Somewhere in the south of the Atlantic Ocean I sat in a boat surrounded by plaster painted to look like gold, plastic cut to look like diamonds, and middle-class passengers desperately trying to look like the one percent. Leah had gone to bed, but I was still wired for sound. I left the pitch blackness of our interior room and forced my eyes to adjust to the brightly lit hallway, intimately lit elevator, and the buzzing neon lights of the promenade deck, before finally settling on the dim mood lighting of the cigar lounge.
I went up to the bar, asked for a trimmer and a book of matches, then ordered an amaretto sour. I chose a table in the far corner, and set down my drink and an ashtray. For a few minutes, I simply sat while the languid smoke of my cigar rose from my fingers and caressed my cheek. After a time, I opened a small notebook, clicked my pen, and began writing.
EARLIER THAT MORNING
Our boat had docked in Belize City at nine-thirty. It was only our second port, but Leah and I knew the drill. The moment you step off of a boat, regardless of where you are porting, everything is pretty much identical. You are surrounded by stores that sell t-shirts with sassy sayings, shotglasses with the name of the island, and license plates with the names of tourists. Peppered throughout these novelty stores are high-end jewelry, perfume, and liquor stores. These places have the same merchandise, at the same prices, regardless of your geographic location. The trick, is getting far enough away from it that you can actually start taking in the local culture.
In Belize, this distance is about sixty feet or so. One moment, you’re standing in front of a Diamonds International, two steps later you’re standing in the middle of a flea market in which the citizens of Belize are desperately hollering at you to buy something from them. Leah and I could feel the eyes of every Belizan upon us at every moment. People begged us to look at their wares, to let them braid our hair, to provide us with a coconut. (We wisely agreed to the latter.)
We had to walk for blocks before the crowd began to thin out. Even then, it was tricky because the streets were lined with people asking us to let them be our tour guide. They would approach us, then walk with us until the next intersection all the while laying the sales pitch on thick. I had a difficult time adjusting to the constant attention.
My shields were up. I had switched to “conquer” mode. We would walk, we would explore, we would meet the objectives we set out to accomplish, and anything else was irrelevant. But not to Leah.
I was so in my head that I had walked about a dozen steps before I realized that Leah was no longer beside me. I turned around, and I found her standing before an elderly man who was lying back on a stoop. Her hand was extended toward him, and I watched as he strained to sit up, lean forward, then cup both of his hands around Leah’s. Even from my distance I could see his lips form the words “thank you” as he bowed his head in acknowledgement.
As our journey unfolded, we were approached by a number of people asking for handouts. Leah found kind, diplomatic ways of denying their requests. As for me, my brain was still struggling to reach the summit of Mt. Fun-Times despite my promise to myself that I would slow down and become more aware of what was around me.
A chance meeting
Eventually, far from the flea market and tour barkers, we came to a lone table sitting in the middle of a city block. A man and woman sat behind it, proudly displaying their assortment of handmade beaded necklaces. The man assured us that he only makes high quality, long necklaces. Not chokers, like those in the flea market. You buy one of his necklaces, and you won’t even feel it when you put it– Leah cut him off in the middle of his sales pitch.
“Who’s this?” she asked, and pointed straight down. Perplexed, I followed her gaze. I had successfully managed to miss the napping toddler sleeping on the ground in the shadow of the table.
“Ah, ‘dat’s baby Jaden.”
Leah nodded. “We don’t need a necklace, but you should have this.” She handed the man some Belizan cash we had collected in our day’s travels. A smile exploded across his man’s face.
“Tank you, miss! I tank you, she tanks you, and Baby Jaden tanks you!”
The sleeping cherub knocked me off of Mt. Fun-times as surely as a surly billy goat. My body tumbled down the mountain before finally crashing into an ugly reality: I messed up.
the way it was meant to be
I’ve spoken before of Shalom. Shalom is the idea of perfection; reality as God has always intended it. I believe it’s our role as Christians, hell, just as good people to create Shalom around us. To find the little ways we can bring heaven from a theoretical place, to a literal reality right in front of us. Leah had done that for the man at the stoop. She had done that for the little family at the table. I had been so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I completely missed those opportunities. What other opportunities did I miss?
I told Leah that I envied her ability to process things in real time. She saw an opportunity, she took it. I asked her why she chose to help those people, but not the others who had asked. She shrugged, and said there were too many people to help everyone. She couldn’t choose who to help, so she followed her heart. When she saw the man at the stoop, something in her heart pulled her toward him. She felt herself drawn to Baby Jaden. Those were the ones she helped, because those were the ones she had to help.
As she explained all of this to me, I found myself thinking of something Jesus said. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends his disciples out to go forth and be awesome. They’ve heard his teachings. They’ve seen his miracles. It’s their turn to go and do likewise. Before they leave, Jesus has some final words of encouragement:
5-8 Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:
“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.
16 “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive.”
What impressed me the most was that it’s rare for Christians to take seriously Jesus’ exhortation to be cunning. If Leah and I tried to help everyone who needed it, we would have gone broke long before we made a drop in the bucket. But, just as foolishly, I had adopted the opposite stance of going so deep into my own head that I couldn’t see the opportunities to do good that were in front of me. Leah had exemplified the words Jesus spoke and managed to walk out her faith without falling into either extreme, and instead, managed to calculatingly walk on the very thin line in between.
Looking back on it, that day I walked through Belize I wasn’t with my wife; I was with Jesus.
In the cigar lounge
I set down my pen and sighed. There was something there, hiding in the ink. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I could feel it. I took a sip from my drink and a drag from my cigar. I wasn’t done. Not yet. I hadn’t even written about what came after Belize, when we got back on the boat…