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.

 

****UPDATE******

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

Season of Giving

As we all rush around picking up last minute items for Christmas, it’s easy to get lost in the to-do’s and lose sight of the holiday spirit. It’s been said time and time again that Christ is the reason for the season, and that Christmas is the season of giving.

But when you look at the eternalness of our God, not bound by time and enveloping us in His love in the past, present, and future, the ‘season’ of Christ is every day of our lives.

In reading my devotional, I came across this excerpt by Jefferson Bethke that perfectly explains how God’s love is a gift to us.

As a parent now I am starting to see things differently. One thing that I’ve noticed about it is just how much I love giving Kinsley, our daughter, gifts. Either things I’ve made, a flower from my walk home, or a big gift like on Christmas or something.

One thing that makes this so special is to see her face when she gets the gift. To see how much she loves it, makes me love giving the gift even more! It makes me light up. Imagine though if I gave Kinsley a gift, and instead of being excited she looked at me and asked how much she owed me for the gift. It’d devastate me.

I think sometimes we don’t realize that’s us every time we try to repay God. Every time we try to earn His love. No it’s freely given as a gift and we have that because of Jesus. And being joyful and thankful about that gift is what God wants from us most!

It’s always fun and exciting to get something, but it can be life affirming to give something. I hope this holiday season, you allow the spirit of giving to maintain its momentum into every day of 2016, and this includes taking time each day to stop and say, “Thank You” to the Lord for all He provides.

Thanks

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

A Christmas Gift

Jesus was the first ever Christmas present. God’s gift to us, Himself in the flesh for the benefit of all humankind. It is something that is often overlooked during the holiday season.

In addition to giving us all His son, God also gives us gifts every day. Individual reminders of His love for us. Calling cards of His affection for us. And unless we’re looking out for them, they usually go unnoticed.

Gift

This Christmas, the story of my friend has taken residence in my head. It is a story of a man who, when I met him, was quite a bit away from God. As was I. We both were living with the struggles and challenges of being post-divorce dads, all the while trying to make the most of every moment. Concerts, cruises, road trips, and more booze than I care to admit: it was party first and prayer second, if at all.

I began my reconnect with God in summer of 2009. I found my church home, and gradually began to open my eyes and my heart to His message for me. As time passed, I heard God call me in a direction of ministry, a path on which I could walk to not only grow in Him, but also share His greatness with others.

My friend was, as I like to call it, seeking with uncertainty. He had questions, reservations, and a bad taste in his mouth from previous religious experiences gone bad. Although God had continued to bless him, over and over and over, my friend still kept God at arms length.

With his three children in the midst of adolescence, God gave my friend a fourth child. And with this baby came an opportunity to do things a little differently as a dad. His wife insisted on raising their daughter in the church. My friend was not opposed, but he was also, at first, not an active participant. With time, his heart softened, and he, too, began attending service regularly.

I imagine the conversation between my friend and God went something like this:

God: “I’m calling you, but you keep ignoring me. I’m here for you. I love you. I want you to place your faith in me.”

My Friend: “I’m not sure. I’ve tried this before. There’s so much I don’t understand. Besides, why do you want me? I don’t think I’m the person you think I am.”

God: “I know exactly who you are, and that’s why I love you. That’s why I want you. I’ve been by your side all along. You just haven’t been paying attention.”

My Friend: “But what do you want me to do? I don’t know what it is I am supposed to do.”

God: “All I want you to do is believe in me. To help you with that, I am going to give you a daughter.”

When we first met, my friend and I never spoke about faith. Now, our faith is part of what makes our bond so solid. He is my brother, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.

God is faithful. God is giving. God is loving. He gives and provides to us on a daily basis. The question is, are we listening? Are we tuned in to what He is saying? Do we realize the gifts he gives us every day, and how it is He wants us to receive and use those gifts?

I hope that as we wind down this Christmas season, and prepare to ramp up for a new year, we do so with the knowledge that every day we live in God is Christmas. He gives to us so we may give to others. Swiss theologian and Catholic priest Hans Urs von Balthasar perhaps said is best, “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.”

Merry Christmas.

Warmth of Heart, Not Ice Cold Water

By now you might be sick of them; the videos, the challenges, the shrilling screams of the participants.

Yes, I’m talking about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Quite possibly the most successful viral marketing campaign ever, the ALS IBC has raised nearly $80 million (as of August 25) for ALS research. That’s an amazing accomplishment and should be applauded, yet I find it eye-opening to see so much attention paid to a disease that causes .02% of deaths in the US per year*. By comparison, Diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and even the flu cause significantly more deaths nationally. Still, you can’t get on Facebook or Twitter without seeing someone’s new video of their accepting the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Now, I don’t mean to dump buckets of proverbial rain on the ALSA’s parade, but I happen to be in the “it’s not about the ice water” camp. Yes, I’ve been challenged (twice). No, I haven’t done it, although we have made a donation to the ALSA. Unfortunately, I think the IBC campaign has morphed into a trendy competition – all the cool kids are doing it – that takes the focus away from giving and the disease itself. I’m curious as to how many of the young IBC participants even know who Lou Gehrig was, or that it was because of Gehrig’s passing at such a young age – he was 37 – that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis became predominately known in households across America.

To me, what it all comes down to is the giving. It doesn’t matter what organization you give to, just give. You don’t have to video anything. You don’t have to publicly challenge others. You don’t have to find yourself shivering at the end of it. Just give.

JUST_GIVE_2
I can’t say it any better than the incomparable Casey Neistat did in his video for the Ice Bucket Challenge. So to borrow a page from Mr. Neistat’s creative genius, I hope you consider making a contribution to Rock by the Sea or Sav A Pet, if you don’t already have a cause that’s near and dear to your heart. And if you still can’t figure out where you want to make a difference with your donation, you can check out JustGive.org for a listing of charities that may feel right for you.

Doesn’t a warm heart feel better than ice cold water?

 

 

*According to ALSA.org, ALS is responsible for “two deaths per hundred thousand population annually.”

Rock by the Sea and FourSquare Day

Our music has become digital, our communities virtual, and all too often our truest of priorities get pushed to the peripheral. Still, there are moments in time when we can come together as one, a group of people in the actual, and listen to some of our favorite artists while at the same time doing something good and giving back to those in need.

Rock by the Sea is one of those moments in time. From April 15 – 18, Harry A’s on St. George Island, Florida, will host this annual music festival that is dedicated to not only the celebration of music, but also the assistance of worthy charities. In addition to being an event full of performers, entertainment and sunshine that delivers an excess of fun to be had by all, Rock by the Sea is an extended weekend that focuses on hope. It is a reminder of how the power of giving can be exponential, growing from the first contribution and feeding on the generosity of many.

Speaking of exponential, there is an added twist this year to the normal abundance of smiles and camaraderie exuded by the RBTS faithful. With the introduction of FourSquare Day on April 16, Harry A’s will be also be home to an official FourSquare Swarm Party at which participants will be able to ‘check in’ and collectively earn the coveted ‘Swarm’ badge. Individuals will even be able to register for FourSquare at the venue so as to take part in the festivities.

Please visit the Rock by the Sea website for more information about the event. In addition, we invite you to learn more about some of the charities that are the beneficiaries of RBTS’s hard work and generosity. Those charities include:

Finally, please follow these links if you’re interested in learning more about FourSquare and FourSquare Day.