Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Now

...because looking back is good, as long as we don't forget to look at the present moments we are given. :)
Night falls -
It was nearly dark when I took this shot and the one above it, but thanks to a flash (of lightning)...
These lights give me the curious urge to start singing Christmas music.  I know it's not even September yet, but...
Stop me if you can.
- - -
A (very) drizzly day -
It rained nearly all of Saturday, which made a royal mess of everything.
But it really cooled things off, so that was nice.
Doesn't everything just look soggy and forlorn?
She was using a broom to get the water flowing out the drain pipe.
Work was halted for the day.
Splish, splash!
- - -
A good-bye ice cream social at the Mission Sunday -
Susan has served here for over twenty years, doing Bible translation, and now she's finally able to hand things over to the indigenous church who will continue the work.
Now THAT'S a lot of bowls and ice cream!
Susan's very artistic.  She loves painting or making cards.  I've gotten them in my mailbox from time to time, usually with a little verse of encouragement on the back.
Candid shots.  They make me laugh.
- - -
The week has been full.  Not necessarily just of things to do, but of situations needing prayer.  A lot of it.
I got back from class yesterday with tears close to the surface, when a friend back home emailed to let me know she was praying for me.  (It always means the world to me when someone tells me that.)
I pulled myself together to call my Grandma.  It's been months since I've gotten to talk to her, and it's always a treat.  She's had so many surgeries and so many complications (some of them quite serious), and I am grateful for every chance I have to talk with her.
"Oh, sweetie, it's so good to hear your voice again!"
"You too, Grandma."
"I miss you.  When are you going to come home?"
...Cue tears again.
About twenty minutes into the conversation, it got dark all of the sudden and the wind really picked up.  I went to the patio door to look.  There was dust and a whole bunch of plastic bags flying around, then I heard a really loud ruckus and saw the top part of a plastic table go sailing through the air.  It knocked a few tiles off the roof of the building across from me (I don't know if you can see it in that picture - it's above the sliding door on the bottom left) and put a dent in whatever-that-silver-stuff-is before landing on their patio/rooftop.
"Uh...hold on, I don't think I should be standing outside..."
Things continued to fly around, banging and making a ruckus as I walked back into the house.  I was almost expecting to hear sirens or something.  "If I was in Missouri, I'd think this was a tornado," I told Grandma.
I knew it wasn't a tornado, but it still seemed like a wise idea to camp out in the windowless bathroom, just in case anything broke one of the windows.
There was water coming under the front door.  I figured out it was probably because the door to the roof (which is directly above my door) was open, and so the water was coming down the stairs.
Eventually things calmed down.  My apartment and I were left unscathed (the only ill effects being the water and a thick layer of dust on the floor), for which I'm quite thankful.

We had a good conversation, just not as calm or quiet as I was anticipating. :)

We got to talking about the rapture.  I know I've said it before, how some might think it's a sort of wimpy wish for those who can't handle life in this world.  But Heaven is the true home of every believer - where we ultimately belong - and so we should long for it with everything we've got.  And if trials or tears brings us to that point more readily, that's a good thing.

Who knows.  Maybe Jesus will come back today?

...And that's where I'll leave this. :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Looking Back: Truths

There are days when I feel I don't know a thing.  I can't talk properly (sometimes not even in English!).  I don't know how to act.  I can't see the future very clearly.  I ask myself why I'm even here.  But in those times, however foggy or unsettling they may be, there are truths that I can cling to.  Even if I have nothing else to hold on to, I know...
The Truths
- "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:39)  Nothing can separate me from the love of God, my Heavenly Father.  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  I love this.  It overwhelms me.
- He doesn't change.  This was my journal entry for August 25th, 2013:  "My goal isn't to be a glowing missionary success story, just to stay close to Him."  I can't say that I've accomplished that goal, at least not consistently.  But I am so very thankful that He remains constant and unchanging regardless of anything I do or don't do.
- I'm here so that I can know Him better.  At the end of a really tough week not too long after I got here, I remember crying and asking God why in the world He had brought me here.  The answer I sensed He was responding with was so that I would know who He is.  So that I would know Him better.  And that is ultimately our highest purpose in life, isn't it?
- He is sovereign.  I know sovereignty gets a bad rap in some circles, but God's sovereignty is a biblical concept.  As I understand the concept from the Scriptures, it doesn't mean God causes everything (including evil or sin), or that He's some kind of cosmic computer programmer that locks us into a certain pattern of behavior.  I believe it means that He's over everything.  Bigger than everything.  That's a tremendous comfort to me.  Sometimes, "It's all going to be okay," just doesn't cut it.  But the truth is God is bigger - bigger than storms and disease and loss.  Bigger than doubts and whys that don't get answered.  Bigger than my own poor choices or failings.  He doesn't expect me to will away the difficulties or to plaster on a fake fine.  In His sovereignty, He is perfectly capable of handling the whole spectrum of human emotion and experience.  So I am free to grieve and hope and laugh and cry, because my God?  He's got this.
- "Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid...for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you.  He will not leave you nor forsake you."  "And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you.  He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8)  I am never alone.  He is with me and He will never leave me.
- He can be trusted.  He has never failed before.  EVER.  All you have to do is read through some of those Old Testament books (Exodus comes to mind) to find promise after promise after promise that He kept.  He is faithful.
- "For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations." (Psalm 100:5)  He is always good.  Everything He does is good.  Even if circumstances don't feel good.
- He is my safe place, my refuge.  It's impossible for me to choose a reference (or even several) for this one; I've underlined dozens in the Psalms alone.
- His grace is enough.  He is enough.  Always.  "My grace is sufficient for you...My strength is made perfect in weakness..."  (2 Corinthians 12:9)  Beautiful how He ties His sufficient grace directly to our weakness, isn't it?  I don't have to hide from weakness.  I can look at His grace instead.

I'm also thankful for the gift of truth set to music.  This is a played-endlessly-on-repeat playlist of the past year. :)
Be Still My Soul
Your Love Never Fails
Whom Shall I Fear
All is Well
We Won't Be Shaken
Desert Song
I Belong
Year of Grace

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Looking Back: Gifts

Yes, the past year has been hard.  But in spite of that - or maybe because of that - some very special gifts stand out.

The Gifts
Marie-Claude: Her patience - oh my goodness.  Incredible.  From the first levels of the French program, which consisted of words and simple phrases, lots of pointing, and mind-numbing repetition, she's spent hours upon hours helping us improve bit by bit.  Although I know I still sound like a little kid when I speak French, she's never disparaging, and her corrections are always given gently.  I appreciate her more than I can say.

Julien and Angèle: Again, they've been amazing.  Shortly after they officially became my host family, I was visiting with Angèle, and she told me how honored they felt to have that role.  Now, as some of you probably know, I don't like being a burden or a bother.  At all.  Sometimes I go to rather ridiculous lengths to avoid the possibility of inconveniencing someone.  But when I got here, I was one big inconvenience.  ("Please just let me go hide under a rock!")  So someone seeing it as an honor, not a burden, to walk with you through all your bumbling ineptitude...well, I call that a pretty big grace-gift.  It made me want to cry thankful tears when she told me that.

NTM family: I feel very blessed to have the leadership that I do; I see humility, genuine care for those they're responsible for, and a passion for God's character and glory.  I've also enjoyed getting to know the other E2ers (those in the French program).  I feel like I'm in good hands (humanly speaking, ultimately I know I'm in God's hands) and good company!

Technology: I'm not sure it helps me miss home less, but it does make me feel less isolated.  What did people do before this wonder?!

Family and friends back home: You've remembered me.  Prayed for me.  Wrote.  Emailed.  Skyped.  Sent packages.  Supported me financially.  Kept me up-to-date with the happenings back home.  Tracked with my adjustments via blog and newsletter.  Made me laugh.  Let me cry or vent as needed.  Encouraged me from the Word.  I can't even begin to imagine doing this without y'all.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Looking Back: Struggles

Keepin' it real.

The Struggles

Some surface-level stuff (notice I didn't say "little" - they aren't life and death hardships, but they don't necessarily seem little):

Hot weather - It's a huge energy zapper, which naturally effects pretty much everything from French study to quiet time to keeping up with correspondence.  And having sweaty clothes sticking to you all the time?  Not a fan, I must say.

Cockroaches - Okay, you may or may not understand this one.  Just think of something you find really gross and then imagine having to deal with it in your house.  Every day.  Multiple times a day.  However, this is one struggle from which I currently have a reprieve - Anna has saved the last tattered shreds of my sanity with that cockroach powder.  A true friend she is. :)

The city scene - People and cars everywhere, tall buildings, very little in the way of nature...I'm not a hermit by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like peace, quiet and space sometimes.  Everywhere else I've lived, taking a walk or run outside was one of my favorite ways to de-stress.  Here, taking a walk outside doesn't really have the same de-stressing effect.  (In fact, it's more likely to be a source of stress.  I still walk for exercise, but not for relaxation.)  Basically, I'm just not a city girl.  No siree!

Standing out (which kind of goes along with the last one) - It's inevitable; the minute I step outside my door, I stick out like a sore thumb.  For someone who doesn't care for the spotlight and would much rather fade into the background, this is definitely out of the comfort zone.

Smells - No further comments on this one...

Deeper struggles:

Nothingness - I went from being a capable, functioning member of adult society to a fumbling, bumbling idiot who didn't know how to function the normal way in this society.  It's humbling.  Frustrating.  Exhausting.  Maddening, sometimes.  My wounded pride is always looking for ways to prove (to myself, if no one else) that I am capable and intelligent and self-sufficient.

Homesickness - I can honestly say that I'd never really dealt with this much before moving here.  Back at the MTC - my first time living away from home - I remember missing home, but never really feeling homesick.  ("Homesick" being more than just simply missing home, but a feeling more along the lines of get-me-out-of-here-now-I-don't-think-I-can-take-this-any-longer.)  I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been a very frequent companion since my arrival.

"Why am I here?" - People say when things get rough, you need to have a strong sense of purpose, of why, to keep you going.  The bare truth is that, when it comes to this, I seem to have more questions than answers.   (And if you're tempted to try to answer the question for me, please don't.  I know the pat answers; I know the verses.  But all that's hollow if it has mostly stayed up in one's head, not heart, for years and years.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Looking Back: Myths

Here are some myths about serving overseas.  Some are things I've been told, others I believed myself at one time or another.

The Myths

"It gets easier."
Sure, some aspects of life in a new culture may get easier over time.  But new struggles and difficulties will pop up.  In the beginning, everything can feel unfamiliar and downright lonely.  As you develop relationships, some of that lost-ness may fade, but then you have new challenges: more opportunities to be involved in a community - but still only twenty-four hours in a day.  You also start uncovering deeper "whys" behind the things people do and have to wade through the muddy waters of how those things line up with Scripture...knowing that your interpretation is heavily influenced by your own home culture...which in turn forces you to evaluate beliefs, ideas, or practices you may have held tightly for a long time.  It's a draining process spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

"I could never do what you're doing."
Guess what: I can't either.  "But you're doing it," you protest.  Sometimes "doing it" consists of simply putting one foot in front of the other - taking another step, another step, another step.  I kind of like to picture a little baby first learning how to walk; they're unable to take those tiny steps unless they're holding onto something.  In my case, I have a Heavenly Father holding onto me, and that's the only way I can keep taking another step, and another, and another...

"You know you're called to be a missionary if it isn't work, but 'fun'."
(I read this in an article recently.  The woman clearly had no idea what she was talking about.  According to her bio, she hadn't ever ministered overseas before, so...yeah.)  Big. fat. lie.  It is work; there's no two ways about it.  That doesn't mean that it can't also be enjoyable or rewarding or "worth it", but trust me, it is work.  Hard work.

"It takes someone special."
Actually, there's nothing special about me or anyone else titled "missionary."  Missionaries (or anybody in ministry of any kind, anywhere) can be just as unloving, selfish, distracted, or petty as the next guy.  It's possible to be surrounded by people living and dying without a chance to hear about Jesus and yet spend more time thinking about McDonald's hamburgers or Target sales or geckos.  Why?  Because we're ordinary earth-bound human beings, just like you.

"It'll be a life-changing experience!"
I suppose there is some truth to this one, but if by "life-changing", you mean that once a person steps off a plane to minister in another country, he or she automatically becomes more spiritual, more mature, more focused, or has a bigger vision for God's  You're still yourself.  Growth never comes in an instant.  It doesn't come from flying over an ocean any more than it does from getting a diploma, putting a wedding band on your finger, or having a baby.  Growth is a process.  Usually a slow and painful one.

"You're living a dream/adventure!"
No, I'm living reality. :)  It doesn't feel like a dream or adventure; it feels like life, just in a new context with some different challenges and new blessings.  It's no Swiss Family Robinson story or anything like that.

"How fulfilling!"
For this one, I'm speaking only from my personal experience.  I've found it to be more emptying than fulfilling (and I don't think that's completely bad).  As I think of it, a fulfilling experience would be one where I feel good about myself and what I'm doing and/or have a rock-solid sense that I am doing what I was always meant to do.  Neither of those has been true for me.  I think it's rather difficult to feel good about yourself when you're the village idiot, or to feel good about what you're doing when what you're doing is...well...inconveniencing or misunderstanding or offending everyone around you.  Rather than being a fulfilling experience, it has been a stretching, I-don't-have-what-it-takes, I-can't-do-this-on-my-own kind of deal.  Honestly, I hate that feeling.  It's crazy uncomfortable.  But it does give me an opportunity that I might not see so readily otherwise: I can unclench my hands, breathe deep, and let my Hero do what I can't.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Looking Back: Comic Relief

Today's edition of "Looking Back" features things about living here that I've found funny, that I enjoy, or that have surprised me (in a not-unpleasant way).
The Comic Relief
French fries in everything: Yup, you've all heard me say this before.  They really like French fries here.  In fact, I'd be willing to bet that my host family (and other locals) probably eat more fries on a regular basis than my family does in the States.  Which is funny, because I've always thought of French fries as being so American. :)

Very (VERY) little personal space: I've always liked having my space, so it surprised me more than a bit when I realized how easily I could tolerate having none.  By "none", I mean feeling people breathing on my neck, getting elbows in my face or my ribs, or having only inches between my face and something or someone.  Granted, there are days when it's extra hot or I'm just feeling somewhat irritable, and then I don't tolerate all the pushing and shoving so well, but on the whole, I can stand it.  Oh, and you want to hear a funny story?  One time I was on a bus that was so crowded that, as I was trying to get off, I just. could. not (believe me, I was doing my share of pushing).  A guy standing near the door reached through the crowd, grabbed my arm, and pulled me through.  Whatever works, right?

Eating/drinking from the same dish/glass:  Along the same lines as the above, I was surprised that this didn't bother me at all, coming from a very Western mindset of germ-consciousness.  (I don't think having two sisters in the medical field helps!)  I'm not saying I'm throwing microbiology out the window, but it doesn't keep me from sharing a normal meal with my host family.

Geckos sliding down tile walls: The first time I saw that, I started laughing out loud.  I thought since geckos could walk upside down and on glass that they'd be able to walk on tile without sliding...but apparently not.  It's absolutely hilarious to watch them fighting against gravity.

Left-handedness: It surprised me how quickly I learned to use my right hand for handing things to people.  Eating with my right hand took a little longer, but it's doable now.

Mafé (meat in a peanut sauce): I had my first taste of authentic mafé just days after I arrived, and I was hooked.  If I had to pick a favorite West African meal, that would probably be it.  Chebu yapp (meat over seasoned rice) deserves an honorable mention, though.  Yum!

Worship at church: It's enthusiastic and loud (though I've heard louder).  I like that enthusiasm.  I do think it's funny how much the music relies on the drums, though.  Take the piano away and people can still sing just as well.  Take the drums away and everyone limps through like a marching band that hasn't practiced together.

Outfits (the ladies' especially): All those colors and all those styles!  It's amazing!

Thunderstorms: It's no secret that I positively adore a good thunderstorm.  But California good thunderstorms.  So it's perhaps one of the few things that I like much better about here than I do about home.

English turning up in unexpected places: Little restaurants called "Fast food".   Stop signs with "Stop".  Phrases on car rapides or taxis ("Time is money", to name one example!).  And of course, the sometimes-ridiculous, sometimes-inappropriate t-shirts worn by unsuspecting souls.  It makes me shake my head and chuckle.

People guessing incorrectly what nationality I am: I've been asked if I was English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and maybe one or two others.  (Of course, a decent percentage of the time they do guess American.)  Not that I think people are stupid for guessing wrong - I mean, I don't walk around with "I'm an American" tattooed across my forehead - I just think it's funny.

The unofficial motto of public transportation: "There's always room for more."  It never ceases to amaze (and amuse) me just how much can be packed into, stacked on top, and hanging off of a single vehicle.

"Farm animals" living in the heart of a city over more than 2 million: Sometimes it's amusing.  Sometimes it's annoying.  It the beginning it was just plain surprising.  Baby chicks scurrying around right next to a multi-story building?  A herd of sheep right outside a little restaurant?  Horse carts stuck in traffic alongside of semis?  Yup.  We have it all!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Looking Back: Milestones

Well, people, it's official: Rachel survived a whole year in West Africa.

In honor of the occasion, for the next week or so, I'll be writing "Looking Back" posts.  Today we'll start with some firsts - some big, some trivial, some tongue-in-cheek.

The Milestones

- flight across an ocean
- all-nighter (actually it was two all-nighters in a row, neither of them being intentional - I couldn't sleep on my flights over here)
- eating-around-a-bowl meal
- taking the bus by myself
- taking a bus I'd never taken without being told by another ex-pat, "Bus X goes to Place Y" (that gave me a great sense of accomplishment!)
- outfits made at the tailor
- pet gecko (the first of many!)
- ferry ride
- time on an island (I think it was my first time, anyway)
- burger with egg and fries on top (I've heard you can get them in the States, but I never tried it till I came here - here it's hard to find a burger without an egg and fries on top)
- marriage proposal from a taxi driver
- understanding a play-on-words in French (it was funny, but I think I laughed more because I was pleased to have understood)
- shopping at the market by myself
- understanding an application from a message at church
- visiting my host family by myself
- visitors from the States
- making bissap myself (Angèle taught me)
- frying plantains myself (Marie-Claude taught me)
- birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter in Africa
- baptism at church
- wedding reception
- baby born to someone I know here

Other milestones:
- the longest stretch of time I've been out of California (and therefore the longest stretch I've been away from family)
- the half-way point of the French program
- 7500 words/phrases in French (we can expect to learn about 12,000 - 15,000 words/phrases over the course of the program)