail—one I’ve only been on for a short time. But as I look back on my life, I realize I’ve traveled on it for many miles. So, I guess all I can do is stop using paper to determine the voice of the Lord. To be honest, it’s exhausting running from the Lord. Ask Jonah. Like him, I had to learn the hard way.
Avoiding The Path
Most of my life, I’ve been afraid of going anywhere near the word MISSIONS. My first memory of missionaries was from a book about Jim Elliot read to me in the first grade. The book retold the story of a group of missionaries that flew into Ecuador and were killed by the local tribe. Several years later, family members of the martyrs were able to reach the tribe for Christ, and a beautiful story of redemption and forgiveness was told. Well, that scarred me for life. I said then, “Lord, I will do whatever you want, but don’t call me to missions work! I’d like to be a professional baseball player instead, thanks!” My school was very mission minded. There was a large painting of the earth on the auditorium wall that had Mark 16:15 on it: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature.” They were very strict, and I later vowed that I would never send my kids there. Incidentally, my daughter just completed the first grade there. Funny how life works. In high school, I never signed up for the European mission trips or the trip to sunny and tropical Jamaica, no matter how fun it sounded. By the way, that group that went to Jamaica was robbed at gun point in their beds one night. NO THANKS! I will keep practicing my baseball skills.
Truth be told, in order to keep up the guise of not knowing God’s will for my life, I chose not to surrender everything to Him. I kept a small part of my heart at a safe distance. Then, my world began to break apart. My dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. I believed that God would heal him. It was a death sentence and only a miracle could save him. In March of 2007, only a few days before his 53rd birthday, I held my dad’s hand as he breathed his last breath. I thought about quitting God more than once. He failed me. Why? This doesn’t make sense. How could this be the plan? How can I trust this God? Well, I won’t answer all of that because people write whole books about that. But I will say that I didn’t quit. As a matter of fact, I felt a connection with God that I never had before. Now my dad and best friend was with God, in person. I knew someone that was currently experiencing the rewards of a faith in God. And one day, I wanted to be able to tell my dad all about what happened after he left. And I wanted it to be a good story. (Side note: if you’re interested in learning how to look at your life as if it’s telling a story, I highly recommend the book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.)
Called to the Path
Shortly after losing my dad, my wife and I attended a leadership conference in Atlanta called CATALYST! I would find this conference to be aptly named. At the end of the first day, a pastor named Francis Chan got up to speak. Never have I heard someone like him before. No airs about him. No show. No yelling of inspirational and spiritual jargon to get us all fired up. He was calm and reverent. He was real and challenging. While he spoke, the Holy Spirit somehow had appeared in that secret place of my heart that until then had been perfectly guarded. It was a place that only I knew about. When Francis finished his speaking, he prayed. He said that his reason for praying wasn’t that it is what you are supposed to do at the end. He was only praying because he really believes that when he does, the Lord is going to do something that only He can do in that moment. It was a simple prayer. In fact, I don’t even remember a single word of it. When the prayer was over, so was the session. We were free to get up and make plans for the rest of the day. I couldn’t move. Like Balaam’s donkey, my legs refused to take a step. Something happened in those moments. Finally, after about ten minutes, I slowly got up with no idea what was coming next.
We ate dinner and I didn’t feel well. Sore throat, itchy eyes. I took some cold medicine and went to bed early. Cold medicine usually knocks me out. I knew I could get some sound sleep and be ready for the next day. Around 1:00 A.M., I woke up. I am a terrible sleeper, so usually when that happens, I am so sleepy that I roll over and fall back to sleep in about 3 seconds. This time, I was WIDE awake. I shouldn’t have been. Not with the medicine I took. The blanket that was over me felt like the lead blanket they lay over you at the dentist office… heavy, like I was pinned to the bed. I felt the presence of the Lord. It was calm and peaceful. Really peaceful. I felt full and complete, like there was no other place I wanted to be. Ok Lord, you have my attention. What I didn’t know was that he had met me in that secret place. The one I was keeping to myself; the place I kept the biggest dreams and the wildest fears. Then He spoke. “I have plans for you if let go of your fear. Plans for missions and ministry. It will be what satisfies your soul. It is why I made you. Hand over your fear and let me have this place of your heart.” I really can’t articulate how something can be audible when no sound is heard. I know the room was silent, but I heard it. I can only point to the scripture in 1 Kings 19. Elijah had just called down the fire of heaven on the wicked Babylonian priests, but he let fear grip him and ran for his life. The Lord helped him get to a cave at Mount Sinai. Elijah was met by God there. There was a great windstorm, but the Lord wasn’t in the wind; then there was an earthquake, but the Lord wasn’t in it. After that was a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then there was a gentle whisper. Elijah covered his face from the Lord and received his instructions. That night, lying in a hotel bed, the Lord showed up in the gentle whisper.
I woke up the next day realizing that I was no longer crippled by my fears. I felt like the armies of heaven were all on my side. I knew that I needed to leave a great career in business. I started working for the family business: digging holes, piering houses, and waterproofing basements. I went from a shirt and tie to the mud. What am I doing? God, I don’t know what you are up to here! How does this make any sense? If only God would spot-light my destination! Make sense of this. Instead, I get a lamp. And daily doses of the “real world” and all of its problems and struggles. The bills still come in the mail; the house still gets mysteriously caught in invisible cyclones; the car needs to go into the shop. More and more, life seemed to be getting in the way of that message from God.
Losing the Path
That moment still lived on, though. I felt a calling to sell our house—a house that we loved then, and still love today. It was where we planned on our kids growing up and having sleepovers with their friends and where the family would all come over every Thanksgiving. Night after night, I lay in bed, knowing that house was an anchor. I wasn’t going anywhere if I kept holding on to that anchor. So, we sold it. It was crazy… we’d only lived there a few years. It sold without ever putting a sign in the yard and for the exact amount I wanted for it. Wow. Must be God, right? The next house I bought seemed to be the perfect fit for us. Getting more out of debt and still having the things we really wanted in a house. It looked right on paper, but my spirit didn’t feel right. I ignored it. We bought the house. The first day I go to move in, I find two brown recluse spiders. Those would be the first of many. Overall, I think we caught over two hundred and killed countless more. We spent the next six months living in my mom’s basement while we started fumigation efforts. We never spent a single night in the house we purchased. Then my mom sold her house, so we lived with my in-laws for several more months. So much for feeling like God had this all under control. Meanwhile, we try to keep up appearances that we are doing ok. We were still serving at church, even going on missions trips. But inside, we were hiding anger at God and a drinking problem to cope with being homeless and lost and feeling like we broke our family. So I stopped talking to God. Why should I talk to Him? I hate my job. I’ve lost my house. My kids feel like nomads. I have a house full of poisonous spiders that I need to kill. If I’m lucky, I can sell the house for a huge loss. And quite frankly, I am getting tired of people asking me what I think God’s will is for my life, and what was God calling us to do? I wanted answer, “God and I aren’t on speaking terms right now.”
That took a paragraph to describe, but that part of the story took place over a 3 year period. The spider house was treated for over a year and finally ready for the market. God and I were still not talking much. I was just waiting for a low-ball offer on the house and preparing to add up the losses. Then, that still calm voice returned very unexpectedly. This time I was on a jet ski in the middle of a lake all by myself. I had gotten separated from the rest of the family who were on a boat somewhere. All of a sudden, God broke the silence. “Hey, let’s talk.” What? No? This can’t be. God and I aren’t doing well. He isn’t going to talk to me, because I am “not close to Him” right now. He only speaks to people who are on good terms with Him. Somehow His peace reached me there. I responded in surrender. I was so tired and lost without Him. He never left me. I left Him. And He was inviting me back to that place we had met before. He says, “You got a little side-tracked, but let’s work on that. All isn’t lost. You’re actually right where you need to be. Sorry, it was painful. Change can be painful. Let’s pick up where we left off.”
Finding the Path
I didn’t say anything to anyone about that moment. The next day, my realtor called me several times trying to reach me. While I had been out of cell phone range, we had four offers on the “spider” house, and all but one was over the list price! I couldn’t believe it.
We bought another house. It’s sufficient. It is in a good area, but it needs some work. I’m still holding on to this call of getting out of debt and trying to remove anchors. You know… those things that make you say that you would do more for God, but you can’t because you have car payments and house debt and credit card debt and retirement funds, and bills, bills, and more bills. What I couldn’t see (because I only had a lamp shining on my feet) was that through the years of all this struggle, God was stretching and pulling and (painfully) molding us. He was removing the things that were tying our hands. We just couldn’t see it for what it was. And now, much of my work experience had trained me for things in our future.
I had started to forget about doing missions work, other than the short-term trips with our local congregation. I really enjoyed those trips and how it affected the people I took with me. Maybe I was just supposed to keep leading short term trips? Yeah, that’s it. I love that. I want to keep helping people get out of their comfort zones and see God doing things far from their bubble. But, was that all? The story could end safely right there. Then a friend called me one day out of the blue. He was an older gentleman who had been a part of some Bible studies that I had led. He proceeded to tell me that he had praying for us. He said, “The Lord told me to let you know that it was time. Time to go. Move the family. No more five-day trips. Don’t worry about the kids. Melissa is ready, too.” Just when I thought I had settled plans on missions, God was stirring the pot again. Months went by with no signs of change. And my friend… he passed away a few months later, not having seen the fulfillment of his message.
Following the Path
In 2016, I quit my job running operations at the family business. For nearly five years I had been keeping up with insurance, accounting, marketing, purchasing, project management, maintenance, managing the crews, and doing some sales. Lots of stress. What a training ground. For the last year I have worked for myself, buying and renovating houses. Making my own schedule, able to go anywhere at any time. Though it sounds nice, it was a step of faith. I had no idea if I was going to fail. All I have is lamp light.
To date, I have sold two houses that I have renovated. Lamp light. I am days away from purchasing a rental property. Lamp light. My wife has a great opportunity to make really good money as a nurse working for the government. She could make more than she has ever made. They posted the job just a few days ago. She was hired with the knowledge that she would be up for this larger role. The timing is interesting. Two weeks before the job is officially posted we are presented with an opportunity for full time missions work at Casa Shalom, which we have fallen in love with over the years. My friend was right. Something was coming. Lamp light. After the roller coaster ride of excitement and terror, and lots of prayer, we have accepted the call. Lamp light. Questions we are asked… What about your kids? How will they do in a country like Guatemala? You know its dangerous down there, right? What about your house? What about that job with the government? Have you weighed the pros and cons on paper? What about school? How are you going to support yourself? Great questions… by Lamp light, I guess. The truth is, I take pride in providing for my family. No matter what was going to happen, I wanted to set us up to support ourselves as much as possible. But God likes to get us to operate with faith. I have no idea how we can raise all of the money we need to move to Guatemala, find housing, reliable transportation, furniture, food, and be able to afford the expensive flights to and from. I will be too busy serving to work outside of Casa Shalom, and I barely no the language. To top it off, we only have weeks to prepare. All I have is Lamp light, an obedient heart, and a desire to help build an orphanage that can have room for more children to find peace and hope.
Remember that story about the missionaries in Ecuador? Well, it just so happens that at that same conference, during which the Lord woke me up in the middle of the night, the leaders of the event had invited a member of that very tribe in Ecuador to attend the conference. He shot at giant balloons with a blow gun to simulate how they hunt monkeys in the rain forest, and told of the bravery of the missionaries who had told his people about Christ. I could not believe that the embodiment of my early childhood fears about missions was standing on stage when the Lord decided to call me to missions. What a way for the Lord to hammer the message home! Here was my childhood fear standing on stage, a testament to people who followed the Lord and succeeded. Sometimes God likes to show off too!
There is a band that I like named the Avett Brothers. They are an indie/folk band with religious roots. Faith is littered all through their vulnerable, down-to-earth songs. While driving home recently, I ran across a song called the Once and Future Carpenter. In the song, he talks about being a carpenter, then laying down his tools to follow a musical career, not knowing if he will find success or failure. The chorus really stuck with me…
“Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction, I’ll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I’ll be ready to surrender, and remember
We’re all in this together
If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die”
I am choosing to live by the lamp light at my feet, and trusting the Lord to take care of us on this journey. And if I live the life God has given me, I know that I won’t be scared to see Him face to face one day. As those lyrics stated, we are all in this together. I know that I will have many prayers on our behalf, but please join with us in financial support. We must fund our mission completely on our own. Please contact me if you have questions, or if I can provide more information about what we are going to be doing in Guatemala. There will be information coming soon about how to partner with us financially.
Thank you and God Bless,