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  The bus was met by a crowd of locals, all dressed in their best and super excited to see us. The project had never been visited before, either because it was a relatively new project or because of how remote they were, but either way this was a very special time for them and we could tell.

 Katie takes no more than one step off the bus and Norma is right there to meet her. She looks so happy and beautiful and Katie is absolutely beaming with joy as she hugs the little girl that she’s been sponsoring since May. Although I was taking pictures, it’s hard not to be moved by the moment. This is something I am never going to forget and I am so excited for Katie! The entire team is ushered in quickly to the church since we arrived many hours later than they had expected. What I notice immediately is that Mark and Tim are completely surprised by the elaborate decorations in the church. They look at me and tell me that this is very unusual and as I look around I can understand why.

 The entire floor of the church is covered with fresh pine needles. There are dozens of palm branches literally stapled to the walls. Twine is strung from corner to corner and flowers and greenery are hanging about every 6 inches. There is a giant homemade banner of greeting in front of the modest stage and it seems as though the entire village is here. Myra motions for us to quickly take a seat and leans over and whispers that this is the first time she has ever seen anything like this. Pine needles on the ground is done for Christmas, but that’s about it.

 What follows next was such a blessing it’s hard to describe it in words. The children, including Norma, all dressed in white, have memorized a presentation of praise and dance with special homemade candles and props. Myra interprets some of the lyrics and I realize how much these children authentically love their Lord. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the staff there named Isaias, who lived in the US for a few years, joins the women and they sing “Lord, I lift Your Name On High” in both Spanish and English. Another very special moment since I know many of these women only speak the local dialect, Ixil. This is followed by an inspiring sermon by the local pastor based on the parable of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. There’s something very authentic and joyful about this pastor and my heart is moved by his words.

 The next activity is a celebration lunch for us with the staff and Norma and her family. We head upstairs to find six small classrooms, a common area, a small office that also doubles as a pantry and food prep area and a teeny, tiny room that serves as their “kitchen.” There is a large cement basin in the corner of the common area that has a faucet as well. I am asked if I want to help serve and I immediately jump in to help.

 In the office there is a woman sitting on the floor in front of a large alumni bucket filled with what looks like tamales wrapped in twine. She begins handing them to us and we unwrap the leaves and find pieces of chicken and spices inside. The leaves are spread out on to the plastic dishes and the leaves are trimmed with shears. It’s quite a messy ordeal, but everyone waits patiently in the common room. After the chicken is squash flower soup, rice and vegetables, all served on small Styrofoam plates. I can sense this is a feast for them. I choose to sit with the women teachers and a translator and they tell me more about what they do there. They were so loving and caring, I truly admire their dedication to teach the children.

 The children arrive soon and we get to spend some time watching them in their classrooms. I can tell that they love to learn and that the teachers there are committed to teaching solid Bible content. I am impressed with the way that they are able to do so much with so little. The rooms are so small that the children’s desks are literally squeezed in right next to each other but they don’t seem to mind, they are fully engaged in what’s happening. The walls are very thin and the roof is just a sparse tin roof so the teacher’s practically have to yell in order to be heard over the noise of the other classrooms. It just doesn’t matter though – the kids are so enthusiastic!

 As we question the staff we learn that their limited space has kept them from opening up more opportunities for more children. They have already received a lot of help and building materials from the community and are trying to get more. Compassion rarely helps with building space, dedicating the majority of the funds to assist the children directly, so the staff have their work cut out for them. As I leave the project I pray for God’s provision.

 It’s late afternoon and the team wants to take the 20-minute hike to the waterfall that provides the village its water supply in order to capture some more film footage. So we head out with a few of our new friends, along with Norma’s whole family, to visit the waterfall.

 The hike begins easy enough. There is a narrow, but well traveled trail on the side of the mountain that doesn’t seem to be terribly steep. But about 10-minutes into the trek, the trail becomes steeper and muddier. Okay, I think to myself, no big deal, just follow the rest of these folks. And Norma’s mother has a skirt on with cheap plastic sandals, so surely it can’t get too bad.

 It soon starts to rain and the already muddy trail starts getting muddier. My tennis shoes are soaked and coated with mud. Norma’s mother climbs the trail without effort and doesn’t have any problem with her footing, even in sandals. We get to the waterfall and it’s all worth it. It’s breathtaking! A few minutes are spent capturing the moment with Katie and Norma and then we turn to head back.

 One of the locals decides to try a different route and it’s so steep that I keep having to stop to get my breath. This holds up everyone behind me but they are all gracious. I begin to wonder if I am going to have a heart attack and die – right there on the side of a mountain in Guatemala.

 The trail leads us to the village cemetery and then it begins to not just rain, but POUR. We rush to find cover and end up standing in an open half-finished cinderblock structure. I’m glad to be out of the rain but have no idea where we are.

 I quickly find out that we are in the home of Isaias. His English is good so he explains to us that he went to Florida for seven years to make enough money to come back and build a home of his entire family. He is 23 years old. He points to a tight little stairwell and we follow him down to see his current living space. We meet his parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their three children, all of whom live there with him. Back upstairs we see an old table saw and stacks of wood that he will use to finish the space. I am so impressed with this young man. His heart is so genuine and he works so hard. Along with working on his house he is also a translator for Compassion and the bookkeeper at the project.

 We finally return to the project and say our goodbyes. We are wet and tired and it’s been an emotionally draining day but we are glad we get to return tomorrow.

 The sun set as we left Santa Avelina so we didn’t really get to see much of the town where we were to sleep for two nights. The hotel seemed nice compared to the surroundings but certainly NOTHING like the night before. I did get a little nervous as the locked gate opened to let the bus in and closed quickly after we parked. Hmmm…

 We shared dinner together and then got to bed by 9. Katie and I had the room next to the lobby. The furnishings were sparse, two double beds, a night stand, and desk with a mirror. One bed had a headboard and the other did not. The light fixture had no covering, just a light bulb sticking out of the wall. The bathroom had no light near the sink (it was torn out of the wall) but there was one by the shower. All I cared about was taking a hot shower and the water was scalding so I was happy.

 As soon as I laid my head on my pillow the doorbell rang. What? I swear it was right above my head. Then there were several conversations, it seemed like right next to my bed, all in Spanish. Then the doorbell again. And again. And again. Katie and I started to giggle. This must be how they find out someone is outside the locked gate. Now worries, I’m sure it would be over soon. Just closer your eyes and wait…

 Then we heard the yelling and screaming. Then dishes breaking. Then more yelling and screaming. All in Spanish. There was definitely a fight going on out there. “Should we be scared?” Katie asks. “Or are we just too tired to care?”

 “Too tired,” I reply, and we stay put. The commotion finally subsides and I can hear Katie’s “sleep breathing” in the bed next to me. But my body decides to begin trembling and no matter what I do I can’t get it to stop. For over an hour I try to control the crazy uncontrollable shakes without any success. My imagination kicks in and I wonder if I am going to have to wake Katie to go and get help. I decide to take something to see if it will help and within another hour or so I must have fell asleep. When the alarm goes off I assess how I feel and determine that I’m going to be fine. There’s no reason to alarm the rest of the team.

 On the agenda for breakfast was a visit from the pastor we heard the day before. As we sit down to share the meal with him and his wife of over 40 years, he begins to tell us about his journey. He talks about the Guerrillas who almost killed him in the 70’s. He shares about how God has delivered him time and time again from dangerous and life-threatening situations. I notice that his jacket is torn pretty badly but it’s obvious that he and his wife are in their best dress. I am so caught up in what he is saying and his obvious joy for the Lord, his people, and the children, that I seriously forget to eat. This moment, this simple breakfast with a pastor and his wife, moves me more than meeting the mounds of children at the project. The respect that I feel for this man of God is so deep that my standard for any man of clergy is now amped up by 10 notches. I don’t want to leave.

 The pastor and his wife join us on the bus and I am thrilled to spend a few more moments with them. On the way he stops to buy a 100-pound bag of salt and loads that on to the bus as well. When asked what the salt was for we find out that he portions it up and sells it.

 I am super excited to find out that Nic wants to jump off when we drop the pastor and his wife in order to take a photo. I am able to go as a “helper” and Tim allows Nic to take a photo of me with them as well. I will cherish that photo forever.

 The plan in Santa Avelina today is to split into two groups for home visits. Tim, Nic, and a local team will join Katie at Norma’s and Mark and I will visit another home of a Compassion-sponsored child with a few of the local staff. Our group heads up the hill to visit Miguel and his family.

 We come to a small shack on the side of the mountain and find that once again, it is decorated elaborately for our visit. Although a very small space, this family made a big deal about us coming to visit. We are greeted by all who live in the 3-room small space – Grandpa, mom and dad, and 6 children including 7-year-old Miguel. It takes about three minutes to see the whole space and as we stand by the wood fire stove Mark notices some medicine on a shelf. He asks if someone is sick and we learn that the medicine is to protect the children because one just died 15 days ago.

 My heart fell to my stomach as I looked into the eyes of this mother, graciously preparing tortillas for us, who had just lost her one-year-old little girl just over two weeks ago. How in the world was she even able to function? But she continues to make us feel as though she is the most privileged person in the world to have us visiting her home. I am humbled beyond words.

 We end up spending over two hours at Miguel’s home and sharing a meal together that was brought over from the project. We give them the gifts of food and toys that we brought and spend time talking about their life. I am thrilled to find out that Miguel wants to be a preacher someday so I ask if I can pray for him specifically. Praying that prayer has got to be one of the coolest things I have ever done. Sitting there holding his hands in mine while my prayer for him was translated into two languages was an experience that I will never, ever forget. I can’t wait to see what God has in store for little Miguel. I pray he uses him to reach the world.

 When we gather back at the project to say goodbye, the mood is a bit solemn. We spend a few minutes with the staff and Jeremy, the young leader of the center, breaks into tears as he tells us that our visit has given him the motivation to continue to press on. We ask to pray with them and it’s an emotional and Spirit-filled time. We call out to God to rescue these children in Jesus name. We pray for provision and grace and mercy. We thank Him for all he has done. Amazing.

 We exchange stories of our home visits on the way back to the hotel and it sounds like the other group had a great experience as well. I can’t wait to see the film footage of Katie at Norma’s house.

 That evening we are graced with the presence of two students from the region who have made it into Compassion’s leadership program, Antonio and Nicolas. Also joining us for dinner is Sister Juanita, a Director at a student center nearby. Over dinner the student’s share their testimonies and we learn that Nicolas was raised up through Sister Juanita’s program. She became a huge part of his life after his mother died when he was seven. Both boys are studying to get their degree in Business Administration. All of the confidence I had in Compassion’s Leadership Development Program before is now affirmed as I listen to their stories. Even though only a small percentage of children sponsored will make the program, it is still a very important program. These students are committed to returning to their homes to make a difference. God will certainly use them to do phenomenal things for His Kingdom, I have no doubt.

 Sister Juanita has never been married or had any children of her own. She has worked at a student center for over 30 years and has adopted a few children who haven’t had parents. She considers herself the Grandmother of their children and she tells us that it’s stories like Nicolas’s that keep her going, even in hard times.

 Our final night in Nebaj (ne-bach) ends well. Katie and I head back to the room lamenting about whether or not we will be able to sleep.

Tim had brought 4 packets of sponsored children from the project with him. He had shown them to me on the bus and asked me if I was interested at all in sponsoring one of them. And even though Katie pushed pretty hard, I really didn’t feel led to step up to the plate. Tim didn’t push, just placed the packets back in his backpack gently.

 After visiting Miguel’s home we were able to return to the center for some more time to observe the children in their classrooms. That is where I decided that I wanted to sponsor a child from this project before I left. However, what I really wanted was to sponsor the child that no one else wanted. I wanted the child from the project who had been waiting the longest for a sponsor with no response. So when Tim returned, I talked to him about it.

I think I stumped him because when he came back to me he had the same 4 packets he had shown me before. He explained that it would be difficult to find out the information that I wanted and he felt it was important that I meet the child while I was there. I didn’t think that was necessary, but I looked back over the packets and chose Gaspar. I had noticed him when I looked at them before. His photo was not very compelling and he was the oldest of the four children. Tim left to go talk to the staff to see if he was there and returned with him in tow.

 I knew right away that this was a match made in heaven. Gaspar was so shy that he could hardly look at me. He was so small for his age and didn’t speak any Spanish. When I was able to look into his eyes I could tell that his health wasn’t great by the yellow clouding his pupils. Isaias knew him well and quickly took on the chore to break the ice between the two of us. He translated to Ixil all of my words and stayed close while we were trying to bond.

 It took a bit, but Gaspar finally was able to raise his chin and speak with me face-to-face as well as give me several hugs. I found out that he wants to be a musician someday so he can praise God. An ambitious goal given how shy he is, so I admire him for that. We gather some gifts for him – a puzzle, a soccer ball, some other toys and when I give them to him his eyes light up like Christmas. Has this poor boy ever had anything like this happen to him before? Probably not.

 What a wonderful blessing this new addition to our family is going to be! I can’t wait to tell TJ and Rick and to send Gaspar some pictures and a letter.

We decided to hit the road early again and stop for breakfast after a couple of hours of travel. Unfortunately, the bus ride on the way back to Guatemala City was more tumultuous then on the way there. I have no idea why, but my stomach felt as if it were in my throat. By the time we reached the restaurant, I was green and the world around me was spinning. Tim helped me off the bus and I had to sit for about 30-minutes completely still before I could sip some hot tea. I ended up being able to get down about a half of a waffle and then I took some Dramamine for the rest of the bus ride.

 Prepared for the drugs to completely knock me out, I found a cozy corner on the bus and settled in. Everyone else made makeshift beds out of the rows of seats and quickly fell asleep. But I couldn’t rest. I was nervous about getting sick so I asked Myra if I could join her in the front seat. What a wonderful few hours I had talking with her! I found out more about her and her family as well as Guatemalan culture.

 We stopped for lunch at place specializing in Crepes (go figure!) and had a great lunch. Then we headed in to Antigua so that Tim could meet his sponsored child, Christa Lee.

 Antigua used to be the capitol of Guatemala so it’s a pretty big city. Cobbled streets and plenty of tourist shops abound. We got off the bus and headed to the Chocolate Factory where Tim was to meet Christa Lee. Compassion paid for a tour for all of us so we all got to learn about Cacao and how chocolate was made and even make some ourselves. It was SO much fun watching Tim share this experience with his sponsored child! She was a sweet little 5-year-old girl who was not shy at all. They immediately became friends.

Almost five years ago I was given an anniversary gift of two airline tickets anywhere in the world that frequent flyer miles would take me. I was surprised and grateful. As a thank you for 10 years of service in ministry, my boss wanted me to take a little time off and travel. Wow! What a great gift!

My colleagues kept asking me, “Where will you go?” My response? “I’m not sure. I need to pray and plan and save some money, but there a lot of places I would love to see.” Okay. So it took me five years to do that… but hey, I’ve been busy!

Rick and I loved the two Carribean cruises we have taken so we started looking into a cruise. Something extraordinary, something we wouldn’t do on our own. We settled on the Mediterranean. I’ve dreamed of Greece and Italy – sure that I would never be able to actually get there. I found an itinerary that was perfect:

  • Venice, Italy
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Ephesus, Turkey
  • Santorini, Greece
  • Corfu, Greece
  • Venice, Italy

Seven days cruising with 4 full-day ports and then 3 days before/after the cruise in Venice!

The entire trip was a dream come true. Not only was the weather PERFECT, but we really didn’t have any travel headaches until we hit a delay on the way home through Washington, DC. It was as though God was smiling down on us and paving the way for a wonderful time. From the unsolicited upgrade to a suite stateroom to locals pointing us in the right direction at just the right time, the entire trip seemed to be one blessing right after another.

We went completely unplugged. No cells, no laptops. I was twitchy on day one but recovered quickly as I realized… I’m in Europe! It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed getting reacquainted with my hubby of 27 years. I can’t explain the connection we had during this trip, but I kept thinking… “I’m really glad I married you!”

We jumped outside our comfort zone and spontaneously came up with our own little “adventures” every day. This wasn’t something we talked about – it just happened naturally – and it was a blast! Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Getting lost – we intentionally got lost at least 3 times just to see where we would end up.
  • Do what the locals do – eat what they eat, go where they go. I was intrigued with the languages and tried my best to chime in. Rick gravitated toward the culinary side of things: unusual items on the menu and shopping at local markets.
  • Public transportation – I have no idea why we ended up exploring each of these countries best in mass transit, but we hit them all! We even eavesdropped on a British tour guide to figure out when to catch a bus… when in doubt, walk around until you hear someone speaking English.
  • You may never be back – We tried to remember this and go ahead and splurge a little. A midnight Gondola ride, a rental car in Corfu, a mid-afternoon snack with orchestra playing in St. Mark’s square…

The cruise itself did not disappoint either. Of course, we weren’t expecting a suite but sure were thrilled to have the extra room and all the amenities that go with it (I had no idea how well they treated the “suite” people til now). Our tablemates were interesting too – two mother/daughter couples, one from MI/MN and the other from NY. The girls were about 25, so we regretted not having TJ along! As usual, the ship was clean and the service was great, the food spectacular (and lots of it). We both got massages after a long, hot day in Turkey – what a treat!

But I have to tell you, the most memorable part of the trip was visiting Ephesus. I’ve not been to a lot of ruins, so I’m a bit of a rookie. But as we walked on the ancient marble roads and saw the city that was so powerful and had so much significance in our Christian heritage, I was overwhelmed. It took my breath away to realize what had happened there so long ago.

Pictures are on my Facebook page if you are interested.

Over the last couple of weeks I had some extended time to devote to reading and studying:

  • In the waiting room while receiving the MOHS procedure for skin cancer on my face (they remove, test, remove more, etc. – takes awhile).
  • A six day camping trip to New Mexico with Rick.

My friend/co-laborer/pastor, Greg Stier, was kind enough to give me a bundle of reading materials to enjoy. The stack included a devotional from Spurgeon, a tiny little book by Bruce Wilkinson, and an old paperback written by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor about their dad, Hudson Taylor.

I started with the tiny book, Secrets of the Vine, by Wilkinson. I quickly learned that the author has some amazing insights regarding my perspective on abiding in Christ. But I was destracted by his writing style to the point of almost giving up on the little thing 2/3 of the way through. So I stopped reading and picked up the paperback about Hudson Taylor.

Before now, I really didn’t know anything about this great man. Greg recommended reading just Chapter 14, but once I started in it gripped me so much I had to go back and read more in the earlier pages. What an amazing and sacrificial life this man (and his family) led!  Yet, he struggled with faith and an abundant life. He tried and toiled to “abide”, but yet couldn’t find the secret. His fundamental believe was that “holiness, practical holiness, was to be gradually attained by a diligent use of the means of grace.” Finally, he began to wonder if “perhaps to make heaven sweeter-God would not give it down here.” He continues to explain that he felt assured that there was in Christ all he needed, but he couldn’t practically figure out how to get it out. As I read, I really resonated with his struggle – something I have never been able to fully understand.

But God gradually revealed it to him. He realized that to strengthen faith one need not strive after faith, but rest on the Faithful One. The sentence jumped off the old, yellowed page maybe as boldly as it did to him as he revealed it. He continues to explain that Christ promises to abide in us, meaning He will never leave us. For all our struggles, He will abide. He will never fail.

As he spoke about the vine and the branches he realized that it was foolish to try to get the fullness out of Christ. We are one with Christ. He cannot be rich and us poor, no more than “your head could well fed while your body starves.”

This statement says it all;

Do not let us consider Him as far off, when God has made us one with Him, members of His very body.

What wonderful truth revealed in this old book through an exact duplication of a personal letter to Hudson Taylor’s sister about his remarkable discovery.

So I picked up Wilkinson’s little book again to give it another shot. I am overlooking my feelings about his writing style and picking up on some great advice regarding the difference between discipline and “pruning.” I am looking forward to thinking and praying and continuing to grow as I learn more and more about Spiritual Secrets.

Yesterday my family came together to say goodbye to our beloved Granny. But instead of a traditional memorial service, Granny specifically requested a picnic in the park. She took the time to write down the details of this day before she left us. A casual gathering, a couple of songs, the release of helium-filled red balloons. I’m not sure why she wanted to be remembered this way, I never talked to her about it. But my guess would be that she didn’t want a big fuss, she just wanted everyone together and for everyone to get along with each other.

Granny treasured times with family. I remember her being the happiest when she was with the whole crew. Even in her later years, she seemed to enjoy watching the little ones running around playing just as much as being involved in the adult conversation. When I was younger her Christmas Eve party was something I looked forward to all year. She would rent a big clubhouse so there would be room for all the cousins. Santa would personally deliver our gifts and there was an endless supply of food.

I still can’t believe she’s gone. For some reason, I really expected her to outlive me. Up until the past couple of years, she was extremely active and healthy. She never was what anyone would consider a typical American grandma. She wasn’t a gray-haired, apron-clad woman who baked cookies. No, she was a beautiful professional woman – undeniably classy and unashamedly independent. And whether she was going to a 4 year old’s birthday party or out for a night on the town – she always looked good. As a young girl I remember bragging to my friends, I wanted to be just like her.

Before I became a teenager she would take me on special excursions. We’d shop for hours and hours and then she would treat me to a meal at a fancy restaurant. I would stay the night in her high rise apartment. She would talk to me about the way a lady should act. She would tell me I was beautiful and full of potential. I always felt grown up and sophisticated. These were some of my fondest memories.

So here we were, all of us a part of a family that she in fact began. Memories filled the air as we compared stories and shared fried chicken. Tucked away back in a little neighborhood park. She would have loved the atmosphere. Kids laughed and played in the playground, the teenagers enjoyed volleyball and the men competed at horseshoes.

Then the mood changed slightly as we each took a red balloon and stood in a circle out in the grass. An Irish bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace played loudly in the background and then the balloons were simultaneously released into the air. I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was a bittersweet goodbye.

I will see you again soon my sweet Granny. Someday soon.

Just over two weeks ago Granny suffered a severe stroke and heart attack which led to a decision for her to be placed in hospice. I will never forget that day. We all knew that the decision for hospice was what she wanted, she made that very clear. But it certainly didn’t make it any easier on any of us.

It was a blessing to be able to spend some time alone with her before she was moved from her hospital room to the hospice unit. I decided to ask her if she knew what would happen when she died. It wasn’t like this was new territory for a conversation between Granny and me. We had talked about her diverse “religious” upbringing many times. She would laugh about how many times she had been “saved”, walked an aisle, or been baptized as she and her mom traveled from home to home when she was young. But here, in this hospital room, I was asking point blank. “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins Granny?” She shook her head yes. “Do you know for sure that you will go to heaven when you die?” She nodded again. “Do you want to hear about what heaven is going to be like?” She shook her head no and put up her hand. Apparently, she didn’t want to hear anymore about it. So I prayed. I prayed out loud and boldly. And she held my hand tightly.

Over the next six days family members would be in and out of her room. She could hear us but her responses grew weaker and weaker as the days passed. We would pray and cry. We would read to her and play music for her. I read the entire book of John to her when we were alone together. And with many others in the room, I read about heaven.

I was asked many times if I thought she would be in heaven. As sincerely as I could, I would answer that there was no way to know for sure. But I have faith that I will see her again. I have faith that Granny understood who Jesus was and why He came and accepted it as her only way to eternal life. My prayer is that every person in my family will also make this decision. I know Granny would want us all together again.

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