A Friend in the Bargain

“No photos.  No photos.”  She waved her hand dismissively at Matt, shooing away his Canon.  Up and down the cobblestone street stalls overflowed with colorful Guatemalan bargains.  But here was something new: a lady and her loom, actually making one.  Having more time than quetzales just then, Matt broke out his basic Spanish.  Her name was Manuela.  It wasn’t that she was camera-shy, she just understood the value of the unique scene she made amidst a repetitive market.  In an economy that earned her something like $8 for a 15-hour table runner, sitting fees traveled the other direction.  He watched her weave bright threads and pack them down firmly with a smooth stick, each motion quick and sure from long practice.

¿Cuantos?” he asked her, smiling, “How much?”  In amiable fashion, the bargaining commenced.  She pointed to her Pepsi bottle, “10.  I need to buy food and drink for my family.”  He pointed to his pocket, “I only have 8.  I would like to show your picture to my wife.  She loves the color blue.”  They chatted more about the topics within reach of his language skills: the number of children they had and how long it took to make her wares.  Eventually she consented, softened by his good nature and the evidence that his wallet was being honest about it’s contents.  For about a dollar and some courtesy, he gained a beautiful picture and made a memory that will outlast everything else we bought that trip– a connection with another culture, a friend made in the bargain.

Manuela's Loom

Costa Rica by way of Guatemala–Part 2

Our first taste of Guatemala stretched my comfort zone beyond North American norms.  Global missions were no longer just something for other people to do, they were our hands getting dirty, our arms around precious children.  We saw God move in teams and through them, and we could not get enough of it.  Holding onto 1 Samuel 30:24’s promise that the rewards of victory are shared between the ones who go out and the ones who stay to guard the camp, we supported others as they served in the nations and took more trips ourselves whenever the Lord led us.  Over the course of two 10-day men’s teams (one where I went along to help save the guys from their own cooking) and a 4-week family stay, we saw that the Spirit had our compass pointed steadily toward the Home of Life in Costa Rica.  We connected with the children and grown-up people there in a way that made us family.  Although always excited to go and give my all, I still appreciated being able to come back again afterwards for things like paychecks and doctor appointments.

God spoke to Matt again in the fall of 2008, calling our family to pursue full-time ministry there in the land of rainforests, to host teams and do life with the people we loved.  Matt had his arms wide open, waiting for the fulfillment of the promise.  Expecting the third wonderful addition to our family in the coming spring, I was again in a “no reception zone.”  As Ezekiel learned how to sleep through the night and tottered his first steps, the Lord Himself took up the “can you hear me now?” process, gradually bringing up my volume level.  There was a lot of change to acclimate to, where I had been content with the status quo.  Over the months He reminded me of all the ways I had been prepared for this calling, of the hope to fully go and serve that I didn’t even admit to myself.  But still it was hard to release the life I already knew to take our family into the unknown.

We thought it was a celestial joke when Matt and I were asked to lead a team to Guatemala in the summer of 2011, and friends who had served for months at a time in Guatemala took their team to Costa Rica.  A divine episode of trading spaces?  Ministry swap?  Definitely humorous, but profoundly powerful.  Our first impression upon returning to Guatemala after five years away was a longing for the tiny cabina and the other brown eyes on our hearts.  Sharing new experiences with our team, God’s work surrounding us, and the dear people of Guatemala were all a delight.  We coiffed hair with sparkly barrettes and shared a nonverbal gospel skit in two mountain villages, jumped off of cliffs into the river pool with the children, blew bubbles across hillsides, played soccer (badly), and hemmed pajama pants.  We roared with laughter at one person’s mistaken purchase of a beer rather than the soda she wanted from a gas station, the transformation of another person from reserved to gregarious at 8:00 p.m. each evening, and the daylong comedic stylings of our team humorist.  We rallied around one team member as she stepped into her gift of prophetic insight and another as she became comfortable with praying aloud in a group.  But we knew with certainty that Costa Rica was the focal point of God’s plan for us.

Spending time with Norm and Vickie Sutton, the missionaries who host teams at the Home of Life in Guatemala, was the pinnacle of the trip for me.  We knew them affectionately from that first trip back in 2006, and wanted to hear more about their recent launch to serve full-time. It wasn’t hard to spot the divine setup.  Their testimony with its difficulties and encouragement harmonized with the Lord’s persistent whisper in my heart.  I was undone by the clarity of the 5-bar signal.  If the Lord was so faithful to them as they walked this path, He would be faithful to us.  Tears flowed.  I surrendered my “no”–the desire to stay in the predictable security of our life in the States–and gave the Lord my “I will.”  Change my heart again, Lord, to want what You want.  The trust fall began.

The creativity of the one who made the flowers and the heavens still amazes me.  Only He would use a trip to Guatemala to spark the pilot light on our calling to Costa Rica, and then 5 years later, ignite the burner in those same mountains.  “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” Proverbs 16:9.   What a privilege to see what He will use that fire to refine in us and inspire in others over the next 5 years.

Costa Rica by way of Guatemala–Part 1

Learning the Windows 8 operating system has reminded me of some of my as-yet-unredeemed character traits.  When things don’t work the way I expect them to–or don’t work at all–I can get my grumble on.   It’s easy to assume that if something isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, it’s a Windows 8 glitch (of which there are many).  I spent days irritated at the lack of sound on my laptop’s video application before Matt discovered that the volume default was set to mute.

Similarly, back in 2006, my spiritual ear was set on mute with regard to global missions.  Matt went a gentle nine rounds with my “no” when the Lord spoke to him about the two of us serving in Guatemala that summer.  Who would take care of our kids for 10 days?  How would it feel to leave them for so long?  Where would the funds come from?  Would we need shots?  It was all just too messy to pursue.  Grumble.  Exasperated with the direction I couldn’t hear, I eventually went to the source and huffed out a “Lord!”  His still, small voice asked me, “Do you want My way or your way?”  My heart squinched up it’s little face, balled it’s fists, and proclaimed, “I want MY way!”  Then, knowing where that rebellion would lead in the end, my self-righteousness deflated.  I repented.  That moment I became close friends with a prayer that has changed my life over the years since, and will surely serve me well the rest of my days: “Lord, help me to want what You want.  Help me to want Your way.

We signed on for the trip and I emotionally muscled my way through the first meeting.  Over nachos with the leaders after the second gathering, I enjoyed a revelation with my queso:  this was going to be a lot of fun.  So I put my shoulder to the yoke, and we got busy.  Letters written, Psalm 91 prayed, skirts scored via Goodwill, vaccinations updated, culture-adjustment book read, and a lot of laughter shared.  The Lord overwhelmed us with encouragement and provision–enough to pay all of our expenses and another team member’s as well.  As we lingered over goodbyes at their grandparents’ house, our children were eager to begin the special time with people they loved.  Our then 4-year old daughter gently took my hand and interrupted the conversation with a loving, “I want you to go now.”  All cleared for takeoff.

We set off on the trip that opened our lives to serve beyond the box of our language,  culture, and comfort.  Many lessons were learned: how to brush your teeth with bottled water, how to pace yourself during days filled with activity, how to tailor four formal dresses with a few needles and a lot of God-inspired creativity, how to look around for the hot water knob in the shower <shiver>, how to be content with your assignment and not covet your husband’s, how to NEVER AGAIN drink a large shake before a 3-hour restroom-less drive up the mountain.

We could see the impact of our love and effort.  Four young ladies were celebrated at a beautiful coming of age quinceañera (fifteenth birthday fiesta).  A developmentally delayed baby girl made so much progress than Matt had to credit the Lord’s goodness rather than his own physical therapy skills.  The local women were treated to an afternoon tea complete with spa treatments, gifts, and a time of worship where the Lord spoke to them about uniting in spirit despite their different congregations.  The courtyard wall shared with the town’s prosperous witch doctor was fortified with prayer.

And perhaps most important of all, my heart grew.  It occurred to me for the first time that English might not be God’s favorite language.  I fell in love with the brilliant colors and stoic expressions of people who lived in a simplicity I had never considered before, with the beauty of mountains and cultures that I had yet to ascend.

Common Cowardice

Last spring, as I was considering the magnitude of changes our family is embracing, the Lord did a sweet work of encouragement that made for a poignantly vibrant Full Heart Moment.  A copy of Marcia Moston’s book, Call of a Coward, came into my hands and drew me into the story of someone just like me who had been called to serve with her family out in the nations.   I was eager to walk alongside her struggles and triumphs as she traveled the path the Lord set before her, much of it riddled with pot holes, sharp drop-offs, and breathtaking views.

Lady walking in San AndresAs the pages turned, I began to wonder if she had lived in the same village that we had traveled to for mission work in 2006 and 2011.  Then Tim drove up on his three-wheeler, and there was no doubt.  I was treated not only to laughter and lessons pondered with a new friend, but with old ones, too,  as Marcia’s story twined with the Stromstad family during the early years of the Home of Life in Guatemala.  Hugging them all from my reading chair was a warm sunbeam of hope and joy in a season that had been looking rather gray.

Out of the overflow of the heart, this person writes.  My post, Full Heart Moment, was the fountain, dashed off contentedly in the quiet hours when the rest of the house was sleeping.  Basking in the Lord’s encouragement through the book and the satisfaction of a completed post, I assumed the blessing was complete.  Then Marcia Moston herself commented on TheGoodNewsFamily, and we traded emails in the days following.

When the Lord desires to do a work, the ripples often travel further than we can see.  Marcia was also touched by the common places and faces we loved, and wrote about how she discovered the connection in her post Counting the Cost on her blog.  As our family explored the grocery store in Costa Rica this summer, translating the ingredients to make meals in our cabina, she posted an interview with me, God is Able to Turn a Woman’s Heart about our calling and the way the Lord coaxed me back under the wing of His plans for our future.  I’m amazed by and grateful for her kind support of our family’s journey and for the way she is helping me overcome my own fears by the word of her testimony in her book and her blog.

Through the Front Gate, Guatemala

And that is the essence of why I write, spending hours playing with words and tinkering with nuances: yes, so that I can express my heart, but more so that the Lord might use it to be an encouragement to someone else in the steps of their walk with Him.  When we share our stories with their difficulties and victories, faith is multiplied and our common cowardice becomes a stepping stone rather than a barrier.

“They overcame. . .by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony;” Revelation 12:11a

Full Heart Moment

My heart is full tonight.  The last two months have been a flurry of activity.  Remodeling the kitchen, preparing children’s items from our stockpile to sell at a consignment sale, finishing up the school year, fighting a three week cold, doing some long runs in training for the Lincoln Half Marathon, and discovering pinterest (oy vey).    It’s all added up to a big case of weary.  In a quiet afternoon of leisure at my in-laws’ pond a few weeks ago, with the sun shining down and the warmth of comraderie all around me, my heart suddenly felt a pang.  I was leaving this.  And a season of counting the cost began.

Okay, Lord, let’s do this.   Time with our parents while they are healthy and strong.  Sundays and Wednesdays with our life giving, passionately worshiping church.  Snowy Christmases with family and my mom’s signature dumplings and sauerkraut.  A predictable income.  The love, sweat, and tears poured into our home and gardens.  Game nights and birthday gatherings with friends and loved ones.  The confidence of knowing the language spoken in the streets.  And so on.

But just like the Lord, He had encouragement and joy waiting in the wings.  Call of a Coward, the book I had forgotten I’d asked to borrow, was placed into my hands, the transparent story of someone like me who followed the Lord out into the unknown.  So tonight, from the comfort of my reading chair, I was able to walk down streets in Guatemala, watch soccer matches in Costa Rica, and hug dear ones out in the nations from afar.  Tonight my heart is full with all that the Lord has in store for us.  The cost is real, but so is the blessing of trusting him more fully.