Thoughts From the Ranch.

There’s a place on the ranch I’ve photographed more times than I can ever count. This is it.

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I lived here for six years and watched the seasons change that field like the Lord expects us to change – from glory to glory in ever increasing measure. But even now, every time I try to capture it, to own it by putting it in words or photographs, it slips through my hands and breaks my heart with yearning.

When it comes to me and the ranch, the only thing I can have is the moment we inhabit together and that, I think, is exactly how it is with God.

There is only now.

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But as ever, Ike is down the road on his backhoe and the neighbors are sipping cocktails. The bald eagles fish from the snag, and the sun outside Dodo’s warms the pines just like it has for the last hundred summers.

When the sun hits their ruddy, old bark, their fragrance is so subtle and fine, it’s almost hard to take, but if I stop to breathe it in, to capture it, it fades. The only way I get to smell it again is to walk slowly and appreciatively through the pine groves breathing normally and saying thank you.

The Psalmist says, in his presence is the fullness of joy. He didn’t say I could capture it like fireflies in a jar to save for later.

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The word of God and the mountains have helped me understand something I never did before:

You and I are just as much part of this creation as the peaks, the meadow grass and the rainbow trout with their dusky pink sides, but we’re the deeply beloved part that He made in his image. We forget that all the time, and maybe that’s why we snap so many pictures, and write so many words. It’s like we’re trying to remember something the daisies and the dragonflies never forgot.

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We are His, and each time the sunset drops a pink coverlet over the mountains, he is calling us back into the fullness of joy. His joy, right now, where he wanted all of us, all along.

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Notes From Congo – Part II

Something that surprises me each time I return from an exotic place like Central Africa, is how dire people assume everything is there. They say things like “Wow, is that safe?” or “What a tremendous sacrifice you are making.”

Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen. CNN is lying to you, because frankly cold showers and spam pasta in the Republic of Congo are kind of awesome, and at times our recent field service there felt exactly like this weird statue in Nice, France.

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Yes, there are oversized, naked, ugly things happening in Congo and I don’t want to minimize that, but occasionally you can sneak in behind those things, sit on a fish and flip your hair. In other words, there is an abundance of hilarity, joy, irony and fun to be found even in hard situations, and that, I like to think, is the way of things in the Kingdom of God.

See Jesus didn’t promise us happy, he promised us full, which is different. And sometimes you’re walking back from the river when you accidentally recreate the Beatles Abbey Road album cover, and it’s funny and every bit as important as all the sad stuff.IMG_4206

So since I care about you guys, you need to know about this Nutella substitute. It’s sold in pretty much every tin shack shop lining the main drag in Impfondo, Congo. IMG_4621

Though it’s fairly expensive, it comes in mini size and hefty three-gallon lick tubs, which I felt spoke to its obvious popularity among locals. But I discovered, the post-purchase hard way, that this sticky brown crap in the little yellow tubs tastes exactly like Vaseline and dirt. So it’s lucky I only bought four. Everyone I forced to eat it agrees, it is a unique chocolate taste.

My digestive system and I have an agreement these days though, so I don’t mind befriending guys like this on the street and eating whatever that is in the middle, liberally covered with salt and MSG and wrapped in newspaper.IMG_3362 I ate it with gusto and so did my pal Ryan, even though there’s a good chance it’s made of a relative of these three, who were waiting in line for their turn to become BBQ.

IMG_3363Or it could have been made out this crocodile, after his ride in a crowded minvan. Actually, the crocodile was never inside the minivan, silly, he went on the roof for safety. But he totally could have gone inside because his mouth was tied shut with string.

Incidentally, crocodile does taste like chicken, chewy, fishy chicken.

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But enough about food, let’s talk about sweating.

Impfondo lies just north of the equator, on the Ouibangi river and is nearly swallowed by jungle. So, as you might imagine, working outside 9-10 hours a day there creates a remarkably moist personal environment. Even better, when you sweat like this, every drop of saturated fat you’ve ever consumed leaks from your pores. The medical terminology for this is “The Crisco Sweats.”

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The validity of this claim is still under review by Hospital staff, and there are more than a few naysayers, including Mama Sarah, the nurse in the red scrubs below. But what could she possibly know, she spends her days cleaning and bandaging the feet of local men afflicted with leprosy. Nonetheless, she stopped by to weigh in on the sweating question.

“Nope, sorry guys. Your fat is not coming out your pores.”

Dang.

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Do you see what we are doing in these pictures? We’re off loading gravel from Jupiter the Unimog – a beastly diesel Mercedes personnel carrier that blew a tire 100 feet from where we actually needed the gravel. Of course a Unimog not loaded to the top with gravel weighs two million pounds, so jacking it up to change the tire, even if there was a spare, which there wasn’t, is kind of a cruel joke. So this is what happened next.

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Back and forth, two million times.

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An exercise like this can really help you grasp how far you are from acting anything like Jesus.

Me: “Wow. It totally figures that Jupiter died 100 feet from where we need the gravel.”

Stefan: “I know isn’t it amazing it died ONLY 100 feet from where we need the gravel?”

Me: “Um yah. That’s what I meant. Excuse me, I’ll be over here, praying for myself.”

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I think sometimes when my life is boring it’s because I’ve neutered all the struggle right out of it. Approximately 100% of all tasks in Impfondo, require some form of struggle, sacrifice, endurance and/or sweat, not to mention a mess of other sweaty people nearby. And that, my friends, is what made evenings like this, swimming in the river under the full moon, indescribably beautiful.

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Quit Staring At Your Muffin Tops

Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? It’s New Year’s Eve, and I suspect, by the new muffin tops spilling over the edge of my yoga pants, I may have eaten too much again this year.

Shocking!

Last night, I made my yoga students hold Warrior II foreverrrrrrrr, while telling them to leave the self-loathing over holiday gluttony on the mat. “It’s a waste of our time, ladies! You’re strong and beautiful, and you’re here getting stronger and more beautiful. So good! Three more breaths.”

Warrior II. Photo Credit Tim Cigleske

Warrior II. Photo Credit Tim Cigleske

A teacher of mine is fond of saying: You cannot be selfish and happy, and that’s why I think New Year’s resolutions, particularly those surrounding weight loss, slip off us like soap in the shower.

We want to get in shape, because we think it will make us happy, and to a degree it’s does, but I’ve been at my “goal weight” and seen all the muscles in my arms, and guess what? I just found something else that needed fixing. Relentless discontent dogs me when it’s all about me. In other words:

I OBSESS ABOUT MY MUFFIN TOPS WHEN I STARE AT MYSELF IN THE MIRROR.

So in 2014, I’m going to quit staring at myself and stare at somebody else instead.

Like the couple in church who, despite having at least three, sometimes five, kids, just swooped into CPS-land and got four more. It is a proven fact that helping them makes me happier than losing ten pounds.

Or perhaps I will stare at another family I know that’s a little short right now, and run to Sam’s Club for them. That plan bubbled up at Love Dinner Saturday night because there is a need, we know what it is and we can meet it – simple.

The Love Dinner gals have been cooking this in their own kitchens for months now. One of them used a Macy’s gift card she got for her birthday to buy new clothes for a Hispanic woman living with her three kids at the crisis center. Another helped an older woman clean up her child’s vomit in Taco Bell. Another gave a young mother pushing a stroller in the dark, a ride to the grocery store and back home.

See, the LD gals know that the Love of God must be attached to hands and feet. This country is drowning in theology while the world dies of hunger. How can that be when the Bible says, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:26

Muffin Tops Cannot Survive this Pose! Photo Credit: Flashflood

BTW – Muffin Tops Cannot Survive this Pose! Photo Credit: Flashflood

The good news about love and service is that it feels good. When somebody’s life is demonstrably better because you showed up, it’s exhilarating and holy because you sense there’s something larger at work. Though you can’t see it yet, you are building great amphitheaters and skyways and rose gardens in the eternal Kingdom of God.

And it’s easy. Look around.

Does some kid in your neighborhood need a trusted adult? Is there an elderly widow who needs a cup of tea? AIDS orphans surely need a sponsor, and Mercy Ships needs a lot more doctors, nurses and dollars for the new ship.

So go ahead lose the ten pounds here’s a tool I like, and come to yoga in Mineola; then unhand the muffin tops and go get happy helping someone else. Let me know how it goes.

Happy 2014!