Project Gratitude – Coaches, Cuts, and Cuisine

Project Gratitude – Coaches, Cuts, and Cuisine

Today was as enriching as it was long.

Normally. Lee and I like to not pack our weekends with too much to do. That usually makes for a bad Monday. But after having arrived home from our friends’ holiday party at 1:30 in the morning, the alarm was set for 7:00 AM so we could start our day.

First we were off to a 9:15 service at Idlewild Baptist Church. This is not our normal church, but they had a guest speaker today that I just couldn’t miss seeing. Growing up in Miami, Coach Bobby Bowden was someone I loved to hate. His Seminoles teams were always a thorn in the side of my beloved Hurricanes, but now I have nothing but admiration and respect for Coach Bowden. To borrow from Idlewild’s page recapping the event:

Coach Bowden told us about his life growing up in Alabama, his childhood, growing up in the church, playing college sports, meeting his wife Anne, and the start of his coaching career. Most importantly, Coach Bowden told us about his faith in Jesus Christ, and reiterated to us that the most important thing he ever did for his players is to share the gospel with them, and introduce them to Jesus.

Bowden

I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard Coach Bowden speak and for his affirming message. Much of what he discussed was a truth I already felt in my heart, but hearing his words helped me connect the dots and understand these feelings in a new, more clear manner.

From there Lee and I attended service at our church. Following the service, we had a team build in preparation for our mission trips later this month. We’re sending two team over two weeks to build beds in the Dominican Republic. This is a continuation of the work we kicked off last June, and today’s activity was a step through of the cutting and assembling we’ll be doing on mission. I am thankful for this wonderful team and for our friend Amanda who is the driving force behind the effort to deliver bunk beds to one hundred fifty families in the village of Quisqueya in the D.R..

Amanda

Finally, Lee and I wrapped up the day with dinner at the home of our friends George and Enaye. We’ve known them since we started attending church at Relevant in 2009, and we’ve been blessed to share so many experiences with them over the years.

About four years ago, George and Enaye adopted siblings from Ethiopia. They stepped out in faith and grew their family by traveling across the planet to bring blessings to a young boy and girl in need of a home. Tonight they invited us for traditional Ethiopian cuisine in celebration of Ethiopian Christmas, and the food was amazing. So rich in flavor, spices, and culture, it was great being able to take part in such a different experience. I am so thankful for the wonderful relationship we share with George and Enaye, and for the joy that is their three children Caleb, Meseret, and Binyam.

Food

Project Gratitude – Behind the Scenes

Project Gratitude – Behind the Scenes

Last year, my wife Lee and I were designated (also read as ‘volunteered’) to be the Mission Team coordinators for our church. Part of the reason is because I participated in three mission trips since January of 2015 and Lee participated in four. Also, Lee and I plan to transition to full-time mission work in the next several years, so managing the logistics and financials for our church’s mission work is good on-the-job training.

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I wish I could say the preparation and planning is a true team effort, but that would not be fair to Lee. She’s the brains AND mental brawn that makes everything come together.

Lee has been the person working with our point of contact at SCORE, International making sure contracts are signed, medical release forms are submitted, etc. She was also the person coordinating with the facility director in the Dominican Republic regarding the supplies we’ll need on site for the project work. Lee has established a process for coordinating with our church’s finance director to ensure everything gets paid. Lee even took the time and booked every flight for every individual taking part in the trips.

Lee's happy plays is managing chaos.
Lee’s happy plays is managing chaos.

As an added wrinkle, we’re sending supplies down to the D.R. in advance of our trip. Lee figured out the process for working with a freight forwarder, establishing our church as a designated shipper with that company, and making sure everything was in order for pickup by the shipping company. As a result, our table saws and work benches are now on their way to Santo Domingo.

Although we still have some final details to complete, it’s no exaggeration to say these trips would not be happening if not for the diligence and hard work of my wife. My role in all of this has been supporting at best, and although I know there are a ton of little things that happened today for which I am grateful, I have to reserve today’s post for the gratitude I have for my wife. She is my friend, my partner, my confidant, my guide, and so much more.

I have this line I like to use when describing my wife. I am nothing without her and everything because of her. I thank God for the blessing it is to be married to such a wonderful woman.

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Pain, Ink.

Pain, Ink.

As part of National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), I am taking part in a daily blog post challenge through the BlogHer website. Today’s prompt:

When was the last time you did something brave? What happened?


I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, but I am by no means one of those adrenaline junkies that get a thrill from enduring grueling and painful conditions. For the most part, I embrace my lazy side and you can usually find me on the corner of comfy and cozy. So it took focused determination to pull the trigger on an idea I’ve had brewing in my mind for …. well years.

My wife and I are planning to transition to full time mission work in the 2019 – 2020 time frame. We’ve participated in several short-term missions with our church, and our hearts are in dedicating ourselves to serving God with all we have. One of our favorite memories is being in the Dominican Republic with our pastor who has the story of King David tattooed on both his arms. Who knew permanent ink on skin could be a tool to evangelize the word of God?

Pastor Paul Wirth
Pastor Paul Wirth

As we prepare for our third visit to the D.R. in January, I wanted to take a page from my pastor’s playbook and wear my faith on my sleeve as well. So tonight, while basically all of America was watching Game 7 of the World Series, I was sitting in a chair at my friend’s tattoo shop getting my first (and second) ever tattoos.

I’ll admit, brave perhaps is not the most appropriate word to describe my decision, but it’s not something into which I entered lightly. There was the uncertainty of how painful actually getting a tattoo would be. There was the concern of how they would come out. There was a touch of anxiety at the thought of eventually showing them to my mom. There were a lot of hurdles, mostly mental, I had to clear to bite the bullet and get inked.

…but in the end, I remembered that fear is not from God, and after all He’s done for me, wearing my faith for everyone to see and using the talents of my friend and tattoo artist Shawn to help share Christ with others is the least I can do for Him. I guess if I really think about it, there was nothing to be scared about at all.

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nablopomo

365 Days of Blessings – A Year in Review

There’s something healthy and heartwarming about taking time to look back and reflect on the recent moments of our life. As the year draws to a close, I, too, will take part in the unofficial tradition of recapping the year that was. This may be all over the place, so thank you in advance for your patience with my lack of cohesive thinking.

Kicking it Off
Lee and I rang in the New Year with our dear friends Jeff and Lindsey. It wasn’t a crazy, NYE bash. It wasn’t a bunch of people reciting resolutions and singing Auld Lang Syne. Instead it was just the four of us, sitting in their lanai, talking about everything, and, as we always do, growing closer in Christ and community. Jeff and Lindsey are one of the couples with which we can openly discuss our faith journey, and they make us stronger because we share the same walk with Christ; four individuals growing closer to Him by sharing in fellowship and family. There was also that part where we shopped to make supply bags for the homeless and took the boat out on January 1st. I also had the opportunity to preach at a special worship service at my church.

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The Transformation
The life changer – literally – came in the third week of the month when Lee and I traveled to the Dominican Republic to take part in the first ever mission trip for Relevant Church. The trip was very beta (we didn’t know what we needed to know), but it was eye-opening, informational, and just flat-out awesome. Partnering with SCORE International, we visited several villages in the vast sugar cane fields of Juan Dolio, a home for the elderly, an orphanage, and a house for women rescued from the nightmare of human trafficking.

It was all so amazing, and I wrote about my experiences while on the trip. The take-away, however, was what God would take away from my wife and me. As we returned home, our hearts were broken for Him and His will. Gone were the more material ambitions Lee and I shared for empty-nest life once my youngest graduates high school and goes off to college (2019). We had talked about downsizing and moving into a condo, perhaps in St. Petersburg. Instead, we left the D.R. feeling called to make the mission field the next chapter in our lives.

Lee and I decided to put things in motion to transition from 9-5 as we know it to full time missionaries in mid to late 2019. There was no doubt and no hesitation. We both knew it before we boarded the plane to come home that we’d be back, year after year, training and preparing to making serving others our new vocation.

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God’s Take Away
As I mentioned above, God made room in our heart for His calling by taking other ‘stuff’ out of the equation. This was immediately visible to us as we came home from our mission trip and literally boarded a cruise ship the next day for the floating music festival that is The Rock Boat. We love The Rock Boat. Not only is the music amazing, it’s also our chance to connect with friends we get to see only once per year. Our music family is such a big part of our lives, and TRB is the annual family reunion. For Lee and me, TRB XV was our seventh Rock Boat. It was also our last.

From the moment we stepped on the ship, we knew this chapter in our lives was coming to a close. Our bodies were on the Norwegian Pearl, but our hearts were still in the D.R. Instead of thoroughly enjoying the performance by Bare Naked Ladies on the Lido Deck, all I could think of was how for what I paid for the bucket of beer at my feet, I could feed a family of four for a week back in Juan Dolio. For the most part, the entire trip was a reminder of that, – and perhaps it’s not a good idea to get on cruise immediately after a mission trip – but louder than the amazing music was God’s calling that it was time to make more room for Him by saying goodbye to one of things we love so much.

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The Rest of January
Yes, there’s more for the month (and thank you for sticking with me this long). Coming back from TRB, we crashed at my friend’s house in Miami for a couple of days. This culminated in a fun Super Bowl party at his house and an impromptu drive to the Florida Keys. Lee had never made the drive to the Keys, and although we didn’t make it all the way down to Key West, the excursion was a new adventure for both of us to share, and we caught an amazing sunset in Key Largo.

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Spring Forward
In February we took in the State Fair (can you say ‘deep fried everything’?), and were fortunate to attend a fund raiser for John and Katie Zeller (Executive Director of SCORE International and his wife), at which we met the legendary Lou Piniella.

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In March we did something completely different and took some time off to attend the 12 Hours of Sebring. Again partnering with our cohorts Jeff and Lindsey, we camped for four days next to the track in an RV, drank way too much beer, and just had a fantastic experience.

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April and May saw us celebrate a milestone birthday for our close friend Ashley, another successful home rehab project through our church (be sure to check out the video), and my daughter’s soccer team winning a state title.

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Summertime, Ey!
In June we we had the wonderful fortune to take my daughter to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was an amazing trip, and we fell in love with both cities. From museums to aquariums to stadiums and our first every Uber experience, the trip to the Pacific Northwest was once in a lifetime. We took in three World Cup matches, as well as a Seattle Sounders game. We got to see Abby Wambach play in her final World Cup, visited the original Starbucks, and went to the top of the Space Needle. It was an early 16th birthday gift for my daughter, and it created memories that will last a lifetime.

June

We celebrated the 4th of July on the East coast with Jeff and Lindsey, and our other dear friends Jeff and Ellen, who also share with us the same journey in Christ. Throw into the mix Nikki and David, Daryl and Kristi, a couple of boats, fun time on the water, and an excellent fireworks show, and it was one of the most memorable Independence Day celebrations of recent years. July also saw Lee travel to Eutaw, Alabama, to take part in a domestic mission trip organized by SCORE International.

We wrapped up the year with a couple of concerts, a great Q&A with Kevin Smith at the Improv in Tampa, and a camp experience with our favorite band Sister Hazel. Being able to take part in Camp Hazelnut with so many of our close friends was a great way to kickoff the Fall, and it allowed me to (partially) conquer my fear of heights as I made it to the top of the climbing tower.

Camp

I went back to school at Trinity College to pursue a degree in Christian Ministry, and we got to share Christmas services with Jeff and Ellen at both our church and their church. Being with loved ones during the holidays really made the season that much more memorable.

A Painful Passage
2015 was not without its hardships. In addition to her love for music, my wife has an incredible affinity for all things cats. We started the year sharing our household with four fur-babies (as my wife would call them). Unfortunately, we lost three of them in the span of three months, two of them in the same week.

In March we had to put our little Monkey to sleep after she developed a growth in her abdomen. At the beginning of June, after treating him for lethargy and lack of appetite, we had to do the same for our beloved Peppy. This was extremely gut-wrenching given Peppy was Lee’s special Angel-kitty, and he would always comfort her whenever she was not feeling well. Not more than five days after putting Peppy to sleep, we came home from dinner to find Boo in distress and agony (exactly what we wanted to avoid with Peppy). After a trip to the after-hour veterinarian, the only humane option was to put Boo down as well.

Devastating is such an understatement for what we experienced, and I know Lee put on a brave face in the weeks that followed. She battled every day to overcome the feelings of depression as well as the broken heart she was carrying, but I do know the experience brought her closer to God. As we search for answers to the things that make us cry, we inevitably turn to Him with our questions and burdens. The experience was a reminder that God works according to His timetable, our faith in Him does not remove us from the pains of this world, and we’re called to grow in Him when times are tough.

We miss our Boo, Monkey, and Peppy.
We miss our Boo, Monkey, and Peppy.

Doctor, Doctor
On the human side, we had more doctor’s visits in 2015 than we care to admit. Daniel broke his finger and required surgery and rehab, Natalie sprained the MCL in her right knee and also required rehab, and Lee had surgery to fuse her L5 and S1 vertebrae. Even I, as a result of a sudden (and temporary) loss of hearing in my left ear, required an MRI of my head and several follow-ups.

We blew through our flexible spending account half-way through the year, but the moral of the story is the blessing of having an FSA to begin with, and having the resources in healthcare to tend to our family’s issues as they occurred. The blessing is paying only $25 per office visit as opposed to the alternative. In looking at the bill for my son’s surgery and comparing it to the amount for which we were responsible, I was flabbergasted to think how people go through life without any health insurance.

The Reminder
365 days ago, as I was ready to ring in 2015, I had no idea of how differently my life would be in one, short year. There were several other low and painful moments in the year, as well as tons of super-awesome moments I’ve failed to mention in this recap. Life is like that; ebb and flow, up and down, hot and cold. Yet through it all, the one constant in all our lives is the love God has for us. We meander on earth while He remains steadfast and faithful in Heaven.

In looking back at the tough times, I am able to see the blessings. In reliving the good times, I am able to feel His love for me. In looking ahead at the goals and dreams I pray align with His will, I do so without fear and in the confidence He will provide no matter what.

2015 was filled to the brim with blessings. These blessings, in turn, lead to surrender. Surrender, coupled with obedience and discipline, leads anew to continued blessings from God. And in that cycle is exactly where I want to be heading into 2016.

Thank you for enduring this verbose year-in-review, and I pray you have a joyous, happy, and safe new year. May God’s grace guide you in all you do.

Joshua

Not a Slam Dunk

Today we were in another sugar cane village. What set this one apart was that it had a park area, complete with a basketball court. Almost immediately we broke out into a game of 4 on 4 half-court with the kids from the village. I learned two things today: 1) Playing basketball in a leather fedora is never a good idea, and 2) My pastor has no problem rejecting a layup from a girl who measures five foot nothing.

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The basketball and the crafts and the finger nail painting and the many other activities we shared with the girls and boys of the village was our way of bring an interlude of joy and happiness into the lives of children who have next to nothing in their day to day. In an existence where running water is a luxury, babies meander in the road with no clothes, and girls are cast off as second class citizens, it was fulfilling to be able to deliver smiles and a certain sense of wonderment to those children.

Still, our mission was quite clear; to do our part to ensure eternity for those little souls. And it starts with sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It starts with literally reaching out to each and every child and inviting them to the house of God to hear someone’s testimony. It involves taking the time to share our stories and evangelize to others the grace God has displayed in our lives. Feed them the Word and they will be nourished. Nourish their souls, and they will be saved.

If only it were that easy.

It doesn’t take one time. It doesn’t take two times. It may take the fifth or tenth or fiftieth time for someone to finally hear God calling them and accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. It’s not enough for us to visit that village once, gift them with food, candy, and playtime, and expect them to all become Christ followers. It takes our team, and the team after us, and the team after that. It takes weeks, months, years of ministry. It takes a commitment from the church, the collection of Christians worldwide, to invest time, money, and love to bring the gospel to those who need it.

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And although these people with whom we interacted and shared today have a laundry list of physical needs, there is nothing they need more than Christ.

The analogy I use with my kids is imagine being invited to a party. Not just any party, but the most amazing, fun, insanely awesome party in the history of ever. Now imagine that the people you love and enjoy being with won’t be at the party with you. They have a chance to go, but they either don’t know about the party or simply have no interest in going. Wouldn’t you go to great lengths to tell them about the party? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to convince them to go?

To me, that’s what heaven is. An eternity of joy in paradise, a salvation not because of anything I did (Ephesians 2:9), but rather because I believe, acknowledge, and declare that Jesus died on the cross for me and is my Lord and savior.

It’s a never ending task because there is always one more person to reach and one more soul to lead towards salvation. And as I learned on this trip, it’s not my job to save souls. That is God’s duty. My job, as a follower of Christ, is to play my part in introducing others to the beauty of Jesus Christ, be it here in the Dominican Republic, back home in Tampa, or wherever it is I find myself.

And that is something I can do no problem.

“Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.'” -John 14:6

Empowered Through Him

God is great. God is all powerful. God loves to delegate.

So much time is spent questioning why God did or didn’t in our lives. So many people of faith speak counter to their convictions and challenge God because of the troubles in their lives or the lives of others.

My faith walk has taught me so much, one of which is the lyrics to the Matthew West song Do Something are so very true.

So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”

We are all called to serve in our own way. We are all called to make better for those around us. Be it in our office place, our schools, while in line at the grocery store; we are all empowered by Him to serve for Him.

I was fortunate to experience that today. As we visited Pasitos de Jesus, an orphanage for girls, there really wasn’t a whole lot for me to do, per se. My strong suit is not sitting at a table with little kids and doing crafts. I’m not exactly qualified to do the medical work other members of our team were performing. I am, however, capable of doing yard work and moving trash from here to there.

So with gardening sheers in hand, I set off to make a little bet the landscaping of the grounds of the orphanage. I was given a specific task; trim the hedges that line the wall. I didn’t have to pull the weeds or remove the dead limbs from the hedges, but since I was there already, I did. I didn’t have to pick up the trash that had accumulated at the bottom of the hedges, but I did anyway.

Later in the day we visited a village. We had previously purchased food to take and distribute to the members of that community. The plan was to give the individual a bag of food, have our team pray with them, and then continue with the distribution. As with most things in life, things don’t always exactly go as planned.

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As it turned out, many of the recipients, although grateful, did not want to have to wait in order to take advantage of the gifts they were given. With twenty five bags, the queue for prayer grew quickly. Some started to leave.

We have only one pastor, but we have a team full of ministers, and God implored me to not let these people go home without a blessing. I felt empowered to step up to the next person in line, place my hand on their shoulder, and pray with them.

The Holy Spirit provided the words, and the fact I was able to deliver them in Spanish made them, I believe, a little more comforting to those receiving them. Other members of our team followed suit. All of the sudden, there were pockets of prayer going on. There were huddles of church in the middle of a village in the Dominican Republic.

We didn’t have to think about it. We didn’t have to question it. All we had to do was act.

As believers, we’re called to do His will here on earth. We’re called to step out of our particular comfort zone and extend a hand to someone in need. Believing in Christ is wonderful, but simply having faith does not make us Christ followers.

“So you see, faith by itself is not enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” – Jame 2:17

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.

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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