Okay, so the title is a bit misleading…for I don’t live near the ocean! In fact, I live 8,000-feet above sea level in a country that doesn’t even own a coastline! So why is this crazy guy talking about swimming across the largest body of water on earth using perhaps the most ineffective method out there? In the words of Indigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride book, “Let me explain. No, there is too much—let me sum up.” I think that (re)entering a new culture can feel a lot like undertaking the journey between Los Angeles, California and Tokyo, Japan in a Speedo. The journey may, in all likelihood, kill you. But, on the slim chance you make it, the experience will result in the greatest memories of a lifetime. Oh, and you will learn a lot on the way. It is this experience that I would like to share with you.
Entering the Water
Just about a year ago, January 12th to be exact, Naomi and I stepped off LAN Peru flight 2561 dragging along a feverish almost three-year-old boy and a very cranky one-year-old girl. Stepping off of that plane into Bolivia symbolized not only the near-end of one of the longest 24- hours of our lives, but also, more importantly, the beginning of our missionary career in Bolivia.
We were warmly welcomed by the Guerrero family as they helped us begin the process of setting up a life in Bolivia. At this point, things were going very well. Our children quickly recovered from the plane ride, and promptly began to love living in Bolivia which they found to be full of magical wonders: dirt to play in everywhere; dogs on every street corner to try to pet; slides designed to give parents heart attacks; new friends that could teach them a beautiful new language; and Dumbo’s—a virtual paradise of a restaurant for all toddler-kind. As for Naomi and I, we enjoyed exploring our new home. We visited churches; found a house that suited our needs; and made a first trip to the area of North Potosi that we were planning to make the site of our ministry there. We even ate some chuños (freeze dried potatoes, a staple of the highlands). You could say this time was like a perfect summer day spent wading at the beach. We were so happy to finally be in Bolivia, and life was just about perfect.
Now, I think I better understand just how important it is to remember to thank God for His bountiful blessing that He gives us during those ‘days at the beach.’ When I think back on our first few weeks in Bolivia, I am nearly overwhelmed by the amazing generosity of the Lord as He showered down joys on us even as we had just said goodbye to our home and family in the United States. I hope that as I go through the rest of my life I will always cherish that initial time of wonder as we stepped into ‘the water’, marveling at what we felt sure God would do through us.
By the end of January, we were in language school. Having lived in Bolivia as a child, I was quite confident that I would need only a few months to get back up to speed in my Spanish. Being naturally cautious, I tried to temper my expectations, but inside I was dreaming of motorboat speeds across the depths of cultural barrier in my trans-oceanic swim.
In April, we met with our project partner, Eduardo, for the first time in the city of Oruro. During the meeting, we learned a lot more about the orphans’ situation in North Potosi and were able to confirm that the vision we had for the area was very similar to Eduardo’s. Follow-up meetings led to further advancements in the planning and implementing of the project to establish a development center for the at-risk children in the Municipio de Caripuyo.
As plans for the center progressed, I felt the need to be further involved in children’s ministries in Cochabamba, where we currently live. I began to volunteer at two different children’s homes. At one home, I was part of a group of men who studied the Bible with the teenage boys who lived there. At the other, I helped young elementary children by tutoring them and helping them complete their homework assignments.
It was good to get involved in these ministries as we simultaneously worked to make the dream of the development center a reality. These opportunities allowed me to begin building some relationships with children who don’t have parents, to invest in them while also allowing me to build confidence in my ability to communicate. While I definitely didn’t ‘take on the whole world’ at once, I tried to carefully select which ministry opportunities the Lord was leading me into that would help me ‘plunge into’ the type of work I felt called to. These steps helped me take some bigger strokes out ‘into the water’ in my pursuit of ‘reaching the other side’.
Paddling Like Mad Trying to Keep My Head Above Water
So far, so good, right? So, where does the dog paddling come into play? Somewhere in the midst of all the forward progress I seemed to be making, something went wrong. I began to lose sight of the reason I was in Bolivia. It became too easy to try to do things my way instead of remembering that I was to follow the One who had led me here. I suppose it may have had something to do with the fact that I began to hit some of the rough waters of crossing cultures. There were things that frustrated me about the Bolivian culture. It quickly became apparent that I had a lot further to go in language learning than I realized. I had a difficult time finding and connecting with new friends. Whatever the cause, my imagined, quick paced breaststroke quickly turned into an awkward, labored doggie paddle.
I hadn’t abandoned my calling. I was still heading in the direction I believed I needed to go, but it took longer to make progress. I lost my orientation easily. Struggles that I believed I had put in the past popped up again like old nightmares returning. In desperation, I seriously began to wonder if I had made a mistake bringing my family to Bolivia. Had I misheard God’s calling? Was it possible that I was not actually meant to do what I had set out to do?
After visiting Potosi a couple of times, I came face-to-face with one of my toughest struggles yet. I found that I simply did not desire in the least to move to the countryside. I liked the big city with its conveniences, security and greater familiarity. I had lived in or very near cities my whole life. So, like a struggling swimmer I began to look for any island, sandbar, or piece of wreckage to swim towards and grab. My prayers sounded like, “Lord, are you sure you don’t want me to work in the International school here in Cochabamba? No? Well, then, maybe the one in Santa Cruz? Do you think maybe you meant to use me in an urban ministry instead of sending me to a place with no supermarkets? But, Lord? There aren’t any bathrooms out there!” Despite my pleas, “excuses” and (I hate to say it but, yes) dread, I did not feel as though any of the ‘islands’ that I could see were God’s destination for me. Instead, it seemed as though I would have to pass on those and (go figure) do what I believed God had called me to in the first place. All along, there was a sense, a voice ‘that pointed, like a guiding star’ leading to the children in North Potosi. I just didn’t always enjoy hearing it.
Realizing You Are Not Alone
If you’ve ever experimented with different swimming styles, you know that the dog paddle, which I don’t suppose is an officially sanctioned or recognized stroke by any competitive committee, is very tiring. I was exhausted. I felt I was nearly ready to quit pursuing the dream I knew God had given me. I hit the lowest point of the year. How could I possibly accomplish everything that needed to be done for the center by myself? There was just no way.
In that moment of my life, God suddenly reminded me that I wasn’t meant to do His ministry alone. For the first time in a while, I remembered I was not in this ocean alone. First of all, God gave me Naomi, my wife. We are ministry partners. I am part of a mission team with three other families who are faithfully serving in Bolivia and have been a tremendous emotional, cultural, and spiritual support over the last year. We are working with a partner organization led by nationals in our efforts to establish the children’s center. There is a local church presence to help support our efforts in North Potosi. We have a wonderful team of brothers and sisters in the United States that pray for us on a daily basis. We have God.
Isn’t it amazing how God most clearly shows up when we feel we can’t keep our head above water another second? In my moments of greatest need this last year, God used all of the people above, a devotional book, and the sermons of the pastor of the church we are attending to remind me to look up. I was not in this alone; God had gone before me and behind me. All through this year, I’ve seen God meet the challenges that have loomed before us. The local government met the proposal of our project with interest and enthusiasm. The people of Potosi were also very excited about the ministry. God took care of challenges to potential center sites by preparing the exact location where I believe He wants the center. I’ve realized God has been at work in these and countless other details, large and small. He did not ask me to work on my own. His will was that the Spirit work through me. I only had to stop struggling and remember to yield to Him.
So, that’s what I began to do. I took a look at my priorities, and through time spent in prayer, began to allow God to reorder my life again, giving way to the Holy Spirit. Do you know what I began to discover? I had been approaching this cross-cultural ‘swim’ all wrong. I had been relying on my own abilities, my own wisdom, and my own desires to get me to the other side. Sure, I had been trying to do what was right, but when I stopped struggling, I found that the impossible suddenly began to seem attainable—not because I was stronger or wiser or more prepared than before; but because in ceasing to struggle, I began to sink. I didn’t sink into the cold ocean of fear and homesickness and loneliness I had been struggling against for so long. No, that ocean had been replaced with a sea of renewed peace, trust, and assurance in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And as I sank, things began to appear differently than before. The Development Center was no longer a daunting tsunami welling up before me. It was now an enormous opportunity to allow God to work through me. The thought of living in the countryside began to take on the appearance of an adventure. My calling was not a burden but an engaging challenge to follow God more closely. Personally, I have begun to find greater freedom than before in my constantly deepening dependence on the Lord.
The greatest revelation in all of this is that I have found that, in a sense, I have died. The person that began this swim into the deep is gone. If you attempt a journey of this magnitude, death is very likely to result. The beautiful, unfathomable truth in that fact is that this kind of death, a death to self, brings life. As I have been reminded several times in church recently, Jesus came not just that we might have life, but that we might have it to the full. The person in the midst of this journey now has a more abundant life than the previous man. He is more willing to let the Spirit work through him to glorify the Father. Because of this, I believe God will accomplish His will in North Potosi, in part, through me. In the words of Paul, “not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect” but I am now more confident than ever that, “He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion” to His glory. And when I do arrive, I know I’ll look back and see how the hand of God worked to create the memories of a lifetime.