How Covid Made Me a World Traveler

In the fall of 2019, I said, “I don’t think I need to travel any more. I enjoy finding adventure right where I am. I think I will just live my life here and not worry about traveling.” I was referring here to travel in the U.S. International travel was completely out of the question. This statement proved to one of the dumbest statements I have ever made.

I had traveled internationally when I was younger. I took three international trips from the time I was 14-19. I went to Israel, Albania, and France. I went to Ontario a couple of times while I studied to be a Pastor, but does that really count as an international trip? Then, for the next 20 years, I took zero international trips. I focused on other things. I got married. I lived in South Dakota. I had seven kids. I pursued higher degrees. It wasn’t the time.

four years after making that statement, I had visited Egypt twice, Mexico three times, Colombia twice, Spain twice, Quebec (that counts), and the Dominican Republic. I had a period of nine months where I went to Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Colombia again.

What changed? Ironically, it was Covid, the thing that stopped international travel for most people. In March 2020, my eldest daughter, Anna (pictured above), was in her junior year. Covid shut down the school, and she did not go back to school the rest of the semester.

In the fall of 2020, schools opened up again here in TN. Anna had a decision to make. Would she do the online option and stay home, or would she attend classes with a mask on? My daughter has a light case of asthma and had struggled at times with breathing well at the old school building in the past. The idea of wearing a mask all day did not appeal to her. So, she tried the online option . . . and hated it. She is a real extrovert who loves to talk to people. Sitting in front of a screen all day did not work for her.

So, what to do? She decided to pursue homeschooling. She had done it in the past, and she thought it would work well in this situation. It was sad for her because she had really enjoyed her three years of high school. Nevertheless, she made that choice and went forward with it. Her senior year was working at an indoor waterpark . . . while wearing a mask. So, it turned out not to be too bad.

When she decided to homeschool, I was sad. I wanted her to experience the exciting events of her senior year: the friends, the celebrations, the special events, the graduation, and the trips. All that was now gone.

Then, I came up with an idea. What if we took a trip together somewhere in the world? In my mind, that would make up for a lot what she lost. So, one day, I said to her, “I think we should do a trip somewhere in the world. Where would you like to go, if you were going to go anywhere in the world?”

She immediately replied, “Scotland.”

I said, “Let’s do it.” Continue reading “How Covid Made Me a World Traveler”

God Planned Better: What My New Colombian Family Taught Me About Travel

“[You say] ‘Heaven decreed it otherwise!’, rather . . . adopt a phrase which is braver and nearer the truth . . . “Heaven decreed better!” (Seneca, Letter XCVIII).

Travel doesn’t always work out how you planned. My plan was to travel from Ibague, Colombia to Medellin to Cartagena and then to our home in Tennessee. So, on Monday, April 3, my wife, three of my daughters, and my new son-in-law took two Ubers to the Ibague airport to fly to Medellin.

When we arrived at the Ibague airport, there were maybe three people there. There was no one at the ticket counter. It was like Night of the Living Dead minus the zombies.

After a few minutes, someone showed up at the ticket counter. I went up to talk to them. I showed them my tickets. He said, “These tickets are not from Ibague. They are from Bogota.” Bogota was 120 miles through the mountains away. There, in Bogota, the flight we paid for would leave in a mere two hours. I had bought the wrong ticket!

I stopped and thought. What was I going to do? We had to get to Cartagena, and we had to get to Medellin to fly to Cartagena. What to do? The only solution I could come up with was to fly directly to Cartagena the next day. I purchased six tickets for $100 a piece for the next day from Ibague (this time for sure!) to Cartagena. A friend of my son-in-law’s family had rented a three bedroom apartment and only needed one room, so she invited us to stay with her. $600 poorer, we went back to Ibague, but we had lodging and a way home.

The Family
So, we rejoined my son-in-law’s family. They all felt bad about what had happened. But their perspective on these events was interesting. They said, “Sometimes God’s plans are different than ours. But God’s plans are better.” “We don’t always understand what God is doing, but His will is always better.” “I’m so sorry, but we know that God has a plan that is better and wiser than ours.” It was rather remarkable. It was surprising how many of them had understood and imbibed this basic idea: we make our plans, but God’s plans supersede ours. And . . . God’s plans are better.

The good thing about staying in Ibague is that we got to spend time with our new Colombian family to whom we were connected by my daughter’s recent marriage to a Colombian man. We had really enjoyed getting to know this family, and we were thankful for this opportunity.

To the Mountains
Since they all had taken the day off and had family in town, they did what they always did on these occasions. They went away to the mountains and the small towns that dotted them, and they took our family with them.

The first place we went was the Mirador de Juntas. This was a lookout platform a short ways up the mountain with a view of the surrounding mountains and valley below. It was breathtaking.

Then, we went back toward Ibague. We visited the picturesque pueblo or small town of Villa Restrepo. When Colombians think of vacations, they think of going to the pueblos. Often, they have family there. On the weekends and holidays, the cities empty out, and people return to the pueblos or visit new ones. Villa Restrepo was a great example of it.

There, in Villa Restrepo, we sampled local sweets and coffee with raw dark sugar. We enjoyed the varied architecture of the buildings in town and the scenery of the mountains around it. But the best was yet to come. We were going to ride horses to the tallest waterfall in the state or province of Tolima, Cascada La Plata, the silver waterfall.

Horseback Riding
We arrived at the home that would provide the horses and guides for us to ride to the waterfall. We had an inauspicious start. A cute little pug was walking up the road with his master. Suddenly, we heard a howl and the scuffle of dogs fighting. A pitbull-like dog had sunk its teeth into the neck of the pug. My son-in-law’s father went over and put the attacker in a chokehold, and his cousin, the owner of three pitbulls, pried its jaws open. The pug escaped, a little worse for wear, with his master. The children beat the attacking dog with their shoes. What is this horseback ride going to be like? I thought.

I have been horsebackriding several times in tourist areas in the United States. You can basically take a nap on the horse. They just follow the crowd. Not so in Colombia. There, you have to work at it. You have to keep the horse on the path. You have to trot to catch up. You have to connect with your house. You actually have to learn how to ride.

But it was awesome. The scenery was stunning. The trail was amazing. The horses were great. The company was enjoyable. The guides were helpful.

I thought, we are really doing this. We are riding horses through the Andes mountains like in the movies. It had been a great day. God had planned better. My wife and I looked around at our new Colombian family, our son-in-law, and our daughters. “This is one of the greatest experiences of my life.” She said. “To be here in this time with these people in this place on horses is just incredible.” I agreed.

When our plans don’t work out, it can be frustrating. It doesn’t always work out as well as it did that day. It’s not always clear that God has planned better. But that day we could see what is true even when we don’t see it: God planned better.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. Have you had experiences like this one? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. If you like this post, subscribe on the right hand side (laptop) or below (mobile). I hope to see you hear again.

Understanding the Counselor: Knowing What We Bring to the Table

When my kids spilled a drink at the table, I used to get so mad! It was super frustrating to me. A few years back, I started to ask, why do I get so mad at that? After all, I have seven kids. It’s kind of part of the deal. In fact, at one point, we had six kids aged seven and under. The odds of drinks being spilled were extremely high. Moreover, if the drink spilled, we could simply clean it up with a towel. It really wouldn’t hurt anything. Why did it bother me so much?

For a long time, I had a hard time figuring that out. I really didn’t know what story I was telling myself. I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew that it was dumb. So, I made the effort to try and not get so mad at spilled drinks. I decided that I would not get angry any longer when drinks were spilled at the table. I would just get a towel and clean up the mess. It was hard. I had to check myself regularly, but I made progress, even though I really didn’t know why I reacted so strongly to these things.

It’s amazing how hard it can be to understand ourselves. It takes a lot of work. Yet, when we try to help others, we are bringing ourselves to the table. Our emotional life will have a strong effect on the way we counsel others.

How does this work out? Let me give a couple of examples. Imagine a strong extrovert, someone who loves to get out there and talk to people. Now, let’s say that someone who is also an extrovert comes and complains about someone who doesn’t want to go out and prefers a lot of quiet and time at home. Without self-consciousness, it’s easy for the extrovert to just join the side of the other extrovert. “I can’t believe people are like that,” he might say. Continue reading “Understanding the Counselor: Knowing What We Bring to the Table”

Depolarizing the Polarized Community

Polarization is the process of a group or family dividing into two camps that are mutually opposed to one another. Anxiety is high, and the only options the participants can see are victory or defeat. It’s what some call “either/or” thinking.

This is often the state of families when they come to counseling. Thus, the job of the counselor is to reduce anxiety and help the family to see more options.

A good example of this state of polarization in the Bible is the family of Jacob. Tension had been building for generations in this family. When Jacob ended up with children by four different wives, there was constant maneuvering between the wives for Jacob’s favor. Leah especially resented Rachel’s place of favor in Jacob’s heart and bed. In spite of her position of favor, Rachel felt threatened by the other wives and their children.

This tension played itself out in the next generation. It was the children of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah against the children of Rachel, especially Joseph, Rachel’s eldest. The Bible tells us, “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Eventually, it came to a point where the only option they saw to this intolerable state of affaris was the elimination of Joseph.

Notice in this story that the brothers always tended to act together. They all herd the flock. They all hate Joseph. They all go to Jacob. They all go down to Egypt. They had trouble being different from one another. This is also a characteristic of polarization. You have to act in conformity with your “side.”

It is hard to act out of principle and thinking in a state of polarization. When the brothers wanted to kill Joseph, Reuben actually felt that he should act differently. He desired to save Joseph, but he feared taking a stand against his brothers’ strong opinion. So, he ended up trying to act secretly and the result was that he acted ineffectively. Meanwhile Judah did make a suggestion to Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. The herd of brothers moved quickly in that direction together.

Was there any way out? Were there any other options?

Yes. Virtually innumerable options.

Polarization makes us think that our choices are limited, but they almost never are.

Let me just give you a few examples. They could have left the tension between Jacob and his wives between Jacob and his wives. The children of the wives could have refused to take sides with their mothers against Rachel and by extension Jacob. One person could have reached out to Joseph. One person could have said that he was not going to listen to the gossip about Joseph. One person could have stated a different opinion about Joseph. Joseph could have refused the coat. The brothers could have accepted the fact that their father had a favorite and decided to be OK with it. And on and on.

There are always more options than one thinks. One just has to step back from the emotional intensity of the situation, use a little imagination to see those options, and then act on them.

That’s how one person can begin to depolarize a polarized situation.

What’s Wrong with the Family?

The family can be one of life’s greatest blessings.

One of my favorite family memories was when over 100 descendants of my Great-Grandparents Clarence and Roberta Keith gathered together for a family reunion in 2014. It was a time of love, encouragement, faith, and fun. I went away refreshed and renewed.

But we don’t always leave family gatherings that way. Family can also inflict some of the deepest wounds.

So many families seem stuck in patterns that are harmful and hurtful rather than helpful and encouraging.

Is there any way out of these family problems?

In order to understand the way out, I think we first need to understand what creates, freezes, and intensifies family problems.

My basic thesis is this. Problems always exist, but blaming others freezes or intensifies family problems. Taking responsibility for one’s own functioning promotes family healing.

Think about it. If we blame other people, there’s very little we can do about it. Our options are limited because our ability to change others is rather limited. On the other side, though it’s not easy to change ourselves, it can be done. If we are to change the way the family relates, then taking responsibility for our own functioning is our best option.

I believe that this is illustrated in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Genesis shows us that blaming others freezes or intensifies family problems and that when one member takes responsibility for his or her own functioning, there is opportunity for family healing.

Take our first father Adam as an example. The occasion of the family problem was that he did exactly what God told him not to. At that point, he could have taken responsibility. He could have confessed his own sin and apologized to God and his family.

Instead, he blamed his wife. “The woman You gave me . . .” He introduced division into the relationship with his wife by placing the responsibility for the wrong squarely on her shoulders. Remember that Eve did have a role in this, but what Adam ignored was his own role. This brought alienation and shame into the family.

The seriousness of this pattern can be clearly seen in the next generation. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel, Adam and Eve’s son, but not the sacrifice of their other son Cain. The problem was between God and Cain, but what did Cain do? He blamed Abel. The end result was that Cain killed Abel and refused to take responsibility for the murder, even when confronted by God. In this case, blaming intensified the family problem.

One more example of blaming. God promised to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son, but it took a long time. Women often feel and at that time certainly felt that childlessness was a threat to their identity, and so no doubt Sarah felt very anxious about it. Then, she had to wait many childless years for God’s promise of a child to be fulfilled. No doubt this increased her anxiety. In the midst of this, she came up with a solution that was common in the day but contrary to God’s design (see my article on God’s design for the family ): for Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar.

The results were predictable. Hagar got pregnant. She begin to see herself as “above” Sarah. Sarah got upset. She blamed Abraham: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (Gen. 16:5). Let’s be clear: Abraham was responsible. He did wrong, but Sarah also did wrong. Blaming only made the situation worse, and it continued to be an issue in the family passing over into the next generation in the relationship between Isaac (Sarah’s son) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son).

When we blame others for the family problems, we freeze them in place or make them worse.

Is there any hope for better?

The answer is, “yes.” Even though the curse introduced family enmity, God had promised something better for Abraham. He would bless him and in his seed “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God was going to change the family situation.

And how does God bless the families of the earth? Through individuals. By His grace, He enables one person or more persons to act differently and take responsibility for their own functioning. This can begin to shift the family dynamics and bring hope for healing and change. I will flesh this out in my article next week.

For now, it’s worth considering? Where is my family stuck? Where am I subtly or not so subtly blaming the family for the situation and freezing it in place or making it worse? Could I do something to change the dynamics of the family?