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November 18, 2016

odds and ends of mercy

It was a Saturday evening and I saw the man I married standing over a dirty pile of dishes in and around our one tiny sink. He was patiently cleaning every dish our guests had dirtied. If he were the cook, the dishes would have been neatly stacked, and fewer pots and pans would have been dirtied. But no matter—there he was, patiently and quietly cleaning up after his wife, the Tasmanian Devil of the kitchen. The task took him at least one hour, but he didn't complain.

On Sunday during the service, I  heard a pounding on the church door. Before anyone else could react, my husband jumped up to answer the door and pull the knocking man's wheelchair into the building. During the service, my husband was up and down several more times. Once to look for the easel the speaker wanted to write on. Multiple times to play his guitar, in his un-showy way. Once to close the bathroom door which stays open when someone with a wheelchair uses the bathroom.

At the coffee break between services, I saw him sitting at a table full of misfits. My husband is intelligent, athletic, musical, good looking and could mingle with most anyone. But he chose to sit with a simple immigrant lady with whom conversations are always about the same four or five topics. On his other side was the elderly German man who doesn't seem to do much more than eat cookies and praise my husband's language skills. The handicapped Russian-speaking man wearing a pirate-like eye patch was at the table too. He is difficult to understand and 3/5 of his jokes revolve around vodka. In human terms, the people at the table had nothing to offer my husband. And there he was, in the midst of them.

One of the unexpected blessings of marriage has been catching my husband employing his gift of mercy. We got to know each other long distance, so I didn't know I'd be the wife of the guy who buys popsicles for his coworkers on the hottest day of the summer. The one who patiently bears with long-lasting annoyances at work. The one who can be around a noisy child without getting upset. The one who nearly endlessly bears with his wife, who has more ideas than she has time to organize them...who starts a third or fourth project or sentence before wrapping up the first. It's unusual to hear him say a negative word about anyone. His spiritual gift is a gift to me and to everyone else.

I've noticed that usually the area where we feel most tempted to criticize our local fellowship—or the area where we see a giant need in the church—is probably an area of our own spiritual gifting. A friend of ours whose gifting is obviously in outreach is always perturbed that our fellowship doesn't have a clearer, more direct message going out every Sunday. I tend to be critical of sloppy, disorganized teaching and I think this is probably because teaching is one of my spiritual gifts. And when my husband sees that someone is suffering or needy, his "helps" or "mercy" sensor breaks his heart and sets him in motion. We can help with a variety of needs in our fellowships, but there are probably particular needs that we will feel especially drawn to, and be especially equipped to meet.

One evening my husband referred to a group of people who had been at our house as "odds and ends". It was a good description. The group was a bit of this and that: from different cultures, ages, and backgrounds. They didn't have much in common except that we'd met them through our fellowship, and none of them had much in common with my husband or me. His comment reminded me that while we might avoid gatherings of odds and ends (that night was a bit awkward), God thrives on gathering odds and ends and making them One in Him.

Titus said, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. Do we think He made us part of the Church because we were so attractive to Him? Because we cut our hair in reasonably stylish ways, spoke unaccented English or made decent money? Because we could carry on interesting conversations and He liked our personalities? Because we had something impressive to offer Him?

No, we had nothing to bring to Him. The mess was our fault, but He came along to clean it up. We were outside knocking, and He didn't have to let us in. We were at the table full of misfits who had nothing to offer Him. Somehow, He had mercy on us anyway. Not because of who we are, but because of Who He is.

We are His miscellaneous remnants.
We are odds and ends of mercy.

Will we show mercy to His other odds and ends?

"For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy." —Paul to the Romans

August 10, 2016

changing places

The late May air hangs heavy around us as we drive down a dirt lane in the shadow of live oaks. We're back at the place where the deer skitter in the bushes and the squirrels reign over the treetops.  Our visit at my in-laws' is full of reminders of old times for my husband: we eat some of his favourite meals, visit all his immediate family members, and sort through old books and papers. Standing on a chair in his former bedroom, my husband dusts and throws out a row of faux gold sports trophies from his younger years. "Sometimes I forget what a champion I was," he comments wryly. Between trips to the bank to do paperwork and attending a nephew's birthday party, I ask him if being at his parents' home again makes him wish he still lived there. "Not really," he says, "I just have memories here. It's not really my place anymore." But where is his new place? Sometimes we're not sure.

In early June we find ourselves in my brother's home. My brother is also my former housemate, and although he no longer lives in the house we shared, in nearly every room of his apartment I notice things that used to be mine. There's my knife set sticking to a metal strip in his kitchen, a towel that was mine in the linen closet, and my unsightly broken iron sitting on a shelf. In his spare room I find the berry crown I wore for our wedding photos and a tablecloth a dear elderly lady stitched pink roses into for us. Near the end of our trip, I search through dusty boxes in friends' farm shed for a blanket that holds memories for me; I want to take it to Europe.

Europe—my stomach flip flops when I see a picture of our new apartment—I am not sure I am ready to go back. 

(I have a lot of questions: Will I ever learn to express myself fluently in German? Will I ever feel at home in Europe? What would it be like to have and raise children in a place that will always be foreign? When will I find honest yet gracious answers to questions like, "Do you like living here?" or "What's different about living here?")

Ready or not, the tickets are already bought. We return to Europe and I stand in my kitchen, looking at my garbage can and reminding myself: that's what my garbage can looks like. After a few weeks in old places, I'm in a bit of a daze. How many housewares have I bought, thrifted, sold, given away and re-bought in the last five years? I'd rather not think about it. I sort through piles of stuff, and a week later a kind friend ferries both us and our belongings to our new apartment.

We've been in our latest home just over a month now. A few Tuesdays ago, a perky friend of a friend came over, and between bites of sushi she asked about our adjustment. She used a typical German verb: sich einleben, which literally means to "live yourself in". Have you lived yourselves in yet? My husband said, "Not really, I think it's going to take some time." She pressed, "Oh, do you miss people from your last city?" referring to the town 150km down the road where we last lived. I answered, "Yes, them too, but we sort of just miss...the rest of the world." It took a few weeks to organize most of our belongings, but it takes longer to organize our souls.

My transient soul has been tired lately, and at just the right moment,  I came across Psalm 84. It came alive again when I realized that it's all about where we live—about places, homes, nests and houses.

How lovely is the place where You live, O Lord.
My soul longs and even faints to be there with You.
Even the sparrow has found a home, 
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young—
Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts....
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
They will still be praising You. 
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, 
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the valley of weeping,
the rain covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength;
Each one appears before God...
One day where you live, O God
is better than a thousand elsewhere.  
I would rather work as a doorkeeper at your house than spend my days where the wicked people live...  Blessed is the man who trusts in You.

Someday this old European apartment with its big windows and many doors may feel like home. Someday I may start voluntarily cooking hearty meals of pork, potatoes and sauerkraut (though I doubt it). Someday I may have German conversations that go deeper than how many siblings I have or how long I've lived in Europe. Someday, if we stay long enough, I may feel like I've mich eingelebt here, like it is my place. (Let's be honest, Western Europe isn't really a "hardship posting"—there are many lovely things about living here, too.)

But I'm not sure I want that eingelebt day to fully come after all. This unique ache of not having an earthly place makes me like the Psalmist—longing for a place near the Lord. Not having family or friends' homes to run to makes me realize that His house is my true house. 

Blessed am I when I make my home where He is.
Blessed am I when I make a nest for my young at the altar of God.
Blessed are we when we prioritize raising citizens of Heaven above raising citizens of a certain chunk of land in the Americas or Europe.
Blessed are we when we live each day in anticipation of our last repatriation...that final changing of places.

"and...we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore comfort one another with these words."

"...The heavens will disappear...
the elements will be destroyed...
and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroy in this way,
what kind of people ought you to be?
You ought to live holy and godly lives, 
as you look forward to the day of God...
in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to
a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

May 19, 2016

until the day dawns

There's no sunlight yet this morning. Around me dozens of travellers are draped under blankets, stretched across two seats each, dead to the world. Beneath me wheels are turning at a steady pace, taking us to the airport in the big city. My mind is too awake to sleep, but too asleep to do more than pray a few partial prayers.

 Odd-hour voyages, sad farewells, and quiet petitions for the people I'm leaving behind have become the stuff of my life in recent years. This time we're just travelling to visit North America, and we plan to continue living in Europe, but upon our return, we're moving an hour and a half down the road. Last night our regular Wednesday evening group gathered in our friends' home instead of ours. We attended only the meal portion of the evening and then bid everyone farewell and headed home to finish packing. One of our international friends said, "I love you!" to me for the first time as we left. Part of me was touched. And part of me thought, I already love too many people. Do I have room in my heart to love one more person? To pray for another person? God must think that I do. As we walked home, my husband said he felt like a parent leaving his kids home alone for the first time.

Recently, I heard a speaker say that God often uses our upbringing or background to create our platform for ministry. He spoke of David, who played the harp presumably to pass time while watching sheep, but became so skilled in playing that he ended up in the palace. He said that often the very things that seem ordinary to us are the things God chooses to use to bless others. I realized that God is taking my history as a TCK, a constant hello- and goodbye-sayer, to provide a platform for loving other internationals who may have less experience moving or no Anchor to steady them through transitions. Sometimes we feel tired by cross-cultural living, transitions and language learning, but we can see that it has created unique opportunities to love people of many backgrounds, cultures and religions—although the goodbyes never get easier.

A few weekends ago we visited a church in the city where we will be moving. It was nice, but I told my husband that it seemed too white for us. (I hope white people are allowed to say such things.) Outside the doors of the church, there are Turkish kebab vendors in both directions, a vast Asia Mart, a salon offering Brazilian waxing, and a shop selling African groceries. But inside the church building, the audience was 99% Caucasian and I only smelled curry one person's clothes. I told my husband, "Maybe we should look for a church with more cultural diversity." And we might. But my husband reminded me that perhaps the white church needs a white international couple to bridge the gap between the church and needy internationals, to remind them of the darkness on their own doorstep. He might be right.

It's still dark on the way to the airport and we're waiting. For sunrise. To reach the Flughafen. To see our families. To move into our new apartment in our new city. But more than that, we wait "until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our international friends'] hearts." "Now we see things imperfectly...but then we sill see everything with perfect clarity"—when the Son comes, there will be no more goodbyes, and no more night.

March 28, 2016

so is joy

Today is Easter Monday—a holiday here. Good Friday was a holiday here, too, which means my husband had four full days away from work for Ostern. When I lived in Asia, I was surrounded by people who didn't really know the Christian significance of Easter. Last year it felt refreshing to come to Europe and, at the end of a dreary winter, see the shops fill with bright spring tulips and Easter symbols which are familiar to me. Although I knew that most here were celebrating a hollow version of Easter, with not a lot more understanding than my friends in Asia, it felt nice to once again be in a place where our Christian history is known and celebrated in some way.

This was my second Easter in Europe, and probably not my last, since my husband recently accepted a job offer in a city just a few hours from where we now live. On Sunday afternoon we sat in McCafé drinking cheap hot drinks, being pestered by a beggar and eavesdropping on Hindi conversations. I told my husband that the weekend didn't really feel Easter-like to me. We had spent the last two days looking at apartments, checking out various neighbourhoods, wandering into shops and visiting a new-to-us church in the city where we plan to move. Half the time we were carrying our luggage for lack of a place to leave it. Maybe Easter didn't feel "normal" because we weren't with anyone we knew, or maybe it was because we were far from our families and their traditions, again. In any case, nothing about this Easter felt quite familiar except the rabbits and flowers in the shops, and the 90 minutes we spent in a church service.

Easter is a day for the spring happies. It's the day to post a photo of your family in matching pastels on social media. It's a day to wear a wide smile and talk about the resurrection. But I'm not feeling bright and fluffy this Easter. There are weights that burden me. I don't know that my burdens are any greater than anyone else's, but as my mom always said, I can be overly sensitive. There are stones that I'm asking God to roll away for myself and others, and I feel weary of praying for the same thing over and over. I'm also mentally and emotionally adjusting to another move. But I suppose if I'm feeling more like a hollow cold tomb than bouncy furry bunny, my feelings are in line with the true Resurrection morning story.

Last night as a brightly-painted bus carried us home (wherever that is) again, I read the final chapters of John in the darkness on my Kindle. I came across another woman with a burden. She was crying at the empty tomb, wondering where the body of her Lord had gone. Others had come and gone, "but Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." I could relate to her lingering sorrow on Easter morning. Others had gone on their way (presumably for Easter brunch), but she remained.

It blessed me to remember that Jesus chose to comfort the brokenhearted Mary first. The others who had left the tomb missed out on being there when He first appeared; it was to the woman who shared His sorrow so deeply that joy came first. The weeping, lingering woman was the one to whom Jesus entrusted the good news of His resurrection.

If I find my heart weary this Easter, I am in good company. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Jesus meets me in my sadness just like He met Mary in hers; our Savior is near to the brokenhearted.

If you find your heart weeping this Easter,  you can be sure that it won't always be this way. "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Brunch invitations and tulips are not guaranteed to us. The heavy stones of sorrows and trials are. But thanks to Easter—that is, thanks to Jesus—so is joy.

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." —Solomon

"Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman...has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.... Ask [in my name], and you will receive, that your joy may be full." —Jesus, as recorded in John 16

February 16, 2016

on being migrant workers

I come from a family of used-to-be migrants, as many North Americans do. My maternal grandmother's maiden name reminds anyone who hears it that her parents made an arduous journey from Norway to Canada. My paternal grandmother was born to parents who worked in orchards in California. I imagine Grandma toddling through the trees to her parents, and packing up with them (or being packed up) on their various moves before they eventually settled down in Ontario, Canada.

By the time I knew my grandmothers both were farm wives who didn't take many vacations and rarely travelled (unless you count the trip to town for groceries as "travelling"). They were faithful in their day-to-day affairs. Mom's mom planted stubby trees and made sure they survived high winds and deep winter on the prairies. Dad's mom pulled on her boots—no matter how high the snow drifts were—and milked the cows in the barn. My grandparents had relationships with the neighbours that went back for decades. Their children spent their school days with some of the same classmates all the way through. My great grandparents may have been migrants, by my grandparents' lives were rooted on their farms.

My grandma in California in the 1920's.
It's hard for me to relate to their stories because I've never lived in one place for long. I must have lived in at least eight different homes growing up, and another eight since leaving home. While other people might take a vacation to a different country each year, lately I seem to move to a different country each year.

Moving is expensive and tiresome, but sometimes it seems worse than that. Sometimes it seems downright irresponsible. It is hard to tell our small, struggling fellowship here that we will be leaving. The strong-and-steady we've-lived-here-twenty-years types perhaps have a hard time understanding when we speak of moving to a city where the churches are more established. When we spoke of the possibility of moving to America, that seemed even harder to understand; don't churches abound in America? Why would we leave when the church here is needing encouragement? Why would we go when people of other faiths come regularly to our home to read the Good Book? We can almost understand if they don't understand our plans. Sometimes we don't either.

One Sunday night I looked across our small circle at a couple who have worked the spiritual land here for many years. They were not originally from this region either, but since moving here they have cleared soil (not without opposition), ploughed (hitting many rocks), sown truth (with young and old), watered (sometimes only to see the thorns choke out the little sprouts) and harvested (though not nearly as often as they've done the other steps). They are strong and hearty people of the Land. I admire the dirt under their nails and the callouses on their hands. I appreciate their steadfastness and their long history here.

When I compare myself to them, my role in God's field seems to be as a seasonal worker, a migrant who drifts from job to job and field to field. I've probably worked every phase of the farming process at one time or another. Sometimes I've moved rocks and cleared earth. Sometimes I've sown seeds with a prayer. Sometimes I've watered long rows in the sun and left before much sprouted. And sometimes, I've had the joy of helping pull in and enjoy the fruits of the harvest though I was nowhere to be found when the seeds were planted. Yet my work seems so scattered. I have no concept of what it is like to buy a piece of spiritual land and to farm it daily for more than five years, as our coworkers here have done.

At times I struggle to accept my current role in God's vineyard as a seasonal worker. But one night when my husband was feeling the weight of leaving our coworkers here behind, I reminded him that God gives more specifics about a man's duty to have dominion over the earth and provide for his family than it does about how long he should stay at the same church. God made you to work, to have dominion over the slice of His creation that you've worked so long to understand. If there is no suitable job for you here, we will take that as a definite indicator that the Master of the Harvest is moving us to a new field. Again.

For some time it seemed our new place of employment would be on American soil. Now, it seems more likely we'll stay in Europe. We don't know yet, but He does, and someday we'll see that each migration was perfectly timed according to His schedule of planting, watering and reaping. The time we've spent in the field here changed us, and better equipped us to sow seeds in the next field.

When the job call comes, we'll pack up our farm implements. We'll thank our coworkers here for letting us co-labour for a while, and know that a physical change of location doesn't mean we aren't co-labouring anymore. We'll say goodbye while looking forward to the time when all His workers—migrant or not—are finally together in one Place.

Together we'll see that God has "not forgotten our work or our labour of love". Together we will share meals of "the food that endures to eternal life". Together we will dwell in the land and rejoice over His great harvest. This knowledge guides my wandering heart: that final migration will be forever.