Happiness is fleeting, Joy is eternal

You have probably heard me say many times that “happiness reflects your circumstances and joy reflects your heart.” I think that is no more visible than in the holiday season. Many of us have experienced some sort of disappointment or grief in the past year. Those moments can wrench the heart and certainly would never be remembered as happy times. But joy can not be stolen. It can only be misplaced or lost.

Here in Nicaragua, one can fathom the lives led by many of the countless poor, hungry, or sick who can be found at every turn. Yet somehow these weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year never fail to bring a buzz, even a torrent of pure joy to our cobblestone streets. Parades, fireworks, smiles are everywhere. Granada is full of visitors celebrating the festive season.

There are two people I want to talk about today. They highlight the dichotomy that can be Christmas.

My first friend that I want to introduce you to is a young lady I met while walking home from class last week. She is in her twenties. Rail thin, hair gnarled from lack of washing and combing, and displaying the easily recognizable eyes of an addict. I am never sure what ones drug of choice is unless they are holding a glue jar or a spirit bottle or bear the tracks of needles. There were none of these items, so I don’t know.

As I passed, she gestured the international sign of hunger. Hands near her lips, waving at the knuckles, appearing as if she was shoveling rice into her slightly opened mouth. Her eyes were saying “please give me something”, as they were squinting and she was repeatedly furrowing her black, thick eyebrows.

I stopped, greeted her, and asked what she needed. She said, “one dollar.” Those are the first English words every street person learns when they exist in a town of tourists. I noticed a pulperia nearby. These are the small shops, usually found in people’s homes, where you can find staples like rice, beans, and bread. In addition they usually sell sodas and candy. You can’t walk more that two blocks without finding one. This one happened to be two doors down from where we were standing.

I told her to come with me. We went to the iron gate of the door which had a hinged window of sorts and I yelled, “Buenas”, which is the polite Nicaraguan way of getting the shopkeeper’s attention. This is where I met my second friend.

He is an older man, rugged faced, jet black hair dappled with grey. He gave the nod of recognition and I asked what food he would be able to sell me. I told him I only had a a few cordobas, roughly two dollars, but that I wanted to help this woman.

He leaned in to whisper. He asked me if I knew this girl. I said I didn’t. But then I told him that I wanted to bless her with a gift. So he informed me that he had exactly what I thought, rice beans, and bread. I said I would like as much as my cash would allow. He agreed. He regressed toward the back where I couldn’t see. He seemed to vanish. When he reappeared, he didn’t have the raw materials of a meal, rather a fully cooked plate of rice and beans. Perched on top was a tiny piece of chicken.

I of course thanked him and said that I was surprised because I didn’t know that he was a street food vendor. He said that he wasn’t but that this was from his table, his kitchen, his family’s lunch. Normally a plate like that would be around 70 cordobas. He asked me if I had twenty. I said that I did and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “that’s good.”

The girl took the plate and devoured each morsel. Not a grain of rice was left. She did manage to say thank you before she handed me back the plated and took off. It was then my turn to shrug my shoulders and look at the owner as if to say, “we tried”. He laughed and told me to relax. He was happy to help me. He told me that he had heard of me and that he was glad to help the “Profe”.

I said that I would help him som time if he needed it. He then replied in broken English, “I have wife, I have children, they are health (sic).” Then in Spanish, “This girl is happy for this minute. I have joy when I come into my house. You understand? My family.”

I was blown away. Again! I said, “God bless you.” He replied with the less often used, “May God accompany you.”

I saw the woman again later in the week. It was few blocks away. I was passing by in a taxi. She was asleep on the sidewalk. For a few moments my shopkeeper friend and I had been able to bring a smile to her face. No doubt fleeting moments, as life struggling with her demons cannot be easy.

I also stopped again at the pulperia and asked my new friend how he was doing. He answered, “everything is good.” I knew that he couldn’t be telling me the whole truth. But in him I saw the definition of joy. He looks for the good in even the most difficult times. He has a depth of contentment in his soul. He shares my belief that sharing God’s love is the ultimate display of faith.

I hope you have found that joy in your life. I hope for this, as you are surrounded with love and care by all of those with whom you celebrate these seasons. If this is a difficult season, whether because of personal setbacks, failing health, or overwhelming grief, my prayer is that you will find people who will simply love you. I have no illusions of magical elixirs that will wipe away your tears. But if I know you, have merely encountered you, or if you call me a friend, know this. You are loved.

Dios los acompañe.

Jeff

Project Christmas Blessing

Christmas season is approaching and we doing a little something special at UnoMas. We are going to try to feed 25 families as well as provide a small gift for the children represented. We are going to deliver these packages both here in Granada and in the other ministry location in Masaya.

It is obvious that these families will benefit from the small gift we will be able to provide, but there is so much more that can be done. We are all well aware that poverty does not begin and end in December. We also know that people in need are around us always and we will continue to work throughout the year to share the love of God in any way we can.

It is to that end that we have made a decision to bring Stacy Johnson onto the UnoMas team. Stacy is a partner and elder at Joy Community Church in O’Fallon, Missouri, where she tirelessly gives time and effort to different ministries of the church. In spite of her busy schedule she has agreed to serve as the U.S. ambassador for UnoMas Ministries. Her background is customer service so it seems to be a perfect fit and we are looking forward to her contributing in a huge way as we move forward.

Her job will include spreading the word about our work here in Nicaragua and a conduit of information to Joy partners as well as others who might want to participate in our mission.

 

Please welcome Stacy to our staff and pray for her as she becomes a vital link between the ministry partners in the U.S. and our labors of love here. I am excited that this will begin a whole new chapter in the life of UnoMas. I am so grateful to her for accepting this position.

Because of all the work we are doing this month, it may take some time to change all of the website and blog information to reflect her new role. But her email address is: stacyrj@earthlink.net.

Also look for her contributing to the blog and Facebook posts. Which reminds me, if you have not “liked” our UnoMas Facebook page, please do it today. It’s easy. Just click to like button on the side of the page. That will help keep you informed about all the news and events here in Nicaragua.

Please continue to pray for our work. Even more than that, prayerfully consider ways that you can help the people here. The need is great and our ability to serve will only increase as we increase our resources.

We will be busy trying to get the Christmas gifts ready and then deliver them, but at every step I am going to make a concerted effort to download more pictures and videos so that you can get a sense of what our shared efforts are accomplishing.

Dios los bendiga.

Jeff

Pastor Guillermo

As you might know I am traveling to Costa Rica for my quarterly visa renewal, so please forgive the brevity of this post. I don’t always have great internet when on the road, therefore it may be difficult to even post this blog. But if you are reading this then I obviously succeeded.

I have partnered with various people while here in Nicaragua. None have been more important to me than a local pastor named Guillermo. I have talked about him many times in reference to his son who tragically passed away from cancer this past August. I also mentioned the fact that there was an attempt to rob him in the cemetery while he was placing flowers on his son’s grave. That attempt resulted in an accident on his moped.

Since the accident my friend has been in the hospital several times with debilitating back pain. I am asking today that you take a minute and pray for him and his family.

Pastor Guillermo has been a rock throughout my time here in Granada. When I was going through my medical troubles it was Guillermo and his family who sat vigil with me while in the local hospital. Every day and every night either he or one of his children were present to help me. Unlike western hospitals, food, bedclothes, even water are not provided by the staff, so it is imperative that you have friends or family to help care for you. In that period of time Guillermo’s family became like my own family. The pastor’s wife would make sure I had clean sheets and toilet paper. No, not even toilet paper is provided. His son would sit in a chair all night, every night to make sure I was properly cared for.

His family was one of the reasons I was able to make it back to the States in order to receive care in a hospital that was better prepared to handle my issues. If it wasn’t for pastor Guillermo and family, my sister Mindy, Bob and Sharon Plakatka, Dave and Jennifer Rispoli, and all of your prayers, I would probably have been unable to return to Nicaragua.

That is why I am using this time to ask you to pray once more. Pastor Guillermo lives in a fairly nice but small home by Nica standards. Inhabiting that house will normally be 9-15 family members. Somehow the family is able to keep the water and lights on as well as feed the platoon of mouths every day. He also pastors a church, meeting their needs, praying for the sick, and spreading God’s love to his community.

I have tremendous respect for him and today he needs our prayers. He rarely complains, rarely asks for money and is a beacon of faith. He is certainly an integral part of our shared ministry here. Please pray that God relieves him of his constant pain. Pray that his ministry continues to thrive and is blessed.

Selfishly, I also ask for your prayers as I travel and an uneventful return trip.

Next week we will announce more news about our Christmas program. I want to thank the partners of Joy Community Church publicly for their leadership in underwriting our Christmas gift and feeding program. I can’t wait to share more.

The bus is a fairly bumpy ride so between that and IPad’s autocorrects, I am having a really “fun” time finishing this blog. As always, thank you for your prayers. I look forward to more exciting posts in the future. But in reality, isn’t experiencing God’s love and presence when we pray exciting? And when He answers those prayers, I will be elated to share that with you.

Dios los bendiga

Jeff

Serendipity

There is a particular noise your shoes make when walking in the pebbly paths around a spot near Granada called Laguna de Apoyo. The sound is a cross between walking on shattered glass and a person trying to eat a whole bag of fresh potato chips all at once. This phenomena’s caused by the years people trodding over the once molten, now petrified, lava fields. Time and friction have ground sharp, red and black gravel in the beaches around the beautiful lake formed by the crater of a long extinct volcano. People call it dark sand. It is beautiful and the lake has some of the clearest water you can ever experience.

There are homes around the lake worth hundreds of thousand of dollars. And like all of Nicaragua many of those homes are short hikes away from tin walled, one room shacks that serve as shelters for perhaps multiple families. There are hostels and bars and even a public beach along with the many private ones dotting the shoreline. And there is a church. There are probably several, but I want to talk about one of those churches. More importantly I want to talk about a serendipitous encounter. A friend of mine took me to this hillside chapel. We quietly yet not silently crunched our way up and around the paths to a place where someone had built what reminded me of a picnic shelter. There we met the people of the congregation.

One person works for the government agency that has designated part of the area as a national reserve. Another walks down the side of the mountain every day to meet a bus that transports him to Granada so he can work in the market. There were other people, other stories, all amazing, yet I was drawn to an older gentleman sitting in the corner.

I believe I know why. I think that I stumbled upon the Latin doppelgänger of my paternal grandfather. He stood 5’ 5” at the most, maybe smaller. He might of been taller once but time has curved his once straight back. He weighed no more than 130 pounds. His hand felt, as I shook it, like that combination of leather and sandpaper only produced by years of labor.

But there was more. He had the impish look of mischief about him. He smiled. It was as if he had secret or had just been doing something naughty and was caught in the act. A schoolboy look on a weathered face.

We talked for several minutes. Which was difficult because I have trouble enough understanding Spanish when it is spoken in the rhythmic, rapid fire manner of most. This was worse as he not only spoke quickly but he mumbled as well. He told me about his family. He told me some of his experiences in the revolution. He offered to show me his bullet wound but I declined. I lost track of time as we talked until the service began. A guitar interrupted our conversation, then singing, so we turned toward the front and gave our attention to the matters at hand.

When we finished I did the pastoral rounds. I shook all the hands. All the kids gave me hugs. But there was my new friend. Still sitting, still smiling, still looking guilty about something. So I approached him and offered my hand to shake. He took it. In reality, he grabbed it. He used my arm as a fulcrum to lift himself out of his seat. Then he hugged me. And he said “Thank you for coming.”

I told him how pleased I was to meet him. Then I pointed out an astonishing fact. He had not asked for anything. Not prayer, not money, not food. He laughed and he said, “What can you give me that I should ask for something?”

He continued, “If you give me food, I will eat it. If you give me money, I will spend it. I already have the best gift you have. You give people Jesus. You give people time. I already have Jesus. So you gave me a grand gift, your time”.

I told him that I would love to give him more time. I told him I wanted to hear more stories. I assured him that I would return. Every Saturday might not be possible, but I would return.

As we walked back down the hill to the car. I asked the man who brought me about my new old friend. He was surprised that I did not know. He told me that the man I was speaking to was a war hero. A revolutionary of the highest order. He had been captured and spent time in what passed as a prisoner of war camp. It was there that he became a Christian. The story goes that when the war was over he was offered a position in the then new government but turned it down. He instead returned to his home and to his family. It was he who started the little church on the side of the hill. It was he who has for years tirelessly spread the good news of love and redemption to his neighbors and friends.

It finally dawned on me that I wanted to learn from him. What I had mistakenly labeled mischief was really wisdom. I am so used to being the imparter of knowledge (said with tongue planted firmly in cheek) that I love when I can sit at the feet of someone else and soak in the essence of life that can only be developed with experience.

I had the pleasure of knowing both of my grandfathers. One was highly educated, a world traveler, a pastor, a professor, and a missionary. The other, a farmer, factory worker, and even police officer who never made it past eighth grade. The beauty was that both were wise. Both had perspectives that came from their own lives. This is the same wisdom possessed by my new friend.

I enjoy surprises. People don’t use the word serendipity very often any more. It describes an event that occurs by chance resulting in a blessing. That describes my meeting last Saturday. It was a surprise of the first order. And even better, it was a sublime blessing. I look forward to many more conversations. I anticipate that many opportunities will come out of our meeting. But no matter what, I am blessed to once again be in the presence of a wise man.

Thank you to everyone who supports the work we are doing here in Nicaragua. I have plenty of stories about how a God is working in the hearts and lives of the people we try to positively impact. As long as you keep listening, I will keep telling you about the power of God’s love as we share that love with others.

And don’t be afraid to use the word serendipity. It is a good word, especially when we know who is the source of all those “chance” events and blessings.

Dios los bendiga

Tourist Season

Travel and tourism is in many ways the lifeblood of Granada. Our city has been described as the colonial jewel of Central America. The streets used to buzz with the energy of new people arriving daily to soak up the sun and bask in the beauty of our multicolored houses and shops. Hotels, restaurants, and street vendors flourished as bus loads of travelers visited our fair city.

Then suddenly, because the civil situation changed, travel advisories were issued, and the tap flowing with foreigners was quickly turned off.

I cannot and will not go into the socio-political situation. But I will tell you the effects that tremor through our town like aftershocks of an earthquake. Not only has the absence of tourists impacted the hotels and restaurants but all of the ancillary jobs that kept us going have gone as well. Electricians and plumbers, butchers and bakers, and every other sort of job one can think of, all looking to fill the void left by our loss of travelers. Few have escaped unscathed.

One of the ministries of UnoMas is to help those who are seeking a better life for themselves and there families. Training and education to those who want it, so they can prepare to find employment that will lift their lives out of what sometimes seems like hopelessness. But when that employment relies on visitors, that opportunity is nonexistent.

I say all this because November and December are traditionally two of our biggest tourist months. There are whiffs of better days in the air. But only the faintest wisps. There may be a slightly more crowded street here. Perhaps a large air conditioned tour bus shows up there. A few more loud shirts and flowery dresses can be spotted on our pedestrian-only restaurant row. Small signs that better days may be ahead.

Please pray for the people of Granada. Because it’s the people that we care about. Many of you have shared that you have been touched by the stories in this blog. Men, women, boys and girls who lives have been touched by love.

Lives like George, who sells leather goods in the market and can be seen every day reading his Bible, but is nearly broke and might be forced to sell his stand. Catrina, who is a near fluent English speaking chef, but can’t leave Granada because it would mean leaving her children. Teresa, a brilliant student who cannot continue her studies because her mom and dad both lost their jobs at hotels and she is forced to work. Countless others could be on this list. These are just a small sample of the folks I know about. How many others have I yet to meet?

These are the people that will benefit from your prayers. These are the same people who will feel the power of your prayers. These are the people who will know that even though you haven’t met, you show that you care deeply about their lives.

Pray that we can rebound from our crisis. The needs were vast before all the upheaval. Even when the tourist trade was strong, poverty gripped many of our neighborhoods. Now those needs have multiplied exponentially.

But there is hope. And no matter what, we will be here to share the love of God. I believe in miracles. I believe that there is hope. It is the reason that drew me here. Thank you in advance for your prayers.

Dios los bendiga.

¿Qué Buscas?

There is a Spanish phrase that we often hear in Nicaragua, especially when entering a shop or passing a market kiosk. The words, “qué buscas”, are heard hundreds of times a day throughout the streets of Granada. Roughly translated it means, “what are you looking for?”

In our market you can find several people selling the same or similar items so we tend to stick with a vendor when we have found one we like. One such vegetable stand has been my “go to” retailer for about three years now. His tomatoes always are fresh. He never tries to sell me bad onions or potatoes. If he has something that is not normal fare, he will wave me over and highlight the item, and hope that I will reduce his inventory. I usually do.

No matter the day or the hour he wears his jolly personality as if someone has neglected to tell him that Santa Claus doesn’t have jet black hair, is not clean shaven, and isn’t thin. He has married his personality with a hearty laugh that bellows through the market, reverberating down the lane loudly enough that it is easily heard over the otherwise indistinguishable din of the bustle. Your ears are aware of his presence long before your eyes meet.

Every time I walk by his stand he greets me with … “qué buscas?”

One day it was different. He looked at me and asked, “are you the teacher?”

I said that teacher was one of the jobs I do. Then I asked him to tell me why he had asked.

He said that he had some questions about English. I said that I, of course, would help him if I could. I then asked him where he lived and found out he was only a few blocks away from my house. I told him that, if he wanted, he could come by before work. We worked out a time and he showed up.

We talked for a while and he asked me his questions. I then noticed a sadness on his face that up to this moment in our admittedly casual acquaintance I had missed. So I asked if he was alright. He said he was and grinned. We talked some more and then he bowed and said that, no, he wasn’t alright. He went on to tell me that everything in his life was going well. By local standards he provided a good living for his family. His children were healthy and his wife was kind and worked hard to share the burden of their existence. Yet there was something missing, he added. Something he couldn’t explain. I was shocked. He presented the classic symptoms of a 40-50 year old who was ready to throw away everything he worked for to attain something he couldn’t even describe.

Let me pause here. I have at times, mistakenly held the belief that midlife crisis was an uniquely first world problem. I still think that predominantly it is. When you are eking out an income with 16 hour work days with the sun relentlessly beating down on you, it is difficult to spend much time wallowing in self pity and doubt. But here he was, one red sports car and a combover away from despair. This serves to prove that a hollow heart is blind to culture or economic status.

Continuing on with our story, we talked some more, scheduled another meeting, and he got up to leave. He was ready to walk out my front door, when I asked him, “qué buscas?”

Confused at first, he then understood, and his answer  was simple and honest. He replied, “I don’t know.”

I said that I thought I could help him with that.

I now call this man a friend. He comes to my house every week. We study English, we read some bible, and sometimes we just talk about life. In that time I have been able to share with him about filling empty spots in our life with the love of God. I tell him how a man named Blaise Pascal described us all as having a God shaped vacuum or hole in our lives. I tell him that we will either fill the hole up with God or leave it empty and feel forlorn or try to fill it with pleasure or knowledge or some other contrived notion that will usually present a totally different set of problems while the emptiness still lingers. That analogy resonated with him and he asked me to help him.

My friend is much happier now. He never lost the personality or the laugh but now it comes from a deeper place. The false front of contentment has been bolstered by the real peace of being filled with joy. It wasn’t because of my counsel. It wasn’t the Pascal quote. It was because my friend chose to allow God to fill the one spot that we cannot fill ourselves.

Now I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you all the same question. “Qué buscas?” What are you looking for? Is that hole created in you to house the presence of the Creator filled with His glory? Or are you desperately seeking for the otherwise unattainable. Let me know if you want me to tell you about filling the void that may be in your heart.

I’ll close by using the words we use at Joy Community nearly every Sunday. With the words I use to close all my sermons here in Granada. They are simple words. They are at the same time profound. They are words that can change lives. Words that will allow you to truly satisfy that longing you may have in your own life.

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

Dios los bendiga

Jeff

Not Always Roses

William was a twenty-six year old man that I met in the jail ministry. I had seen him on many occasions in different locations begging for food, asking for a job, or higher than a kite. Like some other men here in Nicaragua his age, he was consumed by a glue problem.

There have been few times when I had seen him clean. But often he appeared strung out, filthy, and haggard. What struck me was the emptiness in his eyes. I work with so many children and adults whose circumstances may be unthinkable yet their eyes possess the twinkle or spark of desire for a new life. William’s eyes had lost that fire long before I met him.

UnoMas’ mission is to reach people in Nicaragua with the love of Christ. It is to introduce them to the possibility of a way out of their present despair. I work one on one, face to face, and heart to heart. My desire is to impact every life I encounter with compassion. That was exactly what I attempted to do with William.

One cannot engage at such a personal level and not be affected by the folks you work with. Paul tells us that we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15 ). It’s often been said that rejoicing with happy people is far more easily accomplished. But sometimes, even many times, we must weep or mourn.

I want to tell you a positive story about transformation. I want to share how William was released from the chains of drugs and is prosperously thriving as a street side entrepreneur. I would love to tell you that. But I cannot. William died last week. Many passed by the sidewalk where he had lain down. They thought he was like all too many of our local addicts merely sleeping off his latest high. But he was not. A full day passed before someone called authorities.

Was it an overdoes? Was it his diabetes? Was it his heart? Do we know? Does it really matter what killed him? All of these thoughts whirled through my mind like the teacups of the Mad-hatter ride in Disney World as I tried to make sense of it all.

Intellectually I know that he suffered the consequences of his deadly disease. But there is yet the twinge of guilt resulting from the admittedly erroneous thought that I can help everyone. I cannot. You cannot. The easy solution would be to give up. We cannot and we will not.

The need here in Nicaragua is so great that, without the proper perspective, we could easily be discouraged. But that reaction is the exact opposite of the correct response. We should be emboldened and empowered. We should redouble our efforts. We should continue our assault on hopelessness, despair, and poverty. We cannot quit and we will carry on. You see, if we can impact one person, then we will have succeeded.

I know there is risk in relaying a failure to you. I know people like happy endings. I am aware that many prefer to have everything tied neatly in pretty paper and a silk bow. But that is not realistic. Life is full of stained paper and frayed bows. The measure of success is found in how how we take these unpleasant packages, give them to God, and get back to the work.

Paul talks about the light within us and that, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV). A friend of mine reminded me of that verse Wednesday. I love that verse, even though I don’t always reflect the significance of that verse. You see, we are weak and fragile. Our strength emanates from the love of God inside us. It is not our light to hold, it is His light to give.

I don’t see myself as the life changer. I know that I can only present the opportunities. I can only offer hope. I can only show love. And that, as long as God gives me strength is what I will do. Will there be disappointments? Of course! Will I make mistakes? Certainly! But will I keep puttering away like my grandfather’s old John Deere tractor, covered in rust but still able to pull a plow? You can bet on that!

Even though I am sure there will be others, I don’t want the responsibility of reporting to you another “William story”. I, too, prefer the positive missives of success. But that’s not realistic. That’s not genuine. That’s not fair to you. You who encourage and support me in these endeavors. The sheer enormity of the problems here serve only to offer opportunities for us to press on. They must compel us to act. There will be more heartbreak but with God’s help, there will continue to be far more victories.

You are the fuel that powers the continued journey we share in Nicaragua. I am so blessed when I hear the words of inspiration that you regularly give. Thank you. I look forward to many stories to come that will make us smile with satisfaction. However, because of, not in spite of, the occasional sad result and the knowledge that the urgency exists, I will continue to share all the stories of God’s work here in my adopted land. Whether they are good or bad.

Dios los bendiga.

The Lady Down The Road

There is an older lady down the street from my house. It would be impolite of me to ask her age, but I am guessing that she is at least in her late seventies to early eighties. In the year and one half since I have been living at this house, I noticed that every time I walked by her home she waves and says with a big voice, “Buenas Dias!” She may be only old enough to possibly be my mother, yet she has the look, attitude, and disposition of the quintessential grandma.

She has an infectious smile and bright eyes. Her is face worn with what one can only imagine has been a difficult life. She sits in her rocking chair most of the day and sells stuff. Now as you know, I try to shy away from words like “stuff” and “things”. This how I was taught by a favorite professor and by my own father. Both of them held the opinion that those two words lacked specificity. When you can describe the stuff don’t use the word stuff. But honestly, that’s is the best descriptor of her wares. Every few days the items change. Today it may be pencils and pens. Tomorrow she might have dish towels. Last week it was notebooks. Sometimes she even has gum and candy. Anything that one might need in the course of day, she will try to sell. I liken her to the old sundry stores that were around for years before they were replaced by the gas station convenience stores. The only difference is she only has one type of item at a time.

I had purchased a few trinkets along the way, but not much. Mostly, I walked by, waved back at her, and smiled. For some reason I stopped and talked to her once. It was the normal chit chat associated with passing acquaintances. “How are you?” “How is your family?” “Are you feeling well?” All the normal questions that arise when you follow the rules of courtesy.

After weeks of these type of ordinary encounters, those conversations had become part of my routine. I thoroughly enjoy her smile and her positive attitude. I admire her industry. But, if I am honest, even though I did not fully resent any of it per se, I admit there were times when I had wished that she was not in her rocker so I could quickly get to my intended destination.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Her door was shut. Her rocking chair was gone. There were no candies or wash cloths. Then two more after that went by and there was still no sign of her or her makeshift five and dime. I asked around and one of my neighbors said she was sick. So I was happy that my obvious fear was not true. I felt guilty because the thought of her being dead had made me realize that I had occasionally viewed her as a nuisance. I am human after all.

One morning as I passed her house I saw a welcome sight. There she was. Sitting, rocking, and greeting every soul that went by her house. I had that mixture of joy and relief well up in me. I stopped and asked her about her illness. She told me that she was in the hospital with a respiratory issue and had to stay the week. She let me know that she was better now and that she wasn’t finished yet.

I asked her, “do you know that I am a pastor?” She replied that she had heard that. I then told her that I would pray for her. My Spanish was either a bit off or she misunderstood because she thought I said that I would pray with her. So she bowed her head and said that she would like that.

I prayed with her and as we finished, she lifted her head, smiled, and said, “thank you, I feel much better.” In reality, it was I who felt much better. I was relieved that she was well. I was happy to have the routine back in my life. I also, unfortunately, had satisfied some of the guilt of my earlier resentment.

Weeks have passed and our conversations have continued. I have learned some fascinating history of our street, the city of Granada and even the whole country of Nicaragua. Each time I see her she now greets me with another word … “bendiciones” or “blessings”. She will often tell me about a friend or family member and ask me to pray. She told me one time, “I hope you know that I pray for you too.” I said, “thank you” and told her that I needed it. She said, “No, I really do. You know even a pastor needs to be blessed sometimes.”

Now, even if I am late or busy, I always stop when she asks. Now instead of being the one who blesses, I am the one who is blessed.

It is no secret to the faithful readers of this blog that I relay many stories about the life changing work we share in down here. Lives that have been reclaimed by the love of God. People who are impacted by our efforts. Folks who are better today than before we began this ministry. I have to tell you that I count myself in that group. God has placed people in my life here that have made me a better person. There have been dozens of paths that have crossed mine in seemingly innocuous manners that have influenced me as a pastor, a person and a Christian. These are unnoticed confluences of people and situations that upon reflection have affected me deeply.

I have come to realize that there are no ordinary encounters. Many would describe them as luck. Others prefer to say that it is fate. I happen to believe that God puts each person specifically in my life. Each conversation is an appointment. Every convergence has a purpose. I rarely view an introduction as an accident.

But sometimes I do. Sometimes I miss the point. Sometimes I look at a meeting as only an opportunity for me to be a blessing to that particular someone. Time and age have shown me that often the blessing is meant for me. I want to encourage you today to not miss the blessings intended for you. Don’t take for granted the moments afforded by what appears to be simple happenstance.

You see, even a distraction, a bother or a nuisance may prove to be a blessing from God.

Thank you for your encouragement and support. You all are certainly a blessing to me.

Dios los bendiga.

Jeff

Teammates

I lived in St. Charles county, Missouri for several years before my journey to Nicaragua. Because of sheer proximity to St. Louis, I have adopted the local sports teams as my own. I will always have a soft spot for Reds of the “Big Red Machine” era and the Tim Horton and Dave Keon Toronto Maple Leafs. They have been, however, mostly supplanted by the Cardinals and the Blues. Side note … I used to follow both the Colts and the Rams before an owner of the Rams, who shall remain nameless, bolted for the bright lights of L.A.. Now I only root for the Colts.

Also, many people do not know that Nicaragua is really a baseball country. While most Central American countries follow their “futbol” (soccer) teams with unrivaled passion, baseball here in Nicaragua regularly trumps the “beautiful game” in terms of enthusiasm and team support. So when I tell them I have been to several Cardinal and Reds games, they want to know all of the details and are keen to listen.

Great lessons can be drawn from sports. I often use sport’s references as a tool for getting through to some of the young men and women in my classes.

Recently I had the opportunity to touch the heart of one kid by the analogy. Paulo (his mother preferred the Italian version of his name to the Spanish Pablo) comes to classes intermittently. He is a sharp young man and uses his brains for good endeavors as well as bad. When he is in class, he is often disruptive. Unfortunately he has a keen sense of humor and I find it difficult not to laugh at some of his comments.

Three weeks ago, I knew that I needed to have an old fashioned heart to heart with him. His commentary during class has become so pervasive that he was preventing the other students from concentrating on their work. So I asked Paulo to stay after in order to speak with him. He told me that he had a baseball game and he couldn’t stay.

I had a dilemma. Allow this boy to go away without the talk or force him to be late to his precious game. I compromised. I asked him if I could go to the game as well on the condition that afterwards we would have a conversation. He agreed.

So I went to the game. It was pretty good. He was the second baseman and performed well in the field. He is fast for his age but he has the same disease suffered by many young players in that he chooses to swing for the fences instead of using his speed to his advantage. That’s a whole other story. They won so he was in a good mood. After I said it was time for our talk and I bought him a “fresco”, the Nica version of sugary Koolaid. Then I confronted him about his behavior. I gave the typical speech about being a team and even a star player has to work with the whole team in order for everyone to be successful … yada, yada, yada … Blah, blah, blah.

He didn’t seem impressed and I was pretty disappointed that I had resorted to banal cliches in trying to reach Paulo.

The next day, I heard that his father was ill. He had contracted dengue. His fever was high and he was not very healthy to begin with, so he was in pretty bad shape. I visited the family and brought some mosquito repellent and food. They were grateful.

After a bit of time Paulo asked me why I had come. I told him that when you join God’s team you have a lot of teammates. And teammates help each other. I read him some scripture and we prayed together and that was that.

He came to the next class only to tell me that his dad was still not well and asked if I would come over again. I said that of course I would because “we are a team.” He nodded and left to go back home.

I returned to his home, prayed with the family, and talked a long time to the family about God, comfort, and hope.

The good news is that his father has recovered. The whole family came to church last Sunday and said that they wanted to be a permanent part of the community. Paulo was beaming with pride. God once again used a few minutes of time and a few prayers to begin writing a regenerative chapter in this whole family’s history.

But wait. There is more. The next class Paulo was one of the first to arrive and did not interrupt once. During class we had a lesson where each student had to write 3 full sentences describing themselves. I then noticed Paulo had gotten up and assisted 4 of the other students. When class ended I stopped Paulo again and thanked him for his help. His eyes twinkled and he smiled that smile and replied, “of course coach… we a team.” Bad grammar not withstanding, I admit there was a tiny bit of pride welling up inside of me.

I then looked at his work from the day’s lesson. I teared up. He had written:

“I learn English.

I play baseball.

I love Jesus.”

What more can be said. God is good!

Thanks, as always, for your prayers and encouragement. God is doing great things here in Nicaragua.

Dios los bendiga

Jeff.

The One Lost Sheep

I know that many of us are familiar with the parable of the lost sheep told by Jesus. We can find them in both Matthew 18 and Luke 15. Quickly told, there is a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them is lost. The shepherd then leaves the ninety-nine other sheep and searches for the one. He rejoices when he finds the single, lost lamb.

The story sums up our mission at UnoMas. We are a very personal enterprise. We, on Christ’s behalf, seek the one disenfranchised person who has been lost by society. Then we look for one more or “uno mas”.

Today, I want to share with you the story of one such person.

This is the story of Magda. She is around twelve years old. She comes from one of the poor barrios here in Granada. She is intelligent, witty, and full of life. She has been in my classes for almost two and one half years. I have developed a fatherly connection with her over the years. Her English has improved tremendously and she could make it in the hospitality world. That is, if she were old enough, if she had a certificate from the school, and if there were hospitality jobs to be had. She is not. She does not. There are not.

In the United States we take for granted that most people try to stay in school at least until it is time to graduate. I have heard many stories of people who did quit school to follow a dream or to escape a particularly horrible situation. But usually those stories involve folks 16, 17, or even 18 years old. Years ago my own grandfather left school at 11 to help the family on the farm. But in recent years, with child labor laws and social pressures, we don’t see as much of this in pre-teen children.

Magda has not been in classes since I returned from my brother’s funeral. So, I went to her neighborhood and asked where her family lived. I was shown and found no one at home. So I returned the next day, saw one of her brother’s and asked about Magda. He wasn’t immediately forthcoming, but finally told me that she was at the market. I did not find it strange, because it is normal for us in Nicaragua to make trips to market on a daily or every other day basis. Unlike North America, we don’t make the weekly supermarket trip. We rather, usually, go past the market often and pick up the few items we need for the next couple of days. I told him that my house was near the market and asked if he would tell Magda that she and her family are welcome to stop by anytime.

Five or six days passed. I was busy and didn’t think much about Magda or her brother. Then I heard from one of her classmates that she was working at the market. Not just going to the market. So I was off to find her. The city market is laid out in a few buildings just south of the center of town. Shops are packed along the streets beside the buildings with food, watches, small household goods, and the lot. Inside the buildings, there are many vendors selling all sorts of items. While you can find there many of the same items to be found outside, it seems as if there are many more clothes and shoes inside as well. There is also the fresh fish market inside the building. The sights, sounds, and smells overtake you as you wander through the aisles of kiosks.

I looked and then looked more for this little girl. On the first day, I had no luck. The second was much of the same. Finally on the third day, I found her. I was shocked. She still looked like the little girl I remembered but her face and hands seemed to have aged 30 years.

She was working in a tortilla booth. If you can call it that. It is a small table where she rolls balls of masa, sticks them between an old wooden press, while her grandmother swats at the gathering flies, mosquitoes, and gnats. Though her face seemed stress-worn and older, her eyes still held the twinkle of youth. When she looked up and saw me, she yelled, “Profe”, an endearing form of professor or teacher. I smiled and greeted her with a big hug. Then she told me her story.

Her mother had died while I was in the States. I didn’t even know she was sick. She was, by our standards, rather young. Twenty-seven or twenty-eight, not an unusual age for a Nicaraguan to be the mother of a twelve year old. Her mother had left Magda with seven brothers and sisters. All of them were younger. All of them were fathered by three different men. None of those men are in the picture now. All that was left was a grandma who was already suffering from the complications of diabetes and looked much older than her fifty-five years.

Magda was now left to care for her family. Twelve years old, scared, and poor, relegated to the roll of mother even though she herself was merely a child. She told with tears the agonizing story of her mother’s illness and death. She told me how she had to seek help from her neighbors to even get her mother out of the hospital and bury her. She apologized that she had not explained her absences from our classes before now.

I, of course, reassured her that I was not angry, but simply worried about her and her family. She said that she could not continue her classes, but she prayed everyday and read her bible when the other children were asleep. I was dumbstruck. I had no words. I could not fathom that kind of responsibility thrust upon me at such a tender age.

I asked what I could do to help. She replied, “nada”.

I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, so I contacted some of the government and charitable organizations to see what could be done. She was eligible for a little help. I also arranged to go to her house for an hour a week so that we might resume classes. In the market, as she told me her story, she continued to cry, and I am sure all the other vendors and passers by were quite intrigued by the scene.

This past week was the first evening that we met at her home. She invited a number of her friends and so we had about nine people in our first class. I gave her a voucher for the weekly feeding and even her stoic grandma smiled and thanked me. This story is not over. We pray that this little child has many years ahead of her to thrive. I will keep you informed as her saga unfolds.

This to me proves the value of seeking the one. Jesus, in his parable, stressed that searching for the one who was lost was far greater than tending to the ninety-nine who were safe. There are all too few who are safe here in terms of security and certainty of their future. But this little one was certainly lost. And by the grace of God, Magda will sleep better tonight.

You are the ones making a difference here in Nicaragua. You are supporting me as we seek for the one. I thank you for your continued encouragement as now we look for uno mas. We had several folks here in country who read last week’s blog and gave to support mosquito repellent. I thank you all for your prayers in this venture. It is still a great need and prayers are still needed.

You make a difference. One person, one life changed, one life committed can do an army’s work with God’s help.

Dios los bendiga.

Jeff