Thursday, April 26, 2018

To Know Him

I've battled with the perception for 20 years that personal devotions were supposed to be rigidly structured in order to meet the requirements of the good Christian checklist. While a helpful Bible teacher in college encouraged me to start with just 5 minutes a day of reading my Bible, being the emotional sanguine that I am, I didn't manage to stay focused for long and got lost when reading through Leviticus.

Yesterday over pizza and Pepsi, a university student and I wrestled with what it meant to be a real Christian. She's on her exploratory journey while I'm settling in to what seems right for me but even at our different points, with a generation between us, we found understanding in talking through our questions. Frustrated with organized religion that dictated more rote than relationship, we painted mental pictures of what we wished a church and spirituality would look like.

This afternoon I came home from work, exhausted and overwhelmed. It's difficult, sometimes, when the workplace is the ministry, as expectations are then tempered with less professionalism and more religiousees. To be honest, I've been going in to work as late as I can, taking long lunch breaks, and leaving early, using sick leave for a head cold, and just doing the simple minimum to get my hours in. It's been one of those weeks, or months actually, where I'm tired of the interpersonal clashes, the cultural conflicts, and the constant feeling that I can't keep up with doing 2 full-time jobs.

I lay on my bed and reached for my Bible, turning to 1 Peter 5 where I knew the familiar verse lay about giving my burdens to God. As I prayed aloud, jumping right into expressing how very much I needed God because I couldn't handle everything anymore, the thought came to mind again. It was one I'd been mulling all morning.

What if God doesn't expect me to worship Him through deep exegetical Bible study? What if He doesn't want me to worship Him that way? What if He created me to worship Him through walking in nature and observing the insects and flowers and listening to the birds' spring songs and contemplating while listening for His impressions? What if He created me to worship Him through listening to worship songs that speak to my heart with encouragement for that day? What if He created me to worship Him through reading a book such as Uninvited by Lysa Terkeurst that can help me understand human rejection and how I relate it to God? What if He created me to read a single Bible verse and then illustrate it with a beautiful mosaic or write a blog post connecting it to my experience? What if He created me to simply sit on my bed and pray, opening my heart in all sincerity to Him as I express my struggle to trust and believe in His truth? 

Imagining worship in any and all of these ways brought such joy to my heart that I wondered why I'd never realized before that these are acceptable ways to come closer to God. For what is worship, after all, but an experience whereby we step into God's presence as intimately as we can and in doing so, we are changed? Deep Bible study is good, I'm not denying its power to change. But for me, the one who feels and writes and sings and revels in silence, it is drier than a week-old crust of bread.

I used to think God required me to worship Him in penance and that if I tried hard enough, eventually it would become easier and more interesting. But what does God ask for? It's simple enough.  

To walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8). To love Him and serve Him with all my heart and soul. (Deuteronomy 10:12). To wait patiently for God, to cry, to walk on solid ground, to sing a new hymn of praise, to trust God, to recite all the wonderful things He's done for me, to listen, to search for God, and to experience joy and gladness (Psalm 40). 

Simply worship. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

You Take the High Road

I watched her swinging 30 feet or more above the ground, her feet gripping a smoothly polished log and her hands holding tightly to black ropes that were fastened to the high ropes course. Her safety harness was hooked to a thin wire above her head and she had opportunity to test its capability as she missed her footing a couple times and slipped off the logs she was carefully traversing in the air to reach the final steel platform that signaled the end of the course.

Not being a risk-taker myself, I was content to watch my friend from the ground, admiring her bravery as she stopped to take a breath. Her legs were shaking from the tension and unusual usage of muscles that hadn't been exercised before. Her hands were sore from gripping the ropes to keep her balance. Yet she continued to swing back and forth, waiting til she was close enough to the next log to quickly lunge for it and try to get her footing secure even as she reached for the next set of ropes.

It was then that I heard a whisper. That's what I do for you. I'm your safety harness, keeping you from falling. When life gets difficult and you feel like it's impossible to take another step, you can take that step knowing I am the solid log beneath your feet and the harness holding you secure. 

When my friend started the high ropes course, the first section seemed easy enough that even I could have done it. It was a set of flat log boards in the shape of an X and all she had to do was step from the middle of one X to the middle of the next. The boards were fixed fairly firmly in place and it was easy to reach the first platform. By the time she reached the next to last one though, a tightrope now required her to carefully slide along, foot by foot, as she used her body weight to lean out and stay upright. Then the final section faced her. This was the hardest of all and by this point it wasn't possible to take the steps down to the ground. She had to go forward.

Life is kind of like that. We are walking along, thinking that it really isn't that difficult after all, but after a while it starts to get a little more challenging. Then one day we find ourself facing a challenge we did not prepare for and it seems impossible to get through. We have no choice though. Some things come to us in life and we have to face them whether or not we want to. It is then that we can be encouraged knowing that even as we step from swaying log to swaying log, we are held securely in God's loving hands. He may not be able to keep us from slipping and falling at times, but He has promised His love will support us (Psalm 94:18).

Every time.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

When I Find You

The hardest part about being away from home for me is that I miss having someone to talk to. I know, if I was home right now, my mom would be watching Dr. Phil and my brother would be doing a flight plan on his laptop, and I would be interrupting them with random thoughts that popped into my head. They would be rather unresponsive and would soon return to what they were doing while I would busy myself cooking lunch and listening to Mandisa or Carrie Underwood on my phone.

But just knowing they were there would be enough. Here, I don't have that. I come home after work to an empty room, filled only with stuff, and not with the very real presence of those I love oh so dearly. See for me, oftentimes it's enough just to know my family is home to settle my soul. I can wake up in the middle of the night and be happy because I know I'm not alone.

My sister left home before I did. She was an independent soul who needed to fly and of the 6 or more years she's been gone, she had a flatmate for 4 of them. Life is ironic, that it gives her, the one who is comfortable with silence and being alone, a flatmate, and me, the one who needs people to thrive, a single solitary dorm room where I'm surrounded by young ladies 20 years younger than me.

I sat on my bed feeling rather sad this evening and wondered why. Then I realized it was because I hadn't had any quality talk today. Sure, I'd seen several people throughout the day, all nice people, who had popped in to my office or called and we'd chatted a bit. But I didn't have time to sit with someone for an hour or even 30 minutes and just relax into the conversation knowing I was understood. I'd listened most of the day but I hadn't been heard.

I am thankful for those in my life who sense my need to be heard and patiently listen without making me feel like I am too much. While it may seem like a simple thing, it is a profound gift for me because I spend most of my day being the hearer. My heart is full when someone really notices me through what I'm saying, because it is in that moment that I know--I am home.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Within the Simplicity

I came here not knowing what I would be doing, though I had high hopes of being the traditional missionary. I was going to paint murals in underprivileged neighbourhoods, volunteer at a refugee school with traumatized children, bring bags of food to poor families struggling to survive in the community, do Bible studies with university students who were searching for meaning, and learn Arabic so I could communicate easily and build relationships with the pharmacist and cashier and hairstylist. Alas, I failed terribly.

I've been here 2 years and I still haven't visited the refugee school. My language skills are poor and I haven't connected with any of those I had planned to. I've not accomplished enough to be considered a true missionary. Instead, I feel like I've taken more than I've given, as my community has poured time, food, and love into my life. I've tried to repay it in kind but never can keep up.

This morning in staff worship, the assistant chaplain asked us, What does it mean to store up treasure in heaven? He'd been pondering the verse and I'll admit that, while I previously wrote a beautiful blog that seemed to wrap up the concept neatly with a bow on top, I didn't quickly share it with the group. I realized that my previous analogy was rather paltry when considering the verse once more. That's the beauty of the Bible--that its depth never ceases to astound.

The rich young man came to Jesus asking what he was to do. Jesus replied with the commandments relating to others and the young man earnestly answered that he was doing all those things. Then, Jesus said, sell everything and follow Me. This was where the young man's heart could go no further. He had dedicated himself to doing. He had spent his life being faithful to what was tangible, what could be seen. Now he was being asked to be. This was a concept so foreign to him that he could not accept it. He gave up on fulfillment and a lifetime of meaning because he was unable to be a follower of Jesus.

The treasure wasn't measured by wealth, neither was it defined by a rigorous list of commands. True treasure, stored up in heaven, was only accessible through a genuine commitment to the One Who understood what treasure represented. To treasure something is to put that object above all other objects. To treasure someone is to see that person as the most important person in your life. You will set aside anything or anyone else that gets between you and your treasure.

When Jesus asked the young man to follow Him, He was asking the young man to change his framework of reference from one that perceived treasure in heaven as being accepted for achieving perfectly the written law but to see the treasure as a relationship with the One Who wrote the law and represented the law. Yet even more than the law, Jesus represented mercy and grace. If the young man had understood this, he would have joyfully followed Jesus.

Perhaps this is what Jesus is asking me to do in my life. I believe it is important that we meet the needs of others to the best of our ability. However, I am learning that a relationship with Jesus must supercede all others, though not to the exclusion of others. Perhaps God did not call me here to be a traditional missionary. My calling may be to the long-term. To settling in to the fabric of life so closely that I become one of the many threads of colour in the patchwork quilt of  my community. To be faithful in the small things because that is where servanthood really comes to life.

I'm learning in my relationships with others that they do not expect me to do as much as be. Though I've spent most of my life looking for ways to help others, my true friends do not base our friendship on what I can do for them. They simply enjoy who I am as I enjoy who they are in return. Time deepens this connection and I'm grateful for the ones who continue to show me that I have value because I am a part of their lives.

Perhaps a true missionary is not fulfilling the expected traditional roles. Perhaps it is being and in the being finding fulfillment in Him.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Rest for the Weary; Joy for the Sorrowing

I'm tired, Father, I told God as I spent time in my devotions this morning. Sundays are my treasured days because they are usually unhurried where I have time to study my Bible, talk to God in earnest, and not be tied to work or gym or one of many social activities. In reflecting on the past weeks, though, I sensed that life was wearing me down. There were some challenges in both my ministry and personal life that were not resolving themselves as easily as I had anticipated and I needed to take a break.

Please show me Your presence, I prayed. I was thinking specifically in relation to something I was puzzling out, but in my plea I didn't lay out a fleece. I simply asked God to show Himself. I needed to know He was present in my life; I needed to sense His power.

After looking at my rather long list of to-dos for the day, half of which should have been finished the Friday before except I'd played hooky and spent the day out with two dear friends, I picked the one task that was least urgent. I decided to work on my taxes.

Several weeks earlier I'd started the process, but back then I couldn't log in to my account due to some technical glitch and when I got an update that the glitch was fixed, I was too busy to refocus. Today, though, something prompted me to briefly log in and see what my estimated tax payment would be.

Ever since I began working, I have received tax refunds. I always overpaid a little, thinking of it as money in the bank, so I would get a modest refund which would usually cover my car insurance for the next year or some such expenditure. This year, though, was going to be different. The entire year I had been employed outside of the US as a missionary and my simple income had not been subject to withholdings.

Somewhat nervous about making sure I had enough money set aside to pay my taxes at the end of the tax year, I went online a year ago to find a tax calculator and figure out approximately what percentage of my salary I should be saving each month. Then, every month when I did my accounts, I carefully set aside that amount just as I set aside my tithes and offerings. My mother, an accountant, had taught me well to budget so I wouldn't have to rely on credit cards to manage.

I spent some time clicking through the various windows until I came to the end and watched the program crunch some numbers, spitting out a final figure. I looked at it in disbelief.

Going online and finding the tax tables for 2017, I searched for the correct line item. There seemed to be a significant discrepancy between the amount the tax program was showing me and the amount the tax table displayed. When I went back to the tax program, though, and expanded the menu I realized there was some small matter I had forgotten to calculate.

I'd forgotten the federal deduction and tax credits.

After calculating those, my gross income dropped significantly and the taxable income's tax on the line item in the 2017 tax table now matched precisely with the tax program I'd been using. I stared at the numbers in silence for several moments as tears began to fall.

Each month, I had been setting aside more than I needed to save. I didn't know, but God did. It wasn't such a huge amount of money, but as I looked at the figures and realized the total was equivalent to a month's salary, I was in awe at how God had orchestrated it. He was saving the money for me so I could be blessed with a beautiful surprise at just the right moment.

I don't have a specific need for the money right now though it will most likely go into my savings fund for a car. Yet it's not the actual money that surprised me as much as the realization that God is taking care of my every need and not only that, He also blesses me beyond what I could imagine. Every month, as I faithfully set aside the small amount, He was multiplying it so that at the end of the year He could give me back more than 2/3rds of the money I had been saving.

In Jeremiah 31:25, God promises to give rest to the weary and joy to the sorrowing (NLT). In Hebrews 10:23, God says He can be trusted to keep His promise. The miracle I'd just witnessed was not directly tied to any of the questions I had been asking God for answers to but it was a clear indication that God was present in my life. His power and His care was shown in a moment but through a miracle that had taken 10 months to be revealed.

If God can take care of me in these things, can I not trust Him to provide for all my other needs? We can be confident that He will listen to us whenever we ask Him for anything in line with His will. And if we know He is listening when we make our requests, we can be sure that He will give us what we ask for. 1 John 5:14, 15

Within moments God can reveal His presence. His presence that was with me all the time.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

To Be Seen

Excuse me for being honest, really, it's your personality. So you really aren't married? I laughed as I shook my head. No, I'm not. I guess it must seem strange in a country where marriage is very much acceptable here.

The kind looking man with salt and pepper hair and a full beard had come into the classroom just a few minutes prior with two college-age guys. They were the late arrivals from one of the 15 or so universities that were part of the university fair in Roumieh at a French-speaking high school. The placard outside boasted a Trilingual school which I thought was quite impressive and the kids easily switched between French, English, and Arabic as they talked with recruiters.

M and I had left the university rather early as our taxi driver was double-booked and had to head to the airport right after dropping us off so he could pick up an incoming guest lecturer. When we reached the high school, one of the teachers kindly told us that being we were more than an hour early, the classrooms were still in use and we would have to amuse ourselves until it was closer to starting time. We left the pop-up banners and roll-on suitcase in the lobby appropriately titled Salon and headed off to find a restaurant so I could get something to eat.

Following Googlemaps, I was about to head off a side street to find Mounir, a restaurant that M told me was one of the most expensive around where a glass of water cost $10, when we spotted a Resto Cafe right in front of us. Though named Taj, there was nothing Indian about it, as it was a simple fast food snack shop and hangout for the local high school kids. Still, they had French-fry sandwiches so I ordered one, M got a bottle of water for 66 cents, and we sat to chat, surrounded by casually smoking high schoolers.

A side note on the French-fry sandwiches. These are my downfall and the reason why I spend endless hours at the gym! Each thinly rolled up sandwich comes stuffed with coleslaw, perfectly sour cucumber pickles, sweet ketchup, spicy toum (garlic spread), and about a pound of salty French fries that have just jumped out of the fryer. Each bite is an explosion of ying and yang and I cannot go more than a month without ordering one from Al Mazar at the bottom of the hill.

After eating and returning to the school, we set up inside a classroom that appeared to be meant for two universities. We claimed the only teacher's desk for our supplies, since the other university hadn't appeared yet, set up a banner to attract kids inside, and soon M was in the hallway gathering small clusters around her as she explained why they should come study at our university.

Nearly 30 minutes later, the other university showed up. We smiled and exchanged hellos as they entered, I perhaps a little too enthusiastically because I was so happy to see someone I recognized from previous orientations. They set up their brochures on one of the front desks, then the older man wandered over to try to chat a little. I explained my Arabic was very little and his English was marginally better than my Arabic so he began to ask where I was from and what I did. The usual questions.

So you are here, living in Lebanon, you and. . .slight pause. . .your husband? He asked most sincerely. I laughed and replied, No, it's just me! He seemed surprised and asked why. I shrugged. I guess that's just the way it is. I didn't have a clever or witty answer to give at the time. It wasn't long before he came back around to the same topic, again asking to be sure. Then he asked me for my phone number.

I'm not very good at avoiding direct questions. I have friends who are masters at returning awkward questions with blunt answers that make the questioner squirm. I have friends who avoid questions by simply smiling and not answering them. I have friends who can talk in circles around the person until they are completely confused and never did get the answer they were looking for. Unfortunately, however, I've been blessed with the inability to make up anything on the spot.

My feeble attempt at giving him a different number, by shuffling for the brochure and mumbling that he could reach me there, was met with an insistent, No, I want your number. I wasn't able to pay dumb to that direct question either, so I meekly dictated it to him. He gave me a missed call, which is how things are done here, so I could save his contact info in my phone. He said it was nice to see me, I agreeing that I remembered seeing him at orientations previous and he, not catching what I said, said Yes, not just at orientations but elsewhere also!

Some students came in and he went over to the opposite corner of the room. Within seconds my phone buzzed, then buzzed again. I opened it up to see that he'd sent me a photo of himself along with his name. I pretended to be intently busy sending text messages whilst trying my hardest to figure out how to get through the next hour with Mr. Friendly in the same room!

Thankfully, time went by rather quickly and when he came over to ask M a question, we found out we had friends in common. As we packed up to go, he and his team left first, with friendly goodbyes and a handshake. I knew his name now and at the next orientation I would be able to greet him and say hello in a kind way. Though he seemed nice enough, I knew that our communication would be limited going forward as we were coming from very different backgrounds, he being from the majority religion in the Middle East and I from a small minority denomination.

I learned one thing this afternoon from that interesting encounter. The gentleman was bold enough to approach me and intentional in letting me know that I was special. Sometimes it's easy to forget to see other people. We rush through life, intent on our tasks, looking to accomplish huge goals, when there are human beings standing right in the middle of our path waiting for us to see them. Instead, we maneuver around them as if walking around a light pole, our heads down as we furiously tap on our plastic and titanium devices that rule our lives.

Do we really see others? Do we take the time to sit on a green wooden bench on a Friday afternoon as we spend a few moments chatting with students who are enjoying the unusually warm February sun? Do we stop in to say hello in the morning when passing by windows of faces, or are we more concerned about checking work emails from the weekend? Do we offer a refugee family a ride home after an evening program at church or do we shake their hand and then hurry to our home so we can be out of the cold?

When Jesus was here, He saw the unseeable. The world teaches those who are middle or upper-class to ignore those perceived as beneath them. It diminishes or removes their worth as valuable human beings created by a God Who really cares about them. Stopping to talk to a drunk man, encouraging him to swap out water for whiskey, and then buying him a fried cauliflower sandwich is not what is taught in the textbook of life. Yet this is the very reason why we should go against what is expected and be intentional in seeing the humanity hidden underneath.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and tried to shrink into anonymity in the crowd. He saw the lepers who had been ostracized and left to beg far removed from community. He saw the widow whose only son had just died, leaving her without male protection. He saw the prostitute who had questioned countless times why religious leaders were her main source of income. He saw the helpless cripple who had waited more than 38 years for healing by a pool that disappointed. He saw the children and their mothers who were longing for a touch of blessing. He saw the short man whose stature had diminished in society because he had the odious task of collecting government tax. He saw the little boy with enough food to feed the faith of thousands.

Jesus saw those who others looked right through.

I used to think that the familiar admonition, Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be, (Matthew 6:21) was a reminder not to focus on material blessings but on spiritual blessings in heaven. In other words, instead of spending all my time working long hours and worrying about having more money, I should focus on getting to know God and thinking about heaven. It was a nice enough cliche thought but as I reflected on this afternoon's experience, a moment of illumination occurred. 

The treasure is not my spiritual blessings. It's not even numbers of people who are saved because I've shared God with them, though this is another common fallacy we all too easily subscribe to. 

The treasure is the person who is standing right in front of me. Right in front of you. Waiting for you to see them. To really see someone and cherish their value is a gift we are honoured to give. This is what it means to be a steward of what God has given us. It means to treat not only the earth and the possessions we have been given as a sacred responsibility, it means to treasure each person we have been privileged to share life with. To desire the best for them as we learn more about God and what His plan is for us. 

This is our calling; this is our blessing. To treasure the sacrament of earthly life within the context of God's desire that eternal life be given to all. Then we will truly understand what it means for the desires of our heart to be fulfilled (Psalm 37:4) when we take delight in God. As we truly see others, we shall be truly seen by Him so that one day He will invite us all to enter into the limitless joy of His kingdom (Matthew 25:34-40).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Made in China

It was something rather small and insignificant. A piece of plastic with two metal prongs, painted all black, made in China, to which a USB cable attached. The other end of the USB attached to my phone or my power bank and when all three were connected, there was power.

I'd come home from an evening out with friends and as I was walking up the two flights of stairs to my dorm suite (room plus private bathroom), I texted my mom and brother to see if they were back from church yet. I usually called them Saturday evening as the time difference with them being 10 hours behind and my brother's super early morning shift job during the week made it somewhat difficult to connect at other times.

I settled on to my bed to wait, but as I looked at my phone, I suddenly saw my battery life draining away. Rapidly, minute by minute, the battery went down, til in less than 10 minutes I had lost 10% of my already low battery life. I hastily plugged in the black converter plug with attached USB cable. I checked my phone a couple minutes later, as I knew it would ordinarily charge at 1% a minute or quicker, and was dismayed to see that the battery wasn't charging. On the contrary, it had gone down a couple more %'s.

Suddenly I was in a panic. What if there was an emergency? How would I be able to call anyone? What if someone needed to get ahold of me? I lived by my phone, constantly on the WhatsApp message app for work and social life. My friends knew if they texted me, I would reply within seconds, and was always ready for a spontaneous outing. 

I quickly looked for my spare USB cable and switched it out for the one that was currently attached to the converter plug. I waited anxiously for a few more minutes but it had made no difference. In desperation, I switched my phone to airplane mode. I finally found out that if I pushed the USB cable into the converter plug in a particular way, it would slowly charge. By the morning, however, it had only charged 20% more than 8 hours previous.

The next three hours were spent deleting apps, installing anti-virus and optimizer apps, switching between airplane mode and non, trying all 3 USB cables, trying different outlets, researching rooting online, starting the process of moving all my photos from my phone to my SD card so I could contemplate a factory reset, and reading countless threads relating to battery drain on LG G3 phones. By the end of the three hours I was thoroughly exhausted, utterly confused, and my phone was somewhat happier because at least the rapid drain wasn't happening anymore (though I couldn't tell you why!!!).

I charged my phone with my power bank that, happily, had a full charge from before. All day Sunday I nursed what power I did have, keeping the screen on 0% brightness, so it would last. The next morning I asked a friend to pick up a new converter plug for me as I did a slow charge via USB cable on my work laptop. By mid-afternoon, my friend had returned with the new converter plug. I plugged the phone into the outlet, held my breath, and waited.

A couple hours later, my phone was at 100% charge. The panic vanished as I realized I was safely back in the land of the functioning cell phones again. And somewhere in there, there seemed to be a lesson I needed to learn. . .

There are days when I realize I'm running low on power. Spiritual power, that is. Not that I'm a spiritual superwoman or anything. Just that I'm needing that strength which comes from feeling closely connected to God and for some reason, even though I'm praying and reading my Bible, I feel like the power is draining away quicker than I can recharge.

This has been one of those weeks. I've been reaching out to God and I know logically that He is close by me but emotionally, I'm struggling. This is the reality of not only a missionary but any Christian. We go through valley experiences and forget that there are hills behind and before us.

Maybe, though, what is broken is not my prayer time and Bible reading. Maybe the USB cable that I thought wasn't connecting isn't the problem. Maybe it's the converter plug. The converter plug takes the power and changes it into something that the phone can recognize. Similarly, what I've been missing is connecting with God in a way that fills my soul. I've been focusing more on the people in my community, more on the challenges in my personal life, and more on the negative emotions I've been feeling.

A converter plug cannot equate with friends, dear as they may be. They cannot connect me to God through their power. Neither can having an easy life because then I would not even bother to connect the USB cable, because everything would be simple enough. The negative emotions act as a drain so that even if I'm plugged in, my battery is dying. The only possible explanation for a perfectly functioning converter plug is a deeper, more intimate knowledge of Who God is, how He sees me, and what He wants for my life.

I think one of the hardest lessons to learn in this Christian experience is that I need to stop trying. I'm not saying I should stop reading my Bible or being kind to others. But I'm a natural type-A perfectionistic personality which means my focus has been on that USB cable of action rather than on the converter plug of power that changes me through His ability. As I've been learning from someone very close to me, God does not expect a frenzy of purpose. He invites me to be still and know He is God. To sit silently, waiting to receive, in a Mary-experience.

All I needed was a new converter plug to get a fast charge to 100%. Fully charged. Fully connected. Fully converted.