Mission Initiated

Mission Initiated

“It appears God is speaking to us through a big, bright neon sign, and I don’t think we can ignore it.”

Those were words spoken to me by my wife. Those are words that have become the bedrock of what appears to be the next chapter in our lives. Those are the words I hope serve as the foundation for God to one day look me in the eyes and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Oh My, God

THE BACKDROP

Shortly after moving to Tampa in July of 1996, I picked up a job at an internal helpdesk for GTE Data Services. I started out as a consultant (employed by a staffing company), and in August of 1997 I was hired by GTE to work directly for them. In the twenty years since, I’ve seen GTE become Verizon, held varying positions with differing responsibilities, and was able to create new opportunities for myself along the way. In November of this year, my manager informed me my position at Verizon was eliminated.

My first thought was job search. Even though I’d remain on the Verizon payroll through the end of the calendar year, and even though my severance package will provide a cushion that should last through the summer, I knew I had to get my resume in order and start networking. In a nutshell, my skillsets are very transferable but often difficult to quantify. I feel I’m an excellent manager, but how do you illustrate that on a C.V.? I am quite adept at process and project management, but every organization does things a little differently, and the metrics of my Verizon world may not necessarily translate to the world of a new employer (especially if the new employer is not in IT).

I promptly sent an email to my network of friends, family, and coworkers, and it was humbling to receive such supportive responses. I knew wherever I would land the opportunity would present itself as a result of who I know.

THE TRIP

My best friend Jeff is a dentist and has been wanting to do some form of a dental mission trip for as long as I’ve known him. He’d been invited to take part in a mission trip to the Dominican Republic by an acquaintance of his named Mike who started an organization called Advocates of Love (AOL). AOL runs an orphanage in the Samaná province of the D.R., and Mike asked Jeff to join him on his next trip so he could learn about the facility, meet the kids at the orphanage, and see what could be done going forward regarding dental missions.

Having no experience with mission work, Jeff asked if I would accompany him on this trip. I said yes, our mutual friend – also named Jeff – said yes as well, and the three of us coordinated our plans to travel with Mike and Pedro, another member of AOL, to the D.R.

Bright and early on November 30, we boarded our flight for the first leg of the journey to Santo Domingo, and my world has not been the same since.

THE CONVERSATION

Our first leg was from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale. From there we boarded a flight to Santo Domingo, and I was able to sit next to Mike on that flight. I was eager to pick his brains about how and why he started the organization, the history of the orphanage, and what type of work we could expect to do once we arrived. Mike was more than happy to share his God-appointed story with me, and I was just left speechless at how time and time again God showed up in Mike’s life to make all these things happen.

I explained to Mike my wife and I have been tracking to move into mission work or ministry work full time, but not until after my son graduates from high school in May of 2019. I am very much a planner, and I like having a plan of attack for the next five years of my life.  As I was telling Mike about my plans, I am pretty sure I heard God chuckle.

Me: “So Lee and I would like to be missionaries one day.”

Mike: “That’s interesting because we need a director for our orphanage in Samaná.”

Me: “Did I mention I just got laid off?”

What began as a tongue-in-cheek joke on the plane turned out to be God pressing on my heart and opening a new door for me. Over the next four days, I would spend time loving on kids, painting walls, cleaning up around a construction site, understanding what AOL does for the children and surrounding community, and praying. Lots and lots of praying.

I also spent lots of time on the phone with Lee, at first telling her what I was feeling. The conversations then grew into a discussion of, “I’m willing if you are.” Lee was supportive – actually downright enthusiastic – about the idea of running this orphanage in the D.R. The more she and I discussed it, the more it seemed to all make sense. Then we hit the, “what about…” questions. Through it all, we were blessed to have God reveal to us many answers to our concerns.

THE PATH

Mission work and ministry have been on my heart since Lee and I returned from our first mission trip to the Dominican Republic in January of 2015. As we arrived at the airport in Santo Domingo preparing to return home, we both shared a glance that confirmed to each other we’d be back. As time passed and we became more involved with mission work in our church – Lee and I are currently the mission team coordinators for Relevant Church – we both knew that when the time was right, we’d leave it all to become full-time missionaries.  I even enrolled at Trinity College of Florida to pursue a degree in Christian Ministry. I completed my final class this past October.

What I didn’t know is that God’s will would supersede my plan. Theologically I knew that, but practically I was convinced my plan was a good one if not God ordained. But as the saying goes, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” From the moment I met Lee, I told her my vocation in life was to be the best dad I could be to my kids, and for me, that meant being available to them through high school graduation. June 2019 had become our target date for Gil and Lee 3.0

In all that time and through all the conversations, I ignored God’s nudging and His whispers. I justified such disobedience by pointing back to my plan and resting on the notion of being very comfortable with my job, one that allowed me to work from home and earn six figures. Life was good, and when I was ready, we’d make the move into mission work.

The funny thing is that God makes us move whether we’re ready or not. There is truth to the adage, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.” In my case, He removed the barriers I created that, for me, were excuses for not making a move sooner.

“What about my job?”

“Don’t worry. I’m taking that away from you.”

“Okay, but what about this debt I’ve created?”

“Don’t worry. Here’s a severance package to help you with that.”

“But what am I going to do next? I need some form of income, and I don’t have time to fundraise.”

“Don’t worry. This is a salaried position.”

Every question I threw God’s way, He came back with an answer. He came back with the same assertive, almost trash-talking confidence we see in Malachi 3:10.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (NIV)

It’s as if God responded to each of my inquiries with, “Boom! Whatchu got?” To not listen and follow God would make me like the man in the ‘God Will Save Me’ joke.

THE RESOLVE

There’s a song by Imagine Dragons called Whatever It Takes, and this recent experience has me perfectly identifying with the lyrics of that song.

Whip, whip
Run me like a racehorse
Pull me like a ripcord
Break me down and build me up

Over the last month, God has broken me down and built me back up. He’s opened my eyes to what it means to step out in faith and in obedience. He’s made me understand what the meaning of the Abraham story is. I’d never been able to wrap my brain around Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son out of obedience to God, but I get it now. I better understand Elisha’s action of burning his plow when Elijah placed his mantle on him. I see more clearly now what Jesus means in the story of the rich man who was righteous but did not want to part with his possessions.


So loooooooong story short, Lee and I are moving to the D.R. More accurately, we’re praying the AOL board of directors formally approves us to be the next directors of the orphanage in Samaná, and we work out the transition and move details in January. Even if that should fall through, I know my next step is in ministry. The days of corporate America are over for me, and it’s time for me to work out of service to the Lord.

My friend and mentor Mickey Bane summarized the situation succinctly upon my return from my recent D.R. trip. He told me, “It’s not a matter of whether or not God is calling you to go. That’s obvious. The question is whether or not He’s calling you to stay; to stay in your nine-to-five, handcuffed to a career that doesn’t fulfill you.” To hear Mickey put it like that brought everything into clarity for Lee and me.

THE NEXT STEPS

There is still a lot to be done before Lee and I are drinking café under palm trees in Samaná. The first thing is prayer. As I mentioned earlier, we need the AOL board to extend us an offer for the position, and I believe the more people are praying for this opportunity to come to fruition, the better. We have to sell our house and downsize, and by downsize I mean sell just about EVERYTHING! We also must work out the logistical details that will come with moving to either another country, another state, or just a small apartment in Tampa.

Whatever God has in store for us, I know it will be perfect. Wherever He sends us, I know we will go. Like Elwood Blues would say, we’re on a mission from God
… a mission that is just getting started.

A picture I took of the beach area that is just a 5-minute walk from the orphanage.
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Mission Lacking

Mission Lacking

One of my recent homework assignments for my Christian counseling class was to provide a news article and write about how it applies to the world of counseling. As I completed the work, I felt compelled to share it.


I think it’s difficult for those of us living in the comfort, security, and luxury of life in the Western world to truly appreciate and understand what is happening in Syria. Even more so, we can’t begin to make sense of how a child raised in the midst of civil war must be interpreting what it means to be alive. For all their time on earth, war, displacement, and pain have made up their reality.

In this article from Catholic News Service, it’s apparent there is a need for individuals who are trained in counseling to hold the hands – both figuratively and literally – of the children affected by Syria’s five-year civil war. The article speaks to the erratic and sometimes aggressive behavior refugee children exhibit in camps. The after-effects of the war are as shattering emotionally as they are physically to the buildings these children once called home.

We see many groups and individuals leave their modern world behind to serve as Christian missionaries around the world, sharing the gospel of Jesus, working to make believers out of those who have been lost. This article, however, shows there is chasmic need for individuals to carry the cross of trauma counseling for these children.

kid

Attending to the emotional and psychological need of these young refugees is as much a mission of good news as are the other works of lay people in the field evangelizing the name of Jesus Christ. I think we tend to neatly compartmentalize the role of Christian counselors to working with couples in marital distress or American kids dealing with issues that weigh them down (drugs, anger, sexuality, etc.) But as Christians, we’re called to reach out to those who require our help, and there seems to be such an infinite need for help on the part of war-torn kids who most likely do not have a concept of what it means to grow up happy or safe.

Being a Christian does not mean our lives our meant to be easy (John 16:33), but it does mean reaching out to those in need (1 John 3:17-18). For Christian counselors, this means setting aside our own comforts in order to provide some comfort to a little girl or boy who’s known only a lifetime of pain. It means to remind these children they are loved by God, and to be the personification of Psalm 34:18

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

I think my points are best summarized by this video.

Looked Over and Forgotten

Their smiles melted my heart. The warmth of their hands moved my soul.

Our first full day of ministry began with a visit to a sugar cane village. Abject poverty, malnourished children, and of course – because we’re in the Dominican Republic – a baseball field. The eyes of the children opened wide as they saw our bus pull into their village. We all quickly broke out into games, throwing Frisbees and kicking a ball around. The males in our group became horses, carrying one, two, and even three kids on our backs, all the while running around like the kids we once were.

As I sat with a young girl and spoke to her about Christ, I stepped through my evangecube, an educational tool that is used for visually sharing the gospel. I was surprised at how well versed she was with who Jesus is and how He sacrificed Himself for our sins. I then began thinking about why this child of God lives in an environment in which she has to make do without shoes.

balsa

In the afternoon, we visited a living facility for the elderly. Whereas the village of children made me take a step back, the living facility wrecked my heart. To say it’s a facility is a misnomer. It’s a one-story building with rooms with beds. It’s a home to a forgotten generation of individuals, each beautiful and longing for validation, wanted to be reminded they are people too and not simply someone else’s burden.

The thoughts were overwhelming. The “Why’s” were without end.

At both places I got lost in my own mind, my thoughts cascading over what it is we need to do to fix the problem. But how do you fix poverty? How do you fix generations of inequity? How do you fix the influence of Satan in the thieves and the policy makers, both whom prey on the weak in their own way?

I don’t have an answer to that. My mind loves if-then process flows that lead to clean and neat solutions. Perhaps that’s why I’m so exhausted after dwelling on a systematic problem for which there may not exist an answer.

What I do know is that for those living in darkness, light is most important. For those living in loneliness, nothing is greater than love.

Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), and God is love (1 John 4:8). God reminded me today that my mission was not to solve the problems of the boys and girls at La Balsa village. It was not to provide a permanent solution to the women and men at La Esperanza home. My mission, the task to which God appointed me, was to love.

Love in the form of a smile. Love in the form of a hug. Love in the sharing of His good news. Love in the form of piggybacks and high fives and coloring books. Love in the form of serving soda with cookies and pushing a wheelchair and praying over someone.

These people I met today are overlooked and they have been forgotten, but not by God. Rather, it is we who have conveniently tucked them away into the unseen and marginalized them so that our lives may be a little easier.

I believe God has a plan for us all, but I struggle greatly in trying to understand God’s plan for these people; people who love Him and praise His name yet have their days filled with wanting, emptiness, and pain. Although it’s God’s privilege to conceal His plan from us (Proverbs 25:2), I think maybe His plan for them is actually quite simple: to help us grow in our faith.

I came to the Dominican Republic expecting to serve people, but today I found beautiful people ministering to me. People who have little about which to be happy, but still have a joy in their heart; a joy given to them by God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

We Are Warriors

I was forwarded this video with the question: Why does God allow children to die?

It’s definitely a tough question to answer, and one that cannot be flippantly discussed. In formulating a written respone, the words just kept coming and coming, so I decided to share them here on my blog.

I will admit, I wrote this after having taken part in a 4-day Christian retreat for men. My words are undoubtedly influenced by the sessions and conversations still fresh in my mind, but they are what I believe and what I hold to be true.

We are not born into a world of peace. We are born into a world that is in the middle of a battle between God’s love and affection for us and Satan’s contempt and hatred of God.

It is not the God allows these children to die. God does not promise us a life without pain or tragedy. What God does promise us is an eternity of peace once we place our faith in Him and once our time here on earth – on this battlefield – is done.

God also calls on us to fight for those who cannot. To reach out to the poor and sick and hungry. Sam Harris’ video is compelling and heart-breakingly tragic, but it is not God that is allowing the things that kill so many children to happen. It is we who allow it.

The human race has the capability right now to prevent malaria, famine, pneumonia, and measles. It is we who start and perpetuate wars. It is we who have the capacity to prevent and treat AIDS. Although I do not have a solid answer for Cancer, I can say that we as humans have created many of the environmental factors that cause Cancer.

So my answer is, do not be angry at God. Be angry at ourselves. We need to turn to God and ask for His wisdom and guidance as we seek solutions that will prevent famine and disease. Solutions that will end wars. Solutions that will prevent 1000 children from dying every hour.

These casualties are a result of us not standing up to the evils of greed and corruption. It is our responsibility to act. We are commanded by God to act on His behalf and for His Kingdom.

James 2:17 “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

We see 1000 children die per hour and we feel that God has abandoned them. It is we who have abandoned them because we are living a life of passive faith. Every battle against evil matters, from standing up to corruption to renouncing the negative thoughts Satan plants in our heads.

This crisis will not be solved overnight, but it begins with us taking action through our faith in God and being relentless in our fight against evil (and complacency and greed and indifference).

157/365 Movin’ On Up

Today was Daniel’s progression ceremony from elementary school. As excited I am at the prospect of him moving on to middle school, I do have to take pause when I look back on his educational journey at Double Branch Elementary in Wesley Chapel, FL.

Daniel was part of the first First grade class at DBES. I remember how much of a logistical inconvenience it was when his mother’s house got re-zoned for DBES. So instead of being under 2 miles from his elementary school, Daniel (and Natalie) was now over 5 miles from school. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when you consider that at the time, the only way from his mother’s house to the new school was one 30 MPH road, the difference went from 5 minutes to 20.

But that all seems so long ago now, yet at the same time like it was only yesterday.

I guess that is the part of parenting that is universal. Time flies and everything moves forward, and we’re left longing for what used to be …. for the time when our kids were smaller, younger, and more innocent. For with every tick of the clock, those little babies are one second closer to adulthood and the scary real world we try so hard from which to protect them.

But for now, I am going to relish my son’s elementary school accomplishments and do all I can to ensure he enjoys his last summer before transitioning into the bigger pond that is middle school.

Kudos to my little man for receiving the Gold Presidential Award for Educational Excellence (and for being such a stylish little devil).

Vocation: My Mission in Life

The dictionary defines the word ‘vocation’ as a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling. It can also be defined as a function or station in life to which one is called by God. Growing up Catholic, I heard this word a lot when I was in school. I think it was the Catholic Church’s not-so-subtle way of trying to recruit boys into becoming priests. “Normal people have careers, but those true to God know what their vocation is,” I recall Sister Mary Somethingorother telling me once. The way I figure it, if God wanted me to become a priest, He wouldn’t have created boobs.

Still, I believe in the concept of vocation. I believe we are all placed on Earth for a purpose; to play a specific role in His creation. I whole-heartedly believe God has blessed me with a divine task during my time here on Earth, but it has nothing at all to do with being a man of the cloth. Ironically, however, my vocation is one that still requires people to call me father. Two people to be exact.

There is no doubt in my mind my sole purpose in life is to be an exceptional dad. Not a good dad. Not a great dad. Not just an a’ite dad. An exceptional dad. A phenomenal dad. The best dad ever.

Granted, I know I can never be that. Like a perfect GPA in college, once you slip up, you can never get back to 4.0. It’s mathematically impossible. I believe my life’s journey and the transgressions I’ve experienced are akin to that, and those decisions will forever stain my resume as a dad. Nevertheless, I am resolved to make an effort every day and with everything I do to atone for the sins of my past. I am very fortunate my children were so young when my first wife and I split up, and their frame of reference continues to shift from a memory of mommy and daddy together to that of what our current situation reflects.

All that being said, I strive to be the best parent to my children I can possibly be. I like to think I don’t spoil them, yet there is not much which they lack in terms of the ‘things’ they have. By my standard as a kid growing up, my children are very rich. Still, I make sure they appreciate the value of money. I teach them to be respectable and honest, kind and unselfish. I do my best to lead by example; often times forgoing something I want to do in order to teach them the lesson of what is the right thing to do.

As they get older, I find I must give up some of the strict disciplinarian role in order to make room for the more patient and wise consultant. Gone are the days of very narrow limitations and binary choices that set the boundaries they knew as infants and toddlers. Now their choices are quite multiple, all with varying levels and parameters of depth, impact, and consequence. I find where before I would raise my voice and fall back on my trusted “because I say so” argument, I now break into mini-pep talks where the discipline is found in the lesson of the moment. Put another way, I’ve evolved from Nick Saban into Tony Dungy.

I say all this knowing I don’t do it alone. I’ve always said about my ex-wife that I would not want anyone else to be the mother of my children. She and I have always been on the same page when it comes to parenting, and I am so damn lucky that through all that happened, that aspect of our relationship never changed.

Being a dad is not always easy, but it is so incredibly rewarding. I feel it whenever I am complimented about my children. It’s a sense of validation and justification for the many trials and tribulations that come with being a parent. From a long term perspective, my vision is of two individuals who are pillars of their respective communities. Strong and intelligent leaders who are also humble and reverent human beings. That is what I want my kids to become, and that is what I feel it is my mission in life to produce. That is my contribution to my community and this planet. That is my vocation.

As a quick aside, my dad would have been seventy-seven years old today. I wish he were still around to see how beautiful, charming, witty, and fun his grandchildren have become. But I know he’s in Heaven looking down and smiling, and thankful that I never ended up becoming a priest.