In the few months before I went on the mission trip to Mexico last fall I started a new job, my divorce became final, and I left a one-room apartment and rented a five-bedroom house. I grieved my marriage (and tried to be a good dad to my sons as they grieved the changes in their family), tried to work hard to make the right impression on the job, and had a whole lot more house and yard to care for than I had been used to. I was busy. I was tired. Downtime seldom seemed to come, but when it did I couldn’t just relax in it. I found something to keep me busy, or I worried about how things would turn out, or I ruminated about things that had happened.
This was my third annual trip to the Vida Nueva mission in Piedras Negras. The day after I returned from the first trip, my wife and I separated. By the second trip, she had filed and we awaited trial. With all my troubles, it was a blessing to go away for a week each time. We usually do construction work on these trips; hot, hard labor. I worked hard for the Lord each day and lay down exhausted each night. I liked how the work distracted me from my problems for a while, and I liked how giving all this effort for God made me feel closer to him.
Coyote, a filthy little dog, spends his days on the mission compound, shadowing the staff as they work. He sleeps in the shade until it’s time to move to the next job. When someone leaves on an errand, he jumps into the truck bed to ride along. Nobody pays any attention to him. It’s not because his fur is always matted and filthy, but because Mexicans just don’t dote on dogs like we do.
Coyote wasn’t around the first day of this trip, not that I cared much. Our trip’s leader found me and said, “I hear you know about computers. We brought 17 computers that have been donated to the mission. Do you think you can take a look at them, maybe get them set up? The mission wants some of them in the preschool, and a couple in the clinic.” I lit up. “Sure!” Having worked with computers for more than 20 years, I was excited to contribute from my best skills.
Monday morning I reported to the preschool and started work. As the week unfolded, I ran some basic tests to make sure the computers and monitors were usable. Then I defragmented the hard drives and installed needed software. Finally, I installed the computers where they needed to go.
The problem with this plum assignment was that there wasn’t very much to do. My tripmates worked hard in the hot sun making a new building’s foundation, welding steel beams for a roof structure, and wiring a building for electricity. I sat in air conditioning waiting for disks to defragment and programs to install on these old, slow computers. I had lots of time on my hands.
In the mornings, I tried to sit quietly and listen to the preschool. The teachers talked very seriously in their daily meeting before school started. When the children arrived, they laughed and chattered as they passed and moved to their clasrooms in the distant corners of the building. Happy singing seeped through the closed doors. When it was time to play outside, they filed out single file, the only sound being of their shuffling feet. There was also one poor accident-prone little boy who wailed in the distance every day as skinned his knee or hit his head. All of these sounds swelled my heart. Even a hurt child’s crying is a joyful sound simply because there’s life in it.
After the children went home at noon, I took breaks while I waited for tasks to finish on the computers. I walked to a large gazebo in the courtyard, sat at a picnic table, and tried to pray, even though my mind wanted to worry or ruminate. I could hear dogs barking in the distance, someone’s radio playing, and the breeze as it made the trees rustle, all of which helped me stay in the moment. When I felt the breeze on my skin, it felt like an intimate friend’s comforting and soothing touch. The intensity of it filled my mind and blocked other thought. Whenever my mind would wander to my worries, the breeze would touch me again. One day, Coyote came up to me for the first time. I could tell he wanted attention, but I didn’t really want to touch his filthy, matted fur. But soon I couldn’t resist him and I scratched and petted his head for quite some time. He leaned his head into my thigh, soaking it in. After a few minutes, a cat came and rubbed himself back and forth along my back. I turned to scratch the sides of his neck, which he ate up. Coyote scrambled to the top of a picnic table and lay down all comfortable and content. I felt the same.
One afternoon, I finished work very early. I felt drawn back to the gazebo, so I set out. I felt no hurry, so I took an indirect route to see the others working. One small crew stood on a school bus installing overhead lights in a tall garage, and a fellow welded beams while standing high in the scoop of a big John Deere earth mover. How improbable both scenes were! I came upon a crew building a credenza for the preschool’s computers. They asked me to help them move it into place, so I did. And then I went to the gazebo.
Coyote immediately joined me. He came up to me for a brief moment, seeming to greet me with a smile and bright eyes. I was startled by the feeling that a trusted old friend had looked me warmly in the eye and said, “Hello! I’m so glad to see you!” He immediately lay down on the gazebo floor, facing a small herd of goats beyond a fence a short distance away. On this side of the fence, two horses grazed on what little grass was available. I felt delighted as their muscles moved under their skin and they tossed their heads as horses sometimes do. Then I settled in to pray and asked God to show me how to stay close to him. I lamented to him how my mind runs and how I press to stay busy and productive. As I finished praying, another worker on our trip tore around the gazebo in an old van. He had been repairing all of the broken-down vehicles on the compound, and he was probably testing a repair. He aggressively drove back and forth in an open spot next to the gazebo. Though the goats were in no danger, Coyote immediately jumped up and chased them away. I was excited to see that this filthy, neglected dog had a job and a part there. My heart leapt as I felt his excellent dogness bring me joy. I could see that his life was in greater balance than mine. He hung out with people and rested much of the time, but when his job called him he immediately ran to do it.
Through this experience I heard God telling me, “I’m over here, Jim, over here, not so much in all that work you come here to do. Don’t forget me, don’t forget to come outside and sit alone with me, because I’m out here where life is.”
Coyote ran off, someone put the horses away, and the breeze became still. I could see that this time of intense pleasure and joy was over. I asked God to help me find the joys as readily back at home, because I felt sure joys were there, too, and I was missing them.
Receiving this joy lightened my load. The next day, I was full of good-natured wisecracks, and I kept finding myself singing the song playing in my heart. But despite my good mood, I suspected that I had not yet learned this lesson. I felt sure that eventually the crush of life would consume me again.
I was right. Again I find it hard to suffer a quiet moment. Again I ruminate about yesterday and worry about tomorrow. And so I return to this story, hoping to find a new insight. As I wrote this, I have been surprised by how all of these blessings came when I first stopped to seek God. And so that is where I will begin.
For more about this trip, read my illustrated diary here.