Monday, August 6, 2018

Les Trois Soeurs

At the beginning of the summer, I asked all of the kids if there was something in particular that they wanted to do this summer.  My teenagers were pretty bummed about the fact that we weren't planning any travels anywhere and I was hoping to at least give them something to look forward to in our desert town.  I knew it was going to be a pretty lonely summer as most of their high school peers were heading out of the country.  When I asked, they all looked at me as if I had three heads and made some comment about how there is NOTHING to do here.  But, after encouraging them to think a little harder, Isaac said that he wanted to hike the "Three Sisters." 

The Three Sisters are a group of three plateau/hill type things that dominate our vista across the river.  We absolutely love the view we see of them from our back porch and yet we had never ventured up them.  Finally, last week, on an overcast morning, we drove across the river and scaled all three. 

Here are the Three Sisters from our back porch.

The first one we climbed was way harder than I had imagined.  It was sheer rock and rather than being a steady incline, there were almost like mini-cliffs.  Let's just say that my upper thighs were quite contrary the next couple of days as they reminded me how much the did NOT like hoisting me up the ledges.  Fortunately, the other two were much gentler, though the rolling rocks that dominated the slopes were a bit of a challenge to navigate.  The views from the tops were super and it was a great time for all of us.  We nearly raced up the third one because a storm was obviously rolling in.  We watched the rain across the river, but managed to get only sprinkles on our side.  Here are a few pictures of our morning adventure.

Isaac and Liz were enjoying the view from the top of the first one we climbed, which was actually the farthest one down the road that we traveled to get to them.

Here is the road below.  Do you see the camel passing in front of that stand of trees?

My all-time favorite hiking buddy.  I was thinking about it and I can think of at least 10 countries where this fellow and I have hiked together.  And I know it's been way more than 10 states.  I look forward to many more hikes together!

This is our land, during rainy season.  See all of that green!

Me with my growing young'uns!

These houses are pretty typical residences for our host country.

Here is a funny Three Sisters story that I think of often.  When I first started teaching art in Niger, most of my kindergartners were English Language Learners.  One day in class, we were talking about mountains and one of the students, who was often very quiet, looked at the photo I was holding and gave a little nod of understanding while he whispered excitedly, "comme Les Trois Soeurs!"  I grinned at his connection that the mountains in my photo were like the Three Sisters in our city, which are probably the only "mountains" he has yet to see.    

Monday, July 30, 2018

Changes Ahead

I love a break in routine and I am often interested in trying new things, but I am not a fan of change.  Ask my husband, who would be an absolute gypsy if I didn't insist on some sort of normalcy.  I always have to warm up to new ideas and rarely look for ways to be innovative.  Yet sometimes, I find change really is the best thing for everyone involved and it rarely turns out to be as difficult as I envision (except when it ends up being worse!)

That being said, Ryan and I made a decision several months ago that is leading to another change for our family.  Because of the type of job that Ryan does with our mission, he was given the option to change his contract a little bit.  There were pros and cons with adjusting to the new system or choosing to be grandfathered into the old system.  We spent many months praying and analyzing and in the end, we chose to go with the newer option, though few of our cohorts went that route.  I won't bore you with all of the details, but one of the biggest differences between the two options is how time away from the field is calculated.  With our original contract, we had a shorter annual vacation, but were always accruing time away for a longer stay in the States.  With our newer benefits, we no longer accrue time for a long term stay in the States, but we do get 8 weeks of vacation annually.

It wasn't that we really loved everything about the new package, but honestly, it works better for the nature of Ryan's work and we were feeling such a strong tug in our hearts that we needed to find a way to get to the States more often.  With kids headed off to college and parents growing older, we really needed a different rhythm than we had.  And so, with much fear and trembling we changed our "pathway" in an effort to make a continued life in Africa more doable for our family.

One of the other things that changed with that contract shift was my role.  While I am still partnered with our mission, I now have the option of working a job myself.  This freed me up to consider some other options and quite frankly we knew that for us to be able to use those 8 weeks of annual vacation, we were going to have to come up with some plane ticket money.  We began to pray about what the Lord would have us to do and He dropped an opportunity in my lap.  

It's a long and winding story, that I won't try to recount here, but I will say that we are very certain that it is where the Lord is leading us for now.  So, in a few weeks, I will start a new job teaching K-12 art at an International School here in our city.  Our oldest three children will remain where they are for school, and Abe and I will make the move to the new school.  My contract is for a little more than half time, which means I have a full day off and some afternoons too.  I am hopeful this will leave me some margin to keep my home/family running smoothly.  We are excited to shine our light in this new environment.  It is not a faith based school, like the one I have served at the last two years, so there will be many different opportunities ahead.

It is amazing to me how God really paved the way for all of this.  I really was resistant when I first saw the doors opening.  I absolutely loved being a volunteer art teacher at my children's school and hated the thought of leaving my students there.  But, for so many reasons, I cannot deny that this is the right move and I am choosing to welcome that change that is ahead.  I am anxious to see how God will use me during my time there and I am looking forward to meeting all of the students and staff.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Who Would Have Thought?

A couple of Aprils ago, I was sitting in my car one day, waiting for my kids to finish an activity at school.  At the time I was homeschooling two of my children most of the day, but each morning they would start with French and PE at the school that their other siblings attended.  As I sat in the car, I really felt the Lord impressing on my heart that I needed to offer to teach a few hours each week at the kids's school.  

After getting permission from supervisors and chatting with Ryan, I went to the school director and told her that I would be willing to teach an hour or so each day for the next school year, while my homeschoolers took other classes.  She agreed that it would be helpful and told me she would get back to me with their needs.  I completely expected to be asked if I could do Middle School Bible or Social Studies or something.  I was completely shocked when she came back to me a few days later and asked if I would consider teaching art.  I barely suppressed a laugh.  Seriously.  I remember saying to her, "You want ME to teach art?!?"  And then I remember agreeing to pray about it.  

I did.   I prayed and researched and decided to give it a whirl.  With fear.  And trembling.  And a full disclosure that I was completely unsure of my abilities but that I would try.  She reassured me that some art would be better than no art and gave me permission to fail.

So, for the last two years, I have taught K-8 art.  Surprisingly, I loved it.  Completely loved it.  I think that most of my students did too.  I  have learned so much, found a great outlet for my creativity, and absolutely thrived.  I am sure I have done so many things wrong.  I have relied heavily on the art blog world while gaining confidence in my abilities to tweak or create my own lessons. I am certain that there are many other teachers who could have done it so much better.  But they weren't here and I was.  I honestly think my students have had fun, developed a few skills, and have grown in the confidence that they can create.  It's been a fun journey.  

This spring, I was able to take coordinate my second elementary art show and it was fabulous watching my little artists show off their work to mom and dad.  We spent the spring semester learning about different countries of the world and then trying art inspired from those places.  Here are just a few of the photos Ryan took of the big day.   

 First grade fish inspired by the tropical fish of Panama 

 Fifth grade tulip fields from the Netherlands

Fourth and fifth grade Ming vases inspired by China

Kindergarten and first grade pandas
Second and third Grade Chinese lanterns

Second and third grade matryoshka dolls
Kindergarten and first grade onion domes

I am so thankful that the Lord allowed me to have the opportunity to try something new.  It has been such a joy and a blessing!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Out of the Darkness

In our house, we have a big chalkboard that my husband bought on the side of the road somewhere in our city.  It is a piece of really rough plywood, covered in low quality chalk paint.  When he bought it, it had long legs, like an easel.  He sawed them off and stuck that bad boy on the wall.  We always have some pretty little drawing or lettering on the board, mostly thanks to Ryan's skills.  Sometimes it is a seasonal bit, sometimes scripture or lyrics from a hymn, and sometimes we put something on it specific to an event or dinner we are hosting at the house.  I love it and it makes me smile often.

The day this picture was taken, at the beginning of this summer, was actually a day that this chalkboard brought me to tears.  I remember walking past it on that busy day.  I was preparing a Mexican themed dinner for some friends who were preparing to leave Africa for a year.  I turned the corner into the kitchen and I distinctly remember standing at the sink, washing dishes, and crying out in gratitude to the Lord for this moment.  Simply thanking Him that I was zipping around my house, in a hurry to get dishes done and a meal ready to share with friends, and that I had the energy and enthusiasm to do it.  My mind sort of rewound 6 months to a different time and a different season for me.

I recalled standing at the same sink, months earlier, and crying as I did dishes because it was all I could do to just survive.  I reflected on the many days in a row of tears.  I recalled so many nights, looking at Ryan, when dinner should have already been on the table and telling him through tears that I didn't even know what to cook and being totally overwhelmed that people needed me to figure this out for them.  I remember another time standing at that sink, during that same season and wondering if I would ever get past survival again.  Would I ever be to the point that laundry and meal prep and parenting did not seem like mountains looming in front of me?  I had wondered if I would I ever again possess enough well being and energy to open my home to others. 

And yet here I was, preparing to welcome friends- and not for the first time in recent months.  It hit me, in that moment, glancing at that chalkboard, how God had and was healing me and how He had brought me out of the darkness.  

I couldn't recall a moment when it happened.  In fact, a counselor friend asked me what did it, what flipped the switch, what made it better?  And I don't know.  I do know that it was a gradual thing.  I do know that some time outside of our country over Christmas, without all of the responsibilities of daily life in Africa helped and seemed to be the beginning of my chin lifting.  During part of that time I was able to attend worship daily with colleagues and heard the word of God in a way that really watered my parched soul.  I also know that being vulnerable and sharing with a small group of trusted women who lifted me up in prayer over many months contributed as well.  I sought resources with a counselor who helped me identify some positive steps to take toward healing.  A loving husband who was exceedingly patient with me and gave me permission to do whatever I needed to do to get well was also an essential part of the picture.

I do know that I am so, so grateful that I am not at the same place where I was when I wrote my last blog post, nearly 9 months ago.  There are still struggles.  I still fight moments of being overwhelmed or days where thoughts of uncertainty swirl in my mind.  But by God's grace I'm not residing there in the darkness today.  My prayer, as I reflect on that season is that God can use the valleys in my life to make me a more compassionate and empathetic friend to others who are in the midst of the struggle.  I desire nothing more than for my pain to be redeemed for his purposes.

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."
Psalm 34:18

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Choosing Kindness

God's word never ceases to amaze me.  Over and over again in my life I have found that, no matter where I find myself studying in the scriptures, they always seem the perfect text to minister or challenge me in just the right way for the season of life that I am facing.  Right now, I am studying the book of 2 Corinthians and finding it to be such a timely word in my life.  I didn't purposefully decide to dig into this particular letter at this time.  I meet weekly with a group of women and back in the summer, when one of them agreed to sacrifice suitcase space to carry in Bible study books for all of us, we needed to just pick something via e-mail.  One gal suggested the "All Things New" study written by Kelly Minter.  I didn't have a strong opinion and I didn't have a bunch of time to put into researching and so I threw my thumb's up into the pot.  But the Lord knew all that would be happening in my heart and life in these months.  In his loving kindness He is using these words to minister to my heart in so many ways.

It's been a rough re-entry.  I hate to sound like a cry-baby, but we are struggling over here.  Not the normal, "Oh it's hot and I wish we could just order Domino's tonight" kinda struggle.  These are more of a "I am not sure I have the courage to get out of bed today" kinda struggles.  I am not sure exactly why these last 8 weeks have been some of the hardest of my life, but they have.  I was expecting to feel some grief and loss after leaving Abby and after facing the beginning of my chicks flying.  I was expecting the usual fatigue and hard work that inevitably comes with this life we live here.  But this, this is more than that.

We, as in the whole familial unit, have faced some major obstacles.  I won't detail everyone's struggles, but for me it has been a spell of real depression.  Many, many tearful days, being overwhelmed at simple everyday needs, and such a feeling of being trapped.  I do face some moments of grief and missing my girl, but really that is just one part of the equation.  It's been hard and for some reason the weekends are especially awful.  It's like every Sunday a terrible darkness just falls across my heart and mind.  

Since we've returned we have battled scorpions, cobras, boils, viruses, sleeplessness, and rebellious appliances and systems.  Morale has been low and we've all wondered how we can keep going.  But, we have kept going.  Day by day, little by little, we are making it.  By God's grace alone, we find enough strength for each day and we are surviving.

It is my prayer that, like some of the other rough patches we've faced through the years, a day will come when I will realize, "Hey, we're not just surviving anymore, we're really living!"  I don't know when it will come.  I don't know exactly what the Lord's purposes are for us in this patch.  But, I do know that He is faithful and He will guide us.

We are seeking His direction.  We are pursuing godly counsel- both within our organization, and with a few wise believers that we trust both here and across the ocean.  We are trying to chose life-giving activities when we want to quarrel or sleep or pack a suitcase.  We know that whatever happens, He can and will be glorified.  We know that He loves us.

We also know that every choice we make, every word we speak is setting an example for our children of how to navigate seasons of neediness and brokenness and we are trying to do it well.
It is my hope that the example we set, though not perfect, will communicate that as believers, we can push past the deceitful feelings of our heart and rely on the strength of the Lord.  We can do hard things in His power.  We can trust him to sustain us when we would rather grasp for every crutch this world has to offer us.

Through it all, I have had some sweet time in God's word and one of the things that He is impressing on me through all of this hurt and aching is how very important and powerful it can be to chose kindness.  Paul lists it as one of the virtues he demonstrates to the Corinthians and thinking through that, I have realized how much power kindness has in our choices.  When we think about being the "aroma of Christ" in this difficult place, I know that kindness can be one of the things that can cross language and cultural barriers and one which I can always chose, even in the midst of my own suffering.  When I don't have a deep reserve from which to pull in terms of ministry and pouring out to others, I can at least chose to be kind.  And the word tells me that with the Holy Spirit, there is not limit to the kindness that is available to me.  So, I am asking the Lord to help me to demonstrate kindness when my hurt and sorrow tempts me to chose selfishness and a short-temper.

On the flip-side, through all of the struggles I have been facing, I have found that being the recipient of  kindness has been one of the things that has most ministered to me.  It's been little things...friends who have known or suspected our struggles taking the time to share words of encouragement, inviting us to dinner, or people faithfully praying.  Because I have been so fragile, I have found myself gravitating toward people from whom I believe that I can expect to receive kindness.  I have been ultra-sensitive to who I expose myself to because I have been such a hot mess and it's just better for everyone that way.

Just this morning, I found myself faced with one of those "hot-mess" situations.  I was compelled to ask a favor of someone because the older kids and I had made a mistake and needed help.  The issue we were facing was partly because we hadn't planned ahead and we were a bit irresponsible.  The person wasn't particularly unkind, but they also didn't choose kindness.  It was obvious they were a bit irritated and answered me in a way that was a bit harsh-at least, from the angle through which I'm currently processing my world.  Honestly, they had a right to be irritated.  And, in this person's defense, they had no idea how my morning had gone, no idea that I was headed home to a feverish child, and no idea the mountains that we are climbing right now just to go through the motions that are daily life.  They didn't do anything wrong, but it hit me in a totally wrong way.

I quickly finished what I had to do and got into my car before the tears started pouring.  I knew they were coming and I knew they were silly, but I was powerless to stop them.  As I drove home, wondering how many passing people were wondering why the white lady in the Toyota was sobbing her face off, the Lord once again impressed upon me the lessons about kindness.  I wondered, how many times have I been in a position to extend and offer kindness and instead chose to be short or irritated?  How many times have people stood before me in a needy state, battling their Goliaths, when I have delighted in wielding power or preparedness over them?  Too many to count, that is for darn sure.

All of this has made me realize that I want to be a "safe-place" kind of person.  I want to be a person who has a reputation of providing abundant grace.  Someone who comes alongside and loves first, asking questions later.  If I err, I want it to be, time and again, on the side of kindness and grace.  I hope and pray that this season, which right now seems incredibly overwhelming, will one day be a mere memory of a time when God taught me to be a more compassionate soul.

So, if you're still reading, after all of my ramblings, I ask two things of you.  When the Lord brings us to mind, will you pray for us?  Our little circus is currently in need of your prayers.  And secondly, will you choose kindness today?  Will you be intentional in allowing the Holy Spirit to empower you to be an instrument of kindness to someone you encounter?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Ready or Not, Here It Comes!

17 Days.  That's all that remains until my firstborn's graduation. I am very proud of her and so excited to see where life will lead this girl.  It has been such a joy to raise this beautiful soul!

I remember when we first came to Africa.  Abby was in the 7th grade and college seemed so close and yet so far away.  Even at that point, we needed to think through how we would pace our Stateside visit times so that we could be sure that we could have time to get each of our graduates back to the States for university.  The thought was terrifying to me and I remember chatting with another mom who had already settled three in herself.  She told me that with each of her children, there had been a certainty at the beginning of high school that this child was THE child who was not going to be ready on time.  Each child was the child who would not be ready to live on one side of the ocean with mom and dad on the other.  Then, she said, over the course of those 4 years, it always happened.  Each child would mature in big and little ways, and by the end of their senior year she would know they were ready.  

Well, here we are, at the end of senior year and I can say with the utmost confidence she is ready.  I know it is time for her to fly.  All of those stupid Cracker Barrel plaques about giving them roots and wings are being lived out in my world right now.  The girl has roots, now it's time to let her use those wings.  She's ready.

I'm not.  I mean I am, but I'm not.  I have these moments where I can't wait to see where she'll go, how she'll impact others, and how she'll grow and mature as the years go by.  But I'm not ready to be separated from her.  God has given me the privilege of parenting this beautiful soul and she is a really great kid.  I honestly think that even if she wasn't mine, I'd think she is something special.  I enjoy spending time with her, hearing her stories, listening to her perspective, and laughing with her about all sorts of crazy things.  She brings such light into my world.  

I know that our relationship will continue.  I will always be her mom.  She will always be my Abigail Grace.  There will still be stories and laughs shared together.  It will be exciting to see her grow and branch out and there will be new things to enjoy.  I realize this isn't a funeral, it's a graduation.  But, the dailyness will be different.  The reality is that the calling we've chosen to obey will separate us for many birthdays and holidays and everydays.  That is the part that I struggle with.

Just a few weeks ago we were at the hospital where we volunteer each week and she was sitting on the floor, in the middle of a pile of children.  She was laughing and smiling as she does while we are there, and she called out to me, "Mom, Mom, look at him, isn't he so cute?" as she gestured toward a child who was completely covered in burn scars.  He was giggling and grinning as she tickled him.  And, in that moment, I couldn't breathe.  I just was overwhelmed with sorrow.  I choked out a small response of agreement and walked away as the tears just flowed and I whispered to the Lord about how I just wasn't sure I could do it.  I just was not sure that I was going to be able to board a plane and put an ocean between us.  

That moment passed and since then, others have come and gone.  I know others will come.  The reality and the grief ebbs and flows.  I know that God's grace is sufficient.  It has been.  It is.  It will be.  

 Sunrise at the dunes which was Abby's last wish list "to-do" before departing Niger.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My "Mommy Book"

Back in the fall, a friend invited me to join she and some other ladies for a weekly Bible study together. The group I had been meeting with last year was doing something I'd done before and I decided to join this new group. The women in the group are all other cross-cultural workers who are really sweet and really precious and really YOUNG. I mean they aren't that much younger than me, I guess, but they feel young to me. All of them are either pregnant or have had a baby in the last 18 months. So the things that are filling their days are similar, but different, than my days. And when I listen to them share I have this weird blend of nostalgia and compassion for their current seasons of life. I love them all, even if they make me feel a little bit like I should be applying for my AARP membership. And even if my tongue is sometimes sore from all the times I bite it instead of saying "It goes so fast, enjoy it!" Because let's be honest, that doesn't help ANY of us, does it? And really, those 55 hour long days of the toddler years!

Anyway, we started off the school year with a Jen Wilkins study of 1 Peter, which I highly recommend. It was my first Jen Wilkins study and I loved it because 90% of the study focused on what the Bible actually had to say, rather than the author's commentary on what the Bible had to say, which I appreciated.  

So, we finished that study a few weeks before Christmas and decided to do something lighter over the holidays, especially as many of us were traveling or having guests. We thought we'd read a book together. After perusing several options, we chose Missional Motherhood, by Gloria Furman. The subtitle was, "The Everyday Ministry of Motherhood in the Grand Plan of God." It sounded good to me. I was thinking it would be a bit of a light read with some encouraging tips for mothering in a Christ-Centered way. I've read at least a dozen Christian mommy books through the years. I appreciate the tips I pick up and the encouragement I get and it had been a while since I'd read one. So, I ordered my $11 Amazon copy and prepared for my light reading. Which is NOT what I got. I got systematic theology 101, in light of motherhood. 

To be honest, I've had a love-hate relationship with the book. It is not what I signed up for- at all! I know I would not have finished it if it hadn't been a group discussion book because I wanted some feel good fluff. But, I have finished it and I am so glad I did. The last few chapters have been really rich and encouraging for me. They have helped me to see my ministry as a mother from a very Biblical perspective. Today, I read something that led me to want to share with you from where I am in life these days.

When we travel to the States, one of the most common questions we get is "Do you like where you live?" or "So, you must really like it over there or you wouldn't go back, right?" We never know how to answer those questions. If you were to google something like "least developed countries in the world" or "lowest life expectancy age" or "worst countries for women's rights" you would find our current home in the top five for all of those lists and many other lists that are equally as unfortunate. It is a hard place for anyone to live and honestly, it is not a place that is glamourous or fun in its own right. It just isn't. We don't live here because we love it. We live here because God has given us a heart for these people and we love Him. We know, that for this season of our life, it is the only place we can invest and be walking in obedience. God gives us the grace to stay and invest and persevere every single day. We get enough for that day, which is all we need.

My point in saying this is not to make myself sound like a martyr or a super hero. I can assure you no one is less qualified to wear those titles than me. So, if you're carrying around any sort of false belief that missionaries are in a different league than the average person, please drown and bury that falsehood immediately. The vast majority of us are knee-deep in sin struggles, depending on daily grace, just like you... we just don't get to eat as many Doritoes and Dr. Peppers after we lose it with our kids or use harsh words with our spouses!

The truth is, if you are a Christ follower, you've been called to do your "whatever" to the glory of God, just like I have. l am not sure what your whatever might be...showing love to a difficult neighbor, sticking in a marriage that isn't full of fun and fluff these days, parenting a child whose needs are overwhelming, working a 40 hour a week job when you really just want to be a full-time mommy (or vice versa- I have been there!), etc., etc., etc. You can rest assured that if you have breath in your lungs, God has work for you to do right where he has you. You and I can be on mission in the everydays and the ordinaries. Though our geography is different, our calling is the same. If you are a follower of Christ, then we should both be trying to make disciples and share the love of Christ in every circle of influence that God has given us for this season. Which is easier to do some days than others.

So today, as I was reading in my "mommy book," I came across these words, which I found encouraging. Words that I guess some of you might benefit from reading too. So here they are, straight from page 183 of Missional Motherhood, by Gloria Furman.

"Friends and fellow mothering women, because King Jesus is on this throne, subduing all his enemies and supplying everything we need for life and godliness as we go about the mission he gave us, we truly have no need to fear. We can instead gladly embrace weakness, sickness, lots of children, a few children, lots of needy people in our lives, unemployment, financial strain, and pain, knowing that he is up to way more and way better things than we can imagine. We can do things that we think are less fulfilling to us, such as volunteer in the church nursery, simply because that's that the church needs and because Jesus equipped us to serve him and build up his body. ... Because Jesus is coming back, and he is giving us tastes of his resurrection life now, we can serve like he served in the contexts he sends us. We can go places we can't imagine will ever make us happy, because we don't need those places to make us happy. Jesus makes us happy. There is no place we could sojourn in our Father's world where he who ways he is the resurrection and the life cannot satisfy us according to his word."

Wow, there you go friends. We can do it. Whatever our "whatevers" are, by his grace, we can do it. He can and will equip us. I can testify to his grace upon grace to do things you never imagined yourself capable of doing.

For the record, if anyone is looking for a good read, now that I've wrestled through it, I would recommend you read Missional Motherhood. Just maybe not for your relaxing beach read!