No safer place

I was going through some old emails and found this letter that I sent to my family and friends while I was in Afghanistan. I’ve never had any real ‘near death’ experiences in my life that I can recall, but this was one of those ‘close calls’ that gave me a chance to really consider what it was that I believed. Looking back, I see this season of my life as an opportunity to grow in my faith and deepen my dependency on Christ to provide for my needs. He is my strength and shield.


May, 2011

Hello friends and family,

This update has been a work in progress. I started jotting things down on paper and on my laptop as they came to me and slowly I’ve been piecing them together into this update. I’ll try to be as detailed yet as brief as possible (for me).

Life here is, well, difficult but I’m starting to have a better attitude about it all. While the thought “what am I doing here?” was a frequent one my first several weeks here, the question has all but gone from my thoughts. Not to say that I have found some “purpose” for being here that is of any significance, I just have more of an assurance that God has not let me wander into anything He hasn’t already prepared for me; that I am here intentionally, for whatever reason that may be. Maybe simply to endure a little hardship. Regardless, I’m not leaving any time soon.

We had two close (close is a relative term; to some people on base it was more than just ‘close’) rocket attacks last week; my first experience. I tried to recall what was going on and what was going through my head as best I could.

Tuesday, May 3, around 8:30pm

As I’m leaving the testing center and heading to the main education center office (just a few feet away) we hear (and feel) a very loud BOOM! Now there are a lot of loud noises around here that we don’t even flinch at any more, unless they are accompanied by the percussive “thud” that you feel in your chest. At first I thought that they had set off another controlled explosion and forgot to give us the warning (or I had missed it). Then I heard a second one, followed by the air raid siren and “Incoming!, Incoming!, Incoming!” As I rushed out the Ed Center, more explosions and I saw a stream of soldiers and airmen running for the bunker. More like sprinting. Then we wait. 30 minutes before we get the “All Clear”.

Friday, May 6, around 8:30pm (again)

Since the last rocket attack I’ve been a bit more jumpy. On Wednesday or Thursday there were a few ground attacks during the day; these I don’t worry to much about because we’re not close to any of the gates or the fence. As I was getting ready to head over to the Ed Center (maybe there’s a pattern here?), I hear the air raid siren go off. I pause, waiting for the instructions that always follow. “Shelter in place” is what I’m expecting to hear, since I hadn’t heard any explosions. “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” My heart begins to race as I pick up my body armor, putting it on and locking up the office on my way out the door. The bunker scene is a bit more relaxed, probably because this one wasn’t as close (I didn’t even hear it). We can hear helicopters taking off as we wait. Then planes. Ground attack siren goes off. I still don’t have a clue what was going on, but after about 10 minutes at the bunker they gave the “Shelter in place”, meaning less of an immediate threat. Since we weren’t even IN the bunker (it was full) anyway, we decide to wait it out in the Ed Center (still wearing IBA). Over the next 20 minutes we heard 3 ambulances rush by. More planes. Heavy vehicles. Then, eventually, “All Clear”. We found out later that two people were injured in that attack, just “up the road” from the Education Center.

I’m still trying to process all of that. It’s all certainly put me a bit more on edge, and I sleep with my IBA next to my cot. All in all, I still feel safe here. It’s a big space, and while they have to land somewhere, it’s probably not going to be where I’m at.

“Though Satan should buffet*, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control;
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

*buffet is a military term meaning ‘to strike repeatedly and violently’.

Life isn’t just a random game of chance. God hasn’t just left us to fend for ourselves as if to say “See you on the other side. Good luck.” As Horatio Spafford wrote in the hymn above, Christ knows and has considered, the helpless state we’re in; His blood wasn’t spilled in vain, nor was it done in a way that was out of His control (as if to say it was the consequence of man’s actions); it was done deliberately, and specifically to save (let every believer say with me) MY soul. If my life was bought with such a high price, I can say with confidence that I won’t be an unexpected visitor when I finally reach Home. That doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed tomorrow, but it does mean I’m guaranteed every day God has set before me, however many that may be.

“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:15-16

I could not be in a safer place than right here with God.

Thank you again for your prayers and your e-mails.

Grace and Peace,
Paul

The best cup of coffee I’ve ever had

I haven’t always liked coffee. As usual with my life, there’s a ridiculous story to go along with how I started drinking coffee. It was May of 2005 and it all started with a good, no, a great salesman.

“This coffee is grown in a high altitude, volcanic region of Guatemala. It’s really good for you! It can cure cancer!”

He said something like that. I wasn’t interested. My brother and I had wandered into this cigar, rum, and coffee house in San Pedro, Belize. Neither of us smoked, and neither of us drank coffee, so I can’t seem to recall what the draw was for us…

I kindly explain to the guy that I don’t drink coffee.

“Just try some, you’ll like it.”

It was at least 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C) outside and it was still mid-morning. I had zero interest in a hot, bitter cup of coffee, regardless of this guy’s miraculous claims. But he persisted. I’m fairly certain he never actually heard me say ‘No’ despite my repeating it at each of his requests. His persistence finally wore down my defenses; I yielded to the pressure and tried my first sip of real coffee.

I say ‘real’ coffee because I had grown up making ‘coffee’ for my mom; Taster’s Choice instant coffee… and I had tried just enough Folgers/Maxwell House to know definitively that I did not like coffee.

But this wasn’t bad.

Then, he added a little sugar.

Now, now it was pretty good.

Then, he proceeded to add some rum cream.

I had to draw the line here. I mean, we were here with a church group on a mission trip and it’s like 10am. Again, I tried to resist but, when I wasn’t looking, he slipped in a few drops, enough to change the colour from deep black to a rich, creamy caramel.

I didn’t want to be rude at this point.

To this day, this was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

So we bought a pound of coffee beans (no, we had to pass on the rum cream). Never mind that neither of us had any way to make coffee. Never mind that neither of us had any way to grind these coffee beans. It would be several months before either of us could enjoy our purchase. Greatest salesman I’ve ever met. And I’ve loved coffee ever since.

Surrounded

Another day. Everyday the same day. I walk across the parking lot, past the bunkers, past the little shops. There’s no line for coffee today. As soon as I enter the shop, the squirrelly little guy behind the counter is calling out my order to his crew before I even say a word. I don’t have the heart to change my order today.

Heading back, I stop in the parking lot and spend the last few minutes before the Ed Center opens talking with Fatmir as he finishes up a cigarette and coffee. We don’t talk about anything important, and somehow, that’s important.

Just another day. Everyday the same day. Only today, I can see the mountains; still snow-covered in mid-April. For a moment, as I breathe in the crisp morning air, I forget about the planes taking off, the helicopters over head, the armored vehicles rolling up and down the road, the soldiers, the enemy. I forget about the war, though everything around me is here to remind me of it.

Except for the mountains.

Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. April 2011.

On becoming a fighter

“Are you a fighter?”

“Well, not really…”

“If you want anything around here, you’ve got to be a fighter.”

This advice came to me within my first twenty-four hours in Afghanistan. Understanding and heeding this advice would have made the next five months much more tolerable.

Fatmir was in his early 50s and had worked for our company for quite a long time. He was from Kosovo and learned to speak English ‘on the job’, which by that point was very good. At Bagram he worked in the education center computer lab.

I became a second-hand smoker in Afghanistan. I’d hang out with Fatmir and some of the others during their morning, afternoon, evening, and ‘whenever’ smoke breaks and just shoot the breeze. I joked that this was the best way to smoke because it didn’t cost me anything and I could truly quit at any time.

Fatmir’s advice wasn’t about being aggressive or greedy; it was just about fighting for what was right. In this case, a bed. Before I naively walked down to the housing office he shared that pearl of wisdom with me. I didn’t really understand it so I didn’t go in fighting, I went in optimistic. I walked out on a waiting list. Number 387 or something like that. I would later find out that the list was arbitrary, that it would never really move, and that I was wasting my time checking in every week; there would never be a room for me in Bagram.

Five months later, after the supervisor for all the education centers in country (a fighter, apparently) threatened to shut down all educational testing at Bagram, I was finally given a room. I use the term ‘room’ because you’re likely familiar with the basic concept: walls, door, roof, floor. ‘Plywood box’ is closer to the reality. Far from the shipping container apartment I was hoping for, but beggars can’t be choosy.

My plywood home away from home
My plywood home away from home
I lived in my office for most of my time at Bagram
My live-work space: I lived in my office (the testing center) for most of my time at Bagram

When I left Afghanistan, I can’t really say that I had become a fighter, but I did learn that some things in life will require a fight. Not out of greed or pride; not even out of entitlement. Some things require you to fight to prove how much you want it. To you, to others. That you’re not just like all the others that could take it or leave it. That you’re not just all talk. That your words lead to action, like that guy selling everything to buy the pearl of great price.

The real wisdom is in knowing what is worth fighting for.

My parents had been married less than a year before the Army began putting their marriage to the test. My dad was being transferred to Italy but my mom hadn’t yet received her visa. The Army told my dad to go on without her and they’d fly her out once she had her visa. No deal. Despite potentially being a bad career move, he told the Army no. So they waited in Korea until she had her visa, and they both traveled to Italy together. I keep this story close at hand when I think about what kind of husband I want to be; that I’m called to be. It reminds me that career, status, duty all are nothing when compared to loving my wife:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word
Ephesians 5:25-26

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3

There will be little reward in heaven for the man who wins the souls of the lost, or gives up the comforts of home to serve the poor if he neglects to love his wife as Christ loves the church.

The Sandwich of Great Price

How far would you walk for a sandwich? Half a mile? Maybe a mile, for a great sandwich. Jimmy John’s delivers sandwiches, you know. Safe to say, I wouldn’t walk very far.

This, apparently, is where my dad and I differ.

It’s the early 70’s. Miami. A young student has just enough money each day for both lunch and his bus fare to get home from school. He’s a student at Miami Jackson High School, which is in Miami. My dad’s family had moved out of the city, but he didn’t want to change schools so he would catch a ride into the city with a neighbor and take the city bus back home. Apparently, there was a great food stand next to the bus stop and one day my dad was faced with a dilemma: spend the bus fare on the bus or spend it on a sandwich and walk home. He chose the sandwich.

Fast forward to 2012. Our family is in Florida for my grandmother’s funeral. While in the city, running errands and sorting out last minute details, we drive past my dad’s old school. The story of the Bus-Stop Sandwich resurfaces and my brother and I start to think “this seems a little far from home…”. We map it out when we get back. It was a little far from home.

Eight Miles.

Miami Map

Well, Google says 8.4 miles to be exact. Now, you’d expect the story would finish with “and that was the last time I did that”, but it doesn’t. This became routine. For forty years he never knew exactly how far he walked for that sandwich. I’m not sure knowing the distance would have made any difference. It was a Cuban sandwich after all.

Sometimes a sandwich is more than a sandwich. Sometimes what is ordinary to most turns out to be extraordinary to maybe just one person. Certainly a lot of people bought sandwiches from that shop, but I doubt many were willing to pay that kind of price. But, when it’s worth it to you, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

It reminds me of a story in the Bible that Jesus tells. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one of great price he went and sold everything he had so he could buy it. That must have been some sandwich… I mean, pearl 🙂

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Mark 10:21