Friday, August 18, 2017

Carried

I am always prepared, and yet never really ready, for how this week and this day affect me, for all the emotions I carry around and how they spring up at random and unexpected times.

It's strange, because nothing can be harder than this day 7 years ago, so I don't know why I approach the anniversary with such dread. But I do, every single year.

It's been such a long time that my sister has been in heaven.

It FEELS like a long time most days.

This week it always feels like it just happened yesterday.

I had several new emotions this year, in the days leading up to this one. For example: I was so mad at myself on Wednesday. I kept thinking, "Why didn't you try harder to get there? If you had left on August 16th, 2010, when we all still thought it was dehydration or exhaustion or something, you would have made it before she died. Why were you trying to be optimistic? Why didn't you just GO?"

All week I have been so tired. A bone-deep exhaustion, sapping me of the desire to do anything. I'm used to that feeling, though, as the years pass, and I've gotten decent at letting myself off the hook for just a couple days.

"Yes, kids, I do know that we had frozen pizza for lunch and we are having Little Caesars for supper. I'm sorry. I'll do better next week." 

Seven years is a long time to spend walking through grief. But by the time I reach the end of my life, it will have been even longer. It seems like, in my logical brain, that I should be all better by now. That I should have figured out how to compensate, adjust, and keep on moving, without feeding my children the same meal 6 times in a 3 day span, without giving myself a stomach ache from crying.

I told that to the Lord this week, during my prayer time. "I'm sorry I keep bring this to You every year, Lord. I should be getting better at it by now."

I don't know if I can accurately explain what happened next, but I will try.

I pray in my closet. Because it's quiet, and if my kids come looking for me, they will look in my room and bathroom, but seldom come all the way into my closet to search. And usually I pray after my workout, because I'm going to be sitting down and gasping for air for a while anyway, and might as well kill two birds with one stone.

So, picture me in sweaty workout gear, face flushed and soaked in sweat, sitting in the floor of a relatively clean closet.

"Good morning, Lord. I know there are things for me to pray about. I just need to get my head in the game. Help me."

I sat and looked at the list of scriptures and prayer requests in front of me, and even though I WANTED to pray...I had no words.

"I'm tired, Lord. I want to praise You and worship You and pray for my fellow believers...but right now I'm sad. And sadness makes me tired."

And then I had the strangest string of memories and thoughts, flooding my brain in a row, like a reel of a movie.

A baby monkey at the zoo, walking along beside its parents, until it gets too tired and the mom slings the little one up on her back to ride for a few minutes.

A movie where the battle is raging and the soldier is surrounded, and suddenly a friend appears on a horse, his arm reaching out, and jerks his companion up to ride behind him through the fighting.

A toddler who walks and walks, and then suddenly can't anymore, so the daddy hauls them up onto his shoulders for a bit.

A poem about footprints, overused and cliche, but resonating nonetheless.

My 10-year-old with a broken foot, the day before we got him crutches, riding on my back from the car to the house.

My 7-year-old, toe busted and bleeding, being carried in his daddy's arms.

It took several minutes before I realized I had curled up onto the floor, in a ball, as the thoughts rushed over and over through my brain. And I was crying. And the Lord was talking to me.

"It's okay, little girl. Take a break. I'll do the moving forward for a while, and you can ride on my back. Just sit and breathe for a minute."

Relief is a sweet, precious gift this morning.

Because I am NOT advancing today. I'm sitting. I'm remembering my sister. I'm wishing I could tell her one more time that I love her. I'm missing her.

But I'm sitting on the back of a strong, swift, galloping horse. Because the rider reached out His hand and jerked me from the battle, and is carrying me forward for a while, while I catch my breath.

I'm bleeding and broken, but my Daddy has scooped me into His arms and is bandaging my wounds with His presence.

There were two sets of footprints last week, and this week there is one set. And I don't even care that it sounds cheesy.

He doesn't begrudge me the need to rest, and be sad, and need comfort. When my heart's greatest desire is shelter from the storm, relief from the battle, protection during the pain...He scoops me into His arms.

And so, spiritually, I've been curled in a ball, on the floor of my closet, all week. Still going through the days. Still having to face this one, the day my sister died...but not facing it standing up, or laying down, or alone.

He's carrying me.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest..." Matthew 11:28

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Days 10 and 11. The wrap up.


It helps to try and look at the uncomfortable parts of any given situation as a chance to bond with the people around you, as well as grow stronger and more patient

Let me tell you…we did some SERIOUS bonding on the bus ride home from our team day outing.

Referring to my previous mention of the heat, and the lack of air conditioning…we took a large bus on our excursion, and it didn’t have windows that opened OR air inside.

AND we got stuck in a traffic jam.

For 3 hours.

With no air, conditioned or otherwise.

For 3 hours.

About halfway through the torture, we began to sing. Half Americans, half Kazakhs, all praising the name of Jesus to help us cope with the situation. It really was a special bonding experience.

The next day was labeled, on our itinerary, as “packing and goodbyes.” And that’s pretty much exactly what we did. Everyone began to throw dirty clothes into luggage, and strip sheets off beds, and pause periodically to play cards with friends who stopped by, and share songs and stories, and just be together for as long as possible.

Every friend we had connected with over the course of our trip made a smiling appearance, and they all came bearing food of one kind or another.

Because Kazakhs say “I love you” with food.

It was loud and cramped and there was always someone in the bathroom or waiting in line for it…and it was completely wonderful.

Some people slept, some people didn’t, and at 3 am we departed for the airport.

I will spare you the details of customs and security and all of the horror that those words imply. (Especially the part where 4 members of the team boarded the plane almost as late as its allowed to be boarded, thanks to the customs process.)

The crowd of Kazakh believers/friends who got up out of a dead sleep to drive with us or meet us at the airport, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, was overwhelming. There were as many people there to see us off as there were Americans leaving.

So many hugs.

And tears.

And hopes for reunions next year or sometime in the future.

We left a part of ourselves behind when we took off from the ground.

How fast my heart and soul bonded with the people around me. And that surprised me the most.

I LOVE them. I miss them. We all do.

We are headed home now, entrenched in the exhaustion of airplanes and airports and gross food and bad sleep and all the wear and tear of all that is behind us.

But I am excited, because we aren’t finishing a missions trip. We are continuing one. The mission now is to bring back all that God has done in us, and share it.

It is my prayer that I can take out a little bit of Kazakhstan church family love from my heart and shower it on my North Carolina church family.

Because we have been in a pressure cooker together (and by that, I mean the world’s hottest bus in the world’s worst traffic jam), and now we are bonded for life.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Day 9

A day of ups and downs, that's what I took away from yesterday.

The enemy was hard at work, as he always is, but it's much more obvious in us when we are tired and hot and lost in the city and riding on a public bus and eating every hour (with a grateful smile to keep from offending our hosts)

But the good far outweighed the bad.

Because the enemy has territory here, but we are fighting him for it. And not just for territory in Kazakhstan, but in each of our hearts and minds and spirits.

We prayed for people, and we prayed for each other, and we set our faces resolutely to do the day.

And then we arrived at the house we were eating dinner at.

The woman was shaking her head and in a flurry, trying to figure out how to seat us all around her small table. She had gone to every apartment in the building to ask for a bigger one, but nobody had one she could use.

Her son assured her that it was fine if we laid out a table cloth on the floor and sat around it. She continued to shake her head and cover her face, but eventually we convinced her that we were thrilled just to spend time with her, and we didn't care at all to sit on the floor.

She served us plates of all our favorite things. I was so surprised that every single one of my most especially loved dishes was on the table.

She told us that she had called everyone else whose house we had been to, and asked what dishes we had liked the most, and she made them all.

We were stunned speechless.

And then she began to share her testimony with us.

Her son, who was sitting beside her, wept as she spoke.

"My husband and I divorced when our children were small. My son stayed with his father, and my daughter came with me.

I didn't know how badly my son was being treated. His father drank, and beat him.

And then one night his father tried to attack him, and my son killed his father. He was sent to prison.

Last year your team prayed for my son and our situation, and two months later, he was released for good behavior.

I wanted to have you here today to thank you for praying, to thank you for the miracle of my son coming back to me.

I wanted to make the most beautiful table for you. I wanted it to be such a special meal."

I wish I could describe the feeling we all had in that moment. Only 4 people on our team had been there to pray for her the year before, but she was thanking us ALL. And not only thanking us, but yearning to thank us so desperately that she called around to find out our favorite dishes and tried to borrow a table from her whole building.

We wept.

It was the most humbling experience of my life.

GOD did that miracle for her and her son. And she was so grateful to Him that it spilled over onto us.

I will never, ever forget her face, her tears, the way she spoke lovingly of and to her son.

Thank you, Lord, for reminders of Your mercy, and for allowing us to witness Your miracles and be partakers of Your great love and grace. We can never, ever thank you enough.

"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me. Because He has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come." Luke 4:8-19

Monday, June 19, 2017

Day 8

I wish that I could take out my eyes and ears and heart and lend them to you for a minute. I feel that there is no way to explain with words all that we are experiencing here.

But I'm going to try. Because I've had a shower (since the water is back on for at least a few hours) and I'm feeling spunky rather than caked in sweat for the first time in 3 days.

Imagine a place where you had no access to online preachers, or devotional books, and where you were required, for the sake of your safety, to be quiet about your prayer and worship and belief in the Lord.

Imagine having minimal contact with other believers, and almost no way to get advice on spiritual struggles.

Imagine keeping a list of prayer requests and questions, and adding to it often, and then walking to a place where you heard Americans had come, and bringing that list with you.

Imagine sitting down in a circle of people who don't speak your language, and listening to them sing songs you don't understand, and feeling, for perhaps the first time in a year, the presence of the Lord in a group of believers. And you weep in the midst of it, because your soul has been lonely.

And then you are asked to share your prayer requests...and you pull out your tattered list, worn with the worry of your fingers, crinkled from being carried in a pocket or purse, damp from sweat and tears, and you share with the strangers in front of you. All the things in your heart pour out, without hesitation, without shame or pride, with only a desire for a touch from the Lord.

I can't explain it well enough. It is more than I can even bear. Their hearts are in their eyes. Their hands tremble as they share their burdens with us, because they haven't been able to share them for so long.

And then we pray.

Us, these selfish, entitled, comfortable, free Americans...we bow our heads and close our eyes and lay our sweat soaked hands on theirs, and we start out...

"Lord..."

And the Lord is in our midst. And we weep. And they weep. And our hearts become one.

And when we finish, there is laughter among us, because how can we do anything else in the presence of the God of the world?

"Who am I, O Lord...that you have brought me this far? What can I say about the way You have honored me? You know what Your servant is really like. For the sake of Your servants, O Lord, and according to YOUR WILL, You have done all these great things and made them known. O Lord, there is no one like You. We have never even heard of another God like You." First Chronicles 17:16-20

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Day 7

So, how about some humor for a minute?

Y'all, it is HOT here right now. Really, in the grand scheme of things, its not so bad, but take a minute and digest these words...

No. Air. Conditioning. In. The. Bus.

Picture sitting for an hour, and then standing up...and leaving a butt-shaped puddle in the seat.

Yuck. (Or "Foo" in Russian.)

Also, the inability to flush the toilet paper, while not a terribly tragic hardship, is proving a challenge for the habitual among us. As in...at least one member of our team has had to fish TP out of the toilet no less than 6 times.

Foo.

The water goes on and off randomly in our apartment, and that makes it even more interesting. Imagine eating a GIGANTIC meal, which you have to eat all of because the faces of the cooks are expectantly wondering what your thoughts are, and then returning to your apartment to find that, regardless of how badly you need to "take care of business" ...there is no water to flush the business.

We have all become very familiar with each other's 'I need to poop' faces.

Foo.

Yesterday we drove two hours to have lunch in homes of church members, and we once again experienced the overwhelming love of the Kazakh people. The table was so crammed with plates of food, and surrounded by so many chairs we were encouraged to occupy, that we could barely move.

And, may I refer you once again to the opening line.

It. Is. Hot. And. There. Is. No. AC.

Todd was honored with the gift of a traditional Kazakh robe and hat, which he had to put on immediately, our translator informed us, so as not to offend.

Sweat was rolling from his brow. He was poised and grateful, and DRENCHED in sweat.

I'm giggling right now, just thinking about it.

The Lord continues to move, and we continue to struggle with our selfishness in the face of it. The heat and the discomfort and the long days and short hours of rest take their toll, and we get on each others' nerves and bite each others' heads off and then we go and stand in front of people who ask us to pray for them.

I can't describe how humbling that is, and how convicting.

Tomorrow begins prayer meetings, where I am told that people will walk for miles to have us lay hands on them, and wait all year to have us pray again.

There are tears among us as we anticipate what the Lord is asking of us, and knowing our failures in light of it. Please lift us up. We are only lumps of clay, as my mama says, and we are unworthy of all the Lord is asking of us.

But we are here. And we are blessed that you pray for us.

"Lord,

You are great, and merciful, and powerful, and holy, and righteous, and WORTHY of the light and momentary discomfort of our days. We are so unworthy to be used by You, but we offer what we have, and we thank You in advance that you will hear us. We are EXCITED to be used by You.

Amen."

Friday, June 16, 2017

Days 5 and 6

It hardly seems possible that our time is half way done here in Kazakhstan. According to our family back home, we've been gone FOREVER, but so far it has gone by quickly for us here.

ESL ended yesterday, and as expecting, we were all sad. What if we never see those sweet faces again? Can 10 total hours with a child actually impact them? Did we smile enough? Laugh enough? Hug enough? Pray for them in our hearts enough?

I felt a sense of loss, telling them goodbye. So many faces, and so little time with them, and still they knew me, and I knew them, and it was hard to let go.

Today we are traveling two hours to another town, to a Salem church plant, to have lunch with the believers there. They, of course, will be serving it to us. The excitement and hospitality and love we receive everywhere we go continues to be a breathtaking blessing.
 
The discomfort of the unfamiliar is a topic of conversation among the team, and while it is often comical, and WAY TMI (the food difference, for example, is having one digestive affect on some, and the opposite digestive affect on others, and we are ALL talking freely about it) the Lord reminds me daily that I am blessed beyond measure. Either through the scripture in my devotion, or a whisper from His spirit, or the conversations with the people here, I am challenged to seek more of His presence, and less of the comforts I am so familiar with.

Christianity in America is often lazy, and tepid, and habitual. Probably because we have never had to strive for it in secret, and refrain from saying words like "pastor" and "church" and "Bible" and "Jesus" the way the believers here do. We probably won't be disowned by our families for accepting Christ, and so we don't feel the urgency to press into Him the way they do here.

As we visited home churches last night, I found myself begging for some of that urgency to rub off on me. I want to take home the deep seated ache for MORE of the Lord's presence and direction and fellowship that they carry with them every day.

It humbles and convicts and inspires us all.

"Lord,

We worry so much that we won't be able to do Your work well, when really all we need to do is walk in Your presence, and we will leave footprints that resemble You.

We smile, and You move forward. We laugh, and You breathe out mercy. We serve, and You pour blessings. We receive acts of kindness, and You minister rewards. You are in everything we do here. Everything. How we long for it to be true in our comfortable places too. Make us more uncomfortable than ever before, so that we can long for, and run toward, more of You.

Amen."

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Day 4

Today was our last full day of English classes. Tomorrow we will cram in a few more words and phrases, we will hand out balloons and pencils and bouncy balls and stickers, and we will stand up and perform, with our age group of children, a skill or song or combination of words we have been using this week. It's the big finale of ESL.

After all the lesson preparations, all the nail biting over whether it would work or not, all the excitement and terror...its hard to believe this first week of "missions work" is drawing to a close.

Our students are so smart, and so intent on learning English. They are competitive with one another, desperate to please us, and filled with laughter. Our hearts will never be the same after this week with them.

I can't pronounce many of their names, the same way they look at me blankly when I tell them my name. Instead, I am simply "teacher." And I melt inside every time one of them says it.

I know their faces, though, and each of them knows mine, and they race each other to hug me and sit beside me and hold my hand. When we say goodbye tomorrow, I will be heartbroken.

A trip outside the comfort zone, out into the world where the Light is unwelcome and the darkness is all that is known, has a way of exposing all our weaknesses and flaws and sins, so that all our rough edges are beginning to be visible to everyone. I don't know if that makes sense.

Think of it like this. Our spirits are like the wick of a candle, covered in wax. As it is held up to the heat, the wax begins to burn away. And as it melts, we see that there is dirt and grime and ugliness hidden beneath the outside veneer of the wax. And the only way to remove it from the wax is to hold it closer to the heat, so that it melts into a puddle, and all that is left is the Spirit at the center.

That's what it's like here. That's what missions is always like. That's what every day SHOULD always be like. We should crave being held up to the flame, so that all our ugliness and unkindness and selfishness can be burned away in the Light of Him, until only the Spirit remains.

But while the heat radiates, we are uncomfortable and edgy and all our nerve endings are exposed.

There is so much more in front of us, so much more exposure to the LIGHT, so many more things to melt off our lives. Pray for us. Pray that we can bear the heat, and stand beside each other in it, and come out on the other side as only the wick, only the Spirit.

"Lord,

Understanding Your ways is too much to fathom. To witness a woman coming to salvation, despite our flaws and failures in sharing and reflecting You, is more than we can comprehend. We can only weep out of grateful hearts. We can only ask to be Your vessels again, and again, and again, until the whole world hears of Your greatness and love.

We are in awe of You, Lord. Help us to know You better and show You better. Every day.

Amen."