Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Power of Being Alive

The only thing I could think of was to move one feet after the other. I had a hard time breathing and the headache pounding me like a hammer did not help. This was a message from my brain telling me I should be in lower ground, not at 6,000 mts (18,000 feet) on top of Huayna Potosi near La Paz in Bolivia.

It was 3 in the morning, at midnight I had woken up and put on 3 pairs of socks, 3 pants, 2 fleeces, 1 jacket and 2 hats to begin the final ascent to the summit at 6,088 mts (20,000 ft). I tried to think of my family and friends to forget the excruciating effort I was making. I brought to my mind the image of a hammock awaiting for me in the tropics in a couple of months at home. Then I stopped thinking altogether. I concentrated on walking. 

After a couple of hours of climbing I asked myself: why in the world are you here? I answered myself immediately: because you wanted to. Yes, I wanted to challenge myself by climbing one the highest mountain in Bolivia. I went back to walking without thinking and as I crushed the fresh snow I looked up and I saw the white summit with dark rocky patches bathed in the most beautiful moon light you can imagine. The sight was overwhelming, I smiled. 

As I got closer to the summit I realized every muscle, joint and bone in my body was working together in an amazing demonstration of teamwork to take me up there. I thanked my Abba Father for giving me this experience and I kept going. My guide told me we had enough time to reach the summit before sunrise. At that moment the thought of not making the summit came as a gentle reminder of my limitations. I remembered a good friend telling me before the trip: be careful, don´t over do it. As I reached 6,000 mts (18,000 feet) I felt nauseous. It was painful to breath. Each step demanded a monumental effort. I realized with sadness that I was not going to make it to the top. I asked Don Mario: how long for the sunrise? 20 or 30 minutes. The headache, the thin air and the cold were tough but the toughest thing was the realization that I could not keep going. I told my guide that we would wait for the sunrise there, 100 meters from the summit. He said OK. I tried to encourage myself by thinking that the view would not be much different from the top. I used my ice ax as a stool. I sat and I waited focusing on the unbelievable view appearing before my eyes as the sun rose. 

The minute I sat the bitter cold replaced the exhaustion. To keep busy and keep moving I asked Don Mario to take some pictures of me, even though it was still dark. 10 minutes later a glimpse of the new day was visible over a fresh mountain of snow ahead of us. I took out my banner as the sky turned light blue and with great joy took my picture with it. I was not at the summit, but it was MY summit. 

The glorious view, which was not visible in the dark a moment before, made me forget the past 5 hours of pain. I took in the a moment by breathing deeply in awe of so much beauty.  i took a few pictures and after 30 minutes we began the descent. Humility filled my heart. Yes, I wish I had made the summit, but I was proud I had given it my best effort. That´s life, isn't it? You set a goal and you do your best to reach it, sometimes you achieve it, sometimes you don´t, but you can and you should be proud of your effort. 

When life gets tough you put one feet after the other and you keep going, until you reach your own summit. You appreciate the view from your summit and you humbly realize that you are only human. You are proud of your summit. 

That´s the power of being alive. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"God never misses" by Martin Smith, lead singer of Delirious?

There's this ‘thing' we refer to as the presence of God. I'm not sure if there is another way of labeling it or a more clever turn of phrase to correctly describe it. But then again I like the phrase the presence of God: that's exactly what it is. It does what it says on the tin.

It's when God is near, it's when God feels closer than the air in a steam room. It's when all this talk about ‘it' becomes talk about ‘Him'. And if we believe that God is not dead but alive, it is the most precious ‘commodity' we have.

When Jesus left earth to be with his father again he said that he would leave his ‘spirit' with us. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Ghost, our comforter. It's the ‘spirit' that breathes life into the law. Now, laws are good but we know from the whole of human history that no one can keep them all. The law is just half the story - that's all it can only ever be. The ‘bestsellers' - the ones that have the whole story - always have the ‘spirit' imbedded in the plot.

It's in the presence of the living God that we are convicted of our sin. It is there that we realise how it's good to have boundaries, that it's good to stay out of trouble, that it's good to not pick the apple off the tree. It's when we make the choices to obey the law in the light of ‘his face' that we start to understand freedom.

I am enthralled by the story of Moses and the moment he heard the very voice of God coming from a burning bush. God always speaks in the most unusual of places and here was Moses taking his sandals off next to some tumbleweed that was on fire but not actually burning! [A complete aside: I wonder if I've ever appeared to be on fire but not been ‘on fire', so to speak.]

Anyhow, the thing that got Moses' attention was the very ‘presence' of God.

After realizing he was in the company of his maker he asked him a simple question.

"Who shall I say has sent me?"

"I AM WHO I AM", "I AM has sent me to you". Enough said.

In the last 20 years we have had a revolution in the way we present ourselves as church. When I was a kid I remember the first time I asked if we could have a drum kit in the evening service and whether I could play a ‘real' guitar, the kind you plugged into a Vox AC30. The organist, a very sweet lady, thought that everyone had gone to the ‘dark side', but to be fair to her she soldiered on believing that without her the sound would be ‘dull'.

Nowadays it is commonplace for there to be Coldplay sound-alike worship bands all across the world playing modern hymns on a Sunday morning. I love it, I celebrate it and I think God loves it too. I also think God loves the creativity. Skinny-fit jeans for socks and sandals, sculptured haircuts instead of comb-overs, tattoos for rainbow straps and ‘church news' on a video screen the width of Tower bridge.

I love it all.

But I sometimes get nervous. I worry that we don't need God anymore. We don't feel the need to take our shoes off.

Do we really miss him these days? After all our church meetings have become ‘perfect' now, we have learnt how to ‘do it', we have got the thing down at last.

And anyway, who needs God when we can sing ‘Historymaker' to make us feel good underneath the new lighting rig?

I am not a cynic, I am part of the problem.

We have led ourselves to believe that these things will attract the ‘non churched' or make Jesus ‘cool' again to a post modern secular society. I'm sorry if the ‘show' ever got in the way of the ‘nooma'. Humans want to be loved not impressed.

I am glad of the pioneering spirit that has taken church into a new century but we must never forget the most powerful thing we have, our distinctive, our joy our prize... the presence of God.

Let's not retreat into old nostalgic patterns but keep pushing the creative boundaries, but in it all let's know deep in our bellies that ‘apart from you, we are nothing'

We can have ‘everything' but nothing if we leave God at stage left. Even Wayne Rooney can't score from the bench. God wants to be involved, to breathe life into people, to heal cancers, to open blind eyes, to help someone out of debt or help them through the pain of betrayal.

He can take our ‘foolishness' and make it great. He can live in the chaos and bring truth. He can take an old lady on the organ and breathe life into her ageing fingers so that when she plays the peoples hearts break.

God is not impressed with excellence, but purity. God is bored with air-brushed worship and just delights in a sacrifice of praise. This means anyone can do it, everyone is included. All we have to do is invite God to the party and we will see a tsunami of his power flood the earth once more.

Believe me, we are not going back, we must go forward. When anyone asks who sent us, we can confidently reply, "I AM has sent me to you". This goes for the old geezer on the tambourine (yes he seems to get around!) or Chris Tomlin crooning in a stadium. Our trust is not in the sound system but in the voice of God. No longer the songs but the one who sings over us.

God can do amazing things when he's on the pitch, and you know what?

He never misses.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Madrid: rocky arrivals and perfect endings.

I arrived in Madrid on Dec 19, 2007 at 3 am. The first question was: Do I pay a cab to get to the hostel or do I wait for the metro to start operating at 6am? I decided to get to the hostel. I had to crash on a couch until 8 am in the common area of Cat's hostel so I would not have to pay for the night, I had a budget to keep. Cat's hostel is a restored Arab home with beautifully intricate geometric designed walls with a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. After getting my bed in the dorm, I stepped out of the hostel and it was raining. I headed to the Prado museum trying to stay dry. I prayed for better weather. Once inside the museum, Velazquez and Goya, along with the best of 16th - 17th century art, were represented in a display of baroque and religious art unparalleled anywhere in the world. The best thing about the Prado was that I got in for free with my international teacher card :-) My friends had to pay 9 euros. By the time we walked out the rain had stopped. We walked to the Plaza Mayor and enjoyed an evening amongst thousands of Christmas shoppers and tourists taking pictures.

Next day more walking around the center of Madrid. Narrow streets, ample boulevards, people shopping, beautiful architecture, historical buildings and little plazas around every corner. First stop was the emblematic Puerta del Sol. I was taking some pictures and I got lost from my friends, so I ended up spending the day by myself. No worries, I enjoy solo travel very much. I stumbled upon the museum devoted to the history of Madrid. I loved it. After about an hour walking I finally found the Palacio Real. Another free entrance with my ITIC. I was overwhelmed with its portentous rooms decorated from floor to ceiling with carpets, paintings, sculptures, furniture, and wall hangings.

On the third day I stepped back in time visiting a medieval small town an hour away from Madrid called Chinchon. A lovely respite from hectic Madrid. A day of wandering aimlessly in narrow streets where life seems to go a the same pace as it did 1000 years ago, just don't pay attention to the tourists with cameras and shopping. On my way back to the Cats hostel we decided to go to the Reina Sofia museum with its amazing modern art exhibit. I has just found out that it was free from 2 to 9 pm on that day. The originality of Picasso, the audacity of Dali, and simplicity of Miro were the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Early Sunday morning it was time for shopping. I went to El Rastro, the biggest open air market in Europe. You can buy everything, from antiques to gas masks. After lunch I took a nap and relaxed at the hostel to recover from so much walking and exploring.

Bus to Toledo on the fifth day. A walled city with Roman, Jewish, Muslim and Christian edifications. I walked around its ancient narrow streets in awe. A couple of times I to step onto a step of a door to make room for a car to drive through, since there are no sidewalks. We spent 6 hours trying getting lost but laughing all the time. I had a map and I am usually pretty good at finding my way, but not here. At every turn there was a beautiful building or plaza or little street awaiting, so it was okay. As we were walking back to the train station at around 7 pm, the most lovely moon bid us farewell: a perfect amber circle against a dark blue sky. Another perfect ending to a magical day.

A leisurely walk to and around Parque el Retiro on the last day. I took the mandatory picture at Puerta de Alcala, where you have to take turns with the rest of the tourists to get the best view. Sitting on the steps of Parque Retiro, people watching, taking pictures, chatting with new friends was the perfect ending of my fun week in Madrid.

Pictures at