November-December 2006 Newsletter

Dear Friends,

My September 2005 Newsletter revealed to you my fascination with dragonflies.  These most ancient creatures are quite amazing.  The species survives from the era when dinosaurs walked the earth, and despite their delicate-looking wings and unwieldy-looking bodies, they fly faster than any other insect, reaching speeds of 53 miles per hour.

No, I’m no entomologist.  But a few years ago a string of events did combine to cause me to settle upon the dragonfly as my little nature link to God, if you will.  Call me crazy if you want, but I’m not ashamed to confess to you here, I actually made a little pact with God.  “If you ever want to get my attention,” I proffered, “just send a dragonfly, and I’ll know it’s you.”  Since then, they’ve shown up in the most amazing ways…

November 17, 2006 found me basking in the Central American sunshine at Hotel Pacifica Paradiso—truly a paradise on the Pacific Coast of El Salvador.  My hardy group of ten from Living Water Church in Knoxville, and our hosts, Pastor Esau, and his son, Aaron, had managed to carve six precious leisure hours from our otherwise packed seven days of work bringing much-needed hope to the sweet town of Chinameca.

The town of El Cuco where we were enjoying the beautiful beach is dangerously close to the equator—at least for a handful of sun-starved Tennesseans—but like a moth to the flame, I couldn’t resist soaking up as many rays as possible.  Three of my group lounged in the pool in the shade of nearby coconut palms, but I remained out of the shade, in the ninety-four degree heat, my feet dangling over the side of the pool in the clear water…lost in thought.

Those of you who read my newsletters know I’d just posted a rather lengthy edition shortly before departing on this mission trip.  At the time, it had seemed quite complete.  I couldn’t imagine what I might possibly have added to more accurately describe for you my deeply held beliefs…about life…about our destiny.  I even remember thinking, “If for some reason I don’t make it back from El Salvador, with this newsletter I’ve said everything I need to say.”  A detailed description of the steps we must take in order to choose our legacy and control our destiny, it did feel complete.  Yet here only a handful of days later, I shockingly found myself questioning it…maybe not all of it…but definitely part of it.

Each time I make one of these pilgrimages, I always go with an open-mind and expectancy for the story this place, its inhabitants, and my teammates will reveal to me.  And just as in every other occasion, that story had come to me on my last day there.  But as I sat gazing over the end of the pool, through the lush vegetation in the beachfront gardens, to the blue waves crashing on the white sand, I was hesitating.  Could this really be the message I was sent here to receive?  I wondered.

Were these thoughts I was having now actually calling into question the message I’d posted only recently—the message I believed to be so complete…so perfect?  How much of it was now in question?  Some of it?  All of it?

I didn’t want to accept this challenge, and I racked my brain to recall each word of my October Newsletter, as I stared blankly into the shimmering pool.  I wasn’t really looking at anything in particular…my vision sort of disintegrated into a bright blur…and I asked the question, “Is that it?  Was the October message simply not completed?”

And there it was.  Right in front of me.  It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.  A single dragonfly…the only one I’d seen on the entire trip.  As my eyes quickly focused, it hovered there a foot or so above the water—just buzzing there, holding its position in one place—and I could have sworn it was looking me right in the eye.  Then it turned and in a split second was gone again.

I dropped my head and chuckled, then with the smile still on my face looked back out at the ocean.  “Okay,” I thought.  “I heard you.”  And I knew then the lesson from El Salvador that I would share with you this month…

 Riding the Waves

By: Rhonda Jones

The hotel called it paradise, this endless stretch of soft white sand at Playa de El Cuco, only minutes from the small, remote fishing village, and as I stood in the amazingly warm Pacific waters looking back at the southeastern El Salvadorian coast, I had to agree.  It sure felt like paradise.

Beyond the white sand, littered with the largest sand dollars I’ve ever seen, the vegetation was a vivid hue of greens, yellows, and reds.  Towering palms swayed against the backdrop of the volcanic mountain ranges in the distance.  It was breathtaking.

The red and yellow surf-warning flags stood at attention in the hot, easterly breeze, but I didn’t feel any danger.  I’d already walked out so far the folks back on the beach looked like midgets and yet my feet still easily touched the bottom in the chest- to shoulder-deep waters.  The surf was up, no doubt, and wave after wave rolled in without a respite.  But nothing could have kept me out of these waters.  I was the first one in from our group of twelve.  And as I stood there alone, with the warm waters washing over me, I reflected on the week we’d just experienced in El Salvador.

Each morning we rose early to the tantalizing aroma of the hungry-man breakfast prepared for us from scratch by members of Pastor Esau’s Baptist church in Chinameca and his sweet wife, Loida.  We were all housed in their home, which had years ago been renovated by Americans like us to include, in addition to the family’s living quarters and enclosed courtyard, four bathrooms and bedrooms containing bunks for visiting mission teams.

Esau had planned and publicized a week-long crusade to be held in the town square and led by our pastor, Randy Sparks.  We’d brought suitcases filled with medicine and first aid supplies, clothing, toys, candy, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and personal hygiene products.  But our mission was clear—to personally invite as many as possible to the evening crusade.  So each day after we gobbled down breakfast and finished our devotions, we climbed on the back of the local pharmacy’s truck for our morning visits.

Yes, you read that correctly.  We rode in the back of a flat-bed delivery truck—the back sort of encased by a rectangular frame about chest-high comprised of one row of silver metal pipe.  Back home we would have looked like a chain gang being hauled out for a day of road work.  But riding around in El Salvador, with an advertisement for the pharmacy’s discounted prices painted in Spanish on the side of the truck, we fit right in.  Save for the buses that connect the remote towns one to another, the back end of a pick-up is the standard mode of mass transit in El Salvador.  We not only quickly adapted to it, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, we lined the bed of the truck and surveyed every detail of small towns with cobblestone streets, vast green valleys, steep terraced mountainsides covered with rows of vegetables, roadways lined with tree-shaded coffee plantations, volcanoes rising straight up from the plains and ringed in white fluffy clouds, loud and colorful metropolitan cities, horses, pigs, and cattle grazing along the highways, men and women alike slaving under heavy loads assisted only by an occasional cart drawn by a pair of oxen, and beautiful, smiling children playing in the streets.  We visited with teachers and school administrators, orphans and their caretaker, cattle ranchers and traders at the stock market, patients, family members and employees at the hospital, merchants and shoppers in public street markets, townspeople in the main square of neighboring villages, and men, women, and children barely surviving in the slums of a town high in the mountains.  We were sharing with them the good news of love and hope.  We were inviting them to the crusade.  And we were putting forth whatever meager effort we could muster to minister—if ever so slightly—to their vast needs.

It was rewarding.  It was enlightening.  It was eye-opening.  It was work.  But it was life-changing work.  And all the while, something gnawed at me in the back of my mind.

My recent newsletter about making choices that could put us in control of our destiny was still fresh in my memory.  But how could I possibly look at these beautiful people, who possessed so little, and tell them they just needed to take control of their destiny…to choose the life they wanted.  In reality they seemed to have no choices.  I was conflicted by my own theory.

There was another reason I was conflicted.  Of all the unread books waiting in a pile in my office to be appreciated, I could have picked any book on a myriad of topics to occupy me while traveling.  In fact, I almost didn’t take any reading material.  But at the last moment, I’d grabbed one of the books I’d received as a birthday present from my sister, Common Grace, a small book of essays by Rev. Anthony B. Robinson, on How to Be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters.  With each turn of the page, I became more intrigued by Robinson’s examination of faith.  And just as the plane was touching down in El Salvador, I read this passage: There is a good deal of talk today about our many choices and how it is up to us to choose our own lives…It rests on an illusion, namely, that we are in control…In so many ways our lives seem to choose us…it has the quality of coming to us, even at us, rather than from us.

From the moment I’d stepped off the plane, that passage from Robinson’s book had haunted me.  Proof of its validity had been demonstrated to me throughout the week.  Now, finally, standing there alone in the surf, I acknowledged it as truth.

“I’ve always heard the waves come in sets of nine with the ninth one being the big one,” Keith called from over my left shoulder.  He and Jason had chastised me for going in the water alone, as they moved on out past me to attempt some body surfing.  I began to count the waves to test Keith’s theory.  They all seemed large to me, relentlessly smacking me one way and then the other.  I tried to jump as many as I could to keep my head above water, yet sometimes they came so fast, they simply bowled me over.  The water was as warm as bath water, and I was enjoying even the wipeouts.  Nevertheless, I soon became aware of how much effort I was expending, and I realized I was tiring.

In that moment it was clear.  Robinson was right.  Life does come at us.  It never stops coming at us, just as the waves kept coming at me there in the ocean.  It may leave us feeling chilled to the bone, as I’ve found myself on other days in the ocean.  Or its warmth may wash over us delightfully, as was the case here today.  But there was no mistaking it now.  Life does come at us in waves, one after the other, sometimes gently, sometimes vehemently, but without ceasing.  And our job…our challenge…is to ride those waves.

Surfing is a sport I’ve never attempted.  Growing up on a farm in East Tennessee, not even laying eyes on the ocean but once during the first nineteen years of my life, kept the odds pretty low that I would ever be a surfer.  Then after I was older and wiser regarding my strengths and weaknesses, I surmised it had been just as well.  I doubt that I could have ever mastered it.  Nevertheless, it’s pretty simple to understand.  Surfers float on their board and watch the approaching waves.  None of the surfers generated the wave.  It simply comes at them.  And when the time is right—for it is a skill highly dependent upon courage and good timing—the surfer takes action.  They’ve been waiting, watching, anticipating the wave, knowing it would come.  And when it does, they respond.

That is the heart of the message.  We don’t choose our lives so much as we choose our response to the waves of life that come at us.  The evidence for that truth had been overpowering during the week in El Salvador.

As a woman, I was acutely aware of how life came at the women of El Salvador.  In their basic living conditions they had few options available for navigating the sometimes treacherous waters.  They are mothers and housewives in the truest sense of the words.  Loida, Lesly, Sophie and Beatrice were in the kitchen from before daylight until after dark preparing a meal, cleaning up, and then starting over with the next.  And sweet little Margarita cleaned our rooms and scrubbed our linens by hand in a concrete sink with a bar of soap then hung them out on the line in the courtyard to dry every single day…smiling the whole time.  They all worked diligently but joyfully as did every other woman I saw in the village—some obviously less joyful than others but diligent nonetheless.  Some rose early in the morning, walking who knows how far from outside town, to come set up umbrellas on the square and sell vegetables and other small items.  Young girls carried jugs of water from the well.  Older women balanced large overloaded tubs on their heads filled with products to sell or to take home for their family.  Many of the women I observed had responded to this life—a life without even what we consider the most basic modern conveniences—and they had responded with strength and grace.

Many of them had.  Then there were those who had responded in a different manner.  Some responded by prostituting themselves.  If not to that extreme, they had at least been lured by a man’s promise, or perhaps the promises of many men, of love and a better life only to end up with a house full of bastard children and no means to provide for them.  Two such women I met were sisters, Claudia, 30, and Lourdes, 29.  Claudia and Lourdes had eight children between them, four each, and Lourdes was eight months pregnant with her fifth.  Their tiny two-room house with a concrete floor opened to a covered dirt-floor porch in the back, which appeared to serve as kitchen and dining room.  They had virtually nothing between them.  Still they invited us in with open arms.  As I sat in the dark, damp living room of their home, which by the way we would never refer to as a home around here, I practiced my weak Spanish, eliciting giggles from them and corrections from my interpreter, Aaron.  There was no pretense on their part.  There would have been no point in pretense.  Instead they quickly opened up and began to share with me the struggles of being a single mother in the slums of the mountain town of Santiago de Maria.  They shared a little about what they did for money to buy food, and I read between the lines on the rest, no doubt some of which had led to the additional children.  I couldn’t imagine the waves life had thrown at them.  But surely it had.  And they had responded…responded, I think, clearly differently than what I had seen from Loida and her friends from the Baptist church in Chinameca.  Life comes at us in waves, and we choose our response.

Malena was the adult caretaker for a home of forty-two abused and/or abandoned young girls in San Miguel.  Those beautiful little girls, ranging in age from three years to fifteen, hadn’t chosen to be the children of drug addicts and child abusers.  They’d done nothing to cause the sexual abuse they’d suffered.  They hadn’t chosen the hopeless poverty of the streets.  That life had just come at them and crashed upon them with brute force.  They had been rescued by Malena.

Malena had ridden a few waves of her own, we learned, when she adjourned to a quiet corner with a few of our group.  She had been raised in church in her native Italy, she shared.  But at twelve years of age, Malena rebelled and spent the next seventeen years of her life a heroin addict living in the streets.

“Then one day,” Malena explained, “a group of people came to me in the streets—a group of people like you—and they talked to me about Christ.”

These people, who probably have no idea the number of lives Malena has lived to save, saved her life that day.  They connected her to a church, and Malena went through the drug rehab provided by that ministry.  After her recovery, Malena explained, she was going to church; but she was only going to listen.  Then one day the pastor showed a film of the children living on the streets of San Miguel, El Salvador.  Only a few years removed from that situation herself, Malena says God spoke to her heart…and by faith she responded.

Malena came alone to San Miguel eleven years ago, leaving behind all friends and family.  She has, for the last seven years, been in the process of adopting two little girls.  And she alone cares for all forty-two with only the meager donations she can raise.  There is no large support agency.  No government subsidy.  No corporate sponsors.  Pastor Esau’s church is the only church providing any help.

“We live by faith.” Malena gave us a tired smile.  With tears stinging my eyes, I looked into Malena’s sunken eyes with dark circles underneath, and it was obvious.  Life came at Malena and continues to come at her in torrential waves…and she has responded and continues to respond every day.  May we all respond with such grace if the same waves ever race toward us.

Malena was not the only amazing woman I encountered in El Salvador.  One of them—a member of my own team, Kay—had been right under my nose for months, and I’d never even taken the time to notice.  On the trip Kay was my roommate, providing me ample time to learn more about her and for my appreciation to increase.  It also gave me plenty of time to observe her quiet struggle.

Tears flowed from Kay’s eyes when she shared with me the story of her move to Tennessee.  She loved her home in Michigan.  It was just how she wanted it, she explained.  But the airport in Detroit decided to expand, forcing her to sell and separate from her friends.  Kay broke down and sobbed quietly, while I waited for the rest of the story.  Gathering herself, Kay nonchalantly concluded, “So I bought a motor home and moved to Knoxville.  I lived in my motor home for several months.” Kay smiled.

I know my mouth dropped open as I stared wide-eyed at this short little woman sitting on the cot across the room.  “Kay, you handled a motor home and drove hundreds of miles to a strange town, where you knew no one, all by yourself?!”  I was shocked.

“Oh, yeah,” Kay dismissed it with a wave of her hand.  Several more minutes of conversation revealed how, after opting for a warmer climate, she’d researched possibilities and settled on Knoxville.  It also revealed how the never-married, former second-grade teacher, joined a camping club as a way of meeting people in her new hometown, taking her motor home to several campgrounds throughout the season, performing all the set-up and hook-ups herself.

I sat beside Kay speechless, and I couldn’t help darting my eyes toward her knarled and twisted hands.  You see, Kay was diagnosed with arthritis when she was only sixteen years old.  To date she’s endured five surgeries, and she takes a daily dose of the same “chemotherapy pills” prescribed for cancer patients.  Kay has known nothing but pain for the majority of her life.  Knotted and drawn permanently into a shape resembling a claw—her fingers and thumbs almost receded back into her shrunken palms—Kay’s scarred hands seem almost non-functional.

I continued to marvel at Kay, even on the last leg of our flight back into Knoxville.  “He has the flaps down early,” Kay commented as she looked at the wing directly outside her window seat beside me.  “See how they’re all the way down,” she pointed as I looked across her.  “And look at all those new parts!” She observed.  “This must be a really new plane.  See that.” She motioned.

“Kay, you really seem to know what you’re talking about.” I smiled at her.

“Oh, I’m a pilot, you know.  I used to teach field school.” She answered matter-of-factly.  “I’ve had solo flights as long as 300 miles.”

I looked down at my own hands and shook my head.  I’d watched Kay labor to open lids on toiletry and food items, or to turn the delicate pages of her Bible, and to scribble memories of our trip in her journal.  I had marveled that Kay had ever even considered making this trip—a totally selfless act to help so many by someone whom most of us might see as a person needing assistance.  I was humbled by her.  Life had come at Kay in one unexpected wave after another.  And each time Kay had responded.  Man, had she ever responded!

Kay’s story was not unlike that of Jacob, Pastor Esau’s oldest son.  I’d asked during our first day there if anyone in the family played the old upright piano in the living room, where we frequently gathered for our times of fellowship.  “Only Jacob,” had been the response, and I soon learned that only Jacob was more than enough.

From the first song I heard Jacob play in that living room, to the beautiful melodies with which he filled the church, to the special selections he shared each night of the crusade, Jacob displayed a remarkable gift.  On more than one occasion, when I or my group were attempting a song, Jacob skillfully found our key—sometimes even better than we had found it—and smoothly joined right in with us.  I would hum a song for him in the living room, and he would immediately begin to play it on the out-of-tune piano, sticky keys and all.  His fingers danced effortlessly from one end of the keyboard to the other, as he improvised traditional hymns and turned them into jazzy or soulful works of art that quieted every crowd.  And occasionally Jacob would look across the top of his piano as he played during the crusade, and I would catch his eye, and he would smile the sweetest smile.

Jacob’s physical infirmity wasn’t quite as noticeable as Kay’s.  But when I opened one of the family photo albums kept on the living room coffee table, there it was, obvious, in every single photograph.  My eyes were unavoidably drawn to the wide and jagged red scar left behind by the surgery to repair Jacob’s harelip.  The initial medical procedure appeared to have been very crude.  The earliest photos of Jacob showed a little boy with virtually no upper lip at all, just an uneven little strip of flesh stretched tight over his upper row of teeth.  His expression in almost every picture, taken at multiple ages, was essentially the same.  He seemed to have been left with little or no ability to flash the smile I’d seen him deliver from the stage.

While the remains were still visible, Jacob’s current appearance left me sure he’d apparently undergone subsequent corrective procedures; and the well-trimmed mustache that now graced his upper lip hid the scars that had been so noticeable in the old photographs.  But here was the amazing part of the story.  In almost every single one of those photos, Jacob was sitting at a piano or standing at a keyboard in front of a room full of people.

How many of us won’t even go put gas in the car without our makeup on?  We try to hide underneath makeup and hair and clothes, and still we wouldn’t dare put ourselves up on a stage and expose ourselves to the critique of others.  Yet there in the photo was Jacob proudly using the wonderful gift he’d been given.

Life had hit Jacob with a damaging wave even before he exited the safety of his mother’s womb.  Jacob responded.  And he keeps responding through the melodies of his heart.  I wonder how many lives have been lifted by his courageous and inspired music?  I know mine has been.

Lounging there in the living room Wednesday night after the crusade, Eduardo seemed like every other average young man we’d encountered in El Salvador.  Testing us with riddles he translated through Aaron, he demonstrated the child-like heart you’d expect from a puppeteer.  Eduardo was providing a puppet ministry for the children each night of the crusade, while Randy delivered the message to their parents and grandparents.  He was obviously quite good, for we’d heard the children’s squeals of delight throughout each evening.  And for several minutes of his joking, we lounged lazily, tired from a long day, and only half-listened to his playful banter.  It was Kay who asked about his life and persistently insisted he tell us about it.  Little did we know we were about to hear an amazing story that even The 700 Club had recently made into a documentary.

Eduardo was a Communist guerilla fighter.  The civil wars that have plagued the countries of Central America for decades, pitting Communist regimes against Republican national parties and their allies from the United States and other countries, have been well publicized.  On all four of my previous humanitarian missions to the region, I was well aware that the devastation I was seeking to help address had resulted from these destructive battles.  But this was definitely the first time I’d sat in the same room and looked into the eyes of one of the perpetrators.  In fact, as Chief Intelligence Officer, Eduardo’s father had been one of the key architects of the Communist resistance in El Salvador during the devastation of the 1980s.

“I hated my government,” Eduardo excitedly explained.  “I hated the United States, and I hated Americans.”  Then quickly, apologetically, he added, “But that was all I was taught.  I didn’t know better.  I love Americans now!”  He smiled at our nervous laughter.

From as early as he could recall, Eduardo was brainwashed and taught to fight.  He was taught to kill, mostly with the bombs he was trained to build and plant in areas where lots of people were bound to be.  After many years of fighting for his father’s cause, Eduardo was finally caught by authorities with bomb-making materials in his car and sent to prison, where he was held for eight months.

“It was in prison I learned to do the puppets.” Eduardo excitedly scooted to the edge of his seat, as if he might jump up at any moment.

Puppet shows in those days were a way of communicating political propaganda and inciting common people to distrust their government and join the Communist regime.  And it was through the instruction of another political prisoner adept at this form of communication that Eduardo mastered the art of puppeteering while in prison.

“I know now that was meant to happen,” he explains, “because now it is how I make my living.”  Eduardo seemed so harmless now.  Still I wondered how could he have come from Communist guerilla bomber and political prisoner to puppet minister at the Baptist church?!  Almost intuitively, Eduardo continued to explain.

After eight months in prison, Eduardo was surprised when the authorities told him they were going to release him “if he promised to stay out of trouble.”  I have to admit, I find that a little surprising myself, especially since Eduardo told us he went straight to Nicaragua, when released from prison, and joined Ortega’s Sandinista rebels.  I guess ‘once a rebel, always a rebel’ would have been the cliché to characterize Eduardo’s life at the time.  Truly he had returned to the only life he’d ever known.  And in Managua at the Sandinista training camps, Eduardo was trained to kill using military firearms, grenades and explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.

“All I knew was hate.” Eduardo explained. “My father and mother never showed me love.  Our lives were fueled by hate.”

But after a year with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Eduardo wasn’t fueled by anything anymore.  He found himself depressed and miserable.  He didn’t even know why he was fighting or what he was fighting for.  Lost and unsure where to turn, Eduardo wanted to go home to El Salvador.  But news of his exploits with the rebels had spread, and he was now a wanted man again in his homeland.  Wanted notices with his photo were regularly printed in the newspapers.  Still Eduardo sneaked back to Santa Ana.  He didn’t return to his father and mother.  He was simply hiding, trying to avoid detection.

Unbeknownst to him, a pastor of a church in the village had not only seen his photo in the paper, he had seen Eduardo and knew he was living in the town.  And one day, unbelievably, he knocked on Eduardo’s door.

Just then Pastor Esau’s wife, Loida, who’d been listening quietly behind Eduardo, interjected.  Through the translation of her son, Aaron, she explained to us what danger this pastor had placed himself in.  “It was a very dangerous time then.” Loida said. “If someone was even suspected of having any Communist ties, you could not talk to them or ever be seen with them, not to mention if they were known guerillas like Eduardo was.  The pastor did a very dangerous and brave thing,” she said.

This brave pastor began to spend time with Eduardo, taking him out to eat and talking to him about his childhood and how he’d lived his life.  “He told me about Jesus and the cross and heaven and hell,” Eduardo said, “and he taught me about love and forgiveness.”  This pastor was the first person in his life to ever show Eduardo love.  He explained, “The pastor was not only talking to me about God’s love.  He was demonstrating it.”

He taught Eduardo to pray, and Eduardo said he prayed to Christ for forgiveness, despite the fact, he added, that he wasn’t absolutely certain about all the pastor had told him.  “I believed in hell.” Eduardo said. “My life had been hell.  And I wanted to believe in heaven.  I just didn’t have it all figured out.  But I was willing to try.” 

So when the pastor told him that now he had to forgive his father, as he himself had been forgiven, Eduardo was willing to try that too.  He went home to his parents and, although it wasn’t the joyous celebration he might have liked, he extended them the forgiveness he’d come to offer.  But immediately, he said, his father went to work on his mind.  Still uncertain and struggling to find his way, Eduardo was easy prey, and soon his father had him enlisted to participate in an attack on a military encampment that very night.

“I told my mother goodbye expecting to die that night.” Eduardo said, and he left to meet his seven comrades at a designated rendezvous point.

I couldn’t help thinking Eduardo wanted to die—to simply end his suffering—as I listened to his painful retelling of that night.  We all listened breathlessly to his description.  The longer he waited, and the more time that passed with none of his buddies showing up, the more anxious and paranoid he became.  Every flash of light, every noise, every sensation startled him to the verge of panic.

What Eduardo didn’t know was that the band of seven he was to meet had been ambushed by the military enroute to their rendezvous.  Three had been killed and the other four captured.  Eduardo didn’t know this, and so he waited into the night, certain that he was going to be ambushed there alone in the dark…certain he was going to die that night.

“Suddenly I became aware of a presence.” Eduardo anxiously relayed to us, becoming very animated and demonstrative of how he jumped and looked warily all around, sure that someone was behind him.

“But I saw no one.” He said.

“Then I heard a voice calling to me.  It said, ‘Eduardo, pray!’  Three times I heard the voice,” he said, “Eduardo, pray!  Eduardo, pray!  I knew it was God.” He continued, “That night I really prayed and God saved me…literally.”  He smiled.

Eduardo paused, and I looked around the room at my teammate’s tear-filled eyes.  He proceeded to tell us even more about his long road back to living after experiencing the hell of war for five long years.  “I started to college to study psychology before the war,” Eduardo said, “but before I could finish one year, I was pressured to quit and fight.  Now I do the puppets,” he smiled, “I show the children love with the puppets…and I live by faith.”

Eduardo finally relaxed and slid back down into his chair and once again looked for all the world like an innocent, fun-loving little boy.  Only now I knew there was nothing innocent about Eduardo.  And there had been nothing pleasant about his life.  His father and mother died in the war, and now he is alone.  Life crashed down upon Eduardo with the massive force of a tidal wave.  And in his life we can find illustrations of responses that run the spectrum from ill-advised to divinely-inspired.  The important point is that today Eduardo strives to respond in love, which by the way, so did the pastor who first reached out to him even during a dangerous wartime.  And that has made all the difference.

The list of examples seems endless, from my one week in El Salvador, of extraordinary people who responded bravely in the face of seemingly crushing waves.  This lesson repeatedly refreshed itself for me each and every day.  In fact, our very days themselves were an example of those unexpected waves to which we must respond.  We never knew until we climbed into the truck each morning where we were going next.  In a country where nothing started on time, and we were continually coached in “patience and flexibility,” we simply rose each day…and responded to the newest challenge.  And the more time that passed, the more I noticed the parallels.

One night a terrible storm threatened the outdoor crusade we were holding in the town square.  I know I’ve made the country sound primitive, and generally it is by our standards.  Yet our host church had made it an all out production.  Lights and video projection screens on the side for close-ups, and large sound systems with a big control board—some of which purchased with money we’d donated in advance—filled the outdoor space.  Each night live music before the service and dramas and movies projected afterwards drew hundreds in from the town and surrounding countryside…some of whom had walked for the better part of the day to get there.  We were determined not to disappoint them or to allow any obstacle to hinder us in our mission there.

That was the key, you know.  We were on a mission, and each and every one of us knew exactly what it was.  It was our singular focus, and our commitment to it only seemed to increase with the dawning of each new day.  So, needless to say, when the worst tropical storm I’ve ever seen threatened one evening, not one of us budged an inch.  I, personally, had already decided I would get drenched to the skin and struck by lightening if I had to, but I was not leaving as long as one local remained to hear the message.  Our team responded in unison with a dedication and faith that, without a doubt, parted the storm that night.

I had looked into the faces of each of my teammates that night, just as I did on our last day we were spending on this beautiful beach.  And, once again, I noted how each was responding to the waves in their own unique way.

While I had rushed headlong into the turbulent waters—leading the way for everyone else—Wayne, Bobby, Randy, Lisa, and PJ had gone wandering down the beach—chatting and admiring the views and stopping occasionally to inspect a shell—while Amber, Jason, Aaron, Kay and Keith lounged briefly under a beachside gazebo.  Pastor Esau had slipped into the pool.  Each had chosen their own somewhat unique response to this beautiful opportunity that was coming at us.

After they finally joined me in the ocean, I noticed the same dynamic all over again.  The same waves pounded us all equally, and everyone chose their own response.  Jason fearlessly went out further and further, while Keith remained halfway between Jason and me, keeping a watchful eye on us both.  I tried jumping the waves, but PJ dived headlong into them, one after another.  Kay waded briefly in the shallow surf before retiring to the pool with Esau.  Bobby and Wayne drifted quietly nearby, seemingly deep in thought.  Suddenly our solitude was interrupted by the sound of Amber’s screams from behind me.  I turned to see her running back toward the beach convinced that a crab had bit her leg.  And Aaron, who had walked out with her, responded by smiling sheepishly and then slowly following her back to the beach.

The waves in the ocean that day came at all of us, just like they do every day of our lives.  We don’t choose which waves come.  They just come.  What we can choose…what we must choose carefully…is our response.

In El Salvador a common sight was two oxen yoked together by a crude wooden yoke and pulling a wooden cart.  A load that would represent a huge burden to the oxen’s drover—a load that might even be a burden to one ox alone—is shared through the yoke that binds them, thus lightening the load for all.  An abnormally heavy burden, when shared, is transformed into a manageable load.

Life can be a heavy load sometimes.  In fact, we might as well admit that it is naturally just that.  The waves of life come at us, presenting each of us our daily load to bear.  But that load doesn’t have to become a burden.  When we recognize that we are already joined to one another in this life, yoked together like the oxen, if you will—regardless of race, sex, nationality, economic status or creed—and when we actively respond daily with an attitude generated by the shining examples I saw in El Salvador…the ladies attitude of servanthood, Malena’s compassion, Kay’s courage, Jacob’s passion, Eduardo’s spirit of repentance and forgiveness, his pastor’s love, and my teammate’s sense of purpose, unity, and commitment…any burden can be made light.

The lesson of El Salvador was clearly this.  Life comes at us in wave after wave.  How we choose to respond…together…makes all the difference.


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