Thursday, April 9, 2015

Scripture Celebrations Close to Home




When I was in Tanzania and got the chance to go to a Scripture dedication, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And it pretty much was. Nothing can compare to being with a group of people in person who have never had the Scriptures in their own language before get them for the first time. Or watching as they see the Jesus Film in their own language and huge transformations take place.

So when I got invited to a Scripture Celebration at Wycliffe USA today, I was both excited (mostly to see my dear friends the Bitikofers, who were on my team in Tanzania,) and a little hesitant that the event itself might be a letdown. I was pleasantly surprised, however. While it definitely wasn’t quite the same as being with a language group in Tanzania, it was still an amazing example and celebration of 27 Scripture Projects that have been completed and dedicated in their local communities throughout the world over the past six months. (I was excited to take pictures of a few of them, since I have friends working (or from) many of these countries!
This New Testament translation had to be written in two versions, since the language group lives across a country border and the people have learned to write their language in two very different scripts!
What a blessing to see some of the things I’ve been involved in coming to fruition – and to see how great God is using ordinary little people like myself and my teammates to bring about transformations in hearts and communities around the world, in ways we could never do ourselves.

It was also certainly a pleasure to take part in a celebration where I could actually understand the Scriptures being read - though half the fun of not understanding what's being said during a Scripture dedication is knowing that the words I don't "get" speak to the hearts of so many who haven't "gotten" God's Word before this time. With over 100 English translations of the Bible available, we are beyond rich in our ability to read and comprehend the story of God's grace, if we choose!

One of the interesting aspects of a people group making choices about the book they are translating and dedicating is the unique design and colors they choose to use for the published book. Oftentimes Christians in highly Muslim areas will choose a green cover with a gold border, which is the clearly accepted style for any "holy book" in that region. Another group that lived in the arid desert chose a brown color for the cover of theirs, to show the dry, desolate area that they live in... but made sure the outside of the pages were colored with a rich water-blue to show the contrast of God's ever-flowing, never-running-out Living water that was there's to drink of in God's Word. What a clear picture of God's salvation!

Despite being close-to-(American)-home in Orlando, I had to smile as I heard the chosen song that the recently-translated Bibles (and flags, and individuals representing each country) marched into with. It was a Swahili worship tune that I've sung so often in the past, both with my kids church in Michigan and more often in churches across Tanzania!

And despite having been in the States for about 9 months now, I was still nearly in tears (as I often am) worshiping in English, my own heart language, with a sea of others as we will someday all do around the throne. So many beautiful ways that my heart was captured today, and so thankful for the things I’ve been able to be a part of!

Monday, April 6, 2015

"So, there's this guy..." (the continuing story)

(This post is the second in a 2-part series. For the back story, click here.)

After a long and somewhat treacherous furlough, I prepared to go back to Tanzania. About this time I drove up to Holland to see and say goodbyes to some good friends from college. We were getting together with some friends for an evening, and as we headed out the door, my girl friend mentioned, “By the way, there’s this single guy coming tonight…” Wait, WHAT? I don’t know what I replied, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here I was, leaving in a week for TWO YEARS... and my friends were setting me up with someone!?

But I have to say, after a walk downtown and time spent at our friend’s house, I was pretty intrigued with this guy. I’d never been interested in an Asian guy before – ever. But this guy was pretty cute. And way more important to me than his looks was his character. He paid attention, was totally respectful, and he really loved the Lord. We spent over an hour talking about our passion for the Word of God and how God speaks to us, and I came away realizing not only his commitment to the Lord and steadfast faith, but also that he really wanted to hear my thoughts and listen to me as well. I could joke about things international – like why in the world German McDonald's have amazing potato wedges but they don’t have them in America – and he got it. And we talked… and talked… and I kept thinking, “What in the world am I doing? I’m leaving the country for two years in less than a week!” But man, I was definitely intrigued!

So when he asked a couple of days later if we could get together again before I left, I politely but firmly declined (with legitimate reasons – I really had three days left to pack and get ready! – but I also didn’t want to lead him on when I was headed to another continent for a good while.) I figured that was the end of that. Great conversations, but too weird of timing. He’d be gone before I got back.

And then, soon after arriving in Tanzania, I got a Facebook message from Sang Mark. Several, in fact. Pretty much every holiday (real or otherwise) I would get a thoughtful “How’s it going?” message. He was friendly and supportive, and I greatly appreciated it. But I was working through some crazy situations with language school and then transitions in the school where I taught, dealing with sickness and amoeba and everything else, and couldn’t let myself think too far ahead to when and where I’d be back in the States (or considering what was next). I was physically in Musoma – I needed my mind to be fully there too. And so, as Sang Mark would say now, I hardly responded at all.

I was feeling more at home and settled in Musoma than I had ever felt in my life. And yet, I also felt like maybe this time in Musoma was the end – if not forever, at least for a long while, of my time of teaching overseas. God had continued to change my heart since furlough and had drawn me towards being back in the States and supporting missions from there, but I still struggled to consider leaving a place I loved and a community that had supported me and become family. How could I do this?

As I wrestled with this decision, I got yet another message from this guy I had liked (and still did) from two years back. This time I shared a bit about a recent break-in we’d experienced, and he responded with encouragement from Scripture that had helped him in the past. I talked to a few people, prayed about it, and decided 6 months until I left Tanzania might be an OK time to start chatting a bit.

And chat, we did. Our messages quickly got too long for Facebook messenger and moved to email. And then they got longer still. And despite differences in background culture, we kept discovering our values, our focus, what meant the most to us in our lives individually was more the same than I could ever have imagined. To be clear, in the midst of preparing to leave my life in Tanzania after five years, selling everything but three bags worth of stuff, and moving back to way too many unknowns back in the States, I had a few freak-out moments when I was sure I should just stop talking to Sang Mark before either of us got hurt. And I almost did, except for the wisdom of a couple of dear, much-wiser friends that encouraged me to wait till I got back to the States to make any final decisions on this guy. But here was a guy (I later found out) that was spending hours writing the longest emails of his life to me… who willingly drove down to Kalamazoo to take me out to dinner two days after I got back to the States, along with bringing me some of my favorite cereal I’d been missing the past two years and German chocolate he’d gotten me on a business trip the month before that I’d said I liked. The guy who has learned to listen while I process (and of course tries to fix everything for me, contrary to what I usually need…), who turns me toward the Lord when I’m needlessly worriing (yet again) and continues to teach me by example how to really rest and balance life well. A guy who has an incredible group of international friends here in Holland that welcomed me in with open arms... and who had me over for an amazing homemade dinner and watching Frozen for the first time when I moved up to Holland. Who was willing to talk through differences and listen and work through the hard stuff and pray and come to appreciate me through it – and I him.  Whose church I would choose for my own even if he wasn’t going there, and who let me decorate his apartment for Christmas in the middle of my own move so I could feel like I was home. Who I could talk art with – and enjoy hearing the processes he went through in his own creations – and realize we both got excited for many of the same things. And who has already turned me into a bit of a snob of inadequately-designed cars.

So, to answer a few of the questions I’ve been getting from people… No, I did not move back to the States, nor resign from Wycliffe, because of this guy. Those were separate decisions I made as I sought the Lord without knowing the outcome of this potential relationship. Yes, he’s been in the picture for awhile, but I really wasn’t sure what God was doing with it all. I’d come to terms with the fact that God might not have someone for me, and while that made me sad, I knew that I would continue to have joy and peace and everything I needed through my Savior. And that was ok, too. God has brought me families and kids, both blood-related and non, wherever I went, and while I had hoped I could do the same for other singles someday, I also knew I’d never be completely alone or without people to turn to.

Yes, we’ll be getting married this summer. (It still doesn't seem quite real - he proposed on the first day of spring just two weeks ago!) We’re both learning a lot about the wedding planning process and are thankful for any suggestions or ideas, help or wisdom you might have to offer!

Yes, my fiancĂ© goes by “Sang Mark.” It’s common for Koreans to have two first names. Yes, I’ve learned a whole lot more than I ever thought I’d know about Korean culture, and have oh so much more to learn. I'm thankful for an amazing teacher! :) No, I haven't learned a whole lot of Korean... yet. It's probably a good thing for this slow-language-learning girl that I have a lifetime to work on adding to my vocabulary! Yes, he lives in Holland, MI - he's been living here for 8 years now after living elsewhere in the States and around the world - and works as a designer of cars in a company while being a shining Light in the place where God's placed him.


No, I still don’t know what the future holds job-wise. I’m doing long-term subbing through the end of this school year and hoping to find something permanent for next fall, but we’ll see what God has planned. Because, when it comes down to it, though I’d love love love to know what’s coming, I absolutely have no doubt that what God has planned is better than I could ever imagine.

Through all the ups and downs and questions and peace, I have seen God’s hand in this story too many times to question whether I’ve made the right decision in starting the next chapter of my life with this guy. I’m excited for the path ahead and the story that will come with it, looking forward to learning to weather the storms I’m positive will come with this amazing guy God’s put beside me, and thankful for the ways He’s grown and changed me thus far along the way!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"So, there's this guy..."

I can’t tell you how many conversations and emails have started with these same words over the last year. But before I get to that, let me give you a bit of context for the story.

Once upon a time (about three years ago), I came home on furlough from Tanzania hoping and praying to go back. I’d been teaching at an international school, and was excited to fill a different need at a two-room school-house of sorts where 8 families were working with 9 language groups and needed a second teacher for their kids. (Things have changed a bit since then, but that was the idea!) I came home struggling with the beginnings of asthma from all the dust in Dar, to the point where a grad professor told me that if I went home and discovered I had TB, I should let her know and she’d extend my due dates for papers. Yep, I was coughing. A lot. I was pretty sure I knew what I was supposed to do (in going back to Musoma), but I had my doubts. I doubted as I went to NC and had plans for meetings with small groups and churches fall apart. And then I watched as God provided amazing communities for me to connect with anyway. I doubted as I got home after being on 4 continents in two months, and decided I could NEVER.MOVE. AGAIN. (haha… right.) I doubted as I tried to take 3 masters classes, substitute part time, AND raise support to go back… and didn’t see much of the support-raising thing happening! But the desire to go back was still strong in my heart, and I kept praying, and kept seeing little and big encouragements along the way that gave me hope. A family down the street that “adopted” me and encouraged me on my journey. An amazing connection with a family that was from Holland, MI that was headed to the same place as me in Musoma. Kids giving their missions’ box money to me to support me, and the chance to connect with kids at GraceSpring Church about missions. Watching said kids get excited and pray regularly for the language groups I’d soon (hopefully) be serving in Tanzania.

Throughout this time, we moved my “leave” date back a couple of times. Email conversations with my missions travel agent sounded something like, “Could we please change my ticket date again? I'd like to change it from the imaginary date of March 3 to another make-believe date of April 25... I don't care what airline you put me on for now since it's all going to change again anyway!"

Right. I’m sure they appreciated that. But then, I wasn’t overly thrilled at the situation either. I’d moved my leave date back three months already. And then about that time, my supervisor in America gave me an ultimatum. I had something like 5 weeks to raise the final $900/month I required to meet my budget, or I wouldn’t be able to get back to Tanzania in time for language school and starting to teach when they really needed me.

And that, as they say, was that. At least in my mind. I’d spent 9 months working hard trying to raise support and seeing almost nothing change. There was no way that I’d make it now. Maybe God was saying it was time to get a job in the States and stay here for a while. My mom can attest to the many drenching tears I shed on the couch the day I received the news, and the super-fast “walk” (she’d call it a jog) we took around the neighborhood a few times to help me de-stress. And through this time, I started to see God changing my heart. I was forced to open my eyes to new possibilities and what God might be doing in my life. I realized that helping kids at GraceSpring connect with missionary kids and life around the world had become just as dear to me as teaching kids overseas. I loved having opportunities to help kids see what they could be doing TODAY – not 25 years from now when they had a steady paycheck – to impact the Kingdom around the world. And then three weeks (or whatever the dates were) later, I sat at Panera watching text after text and email after email come in on the final date that my funds were due, all from people asking if they could still contribute to my ministry. At the beginning of the day, I was well-below what I needed. And by the end of the day, I had more than the minimum required! I was going!


…about which time I realized, I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to go back. (These are the things you can’t say, but oh so feel… I had spent so much time talking to people over the past year about how it seemed God was calling me back to Tanzania, and how I was needed there, that I hadn’t had time to let myself entertain any doubts myself. But when the support all came in, I suddenly realized that all the “funny” stories I’d shared about tarantulas on walls and jumping spiders, malaria and language issues were oh so much more funny when sitting in someone’s air-conditioned living room sipping on icy lemonade. It was a totally different story to live it, in hot, interesting but sometimes miserable places.
I think it was actually harder to go back to Tanzania the second time, in large part because I was “starting over” in a new place with a new community… so I didn’t have a support network to go back to. I didn’t know all the good things about the new place, but I did know about the hard stuff, the stresses, the exhaustion and sickness and spiders and everything else that I was sure were there waiting for me. I saw all of the negative, and none of the good. And I made my trips to Meijer to stock up on supplies, packed my suitcases, and prepared to go anyway.

(More to come... don't worry! It's hard to compact a three-year story into one blog post.
So just go get a drink, sit back down, and click here to learn more about "this guy"...)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Musoma Miracles

I may not be living in the Land of Tanz these days, but many of my heart’s prayers (and so many dear friends) are still very much there. In Tanzania, a good bit of our lives were focused on survival, on the work that we were doing at the office, or on the support work we’d gone there to do (eg. teaching missionary kids). But in-between and in the midst of these things, we became the lucky recipients of great Tanzanian friendships with neighbors, coworkers, and employees at our houses and in our communities. Many families and individuals have done this well, much better than this introverted, lacking-Swahili-skills girl ever did. One teammate in particular shared an amazing story recently that I wanted to pass along.

On January 25, she posted:

"We're so excited! This past Tuesday our outdoor worker (the one who keeps our yard from looking like a jungle and also takes care of our dogs) announced, "My wife and I have been talking about you and we have decided that wherever you worship, we want to worship from now on!" We were stunned because Karume is Muslim but he was very serious about what he said and today he and his wife and new little baby joined us for Karume's very first Christian church service! Please be praying for him as he learns more about the Savior!"

In a place where everyone is "born" Christian or Muslim - and these are more often than not mixed together with traditional beliefs or visits to the witch doctor - any change is a huge deal... and this announcement shows 1. Just how much God is working through my friends to shine His light in very real ways, and 2. Just how much God works in hearts in ways we wouldn't necessarily expect.

Then today, I read:

"Some of you might remember my excitement over Karume, our outside worker who made the decision to start worshiping with our family each Sunday. Since that time he and his family have experienced a miracle. After searching and praying for his missing son (missing for over 2 weeks) the boy was found this past Friday!! Ends up he was abducted and taken to a town quite a distance from his village but somehow managed to escape, PRAISE GOD. Karume can't stop talking about the way God protected his son and everyone in church got to hear all about it this morning. Eleven-year-old Wambura is in the center of this picture - pray for him as he is still really shaken up by this whole thing."

This last post really got to me - not only because Karume was someone I saw around Musomaland on a semi-regular basis, and because I know that abductions do happen - but also because I recently finished reading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency: Tears of the Giraffe and had read about something similar happening in Botswana... but in a fictional tale. This, on the other hand, is very real. I'm smiling from ear to ear, though nothing like Wambura's parents - and I am just so thankful for this happy ending - and beginning - for this very special family!!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Because Holland does ice. Really really well. Well, sometimes.



There was recently an ice sculpting competition in downtown Holland(, Michigan - for my international friends!) Since this is the coldest, windiest, snowy-ice-blowing-in-your-face city I've ever lived in, an ice sculpting competition seemed to fit perfectly onto the scene. I decided it didn’t matter if it was single digits outside – I was going to experience some local community fun. (And bring my camera - I've been looking for something to photograph now that monkeys don't reside outside my door!)


I was glad I went. I was equally glad for a shop where I could get out of the cold, and for this lovely fireplace outside where I could warm my fingers! ;)
(I’m starting to think I need one of these in my home…)
I've never seen anyone "sculpting" ice before, especially with a chain saw... so it was interesting to catch a glimpse of the artists at work. Olaf was even making his way onto the scene!
 
 
 
I never knew ice sculpting required so many tools!

Apparently there were two competitions on two days... the first, the "compulsory competition," seemed to have to do with the local business they were placed in front of. There were some fun ones, including an icy-hot apple pie just out of the, uh, oven!


The freestyle competition was going on while we were there, and some teams had finished a bit earlier than others.
 
 
It was fun to learn about the process of ice sculpting, and to pick up on some Holland "history" as well. Apparently the first year they held this competition, they decided to put the blocks of ice straight on the sidewalks for sculpting so that traffic could continue as usual. The only problem is, someone forgot that the sidewalks in downtown Holland are HEATED! Apparently, like Olaf, ice and heat don’t mix... and the sculptures took nose dives onto the closely parked cars rather quickly. They’ve since moved the competition to the streets, or at least added boards under the ice blocks on the sidewalks, making parking a bit trickier… but the ice sculpting oh so much more successful.

Thankful for fun new experiences with even more amazing people!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Littlest Things, the Greatest Memories

It’s always amazing to me how the littlest things can evoke the strongest memories. The “Meijer” price tag sticker on a body wash container I brought with me to Tanzania made me smile every.single.time I saw it, for months. Despite not fully appreciating Walmart here in the States, even bags from said location sent as padding with school supplies from my church were items that were kept and often used around the house – not because we didn’t have plastic bags available, but because they reminded us of bits of “home.”
(...because who is to say there wasn't a hedgehog or hippo at the manger?
Ok, maybe not a hippo, realistically... but an elephant!? ALL creatures worship Jesus right!?)
Today, as I began to pack up my Tanzanian nativity I’ve had on display this Christmas, I thought about getting slightly “softer” plastic bags to wrap the carved pieces in. But then I noticed the bags’ designs, and was instantly transported back over 4 years of memories of shopping and cooking, searching for boxes while moving houses, getting supplies and adventures, and getting yelled at  reprimanded corrected for doing things wrong in stores with friends (like holding up an overpriced imported shirt to see if it might fit me instead of going straight to the dressing room.) Shoprite, which is a South African chain officially now owned by none-other than Walmart, was our link to American foods like Pringles and European treats like Haribo gummies in Dar es Salaam. Alpha Choice was the much-tinier link in Musoma, where we could get ground chuck/beef already packaged – a dream come true for this girl who was seriously not excited about grinding her own meat! – and things like batteries and regular-sized containers of vanilla for baking when the whole town was out. And ice cream. Did I mention ice cream?

It’s a smell of burning smoke (though generally not of burning trash here in the States), a taste of coconut curry, a glimpse of various (though different) Fanta flavors at the local Burger King soda machine. A message from a Tanzanian colleague in Swahili. Walking into a job interview recently and hearing Swahili being discussed between teachers. Realizing the painting of a lake fit the background of my nativity perfectly, as many Tanzanian's lives revolve around fishing… As I sit looking out the window at so much snow, I am thankful both to be here, and to have the treasure of incredible memories that almost seem unreal at times of adored people and places in my not-too-distant past.

The Sequel

 
You know that magical moment, when you finish the last page of an incredible, epic story that made you laugh, cry, connect with incredible character-friends and wish and hope and pray for them (wait, am I the only one that ends up doing that?), and you sigh, wishing you could start the whole thing over again from the beginning? Except, you know without a doubt that a second reading, while good, would never be the same. Ever. You have already been changed. You know too much, the surprise will cease to catch your heart, and the story will be too easy to read from an outsiders’ view instead of being wrapped up in the midst of the moment.

And then there is the sequel. You know it’s coming, or is already out, yearning to be read… and you desperately hope for the best. And yet, I’m not a big fan of sequels. They always leave me… disappointed. The original story that I loved so much, the character’s ambitions and ideas, are all changed and different and they just.aren’t.the same as before. And it makes me sad.
This is pretty much where I am right now in life. I had a hunch when I left Tanzania, and realized more and more over the subsequent months, that not just a chapter, but a whole novel of my life was finished. I had turned the last page, said some final (and some not-so-final) goodbyes, and it broke my heart to let go of a story that had brought tears, laughter, runs in the rain with friends to finally.cool.off in hot season, teachable moments with incredible children from all.over.the.world who I see pictures of regularly on Facebook and just want to reach out to and give hugs and be a part of their lives again. Families that adopted me when I most needed a home and traditions created that will never resonate quite the same way again.

I realized recently that I would be more than willing to hop on a plane and go back to Musomaland again where they STILL NEED ANOTHER TEACHER. This is the reason I struggled so much with leaving this place that had become home in the first place – I knew there were elements of this life that I would carry with me and be changed by and forever recall and wish for again. The team I served with, the real, really-shared-on-all-levels prayer and Bible Study times, the kids and the laughter and the transitions and the understanding and deep bonds that form in hard places… these can’t just be recreated and reread and experienced in the same ways again. And while I’d love to pick up the story from those days in college when I yearned for Africa and had absolutely.no.idea.what.I.was.getting.myself.into but am glad I did… I’m not there. I’ve learned, I’ve grown, I’ve been changed from the inside out over five or eight or ten incredible years. I know too much, and I know for a fact that I’m supposed to be in the States.

And so I hold memories and people in my heart and wonder hard about the sequel. One which can’t be a disappointment, because the writer of this story is way too Great for that. And I look forward to the next story, where I’ll go, what characters I’ll meet and cry and laugh with and pray for (legitimately, this time) and experience grace with all along the way.