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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The wires or the wonder?

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Costa Rica is – undeniably – a beautiful country!

When we share with individuals and churches in the US about our calling to serve here, we often encounter what I call the “Groupon Getaway Effect.” When people think of Costa Rica they think of beaches, volcanoes, and rainforests. They don’t think about the scourge of human trafficking or the challenges of deep poverty. They don’t know about the many bivocational pastors working hard to plant and grow healthy churches. They don’t see the strategic ministry opportunities to impact the entire Latin world from this small, stable nation.

cr-beautyThe problem with the “Groupon Getaway Effect” is that it misses the whole picture. Yes, Costa Rica is very beautiful! Those Groupon Getaways are worth it. You should come visit!

But there is also much more to this country. When we welcome visitors, we delight in meals with pastor friends as much as we enjoy the photos with toucans. We want them to visit kids programs in the slums just as much as we want them to see beautiful beaches and volcanos.

balcony-viewI’ve also discovered that the effect works in reverse. You can focus only on the obstructions and the challenges, without seeing the beauty.

For many years, I’ve enjoyed photography and one of the most frustrating things about trying to take photos here is the ubiquitous wires. As I write this, I look out my window and can see nine separate utility wires

Each morning, I drink my coffee looking out at the mountains of Tres Rios, east of San José. bird-on-a-wireBeautiful birds perch on those wires.

And yet, more than once, I’ve found myself frustrated by the wires without seeing the beauty. Ironically, the more beautiful the scene – bright clear day, beautiful crimson sunset – the easier it is to be frustrated.

And therein lies the lesson for believers. No matter where we live, every day we have a choice. We encounter beauty and blessings. Even in the darkest seasons, when the difficult things are in the foreground, God is at work.

And the question for each of us, every day, is – what will you focus on? The wires, or the wonder?

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Benny has the wonder thing down!

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Celebrating in a foreign land!

 

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Kids’ birthdays in 2015 – their first in Costa Rica

It started when we’d only lived in Costa Rica for 13 days. Our family took a bus downtown. We found a taxi and managed the Spanish to get to the Children’s Museum. When we arrived, we made out the word “luz” (light) and eventually understood the museum was closed because of a power outage. We ended up in San José’s equivalent of Central Park, followed by a lunch together to celebrate Maddy’s birthday on our final day before starting the one year journey of language school.

Earlier this week, we celebrated Melanie’s birthday completing two birthday celebrations in Costa Rica for each member of our family. That’s one-third of Sam’s birthdays, a half of Maddy’s, and all of Ben’s, celebrated here in our new home.

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2016 celebrations!

Like that first celebration, each has included tastes of the great and the difficult parts of living in Costa Rica. Some have included exciting visits from grandparents. Some have included trips to the beach or to visit a volcano. Parties have included celebrations with new friends. Birthday wishes have come from all over the world – in two languages – from a dizzying array of sources: Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, texts, emails, and phone calls. We have felt loved.

And yet, we’ve also felt alone. Those trips have been reminders to our kids that this country isn’t their homeland. Those visits from grandparents are reminders we live far apart. Some of those new friends have already left to serve in other countries and those well wishes in Spanish are a reminder that we’re on a long journey to feel fully at home here.

And so we live holding those two realities in tension. We love our new home, we rejoice in the new experiences and new friends, and we are thankful for the love of the many people who make it possible for us to serve here. But, we also miss our family and friends in the US and Australia, at times we long for the comfort of “home,” and sometimes it’s hard not to focus on what’s been left behind.

The Bible regularly uses the language of the foreigner to describe the relationship between those who trust in Jesus and this world. In Revelation 21, the Apostle John offers a beautiful picture of heaven as a place where God himself will wipe away the tears of His people. Death, mourning, crying, and pain are no more. The “old order” will have passed away.

And that is our life, celebrating in a foreign land. There is some pain. Sometimes there are tears. But we know that the “old order” will pass away.

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Los Sábados

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Soccer Uniforms!

Saturdays are nice days. It’s taken a while, but we’ve gotten into new routines and developed new family traditions (although this time of year I do miss our old traditions of apple picking and pumpkin patches!)

One of the (many) great things about living in Costa Rica is that each little neighborhood offers free soccer classes. Basically the local parks & rec department. Sam & Madeleine faithfully go every Saturday, and they love it. They have a great time playing fútbol and making new friends. We enjoy cheering them on, chatting with other parents and watching Benjamin kick a ball against the fence and cheer on the players (wishing he was old enough to join his siblings!)

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Playing Hard

Soccer class is right next to our local feria (farmers market). After class we load up on fresh fruits and veggies (fresh produce is one of the few things which is really cheap here in Costa Rica–and delicious).

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The Market

After the market the afternoons vary, sometimes the kids help Peter wash the car (an essential cultural practice here!), sometimes we visit ministry partners or meet up with friends, but we always finish Saturdays with family game night. We each select a board game, eat a dinner of heavy snacks (with lots of freshly purchased fruits and veggies), and play games together. We take turns cheering each other on and enjoying time together.

Saturdays are a sweet gift of grace to our family and we cherish them.

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Just a little update

IMG_7341We haven’t blogged in a while! Unfortunately for me (Melanie), the guilt gets to me and I postpone blogging even longer.  I especially feel guilty because I worry (unhealthily and sinfully so) that our supporters (prayer and financial) will feel neglected. Maybe they’ll feel  as though they aren’t important to us…

Of course this isn’t true. We pray for them daily, we talk about them in our home by name, we tell our kids that it’s because of the Body of Christ that we are here.

So what exactly have we been doing in the past few months?

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Peter opening the first day of Spiritual Emphasis Week in Spanish

We are continuing with our language studies and are just two months from graduation! Each day we spend about five hours at the language school, and then have homework and studying for the remainder of the day.  

We are really grateful for the progress we’ve made so far in Spanish. A week ago, I was able to give a brief (if imperfect!) speech in Spanish at an appreciation luncheon for our children’s teachers. Peter is continuing his role as student chaplain which has included several bilingual chapel services and a daily bilingual worship time for our “Spiritual Emphasis Week.”

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Melanie, Ben, and Maddy leaving school after classes

The kids are attending the elementary and preschool attached to the language school. It is going really well. They are becoming more confident in their Spanish abilities daily and we continue to be amazed at how quickly they pick things up. Although, it does mean I need to work with Sam a few hours each day to keep him at grade level in English. I’m pretty sure they love having two days of school each day: one day in Spanish at the language school then one day with me in English! We are also exploring and praying through schooling options when we complete language school.

We moved! This is a huge praise. We have been blessed with a lovely home (at significantly below market value) that will be a great base for our ministry here. The kids are most excited that they now have windows in their room! Our old apartment did not have any windows in the kids room. (Peter and I don’t have windows, but we don’t care as much) We’ve spent time getting to know our neighbors and neighborhood. We took cookies to our neighbors at Christmas time, and have been hanging out at the playgrounds to meet some friends.

Speaking of parks, we made our first trip to the ER when Benjamin walked behind a swing. The swings are wood and metal here, so he got whacked just above the eye and required stitches.

Now that our Spanish is improving, we are beginning to make friends here. We have enjoyed hosting friends for meals and playdates. We are so blessed to have a home that allows us to host people easily. We continue to plug into our local church, something that continues to get easier as our language skills improve.

Peter is now transitioning into his full-time role as City Team Leader of the San José Team. He’ll formally start that role on March 15. I am continuing to explore how best to use my gifting and experiences to minister once we finish language school.

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Family pic at the “family day” Valentine’s Day celebration

We are thankful for the many, many supporters who have been praying for us faithfully throughout this journey. We thank God for you every day!

 

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Six Things I’ve learned (and love) about Costa Rica in 6 months

Today is a milestone for our family: we have lived in Costa Rica for six (6!) months.

Celebrating 6 months in Costa Rica.

Celebrating 6 months in Costa Rica.

The overwhelming feeling of this time is gratitude. I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve here. Living in another culture has taught me even more about the richness of God. This is the God who made every tribe and tongue.

As I live here, I simultaneously appreciate the beauty of Costa Rican culture more each day and long to feel more “at home” here. It is a constant reminder that my “home” is in heaven not in any country.

So, here are six things I’ve learned in our first six months:

  1. Children are awesome. This is a culture that celebrates children (quite literally – on September 9, Costa Ricans celebrate the Dia Del Niño). Everyone (and I mean everyone teenagers, senior citizens, our teachers, other parents) stops to say hello and coo at our children. It is really a remarkable experience, and I love it!
  2. Much like a fine wine, the Spanish language is complicated and beautiful.
  3. Not every country has, needs, or wants a military. (No military here in Costa Rica – an odd thing to this army brat)
  4. Pura Vida (pure life) is a great phrase! It can be a salutation, a response to the question “ how are you,” and a general phrase for “it’s okay/no worries.” ¡Pura vida, pura vida!
  5. Hair gel is fantastic. I know it’s a common product in the US, but I never used it. In this humid climate, it has changed our life – and my daughters hair – forever! She now has sleek perfect pigtails and braids.
  6. Dulce de Leche is amazing and delicious. Seriously. Get it. Eat it and love it. It is great slathered on pancakes, stuffed inside churros, in cake, as an ice cream flavor, as a coffee flavor,  spread on a croissant…. I could go on. and on. and on.

As I look back on my first six months in Costa Rica I feel incredibly blessed by the opportunity to live here. Costa Ricans have been warm, welcoming and incredibly patient with my Spanish.

I joyfully look forward to making more friends, learning more about this wonderful country, and understanding how to love its people well. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and joy to minister in this country and thankful for the partnership of many of you on this journey.

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