It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

It was my third annual trip to the Vida Nueva mission in Piedras Negras, Mexico. The day after I returned from my first mission trip to Mexico, my wife and I separated. By the second trip, she had filed and we awaited trial. In the few months before this third trip I started a new job, my divorce became final, and I rented a house. I grieved my marriage, tried to be a good dad to my sons as they grieved, worked hard to make the right impression on the job, and tried to keep the house tidy and the grass cut.

I was busy. I was tired. Downtime seldom seemed to come, but when it did I couldn’t relax in it. I felt compelled to stay busy, or I worried about how things would turn out, or I ruminated about things that had happened.

It was a blessing to go away on these trips. We usually did construction work – hot, hard labor for God that let me 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.

On the long bus ride to Mexico, the 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.

We arrived late Saturday. Sunday we rested. 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 laying a new building’s foundation, welding steel beams for another building’s new roof, and wiring a third 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 everyone filed out single file, the only sound being the shuffling of their 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.

Coyote, a filthy little dog, spends his days on the mission compound. He shadows the staff as they work, sleeping 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.

One noontime in the gazebo, Coyote came up to me. He wanted my 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.

The next day I finished work very early, so I wandered through the other work sites. 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 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 member of our group sped around the gazebo in an old van. He had been fixing all of the broken-down vehicles on the compound, and I guessed he was testing a repair. Coyote immediately jumped up and chased the goats out of the way. I was delighted 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.

Originally posted 8/22/2007. Read the original here.


7 responses to “Find joy where life is”

  1. ryoko861 Avatar

    I couldn’t help but giggle at the picture of you sitting in that little chair, keyboard on your lap with this monumental stack of CPU’s in front of you! They couldn’t give you a bigger chair? I thought I had patience!

    That was definitely a very stressful time in your life. I’m amazed at the details you recalled; the breeze, the distant barking of a dog, the laughter of the children, how they lined up single file…working in Mexico had a very profound effect on you. During those “loading” times, it gave you time to reflect. Things happen for a reason.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Everybody used those little chairs in the preschool, even the teachers! We built desks for the teachers the year before — they were little midget-sized things, and the chairs fit them perfectly. This is what the teachers wanted, as they valued sitting at the kids’ level.

      I documented this experience in a notebook the day it happened, because I didn’t want to forget any of it.

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        Smart move! It was definitely an experience in spirit and self worth. And you can keep learning from it!
        Excellent post!!

  2. Ted Kappes Avatar

    Sounds like a wonderful experience. I find that I am most at peace when I am in the moment. I actually find “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” going through my head sometimes.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ted, being in the moment was a thread in this post that perhaps I could have made stronger. I ruminated about the past and worried about the future — but when I sat down in the present moment with my God, I had a spiritual experience.

  3. Zoran Vaskic Avatar
    Zoran Vaskic

    I read and then re-read your story Jim, I wanted to make sure I’m understanding where you’re coming from. I think your very last comment to Ted is helpful to me in looking at what you’re saying in your story: “….but when I sat down in the present moment with my God, I had a spiritual experience” . First, I think it’s powerful whenever we believe God is speaking to us. The fact you wrote it down, and years later still consider it important , is evidence you were deeply affected. God has a way of doing that to us when he speaks and to me those are special moments when he conveys something to us. In fact I personally feel there is nothing more special in life than when He speaks into us. On the other hand, like you reveal, it’s not necessarily easy to know how to sustain or stay in the peace and joy of such an experience. Which I personally find frustrating to say the least. But God is real, and it seems we have to keep constantly reaching out to him. Maybe I always wanted it to be like a math equation, where you finally figure it out out and then don’t have to anymore because it’s figured out once for all. It doesn’t seem to work like that, there seems to be always something more to push toward with God. Thanks for your story.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Zoran, I so wish that this kind of communion with God was a place to be reached, and a place to stay. I think it’s not so that we keep seeking, and keep growing and learning.

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