16 March 2017

staying put

Linking up with Velvet Ashes: The Grove on the theme of "participate."

I'm coming up on four years. Four years calling this place "home." I've been through the culture shock, then also the culture pain and culture stripping. I've come to learn, not only mentally, but experientially that the straight and narrow, well... isn't. I've not only written my name in this land, but I've also buried my heart here... literally, encapsulated in the body of my firstborn.

Last year, I was struggling, feeling like nothing I have done has really come to fruition. Partnerships I had built and handed off either went dormant or turned sour. All the effort I had poured into new teammates and staff seemed to have come to naught as, one by one, they returned to their home countries. National teams I poured into -- some broke apart, individuals fell into sin, and yet others plodded along with the patience of Job. From man's point of view... all my efforts hadn't amounted to anything of lasting value. Still, I stayed. Put down roots. By the grace of God, I am still here -- the place where He has chosen for me to be, to dwell.

And I'm beginning to see, He was still working -- not through my strivings and my efforts, but simply through my being here, my living and my staying put.

I live in local housing -- condominiums. When I talk to local people, whenever our dwelling comes up, they are surprised. "We don't know other white people who live in our condominiums," they say. I have neighbors, on both sides. Below me. I can walk nowhere without passing beautiful people who have become my community, with the obligatory greetings and well wishes that now freely flow off my tongue. Though my language learning still leaves MUCH to be desired, I can at least greet with the best of them.

A motherly neighbor, with whom I've slowly been building a sweet connection... she now comes and shares her prayer requests. We practice different religions... and it was so subtle I almost missed it. First, she was ill... I told her I would pray. Each day I greeted her in my comings and goings and asked how she was.. "I'm better now!" She said, "Thank you for praying for me!" Then she had horrible headaches from a eye problem that needed to be resolved. This time she asked me to pray, I said yes.

(When we lost our newborn daughter, this woman came daily to my home--bringing food, sharing her daily bread, serving those who came to sit with us, washing our dishes.) Soon, she went for a single eye surgery and now it is healed. She came especially and banged on my front door, gleely lifting up her glasses and saying, "See! Now I can see you!" I took her a lunchtime meal one day, a local meal which I cooked, "You are becoming one of us," she exclaims. A couple days later, she brings me a new dish I was unfamiliar with, "There is more for you to learn," she says.

Just this week, I was walking to my home (which requires me always to pass her), she grabs my hand, kisses my cheek and tells me her son has lost his job. I nod. I point to the heavens. She nods and smiles, "Thank you," she says. She doesn't ask me to pray. She already knows I will.

Other friendships which has taken these years to forge, are finally opening windows, if not doors. A former landlord has become a dear sister. A sister has become a friend. A friend has turned into the Lord's vessel to share His love better than I can, in a heart language I'm still learning, extending His heart towards my own relatives.

The local juice stand owner knows our order, and never forgets my straw. Tears fill his eyes when he asks where our baby is, and we tell him straight...he whispers, "I'm so sorry" and slips a few extra pieces of fruit into my bag. In fact our whole neighborhood was anticipating the birth of our firstborn, and they took the tragedy personally. Some passed on the news to other shopkeepers, so we wouldn't have to be the ones to break it. I know they already know, because they hold onto my hand longer than the handshake requires, and they whisper to me: "Be strong."

I see my taxi driver friend probably more frequently even than our local family... he has now appointed himself as my cultural advisor. I can ask him (almost) anything. He talks about life. We practice different religions. We send him sms well wishes on his holidays, and he sends us the same for ours. I find a sneaky way to ask him why he suddenly feels comfortable opening up (teasing him about how chatty he has become), "You have stayed," he says. "Everyone else leaves, but you are still here. You even had your child here. You have become one of us." He has learned sign language, picking up bits and pieces, and chats with my Love. I am now superfluous to their conversation. My heart smiles.

All the while I was looking towards the quantifiable. The number of partnerships. The number of people. The amount of progress. And all the while, the Lord was looking, rather, at hearts and relationships -- opening, shaping, forging, deepening. In the most unlikely ways and places... only now am I beginning to see what HE was doing all along. Not through my works, but through my participation... in normal, everyday life. Just being present. Staying put. Now that I finally know where to direct my gaze, I am excited. Anticipating. Rejoicing. I know this is only the beginning...and I have so much still to learn.

10 March 2017

An invitation: the most costly gift I could possibly offer

Linking up with Velvet Ashes: The Grove, for this very personal post on the theme of Invitation.

The first week of October 2016. A week permanently burned into my soul, changing my world forever.

I welcomed October on it's first warm day, chuckling ... our firstborn child, still in my womb, decided that she would finally make preparations for her long-awaited appearance. After quite the adventurous day of bumpy taxi rides, insane traffic, and unexpected relatives dropping in... my Love and I welcomed her into the world with much rejoicing in the midnight hours of the following day. Quite the spunky little one, even from the first moments of her newborn autonomy... with the lungs of a lioness. Healthy and perfect, she was everything we could have wanted.

After 48 beautiful, sleep deprived, blissful hours with her, she became mysteriously listless and started having erratic shrieking episodes and catches in her breathing. As the dawn broke, we rushed her to the hospital. It was the fastest I'd ever experienced their reception, and within 30 minutes... I heard the words: This child has sepsis. In a frenzy of activity, she was swooped out of my arms and hurriedly admitted to the NICU, leaving me standing with a handful of newborn clothing and blankets, still warm from her feverish skin.

We had named her Ayalon, after the valley of Aijalon in Joshua 10. A place of holy miracles. A place of divine intervention, through the faith-filled prayer of a mere man. A place where God brought victory for His people. We camped on these prophetic words, sitting on the coach in the NICU waiting room -- alternating between the sterile room, the doctor's office, and updating friends and family.

She took a turn for the worst. Our hearts dove, but we clung to hope. She rallied. We rejoiced. She responded to my touch, wrapping her hand around my finger as I whispered prayers over her. Then, less than an hour later, her heart stopped. There is no horror like that of watching people perform CPR on your child. I think I, too, had stopped breathing in those minutes. She responded. I finally exhaled. Test results came back. She was now showing signs of anemia, and we signed the papers for an emergency blood transfusion. We returned to that worn coach and prayed our hearts out.

We were carried on the prayers of so many, and felt supernatural peace God was working. It was touch and go. Her heart stopped again, and she fought her way back to us. She stopped breathing. They put her on a ventilator. She fought to breathe once more on her own and succeeded. We got to see her a couple more times. My Love ran to get a couple items from home, so we could stay the night at the hospital. He returned and we went together to get another update.

When we stepped into the NICU waiting area, I was acutely aware of the nurse’s face. She looked exhausted, and ... defeated. The last time I had seen this particular nurse, she had been pumping oxygen into my daughter’s lungs with a hand oxygen pump... as I was hurried away from the window and an electric ventilator was being wheeled in. Now, she stood slouched against the door frame, with sorrow and exhaustion in her eyes. I knew... it resonated through my body and my fuzzy brain. And then I immediately shoved it away. No. I would not give up hope. Divine intervention. Victory. A miracle. Ayalon. This is our fiery little daughter.

The doctor came to the doorway, as we were putting on the sterile coats to enter. I will not repeat the words he choose to use to break the news. Suffice it to say, I had to ask him in plain English if he was telling us she was gone. She was. Fifteen minutes before, after her fourth cardiac arrest, she was whisked from that little NICU bed and into the arms of Jesus... never again to face sickness, pain, or suffering. Complete. At peace. We walked in to see her little body... she had such a restful look on her face, it brought a sliver of comfort.

I want to fast forward. There are many details I could include, and may add later, but want to condense for brevity sake.

She was buried in the smallest cemetery plot I have personally ever seen. In a miniature coffin covered in red velvet with gold embroidery. I remember thinking red wasn't her color. But by the beautiful, personal hand of God... my breath was taken away when I saw the location of her grave. It was smack in the center of an enormous grove of 4.5 feet tall yellow Ethiopian meskel daisies in full bloom. The same daisies that bloom with vibrant ferocity for only a couple of weeks, marking a change in the seasons, and then quickly fade and die... until next year. Fleeting. Here and then gone. But loud and colorful, and not to be missed or ignored. Like our daughter.

We were carried supernaturally, with such peace and divine comfort, in those days and weeks. God does not take us through any grief or valley without providing His grace to empower and strengthen us. He was so near, even still IS so near. We clung to Job 1:21, quoting and singing, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." We rejoiced and gave His glory for the very real ways He was revealing Himself to us and holding us, and for the immense privilege of being chosen to love and carry Ayalon on this earth, and the gift of our 66 hours with her here.

I was given Angie Smith's book, I Will Carry You: The Sacred Dance of Grief and Joy in the weeks that followed. I underlined paragraphs on almost every page. This particular section stood out to me, as I sought His heart for His purposes in this loss, this sacrifice if you will:
“Is it possible that we are chosen to undergo something then all the while the Lord knows that it will be given to Him in sweet surrender? ... I pray that you continue to worship the Lord, keeping what He has given you until the moment you are called to give it away. ... And as the glass shatters all around you... know this... It was always meant to fall from Your hands. And He is glorified in the shattering.” (Angie Smith)
A couple of weeks later, I was making dinner listening to songs on my iPod. Sara Groves' song, "Open My Hand" came on...
“I believe in a peace that flows deeper than pain
the broken find healing in love
pain is no measure of His faithfulness
He withholds no good thing from us...
no good thing from us.
I will open my hands, open my heart....”
(Sara Groves)
Tears poured down my face, and I recalled Psalm 84:11 - "No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly." My heart was in absolute turmoil, "How then, God?!  How could this happen? How was our Ayalon not a good thing??? That You would take her from us? It doesn't make ANY sense!!!!" The Holy Spirit wrapped me in His love as He whispered, "No, My child, she WAS a very good thing. But what I am doing through this sorrow and suffering... My purpose... is a better thing... an even greater thing."

The very next song to come on my iPod shuffle was from Keith & Kristyn Getty's new hymn, “Perfect Wisdom of our God”:
 “...Teach me humbly to receive the solid reign of Your sovereignty.
...each strand of sorrow has its place, within this tapestry of grace.
So through the trials I’ll choose to say: ‘Your perfect will in Your perfect way.’
 On Ayalon's one month birthday, had she still been with us, I was sitting facing the early sunrise. The Lord was asking me to surrender something to him... and I immediately started arguing with Him: "Lord, I already gave you my daughter, didn't I? ..." I stopped short, as I felt a weight of conviction settle over my spirit like a blanket.  I had been speaking the words of Job, "You gave and You have taken away." And He was revealing the underlying accusation in my heart... "You... You did this... You took her."

In that moment, He extended me an invitation... He asked me if I would actively, willingly offer my sweet Ayalon back to Him in worship rather than passively "allowing Him" to have taken her. What a subtle and yet crucial shift in my heart's attitude and posture. I accepted and right there, I willingly, actively, wholeheartedly offered my precious, beautiful daughter back to Him, declaring anew: Blessed be Your Name. Peace. A holy rightness of being aligned with Him. All glory be to our loving, sovereign Father... who reminded me that He, too, is intimately acquainted with the unique grief of offering up an only child, a firstborn.

My daughter is the most valuable gift I could possibly offer to Him, and she came from Him. What a holy privilege that He would entrust us with such a costly, priceless gift to offer back in a sacrifice of praise. He is worthy beyond measure.
"Glory be to God the Father! Glory be to God the Son! Glory be to God the Spirit! The Lord is my salvation!" (Keith & Kristyn Getty, bridge from The Lord Is My Salvation)
I've had glimpses of the Lord's hand at work through our little girl's life... and I smile through tears. He doesn't owe us any explanation for His ways, but He has been measurelessly gracious to invite us to peek into His heart's purpose in all of this. There were those who had dismissed her easily with the words, "It is no matter, you will have other children." At first, those phrases brought an agonized mama bear roar from my chest... but now I almost... gloat. Because, my friends, I KNOW my daughter's value--her incomparable worth--and how God has been using her life mightily for His glory, touching souls, calling rebellious hearts home. I now UNDERSTAND that the span of our lifetime here on earth is not what matters, but rather the weight of it.

And I chuckle to myself, because Ayalon's life was not to be missed or ignored. There was NO way... our little fighter. (I mean, c'mon... who defies death and comes back from cardiac arrest THREE times, at only 2 1/2 days old...) Even as I have seen her numerous times, unbidden, in my mind's eye... freely flitting around heaven bossing around the angels, leaning over the arm rest of the throne telling Jesus her thoughts, and her opinions. In her arrival and departure, she not only left permanent stretchmarks on my body and permanent imprints on our hearts, but she created holy ripples across time and eternity... for the glory of God. I am proud and honored to say she was ours.

07 March 2017

An invitation to knock

God deals differently with His children, His disciples. He is the ultimate cross-cultural worker, and has the cutting edge on contextualization. He has the added benefit of having created our hearts, so He knows them even better than we do... so He knows HOW to relate to us, and exactly what each of us individually needs in order to shape and refine us. And that means, it's never going to look exactly the same as someone else's journey.

Duh, right? Bear with me.

I have several very dear friends, incredible women of God, who I admire and adore... who know and love my Jesus deeply, intimately... and yet have such a different relationship with him than I do. And, (this is gonna get real)... there are times I have gotten off of calls with them, and struggled with their words and testimonies, even though I know them, in my head, to be true. True testimonies of their experiences with God of laying before Him not only their circumstances and needs, but also their desires of how they would like Him to work... down to things that really don't matter in the eternal scheme of things, but it is their wants, as well as their needs... and God responding to them personally, intimately, and saying, "Yes, I can do that... I will do that." And then He does. Not single, random events. But, repeatedly.  And the sweet, precious, childlike faith and unswerving trust of their hearts in God's personal, intimate relationship is evident. A perfume of praise to Him.

Yet, every time, when I hang up... I'm left with a lingering sweet scent, and a confused heart. WHY, God? WHY do you work this way in others, and yet never with me? Don't misunderstand me... there is not bitterness or anger in my spirit AT ALL... no, it is more bafflement. I desire to understand. (As a student of crossing cultures and the transcultural gospel of our Lord, I mentally grasp that you must always deal with this particular person in the way that reaches and speaks to them. I get that. But I suppose there are those days my heart doesn't fully grasp the methods.) See, in my life experience, I cannot say I can point to a time that I have said, "God, I would really like X..." and He said, "Great. Here you go!" No... my testimony includes a great deal of "no's" and "wait's" and "I don't think so... here, this is better..." ("But, Lord, that's not what I wanted!"). It has never been one of specific prayers of wants and desires with immediate and matching results. And I've been ok with that in the long run, because He has ALWAYS given something better (even though the means have almost always been more difficult and/or painful). 

Just last week, I opened my devotional, after another personal disappointment of God delaying something I was praying for in faith (after another conversation with a friend on things God has been graciously giving that which she had asked for) and I the topic was "Ask & Receive"... 

"Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them." Mark 11:24

"And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive." Matt 21:22

"If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you." John 15:7 

"Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." Psalms 37:4

 I broke down and wept. I searched my heart for unconfessed sin. I confessed a lack of faith. I pondered whether I had been abiding in Him, if there was error between us, if I had not been delighting in Him. He showed me some things, but also whispered that this was not a matter of me not checking things off a list of having done all the proper steps... simply that He was delaying, for His own reasons, and for my growth. But it stung. I told Him I was struggling with the fact that these verses feel like slaps in the face sometimes... I KNOW them to be true, but I often don't experience them as truth. (Which probably wouldn't bother me so much if I wasn't watching it become experiential truth in lives of others around me.) He told me the reality is that He is giving me the desires of my heart... which are often buried deeper beneath the wants... to the request of being made more like Him. Often the means I would choose don't lead to that end.

A couple days ago, I was listening to the new album by the Christian band, Love & The Outcome, and their new song "Ask" started playing on my iPod. These next words destroyed me...
"Our Father knows your deepest hurt
Before you've even said a word
But He still wants to hear your voice
There is a purpose in our seeking
There is a light beyond this door
We have a promise in our knocking
He wants to give us so much more
If we just ask, ask
If we just ask, ask

~Love & The Outcome, "Ask"
 And it hit my heart like a semi truck: It's not about the answers. It's not about the receiving. It's about the conversation, the process. Prayer is not about the results, but it's an invitation to be in relationship. He already knows. And yet He still invites us to ask. Why? Because He delights in the conversation with us... and THAT changes us. We all know conversations, to be such, have to be two-way. Live. Participatory. Present.

"There is a promise in our knocking..." This line. The knocking itself. The action of reaching out. This changes me. There is purpose in it. It's not about the results on the other side of that door... because HE is the one who opens it. And in the knocking, I am grabbing onto His promise that He WILL open to me. HE will answer (not He WILL answer)... HE will answer. The God of the Universe. The Author of Salvation. The Perfecter of our Faith. HE will answer my knocking. And no matter how He chooses to answer... it will not matter as much as the fact that HE IS MY ANSWER. And all He gives and decides and chooses and replies is in HIS LOVE, and HIS Sovereignty, and for Hi glory and my good.

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened." Matt 7:7-8

"Oh my dove, in the clefts of the rock... let me see your form, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your form is lovely." Song of Solomon 2:14

"Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!" Psalms 27:14

"I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me, and heard by cry." Psalm 40:1

"And My people shall be satisfied with My goodness," says the Lord. Jer 31:14b

"For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness." Psalms 107:9 

Linking up over at Velvet Ashes: The Grove, on the theme of invitation

29 July 2016

Minibus observations

One morning, I climb into a sardine can, squeezing in between two souls and wedging myself against the seat (actually - a fellow passenger's leg, if I'm honest). As the third person shoved into two seats, he is still gracious and apologetic for being so intimately close to me. A few kilometers, and the driver hits the brakes hard. No handholds, and I start flying. Said passenger becomes more than legs, and his arms reach out to grab me and hold me securely in my 'seat'. I'm upright again, not sprawled across laps... and he lets go immediately, allowing for some semblance of personal space/autonomy in the midst of the crowded bodies.

Another morning, I get a spot in a seat, not shared--all my own (for at least a few kilometers). An elderly man climbs into the very back, wrapped in religious robes. One our way, he starts chanting a monotone prayer loudly, his voice filling the minibus. Driver, money collector, and passengers start exchanging glances via windows, mirrors, and slightly turned heads. Driver nods, and cranks up the radio. A couple other passengers start singing along... effectively drowning out the determined old man. I chuckle lightly. Non-confrontational, as society dictates. Yet passive aggressive social control is alive and well.

12 June 2016

Jesus is the ________ of life

Can you fill in the blank? It's rather easy in English, eh? Bread. Of course, bread. We have a nice, neat category for "bread"... and from there we can easily expand as we like. But in instances such as this, we don't need to be specific. We need to be vague.

The ESL translation team has it a bit harder. After all, what kind of bread? Is it injera (the daily flatbread everyone eats)? Dabo (white bread rolls, typically)? K'ita (the spiced unleavened bread you tend to eat in the morning)? Ambasha (special raised flatbread eaten more for celebrations or special events)? Ko'cho (the false banana stalk, fermented flat bread eaten in the south)? Or something else? When each of these had a different place and significance, how do you choose which one is actually the best concept to use for this passage?

Hmmmm...... translation isn't an easy 1:1 task... it's full of all sorts of interesting dilemmas. :)

27 December 2015

12 American Habits I lost while living in Eastern Africa

1) Standing in cue & waiting my turn – Because, even though there may be a cue… it really doesn’t mean as much. To stand in line and wait your turn is a sure recipe to not get served at all.

2) Wearing a seatbelt – Because often there isn’t a seatbelt. Or if there is it doesn’t work. Further more. the public transport is often so full there aren’t empty seats. So I stand. Often, contorted in a variety of gymnastic-worthy positions, due to the cramped space and pressing together of humanity.

3) Speaking my mind / Sharing my opinions openly – I still have opinions, yes. I just recognize I am a visitor here. An outsider. And I don’t have the whole story from which my opinions should be formed… I only see a part. And those around me do not freely express their opinions. What right have I as the foreigner? None.

4) Standing up for myself when someone wrongs me & telling people off – When I have lewd comments yelled at me, or get called “white foreigner” for the umpteenth time, or have things thrown at me or people spit on me… I remain silent. Collected. Unfazed (on the outside). Because speaking out and showing anger is not appropriate and can even be a sign that you are “mad” (mentally unstable). I have learned the hard way that addressing such behavior directly actually only makes it worse. So silence is the best option.

5) Expecting things to happen in an efficient time frame – My African brothers and sisters are never in a hurry. Life is about people, relationships, and events… it’s not about tasks. So tasks can be extended or postponed for a variety of reasons, and it’s ok. Our relationship is more important. We have time. As one friend said recently, “Time is running towards us, not away from us.”

6) Requiring a large personal space bubble – Whether it’s in public taxis, on the train, sitting in church, on a bus, in someone’s home when there is a wedding or funeral or birthday or birth, in a supermarket aisle, in cue, in a cafe or restaurant, or even simply walking down the street… space is found or made for more souls. Personal space? What’s that? More like communal space… everywhere, at all times. No that’s not exclusively your chair, or seat, or table, or stool… for there’s always room to share with one more person.

7) Expecting stores to stock an item indefinitely – I see sesame seed oil and dill pickles at the supermarket. Counting my cash on hand, I decide to buy them next time. But a week later when I return, the entire aisle is restocked with completely different items. Those, which I have never seen before in stock, are gone for good. One week you find 2 kg bags of shredded coconut, then never again for two years. Toilet paper multi-packs are everywhere, then disappear for 6 months. Normal. Just go with it. When you see it, buy it… or resolve to live without and not mind.

8) Monthly or bi-monthly shopping trips – Very limited pre-packaged food, and fewer preservatives… means all cooking is from scratch, and much healthier. I love, love, love this, even though it takes more time. So much better for our bodies. But it also means that food doesn’t have a long shelf life. Milk & bread turn after 3-4 days. Our veggies aren’t refrigerated and last about a week. So it means more frequent shopping trips and fresher food.

9) Using a planner/schedule – I still have a planner/calendar – I just only use it for checking the date or writing down when I paid bills… because scheduling/planning things much in advance is out. Especially planning a day in any sort of hourly schedule… just ain’t happening. Ever. There are too many unknown, uncontrolled variables… your taxi breaking down, not getting a taxi. the mail not showing up, a random friend stopping by, an unexpected visit from a neighbor or landlord, the internet goes out, the water is off, the power is off… just go with it. Life is more spontaneous…and exciting.

10) Impersonal patron/client relationships – Because buying/selling is also about relationships. Going to the same cafe matter. Using the same market stalls and building relationships with your stall owners matters… it brings better prices, better quality produce, credit when you are a little cash shy of your bill, warm greetings of your welfare when you miss a week, and so much more. Greeting the guards you walk by everyday – they notice when you aren’t there or things are amiss, and they check on you. Impersonal interactions throughout the day are unheard of. Relationships – personal, friendly, growing constantly. Does it affect efficiency? Actually no, it builds it – because, when I walk up to my bread selling stall, she just looks up, smiles, and says “how many today?” Or my local supermarket, when I get ready to check out will ask me whether I am forgetting my eggs today (and I often am!).

11) Not getting to know my neighbors – The kids are always at my door when my Love gets home from work. They know it means free bananas. We share laundry lines, garbage day reminders, and huge smiles when the water comes back on after a several day absence. My adopted mom/grandma below us is always ready to make me practice my language learning phrases, teaches me the names of local spices she is pounding on whatever day, and shares tastes of her homemade treats. They watch for me when I’m away, or even when I’m home alone. They make sure I don’t miss out on any important information, as the newbie. And they are quick to help anytime. I’m learning to do the same whenever I can.

12) Relying on power/water/phone/internet systems to work all the time – because it most likely will be off at some point. Roll with it. Before I moved to East Africa, I never hoarded water and backup batteries. Now my life schedule revolves around when the water is on – and filling every possible container in my house. Washing on water days. Reading and writing snail mail letters on no power days. Always having backup everything on hand, just in case. It was baffling to my African friends… which was baffling to me. “You don’t stock up?” I ask… “Why?” they reply. “It’s just life.”