Monday, August 12, 2019

Throwing Cement


Every place we've lived, I've found a place to run.  Along the ocean in New Zealand, through the woods of Michigan, along the rivers in Moscow and Taipei.  A place comes alive when it's just you and the world.  It's as close to being a local that I can become.  Some of my favorite memories of a place are how I see the world when I'm running.
For the first time in my life, I find myself running with a group of people.  Up to this point, I have avoided this at all costs.  I am the slowest runner ever.  When I'm alone it doesn't matter.  I just trot along listening to a podcast.  Ok, I'm also not one to push myself - do I really need to break a sweat?  I love running outside.  The fresh air cleanses my mind plus I need to see that I'm accomplishing a distance.  Monrovia is the first place I've lived that I don't want to run alone.  I feel too vulnerable, too exposed.  So I run with a group.  They are amazing.  They keep me moving, one foot in front of the other.  And I sweat and gasp and feel like dying.  They never make me feel like I'm the slow one.  They accept my lack of ability without a care in the world.  But I love it and keep showing up for another run and another.
A few weeks ago we decided to run through the city and loop back around, following the beach.  Half the group was ahead by a bit.  The mid point was at the top of a small hill where we regrouped before heading down to the beach.  Rainy season is well underway which causes the ocean to be a torrent of emotion, throwing cold waves on the shore, thundering their danger.  A group of a hundred or so people were gathered at the edge while others scurried around the beach with some sort of unrecognizable purpose.  When the sun is peaking over the earth's edge, the beach is typically a quiet place.  There may be a few people at the far end rummaging through the huge garbage heap searching for a usable piece of clothing, but otherwise it's typically a quiet run with only our feet pounding the pavement and the waves pounding the sand.
I brought up the rear as we came down the hill.  My slower pace allowed me to look around.  Men were gathering sticks and breaking them into two foot lengths then running to the shoreline.  Others found chunks of cement and threw them at larger pieces to break off grapefruit sized pieces.  I came up to a man whose arms were full of cement and stopped to ask him what was going on.  He glanced at me with a crazy look in his eyes and yelled something over his shoulder as he turned and ran.  A few more paces and another man was carefully inspecting his cement pile.  Again I asked "What's going on?"  He stopped, looked and me and replied in clear English, "A man stole something and we are going to throw  stuff at him until he is in the water and drowns."  My heart stopped and time slowed as I turned to my friend.  "Let's get out of here!" he shouted.  A stoning.  I didn't see the man who stole.  I didn't see them throw the cement or beat the man with sticks.  I didn't hear cries for mercy.  But the situation sat heavy on me for several days.
They call it "jungle justice" here in Liberia.  People are desperately hungry, but if you take a bag of rice from your neighbor, you have taken food for them and their extended family for a week or even a month.  A pair of shoes may be a month's wages.  There is no punishement from a governmental system so people take justice into their own hands. 
John tells a story about a woman who was caught in adultery.  The Pharisees and teachers bring this woman to Jesus who is sitting in the temple court teaching a crowd of people.  She is probably ashamed and angry and embarrassed.  She's probably trying to hold it together as the Pharisees say to Jesus, Teacher, this woman's caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?  The Pharisees demand justice by their law but they're also trying to corner Jesus, making him chose between the law and the woman.  The tension in the air is thick.  Jesus begins to write in the sand but the Pharisees can't hold their anger any longer.  They demanded to know what Jesus will do.  Jesus straightens, looks them in the eye and says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:1-11)  
As I thought through what I had seen on the beach, one thing really struck me.  When the men bent down and picked up a chunk of cement, they committed themselves.  Rational thinking was gone.  There was a single goal - justice through death.  Not a single man picked up a piece of cement and reconsidered his next actions.  The look in the eyes of the first man I talked to was chilling.  He had made a choice and he would do what it took.  Jesus understood the commitment of picking up the stone and of being the first to throw it at the woman.  A path.  A choice.  A destiny.  There was a slight distance between the Pharisee's hearts and their actions.  Not a single one of them was willing to pick up a stone.  They all walked away.
When Jesus is teaching the crowds up on a mountain, He tries to get the people, us, to understand that what God is looking at is so much deeper than the law.  He's looking at our hearts.  Jesus says, You have heard it said to the people long ago, "You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment."  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, "Raca," is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.  A few verses later Jesus continues, You have heard it said, "You shall not commit adultery."  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28)  I saw men stoning a man on the beach that day.  It shook me up and has stuck with me.  But what about the anger and judgment I've had in my heart?  God knows when mentally I've bent down and picked up a piece of cement.
Back when we lived in the states Doc made a knife throwing board.  It was a great way to release a bit of energy and, well, throw a knife at a board.  He's been working on building one here.  I've had a lot bottled up inside of me lately.  Anger at situations outside of my control.  Because things are so outside of my ability to determine the outcome I began to blame people associated with the situation.  This is a slippery slope to go down.  One day I said, "I'd like to tape their picture to the knife throwing board and hurl a knife at it."  My heart had picked up the cement and hatred and bitterness wasn't just creeping in, it was barging in full force, pushing all bits of reason, love and light out of its way.  Jesus knew this danger.  "Don't go there," He said.
Probably none of us will physically stoop to pick up a piece of cement and throw it at a person. But how often has my heart condemned a person?  For me, it wasn't too many days ago.  When I find myself headed down this path, I start talking to Jesus.  I'm honest with him about all the hurt, anger, bitterness, unjustness and everything else that is going on inside of me.  Sometimes I yell.  Sometimes I cry.  When I'm honest with God, in some miraculous way, He takes it all away from me.  Not the situation and problems, they're still there and I'm going to have to walk through that journey.  He takes away the anger and hatred - the need to pick up a piece of cement.  
What's going on in your heart?  Have you been honest with God about it?  It's pretty simple.  Just tell Him.

Friday, February 15, 2019

When Thankfulness Went Sailing Away

Marshall, Liberia

I came home at lunch today looking forward to sharing a meal with a friend. The house was quiet and as I headed into the kitchen I realized that I had the date wrong on my calendar. A bit of disappointment clouded my heart but regardless, it was nice to leave my desk, stretch my legs, and get away for lunch. Moving from the kitchen to the table I suddenly found myself laying on my back in a lake of water. Slowly I stood up, droplets falling from my skirt and plunking in the lake around my feet. Stunned, I looked around. Water everywhere. I think a little sailboat floated by through the dining room, the family room, the entrance and out the front door. I sloshed down the hall and into my bedroom. As a little girl I used to pretend that my bed was a ship sailing in a sea of blue carpet. This is not what I had in mind, I thought, as I gazed at my island bed floating in the middle of the room. I could feel tears adding to the wet mess I was in. Of course this sort of thing is bound to happen while the doc is working - in another country. Thankfulness was not anywhere close to my heart or my mind. I think it sailed out the front door with that little boat. Sometimes it doesn't take much for thankfulness to leave my heart and unhappiness and entitlement to fill the space. 

There has been a wave of "thankfulness" efforts going through the Christian community. This is not a bad thing! Thanks to Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts, the challenge of living thankfully each day before the house floods is ever present in my mind. Of course I think back to the old hymn I grew up with, Count Your Blessings, and I realize that this idea has been instilled in my mind since I was a child. 

The opposite of thankfulness is a hard thing to live with. Think of that person who stops by your office each day with a nagging complaint, or the neighbor who sees the world through gloomy lenses. It's hard to live in a constant environment of unhappiness and negativity, but what if that person is you? What if you've seen all the negative in your life and the world and you can't find anything to be thankful for? How heavy that is to carry around day in and day out. It continues to drag you and those around you further and further down. Eventually all you can see is a negative answer to even the most mundane situation.

When your heart has gotten worn out and you can't see beyond the negative, you have to do something to change. You have to make a very conscientious effort to change the way your mind thinks. And this is what Voskamp is challenging you to do by listing one thousand things you are thankful for in a year. It starts small with one thankful moment at a time, written down so that you can go back and remember.

So after figuring out where the water was coming from and turning off the water line, changing my clothes and making a few phone calls for help, I made lunch. Inside I wanted to start sweeping the water out of the house, but I knew that if I did that I would twist myself into a knot of anger. So I made a sandwich, pulled out a chair which sent waves of water through the room, and I sat there in the middle of the lake, quietly eating my food. After eating a bit and letting the situation sink in, I looked around. I noticed that the water was clean. Thankfulness item number one! Then I began to ponder how if I hadn't written the wrong date on my work calendar, I wouldn't have come home for lunch at all and the water would have run and run and run. Thankfulness item number two!

After 3 or 4 hours the water was gone, carpets were removed, furniture was tipped on its side to dry and the cause of the flood was discovered. From what I understand, an old pipe for the sink had corroded and water was flowing from the wall.  It was a yucky situation to be in, but by this time my thankful list had grown quite long and joy bubbled out of me when I thanked the workers for helping me. I felt gratitude for the work everyone had put in to come to my aid that would have been clouded by frustration if I hadn't found so many things to be thankful for.

So make a choice to find things to be thankful for in the mundane days. I promise you that soon a not so mundane day will come your way and without having practiced how to be thankful, you will find yourself swept away with negativity.

In everything give thanks:
for this is the will of God
in Christ Jesus concerning you.
1 Thessalonians 5:18

Thursday, September 20, 2018

May Your Enemies be Scattered


It's not often that I find myself wandering through the book of Numbers. It's a lot of counting and long, unpronounceable names. There's instruction and laws and disappointment and wandering. It's not where I turn when I need some encouragement or something to fill all those empty spots inside me. But Numbers is where I found myself a few months ago. 

At that time we were preparing to leave Taiwan. My emotional tank was at capacity. Work had become exhausting and lost purpose. The goodbyes left me raw and depleted. The prospect of summer and all there was to do didn't leave a space for respite. It was not my brightest moment in time. 

So during a time when I should have been reading a Psalm a day to give me a lift, I landed in Numbers. God had been giving instructions to the people of Israel through Moses on how they were to arrange themselves as they began the long walk to the land that He had promised them. There were special instructions for the Levites on  how to setup and tear down the tabernacle and tent of meeting as the people moved. Directions were given for the preparation of everything holy as the Israelites prepared to move. All of this must have taken a large amount of time.

The pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire at night had been consistently with them since they left Egypt. God's presence in a tangible way leading them out of bondage to a land filled with promise. At this point in the story the Isrealites have been traveling one year, one month and one day since they left Egypt. That's a long time to be living in a tent - just saying - I didn't do well with two months out of a suitcase last summer. All of this instruction is before Moses hit the rock with the rod which began the years of wandering in the wilderness. At this time there is a destination and the people are ready to begin moving towards it. 

This story was resonating with me as I was preparing for my own summer of wandering, being homeless and moving. And then I stumbled upon it. Words that Moses said as the people began their daily travels.

"Arise, ADONAI! May your enemies be scattered!
Let those who hate you flee before you!"
Numbers 10:35

Each day before the journey began Moses called for God's enemies to be scattered. What would that look like for me, in this time of transition, to begin each day asking God to scatter His enemies before I even arrived at the destination? The thought was daunting yet didn't leave my mind over the summer. It kept rolling around urging me to pray that God would scatter His enemies before I arrived. That He would prepare a place of protection for me. 

The more I pondered, the more I began asking myself who and what were God's enemies? Of course there are the obvious ones - terrorists, people who harm other people for personal gain, even sickness. But I think that I struggle with the smaller, hidden enemies of God within myself - selfishness, judgment, greed, a bad attitude, bitterness... These are the things that become stumbling blocks in my life and tear me apart from God and people.

As I began this move I've prayed that God would scatter the physical enemies in my path as well as scatter all the little temptations and sins that bring separation between me and God.

Monday, October 16, 2017

I Am Strong: Finding God's Peace and Strength in Life's Darkest Moments


By John S. Dickerson

A year ago a friend placed this book in my hands. We had just spent an hour together sharing our journeys through MS. She's been on this path longer than I, so I understood the wisdom of her words when she gave my hands a squeeze and encouraged me to read the book. I gladly took it knowing she was sharing encouragement that would travel with me.

This book has gone with me on airplanes where chapters covered the miles, the MRT back and forth to work where I absorbed a few pages, and in the safety of my own home where I've shed a few tears letting the truth and encouragement sink in. I've spilled my coffee on this book–not just once, but twice. My copy is worn around the edges, stained, wrinkled and bent. It's ok, because that's how my life is too. It sometimes feels battered and beaten and this is just the place where this book meets you. 

I remember sitting in the pew when I was young, my pastor greeting the congregation and preaching a sermon. Pastor Mark baptized me. I visited his wife, Anne, at their home after he passed away. I treasured the handful of times I spent visiting and learning from an older woman. Mark and Anne Dickerson were the author's grandparents. His father was my pastor though high school, sending me off to college and participating in my wedding. He greets me with a warm smile every time I return home. My most recent memories of Pastor Dan are sitting in the hospital waiting room as my dad went in for heart surgery. He was there for my parents and our family. Although I don't know the author, I was long gone by the time he came around, I know his family. I've watched them go through very difficult times and they've been there with our family as we've gone through difficulties. When I read the first few pages of the book, I knew that this wasn't just another pastor writing about how to handle difficult times in life. This book was based on experiencing those hard times. John has gone through extremely difficult circumstances and because of that, I knew I could trust his words. They were tried and true. The coffee had been spilled on them and they didn't fade away. 

We are going to face difficult times, there's no doubt about that. I think of the last time I read a few chapters. I was laying on the couch resting. The day before I had awakened with a sharp pain in my side. It didn't take me long to figure out that it was a kidney stone. The pain was so intense, I could think of little else. I knew I needed medical help. My mind only thought: pain, don't throw-up, taxi... Laying on the stretcher with a morphine drip in my arm, I could only think pain, pain, pain. There was no time to think, What passage should I read to encourage me right now? or Why is God doing this? or Where is God? We have to have those questions sorted before the traumas in life happen. During the trauma we go into automatic mode where what is tucked deep in our hearts is what's going to come out during the situation. The truths laid out in "I Am Strong" are the gentle reminders of the truths our lives need to be based on.

I'm honestly tired of reading Christian books or articles that are paragraphs of fluff with a sentence of purpose to wrap it all up. I like meat. I like the flat-out here is what the Bible says. John's stories and examples are the introduction to the solid, genuine Biblical teaching that I need. Every word is written with grace yet honest in truth. 

If you are in the midst of those difficult moments, or have walked through them but are still suffering the pain, I encourage you to pick up a copy and read it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Little Encouragement for Those Trips Home


I spent a few weeks this summer getting my girls settled in school and visiting friends and family. The few precious moments at home are filled with obligations, wants and needs. There are people to see, doctor's appointments to do and shopping to accomplish. Sorting it all out is like untangling a box of fishing lures. It's exhausting before, during and after the trip. Every expat that I've talked to goes through this, whether missionary, diplomat or other. 

I struggle with finding the correct balance every single time. I've done trips home with specific purpose and other trips where I have a more flexible schedule and freedom to spend time with people. We've lived out of suitcases moving from home to home every few nights, spent a month in a camper, and stayed with friends. Each option has its pros and cons and meets different needs. By far, the best trip home was staying in the camper. It gave us our own space to decompress each day with unlimited freedom to make our own schedule. Each evening we made a bonfire and unwound with a book or conversation and few roasted marshmallows. 

I think Paul from the New Testament was a bit like me. He moved around a lot. A group of friends  traveled with him from time to time, but he didn't seem to have a home to go to. He didn't return to the same place every summer to blow the dust off the cabinets, settle in and enjoy lazy days. His things were scattered across creation, stuck in the corners of friends' homes until he returned to use them again. There were the things he wished he'd brought with him as well–scrolls and cloaks that he needed in his daily life. He had times of loneliness and opposition. In all my travels, I haven't met an expat yet that lives as out of a suitcase as Paul seemed to do. I have it easy, yet I struggle with the returning home aspect that a transient life brings.

I'm also like Paul because I'm a communicator. Paul was always developing relationships, writing letters and encouraging the church. I don't write to churches, sending out encouragement, but just like Paul had his tribe of Priscilla, Aquila, Mark and Titus, I also have my little tribe of friends that I stay in touch with and long to see in my travels.

Since this last trip home, I've thought a lot about Paul's words in his letter to the Romans: "I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith." (1:11-12) 

Paul had a pretty specific goal in wanting to see his friends. It was a little give and take; he needed encouragement and he wanted to give encouragement. I love how honest he is about this. He was ok in saying "I need you, my tribe, to come alongside me and give me a boost of encouragement." He got that his friends needed a boost of encouragement in their lives too. Life is hard. We all have work day in and day out that we do. We encounter situations that are difficult and we have to wrestle through how to react to them. We can't do it alone, we need other Christians along side us to talk to and figure these things out together. We need some cheerleaders on the sidelines screaming "You can do it!" Paul needed to see his friends doing the daily life and choosing to live it God's way. He needed that sort of encouragement so that when people tried to kill him, he knew that he wasn't the only one choosing to live for God. 

This gives me a little focus as I think about home. I know that some relationships are going to fade. I don't live there anymore and I can't hold onto every single one. But how am I choosing the relationships that I do keep? Are they mutually encouraging? Are they a little give and take? Honestly, it's very easy to have the mindset when I'm home of take, take, take. I need rest. I need to talk to you, I need to go to this store... The list of "I needs" is endless. So how can I balance this? 

I would love to hear from you. Whether you moved 100 miles or 10,000 miles, how do you balance needs and relationships when you are home? How do you give and take? Do you return back to your place of living worn out and exhausted or encouraged and rested?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I Hugged My Dog Today


It's been a loooong week.  I become an emotional disaster with dogs–I really do.  I can go from complete sanity to monster woman in the blink of an eye.  It's a horrible thing to watch, it really is.

The Doc. has been away this week leaving the dog responsibility to our daughter and me.  We are in full housebreaking mode and I've been determined that we can conquer where to go to the bathroom.  I keep reminding myself that she is little and we've gone through this with all puppies, but that never makes it easier for me.

The week has consisted of peeing in the lobby, peeing in the elevator, peeing outside our door.  She pees while eating and all over the apartment.  She no longer piddles small, little spots but rather creates lakes that I inadvertently step in.  Thank goodness for tile floors.  I've washed the floors daily, often more than once.

She chased the cat and a glass shattered on the floor.  The turtle died.  Ok, that has nothing to do with the puppy, but it was pet stress none-the-less and I have no idea why she died.  I keep forgetting to feed the fish, fortunately it has not died.  I'm considering a trip to the market to secretly replace the turtle, but I don't think I'll have the energy.   Whoever thought I was capable of caring for animals and left them in my care??  The dog pooped in her pen and rolled in it.  Another morning she sat in it.  Our daughter has graciously given her the baths because she can see mom is close to tears.

The tears have come.  Then suddenly, early in the week she figured out how to poop outside.  Check one, the stress alleviated a little.

We set timers.  If Matcha doesn't pee when we take her for a walk she goes straight into the cat carrier.  I can hardly bare to see her sad eyes.  Mommas' hate that sort of thing.  In and out we go–the guards of our building must think we're crazy.  It's exhausting and there are moments that I want to say "Fine, the apartment can be your bathroom.  I don't care anymore."  But I do care and we continue with the training.  I can't focus on anything.  I function from moment to moment.

Then a little while ago our daughter asked if I had cleaned up any pee this afternoon.  I stared at her astonished, I had not.  Neither had she.  Matcha has actually gone outside on every trip we've made.  I'm shocked.  We went from 0% success rate with me crying on the couch to 100% success rate today.  So I hugged her.  I hugged her and danced and squeezed her tighter.  Fortunately she didn't throw-up on me.  I know tomorrow will be a complete reverse of behavior, but today was a victory and I'm still doing a happy dance.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Moments with Matcha - The Naming


We are the worst at picking names.  Think about it, our cat in Moscow was Koshka or cat in Russian.  The cat we got in Taipei is Mao, or cat in Chinese.  Mao was also a controversial dictator whom our cat actually believes she was named after and she is doing everything she can to live up to the name.  We should have just gone with Hitler.

As soon as we decided to get a dog and narrowed down the breed, we began to ask, "what will we name her?"  We needed a head start.  Lot's of time was spent at the dinner table discussing names.  I laid on Elena's bed brainstorming good ideas with her.  
What cities do we love?  St. Petersburg - St. Pete is a great name!  Wellington - Welly!  Luca - LuLu!
I looked through lists online of dog names - There were no contenders there.  
Do we have favorite literary characters?  Anne - no human names.  Sherlock - too trendy.
Spanish words kept popping up - Chica, Ita?  

I thought that when we got our little dog we would be inspired in unison and a name would quickly settle upon us.  Nope.  We struggled.  She is cute with bright blue eyes and a floppy ear.  Patches of black and grey spot her coat.  She has a sweet personality and is loyal and trusting, but nothing seemed right.  The doc. commented that she looked like an opossum.  Mrs. Possum?  Pogo?  Other people commented that she has a pig-look about her - Wilbur?

We sort of wanted an Asian sounding name like Xiao long bao (dumplings), but that really doesn't roll off the tongue.

One night Elena said "That's it!  Tomorrow we have to have a name!"  I don't know, Puppy and Baby were working just fine for me.  We narrowed it down to Pogo (a possum in an old comic strip) and Matcha.

Back and forth we went.  We actually decided upon Pogo, but that only lasted a day.  None of us had ever seen the comic so there was just no sentimental association.  In the end, Matcha stuck.

What is Matcha?  It's a special green tea ground into a very fine green powder.  Think lime green.  Here in Taiwan there seem to be two favorite flavors of desserts - red bean paste (a name considered that just seemed rather clunky when calling a dog) and matcha.  Matcha is bitter and something that constantly surprises us.  Matcha donuts?  Matcha frosting?  Matcha frappuccinos (yes, it's really a Starbucks thing here)?

When we're out an about with our puppy, strangers want to pet her and inevitably ask her name.  Matcha?  Why did you name her green tea?  Even here at work, the locals just don't get the name.  And I get it.  If a foreigner got a dog in London and named it High Tea at Noon, it would make no sense to an English speaker.  But this name achieves everything we wanted.  It's cute and two syllables.  It's unique and most importantly, the name Matcha brings our family's memories right back here to Taiwan. This is where she's from and she's part of a great package of the moments that make these years unique and special.