Día de la Familia

Last Saturday was family day at Sam’s school. The school had games set up, tons of inflatable moon bounces, food for sale and even an inflatable (pedal) go-cart track.

Sam quickly ran into friends, and I watched with pride as he switched to Spanish and played with his friends. This hasn’t been an easy journey for our kids. Their Spanish is still growing, and they are constantly aware that they aren’t Ticos. But I think back on that first day of school when they were nervous (and I was terrified) and I’m overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed by how courageous they were to step into a new culture, a new language, and a new school. How courageous they are every day. And now they have done it! They have made friends- in Spanish. I’m so grateful to the faithful God who has brought them here and sustained them every step of the way.

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Thank you, Church at Charlotte!

Even when we don’t say it out loud, it’s easy for us missionaries to think about how hard being a missionary is. We talk about all the sacrifices we’ve made from the serious (cultural adjustment, distance from friends and family, etc.) to the trivial…but still very serious (yes, I am talking about Reese’s peanut butter cups and the ability to flush toilet paper).

But there is also a deep joy to missionary life: depending on Jesus in new ways and seeing God’s mercy and faithfulness anew. Even during the hard times, there is deep beauty in missionary life. And sometimes, there are blessings that come through partners from the US. Last week we got a real treat, the Church at Charlotte sent a short-term team to serve the ReachGlobal missionaries here by hosting a missionary care conference.

For us, it has been a stressful few months. We’ve adjusted to a new baby, dealt with family illnesses and loss, navigated the public and private health systems here, dealt with seemingly endless bureaucracy, had car troubles which left us stranded on more than one occasion, experienced our first car accident in Costa Rica, just to mention a few of our stressors on top of regular ministry stress and living cross culturally! So this conference refreshed our souls.

Oh what a joy to hear sermons in English, to worship in English (seriously I am SO good at speaking English!) and to just relax and play. Church at Charlotte lavished us with love and gifts (hello, peanut butter cups!) and our kids are now convinced that Charlotte is a magical land of English speaking kids, toys, and Trader Joe’s snacks. Thank you, Church at Charlotte for loving us well.  We saw, and felt, your love and faith for the Lord Jesus last week.

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Philemon 1:4-7

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We tried to pose for a normal family photo, we really did!

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They had so much fun at the retreat!

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Enjoying great teaching

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#Fail

Some days I feel like we are really doing well culturally. (Like after I have correctly labeled a few dozen pencils and markers!) And I start thinking about how we are really fitting in here and adjusting to the culture. I start priding myself on how well I’ve navigated birth here, the school system, even the public hospital; and then this happens!

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The day after Guanacaste Day (a holiday here), our school told us to celebrate the kids didn’t need to wear their uniforms to school. But I guess they were meant to wear traditional Costa Rican dress to celebrate the holiday. WHOOPS! Can you tell which kids are the foreigners in this class pic? Oh well…next year…

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School- Costa Rican Style

We are constantly learning new things about the school system here. Like the fact that all books, notebooks, and binders must be covered in contact paper. Or that everyone wears school uniforms and they must be impeccable. And of course, the all-important agenda; more than just a calendar it is the primary communication tool between teachers and parents.

Sam’s school requires that his full name (Latino style) Samuel Morris Gray and his class- Primero B be written on labels that are attached to all of his school supplies. This includes all of his pencils, markers, pencil sharpener and erasers. I spent my morning writing on dozens of tiny labels.

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Community

I'm so grateful for community. I snapped this sweet photo of my girl and realized that everything in this picture was given to us as a gift. The swing, brought with love by Cornerstone EFCA all the way to Costa Rica, the outfit from Grammy, the elephant from Melissa (one of our amazing team members), the diapers from our church family here, and, of course, Alexandra herself is a gift from God!

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Losing the missionary I’ve known all my life

Even after becoming a believer and sensing a call to full-time ministry, being a missionary was never really on my radar screen. But throughout my childhood my life was profoundly shaped by a missionary and friend, who also happened to be my grandmother.

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Ma with one-year old Sam

Eula Ockwell, my Dad’s Mum (I called her “Ma”), went to be with Jesus at the age of 89 on November 11. She was sick and ready to go home. It was an undeniable blessing for her but still a big loss for the rest of us.

She was a classy lady who spoke with an Australian accent reminiscent of its English origins. For those who’ve heard me talk about my grandmother, you’ve probably heard me draw the parallel to Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess. Like the Dowager Countess, Ma was not always at the center of the conversation but when she entered, you knew about it!

As a missionary she took a six week trip by boat to serve in Kenya in the 1950s. She knew the pain of losing loved ones and being far from home. Both her mother and father passed away while she was on the mission field and she found out by telegram with no chance of returning to grieve with her family.

In 2016 I found out about Ma’s passing by iMessage and was able to speak to my parents via FaceTime almost immediately after she passed. I was so blessed to be able to offer a short tribute to Ma via this video (I’ve included the text of my tribute below too).

She was indeed the missionary I’ve known all my life and I am so thankful for the way the Lord used her to shape who I am today.

Tribute to Eula Ockwell (November 18, 2016)

My name is Peter Morris and I am Eula’s oldest grandchild. I am very sorry not to be with you today but my family and I are praying for you all and I am very thankful for the chance to share this tribute to my grandmother.

One of the great joys and blessings of my life is to have counted my grandmother as a friend. She was always so kind, so patient, such a sharp wit. I don’t know a single person who met her – even if just for a few moments – and didn’t like her.

One of the enduring stories of my childhood is the time Ma took me to a cafe after I’d watched a particularly captivating episode of Play School about menus. She patiently read me the whole menu before I decisively and creatively landed on “lemonade and chips, please!”

Throughout high school, almost every Friday night I would catch the train to Gordon after school and have an early dinner with Ma before she’d drive me to Bible Study. The kitchen table was always ready with crumpets or a special biscuit and Ma was ready for conversation.

There were, of course, specific conversations where we talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglican church, and many conversations where Ma assured me that Australia would be a much better place if only Bob Menzies were still Prime Minister.

But what stands out in my memory is not the specific conversations but the fact that this kind, patient, precious woman, was willing to sit and be present with her teenage grandson. I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the gift it was at the time and even now I’m only starting to fully appreciate her generosity in welcoming me into her home on those many Friday nights. Hundreds of hours, maybe thousands, just being present.

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She was there.

And that presence went well beyond Friday night dinners. When I reflect on many key moments in my life – she was there. Birthdays. Grandparents days. Airport farewells. Christmas. Uni graduation. My wedding. She was there.

She was a person of profound influence in my life. She was the one who found the postage stamp sized advertisement for a Rotary Scholarship that took me to America, setting me on the path that now has me sitting here in Costa Rica, serving as a missionary with my American wife and three dual citizen children.

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Ma playing with my kids.

I consider it a precious gift to have seen my grandmother play with my three children. For them to have memories of Mala. For them to recognize her in photos, to remember what she was like.

She was also a person with a sharp wit who – even to the end – would surprise you with a quotable one-liner. The most memorable line for me was when she was talking about the nature of modern worship songs. She looked at me very seriously and said, “the songs these young people sing today, they keep saying the same thing over and over again, and I think to myself, “do they think God’s deaf?””

Having lived away from Australia for more than 15 years, a precious memory has been how Ma answered the phone. A little clearing of the throat, almost a hint of surprise that someone was calling, then that familiar, “9498 4438.” I would often say her name in a funny way and she would instantly respond with such kindness in her voice, “hello darling, how are you?”

And as someone who trusts Jesus and knows that my grandmother trusted Him. I mourn her loss today with such joy and confidence in the fact that she is with Jesus now. I also mourn with the confident assurance that one day, I will see her again and hear her say in that kind distinctive voice, “hello darling, how are you?”

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Hope, leadership, and a wall

In January 2009, Melanie and I experienced one of the most memorable moments of our time in Washington DC – the inauguration of President Obama.

No matter what you think of the President or his policies, it was unquestionably an historic moment for the United States.

We lived in downtown DC and walked from our home past the humvees and the closed streets. We waited with (literally) tens of thousands of people to enter the parade route and participate in that historic moment.

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Thousands of people at Pennsylvania and 7th watch the Obamas walk past in the inauguration day parade

In our majority African American city, friends and neighbors were overcome with the emotion of actually seeing this moment – the inauguration of the first black President. Strangers talked excitedly, even shed tears, as they waited in the frigid cold for the security screening. The overwhelming emotion of that day was hope.

Fast forward eight years and we are on the threshold of another election. This time, the overwhelming emotion is disappointment, or frustration, even anger. There is an absence of hope. Very few voters are voting to actually support their candidate so much as to oppose the other.

Lessons from the wall
Last month, the Lord provided two opportunities to reflect on the 2016 election through the lens of Scripture.

In early October, I had the pleasure of preaching from Nehemiah 5 (in Spanish! You can listen to the recordings over at the media page!) The chapter is an amazing insight into Nehemiah’s priorities as a leader.

In the midst of a rapid building project (just 52 days!) the unity of God’s people is under threat. Nehemiah steps in. He confronts the offenders, takes responsibility for his part in the problem, and resolves the conflict – urging the offenders to walk in the fear of the Lord.

In the latter part of the chapter, he shares how this approach shaped his leadership during the 12 years he served as governor. He was a generous leader who feared God and whose life was transformed by the gospel.

But if you put yourself in the shoes of the Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem before Nehemiah arrived from Persia, they were in a time of undeniable hopelessness. They were oppressed by their enemies. Their city was in ruins. And there was conflict among the people.

Before God intervened these people had no reason for hope. But at the perfect time, God sent His man to bring hope and restoration. The story of Nehemiah demonstrates that God’s people – even when they can’t see any reason for hope – can trust in their faithful God.

And for those who trust Jesus, this story is a part of a much bigger story. At a time when all humanity had no reason for hope. When we were dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1), God intervened and sent His Son to bring hope and restoration through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

A word of caution
I don’t want to minimize the significance of President Obama’s election, or minimize the real concerns people have about both major party candidates this election, but Nehemiah 5 offers us a word of caution about worldly hope.

Christians must not despair at the absence of worldly hope, nor should we entrust ourselves to the presence of worldly hope. Instead, we must live as those who overflow with the gospel, pointing the world to the only source of lasting hope – Jesus Christ.

At about the same time I was preparing those sermons on Nehemiah, I had the privilege of writing for the Fighter Verses blog on Titus 3:4-6. In part, I said this:

The question – this election season, and every day – is: what gospel story are you telling with your life? What would someone think if they overheard your conversations at the office, after the Sunday service, or on your Facebook wall? Would they see a helpless sinner, saved by the grace of God, and renewed for fruitful service? Or would they see days passed in malice, envy, and hate?

I pray that every day – especially as we engage with neighbors, friends, and colleagues on the issues of the day – each of us would overflow with the beautiful transformative gospel in a way that lifts the eyes of a fallen world to the Savior that has appeared and offers regeneration and renewal to all who trust in Him.

And so, as the election draws to a close, I encourage Christians to focus on the opportunity to overflow with gospel hope during this season of hopelessness and to remember that we have the words of eternal life and are exactly where our faithful, sovereign God wants us to be.

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