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.
Advertisements

Project Gratitude – Servant Leader

Project Gratitude – Servant Leader

I was once in a management training program at work. The class was asked the question, “What is the difference between a manager and a leader?” The class was silent. I raised my hand and said with a half-chuckle, “a leader will take you to the top of the mountain. A manager will take the credit for getting there.” The instructor was amused – I think – and asked me where I learned that. Without hesitation I replied, “here.”

I’ve been in the corporate world since I graduated from college in 1994. In those 20+ years I’ve seen and worked with a wide variety of bosses, managers, and leaders. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the person who is an effective manager and also a natural leader is the exception to the norm. More rare than that are the servant leaders, those who are in positions of leadership and authority who also have no problem rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty with the people she or he leads.

Boss vs Leader

Today I am thankful for the Paul Wirth, the pastor of Relevant Church. Paul is a servant leader. Paul is not only willing, he is eager to get in and ‘do’ with the other members of the congregation. Paul leads by example. Paul is MY pastor.

I had an assignment for school regarding evangelism and discipleship, and how much of the annual budget is designated for such programs. Paul was willing to meet me this evening to discuss the assignment. We met at a Starbucks – Paul and I share an affinity for lattes – and after initial chit chat and mutual coffee sipping, we tackled the assignment.

I thought the discussion would be mostly in the realm of finances, with me perusing spreadsheets and other planning documents used by Relevant. Instead, Paul took a deep breath and proceeded to explain. “Everything a church does has something to do with evangelism and discipleship, because that is why the church exists,” he said. He went on to further outline how every ministry within Relevant is aligned with evangelism and discipleship in some shape, way, or form. Everything Relevant Church does has to do with sharing the Gospel and having people take their next steps in relationship with Christ.

Paul Wirth
Paul Wirth – Lead Pastor at Relevant Church

Having been a member of Relevant since 2009, I can attest how true his words are. Relevant, in all it does, is aligned with Paul’s vision of teaching every person to love Christ with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Not only am I thankful for Paul and his willingness to take time out of his day to meet with me, I am so grateful for being able to be a part of Relevant Church. Relevant is my spiritual home, and the people with whom I get to share my Jesus journey are my family. It truly is a blessing to do life with them.

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 – A Jarring Experience

Project Gratitude – A Jarring Experience

As an avid Facebook user, I had stumbled across the idea of a gratitude jar many times. Usually, it was in the form of this image:

Gratitude Jar

I thought it would be something fun to do, but then my lazy kicked in and the idea of finding just the right jar and keeping little pieces of paper handy seemed to be waaaaay too much effort. (As an aside, I have a PhD in “Can’t be bothered.”)

Then I realized my blog would be the perfect substitute for the jar. I am always in front of my laptop (or phone, or other laptop, or tablet, or yet still other laptop), and I can keep my ‘jar’ up to date even when I travel or run out of ink or can’t be bothered to find more little pieces of paper. Besides, this method is also good for the environment.

So here we go. Project Gratitude. Three hundred and sixty-five days of Thanksgiving.

Today, I am grateful for no hangover. Lee and I were in bed not long after midnight. No crazy parties. No voracious drinking. We watched Ohio State get destroyed in the Fiesta Bowl (#bonus), then called it a night shortly after the New Year.

I am grateful for being a part of the social media team at my church.

Yep, I was responsible for this tweet. 

I am grateful that we were invited to the birthday party of our friend’s daughter Eisley. Although my days of being invited to little kids’ birthday parties are long since gone, it was great to be with our friends from church. We got to meet new people, two of which are hosting a growth group on wellness and nutrition, something Lee and I want to better focus on this year. Besides, how can you resist this precious girl who just loves dinosaurs?

Eisley

Persevering Through Him and For Him

Persevering Through Him and For Him

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:

Which one of the Beatitudes is most meaningful to you and why? 


In the spirit of full disclosure, this is not the prompt for November 7 for #NaBloPoMo16. Today’s prompt (What was your worst Thanksgiving food fail?) was a bit on the yawn side, so my wife Lee and I decided to go with our own prompt for our blog posts.

Lee and I started on our respective faith walks together back in 2009. One week after getting married, we began attending Relevant Church in Tampa. Relevant has been our home ever since, and I cannot properly express how much each of us have grown over the last seven years.

Walking in faith and with Christ has transformed our lives. It’s changed the way we give, the way we vacation, and it’s most definitely changed the way we plan for the future (Lee and I hope to transition to full-time mission work in the next three to four years). As someone whose been blogging since 2004, my faith has also changed the way I write.

So it was no surprise when Lee suggested we write about the Beatitudes. Writing in a non-secular arena has become second nature to both of us, and it allows us to explore our relationship with Christ from a different perspective. It’s one thing to share your faith story with someone verbally. After all, we all speak in rough draft. But when you’re writing, you have the ability to edit, research, ponder, and – when you’re really stuck – delete.

delete-button

I love writing about my faith, and I see it as a part of my current vocation. I view it as an opportunity to use the gift God has given me as a writer to bring glory to Him and to bring others closer to Christ. I can only pray that someone who is seeking His love and mercy may stumble across my blog and use it as a vehicle to grow closer to God.

But written ministry is not always about ‘Likes’ and positive feedback in the comments section. There is an inherent risk of not applying sound theology in my work. There is a risk of alienating someone because my understanding and belief in Scripture contradicts their personal worldview. From a broader perspective, there is always a risk in sharing Christ with others because there are so many questions people may have, so many arguments skeptics may make, and so many allusions cynics may cast. In layman’s terms, it ain’t always easy.

It’s not supposed to be easy.

We are called to press forward in faith. We are called not only to step, but to leap out of our comfort zones for the benefits of others. We’re called to go out on a limb for Christ because he suffered and died on a limb for us.

Dealing with people who for whatever reasons reject God and belief and religion can, at best, be awkward and clumsy. At worst, it can be downright painful. As an example, my wife and I struggled to answer this simple question early in our faith walk:

“You mean if I live a good life and am a good person, that’s not enough to get into Heaven?”

Lee and I knew what the right answer is (it’s no, by the way*), but we didn’t know how to properly communicate it. We weren’t well versed in Scripture (we still aren’t really; it’s a daily process), and we fumbled our way through a conversation that quickly evolved into an argument. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, and at the end of it all we lost a friendship. Still, we knew in our hearts we wanted to/needed to stay true to His Word, and we used that experience as a foundation to work and be better prepared for the next tough question that was sure to come.

In the three and a half years since that moment, I like to think we’ve stayed true to that commitment. So when I read the Beatitudes and get to the eighth and final one – Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – it strikes a chord in my heart. Part of evangelizing the Word God is giving the love and then taking the lumps others may give in return.

It’s not supposed to be easy, but it does get a little easier every time.

 

*I firmly believe it is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we are granted salvation. This is repeated throughout Scripture.
     John 3:16
     John 14:6
Acts 16:30-31
Romans 6:23
Romans 10:9-10
Ephesians 2:8-9


nablopomo

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.

20161102_223401


nablopomo

Faith Run

I hate running. I love it, but I hate it. In a lot of ways, it’s like writing. The best way of saying it is, I enjoy the feeling of having run, but I do not enjoy the actual running itself.

I was a pretty decent runner in high school. I could run a 5k in under 17 minutes, and I was a relatively big fish in a very small pond. I stopped running when I went to college. I was not competitive against the opponents I faced. Instantly, I was a very small fish in very giant ocean. It was disheartening. It was demoralizing. It was defeating.

Running at Tulane University, soooooo many pounds ago.
Running at Tulane University, soooooo many pounds ago.

Fast forward twenty-five years and my desire to keep a promise I made to myself when I turned forty; to run a marathon by the time I am forty-five. So after sitting on that life goal for almost three years, I decided last Fall to start running again.

Did I mention I hate running?

In high school, I had a lot less mass on my frame to hold me down. Six-minute miles are easier to run when you’re susceptible of being knocked over by a strong gust of wind. Today, I have a more intimate relationship with gravity, and downward force is significantly less compatible with forward momentum. In summary, it’s a challenge to find the joy of running compared to pressing through the pain of running. But there are moments, in my experience, when there is the right mix of endorphins and environment that allow that joy of running to come to the surface.

When I picked up running again last Fall, my goal was to run in the Gasparilla 5K in February. I installed the Couch to 5K app on my phone, and it was the perfect trainer for getting in shape to go literally from no running to completing a 3.1 mile race.

When you start out with CT5K, the initial workouts are simple: A five minute warm-up (brisk walk), run for one minute, walk for a minute and a half, repeat over twenty minutes, and conclude with a five minute cool down. Looking back, that workout seems so simple, but it was quite the challenge when I started.

As the workouts progress over the weeks, you get to a point where the run is a ten minute run. I remember the first time I reached that point, and how I thought to myself there was absolutely no way I could continuously run for ten minutes. This morning, I ran the longest I’ve run since the Bush administration (Senior, not Dubya). Four miles, fifty-one minutes, no stopping. Again, looking back to mid-December when I was starting my CT5K program, the idea of running for nearly an hour without stopping seemed – no, WAS – impossible.

After having put in the initial work, grinding the first and second gears of the process, I can set out for longer distances and quicker mile splits. Don’t get me wrong, it still sucks. I was dying when I finished that fourth mile. My hips were aching. My calves were on fire. My breathing could’ve probably landed me a job on a 900-line. I was exhausted and I was in pain, but I did it.

Nike+

And this is almost exactly paralleled with the faith journey I began anew in 2009. I look back and see the growth I’ve experienced in my relationship with Christ since Lee and I began attending Relevant Church the week after we returned from our honeymoon. I look at some of the spiritual challenges I faced transitioning from a ‘completed Catholic’ to someone attending a non-denominational Christian church. I think about some of the the theological hurdles I had to clear in the early days of my new journey, and how easy they appear to me now even though they were really hard at the time.

It’s a process. It takes time.

longroad

I still face theological challenges and areas of growth in my faith. This is especially true since I am a student in Bible College. However, I am better equipped to face them. It can be said I am more ‘fit’ to address these challenges than I was seven years ago. Sermon after sermon, chapter after chapter, verse after verse, mile after mile; we build on the experiences we choose to undertake, even when some of those experiences are not so good along the way.

If you’re new to your faith, remember it’s okay to walk where others are running. If you’re a marathoner with Christ, remember that most of us are still working on building our spiritual endurance. But wherever you may find yourself on your faith journey, take pride in the fact that your on your way. Rejoice in the knowledge God loves you, and He is always by your side.

“Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless.” – Philippians 2:16 NLT