Saturday, July 22, 2017

Three Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

God Laughs in the Ironic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

More Than a Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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