6 Lessons from 6 Months in Guatemala

It has been 6 months since we boarded a plane out of Chicago, IL and moved here to Guatemala. Our lives have changed dramatically in these past 6 months. People talk about seasons in their lives where they seem to age more than how long the season lasted…that’s how these last 6 months have seemed.


The day we flew to Guatemala

In the last 12 months we both stepped away from full-time jobs, liquidated everything that we owned, said good-bye to the place that we called home for the last 7 years. We left behind the best friends we have ever made and the place that Jenny and I lived many of our ‘firsts.’ And, we did so while Jenny was 6 months pregnant. It has been a wild ride.

So, in celebration of our 6 months away here are 6 things with which we continue to wresle. With most of things, we would appreciate your prayers. We have just begun to learn these things and will continue to learn them over and over and over again.

  1. Culture Shock is a Real Thing 

I always thought that culture shock was for the people that moved to the desert in Africa, or the jungles of South America. I mean, Guatemala City has a Wal-Mart…how can there be culture shock?

We have been reminded that culture includes much more than food, clothing, music, and traditions. Culture is this sort-of ambiguous substance that shapes how people think and feel. The differences are often very small, but their apparent small-ness doesn’t change their significance.

For example, when a Guatemalan walks into a room, they greet everyone in the room personally. When they are leaving at the end of an event or workday, they say good-bye to everyone around them personally. This is a small thing. However, when I walk into a room and say “Hey, everybody” it’s easy for people to think that I’m rude. Every time that I walk into a room, I make an effort to personally greet everyone. That is just one of a thousand different examples.

Constant Contact

6 Months Later

The words that we use, the phrases, the jokes, how we process emotions, thoughts, ideas, what we value and don’t value, how we work, how we play, all are nuanced from culture to culture.

  1. Doubt is Everywhere

This is one that I never expected. I’m sure most missionaries go through this. After all of the emotion and festivities of moving away and saying good-bye, you wake up one morning in think to yourself “uh oh, what did I just do?” Doubt is everywhere. Did I move into the right house? Did I get the right car? What will people think about me? Am I actually accomplishing anything? Is there actually a long-term plan here? Why am I here in the first place?

It is amazing the amount of doubt that goes into just an ordinary day. I am a very confident and decisive person. But moving to another country will beat the man-made confidence out of just about anyone.[1] Which is a great segue into the next point.

  1. Actually Walking By Faith is hard

I don’t like to admit it, but I have rarely actually felt the need to walk in faith. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the need; I have the need and it is enormous. However, I have never felt so far outside of my own comfort zone that I was grasping for something that made me feel stable or secure.

In most ministry contexts I have too heavily relied on my abilities or strengths. When you move to another country, it seems like your abilities and strengths are neutralized.

All of a sudden I felt an enormous pressure to trust that God would use my stumbling efforts. It is a pressure that I should have felt a long time ago. My talents or abilities, apart from the grace of God, produce nothing for eternity. When I previously would rely on talents or abilities, it was mostly to give myself a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. I felt like I had plans, or stability, or vision. But here we wake up every morning and have to trust that God has the ideas for our day already planned out. Walking by faith is painful, but it is a good pain. 

  1. The Things You Miss are Funny

I miss carpet. I know it seems odd, but carpet has always given me a sense of home. Carpet doesn’t make sense in a Guatemalan climate, so there is no carpet. But, I miss it.

We also miss walgreens. In Guatemala there’s no chain of convenience stores that you can stop into. You have to go to a grocery store.

Jenny misses licorice. Every time someone has come to visit, we make sure that they bring down a HUGE bag of licorice. Also, Jenny misses Chick-fil-a, Chipotle, and Diet Coke. I think you can see the theme.

  1. A Sense of Belonging has never felt so important

I always knew what community was. I understood it. I wasn’t able to live in community most of my life, having moved around a lot. Jenny was able to grow up in the same town till college. Both of us were able to settle down in the Chicago-land area for the past few years. We legitimately and fully experienced community. We had people around us that we cared deeply about that cared deeply about us. For one of the first times in my life I didn’t feel like an outsider.

Moving to another country means that you have to start all over. You move to a place where people already have their family traditions, groups of friends, plans for the weekend. We see the importance of feeling like you belong.

Slowly but surely, God is shaping a little community for us. As our director and friend, Steve Dresselhaus says “One of the first things that God says in all of the Bible is ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’” We have felt the full weight and truth of that statement.

  1. Everything is an Adventure

When you move to another country, absolutely everything is an adventure. Probably the first 7 times we left the house we got lost. We’ve found doctors in another country. We’ve had a baby in another country. We’ve filled out immigration papers, had to get passports for our baby. We’ve made a trip up to Mexico to renew our passports. We’ve had to discover where we will shop, where will we eat, where will we go see a movie. We’ve lived adventure after adventure after adventure.

These 6 months have been tough. We’d be lying if we said that they weren’t. However, God has used these 6 months in amazing ways to chisel away those calcified corners of our hearts that keep us from hearing His voice and trusting in Him. God has used these 6 months to confirm our giftings, strengths, and even our weaknesses. God has used these 6 months to shape and form us into the kind of missionaries that he wants us to be.

As frustrating, and lonely, and challenging that the first 6 months of missionary life can be, they have and will continue to reap a harvest of holiness and formation of our character. We continue to learn that before clay vessels can be filled they must be formed, and sometimes, they first must be shattered.


[1] Encouragement Tip: When you go to encourage a new missionary, remind them of why they are there in the first place. It may sound silly, but I can assure you that new missionaries wrestle with the “why” questions.



The Dirtiest Word I’ve Ever Heard


We all hate it. I don’t actually think that I have ever met anyone that could honestly say that they enjoy it. I’ve met a few people who pray for it, but they do so reluctantly, afraid of what may happen. I’ve heard the word thousands of times, and my mind remains seared with disgust that it even exists. I mean, it even sounds like a dirty word, all seductive and all…


I hate it. I hate waiting. I hate sitting. I hate lines. I hate traffic. I hate not getting what I want. I hate not getting what I want, when I want it. I like to take charge. I want to be in control. And to all of those natural inclinations, patience is a dirty word.

But God always seems to turn the tables on what feels natural.

I was reading Colossians 1 this morning. Paul writes a powerful sentence that, to my natural mind, seemed to just fizzle out at the end.

11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…

If it’s not too condescending, I’d like to tell Paul that I think he had a really strong start to this sentence. Paul’s desire is that we would be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might. I’m certain that every person in existence would like that.

It’s the second part that gets me. It seems like Paul took a crazy left turn in the middle of the sentence. If I’m going to be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might, I want it to be for something awesome, right? Strengthened with power, to topple the kingdoms of poverty and hunger. Strengthened with power to destroy the stronghold of abuse and slavery. And, I’m certain that those things are VERY important to God.

But, that’s not where Paul goes. He wants us to be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy? Come on, Paul. I mean, I hate to say it, but that just sucks. I don’t want to be strengthened for patience and endurance with joy. I want to DO! I want to ACT!

Nevertheless, this was a piercing slice from a double-edged sword. If you were to ask me, “Justin, what is the most unnatural thing for you to do?” I’d probably tell you “waiting.” Waiting hurts so badly. I get huge knots in my stomach having to wait without knowing why or what is happening. I hate patience. It’s a dirty word.

But that is why I know that patience is absolutely impossible if I am not strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might. I need God in every area of my life, but there no other part of my life where it is more obvious than in my need for patience.

I want to know what the future holds. I want to know where I am going. Why am I here, in this situation, right now? What do you have for me? Why can’t you just tell me, God? I’m sick of waiting, I’m tired of enduring, and I don’t want to even utter that hideous word patience.

It’s in the moment of terrifyingly arrogant weakness that God’s overwhelming and empowering might comes over me telling me to wait. It’s in the moment stubborn entitlement that I am reminded that God is with me and I am with God. When that happens, patience isn’t all that bad.

You see, patience only hurts when we expect to receive something more or something better. Yet, if I am in the presence of the King of the Universe, what else is there?

The gospel, and Paul, reminds us that we need to be strengthened in all power, according to His mighty strength, to be able to patiently sit and just do nothing, cherishing our treasure – Jesus Christ.

Patience is only a dirty word when my twisted sense of value and worth forgets that Jesus Christ is the greatest treasure I could ever have in all of my life. 


The Danger of Competition in Ministry


Anyone who has been in any sort of ministry has felt the pressure of competition. Maybe you found out that a student from your youth ministry started attending another ministry. Or, maybe, a family from another church started attending yours, bringing loads of complaints about the other church. It is hard to not puff yourself up in pride and think, “I’m doing a BETTER job.”

Churches aren’t the only ones affected by this dangerous temptation. Any quasi-Christian organization offering some service to the public has a tendency towards perceiving other, similar organizations as “rivals.” It is hard to argue that business thinking has not in some form perpetuated this competitive mentality in ministry.

It makes sense that, when applying business methods to Christian ministry that we would end up with this issue. There is nothing morally wrong with applying business methods to Christian ministry. However, there is something morally wrong with where many of those methods lead. In the business world there is, generally, one giant standard of measurement, “did we make more money this time than we did last time?” Now, obviously Christian ministries can’t be so obvious about that question, so we frame it in other ways by asking “were there more people here this week than last week?” (Shame on churches that refer to their members as “giving units.”)

The goal in the business world is to make MORE money than their competitors. There is a certain amount of money to be made in your specific kind of business’ pie, and every business wants the LARGEST piece of that pie possible. It is a constant and steady race to outdo your competitors in gaining new clients, or taking their current dissatisfied clients. If a business loses a client/customer to the business down the street, it is bad news. A business’ success is seen in its growing bank accounts, its growing client base, and its growing infrastructure.

It should be no surprise that Christian ministries begin to function with this mentality when the primary ideological world in which its leaders are comfortable, is that of business. It is of dire importance that Pastors and leaders fight against the dangerous implications of this thinking to Christian ministry.

Anytime that I have confronted these attitudes in my own heart, or in the hearts of others, I’m reminded of a couple of truths that must shape how we do ministry next to others that are doing ministry.

  1. Pride

First, this sort of competition in ministry breeds a dangerous pride in its leaders. It leaves leaders believing that “we are doing it better, so people should come here instead of there.” It is a very trivial way of looking at how it is that we proclaim the gospel of Jesus. Putting our methods in terms of better or worse is language that is foreign to the Bible. The Bible puts methodology in terms of faithful or unfaithful.

The assumption is built on pride that the “product” that we are offering is better than the “product” that the church/organization down the street is offering. If people would only come to our church or our organization they would really find what they are looking for, instead of going down the street to that other place.

And, the comical element is that most churches/organizations think with that perspective. It begs the question, “is anyone really doing it better than others?”

  1. The Same Company

But, there is an even bigger ideological problem with this mentality in ministry. Again, the assumption in business is that I have to outdo my competitors because if I don’t, then I will make less money than I want. The perspective and focus is entirely on my goals and me. In the end, businesses can apply this perspective because they are different businesses.

However, churches and organizations cannot be a part of the Kingdom of God and function with that perspective. We are not a different business. To use business language, all of us work for the same company and the same boss. When the “business” succeeds, we all succeed, and our boss (read: King) gets the honor and the glory, which is the goal. The goal is not that I can have the largest, most lucrative and innovative company or organization, the goal is that King Jesus gets the glory. If a church in your area is growing, celebrate that King Jesus is getting the glory, and crush the evil pride that wants to get the glory yourself.

Christian ministry ought to be the epitome of selfless work and leadership. We are not in this for “my piece of the pie.” We are not in this ministry for our fame, our recognition, our success, or our glory. We want to succed, and we want the others to succeed, because we know that when anyone of us succeeds, King Jesus gets the glory. It’s not about me, my name, my church, or my organization. It is about Jesus, the name of Jesus, Jesus’ church, and Jesus’ body.

  1. Unity

If that’s not a big enough problem, the case can be made that this sense of competition is actually doing more damage than good to the Kingdom of God. Many of us have read John 17. When we read this passage we negligently apply it to our own congregation or organization. We want people to be unified, because, if we aren’t unified how will we ever succeed? Or so goes the rhetoric.

Nevertheless, this passage is to be read far more broadly than our own little community. This passage is Jesus’ prayer for all Christians, of all time, everywhere. Jesus makes a statement in this passage that Francis Schaeffer has referred to as the “Final Apologetic.”

John 17:21 “21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Ultimately, the point that Jesus, and subsequently Schaeffer, makes is that it is our unity that reveals to the world that the Father sent Jesus.

We are making a theological statement about the reality of the incarnation when we function in competition.

When we reduce our ministry to outdoing other ministries, or concern ourselves that other ministries may threaten ours, we are damaging the testimony that we are to be defending. The world should perceive a distinct sense of unity among Christians that is unthreatened by another’s success, and even more, can celebrate it. When they do, the testimony of Jesus is confirmed.

When Faith Isn’t Faith


I remember sitting in a packed auditorium at Cedarville University when I was 17 years old. Our youth pastor, Tom Hogsed, had taken us to a leadership summit put on by Cedarville. The main speaker delivered one of those world-shattering lines that still haunts me to this day. I can’t tell you the name of the speaker; I can’t tell you what he was actually talking about. All I can remember is this one line:

“Faith isn’t faith, until it is all your holding on to.”

This line was a sharply placed dagger right at the weakest point of my ego. This line has continued to trouble my personal psyche. I love the concept; I am on board. We should be walking in faith and faith alone.

But, at the same time, I have such a hard time shaking my own American cultural up-bringing. I’m supposed to be competent, respectable, capable, successful. All of us American Evangelical types recognize that God is the competent one, but we seem to think that we should bring something to the table. We should maximize what God has given us; invest it to yield an even greater harvest.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with the rhetoric, I hate the guilt it has caused me for “not doing enough…” This is the foundation upon which the pragmatic (read: humanistic) models of ministry are built. God is waiting, and ready to bless…we just have to do our part. It is a sickening and idolatrous philosophy that elevates man to accomplish a certain portion of God’s work. In the end, when we are stuck in a cycle of ineffective ministry, with no result and no end in sight, we can only shoulder the weight of the responsibility and guilt assuming that we just aren’t doing something right. And, at the end of the day, this is a faith that is built partly on God, and partly on me…which is no faith at all.

This faulty assumption neglects to recognize God’s sovereignty in ALL things. God, sovereingly, may ordain for you and I to be in situations where our effort, creativity, talents, capabilities, and strengths may yield NOTHING for His purposes.

Are you willing to face that?

Are you willing to live in a world where none of your strengths bring about what you expect them to, and God exalts and glorifies Himself in your weaknesses? Are you willing to faithfully do your part perhaps stuck in a cycle of what the world would call “ineffectiveness?”

The world may call it “ineffectiveness,” but God calls it sanctification. Because, you see, God’s purpose is not that you would be this bright, shining star to accomplish His purposes. God will crush every rival threat to His glory, even if that includes your own talents.

Anytime that I find myself in a season of life where I just am not seeing the results that I’d like, I’m reminded of that quote from the speaker at Cedarville. Most of the time, my mind has been poisoned by the humanistic nonsense spewed forth in most churches. I assume that if I were only using my gifts effectively, God would bless. God can bless if I use them effectively or not. Yes, God wants me to use my gifts, but – and that is a HUGE but – He wants me to use them completely and entirely dependent on Him. My faith cannot be in the effectiveness of my gifts. There can’t be even a small percentage of hope in my own gifts. For God to bless, it must be all about Him, all because of Him, and all by Him.

Faith isn’t faith unless it’s all you’re holding onto. What is it that you are holding onto that isn’t faith?


Ministry and Results: My Six Months of Gardening

I have two hydrangeas. They have been a little bit of a compulsion of mine lately. I like the aesthetic that flowers bring and wanted something to adorn the outside of our home. We bought these two hydrangeas in November of last year, and they both have had vastly different trajectories.flowers

The purple one on the right, as you can see, blooms and blooms and blooms. I have a hard time keeping up with it because of how quickly it blooms. Almost immediately after I prune a dying bloom there is another one pushing its way through.

The pink one, on the other hand, has been a dud. After I prune, it takes ages for another bloom to show up. The blooms that do show up are often limp, and seem to die moments after they arrive.

Here’s the thing: I have done the exact same thing to both plants. I have watered, pruned, fertilized etc. I have not done one thing to the purple flower that I have not also done for the pink flower. Theres been times that I have wanted to stand over the pink flower, get a good grip on the plant, and start tugging in hopes that there are dozens of blooms hiding just under the surface of the soil.

In a booklet titled Ministry and Character Tim Keller develops the idea that ministry is much like gardening. There are certain elements that the gardener controls, and there are many elements outside of the gardener’s control; however, the gardener’s responsibilities don’t change.

There are some ministry contexts, historical and demographic, that when the pastors plant and water they will immediately see a huge multiplication of their work. Likewise, there are other ministry contexts that, having planted and watered, the pastors will see little to no result. And, the results that they do see may never be the sturdy, game-changing disciples that can carry the mission forward on their own.

The mandate to the minister is simple: plant and water. Be faithful in your task, ministers. Proclaim the gospel message of Jesus to those who have not heard, and surgically disect God’s Word along side of those who have believed. However, according to Keller, we must remember that God controls the variables. God is in control of the soil condition, and God is in control of the climate.

We live in the age of measurable success. There is little comfort for the minister who struggles along, faithfully planting and watering with little to no measurable result. Often, such ministers are left with feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

Contrary to popular belief, the parable of the talents has less to do with the multiplication and more to do with the faithfulness of the stewards. The emphasis is NOT on producing a large return, but on not burying the talent.

As pastors, church-planters, missionaries, executives, teachers, and everything else, let us all the more choose to be faithful stewards. Let us choose to faithfully plant, ruthlessly water, let us saturate our ministry soil with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because, when you meet Jesus face to face, He won’t be asking for the member registry at your church. Your failure will be determined by your lack of planting and lack of watering. And, if you plant and water, God will multiply your effort, maybe here on earth, but surely in eternity.