Friday, October 9, 2015

1600 miles, and still rolling along

This week, Svante the Swedish wheelchair reached his 1600 mile marker.

We've been together for 3 years and 4 months... and as you might notice from the picture, he has sustained a few cracks and dents in that time. He has a different set of wheels, shocks, arm rests, and seat cushion since we first met. He has been lifted, pushed, and steered by "unauthorized" drivers - in fact, I'm sure most of you who are reading this have been a part of his story! He's gone up and down infinite ramps, elevators, and curbs. He's handled gravel, mud, grass, ice, sand, snow, puddles, and even wet cement (not recommended).  

Kids stand on the back and pretend he's a scooter, 
sit on the footrests and pretend he's a stool, 
play with the controls and pretend he's a video game, 
climb on the sides and pretend he's a jungle gym, 
and step up on the frame and pretend he's a ladder to a balcony, where they can give hugs and kisses to Princess Connie.  

He's rolled down the boardwalk of Seal Beach, California, 
along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, 
up the first few meters of Angels Landing of Zion National Park, 
on top of Stone Mountain, 
down my favorite pothole-riddled alley in Fort Wayne, Indiana,
on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, 
inside the Statue of Liberty, 
in the buffalo territory of the Grand Tetons, 
and on the fishing pier of Dubois Park in Jupiter, Florida. 

Svante and I have been on more adventures together than either of us could have imagined. And while 1600 miles does seem like a lot, I'm convinced he's got many more miles left in him. So here's to more cracks and dents, more dust from the trails, more new sets of wheels and shocks, and many more adventures to come. 

(By the way, my friend Marty has written an excellent children's book about a little boy and his wheelchair. Go to his website and check it out!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Making upside-downers, Part 4: Life

I read a book recently, that brought up a question that I've been thinking about a lot... What would life look like if we really believed in the resurrection of Christ?  And I've come to the conclusion that this - the resurrection of Christ - is the key element in flipping everything upside-down. If Jesus had done what was expected, he would have come as a prince. If Jesus had done what was expected, he would have overthrown the Roman government. If Jesus had done what was expected, he would have stayed dead forever. But he didn't. He came as a poor baby, lived as a servant, and rose from the dead. And if we believe that, then we have to believe that everything he calls us to do is unexpected, abnormal, and upside-down!

So I want to consider the craziest, most upside-down thing Jesus called his disciples to: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Upside-down philosophy #4: If you want to live, you must die. 

I think that when we tell people about Jesus, the biggest "selling point" we have is ETERNAL LIFE. True life in Christ! Living forever in heaven with him! In John 6, Jesus said that if we eat of the Bread of Life, we will live forever. And in John 10, he says that he came to give life more abundantly. It is definitely a gift of God, and is completely true and trustworthy! In Ephesians, we read that we were all dead in sin, until God made us alive in Christ.

But then he said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." To follow him, I must die to myself. And this is significantly less appealing and popular. Here's how Paul explained it: "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

If you trust in Jesus to save you from your sins, you absolutely do receive eternal life. But if I really want to experience the fullness of that life on this side of heaven, it takes sacrifice - it does not come naturally. I have selfish desires, pride, hate, and a multitude of other habits that stubbornly cling to me in this sin-cursed world, and they threaten to take control of me and keep me from knowing the depth of the gift I have been given. So it becomes a daily battle, a daily death to who I am without Christ, to give him more authority, more power to rule and reign over my heart. And the more I put to death of my own life, the more He can live through me. It pulls me into closer fellowship with him, gives me a deeper insight and understanding into his heart for me and for the world, and compels me to love and worship Him more and more.

What we think of as "life" right now is really not life at all. I think all these upside-down teachings and disciplines are meant to prepare us for eternity - life as it was always meant to be. If we are disciples of Christ, then we are students and recruits, and we are in training to fully receive the inheritance that we are promised. This life, in this world, is nothing compared to what God has in store, so the sooner we can let go of all that we try to pursue and cling to - treasures, greatness, power, and life - the sooner we can take hold of all that truly matters.

"I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain the resurrection from the dead." 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Making upside-downers, Part 3: Power

Here's something very remarkable about the true disciples of Christ whom I have met or read about: they are incredibly aware of their own weakness. They are not people who boast about all the great things they have done, or talk obnoxiously about their gifts and abilities. They are often people who have suffered, who have scars, and who aren't afraid to let people see them. Like Jacob, they have a noticeable "limp" from the times they have really wrestled, and God has demonstrated his power.

1 Corinthians 1:27: "...God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong...."
2 Corinthians 12:9: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Upside-down philosophy #3: If you want to be powerful, you must accept your weakness. 

I know all about weakness. I've always been physically weak, and as I get older, I get weaker. It's the nature of my disability. And I have a pretty stubborn and independent spirit, so I am keenly aware of the things I cannot do. Some days it makes me angry, some days it makes me depressed, and some days it makes me crazy (and not in a good way).

And since I was born with this weakness, I've had my whole life to learn and re-learn how to take my weakness to God and depend on him for strength. As I lay in bed at night, I talk to him about my frustrations and questions, my feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. And you know what he does? He reminds me of the words in the verses above. I don't remember when I first read those verses, or when I first understood how relevant they were to me. They've just been woven into the fibers of my life in such a way that I cannot imagine trying to live without these truths.

Because, you see, in the first verse, I learn that I am not a mistake to be fixed, or a problem to be discarded. God chose me in my weakness to be a part of His much bigger plan. It reminds me of His sovereignty - that He is God and knows what He is doing.

In the second verse,  I learn that He didn't just make me weak and then leave me to wallow helplessly alone. He has given me grace. And if any of you have ever had even a taste of his grace, you know what a gift that is. We are all weak. I've been talking about my neuromuscular weakness in this post, but honestly, that is not my only (or even my greatest) weakness. When I examine my heart, I know some of my biggest weaknesses are pride, selfishness, and despair. And even if you have strong legs and can lift 200 pounds and are "more powerful than a locomotive," you can examine your own heart and discover crippling weaknesses, too. Because of this, we are all in desperate need of God's grace... and He promises that there is plenty to go around.

And here's where the upside-down-ness really makes me dizzy: God says that his power is made perfect in weakness! He doesn't just shrug and say: "Well, I don't know, but I'll try to figure out some way to show power in spite of this mess." No! He chose me because of my weakness! As in, my weakness provides the perfect platform for Him to show off his power.

So I need to quit complaining and sulking about my weakness, and stop trying and pretending to be strong on my own... and praise the Lord for designing me in such a way that He can be glorified. Thank you, Lord, for making me weak, and reminding me of my own weakness without you. Thank you for being powerful, so that when I lean on you, you help me stand strong. Thank you for your grace.

"Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Making upside-downers, Part 2: Greatness

Some laws of nature seem upside-down to me: 

What goes up, must come down. 
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 
Opposites attract. 

So it should make sense that the Creator of these laws of nature would be consistent in the laws of Life-As-It-Was-Meant-To-Be. To us, Jesus' teachings seem upside-down... but what if he is teaching was it right-side-up, and we're the ones who are living upside-down? 

Here's another teaching that is hard to grasp - Matthew 20:26-27: "But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." 
Upside-down philosophy #2: If you want true greatness, become the least.

Jesus made a point of lifting up the humble and bringing down the proud, during his whole ministry. And in Philippians 2, we read about how Jesus stepped down from greatness and "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant." So I think that once again, He meant what he said, and seriously wants his disciples to obey.

Confession: I want to be great. I want to be special, and I want my life to matter. I don't care about being a queen or president or award winner, but I want to go down in the history books as someone who did something exciting and significant to change the world. But when I read the stories of the people in history who I respect the most, I don't think "greatness" was a priority for them. In fact, many of them walked away from greatness or chose against greatness, to become servants and risk being anonymous forever. And frankly, I don't like that idea! I don't mind serving people, but I want it to mean something - I want people to see it and remember it.

It seems like, lately, all my attempts to pursue my own dreams of greatness have been squashed by God. I think, "Surely this isn't where I'll stay, this isn't what I'll do, this isn't my life's work forever, is it?" It's not dreadful, but it certainly isn't glamorous or exciting either. But I think every time I feel sorry for myself, and look around and try to find my own great story, God is reminding me that this is where he wants me right now; this is where I'm learning to be a servant, the last, the anonymous faithful disciple that he calls me to be. And until I surrender and submit to that, I will not experience true greatness.

Jesus' teaching is not just about my actions, but about my whole mindset - I need my mind to be transformed and renewed, so that I serve people because I love Jesus, not because I'm seeking praise or recognition. If I have nothing but Jesus (refer to philosophy #1), then he is the only one I should be seeking to please. He's slowly cutting down my field of vision when it comes to my motives - it is not about history or the future, it is not about what my friends think, or the general public, or scholars, or my posterity. It is all about Him - following him, obeying him, and serving and loving those He loves. It is about choosing Him in this moment, for the sake of eternity.

True greatness goes beyond the history books, and can only be found in Christ. As John the Baptist said, "He must increase, and I must decrease." More of you, and less of me, Lord. Teach me how to be a servant today, and to put myself last, so that you are the first in my life. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Making upside-downers, Part 1: Treasures

Have you ever thought about how hard the Great Commission is to obey? Jesus told us to "make disciples." Disciples are actually students and apprentices, people who learn the teachings and study closely the ways of someone whom they want to be more like.

It's easy to make converts - walk someone through the ABCs of salvation and a "sinner's prayer" and congratulate them on knowing their sins are forgiven and that they will go to heaven some day, and send them on their light-hearted way. But to make disciples, you've got to walk through the details of the time between that prayer and their last breath... and the more I study Jesus' life, and the lives of people who were truly his disciples throughout history, the more I find pain, persecution, loneliness, and loss. And that is hard to convince people to willingly step into! Except... these difficult lives are the most powerful, beautiful, inspiring, adventurous, passionate, remarkable lives ever lived.

Because Jesus' teachings and his life are dizzyingly and terrifyingly upside-down.

Let's consider just one of his teachings: Mark 10:17-21. "Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 
Upside-down philosophy #1: If you want true treasure, sell everything you have.

This goes against everything we learn in this world! To give away your valuables makes you look foolish and weak. The more you have, the more power and respect and success you have. And the more of that you have, the happier you will be.

It's easy to dismiss this philosophy as being Jesus' call to just one person. But I notice that it was a pattern in his ministry: some left their nets, some left their tax collecting booths, some left their families. Jesus was poor himself. And his disciples throughout history have all had to give up the things that were valuable and precious to them in this life.

And what I've experienced in my own life is that this is a constant refining process - a daily sacrifice. Here's how it goes: I tell God that I want more of him, that I want his treasure above all else. So he points out something in my life that I value too much, and he tells me to let it go - in fact, to sell it so I can't take it back - in fact, to sell it and use whatever I gain in its place to benefit others. So I naturally have a temper-tantrum and say that I don't want to, and he reminds me that I already said I did want to, and after much whining and fighting, I do what he asks, because he is right. Then just as I start to feel good about what a great disciple I am, he points out something else. And the struggle happens all over again, as he slowly chisels and burns away my earthy treasures.

I'm pretty sure I didn't take Jesus seriously in the beginning of our relationship when he said, "sell EVERYTHING." But he did mean it, and if I am committed to being his disciple - his upside-downer - then he will make sure I sell everything I have, even if it is only one thing at a time and takes my whole life to accomplish. He is so patient with me. He knows this is a difficult teaching to carry out, a mission not for the faint of heart. And he knows I cannot possibly do it without his help.

The Bible says that the poor "rich" man went away from Jesus, and he was sad. He had so much to lose, and when he counted the cost, he decided the price was too steep. Other people walked away from Jesus, too, when his upside-down philosophies became too much. And many people still do. And when I think of some of the things He has asked me to give up, my heart still aches and sometimes I wonder why I continue to follow and sell and sacrifice... But my soul reminds me, through those beautiful words of Peter, of the truth that I know beyond anything else:

Lord, to whom could I possibly go? Only You have the words of life. If I have nothing else in the world - when you have taken everything away, and it is all sold - You are sufficient. You are my treasure.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Think about these things... and have peace.

The verse that follows Philippians 4:8 says this: "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."

Practice. Don't just read about it or hear about it, but do it! Thinking can be an active practice, training our minds to intentionally and consciously choose to dwell on the things listed in verse 8. When we do that, this verse promises that we will experience the presence - the nearness - of the God of peace.

In fact, the verse that comes before Philippians 4:8 also talks about this: "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

I needed to be reminded of that this week. It is all to easy to let thoughts slip away from what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. When I find a kink in my plans, an obstacle to hurdle, tension that I don't know how to soothe, my thoughts switch gears pretty quickly to what is false, selfish, critical, and anxious. And in that moment, I let go of the peace of God, and I fall apart.

But his peace is meant to be a defense - a protection for us. It will guard us and be with us, as long as we are trusting in Him above all else. It takes discipline! It takes practice! Choose today to think on these good things; choose for this hour to take captive and lay down every other thought at the feet of Jesus; choose in this moment to trust the God of peace.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Think about this: What is Excellent and Worthy of Praise?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

In the last two summers, I have had the privilege to travel around the country and see some most-excellent things, like the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, the Grand Tetons, Zion National Park, and the Badlands. From the herd of buffalo on the wild prairie lands, to the silent doe in the cleft of the mountain, these views took my breath away. I love language and poetry and words, but no words could come close to expressing the awe I felt in the presence of such splendor. It made me feel so small, and yet so loved.

When I think of the phrase, "anything of excellence, anything worthy of praise..." I remember these moments, when all I could do was sit and stare and feel my heart pound. It's how I imagine Moses felt when he got to see God's back (Exodus 34:5-8), because it felt like I was getting a glimpse at the edges of His glory, and my whole being was trying its best to worship the only One worthy of praise. You see, these things are not excellent and praiseworthy on their own - they are the evidence of the beauty and majesty of their Creator - they are made to testify and point to and praise Him (Psalm 19).

King David was really great at thinking about these things... if ever I am at a loss for words, I go to the songs that David wrote, and I make them my own:

"...I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised... The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be my God, the rock of my salvation... For this I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name..." (2 Samuel 22:2-51)

"...For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised...Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!" (1 Chronicles 16:8-36)

"...So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands..." (Psalm 63)

"Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! ... Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven..." (Psalm 148)

Rich Mullins is someone else who I think used poetry and music in powerful ways to praise the Lord: Some songs just capture the excellence and glory of God in a special way.

I am thankful for the beautiful places, poetry, and songs that remind and compel me to praise the Lord and tell of his excellence. But when the world does not look beautiful, when tragedy strikes, and I am weighed down by the silence of God, I need to remember the things that are excellent and worthy of praise - even then I must "Put my hope in God; for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God" (Psalm 42). He is good and constant, and worthy to be praise in all circumstances, in every season.

So no matter what is happening in your life today, praise the Lord!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Think about this: What is Commendable?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

This verse is the only time in the New Testament that the word "commendable" appears in the original Greek. The direct translation is "good saying," or good report. I had to look it up in my Greek reference book, because I wasn't sure how it was different from the word "honorable" (which I wrote about a few days ago).

So, good report... As a teacher, I get this. I've learned how important it is to acknowledge good behavior or exceptional work. It isn't enough to just pat a student on the hand and say, "Good job!" If I just wrote that on everyone's report cards, with no additional feedback, the compliment would eventually lose its effect, and no one would believe that I even cared. It would become hollow and meaningless. But, if I observe something special in a student's work - their persistence, encouraging improvement, creative effort, impressive initiative - I should make a point of specifically commending that student for that thing. And I should be quicker and more effortless in looking for things to commend, rather than complain or criticize.

I think this part of the verse is really important for us, especially when we are tempted to be pessimistic and cynical about the world we live in. It's easy to watch the news or read a newspaper and believe that there is nothing good in the world anymore. Some days I feel the weight of it all - the Curse, the brokenness, the pain, the evil - and it quickly throws a dark shadow over everything positive. But I need to seek out what is commendable, and highlight it so that my focus is drawn to it.

Think about the good Samaritan stories in your community, the nonprofit organizations that exist to make the world a better place, the couple that adopts a baby with special needs, the anonymous gifts that seem to come to people when they need it most. Even the small things, like the stranger who holds the door open for me, or spontaneously decides to buy your coffee for you. Sometimes commendable things are hidden - in fact, I think some of the most commendable things are hidden, because they are done out of the goodness of people's hearts, with no ulterior motive for praise or attention. But they are worth looking for and taking notice of. All of these things - big and small, center stage and behind the scenes - remind us that there is still good in the world. Love and kindness are still alive and powerful. And this brings hope and restores faith.

The Scripture tells us that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). So anything good we witness should point us back to God, knowing that without him, there is nothing good in any of us. This is where my thoughts once again translate into praise - God is so good to me! His love is steadfast, his kindness is immeasurable, his grace is amazing, his mercy is great, his compassion is new every morning, his faithfulness endures to all generations. To God be the glory, for great things he has done!

Whatever is commendable... think about these things. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Think about this: What is Lovely?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

It's May in North Carolina, so it is very easy to find lovely things to think about: azaleas, daisies, peonies, and everything robed in a bright, fresh spring green!

We also have a lot of rain - whether it's a slow drip and drizzle, or a stormy downpour with wind and thunder. I don't like rainy days, and I'm tempted to look with a frown and a sigh at the mucky mud that will stick to my wheels, and call it ugly. But even the mud is lovely, because it will become fertile soil for the flowers and trees; and the rain is lovely, because it makes the grass and leaves so lush and green.

And as I think about these things, I realize that this part of the verse isn't about being naive or ignoring pain and suffering, it's not about always focusing on the happy and fuzzy things in life, but knowing that beauty emerges and is made more beautiful through the things that we do not call "lovely." Even our lives may look like a mess, but the Lord is so gracious, and he makes broken things beautiful. "He has made everything beautiful in its time..." (Ecc. 3:11)

Then I thought of the old Twila Paris song, "How Beautiful", and how the crucifixion of Jesus could not be called "lovely," or wonderful, or precious, or good - except to those of us who know we are redeemed through his sacrifice - "without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb. 9:22) and "by his wounds we are healed" (Is. 43:5). Hosanna, and Hallelujah! And so, the most lovely praise and worship pours forth from this revelation. Another song comes to my mind - "Jesus, You're Beautiful," by Cece Winans.

This praise in my heart compels me to action - to tell others about Jesus and the hope and joy and life he brings. And I find that this is something else that the Bible calls lovely: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'" (Is. 52:7)

Our God reigns! What a lovely truth to think about when we are going through the storms of life and are tempted to despair.

Whatever is lovely... think about these things.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Think about this: What is Pure?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

I've been trying to think this week about what is pure, so last night I made a cup of "Pure Camomile" tea to relax and inspire me... On the package, it says it uses "'only 100% pure camomile blossoms," and since Twinings has been a faithful companion of mine for many years, I believed it. I trust that the tea I brew from this bag will be full of one thing - camomile - with no additives or artificial flavoring. And it got me thinking...

Scientifically speaking, there are chemical compounds that are pure, such as salt, water, and sugar. But these compounds can be broken down even further to their purest state. All the chemical elements we know of are pure, because they are in their most basic form - tin, sulfur, oxygen, and gold... 

In the Old Testament, a word that is most frequently paired with the word "pure" is "gold," and this phrase - "pure gold" - is most often used to describe the temple of God, and more particularly, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God rested. Pure gold became a way for people to understand the character of God himself - completely pure and glorious. And in realizing that purity, people were hesitant and even fearful to stand in his presence. By definition, a pure thing is completely free of anything impure... and we, who are all born into sin and are by nature objects of wrath, are grossly impure. Because of this, we cannot come into contact with the purity, perfection, and righteousness of God. Thus, eternal separation.

But God loves us and longs for reconciliation. That is why he sent Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for our sin. "...though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow..." (Isaiah 1:18) And all we have to do to receive it is admit our need for it: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [impurities]" (1 John 1:9). 

Jesus calls us blessed if we are pure in heart, and promises that we will see God (Matthew 5:8), and it's no wonder, because the only way any of us become pure in heart is by trusting in Him. 

And we are called to keep our hearts pure by living according to the Word of God (Psalm 119:9) and not lifting our souls to any other god (Psalm 24:4) - to be completely and totally given to Him. 

Purification is a process of cleaning and refining, removing what isn't true and what doesn't belong. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, once we have been rescued out of the bondage of sin. He spends the rest of our life on earth purifying us... making us more and more truly who we were created to be... burning and chiseling and threshing and sifting out every grain of us that isn't true to the image of God - our original identity, redeemed in Christ Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist understood the necessity of this process, when he declared: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Sometimes it is painful and difficult to decrease. But as I surrender more and more of my old, wretched, sinful self to God, he is able to refine me and cleanse me, until he becomes the Element that makes up my pure identity. Oh Lord, please get rid of everything in me that is not of you, and replace it with evermore of you.

Whatever is pure... think about these things. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Think about this: What is Just?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

Of all the adjectives in this verse, this one has been the most challenging for me to think of. In this world, it is much easier to point out injustice than it is to find true justice, isn't it? There are plenty of blogs and news reports and protest demonstrations that very loudly think about the unjust things around us.

I've been thinking about it a lot recently, because my mom and I love watching the TV show, "Blue Bloods," a story about an Irish-Catholic family in New York City - the father is the police commissioner, one son is a homicide detective, another son is a police officer, and the daughter is an assistant district attorney... so they all work in their specialty to try to accomplish the same goal: justice. But it's a hard reality to pin down, and despite their best efforts, they constantly face obstacles like politics, unreliability, revenge, and the limits of the law.

We might all say that we want justice - the good rewarded, the bad punished. But when issues become personal, justice feels like a question mark that leads to no right and good answer, and we squirm under the weight of responsibility in deciding what is just. Consider the symbol we often associate with justice: an expressionless, blind-folded figure, with a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Justice is a terrifying thing... with no room for mercy, compassion, or grace.

I tried to think of examples in the Bible of God's justice... and it's difficult for me. Not that God isn't just - I absolutely know that He is - but even in reading the stories, I can't understand his justice. When I read about wars and loss and curses and captivity and pain, I'm tempted to question God's justice. But then I remember that blind-folded statue, and I remember the terrible truth of Romans 3:23 (and the whole of chapter 3, at that), and realize that if true justice was served, that sword in her hand would cut down every single one of us without hesitation or selection. We are, by nature, objects of wrath. In light of this, the Old Testament becomes a surprisingly heart-wrenching picture of the mercy of God! 

But then... where is the justice of God? Many prophets asked this question, and God told them to wait, be patient, because it will come. The scales will tip and the sword will fall. The only thing that will tip those scales in our favor is the saving blood of Jesus Christ, and the only shield that will protect us from that sword is our faith in Him. He is the defining edge of right and wrong. The story of true and ultimate justice comes in the end - Revelation 20-21 - when every evil will be destroyed and everything will be made right. 

This realization came to me the other day as I listened to the song "The Reckoning," by Andrew Peterson. As one who has been rescued and redeemed, I praise God for his mercy and patience - for holding back his righteous wrath for as long as he has... and I worship him for his power and justice, which he has promised one day to reveal in all his glory. 

Whatever is just... think about these things.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Think about this: What is Honorable?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

I love fairy tales - stories of princes, knights, and heroes full of chivalry and courage. From Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Prince Philip, to Curdie Peterson, Peter Pevensie, and Samwise Gamgee... These are the characters I think of when I hear the word "honorable" or "noble." They are characters I love, because of the choices they made - the measures they went to, to do the right thing for the sake of others. And when I think about them, I want to raise the standards I have for myself, to live a life that could be admired, to become the hero of a story. Maybe that is why God wants us to think about whatever is honorable...

Honor is a quality that good people strive for in their character. It sets a higher expectation for our conduct and reputation. It isn't just a good deed; it's goodness that overflows from a kind heart, a wise mind, a right attitude, and pure motives. Maybe you have a favorite fictional character whom you admire as an honorable person, or maybe there is a real historical person who you look up to in this way. I hope you can think of someone you know personally who you see as honorable. If so, you should tell them! Honor is not something that just happens to a person; it is developed over time, with lots of intentional discipline.

The real people in my life, who I consider truly noble and honorable, have patterned their lives after Jesus. He is the ultimate example of honor! I've been studying his life and ministry in the book of Luke, lately, and this concept of honor keeps coming to my mind. He set the example for us - to put others before self, to resist temptation, to speak the truth, to have compassion for the weak, to provide for the needy, to love unconditionally... Praise Jesus, the Epic Hero of our Story!

But he didn't do all of that, just so we would say, "Wow, what a noble man!" He walked out a life of honor, showed us how it was possible, and then told us to do the same: "For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you" (John 13:15). He calls us to a higher standard, to live as children of the King.

Whatever is honorable... think about these things.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Think about this: What is True?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

One of the most important things Christians need to do is think about what is true. These are the things that do not change with time, culture, circumstances, or emotion - things that cannot be compromised or minimized. We need these things to be always fresh in our minds and written on our hearts, so we can recognize lies and deceit when they try to attack. Some verses come to my mind that remind me that truth is something we fight for and defend:

"We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..." (2 Corinthians 10:5)

"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ." (Colossians 2:8)

These verses both talk about captivity - either our thoughts are taken by lies, or submitted to Christ. The first result happens when we let our guard down, but the second takes great discipline. It means making Scripture the authority in our lives, and not picking and choosing the pieces that make us feel good. It means reminding ourselves daily of the attributes of God, even when we don't always see them working in the way we want them to. It means remembering who we once were in darkness, and who we are now, because of Jesus Christ. It means rehearsing the Gospel to ourselves and to each other often - it is not just for those who are lost, but it is the ongoing, life-transforming, sanctifying truth for us who have been rescued... and you will find that when you meditate on these thoughts, they turn into praise to the Lord - Hallelujah, what a Savior!
I've been thinking about how Ephesians 6 lists the articles of clothing necessary in the "armor of God," and how the "belt of truth" is part of the ensemble. Belts are not meant to be used as weapons (though they sometimes are)... their purpose is to keep us secure in our clothing. As a soldier, a belt protects the lower body, secures the armor, and holds the sheath for the sword. Likewise, we must be careful not to use truth as an offensive weapon, but as a way to protect and secure ourselves. Truth is a good thing, and through Christ it will bring life and freedom. "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

Whatever is true... think about these things.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Think about these things...

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

What are you thinking about? Yes, right here, right now. What about this morning - what were you thinking about when you woke up? What thoughts kept you awake last night? What has been dominating your thoughts and shaping your mindset over the last few days or weeks?

I realized that for the majority of the past year, my thoughts have been in a rut - going over and over details in the past that I can't change, unable to enjoy the new things God was doing around me, and hitting a wall when it comes to seeking God's will for next steps. I heard Cissie Graham Lynch speak a few weeks ago, and she was talking about things that keep us from praising God. And I realized how hard it has been for me to truly, freely praise God - I made it hard for myself, by cluttering up my mind and bogging myself down, not leaving any room or saving any energy to praise my God.

I know the Bible says to "be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God" (Romans 12:2). I want that - to be renewed and be able to discern God's will again... So I started praying that God would show me ways to transform my mind. And I've learned that that is exactly the kind of prayer God loves to answer!

A few weeks ago, I read Philippians 4:8. It's very familiar to me - I memorized it as a kid. But I've decided to try to really obey it, as a daily habit. Each day, I focus on a different adjective in this verse, and meditate on it. Sometimes I find or recall Scripture; sometimes I hear a song or a story; sometimes I have experiences or conversations with others, and sometimes God reminds me of times when he has revealed these things to me. It's kind of crazy, the effect that it's had on me - my mindset, attitude, and perspective! So I thought maybe I would do a mini-series on my blog, to share some of what I've learned so far. I hope you will be blessed and encouraged, and that this will help to renew your mind, too, and lead your heart to praise.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Special, but the same

The past few posts are some thoughts I've had and insights I've gained over the past few years regarding ministry with international people. As you can read about, there are some special details to consider and be sensitive to as you seek to relate to people from other countries, other cultures, other world views. There are special ways to approach these relationships, and ways to train and equip yourself to respond well and have effective communication.

The same is true in any ministry you invest in. Youth workers know that each new generation of teens and pre-teens comes with its own unique basket of issues that need to be researched, studied, and committed to prayer. People who serve in disability ministry develop a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to physical and social accessibility and care. Those who choose to live in community with people in poverty learn a different perspective on money, opportunity, and social justice. You may be in prison ministry, college ministry, gang ministry, or pre-school ministry. Wherever you are, whatever your "niche" is, there are special realities, special dialects, special approaches to building bridges with the people who you want to love and serve for Christ's sake.

But here's something I've realized: Wherever you serve, people are people, and at our core (where it matters most), we are all the same. We all desire dignity, purpose, and to know that we are loved unconditionally. We should treat every human life as valuable, and we should seek to learn and understand beyond our own assumptions and agendas.

Consider Jesus' ministry. He connected with people who were poor and rich, young and old, the outcasts and the in-crowd, wise and foolish, religious and criminal, men and women, foreigners and hometown boys, the sick, the disabled, even the dead. He didn't have a "niche" - he just saw people as people who were starving for hope and thirsty for life.

Now, he didn't ignore their distinctions; he addressed them directly, and on more than one occasion waited for the person to own up to it themselves (consider the bleeding woman, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, etc.), because what made them different DID matter. It mattered where and how the bridges were built. He never rejected the opportunity to connect with someone, but he wouldn't put mud on the eyes of the paralyzed man on the stretcher, or tell the poor widow to go away and sell all she had!

But in every single situation, a custom-made bridge was built, and wherever the bridge began, it ended at the same place: Jesus met the person where they were, and led them to the Father.

So build bridges. Seek to understand, humble your attitude, find a common ground, extend a hand of true compassion, wash some dusty feet. And continue to walk along that bridge in the direction of the God who loves us all - who made us all special, and yet the same.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Learning together: The "How-tos"

When I first moved to "Little Burma," part of my responsibility was to teach my housemates (newcomer refugees) how to do things in America, like using appliances, sanitation, etc. I must admit that I pretty much failed at this task. I was incredibly nervous and intimidated. These women were older than me, had families of their own, had much more life experience than I did, and had survival skills out the wha-zoo. (Not to mention, I didn't have a great knowledge of appliances beyond a microwave - which they absolutely never used). I had no clue how to teach them without coming across as bossy and superior. And I was confused about what was essential to teach them and what to let go of. I learned a lot during those years - I have Brenda Neuenschwander, Becky Adams, and others like them to thank for the wisdom I am about to share.

You do not need to be bossy. Be humble, patient, and loving. If you are teaching essentials, explain why they are essentials. If you are teaching non-essentials, explain why we prefer to do it this way, and let them know it's optional. Whatever you teach, demonstrate it in real time, at their house or your own. Do it yourself a couple times, and then guide them in doing it while you watch and give feedback. Make sure they feel very comfortable with it - even if it takes a few visits - before you let them do it independently. And make each lesson an opportunity to build mutual trust - bridges in your friendship.

1. Explain things that could get them in legal trouble. There are social services/government protocols in place in America that are not in place in other countries. We had supplied mattresses and beds for each person in the family, but more often than not, the families preferred to put the mattresses on the floor and have everyone sleep close together. We could understand why they would do this, given their background and the hardships they faced. But some families get into a lot of trouble with child protective services because this is seen as a neglect of basic needs. Do some research and be aware of the things social services would consider neglect, abuse or dependency, and explain these things to your friends, to protect them.

2. Explain things that could be physically harmful. Internationals who are used to getting fresh eggs probably need you to tell them that eggs we buy in stores must be refrigerated. Don't overload electrical outlets, don't leave the gas in a gas stove on, and don't mix water and electricity. And there's the all-too-common issue of bed bugs... a good reason to wash clothes regularly and not leave them in a pile on the floor. The bathroom routine - using toilet paper, flushing, and washing hands - should be something you take time to go over, and not assume. When you talk about these things, make sure to explain why so they don't dismiss them as just silly American ways of doing things.

3. Explain things that could make life easier for them. They may be used to washing their clothes by hand, or sweeping the whole house with a broom, or walking for miles to get places. There's nothing wrong with these things, so make sure not to push too hard for them to let go of their familiar ways... but ask if you can show them your way. Demonstrate how to do laundry with a washer and dryer, how to use a vacuum or Swiffer mop, and how to navigate the public transportation systems in your town. You might find that these things amuse, please, and relieve your friends of a lot of extra time and energy.

4. Learn new things together. Don't always be the know-it-all... ask them about things you don't recognize in their kitchen, or how to do things you see them do. I was amazed at the skillful way Burmese mamas sling their babies on their backs! And I'd never seen someone use a pressure cooker before I lived in Little Burma. Make sure that for every new thing you teach, you are learning something new, too.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

When you invite them into your space...

I really love visiting the homes of my international friends. But I'm limited in the number of houses and apartments I can get into, with my wheelchair. I have a friend who is very allergic to peanuts, so going into a house where peanut oil is used liberally in cooking is not a good idea for her. There may be other obstacles or health concerns that limit the time you can spend in the home of your international friend. But just like speaking different languages, this does not need to be a barrier in your friendship. Inviting them into your space is just as important as being in theirs... and this is something I absolutely love to do.

When an international visits your home, you are the native, and they are the foreigner. So think and pray ahead of time about ways you can make them feel as comfortable and welcome as you possibly can. (This is when visiting their house first can really be a benefit!) Maybe have a comfortable seat available to offer them, and prepare something to drink. I like to keep my pantry stocked with tea and tea cookies! Here's a story about being prepared to be hospitable. Is there something kind and special you could do to honor them? It may be as simple as greeting them at the door in their traditional manner, or turning up your thermostat a couple degrees warmer than normal.

When an international visits your home, they become the learner, and you have the opportunity to be the teacher. This can be a very special privilege for both of you! I've had international friends over for specific things like a traditional American birthday party and Thanksgiving dinner. These are fun times to explain and demonstrate our cultural traditions. If there isn't a "special occasion," make it special by doing things you or your family love. Make a favorite meal like pizza, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, or macaroni and cheese, and introduce your guest to a favorite past time, like a board game, tag-football in the backyard, jigsaw puzzles, Charades, or a TV show. If you normally say a prayer before you eat, explain this and do it. While your routine might seem normal to you, you might be surprised at the response you get from your guest. It is special and unique because it is a glimpse into your life.

It's hard to know exactly how to strike a balance between making them comfortable and giving them a cultural experience. I don't think you need to go so far as eating your meal on the floor with your hands, or trying to prepare some complicated ethnic food. Remember, they have come to your space, to experience how you do things! Wouldn't you feel a bit disappointed if you visited an international home and they offered you a pepperoni pizza from Dominos?

I do recommend that if you are making a traditional American meal, that you include one dish that is a little more familiar to your guest - rice or greens or something. Steer clear (at least in the beginning) of making casseroles where all the ingredients are already mixed together; this makes trying new things intimidating! Don't serve pork or Jell-O until you know your friend well enough to know these are ok, based on their religious background. In fact, it might be a good idea to ask beforehand if there are any foods they are not supposed to eat. As your relationship develops, you could even get together to cook a mixed meal to share. One year for Thanksgiving, we had mashed potatoes, sweet tea, corn, wontons, and sambusa! Here's the story, if you're interested.

Because they are the learner, be prepared to answer a lot of "why" questions... try to anticipate some of these questions ahead of time, and think through good answers, instead of saying "I dunno... that's just what we do." Also take a look around your space through the eyes of your international friend. How does it look different? What do your decorations or cleaning habits say about what you value?

Time is often something we struggle with cross-culturally... If you say "Dinner is at 6," your friends may come early or late, and may hang around a while. In the beginning, meals with short prep work might be best, so as to avoid feeling frustrated over cold dishes or kitchen duty when you want to entertain. As your friendship develops and you gain more mutual trust, you can teach and explain the importance of time sensitivity in American culture. You might be learning to be flexible, but many other Americans will not be so understanding, so this is an important lesson for your friend to learn.

Finally, please remember that hospitality is much more than pulling off the perfect event. Do not get so wrapped up in the plans and preparation that you forget the goal: building bridges and breaking down barriers in cross-cultural relationships. Do this because you love the Lord, and because you want to show love to your international friend.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When you are in their space...

I need to follow up my last post with this note: You need to find out ASAP what is culturally taboo for your new friends. Are there certain foods they should not eat? Are there places they should not go? Are there situations you should avoid? Are there gestures you should not use? How you sit, look, eat, or touch can be either very complimentary or very offensive. I don't really want to write a post on taboos, because every country, people group, and culture has their own stuff. What I recommend is that you do a Google search: "cultural taboos in -country name-" to learn the major things, and then just observe, ask questions, and have lots of grace!

One of the best ways to learn quickly is to visit them in their space - their apartment or house. Ask if you can come over, and set a time with them. Put aside your hesitations that stem from your American upbringing - they do not see this as an invasion of privacy or an intrusion of their space. In fact, in every situation I've experienced, they love this!

Try to plan this time when you don't have an important appointment afterward... Again, don't have an American mindset: "Dinner with my international friends at 5:00, piano recital at 7:00." Chances are, if you arrive at 5:00, they may begin preparing the meal around 5:30, and you may not eat until around 7:00! To avoid feeling stressed, do not have an agenda. If you must leave by a certain time, make sure to let the host know, when you make plans with them: "My daughter has a piano recital at 7, so I'm sorry but it is very important that I leave your house at 6:30." Read a personal story about being time-conscientious.

It is a good idea to take a small, modest gift for the host, to thank them for their hospitality - flowers, a sweet treat, or something you made... or it could be something to say, "Welcome to America," like a good family friendly movie or a local souvenir.

When you enter their space, keep in mind that you are the foreigner. Do not expect their home to look or sound or smell like yours! The meals may be served on the floor, the thermostat may be set at 80 degrees, and the windows may be covered with big pieces of colorful material. Even though this house may be built in downtown USA, the minute you step through the door you might find yourself in a different country. And that is not only ok, it is beautiful and exciting and adventurous for you! This is where your international friend is in their element - this is their comfort zone and safe haven, where they know the rules and can relax in their own skin.

Because you are the foreigner, submit yourself to the role of learner. Pay close attention to everything! What do you see? Is there a pile of shoes in the entry? If so, take off your shoes too. Where and how are people sitting? Try to sit on a lower level than the oldest person in the room, unless they insist that you have a "seat of honor." What do the decorations tell you about what is valued? Ask questions, if you see something interesting or unusual; point, and say simple words like, "your home country?" or "you make this?"

Inevitably, you will be offered or given something... A bottle of water, a can of pop, a plate of cookies, or a full-blown meal. Take it! If they made a meal and want you to eat, eat it! Unless you have an allergy or legitimate dietary issue, I recommend that you not ask "What is it?" before the meal... sometimes we enjoy things more in ignorance. Read this fun story about a special eating experience I had. If you are sensitive to spicy things, eat small portions slowly, and eat more rice or bread. But please make an effort to try everything that is put in front of you. With that in mind, forget what your mother said about cleaning your plate! If you finish everything on your plate, your host is likely to continue to fill it indefinitely. They want to make sure that you know they have enough food to satisfy you. It is better to leave a little bit on your plate to signify that you are full and don't want any more.

Eating with an international family is an excellent opportunity to learn from them. Do they sit on the ground? at a low table? with their hands? with chopsticks? from a common bowl? using bread to scoop? Take this time to observe, ask a lot of questions, and imitate what you see. Let them correct you, demonstrate for you, and give you guidance. This is an honor for your international friends, to teach you something new.

After the meal, pay attention - who is cleaning up? Ask how you can help. What is everyone doing? Stay and watch the World Cup, or help the kids with homework, or listen to a story, if you can. When it is time for you to leave, thank and say goodbye to each person. If you feel comfortable, you may even ask if you can pray for God to bless the family before you go - blessings are rarely turned down! You may be completely exhausted and overwhelmed when you leave, but know that you have made significant steps in building bridges and tearing down barriers. You've had a cross-cultural experience that was authentic and intentional!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Beyond words: how to communicate across languages

You've made it through the greeting, and though it may have been somewhat awkward, you should feel encouraged - you've connected! But now there is still that nagging truth that you don't speak the same language. You may not even know the name of the language they speak! Sometimes there is a translator there who will be able to mediate between you, which is great. Praise the Lord for bilingual people! But many times there is not a translator... and let's face it, even if there is a translator at your first meeting, they will not be there all the time.

The good news is that communication is much more than words. In fact, some researchers have determined that the actual words you speak make up only 7% of how you communicate! If you want to test this, turn on a TV show and hit the "mute" button, and watch an episode. You'll be amazed at how much of the plot you figure out without the script.

Here are some other ways you can be prepared to communicate without words:

1. Gestures
Many people "talk with their hands," but how much do these gestures say? More often than not, we're just waving our hands around, punctuating words or working out our emotion. But many things we say can be accompanied by meaningful gestures - pointing to something we're discussing, demonstrating while we give instruction, pantomiming as we tell a story. Practice being intentional with your gestures. Play "Charades" or "Simon Says" with a group of friends. Give each other whole sentences or scenarios to act out - make it more and more challenging!

2. Objects/Props
The more you can use real-time objects to communicate, the better. For example, instead of trying to decipher a recipe, you could cook together, and indicate the difference between the sink and stove, the teaspoon and mixing bowl, the eggs and flour. Or instead of a pep talk about safety, get a well-supplied first-aid kit and open up the packages to show what a band-aid is and how to use it. Pizza might be an odd food for someone to wrap their brain around, so instead of a picture, make or order a pizza and show them how we eat it. Bring a bag of objects with you when you visit, just to use to "strike up a conversation"! The more concrete and hands-on you can make new concepts, the more likely a person is to retain that information. A fun way to practice would be to have some friends get together and each bring an object that they will use to carry on a non-verbal conversation for five minutes with the group.

3. Drawing/showing pictures
Sometimes you just can't get your hands on an object you need to discuss. So carry a sketchbook with you, and keep a great set of photos on your cell/smart phone. You don't have to be an artist or draw elaborate pictures to get your message across. The key is simple, clear, quick images that aid in comprehension. Practice by playing "Pictionary" with your friends and family! And one thing I like about this tactic is that the other person can draw pictures too, to get their message across to you. "Show and Tell" about your family, draw a map to your house or church. I have a friend who would detail whole church sermons to me in sketches:

4. Facial expressions
I said before that smiles are universal. In fact, many facial expressions are universal... sadness, excitement, anger, disapproval, surprise, fear, and confusion. Practice studying as many expressions as you can. If you are in a group, give everyone a stack of paper plates, and have each person draw a face on each side of the plates, showing different emotions or expressions. You could have a guessing game to find out what each face depicts, or you could all draw the same set of expressions and compare how similar the depictions are.

5. Tone of Voice
If you live in an apartment with noisy upstairs neighbors, you can attest to the fact that tone communicates a lot - it's not so much what you say, as how you say it. You can hear warning, scolding, comforting, cheering, and pleading in tone. I mentioned earlier that you should watch a muted TV show... to study the effects of tone, try to watch a TV show (soap operas are the best) or a movie in another language. See how much of the plot you can figure out by the way people sound when they are talking to each other - who loves who? who is angry with who? who is afraid of who? Practice being intentional in the way you use your voice to communicate. If you have a fun and dramatic group of friends, over-dramatize a Shakespearean play or make up your own soap opera.

I hope this gives you some ideas, and some fun ways to study and practice nonverbal communication. Even though we use them naturally and fluently with people who speak our language, we tend to forget that they are valuable tools we can use with people who speak a different language. So it's important that we intentionally develop these skills, so they become a more natural part of our communication.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First Impressions: Meet and Greet

Ok, so you know where to go to find international people in your city... now what? You find yourself face-to-face with someone (or a group of someones) who speaks a different language and has a different concept of socially acceptable norms. And while it all feels new and exciting, you suddenly are panic-stricken by the realization that you have no idea what you're doing and are in way over your head. Two of the biggest concerns in your mind are probably: I can't speak their language! and I am going to accidentally offend them! Well, these are probably both true. And guess what? These are true on their side too! But there is good news: these things do not have to keep you from having a beautiful friendship.

(Before I continue, I want to clarify that this blog series is intended for people who are seeking to have personal friendships and be in true community with international people. I believe the best way to develop these authentic friendships is through vulnerability, humbleness, and a desire to share and learn from each other. There are other blogs out there that are geared toward more professional business or political relationships, which should be approached with a lot of prior research and higher initial competence.)

There are three things I do before I first meet an international person...

1. PRAY. I pray for God to open good opportunities for me to meet people, and to give me courage to take the opportunities. Then I ask him to be our "translator" - to somehow help us understand each other beyond our different languages and cultural contexts. In my experience, this really does work! My Burmese friend, Pastor Meng Pu, taught me to do this. Whenever we get together, we pray this first. A few times when we did not pray, we became very frustrated and confused. Then we would stop and pray for clarity and understanding, and with God's help we were able to communicate much better. This gives the verse in Proverbs another level of meaning: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding..."

2. SMILE. Smiling - when it is genuine - is an universal language! It sends the message that you are happy (happy to be there and to meet this person), and have friendly and good intentions. It puts people at ease, too. If you accidentally make some offensive gesture or try to say something in their language and it comes out all wrong, it will very likely be forgiven if you are sincerely smiling.

3. Have GRACE for yourself and for the other person. Remember how I said you will probably offend each other? Approach your encounters with sufficient grace to readily forgive if the person "invades" your personal space or "refuses" to make eye contact. And give yourself enough grace to lay down your pride and make mistakes and look foolish. You may not know what you're doing, and that is ok - just don't pretend you know it all! Be willing to admit you don't know, and be open to being taught and helped. This kind of humble vulnerability is a way to honor your new friend.


Greetings are different all over the world, but the concept of giving a greeting is universal. If you are meeting someone from a culture you are completely unfamiliar with, offer a smile and "Hello," and observe what they do next. Do they nod, bow, reach out to take your hand, touch your shoulder, or move to kiss your cheeks? Like learning a secret hand shake, follow their lead. If they don't give an indication of how they want to greet, you can offer to shake their hand, as that is customary in Western culture, or slightly bow or nod.

Err on the side of modesty, honor, and respect, though. If it is a group or a family, it is probably best for you to address oldest to youngest, and men before women. It tends to be more appropriate to be more affectionate with people of the same sex, too.

Of course, first encounters may be more formal, and as you become friends, the greeting might change. For example, I have a friend who is from Egypt, and when we first met, we shook hands; but after we got to know each other, she began to kiss my cheeks when we greeted.

Make notes to yourself of the greetings you learn - become a student of cultures. For example, if you encounter someone from India for the first time and they demonstrate/teach what is an appropriate formal greeting, then try to remember this for the next time you encounter someone from India. They will not be greatly offended if you greet in a Western way, but they will be impressed, appreciative - and what is more important, honored - if you are able to greet them in a way that is traditional and familiar to them. (For Indians, this would be to stand at arms-length, bow with your palms together in front of you, and say, "Namaste.") To make the effort to find ways to honor another person is a great way to get rid of barriers and build bridges to true friendship.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where to Find International Friends

Where do you find international friends? Some people take trips to other countries and have incredible, life-changing cross-cultural experiences - and if you are able to do that, I absolutely recommend it. But what if you can't - you don't have the money, you can't take the time off work, your responsibilities at home are full-time, or you can't physically handle a big trip? The beautiful thing is, there are people from all over the world who are moving here! We really don't have to go very far to have a cross-cultural experience. And we don't even need to be in a big city like Chicago or New York, praise the Lord! But your current lifestyle may not put you in the same places as your international neighbors, so you may have no idea how close they are. If you want to meet internationals and make some new friends, you can't just sit where you are and hope they will find you. Here are a few places you could explore:

1. International ministries/organizations

Speaking from personal experience, I recommend that you research what ministries or non-profits are already present in your city. They may function with a small staff and a small budget, but they are often the ones who have the best personal connections with the international population in your community. When I lived in Fort Wayne, I served with International House, which has been serving in the same area for about 15 years, and native Hoosiers are still shocked to discover it, right in their backyard! You may be surprised to learn that there are people in your area who are already providing services for international people. A quick Google search of your city, with key words like "nonprofits and charities" or "refugees and immigrants" could be a good place to start. And of course, don't underestimate the leaders in your church as a possible connecting resource.

There are also bigger organizations that have multiple offices around the country and the world. World Relief and Catholic Charities are just two of the well-known, well-established non-profits that can be found in many cities. Check out their websites below to see if they are near you:

2. Resource centers

Many social/community resource centers help international people, such as free medical clinics and language learning centers. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the YMCA are also places where families will go for support. You may want to volunteer or find part time jobs in one of these places.

3. Places of work 

Get out of your comfort zone and eat or shop somewhere you don't normally go! Authentic Mexican restaurants, Indian buffets, Chinese take-outs, or Japanese sushi bars are excellent places to try some delicious foods and meet some interesting people.  Also keep your eye out for local ethnic markets or boutique shops to browse and shop in. If it's the real thing, then chances are it's a small family-run business, and the people who work there are from that country. When you find a place you particularly enjoy, make an intentional effort to frequently visit. The owners or servers will start to recognize you and will be more friendly and open to conversation.

4. Churches

In my hometown of Winston-Salem, there are churches on every corner... sometimes two or three on a corner! I notice that some of the signs/marquees are in Spanish or Korean. I also know that there is usually a variety of nationalities represented in Greek Orthodox churches. Pay attention to the signs of churches in your community. Take note of the ones that are written in other languages or have international flags displayed, and maybe skip your church service some week to visit one of these churches. Be prepared to not understand a word that is spoken or sung, and be open to experiencing styles of worship that might look or sound different from what you are used to. This is ok - it's a cross-cultural experience! People will be very curious about why you are there, but will also be extremely welcoming to you.

Do some research, explore a new corner of your town, be an observer and learner... and pray for God to open your eyes to see the nations among us!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

International ministry

Those of you who know me well, know how much I love international refugee ministry - learning from other cultures... being in community with people who are incredibly generous and hospitable even when they have very little in material possessions... offering help and hope to people who have experienced great trials and suffering... and witnessing the amazing dignity, strength, perseverance, and love that they hold on to... It's one of my greatest passions; it makes me feel so alive! My heart leaps at the sound of a foreign language, I can't help but smile when my eye catches a brightly colored African robe, and even the sour smell of tamarind recalls beautiful memories for me.

I've come to realize there are many people who don't reach out to international people, simply because they don't know where to begin. What if I can't speak their language? What if I accidentally offend them? What if I don't know how to greet, eat with, or even sit with them? Worst case scenarios can develop in our imaginations, and fear or prejudice or insecurity or ignorance can keep us in our safe, mono-linguistic, uni-ethnic, cookie-cutter world. Because of this, we miss opportunities to learn, serve, receive, give, and grow... and we have a very limited perspective of what God is doing in the world.

So I've decided to write a series of blog posts, with the goal and purpose of encouraging and informing people in how to make international friends. Maybe you don't know where to find them, or you just don't know how to connect with those around you. Maybe you have met some people, and feel helpless in knowing what to do to develop your friendship. I hope that as I share stories, strategies, and bits of truth that I've learned over the past few years, you will feel more confident and excited to reach out, build bridges, and cross cultures, wherever you are.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Vocabulary word: "Home"

I've been working on writing 30 full-length ESL lessons on the book of Genesis. It's a fun project I gave myself a while ago, because I find that I learn deeper things from familiar passages when I pick apart the language, one kernel at a time.

Today I was scrounging around in the story of Cain and Abel... When God pronounces the curse on Cain as punishment for his sin, one piece of the curse is that he will be a "restless wanderer on the earth" (Gen 4:12). I'm writing these lessons on a beginner English proficiency level, so trying to limit the vocabulary as much as possible without losing the meaning or significance is a constant (and delightful) challenge.

In this lesson, I was trying to introduce how to express negatives for nouns and verbs. I already introduced the word "rest" in lesson 1 - because God rested on the seventh day, so in this lesson (lesson 4), I was able to say: "You will not rest."

But I prayed for a while about how to express the wandering. I finally decided to say "You will have no home." The interesting thing about the word "home" is that it is somewhat abstract. You can show a picture of a house, a hut, an apartment, or a castle. But home is - dare I use the cliche?? - where the heart is. It isn't confined to a building or geographical location. (That's why we say "Go to school, go to the hospital, go to my house... go home."To is directional, and home does not necessarily have direction.) Think about all those songs that talk about home... it's where your family and loved ones are; it's where you feel comfortable and at peace and welcomed. Home is where you know you belong.

I love teaching this word as an English vocabulary term, because people understand it. Many of the students I've had nod their heads and blink misty eyes as they learn the word, mentally going back to some far away place of love and peace and comfort - sometimes it's a place or time that they don't think they will ever be able to return to, and sometimes it's a new experience that is bringing hope and life to them again. I'm sure as you read this, you know exactly what "home" means to you... I know I do.

Now take that beautiful word, that concept that is universally cherished, and go back to that curse that Cain bore for the rest of his restless life... "no home." I can almost hear his voice quiver and crack as he huddles in the dirt and says, "My punishment is more than I can bear." Take a moment to feel the heartbreaking tragedy of it. Remember that Adam and Eve felt the same way when they were sent out of the garden. And the children of Israel, who lived as refugees and slaves and exiles and strangers in foreign lands for so many years, felt it too. No home to call their own... no home.

Imagine the effect the promise of God must have had on Abram's heart when he heard the words: "I will give you this land... Your descendants will inherit this land." Essentially, I will give you a home where you belong. And he made his home there, but he knew it wasn't his true home...

"...he lived in tents... for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God..." And he left a legacy for those who have followed his example of faith: "All these people... admitted that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own... they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16)

It's one of those bits of eternity that I think God planted in the hearts of Man, a longing for a home. And sometimes we get glimpses of it here on earth, but there is a much better home being prepared for us, if we put our faith in Jesus. I love that it is one of those promises Jesus made to his friends when he said he had to go away... that he would prepare a place - a home - for them and come back for them, so they could be together forever. Home - hallelujah.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

How we need each other

I have a new ESL student... a woman from Somalia, who moved to America five months ago. I was thrilled to meet her, because I've been missing my African friends in Fort Wayne and have been praying for some new friends here. So our first "class time" was really just a get-to-know-you visit, and a good time to connect.

I learned two things from her this week that were especially interesting to me... First, she had a daughter in Africa who had a disability. I don't know if she was born with it, or got sick, or something else happened, but for seven years she could not walk or sit up or feed herself, so this woman - her mother - was her full-time caregiver, until she passed away. Because of this background, I felt like I could talk to her about my disability, how I can't walk and I need help to do many things. I pointed to my wheelchair and asked, "Do you know this, what we call this?" She said, "No, I  see this sometimes, but I don't know." So I said, "It is 'wheel-chair,' because..." She smiled and laughed and said, "Oh I know! It is chair and have wheels! Very good!"

The second thing I learned is that she works in a sewing factory, and many of her coworkers are blind. This is a big motivator for her to learn English, because she must be able to use words to communicate with these people - they cannot depend on her nonverbal skills for understanding. I am so excited to help her with this goal!

Near the end of our first class together, she told me, "When I see people who cannot walk, cannot see, cannot do... oh, I very want to help." She put her hand on her heart to emphasize her strong desire to help. She referred to her daughter again, and indicated that she sometimes leads her coworkers by the arm to help them get around. I said, "This is very good! And sometimes I need help, so you can help me, ok?" She smiled and nodded at this. Then I said, "I understand, because I feel this too. When I meet people who cannot speak English, I want to help them very much." I put my hand on my heart as she did, to show the same strong desire. "So maybe I can help you, and you can help me... yes?" She smiled a very big smile and said, "Very good! Yes!"

I like having this kind of relationship with people. There isn't a lot I can offer in the way of practical help, but I can teach English well, and I can understand limited and broken language well, too. And I think many internationals who come to America feel ill-equipped to do very much... but they can open doors and pick up pencils and move chairs - all things that are incredibly helpful to me! And so, although we both feel inadequate and largely incapable of doing many things, we find ourselves in a friendship that is co-dependent in an usual and perfect way.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Reaching the World

Our church has this motto: "Loving God, Loving Others, Reaching the World." In December, I was asked to be the Missionary Liaison for the church. That involves some different responsibilities, and some responsibilities that are still being developed and defined.

We currently support seven missionaries around the world, and two local ministries. I have three main goals while I am in this role:

1. to serve and care for our current missionaries personally, intentionally, and consistently
2. to increase the number of missionaries our church supports
3. to raise the awareness and direct involvement of our church with these missionaries

If you visit our church, you will see in the hallway a wall mural of a world map. All over this map, we have pictures of our missionaries, and a brief description of where they are and what they do. I want people in our church to have a visual reminder to pray for these people on a regular basis. It is easy to forget, especially when people are in a far-off land with limited contact, but they desperately need our prayers!

Also on the wall, we have a mirror, the same size and shape as the pictures. Instead of having a place and description, there is a caption on the mirror that says: "Where is God calling you?" I don't want people to read that and smile and its clever implication, and just walk away. I want people to take a good close look in that mirror, and honestly consider the question, and ask God for an answer. The question for all Christians is not whether we are called to follow the Great Commission or not, but how we are called to follow it.

We all have a role to play - we all have this incredibly Good News to share with someone, somewhere. So what does that look like for you? Where will you go? Who will you tell?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Something New!

I've been silent for a while... I didn't know what to write about, because I didn't know what I was called to invest in, and I didn't know what God was trying to teach me. But lately, things have started coming into focus more.

Some Christian people seem to have a very clear mission in life - whether its a career or field of study, or its a city or country or people group, or its a program or organization or a church. And I would really like to think I have a "niche" - one piece of the world or history to call my own and spend my life on. But the more I try to find and establish it, the more God seems to redirect and redefine it. I know I have two passions: to love and serve international people, and to equip and encourage believers to love and serve international people. But what that looks like and how it plays out keeps shifting so I can't get too comfortable.

I've been learning some things about myself, and how the Lord wants me to live and serve:

Keep alert and look for the ways He is actively at work, and join Him there. When I try to start my own thing, or drag something along that isn't bearing fruit, I burn out and miss out on God's work.

Don't hold on too tightly to anything on this earth. When I do, I start to put my faith and trust in it... and He is very jealous for my faith and trust.

I really can't do anything for God, but He invites me to do things with Him and through Him. Ministry is not about me and what I can do... it is about what He is doing. And He is always doing something new! So I want to share with you the glimpses I get of His work, here and all over the world.