Beyond the statistics

I know I may be an odd ball, but I love mornings. That’s when I do my daily devotions. That’s when I have the most energy. And since none of my doctors are on the UnoMas mailing list, I’ll tell you that I love a cup of coffee.

My usual routine is to get up, turn the coffee maker on, work out with my bungee cords, take a shower, then sit by the open door, sip my joe and watch the early morning

Last week, I told you how it was a similar morning that I encountered a different friend. But in Granada, like your hometown, these are not normal times. Hustle and bustle have been replaced by lethargy and timidity. People do not greet each other like they used to do. They don’t stop for the impromptu conversations of which we have so often mused. Instead, I watch people walk slowly, methodically, never once lifting their eyes to those who pass.

Jefferson is one such person.

I have known Jefferson for over four years. He was one of the first people I encountered here. He worked at the “American Style” breakfast place. I would splurge sometimes on a Saturday and he would be there, along with his fellow workers. Real bacon, pretty good waffles, but alas, they did not have biscuits and gravy. It was still a good start to the day.

Jefferson struggled with English. At that time I struggled with Spanish. We still communicated. He wanted classes, but he did not have the time. He worked two jobs, one in the evening and his restaurant work in the morning. We were able to practice each other’s language whenever I went to eat. We also felt a certain affinity for each other because we shared part of a name.

I saw him, last week, walking down my street. His blue mask made him barely recognizable, yet somehow I did figure out who he was. I motioned for him to come to the door. He shook his head, no. I looked at him strangely, puzzled by his reticence. I yelled that he could stay two meters away. He simply yelled, “I can’t.”

Then I heard the cough.

My heart immediately sank. My mind raced. My whole body shivered.

Was my friend sick? Did he have the dreaded virus? What were my next steps? All of these questions swarmed around my brain like the pigeons on central square when someone throws a scrap of bread.

I asked him if he had the virus. He said he didn’t know. He said he was going to the hospital. I asked if he was walking. He said yes, so I gave him cab fare. We didn’t shake hands. We didn’t hug. I felt so helpless.

I asked him if he would let me know when he had results. He hasn’t, as of yet.

I have a few friends in the U.S. who I know have or have had the virus. But this was more personal. This was a real face. This was a friend I see often. This was in my backyard, or front street, to be more accurate.

I have been reporting to you every week that official cases are low. As of today, there have been under 10 deaths, officially. But I can’t help but believe that this is not the case. I can’t help but believe that there are more. But for now, that didn’t matter. What was important was that my friend here had a cough.

One of the problems of our information overloaded society is that sometimes we forget the faces behind the statistics. I hope this hasn’t happened to you. For every sick person, there is a face. For every statistic there is a soul.

I was reminded of that this week. It made me remember that the work we do here will ripple throughout time. Not because we are so great or glorious or generous but because we share love. No matter what becomes of any one of us, love is eternal.

There is so much uncertainty in our world. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring any more than you know. I don’t know if my friend is sick or just contending with a few allergies. I do know, however, that we connected. I do know that he knows that he has a friend. I do know that he knows that he will be prayed for. I do know that he knows that there is hope.

I love you all very much. Thank you for the ongoing encouragement.

Dios los bendiga.

Más o Menos

How are you? How are you doing? What’s up? These are common greetings in the English language. Most of us have a favorite. We tend to slip in old familiar phrases when we see someone we know.

I have a question for you. Do you really listen for the answer?

This world we live in is complicated enough without the isolation, confusion, fear, and uncertainty of the last few months. It is more important than ever to really listen to those around us.

In Spanish we do the same thing. I have gotten into the habit of a certain greeting as well. I generally will use the “todos bien?” Using the Nicaraguan accent it comes out more like “todo bien.” It basically means, “Is everything good?” The normal reply is usually a hard, “Si, todo bien, y usted?” Which of course is, “yes, everything is good, and you?”

It’s a mere formality. A greeting you give out of social custom followed up by a meaningless reply.

Every once in a while, however, somebody goes beyond the norm and tells you, “Mas o memos,” which is “more or less.” That’s when your ears perk up. Since it is so rare that we actually exchange feelings in our busy world, these words become a conversation starter.

That’s what happened this week.

I have a large house by Nicaraguan standards. It certainly is deep. The kitchen is far from the front door and often I cannot hear a knock on the door. I happened to be in the front of the house grabbing my garbage. I try to have it out by six in the morning.

Under different circumstances the street in front of my place would already be awake and dotted with passers by. People scurrying off to work or the market. Vendors might be yelling about their wares. Children would be dressed in their school uniforms, giggling and yapping as they walk. But these are not normal times.

This particular morning I only saw one person. It was a young woman. She was a girl I knew from one of the restaurants in town. She is the waitress-bartender at one of my favorites. I have not been there in a few weeks. I actually haven’t been much of anywhere in the past few weeks. Like you, I have been keeping my distance, measuring my trips, and carefully evaluating every decision to venture past my white iron gate. I rifled through my mental index cards to remember her name as she approached. Rosie, Mary, or was it Karen, I couldn’t remember and thought I would have to resort to a generic, “Hello.”

Just in time, I remembered. “Rosie, that’s it”, I thought, as I opened the lock to set my bag on the street. “Hola Rosie, todos bien?”, I called out.

She looked up, saw me, and instantly smiled, then lost that grin just as quickly as she had found it. “Hola Jeff. Mas o menos,” was her reply.

I asked her what was up, and she told me that the restaurant had closed. She seemed surprised that I hadn’t heard. I was surprised as well. I usually try to keep up on the town news, especially when it comes to restaurants, hostels and hotels, as they provide a good resource for my more advanced English students.

I asked her how she was doing. This time it wasn’t a formality. This time I wanted to know. This time I wanted to listen.

She said that she was afraid. She feared what would happen to her family. She feared the virus. She feared that she wouldn’t find another job. All were valid concerns. But all were questions that I could not answer.

My mind raced. What could I do? How could I help her? I finally told her to wait. I had bought some rice because I was low. At the time I was not sure why I had purchased two pounds. I was even more curious about why they had given me two bags. Usually the stand where I buy my rice fills and weighs the bags to order. This time, for some reason they had already prepared bags lying on the counter.

Now, I know why that happened. I ran back into the kitchen and picked up my “extra” bag. I returned and gave it to my friend. “It’s not much”, I said. She started crying. She tried not to take it at first. But I insisted and she then relented.

30 cents of rice will not be enough. I didn’t have any cash, so I couldn’t give her anything else.

I told her that I would let her know if I should hear about any opportunities for employment. I told her that I would pray for her. She cried again.

All of this happened because for some reason, at that particular moment, on that particular day, I was putting out my garbage and she was walking by. I don’t know how this story ends. I don’t know what will happen to Rosie and her family. I don’t have any pretty bows to tie up this package. But I do know what I can change in my own life.

Are we limited by the amount of contact we can have? Yes.

Are we then to live lives totally void of interaction? No!

I have harped on this point now for weeks. Being smart, being safe, avoiding physical contact does not mean the cessation of our connections. We are still in this together even though we are living separately.

Your computer sound system may force you listen more intently. Your video feeds may require you to look more diligently for nonverbal clues. Masks may hide real emotions. But all of these inconveniences only mean that we must try harder to get beyond the surface of our old ways of communicating.

I have been reading about what will happen after this crisis ends. I assure you it will end. I don’t know when. No one knows.

The question is: What happens next?

Will we be in some post apocalyptic Sci-fi novel where we have become so inured by our self isolation that it becomes the new normal?

I hope not. I pray we learn from this time of quarantine. I hope we remember how much we missed our friends. I hope we no longer take for granted the precious time we get to see each other in the flesh. I hope we never again minimize how important other people are in our lives.

Will I ever see another friend on the street and simply, cordially, robotically ask how they are doing? I don’t think I will. I hope you won’t either.

Every person who reads this blog is dear to me. The next time I see you (and I hope that is soon), tell me about your day when I ask. If something is wrong, I want to know. If something is great, tell me why. Whatever the answer, know that I really want to listen.

That’s what I am going to take from this wacky era in which we find ourselves. I hope you do as well.

Thank you for all the encouragement I have received. You all mean so much to me. Until we see each other again…

Dios los bendiga

Quarantine School

During this time of crisis in which we find ourselves, innovative methods of sharing God’s love with our partners, students and food recipients have to be found. Mass feeding programs, classrooms full of people, and large church gatherings are not safe for me or more importantly, the ones we serve.

One of the ideas we came up with was a modified version of distance learning. When I saw the impending quarantine, I decided to print as many of our study materials as possible. Workbooks, activity books, flash cards, whatever could be mustered, were printed and distributed to our families. I wasn’t sure how it would all work out, but I wanted to be as prepared as possible.

As previously stated, people stopped coming to large gatherings. Slowly the word got out that business as usual was not possible anymore. I was concerned that without guidance we would lose tremendous ground in our assault on education and poverty. Thankfully, miraculously this did not happen.

There is a family on the far west outskirts of Granada. It is typical in that the mother, father, and four children, one grandmother, two nieces, and a cousin reside in this shack of a domicile. Each provides what income they can. Each pitches in on the daily chores. There is always something on the wood campfire outside. Busyness engulfs the home like birds around a nest.

The grandmother was reticent in my presence at first. She has lived a long life and has seen white men come and go in her neighbor. All of them had big plans. Some did mountains of good at first. None of them persevered to the end. So the sight of another teacher was met with barely a nod, a barely audible “meh”, and a very nonchalant shrug.

Then I gave the children their books. It was to them, of course, Christmas in March. Each one grabbing and perusing and giggling, as I gave each their own material. One of the older boys riffled through his book and found a picture of Noah and his ark. He proudly showed it to me, pointed to one of the animals and said, “Elephant”. I smiled in approval, told him that he did a good job, and then the other kids started calling out different animal names.

“Tiger”, yelled one. “Lion”, said another. “Money”, the third chimed in. “Money, where do you see money?”

He pointed at the pair of monkeys pictured front and center of the drawing.

We went over the first lesson. I also talked to the parents about how important it was that they do something, anything, small or large every day. I explained how I would visit one time a week as long as I was allowed to travel. They tried to offer me some food, but I declined. I figured that the next few months would be difficult enough without me taking any nourishment from them. I told them I had food in my crock pot, which was true.

The next week, I ventured back to their little shack in order to check up on my students. They had each finished their assignments and were eager for me to grade them. I remember when I was young and couldn’t wait for that test when it was returned to me. I wasn’t always so happy after I got it back, but that is a different story.

I have been going back to their and almost 20 other homes, every week. I wear gloves and a mask. I take all necessary precautions. No hugs, no handshake, I come home, change clothes and shower after every visit. But we are still making a difference here. These families are consuming new information at astonishing rates. Folks are eager to learn.

I have been going to the family I spoke about for four weeks now. This time when I walked in the door, I was greeted by grandma. She had a sheepish grin, her eyes were lit with enthusiasm and she blurted out, “Hello, my name is Maria. How are you?” She said her scripted greeting and then hurriedly went back to her cooking.

I don’t know if the matriarch of the family will ever learn English. But it was her way of saying thank you.

This is my way of saying thank you. Your encouragement and support allows us to make the best of even these worst of times. I could not continue what I do without you.

I love you all very much. Be safe. Wash your hands. Stay connected.

Dios los bendiga

I Choose Not to be Bored

We are in semi-isolation here in Granada. The streets are barren. Many of the shops and restaurants are closed or reducing contact with their customers. We are greeted at the local supermarket with masked men armed only with spray bottles of chlorinated water. Our prepared food can be delivered to our door. Our conversations on Facebook and SMS are longer and more involved. The hustlers and vendors still line our commercial street, yet they now have bandanas covering their faces and are wearing gloves.

There maybe less isolation than you are experiencing, if you live in the U.S. or Canada or Europe or China. But for us here in Nicaragua, it is a huge change. You see, this week is what we call Semana Santa or Holy Week. It is the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Nicaraguans are off work and flock to the beaches. Whether it be on one of the coasts or to our own Lake Nicaragua beaches here in Granada. It’s a family time. It’s a party time. Think of Memorial Day or July 4th (if you’re from the States) stretching five days into the week.

It is the hottest time of the year here, so we have had days where we climb well over 40 degrees (about 104 in Fahrenheit). The water is a great respite for the muggy climate. Baskets full of food, ziplock bags of Koolaid, and beer are staged along the lakeshore. I like the word “frolic” and it is the best word to describe what the children do as they run in and out of the water. I love watching that dance performed by the toddlers who are experiencing waves for the first time. A ballet beginning with fear, followed by the “en pointe” tiptoe of timidity, crescendoing with courage, resulting in pure joy. Yes, sometimes there are tears. But it always a joy to watch.

All of that is not a reality for most families now. Like you, normality has been thrown out the hermetically sealed window. Banality, once shunned, is our new reality.

That isn’t always so bad though. Except for the few pictures of idiots fighting each other for toilet paper, I believe that this for most, has become a time of self examination. Kindness appears to be reemerging as we begin to think how truly connected we are in the human race. The cashier who has swiped your food for years without exchanging a word now asks how you are doing. You might have received a message from that college friend you haven’t seen in years. Last month you didn’t have much time for the new, the original. We were spinning our webs of activity, taking names, writing notes, working on project teams but not connecting.

Don’t let this opportunity run by you. Take the time you never had before to do the things you dreamed of doing. Write a novel. Sing a song. Read to your children. My dad would always look at me strangely when I told him I was bored. He thought that ennui was the curse of the uninventive. I learned quickly not to tell my mother of any boredom. She would find something for me to do, and it usually was housekeeping related.

As I have said, and as those who are acquainted with me know, I am a people person. I love hearing chattering voices, clattering glasses, tinkling silverware and children’s laughter. Solitude is not where I shine. But in this self imposed sentence in the prison where there are no other inmates, I have become even more appreciative of you, my friends.

The work goes on here. I have visited several of my students. I use all the technology available to us and teach the classes I can teach. Masked and gloved, we gave out food to people at church. We still have a small Bible Study on Wednesdays. I have a small group of friends that have similarly sequestered themselves which I have deemed “safe”. But for the most part, I stay at home. Praying that this pandemic goes quickly. Hoping that my loved ones are spared. Hoping that your loved ones are spared. Knowing this mess that we are in can end in two ways. One is to sink into the pit of bitterness. The other is to use this time, time we never had, time we wasted on other endeavors, to look for ways that we can improve and ways that we can better serve those around us.

I love you all dearly. If I haven’t told you that lately, expect to hear it soon. Be safe. Wash your hands. Do something creative.

Dios los bendiga

Worry Free Living in a Worrisome World

As you read this, you are in the middle of what will surely be known as the “Pandemic of 2020”. You are, have been, or will be confined to your house. Cut off from everyday life. That sounds depressing. If you follow me on Facebook you know that I don’t post articles about the spread of the virus. There are plenty of them out there. Instead, I try to spread a little joy and love through stupid memes and photos. I have also shared some songs. All are intended to lift spirits.

Today I want to tell you about some people in Granada that will hopefully lift your spirits as well. Perhaps they will inspire you. They have me.

There is a man here who is from the United States. He has lived here or Costa Rica for over 15 years. He has a Nicaraguan wife but no children. Every week he prepares over 25 shopping bags of rice, vegetables and beans. Every month he adds a bag of salt. With the virus outbreak he was concerned that he would have to stop. So he came up with a plan. He has the bags sitting in front of his garden area. He waits for the knock on the door, dawns a face mask and gloves and greets the people. He gives them their provisions and sends them on their way. No hugs. No handshakes. No outward displays of gratitude required. He is simply helping for help’s sake.

I know a doctor at one of the hospitals here in Nicaragua. Their supplies are low. They are getting ready for the onslaught yet to commence. He is working double shifts, sleeping at the hospital, just in case. He remains away from his family, his children and his normal life. Yes, he is paid. But it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Not nearly enough compared to the risk. Not nearly enough considering the reasonable assumption that he could go anywhere other than Nicaragua and make 2, 3, 4 times as much as he does here, yet he loves his people. He loves his patients. He is willing to take the risk.

One of my students, one of the Georges, that we talked about some weeks ago works in a call center. He doesn’t have the money to buy the beefed up internet needed to work from home. For that manner, if he did have the money, he might not be able to rely on it. So, for his family, he goes to Managua every week. He stays at a friend’s house. He goes into his office. He wipes down his phone and works 12 hour shifts.

I have two dear friends who own a restaurant. They are young and energetic. They have figured out that they had to change their business model if they were going to stay open. They are also bighearted and care for their community. So now they have converted their menu to affordable lunches. They take orders today and deliver them to you the next day at noon. Some days they make a profit. Some days, maybe most days they take a loss. But they opine that they can keep their venue viable and help people at the same time.

These are the super heroes of our time. These are the all-stars. You have them in your neighborhood too. I have a friend who might live near you, who works in the ICU. She is on the frontline of her community’s battle. She works every day. What her patients don’t know is that she has and is battling cancer. Her immune system is weaker than most of ours, yet she says, “I’m just doing my job.”

The situation is better here than in the U.S.. That isn’t to say that we won’t get there or that it couldn’t change at any minute. But for now, our tiny little spot in Central America is moving forward. We will scrap the fear in favor of faith. We will be emboldened by hope. We will walk in love.

We are told in scripture not to worry. I know, in this situation, that it is akin to telling a five year old not to touch something dangerous. But one of my other heroes reminded me of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6. There Jesus says that we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow because today has enough junk in it already (Jeff Thackston paraphrase). “Don’t worry” does not mean “Don’t be wise”. It doesn’t mean, “Be stupid”. It means just what it says, “Don’t worry”.

Will we have our moments of doubt? We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. But will we let this paralyze us and forget that our number one priority in life is to live fearlessly, to completely embody love, and let God take care of the rest? I, for one, will not.

You take care of yourselves. Be safe. Wash your hands. Practice social-distancing, for certain, but don’t forget to love those who are put into your path, virtually or otherwise. And most of all, don’t worry.

I love you all very much. I was talking to a friend of mine about Gary Chapman’s book concerning the languages of love. If you haven’t read it, take some of this cloistered time and do so. If you have and you know me, you will know that my preferred displays of love are touch and acts of kindness. I like hugs. I like to lightly touch you on the shoulder as we speak so that you know I am engaged. I love that the normal greeting among friends here in Nicaragua is a peck on the cheek. But that has, for the most part, been taken away. I promise you, however, that they cannot take away my ability to reach out and be kind to others. I hope you will not allow this crisis to impede that in your life either.

Distancing and disconnection are two different words. Don’t disconnect. Don’t worry. Engage!

Dios los bendiga


The War Hero

I met another man in my work here. This man is about my age, maybe a little older. I am jealous of his perfectly salted black head of hair. His smile reveals the gaps in his teeth and a web of lines on his leathered face. He has the gait of a proud man, compensating for an injury whose pain is long forgotten but limits the radius of his otherwise lithe legs. He will happily show you the scar from the bullet that coursed through the fleshy part of the top of his hip, barely scraping the bone, but nicking a nerve. Short and wiry, he wears the clothes of someone who has either lost weight quickly or doesn’t care much for fashion or fit.

“I fought in the war”, he tells me. “I was brave”, he added. I don’t doubt it.

I bought him a coffee so that he would tell me his story. What a story! Weaving a tale that would make the greatest thrill writer take notice and probably steal an episode or two for their next novel. A history of a life. A history of struggles. A history of a country. Like a time traveler he took me back to the witnessed pain and joy of this country we now both call home.

I was captured by his description of the jungle hideaways he and his fellow soldiers lived in for months on end. He vividly imitated the crack of a rifle firing in the dark. He told me that your brain feels the pain of a long distance snipe milliseconds before you hear the shot.

He told me of elections won and elections lost. He told me of the high offices he held and the time in jail he spent for simply being suspected of disloyalty.

“I played baseball,” he spouted. Almost as if it had just come to his mind and he did not want to forget to relay that seminal point from his past. We laughed as he added, “The girls liked me.” I knew he wasn’t lying.

He told me that both of his children were in heaven and that his wife does not know him anymore. He spoke with no tears or regret. He was tired but not tired of life. He had faced all that stood before him and was intact. He still fights his demons and the ghosts that fill a soldier’s night. But he is winning.

I asked if he had the secret. He said their was no secret, only decisions. Make a decision to persevere. Make a decision to love. Make a decision to live.

I asked how he dealt with fear and the unknown. He simply opined, “If I die, then I die. But until I do, I will live.”

There is a lot of fear right now. Fear is clearing a swath of destruction like an angry tornado, leaving only debris and questions in its wake. We fear the known. We fear the unknown. We fear the real. We fear the imagined. But the wisdom of this new friend of mine echoes in my mind. I can prepare. I can take precautions. I can care for myself. But I don’t have to fear. I will take my friend’s advice. I hope you will as well. For every next breath is a harbinger of hope. If you are alive, then choose to live.

Dios los bendiga.

The Sound of Silence

One of the many issues here in Nicaragua is the lack of employment. Jobs are scarce and the line to fill those positions is long. In the States, underemployment may be  a discussion one can have, but I have found that should one care to work in fast food or some similar field, you can probably find work. Your experience may be different and I am sorry if I generalized to much. Here, that is not the case. There are people who want to work. They are willing to do things many of us would find inconceivable.

Image for a minute if you had some sort of disabilities. Let’s say that you were deaf, or blind, or challenged in such a way that learning new skills was very difficult. This is the story of two such individuals.

I told you before that early New Year’s Day a fire devastated a local institution. The place where people who are often not normally given a chance are given just that. In the days following the fire, I had the opportunity to meet several of the folks who worked at the hammock factory. Two of them were deaf. One of them completely, the other had partially lost his ability to hear.

Now you have a couple of things to picture in your mind’s eye. One is the sadness of their situation. They have families depending on them, bills to pay, and pride in their work which was stolen away in a matter of hours as the embers fell from blazing rafters.

The other might make you laugh as you think about me trying to speak Spanish to people who rely heavily on reading lips. As some of you know, I do not know American Sign Language, apart from the perfunctory greetings, alphabet, and a few key phrases. Even if I did, ASL is different from Spanish sign language. So here we were, drinking smoothies, and trying to communicate. Reading lips, mumbling Spanish, and fumbling signs (on my part) made for an interesting hour or so.

The whole point was they were telling me about their life since their workshop burned down. I was impressed to know that they were confidant and adamant about the return of the mission. They would persevere. They would move forward. They will be better than ever. I would not bet against them.

I began to think about those of us who have the full use of all our senses. Do we really use them all? Do we listen or just hear? Do we see figures and bodies or do we see people, minds, and hearts? I found that there was a depth of insight and understanding in our conversation. They were not bitter. I might have been if in their situation. They were not envious. They were not angry. Most of us feel all of those emotions when events  don’t  go according to our idea of perfection. I began to think whether or not I utilize my sense of hearing.

Do I spend too much time hearing and not enough time listening? I fear that sometimes I do just that.

Look at the image above and read a paragraph. That paragraph is full of mistakes, bad spelling, and even mixed up words. It’s because our brain has the wonderful power to assimilate information and feed it back our conscious thought in an orderly fashion. I believe that particular ability of our subconscious mind can be a hindrance when it comes to listening. We often think or infer what the other person is saying. We often hear the words but do not understand all the other signals that communicate much more than words. Even worse we anticipate the other person’s words without listening to their full significance.

The Bible says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Paul Simon wrote a beautiful song that contemplates silence in a very noisy world. We have been confronting this problem from the dawn of time. Failing to pay attention because we have so many distractions. We speak when we should be still.

I am so grateful for my ability to hear. I, however, want to improve my ability to listen. I think I can take some lessons from two new friends of mine. I hope you have learned them as well.

Let me tell you about the last thing they taught me. As they were getting up to leave one of my new friends pointed to the sky, pointed to me, and made what looked like a sign of the cross. I looked at them in what must have been a puzzling manner. I looked at the person who could hear and he said, “Dios te bendiga.” I said that I finished all my blogs with basically the same sentiment. I use the plural “los”, but it means the same thing. They said, “We know.” He explained that when he knew that he was meeting with me he read my blogs. I asked which one. He said, “All of them”. Then he smiled and walked away.

Dios los bendiga

The Foreigners

Our main goal has been from the beginning to share the love of God with the folks of Nicaragua. God has opened doors in inconceivable ways in unbelievable places to unexpected people. Most of the time I write about an experience with local flavor. Today is no different. It just may not be what you have come to expect.

In Nicaragua, the lower cost of living, warm weather, and laid back lifestyle has attracted many foreigners who have chosen to make this beautiful country their home. Generally, we use the word Expats, short for Expatriates, to describe these folk. Some are retired. Some work remotely from their homes in Granada. Others are here for three, four, five, or six months of the year. Sort of long term migrants. We used to call them “snowbirds“ when referring to the people who spent half of their time up north and the other half in Arizona or Texas or Florida. I guess we still can call them that.

There is a small group of these expats that meets every Wednesday for a time of prayer and Bible study. I lead the study, but everyone’s opinion and input is welcome.

We have a retired man who has been here for many years. It’s in his house that we meet. With a Nicaraguan wife and two lovely children, he still opens his home to us every week. There is a real estate salesman, a retired pastor/homeopathic doctor, retired school teacher, and two ladies who regularly show up. One of the famous “George’s” that I talked about recently also comes.

There is always discussion, sometimes debate, but never hot tempers. I often say that those who have chosen the expat experience in a third word country have a little bit of the pioneer spirit in them. You have to be independent, tough, resilient, and sometimes stubborn to make it in our world. I said independent and for the most part I mean that. However, like the pioneers of old, one needs connection as well.

I have connections with many Nicaraguans and their families. I spend the majority of my time speaking Spanish and remembering cultural differences. That is my life and I love it.

But every once in a while, it is nice to have a conversation and not have to think about language. So my Wednesday mornings are a respite for me. A relaxing hour or so where my only obligation is solely to keep the conversation going.

I have grown to really cherish my midweek repose and the men and women who attend, as well.

I want to tell you about an act of love, a display of compassion shown me this week. I don’t know if I looked tired, or frustrated, or upset. I don’t think I did. Because I wasn’t any of those things. But during our prayer time one of the men began to pray for me. He asked that God would encourage and strengthen me. I was and am doing well I didn’t think I was any different than normal.

I asked afterwards if I was showing signs of anything negative and if that prompted his prayer. I say that for the benefit of those who knew me last year and saw how physically sick I was and still thought I was fine. You know that whole “pioneer spirit” stubbornness thing. He said, “No, you actually look better than you have in a long time.”

I said, “Thank you, I guess.” We both laughed. He went on and explained that he just felt impressed to pray for me. Again, I thanked him.

Then I started to think. I really do get a lot of encouragement from this group. One of the members actually helps me edit these missives and occasionally donates funds when he knows there is a special project. People pray for me, lift me up, watch out for me when it looks like I may be about to do too much. They suggest areas of service and volunteer time. They have become my support group here in Granada.

I have said many times that I was amazed by the way it seems that God puts people in your path to serve. I have talked endlessly (and will continue to do so) about the times chance meetings resulted in serendipitous outcomes. This is the same thing in reverse. God puts people in our path to minister to us as well. I cannot thank them or Him enough for doing that.

Many of you reading this are my encouragement also. I cannot express enough gratitude to you or them. I didn’t think I needed prayer. But I will take all I can get. If you need encouragement today, I hope someone is listening to God’s voice and lifting you up. I hope you have a support group that loves you and keeps you going. If you don’t then write me and maybe I can help.

I love you all.

Dios los bendiga

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