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The Fisher of Stories


“As I went down to the river to pray,studying about that good old way.And who shall wear the starry crown?Good Lord show me the way.” 

Today I went for a 10 to 15 mile bike ride through a Latvian forest. I’m not sure how long it actually was because several Latvians have given several different amounts of kilometers and the only conversion I know with kilometers is that a 5K equals three miles and I base literally all my conversions (including temperature and money) off that.

This is me pre-ride. They had to give me a short bike with chunky tires.

If I could go back in time I would tell pre-ride Travis several things that would probably make him not go on the trip, and miss views like this:
And this:
I would have missed seeing a forest floor covered in wild blueberries, I would have missed the fellowship that can come from commiseration, and I would have missed some spiritual wisdom from a Latvian brother and sister who refused to let me finish the ride alone.
I would have also missed the pain I’m currently in, which is ridiculous. I don’t want to gross anyone out here, and if you’re a lady you might want to skip this part, but my taint is like a train wreck. The last time I was on a bike was about 16 years ago, and I can distinctly remember not being in as much pain down there as I am now. I know I weigh about 100 more pounds than I did then, but have we seriously not reached the point in our technological advances that where we have a bicycle seat that doesn’t make it feel as though you’ve been split in two at your nethers?
After riding for what seemed like two hours, we stopped at a halfway point which turned out not to be a halfway point and let everyone (me) catch up. When I got there the guide person said in English, “Anyone who thinks they can’t go on, raise your hand.” About half the group suddenly turned to look at me, while the translator asked the Latvians the same question, and then the other half of the crowd looked at me.
I wrecked the bike.
I was driving along, going at a cruising speed, i.e. making gravity work for me, when I hit a root from a cedar tree. My bike immediately stopped, and once again that stupid first law of motion came into effect and I didn’t stop, and I slid over the front handlebars of my bike, then the bike started moving again and flipped over my shoulder, but I’m here to tell you I landed on my feet. I have a witness to that.
I got my blistered backside right back in the saddle and I kept going. I griped about it, but I kept going.
Lucas and Elizabeth, two of the church members here in Latvia, stayed right beside me as I struggled along, and never really let me quit. Through incredible patience and long-suffering, they allowed me to take tiny breaks, but they wouldn’t let me quit.
As we were pedaling down the “last two miles” which Lucas said every two miles after the halfway point, he looked at me and said, “There is opportunity for much spiritual wisdom here. This bike ride is like relationship with God. You must keep going. It’s okay to complain, but you must keep going.”
Sometimes I wonder who is ministering to who on this trip.

Lucas and Elizabeth, my heroes.

The sweetest words I’ve ever heard anyone say are “We are here.” We weren’t really there at all, in fact I think we probably pedaled another mile after that. But it gave me a second (or third…or fourth) wind when I so desperately needed it, and I finished “strong.”
When we arrived at the campsite, I drank more water than any one person ever has a right to. I was pretty disappointed at the fact that I was stone cold last, especially after I bragged to everyone that I wasn’t going to be last.
Then the announcement came. Two of our group members were lost, and no one knew where they were.
As people looked around worriedly, I said, “Oh, so I guess I wasn’t last after all. That’s cool.”
One of these days I’ll learn how to not say things.
The Latvians had gathered at an overlook on a river.
They built a fire, and because there were men present, meats were roasted on a stick over the fire.
There was no way I was going to be able to eat sausages after that endurance test they called a trail ride, so I helped myself to some watermelon and some pickles and I looked for places to sit down then tried to sit down and realized I may never sit down ever again.
We all talked about the ride and prayed for our lost comrades and sure enough a few minutes later they showed up. I thanked both of them for obviously getting lost just so I wouldn’t feel bad about finished last, and they looked at me in such a way that suggested they wished  was the one who’d gotten lost.
Then, as I was trying to transfer my phone to Courtlyn (who is making me put her in this blog), it fell and the screen shattered, which is always the perfect way to cap off the evening. However, at least it still works, and I’m grateful for that, because without a way to communicate with my wife I might try to sneak home early.
All in all, I walked (limped) away with a great story to tell. Because I did finish that ride. And on the way, I got to see some ridiculously amazing creation, and learn more about the God who put it there through broken English and dogged determination.
Tomorrow we go to a couple of small villages to do the English and basketball camps. If I can get out of bed, I’m looking forward to it.

“Shall we gather at the river? The beautiful, the beautiful, river. Gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.”

One of the facets of the mission trip we’re on is teaching kids basketball skills. I’m not helping with that, and maybe after this blog you’ll understand why.

As part of our visit, it was arranged for us to play a Latvian university team in a friendly game of international hoops. From what I understand, this can be a pretty important game to the Latvians because they enjoy beating the Americans in anything, and I mean, come on, who doesn’t?

I somehow coerced my way onto the American team, which I might add was full of actual college basketball players. They aren’t exactly 31-year-old ex-high school athletes with a protruding gut and an inability to make good physical decisions, in other words.

But I demanded my playing time, and then in what I can only describe as a coup, I got onto the starting rotation. To be fair, the kid whose spot I took is a Kentucky fan, and they don’t really have souls, so it’s okay.

I’m not going to lie to you folks, these Latvians were some big dudes. Three or four of them were at least 6’9″, and they all had meat on their bones. Big, muscly meat.

And then the tip happened, and we start our journey into what has turned out to be one of the most disappointing ways I’ve ever represented our sweet, sweet land of liberty.

Frame Oneimage
What the viewer should observe here is honestly how good I look. The shirt fits well and is black, so it’s slimming, and I basically look every bit the part of an American hero on the court. Traveling down the body we see Duke shorts, so I’m representing the only college team that matters. Further down we see muscular calf muscles, toned and taut from walking 758.9 miles a day on this mission trip.
Further down is where the problem is. The shoes I’m wearing are low tops. Just out of this frame are a pair of basketball sneakers I brought and an ankle brace, neither of which I gave any thought to whilst plotting to be a starter. This will cause me a significant amount of embarrassment in about three seconds, because after the gentleman caught the ball, he shook me harder than an Oklahoma earthquake.
I just want you to take every opportunity to see how good I look before you see this next picture.
Frame Twoimage
I know what this looks like.
You’re thinking, “Oh, Travis decided to do some push ups on the court to get good and loose for the next drive. Well, I hate to shatter any previous misconceptions you might have, but this is unfortunately what I look like when I’ve taken two quick backwards shuffle steps to stay in front of a giant Latvian, gotten turned around on accident, tripped, and am in mid-fall.
I’d like to tell you all that this is as far as it got, that I was able to stop myself here, get back up, and make a good hustle play in the end. But unfortunately I can’t.
But I would like to say that as far as push up form goes, if I was doing a push up, that is absolutely perfect, spot on form.
Frame Threeimage

Right. We’re at the bottom of the push up here, only it’s not a push up. You know the air conditioner slogan “It’s hard to stop a Trane?” Well, yeah. That applies to Travis too. You can see the cause for my condition, number 8, continuing to play as if I’m not in the middle of what will eventually earn the nickname of “Scorpioning,” and my teammate with the midriff showing is desperately trying to pull down a board without stepping on my kidney. God bless him for that.
Again, in still motion, this form looks incredible. Like I do nothing but push ups all day every day. The gentleman in the striped shirt is looking back wondering what happened, but you’ll notice a complete lack of concern on his face. I’d think that in Latvia, a fat white man falling would cause a little more concern for the integrity of the playing surface, but obviously no.
Now it gets bad.
Frame Fourimage
Go ahead. Finish laughing then come back.
Done? Okay.
Let me tell you something about a synthetic rubber basketball floor and friction. They are like fire and gasoline. In essence, I’m a 340 pound match. On a normal wooden basketball floor, you slide. Your jersey is soft, the floor is somewhat slick and smooth, and in a situation like this you glide towards the wall, get up, dust your self off, and no one thinks anything of it. That’s the American way.
But not this court. Not this country.
Here, you hit the ground in a perfect push up and then when you expect to slide, you stop completely, and your legs, which are somewhat short and white and not hairy, start to rise up from the ground, all because some douche named Albert Einstein decided that something in motion should stay in motion, and then named it physics. So if there’s really anyone to blame for this, it’s this Latvian number 8 guy, Einstein, and physics. Also the floor.
And sadly, it’s not over.
Frame Fiveimage
And here it is. The “Scorpion.”
My legs are completely over everything else I own, my chin is currently pulling rubber chips off the court, and I look like a giant seesaw.
I can’t exactly tell you what was going through my mind at this point, but I think it was probably the court. Some people have said it looked like I was doing my best worm dance. Again, notice the complete disregard by number 8 for having put me in this little incident and causing the old U.S. of A. a serious dip in jingoistic pride.
I hurt so bad right now typing this up. It’s been 20 hours and I feel like I’ve been in a car wreck followed by some really bad yoga positions. My knee has invented an entirely new term for swollen, and my back is tighter than the jean shorts Seth tried to wear on the first day. I’m hurt real bad guys.
But. Here’s a lesson for you young folks. Frame Six is about picking yourself back up. Frame Six is about dedication, heart, moxie, determination, grit, and the dogged American spirit. Frame Six is “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!” Frame Six is the essence of never say quit. Frame Six is Rudy, Rocky, Hoosiers, and Michael Jordan in Space Jam when it looked like the monsters were going to enslave him at their little amusement park.
Frame Siximage
That’s what perseverance looks like. That’s the American way all summed up in one glorious shot of a man’s incredibly well developed backside. That’s what you young people need to learn about, and I think I showed a lot of Latvians how resilient Americans are by hopping on the struggle bus called getting back on my feet.
I’m sorry about the fall, America. But I’ll never quit. And one day I’ll reach the top.

Here’s a gif of the experience for those of you who’d like to see it.

All photography credit once again goes to Nick Luttrull, who is brilliant behind a camera, but I think maybe could have passed up the opportunity to take this many pictures of my worst international basketball performance ever. 
It took me less than 15 minutes to find a Latvian best friend.

His name is Kristofers, he’s 13, and he lives in a flat about a kilometer from the English Camp we’re running here in Latvia. He’s skinny, blond, has green eyes, and is one of the most polite teenagers I’ve met in my entire life.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull

He speaks three languages; Latvian, English and a bit of German. He had the choice to study German or Russian in school, and he picked German because his siblings both studied it. Speaking of siblings, he has a 20-year-old brother and a 17-year-old sister. The family has a cat and a dog, but Kristofers likes the cat more.

I don’t know what cemented the friendship more, his love of Game of Thrones (a bit graphic for a 13-year-old, right?), his love of Breaking Bad, or how after I called myself fat, he said, “You give yourself too hard of time, you are not fat, you are typical American, big-boned.”

All he wanted to know was about America. He asked me how much money I made a year, and he asked me if I’d ever been to Disneyland. He asked me about my wife, my kids, and my pets. He said Big Pimpin’ was adorable. He asked to see the pictures on my phone. He was in awe of the Christmas lights on my house.

He was my partner in all the games, and during craft time, and during the singing time, where we had to be shushed by the “adults” because we were talking too much.

He told me that he thought everyone in the U.S. had an iPad and iPhone, and how if you had one of those here, you were considered rich. He talked about McDonalds a lot. He likes KFC. He told me he’s never tried a taco or nachos and didn’t even know what they were, which was the saddest thing in the world to me.

During the song “Jesus Loves Me,” as we were doing the hand motions, he looked at me and made the sign for Jesus, which is touching your fingers to the palm of each hand. As he made the sign, he said, “Why is this for Jesus?” Then before I could answer, he said, “Oh! Because he was crucified!” Then he looked at me and said, “Not everyone knows that sign, but lots of people know who Jesus is.”

He was insanely jealous of my Flappy Bird score. He’s read The Hunger Games and is on the last book. He claimed to have learned English from watching Cartoon Network. We discussed the killing of Oberyn Martell in great detail, grimacing over the disgusting parts. He tried to get me to tell him if The Mountain lives or dies, and I refused.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull

He loves hockey, but from what I gather, he doesn’t play much. He talked about a couple of Latvians winning a gold medal in the Olympics a few years back. He asked more questions about America than I can even remember, and asked if I missed my wife and kids. He was incredulous about the fact that I’ve been away from my family for four days, but also said he was happy we came back.

He laughed as I struggled to pronounce Latvian words. When we asked where we could find the best Latvian food at, he laughed and said, “My house.” Then he walked us to a bistro, which was good, and cheap, which I need, because I’m running out of Euros in a hurry.

He got me with “high-five, down low, too slow,” because I am too trusting of a person. His mom is an accountant. He couldn’t explain what his dad does in English, but I got that he’s the boss of something. I made the mistake of asking if they had microwaves in Latvia, and for that I earned his sarcasm: “No, we have nothing here, we’re very undeveloped.”

His definition of a soul: “It’s what makes you good or bad. It’s what makes you who you are.”

He showed me a Latvian tick, which apparently will kill you if it gets in your skin. He explained that you have to get a vaccination every year here in case one of them bites you. He kept asking if the weather was too cold, and I kept telling him it was glorious (it was about 65 degrees this morning).

We packed a lot of conversation and laughs into that three hours. He said he’ll be back tomorrow, and he’s going to come hang out at our basketball game tonight as well.

Here’s the truth: I’m not good at jumping up on a street corner and telling the world about Jesus. I use this blog (occasionally) and I try to use my actions, but that doesn’t always work. I don’t know that I’ll ever be an evangelist or a apologist that loudly and unabashedly shares Christ’s love for me from the rooftops.

But I’m good at relationships. I’m good at making people laugh. I’m good at sharing my experiences with you so maybe you can use them as a guide to making your own experiences.

So today, I did what I’m good at. And the payoff is that I’ve got a Latvian best friend named Kristofers, who might come back to camp to see me, but who will ultimately walk away with a deeper understand of Jesus Christ, who lots of people know, and who took that thing that makes me who I am and turned it into something that’s His, something that can help make a difference.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull