“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I remember the elation I was feeling during the days leading up to my appointment at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador. I was on vacation from my teaching job during the Holy Week, Semana Santa, and I had just returned from a short trip to Antigua, Guatemala with my then-girlfriend, Elena, and her family. For a couple days I walked those cobble-stoned streets, ate in its cafes and restaurants, took pictures in front of its Baroque-style churches and architecture, and enjoyed the presence of Elena and her family.

Though Elena and I were not yet engaged, we knew we wanted to get married, so we made an appointment at the embassy for the day after we returned from our trip to Antigua. I was very confident that I had done all my research and knew exactly what needed to be completed for us to get married in El Salvador (at a breath-taking cafe on the volcano overlooking the city), continue living there for a year or two, and then return to the United States. The embassy was merely a precaution to make sure we were following all the steps properly.

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Eventually we met with an embassy agent, but our world came crashing down around us; she explained to us that it would be necessary for us to separate.

There were basically two types of visas we could apply for: a fiance(e) visa or a spouse visa. With the former, we separate before the wedding and then get married in the U.S. With the latter, we get married in El Salvador and then separate at some early point in our marriage. Basically, it was essential that I leave Elena at some point to return to the U.S. and establish myself there with a permanent residence and job.

We left that meeting so deflated. We would have to be separated.

I remember the initial shock, trying not to cry, trying to be strong for Elena, to be positive and act like it was only a small obstacle. We left the embassy and walked down the road a little ways to a coffee shop. We discussed our options but pretty easily decided that it would be better to separate before getting married rather than after. Literally, in the course of one conversation with an embassy agent that lasted minutes, all of our plans had changed. I had planned on teaching in El Salvador longer. We were going to get married on a tropical volcano in Central America!

Nope.

That happened on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017. I literally went back to my home that night and immediately began applying to teaching jobs [side note: I actually applied that night to the school that would end up hiring me, Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit, MO just outside of Kansas City, and I’m so incredibly grateful–so many applications, yet it was the very first where I now work!]. A few days later I notified my supervisor that I would not be returning to teach the next school year. Additionally, I had to say goodbye to some of the coolest 10th, 11th, and 12th graders I knew. Those kids treated me so well, and they gave me one of the most precious goodbye cards I’ve ever received. However, the end had come, and that summer I moved back to the U.S. Elena visited for three weeks, but then, suddenly, we were no longer together.

Even now I begin tearing up thinking through the emotions of last summer, watching her walk through security at the airport after saying goodbye, refusing to leave my spot until I absolutely could see her no longer.

Some of those first weeks of separation were incredibly difficult for both of us. We had to acclimate ourselves to a new reality in our relationship, a reality that easily fed into underlying fears (Will they leave me? Will they find someone else? Will our application be denied?).

Part of me wants to say that I blamed God a lot, but that probably doesn’t capture it. I was just kind of cold to God. The situation had numbed me, and I had difficulty even mustering any sort of emotional response to Him. It’s not that I lost faith. For example, I knew that church was important, and I searched diligently for one when I moved for my new job. However, my personal devotional life was suffering. I found prayer tedious and cynicism easy.

With time, however, Elena and I began finding our routine. I had moved to Lee’s Summit and was staying with a family (angels in disguise really–the Whites were a miracle) while I adapted and got settled into the new area, and I began working as a sixth grade teacher, being energized by the relentless youthfulness of the kiddos. Elena began her second year at the American school where she is an assistant teacher for pre-K, and it has proved to be such a positive environment and blessing for her. Thus, we began finding routine in our daily schedules and in our long-distance relationship (lots of texting and video calls).

In all this, though, the best thing happened. Even when we first learned that we would be separated, I made comments that perhaps this is a forced blessing, a path we would never choose for ourselves but one that would lead to greater individual growth before we join together forever in marriage. It was always hard to internalize that, but I communicated it nonetheless. However, it became true; that’s exactly what has happened.

In this season Elena and I have grown so much closer to each other, and more importantly, we have both galvanized an even deeper and richer foundation in Jesus Christ. He is our Rock. When we can zoom out and look at the big picture, we realize that one year is a small sacrifice if it results in a lifetime anchored in the power of Jesus. If this is what He needed to do to prepare us for our life ahead, then this season is worth it.

God tests those he loves.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.      -1 Peter 1:6-7

This process has been slow and incremental, but recently I prayed something simply, and, more or less, it went like this:

“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I didn’t want to see it at first. I couldn’t. I said it, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t see how Elena and I separating could lead to anything good. It has, though, and we are both so grateful that God has been faithful. He has been preparing us, making us better versions of ourselves so that we can be better for each other and, ultimately, for God.

Elena’s embassy appointment is soon. She has been approved in every step of the process so far, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe she won’t be approved for this final formality. We’re still praying, though, because this journey is always anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, we have a Power that is beyond all powers; He is the Mystery that is deeper than any mystery, and without Him we’d be nothing.

I love you, Elena Montoya, and I can’t wait to marry you soon.

 

 

An Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

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It’s here. You’ve finally made it to the end. I’m proud of you.

And I’m not saying I’m proud of you because every single moment of every class period you acted like perfect little angels (we all know that’s not the truth). I’m saying it because…well…it’s easy to say now that you’re gone. Ha! Just kidding. No, really I’m saying it because all of you have so much potential and so much passion for life. I have had the privilege of learning so much from you; thank you for sharing your lives and culture with me. All of you have immense value, and you just completed a major milestone. You have finished high school, and you begin a new, profound journey to university, to your career, to the mysterious (and often scary) beyond. It’s amazing to me the impact and influence you might have as you take your passions literally all around the world. Some of you will continue to impact your home country, El Salvador; some of you will study in other Latin American countries; some in the United States; some in Canada; and one all the way in Korea!

I’m not sure if I ever shared this with you guys, but I was the student commencement speaker at my first undergraduate graduation. There are a million directions to take a graduation speech (I worked at a book store for a year in Boston, and we sold so many copies of Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! during graduation season), but I shared and briefly expounded upon two ideas. First, I read a few lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…” (in fact, I wrote a longer post about this very poem here). I hope you feel that, that sense of adventure, that carpe diem, that grabbing the world by it’s tail. But I also hope that life is more than that. In my graduation speech I also shared the latter part of Hebrews 11 from the Bible. Of course Hebrews 11 is remarkable, the “Hall of Faith” it has been called, recounting the deeds of faithful men and women. But the last few verses  about the faithful are sensational indeed!

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:35b-40 (ESV)

Rather a sobering passage to share in light of graduation, huh? But I say this because throughout history, the most influential men and women have understood that there is a greater law than individual success, money, power, and fame. Always a life worth living involves self-sacrifice (though I hope you never need to experience the physical torture and death that some throughout the world experience). From a Christian perspective, there is the hope of greater reward than what the world can offer. This creates the freedom to serve selflessly. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So what definition of success will you live by? What cause are you willing to die for in order to truly live?

Be workers. Be leaders. Be husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. But don’t let popular, vain opinion dictate your definition of success and accomplishment. Some of the greatest servants and saints have been relatively unknown.

I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you. Now go and change the world.

 

Deep breaths…

It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:

a pipe and thoughts

 

Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.

  All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.

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Saying Goodbye (and Understanding Home)

Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology. 

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My dad, my mom, my girlfriend Elena, and I at San Martin, basically El Salvador’s version of Panera Bread Co.

In my senior’s English Literature class we’re reading Robinson Crusoe (I needed something in our textbook that would hold their attention amidst senioritis better than old poetry they couldn’t understand–remember, English isn’t their first language). At the beginning of the story the main character is being persuaded by his father not to set out on his adventure. Let your imagination wander a little bit, and it’s a rather tearful, dramatic account. Robinson Crusoe’s brother has already died on his own adventure, and his father withholds his blessing (and God’s) if his son insists stubbornly on his journey to the sea.

Now, my experience with my parents has never been like that. They’ve always been supportive of my adventures, the path of my life (and it’s taken quite a winding way). But it’s always so difficult to say goodbye. I said goodbye last July when I moved to El Salvador. I said goodbye after visiting them at Christmas. And I just said goodbye to them last Tuesday after they were in the country for a week. My parents are beautiful people, and we are very close. It was difficult to say goodbye. I love them dearly. So this is an important lesson to adventuring.

Always remember where you came from. There’s a worn-out statement packed with meaning. Nobody is so alone in life that they would not be missed if they left. Stay in touch. Send a postcard. Love the ones you leave behind. Visit. And when your journey’s over, it’s okay for your tired feet to find their way back home. Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.

A little bit out of context, but I’ve always loved the sense of this statement from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

Everyday Adventure

{I feel like every post lately starts with an apology. Here’s my last apology but hopefully not my last post for awhile. The reality is that I was a little over-ambitious when I began my blog, not factoring in my schedule (besides being a first-year teacher I’m finishing another degree online). Once my schedule clears up a bit, my posts will become more regular again. Thanks all!}

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…the girl 😉
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Chicago with my brother and my Salvadorian brother over Christmas break.
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sunset at Costa del Sol…it’s good to be back in El Salvador

 

 

La vida es bella.

Every day we wake up to a new sunrise and a new wind, a wind gathered among the airs and the comings and goings of an entire globe, accumulating and retracting and gathering and forming and transforming–touching our small little environments along its journey. And we are invited into the tears and smiles and burdens and triumphs and tragedies of that traveling breath–the wind is a speechless whisper, ever observant, ever moving–that passes over this beautiful, ugly little planet, a mere pinprick in the sea of stars and galaxies and universes.

Estoy feliz.

I am learning about contentment. For years I have been learning this lesson, and I will be its student until I die. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that he had learned the secret of being content. That is a great, slippery secret. I have bounced around a lot. The temptation for adventurers and wanderers and travelers is to brag of their experiences… I know that temptation. The truth is, every new opportunity comes with tears. Every new opportunity brings with it the chance to be selfish and to make it all about ME. And every new opportunity punches me in the face, reminding me just how fragile I am and what the priorities of life are. Love God and love people–Jesus summarized in a few words what takes a lifetime to learn and fail and learn some more. I am learning to adapt. I am learning about contentment.

La vida es bella.

 

 

 

El Salvador: Birthdays

This past weekend was my birthday. I’m really close with my family, so it’s not always easy to be away from them during celebrations. However, living abroad has the unique advantage of celebrating in new ways.

First, my school department took me to El Zócalo, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in El Salvador. I was donned with a sweet sombrero and cape as the waiters sang and brought me flan.

Second, three of my classes on Friday threw me a little party: cake, ice cream, soda, balloons, silly string, even a picture of me on the dry-erase board.

And I got a cake from my school department!

Also, I learned about a fun little tradition: “Mordida! Mordida! Mordida!” How it works is… well, if you don’t know, I’ll just let you experience that one for yourself.

Lastly, my other family came to my house Friday night, and we enjoyed homemade tacos, fun, and games.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday. So many people sang for me, brought me food, cooked me food, gave me gifts, and warmly wished me a “Feliz Cumpleaños.” Gracias a todos! Wonderful country. Wonderful people.

El Salvador: People and Places (and links to a couple recipes)

I have been a bad blogger the last week or so. Things got busy, and I never really sat down to spend time sharing literature or travels here in El Salvador. Forgive me. But I’m here now!

First of all, a couple weekends ago my friend Fernando and I ventured out to La Puerta del Diablo. Unfortunately, it seems like the devil was a little inundated. Rain only allowed a few pictures before returning home. Here’s all we got.

There are worse things though; Fernando and I will return another day. After Puerta del Diablo we returned to my house and cooked steak and potatoes. Good ol’ comfort food. By the way, Fernando’s nickname for me is “Chele.” Basically this means I’m white. Chele is the nickname for lighter skinned Salvadorians. So at least I feel accepted.

Last weekend I visited El Tunco. Many locals like to remind us estadounidenses that there is more to El Salvador than our third world perception. There is incredible scenery, tourist spots, and very modern urban life. Of course it’s sad that there are areas of violence, but El Salvador is a beautiful country with even beautiful-er people! By the way, El Tunco gets its name because the rock formation is supposed to look like a pig. Eh…I don’t see it.

Finally, what is life without your friends?! Last weekend we celebrated the birthday of our friend, and her favorite cake is carrot cake, so I tried my hand at it. [Below is the recipe…it is awesome! However, for me (probably user error) the frosting was a little runny. I will probably keep the cake recipe and search for a new cream cheese frosting. Additionally, I’m adding a great pizza crust recipe I used recently for friends. I would suggest heeding one commenter’s advice (Crikkitt was the username) who doubled the recipe, added garlic, and oregano.] After we all went out to eat, we returned to my apartment to eat carrot cake and dance salsa. I’m terrible, but I’m learning. Yay El Salvador!

“No-Yeast Pizza Crust”

“Carrot Cake” 

Buen provecho!

 

 

El Salvador: Día del Niño and Grand Views

Although officially Día del Niño is observed on October 1st, students at my school celebrated with half day of school on Friday, September 30. The half day was filled with food, games, and a spectacular performance from the seniors. It was really amazing to watch them band together in rehearsal (okay, I only saw one rehearsal) and commit to preparing for their amazing performance Friday. Children from all grades dressed up like Disney characters, but the seniors put on the show. The spirit and culture is amazing, a country that knows how to honor and celebrate.

“It may be that [God] has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” -GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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Though Día del Niño was the highlight, I had a great weekend with friends. On Sunday we capped it off by visiting an incredible lookout: El Mirador de La Giralda.

El Salvador: Juayua, Ataco, El Principito, and Grace

[I missed a post last week, so this is basically a combination of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s posts.]

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Yesterday I went to las cascadas de Juayua with some friends. We’re in the rainy season here in El Salvador, but if we wait for ideal conditions in life, we’ll sell ourselves woefully short. Thus, we plowed on and had a great time despite the rain. Unfortunately, the weather did prevent decent pictures. Still…

These waterfalls pour into crystal clear pools where one can relax and enjoy the surrounding environment (the jungle). I guess we couldn’t exactly relax too much since it was really cold, but we did have fun. Built alongside these pools are multiple tunnels leading to other pools. Though a little intimidating to plunge through a tunnel in the dark, it was a neat experience. We had a great time, and tried to stay dry, but most of our stuff got pretty wet. Afterwards we cleaned up as best as we could (I was directed to go inside this poorly lit house to change. As I walked in an old lady was moseying about and soon left. I changed quickly hoping she wouldn’t walk back in while I was stark naked!).

After the waterfalls we ate a delicious lunch and then visited Ataco (now my second time) to walk around and grab some coffee. There’s some really great wall art there!

As you can see, there’s a painting dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work, El Principito (originally in French, Le Petit Prince). This work is significant throughout the world, but it is especially significant in this region of El Salvador: Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval of El Salvador, and Ataco is near Sonsonate, the departamento where she grew up.

I started reading El Principito to work on my Spanish. Here are a couple favorite quotes so far:

Las personas mayores nunca pueden comprender algo por sí solas y es muy aburrido para los niños tener que darles una y otra vez explicaciones.

 

Cuando el misterio es demasiado impresionante, es imposible desobedecer.

Finally, I’m also reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel for the first time. In his fifth chapter, Manning goes into great detail to discuss the exchange of grace and wonder. This idea of wonder I think accurately relates to my experiences in El Salvador as well as to what I’ve read so far in El Principito.

     The spirituality of wonder knows the world is changed with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.

In the grasp of wonder, I am surprised, I’m enraptured. It’s Moses before the burning bush “afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). It’s Stephen about to be stoned: “I can see…the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). It’s Michelangelo striking his sculptured Moses and commanding him, “Speak!” It’s Ignatius of Loyola in ecstasy as he eyes the sky at night, Teresa of Avila ravished by a rose. It’s doubting Thomas discovering his God in the wounds of Jesus, Mother Teresa spying the face of Christ in the tortured poor. It’s America thrilling to footsteps on the moon, a child casting his kite to the wind. It’s a mother looking with love at her newborn infant. It’s the wonder of a first kiss.

I’m learning to live with wonder in the moment. Thanks for sharing in part this journey with me.

El Salvador: Día de la Independencia y La Naturaleza

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I didn’t anticipate posting about El Salvador again so soon, but I captured some more great moments that I wanted to share.

In El Salvador, Independence Day is September 15th, and this year was the 195th celebration. Despite a turbulent history there is strength, perseverance, and tremendous national pride.

My friends (i.e. my second family) had to pick me up at 7am (I begged not to be picked up at 6am) in order to avoid the chaotic traffic of the parades that took place the entire morning. We drove to Nueva Ascension, the birthplace of my madre salvadoreña, and I was blessed to see more of this great country.

Finally, a piece of advice: if you ever find yourself in El Salvador during the month of September, go to the nearest Mister Donut to enjoy 2×1. They’re delicious, and they’re Salvadorian.

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Río Lempa
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elote asado…originalment mi amigo lo llamó “elote quemado” jaja
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and here I thought you were supposed to drink water from a bottle
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thank God for four-wheel drive
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I love these guys…
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un rancho
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look…I found my new means of transportation

 

Finally, to reiterate the beauty of this place.

 

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