New Wine

“In the crushing, in the pressing, you are making new wine.” – Hillsong Worship-

So we made it to Greeneville Tennessee, a place that five months ago we didn’t even know existed when God so clearly called us here.  Everything that could have and should have gone wrong during our transition didn’t. Every good thing that shouldn’t happen so easily did. We are now living in the friendliest place I’ve been to date.  Even the most menial, and in my case, normally irritating tasks like getting the water turned on and opening a bank account turned out to be the most fun I have had in a while.  The bank was the best because they served gourmet chocolate chip cookies and coffee. I know. I’m like a little kid. The point is we are adjusting remarkably well. Still, there are periodic reminders that I am still in the process of reentry from the mission field. 

Yesterday I finally realized that “Ingles” is not a Hispanic store for English speakers. 

Holston Home where I now work is one of the most incredible places I’ve been.  It began as an orphanage over one hundred years ago.  Today it is a place of healing for traumatized children and sometimes their families.  It’s a job for which I am particularly qualified. Not because of my professional counseling background but rather because each day that I work I come face to face with my broken teenage self who grew up to become an even more broken parent and eventually healed.

Those who regularly read these posts know my walk with the Lord began in jail.  What many don’t know is that my former wife also went to jail and our two children went into foster care.  My ex-wife was released before me and so the kids went home with her. But she was broken beyond repair.  I was told that the court wanted to place the kids with me but I wouldn’t be out for another year.  One day, I was summoned to the guard shack.  My lawyer was on the phone.  She told me that something horrific had happened to my children as a result of my ex-wife’s lifestyle and acquaintances. The courts wanted to terminate her parental rights but according to the law, they could not terminate one parent’s rights without terminating both. I realized at that moment that there was only one way to end the cycle. 

I told my lawyer to terminate my parental rights. 

It was ten years before I heard of their whereabouts.  Needless to say, I paid a huge emotional price and I questioned my decision through the years. Today my daughter is married with a son and works as a manager for an import-export company.  Last I heard my son builds cellos for a living, is studying pre-med, and has a girlfriend he loves. 

My ex-wife died as a result of IV drug use. 

I’m not sure if the Lord brought me to Holston Home because I know what it means to be broken like the children here or because I was broken like their parents.

Maybe it’s both.

The boys with whom I work like that I’m a former Marine, especially those that need to borrow my self-control. That’s code for physical restraint. I guess it’s cooler to be taken down by an Ex-Marine than a five-foot female.

Of course, that is also a key to what ails them.

We got COVID shortly after returning to Kauai from Honduras and I took it like a hardcore former Marine who knows how to stuff any and everything he feels. I even interviewed for my current position at its peak. I felt horrible.

“If you like me now, you’ll really like me without COVID!” I joked via Whatsapp

The qualifying question during the interview seemed to be “how would you react if a kid called you every name in the book?” I said something to the effect of

“Why I’d feel right at home.”

Humor has always been a key to my resilience. But perhaps you see the connection between that and what ails the boys.  

It was 4 am in Hawaii and near the end of my bout with COVID.  I was sitting in a recliner because it hurt too much to stay in bed. My fever was breaking and I was getting the chills.  The temperature outside was 70 degrees.  I was bundled up in sweat pants and a thick hoody under a comforter but I just couldn’t get warm. I was shivering and shaking.

Sometimes it takes a physical affliction to disarm us and reveal more truth. 

All at once, I was 15 again, the same age as my grandson Elijah, the same age as the hurt broken boy I recently “lent my self-control”.  It was Christmas Day 1979. I’d been living alone in a house with three finished walls and no heat.  It was minus twenty degrees outside and maybe 20 degrees inside. Everyone in town knew my situation but no one said anything, let alone did anything. I became the “bad kid” that everyone wanted to keep their kids away from lest I corrupt them. Now I was a lonely kid under a blanket, desperately trying to keep warm. I remember trying to be tough – trying to be hard as I strengthened the imaginary armor I’d created to protect me from a brutal world. I stoked the fires of my anger as I very intentionally transformed all my grief into rage. Anger became the energy source that kept me warm and safe. I would eventually use that anger to throw my father through a wall when he showed up and took a swing at me during an argument.

I began shivering and sobbing like a little child in the recliner. I tried to choke back the tears at first but I’ve learned through the years to let the tears flow when they come. I must have been pretty loud because I woke Cathy up and soon she was by my side holding me and weeping with me as I choked out the memory between sobs.  The connection was made, we prayed. Healing came with a deeper revelation of why we were going to Tennessee.

I sometimes joke that most kids run away from their parents but I was so bad that my parents ran away from me. Sometimes it’s genuine humor.  Most times it’s a sign of some residual armor that needs to be stripped away and tossed. That’s just part of the continued process of sanctification as we are being conformed to the image of Christ. The fact is that I was a deeply hurt and broken child well into adulthood.

There’s no room for armor and false pretenses in the Christian walk.

To this day I don’t really know, let alone understand what happened to my parents – to my family apart from generations of bitterness and unforgiveness.  I once asked my dad as an adult, if there was one thing about his life that he could go back and change; what would that be?  “I wouldn’t have had ” F-ing” kids!” he replied. 

“You guys ruined my marriage.”

I love my dad. He died several years ago. I got the call while leading a middle school process group of 13 and 14-year-old boys.  Ironically they were complaining about their fathers.  “What’s wrong Mr. Gray?” they asked as I hung up the phone. “My dad just died,” I replied.

The therapeutic poignance was deafening. 

It’s both fascinating and faith-building to watch the Lord direct my steps and turn even the hardest, most hurtful things into pure gold. I hope you can see that and don’t give way to sadness or worse – pity as you read.  Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. It is the ability to identify with and join in the suffering of others. Compassion is the fruit of suffering from which the world tells us to flee. 

Compassion is what qualifies us to participate in God’s plan.

It was about a week after my COVID-ridden interview that I started thinking about my old childhood friend Craig Hammerly. “That’s weird,” I thought. I hadn’t thought of him for years.  Craig was the unauthorized friend with whom I used to play in the woods between our houses when we were 6 or 7 years old. I say “unauthorized” because Craig was that “bad kid”.  My mother forbade our friendship. So I’d grab my Tonka dump truck, excavator, and matchbox cars and meet Craig secretly to play.  Craig didn’t have any toys so it was up to me.  I remember I’d always be trying to build something. Craig just wanted to crash the race cars into the Tonka trucks and destroy everything. It was kind of irritating but I rolled with it. Craig lived alone with his grandfather. Rumor had it that he “did things to Craig” – the kind of things that people didn’t talk about let alone do anything about.  Craig got held back and we grew apart by the time I was in the third grade.  Soon he became the school bully that everyone was afraid to fight. Craig couldn’t read but he sure knew how to punch. Elementary school mythology had it that “he’d knocked out a high school kid in a fight. Heck, even the teachers were afraid of him.” His identity became the kid who could beat up anyone – except maybe his grandfather. Craig moved away sometime before the 6th grade and I never heard of him after. It seemed kind of random that I’d feel prompted to look him up on the internet after 50 years. But there he was. His picture was all over the internet. It was no surprise when I learned that Craig, who called himself Damien Knight had been on drugs and in and out of jail for most of his life.  He’d just been arrested again a week or so before.

Craig beat his roommate to death with his fists

Maybe you come from one of those miraculously functional families that loved Jesus and each other. Maybe you are cringing or weeping as you read this. Maybe you’re scratching your head and trying to make sense of seemingly disconnected albeit traumatic data points. Maybe you just think I’m crazy. Or maybe you recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I”. One of the many ways that God speaks to us in and through the circumstances of our own lives – past and present. When I look at Craig I see myself minus Jesus. There’s no going back for guys like Craig and me only forward. But maybe I can help boys – boys like we once were to choose a different path. What I know for sure is that I had no idea why God told us to move to Greeneville Tennesee. It was such a blind leap of faith that part of me questioned my hearing at times. Today it is clear what God is doing or at least what he’s continuing to do in my life. It’s what He’s always been doing. He’s crushing and pressing.

He’s making new wine.

I don’t know what Craig’s future holds. I do know that with God all things are possible. I know that God used prison to save my eternal life and begin the transformation that resulted in the wild adventure that is my life today. Of course, I didn’t know it at first. I know the goal is to count it all joy in the midst of trials and testing. But let’s face it. The crushing and pressing hurts and all we want to do at first is to make it stop. Most of us are doing well if we can count it all to joy to have passed through them. Still, every day I am excited to see what God weaves in and through my life and where he places me as a living stone fitly framed in His house. I hope you can do the same.

I pray Craig can do the same.

Maranatha.

What Will You Bring?

James 4:14

It’s been more than three years since I’ve been back home to Kauai and just over two for Cathy. We’ve made the journey twice in the last five years. This has been the longest period we’ve been away from

Home?

I used a question mark because on one hand, I have no permanent home, not on earth anyway. On the other anywhere I lay my head is home.

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13

Our friend Nick Franks who runs, among other projects, the Into The Pray podcast and Fire Brand Notes blog out of Edinburgh Scotland with his wife Mairi recently asked us a poignant question. It was in the context of a conversation about our coming out of the literal and proverbial wilderness.

What will you bring with you?”

I didn’t have an answer. The question hasn’t left me and I’ve tried to answer it several times since arriving on Kauai.

Transition will do that…

It’s been over five and a half years since we stepped out of the confines of careers and the comfort of regular family and social life in pursuit of an obscure calling to deny self and pick up a Cross that we barely understand. We chose a life of relative poverty to love God and others. We did our best to stay connected with the past as Facebook likes and comments waned with prior illusions of intimacy. Some family and friends resented our decision and wrote us off completely. Others dismissed us on theological grounds. Soon no one seemed to notice that we were gone. It was in many ways a foreshadowing of our eventual transition from life on earth. Some call it death. We have experienced many deaths. I’m not whining or being melodramatic. Most people never have the opportunity to apprehend the superficial and vaporous nature of all they hold dear in this world.

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. James 4:14

We’d entered as sojourning strangers into strange lands. I went with childish dreams of improving the vapor in His name. Little did I know that I was being sent to serve for my sake more than anyone I aimed to fix. We aimed for love, community, and impact. We landed in the depths of loneliness and at times despair. Again and again, we came to the end of ourselves and found that

This is where Jesus resides. Isaiah 53:3

Here in the vapor buildings crumble, farms decay and human bodies do the same. Meanwhile, God whispers as He builds His house from His throne in eternity. You don’t have to travel to the third world to find the wilderness and the truth it reveals. But it’s a whole lot easier to find it and abide in it there. Perhaps the biggest difference between the wilderness in the first world and that of the third is in the number of anesthetizing distractions. Most people choose anesthesia where it’s available.

One thing is certain.

It’s harder to hear His voice on Kauai. That may sound counterintuitive if you are prone to confusing the creation with its creator. Most everyone arrives here in what I call the Garden of Eden 2.0 with fairytale expectations of encountering some transcendent peace in its sunsets, rainbows, and waterfalls.

Today the irony of the life I left behind seems clearer than ever.

I keep asking people here about their endgame.

It occurs to me as I emerge from the wilderness and step into the land of Netflix and retail that a vast amount of human labor, what I call “monetized life” in the first world involves insuring our comfort against “the fellowship of His suffering”. There’s car insurance, home insurance, flood insurance, fire insurance, medical insurance and medical savings accounts in case we don’t have enough insurance. There is dental insurance, and life insurance, and unemployment insurance to ensure we don’t lose our insurance if we lose our income. We insure ourselves against future suffering with Social Security insurance then insure ourselves against the failure or inadequacy of that insurance with IRAs, and 401Ks. Everyone knows we will need to supplement our Medicare and Medicaid insurance with private medical insurance. We buy identity theft insurance to ensure no one steals our insurance. We purchase security systems and fire alarms. We buy organic vitamins, supplements, food, and water filters. We invest in exercise memberships and equipment, heart monitors, Fitbits and weight loss plans to ensure we don’t use our insurance before we get to enjoy the fruits of it for ten or fifteen years. We call this retirement. It is the ultimate goal of human life. When the appointed day of our death, the existence of which we’ve done all we can to deny finally arrives, someone else takes the proceeds of our insurance and buys insurance for themselves.

It would be comedic if weren’t tragic.

Meanwhile, eternity continues and God builds His house.  1 Cor 3:9, 1Pet 2:5

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11

The inherent narcissism that plagues all of fallen humanity in varying degrees tends to block the realization that our compliance or defiance has zero effect on the final accomplishment of His will. Our participation in His plan is a wonderful and sacred privilege for us not a necessity for Him. That’s a hard red pill for anyone bent on fixing the vapor in His name. At the end of the day, our only real hope for finding meaning, and purpose as we sojourn through the vapor is to learn to abide in Jesus. We do or we produce more rags that endear us to the world. Isaiah 64, Rom 3

Yearning for Jesus is what causes us to abide. We don’t truly yearn until we realize that nothing in ourselves and the world suffices.

So much of our missionary journey has consisted of learning this.

So what do I bring?

“A whole lot less than what I left with.” is my first response. You might think people would be interested in the lessons we’ve learned in the context of a life lived in a manner so foreign to that in the US and especially Hawaii. Yeah well…not so much. I’m not shocked or offended. It’s just an observation. COVID fear, or should I say terror has wreaked havoc on the souls of people in pursuit of worldly bliss. Six years ago I’d think twice before going into the local Walmart. “Did I really have time to negotiate the gauntlet of conversation in every aisle?” Walmart was a community meeting place and “talking story” was a cultural expectation. Only “haoles” (foreigners) ignore the presence of others. Ironically “haole” means “without breath”. According to Hawaiian lore, the spirit is in the breath. Anyway, need bread and milk? Make sure you have at least an hour. That’s how it used to be. This time I went with the sole purpose of seeing who I might see. I was pretty excited after three years. No one even looked me in the eye. They just scurried along with zombified stares. One woman stopped short as she entered an aisle in which I stood alone. She sighed and appeared rather flustered before turning around and choosing an empty aisle.

It seems she was afraid to share the space.

A few weeks ago I got to share at Puka’s Ministries. “Puka” means “hole” in Hawaiian. In this case, it refers to the piercing in Jesus’s hands, feet, and side, that He endured for our transgressions. Services are held under a tarp across from the beach. It’s how Cathy and I always thought church should be done on Kauai. I mean why does any church need a building with a sixteen thousand dollar per month rent bill or an eight hundred thousand dollar mortgage? There are plastic chairs, the kind that guys like me need to be careful lest we lean back and they break. There’s a make-shift plywood stage and the dirt floor turns to mud when it rains. There are two porta-potties across the field and they serve a free lunch after the service. If nothing else you will know Puka’s by their love. The worship leader and Pastor are old friends and supporters of ours. They are familiar with brokenness. Hence, their ministry is mainly to the broken. “A broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise”. You won’t find a better church on the island. There are former inmates, addicts, jail guards, rag-tag surfers, homeless, and successful business people who might not seem as familiar with brokenness. Their humility tells a different story. I showed our most recent video that no one could see due to the glare of the morning sun. We tried to cover the gaps between tarps with a blanket to block the light. But to no avail. So I began with my own broken roots to include addiction and jail lest anyone be tempted to place the visiting missionary on a pedestal. I spoke about missions, God’s call, ongoing repentance, and the obedience that is the antidote to fear. I felt like a river overflowing its banks. Cathy said she’d never heard me speak so fast and…so scattered.

“Next time slow down and maybe say less.” She said.

I realized as I began that I am an overfilled wineskin ready to burst. I probably sounded like a machine gun. Turns out the answer to Nick’s question is

“apparently a whole lot more than I can share in forty-five minutes.”

In addition to bursting at the seams, the Lord has given me a renewed love and burden for the Bride of Christ. That might sound strange if you are a regular reader of mine.

We’ve been out on the fringes alone, forerunning and pursuing the Lord and His most lost sheep for so very long that we figured the wilderness was our one and only calling. But then I have always said that Psalm 37:4 “Delight your self in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart” is not about us getting what we want as much as it is about Him placing His desires in us. It’s as surprising to us as it is to anyone that He would be calling us back with a renewed passion for a ragtag blemished harlot destined to become a spotless bride.

It was only in October that we were looking at the condition of the United States and the blatant apostasy in so much of the church and saying,

“We don’t know if we even want to visit again!”

Still, I think it was Augustin who wrote, “The church is a whore but she’s my mother.” Hosea married a whore named Gomer. She was a type and shadow of Israel and the contemporary church.

Alas a man makes his plans but the Lord directs his steps. Proverbs 16:9

This past November we were sitting on a rock by our blessed river – the one into which the landslide fed our home and all our worldly possessions exactly a year before. The waters of our preservation and our stripping had remained our most sacred place to worship and pray. It flowed onward unimpeded in spite of us like the days of our lives. Bits and pieces of roof and fluorescent yellow flooring were strewn all around us. And God spoke. Cathy and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes and simultaneously said,

“We have to go back.”

It was just like the moment in December 2015 when we stood on opposite sides of our bed in Kauai, looked at each other, and simultaneously said,

“It’s time.”

We thought we were headed directly to Honduras. Ten months later we were in mission school in Africa.

Anytime God moves us He reserves the right to change the course and direction. Understanding this would save more than a few from the snare of offense.

We arrived back on Kauai on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, and started our ten-day quarantine. Ironically the department of health official at the airport seemed to think she’d busted us for having a fraudulent COVID test. “She’s the type that will be guarding the camps,” Cathy said. We went out once or twice after quarantine and immediately got COVID. “Praise God!” Cathy exclaimed. That’s a blog in itself. The point here is that it was during that time that God guided us and repeatedly confirmed that He was sending us to Greenville TN.

Why Tennessee?

We’d replied to a call for help by Will Hart on the IRIS Global alumni Facebook page. IRIS runs the mission school we attended in Pemba Mozambique. The more we learned about what God is doing in Greeneville the clearer the vision became. I should also point out the fact that the growing clarity followed our decision to be obedient. Lord willing and unless something radically changes, I will be working at the Holston United Methodist Home for children. My role will be similar to the one I had as a counselor at Hina Mauka Teen CARE on Kauai. The difference is that discipleship is the goal instead of the risk I faced in a public school setting. I will have ten to twelve boys to disciple. In addition, the unlikely partnership between a charismatic ministry like IRIS with a United Methodist Church and a 100-year-old children’s home seems proof enough that God is disrupting what Nick calls the “denominational maze”. We aren’t sure exactly what Cathy will be doing. But I suspect it will involve stopping for the one and maybe some involvement with the equine therapy they do at the school. We are excited.

Still, the transition is bittersweet.

Our tears at the river were partly a result of the fulfillment of our faithful waiting in the wilderness with no visible direction other than to put one foot in front of the other and trust God. They flowed because of His love and faithfulness. They flowed because we are leaving the people we have grown to love as our family.

I married Josh and Paulet in 2018 and they have joined the ranks of our many adopted spiritual children. We planted and watered. Now it’s time for God to give the increase as only He can. We had waited and trusted and waited some more and never gave in to the confusion the enemy tried so hard to sow into our lives and our marriage. Trials that are known to destroy marriages on the mission field only brought us closer together. We came out more solid and more in love with God and each other than ever before. I am more in love with and mesmerized by my bride today than on the day we first met. She only becomes more radiant and beautiful as the years pass by like the rushing waters of our river in Cerro Azul.

I think the Lord may be trying to tell me something about His own passionate love for His bride.

If you haven’t seen it yet, our final video is posted below. It begins with our rehabbing the 380 sqft cabin in Cerro Azul and ends with its destruction in the landslide. The shots of the people in between are a window into the lives and souls of the Honduran people we have grown to love so very much. We will continue to glean the lessons the Lord taught us through them for years to come. We remain part of Hope In Time Ministries and will help Josh and Paulet. We will continue to serve on the board and I will help with the website and newsletter. We will visit Honduras again as soon as we can. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll bring teams of kids from Tennessee.

Thank you.

We would like to thank all of our supporters through the years and especially our four monthly supporters. We could not have done it without you! We never did much in terms of raising money for ourselves and we never asked you for money. Instead each and every one of you heard from the Lord and came through at the midnight hour. Not only did you help us financially but you each played a major role in the growing of our faith. That you heard so clearly from the Lord about our need should build your faith as well. Those who donated immediately after the landslide saved our lives, our mission, and countless Honduran families in the aftermath of two back-to-back Hurricanes Eta and Iota.

We are eternally grateful.

That said, I will be archiving the Gray Hope Donorbox campaign at the end of February. Monthly donors will receive a “donation failed” message after that. You don’t need to do anything other than mark it as spam to avoid receiving the same email each month. Those donating directly to Hope In Time will remain unaffected. If anyone feels led by the Lord to support our transition to our next mission you can click here; Gray Hope Missionaries before our departure to Tennessee on February 28th, 2022. Thank you again for laying down your monetized lives here on earth for the sake of the Gospel and our mission to the people of Honduras. We love you and may God bless you. We pray that you know the peace that surpasses all understanding that we have come to know so well in this season.

MARANATHA!