This time was different.
Volcan Masaya is more active than it's been in ages (I asked how many ages but that got lost in translation.) Instead of peering at the usual billowing, rotten-egg steam, we watched in awe as waves of lava splashed and cavorted, roaring like the ocean.
We'd stuck our heads in the jaw of the dragon to catch a glimpse of its roiling belly.
And it was awesome.
So we did what any group of millennials plus one crotchety Gen X-er (that's me!) would do: we took a selfie.
"Come on," I told my team. "I've snuck around to the back before, right up to the lip." So we trotted off around the hill to see how far we got before the park rangers waved us off. It wasn't long before we heard a sharp whistle and were fiercely beckoned back. "I'm sorry," I apologized in cheerful Spanish to the ranger, removing my sunglasses to make my wide-eyed innocence plain. "It's so beautiful, isn't it? How long has it been like this?"
Having stretched our allotted five minutes well beyond even Nicaraguan limits, we piled into the van and went to lunch.
I can't say I've ever stared death in the face, though I've seen her waving in the distance a time or two. Most infamous was totaling my parents' minivan as a newly-licensed teenager, but I've rolled down a few ditches and stumbled into some dark alleys. Still, my life, though unconventional, is the tame kind of adventurous.
I've seen my share of monsters, though.
Some nighttime monsters - the kinds that creep in closets or under beds - shrink and shrivel when the light's turned on. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when I saw a nameless fear for what it was, grabbing it by its scaly throat, forcing its face into the light. Ah! It's you again, Abandonment, you old son of a gun! Truth is a mighty dragon-slayer, and God whispered exactly what my heart needed to hear: "You are never alone, because I'm never going to leave you."
And then I've faced monsters that seemed cool and powerful until I dared inspect the ugliness up close. That's when I peered down into my own belly and saw the pride roiling inside. It's when I heard my words that started out speaking but ended up spewing the hatred and rage I'd stoked in my gut. Sometimes I've fed the monster and then had to face the fact that the monster is me.
Oh, Love, you mighty dragon-slayer! I can't outrun you. My sin can't outdo your mercy.
"I was bold today!" Heather, one of my students, told me. "I didn't think I could do this, but I asked someone for directions in Spanish, and I made friends with some kids at the park, and it's going to be a great summer." I've walked with Heather since September, stood in awe of God's faithfulness as she's faced down her demons and emerged, radiant and free. She's forgiven the unforgivable, and she loves the unlovable.
When I first met Brooke two years ago, right here in Nicaragua, she sat across from me shaking, unable to summon the words to tell me her story. Instead she handed it to me, written in a clear, square hand on a piece of stationery, and as I read it I knew it was the work of God that had gotten this shy girl on a plane and out of the country in the first place. Now Brooke's here on my staff team, helping lead other teenagers who are about to join us on their first mission trip, just like she did. In a few days she'll teach about finding our identity in Jesus, and I can't wait to learn from her, because she's a powerhouse, fierce as a lion, delicate as dragonfly wings.
Together we're going to peer into the belly of the dragon, telling the youth who join us that God hasn't given up on them.
I can't wait to get started.