Friday, June 28, 2013 | By: Jake

Wait...This is It?

Back in March for my Spring Break, I went on a pilgrimage with Notre Dame's Campus Ministry. Below is the continued reflection of my journey:

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity
Upon entering into the Church of the Nativity, the believed site of the birth of Christ,  I thought back to February of 2012, when I first heard of Notre Dame Campus Ministry's pilgrimage to the Holy Land...

I remember seeing "Church of the Nativity" as one of the locations that students would be traveling to and quickly searched the Internet to learn more. 

"They actually know the spot where it happened?" I remember thinking. I mean, I knew there was a spot where it happened, but the fact that the location was known? That there was a spot where millions of pilgrims went to every year to observe that event? Looking back, it seems kind of stupid to think that there wouldn't be a place marking Christ's birth, but at the time, it just seemed so surreal...lie we're talking about Christ...we're talking about God.

And now, here I was, walking through the door to the Church of the Nativity, the place where God became man. 

Surely, I was going to have a moment here.

Inside the Church of the Nativity from the Back
Church of the Nativity from the Front
Wait...this is it?

It's not that I was expecting the Buckingham Palace or anything, but the place just seemed so bare, so empty...but emptiness paired with peace. While my eyes saw nothing of importance, there was no doubt that something important was here.

We walked over to the back part of the church where we had group prayer. Surrounding a circular table, we all read the Pilgrim's Prayer. I noticed people walking by and just staring us, and realizing that they probably didn't speak English, we probably looked like we were doing some witchcraft over the table or something.

The front of the church was a bit more decorative, where the altar was. We walked towards it and noticed a line along the front right of the church. It wasn't too bad, about a 15 minute wait, which I thought was pretty good. However, as we got closer and I could see down the stairs (the altar was built over the believed site of Christ's birth), I quickly realized that the line was going fast because pilgrims only had 5-10 seconds at the site.

The altar above the place of Christ's birth
I walked down the stairs, only three people ahead of me, and realized that in less than a minute I would be directly on that spot. I tried to "prepare" for my moment, telling myself that this was huge. This was where it all started!

And then the moment came...I knelt down, said a short prayer, and got up...all in about 15 seconds.

The Hole in the Center where you can touch where Christ was born
Well...that was...different than I thought it would be.

I was expecting to break down crying, and instead I was just confused. I just wasn't feeling anything. Well, if I'm not having any emotional response, surely no one else is, I remember thinking as I walked back up the steps...running right into my friend, Anastasia, who told me with watery eyes, "Jake, this is the place. Like this is the place where God was in the flesh." You could say that I was a bit jealous of her...

God, why aren't you letting me have my moment?

But then I began thinking...why did God have such a generic site? I mean, if God wanted to, he could have chosen a site that would be known for thousands of years to come, but instead, he just chose random cave. (Side note: we learned Christ was actually born in a cave....not a stable. Sorry to ruin your nativity scenes.) This was the place where Emmanuel was born, where God was with us. But now that Christ has resurrected, he isn't with us more here than he is back in the US. He's everywhere.

Although we revere this location as the birth of Christ, so that we have a place to remember, we shouldn't respect this location anymore than any other location. We shouldn't be holy just in a church...we should be holy everywhere we go. If I would feel odd cussing in a place like the Church of the Nativity, maybe I should question why I don't feel odd cussing anywhere else.

Steven Furtick, one of my favorite pastors, recently said "Don't let your expectations affect what God wants you to experience." 

I don't think that applies anywhere more than here. If I would have had my "moment" at the a church of the Nativity, I wouldn't have been able to focus on this greater truth:

I need to act the same everywhere as I would here.
Friday, June 21, 2013 | By: Jake

Considering Abandoning the Faith?

Doubt...yeah, that's always been such a fun thing to deal with. 

It's not something that's's always been around. And as I mentioned in that milestone, doubt is probably something I struggle with the most.

These constant periods of 1-3 days when we lose faith in God, when we want to do something our way, when we would rather sin, rather lift ourselves up than others up, rather lift ourselves up than Him up. Why can't I just go make a bunch of money and spend it all on myself? Why can't I just do what I want to do? These thoughts usually stem from the self, as all sin does.

When something like this happens, you want help. You want to return to the faith, and you want to be convinced. Yet at the same time, you don't want to ruin anyone else's faith by talking to them. However, eventually, you get around to it, you attend a church service, a bible study, a devotional...and you find faith in God...doubt is frequent, but pretty simple to overcome.

However, I wouldn't describe the past two weeks as a doubting of the faith as much as an abandoning of the faith. It wasn't that I was mad at God and didn't want to deal with something. It wasn't that I had some selfish thing that Christ wouldn't approve of.

It wasn't that I hated a part of Christianity.

The problem was that I realized how much I loved it. I realized how much I would miss if I ever left the faith. 

That sense of community? Of people constantly praying over you? Holding you accountable? That's hard to find outside of the church. 

That sense of unity? Like when I went to Passion in January with 65,000 other college students that I didn't know and praised the same God? When I meet a random person on a plane who shares the faith and suddenly we can talk about anything? 

That sense of belonging? Being a part of something bigger than yourself? Knowing that some guy-in-the-sky has your back? 

That sense of security? Knowing that you don't have to worry about anything? That you won't have to fear anything? many wonderful things, but if I'm only a Christian because of these benefits, only a Christian because it's what I grew up with, only a Christian because that's what my friends are, than something is wrong, and I'm not being real and honest. 

I need to be a Christian because I believe in Christ. Yes. It is that simple. 

Anyway, suggestions for people considering abandoning the faith?

1. Get your thoughts out.
Have a journal. Record your voice. Start a Word document. You need to get your thoughts out, or you are not going to be able to process anything, nor be able to see how you've changed day to day.

2. Talk to people about it.
Sometimes, getting your thoughts out in a journal is not enough because you are still the only one that knows. Finally making the decision to tell someone your thoughts makes an unbelievable difference. It takes the weight of your doesn't have to be a Christian, it doesn't have to be an agnostic, it doesn't have to be an atheist. And in reality, it's more important to tell people of different backgrounds in a situation like this. 

3. Ask for prayers.
This one seems kind of one-sided and definitely more on the "this will convince you of Christianity" side, but you're're not sure if you are a Christian, and you don't just want to be told reasons why you should be. Asking for prayers, if God exists, can have enormous effects. And if God doesn't exist, it has almost no only pulls you towards faith if faith is true.

4. Don't fake it.
This is probably the worst thing that you can do. Don't "pray" with others if you are not actually praying. Don't lead worship if you're just playing it like any other song. Don't attend church services if you're just going to sit there and say "I don't believe any of this" to yourself the whole time. Don't pretend that you have faith when you don't. That's like being a lukewarm Christian...God wants you hot and fully in the faith or cold and fully out of the faith. And this one makes sense by secular standards as well...

5. Take a frickin' break.
Lastly, take a day off. This one obviously helped me out the most. I stopped praying, stopped reading the Bible, stopped worshipping, stopped thinking about God, stopping pondering religion and atheism...all of it. And as my wonderful great aunt suggested, whenever a thought about any of that comes into a play, start singing a song and get the thought of your head.

I was in a position where I felt like I was trapped inside a box called Christianity, that I was tricking myself into believing something that I didn't believe in so I wouldn't have to go outside that box, so I wouldn't have to be open-minded...

But as that same aunt said, believing in Christ does not put you in a box, it's what frees you. Christ is freedom.

And I wasn't feeling free...I was seeing church as an obligation...and that's the complete opposite of what Christ wants.

I'm glad to be back.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013 | By: Jake

My Hands Are Dirty

I walk back to my room in the dark of the night after another evening devotional with the kids and other volunteers, slowly making my way amidst the dense fog. I pass through the gated door to my room...the rain still trickling from the gutter as I quietly sing "Grace Like Rain". But although my mouth confesses the feelings of grace, I feel far from it.

The pastor's voice still ringing in my head...

"It's like we're putting on a happy face when we are actually know what I mean, Jake?" 

Coincidence? Conviction?

Yet another day goes by full of laziness, and even if the girls were not constantly declaring,"Jake siempre está cansado." (Jake is always tired), it would have been fairly easy to tell that I wasn't getting enough sleep.

It's not that I was too busy or staying up too late. It's that I couldn't sleep. I was up night after night thinking.

After tossing and turning in my bed for an hour or so, I finally turn on my laptop to read some blogs and ease my mind. The computer starts up and my desktop picture shows:

The Cross...Love...Titus 3:3-7...words that continually pierce my heart.

But now they pierce in a different way...

It's not like I wasn't prepared for any of started back in May when that same good friend pictured above spoke of words we all needed to hear:
"Putting on [a] face is like putting on shoes. We think it's helping. We think others can't see our dirty and gross looking feet. But they are still there. They don't go away because we wear shoes."
Then, that other woman of God gave some amazing advice:
"I think it starts with this: no more hiding. I need to be honest about myself and the places where I fall short with myself and the community that I am investing in. This way, transformation can happen in my heart and I can continue to grow."
And finally, just shortly before the "piercing" changed, a guest blogger proclaimed the truth:
"On a given Sunday, when the depression was suffocating, [my wife] armed herself with honesty and went to church... 
 'If people ask me how I am doing, I’m going to tell them,' [she said.] 
She answered each, 'How are you?' with a candid, 'Not well. I’m depressed. Will you pray for me?'"

Again and again, we're told to be real, present, candid with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, we continually act like nothing is wrong...we resist vulnerability. It affects our pride. It can ruin our image. It can ruin our identity. It can ruin our reputation.

I closed my laptop, confused and angered by the sight of the picture.

It pierced in a different way...because I didn't believe it anymore. 
I couldn't go to sleep...because I didn't believe it anymore.
I couldn't find peace...because I didn't believe it anymore.

I couldn't bring myself to find faith in the Cross, in Christ, in Church...I just didn't have faith...

But what was worse was that I kept the secret inside. Again and again, the opportunity presented itself for me to confide in someone, for me to open up, for me to be vulnerable.

But I still resisted...because that's what we do. We like doing things our way.

And the following morning, after another night of little sleep, I open my laptop to see a different picture:

A call to present our dirty hands, to present our real selves. So yes, my hands are dirty, and for the past week and a half, I have struggled with my belief in God, but I finally opened up. I finally reached out...I stopped telling lies.

And since I´m trying not to tell lies...

I can´t honestly say that my faith has fully returned, but since I opened up to one person, it's gotten amazingly better.

And as I open up my Bible this morning, truth springs forth...

And tomorrow morning, I plan to go to morning prayer for the first time in quite a while. Yeah, it's at 5am, but I have my dear sister in Christ's words in the back of my head...and I know I'll get up.

Your continual prayers are immensely appreciated.
Friday, June 14, 2013 | By: Jake

Bowing Down

Back in March for my Spring Break, I went on a pilgrimage with Notre Dame's Campus Ministry. Below is the continued reflection of my journey:

Our talk with Abu Jacobs and the graduate from Notre Dame was very intriguing, and made me aware of how ignorant I was of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although it was meant to be more of a dialogue,  I think that we were so ignorant of the whole situation that we just wanted to keep hearing more...without really being able to add any new points to the conversation.

One thing that did make me happy was that these two Palestinian Catholics did not want Palestine to control the territory of the Holy Land either. All they were seeking was peace, and in their eyes, the conflict wouldn't be any better if the roles just reversed. (For those quite unfamiliar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I strongly encourage Elias Chacour's Blood Brothers.) in addition to this, he talked about the use of humor when trying to ease the conflict, which I think is definitely true.

We finished up our conversation and then were on our way to the Church of the Nativity, seen by many as the place of Christ's birth. As we walked towards the Church, we stopped at a local shop to get falafel, which was absolutely delicious and a lot better than the Middle Eastern restaurant by Notre Dame (no offense to them!). We sat outside the Church of the Nativity, sitting on the side of the street, as we watched tour after tour group go through the small door to the Church. 

Although no one is exactly sure that this is the spot where Christ was born, we do know that Christians have seen this as the site for more than 1600 years, which makes it pretty cool. This is the same site where Jerome translated the Bible and that billions of Christians have travelled to. 

When I first applied to go on the pilgrimage, the Church of the Nativity was one of my main interests. I saw so many photos of people placing their hands through a dark hole, said to be the exact spot where Jesus was born. Again and again, I had pictured myself having some deep, spiritual experience at this spot. I was prepared to have my mind blown.

As we got closer, I realized just how small this "small door" to the Church was. Apparently, back then, people used to go through the giant church doors on their horses. They ended up making the doors smaller and smaller, and now it's so small, that you actually have to bow down in order to get through it. It's clearly obvious that there is no way to get a horse through the door now, but what's also cool is the humility that this symbolizes. You're entering into a holy space and we are all inferior to Christ.

It was pretty awesome seeing hundreds of tourists and pilgrims run through, all bowing down and showing respect to the Creator and as our pilgrimage group walked through, I, too, bowed down to the Almighty...
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 | By: Jake

A Typical Day

My most often asked question has so far been "What exactly are you doing down there?"

So a typical day...

I wake up to the sound of my alarm blaring, and usually hit the snooze and let it wake up a little closer to 5:00am. It sounds awful, but my body is mainly adjusted to Notre Dame's time zone, meaning that it's really only like 6:45am....which I guess, to some, may still be awful, but it really hasn't been too bad. The other volunteer, Josh, and I share a room at the mission center, but one of us also needs to spend the night in the boy's room, where Leo and Frankie (the two boys) live. We've been switching off every week, so this week, I'm back in the mission center.

Leo (left) and Frankie (right) being goofballs

5:00 am
I walk over to the main house in the peace and quiet of the morning, usually accompanied by the heavy fog that makes the place look like the set for a scary movie, which always gives me a good laugh. After arriving at the main house, we have morning prayer and spend some time talking about the coming day and anything different that´s going on at the school or with the kids.

I head back over to the mission center to shower and get ready for the day or I wake up Leo and Frankie and get them ready for the day, which involves giving them showers, picking their clothes, getting them dressed....all while they would rather be jumping on top of me instead of getting ready.

I walk across the street to the school for a small devotional, bible study, and prayer with the other teachers in the school. This is completely in Spanish, and it´s probably the most difficult to understand, as there are no kids in the room...meaning no need to talk slow or speak in basic terms.

I teach the 6th graders English with Josh...this week, my goal has been to learn all of the kids' names. When you know names, you can write names on the board, which fortunately, gets you a lot more respect. :)

I go to the kitchen back at the house to eat breakfast with all of the kids and some other staff. This morning, we had pancakes :) A wonderful and pleasant surprise! After breakfast, I usually have a lot of free time where I can catch up on emails, get some reading done, follow up on some friends' blogs, etc.

We head over to the 5th grader´s classroom to teach English. Because this is the second class, I´m always a bit more prepared, and thankfully, already have all of the student´s name memorized. Needless to say, they are pretty well-behaved.

Recess! A very early morning recess...when I play very intense basketball with the students (which helps with getting to know the kids). When I'm not playing basketball, I can usually be found sleeping on the couch at the main house. :)

Some of the kids playing basketball at a park we went to last Friday
We now head over to the secondary school to teach English 1 to the high-schoolers. This class was a little bit harder to get the early days, this was mainly just them talking with Josh and I assigning some work. However, the past week and a half, we have had things pretty organized...playing games, having a pop quiz, etc. It's starting to actually feel like a high-school classroom. Sadly, I still have yet to remember anyone's name.

Some more free time...

Lunch with the kids :)

Emily eating her spaghetti :) One of my favorite lunches so far

Nap time...which some days I absolutely fall in love with...and other days, I absolutely abhor. As soon as the kids are sleeping, I feel like my duties change from "teacher" to "older brother". With school officially being over for the day, there's kind of no organized activities other than dinner in the evening. This time is usually spent blogging, reading, hanging out with the kids when they wake up (they can wake up anytime between 1:30pm and 3:30pm), taking a shower, taking pictures, helping out with the maintenance guy, etc.

This picture sums up the Joy of a typical evening
Most of the schoolnight evenings are spent helping out with homework, some devotional, and some worship. Most of the weekends are spent watching movies with the kids...or moreso, me falling asleep as they watch the movie.
Saturday, June 8, 2013 | By: Jake

Tugged on His Garment

Back in March for my Spring Break, I went on a pilgrimage with Notre Dame's Campus Ministry. Below is the continued reflection of my journey:

As we walked up a small staircase, I heard the noise of what sounded to me like the Muslim Call to Prayer. Quite the opposite, when I actually found that it was the pre-service hymn to the Melkite Catholic Mass that we would be attending.

The giant doors to the church were open wide and the music blared out, informing everyone that Mass was about to start. As we walked in, everyone had huge smiles on their faces, and the pastor of the church, Abu Jacobs, warmly welcomed us in. Fr. Brad, one of our trip leaders, was surprised to be given the invitation to concelebrate the Mass with Abu. The pastor informed the rest of the Church that we had travelled to their church from Notre Dame in the United States, which led the whole church to warmly welcome us with large smiles.

I had attended a Byzantine Catholic Church over by Notre Dame with some other pilgrims, so I was thankfully already somewhat familiar with the way that Eastern Churches have Mass. However, the one back by Notre Dame spoke English, whereas this Church spoke Arabic. It was definitely interesting to participate in a Christian service in a language that most people associate with another religion, which just once again proved my ignorance.

However, because Fr. Brad was concelebrating with Abu, the Mass was in half English, which definitely helped me with being able to follow along. For those of you that have never been to a Byzantine or Melkite Catholic Mass, they are a little bit different than Roman Catholic Masses. And for those of you that think the Roman Catholic Mass is too ritualistic, I would encourage you to attend a Melkite or Byzantine Catholic Mass. 

I, personally, am not too big of a fan of the numerous rituals. However, even with all of these rituals, I still saw a sense of community vastly different than Masses in the United States. One of the biggest things was the overwhelming sense of informality paired along with the sense of the importance of what was occurring. When the pastor went up to read the Gospel, he followed behind a group of children ranging from two years old up to about thirteen years old. Little kids just walking down the main aisle with candles that were swinging back and forth like crazy.

When Abu gave his Homily, a little two year old kept walking up to him. Instead of a parent rushing up to grab the kid (as I think would be the most common response in America, they let him be). The child walked up to Abu and tugged on his garment. Expecting Abu to politely ignore him and continue on with the message, he stopped his Homily and shook the child's hand. This informality helped make everyone a lot more comfortable, especially with the awkward language barrier that occurred at times. 

However, as I said before, this was paired with the idea that the Mass was something very important. As the gifts were carried forward and the Eucharist occurred, I witnessed many devoted Christians firmly showing their belief that they actually saw the bread and blood as the literal Body and Blood of Christ. Although I do not share this belief and therefore do not participate in the Eucharist, I was greatly impressed by the seriousness of the ritual. I didn't get this same feeling back at home in America, and when I speak to many Catholics, even in my own hall, they seem to be shocked with the belief of transubstantiation. 

And aside from the uneasiness that I felt when I saw a parent give her son a cookie like he was a dog after he carried the candles up the aisle, the experience was overall, not too bad.

Afterwards, Abu invited us, along with the entire parish, inside a small building next door for coffee and fellowship. This was another key difference that I saw with the churches in the Holy Land...these parishes were actually like families. They all knew what was going on in the other lives, they were all catching up with each other, and most importantly, this time lasted for a good twenty minutes.

Shortly afterwards, we met a parishioner of the church who actually went to Notre Dame and got his Master's at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where I now study, which was really cool. Abu and the Notre Dame alum invited us to talk afterwards about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 | By: Jake

Peace in the Moment

And to You, Almighty Father, I send up nothing but Gratitude and Praise, thanking You for my day, for the gift of this weather, the children, this summer, this opportunity, and every opportunity that I have to be more like Christ and to see more of Christ in others. You continually remind me of Your Immense Love, Mercy, and Grace with the daily downpour of rain. And I ask You, Creator of All, to continually strengthen me, discipline me, and carry me, so that I may first and foremost grow closer to you by seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.

Emily, with a no-sass status
After breakfast, I walk outside and feel the sun screaming down my neck, reminding me that I should have put sunscreen on yesterday...but I kind of laugh it off, and see it as a reminder of my dependence on God.

I played outside with them for quite some time, giving well over a hundred piggy back rides, airplane rides, and lifts through the monkey bars. With messing around with kids, jumping over numerous walls due to doors being locked, and playing basketball with the students after I'm done teaching, it seems that staying in shape, or more so, getting into shape, won't be a problem while I'm here.

My biggest problem of the morning was being put into timeout by Emily (a girl with the most unique, obnoxious, and life-giving laugh you'll ever hear...and sadly some sass comes along with that laugh) and Yelka (a little girl who loves to yell at me in such a quick voice that I can't make out what I'm being yelled at for). Anyway, I was put in timeout for some reason (who honestly knows?) and was continually threatened that if I moved at all, they would bring over a frog to "eat my feet for his lunch". Needless, to say, play time in the morning lasted quite a while.

Then, we had lunch, which is always my favorite time of the day, followed by nap time, which can either be an enormous success or an absolute failure. Today, I really needed help.

Five children have to go down for a nap every day, and as you can imagine, it's hard to get all five kids to get to bed on time. You usually have two of the five kids actually being willing to go to bed, and then three kids that refuse, and obviously, that quickly turns into all five kids refusing. Time after time, you'll tell them to go to bed, but when you have five intelligent kids that can somehow carry on three different conversations at the same time, it's pretty hard to stop all three.

Yesterday, the kids went to bed so easily; within five minutes, they all went to bed. But today, they just weren't having it. I started getting angry, frustrated, exhausted, trying and trying to get these kids to go to bed, trying every technique that I knew: the silent treatment, the nice treatment, the firm treatment, the gratitude treatment...they had all failed me. 

There was practically nothing else for me to do, so I prayed...which looking back, I probably should have done a lot sooner. And I not only prayed, but I thought of all the other people praying for me.

It's almost cliche to tell someone that's going through a hard time that your thoughts and prayers are with them, and if I'm being honest, I know I've said the phrase numerous times myself, without continuing forth with my promise.

However, shortly before taking off to Nicaragua, I had the blessed opportunity to visit with my great aunt, a devoted and humble woman of God that I respect greatly. Instead of telling me that she would be praying for me, she made a pledge to God before me that she would pray for me every single day. And it wasn't a simple was a pledge with meaning, with love, with care. And it really hit me...she's going to be praying for me every day? I have something tangible that I can hold on to...something that will help get me through the days. And when I can't find the words to express what I'm feeling to God, I can rely on those prayers.

So thank you to my great aunt that prays for me every morning...
Thank you to the wonderful coffee shop friend that has randomly facebook messaged me numerous times over the past year to tell me she's praying for me...
Thank you to the close sister in Christ that randomly texts me bible verses and can change my day in a second...
Thank you to the neighbor from down the street, who I´m pretty sure I haven´t send more than a hello to, for the kind words and prayers...
Thank you to the wonderful friend who always seems to follow my blog without me knowing and sends prayers my way...
Thank you to my amazing friend for continually emailing and checking up on me out of the blue, helping me to look towards Christ...
Thank you to that friend´s mom, who warmly and generously went above and beyond by giving me a devotional that I read every morning...

Your prayers, thoughts, and actions are all appreciated more than you know, continually giving me Strength to overcome the past, Peace in the moment, and Hope for the future.
And lastly, thank you to the children of New Hope´s crazy and wild as you are during nap times, you continually bring me Joy.