The Guy who works too much

It’s always interesting when someone points something obvious out to you that you really had never thought about. On her recent trip to Granada, Stacy Johnson did exactly that. Now every time I notice it, I have to laugh. 

What happened was that in our treks around the city to visit people I work with, places I teach, and churches in which I minister, we met several friends of mine. I would introduce them and as she rightly pointed out, I have a large percentage of friends with the same same. Many of you have watched the big wedding scene in the gangster movie “Goodfellas”. The narrator remarks that it was a huge wedding yet nearly every male was named either Peter or Paul. Even more of the women were named some form of Mary. Imagine yourself in that kind of moment only substitute the name George or Jorge (as we say down here).

It got to the point that on Stacy’s last evening here we were eating at a restaurant and the server (who is also a student) introduced himself and said, “Hello, my name is George.” Her natural response was, “Of course it is.” At that moment realized that I do have a lot of people in my life here in Nicaragua named Jorge. 

I want to tell you a story about one of those Georges. 

This George is a waiter. He is in fact one of the best waiters in town. He is fast. He is polite. He remembers that I like banana and pineapple smoothies and that if the restaurant is fortunate enough to have strawberries he will always mention it and see if I would like to change from my “usual”.

I see George quite a bit. Not only because of our classes together, but also because he has two jobs. One at my favorite breakfast place and then in the evening at the garden themed restaurant around the corner from my place. He seems like he is always working and always on the move. I have never seen him take a break. He, of course, sits for my class. But on company time, he is always active.

He has frenetic energy and a contagious smile. His English is coming around, yet he continually calls me, “Mister Jeff”. The Spanish format for respectful address is the word Don or Doña followed by the first name not the last. He is highly critical of himself, so he uses the words, “so sorry” more than anyone I know.

One day in class, we had a few extra minutes, so I asked him about his family. He said that he has a wife and two children. Then I remarked that it must be difficult to spend so much time away from them working his nearly 90 hours a week. He said that it was. But then he added something. He said that he was blessed. He was blessed to have a job. He was proud of the fact that his mother lived with him and he could take care of her as well. 

Then I got my Bible lesson for the week. He asked, “Doesn’t the Bible say to work for your boss like you work for God?” He was right of course. Paul’s letter to the Colossians states just that. 

He went on. He gave me a new way of thinking about hope. I have heard many people scoff at the suggestion that they go home and sleep. I have hear from both alcoholics and workaholics alike: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Their almost nihilistic approach to life is always dangerous. But this was new take. George told me that if he was working for his family and he was working for his boss like he was working for God, then shouldn’t he believe that God would give him the strength he needs? I have faith that God will help me feed my family. And he feels that because he is blessed to have two jobs when some of his friends don’t have any compels him to give it his all. 

I did my duty and reminded him that the Gospels recount the fact that even Jesus rested. I also told him that if he was not 100% he could not give 100%. But the whole time I was speaking, I couldn’t help but be in awe of this man, not much younger than I, who was in spite of circumstances praising God for working 2 jobs. You see the difference is the emphasis. Before I had this little talk, I would have written a small missive about this poor guy needing to work two jobs in order to feed his family. This guy is thanking God for blessing him with two jobs so he is able to take care of his family. You see, the difference is in your perspective? 

Where does that come from? 

That comes from faith. I am always fascinated by those drawings of the old woman. Those optical illusions where you see this woman and change your line of view and there is the back of a head of a beautiful young woman. It was there all the time. You just needed to change your perspective. The amazing trick your brain plays is that once you have seen the young women you cannot unsee her. You will look at the picture and see both women simply by moving your head. 

I put the drawing at the beginning of the blog, so you could have a little fun with it.

My friend George has that type of perspective on life. He sees the blessings where I saw the travail. But once he showed me what he saw, I will never look at his situation the same way again.

Maybe that’s what you need in your life. A new perspective. You can get it from the same place George and I do. Faith.

Dios los bendiga, Jeff

The Man on the Bus

Every ninety days it is necessary to renew my Nicaraguan visa. This is accomplished by one of two means. The first being a trip back to the U.S. where you are automatically renewed upon reentry. The other, more common for me, is a journey to Costa Rica. The trip itself takes about 4 1/2 hours and will depend on the backup at the border. The bus is air conditioned, something we don’t get here much, and the drivers, ticket folks, and conductors are generally friendly and helpful. The seating arrangement is confirmed, however, when traveling alone, one can choose their seat but not their seating partner. It is simply the luck of the draw. Or is it?

As you can imagine, I have spent my road time with all manner of people. The quiet woman who is obviously in a hurry to arrive at her destination and offers no more than a grunt or a nod of recognition when you join her in the narrow cloth seats. There has been the man who speaks just enough English to totally confuse his narratives yet insists on practicing his skills for the entire trips. There are then all manner of people in between. Today I was paired with a quiet man.

I performed my normal boarding ritual. I pack light, so generally I have my computer bag and a small nap sack with clothes and other essentials. I grabbed my ticket, passport and iPad, stowed the remainder of my gear overhead, and settled in for my trek. I politely smiled at my seat-mate. He smiled back and I figured that was that. And it was, for a time.

After about one half hour, while I was reading on my iPad, he spoke. His only word, at first, was an inquisitive, “English?”

I replied, “Yes.”

He then said, “very good.”

I went back to my e-book. Perhaps 5 minutes later, maybe 10, he asked me if I liked Nicaragua. I replied in Spanish, that I do like the country and I have been coming here for over 4 years. I think that he was relieved he didn’t have to carry on a full conversation in English.

As per usual he asked me what I did. I replied. He complimented me on my Spanish. Then he asked me about why I do what I do. Interestingly enough, I rarely get asked that question by Nicaraguans. I explained that I did it because God has filled me with love and I want to share His love. I went on and said that when I came to Granada the first time, I felt at peace, somehow at home and that I have not regretted it since. He acknowledged with a nod, thought for a moment and said, “I don’t believe in God.” I do not often hear that from a Nicaraguans. From Nicaraguans, I regularly hear that God has abandoned them or that He doesn’t love them, but there is usually an underlying thought that there is a God even if He is distant and uncaring in their mind. A considerable percentage of the population claims some church affiliation. Even the previously secular government claims the church when convenient. So on the surface, people seem to believe and total denial of God is rare.

A good friend of mine always retorts the statement, “I’m an atheist” with a simple question. When encountering a person who doesn’t believe in anything, he always asks, “How is that working out for you?” If you ask with empathy and sincerity, you will nearly always get a reply. So the best correlation to Spanish of that is, “is that good for you?”

He replied, “yes, sure, eh, normally, uh, sometimes, er, no.”

I asked if he wanted to talk about that. He did want to talk. He talked and talked. He didn’t cry, but there was emotion in his voice. He was about my age, so he had been a part of the revolution. He had since been in and out of jail, in and out of jobs, and in and out of relationships. He had 5 children. He doesn’t know how many grandchildren are in his family. But then he dropped the bombshell. He said he was sick. He had prostate cancer. He is on his way to Panama to be with his brother who knows a doctor who has offered help.

I told him that I would pray for him. I got the same puzzled but grateful look most polite atheists give me when I say that. The conversation grew quiet. Time had passed quickly and we were at the border. We walked from station to station. We waited in lines together without speaking. I watched his gear while he took a “pit stop”. He did the same for me. We reentered the bus and he looked over to me and said, “thank you”. I thought he was still talking about the bathroom break.

He said, “no, no one has said that they would pray for me since my grandmother did years ago. I don’t believe it will do anything but thank you. You seem like a good man.”

I said that I wasn’t good but that I was just recycled for a better purpose. This might be a good time to mention that his job is at the National beer company. He takes the old bottles, cleans them, sterilizes them and presents them for reuse. So the recycling reference was for him. He chuckled. He gave me his phone number, I called him immediately so he could have mine. I said to use it anytime. I don’t know if he will but he does have it.

My stop today is Liberia, Costa Rica. My new friend shook my hand as I got up to sidle down the narrow aisle. My last words to him were, “it’s never too late for faith.”

His eyes glistened while holding back what seemed to be tears and said, “maybe not.”

What will happen? What does the future hold? I don’t know. Day to day life is a mystery to me as well. But I have a solid rock as a foundation. That is my faith. It allows me to go forward. It allows me to survive the bends and curves of life’s highway. It allows me press on. I reminded of something Paul said when talking about all the bad stuff in his life, all the mistakes, all the trials that were overcome by faith. He then finished his thought by saying that he is not perfect. He had not attained perfection. But ends the paragraph with …

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me …” Phil. 3:13-14

That’s really the greatest benefit (for this life at least) of faith. It allows you to forget what is behind. It allows you to strain toward what is ahead. It allows you to press on.

I hope my friend calls me. I hope he finds some comfort in faith again. Even if it is drawing on some of mine until he finds his own.

Bus rides don’t have to be boring. Opportunities are always in front of us to share God’s love. I pray you take those opportunities He presents to you. If you are facing a tough season in your life, find the faith to press on. If you don’t have enough… I’ll support you with some of mine.

Dios los bendiga, Jeff

The Fruit Stand

Just to give you some context, 1 U.S. Dollar is worth (depending on the day) between 33.50 and 34.50 Nicaraguan Córdobas. Those of us who live here watch the going rate because it fluctuates and most of us receive Dollars. Again, the exact amount is not the important part of our story. Putting prices into North American perspective is the sole reason I mentioned these numbers.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are staples of the market here in Granada. I have often told stories about the hustle and bustle of our vibrant agora. One can purchase most items there and at reasonable prices. There are at least three other ways to procure produce. One is the carts that pass your house everyday. These entrepreneurs trudge up and down the streets of our city, yelling like a hot dog vendor at a baseball game. Instead of “peanuts” or “cold beer”, you hear “tomates” or “aguacates”. My favorite is the bread man who comes by most afternoons with the fresh rolls or buns. One can usually acquire most items from soup to nuts (literally) from a cart. You have to know when they pass by or wait for them with your front door open. I am usually pretty busy so I don’t always have time for the wait.

The second way would be at your local pulperia. That is what I lovingly call the Nicaraguan convenience store, even though it is usually no more than the front room of a house filled with potato chips, gum, and soda pop. They also have a few healthy foodstuffs but generally you find all the junk food there.

That brings me the third possibility. The stand. Much like a fruit or vegetable stand you would find on the side of the road while driving down a country road in the States. The difference being that these stands are speckled across the city. Highways, byways, or dirt roads all are prime locations for folks to sell their produce. One such stand is located at a major crossroads near the city center, across the street from one of our historic churches and next door to the “James Bond” barber shop. (Ok, it is really called the 007 Baberia, but when I asked one of the barbers why it was called that he simply replied, “James Bond.”) But I digress.

This fruit stand has been there since I have been walking by the barber shop on my trips to the bank or the Central Park. I began stopping there about 2 years ago and became acquainted with the grandma who runs the show. As I frequently state, determining ages here is difficult at best. She could be 70 or 90, I am never sure. But she was quite terse in the beginning. I don’t mean that as an insult. Matter of fact or straightforward might be an even better description. But normally I would not get much more than a “hello” and “goodbye” bookend to conversation that entirely consisted of merely the final total for my purchases.

To be fair, my Spanish has improved over the past few years so the fault may have been partly mine. But one day that changed. It changed with one question. One normal greeting I repeat dozens of times a day. The Spanish phrase is, “todo bien?” … which means “everything good?” The answer is the same, words differentiating from the question in only the inflection. Again, I ask this many times a day. Every person I greet, I usually follow up with those words. Much like we would say, “how ya doing”, in our everyday conversation in English. 99 times out of 100 the answer is the same, sometimes followed by a “gracias a Dios” (or thanks to God).

This time wasn’t normal. It started a week earlier. I passed my friend’s stand and asked her how much for the four, very ripe bananas. She saw the black spots and told me, “nothing.” I balked at that and gave her 5 Córdobas, which is the going rate for fresh ones. I realized that 15 cents meant more to her than me so it was no big deal. She looked at me in a confused manner but took my money anyway.

Later that week, I walked hurriedly by the stand. I didn’t need anything, so just waved as I passed. She yelled, “Papa”, which means what you think it means but is used as a term of respect by many. It’s akin to calling out, “mister” or “sir” in our culture. I turned and saw my friend and said “hola”. She reached to me with two freshly picked bananas. Mostly yellow with the faintest hint of green to prove they were just off the tree. She practically shoved them in my face. I said, “no thank you.” She insisted. I took them and reached in pocket for money. She quickly said, “no!” You could not wipe the smile off her face. I was happy too.

A few days ago I walked by. I had not seen the stand open. I was wondering what transpired. Thankfully, there she was. I greeted her. I asked her if everything was OK. She looked up at me and said, “no.” I asked her why. She told me about her son. His battle with glue addiction. His refusal to get help. And finally, his untimely death. I have been to many funerals. I have cried tears myself. But there is something out of balance when a mother or father has to bury a child.

I told her that I was sorry for her loss. I asked her if I could do anything for her. She said that I couldn’t really do anything. I said that I would pray. She teared up again. She said that all she had left was hope. I said, “but faith, hope, and love remains and the greatest thing is love.”

Her eyes opened widely. She said that is what her priest had told her. I told her that they were good words for the occasion. Sort of all purpose verbiage that can be pulled out of your ecclesiastical pocket when you need them. She said no, they weren’t just words. When everything is gone, hope is what you have left. She knew. She had experienced that bottom of the emotional barrel. She had felt pain indescribable, yet was able to maintain hope.

I don’t know what you are going through today. I have not walked in your shoes. I can, however, tell you that I have had my own downturns in life. Throughout the years I have learned that when I have had nothing else to hang onto, faith, hope and love remained. Sometimes it takes a trip to the fruit stand to remind me of that. I cannot thank my friend enough for that reminder. I hope you will find a fruit stand, or a friend, or loved one to remind you of that fact when you need it.

Thanks again for your encouragement and support. I could not do what I do without it.

Dios los bendiga, Jeff.

Just for Smiles

Most of the time, I share stories about faith and hope. There are people who endure tremendous hardship solely because of their place and state of birth. Usually no direct fault of their own, they simply react to the circumstances given them. I love stories of grit and determination. I love to share how you help me help those whose situation is improved and their future may be just a little bit brighter.


Today, I just want to make you smile.

It is no secret that I love to work with children. They give me energy and strength by their mere presence. With that in mind, I wanted to share some pictures.

 

When UnoMas’s U.S. ambassador, Stacy, came to Nicaragua in January she brought with her some stuffed animals and a couple of soccer balls. Luxuries here, to be sure, yet simple items meant to brighten the day of a few of our children.

She was also able to participate in the distribution of school supply backpacks. All those little items that help kids succeed. There were rulers, pencils, scissors, notebooks, and crayons among the gifts given out. Here are a few of the pictures she was able to take from those great days of interaction.

None of these were lifesaving gifts. They were perhaps not as impactful as a week’s worth of rice or a few lessons that might help them get a job in the future. But in my opinion, children need to have fun as well. They need to feel loved. They might take for granted a meal or a concept that points to future benefit. But a teddy bear or a new pencil sometimes emotionally is more beneficial than other more seemingly practical gifts.

When you look at these pictures, I am sure that you will agree with me that there might be no better gift to give. The looks on their faces alone should prove that. I hope they give you as many smiles as we shared with these little blessed ones.

Thank you Stacy for bringing those expressions of love to these amazing children.

Dios los bendiga, Jeff

The peace that transcends understanding

I have a friend here in Granada. I see him almost every Sunday. He has a wife and two children. He lives with at least 10 other family members in what could only be described as a shack. Four bedrooms, an open area that serves as a gathering area and kitchen. Wood panels, tarps and pieces of tin barely form walls and a roof. But he calls it home. I don’t know where the outhouse sits yet I am sure there is one.

His two children could not be more different in personality. The teen age girl is shy, reserved, and speaks rarely. One of those folks who observes people. Not saying much and occasionally smiling, one can still discern the wheels revolving in that mind of hers. I will say that she has, over time, become more comfortable with me. I even get a hug every once in a while.

My friend’s son is the exact counterpoint to his daughter. Full of energy and sass, he bounds into a room while his sister prefers the more subtle approach. He is younger than his sister. I remember the first time I met this fireball of a child, he ran to me, gave me a fist bump, and said (in English), “What’s up, dude?” I am not sure if he heard the phrase on the radio, television, or in a movie, but I did find out that they was the only words in English that he knew.

These two kids sit every Sunday morning with their father. They come to most of our special events. They even help wrangle other children who might have come without parents. They are dear to me.

Their father, my friend, is a thoughtful man. He has, by his appearance, worked his whole life outdoors. Weathered and gristled, he exposes what we used to call a farmers tan when he reaches his hand to shake yours. Sometimes a hug, always a smile, he calls me “hermano Jeff”, which means “brother Jeff”.

I repeat, every Sunday, he and his children are at church sitting together participating in the service.

“What about his wife?” you might ask. She would be there as well if it wasn’t for her cancer. She has been diagnosed for about 2 years now. She isn’t well. She has to be cared for in a home. Not able to be with the family. That might be the focus of this story had it not been for a conversation my friend and I had not too long ago.

I asked him about his wife and how she was doing this past week. He said that she was about the same. I asked him how he was doing. He answered with one word, “Tired.” I told him that I could only imagine the routine he must go through to prepare himself and his children for the day, work, then do all the chores that are the requirements of a growing family. He then visits his wife, sometimes with his kids, sometimes alone. Taking into account the economic pressures he must have, I was tired simply thinking about what his life must be like.

But to this he added an extra bit of wisdom. His words nearly teared me up. With everything terrible in his life, despite the challenges, he said that he had the Peace of God.

I have talked about it before, but we have a weekly Bible Study, in English, with a few transplants from the U.S. and Canada. The past week we had discussed the verse in the Epistle to the Philippians with one of those wonderful if/then statements that are scattered across the Bible. If we do something, then God will do return something better. Our part is always small when compared to the enormity of our blessing he supplies.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6-7 NIV

I remember memorizing the verse in the old King James as “the peace that passes all understanding.” Somehow, the way the New International Version (NIV) translates it as “transcends all understanding” may give us even a more complete picture. The Peace of God not only passes and surpasses all of our human wisdom, this transcends any possible comprehension. The “if” statement says that we present our prayers to God and “then” His peace enters our life.

There is no way my friend should be able to live in the peace of God. There are too many obstacles, too many tragedies, too many struggles. Yet the Peace of God transcends his circumstances. It transcends his pain. It transcends his doubt.

I am in awe of my friend. I aspire to that level of transcendent peace. I hope you will too.

Thank you again for your encouragement and prayers as we labor together to share the Love (and Peace) of God to everyone we meet.

Dios los bendiga

Jeff

The Lady of the Dump

I have been blessed beyond all comprehension in my sojourn here on this earth. Like many of you, there have been days where my existence was week to week and money was tight. But most of my life has been one of relative ease. I often have had second and third jobs or enterprises to supplement my income. Yet looking back I realize that those were mostly done to enable my family to have the “extras” in life. I have never been hungry. I have never slept without shelter unless it was by choice. I have worn second hand clothes but when I was young and my family was in the mission field, but I don’t know that I was wholly aware of the significance. I have often told the story of when I was young and my parents would not always have a lot food we would have Ritz crackers and peanut butter as a Sunday evening meal. My folks would make a big deal about the “treat”. To this day I will eat that snack have fond memories. It was not until later until I was told that those buttery crackers and the peanut butter were because it was a cheap meal.

I have never really known pangs of hunger. I have not slept in a refrigerator box. I have never washed my clothes in a grey water creek. I have been blessed. I can’t say that for every we work with here in Granada.

Here in Nicaragua life can be much different than that to which have become accustomed in the U.S. Stacy Johnson joined our ministry less than two months ago as UnoMas’s North American Ambassador. She had the opportunity this week to visit Granada and witness firsthand a portion of the work we do here. I know that she has seen things that will affect her the rest of her life and has stories to tell. Hopefully, she will be able to take some time and share a few in this blog. But I’m going to steal one from her.

In our travels this week we had the privilege of being a part of a feeding program. We actually were able to be in 3 this week, but this particular one is run out of a house in a poor section of town. One of the people who was assisted really stood out. She is who I call the lady of the dump.

I am not sure how old she is. I don’t know her exact address.but I do know that most days you can find her at our local dump. When I write dump, I want to conjure memories of the smelly, dirty place that was in every city. No recycling facility where bags are neat and color coded. No, i want you to think of mountains of rank, raw garbage where the odor permeates your body for days. This cesspool of waste is her office.

Every day she combs through other’s refuse to find the morsels of plastic, aluminum, or sometimes food that people in the city will not use anymore. There she can find some value in order to have a few pittance to feed her family.

Weathered, worn, and weary she plods the 4 and 1/2 mile journey to her work. A cancer survivor, plagued with residual headaches, undoubtedly from the chemo therapy, she endures. She goes on. She overcomes.

Here is the rub. You would never know her plight. Stacy and I spent nearly 20 minutes with her. Talking about life and God and struggles. She would cry as she told of her family and how she wants better for them. The tears would continue as she spoke of her trial with stomach cancer. She would giggle like a schoolgirl as she recounted past fond memories. And when she talked of God her faith was evident. It was in her very core. She believed that she would not be alive if it were not for His help.

I know I often conclude these little stories with something along the lines of, “I came to encourage her and I left encouraged myself”. While it may seem like a cliche. It may sound as if I am being artificially self deprecating. But I assure you that is not the case. My faith grows every time I see someone like “the “Lady of the Dump”. My life is changed for the better when I hear her stories of faith. My heart fills with joy knowing that for one day, in one year, in one life we together have eased the road of a weary traveler.

I want all of you who will see Stacy this weekend at Joy, or who might be at another church and want her to share the story of UnoMas to your congregation, to give a big hug and appreciate what a trooper she has been this week. New food, strange places, crazy car rides are all a part of the missionary experience down here. She has not once asked for a reprieve or retreat. What a blessing.

Thank you all.

Dios los bendiga

Mission Hammock

I know I said that I was taking the week off from the blog, but something happened Wednesday night that I would like to share with you. It is also not my custom to talk very much about other organizations working here in Granada. But again, something happened Wednesday night.

About 10% of the people here in Nicaragua live with some sort of disability. In a country already affected by poverty and difficulties beyond our belief, one can imagine how strained the life of those with different abilities might be.

It is precisely that community “Mission Hammock” serves. They provide a workshop for that segment of the population to thrive and earn by manufacturing high quality hammocks and swing chairs. It is an incredible effort by those involved to develop skills and pride in themselves In order to open doors would otherwise be closed.

Here is what they say about themselves:

“Mission Hammocks is committed to helping people achieve their goals and dreams. All of our hammocks are made in a workshop staffed with people who have various disabilities in Nicaragua. These people would otherwise have trouble finding good work, and in the workshop they receive a fair salary and a great working environment. We’re Our goal is to make sure that the 30+ individuals that work in the workshop that are blind, deaf, and have physical disabilities will be able to live the lives they deserve.

Over 10% of people in Nicaragua have some sort of disability, making it very hard on themselves and their families to help them achieve their goals and dreams. We work with a local special education school to take these wonderful people in to help give them valuable life skills”

Wednesday night the facility had a devastating fire. Much of what was once a thriving outreach now is in ashes. There will be a great deal of labor ahead for those dedicated to rebuilding this amazing workshop. God bless you Tio Antonio. Click on the link below to see a video about this mission.

Mission Hammock video

I wanted to take this opportunity to ask all of those who encourage me and UnoMas Ministries to take a moment and pray for Mission Hammock. I know I will be looking for ways to help these fine people.

As for us at UnoMas, classes are beginning again this coming week and I look forward to starting the New Year year off right as we serve together here in Granada.

Dios los bendiga

Jeff

Pictures

These pics are all for the benefit of those who aren’t on Facebook. It has been a busy few weeks. And we are still not done. These are just a few of the folks who we were blessed to share a bit of the Christmas spirit.

I will be taking next week off from the blog.

So until next year … may you and your family be blessed with a wonderful holiday season and a New Year full of the peace and comfort of God’s love.

Dios los Bendiga

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Nostalgia


Sometimes Christmas can be bittersweet. So many of our memories revolve around special instances in our life, like birthdays, vacations, births, and even deaths. But the Christmas season is one constant that prevails in almost everyone’s recollections. Difficult or joyous, they stay with us forever.

In my own life, I can’t help but think of special Decembers:

My grandfather’s preoccupation with Christmas because his birthday happened to be during this special time. We would be sure to make a special effort to celebrate both his and Jesus’ birth.

The many country Christmases spent with my other grandparents on the “Thackston Corner” near Sugartree Ridge where Sorg Road and U.S. Highway 62 crossed. Our family… grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all together, enjoying the warmth of togetherness and the satisfaction of way too many calories.

My recently departed brother, whose love of wooden nutcrackers and the song “Good King Wenceslas” always would put a smile on my face. I cannot see the chomping figurine of a Prussian solder or hear the famous carol without thinking of him. I will miss but never forget the joy he brought.

There is a picture of my sister, when she was 2 or 3 years old, staring with amazement at the Austrian wooden nativity set that had a fan over it so it would move in circles as the warm air of the advent candles rose. I don’t have that picture: I am not sure where it is or who, if anyone, has it. I don’t need it though, because the look of awe in her eyes is so indelibly printed on my mind.

I remember how my dad would never have his camera ready for the big “Santa Claus” reveal on Christmas morning so he would force us to re-enact the scene for the camera. We would stand in a stop action running pose, complete with our best manufactured faces of surprise. It happened so often that it became a family joke.

My mother’s love of big, bulky, wool sweaters with embroidered reindeer or sleighs, or bright stars and nativity crèches. She was the epitome of grace and class, yet her whimsical affection for what some would call “ugly” sweaters continues to this day to fondly flood my thoughts.

Wrapping paper strewn across the living room as the kids assessed their annual haul of toys, later electronics, and always a pair of socks from one of the grandparents.

There are a million more like those. The memories don’t fade. They are never replaced, simply added to. My current Nicaraguan family brings me special remembrances everyday. They are replete with new traditions and new celebrations.

The look of children as they receive a gift. The mother’s face as she knows her family will be fed with the help of food given to her. The excitement on the streets of Granada bursting with people celebrating. The constant fireworks and firecrackers at all times of the day and night. Ok, so maybe that might be something I would want to forget.

But most of all, I want to tell you that this season is not only about memories. It is not solely about nostalgia. This season is about people. This time is about sharing God’s love as we believe He shared it with us on that night in Bethlehem so long ago.

I don’t often quote songs from The Beatles in this blog. In fact, I think this may be my first reference to them. But in the song called “The End” penned by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, they wrote,

“And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make”

I know it may seem unthinkable but they were wrong. Even though their sentiment was right, my experience is that the love you receive is always greater than the love you give. My life is dedicated to spreading that love and I always seem to get back more than I ever dole out.

Most people reading this will be folks who understand that basic law of nature. Call it “the Law of the Harvest”. Call it “Karma”. Call it whatever you want. But know that it is true. You can’t out-give God. The Bible phrases it, “you reap what you sow.” That is true with bad stuff and good. Growing up, I would often hear the quip, “many folks sow their wild oats on Saturday and come to church on Sunday in order to pray for crop failure.” While I am sure that reaping what you sow was meant as a warning to me and many others in my youth, it has deeper meaning now. When you or I invest in other’s lives, we are sowing. The harvest we received will be blessings beyond our wildest dreams.

It is OK to be nostalgic during the Noel festivities. But my challenge to you is to make new memories every day. Memories of love. Memories of giving. Memories that will live long in the hearts of those whom you bless. Give love this Christmas. You will be amazed at the love returned to you.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support. I can report that there are lives changed every day directly and indirectly by our work here. You are an essential catalyst to those transformations. Two of our English students have been hired by local businesses because of their language skill. Families are being fed. Individuals are realizing what a difference God’s love can make in their lives. They understand the simple fact that love received equates and is surpassed by the measure of love that is given. Many of our families cannot give any money and I don’t expect them to. But every time I tell even the poorest of the poor about a project, I am inundated with volunteers willing to give their time and effort. We have many local people spending time working on various enterprises. Most with no expectation of personal gain. The circle of giving is never broken. It is incredible to witness.

I hope you have a blessed Christmas. I pray that all the memories made this year will become tomorrow’s nostalgia. And in the end … remember it’s all about the love you give.

Dios los bendiga

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