Anyone who knows me knows I am an over-celebrator of birthdays. I love the presents, the sweet phone calls and time together with family and friends. I’ve been known to drag out my day over the month. But did you know my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving? It could be because of my mom’s amazing food, gathering with family and no gift-giving stress. The only expectations are over-eating, watching floats parade down 6th Avenue, a walk or flag football game to wake us out of a carb-overload, capped off with dessert while watching the Lions play. Sounds pretty American and wonderful, right?

The past 11 years my husband, kids and I have enjoyed our turkey day in southern Florida at my parents. Every other year my sister and her family join us. For a small crowd of ten, we are boisterous and silly. It is awesome to drive around in convertible in 70-degree weather listening to the Rum Pa Pa Pum of the Little Drummer Boy Christmas music being pumped through the strip mall sound system. We’ve even had “snow” blown on us in a Nutcracker ballet presentation, mind you we were in short sleeves and the snow was actually bubbles.

It was a difficult decision to make, but this year we decided to try a different family adventure. Trust me, my sweet tooth that is usually satiated with key lime pie, eclairs, and a pie won at the pool cake walk, was fully ready for Christmas cookies after a week of beans and rice. Marcus and I took our almost 12-year-old and 10-year-old on a Christian mission trip to Nicaragua.

Someone told me that each day of the trip was going to feel like Christmas morning. They were right, each day built on the last.

Many American’s spend Thanksgiving morning running a local turkey trot in anticipation of the calories to come. Instead, we had the opportunity to climb a 2388-foot active volcano. Imagine walking an hour and a half up a huge sand dune without purchase for your next step. Plus, it was 95 degrees and no shade. I thought I was in shape. The climb was hard and dirty and Beautiful. It was my first-time ingesting salt for strength. The rigors of the climb taught us Juntos (Spanish for togetherness). The custom is that we would all wait at the top until the last person completed the climb. There was no option to give up. It wasn’t a race to the top.  It was about enjoying the view and talking to the people around you as you climbed. Our group members ranged in age from 6 to 70. I think the climb was to teach us humility, that we need to rely on God to press on toward the goal to win the prize and the finish line (Philippians 3:14).

Many of us re-live our childhood joy of building sand castles and moats while vacationing on the beach. On this trip, there was digging and opportunities to get muddy, but it was in the form of a pickaxe and shovel, creating trenches for fresh water to be brought into villages. Midweek in Mina de Agua, a dead tree was blocking the path of our proposed trench. Chains appeared and the tree was pulled out of the way. It was an instant reminder that God has a plan, yet we try to over orchestrate and re-route. When we seek and ask, He will pull it out of the way. The work was hard. Each day we were filthy, plus our feet, backs and hands were so tired. What a luxury it would have been to have our feet washed. Again, a crystal-clear example of ultimate servant leadership to have Jesus caring and loving His disciples at the Last Supper.

Had we gone to Florida, we would have played flag football on the golf course, thrown balls on the beach, kicked soccer balls … pretty much the same things we did with the villagers in Nicaragua! Funny, even though we couldn’t understand the language, we could communicate love through sports, smiles and blowing bubbles. There truly is an International Language of Play. We left desiring to learn conversational Spanish to love on them even more.

I mentioned that our normal Thanksgiving included driving around in a convertible. For this week, we were driven around in old yellow school buses for four-hours a day. The villagers didn’t have garages or a car, we saw a handful of motorcycles and bikes, otherwise they didn’t travel very far. I also mentioned my sweet tooth and mom’s amazing food! Our lunch consisted of two PBJ sandwiches, typically flattened from being in your backpack. There is absolutely no comparison to my mom’s full feasts daily, but interestingly, there wasn’t any complaining or requests. We ate what was served. Through-out the week, God’s Presence was felt in His peace and Biblical references: Teams of oxen (make sure you are equally yoked with spouse) and daily cattle drives around our school bus. Comparatively, as Americans we are wealthy…yet the villagers had happiness.

Modern technology allows us to connect with family, buddies and business colleagues all over the world, yet with all the “friends”, pins, tweets and chats taking place, we’ve lost the richness of face to face dialogs. Not only is Juntos about togetherness, but it has actionable pieces including relationship building and serving each other: it was amazing how four hours on buses to the villages allowed for awesome and vulnerable conversations. We all questioned why don’t we do more of this at home? We also had the opportunity to spend one day with Kelvin, a Nicaraguan boy we’ve been sponsoring his school and food for the past 18-months. We love this boy. We would bring him home with us. Our on-going letters will be much richer now. One of the last things he asked was “Are you coming back again?”  We hope to.

The Holy Spirit surrounded the four of us as we were baptized together in the Rio Villanueva, similar to how John the Baptist baptized Jesus. A dove didn’t descend but cattle did follow us in! Our citizenship is sealed in Heaven (Philippians 3:20). “Welcome to the Family!” was celebrated in hugs and praise.

We are so thrilled that we said yes to this trip. We learned to embrace the slower pace of Latin culture that shows it is just as important to be relational and to serve others as it is to be hard working. I share this adventure to inspire a different perspective for your vacation days…Juntos!