Thursday, November 30, 2017

10 Liter Water Jug

Why don't you come and spend time with us anymore? You don't eat in the caf and we don't see you! You should seriously think about it, because when I see you I feel happy and at peace. You bring joy to my heart, and I'm saying this with all sincerity.

The very Pharaonic-looking young man with a notable dark beard spoke with great earnestness as I leaned against the steel sink in the front serving area of the cafeteria. He was across from me, leaning against the wall, and another of my former English language students was sitting on the countertop to my right, a bemused smile on her face. I saw her more often as we shared the third floor in the dorm and would pass each other several times a day coming and going.

I've sometimes wondered if my life has meaning and purpose beyond the expected roles I play. I often feel guilty that I don't have enough time to invest deeply in a few close friends or don't have enough language skills to venture out and build community. Sometimes, it's all I can do to show up and get things done, simply because as a single female in a country whose language I do not speak, life isn't as easy and I need to use my energies for simple things like walking to the grocery store to buy toothpaste and toilet paper.

Then there are moments like this evening, when one of the young ladies wrapped her arm around my shoulder as she laughed and shouted out answers to the Mad Libs game the hostess was doing for a friend's bridal shower. The petite girl was one of my first students when I arrived and we built a friendship that continued past the end of that first semester. I'd sat with her when she received news that her grandfather had died and listened as she shared about his deep influence in her life. She still came to me for help with homework and I did my best to encourage and support her.

Sometimes being a missionary isn't about knowing where that obscure Bible verse is, being able to build a house from mud bricks, or being trilingual, though those are all very valid tools. Sometimes being a missionary is about showing up. About being there. About letting God love others and bring them a feeling of joy and peace through us.

One individual life may be of priceless value to God's purposes, and yours may be that life. ~My Utmost for His Highest, Nov. 30

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Red on Gray

Maybe you should wash the red trousers separately, since they're new and could run, a niggling thought skipped around in my head like kernels of unpopped corn just thrown into a hot pan. But I was lazy, and besides I was washing everything on cold so it should be fine. There wasn't anything in the load that would get ruined. I turned the dial, slipped on my tennis shoes, and left for an evening walk while it washed.

45 minutes later, after doing some arm exercises with a jar of peanut butter in one hand and a jar of nutritional yeast in the other as makeshift weights, I went to get my load of washing out. I threw everything into a plastic bag and brought it back to my room where I began to hang the items on my indoor drying rack. Then I pulled out my gray short-sleeved sweater that I wore with my little black dress. It was no longer gray. Now it had a hue of red, as did a pj top. I sighed inwardly, I had nobody to blame but myself. The offending red trousers, thankfully confined somewhat in their damage by having been washed in a white mesh bag which had now turned pink, looked innocently up at me.

A quick Google search recommended I use rubbing alcohol on a white cloth and try to rub out the stains by transferring them to the white cloth. A trial with a cream towel wasn't too successful and not wanting to spend my entire evening scrubbing like a washerwoman in the 1800's, I pulled out my stain remover bottle. I didn't have high hopes for it; the other times I'd used it for a grease stain it hadn't been too successful. I needed to try something, though, so I read the directions on the back of the bottle and hurried back to the washing machine with the two gray-pinkish items.

After tossing them back in, I poured another generous amount of detergent in the first little drawer. I had no clue whether the stain remover should go in the second or third drawer but decided to put it in the second just to be safe. Then I turned the dial to coloured clothes this time and left it to spin for the next two hours.

When the washing machine finally stopped spinning, I opened up the door and gingerly reached inside, wondering what I would find. I pulled out the gray sweater. It was gray. Not tinged with pink, but completely and totally gray. The pj top still had a couple pinkish spots but they were faint and nobody would see them anyhow so that was okay. I smiled in gratitude as I sent up a quiet thank you to my Father. And I didn't even pray first! I thought.

It's not such a huge thing, I know. The gray sweater could have been ruined and it wouldn't have ruined my life. I'd already burnt a hole in a sheer brand new blouse during my first week here, so I wasn't a stranger to clothing catastrophes. Yet somehow God worked a miracle, with a bit of stain remover, and restored my sweater to me so I could continue to enjoy wearing it.

Somehow, it seems to be somewhat reminiscent of my life. There are times the Holy Spirit is quietly whispering, Maybe you shouldn't say that, go there, eat that, waste your time doing that and I push those unpopped kernels aside, thinking I know better, thinking that even if I mess up, it won't be so bad. Thankfully God is gracious and merciful and many times He comes along with the stain remover, fixing my mistakes and restoring to me what was beautiful before.

He gives me more than I deserve. He is good and He is good to me. How can I doubt Him then with the steps ahead that I cannot see? How can I fail to trust that He is preparing a life of fulfillment and joy, not only in the life to come, but in this life also?

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. ~2 Timothy 1:9

Saturday, November 11, 2017

My Sister

You are my sister, she said, as she held my hand and kissed me on the cheek three times. The quiet woman with black headscarf, the one who sold tofu and peanut butter and soymilk and granola every Friday morning on the steps of North Hall, the one who exhibited great strength as her husband battled illness, stood there holding my hands and calling me her sister. It was in that moment that I knew I had been made for this.

I struggle a lot with feeling less-than when it comes to measuring up to the Christian walk. Those struggles are heightened by living in a country that hosts millions of refugees and whose languages I do not easily speak. I am still figuring out life here, how to buy groceries regularly, where to go for a dental check up, and how to maneuver unspoken cultural expectations. I see what appears to be everyone other than me becoming fluent in Arabic, visiting orphanages, and providing for the needy.

It's when I compare myself to others that I feel frustrated. I wonder if the small things I do even make that much of a difference and feel like I should be doing bigger and greater things. Then God gives me gentle moments like today when I realize that He is doing things I cannot even understand.

We spent the afternoon sitting in plastic chairs around the metal serving deck, listening to a young man share his conversion testimony. Then five of us piled into a friend's car and headed to the Armenian section of town where the woman and her husband lived, so we could drop them off. The three of us ladies squeezed into the back seat and the men sat in the front. As we bounced along the potholes and drove around triple-parked cars, I listened to the comfortable hubbub of their conversation. It was all in Arabic but I picked up a few words here and there. I thought about how, even if I could speak Arabic, I would likely not have said much anyhow as I was generally content to listen in groups.

As we drove along, I realized something that amazed me. I've been in many settings before where people are speaking another language, and I've felt awkward, left-out, and uncomfortable. I was not feeling any of that, this time, though. I felt completely at peace, content, and as if this was exactly where I was meant to be.

People who pass through ask me, How long do you plan to stay here? I know it's a standard question coming from their curiosity, but lately my reply has been changing from As long as God keeps me here to Forever, unless God tells me otherwise. I can't tell the future and I don't want to limit my Father Who knows exactly where I can serve Him best and be the happiest doing so. Yet it is the most wonderful thing to understand when I am in His will and tonight was one of those moments for me. I still haven't been blessed with the instant gift of tongues, I still have limited energy and resources to invest, but this one thing I know. I am where God wants me to be and I'm doing what God wants me to do. And I couldn't be any happier.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Bravery of One Who Explores

People tell me I'm brave to venture off by myself but I shake my head and wonder why they think so. After all, I have to explore and it's the only way I can do so without spending all my money on Ubers! Yesterday afternoon, the sun was shining amidst a week of heavy rain, and the sky was a perfect blue. I knew it was the right time to take the excuse of needing to pick up brochures from the Ministry of Tourism for an incoming group of Very Important People, so I slipped on some comfortable boots, grabbed my umbrella in case the storm clouds returned, and headed down the hill.

I lucked out this time. A childhood friend was driving in the same general direction and offered me a ride. As he parked, I stepped out into traffic and walked the last 5 minutes to Dora, the Grand Central Station of Beirut. I knew the bus number I needed to take, #2, but I didn't know where it stopped. I looked carefully and spotted one but when I went up to ask the guy where the bus went, I found out it was headed in the opposite direction. I needed the one going to Hamra, not Antelias. He nodded across the street so I dodged taxis to the pavement where I parked myself to wait.

A friendly older man stopped his taxi right by where I was waiting. I said I was waiting for bus #2 to Hamra and he grinned and told me it would be along real soon. He spoke in Arabic and I in English but we managed to understand each other easily enough. After waiting 8 minutes, I began to get a bit nervous as the Ministry would close in an hour and I didn't know how long the bus would take to get there. The taxi driver noticed and reassured me that the bus was right around the corner. Sure enough, a couple minutes later bus #2 appeared and I hopped on.

It was a fairly new bus and the driver handed me a little blue ticket when I got on. I found a seat near the back by an open window and settled in. I peered at my mobile, studying the map on my Zawarib app, and trying to calculate where I should get off. Soon the bus was full enough and off we toodled.

Every time I get on a public bus in Beirut, my heart feels light and free. Whether the bus is packed full with day labourers heading back after a long day's work or whether it's just me and three other people riding along in silence, I feel deep joy to be out in the city. It's as if I come alive. I am content to simply sit and watch the world pass by. In those moments there are no responsibilities, no expectations, no demands. It's just me and the city I've grown to love with all its idiosyncrasies.

After an hour and numerous stops along the way, the bus reached its final destination. The only problem was, I hadn't reached mine. I knew I was about 13 minutes drive away, according to Googlemaps on my trusty mobile, but I was supposed to get off the bus unless I wanted to pay again and I had no idea if its return route would take me closer to where I needed to go. So off I got and hailed the first taxi driving by. He didn't know where the Ministry was, but he decided I could navigate so I got in and we drove for about 10 minutes in thick traffic.

Finally, we were close enough that I could pay him the $1.33 fare and walk the rest of the way. I was quite pleased with myself to find the sign that clearly indicated the Ministry of Tourism, along with beautiful posters decorating the glass doors. Until I realized the building was locked. On all sides. When I peered in, I saw empty display cabinets that used to hold brochures and realized the place was deserted.

Then I looked around and realized I was good and truly lost. I was not in a place I had been before, though I was supposedly in Hamra. I didn't know how to get back to where I'd gotten off the bus and there were no buses in plain sight. After checking Googlemaps again, though, I realized that I was not too far from the sea and I knew that bus #15 went right alongside the sea. So I pointed my nose in the direction of the compass and set off.

I stumbled across a farmer's market and bought chocolate/agave energy balls, mini wild zaatar and goat cheese pastries, and stuffed aubergine. I paid the man at the stall of multicoloured jars filled with labneh balls that looked just like mozarella, jams, and chili-stuffed olives, and then I forgot my stuffed aubergine. I was about to cross the street when I realized my plastic bags were full of sweets and pastries but no aubergine, so I quickly returned, apologetically smiling at the man as I retrieved my expensive jar and hoping he wouldn't think I was stealing it.

It was not more than 15 minutes and I was at a familiar corner by a mosque I passed when I rode the #15 bus. I'd just missed one but it wasn't long before another came along and I hopped right on. Then it was back to Dora where the driver let us out right by the taxi depot instead of several hundred feet back so that we had to walk. I then set off to find my final taxi back to the university.

Relying on my old trick to walk out of the roundabout area and start heading in the direction of home, so I could get in a taxi that was already headed my way and preferably already with passengers so he wouldn't charge me an exorbitant fare, I walked a little ways and then stopped to wait. The first taxi wasn't going my way and the second taxi asked for 10,000 which was outrageous. I shook my head and waited for the next taxi.

An older jovial looking man with a Tivoli Paints set of books under his arm grinned at me, as the second taxi sped away. He'd heard me say Sabtieh and quickly told me in Arabic that he was headed that way too, so he would flag down the next taxi for the both of us. The third taxi came along, this man was headed our way, but after I told him I wanted to go to the university, he said, Wait, which school? I told him and he quoted a 4,000 fare which was reasonable so I nodded and got in. The older man got in too and then a Bangladeshi man headed to Dekwaneh got in the front. The older man tried to make some light conversation, but I had exhausted my Arabic knowledge so I just smiled and nodded but soon he realized I couldn't understand and turned to talk on his mobile.

Three hours after I'd set out on my adventure, I was climbing out of the taxi and heading back to my office. So ended another adventure when I could breathe in deep and keep the memory to tide me over til the next time I felt the need to explore.

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.