Saturday, June 29, 2013

Phoenix Mission Trip 2013


The Sunnyside Youth Group 2013 Mission Trip to Arizona (SYG2MTA?) was amazing, and like all amazing week-long events, my dimming recollections won't be able to do justice to the trip. How can I recount the feelings and thoughts and emotions that 25 human beings experienced? I cannot. But I'll try to give you some (brief?) summaries of what went down from May 31st - June 8th.

May 31st: We went to Arizona.

June 1st-7th: We stayed in Arizona.

June 8th: We came home from Arizona.

Whew! That was much simpler than I first imagined.

I'll fill in a few particulars, for those of you that haven't honed your "reading between the lines" skills.

By day, we did work projects. By night, we hosted a summer VBS at Aim Right for inner-city kids in the Garfield district of Phoenix, population 1.5 million.


Half of the entire population of Iowa in a sprawling 518-square-mile city.

We arrived late Friday night. The heat outside the terminal had a real presence to it, like a creepy relative or a giant thermal blanket.  By the time we found our sleeping quarters, it was early Saturday morning, and we were ready to conk out.

On Saturday, we went to downtown Phoenix and took a gander at the sweet buildings, palm trees, pieces of art, and awesome-futuristic-electric-train public transit system. We grabbed a filling meal at an authentic Mexican restaurant, and I grabbed a giant horchata beverage. Iowa is a wondrous place, but we are seriously lacking in the rice-and-cinnamon beverages.

After lunch, we went shopping to purchase 25 people's food for a week. Wanda, our brave "Grandma" (Or G-Mom, as she later became known) split the shopping list into portions and divided it amongst us eager shoppers. What ensued was a large-scale scavenger hunt through the bowels of a Super Walmart, ending in eight loaded shopping carts and $1,200-worth of groceries. From Walmart we packed the guys in one van and the girls in another. The girls headed to get raw meat, the guys buzzed over to a Specialty Foods place so I could pick up some gluten-free mixes and soups. The total for all the groceries was somewhere close to $1,400, which sounds outrageous until you see that Fearless Leader Leon had calculated that it would cost roughly $3 per person, per meal, to feed us, and therefore had budgeted $1,500.

We packed all the food into every refrigerated spot we could find. I tossed my spare insulin into one of the fridge's cubby-holes marked "Butter". (Once I break the seal, the insulin I use can be kept at room temperature for its three-week lifespan. All extra cartridges need to be refrigerated.)

We prepared for VBS, gathering supplies and props, decorating classrooms, setting up tables and chairs, and checking the snack provisions. Amy, the secretary at Aim Right, rushed hither and yon to answer questions, help us locate supplies, and give tours.

In the evening, we hiked up North Mountain. The ascent took us three times longer than we expected, but the incredible view from the top was worth every step. From the peak, we looked in every direction, as far as our eyeballs could see, and yet Phoenix stretched out past the limits of our vision. It was deep night and the lights of the city cast a glow through the flat desert. Other mountains and hills within the city limits stood out in dark relief against the sprawling metropolis. We had some prayer and worship time up on the mountain, and it started the week off in a fantastic direction.

From there on, the week ripped along like a chipmunk on LSD.

So I'll just highlight some of the moments that stuck out to me, in no particular order.

1. The Grand Canyon. 

Read this.

2. The Work Projects. 

We spent a great deal of time cleaning the Aim Right church/school/activity building as well as the dorm house across from it. I was placed on Screen/Window Cleaning Duty, which suited me just fine because I particularly enjoy heights, and the screens had to be taken down with a giant ladder. The work took a lot longer than I initially thought, but that was because we had to work on the sides of the building opposite the sun, lest we melt under its ferocious glare. Heidi, Wendell, and I (with brief appearances from my brother Shane) spent a good portion of the week cleaning. The windows and screens had caked with dust and pigeon droppings bombs.

"What's that? You spent four days braising in the sun to clean those windows? It would be a shame if someone were to accidentally crap on them."

Other crews mopped, dusted, and painted. A large portion of the guys re-shingled the roofs (I feel that 'roof' plural should be "rooves". You know, like hoof/hooves?) of three little mini-barn storage sheds. On several days, the roofers got up at 5:30 A.M(!). to avoid turning into lobsters.

3. The Meals. 

Shaina (who quickly became "Mom") and Wanda were most often found skipping around in the kitchen, locating pots, pans, and utensils to cook up monstrous feasts for us. We all took Kitchen Duty turns, where we'd assist in the prep, food makery, and post-meal-cleanup. Despite our involvement, the meals turned out excellent. Wanda and Shaina took extra good care of me, which I was very, very grateful for. We tried our best to devour all the groceries, but we didn't quite finish them off. Like good Mennonites, we debated about taking the extra groceries with us back home. Just kidding. We left those with Aim Right, for the staff to make good use of.

4. The VBS. 

Everyone chipped in to make a lively Bible school. I was given the task of corralling the Kindergarten-aged kids. There were moments I felt like a cowboy, out in the Wild West, trying to pen in some wild stallions. Harmony and Dylan were my expert co-wranglers, and we had a mother-daughter team that came in and helped Monday-Thursday. The girls were the sweetest little angels you could ever imagine, which was a blessing, because I had to keep my eyes on the boys at all times. Some of the boys were especially ornery, but we had a lot of fun. I finally miss them. ;) We were separate from all the other groups, so instead of dumping them off at the Game station and Story station, we did that ourselves. We joined the 1st-graders for Bible Memory, Snack, and Craft. I'm fairly poor at deciding which games to play with Kindergarteners. I've played hundreds of games as a kid, but all of those activities left my brain and I was stuck trying to remember more than Freeze Tag and Duck-Duck-Goose. By the end of Tuesday, I had exhausted all of the easy-to-remember children's games, and was inventing other games to play. We normally played outside, but Thursday was just too hot. I wanted to go outside anyway to make homemade bubbles, but I hadn't foreseen that Arizona's freakish lack of humidity would evaporate bubbles before I could blow them. So I just decided to have the bubble-blowing indoors. In our classroom.

It started off swell. I had two bowls of warm water with heavy doses of dish soap. The first exercise was to bend a little bubble wand out of pipe cleaners, but they ended up soggy and useless. It did not matter that my genius-brainstorm-pipe cleaner idea worked BEFORE class, all that mattered was that it wasn't working for the kids. So I showed them how I made bubbles by carefully dipping my hands in the mixture and blowing bubbles through my connected fingers. The bubbles were the size of basketballs, and the kids were delighted. Well, they started trying it and succeeded in blowing large quantities of soapy water all over the classroom. While I was blowing bubbles, the boys had completely frothed up their soap-water by jamming their hands in the bowl and churning it up. I glanced away for TWO SECONDS and that's when they dumped their bowl on the table. There were suds everywhere.

Then the girls dumped their equally-sudsy bowl. The kids started squealing and giggling and the whole place smelled fantastic and the bubbly-soapy-liquid mess was somehow staying on the table but I was beginning to envision soapy hand prints on every surface in the room. Harmony was giggling and drawing shapes through the thick suds on the tables, and the kids joined in. It looked like a giant Etch-a-Sketch. Due to the small classroom packed with energetic kids, we left the door open. People wandering by began to poke their heads in to see what the commotion was all about, and why our room smelled like a Fresh Mountain Spring. Nicole, the awesome mother helper, had kept her hands out of the soap this entire time. This was fortuitous, because everyone else had soap suds up to their elbows. Soap was now dripping onto the chairs. The kids were laughing and the boys started to chase each other around the room. "ALL RIGHT" said Nicole in her loud-yet-patient-and-kind voice, "Let's pretend we're doctors preparing for surgery. Put your elbows at your sides, hands in the air. Let's go wash your hands, but don't touch any walls or doors or kids, OK?" The kids, grinning madly but eager to listen, lined up at the door and pranced to the bathrooms. I ran to the basement, scratching my head. How do you clean up a mess? Warm, soapy water. How do you clean up a soapy mess? Rags and water, I supposed. I snatched a stack of dry rags from the kitchen and Dylan and I mopped the piles of suds into a bucket. We washed and dried the table, along with several chairs. When we were finished, the table was reasonably dry and the room smelled like it had never housed a single sweaty Kindergartener ever, which was nice.

Other parts of VBS went great.

The drama team (Christopher, Roshona, Emily, and Wendell) was awesome.

The snack team (Brendon and my brother Shane) was a Godsend. I was grateful each night to have them pile out the goodies while I caught a moment of rest.

The craft team (Eleanor and my sister Sheryl) did a fantastic job churning out cool crafts while patiently explaining the steps to dozens of kids, over and over.

The worship team (Heidi and Grace, with help from Rolanda and Harmony) taught a dozen songs and made up motions to get the kids involved. Boy, did they get involved. One of the songs required a jumping stomp. The kids got into it and one of the stomps sent a vibration all the way through the sanctuary and disconnected the cord to the ceiling projector.

The story team (led by Jeremy) and game team (led by Jared and Rylan) also did fantastic jobs, but I heard about them second-hand, since our group didn't visit them.

5. The Insulin Incident. 

The week was moving right along, and I used up a cartridge of insulin. I headed to grab my other one from the refrigerator. I opened the door and found myself looking at a completely different appliance. I searched for the other fridge, but I couldn't find it. The refrigerator I had put my insulin in had been filled with various drinks and snacks, so I thought "surely, whoever moved refrigerators emptied it into one of these fridges." Well, I couldn't find my insulin. Someone mentioned that a fridge had quit and they had moved it outside. I went outside, and found my insulin, tucked in the butter cubby-hole of a non-functioning refrigerator, which had been parboiling away in the sun for the past 12 hours. I quickly recalled that insulin is "never to be frozen, and never to exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit." It was currently 109 degrees in the sun, the insulin was more than likely sterile by now, and I was 1,511 miles away from my pharmacy. I talked to Fearless Leader Leon about my predicament. He told me that he'd drive me to a hospital if I needed to go. I told him that we'd pray about it, and ask God to allow my insulin to work. So we did, and He did. Praise the Lord, that insulin worked perfectly. It was nothing short of a miracle.

6. The Local Kids.

The boys and girls that came to the camp were crammed with energy and excitement. Sometimes I felt like we were teaching, feeding, and playing with primed grenades. The Aim Right ministry has a lot of similarities to our local Kids Club ministry (more accurately, we resemble them) but they've been around for quite a bit longer than we have. Aim Right does activities with the local kids once a week, while we only meet once a month. The amount of time invested in the children really showed though in that they were very respectful and listened well, once you raised your voice above the general din.

7. My Evil Pinky Toe. 

I've shared about my broken toe before, but it was a pretty defining aspect of the trip. I didn't allow it to limit me from hiking up the mountain or around the Grand Canyon, but it would rage fiercely against me. I was often found with my foot stuck in a cooler of ice water. At the beginning of the week (and at regular intervals throughout), I prayed "Lord, please do not let my dumb toe get in the way of serving You." And He honored that request. I was able to run around with the kids, interact with my youth group, and explore Phoenix. My toe DID however exclude me from participating in the boxing mayhem that spawned when some of the guys found some punching bags and boxing gloves. I was asleep when they started boxing each other. A lot of the boys (and some of the girls?!) were very sore for the remainder of the trip, but you'll have to ask them for the details.

OH MAN. I need to go to Prairie Camp in Indiana, so I'll have to finish this at another time. You may now expel a sigh of gratitude, since this post was going to be longer than a beard on Duck Dynasty.

I suppose I have three-and-a-half seconds to explain. I'm gonna be a counselor at Prairie Camp in Indiana for this next week. Please pray that God would have His way. I will see you all later.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sometimes Work is Fun, Sometimes Not.

A few weeks ago, a customer called our business, asking if we might possibly have time to locate a terrible smell coming from their duct vents. We told them that they'd probably be better off calling a duct-cleaning service, and we recommended Americlean.

The customer called back recently to tell us that Americlean had done their very best, but there was still a foul smell coming from the ducts. The homeowner suspected it was coming from inside the furnace.

I asked Mom to join me and we went to see what we could find. Mom was excited about the prospect of discovering the source of the mystery odor. I pulled the doors off the furnace and gasped at the stench. We discovered three dead mice, or what was left of them in the blower compartment. They had destroyed the insulation, so we spent quite a while cleaning up this decayed, smelly mess. Mom did an excellent, meticulous job cleaning each corner and nook and cranny, and I was very grateful to have her along. After we finished the blower compartment, we pulled out the large, pleated filter media that was adjacent to the blower compartment. There, we found a dead chipmunk nestled in the folds of the filter.

Sometimes I don't like my job.

We replaced the filter, and I decided to replace the fan motor since it was caked with a mixture of rodent excrement and the expected amount of dirt and grit from 23 years of dutiful service. We drove back to the shop and I started working on the fan motor. I cleaned the blower, cleaned the housing, replaced the fan motor and capacitor, and then put the whole thing back together. I headed back to the customer's home by myself.

I met the customer upon my return, and greeted him by saying "Good afternoon!" He replied, "I believe my afternoon is going better than yours is." He apologized for the terrible smells, even though he didn't place the rodents there. He thanked me over and over for coming to his aid. "I'm having guests over tonight, and I'll need to run the A/C, but I can't if it smells like a dead mouse." I warned him that there would most likely be residual odor. After all, some of the mice had been in long enough to be reduced to nothing but a small lump of crusty little bones.

I finished replacing the fan assembly in the furnace, and closed everything up. The customer came out to thank me once again, and handed me a $20. "Buy a tea or a beer or something, to get rid of that terrible mouse odor." He said, with a laugh.

Sometimes I really like my job.

He moved to shake my hand, but I smiled and told him I needed to go wash it first before shaking anyone's hand. I took off and went straight to my place to shower, change, and arrive at VBS. Tonight was our last night. We ran the VBS from Sunday-Thursday on account of Myron's wedding this weekend.

This week has been a lot of fun, but a lot of work. Caught up in each day, it felt like an eternity, but in all reality, it feels like the week just flashed by. Since Christopher was on Hike with several other young men, I took his place as Detective Reggie in the drama each day. I was nervous every evening, and I'm not sure why. I'm a goofy detective jumping around in front of roughly 40 kids with a planned script in my hand. How difficult is that? But I still found things to be nervous about. Each night went excellent, and the kids didn't even notice I was nervous. As a detective, I had a secret identity each evening, printed neatly on a "Hello, My Name Is" sticker. The first night I was "Shawn", because I wasn't fast enough to think about aliases. The second night I was "Clyde", the third night I was "Rufus", the fourth night I was "Dexter", and tonight I was "John Jacob Jingle-Heimer Schmidt" which took four "Hello, My Name Is" stickers. Each night, I'd tell kids to come back and bring their friends. I wouldn't tell the kids what my secret identity was going to be for the next day, which became a huge deal to them. "Who are you today?" "What does that spell?" "Your next name should be Sullivan."

All the VBS's in my entire life have gone from Monday-Friday. Night three should be Wednesday, night five should be Friday, etc. So I've been battling the strange disparity in days all week. I really feel like tomorrow should be Saturday.

There is so much information to cover but I can't even hardly take the time to write about it, so I'll give you some insufficient teasers about what's been going on.

Phoenix was awesome, amazing, and so refreshing. It was hot and tiring too. Jesus provided for me a thousand times. For example, I placed my spare insulin in a fridge a few days into the trip. That fridge quit working and was moved outside without my knowledge. My insulin sat in a hot fridge outside in the Phoenix sun for a day or two. The insulin should have become sterile and worthless at those temperatures, but we prayed that God would make things work out, and they did. I could talk about all the miracles, but that topic deserves its own post.

Dad got tired of our driveways getting flooded here at the trailer, so he had 53 truckloads of clay-and-dirt dumped in here. We've been spreading it around and flattening it enough to drive on, but I have to take it slow, lest jugs of milk turn into crates of butter halfway to the trailer. Any sprinkling of rain turns the driveway into a swampy, clammy mess. My friend Tyler was briefly stuck here and I sorta wish he would have been stranded here longer but we got him free and back on his way to Wisconsin. Now the Low Driveway is our High Driveway, three feet taller than it used to be.

My roommate Victor moved out, my other roommate Shane got engaged, and will soon move out, when he gets married. Victor is house-sitting for his Grandma for a couple of months, and I'm not sure if he'll return here afterward, but I hope he does. He is an awesome roommate to have.

My sequoias stood firm through The Great Flood of 2013, but the flood after that took the wind out of their little sapling sails. They look dirty and bedraggled, like they've lost confidence in becoming awe-inspiring giants. I need to give them some more pep talks. And maybe clean the flood-mud off their trunks.

Sometimes, I run out of chutzpah and get antisocial. I can handle large groups of people for a limited amount of time, and I am quickly reaching that threshold. I have a wedding to attend this weekend, then a fairly-normal week of just work. After that, I'll be a counselor for a week in Indiana. I'm excited about it, but I'm also praying "Lord give me energy and patience. Lots of both, but especially the energy. Amen" more and more often.

I blog a lot in my mind. I will try to capture that and type it more often.



Monday, June 17, 2013

Thank you, Dad.

"C'mon, Dad! Play submarines!"

When Shelby and I were just little sprouts, we'd drive our mom crazy right up until Dad got home, then we'd switch tactics and start to work on him. Dad would come home exhausted from work, but we were unaware of such things. We wanted him to play a submarine game on the Nintendo that we enjoyed watching, but we were terrified of playing by ourselves. It was just too complicated for 5 and 6 year old boys. We had used all of our combined brain power to get past a giant hole in Super Mario Bros.

 Of course, I was Mario. Shelby got Luigi, the Official Mascot of Little Brothers

The submarine game was called Silent Service, and it was intense. You were the captain of a submarine, out hunting evil ships and sinking them from the safety of the deep. But you had to monitor all sorts of gauges, run your little man down below decks to make sure nothing was leaking, and dive below the waves to keep from getting detected by enemy radar.

I'm not sure how this game got past Mom's radar.

Dad was a pro. He was undetectable. He could slip underneath enemy radar, pop up from behind their defenses, and blast their evil German ships to smithereens before they knew what was up. If Dad had been a submarine captain in WWII, the war would have lasted about 35 minutes, tops.

Shelby and I loved watching Dad play. We tried playing while he was gone, but it was too confusing and we got sunk.

This game was the origin of the phrase "Too Much Information".

Dad didn't whine about spending time with us after a long day. He put his effort into letting us know we were valuable to him. He played us literally hundreds of board games and card games. Inventors, Monopoly, Billionaire, Rack-O, Horse Collar, Masterpiece, Scum, Museum Caper, Clue, Sorry, Trust Me, Risk, Chess, Pegity, Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, Apples to Apples, Moods, Othello...

Each Sunday, Dad would make popcorn. Over the years, he honed his corn-poppery into a considerable skill. I've had a lot of popcorn, but none match my Dad's. After mastering popcorn, he set his sights on omelets. He now holds the title of #1 omelet maker, if you ask me. (Dad, please work on gluten-free twinkies next!)

Dad took us on bike trips, camping trips, field trips, work trips, road trips, and the occasional trip to the hospital. I spent many Summer weekdays riding shotgun with Dad on service calls, fixing air conditioners. Well, I'd fetch tools, he'd fix air conditioners. He'd introduce me to the customers as his oldest son, and I'd beam with pride. (We still occasionally run into customers that say "My sakes alive, look how much your son has grown!")

We'd complete our service calls and then run over to the Iowa City Public Library, where we'd borrow stacks of Boxcar Children books, Nancy Drew novels, Garfield comics, and old black-and-white videos of Charlie Chaplain, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. Incidentally, I think these ancient silent films are why Grabers talk so much during movies. We had to do the talking since the movie wouldn't do it for us. :)

Dad provided us kids with bicycles, skateboards, roller blades, four-wheelers, mopeds, dirt bikes, and go-karts, and helped us repair them when we broke them. Or ran them into trees. When I started getting considerable air launching the four-wheeler over some ditch culverts, he didn't wring his hands and fret. He went out and bought me a helmet and told me to go for it.

On Sundays, Dad would toast bread, cut it diagonally, and then butter it just right. He'd offer me toast, too. I thought he meant that he'd grab my gluten-free bread, put it in my separate toaster, and toast it for me. So I would say "Sure!" And he'd toss me a piece of regular bread.

"No, Dad. I can't eat that."

"Oh, that's right! Sorry, kiddo."

He offered me regular, wheaty toast for years. But I loved it, because he treated me as a normal kid, and not like some diseased anomaly.

Dad taught me to drive from a young age, letting me sit on his lap and steer when I was 11. By the time I got to Drivers Ed at 15, I had already driven (or steered) on interstate, gravel roads, highway, and city streets. He also taught me how to drive stick-shift, patiently explaining how to let out the clutch on the old Dodge pickup so we wouldn't get stuck in a series of lurching movements he called "bunny-hops". I gave us both a headache my first time out, but within a week I was much smoother.

Dad took us on family vacations to Florida, Canada, Michigan, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Tennessee, Oregon, and many other states. Most of our vacations involved seeing relatives, but some were just for sight-seeing. Those trips with my family are some of my favorite memories, if you don't count that one trip to Florida when we took home some sea shells that still had living creatures in them that subsequently died and stunk up the van. On these trips, Dad would say that he's known many men that saved their money until all the kids moved out, then they'd build a giant addition onto their house. Dad thought that was silly. "Spend on family trips while the family is still at home!" He would say.

On long trips, he would tell Shelby and I stories; imaginary tales with danger, mystery and suspense. Trees with secret hidden openings, treasure hunts, exploring caves. He told them with such detail, I thought he was just reciting a book from memory. We were always on the edge of our seats, shouting "Look out!" "Oh no!" "What happened next??!" Many years later, I realized he was just using his imagination and making the story up on the fly. We always hated when he'd say, "TO BE CONTINUED!" and we'd beg him for more. Now, I understand that was his sly way of saying "I can't really think of any more story right now." I'm going to use that tactic someday on my own children.

Over the years, I have offered suggestions to adapt or change or improve this or that, and he's jumped right into it. Dad listens to his children and values their opinions.

I never envisioned that my father, my boss, and my landlord would be the same person, but I really enjoy the setup. Boss Dad is unfairly kind, allowing my work schedule to be flexible for mission trips, summer camps, and trips. Landlord Dad has made time to help me out at the trailers, mowing yards and landscaping and picking me up when I have car trouble. He ran to my place while I was in Ohio and saved my LP tank, my vehicles, and my pet rats from the Flood of 2013, even though he would have preferred to shoot the rats.

I've learned a whole lot of quality life lessons from my Dad. Because of him, I only see one race: the human race. The customer is always right, even when they're wrong. After loving God, family is the most important. Sometimes a little cussing is acceptable, when you're working with heavy machinery that won't cooperate. Choose your love, then love your choice. There are some videos out there that aren't even acceptable for pigs to watch. If it's bleeding, it needs hydrogen peroxide. If you don't have time to do it right the first time, when are you gonna find time to do it over?

Thank you, Dad. Thank you for all that you've invested in us kids. I can't even do justice to all my favorite memories of you. The days we spent working on your cars. Teaching us patience by letting us help you glue model kits together. That one time you burned popcorn because we were so busy watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and we had to evacuate the house because of the horrendous stench but it was awesome anyway because we got to camp out on the trampoline...

If God gives me children, I hope to treat them like my Dad treated (and continues to treat) us kids. (Logan, I'd like to be a husband before a father, you smart young man.)

Will they beg me to play video games with them when I get home from work? Well, I won't hold my breath. 

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

VBS Phoenix: Friday

We're back!

Oh, you didn't know I was gone? Our youth group left for an 8-day mission trip to Phoenix, and we arrived home just an hour ago. 

During our stay in Phoenix, several youth group members signed up to journal about the different days of our trip, in order to keep families and church members informed. I signed up for Friday, so I'm going to just plaster that email in here and call it good, seeing how it's well over 1,300 words. I dare say even my most loyal of readers would be unable to read my accounts of the entire trip in one sitting. There's just too much to talk about, not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of photos that were taken...

So this is just a little snippet of our trip: the day we went to the Grand Canyon. I'm sure I'll get around to writing about the rest of the trip, eventually.


It is 4:30am, and our group is climbing out of bed, a little TOO enthusiastically for the small amount of sleep we got.

4:30am is not when we normally wake.  Well, not most of us.  This is the third morning that the roofing crew has awoken at 4:30am.  The rest of us thought they were crazy, but as we stand in the cool, quiet silence outside, we can see why they chose such an early hour to start.  But there’s no roofing to be done today.  That was completed yesterday.  Today we head to the Grand Canyon.

It is 5:20am, and we’ve been driving for half an hour.  The sun is already leering at us behind the foothills that rim Phoenix.  The sun doesn’t sleep for very long down here.  Our two 15-passenger vans are laden with drinks, snacks, and eager youth.  To my knowledge, none of us have seen the Grand Canyon, unless you count the time my parents took me when I was 2 months old.

We are told that the trip will take roughly 4 ½ hours.  We will stay at the canyon for two hours, and then make the 4 ½ hour return trip, in order to get back in time for VBS.  Normally, 2 hours would seem like an abundance of time to examine a crack in earth’s skin, but I’m getting the feeling it’ll hardly be enough.

And I was correct.  2 hours flashed past faster than a date with a cute girl.  The trip to the canyon took 3 hours and 19 minutes, which was a far cry better than the 4 ½ hours we were warned about.  But that extra time gained will be quickly gobbled up by a food stop and heavy traffic.
     “If we get stuck in traffic, we’re toast.”  Says Leon.

We stopped at a Five Guys Burgers & Fries restaurant and ate.  We thought we’d have to eat on the run but the very competent staff whipped out meals out on the double.  There were veritable mountains of French fries on our tables.  Dylan didn’t order any fries, hoping there would be extra.  There were so many fries left over, he couldn’t eat them all.

How can I explain the Grand Canyon?  We’ve been on the return trip for a while and the words still fail me.  It is colossal.  When the free shuttle bus (all Grand Canyon buses are free to ride, and run on Natural Gas) rumbled around a stand of trees and stopped at a bus station, we hopped out and moseyed over to an observation deck.  Somewhere between the bus stop and the observation deck, our breaths decided to leave.  Coincidentally, it was at the same time we caught sight of the Canyon.  I sucked in some oxygen and let out a feeble “whoa”.

The earth dropped away into a vast portrait of plateaus and valleys.  The opposite rim of the canyon facing us gleamed 10 miles away.
     “Does that mean our eyes can see ten miles?” Asked Wendell.
     “Well sure,” I replied cheekily. “We can see 93 million miles when we’re looking at the sun.”

Half of our group was privileged to see a California Condor wheeling around on the thermal currents over the canyon.  It is endangered nearly to extinction, so the ones in the park are monitored and tagged.  With its six-foot wingspan, the condor is the most graceful buzzard I’ve ever seen.  It fought off some fat crows for a prime perch on a cliff edge.  It looked like a chicken picking on some sparrows.

The buses were overcrowded and it was nearly impossible to find room for our tribe of 26 eager tourists. (25 youth group members and a local Phoenixian friend along for the day) Because of this, we split up.  I was in the second group, and we chose to hike the trail instead of waste 15 precious minutes for the next bus.  It ended up being an excellent choice.  There was a slight breeze, a well-paved trail, and a delicious scent of wilderness.

Two hours wasn’t enough time, of course, but it definitely got us excited about visiting again sometime.
     “My appetite has been whetted.” Said Rolanda.
     “Dylan and I are gonna make a Western trip on motorcycles.  Jeremy may come too.  You should join!  We’d take a day to hike the trail down the canyon.” Said Brendon.

I was grateful, though, that we didn’t spend the whole day hiking.  My broken toe was hollering enough as it was.

The trip back was a lot quieter.  I had hoped to sleep on the way up, but certain young girls giggled and laughed and carried on the whole way.
     “What are you doing?! It’s 5:30am!” I asked them.
     “Oh, we’re making up new handshakes.” They replied.
I felt like an old geezer, unable to keep up with these energetic youngsters.  Now it’s 3pm and we’re traveling through beautiful mountains and valleys full of scrub brush and cacti, and those girls are conked out.  So I feel better about myself.  At least my body is smart enough to know when it should be tired and when it should be awake.

We got back to Aim Right and stepped out into the scalding air, already missing the cool temperatures we felt around the Grand Canyon.  Darrell, the head honcho here, confirmed that it was 109 degrees Fahrenheit at 4:30pm.  We later learned that the hottest temp of the day was 111.
     "But there's no humidity blah blah cooler than Texas blah blah" You might say.
     "No. It was hotter than a hot thing." I would reply. My comebacks are not very witty when my brain is all melted.

We prepared for our final night of VBS, which was AWESOME.  You probably thought I was going to say “bittersweet” but I was thrilled.  God had done so many miraculous things throughout the week, but I was ready to wind things down.

Prior to VBS, we split into groups and prayed for each station, asking God to be present and close to the children as they ate snack, made crafts, played group games, learned the Bible story, and memorized a verse.  We also prayed for the worship team and drama team.

I had nine Kindergarteners in my class tonight, which was the most I’ve had all week. I also had two less staff, so the evening was pretty hectic.  Harmony and Dylan were indispensable, and I was grateful for their expert help.

After VBS, the staff lined up to say goodbye to the kids.  The younger ones giggled and gave us high-fives, while the older kids were a little more somber, realizing they would not be seeing us again in the foreseeable future.

The last child left the Aim Right building, and I nearly passed out.  Not from relief, but intense, crippling pain shooting from my pinky toe.  I had broken it back in Iowa but it hadn’t been giving me too much grief.  I was sore and limping after our mountain hike on Saturday, as well as after the Canyon trip, but my toe would always bounce back and behave for VBS.  Now I suddenly realized that Jesus had been withholding the injury from hurting like it was supposed to, until our task was complete.  Isn’t it amazing how God provides what we need, when we need it?  It is also amazing that God allowed mankind to invent ibuprofen.

We’re eating as many leftovers as we possibly can.  For supper there’s quesadillas, pizza, hamburgers, chili-dogs, salad, root-beer floats, and assorted veggies.  Wanda prepared some gluten-free quesadillas and chili-dogs for me and brought them over to my seat while I immersed my foot in a tub of watery ice.  (It wasn’t just ice water, it was colder than that.)  My toe has lost some of its angry red swelling.  My toe has also lost the majority of its feeling, due to being numb.

Wanda was an angel to me the whole trip, and I was extremely grateful for all the extra effort she put into my food.  I cannot thank her and Shaina enough for making the trip so tasty for me.

The cleanup is nearly finished, save for a few odds and ends. The close of our mission trip is a tangible feeling in the air, like the smog that hangs over Phoenix. We have yet to pack our suitcases, but that’s what tomorrow morning is for.

God was real this week, and I was so blessed to be along for the ride.