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Looking Forward while Gazing Backward

I decided to look back through my blog posts from throughout the year. This blog has been a clearinghouse for the thoughts that crowd my head, it has been a method of updating folks back home about my daily life, it has been, at different times, neglected and nourished. But through this whole process it has been mine. I looked back at my first post. It was actually almost exactly a year ago today. June 27, 2016. Man was I naive and I had no idea what I was being prepared for. I can see ways in which I have grown from that first post as well as ways in which I am continuing to grow. This blog contains lessons learned and the joys/lows experienced through a year of service and discernment, carefully edited so the national YAV office doesn’t have to have a conversation with me about my blog content. Besides, that’s why I also keep a journal for all the things I can’t share in this blog.

But I digress. At this point, almost a year since starting this adventure, I find myself in a very similar place. For better or for worse, Tucson has become my “normal”. What once was an unknown has become a stable entity and the return back home has become that thing toward which I am looking with a certain amount of nervous anticipation. I don’t quite know what I will be doing yet when i get home. And this time it’s a little different than trying to be matched with a work placement through the YAV program. What I do know is that I’ll have about a month after I get home to: more seriously apply myself to a job search, take a week on a cruise for my “bachelor party”, move myself and my stuff across the state to Ashland, and help my wonderful fiancée with the final preparations for our wedding.

A couple weeks ago I posted about transitions, mostly in references to transitions here in Tucson. But as I contemplate the last 30-odd days here, I’m beginning to think about other transitions. Like the transition from singleness to marriage (I’ll have to remember that one for the tax forms). Or the transition from being a full-time member of my parents house to a child living away from home (okay, so that’s pretty much been life for the last five years, but this one speaks more to the fact that my “home” will no longer be tied to just them). Or the transition from having my dad as my emergency contact to having my soon-to-be wife as my emergency contact (of all of these transitions, this one will legitimately be one of the hardest). Or the transition from working and living as a volunteer to being a productive member of society with a job, house, bills, etc. Now that I think about it, I could have called this post “Transitions, Part 2”, but I don’t want to focus here, I have other things to share. I should really cut down on the coffee…

One thing I am looking forward to (in addition to everything else) is cultivating my writing skills. Throughout my life (and more exclusively this year), I’ve begun thinking about ways I can write as a career. One of the obvious ways is in the field of journalism. Now I didn’t study journalism in school, but I figured if I could find an entry level position somewhere that would teach me the basics and give me some experience then why not pursue it? Little did I know that this little day dream would bear fruit. One of the numerous sports blogs that I follow put out an ad wanting new writers to apply to help expand their coverage. I threw my hat in the ring figuring if I didn’t get it, it wouldn’t be a huge deal (the position was unpaid and entry level after all). Well, wouldn’t you know it, they decided to give me a chance. So I’m now an unpaid writer for A Sea of Blue, a sports blog that covers the University of Kentucky. I’m looking forward to the experience and seeing where this might lead in the future. For now, it’s a fun side gig, but who knows where it will go? My first post was published last Wednesday, you can find it here if you would like to read it.

So yeah. That’s life today in Tucson. It’s hard to believe that this year is almost over because I can remember typing out that very first post and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. To quote one of my favorite movie characters, “Life comes at you fast…” and sometimes it’s worth looking forward to where you’re going by looking back at where you’ve been.

And so we go.

Transitions

Change has been on my mind a lot this past week. Here in Tucson the temperatures are slowly climbing as the desert gears itself up for summer (this past week averaged highs above 100; but it’s a “dry heat”). My work placement responsibilities are also changing as we move beyond the school year and into the summer. I also have the looming shadow of my return home and the transition from YAV life back into “normal” life. So many things are changing and my head has been slowly struggling to wrap itself around this new, shifting landscape that is my life.

Before I delve into that I just want to comment on the weather. To everyone back home in Kentucky, I am glad that I don’t have to deal with the humidity this summer. Please enjoy that for me. To everyone else, dry heat is still hot. It might be more enjoyable than that drowning feeling you get walking out into 110% humidity but 105 degrees is still 105 degrees and I’m sorry but that’s weather that’s not fit for man nor beast!

As most of you might know (if you’ve been paying attention) part of my placement responsibilities included helping to provide an after school program for elementary-aged students for two or three hours Monday through Thursday. Since school wrapped up a couple weeks ago, we have transitioned into a summer program in partnership with the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. Each summer, the public health program sponsors a series of week long summer day camps focusing on teaching children aged 7 to 11 about different aspects of personal health (healthy eating, germs, sun safety, tobacco prevention, etc.). Normally this camp happens on campus in the Rec Center, but renovations therein cause the college to look into other venues to provide this camp. Because of our partnership with the Service Learning course in the Public Health program’s curriculum, the school reached out to the Primavera Foundation to see if we could host the camp at Las Abuelitas. Fast forward to today and we are on the far side of the first week of camps with two more coming in the future. I’ve been anticipating this summer program for a while now and I am extremely grateful for the partnership with the College of Public Health. During the school year my coworker, Cody, and myself were responsible for all aspects of the after school program we were running. From planning to discipline we were in charge of administering this program. Now we both have a chance to step back from the leadership of day-to-day activities and simply get to help the students bring their vision of the summer camp to life. It’s been a great break. I still get to interact with kids (and despite my normal avoidance of anything kid related, I do enjoy working with the buggers), but I’m not one of the “head honchos” that has to know everything going on at every moment. This past week was a great reprieve for me and I’m looking forward to the next two sessions.

In addition to changes at work, I’m also looking at the transition back home and, almost simultaneously, into married life. Why not make all the big changes at once, right? While I am eagerly anticipating a return to my old Kentucky home, I have conflicting thoughts and feelings about my time as a YAV coming to a close. There have been points during this year where I’ve contemplated calling it quits. There have been points where the last thing I wanted to do was go back to the house to deal with my community. There have been points where I’ve been ridiculously happy (especially during the winter where it didn’t get much below 40 degrees) and enjoyed what I’ve been doing and learning. There have been highs and lows and I have learned a lot about myself through them all. I wonder if those changes will translate into life back in the real world. I wonder how this experience will stick with me as I traverse the years to come. I wonder how I will reflect back on this year in five years, in ten years. The only way to find out is to live my life, to take the changes as they come. To try to apply the things I’ve learned in a context that is not sheltered under the umbrella of the YAV program.

Transitions. They have been coming in droves over the last year and a half; they will continue to come as life moves forward. Even though some of the coming changes have me feeling slightly apprehensive I know that God will be with me, guiding my steps and preparing me for things I can’t even imagine.

And so we go.

The Distance Factor of Attraction

A few thoughts on how some things can be more attractive the further they are from you.

Living in community is hard. Living in community is messy. Living in community is challenging. It is so many things that can be described to you, but until you experience it for yourself it’s hard to know exactly what those words mean.

The title of this blog comes from an idea I had back in high school for a blog that I kept for a grade. I never ended up writing it, but the subject matter was for something much less noble than intentional community (I was a sixteen year old high school male; use your imagination). But recent events and conversations have come up within my community here in Tucson that caused me to resurrect the idea from that old blog and apply it to this situation. Also I don’t think any of my blogs have focused on my thoughts about any of the YAV program’s core tenets. So here goes nothing.

In my experience with Christianity community has been a buzzword, a goal, the pinnacle of the Christian experience. I went to a Christian liberal arts university and worked with residence life where I lived and breathed community for four years. So much of what I heard about community in that context was filtered through rose-colored glasses. And as I look back on those years I realize how far away from intentional community my time at Asbury was. I don’t say this to knock anything that the Res Life staff at Asbury does, but my experience with community there is a shadow of what I have experienced this year in Tucson.

To get back to the distance factor of attraction. My theory is that things can look better the farther removed you are from them. This also works in reverse. It actually describes my experience with Mt. Rushmore. Up close, the monument is amazing, especially when you consider that it was carved with dynamite. However, from far away, Mt. Rushmore is underwhelming. It is dwarfed by the landscape that surrounds it in South Dakota. But I digress. For me, this year living in community has been a study in the distance factor of attraction to intentional living. Even going into this year I was excited about the opportunity to live every day life in a communal context. College was great, but living in the “real world” was a new adventure in community. However, the closer I’ve gotten to community, the less it looks like it did when I was considering it from August 2016. Community is hard. Community is work. Community is getting pissed off at each other and yelling over little things (and big things). Community is sharing things you would be much more comfortable not sharing. Community can be ugly sometimes and can leave you wondering why you ever wanted to join the experiment in the first place.

But community is also fun. It is supportive. It is affirming. It is a beautiful thing. It is getting down in the muck and yelling and getting mad and growing together. It is a learning process. It is (for me) a preparation for the most intimate intentional community (marriage). It is that ideal plane of existence that is often lauded in Christian circles. But it is also a lot of hard work. It is catching glimpses of the beauty through the ugly, hard parts.

So maybe this whole intentional community piece is only a partial study in the distance factor of attraction. Maybe the hard parts dominate community life so the beautiful parts can become that much more precious. Maybe my entire premise is wrong. Who knows? All I know is that my experience this year of community has made me reconsider how I think of community. It has warts and difficulties and it is almost never perfect (all things that are hard to consider if one is not in the midst of community life). But working through all of that exposes a beauty that is also greater than one can appreciate without being a part of it.

Living in community is hard. Living in community is messy. Living in community is messy. Living in community is a new experience each and every day.

And so we go.

Faith, not Sight

Jeremiah 1:4-8

“Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’ But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ declares the LORD.

Last weekend myself and my fellow YAVs were invited to Faith Presbyterian Church in Sierra Vista, AZ to share some thoughts from our years to this point and what drove us to become YAVs in the first place. And as I sat thinking about how I would try to fill five minutes of time with reflections the call of Jeremiah came to my attention. These four verses constituted the lectionary reading for my last Sunday at First Presbyterian-Owensboro. How fitting that the last passage I heard before leaving the comforts of home into a year which was rapidly approaching and also becoming more and more unsettling to me would be the passage concerning the calling of a young Jeremiah who felt similarly unqualified and unable to shoulder the burden of being God’s messenger. This passage became doubly significant on my first day of work when I discovered that, instead of being solely working in the community gardens of Primavera, I would be working in the gardens and with the after school program. Now to understand my reticence in working with kids you must understand that I possess no particular gift when it comes to working with children. Not only that but I had explicitly told Primavera in my interview that working with kids was not something I wanted to do. Of course at this moment I’m reminded of a Yiddish proverb, “Man plans, God laughs.” I felt a certain connection with Jeremiah’s protestations to God’s call. I also began to feel the comfort of God’s response in verses seven and eight. He says to calm down, you are young, but it won’t be you doing the work. It will be my work being done through you, so your “lack of qualifications” doesn’t matter because you have me. Through this year I have felt this resonating in my experience. There have been times when I have felt perfectly justified in saying that I didn’t want to work with kids, but, more often than not, I have also felt profoundly prepared for the issues that have arisen with the kids. I have been prepared by God for things I never knew I would have to face. The same thing in the gardens. God has opened doors and done work in my heart to open me to new experiences and equip me for new situations. It is a profound reminder of 2 Corinthians 5:7 that we walk by faith and not by sight. God has prepared the way, we simply need to have the faith to follow even though we can only see a few steps ahead.

That was part of what I shared with Sierra Vista and also part of what I am continuing to learn as this year advances and as I contemplate the rest of my life.

As far as practical things, the highlight of recent weeks has been the garden. I directly oversee the garden in the La Capilla neighborhood of South Tucson. The garden is still relatively new and we had an awesome crop come up over the winter. Arugula, lettuce, spinach, beets, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, kale, dill, cilantro, and probably other things that I am forgetting. This past week was spring break for the kids so I was able to focus on planning out the garden for the spring as well as figure out how to harvest seeds from the winter crop. It was a busy time and I learned a lot.

After collecting surveys from the community which benefits from the garden, I had the produce that the community wanted from the garden. This is extremely important because I’ve learned that if the plants grown in the garden are what the community wants, the garden will be more likely to be used. If people don’t know what has been planted or are unfamiliar with the plants, they are less likely to utilize the products of the garden. In addition I had to consider the sun/heat of an Arizona spring and summer. The Capilla garden does not have a lot of shade so I had to think about tall plants with large leaves that could be planted to create some shade and some reprieve from the relentless sun. Answer: sunflowers and corn! Additional considerations centered around what plants compliment the growth of other plants, and which ones harm or inhibit the growth of other plants. I also wanted to take advantage of the natural pest repellents that some plants are. For example, marigold is good at repelling pests that commonly bother tomato plants. Solution: marigolds and tomatoes should be planted close together. The more I learn about plants and gardening and the interactions therein the more fascinating it is! And I would encourage everyone to look into home gardening. It is true what they say, fruits and veggies just taste better when they come from your own back yard.

Thank you, Father God, for lessons learned, for your created world, and for opportunities to grow.

And so we go.

Lenten Adventures

Well it has been a while since I’ve put anything on here…oops, sorry about that y’all! There’s been a lot that has happened recently and I wanted to share them with everyone who has waited eagerly for another post from yours truly.

So February was a crazy month. Who knew 28 days could be so crazy? The highlight was easily visiting home for the first time in six months. I never realized how much of a home body I’d been in my life to this point, but the first six months of this year were the longest I’d been away from home. Talk about an adjustment. I was so looking forward to going home that I let my focus on my experience in Tucson slip. I started dealing with a mental dissonance as I became increasingly dissatisfied with being stuck in Tucson when all I wanted to do was be home. My relationships in my community went downhill and people could tell something was wrong even though I closed myself off from their attempts to find out what was eating me. It’s not something I’m super proud of, but it’s something I’m working through. I had lost the reason why I wanted to be here and do this crazy year of service and the homesickness hit me hard. I don’t say that to excuse my attitude (and I do sincerely apologize to my housemates…truly I’m sorry) but I say it to attempt to explain why my mood went downhill and why I was so happy to go home.

My trip home aside, a second event was coming at the end of February that I was also looking forward to. The Tucson YAVs take a sojourn into the desert to kick off the season of Lent. It is our mid year retreat and it’s an experience in finding refuge in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where God shows up time and time again in Scripture. He is a guiding presence through the wildernesses present in the bible story and the wilderness serves as a place of exile, but also as a place of deliverance. We delved into these seemingly incompatible pictures of the wilderness prior to our sojourn and it was something that I wrestled with during my time in solitude in the desert. Did I not mention that? Yeah, this week was about being in nature and, for part of the week, being isolated and alone in the wilderness to find God. Think Naked and Afraid, but with slightly more clothes and more than a little bit more of a devotional attitude. This retreat was the one that I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. I can’t say for sure that I found God out there in the desert, but I did confront some fairly deep issues in my personal walk all of which centered around forgiveness. I have a tattoo on my left wrist that reads “the water” in Greek. I got it to remind me of the waters of baptism and the awesome symbolism of the sacrament. We are washed clean of our sin as we are accepted into God’s family. My struggle is living into the fact that I am, that we are, forgiven. God’s grace covers us and always seeks to grow us, to lead us into the people we were created to be. I have a hard time recognizing that forgiveness in my life. I struggle with forgiving myself and God has forgiven me. I’m still exploring this, but it was a huge realization that came from my time in solitude. Also, if you ever have the chance to escape into the desert, I highly recommend it. You will grow in remarkable ways even from just a short time out there alone.

That now brings me to Lent. What a great season in the life of the church. But it’s one that I think is easy to overlook in our eagerness to get to Easter and the promise of the Resurrection. After the solitude and exploring some spiritual disciplines, I decided to immerse myself in the spirit of Lent and to adopt the practice of Fasting during this blessed time of preparation. My fasts fall on Fridays, technically from dinner on Thursday until dinner on Friday. In my (limited) study of the purpose behind this season, I’ve found that the practice of forgoing something (whatever that may be) is undertaken so that something else may be added. During my fasts, I plan on engaging scripture on a deeper level outside of my normal devotional time and also during those times when I am most tempted to eat (aka normal meal times). Fasting is hard and after this past week (my second fast of the Lenten season), I’m beginning to appreciate just how much I eat during the day and how easy it is to get caught up in food. I’m eagerly awaiting to see how God will move during the coming weeks and I pray fervently for his strength to assist me, especially when the temptation to eat becomes almost too strong to resist.

Things in Tucson are, on the whole, good. We survived February craziness, we are moving through March and looking forward (aka dreading) to the steadily climbing temperatures. It already feels like a Kentucky June and we’re not even halfway through March. Oh the joys of desert living! We also had a group fundraiser today that consisted of a competition between us YAVs and a handful of pastors from the Presbytery de Cristo, which supports our site. We did a Family Feud-style competition and got our butts handed to us by the pastors. As much as I loved watching Family Feud in college, I learned tonight that I am not cut out to compete in that particular game.

Thank you, Father God, for forgiveness, for grace, for time at home and time alone.

And so we go.

2017

Beginnings are hard. Whether it’s trying to figure out how to open a blog post or looking forward to the coming twelve months at the beginning of a year. Beginnings are also exciting. They hold promise and herald the starting of new things. Beginnings are scary. They imply times of transition, of moving from one thing into another and change is hard. I think I like beginnings. I’ve faced a lot of them in the past year. I began my life as an engaged person last April. That is a big transition as I move from a solo life where my thoughts are often concerned with what I am doing and how it will affect me to including another person in those plans. I graduated from college last May. I began the transition from my life as a student (formally speaking) to my life in the real world, my life as an adult. I left home, for probably the last time as a permanent resident there, to begin my life as a YAV in Tucson.

And now I sit here, seven days into this new year, a year in which my time as a YAV will come to an end, in which I will marry the love of my life, in which I will begin to seriously and in a very real way confront life in the “real” world. That’s scary. The YAV program has helped me to develop and discover things that I didn’t know about myself, like how I like my living space to be, things that are important to me when it comes to work, and the fact that children still do scare me and with good reason (child care is not in my future…at least caring for other’s people’s kids). This season has provided a safety net while at the same time throwing me to the wolves (or coyotes). What will happen when even that is gone and I have to “fend for myself”? I’m getting married this year. Inside of nine months now…what? A short month after I get back from this experience here I will have another person in my life full time…like a live-in best friend. How will I handle that transition? Will I be okay? Will she be okay? Will we be okay? And, a corollary to that, I will have to find employment. That is a seriously scary proposition for me. I don’t have the next step figured out yet and this might be the first time in my life that that has been the case. I don’t know how to approach it except to continue knocking on the doors that are in my path and trusting God to open the ones that will be fulfilling, or maybe just the ones that are supposed to open in that season. It’s an exercise in faith that is rarely comfortable for me.

Those are kind of the macro beginnings for this new year. There are micro ones as well. Most people use this time of year to make resolutions, things they resolve to do in the coming year. There’s a statistic out there that says only about 8% of those resolutions will be kept throughout the entire year. Which is kind of sad to me. I’ve never really been one to make resolutions but this year felt different and I felt there were things that I should change or add to my life in 2017 as preparation for what is to come. I call them my commitments. Instead of resolving to do these things (which is weak language in my opinion, especially when it comes to keeping them long term), I am committing to doing these things throughout all the months of 2017. And, in so doing, I hope to form habits that will last the rest of my life.

The first is committing to being more open, especially with problems that confront me in my life. This, at least at first, consists of sharing more with my fiancée as a practice for our marriage. But I hope in sharing more and being more open with her that I can also be more open with other people in my life and invite them into my struggles. And I pray for reciprocation in that. Communal life is instrumental in providing support in hard times and in good times. I hope to foster in my life space where people can feel open about what is troubling them, what is giving them joy, and, in so doing, we can mutually support each other through whatever is going on.

The second commitment involves incorporating more spiritual disciplines into my daily life. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do but have never had the willingness to actually follow through with. I am working my way through the devotional My Utmost for His Highest. I’m really excited because there is a new devotion every day and a new passage in the bible to read every day. In addition to the devotional, I’m hoping to work through different spiritual formation books. I want to broaden and deepen my faith, especially as I face the unknown and potentially scary future.

My third commitment is in relation to my physical health. I’ve been trying to swim as much as I can and obviously I bike every day, but I’ve wanted to diversify my physical activities a little. So, even though I hate running, I’ve committed to running three days a week, in addition to my three days a week of swimming and my daily biking. I want to build healthy workout habits as I leave my days of competitive swimming behind and hopefully keep these habits into married life and beyond.

Beginnings are hard. Beginnings are exciting. Beginnings are scary. I embrace the difficulty, the excitement, and the fear that comes with starting this new year. I hope 2017 is a good one.

Thank you, Gracious God for new beginnings, for a new year, and another new day. And thank you for new commitments.

And so we go.

Enough

There’s something about music and coffee shops that makes me want to write. I don’t know what it is, but the tastes, smells, the sound of the music…all of it creates the atmosphere that allows my mind to get into the introspective mode that helps me say what I need to say. Maybe coffee is just the physical manifestation of those elusive “creative juices” that are so…well, elusive.

This past week has been a tough one. We entered the last two weeks of the program before Christmas break bestows the long-awaited two week sabbatical that (I hope) will recharge and rejuvenate my spirit for the long push to May. Unfortunately, the kids are all too aware that a long break is coming and, as any teacher or after school worker knows, the days preceding a break are full of craziness. It is out in full force at the Las Abuelitas after school program. Last week was filled with moments of good, fulfilling one-on-one moments with kids mixed with a variety of fires and misbehavior that would spring up from nowhere and that I had nothing more than what amounted to a squirt gun to deal with. At least, that’s what it felt like. In the fast-paced world of child care, nothing can turn into something very quickly, in several different places, and with varying degrees of severity. This is where my linear brain hurts/fails me. I can’t focus adequately on any one thing to see it through to its conclusion and, during the time that I’m struggling to solve one issue, twelve more have sprung up and are getting worse the more I focus on one. I have yet to develop the flexibility necessary to balance all the various issues that arise on a daily basis (and are magnified close to a break).

It’s moments like these that I am forcibly reminded that working with kids was low on my list of desires for this year in Tucson. I don’t have a lot of experience working with the young ones. I didn’t study anything in school that would have helped prepare me for this work. And kids stretch my already thin patience…literally all the time. This job would be challenging for me even in a familiar environment, but this is a YAV year, there’s nothing familiar about this experience. In addition to the universal challenges that come from working with kids, there is an added wrinkle The kids I’m working with have experienced things I can only imagine. The have backgrounds completely unfamiliar to mine. And they’ve probably seen things that no kid should have to see.

Just a couple months ago, we had a minor incident between two kids on the basketball court. One tripped the other and the result was a mildly scraped knee that was vastly exaggerated in its severity. I thought that was the end of it. But when the kid who’s knee was scraped was picked up, he was talking about the incident to his mom and I noticed the kid who had done the tripping was hiding in the bathroom. I walked over and asked him what was wrong. He told me he was hiding because he thought the police were going to be called to come and pick him up. Because of a playground incident. Between two elementary aged boys.

What do I do with that? In addition to the challenges of working with kids, there is this added wrinkle, this barrier that I won’t be able to overcome no matter how hard I try. These things are beyond me because my life experience is so vastly different from theirs. This is one of the more overwhelming parts of my job.

So at the end of a long week of feeling like I’m not enough, of feeling unprepared and incapable of adapting to this situation, I broke down at our community discernment session yesterday. Then, I received a wonderful reminder. I am enough. We are enough. No matter the seemingly insurmountable barriers that are in front of us, we are enough. God knows what He is doing; He doesn’t give His children more than they can handle. God knows us because He created us, He knows what we are capable of and what would be too much. Even the insurmountable barriers are surmountable because they were given by God to teach, to form, and to create who we were meant to be in Him. Whether our challenges are hard life experiences, unfamiliar work circumstances, or new environments that seem so different from home; it doesn’t matter. Because we are enough as who we are. We are enough as the person we were created to be by a God who loves and knows us. You are enough and you are loved.

Thank you, Loving God, for creating and knowing and loving us…for making us enough.

And so we go.