Saturday, July 31, 2010


Well, tomorrow we return from our tour. Somehow, calling it anything less than that which constitutes and indicates combat sells the team short. To say it was a good trip ... well ... just won’t do it.

Have you ever wanted to be a part of something unique? Yes? Then lead a mission trip. I feel that part of my duty, part of my goal is to make this experience profound. To amp it up, drive it through and to run it home. Not disallowing God to be God, but to take my responsibility as seriously as possible. Not myself seriously, but the team.

Part of that involves designing the trip and its purpose and then leading it through. Part of it is getting out of the way so that God can do what He does, and then part of it is getting us home. I feel like God gives me the opportunity to go deep into enemy territory to take supplies to the besieged. I like that. Invasion always sounded better than digging a trench and hiding. We are about God’s work, let us come from the ramparts to take the Good fight. Hooahh.

Within this idea are the supplies we bring. I think that God probably sits back and watches us pack with a smile on our face. It’s the child that packs his suitcase for a trip to the beach by himself for the very first time and has a pile of toys and games, one sock, yesterday’s underwear, and a winter coat. All good stuff, but where is the good stuff ... We brought a lot of supplies this year, too much (as always) and left much of it with Ishy, our local yocal. He’ll use it in many camps and he’ll give much of it to a local church as well. He was pumped - with his six suitcases of gear. We bring it in, use it, break some of it, wear it, paint it, pull it, kick it, and then leave it. Then, we get new stuff (souvenirs) and load that and bring it back. We never bring as much back as we take, but still ...

You know, this is true with our spiritual life as well. Very true. So true, that this kind of event, this mission, this deployment, this storming the gates of Hell with an empty squirt-gun, bears great resemblance to the aforementioned idea (always wanted to use that word!). We bring and leave what we must and replace it with something new that should be permanent, but often is not. We spent today seeing the city - all places that I now can navigate by heart. Then we ate at Pizza Hut (almost as good as Waffle House) and then shopped. We bought trinkets, plinkets, hats, toys, art, and anything else we could get our hand on. Some of it for ourselves, most of it for others. All new things. Even if it’s old, it’s new to us. We then take it back in order to please, bring joy, tell a story, and keep a fading memory kindled.

Is this not true for our hearts as well? We brought our heart (some of us had left a piece behind anyway ...) and we take back ... the memory, the experience, the scars, and the joys. Think about this; we come back different, changed, impacted ... veterans. We come and leave and take and leave. It’s profound. Our families look at the pictures, hear the stories, see the change, but unless they have had a similar experience, won’t fully understand what has taken place. They can’t. We have to bring that back. But what we fill our hearts with should not be trinkets, or toys, or that other funny hat that I waited 4 years to buy; it should be a quickened, refreshed love. Something powerful. Penetrating. Peaceful.

So families, I have so much more to tell you, but it is not mine to tell. Writing it all is simply not possible. But, you must ask your new veterans returning to you. We won this one. We’re battled and bewilderingly tired, but this one, we won. This has been the most exhausting of the four trips I have participated in. But, this battle goes to us because we obeyed by going, telling the Truth, and we won. So ask your loved one about it, but understand the tears may be on their face, but they fall on foreign soil. The empty hands, the shaking, the laughter filled with weeping is not a negative, it is the result. It is the release not of toxins, but of The Spirit. The 2 dimensional image you see of “that child” that stole a part of your son, or daughter, or wife, or husband tells very little because it is but two dimensions of a limitless experience. It is color on paper when we have experienced a stylus upon our heart. It is not the hug, the smell, the feel of the bodies we held. But it is the result of the Body that fell so that we might live. You must see the dirt, hear the wind in the trees, close your eyes and know the voices of “your” children in order to bear the mark. You must dip your hands into Grace’s magic waters and breath deeply. You must experience it. You must believe.

I go to bed now, with the hope of three hours sleep before our journey begins. We’ll look the same, but we’ll be different. We’ll have inside jokes and we’ll stand in church and purposely look for a familiar face that just three months ago was unknown. We’ll share a look, a gesture, something that reminds us that it was real.

That we really did go.

That we really did return.

That God really is that good ... all the time.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Group Hug

Every night, we debrief; we talk about the day. What worked (everything), what didn’t (can’t think of anything) and how we are feeling (like death in a toaster oven). We sit down and take about 90 minutes of talk time and turn it into 3 hours of emotional flailing. And laughing. God gave us a sense of humor so that we could better reflect Him. Not funny for the fact of being funny, but funny because there is something cathartic and narcotic in laughter. Like listening to Brian’s alarm go off over, and over, and over and him yelling “Stop it!”. Can’t coach that Brian. He then sticks his head out the door (it’s left open all night in hope that a thief might enter and steal some of the heat) and looks around as if the alarm were wrung in conjunction with a fire. We all laugh, and so the day begins. One of the most remarkable things about this trip is the amount of humor that God has stacked on the team. And most of it is my kind of humor and much of it comes from guys my age. It’s as if God knew I would need it specifically. Uh-oh.

It’s also on this trip that I am reminded that it is not just young people that get the case of the giggles. That spontaneous and viral emotion that starts with a few and affects the many. We adults need it too and it somehow seems that our group time starts with the strategic, leads to the tactical, runs headlong into the emotional and ends with the grace and laughter that God brings.

Which brings me to my point. Every night, we sit in a circle (often on the Gulf of Finland) and we discuss the day. We also do a high/low and feelings check. It’s a time t wring our hearts out, so have an emotional cup of coffee, to depend on others. There is not supposed to be any talking except for the person that is speaking, but the later in the week, the more we all offer commentary. In trips past, the “high” points of my day have revolved around me. Something I saw, or felt, or discovered. But I can say n this trip, my high’s have been truly focussed on the team. My true “high” is this time of night, when we come together and share only what we the team will know. It’s awesome.

And it’s needed. It’s hard on these trips. They just beat the tar out of you. The emotions, the hope, the despair, the commitment that may or may not be returned from the kids. All the preparation we do just to have a kid give you the finger, laugh in your face, and ignore you, not wanting to hear about “our” God. This is what this team will face on a daily basis on this trip. These are hard kids. They know they are abandoned. They know they are unwanted. They know they have no healthy role models. They know their life is bleak. They ....

But the they don’t know the rest. They don’t know that to turn away and refuse Jesus will not make them cool, or tough, or better at surviving; it will only make them lost. We want so bad for them to get it. To hear and accept the Gospel.They have accepted us, but not Christ.

So ... we do a group hug at night, sitting, watching a storm roll in. We love each other, we calculate the changes that God is enacting in our lives and we hold each other. For tomorrow is Friday, the last day at the camps.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Heart Can't Afford This

You know, it’s interesting. Sometimes you go to a place to do one thing, and you end up doing another and completely forget the first thing that you went there to do. Like going to Home Depot. Home Depot is distraction central for men - the mecca of (AMADHD) adult male attention deficit disorder. You go in for the gas additive for your blower and you come out with a new weed eater, some weed & feed, light bulbs, a non-specific tool and at least one thing that requires batteries. What you don’t walk out with is the thing that you went in there to get in the first place. The good news is that you get to go back in there to get the priority item and the bad news is that you just might do it again. Rinse and repeat.

What I have learned, once again, is that sometimes you can do almost the opposite. You go somewhere to do something and you leave something behind. Then, you know that you must go back to retrieve said item, get so overwhelmed, you leave something else. The odd thing is that what you leave is never replaced, and what it served cannot be made whole again. It’s like gambling (so I am told); you put money down, lose it, bet more to get it back, and lose even more. Stay there long enough and you’ll lose the whole shebang. And this is what has taken place at camp 40.

Day three is usually one that you can depend on to be stable. It’s day three. You have not been there long enough to have an issue, and you have been there long enough to have a general idea of what is taking place. But, apparently, day three has a sneaky side; something that lies in wait along the trail, a booby-trap, a sabot (look up sabotage) something that penetrates and robs, something that hurts. A lot.

We had reversed our schedule to allow kids at camp 40 (the young camp) to have their bath day. But before the bath, they play on the beach. So we met them on the beach, literally. We arrived a little after 9 and they were heading across the road, moving like an undulating line of whities-tighties with little white bodies and the international symbol of plumbers wiggling and squiggling across the road. So cute, so innocent, and so possessive of our souls and hearts. We spent the next 90 minutes playing on the beach (not the surf) with our kids. Those that we had adopted into our hearts and those that had adopted us. Running, rolling, hearing Russian and answering in English and depending on smiles and inflection to speak louder than words.

The camp director approached and pulled me and Ishy aside. She looked ... distracted. With discomfort on her face and pain in her voice, she lanced my soul with her words. “Today must be the last day.” I couldn’t even think of a response. “What?” is a word uttered when you are looking to clarify the grocery list, not something you utter when a world is collapsing. Not “the world”, but a world. A world of love and grace. Where children love with a purity unmatched in our world. The state inspectors were coming and we couldn’t be there.

When we are with these kids, strange things happen. Time stops, reality dims, your focus sharpens. I could only imagine this is what a race car driver feels ... right before he rolls the car and gets ejected into a pile of burning glass. Honestly. My first reaction was to not fall down. My second was having to figure out how I was going to tell the team. I called for them to listen and then stared at the sand. I hoped the big robot spider from Transformers was going to jump up and kill me. He didn’t. Coward. So, I did what I am supposed to do - I told the team that this was it. They had 10 minutes. It was a hateful thing to have to say and I hated saying it and ...

They each scooped “theirs” up and began to weep. We said goodbye, watched the undie train snake back across the street and ... they were gone. So we all went our separate ways to process and then headed towards the bus to take our shattered hearts back to the hotel.

I ache. My heart, my head, my body. This team is ... wow. They are all wow, but this one has something different. We’ve had our Currahee, and now we have faced our “Day of Days.” Friday will be our Bastonge.

(((Added Thursday afternoon))) To finish the thought, we came to camp 40 to pick up what we had left last year. The year before that to do the same. But somehow, the price of admission is greater than that which is collected. I keep coming back to the table to pick up the pieces of my heart and I keep losing that bet. So if you happen to be walking along the Gulf of Finland, near where it is cool and green and the voices and laughter of children echo amongst birch and evergreen, look to the sand. Run your foot through its course grains and search hardily ... for you may find that which I long for. My heart.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Coming to you live, from the surface of the sun ...

You may not know this, but things are not what we thought they would be. Take the weather for instance. I told the team that the projected temperature would be in the low 70s during the day and low 50s during the night. “Bring a jacket!” I said. It’s a good thing that I said that, otherwise when it dropped below 90 we might get a chill on. Did you hear that? 90. It will be 101 on Thursday. Now, that’s not too hot for my Texans, except for the fact that the humidity is devastating. I spent 30 minutes trying to dry off after I got out of the shower. I thought it was Groundhog Day. I kept thinking, "Didn't I already dry off?" Even the mosquitoes are quitting their strafing runs early. And no, we don’t have AC. Anywhere. We don’t even have fans. What we have is temperatures that are, on a daily basis, breaking historical records for the past 70 years. We went through over 50 liters of water ... today. I drank six myself. I don’t drink six liters ... of anything .... ever. Except ice tea. The good thing is that the hotel cafeteria (just can't bring myself to call it a restaurant) has “Cool Tea”. The bad news is that it is like calling this temperature "balmy." I don’t know what the definition of “cool” is but I do know that tea should not be warmer than me and it definitely should not have been cut with brake fluid. I’m not even entirely sure it should be that color. What I am sure of is that it is not tea.

Just to make it clear, it’s so hot that my the sweat drips into my food at lunch and dinner. Imagine Corky Holland eating the most devastatingly hot wings you can imagine. He gets rivulets of sweat, and I have stream. I’m not sure I have ever been this hot. I mean, my bed is wet. I’m glistening, but not just in personality.

But, onto the camps. Today was day one at both camps. We left the city and drove out and had about 2 hours at camp 14, the older kids camp. After that, we went to the hotel and checked in and it only took an hour to get the luggage up to our rooms. The elevator has a weight limit of 600 pounds ... so most of us guys don’t get to ride together. After lunch and the sauna (the cafeteria), we went on to camp 40, the younger kids camp. Now, here is the advantage of a day in a city where the temperature should be 65 at 3pm and is 98 instead; the kids were all in their underwear. Imagine 50 Russian kids, all between 3 and about 6, running around in their undies yelling for us. I’m not even sure I can post pictures without going to jail! And what made it really cute is that these were not whitey-tighties, these were more like dirty-frumpies. I spent the first 5 minutes making adjustments to kids that obviously aspire to be plumbers. Never seen so much snow-white flesh in my life!

What is truly amazing is how God has orchestrated this trip in so many ways. It’s hot in a place that has has not been this hot since the Germans were running around. It’s so humid, my cracked heals have healed. And I am so blessed, that I once again sit here, at 2:15am, speechless. How does God do it? During our evening de-brief, we all sat in wonder as we realized that the awful airport experience, in the words of one immaculate sage, was our Currahee. The 24 hours of running through airports took a loose family and turned it into something that only God can do; it turned us into a Body. We have always had great teams on this trip, but I can truly say that this is the most profound collection of hearts I have ever worked with.

Ishi, our lead translator, stopped me while I was walking and said “Wow Dahveed. Thuh kids have already axcepted thees teem. Wow” Now Ishy is anything but silent, but this is a telling statement from him. This is the first time that I ever had a first day that felt like the third. We came. We saw. He conquered.

At camp 40, the team with the most active kids arrived and as soon as they walked up, the Babooshkahs (the women who keep the kids) said they were going to go have a cup of tea. My first thought was, “Wow! Are you crazy? Tea? In this heat?” My second thought was that this is the first time they left the kids with us alone. The trust was not just assumed, it was manifest.

So, it’s been a good day. Tomorrow night, I will share the computer with others so they can write to you themselves. We may even put a message in a bottle and float it across our sweaty backs to you!

Please continue to pray because the threat of heat related issues is real and I am all but pouring water down their mouths. Everyone is eating well enough, so stop worrying about that. Hannah likes the caviar and McKenzie has tried everything that has passed in front of her. We’re well, we’re loved and we’re a team. We miss you all, but this is where we need to be. And now that I just fell asleep with the computer on my chest, I will bid you farewell from the surface of the sun.

The 2010 Russia team

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sweaty and ready

If you have never seen God plan ahead on your behalf and then work really hard during a given process on your behalf and then allow circumstances and challenges to abound so that He can quietly make His presence known on your behalf, then you should strongly consider signing up for a mission trip. Case in point ...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times and it happened to be in the middle of summer. We arrived at Amarillo airport all on time and the Continental airline staff got us checked in, all 42 checked bags and 20 carry-ons, in less than 30 minutes. What I should have considered is that this was not so much a good start as it was a way to make sudden the utter chaos to follow. I’ll not bore you with the details of our families sending us off, the sweet fellowship at the airport, or the tender goodbyes.That would be like describing the Apollo 13 mission but not including anything after it’s launch. We know our families love us, that's one of the things that makes this possible.

You see, we had been advised to check our bags into Houston. Then we would have 2 1/2 hours to pull all of the above bags and re-check them all the way to St. Petersburg. That way we would be doing all of this in familiar English and not unfamiliar Russian. Good plan, right? Well, no good plan survives first contact with the enemy. We get to Houston, run to baggage claim, collect our bags and then board the “Train” that is really three egg cartons strung together on a 5-mile-per-hour train that has a greater resemblance to my sons Thomas the Tank Engine track set than anything designed to carry people. Each car caries 5 people and their luggage. There’s three cars to a train. There’s 21 of us. No sweat. It’s early and I have so much caffeine in me that I am making coffee nervous. So, I board the first train so I can run ahead and tell the Singapore Airlines people that we are coming. Tick-tock, the watch says. Just more than 2 hours to make it.

So, I ride the train for 15 minutes and wound up back where I started, but on the other side of the hall. There is the rest of the team, laughing at us (the train only goes one way), but now most of the rest of them board. So, then we all make it to the gate and it is packed. The short version here is that it takes an hour to get checked in and oh, by the way, you have to get your luggage from baggage claim in Moscow. WHAT? I asked. Uh-huh, she said. Tick-tock goes my blood pressure. So we run some more, just to find out we beat the crew to the plane by 30 minutes. On the plane we go and it is the nicest cattle-car class plane I have ever flown in. Everyone has an AC plug at their seat, a USB charging port, plenty of leg room, I got an aisle seat, the plane is new and even the food was good (ask Hannah about the yummy sausage!) So, we’re good. This is a good omen, and I don’t believe in omens, but if I did, this would be a good one. Then there’s Moscow. Moscow. Seriously. Moscow.

We get off the plane, (we’re late) and have right at two hours to once again, pull 42 checked bags, 30 carry-ons, 2o team members and a stressed team leader from passport control, to baggage claim, to ticketing, to the gate, to the seats. We come over the rise where customs is and it is wall-to-wall people. I thought maybe Bruce Springstein was there, holding up traffic. We shove our way through the Russian crowd (they don’t smile very often) and make it to the open escalator that leads to our parole .. I mean, passport control and find that there is probably 1500 people trying to get through 8 passport lanes and that have an institutional fear of lines. Think of 4 hour glasses set on their side. It’s not lines 1,2, and 3, it’s feed lot 1, 2, and 3. Bad. Really bad. Less than 90 minutes now and we can barely see daylight. This ends when we all, 45 minutes later, get through, find our bags and then head to ticketing - 40 minutes before the plane takes off. Do you know that I like to be early to things? I’m freaking out.

But, then God does it again, someone tells me there is a guy with an “Amarillo” sign and sure enough, it’s a Buckner guy that is running us towards ticketing. Long line, angry Russians, 45 minutes later (had to pay for some excess baggage here as well, did I mention that?) and we are now sprinting towards the next gate with a 5 foot Russian that speaks as much English as I do Klingon on point. It’s O.J. time through the airport. We went through the metal detectors so fast I could have been carrying the 11th Armored Tank Division in my carry-on and they would have not noticed. He chases me all the way down the jetway and into the airplane where we find ourselves soaking wet (it was 90 today in Moscow and they don’t have AC) exhausted (it’s 7am back home), and thoroughly shot. Did I mention that we had to gate check our second carry-ons every time?

But, here’s the bottom line: we’re here families. Every single piece of luggage made it Through all of that chaos, we lost nothing, we had Russians helping us every step of the way, and even an American missionary family that Anne and I have known in the past was offering help in case we got stuck in Moscow.

God is so good. When you pray for us, and I hope you all are, tell Him thank you. He has kept us on task and humble. Tired, but not taxed. He has been so faithful every step of the way. This has been the worst overseas experience I have ever had regarding traveling, and not a single moan or whimper was released by the team. They have run, trotted, carried, trooped, hoisted, slugged, and coerced themselves over 5,000 miles and did it in such a way that someone identified us as believers just because of the smiles on our faces. What a remarkable group of people.

Families, please know that we love you and we miss you, “... but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Weakened, so that we can be strengthened.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One Last Time

It's that time again. In 9 days, we'll all roll out of our beds and get ready for it. "The Trip." Not the Russia trip, but the trip of getting from here to there. The drive to the airport, terrified that you've forgotten something (I have your passports!) Getting through check-in watching David panic as he pays for all that luggage. Eating a burrito knowing you'll regret it in an hour. Saying goodbye to family and trying to figure out why there is a soulful game in your gut involving the butterflies of excitement trying to land on that iron ball of regret at leaving family. Then making your way to the gate and hoping Byron doesn't stall us at boarding time. Then the first flight. Then get the luggage and re-check it and then ... the 12 hour flight. Then customs, then another flight, then the drive into the hotel then sleeping on a bed designed for a Hobbitt! "OOooo ... my precious ..." And all of this only takes up two days and 9 time zones ... so ... ok, then.

Then, it begins in a whole new way. The last of so many things. Last tourism with a great group of folks, last Folk Show (actually, we're seeing the ballet - I lied!), last souvenirs of tacky t-shirts (McLenin in McDonald's livery, and yes, I talked to them about copyright infringement) last time I'll see those remarkable faces and souls in camps 40 and 14. Last time ... last time. But, it won't be the last time for some things. As we take the Gospel to the kids, God is there. He was there long before we arrived, and He'll be there long after. It won't be the last time I pray for them, or think about them, or miss them. It won't be the last time God works a matter of love in my heart and it won't be the last time that I miss home with a power that is overwhelming while weeping for children that are not mine. It won't be the last time that I leave what I love to join what I love and then repeat the process in order to come home. It won't be the last time I cry. It won't be the last time ... and on it goes.

I have this picture in my mind, of a scene taken from across the road at camp #40. The scene should have the buildings and children in it, but the they are not there and even the forest and sand looks different. It's clean. Spotless. Almost untouched. Like the world looked like generations ago - no human intrusions or cumbersome people about. Then I realize there is one person, squatting down. His presence seems to lighten things up like those sunglasses that make things brighter even if they are not. It's the Son of God, standing on that shore, looking around. I realize this is before time, when the Spirit is still on the waters, before creations' completion. Jesus is there, waiting, knowing the kids will be there, knowing we will be there. Even then, even at creation, He knew. All along He knew we would be there. Some before us, some after.

So I am reminded, it's not the last time. Not at all. It's just the created following the Creator in order to do what He commands. God was there, in those camps and He's still there, in those camps. He'll be there long after we're gone. So, let's go meet Him, one last time.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sweeping Up Rocks

As we got off the bus on our 5th day, our last day, I watched a woman sweeping the dirt road. She had a broom that had the bottom few inches of it worn away, and was sweeping into little piles, anything that might trip or cause pain. With sincere motions, but a delicate touch she swept and swept and swept.

Today was a hard day. No question about that. We said goodbye to children, little parts of our soul and significant portions of our hearts. The last day at the camps is something we talk about in training. It’s painful, it’s tearful, it’s uncomfortable, but you can’t have a beginning without an ending. S it logical that we long to make the trip to Russia, dread leaving, and then can’t wait to get home. All of us, last night, commented on wanting to board the airplane immediately. It ‘s like we are carrying some precious cargo, some invaluable commodity, some irreplaceable information that we must immediately begin caring for, nurturing and the returning to our homes to share. What an odd sensation as this.

The day has gone beautifully. Tears, laughter, games, the Gospel. One of the most difficult aspects of this trip is that we rarely see an fruit. Many kids listen intently and they ask great questions and at least let us believe that they are listening to what we are saying. But, we don’t know what is in their hearts. I do know what I experienced, however.

From one vantage point I saw Brad, sitting at a table with 5 older Russian boys, being their friend; a mentor, talking, sharing. I heard Tad, beautifully and gracefully driving home the Gospel message with great patience as the children acted their age. Listening while contorting into various positions of barely bridled boredom. I could see the shadows of the older girls in a building while having their Bible study and “slumber party.” I could hear Brandon’s voice (he apparently left his inside voice in Texas along with mine and Elaine’s!) talking to the older boys with his bandanna and sunglasses. A mystique he created by being himself with them. I could see Byron, a father of fathers to these children, one arm on a child, one on the table, teaching, showing, guiding, loving. I could see Hannah, being led around and used as a playmate with a small, beautiful, but reserved little girl. They would laugh, Hannah would look at me, and her smile somehow brightened the day.

But there was something else there. Something that caused our words to being to slur towards the end. Something hard, and painful, and heavy. It was those little rocks that loving caretaker had been sweeping. They were there. There were 19 piles of them, one for each team member. They were in neat little balls and they were heavy, and they were dirty, and they choked us with their dust. We tripped upon them and had I been Melville, then my chest would have been a cannon and I would have shot my heart upon them. Only, those rocks, those stony reminders of a glorious week and a difficult day seemed to gather upon our exit. Like the children, they followed us to the bus, they slowly dragged themselves into the road and there they discarded themselves into our hearts.

Our hearts are heavy now. With rocks that are pieces of love and memory that are difficult to capture and too elusive to explain completely. They form the most precious souvenir that we will bring back. Memories of a day, bathed in glory, formed before time, and beautifully difficult.