I Have So Much to Learn From My Sister, Africa

Africa

I sit on the ground with her, this woman in the brightly printed dress and crow’s feet from the Widow’s Village in Rwanda.

She sits with a thud, because the genocide has that kind of impact–it has robbed her of her husband and her children–and she has been listening to another woman tell her story and the memories–they’ve just collided and shoved her down.

So I sit there with her in the dirt, a child in my lap and the village around us.

“God is good,” she whispers.

Just hours earlier we’d visited a vocational school, where children–orphaned by the genocide—were learning trades like welding and sewing, and when the teacher asked who had lost a loved one to the war, everyone had raised a hand.

And I’d gone around and hugged every single one, pressed my heart against theirs, because this is one thing I can give–myself. I cannot fix the past. I cannot take away the pain. But I can make the present a little easier.

Our team leader, the founder of World Help, he’s the one who stops the vehicle so the kids running alongside us can get on and ride with us. He’s the one who cries when he reunites with a student graduating college–a kid his organization found, years earlier, in the slums; put in a rescue home and sponsored for eighteen years.

He’s the one who says, “We don’t empower people—because to do so would imply we hold the power in the first place. Only Christ empowers people. We serve.”

And if it’s one thing I’ve learned on this bloggers’ trip, it’s that I’m not a Savior.

I can’t save anyone. I can’t come into a country and fix anyone’s problems. Before I left on this trip, God told me: “Emily, your job is not to fix. That’s my job. I can fix everything with one breath. You are merely a vessel.”

So I sit there in the dirt with this woman in the printed dress. Ospreys sing in the Eucalyptus trees, and we’re listening to another women’s story of the genocide. The entire government-funded village gathered around to thank World Help for sponsoring their children’s education. For teaching them about Jesus. For giving them reason to smile.

I have been in Africa for six days, with my hand sanitizer and my camera–and the one thing I can conclude from my time here is:

I have so much to learn from my sister, Africa.

The land of men and women who rise above war and genocide and starvation, who race down the road crying “Mzungu!” at the foreigners in the van, who leap into visitors’ arms and wrap their tiny arms, recklessly—who beg at street corners and carry 40 gallon jugs of water for miles.

Africa: with its cows lying in the center of traffic circles, with goats and chickens and children rolling tire tubes with sticks, with fresh paw paw and mango and plantain.

As missionaries, we are not saviors. We are servants. We serve a Savior. We enter into another culture with our flawed spirits, and we try to minimize self so the other might be enhanced.

It’s all about the other. It’s all about knowing them, so they might know Christ. The end.

It’s not about converting cultures. It’s about swapping stories. It’s not about developing the east. It’s about developing relationships. It’s not about taking photos. It’s about knowing the names of the people, touching their calloused hands.

We all need something. And that something is not paved streets or brand-name jeans or suburbia. It’s not revenue dollars or advertising or sneakers or titles.

It’s the God who became man, who rode a young colt, who healed lepers, who died on a cross.

The woman is done telling her story and the crowd turns to me and my friend, sitting there on the ground, and they extend their hands–lift us from the dirt.

This is what it means to be a missionary: to lift another up, so they might, like Zaccheaus in the tree—see Jesus.

We’re here in Africa with #AFRICAWH to build a rescue home for abandoned babies, so the fatherless and motherless can find a family with Destiny Villages of Hope. We’ve fully funded our first phase of the rescue home. Fore more information, see this video. Or, donate to the project HERE?

How Nelson Mandela Became My Bethlehem Star

Nelson-Mandela

I walked to the edge of my faith tonight, looked down and was tempted to jump.

Because sometimes there are no stars or moon, just an ink black sky and, when you step outside in your sneakers and run the country mile, you can’t even see the white of your shoes. It’s that dark.

“I’m done!” I yelled at God while I ran, because I was.

Nothing was working. No amount of being faithful to Jesus was seeming to work, and people I loved weren’t getting better and some were dying and others were starving themselves or relationships were failing. No matter how much I prayed, mountains were not moving and I was done.

I ran and thought about Mum when she had brain cancer, how we’d done everything we could to heal her, how we’d anointed her with oil and prayed against generational curses and renounced sins and sung hymns and done the medical stuff too and her tumor was still growing and the sky was just as dark then as it was now.

I was done with being a Christian.

I was done with believing in something I couldn’t see because it was lonely in the dark. I needed someone’s hand to reach out and hold me because sometimes, faith is touching Jesus’ nail-pierced hands and you can call me Thomas if you want to.

After a while I was panting, but not from the run, from all of the pain, the world’s pain and I couldn’t do it. I kept saying this and I stopped, doubled over, and God showed me, then.

He showed me a picture of the late Nelson Mandela, sitting alone in his bare-bones cell in Africa for twenty-seven years (or nine thousand, eight hundred and fifty five days) and how he emerged—his mind and soul intact, even though he’d forgotten how to tie his shoes—and continued to lead, to inspire, to shine.

To be, as Lisa-Jo Baker put it, a home for those who had none.

He showed me a picture of a woman in Haiti who was a housekeeper at a hotel where my friend had stayed, and all of this woman’s money from housekeeping went towards re-building her house, because there are no banks there—people just transfer the money directly into things like bricks for the walls of their home, or food to eat.

And this woman, she was sitting in her half-built house, the walls just piles of bricks around her, and she was sitting there reading her Bible.
God showed me my neighbor, a single lady who, every night when she gets home from work, plays hymns from her piano by the open window.

He showed me my mum, who never stopped believing God was healing her —

Even when the tumor got bigger and now, after eight years of brain cancer she is fully healed, the tumor gone and doctors scratching their heads. And he showed me this video through a friend, the video of a homeless man joining a Christian musician’s music video, the video of a person with no home giving heartfelt praise to his heavenly father.

And each of these pictures—of Mandela emerging from prison, of the woman in her unfinished house, reading her Bible, of my mum, my neighbor, my husband and the homeless man—they all were flames lighting up the sky, comprising the brightest star—a Bethlehem star.

A star which led the wise men —

which leads all men and women, sons and daughters, into the presence of a king born on a very dark night, born in a manger, in a stable smelling of horse and cow, born in a lowly and despicable way so that we would know the kind of hope that combusts across the sky like a choir of angels.

The hope which leads us home.

Photo Credit: robin_24 , Creative Commons

What I Learned From My Big Fat Italian Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

Hot, soapy water splashed over the soft red and cream pattern of my grandma’s floral china set. We had just finished another delicious, over-indulgent holiday dinner, a regular occurrence in my Italian family. Despite hours, even days, of preparation and cooking, our actual consumption lasted under an hour, and now the breakdown and cleaning had commenced.

As I gently scrubbed the plates and bowls inherited by my father after my grandma’s passing years ago, I distinctly remember the comments about how unique and elegant the pattern was, just like my grandma herself.

“I’ve never seen any like it,”

I remember my aunt, my grandma’s oldest child and only daughter, saying one Easter dinner. In all my aunt’s years, all the take-out-the-good-china celebrations she attended, she had never seen a china set like her mother’s.

In moments like these, my mind would wander into the half-memories, half-tales absorbed through family story-sharing, of how my grandma could painlessly stick her hand in a pot of boiling water. Through years of scooping pasta and eggs and other ingredients out of the scalding pot, this little Italian lady had developed the formidable and strange ability to forgo oven mitts and dish gloves while working her magic in the kitchen.

Clearly this ability isn’t genetic because my father can’t even get toast out of the toaster without playing hot potato and letting out a tsss…hot, hot, hot!

For what my dad lacks in being able to handle heat, he makes up in exuding warmth.

The running joke in our family is how during one Thanksgiving dinner growing up, my dad randomly announced “we should take in some strays next year.”

Understandably taken aback, my older brother asked, “Isn’t…isn’t that kind of dangerous? Just taking people off the street and inviting them into our house?” My dad began laughing at the hilarity of the miscommunication, while the rest of us sat in our upholstered dining room chairs with furrowed brows.

“No, no, I mean take in people who don’t naturally have a place to come during the holidays. Like soldiers who got stuck at O’Hare [a Chicago airport] or people like that,” my dad explained. We sighed with relief as he affirmed for clarity’s sake, “No, I don’t mean just take people off the street.”

Last Easter, my dad finally got his way: he invited some “strays” over for Easter.

They were a couple from the church choir who didn’t have family or close friends in town for the holiday. One of them may not have even been Christian. But they were welcomed into my parents’ home as family.

Long into the evening, we chatted and refilled our wine glasses and said yes, please to that second slice of lamb cake — a traditional Catholic and Orthodox treat for the Pascal feast that no, is not lamb-flavored, just lamb-shaped (because Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, you know).

It will be many years until my husband and I host our own Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinner.

In our cozy one-bedroom condo, not even a tenth of my large Italian family would be able to fit. But the time will come when my siblings and I have grown, possibly started our own families, and turned the tables by serving our parents and family as hospitable hosts. We’ll prepare for our guests of honor by tidying up the house, setting the table, and preparing for a decadent meal.

But hospitality is much more than a clean home, a tablescape out of Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade cooking show, and special meals. It is about a clean and humble heart, an open table for both the important and the overlooked, and feeding the hungry and thirsty soul.

As a follower of Christ, I believe God cares about our hospitality because I believe our hospitality is the direct result of our generosity and humility (or lack thereof). I believe in some mysterious, holy way that when we serve others, especially “the least of these,” that we are serving Christ.

And I believe that in showing hospitality to strangers such as those outside of our “tribe,” we entertain angels.

So while it may be a few years until I host a holiday dinner, I want to cultivate a generous and humble spirit in the quiet, intentional ways of true hospitality. And I’d like to practice with you, for you.

I’d light a pumpkin spice candle in the kitchen, letting the wick burn as the sweet aroma nudged us to relax and to breathe deeply, fully.

I’d unpack the special imperial Russian porcelain set we received from an oh-so-generous family friend for our wedding nearly two years ago, telling you that we had been waiting for a special occasion to christen the traditional cobalt blue and gold-rimmed china.

I’d fill your cup with wine or the drink of your choosing, insisting that you relax while I finished up the last touches on the meal.

I’d break bread with you, praying the Our Father (that’s Catholic for “the Lord’s Prayer,” as my husband says) over our meal and our fellowship.

But most of all, I’d talk with you about what makes you you.

Maybe that’s about your family or career or friends or that book you’re writing. Or maybe we’d begin to talk about the deeper issues, the faith and the struggles and the doubt and the dreams we only unleash after a couple glasses of Cabernet.

In this sacred space, we wouldn’t just be partaking in food and drink; we’d be practicing the very essence of hospitality: a generous and humble sharing of ourselves with one another.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to wait until I host a fancy dinner to practice hospitality.

I’d rather get to know you now. Over a cup of coffee. Or a lunch date. Or better yet, a regular Friday night dinner to discuss faith and feminism (my favorites) and whatever are your favorites, too. Over wine and something cheese-filled, we could show true hospitality to one another by being, as my grandma was, our unique and elegant selves.

Photo Credit: Elisa Maser , Creative Commons

I Can’t Save Anyone From Injustice

save-anyone

She had bruises on her neck that Sunday afternoon. My breath caught hard and I looked down to blink back tears. I wanted to just scoop her up and take her away to some place where this pain could never touch her again. But she is an adult and there are limits to what even law officers can prevent when someone returns to an abusive situation.

I quietly pick up her little boy, the one who she will save and protect with everything she has, even if it means calling me and letting me keep him for hours and days. “You can call the police or just come home with me,” I remind her, “you don’t have to stay here.”

She looks away and I know there is more holding her here than him.

I know that her love for her son is true and right.

I don’t know much else.

“I’ll keep your son safe,” I tell her.

She nods and rushes back inside.

My husband walks with me to the car. He helps me buckle in the little boy who is clinging to his stuffed animal and a bag of microwave popcorn. I ache. I can’t save anyone. Not really. Not with love, not with time, not with money or energy. I touch the blond curls that fall against the car seat.

All over the world men and women are charging into desperate situations, working for justice and setting the captives free.

When I first learned of the slavery and abuse in our world today, the way that men and women and children were forced to mark their souls with horror, I burned to help them. I burned to do something, anything.

And God spoke so clearly, marking my own soul with truth. It starts right here.

It starts with me being willing to walk up to the neighbor’s house and offer refuge and safety to the broken. It starts with me being willing to stand in a driveway in the middle of my town and have obscenities screamed at me because the father of the child I am helping is dead-drunk and I cannot leave until someone else arrives to help.

It starts with me learning to taste the dirt of the marred and the imprisoned who live right here, to stop protecting my neat-little-life from the messiness of a broken world.

I can’t save anyone. I can’t stop her from walking back into the house where she is being torn apart and misused. But I can open my doors to her and pray God’s grace into her and maybe, someday, she’ll walk through them.

There is no hope unless I try.

Photo Credit: Edwin Emerlich , Creative Commons

In Want of More Blessings

blessing

My husband, The Farmer, is testing the waters today. Are the beans ready? Will they process through the combine without problems? Or should he wait a few more days?

Harvest has begun, and with it, a hopefulness is in the air.

What will the crops yield?  Will the corn be dry enough?  Will the beans be a “bumper” this year?

Throughout the summer, I have heard, “the corn is doing well” and “the beans are suffering”.  My Farmer talks about his fields like they are dear friends.  He has planted, watered, nurtured, and prayed.

But now that harvest is here, what blessings lie around the corner?

Blessings.  That word has been rattling around in my brain for weeks, months even. And it has come up in countless books, devotions, lessons and videos.  I even made a “blessing jar” at the beginning of the year. I prepared pretty little cards to record any new blessings. The cards are dropped into my jar, with hopes of filling it up throughout the year.  I look for blessings every day.

Don’t you? I want to be blessed.

Once when I was talking on the phone with a friend, we were just chit-chatting about small things. I began to complain about my mountain of laundry and the dirty floors. I grumbled about having to sweep and mop… again. My sweet friend replied, ‘Oh, I wish I could sweep your floors for you’.

Immediately, I was humbled and ashamed.

You see, when she was just a young mother, she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. And her disease was severe. Most days, she was in bed, not able to do the laundry or cook meals for her family. These everyday chores I dreaded, she counted as blessings. Even my mundane tasks are evidence of God’s favor.

I wash the dishes because God has given us food.

I do SO much laundry because we have an abundance of clothes.

I sweep the floor because I have the health and strength to do so.

I make the beds because I have a home, a beautiful shelter, more than I need.

Do I need to be blessed?  Am I in want of yet more blessings?  I am blessed.  I am completely, totally, abundantly blessed.

Even when we pray, almost every prayer—from everyone—begins with “God, please bless us”.  There are well over 350 verses in the Bible with some form of the word bless, and most of them have to do with God blessing us! In Genesis, the beginning, there are 65; there about 80 in Psalms and Proverbs combined; ending with an amazing half dozen in Revelations.

Our Bible is completely laced with God’s blessings on his people.

We are blessed, exceedingly blessed.

In Matthew, those counted as blessed are the poor, the mourners, the gentle, those who are thirsting for God as well as those who are pure in God, the merciful, those who keep the peace and those who are persecuted. I’m on that list. How about you?  And I have not even touched on the truth that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens!!

We are blessed. We are blessed. We are blessed.

I have gotten way too comfortable with my blessings.  They have become my normal; my expectations. I am living in a paradise compared to 90% of the population.  I am enjoying the blessings, but often not remembering The Blesser.  I am blessed because God has chosen to bestow favor.  He has already given me much — over and over again.   I could spend the rest of today and tomorrow filling out cards for my blessing jar. It should be overflowing with cards.

I should need another jar, and then another.

‘Let us bless you, God’ should be our prayer. “Now unto him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think…to him be the glory”.

Yes, glory to God, the Giver of my abundance.

My phone chirps, and after one morning of field work, I receive a text from my Farmer: ‘problems’ (he has always been a man of few words).  I lean over and tell my “anxious-to-ride-the-combine” three-year-old grandson, ‘Papa is having trouble with the beans today’.  This wise little man (who has been listening to farmer-talk) replies, ‘that’s ‘cuz the beans are p’bly not brown enough’.

And he is right, the beans are not dry enough, and our harvest will have to wait a day or two.  But whether the corn and the beans yield an abundance or not, we are blessed.  Yes, we are.

Photo Credit: Jon Bunting , Creative Commons