Tuesday, October 20

From cornstalks to cinder blocks: A week in Guatemala

I like my creature comforts.

When I watch TV, it's on a comfy, reclining sofa. I cuddle under a blanket that smells of Tide, and sip a drink from the cupholder on the couch. I surf through any number of channels and often settle on the ones that show me how to make my comfortable home even better. (They suck me in every time!)

The hum of a well-stocked fridge fills the kitchen next to our living room. My kids are in their own rooms, on their own beds, surrounded by too many of their own things. There are two cars in my driveway and three computers in the house.

Blessings galore. I am incredibly grateful.

I was just in Guatemala for a week. I was in Antigua, with a dear friend, to build a house in a nearby village for a family in need via an organization called From Houses to Homes. Antigua is a bubble - a beautiful, internationally protected historical site that is the foodie capital of Guatemala.

It sits in the valley of the "water volcano" and is known for its brightly colored homes, cobblestone streets, and seemingly infinite number of churches and ruins. Tourism is big here, and many visitors choose to hike the volcanos and take canopy tours, zip-lining through the lush forests.

But there's the other part of Guatemala - just 20 minutes away on all sides. The view is much different here.

We built a 13x9-foot cinder block home for a family in El Tejar. When many families in that village watch TV, it's from a well-worn bed that they share with multiple siblings, in a dark, corrugated metal room, with a leaky ceiling and a cornstalk fence. The TV is a relic, sitting among the family's few possessions. The room is tidy, but lacks any of the comforts I mentioned earlier. Getting up to the room itself requires careful maneuvering up narrow steps, like climbing into a treehouse. Sheets cover the window, but offer little privacy.

A beautiful, loving, and generous family with six children (one married with a child of his own, who lives next door) call this home. 

The Tagual Andres family in front of the oldest son's home next to the building site.
This house was also a project from a church that was putting up the corrugated metal homes.
It is spacious and provides some protection, but not enough warmth in the colder
months. It also doesn't have a locking door, or a window that opens.

That week, we got to work building our family their very first cinder block home, with a concrete floor, a window that opens, a metal roof with a skylight, and a locking door, protection from a world of people who have resorted to crime in their poverty.

The work was hard, but so rewarding. Day one was a lot of digging, sweating, and mixing concrete by hand. (Rock, sand, and mix is flipping HEAVY!) We poured a foundation, then spent the next few days stacking cement blocks and mixing mortar to hold everything together. You won't believe what this stuff does to your hands. My gloves look like they went through a war zone - the best kind of war zone, I should add.

Our team! Best ever. Michele and I were joined by Ruth and Silk from Canada. Ruth is from
Guatemala originally and has built many houses here. She has the biggest heart for God, and for His people. Her
voice was invaluable there. Silk is a former hip-hop artist who loves serving God by serving others. And she
has one of the best smiles I've ever seen - true joy! Our new friends also included 3 of the best Guatemalan
workers a couple of gals from the North could ask for. We miss working with them.

During downtime, we visited with families in the village who were next in line for a house (There are 67 families on the waiting list in El Tejar.) Two of them have more than 10 kids. Many of them are sleeping on the dirt floor. We delivered your generous donations of clothes and toys. Their faces were on fire with joy. You would have loved the clamoring over a small Mickey Mouse dress (is anything more American than that?!) Seriously, if your kids do not like hand-me-downs from their siblings, send them to Guatemala. We saw so many of the donated clothes on the kids the very next day - so proud to be showing us their new outfits.

On the last day, we painted and got ready to celebrate (we were also invited to the birthday celebration of a baby who lives in one of the first houses built in that village.) There were firecrackers, a fabulous meal that the family prepared and served in their new home, and the biggest piñata we had ever seen! (Not to mention half the village down there to join in the fun). Our team left pizza and cake with the family, as they rarely get this sort of treat there.

DONE! House number 985 - almost 1,000 houses built by this beautiful organization!
Enjoying a wonderful meal of pepian - rice, potatoes, chicken, and other veggies
in a spicy stew - served with homemade tortillas. So very good.
This is only half of the piñata, people. When it broke up, there was such a mad
dash for the candy that it was impossible to take good photos!

During the week, we also visited a school in Santa Maria de Jesus, the community where From Houses to Homes first started building. The school is for families in the organization's program, as well as others who qualify. It is a gorgeous building that would rival many American schools. School is a huge deal in Guatemala and is relatively unaffordable for many in these rural villages. (Unfortunately, the village where we served is too far from the school, so our family isn't able to take advantage of this perk.)

All families who receive a home also receive free medical care from a clinic that From Houses to Homes built as well. This is another beautiful facility that is changing the game from these families. To have access to all of this is an incredible Godsend.

I encourage you to read the From Houses to Homes story. It is a touching picture of what one
person can do when they strive to change a life for a family - now for about 1,000 families (not to mention
how incredible the experience is for those who come down there to serve.)

I want to tell you much more about what happened this week - about what God did in bringing our team together, about learning Spanish, about playing with the kids, about the beauty of the country.

Life is so very different around the world from North America. We tend to think we are the majority, but we aren't. Most of the people in the world live a life we can't quite imagine. We are the privileged, living in relative freedom and prosperity.

We are people of means. There is much poverty in the US, that is true. And I won't downplay how hard it is to be poor here in the US. But in Guatemala, and in many other developing countries, those without means truly have very little, and even less opportunity to change that. I wonder if it's really feasible to lift them out of that condition without help from us. 

So we heard over and over, "Thank you for coming to Guatemala. Thank you for helping my people." 

Are there any better words? This is a beautiful community of people who care deeply for each other and their culture, but are mired in painful poverty. They work, but it's not enough. (In our family, the dad and two siblings work full-time.) They sweep, clean, and tidy up, but still their floors are compacted dirt. There are not enough beds, not enough changes of clothes. Still, they look their best and give thanks to God in conditions that we will likely never know.

Throughout the week, I couldn't stop thinking that these lovely people watch TV, and they know. They know how we live. They see what we have. They see beyond the cornstalks, dirt floors, broken chairs, bare light bulbs, and they see what must seem impossible to imagine. On such small salaries, even with the older kids working, what they see is beyond their reach. 

So for them, knowing that we care, that even in all our riches and opportunity, there is time to love them and lift them up ... this means everything.

It is a 13x9 house, but it is so very much more, isn't it?

Let's go build some more together sometime soon, friends. 

Tuesday, September 1

Go get 'em, kids

Oh kids,

You are off to another adventure. Lucky you. Your world is getting bigger by the minute.

After this summer, you know more people, more places, more experiences. You've met heartbreak and heart-joy. You are getting stretched in ways that will mold your adult years; things that don't make sense now will. They always do. Sometimes we wait decades to find out, sometimes we discover it right away.

You will walk in the sun many days, joy exploding from your face. Let it explode. People around you need it. They need your smile, your kind words. Don't hold out on them. Be the nicest person in the room, not for you but for them.

Because one day the "them" will be you. You will be sad and lonely. Not might - will. It happens to every one of us. And you will need that smile, that laugh, that one word that changes your heart from breaking to hoping.

Giving up is the easiest thing you will do. Holding out hope is the hardest. But every hard thing you overcome is a diamond in your crown. Wear it with pride.

Wear ALL of you with pride. You won't be the best at many things, but sometimes you will. Be who you were created to be, not what group mentality asks you to be. Choose carefully who you call friend. Go ahead and experiment with that. This is the time to find out. You'll trip your way through potholes, but I promise that by the time you are an adult, you will choose well.

Be 100 percent you. Not 60 percent for this person, and 25 percent for that one - put all 100 in every time. You will be included because of who you are one day, and excluded for the same reason the next. That's OK, your peers are all figuring this out, too. Forgive and forget.

You will want to be someone different many times this year - faster, stronger, smarter, prettier, cooler, bigger, smaller, greater, lesser, wiser. Decide only to be a better you.

And good news: school is not all there is in the world. Really. There are hundreds, thousands of other adventures awaiting you. If this particular adventure isn't your favorite this year, hold tight. June is right around the corner. Just promise you will take something away from the journey.

Your world has walls all over it. Sometimes they protect you, but other times they keep you penned in. Jumping over those walls will seem a monumental task. But oh, on the other side. Freedom waits. God waits. He doesn't want you inside that wall, either, because He can't use you there.

They say no way, oh, I say I'll rule the world
Ain't afraid of the walls, I'm a break 'em down
They stay the same, oh, I'm feelin' high as a bird
Ain't afraid of the ground, I'm a stay up
I say yeah yeah yeah, they say no no no
They say slow slow slow, I say go go go
They say no way, oh, I say I'll rule the world
I say I rule the world

Walk Off the Earth, "Rule The World"

I write this as much for you as for me. Because as an adult, you will forget. Life seems more about living than learning for us. More about survival than awe.

Do something new and amazing this year to remind us old people that learning is for all of us, every day.

Wednesday, January 28

Life in pictures: What we're learning

I waver between playing photographer and forgetting to take photos altogether. Lately, I've been forgetting. I hope it's because I'm attempting to live more in the moment than trying to capture them. 

Still, I love how pictures can capture precisely how we are feeling at any one time. Funny, too, that photos can be manipulated to show a feeling that isn't really there. We've all captured beautiful shots that make our kids look like angels when moments before (and after) they were engaged in a mighty tantrum. 

So here are a slew of really bad photos that hopefully show life as it really is for us right now:

Life means playing hard. We've been spending weekends watching Peyton nurture his basketball skills, and as he gets older, the game gets more aggressive. In fact, we're often on him to step up his own level of play. Parallel to life? Sometimes you have to play hard. Your legs hurt, you are out of breath, you want to stop for water, someone is always trying to take the ball from you. That's OK. Keep playing, defending, and hustling. And when it gets too rough, pass the ball to a friend.

Carve out time. Six years - that's all we have left to nurture and care for this girl before she is managing herself in the World. I guess that sounds like a long time - some days it might. But it's really not since we've already been raising her for double that time. Scott just said yesterday, "Can you believe she's already been through 2/3 of her 18 years with us?" Not that we expect she will be out of our life at 18 ... it's just that we expect she'll be officially carving out her own life at that point, leaning on us for support and comfort - not depending on us. Our influence will be different. And our influence now is more critical than ever.

So we've been giving her life experiences to take with her, and will continue to focus more and more on that in the coming six years.

Rest assured those experiences also include learning to do her own laundry, dishes, and scoop kitty litter.

Celebrate big. Last Friday, we had the honor of celebrating two dear friends who turned 40. The first event included a feast for the ages, for which I brought copious amounts of bacon-covered delecacies. I know that is incredibly surprising. I smelled like bacon the rest of the night. Life lesson? It's OK to smell like bacon all night long, because bacon means love. Bacon means I am celebrating big.

So does this:

We overcome hard things. A year ago this week, Peyton was super sick. Hollow-eyed, desperately thirsty all the time, eating like a machine, his skinny little body trying hard to use the sugar in his food to give him fuel. But his pancreas wasn't churning out regular amounts of insulin to unlock that sugar from the food. And today, it's likely not working at all. He is a Type 1 diabetic who doesn't like to be a T1D, but is powering through like a champ. We wanted to celebrate this year milestone with all of you, but he was more comfortable with just the four of us paying any sort of attention to his condition.

So we ate ribs and drank lemonade.

We watched a friend play his basketball game, then ventured to Knuckleheads in the Dells to blow off some steam. Turns out, that was more fun for Sam than for Peyton. Something in him shut down. Maybe it was low blood sugar. Maybe it was the focus of the day. Maybe it was just being a 10-year-old boy. We didn't push it, just let him keep a low profile while Sam killed it at all the arcade games. Life parallel? Disappointments abound sometimes. It's OK to take the space to process them.

Other good things:

A few weeks ago, I heard this message at church that helped me remember that God wants us to delight in Him first. Since then, I have been pouring my energy into doing just that. One things that helps during the workday is Gungor Radio and Bethel Music Radio constantly streaming on my Pandora. Heavenly.

(For the record, Hipster Cocktail Party Radio is also keeping a smile on my face this winter.)

Do yourself a favor, and add this blog to your weekend routine. A quiet place and some of the most inspiring stories happening in the world. God still moves mountains.

Shauna Niequist has a new book coming out in March: Savor. It's a devotional ... with recipes ... I really can't imagine anything better.

Sam and I splurged on a couple of cookies at Manna Bakery in Madison (off Sherman Ave). Best, buttery sugar cookies ever. So I leave you with this:

Proof that love is all you need.

Tuesday, January 13

Being uncomfortable - where it's at

So I've been thinking.

I've read a great many blog posts in the past two weeks that have the "new year - new you" flair. Many are great posts where the authors have vowed to be more accepting of themselves, to believe that enough is truly enough. They are savoring small moments and helping time stand still more by slowing down. They have resolved to stop punishing themselves, comparing themselves, being anything other than themselves.

I love all of this.

And I'd be tempted to make many of the same resolutions. Except I can't. If I am honest with myself, I have tended toward these types of resolutions for several years now with the ultimate goal of seeking greater comfort for myself. They are good resolutions, but need to be grounded in the right reasons.

Usually I want life to be easier because it feels hard. It feels that way because I am running around in craziness, all wrapped up in things I shouldn't be. So of course it seems hard. And of course, I want to step back, slow down, and make better choices.

But my "step back and slow down" is usually code for "hide in your bubble until all the ugliness goes away."

It often doesn't go away. Because really, I haven't changed anything. Really, I am all about the challenges ending so I can "enjoy" life. Once a storm passes, though, I am still rooted in the same place.

Everything is the same - just more comfortable than it was before.

Well, here we go. Real change means being uncomfortable for a time. So it's time to get uncomfortable.

Like completing a 10-day cleanse that forced me to get rid of my most favorite foods in the world. Uncomfortable.

Like seeing a therapist. Uncomfortable.

Like being on Day 10 of kicking my wine-a-night habit for the longest time ever since 2011. Uncomfortable.

Like planning a couple of mission trips for 2015 that include going somewhere new and different and facing a lot of unknowns. Uncomfortable.

Thirteen days into the new year and I already venturing out of my bubble. But I am doing it because I believe God works in insane ways when you are uncomfortable. He breaks down barriers and hauls away the garbage and makes room for something beautiful to happen in a place that was cluttered with layers of comfort. And I am ready for that kind of insane.

Care to step out with me?

Wednesday, January 7

Sunsets and ice cream

Sunday was the culmination of two solids weeks of indulgence, celebrations, family, friends, and way too much time in the house.

By 3 pm that day, the kids were squirrel-ier than ever and dreading going back to school the next day. After separating them from picking at each other for the umpteenth time, I declared enough and said "We're going for a drive."

"Where are we going?"

"I don't know, let's see where the road takes us."

<Insert skepticism and a smidge of whining.>

"It will probably take us toward ice cream."


And we were off.

I headed where I usually do when I want to escape - toward downtown. Where I feel like I've ditched the 'burbs and malls and chain restaurants and the same-old for moments of inspiration.

I happened to drive right into the sunset on Lake Monona.

Sam starting shooting pictures like she was paparazzi and Peyton ask a hundred questions about the ice on the lake. It was too cold for any of us to venture out of the warm car, but I wanted to. I really wanted to run toward that sun. To stop it in its tracks long enough to bask in it. I wanted it to stay and warm the car window, the houses across the street, the kids sledding at the park next door (new find!)

But it kept it's long, steady slide behind the lake and disappeared - just like that.

And that's how moments are. They slip through our fingers quickly, even the tough ones. I know that's hard to imagine - some stages of life feel like forever. I'm in the middle of a hard season that seems to be playing out in a running loop. But I've been there before. I know I will look back in a few short years, and appreciate all that is coming out of these days. They will feel like no time at all.

Our adventure did include ice cream and a slow drive home. And no arguing. On the way, Sam said, "It went so fast." I think she was thinking about winter break, but probably also about the day, the drive, and the sunset.

It did. It does. 

Watch all the sunsets you can this year, staying long and appreciating each second.