Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Total God-Thing

It all started a couple days ago. I'd checked one of my work emails and forwarded an announcement about a classical piano concert at a nearby university. The pieces looked interesting enough, but I wasn't sure I would enjoy listening to piano for an hour and a half. So I pushed it to the back of my mind and carried on with my day.

This afternoon I looked at the event again and decided I would try to go. I messaged just about everyone I could think of but to no avail. One friend thought she would be able to go but ended up not being able to. So I headed down the hill to Mr. Cocktail where some friends were meeting up to celebrate a birthday. I hadn't been sitting for long, however, before the strong impression returned to go to the concert. I Googled safety in Uber at night and safety in public buses at night for single women and didn't get much. So far, I'd made my own rule not to be out after dark by myself, just because I'm a more cautious person.

I decided it would be best not to go, and tried to forget about it altogether, but suddenly the impression returned. This time I decided to heed my impulsive nature and go. I abruptly took my leave of the group and headed out the door. I hailed the first taxi that came along and asked if he would take me to Dora. The guy nodded and I hopped in.

The next impression that came to me was to ask the man if he spoke English. As soon as I'd entered the taxi, I'd noticed the cross hanging from his rearview mirror, the clean car, the sign for no smoking, and that he was well-dressed. So I asked him. He replied in perfect English and asked how he could help me. I asked how much he charged if I would book him to pick me up from the university where I was going to the concert and bring me back home. He quoted a price, we negotiated a bit, and settled happily on a fair price.

Then the guy asked, Do you know Ana? I was surprised, of course I did. Ana had been studying at the university a couple of years ago and we had become good friends. George, the taxi driver, told me that his wife had taught Ana Arabic but they'd lost touch when Ana left to pastor a church in Europe. We exchanged phone numbers, I promised to call when I was ready to be picked up, and I hopped out of the taxi in time to catch the #15 bus to Bahrie.

A half hour later, after I'd exited the bus and found my way down several dark winding streets to the university and then to the assembly hall where the concert was being held, I took a moment to think about the amazing providence that had connected George and me. Out of all the taxis in Lebanon, I picked his. And me being naturally shy had spoken up, out of which we were able to make the connection of a mutual friend. It had to be a God-thing.

While taking a selfie in the beautiful old-style hall, I noticed an alumnus from the university I work at, sitting several rows behind me. He joined me for the concert and afterwards immediately offered to take me home. Again, God worked everything out in His perfect timing so that I had a ride home and could spend some time talking to a guy who is on his own faith journey and beginning to attend the university church quite regularly. There are few Lebanese young people in our church and it is my dream to see that number increase but we have to befriend the ones who are there so they feel welcome and at home.

There are times when I question my calling, question whether what I'm doing is really making a difference, question how God can use someone who isn't a doctor/nurse/teacher in His kingdom ministry. Then there are times like tonight when I realize that it isn't about me. It's about being obedient to Him and as I follow the footsteps already marked out before me, He will bless my simple efforts and show me once again that He has a work for me that is just as valuable as that of any other person who is committed to Him.

And when it happens, it's always clear. It's a total God-thing. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Becoming

When life settles into the mundane, it's easy to lose sight of the vision. Oswald Chambers talks about this, when he refers to living in the valleys because we cannot be perpetually on the mountaintop.

When I first arrived, a year and a half ago, I went through a series of valleys and mountaintop experiences. At first I was somewhat apprehensive that I was reverting to my teenage sanguine ecstatic-happy/down-in-the-dumps moods. Then I realized it was a normal part of life. I had uprooted my world to settle down in a somewhat familiar milieu but was having to readjust my expectations and the rooting was gradual rather than instantaneous.

There was culture shock. Not just once, but several times, at the usual landmarks of time. Because, of course, I had to follow protocol. I'm traditional like that, even when it comes to emotions. Then there was the life changes that came, as friends moved in and out of my circle and I pulled closer or backed away. The dance was somewhat awkward at times, other times it felt like I'd seen and done it all before, but I found myself exchanging girl-talks for smoothie nights for toddler babble for still-waters conversation within less than a year. It was a little too much, it seemed.

My job changed, responsibilities were added, and I learned to teach with confidence even as I stared at the textbook wondering if the grammatical rules had ever made any sense since I'd tried to learn them in grade school. Then I was coordinating a department and suddenly realizing that there had to be a point that I stopped saying yes and started to take care of myself. Sure, I generally kept within my work hours and had started declining some requests to help out at church if I was already doing something in church that Sabbath. But I realized that something was not quite right.

I get the 1,000 Missionary Movement e-newsletter whenever it gets sent out and the last one had a devotional thought by a woman whose advice made me pause. She talked about how there were a lot of expectations placed on her about how to live out the spiritual disciplines and she found herself feeling overwhelmed by it all. Until she took the time to do 5 things. Pray, read, write, exercise, and listen to music.

I've blogged about this before, that when I first came to Lebanon I had decided I was going to say yes to every request for service, assuming that was God's calling through the person who asked me to help out. I've taught lesson study, painted a wall downtown, swam in the Mediterranean Sea, supervised 30+ teenagers at a three-day camp, brushed up on my piano skills, edited a doctoral dissertation, and started leading out in a small group for TCK university students. I am thankful for the stretching times, the fun times, the leaning-on-God times. Every experience has been one I can look back on and know with certainty that I've grown because of them.

Yet sometimes the doing crowds out the becoming. Jesus' prayer for His disciples was that they would become one, become united, just as He and God the Father were (John 17:21). His entire purpose for that was so that the world would see and understand the Father's love and this love would be revealed through His disciples. Jesus didn't pray that the disciples would fulfill a checklist of requirements--He prayed that they would be changed.

All through my Christian walk, this is the one theme that keeps returning to the forefront of my consciousness. Becoming. Changing. Being more like Jesus. Learning to rest in Him, listening for His voice, letting Him carry me over the rough paths of life, so I can in turn share the peace and love He wants to give to others through me.

I know some great Christians who are committed to a cause. They wake up at 4 am for their extensive quiet time, they never have time to just sit quietly and talk for a couple of hours because they have to prepare for the next ministry event, they sit on 15 committees, or they focus on a subset of the church to the exclusion of the others. I'm not saying they're not doing anything worthwhile; God uses everyone and I'm sure He has a plan for their service. I'm just realizing this is not the direction I want to go.

It may seem counter-intuitive to want the Mary experience. Martha, after all, was meeting the physical needs of hunger and thirst, practical in her Christianity as she prepared a sumptuous Middle Eastern meal. She wasn't doing the wrong thing. Jesus simply said Mary had chosen the better part. She sat at His feet soaking up His love and wisdom and peace--content to rest in the becoming. Meanwhile, Martha was in the back of the house busily doing.

I'm learning that in order to focus on the becoming, I need to jealously guard my time and fill it with good things that will help me to thrive spiritually. Yes, there is a place for service and I should not become an ascetic hermit who solely strives for a spiritual connection. But when my heart becomes unsettled and it feels like I'm only down in the valley, it's then that I must step away from societal expectations and refocus.

After the culture shock resettled and I was comfortable in my place here, I experienced deep peace and abiding joy. Several clear Ebenezer stones were set up as I marked the places where God was showing me He was not only fulfilling the desire of my heart to return, nearly two decades ago, to this country, but He was also clearly indicating that I was in His will. I woke up each morning thankful for my mission and eager to see what God would bring that day.

Then I went through several months where the peace and joy vanished to be replaced with questioning and uncertainty. As I struggled through some of the life changes mentioned earlier, I wondered if perhaps I'd misread the signs and the path I'd chosen was not the one mapped out for me. My prayers seemed to reach the roof and stop there.

Until I began to search to connect with the God I knew I desperately needed to be close to. I began to withdraw from the rush to fill my calendar with events and to fill my time instead with what I knew would fill my heart with peace. Listening to Christian music, writing blog posts, having uninterrupted time to pray, looking for flowers in nature, spending an evening at the gym, walking on the promenade before sunset, each activity perhaps seeming pointless in the grand scheme of saving souls but I knew they were exactly right for me.

Today I stood on the roof, hanging up my clothes, and I took a moment to really look around. I'd been so busy lately, there wasn't even time to breathe in the cooling autumn air as the humidity began to dissipate and the zeez chirped even louder in excitement. I marveled at the 10 or more different types of trees that surrounded the patch of campus I could see, then my eyes strayed to the Mediterranean Sea--a sight I never tired of seeing. Imagine, I thought. I get to live in the mountains and see the sea every single day. Life can't be any better than that! That evening, instead of editing a dissertation, I cooked a tasty meal for the next three days and relished the simple joy of cutting the ends off the green beans and frying tofu and mushrooms on an electric burner. I was happy. Peace had returned to my heart and I knew I was where God wanted me to be.

The becoming is ever so much easier than the doing

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

In All Things

There's a verse a couple of my guy friends have been throwing around a lot lately. It all started on the way to the airport, when one of them was telling a funny story they'd heard from a work colleague that week. The crux of the story centered around a little kid using a Bible verse to outsmart his bullies. Instead of quoting the verse, though, he simply shouted the reference at them each time they tried to bully him until they finally got tired and left him alone. The verse? Romans 8:28

Now the verse has become a sort of reply-all in a humorous sort of way. They'll say it to tease me, annoy me, or simply to get out of answering a question. The other day, one of them even signed the reference from across the room while I was working out on the stair-climber at the gym. Yet in the midst of all the bantering, the truth of the verse is not lost. In all things, God works for our good.

Yesterday I went to the gym for the first time this week and spent some time using the various machines to work the upper and lower body. Because I'd increased the number of reps, I was rather sore today. By the time I left work, I was not in the mood to go to the gym but I knew if I didn't go, I would not be able to get in my 3 times/week that I normally went. Both of my rides weren't able to go and I found myself staring at a little black car wandering a virtual map on my smartphone, as I waited for an Uber taxi to arrive.

The driver was very polite and dropped me off at the gym promptly. I went in and was happy to see the stair-climber free so I spent the next 25 minutes climbing in beat to the canned music whilst observing everyone around me. Then I hopped on the treadmill for a few minutes to wind down.

I needed bread and some fresh produce and had spotted a small grocery store just up the road so after I'd finished at the gym, I headed there to pick up some staples. Soon my return Uber taxi had arrived and we set off back to the university. I climbed the last bit of hill, and then two flights of stairs, to my cozy room.

There I dropped the bags of groceries and sank onto my bed. I did it. I went out of my comfort zone, booking taxis and buying groceries and going to the gym by myself. There seems to be a lot of that in my life these days--the stretching and pulling that comes with living life on my own. There are days when I feel very accomplished, like today, and then there are days when all I can handle is work and then I retreat to my room to write, read, and rejuvenate.

In all things, God works for my good. Today He worked it out so I could get my workout in and buy the groceries I needed. Two days ago He worked it out so my ride didn't go, because He knew I wouldn't be feeling so good and would need to get some extra rest instead of workout. I marvel daily at how intimately God knows me and how perfectly He orchestrates happenings so I can look back at what seemed confusing and realize He had already worked it out.

In all things.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Three Words

I think you're someone that people don't have to impress, you're friendly and easy to be comfortable with, she said. It was Saturday night and we were playing Table Talk, a game with cards that each had a question to answer. After we'd picked the question Describe yourself as your friends would in three words, and we'd each done so, Gregory suggested we repeat the exercise but this time we go around the room and describe each person in three words. It seemed like a fun exercise.

When it came to my turn, I heard the usual words people had used to describe me before. Organized, friendly, smiley, cheerful, composed. Then it was Paula's turn. Paula and I hadn't interacted much during the school year, other than a birthday party for her boyfriend and a day at the beach with several of the dorm girls, we'd just said hi when passing in the hallways. Yet somehow, she had picked up on a trait that I'd never seen in myself but had always longed to have. To be someone that people felt comfortable with.

We sat there for an hour and a half, two MEU staff, the assistant pastor at the Bouchrieh church, a volunteer doing an internship with ADRA, and a sophomore MEU student ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s. As we laughed, teased each other, shared favourite memories from childhood with Mom or Dad, or took time to answer the more serious questions, the dividers between TCKs and monoculturals, old and young, guy and girl, liberal and conservative, fell away. Each of us a different nationality, from Jordanian to American to British to Mauritian to Brazilian, we instantly found commonality in the shared life experiences we connected on.

Even though we didn't all know each other well, we were also able to find three positive things to say about each person in the room. The affirmations of God's character was a special gift that I will always treasure. It wasn't a fancy room, just an office with 5 mismatched chairs pulled up in an awkward circle. It wasn't a grand event, just 5 friends hanging out on a Saturday night, finding joy in the simplicity of words. Yet it was perhaps one of the most precious moments of my experience here as we spoke truth and love into each other's lives.

Today I woke up feeling somewhat discouraged. The day before I'd been talking to my mom, trying to figure out my long-term goals and whether that involved staying here or not. She encouraged me to think of returning to the US in as short a time as three months, if I found that my social life here was nonexistent. It was tempting. Life in the US was much easier. My self-imposed mission call to show my Lebanese friends that not all missionaries came for a year or two and then left suddenly seemed hollow. How did I know it was what God wanted me to do? I knew God could use me no matter where I lived, whether it was in the US, Europe, or the Middle East. Yet I was still restless.

When I woke up, realizing how I felt, I asked God to show me today that He was orchestrating things in my life. As I dressed for church, I listened to Nick Vujic's exhortation to look for God with the promise that I will find Him. Sabbath School's song service was filled with songs of knowing that God was with me--like All The Way My Saviour Leads Me. In church, a trio sang my favourite hymn Be Still My Soul and the phrases sank into my heart--in every change, He faithful will remain. In vespers that evening, Sahin showed us that the command most often repeated in the Bible is Do not fear. Fear disappears, though, when we trust God and trust comes when we love Him fully.

I don't know my future. I can make my plans but I want to be open to God's redirecting if He has a better plan for me. But through all the uncertainties, I'm thankful for these little glimpses of graces where divine flashes through the curtain between the unreachable and humanity, reassuring my heart that I'm where He wants me to be. Just three words--but they can make all the difference.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

God Laughs in the Ironic

You can ask my family or any of my best friends and they will easily tell you that I'm not a huge fan of teenagers. When asked once if I was interested in teaching English at a Christian high school, it didn't take me more than a second to say Thank you but no thank you as I knew neither the teenagers nor I would have a positive experience! I don't know if it's because I was homeschooled, leading to me feeling more at home with older people and young kids than my peers, or if I just don't have the gift to relate to teenagers, but the reality is that I can't. I don't understand their world and they do a good job of pretending they have it all together and would rather not make conversation when I try to ask a few questions.

So this is why I thought it was somewhat ironic that I ended up supervising a group of 15 to 28 teenagers two nights in a row. I guess God has a good sense of humour! Last night, I was winding down after a full day running around with the science camp, helping with registration and other logistics, where I felt completely comfortable as I love working in the details. For some reason I went out into the corridor and heard a lot of noise coming from the 3rd floor social room. I headed there, opening the door to a lovely cool room with the a/c on full blast, and 15 teenagers sitting around eating nuts and chips, chatting, and listening to music. It would have been fine if it was just girls but unfortunately there were boys there too.

A chorus of disappointment went up when I reminded them that boys weren't allowed on third floor and, feeling sorry for them because it was such a warm night and there wasn't any place they could hang out that was cool, I decided to stay for a while so they didn't have to go. They very politely offered me some snacks, which I carefully took a few of to make them happy, then resumed their happy chatting. I overheard them discussing whether I could understand Arabic, one of the kids whose mom I work with telling them that I didn't speak Arabic but could understand bits here and there. I just smiled and pretended I didn't know what they were talking about.

Then tonight, after caving to their pleas to have a campfire (despite it being very warm and humid), I spent 30 minutes walking back and forth between my room (on the 3rd floor, mind you!) and my office and the campfire site, looking for skewers for marshmallows, getting olive oil and then ethanol to get the fire going, and getting ibuprofen for a kid who wasn't feeling so well. Adults came and went but I was the only one who stayed til the last couple kids drifted off as the ashes smouldered. The 28 teenagers enjoyed themselves thoroughly, singing along to my least favourite song of all time Hotel California, burning marshmallows, doing the traditional dance which I joined in and failed miserably at as I have no sense of rhythm, eating snacks and drinking Pepsi after a day of health expos where they explained to visitors why soft drinks were bad for you, and doing some Western dancing to a portable speaker one of the kids had brought along.

After putting most of the ashes to sleep by dousing them in water, picking up all the trash so our students wouldn't have to do extra work the next day when they worked on grounds, finding a teenager's passport sitting on a bench and returning it to her, giving away as much of the snacks as I could to a hungry guy who'd missed supper, and picking up the first aid kit from the auditorium for our island trip the next day, I was finally able to head to my room once more.

I've often found that the places I'm the least comfortable are where I find myself, such as supervising a group of teenagers, or using my few words of Arabic to communicate with Samira, the Syrian lady who showed me pictures of her beautiful home before it was blown up. Now they live here and she washes dishes in the afternoon and does medical assisting in a hospital in the morning as they wait for papers to immigrate to Australia. I saw it before, when I worked with a 4-month training program where I was forced to get to know people much quicker than I was used to, as previously I'd taken at least 6 months to feel like someone was a good friend. This has served me well in the mission field, however, as I am a lot more comfortable connecting with strangers.

Today at the health expo, I sat quietly at the trust booth, watching my good friend speak with the two women who were finishing up their visit at the booth. He asked them about their health, sent his greetings to their family, and nodded understandingly when they spoke about how high rent was and how they were looking for new places to live. $600 a month was too steep, considering people can work for as little as $3 an hour here depending on their skill level. The entire conversation was in Arabic but I picked up the gist here and there, listening and observing. He closed with a prayer that they welcomed as I sat there, longing to be able to interact with people on the same level in their heart language. I came home and pulled out marHaba, the book on Lebanese Arabic that my brother had given me before I came. I'm not very good at motivating myself to learn a language but I will do my best. And maybe one day, this place of the uncomfortable will also become the comfortable.

Monday, July 17, 2017

More Than a Step

I think I may have mentioned before that one thing I try to do on a regular basis is to push myself out of my comfort zone. This week, it was going on a hike. I'd been with this hiking group before, but always with at least one or two friends from the university so I had people to talk to and hang out with. A couple of times I'd looked longingly at a Facebook post announcing an upcoming hike but not being able to find someone to go with me meant I had to find other things to keep myself busy on a Sunday. Til this week.

When I'd mentioned the possibility of a hike, earlier last week, to my mother and come up with all kinds of excuses as to why I shouldn't go, she'd gently encouraged me to go. I still procrastinated, til the evening before, when I messaged the organizer and asked if there was still room. I figured there wouldn't be, and I was right, the bus was booked full, but he said to come along anyhow. Somebody was likely to cancel and then I'd be able to join them. So I messaged a friendly taxi driver who I'd done airport runs with before and I was set. 7 am I would leave campus to meet the bus.

There was no morning traffic and we found the bus quickly enough. Sure enough, 4 people cancelled and I had a seat on the bus. While I didn't talk a lot to the people in the group, most of them having come with a friend or three, I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude in the midst of dark green forests spotted with cedar and the challenge to push myself physically as we hiked up steep bits and tried not to slip down other steep bits.

By the end of the day, I was a little sunburned and a lot happy. I'd spent an entire day with strangers, listening to them speak Arabic til I was repeating phrases in my sleep, and it wasn't as difficult as I'd thought it would be.

Funnily enough, I felt the most accomplished when I took the taxi home. Uber's taxis were 8 minutes away from where the bus parked at the drop-off point and I didn't want to wait, so I headed for a main road. I asked the first taxi that slowed down if he would take me to the university, telling him it was at the top of the hill. He said sure, for $2, so I hopped in. By the time we neared the top of the hill, though, he was grumbling away that I should pay him a little over $3 because of all the extra gas he'd had to use to get that far. It was his fault, really, for not knowing the area or the university, but to keep him happy I split the difference. Mind you, all this exchange happened in Arabic.

Now I'm not fluent in Arabic by any means and I generally refuse to use the few words I do know, preferring instead to listen, smile a lot, and speak in English. I used about 10 words of Arabic in our exchange but we were able to understand each other. And as I stepped out of the car and hiked the last few steps to my room, I smiled as I realized I'd managed it all on my own.

People wonder why I've been here nearly 1.5 years and still don't speak Arabic. I live in an English-speaking environment and all my work is done in English. I know it's not an excuse, but it's my reality. I have a basic grasp of simple phrases, if I catch the gist of a topic then I can often decipher a conversation and laugh at the appropriate times, and after 10 hours of listening to Arabic I now have several sentences rolling around in my head that I don't know where to use them but I can pronounce them fairly well.

A friend has been taking lessons for 3 months and can carry on a basic conversation in Arabic with someone. I was very envious of them until I realized that I'm not taking lessons, therefore I can't just magically start speaking the language. Neither am I very motivated to study a language on my own, like my sister who's been immersed in Chinese for more than 10 years now. Though I don't speak it, Arabic is a friendly language, comforting in its familiarity, as it wraps me in memories of my childhood and teenage years when the family was still whole and my worries were minimal. The words I know are instinctive, not learned by rote, and I want to keep that romance alive as we dance back and forth, me catching a glimpse here and there of enlightenment.

So the adventure continues. This week I will workout at the gym where everyone looks like they stepped out of a fashion magazine (seriously, who wears perfume/cologne to the gym?), help coordinate a group of 37 teenagers for a science camp on campus, and go to a screening of Nour, a movie about child brides. Each experience is going to push me yet again out of my comfort zone but it's what keeps me growing and for that I am grateful.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

N'est Pas?

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do arguille. I do sports. If you like, we can go and eat pizza and drink Pepsi sometime. I'll give you my phone number. 

I was sitting in the back seat of a beat-up service taxi on my way from City Center back to the university. I'd taken an Uber down but decided to just hop in a regular taxi going back since it would cost the same and I didn't want to have to wait for an Uber. I was beginning to regret my decision.

Granted, my driver was very kind in his eager persistence, as he wondered out loud that perhaps I was his chance, his golden ticket, and we could go and live in America together. I kindly yet firmly told him that I was very happy living in Lebanon and had no desire to go and live in America anytime soon. Disappointed for a moment, he quickly bounced back and said We can go live in Germany then, or Italy. He spoke fluent Italian and had lived in Germany for the past 30 years.

In a mixture of German, Italian, Arabic, French, and English, we somehow managed to communicate for the 20 minute drive from the mall to the university. He did most of the talking, while I laughed easily or asked him a question during an awkward pause after one of his many attempts to woo me. He told me he could cook Italian food, lasagna, pasta, and a number of other fancy sounding spaghettis that I can't pronounce. He mentioned an ex-wife and at least one kid who was just 10 years younger than me. He told me his weight and then tried to guess mine.

At one point, he asked me what I was looking for in a husband. I simply said A man with a kind heart who loves God. He agreed wholeheartedly and said that was wise (at least I think so!). He told me I had a pure heart, once again startling me as people have described me this way before.

I had to chuckle when he turned around, not once, but twice, during the trip, to look me up and down and then compliment me on my figure/weight. He didn't do it in a way that made me feel uncomfortable, he was merely getting a read on what I looked like since I'd just stepped into the taxi a few minutes before, but as we neared the university, he was already telling me we could have two kids. We call them Antonio and Julia, he said.

I took his number, not with the intent of actually going on a date with him but merely to be polite. I stepped out of the taxi and nearly left without paying him, as he'd been chatting me up the whole way back, but his chivalry ended where the money began so I did have to dig up the $7 fare. Smiling to myself, I knew it would make for some humorous stories in the future when I retold it to my friends. The adventures continue!