a step to hope

July 14, 2016

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Biking home this afternoon, I listened to one of the podcasts I usually listen to while running: Chris Fabry Live! The program was about the times when others do something for you that you were unable to do yourself. One of the examples made me pause; ok, so maybe I did not pause altogether: these days my only method of biking is one in which I do everything possible to not have to stop, knowing that my old biking habit involves stopping myself with my right foot . . . an unwise move at the moment! Yes, I’m afraid my foot is still uncooperative. And yes, I’m afraid I still struggle with patience for the healing process. In fact, I am more than just “struggling,” more often than not. This is, in large part, due to the vague diagnosis given to me 2 and a half weeks ago–basically saying that he saw nothing on the x-ray and, since I was having a nearly pain-free afternoon at the time, I should be fine to start running on it again. More than two weeks later of no-running has seen no noticeable improvement and I am, quite frankly, starting to lose hope. It feels silly, though, in the face of all the great turmoil in the world . . . why should my mobility matter to me so much, when others are losing their homes, loved ones, and lives? Shouldn’t I be able to just let it go, and be grateful for what I have? I should . . .
But back to the podcast: what this caller said was that she was in a severely difficult period in her life and, when some friends from church told her she should have hope, she replied that, quite honestly, that idea made it worse for her. She had lost hope, and did not see any way to manufacture it. At that point, her minister said that it was ok; he asked her permission to simply let them have hope for her. It took some time but, eventually, she was able to find hope again. Now she looks back with the belief that it was knowing they were holding hope that allowed her to find it once again.
No doubt I am poorly paraphrasing the way she told the story, as my story-telling memory sometimes gets carried away in the telling; but no matter. In this case, I suspect that I am likely telling my own story more accurately than I am telling hers anyway. So there you have it.
I spent the day hearing updates on the racial tension issues in this country, and getting passionately hopeful when I heard people who seemed to be campaigning for justice in a wise and loving manner, rather than inciting hate in the process. But I could not seem to manufacture the same hope when it came to my own body’s failings. I fear that I shall never walk pain-free again . . . never mind run! My husband has gotten back into his running game this summer, and I watch with bittersweet pride as he increases his mileage and skill. “Run an extra mile for me!,” I say, smiling cheerfully as I kiss him goodbye. A bit too cheerfully.
Tonight we sit together in the living room, mostly quiet with periodic comments. My husband, living without his usual “toy” that is getting repaired, talks about his ideas for techie projects once reunited with his computer. My father-in-law closes his computer, after reading various news updates, and sighs, “Stop the world, Lord, I want to get off!” I sympathize, but in a different vein. Stop the world, Lord: I want to walk, and run . . . I don’t want to just be along for the ride!

*Photo is of the consistent joy I have while visiting my in-laws: the simple routine of greeting the chickens, closing up the coop for the night, and collecting the day’s eggs is, somehow, a hint of hope . . .

my right foot

July 5, 2016

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Towards the end of his talk, Pastor Rick picked up a leafy branch he had brought in and set on the podium. He held up a pair of clippers and began snipping branches, letting them fall to the ground as he did so. Quietly snipping for a few moments, he then asked, simply, “Are you being pruned?” I gulped. Yes.
So this morning, when leading my small group Bible Study, I followed the intended lesson up to a point and then, convicted, knew I had to say more than the words on the script. The script, based on 1 Peter 1:13-16; 2:11-12 and Romans 12:1-2, was this:

Peter admonishes the resident aliens to:
Prepare their minds for action
Be self-controlled
Stay focused on the hope of God’s eternal purposes
Be obedient
Do not conform
Be holy

As I read this portion, however, I decided to do something slightly different from the intended discussion of each point of the admonishment.
“Let’s camp out for a minute here,” I began. While I read this list of 6 items, I want you to let your heart settle on one of those. Let God speak to you about one of these points. Don’t be afraid to hear His voice to you, as He speaks gently to His children; He will not come after you with a whip and a ‘You better shape up!’ warning; rather, His voice will come as a ‘still, small voice’ of loving refinement, not harsh correction . . .”
Though not necessarily planned beforehand, I realized afterwards that the reason I did this was because I think it can be difficult to take practical action steps when faced with a list of to-dos. Some of us just get overwhelmed too easily to handle more than a couple things at a time! [ok, so maybe some of us can only handle one thing at a time :-)] My hope was that each member of this study would be able to really sit with something that God was speaking to them about in the here and now, and not in some intangible future.
But as so often happens in the world of teaching, be it of the young or the not-so-young, the teacher ends up learning as much, if not more, than the “students.” And as I introduced this exercise, I knew the lesson I was giving was for me.
Stay focused on the hope of God’s eternal purposes
Thanks to the failing of my physical body, I have been focused on about the farthest thing possible from “eternal purposes”; my focus has been squarely resting on my own right foot. Just over a week ago something went wrong in the heel of my foot while I was running: I couldn’t finish the run and had to limp home. After a couple days of this, I went to a doctor who found nothing on the x-ray. At the time of the visit, it was feeling so good that I wondered if it was already better. I congratulated myself on being able to keep from running for 3 days and happily planned the next day’s run when the doctor reassured me that I should be able to run again with no problems. But the next morning it was back to the same level of pain as soon as I attempted to walk, never mind run.
For one in the middle of training for a marathon, with 20 years of running behind me, this present 7-day run of not-running [:-)] is no small thing. I have begun to develop a mopey, and hopeless, mindset of suspecting that I will never again be able to run, that my natural anti-depressant is lost to me, and that I’m being punished for being too reliant on my “earthly” pleasures.
But in this morning’s study, speaking the words, out loud, of my focus, had a cathartic effect. To recognize that I was, in effect, turning my gaze from heaven and directing it straight down to my feet, made me able to laugh at myself in a healing way. Not that I am any less frustrated by my physical frailty, mind you: I am itchy, and impatient, to be able to move as I am accustomed to doing; but the itch is tempered by a realization that my body is out of my hands, and in the hands of the one who created it. Furthermore, this Creator is not someone who is just putting up with my silliness; He loves me. Wow—writing that brings tears. Yes, it is true. He loves His creation: all of us, and all the parts of us . . . whether or not they are performing perfectly.
Tomorrow will bring another day of, most likely, a struggle between my desires and my physical capabilities; but tonight I pray for the ability to redirect that focus, and to draw my eyes away from a foot, and upwards to its Maker.

Bit by bit

June 9, 2016

So much for that event-less arrival to the States. We made it through one day of smooth sailing. Day 2 arrives, which is our departure day for Peter’s weekend IT conference in Charlotte. This morning I head out for a nice get-out-the-antsyness run. The run ranks quite high on running-enjoyment scales, in fact, thanks to a beautiful morning and the lovely ridge. Halfway through I pause to ask a lady working in her yard about the park nearby. She says to wait a sec while she puts one of her barking dogs inside. While she does, her other dog lunges at my right calf, takes a chunk out of it, then heads for the back of my left knee. I’m screaming by this point, having vivid memories of my 16-year-old self in the same position with a different dog. And the crazy part of it is that the two wounds I am now sporting are identical to the two scars underneath them! The lady kindly dressed and bandaged them and I headed back on my way. Thankfully there seem to be no actual medical needs, but I must say that I’m rather stunned by the bizarre injury-duplication. As I walked back down the front steps of the owner’s terraced lawn, I mentioned to her that, if It weren’t for the fact that I believe in a good Father, I’d be tempted to call it karma. But as it is, all I can figure is that it’s a reminder that we really never know: as much as I like to hold on to my illusions of control over the hours, the days, and this life, I really just have no idea what may come. May He grant me the wisdom, and the will, to field what comes with grace …

*the fact that there is no accompanying photo to this blog post is not an oversight: I opt to spare you the visuals :-)

 

be kind

May 7, 2016

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In two separate occasions today I was moved to tears by words I heard. The first came while I was at work, manning a station for a weekend bazaar held by our school. In between “customers”for my lime-on-a-spoon game, I spent a good deal of time just standing and watching people. I was rather melancholy today, and so found it easier than usual to just let my mental to-do lists go while I took in the activities surrounding me. I watched the children, and families, milling about, and I wondered about the lives behind it all . . . wondered about the souls contained by each of these bodies. Periodically, a little one would come up to me for either instructions or, more often, a “request” for another sticker or stamp, as most of my players had already been through the routine numerous times. I would demonstrate the ginger holding-of-the-spoon and then, a few minutes later, would bequeath a smile onto a little hand or wrist, in the form of either a pink circle of ink or a rainbow-hued sticker. I would return to human interaction for a bit, then, kid gone, resume my musings. In the midst of the musing, I was caught off guard by a song that came through the speakers of the background playlist: it was a Carrie Underwood song that I first heard when I was asked to sing it for the troops in Kabul. I was on the worship team at the time, for Camp Eggers. I didn’t think that much of the song at the time but now, suddenly, I realized that it holds surprising power for me. Some combination of the memories surrounding that time of my life along with my present struggles left me instantly teary-eyed at the wafting sounds of “Jesus take the wheel.” I spoke the words to myself for some time after the song finished. It came out as a prayer, which is exactly what it was. “Jesus take the wheel. Take it from my hands. I can’t do this on my own . . .”

Later in the day, once the bazaar was finished, I heard a quote that is simply called an epigraph, due to the uncertain source. Some attribute it Ian McLaren, who would have said the words around the time of World War 1, but as far as I can tell no one is certain. When I heard it mentioned in a podcast, however, the words had a similar effect to the song I’d heard earlier. “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” The tears return as I write the words now, fresh with the poignancy of the week.

I have felt broken by my own inadequacies lately, and weary of my inability to do what I want to do, or to be who I want to be. Yet even as I have been feeling that brokenness, I have been overwhelmed by gratitude for people who have stepped into that mess that is me, and who have done great acts of kindness. Hope has been given. Lord help me to pass that hope along. May I bear others’ burdens, as others have born mine. May I be kind.

*This photo came from our Spring Break medical mission in the village. Somehow, it seemed fitting . . .

my heart & my hands

April 7, 2016

It was the dance that did it. Sure, we exchanged the necessary formalities when one leaves a place where one has been hosted; there were the thank yous [“bareka”], the farewells [a slight bow combined with a nod of the head, and hands pressed together as if in prayer], and the exchange of gifts [2 Guinea fowl, 1 rooster, and a large bowl of their eggs–those of the Guinea fowl, not those of the rooster ;-)]. But I am convinced that the moment of significance–that in which the people of this village really felt, and believed, our hearts, came at the end of the formalities.

We had prepared a few simple things for this goodbye meeting but, knowing a bit about the nature of life here, we also recognized that things would likely not go as planned when we arrived at the designated meeting place at the designated time–or, more precisely, 20 minutes beforehand, to indicate that we were ready for the gathering. This allowed for a gradual trickle of people to start arriving. Soon we realized that a greater percentage of the population than we anticipated would be there; we decided, then, that we should move to the other meeting “hall.” So chairs and benches were placed on top of heads and we walked down the road to the bigger mango tree; the intensity of daytime sun makes the shade of dense trees like the mango to be the only reasonable place to be–even the shade offered by a building becomes somewhat sauna-like with this level of dry heat. As we walked, my husband placed his water bottle on his head. It did not last very long there, but we decided that we should start practicing the method with small items. I used to assume that the head was used for larger or heavier items, but since moving here have noticed it to be simply another way to carry things: we see people with hands free but a head balancing lunch, or a drink. Thinking about the habit of favoring one hand over the other, I suspect that regular head-carrying may improve both posture and balance. I have also noticed a bit of a hunching in the shoulders as of late, so in good meddling-wife fashion, I suggest to Peter that perhaps he should pull this water bottle trick with regularity :-) But I digress–back to the mango tree meeting.

IMG_3979Once we had repositioned ourselves under the larger tree, the aforementioned formalities began. Truthfully, I did not feel as if I had done much to thank for. We had spent the week there on a medical mission and, with no medical background, the majority of our party walked around meeting people while the doctor and his wife labored all day to serve the endless stream of men, women, and children with all manner of skin, limb, dental, and other ailments. For the rest of us, the hardship was less in the work itself and more just in physical discomforts associated with village life. 

For one, we joked about how far away the outhouse was. Considering the large quantity of fiber we were consuming, this was an actual issue: we had brought large bags of potatoes to toss in the cooking fire. We had not brought any foil, so just tossed them in with the coals. Depending on how impatient one was at any given point, the end result of the consumption of each potato would be either slightly burned, or just charcoal black fingers and face. The first day, I happily ate several large [hot ;-)] potatoes before deciding I was done. As is my custom, I then slathered petroleum jelly [i.e. all-purpose moisturizer] onto my face and hands. A few minutes later, one teammate came over, smiling at me, and announcing that she was taking a photo. “Ok,” I shrugged, mildly curious about her giggles but too tired to care all that much. Eventually I was alerted to the fact that I was sporting the fashionable charcoal-black makeup trend. Peter and I thought this might make an appropriate time for us to reenact our wedding using current cuisine as a replacement for the wedding cake that we actually skipped over the first time as well [I had instead opted for a DIY strawberry shortcake that seemed more fitting for our simple farm/barn ceremony].  Strawberry shortcake in a mason jar, charred sweet potato … Same difference, eh? IMG_3958

IMG_3960The elements were another “hardship” of the week: namely, the dry heat. We are accustomed to heat, but not used to being outside in it, in the hottest parts of the day. Our work lives in the school mean that we are generally inside when it is too hot to safely be out. For this trip, however, we were wandering the village with no prior knowledge or destination, so no idea how long until the next patch of shade where we may find people to talk to. One morning before setting out I had an idea. Remembering the research I had done on surviving temperature extremes, before my move to Afghanistan, I looked at the sachet of drinking water in my hand. It had chilled enough to freeze. I took a strip of fabric and wrapped it around the sachet, then tied it around my head so that the ice was strapped to my forehead. It was a decent portable air conditioner, with a twist: we drink these waters by tearing off a corner of the plastic. With my sachet already being drunk out of, this meant that as it melted, the water would drip out. Once I had discovered this effect, I began to sing “I’m a little teapot” each time the melted water had accumulated enough for my “pour me out” to be a nice little flow. It was also another patch of brilliance so far as fashion statements go.IMG_4004

These physical difficulties, then, both the expected (heat, inconveniences, etc.) and the unexpected (such as a bizarre rash of large and painful blisters I developed), I was mentally prepared for.

I was not, however, prepared to face the raw ache for significance that began to swell after our first day. Once I saw that my work was not a scripted one, I began searching for what it was that I was meant to do in this village.

Some in our group were gifted at sharing the Word with those we met. Knowing this was not my strength, I began to gravitate towards the children, who were a decidedly more captive audience than my usual students on any given day. I guess those who see me on a daily basis have grown accustomed enough to the song-and-dance routines that it’s not an exciting novelty anymore. That said, I do believe that the combination of music and motion is an effective, and lasting, learning tool. So it was with intentionality that I went through a small set of songs, with any surrounding youngsters, on a daily basis, with the same motions associated with words for each language we were singing at the time [i.e. hands over heart = love, hands forming a large circle = the world, etc]. Sure enough, by the end of the week I was getting used to overhearing snippets of “God is so good,” (“lesa wawama”) and “there’s no one like Jesus” (“takwaba uwaba nga Jesu”) while walking.IMG_3991

 I began to settle into my role, assuming that anytime grown-ups were gathered but children hanging from trees nearby, I’d make my way over to the children. Which brings me back to that mango tree meeting mentioned at the beginning.

Before starting this farewell meeting, our Pastor had asked if I could lead them in a few songs, as I had done when we first arrived. That time I had combined a performance by the Easter choir (as most in the choir had come on this trip) with a few other songs most of us knew. This time, I mentioned several of the songs I had been doing with the children, asking him if he thought it would be ok to do children’s songs and motions with the adults. I began to explain to him that I thought it might help grownups, in the same way that it helps children, to associate motions with the words of the songs. But he nodded a cheerful assent before I had finished my overly anxious request.

The first part of the ceremony, then, went as expected, with the thank yous and the gifts already mentioned [we have been periodically “shush”ing the 3 birds in a box behind us as we travel back. For some reason they are dissatisfied with their luxurious instant-noodle-box-turned-passenger-car]. Instead of standing to give a message, Pastor then turned to me and motioned that I should begin. Our group stood behind me, copying my motions, while I faced the people of the village for a short set of easily singable and danceable choruses. I nodded my thanks when we finished and returned to my seat. IMG_3985

At this point a few people stood up and had a short discussion. The translator came back to us and relayed the message that the women would like to give a performance for us in return. Soon no one was sitting anymore. A couple drums had appeared, a voice began to sing, others joined in, and the dancing began. It was a seamless flow of beauty, one song rolling into another as different voices started new call-and-response tunes. Different people also began the accompanying dances, young and old alike, with no apparent difference in agility or energy. IMG_3995

My smile grew, my feet started to move, and soon I was focused intently on my efforts to copy their intricate motions. A few of the dancers noticed me and, before long, I had been motioned into the circle with another lady. I copied the motions as best I could, moving my feet to the beat, then turning a circle before letting myself fall back into the arms of one on the outside of the circle, who would catch me under the arms while I jumped, as if she was throwing me into the air. I did not feel particularly graceful, in the least; but it was, in a word, exhilarating to be a part of the beauty. I was honored.

The dancing continued, for quite some time, until it was time for us to leave. Once back with just out party, we had a time of sharing one highlight each of us had experienced. Three words came immediately to my mind: “song and dance.” At times I worry that I am not spiritual enough to prioritize traditional preaching. But when it comes down to it, I cannot help but circle back to this same center point. We have had a theme song for the trip, singing it together in our morning and evening devotions. In it, we sing the words, “my heart and my hands, I’m making them Yours.” It makes me smile. Yes, Lord–I may not have the words to say. But I have a heart for the beauty of this world: its music and its motion. And I have the hands to join in with it.IMG_4007

a pause button

March 5, 2016

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Dear God-
If you please, could I trouble you with a small request? A simple thing, really: just a little “pause” button …

No big deal, right? Wouldn’t it be the perfect solution to this problem, seeing as the issue is not so much with what I have in my life; rather, this issue is with what I don’t have: time! Life is zipping along at a pace that makes me long to shoot my hand up in the air like I do in the middle of a rowdy class. Only this time, instead of my customary “Silence!” (Reader, please imagine the accompanying French accent and the sternly raised eyebrow), the call would instead be “Wait!” Please, I need a moment. I need to think about what just happened. I need to process, and to somehow document for myself, and for anyone else who may care, what just happened. Don’t you see, world, what a beautiful moment this was? Don’t you get it?

Yesterday our whole school came together to pull off an extravaganza of cultures—a bright rainbow of international displays, performances, and recognitions. England, India, China, Ghana, France, the Philippines, Japan, Ethiopia, Togo . . . we were the world. And those of us responsible for the children dashed about from 7:00am until 3:00, in a whirl of activity that had at least a few of us in a bit of a survival mode. And then, at the end of it all, I sat down for a moment to watch the ending performances. I was tempted to pull out my computer and sneak in a few moments of work towards a deadline I was quite sure I wouldn’t make. But suddenly, I was wowed by the beauty of what was in front of me: a stage full of students drumming and dancing as if the world was their stage. And for these few moments, it was . . . “Wait!”

Last night at the dinner table she paused in the middle of a bit and looked up at us: “How do you know you are saved?” Truth be told, we almost pushed the question away, tabling it for another day. We were, quite frankly, exhausted from the day and selfishly wanting to continue our efforts to trouble-shoot a practical issue we had come across, concerning our international life logistics. But instead, I took a deep breath and explained a few of my thoughts about the subject. It didn’t really take long at all, and it occurred to me that this question is one that I quite enjoy thinking about, after the process it was for me. We came so close to missing the moment . . . “Wait!”

My friend: my beautifully vibrant fellow singer–the one who welcomed me to this country with such wide arms–is leaving me now. This is my last Saturday to practice with her. Tomorrow my last Sunday to worship with her. She loops her arm in mine and we walk to the bathroom together, enjoying the mutual excitement over small luxuries like shea butter and papaya soap . . . “Wait!”

So yeah, God—a “pause” button would be perfect. Just perfect! What’s that? Oh . . . Are you sure? Well, ok—yeah, maybe you’re right. Maybe it would be just a teeny bit unfair if I had such an exclusive right. *Sigh* . . .

Maybe I could work on that tendency to insist on my idea of what should be happening, and on what I should be accomplishing on any given day. Maybe there’s something to that “birds of the air” bit (Matthew 6:26). Perhaps I do spend a fair bit of time in that “worrying” mode. Perhaps I should instead direct that mental energy into some “pause” work of my own. Quite possibly, this magic “pause” button could mean letting go of all the to-dos rolling around in there and, instead, being present in the moment as it is. And maybe—just maybe—if I am brave enough to be present here and now: if I can watch this youngster lost in her drumming and just get lost right with her, I won’t need that “pause” button after all . . .

little deeds

February 7, 2016

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Praise and worship time is a tricky one for me, as it is for most other worship leaders I know, in that it is a struggle to balance the focus on helping the congregation to enter into worship with the ability to do so myself. Oftentimes, I think worship leaders end up with rare moments of being able to enter into a personal “lostness” in the worship, that are bookended by the more usual times of worry over logistics like finding the right notes/harmonies, how many times to repeat a chorus, or whether the key is a bit too much of a stretch for one’s vocal chords on a given morning. Not that I mind this fact: frankly, I love all that comes into play [;-)] with music, so these logistics are actually enjoyable for me. But at times I do long for that the space and freedom to just be in the moment.
In our service, the pastor chooses the songs that are a part of the service, while the praise team handles the introductory singing time. So one of the hymns we sang this morning as a part of the service, during the offering, was new to me. For much of the song, I was actually zoning out a bit, still thinking about how worship had gone today, and distracted by my amusement over the children surrounded me. But when I looked up and started to sing, I was instantly struck by the words displayed on the screen. There are only a few lines at a time, allowing for two languages to be visible at once, so it was easy to zero in on, and be wowed by, these words:
“Holy Spirit brighten little deeds of toil . . .”
The screen quickly changed after I saw them, and a part of me worried—for a moment—that I had imagined them. I was grateful, then, when the pastor launched into a second round of the hymn. And there they were again: those words. Oh, how beautiful, I thought . . . the words themselves, but also the hope—bright hope—that they carried.
I breathed these words with my inhales and my exhales as the day carried on. In between the business surrounding readying myself, and the household, for another week of the work/school/life crazies, I stole moments to savor this thought.
Yes, Lord: let this be my prayer to you now. Brighten the little deeds of toil that so often threaten to draw my eyes down, and to drag my feet to a shuffle. Brighten my speech. Brighten my thoughts. Brighten my life.

*For dinner tonight we celebrated Chinese New Year in the dorms. So part of prep involved making the traditional dumplings. After writing this post, I realized that this day’s version of the “toil” of meal preparation was a rather fitting illustration :-)

found wanting

January 6, 2016

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This past week, our Sunday sermon title was “What is your request?,” based on the passage in Mark where Jesus asks that question of the blind man (Mk 10:51). He spoke of how we are privileged to be able to come to God with our requests. He warned, however, that our requests need to align with His will. The explanation at this point took an unusual twist compared to what I have customarily heard preached: he said that the danger of asking for what we want is that if we cannot handle that particular blessing, due to our own penchants and weaknesses, that which we have asked for will lead us into sin. This is why, he explained, we must not compare our own lives with those of others. One person, for instance, may be a good steward of financial blessing while another may end up squandering the wealth. I mused on this for a bit, appreciating the wisdom of the truth, and somewhat smugly proud to have resonated so quickly with my “truth” point of the sermon. But Then I pushed pause on that pride as I realized that I had not yet figured out a very crucial bit of the equation: namely, what it was that I was asking God for in this new year of my life. Of our life, as a couple. “What is my request?”
Asking this question in such an up front manner, however, I realized I had no idea! And as one who does not deal well with abstractions, this realization was a troubling one. “I want a concrete, tangible New Year’s request for God, dadgummit!,” was my mental exclamation [assuming, of course, that God does not mind such straight talk/thought ;-)]. Yes, I want it. Whoa, hold that thought . . . what did I just say? Eureka—that’s it! That’s what I want from Him! And so it was that I thought my way, in an only slightly circular fashion, into this year’s request for God. I want Him to be real in our lives this year, in a tangible, even tactile way; I want Him to be present in every crossing of the “t” and dotting of the “i”; I want Him to be with us. God with us. Emmanuel. Yes, may it be so. Bold, audacious, and demanding as it may be, this is my plea.

*This photo comes from our New Years’ Day party with the children from the orphanage. What better to illustrate “wanting,” I figure, than the face of a gleefully two-fisted cake-eating little one?

bright light

January 1, 2016

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It rained on New Years Day and it felt like a miracle. After weeks of Harmattan dust filling our lungs and covering everything with its filthy film, the brief shower felt like pure oxygen. But even more beautiful than the cleansing of it was what the rain was falling onto: the faces of 25 orphans filling my home. I had almost postponed the party the night before, wondering what I was thinking to try to pull together a last minute party when event planning is so not a strong point for me. But I just felt it needed to happen: as I wrote to the orphanage director,
“go ahead and plan to send the children on over . . . It might not be the most perfectly planned or organized party, but we will all have fun, I think. I have water balloons, popcorn, and chocolate milk ready, at least: what more could a kid need? ;-)”
Sure enough, it was not the perfect party. I had the children sit on old drapes in lieu of picnic blankets (and the reason for the picnic being that it was the fastest solution to the fact that I waited too long to make purchases of things like kid-friendly dishes). The children drank chocolate milk out of washed peanut butter and instant coffee jars, and ate cake from their hands (granted, not a bad prospect for most kiddos!). Two belts tied together turned into a game of tug-of-war that my husband ingeniously turned into an all-kids-against-him extravaganza. A lack of dishes turned into a count-teddy-bears game.
But thanks to the help of a couple of good friends (who had only been summoned the night before as we rang in the New Year together), the party logistics came together. All the smiles were big, and genuine.
This year has been, in a word, heavy. I’m not sure why that is the word that came to me as I thought of this year as a whole . . . but that’s what it is.
The rain that fell today was a light rain. And as it fell, it washed the layer of dust off of our world, brightening it all. So as if a word was being spoken to me from He who speaks the Word, I felt as if there was a promise in the year to come. A year of lightness, and brightness: may it be so.

on this day

November 30, 2015

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Yet again, it is time. This year my post comes late in the day, on a day of teaching, writing exams, meal prep and, now, weariness with the business of the day. But I remember this day, still. And even on a day of ordinary details, it marks my life, and my emotions, so that underlying each action is a twinge of strange, sad urgency.
Last night I dreamt of my mother. Today I think of her, as I remember my father. I have always loved the mental image of my mother, when she was younger, riding her horse. I imagine a beautiful sight, with her hair blowing behind her as she rides into the distance. Free. And mobile. So the photo this year is one of the inspiring glimpses I had this past weekend, during the overnight trip to the coast that we took the dorm children on. It was, on the whole, a time consumed with the business of “parenting.” But there were moments of pause . . . like this one, when I watched the master horseback riding instructor gallop along the beach once his own workday was done. I dream of the day when this will be reality, for us all.
That said, here it is: the annual post:

I remember, this day–November 30–in 1988. On this day, I awoke excited–no, more than that–I was ecstatic. I was running through lines of the Christmas program in my head, eagerly rehearsing for the program that night. You see, tonight we were performing for our families, for my family. They were on their way by this time, I knew, beginning the drive early that morning that would bring them along many lonely dirt roads, winding through villages and across open plains, to arrive here.

It had been 3 months now since I last saw them, when I boarded the little Cessna on the grass strip of our village, clutching my stuffed bear in one arm and holding my sister’s hand with the other. We stood there waving goodbye one last time on the boarding stairs, and then waved again out the window as we sped along the airstrip and lifted off into the air. I loved that moment of lifting off in the airplane–and have ever since–the exciting rush of becoming airborne and soaring faster and faster through the air.

That day, however, my excitement of the beginning was tinged with the sadness of knowing I would be away from my family for many nights now. The days were always full of learning, fun adventures in the bush with friends and with various creatures to be discovered and trees to be climbed. The nights were the hard part, though, when I fought the tears that often came in spite of my fierce will, silently dampening my pillow while I stifled the shortened breaths that may give away my tears to the classmates sleeping near me in rows of bunk beds.

The 3 months since that last flight had passed quickly–3 months of good books read, math problems solved, geography discovered, play weddings acted out in free time, and all manner of grade 4 activities. I had also turned 9 the previous month, and knew my family would now celebrate my birthday and my brother’s 4th birthday 3 days earlier, as soon as we made it back home. While on a shopping trip in South Africa, my Dad had acquired our first car, so the decided to make the road trip instead of Helen and I flying home as we had always done before. So, I knew they were loaded up in the Isuzu, along with 2 village friends–a teenage student of my Dad’s and the Zambian pastor he worked with in our Church.

So that afternoon, after various activities designed to keep all us boarding students preoccupied so we wouldn’t be bouncing off the walls with the excitement of our families’ arrivals, we all filed out the drive-up area to await the first arrivals. I had in my mind the perfect picture of what to expect, so as each vehicle arrived, I craned my neck to see my mom’s long arm waving out the window and Alex’s goofy grin peering out from her lap. But the cars came, parents claimed their clamoring kids, and my picture-perfect arrival still had not appeared. Finally, a lady I recognized as the mom of some friends who lived fairly near us went over to our Dorm Mother and said something to her, gesturing in our direction. She then came and told us to go ahead and get ready for the program–not to keep waiting for our parents there.

I was disappointed, but assumed they would arrive at any moment, so just kept waiting as we practiced our songs. My mental image just altered itself to adjust to a late clamor of hugs and kisses rushed in before the program started . . . but the program came, began, and ended, and they had not arrived. The next morning we were taken to the Cessna, and told we were going to go back to the village by flight after all. This time I imagined the whole family standing there on the airstrip, coming into focus as the plane landed, with eager smiles and waves–still, no. The parents of a classmate took us in their car instead–so of course I changed my expectation once more, this time thinking they were taking us to our house where the family would be, picture-perfect, waiting in front of our little home.

Instead we arrived at their house. Auntie Elaine (according to British habit, all family friends were “Auntie” and “Uncle” to us kids) finished up dinner preparations while we helped set the table. And then, instead of sitting down to dinner, she asked Helen and I to come and sit with her on the couch–”Anna, Helen–I have some really sad news . . . your Daddy went to heaven . . . ” Before the sentence was finished, I had burst into loud sobs, Helen looked at me and started crying, and Auntie Elaine and her daughter were both crying and hugging us.

I don’t remember any mention of the rest of the family at that point–nor did I wonder, as far as I can remember. The rest of the day, of the week, of the month, passed in a sort of a fog, in which my memories are clear but displaced, as if each memory was plucked from its proper place in the continuum of time and placed instead in some never never land of homeless moments.

I remember falling asleep with fitful dreams, waking up convinced I had dreamed reality, and that Daddy would walk in and comfort me any moment. I remember being reunited with my brothers, staring at Alex’s discolored and misshapen head, and carting Ian around carefully in his body cast, propping him up against walls . . . supporting him and holding his modesty blanket over his midsection as he pinned the tail on the donkey at his belated birthday party. I remember visiting Mom there in the Zambian hospital, horrified at the sight of my strong, active, beautiful mother lying there on the stretcher bed unable to move herself. At one point during a visit, the nurse had to turn her over so that she wouldn’t get a bed sore. As she did so, she let go of the sheet and mom was briefly exposed to us all in the room. I didn’t know whether to blush, sob, or scream–I wanted to just run away, to disappear forever into the endless, dreadfully beautiful African wilderness. I hated seeing mom like that, and dreaded the visits . . . and I hated myself for feeling that way, thinking there must be something wrong with me if I didn’t want to see my mother . . .

Somehow, time passed. My Daddy’s funeral passed in a blur of friends, strangers, languages I didn’t know, and wails I knew only too well. As soon as mom was strong enough to be transported, we were shipped to the U.S., where hospitalization and then physical rehab came for her. I hid in my books–in beautiful worlds of fantasy–to the extent that my grandmother still teases me for always having my “nose stuck in a book” as a child.

And eventually Mom was well enough to take over the care of the 4 of us again. I still don’t know for the life of me how she did it–a paraplegic supporting and caring for a home of her own and 4 not-always-angelic children. She did it well . . . she loved us well.

On this day, during my childhood, Mom beautifully commemorated the anniversary. She would buy what looked to me like hundreds of helium-filled balloons, bringing them home so that the house was bursting with balloons. Then she tied note cards to the string of each one, and told us to write notes on them–as many as we wanted, and whatever we wanted to say to a stranger. I remember writing things like “Jesus loves me this I know . . .” and “My Daddy died on this day, and he is now in heaven with God, because he loved God. I do too.” I wrote silly notes, but meaningful ones, longing, in all my childhood intensity, to somehow tell the world that I had a great Daddy, and that some day I would see him again.

I still catch myself, when I am still enough to listen to the deeper desires of my heart, craving moments of remembrance of my Daddy, and eagerly clasping to memory any tidbits about him that people from his past may be able to share with me. And thankfully my own mind clamped down firmly on all the memories I had of my times with him, out of a personal need for them and, I suspect, out of a nagging suspicion that someday, somehow, there would be a greater use for, outlet for, it all.

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