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10 Lessons Melissa Learned in Chile

In the opening paragraph of Destiny at Dolphin Bay, my novel launched just last week, we discover that the narrator and main character must write an essay on “What I Learned in Chile.” She’s not excited about the prospect. In fact, she announces that the only thing she’s learned so far is there’s not much that she likes!

But it doesn’t take long to fall in love with the Chiloé Islands as her learning experiences pile up. The many facts she learns in Chile range from farming to fishing, medicine to mythology. Flora and fauna. Herbal lore and tidal shores, crafts and culture.

Melissa might say the most important lessons she learned in Chile were things as simple and cliché, yet as revolutionary and real, as… who I am, where I’m going, and what true friendship involves. And perhaps, that you don’t have to like everything to love it.

Here’s an excerpt from the book’s back cover:

“Fifteen-year-old Melissa Travis flounders into uncharted waters when she is exiled from her Christian high school. Dreading a month of mom talks over endless cups of tea, she accepts her missionary sister’s invitation to visit the remote Chiloé Islands of southern Chile. There she discovers a world utterly unlike the South Pacific paradise she imagined, where dire poverty dwells with enchanting beauty, and ancient customs conspire with modern corruption. While a pod of playful dolphins casts an irresistible spell, sinister evil simmers beneath the surface.

A suspicious drowning, a ghost ship, and a shaman’s chilling prediction of her death on the island force Melissa to question everything she believes. Amid the storm of human greed and natural disaster, a soulful young islander inspires her to make life-changing choices, while faith and friendship draw her to reckon with destiny.”

And here are the lessons learned in Chile to deal with a twist of destiny:

1. The little things turn into the big things.

By the end of her first week on the Chilote island of Chauquelín, Melissa sensed that this was no ordinary visit. Though she joked about her involuntary mission trip, she discovered, as daily life unfolded, a cure for boredom. The simple country routines and rustic beauty transcend anything she’d known before.

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” –John Milton

Melissa believed she was a normal, typical teenager. But she is not. She belongs to a big God who has awesome plans for her and calls her to anything but an ordinary life. She stops feeling sorry for “these poor people” and instead revels in her blessings. Her outlook, and eventually her worldview, are transformed by gratitude for those everyday epiphanies.

2. God will take you where you’re willing to go.

As Melissa connected with island life, she fell “accidentally in love” with Chiloé and its people. Of her own free will, she made a choice to move out of character, to love and care for something and someone unrelated to herself.

Engaging with a new world means stepping through the door into the unknown. The short-term mission trips, whether undertaken with Melissa’s reluctance or with passion and compassion, may come off easy and get done quick. But what about committing to a missional life?

You take care of the depth and let God take care of the breadth.” –Elizabeth George

The idea brings to mind the adage: When the pupil is ready, the master will appear. Whatever path God may open up to us, our part starts with preparation. Like Melissa, a change of destiny begins with a change of heart.

3. Better be yourself.

Melissa dreaded being exposed as a fraud, a weakling, a disappointment. Yet in attempting to establish her identity, she made some foolish mistakes. She rebelled to prove herself as an individual, an independent thinker, but ended up following everyone else. She only tried on other people’s masks and sampled disguises.

Isn’t that often how life works? The more we copy others, the less we reveal of our own soul. And surely the less we reflect Jesus.

But her sister Linda gave her space to grow. Time to develop her own gifts. Opportunities to recognize and show her true colors. Finally, instead of insisting that “this is the way I am,” Melissa asked herself who God intended her to be.

4. The “princess incognito” fairy tale is true.

This may sound like the antithesis of #3. But it’s more an expansion of the idea. As Melissa outgrew her old shell, she grew into her crown. In fact, the story chronicles how an ordinary teenager became a beloved daughter and extraordinary servant of God.

“Always wear your invisible crown.” –Lily Pulitzer

Usually content on the fringes, Melissa was suddenly spurred to the center stage of adventure. Nudged from the sidelines, she was thrown to the middle of the court as star forward. From the bench of oblivious inaction to combat queen. And she realized she didn’t have to profess perfection to become the princess.

Do you believe in destiny? I plant myself firmly in a God who’s sovereign in every circumstance and detail of life’s design. While there’s so much we don’t see and may never know this side of heaven, I believe it’s always part of a bigger plan.

This I declare when so much in my life seems wrong right now. As Melissa learned in Chile, whatever God’s destiny is for me, I choose to live the story.

“Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” –Martin Luther

5. Grab the opportunities for change.

Melissa’s last-ditch solution to her problems—traveling to Chile—seemed like a default destination. A random setting slid to the top of the options list. But she took it. And mentally clicking Accept led to the journey of her life. Her last hope became the big break.

“A sense of destiny is our birthright as followers of Christ.” –Mark Batterson, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day

When Melissa headed off to see the world, she had no idea her world was about to be shaken upside down. God used the adjustments in her “itinerary” to shift her line of vision to see and care for others. Instead of taking more pictures of the scenery, she focused on the people around her. She stopped thinking into terms of “us” and “them.”

Sometimes we refuse the detours and dread the bumpy ride and lumpy seats. But as Melissa learned in Chile, we occasionally need to have our complacency challenged and our conscience pricked.

6. There’s no place like home.

It didn’t even take a whirlwind trip to the land of Oz for Melissa to conclude: What if everything I desire, I’ve had all along? Seeing the world made her see home more clearly.

No parents or siblings or hometowns are perfect, but they can still be perfectly wonderful. Places don’t have to be posh to be home. Families and friends don’t have to be flawless to be appreciated and to belong. Melissa learned in Chile that her uniqueness didn’t make her a “black sheep”—the family anomaly.

But she won’t return home unchanged. Forever after, her heart will have ties to two worlds—her Gringoland birthplace and her adopted country. She’ll feel at home in God’s family as well as her own.

And just as we are all both individuals and members of a community, we live with a dual identity when we share in God’s eternal kingdom.

7. True friends are worth more than money in the bank.

Melissa had a negative experience with friendship just previous to the opening of Destiny at Dolphin Bay. People she trusted and looked up to dragged her in the wrong direction. Or maybe she was easily misled.

It happens all too often, and for some of us, well into adulthood. In Women Finishing Well, author Chris Syme laments, “It is so tempting to want a seat at the popular girls’ table…There’s still a teenage girl inside each one of us wanting to be one of the cool kids.”

Melissa’s false friends made her skeptical of close friendships and suspicious of the motives of others. Like an oyster, she layered a hard crust around the wounds in her heart. She built walls and turned an indifferent shoulder. She even doubted God’s love.

But Melissa learned in Chile the transforming value of lifelong friendship. Instead of pulling her astray, her new friend, Nicolás, drew her back to God. She came to sense that rather than betrayal and forgetfulness, true friends will hang with you forever. Rather than “out of sight, out of mind,” she’d made a forever friend.

8. Stories can change the world.

Later on, Melissa is roped into another awkward assignment: telling Bible stories. But that door cracked open to let the Light flood into the island of Chauquelín. Only a soft gleam at first, like the dawn’s earliest rays glinting over the Andes. But eventually, it grew into a leaping flame. Nightmares no longer haunted the mists.

Come to learn, the good news about Jesus had the power to change everything. Not just the islanders…but the girl wandering far from Home, too.

“I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love; I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true. It satisfies my longings as nothing else could do…” –Katherine Hankey, hymn lyrics

My conviction, learned in Chile, is that a faith-infused story that exalts Jesus can quite possibly accomplish more for the kingdom of God than most theology books and doctrinal theses. It only takes a spark…

9. Choices are more important than abilities.

Sometimes we have more choices than we can even evaluate. More often, our choices narrow down to zilch. Melissa figured she’d run out of options when she ended up in Chiloé. In reality, she was about to make some of the most crucial decisions of her life.

She also knew she had little to offer. Except herself.

Too many of us try to have our cake and eat it too. As Melissa learned in Chile, that means we want to help, sure we do… but not until it hurts. We want to serve, but… sacrifice?

Many will donate resources and give money, lots of it, perhaps. Still others will offer their time and talents. Thank God for them. Yet I wonder sometimes if we settle for giving things and doing things to avoid the tougher choices that cost far more.  

“It is our choices, much more than our abilities, that make us who we are.”A Wrinkle in Time, the movie

10. We live in a world at war.

Whether we recognize it or not, every child of God is a warrior. And ready or not, Melissa learned in Chile that she had stumbled into a spiritual battle for the souls of men.

Destiny at Dolphin Bay shouts out a call to enlist and to volunteer for a difficult—even risky—mission. While it may start out cool, challenging, exciting even, we’re mistaken if we think we won’t have to give up anything. As Melissa began to understand, God’s true followers exchange one thing for another. The life I planned for myself—the life I might have had—for the life God has planned for me.

Melissa’s problem—ours, too—is that somehow we believe it’s not supposed to be this hard. We keep clinging to the broken pieces of the ship our Captain told us to abandon instead of plunging in. But warfare is our new normal.

You can bet your combat boots, the march won’t feel comfortable. After that initial moment of inspiration, we’re going to struggle to keep on. And we won’t often receive any words of commendation either, let alone sweep up the medals. Like literally going to war, all we’re given is “a chance to die,” as Elisabeth Elliot wrote of Amy Carmichael.

Now, are we willing to jump in and get involved? Melissa did. And that’s the plot of the story.

God always has a purpose. We always have a choice.

What lessons have you learned in Life through the choices you’ve made? Like Melissa, most of us will trek along a learning curve for the rest of our lives. Every day, I write to strengthen these hard-earned concepts in my own mind. Let’s stick together on our way.

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