It had been a frustrating week for me. I was in Vietnam with a media team for several days to gather as many stories as we could. We worked hard; spending our days and nights trying to sink into the culture; to come awash in the Vietnamese context so that we might go home having crossed the threshold from typical tourist to “This isn’t what most visitors experience.” But no matter how hard we tried, every day we wound up in a typical tourist trap. Everyone spoke English, and every place had a gift shop. I was discouraged, and I had surrendered to the fact that I was leaving Vietnam having failed to accomplish what I had hoped to.
On the final day of our trip, our guides for that day called the hotel and told us to meet them at a nearby coffee house. A few hours later, all three of them pulled up to the coffee house on motor scooters. We were instructed to jump on back and hold on. We spent the entire morning on the backs of scooters, jetting from one side of Hanoi to the other; weaving in and out of the chaos. We darted through residential neighborhoods, past shops and into parts of town that were not meant for outsiders. Our guides showed us where locals shop and eat. They took us to the places where they go with friends and family. It was obvious that the best way to experience Hanoi is on the back of a scooter.
Finally, our guides treated us to the the best meal of the entire twelve-day trip. Upstairs in a small restaurant, sitting on the floor, overlooking the bustling streets of North Vietnam, we were served traditional dishes of chicken and pork. But the pièce de résistance was the sauteed crickets with chilis and greens. They were delicious.
We flew out that night feeling like we finally found the Vietnam we went in search of; the Vietnam we nearly missed.
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul writes that he is deeply thankful to God for the lasting friendships he has developed through his ministry in the gospel. He acknowledges that God himself ordained these relationships and that only God can be given the credit for these life-giving friendships. God began the work and can be trusted that he will complete the work in each and every one of us.
Paul was in prison when he wrote this. I suspect he struggled greatly with loneliness as he was separated from his friends and colaborers in the faith. I imagine that Paul missed many things, but loneliness is often hardest when you have no one with whom to share your burdens. The strengthened faith that comes with the encouragement of like-minded friends is priceless.
How did Paul deal with this? He did not focus on his circumstances, or wallow in his own despair. Instead he wrote these joyful words to the church at Philippi. Often Paul used his own words to preach to himself. I wonder if this could have been one of those moments.
I am no Paul, but I have definitely experienced great loneliness. I also have those God-ordained friendships in my life. Who are those people? Do I act as if those relationships were forged by God? Have I told those friends what they mean to me? And do I actively strive to be part of the good work in their hearts so that it will one day come to completion through Jesus?
What are some ways that you can work toward God-honoring friendships today? How can you develop new relationships that reflect the good work of Christ in your life?
Not all journeys lead to mountaintops. There are those that take you lower than you ever wanted – quests that begin by stepping into a void of loneliness, away from the warmth and glow of familiarity. The farther you go from what you know, the flames of home grow dimmer. A hard rain falls. The roll of thunder and rustle of wind surround you with whispers of doubt. “Have I been forgotten? Will this darkness ever end? When will I ever hear something more than deafening silence?” Looking around in the dark of night, stumbling with each uneasy step, the whisper becomes an audible voice.
“Welcome to the valley of the shadow.”
I cannot tell you how long this journey will last. I can’t promise that you will make it out unscathed. But I know that in the darkest of nights, above the angry clouds that pour rains of despair upon your head, there is light. Just because you cannot see it, does not mean it is not there. The clouds will break, soon enough. It is so bright that darkness cannot hold it back. Look up. Take heart. Keep going. Though you walk through this valley, you can rest easy knowing that the light is coming.
The Radical Together Podcast is a teaching podcast that I produced for David Platt’s resource ministry. In this episode, I sat down with David to discuss his ministry, his family, and in his new role as the President of the IMB.
Arc Stories featured one of my stories in a recent podcast. It is about the intruder who broke into my family’s home in the middle of the night when I was thirteen. My story is the first one at the top of the podcast.
Sun up in Hanoi – The streets are quiet, save a few vendors en route to what seems like impromptu street markets. We file out of the door of our hotel into a van and take off for the countryside. Crossing the muddy brown Song Hong River, the city fades in the rearview. Replacing concrete, power lines, and people are near-neon green rice fields. A few hours later, we begin climbing into the hills of Northern Vietnam.
This place was once where the enemy lived. As an American, I would have been a dead man only a few decades ago. We dropped bombs on parts of this area. Stories of napalm, Agent Orange, and bombing campaigns echo off the limestone cliffs, through the valley’s, and along the riverbanks.
As we pull off the road in a small village, our guide points us to a path. Walking beside a bubbling brook, past stilted, wooden houses, the path opens up into a rice field, flanked by more homes. On the far end of the rice field, a bamboo flagpole stands tall. Atop waves the pride of Vietnam, the red and yellow flag, symbolizing the blood and skin color of the people of this country. At the bottom of the pole, a large, curiously shaped metal bell. It catches my eye and I have to get a closer look. Our host, smiling ear to ear, gathers a piece of bamboo and strikes the bell, letting out a long, deep gong. She giggles and hits the bell several more times; which apparently becomes funnier each time. As I stand there, I realize what I am looking at. It is a dismantled, unexploded ordinance. The villagers hollowed it out, hung it up, and repurposed it as a bell. They have converted something meant for destruction and violence, into something innocent and fun. Now, American and Vietnamese stand together, ringing the bell…laughing with each strike.
I was not on the other side of the planet; I was only a few hours from my house, actually. I was on my first trip into the Sierra Tarahumara, home to indigenous people like the Raramuri, the Tepehuán, and the Pima. In a half-day drive, I was out of the metroplex of a million-plus people, and in villages where there was often no electricity or running water. The people heat their homes with the wood burning stoves on which they cook their meals. They plant their fields with a mule and plow like we see in old westerns. They grind their corn on millstones, make their own clothing, weave their own baskets, and worship mystic gods. The people of the Sierra Tarahumara are of another time, and when I was introduced to these people, my world became massive.
My time spent in those dry, dusty, weathered mountains shaped the way I understand the world. It was there that I forged friendships that will last an eternity. I spent the night stranded on the side of the road due to a busted water pump in the vehicle. I swam in the pools of both the Basaseachi and Cusarare waterfalls. I winter camped with a friend in a valley and we had to heat the tent with a piece of sandstone warmed by the campfire. I helped build a rammed-earth home for some friends in the remote town of Maycoba. I rode in the back of rickety pick-ups into villages where the people only speak the indigenous language. I helped slaughter, skin, and butcher goats to feed an entire village of Raramuri. I sat on the cliffs over-looking the town of Creel on New Years Eve. I could hear automatic gunfire through the region as drug cartels celebrated the new year. I jumped off the Peguis Canyon walls into the depths of the Rio Conchos. I got stranded for twenty-four hours in a blizzard in Cuauhtemoc. I helped build a solar powered aquaponics greenhouse in San Luis de Majimachi. I helped put the roof on a cabin where a Dutch man lives to this day.
I was fourteen when the Sierra Tarahumara first grabbed me. I was last there just over a year ago, and it has yet to let go of me.
I was honored when Lifeline Children’s Services asked me to write this piece, leading up to Father’s Day 2015. I am forever grateful to Lifeline for the support and care they gave us as we worked to bring our daughter home from China. Most of all, I’m so thankful for Lifeline’s unabashed commitment to Gospel centered orphan care all over the world.
January 11th of this year was an incredible day for my wife, Amy, and me. We barely slept the night before, as we were both wired with anticipation and anxiety about meeting our daughter for the first time: How will the day play out? How much would she cry? Would all the games, toys, and snacks be enough to win her over?
I practiced my goofy dances and funny faces. Meanwhile, Amy prepared the diaper bag and made sure everything was in place before that moment when we would officially become a family of three. Adoption day came and went in a glorious, joyful, tear-filled blur. Thus began my journey in fatherhood.
When I think back on the weeks immediately after bringing Emery home from China, I remember difficult times when it was clear that she had not spent much time around men. She quickly understood Amy’s role in her life, but she struggled to understand who and what I was to her. She didn’t want me to feed or dress her. She wouldn’t call me daddy. She refused to come to me when I wanted to read her a book or play with her. She certainly didn’t take correction from me. If I took something away from her, her response was to try to take it back. She didn’t accept “no” from me and she wouldn’t come to me when she needed things.
I struggled during those weeks. I had prepared for those moments intellectually but, emotionally, I was at a loss as to what I should do. Never in my life would I have imagined that I so badly wanted to change a poopy diaper, but I did. And, I wanted Emery to want me to do those things for her. Then, gently and lovingly, Amy reminded me that my job was to win over the affections of my daughter—that in my headlong pursuit to love Emery, she would come around. I remember feeling silly for not thinking of that myself. Of course, that’s what I was supposed to do. Of course, she needed to see that I was safe and trustworthy. As I began to intentionally win over Emery, I realized what a picture of the gospel I was seeing played out. You see, Emery didn’t understand that everything I was doing was out of love and care for her. She had no idea that I had her in mind for months as I planned and prepared to make her my daughter forever. She couldn’t see that my correction was for her good, and she didn’t know that I was intentionally pursuing her in hopes that one day she would fall in love with me. Her inability to see those truths didn’t make her any less my daughter, nor did it make me any less her father.
Over time, Emery began to laugh more with me. She trusted me enough to let me feed her, or put her to bed. She stopped crying when Amy would leave the room, and I was put on full-time poopy diaper duty. Then, one night as I arrived home from work and walked through the front door, I was met by the cutest, loudest squeak of a shout, “Daddy!!!” It seems that I may have finally won over my daughter, and I want to continue to win her affections as she grows and matures. I praise God for what He has shown me along the way.
As Father’s Day approaches, I want to encourage dads to see the importance of pursing your children. Find special ways that you can connect with you child and go hard after his or her heart. Not only will you love the bond you are creating with your child, but you are also showing them a picture of how Jesus pursued us long before we ever understood that we were His. He chose to win us over and open our eyes to His perfect love. As a result, we love because He first loved us.
A few weeks ago, I was honored to be a part of Arc Stories. If you aren’t familiar with Arc Stories, it is a live storytelling event in Birmingham and it is easily one of the most fun things I’ve ever had the privilege of doing. Then, on Christmas night, WBHM 90.3 aired the first ever Arc Stories Radio show. As if I wasn’t flattered enough to get to be a part of the original event, I was floored, and a little frightened, when I found out that people would be listening to me tell my story on the radio.
Listen to the whole Arc Stories Radio Show:
Let me be clear, more than anything I want to brag about the amazing job that my friends at Arc Stories do along with WBHM 90.3. Am I proud that they used my story? Sure. But that radio show is loaded with great stories from so many people. I was honored to be a part of a great event and an incredible radio show. Please follow, like, link up and whatever else you can with Arc Storiesand WBHM. They do amazing work and they deserve a ton of fans. Also, you should go to an Arc Light event and maybe…just maybe…you should tell a story. They pretty much let any schmuck get up there and talk. I’m proof of that.
I often refer to my stories as “Iguanas in the Drinking Water.” That is sort of a working title to a collection of short vignettes that I like to tell. Those stories are an expression of how my worldview was formed. This is the story behind the name., “Iguanas in the Drinking Water.”
Life in Southern Mexico was beginning to feel very normal. Few things caught us off guard anymore. We learned how to roll with the punches; to just accept that we were living in a part of the world where life didn’t look like the one we left behind in Texas.
Our house stood tall off of the street, partially dug into a hillside. It was only two stories, but the home felt like a skyscraper the way it towered over Avenida Resujimiento. A stone’s-throw away, across the street, past the train tracks was the Gulf of Mexico. We would sit on the cement bench on our rooftop in the evenings and watch the shrimping and fishing vessels drift in and out of port. Just above our home on the hilltop, and down the street a few hundred feet stood two, ominous bastions of the Spanish Armada. The Campechanos call them Baluartes, or bulwarks. These forts were built shortly after Columbus discovered the new world. Intricately constructed from limestone, lined with canons and alcoves for guards to post lookout, the sun-bleached walls now stood as memorials to the past. I literally lived among the proud, rich, violent history of Campeche. By this time, however, the allure and fascination of this living history was lost on me. I was no longer impressed by any of it. This was just home.