Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sometimes Joy Whispers

My mother has been giving me advice since I came, always along the same theme. Learn to be content with your circumstances. I've been fighting to accept it as wisdom I should follow but I think after 3 months of struggling, I'm ready to give in.

They don't tell you that missionary life is hard. Well, they do, but generally in terms of you could lose your life or be tortured kind of hard. Anything less than that just feels like you are complaining because really, you have so much compared to others. You have food to eat, shoes to wear, and a solid roof over your head so what gives you the right to say you're having a difficult time?

I used to think I was the queen of adaptation. I smiled smugly at monoculturals who, bewildered and confused, muddled their way through multicultural interactions. They couldn't understand why people would do things differently than them while I sat like a Buddha in my corner, calmly dispensing cultural nuggets of wisdom.

Until I left my first-world sterile reality and dropped into a complex cross-cultural scenario of my own. I was suddenly no longer the smart teenager who was comfortable in a swirl of ethnicities and languages. I began to realize that I had certain expectations and they weren't being met. This made me very frustrated.

I had lost control of my surroundings. I had to eat food someone else prepared, live among languages I didn't know, and interact with cultures I didn't understand. Ironically, some of the expats were the hardest to relate to while others became my closest friends. I expected mercy but I was having a difficult time extending it to others.

Returning to a childhood home as an adult missionary is a completely different experience. You have to learn how to manage on your own now. Nobody is going to cook your food, drive you places, or wash your clothes. Your responsibilities extend beyond home schooling and household chores. Now you're the grownup and you can't hide.

In a way it's exciting. Now you can come home after midnight and nobody will demand to know where you've been. The freedom is greater but the responsibility also expands. And the biggest challenge of all is learning to be flexible and adapt to the situation.

Recently, I have been praying to find joy in my life. Today I decided that I don't want to spend the next 9 months crossing off days on my calendar. I want to wake up every morning with joy. I want to end the day with peace. And I want the moments in between to be filled with knowing I am doing exactly what God wants me to do and that He is giving me the grace and mercy to accomplish those tasks to honour Him.

Sometimes being a missionary isn't winning a thousand souls in one day. Sometimes it's doing the little things faithfully as a quiet witness to God's love. Sometimes it's letting the hope shine through the shattered stained glass window of your heart. And sometimes. . .joy whispers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Holding My Heart

I cried. Again. For the fourth day in a row. I was starting to get a bit frustrated with these tears that would well up and emulate a waterfall without notice. I hurried through lunch so I could go to my room and cry in private. I thought it was over for the day but then this evening the tears returned.

Every Monday evening, Bruna, the women's dean, has a meeting with announcements, something spiritual to think about, and prayer time. Tonight she had us pick numbers out of a bowl so we could have prayer partners for the coming week. She encouraged us to pray for each other daily and also share a word of encouragement with our friend.

I picked the number 5 and Bruna smiled. That was her number too. After worship was over and I'd had a group prayer, we stayed to begin our week of praying together. I asked Bruna how I could pray for her. She had a busy week coming up with many guests that she had to prepare for and we talked a little about that. I am good at deflecting and focusing on the other person but then it was my turn to share a prayer request.

I'm not good at being vulnerable with people. Only my family and a couple of my closest friends have seen me cry when I'm feeling down. I feel embarrassed and I don't want to burden them with my tears. But these past few days, I haven't been able to control the tears. So when Bruna asked me what she could pray for, I opened up my heart and asked for prayer for joy.

I didn't say much before the tears began to come so I bowed my head and began to pray for her. It was easy to pray for Bruna. Her kind heart and gentle spirit encouraged everyone who knew her and I prayed earnestly that God would give her wisdom and strength in the coming week. Then she prayed for me.

I don't remember every word she said, but the compassion in her voice brought the tears even closer. When Bruna finished praying, she gave me a hug and then I cried. It wasn't for long, but I could not check the tears so I let them go. Wiping them away, I shared how this was uncharacteristic for me to feel this sad. We talked, she the wise psychologist, I the tearful one.

In the midst of her busiest week, my dear friend took the time to sit and listen to me. She understood my loneliness and shared compassion through her kind words. She helped me realize that the feelings could be a jumble of emotions I had yet to sort through because this country was not one I was detached from. This country held my heart in complicated ways and evoked feelings of belonging and grief simultaneously.

I'm far from home, and I can't hug my mother or brother or sister. Yes, I understand that in my moment of need, I can go to God and He will comfort me. Yet there are times that I also need to feel God's comfort through words of encouragement and a warm hug. Tonight He reminded me through a friend that I'm not alone. He will help me, He will just as He promised. (Isaiah 41:10,13; 43:4)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Pizza 'n Fries

Sundays are my least favourite days to eat in the caf. We get two meals, one of which is the usual breakfast of eggs (which I don't eat), crunchy beans (which I don't eat), cereal, milk, bread, and spread. Today there was waffle mix but I'm 99.9% sure it was made with cow's milk so once again, I passed. I asked for a single wholewheat pita bread and left.

The board that serves as a desk in my room does double duty as a kitchen where I keep my kitchen utensils and food supplies. For brunch, I made a pita bread sandwich accompanied with pretzels and garlic dip. I didn't bother going to the caf for supper since it's the same menu every week: cheese pizza and French fries. (By the way, French fries are served twice a week.) Instead, I cooked a packet of mushroom noodles and added half a tin of sweet corn, chia seeds, and a few peanuts. A soy pudding was my dessert.

Last week some of the meals were particularly sparse. I jokingly thought to myself that this must be God's diet for me: salad and pita bread with small portions of oily starches. But in all honesty, God wouldn't give me such a diet. His diet is filled with fruits and vegetables of all varieties, grains and beans that are well cooked and taste good, and everything is made to strengthen the body. Unfortunately, that isn't my reality.

I worry a lot about eating healthy food. I know how important it is to eat dark leafy greens every day, but I see them once a week if that. I've learned that sugar, oil and salt should be used sparingly yet those seem to be the main ingredients in the dishes we're served. Over the past 3 years, I've carefully adopted a healthy diet and in the process have seen at least two significant health issues be reversed. I'm worried that not having access to a similar diet here will lead to poor health once more.

There was a really neat video clip on CNN that was circulating again recently. The 100-year old Seventh-day Adventist physician attributed his longevity and good health to a plant-based diet. His cholesterol is 117 -- amazing particularly given the traditional diet in North America that relies heavily on processed and fast foods. Obesity in the United States is rapidly becoming the norm. Sadly, however, it's not just there but worldwide as the Western diet spreads.

Interestingly, I've met several people here who prefer a vegan, or plant-based diet. Like me when I first came, they make do with the vegetarian options and because their stay is short, they don't mind. I'm here for a full year, though, and I do. I thought things were working out, but it seems not. So I return once again to the drawing board and figure out how to manage.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Thankful for Little Blue Cars

I cannot end this day without sharing several more blessings God sent my way. As I'd written in the previous post, my morning and half the afternoon was filled with writing the weekly newsletter so I had little afternoon to get a lot done. I finished the important things first, then set off down the hill to get supplies for the Bible scavenger hunt we'll be doing tomorrow afternoon for the university/church family.

I'd barely left the gate when a dear friend drove past, headed up to her apartment. She stopped to say hello and apologized profusely that she wasn't going down the hill. I smiled and said I didn't mind walking. Thankfully the weather has dropped from 90s down into the 70s in the last couple of days, making it enjoyable to be outside. Then I set off once again.

I found the Librarie I'd been in once before, when I'd first come. That time, I'd bought a single notebook, but now I was looking for something to identify our teams. I found the perfect thing, along with mini smiley face magnets that would make an ideal prize. I browsed leisurely and finally brought my purchases to the counter for the owner to ring up.

As I stepped out the door, Jean Jack drove by in his little blue car. He waved and pulled over, asking where I was headed. Down to Khawli, I replied. Hop in, I'll take you there and wait til you're done and drive you back up, he offered. Khawli was not that far away but I was short on time and appreciated the kind offer of a ride. I found the healthiest yet still tasty dessert and picked up two boxes for potluck, gave in to an impulse buy of miniature buckets in pastel hues of pink and purple, and found a gift for my friend's birthday. Jean Jack was happy he'd gone in with me to the store because he'd forgotten he needed to get some office supplies. Then we headed back up the hill.

It may seem like a small thing to offer someone a ride, whether it be driving them to their destination or even taking them part-way there. However, after having the luxury of owning a car for 8 years and now being reliant on my own two feet, public transportation, and the generosity of friends, I'm ever so grateful for little things. To me, the little things are the big things.

Jean Jack didn't know that I'd spent over 5 hours trying to write and put together a newsletter, frustrated that it was taking all my time because I knew I had to budget 2 hours to walk up and down the hill. He didn't know that I was sad I would likely have a very messy room when Sabbath arrived because I wouldn't have enough time to put things away. He didn't know I had skipped breakfast because I'd slept in to try to combat a cold, eaten a sorry lunch of white rice and salad and a quarter cup of greens scraped off the bottom of the pan, and was worried I'd miss supper because I wouldn't get back before line closed. But God did.

I came home in time to get a tasty supper in the cafeteria. I had enough time to tidy up my room so it looked pleasant for the Sabbath hours. I was able to do my shopping and the other things on my list because a dear friend noticed, stopped, and gave a few moments of his time. Being here on my own, I've had so many moments when I realized that God had worked things out perfectly just for me. Each time I've smiled inside as I see His fingerprints all over the scene. I don't always remember to write it down but I'm deeply thankful for those moments and the ones who make them possible.

Jacarandas Falling Into a Purple Carpet

Ordinarily, I wouldn't write about the articles I write for our weekly newsletter geared to supporters of the university. It's part of my job and a rather tedious one at that. It means sitting through events where everything is in Arabic or so technical I couldn't understand even if it were in English. It means hunting down people to interview them, madly scrabbling to write any poignant points I can use later, then trying to decipher my unique shorthand as I search for a story line to weave the narrative together. It means scheduling, rescheduling, and going back to the original time to take a group picture with Very Important People who already have full schedules of their own. It means wading through hundreds of photos to find the one shot that doesn't have anyone with their eyes closed, sleeping, yawning, or looking generally bored during assembly or prayer meeting so I can accurately depict the event I'm chronicling. It means waiting. Waiting for someone to review my text, waiting for someone to edit photos, waiting for someone to arrive for their interview. Waiting for the internet to work again so I can link that final blurb to the web article.

And finally it's ready. The program we use to send out the newsletter has a final confirmation button captioned, This Is Your Moment of Glory. I always have a momentary pause of panic, worried that I've misspelled someone's name or made a horrific typo, but then I check myself because I know I've already edited it three times. In its entirety. So I press Send.

Today was the most frustrating of days. Three weeks ago I decided we had enough news to start publishing weekly. Excellent marketing strategy; not such a great idea for me as editor! This now meant I had to meet deadlines weekly instead of twice a month. It also meant I had to readjust my priorities to start working on news articles earlier in the week. While I thought I had everything more or less ready, this morning I realized I had a lot of writing still to do for today's edition.

After interviewing the president for the editorial, I locked myself in my dorm room, turned on my classical radio station, prayed, and began to write. An hour later, I had edited a welcome packet for guests who stayed in the dorm, answered several emails, uploaded a picture or two, but hadn't finished writing the editorial or a major article on the website welcoming the new science faculty chair. Time was ticking away as the president had to approve the editorial before I could publish it and I was facing a serious brain freeze.

Sometimes the words flow without thought when I'm writing. It's like that when I'm blogging. I rarely write if the thoughts stop; when I find myself in that situation I usually stop writing. I have learned that the best writing comes from the emotion of the heart in the moment and this cannot be artificially created. Journalistic writing, on the other hand, is the most tiring of genres to attempt to engage. One must answer the tedious questions of Who, What, Why, etc., while extending some form of hook to interest the reader while remaining professional. I will admit, there are many newsletters I've read where the editor had a casual approach to their audience but I hold high standards for the university.

Just before they pulled line at 1 pm, I rushed to the cafeteria where my lunch consisted of white rice and salad that kept company with a quarter cup of steamed greens scraped from the bottom of the pan. The internet was somewhat better in the cafeteria but its dual purpose as social center meant it was too distracting to concentrate fully so I returned to my room and struggled on with the writing even as I prayed God would help me make sense of it all.

Two hours later, I pressed the Send button. It was done. What a relief. It was then that I decided to re-read the final article I'd written. Tears came to my eyes as I finished. I knew without a question that I hadn't written the article in my own wisdom. Reporting is probably my least favourite thing to do but I was humbled to see God take my frustrated weariness and turn scattered thoughts and words into a meaningful piece to encourage others.

This is what life is. It is constantly growing, stretching, and being amazed at each step of the way as God creates beauty out of my life and uses it to be a blessing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Blessings in the Small Things

My laptop is fixed! Hoorah! I'd been silent for 10 days because my keyboard and even the USB keyboard no longer worked so I finally buckled and tromped down the hill to find a repair shop. I looked for the one Benjamin had recommended to me, but to my dismay the shop was closed. I turned around and was about to head back up when I noticed a computer store across the street. It wasn't clear if they repaired laptops or just sold them, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask since I'd walked all the way down there.

I pushed open the door to MegaZone. At first, I didn't see the man leaning backwards on his chair behind a counter piled high with electronics, but instead noticed the two mosquitoes that had rushed in with me. Then I heard his voice. May I help you?

I told him about my problem and in less than a minute he'd diagnosed it. I needed a new keyboard. How much will it cost? I asked in trepidation. I was on a volunteer stipend and while my expenses thus far hadn't been as high as I'd budgeted, I was worried that it would be hundreds of dollars to replace, just like in the States.

Thirty-five dollars, he replied. I looked at him incredulously. Thirty-five dollars? Indeed, that was all. I left my cell number and my laptop and headed home.

A week or so later, I got a mysterious text from an unknown number. Keyboard is fixed. It said. For a moment I was confused, then I remembered. My laptop! I hurriedly replied that I would come by that evening.

Today was the second day of a head cold that hit me rather suddenly. I'd spent the day before sneezing my way through a box of tissues and while I wasn't sneezing as often today, I still had the runny nose and felt weary. But I needed my laptop and I needed to recharge my phone. So after supper, I bravely soldered my bag on to my shoulder, put on a Women of Faith mix on my mp3 player, and headed once more down the hill.

It didn't take long to check and make sure the keyboard was functioning and soon I was trudging back up the steep road. I prayed most of the way up that a ride would come along but at the same time, I was content to walk because I knew it was good for me. After stopping at the Green Market to buy a cold bottle of water, I resumed the trek. Then, just before the bottom of the last steep bit, someone stopped to offer me a ride. I gratefully accepted and thanked them profusely.

A couple of weeks ago, I was going through another phase of culture shock and homesickness. I was encouraged to learn through Facebook groups of other missionaries that this was common. Since all I could do was wait it out, that was what I did. I talked to my family, did some writing, watched movies in English, ate chocolate, and waited.

Yesterday and today, even in the midst of all the sneezing and blowing my nose, I felt a deep abiding sense of peace. Last night, as I busied myself doing as many natural remedies as I had, I realized that even though I was feeling sick, I didn't feel sad that I wasn't home. In a way, it was the final movement of my trial by fire as I found myself feeling comfortably at home in my small room in Beirut, Lebanon.

I often wonder what God has in mind for me after this year. I'm doing my best to enjoy every moment of this year but it would be nice to know if this is all I have or if I'll stick around for several more years. I'm thankful God knows and will open the doors to His calling just as He clearly opened the door to come here in February. I'm also thankful for the abiding peace and joy He has placed in my heart every day I've been here, gently reminding me that I am fulfilling His purpose for my life right now.

Today I'm particularly thankful for a keyboard that works again so I can return to the land of blogging and write long emails!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A God of 3 Miracles

I've hit a bit of an emotional wall this past week. When I posted it on a Facebook group, the replies were reassuring. This is normal, apparently, in the 3rd month or so. By the weekend I thought I had moved on but woke up this morning to realize I hadn't quite done so. I prayed my way through the morning but went to my room during lesson study so I could spend some time with God.

After church, everyone was congratulating my dear friends who dedicated their baby boy twins during the divine service. I was able to give my friend a hug and shake her husband's hand but there were too many people to stay for long and I had to help set up for potluck so I left shortly after saying hello. I went to the caf where I helped with laying out the food and serving.

As I was eating a plate of leftovers, my friend's husband stopped by my table. She sent you a message! She wants you to come and see the boys! he said. I'd left my phone in my room so I wouldn't have to worry about losing it and had missed her message. I hurriedly finished eating, cleaned up a little, and went to the dorm where they were temporarily staying while some maintenance work was done in their house. I knocked hesitantly on the door I'd seen my friend going in the day before.

Several other ladies were also visiting, but they were just leaving when I went in. The boys were ready for a nap and my friend immediately asked me if I wanted to hold one. Usually the shy one, I found my voice and said I would. She scooped up little W with a practised sweep and placed him in the crook of my left arm. I cradled him close as she covered him with a blanket. He lay there, calm & content, sucking on his dummy (pacifier) and pretending to sleep.

Apparently W is the one who likes attention as he came home first and had enjoyed several days of his parents' undivided attention until little D was ready to join them. When he noticed I wasn't rocking him or had stopped gazing at his perfect little face and turned my focus to his mommy and daddy, he would squirm and crinkle his face up like he was about to wail. He never did, though. I would quickly start rocking again and he'd relax until eventually he fell asleep.

Growing up, I always had friends who were natural babysitters. They'd go around the church looking for babies to hold and the mothers would hand over their children in relief. I'd watch them, envious of their ability to boldly play mommy for a few hours, but I'd never ask to hold the babies. I didn't want them to start crying and then have to figure out how to quiet them down. I vowed to myself that if I ever had children, I would look for the quiet ones in church and let them hold the baby instead of the ones who always did.

For 45 minutes, I had the privilege of holding the tiny baby as he slept. That time was a precious gift to my heart. As I held little W, I marveled at how he slept in complete trust without concern or care. He knew he was safe and loved even if he was yet too tiny to articulate or express the feelings in words. He didn't lie there worrying about reading or doing brain surgery or solving a complex math problem. He just did what he was created to do--sleep and eat and grow.

In the same way, God yearns to hold us in His arms. Isaiah 46:4 is just one of several verses where God says, I will be your God throughout your lifetime--until your hair is white with age. I made you and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you. Note that this verse doesn't say, You need to be perfect before you come to Me. You should understand all the minor prophets, Daniel and Revelation in detail. You also need to have a healthy emotional life so I don't have to fix you.

This is one area I still struggle in. I assume that I cannot come to God and be completely vulnerable unless I've resolved in my heart to do the right thing and I've had a track record of following through. When I mess up, which I do, then I think I have to start all over and spend more time becoming perfect before I can ask God to finish the process.

The problem is, God begins and ends the process. Jesus said, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 22:13) God has to initiate the healing process and He will complete this good work in us (Philippians 1:6). He doesn't ask us to be the brain surgeon or the rocket scientist when it comes to our salvation. He asks us to rest in Him, to feed on the Words He has given us, and to grow in Him (Psalm 37:7, Hebrews 5:12-14, 2 Peter 3:18). Such a beautiful calling, so simple, and yet I try to make it so complex.

As I enter a new week, I am praying God will help me to refocus my heart towards resting in Him. As a missionary, it can get overwhelming when I think about how to balance serving others with taking time to be still, know God, process life, and plan for the future (Psalm 46:10). I quickly became involved in many activities when I first came and now I'm finding it challenging to prioritize. I want to serve but if I don't have time to learn from Jesus' example how to genuinely love others, then my service is empty (1 Corinthians 13). Jesus even told His disciples to come apart from the crowds for awhile to rest and eat (Mark 6:31).

Today filled my heart with happiness, from being able to hold a tiny baby boy as he slept, to spending time visiting a dear friend who'd just had knee surgery, to laughing til I cried as we played games til past midnight then crowded 10 people into a 5-person car to drive home. Last night, the speaker talked about God and miracles. This morning I asked God, quietly, if He could give me a miracle. He didn't give me one; He gave me three.

Praise the Lord! . . .He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:1,3

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sing Me a Song in the Dark

I peered around the corner into Jessie's room to see if she was there. She was lying on her bed, her roommate fast asleep across the room as she took advantage of a brief afternoon nap. Jessie wasn't sleeping though; she couldn't. Not when she kept remembering the tragedy of the day before. The women's dean stopped by at the same time and together we kept silent vigil with her. Sometimes we spoke, sometimes held her hand, as we tried our best to extend comfort.

Soon the women's dean was called away but I said I would stay with Jessie. I had some work I could do on my laptop and we wanted her to have someone with her throughout the day. After exchanging a few words, Jessie pulled her blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes. She was weary and longed for the kind relief of sleep. Within moments, she was fast asleep.

I sat by her side for the next hour, quietly tapping away on my keyboard, as the words continued to ring in my ears. Mourn with those who mourn. Weep with those who weep. This was my role for today. This was all God needed me to do. To sit with the grieving and reassure her that she was not alone.

The next day, I stopped by after work. She was sitting in her room, unable to sleep, and somewhat restless. The sun was setting but she didn't turn on the light. We watched a cute short Disney film; she showed me a clip of her niece playing with a cat. We talked about boys. She mentioned her father several times and didn't cry. I asked if she'd eaten and drank and she said she had. Soon the only light in the room was the glow of my laptop monitor but even in the shadows I could see her face.

Jessie was starting to smile again. Through the bitter unfairness of it all, through the hardest pain of her life, this sweet young woman was taking the strength she'd been leaning on for the past three days from all those who had loved her and sat with her and she was turning it into joy. We sat there in the dark, a 35-year old Eurasian teacher and a 21-year old student from Upper Egypt. We laughed, we stumbled in communicating concepts, we reminisced. And I watched the miracle of the Holy Spirit in comforting a hurting young woman.

Once again, the words echoed in my heart. Weep with those who weep; mourn with those who mourn. I was not preaching an eloquent sermon. I was not baptizing people by the thousands. I was not performing life-saving surgery. I was not teaching little ones about Jesus. I was not providing a home for orphans or rescuing women from the sex-traffic industry. I was simply sitting with a young woman and being present with her. And in that moment I knew, this was what God brought me here for.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

No More Night

I woke to the primal screams of a young woman in deep grief. As my sleep-heavy mind came to consciousness, after a short night interrupted by 6 voracious mosquitoes, I realized what I was hearing was not innocent squeals of young ladies teasing each other in the dorm. These cries came from a much darker place.

At first I was afraid a student had died. But as the wails deafened, I knew what had happened. Jessie (name changed to protect her privacy) was screaming for her father. He had died the night before and she received the phone call this morning from her brother in the United States. Her father was in Upper Egypt.

I hurried out my door and stepped into a hushed world of sorrow. Jessie lived kitty corner to me with her roommate. She was the first student to welcome me, seeking and sharing friendship on the snow day when I felt alone. She tucked her arm into mine and together we clambered slippery slopes of wet powder, laughing all the way. Along with her friend, we built a snowman, took pictures, drank juice, and dried our socks as the three of us enjoyed a quiet day of camaraderie.

After lunch at the restaurant, students began to smoke, which bothered Jessie's sensitive lungs, so I suggested we wait outside. We walked around, sharing life stories, talking about best friends and dating and women going to university. Her life was so different from mine and she carried a hidden sorrow even then. Quietly, she shared the tragic story of losing her brother and we grieved for a moment in silence. It had been 5 years.

We became friends. Her roommate arrived late, so she had a friend to go to eat with, sit in chapel with, and spend time with. But every now and then Jessie would stop to talk, ask me to help her with homework, and she always smiled when we passed in the hallways.

Why does death visit those who have already experienced the wrenching pain before? I know this is the irony of life, that we all must die some time, but why? Why couldn't God heal her father so she wouldn't have to lose him so early? She was just barely into her 20s. It was too soon.

We didn't have morning worship in the social room that morning. The women's assistant dean suggested I read some verses, so I grabbed my Bible and found the familiar verses, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and John 14:1-3. I was thankful for the many years we sang The Blessed Hope in choir and Bible class in home school where I memorized the promise that Jesus was coming again. Then someone prayed in Arabic and I prayed in English. A simple prayer, pleading for God's comfort. The young women huddled around the grieving one in a sacred moment of united support and care.

I left to prepare for the day. I had to teach class but I told the young woman staying with Jessie to let me know if she needed anything. Others came and went throughout the day, the Union counselor, a pastor, teachers, a group of quiet guys from the dorm, each extending comfort in the way they knew best. Each grieving in their own hearts.

Her grieving came and went in waves. She would rest quietly on her bed, propped up on pillows, an ever present friend or two sitting by her side or nearby. Then she would speak to a family member or friend on the phone and the keening would resume. She was her father's favourite child and now he was no longer alive. She had missed the funeral as he'd been buried quickly that morning. 

After my morning class, I stopped by her room. She was lying in bed now, dressed completely in black, propped up on pillows, a weak smile on her face when I sat down in the beige plastic chair next to her and held her hand. Ever the thoughtful one, in the midst of her grief, she thanked me for coming. She told me she was able to speak to her father just two days ago but the mention of him brought the tears again. I rubbed her arm and began to hum, It is well with my soul, Day by Day. 

I didn't know what to do. Death is unnatural and all the words we want to say seem empty and meaningless. The verse, weep with those who weep kept ringing in my head (Romans 12:15) and I knew that was my role in this tragic scene. Then another teacher came to see her and I stepped aside.

I'd never met her father, but I'd been praying for him for two weeks. At dorm meeting before the Easter holidays, the women's dean invited us to randomly pick the name of another young lady in the dorm and then pray for them. We each had a chance to say our prayer request and Jessie asked for prayer for her father who was ill.

When I heard her screaming this morning, my heart sank. Did I not pray hard enough? I knew rationally that I did not influence her father's death through a lack of prayers, but the guilt taunted me. Perhaps if I'd spent several hours praying, instead of simple God, please bless her father and heal him prayers, he would have been okay.
Tonight we were supposed to reveal who we'd been praying for and give them a small gift. I'd heard Jessie softly say at the first meeting that she would like a flower. My sister had suggested earlier that day that I write a note of encouragement and give it with a small gift to Jessie to encourage her, so I found a beautiful card among the stationery she'd sent as a welcome package before I'd even arrived. Praying for words to say, I found Bible verses of comfort and inserted Jessie's name to personalize them. Then I went looking for flowers.

The purple trees were in bloom. Their flowers were already dropping delicately onto the verdant green lawns, a lavender spring carpet, and I was afraid if I broke off a branch all the flowers would fall. I found the fullest branch, snapped it from the main branch, and gently shook it to see if the petals would remain. Miraculously, they did, and after blowing off several small bugs, I found a half litre water bottle, filled it with water, and placed the flowering branch in the makeshift vase. I slipped the card and flowers onto her bedside table.

Each time I glimpse our mortality, the fear returns that it will come too close to me. My grandfather, a dear friend who was like an aunt to me, a man who filled the role of father. And then there were those who I knew less but still grieved their loss because it happened too soon. Young men, old women, no matter the age, death never came at the right time.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

~Dylan Thomas

What a hope we have, that we don't need to live in constant fear of death. Grieve, yes, it is a natural part of the process of loss. But fear that grips us with uncertainty of the future, no. The most wonderful part of this hope is that when it's all over and Jesus returns, we can go home and be with our dear family and friends forever. No more pain, no more tears (Revelation 21:4). Let's always be ready and hold our loved ones close as we wait for that day. It has delayed too long already.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Would You Like Fries With That?

A friend who's been following my blog wrote the other day saying they hoped my food situation had been resolved. Whoops! I realize I'd forgotten to post an update! Here's another exciting example of how God works in my life.

After deciding not to eat in the cafeteria and to cook my own food last month, I realized that I had not budgeted food expenses in my original budget other than an occasional meal out with friends. I tried to rework my budget but it wasn't looking very promising. Then my brother said, why don't you ask for raw ingredients from the caf? I decided to ask. A special decision was made allowing me permission to get the raw ingredients so I could cook my own food.

When I spoke to the cafeteria manager, however, I learned that it wouldn't be possible to do so. At first I was disappointed and frustrated. I thought God had answered my prayer by working things out and then it seemed like it wasn't working out after all. However, the manager told me that they were used to providing special meals for those with specific dietary needs and they would be happy to set aside foods before they were deep fried, covered in cream/butter/cheese, or heavily seasoned.

I'm very thankful that God knew how to solve the problem better than I did. I'm disappointed that I didn't go and speak to the manager in the beginning because I think I could have saved myself a lot of hassle and worry. It was an excellent learning experience though.

Now I don't have to worry about shopping for groceries, which can take an entire afternoon because I don't have a car so I have to walk to the stores and back up a rather steep hill. I don't have to worry about cooking meals in a communal kitchen where the burners don't always work because they're clogged with fat from other guests who deep fry their foods. I don't have to worry about making multiple trips up and down from my room to the communal kitchen because I don't want to store things in the cupboards as they will soon smell of mold. I don't have to worry that someone else will eat my food that I spent 2 hours cooking (because everything takes longer in an unfamiliar country). Labeling everything vegan had deterred people so far, though!

Now I can go to the caf and there is always a hot meal ready for me which I'm most grateful for. I can enjoy eating lunch with my friends. I can be more effective with my time since I don't have to worry about preparing food anymore. Sabbath breakfasts are no longer a problem either since I find myself with too much food now during the week so I save some for the weekends! Life has gone from struggling with finding healthy foods to eat to having more than enough. Isn't God amazing?

Remember, Remember

Today I got a chance to go to Baskinta, the campground owned by the church which is about an hour away by car. When we lived here before, the youth would have a 7-10 day camp there and I always wanted to go with my friends but my dad never allowed me. When the opportunity came up to camp overnight, I was so excited. Finally, 20 years later, I'd have the chance to do what I'd always wanted to. While the group going up was different, three of my friends from back then were organizing it so I was happy.

The guys bought the groceries and sorted out the table and chairs on Friday. Right after lunch, we loaded up the cars and headed off down and then up mountains towards the campsite. The last part was a dirt road with some pretty deep ruts so we got out and walked while the drivers carefully maneuvered their compact cars down the dirt & gravel.

We busied ourselves setting up camp and tents then waited for the final car to arrive with the table and chairs so we could start barbecuing our supper. Meanwhile, we gathered small dead trees and branches to keep a campfire going all night. One guy had brought his rifle in case of wild animals but he was pretty certain we'd be okay if we had a fire. Apparently 4 years ago, a huge wild jackal had walked through camp in broad daylight so he was prepared. The gun wasn't loaded though; he kept the cartridge in a separate pocket.

Finally we'd gathered the equivalent of what looked like a small forest and settled down to wait some more. Marisa had been playing some praise and worship music but then one of the guys who'd been invited along turned on his music to show off his speakers' quality and sound. Soon it drowned out her music so she turned it off. I listened to the lyrics, I always do, and I had no idea if the songs were religious or secular. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian music today can be mistaken for secular songs and not knowing, I didn't say anything. I felt uncomfortable, though, and after putting my headphones on and listening to my own Christian music while I cut up vegetables for dinner, I decided to leave the camp and walk up the hill a little ways so the music wouldn't bother me as much.

Soon, Marisa joined me. We sat overlooking a beautiful valley, watching the sun set into the Mediterranean Sea behind a pollution haze, and she suggested we read our favourite chapters in the Bible. We did, then shared thoughts about why those verses were special. We talked about learning to rely on God and tell Him our struggles first before going to family and friends.

We thought about how hard it must be for God not to see us face to face when He has the power to do so. Think about someone you love dearly, not only do you want to see their face, you want them to see your face too so they can understand the depth of your love for them or how much you care about what is bothering them. Then imagine God, having the power to allow us to see His face yet because of sin being separated from us, so we cannot see His face, we cannot see or hear His deep love and care for us.

Instead we have to rely on faith and what we know from the Bible. Which led us to another point, that one of the reasons to read the Bible is so that when we are in difficult times and are wanting to hear from God, we can remember promises or passages from the Bible. And in a way, it is a conversation with God because He is speaking to us through His Words.

Around sunset the final car arrived and we helped stoke the fire, bake the potatoes, and in any other way we generally could. The bathroom situation wasn't too frightening, there was an actual cement bathroom with 3 non functioning toilet stalls and lockable doors, not ideal but doable. We sat around the campfire and then the stories began. For some reason, when it came time to tell scary stories, everyone had a story related to the paranormal, demon possession, evil spirits, and so on. After the second story, I began to feel uncomfortable.

I didn't grow up around campfires so while I know people like to tell scary stories, I didn't know if those were mostly silly scary stories or those bordering on the dark side which most of these were. They didn't all end with "and then the pastor and three elders anointed the young person and prayed in Jesus' name and the demon was cast out" similar to Bible stories. Eventually, I turned on my Christian music again on my little mp3 player and put my earphones in.

It wasn't even midnight when Marisa began to feel ill. Unfortunately, she seemed to have caught the stomach flu that a student had come down with earlier that week and she was starting to feel worse and worse. After a hurried discussion, two of the guys decided to drive her back. I asked to go too. I'd had my fill of frightening stories and irritating music and was ready to go home. One of the guys and I hiked the rutted road back out while the other guy drove his car and Marisa rode along. When we reached the paved road, we hopped in and drove all the way back to campus. After dropping us off, the guys returned to camp.

While I didn't pay an exorbitant amount of money to camp, I agree with my sister who would say this was tuition in the school of life. I was so excited to go but I didn't realize that there would be people going who didn't share my values of honouring the Sabbath to the best of our ability. I'm thankful for my friend who encouraged me to keep close to God as we closed the Sabbath by sharing promises from the Bible. I'm thankful for the guys who drove us back in the middle of the night without murmur or complaint. They were kind and thoughtful.

I will be perfectly honest and say that it is tiring to practice Christianity when others don't respect it in a similar way. I understand there are differences, for example I'm not going to judge someone who eats meat. But when people know clearly that something isn't honouring God, for example listening to secular music on Sabbath afternoon, and they persist in doing it, then I struggle with how to relate to the situation. Do you ignore it or do you address it?

In previous posts, I mentioned some challenges I've had living in a conservative Christian community for the past 17 years. After this experience, I've been able to be grateful for those years because the peer pressure was positive. Of course it wasn't perfect; no place and no person is. But being around people who share similar values makes it easier to practice those values. Being here has given me opportunity to see the differences and I'm thankful for that.

I think too often it's easy to forget what we are asked to do with the Sabbath. God said remember to keep Sabbath holy. Holy intimates reverence, respect, honour, value, awe, pure, higher than us, and sacred. I think God is sad when we disrespect the Sabbath because in doing so we are disrespecting Him. I'm thankful for a continued reminder of His love through the Sabbath and that God has given us a special day to remember Him.