The sky was black, like a sea of ink and dotted with bright stars too numerous to count. Most of America is lit up even at night; our dark is really not that dark, but here in this remote place, high up in the Andes, it was easy to see shooting stars brightly streaking across the black sky.
It was late at night on the fourth of July 2008. I was laying on the brick deck of the Hacienda of Hope, an orphanage in Ecuador. At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet the stars seemed closer. I was worn out but in a good way. Earlier in the evening, we had a cookout and “fuegos artificiales” (fireworks) for the orphanage kids. Some had never seen fireworks before and were terrified while others were delighted.
Called to Go
I had been very conflicted about going to Ecuador. I kept thinking about my sacrifices for those nine days: my husband and sons, clean water in the tap, my pillow-top bed, salads, Internet and most importantly, my cell phone. It would mean nine days without a car and nine days that I didn’t make the plans.
For many people this wouldn’t be a big deal. They don’t have to plan everything or be in control, but I am not wired that way. My reluctance revealed a heart influenced more by self-interest than gratitude.
I had been asked to chaperone a youth work trip to the orphanage. I really felt I should go, but it was hard to make the sacrifice. I wondered how I could go without for nine days. Then it occurred to me. I could do it as a fast before God, like a gift of thanks for all He had done. This way I would be choosing to give up certain comforts.
The first couple of days were difficult. I really missed home. The only means of communication available at that time was at a dirty telephone café in the nearest town. I had to end my first call early because a fight from the bar across the street had spilled outside and was getting ugly. I was the only adult woman on the trip with two men and 12 teenagers, so I had a lot of time to think and miss home.
The government had threatened to shut the orphanage school down because it had no P.E. facility, so we pushed through sore arms and backs and built a basketball court. Soon, I stopped thinking about home and started noticing just where I was. Ecuador is truly beautiful.
Beauty and Poverty
The Andes range pitches majestically among verdant green valleys and deep gorges. Snowy peaks stand like distant towers framing the skyline. It’s almost as though God decided to endow the very best of creation to some of the most poor of creation.
Ecuador is poor. Dirty little towns, police with Uzis, you get the picture. Thick walls topped with shards of glass and barbed wire surround even small houses. Dogs and goats roam aimlessly through the streets. People cling to the tops of truck cabs and crowd into truck beds because they don’t have cars of their own.
It is here that people serve the orphans. The Hacienda of Hope is a home for abandoned and abused children and also operates a Christian school to educate the orphans and area children.
I felt ashamed that I had not been enthusiastic about coming. The children were certainly enthusiastic about us! As I looked at their excited and grateful faces, I realized there is great value in being thankful for each opportunity.
The orphanage is in the shadow of Mt. Cayambe, one of the taller mountains in the Andes at 18,996 feet. The older orphanage kids and our group got to climb part of Cayambe, hiking from the start of the trailhead to the hiker’s chalet that sits above 16,000 feet. Since breathing at that altitude is pretty hard, it was a total workout.
It was Sunday afternoon when we finally made it to the hiker’s chalet. After a sack lunch and a rest, we worshipped there sitting outside on boulders in the snow. It was truly a spiritual mountaintop experience. The kids were delighted to be up there with us. They had nothing, yet they were thankful.
Since I have been given a lot, I should be thanking God a lot. Regularly. Specifically. I should cultivate a grateful attitude that inspires me to share with others. But I realized that the orphans, who had nothing, were much more thankful for what little they had than I was for the riches I had by comparison. Ecuador was a new frame of reference from which to be grateful, a new sense of reality that I will always remember.
Walking down that mountain was a lot more fun. We slid down several snow chutes that gave us a unique thrill ride. On the way home from Cayambe, I realized that God had taught me a valuable lesson. Once I could grasp His love and provision, it made me much more grateful in spirit, content in life and motivated to do what He asks of me.
I was so very happy to get back to all the American comforts. It felt truly decadent to have a Diet Coke with ice at the Houston airport, but I was also grateful. I brought home a new understanding that God has blessed me for a reason. Instead of just enjoying them, He wants me to use my gifts to bring Him glory and seek out new ways to bless others.
I had been more grateful for material things and luxuries than I was for my real blessings. Being God’s child is my greatest treasure, but sometimes I forget to be thankful for that. My relationships are real blessings, yet I can easily take them for granted. Answered prayers and the things that God has done in my life are also true and lasting blessings. The rest are merely things, and eventually I will lose them all.
Gratitude, Not Guilt
Upon returning from Ecuador, it was tempting to feel guilty for all I have. I am blessed both spiritually and materially. It’s no wonder that I am a bit soft — my world is tastefully padded. But instead of guilt, I am now challenging myself to daily live in the light of gratitude, thinking most about what I can give and striving to spend less time thinking about what I can get.
Often times, it takes a conscious effort for us to be thankful. When we start feeling selfish and half-empty, when our wish lists get long and our priorities become all about us, what if we choose to make a gratitude list and live in contentment? What if we consider everything we have and how we can share those things with others? And in all things, good and bad, what if we choose to give true and unconditional thanksgiving to our God who does provide? We could move mountains with that gratitude.
More information on the Hacienda of Hope can be found at haciendaofhope.org