From Practical Theory to Actual Reality

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Previously, I referred to the difference practical and tangible hope can make in a seemingly hopeless situation. While it sounds good, the old saying “talk is cheap” comes to mind. At an early I was taught that “your word is your bond”. While I think this applies to personal actions, I also believe it applies to theories and ideas. Theories without actionable evidence are dead, or maybe never existed beyond someone’s mind. In other words, what something looks like in practice or “in action” will tell you whether or not it is useful.

In the spirit of “talk is cheap” and theories being only as valuable as their real-life effectiveness, I want to share a few stories that make this “nice” idea of practical hope a powerful tool for change.

Shortly after moving to Nicaragua in 2012, I had an experience that would forever change the way I saw the world. Over my first few weeks living in Nicaragua, after years of just visiting, much of what I understood about life was challenged. From experiencing life as a minority for the first time, to feeling unsure about my purpose for being in Nicaragua and my ability to make a difference, to realizing that I was in even less control of the future than I had already accepted, I was in a “baptism by fire” classroom called Managua, Nicaragua. Then came Albellanas.

Albellanas is a small, rural village in the northern mountain region of Nicaragua. If I had thought life was challenging in Managua, Albellanas would show me an entirely new reality. No running (or even potable) water, no electricity, little educational opportunities, and no access to healthcare were just a few of the issues the people of Albellanas lived with on a daily basis. Extreme poverty was well and good in Albellanas and it showed no signs of changing.

Interestingly enough, my introduction to this remote and mostly forgotten village came from a former resident of Albellanas who had been given the opportunity to move to the United States for college. Roger, who ended up falling in love with and marrying a girl from Virginia, was an inspiration to his village as he was one of the few people to ever escape their extreme poverty reality. Understanding his significance to his hometown, Roger did and continues to invest in Albellanas, providing assistance to those who did not have the chance to escape. Roger is a great picture himself of what practical hope can mean to someone stuck in the cycle of extreme poverty, but that is another story. It was on one of Roger’s trips to Alebellanas that I traveled to this place that would significantly impact my worldview.

In addition to Roger, eight or so other men from Virginia came to Nicaragua to make a difference in Alebellanas. “Off the beaten path” does not do justice to the road into the community. In fact, the “road” to Alebellanas did not appear to have been “beaten” for quite some time. After the hour and a half, ten kilometer drive from the paved road, we finally arrived in the village.

Over the next two days we had the opportunity to share our faith and serve with the people of Albellanas. Many great things happened on this trip, but none of them stick out in my mind quite like Brenda.

More on Brenda’s story and my eye-opening experience next time.

– James Belt


Losing Self-Preservation

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Over the past couple of weeks I had the opportunity to spend nine days in Nicaragua. I learn something on every trip to Nicaragua, but some lessons are more impactful than others. This trip taught me something particularly meaningful so I am going to take a break from talking about hope to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it!

Why do we settle? Why do we choose to live lives that are less joyful, vibrant, and meaningful than they could be? This was something that went through my head while spending time in Nicaragua over the past couple of weeks. The question came to mind in part because I tend to live with more freedom when I am in Nicaragua. Some of it is being away from the pressures of every day life, but I think there is more to it. What holds me back from living in a way that I know is more fulfilling?

As I pondered that question one hyphenated word came to mind- self-preservation. Before I lose you, or you begin to argue with me in your head, let me be clear- self-preservation at its most basic instinctual level is good and necessary. It keeps us alive and allows us to make important judgement calls when it comes to our safety.

It is when it becomes our standard operating procedure for life that it begins to be unhelpful and unhealthy. In other words, when life becomes all about protecting the status-quo and our own level of comfort it ultimately robs us of joy and significance. We become unwilling to take risks in the way we pursue life, love people, seek growth, and generally enjoy each moment of the life we have been given. One day we wake up wondering what could have been and why life seems so passionless.

We never end up in these places intentionally. It is a slow drift and the accumlation of many small decisions that lead us there. In the end, I think much of it comes back to trust and what ultimately matters most to you. I am reminded of Jesus’ charge to his disciple that life is gained in a willingness to lay it down. Jesus was primarily referring to laying our lives down for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, but I think it extends to the way we live generally.

In a willingness to trust God fully with our lives and to put our significance in his desires for our life, we lose our need for unhealthy self-preservation. We become willing to take risks to live, love, care, and enjoy fully knowing that God’s desires for us our good. We become willing to be vulnerable and fail knowing that true significance is found in embracing the life for which God designed you- a life filled, yes, with risk, but also with freedom and meaning.

Returning from Nicaragua that is where I want to live. I want to love my family and friends better. I want to care for people without concern for how it helps me. I want to live being willing to risk and be vulnerable, even at the prospect of failure. I want to stop living for self-preservation and start living for a life to the fullest. I hope the same for you.

– James Belt


Hopelessness Is Not the End

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Yes, the world is broken, but there is hope. This is where we left off last time. This hope is where we start today.

While we live in a world full of hopelessness and brokenness the good news is that it can be and will different- the Shalom I mentioned last time is the end of the story. The Creator, God, chose from the moment brokenness entered the world to redeem and restore his creation. This started with God providing covering to his created, Adam and Eve, a very practical solution for a very tangible need.

This continued on until God offered the ultimate solution in the form of Jesus Christ, who died to redeem and restore creation to its original form. This incredible act of love included the redemption and restoration of spiritual and relational connection with the God who created us. The Creator’s redemption and restoration plan also extended and still extends to His physical creation.

You only have to look at Jesus’ life to know this is true. In addition to offering spiritual hope to his listeners, Jesus healed many people, provided food to the hungry, and offered safety for the endangered. Jesus did not see the practical and tangible as unimportant as some would suggest. Instead, he modeled a process of providing practical and tangible hope to the otherwise hopeless.

This model of hope is a picture of what we should do to break the hold of the same hopelessness. If Jesus, who rose from the dead and redeemed the world, thought it was a good plan, it makes sense to me.

The impact of taking this approach can be great. We will take a look at that next time.

– James Belt

Intentional or Accidental?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

How did we all get here? An age old question with more answers than I could possibly list here. Where you stand often comes down to whether or not you think we were created with intention or formed through a cosmic accident. I believe this question of hope and the lack thereof in our world today speaks to the reality of a creator.

I know that the idea that there is a creator is controversial, but it is hard to deny that there seems to be a created order. Realities such as poverty and hopelessness pull at the fabric of this created order and make us feel uncomfortable. Some people choose to dismiss this feeling as guilt for their own fortune, but I tend to believe that is a form of denial. Hopelessness and brokenness make us feel uncomfortable because they were never meant to exist. This is why we, the created, can look at a situation and know that something is not right. Consequently, it is also why we are so disturbed by people that seem to lack the innate ability to tell right from wrong at the most basic level.

Creation in its original form was meant to be in a state of what Judaism calls “Shalom”, or nothing missing, nothing broken. To say it another way, the world was created “very good” as it suggests in the book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. This perfect state was interrupted when the creations decided to walk away from their gracious creator. The Creator, God, gave his prized creation, humankind, free will and, therefore, the ability to walk away from him and live based on their own desires.

Unfortunately, the created decided that it knew best and took advantage of the Creator’s trust and love. Much like a parent with a wayward child, God allowed humankind to make its own choices and live with the consequences. Not surprisingly, the created was not very good at making the right choices to follow the created order and has been suffering from the results ever since.

We live in a fallen world of our own creation and sense this fallenness on a daily basis, especially when it comes to our tangible world. Our sense that we live in a fallen world is a primary contributor to our hopelessness. We wonder if this fallenness that is can ever change.

The good news is there is hope. We sense this as well. More on this next time.

– James Belt

Where Does This Lead?

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Last time we ended with the question, “Where does this lead?” Where do the realities created by extreme poverty and the insecurity of basic resources lead for people like Gladys in places like Nicaragua?

Well, I am not sure it always leads to the same place and, in fact, I am quite sure the answer is “it depends”. However, I do know one path, possibly the most common of the many, is a certain level of hopelessness. While the practical, tangible “things” of life do not provide meaning and hope, the inability to access the most basic forms of them can create a bleak outlook on life. Instead of dreaming of a better future, “this is how it will always be” becomes the pervasive attitude. This worldview gets passed on from generation to generation until it creates what is almost an informal caste system based on a lack of hope. Hopelessness abounds, and so do its byproducts.

This is not just a Nicaragua problem. Many communities in the United States, especially in inner city neighborhoods, struggle with this generational issue. The truth is you can find this sad reality in all corners of our world.

It would be easy for the “most fortunate” of us to dismiss these places as having been dealt a bad hand and not “our” problem. Many sadly do. However, even if one does not care about the impoverished among us, the impact of hopelessness unavoidably becomes a societal issue. Hopelessness creates a sense of “haves and have nots” that leads to separation, avoidance, and ignorance on all sides.

I tend to believe that most people do not fall in the “I don’t care” category but rather in the “I don’t know what to do” category. It is not so much that they do not want to be a part of finding a solution, it is that the problem seems so big that they avoid it in an effort to not feel hopeless themselves. Whether intentional or not, hopelessness created by “tangible poverty”, a lack of basic practical needs, cannot be ignored without consequences.

In the end, I think we all, or at least most of us, innately feel that there is something wrong with this situation. This is because the world was not created to work this way.

More on that next time!

– James Belt

Survival Mode

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

How does a lack of access to basic practical needs impact your ability to learn and dream about the future? That was the question we left off with last time. What is the answer?

In my experience it makes it very challenging and complicated. In El Canon, the small community in which I met Gladys of hot dog lunch fame, reaching the Fourth Grade is considered an accomplishment. Typically, by this time children have been enlisted in the search for survival. Think about it- if your child cannot eat, why would school take a higher priority? If you are hungry, how does obtaining an education solve this immediate need? The short answer is it does not. This, of course, just restarts the cycle of intergenerational extreme poverty.

The other issue is that learning becomes very difficult in survival mode. Specifically, a lack of basic nutrients starves the brain of what it needs to develop properly and learn. The need to constantly find a solution for the absence of basic needs leaves little patience, and/or ability to think critically and concentrate on future-focused opportunities such as an education or skills training. Again, why prepare for the future if you are not even sure it will exist?

This propensity to only consider immediate needs really changes the way a person interacts with society, as well as the society itself. Instead of considering how actions will impact society as a whole, a “survival of the fittest” attitude takes over. In my experience, this does not just affect the poorest of a society, but rather becomes the general viewpoint of many in the society. I could give example after example of this, but I will stick with Gladys.

Gladys, the hotdog collector, took more than her fair share of hot dogs. As an outsider this seems insensitive, and even greedy. However, if you put yourself in Gladys’ shoes, you can see how your perspective would change. If I do not take five or six hot dogs, someone else will. When “survival of the fittest” becomes the standard operating procedure in a community or society, the wellbeing of others becomes secondary because there is little choice. Sure, someone could be completely selfless, and many amazingly are, but that is rarely the default-mode of the human heart. Instead, we usually think, “I will consider my ‘neighbor’ once I know that I have enough to take care of myself and the ones I love. This is Gladys’ reality and it would be difficult to judge her for trying to stay alive.

Where does this lead? We will consider that next time.

– James Belt

Lessons from Gladys

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Gladys, was and is still famous among the many people from Crossroads Community Church who have traveled to Nicaragua on mission trips. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that many of these people would tell you that you have not been to Nicaragua until you meet Gladys. Gladys always comes up as people recount their trip to Nicaragua to family and friends, the stories always full of what can only be described as chuckles of joy. The stories I heard about Gladys before going to Nicaragua were great, but nothing compared to being in her presence during the hot dog lunch.

As I had been warned, and would come to find out on a firsthand basis, the pockets in Gladys’ dress were more functional than stylish, and Gladys made good use of them. From what I could count, Gladys must have had at least five or six dogs in the many pockets covering her dress, and she was still coming back for more! Gladys was going to take home as many hot dogs as she could get her hands on, and fit into her very convenient pockets.

I still smile when I recount that story. However, I am also reminded of how important the basic, practical needs are to us as human beings. Gladys was not intentionally being greedy or gluttonous, she was just trying to survive. When the basic, practical needs such as food are scarce, humans will do almost anything to get them. Gladys was no exception. For the entirety of her life, Gladys has not known from where she would get her next meal. If someone was providing an opportunity to not have to worry about that, she was taking advantage of it. Gladys did not have the option of “avoiding” hot dogs like I do. Hot dogs are food, and Gladys was truly hungry.

Having the most basic, practical needs met is vital to life. When these tangible needs are lacking it affects a person’s entire life and their outlook on the future. An inability to readily find sustenance, shelter, healthcare, and other basic needs leads to a short-term, survivalist mentality- “I have to find these things before I can worry about anything else.” Among other issues, this takes an incredible amount of time, especially in poor communities in places like Nicaragua where infrastructure is lacking. If it takes the entire day to find, or maybe just unsuccessfully look for, these basic, practical needs, when is there time to do anything else such as learn or dream about the future?

More on what the answer to this question means next time.

– James Belt