Books, Lanterns, and Backpacks

19 Oct

 

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We’re packing the luggage, gathering the passports, and preparing for another trip to Ghana in early November. I’m so blessed to be able to work in that part of the world. It’s joyfully noisy and replete with complicated cultural nuances that I’ll never completely understand. The people are gracious, the children are full of energy, and the food is spicy and delicious. I’m looking forward to all of it. It challenges me and stretches my faith every time I’m there. Ghana has captured a piece of my heart, and each time I travel there it feels a little like going home.

There are so many people here who help get us there. If you’re interested in being a part of this trip, please bookmark this blog and check back often for pre-travel updates and stories from our journey. You can also be a part of helping us provide a few things for our sponsored students and some families we work with. I’ve created a Wish List on Amazon.com that is so easy it’s ridiculous. You simply choose an item from our list, purchase it, and it will ship to us. You don’t even have to get out of your chair. We would like to bring a book to each of our sponsored students – these are teenagers who have been orphaned and live with relatives in one of the five villages where we work. For new students in this program who don’t have sponsors yet, we need a few more backpacks. And we’re taking three solar lanterns we will use while we’re there, and then give them to families when we return home.

We know each time we walk through the villages in Ghana that we aren’t doing this alone. People here provide what we need to help families and students rise out of poverty. We hope that as we move our feet and hands to serve, give, and love, that we will all see how God is restoring and renewing. Can a backpack, or a book, or a lantern help fix what is broken? Maybe. God has used less likely things (and people) than these. If you would like to see other ways you can join us in helping families rise, visit our website.

Thanks in advance for helping us give, serve, and love in Ghana!

Facts, Not Fear

15 Oct

There is nothing that makes my palms sweat more than a ski lift. Even if I am 800 miles from the nearest one, just thinking about my legs dangling from one of those flimsy-looking benches, with only a single rod between me and the ground far below induces the sweat. And it seems that in so many movies lately, the final scene takes place miles above the ground with the villain and hero slugging it out inches from the edge. I either have to look away or tuck my sweaty hands under my legs. And I paid money for this?

Scientists tell us that fear can sometimes be a good thing. The fear response serves survival by generating appropriate behavioral responses, so when I am hiking in Colorado and winding my way across a mountain trail that juts up on one side and straight down on the other, my sweaty palms are warning me that I am in danger of falling. On a side note (and perhaps a justifying note) falling is one of two natural fears that occur in both humans and animals, with varying degrees. The other is loud noises.

And then there are the fears that grow from unnatural places. These fears can be brought about by our overactive imaginations (the monster in the closet), a traumatizing experience (a near-drowning in childhood), and misinformation – or lack of information. Lately, it seems that many of us are too-easily giving in to fear-mongering. Here is an example: Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed a restraining order to keep Ebola victim Eric Duncan’s incinerated belongings from being disposed of at a Lake Charles landfill. Said Caldwell:

“We certainly share sadness and compassion for those who have lost their lives and loved ones to this terrible virus, but the health and safety of our Louisiana citizens is our top priority. There are too many unknowns at this point,” Caldwell said. The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office is in the process of finalizing the application for temporary restraining order and expects it to be filed as early as Monday morning.

Additionally, the office is sending a demand letter to Texas state and federal officials, along with private contractors involved seeking additional information into the handling of this waste.”

It would seem on the surface that the Attorney General is taking responsible precautions to protect the good people of Louisiana. Unfortunately, he is simply adding to the cacophony of voices that seem to have given in to misinformed fear-mongering. In this particular example, the facts have gotten lost in the panic. Fact: Ebola is only transmitted through bodily fluids. So we can assume that once items have been burned to ashes, there would be no bodily fluids remaining. But instead of learning and sharing actual facts about this disease, we seem content to listen to those who are ratcheting up the panic level for what reason I am unsure (ratings, perhaps?)

Sometimes it helps to see things in their simplicity. Yes, I realize that this disease is complicated, but there are some simple facts that might help us have rational discussions rather than reactive drama.

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These are facts. Now, if you don’t trust your government to the level that you would dispute scientific facts that have been confirmed by infectious disease doctors, researchers and scientists, then I can’t help you. At some point, you have to hang on and trust or you’ll drive yourself and everyone else around you crazy.

But there is another danger to giving in to the fear-mongering. When we are wringing our sweaty palms because we are afraid for our own safety, we lose sight of those who are truly in peril.  Here are more facts.

  • Over 4,000 people have died in three West African countries since the Ebola outbreak began.
  • An estimated 3,700 children have been orphaned due to the outbreak. They are stigmatized and alone in the midst of the crisis.
  • In Guinea, a family of nine was infected with the disease and six died. They tried to care for one another with no reliable health care facility nearby.
  • There are survivors and they have stories to share, yet they are fearful of sharing them because they are certain they will be labeled, shunned, and stigmatized.
  • There are hundreds of health care workers – essentially volunteers – who have chosen to be in the epicenter of the disease in treatment centers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. They are risking their lives daily to care for the sick and struggling to aid in their recovery with very little modern technology.
  • In treatment centers, those who bring sick family members watch them die and then must worry about whether they now carry the disease. One NPR story profiles a 21 year-old girl, Bendu Borlay, who lives in Liberia. She watched her older sister die of Ebola in a treatment center, and then stayed there to care for a 15-month-old baby whose mother died of the disease and grandmother was in the isolation unit.

“That’s the reason I’m still at the Ebola treatment center, volunteering to take care of this baby,” she told NPR. “The grandmother tested positive, but the baby tested negative, so Doctors Without Borders was looking for somebody to volunteer to take care of the baby.” Borlay says that if she gets any money from volunteering, she will go back to school when school opens. “Now I have to be self-supporting,”she says. “The only person who supported me throughout my life is gone.” She adds: “I want to finish high school and make sure I graduate.”

Lest we forget, there is an entire world out there that is suffering and has every reason to be fearful. Perhaps we can keep our own palms from sweating if, instead of being inwardly focused, we turn outward to see their pain and hear their cries. Maybe instead of listening to the fear-mongering we could gather in our churches and our homes and pray for the courage to see beyond our walls and our borders. When we give in to the fears that perpetuate an isolationist mentality, then we are very far from the God who touched the lepers and wept over the sick and dying. If we truly want to be counter-cultural, then let’s not fall in step with fear. Let’s walk outside it. Learn the facts. Pay attention to and have mercy for those who are suffering. Pray and speak out for those who are in peril. And encourage one another as we walk in faith and live with hope.

 

 

Please Join Me for The Village!

27 Sep

The Village is this Thursday, October 2 and I want you to come! If you don’t know what The Village is, then here’s the scoop: some friends and I are going to share stories about connections that we’ve made with women in Ghana through Rising Village Foundation. If you’re going to be in the Tulsa area, I’m giving you this personal invitation to join us because I really want to share this evening with as many women as possible. Okay, I know this invitation is not as personal as us talking face-to-face, but it’s no less sincere. The Village will take place at First Baptist Church, located at 5th and Detroit in downtown Tulsa. We’re going to have dinner together at 6:30 p.m., and then my friends and I are going to introduce you to five women who live in villages in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Through video, photos, and stories, we’re going to talk about how our villages look different, but how our lives can interconnect in some very special ways. Some of the women in Ghana make products that we’ll be selling right after the event is over, so you’ll want to stay and shop.

I have tickets, and you can email me at lisa@risingvillage.org to purchase for $10. An easier way is to purchase online directly from the FBC website (it’s totally secure): Purchase tickets.

Consider yourself personally invited! I hope to see you there.

P.S. There is childcare. Call 918.594.5028 to reserve a spot for your little ones.

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Let’s Honor the Mothers Together

30 Apr

My mother died six years ago this month. I remember the Mother’s Day after her funeral when I sat on the back patio and watched a nest of baby birds with their tiny heads turned toward the sky and mouths open, waiting for their mama to return. “Lucky you,” I remember saying to them, “at least you know she’s coming back.” I was pretty crabby that entire day and to be honest, Mother’s Day remains a bittersweet thing for me. I have children so it’s still a day to celebrate, but they’re at an age when they don’t know much to do except feed me and give me a book. Not that I’m complaining, because I’m continually sustained by food and books, but gone are the days of the cute handmade cards and the recipe holder with the picture of my child smiling painfully (my favorite).

I still miss Mom, which becomes a bit of an issue during the lead-up to Mother’s Day. So this year, I’m dealing with it this way: I’m putting together an Open House this Friday to honor both my mother and some very special mothers in Ghana. We’re raising funds so that Rising Village can continue its mission to transform villages through family preservation. Basically that means our organization finds solutions to problems that tear families apart – namely poverty in developing countries. We don’t do this from 30,000 feet. Instead, we are on the ground in three villages where we provide: 1) resources for women to start or expand a small business, 2) school fees so children can attend school, and bedding so families are protected from the deadly illness of malaria. These things matter, so I’m giving myself over to our mission in Ghana. That means I’m going to spend most of my time finding ways to fund our programs, which are in the very capable hands of our Ghana director, Isaac.

Two years ago I heard Pam Cope, founder of Touch a Life, tell a group of women that we could spend our lives nibbling on the chicken scratch that’s scattered on the ground, or we can choose to feast at the table. “You make the choice,” she said. “If you want to settle for a life that focuses on the little stuff, go ahead. But as for me, I’m going to feast on something bigger.” I walked around the rest of the day in a daze, realizing that most of my life had been spent with my head down nibbling on chicken scratch. I wanted a seat at the table. It was time to look around and see what God is doing in this big, wide world, and then jump into it, even if it was scary and uncomfortable. So I did just that. I was pretty ignorant, but sometimes that’s a good thing because if I had known everything that was going to happen, I might have put my head back down and stayed with the chicken scratch.

So back to my Open House, which I’m calling a Mother’s Day Shopfest. I’m asking everyone who wants to join me at the table to come shop at my house and buy something for your mother, mother-in-law, daughter, yourself. Every penny you spend or donate goes straight to Ghana. Or just come to learn more about these amazing mothers that we serve in the villages. If you think Mother’s Day isn’t for you because your mother is no longer here, then let’s honor our mothers together.

This is your official invitation to come to my house between 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. this Friday, May 2. Email me at lisa@risingvillage.org for address and directions. Until I see you on Friday, take a look at a few of the beautiful mothers we serve in the Ashanti region of Ghana.

And Happy Mother’s Day.

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Let’s Clear Some Clutter

14 Apr

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“You have been treated generously, so live generously.” – Matthew 10:8 (The Message)

It’s April, which means it is time for me to clear out some of the junk. Last year during this season of Lent, I looked through my closets, drawers, cabinets and under the beds to find things that needed to go. It was all excess, unnecessarily cluttering my life even though it much of it was out of sight. It felt good to get rid of it and not because I was on an organizing kick, but because I want to learn more of what it means to let it go and give it up.

During Lent, I’m told that I should give up something up to focus more clearly on the sacrifice of Jesus. I didn’t give anything up, but instead I have spent this time re-committing myself to continuing what I determined to give up this time last year:

Clutter.

While last year I mostly wrote about clearing out the exterior clutter, throughout the year I have also tried to focus on clearing out the interior clutter. I’ve also learned more about what that means, and doesn’t mean.

Everyone has interior clutter. We have been created to desire freedom, peace, and extravagant love. We have all of this offered to us, yet we muck up the inside of ourselves with the kind of crap I found under my beds and at the back of my closet. Much of the time, the interior clutter is unseen and unacknowledged, but it’s there, clogging up the empty spaces that could be filled with something more useful. Or perhaps those spaces could be left empty. We all know that we could use more free space in our lives, especially on the inside. What was under my beds and in my closets was mine, just as my interior clutter is mine. I can’t say what yours is, but what follows is a sampling of Lisa’s junk.

Control

Restlessness

Judgmental attitude

Cynicism

Me-ism (that’s my word for self-centered, self-absorbed, selfishness)

Busyness

It gets messy in there. As much as I would like to someday proclaim that I have “conquered” any of the clutter listed above, it won’t happen in this lifetime. I will always struggle with each of these to varying degrees. So during this season of Lent, I didn’t pick something on the list and vow to give it up. I’m not that naive. The best I can do is realize, once again, that it is all there, and on certain days it still makes a big mess on the inside of me. So instead of giving something up, I’ve been focusing on how I can live generously, because I’ll share a little secret that’s worked for me: living generously does wonders to naturally clear out the interior clutter. 

It also helps usher in that peace and freedom I desire. And even though I know this, it often takes extra effort for me to live generously. The other day, a friend and I made a very quick list of simple acts of generosity we could do in a given day to make a difference for someone else. We did this not because we were setting out with a plan, but because we were confused at why we so rarely actually do these things. If they are so simple, why do I come to the end of the day having touched no one around me with a simple act of generosity? Why do I allow my busy days to crowd out the very acts that would clear out some of my restlessness, cynicism, me-ism?

You won’t find a foolproof plan at the wrap-up of this blog post. I’m still working through it. But I am struck by the words of Jesus to his disciples: “You have been treated generously, so live generously.” I can think of no better example of being treated generously than what we celebrate on Easter morning. And yet, what will my response be? To dress fine, sing resurrection choruses, proclaim He is Risen, and then return to my busy life on Monday morning, forgetting that I am to mirror that kind of generosity. Will I remember that I have been created to pour myself out, not collect more interior clutter; that I am to give freely without judgement; that I am to love everyone without putting them in camps where I can decide who is worthy and who is not. Am I ready for that kind of generosity?

So begins a week of busyness. I can’t stop that train, but I will fill in some of the free moments with a trek through my closets, drawers, cabinets, and under my beds to once again ferret out more exterior clutter. It’s there, some of it hidden and some of it in plain sight, but all of it clogging my desire to live simply so that others may simply live. I’m throwing out a challenge for you to do the same. Then, together, let’s do something with our junk that might make a huge difference for those who are struggling to simply live. And on the way to Easter morning, let’s find those simple acts of generosity that we can give to those around us.

Let’s clear the clutter together.

Are you in?

 

 

 

 

 

I Know That Lady!

18 Feb

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After dropping Alison at the bus stop, I was sitting at the red light on 71st street waiting to go straight across into my neighborhood. It’s a tricky light, because you can’t always see the cars coming across if you’re turning left. A mom (important part to note) in a hefty SUV didn’t see me and proceeded to sail through her left turn while I inched to a stop in the middle of the intersection. They she shot me her middle finger, raised high and mighty with her child in the front seat and two children in the back seat. She kept it up all the way through her turn and still hadn’t put it down after she was on 71st street. I was sitting in the intersection gawking before I slowly moved on through. I had the right-of-way, but realized that when you are in a hurry to get your kid to school, those pesky little rules of the road often get lost in the tense moments.

“Really lovely,” I muttered to no one. “And with her kids in the car.”

And then I realized: I know that lady. I know her well.

She is me.

Okay, I do not flash my middle finger while driving, or at any other time. Every time I see someone do this, I picture them as an eight-year-old kid on the playground trying to get attention, or as a beer-bellied sports fan of the other team yelling obscenities to refs on the field who are far out of earshot. I’m not making a moral judgement on the woman and her naughty finger. I’m looking deeper than her gesture and seeing something in her that I can relate to: a tenseness that can string us so tightly that when we snap we look a little crazy.

Sometimes that tension emanates from stress, fear, and – in my own life lately – busyness. These days I’m wearing too many hats and juggling too many balls, but feel unable to take them off or lay them down. It’s the season of my life and while I accept it and realize it’s temporary, I find myself irritable, impatient, and too-vocal about things that get under my skin. I’ve not had the desire to shoot my finger up, but I have grumbled under my breath at people who walk slowly in the grocery store. I’ve given the dogs lectures about their co-dependence (aren’t the pets always an easy target?), and I’ve declared to my husband and children that if they didn’t hear me the first time, I will not be repeating previous statements or questions: “I’m too tired to replay what you should have heard if you had been listening.”

Ouch. Yeah, a little crazy.

So while I can sit comfortably high in moral superiority to the mom in the SUV, I kind of empathize with her. We’re too tense. Too easily ticked off and offended. Wound too tightly Our hurried days cause us to ignore the many rules of the road that surround us when it comes to our relationships. We’re trying to get somewhere, make something happen, please a lot of people, fix a bunch broken things, shout above the crowd to be heard. Many people are holding on by a fraying thread. And when a little vehicle threatens to get in the way of that frenetic pace, it can all come spilling out in an ugly gesture, an insensitive word, or worse, a blindness to the needs of those around us.

I’ve spent the morning thinking about that lady and feeling sorry that her day began with a spurt of rage. I thought about my own crazy pace and wondered how I can possibly get everything done and not feel like I’m the one careening through the intersection snarling at everyone to get out of my way. And then I remember that Jesus said he’d take that yoke (that’s the burden of crazy lives we carry on our shoulders). He offered to trade it for lightness because he doesn’t demand all that we demand of ourselves. And he certainly doesn’t demand what the world demands of us.

Sitting in my office chair, I could almost hear his voice saying, “Just take it easy. Go about your business, but know that I’ve lightened the load.” I used to wonder what that really meant. Is he going to fix things? Make me more productive? Move the annoying people out of my life?

No. He’s just going to remind me that whatever happens, I’m good. The world isn’t depending on my heroic efforts, my perfection, or my achievements. I don’t have to keep getting better at something or prove how indispensable I am or fix anyone. God isn’t depending on these things. “You’re good,” he says in Matthew 11:29-30. “Stop being so wound up about it.” (Major paraphrase) I think that’s all any of us really want to know: that we’re loved and accepted and wrapped up in arms that tell us to just take it easy.

I’m sure the lady in the SUV has settled into her day. I said a little prayer for her, and for me – that we would calm down, take a deep breath, and lean on the One who is gentle and humble so that we can find rest for our weary souls.

Taking the Romance Out of Valentine’s Day

14 Feb

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I could get in trouble for posting this on Valentine’s Day. After all, this holiday is all about romantic love, perfect relationships, and happy endings. Why would you read a post debunking all that when there are sappy cards to be purchased and dinner reservations to be made? Just to be fair, I received a sappy card last night and loved it, so I’m not completely against Valentine’s Day. But as I looked at my sappy card, I had two thoughts: 1) children should not be kissing in this way, and 2) most of these cards – and the whole notion of romantic love – is a bit of a setup.

When I fell in love with Kyle, I held high expectations for our wedding and marriage. With careful planning and too much of my parents’ money, I pulled off the fantasy wedding, but I’ve been unable to pull off the fantasy marriage. I wanted a soul mate and someone who would be hilariously funny but also sensitive at just the right time. I should fulfill him completely and satisfy him always – and vice versa. As the years go by, he should know my heart so well that he never has to ask, “Are you upset about something?” And when we’ve been married for 25 years we should celebrate this amazing marriage we’ve pulled off with an outrageously expensive anniversary trip to Ireland.

The inside of my card says this:

I needed ya. I got ya. I’m keeping ya. Love ya.

After all these years, that’s exactly what I want to hear. Don’t give me sap. We’ve been through too many decades of deconstructing the perfect marriage myth and drippy prose would be just plain wrong. I like to think that it’s not cynicism, but wisdom that causes me to shake my head at the notion of romantic love as a foundation for marriage. And I wonder if the divorce rate is so high because that notion runs rampant among those who are planning the big wedding. Interesting studies show a lower divorce rate among couples whose marriages were arranged. I’m not going to get into that argument because I don’t live in a culture where arranged marriages are the norm, so I’ll claim mostly ignorance on the results of those studies. But I will concede that over time, the romantic qualities that we based our lifelong commitments on can fade, disappear, and leave us wondering if we chose the wrong person. If we’re not careful, we forget the moment we stood up in formal attire and vowed “for better or for worse.”

At the most difficult times in our marriage, I’ve had to remind myself that I committed to this relationship no matter how ugly it might get. I do not advocate staying in marriages where abuse exists, but I haven’t been in that situation. I have, however, been in this relationship during the times when we have terribly disappointed one another because of insensitivity, selfishness, and stupidity. In those moments and in every moment between, it has never been romantic love that has held us together. It’s been grace.

In fact, grace may be what holds everything together.

In his brilliant book, I Was Just Wondering, Philip Yancey asserts that we need “the spirit of arranged marriages” in our relationship with God, who made us exactly the way we are: peculiarities, limitations, handicaps, and imperfect raw material. We can enter into a relationship with God holding high expectations about how we’ll climb higher, get better, and become someone who God will be pleased with finally and completely. That notion is as false as the one that tells us romantic love is a foundation for a lasting marriage. In both relationships, we commit, regardless of how it may work out. And God does the same in our relationship with him. Yancey says this:

You might say that faith means taking a vow “for better or worse, in sickness and health,” to love God and cling to God no matter what. Happily, “the spirit of arranged marriage” works two ways: God also pre-commits to me. Faith means believing God has taken that same vow, and Jesus Christ offers the proof. God does not accept me conditionally, on the basis of my performance. God keeps the vow regardless, and therein is grace.

Someone once said that when we are in the midst of our most hideous and sinful moments, God tells us that we are beautiful. I used to disagree with that until I lived long enough to realize it is grace that holds all my relationships together – not romantic love or my best efforts. I must continually learn how to give it and also receive it.

I hope the little kids on the cover of my sappy card grow out of romantic love and come to find another kind of love that is filled with risk, centered on commitment, and seasoned with grace. That kind of love, scars and all, is worthy of the celebration.

Ghana Day Six (Last Day): Meet James, Yaa, and Eunice

3 Feb

Our last day in Ankaase was great weather. Cool this morning and dry and warm (okay, a little hot) this afternoon. But definitely my kind of weather. I should be preparing myself mentally to return to winter snow, but I’m trying not to think about the weather.

We handed out Rising Village t-shirts to the headmasters of the DA School today. I love our t-shirts. The front says, “When you pray, move your feet.” It’s an African proverb and that sentence encompasses how we feel about what we are doing (please see James 2:14).

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After visiting the DA School, we took a break then walked to the home of one of our students whose parents have died. James lives with his grandmother who is in poor health. We were all moved by James’ story of losing his parents. When Isaac met him, he was sleeping on the floor in a crowded area just outside his grandmother’s room. His bed is a piece of foam about an inch thick and he is not sleeping under a net. Isaac assessed his situation and asked if we could fund bedding for James. The funds were availalbe thanks to donors who gave during our GiveGood Fundraiser at Christmas. Isaac asked that the family find him a private area to sleep instead of in the walkway of a crowded room. They cleared out a small room and now James will have a bed of his own in a room of his own. He is thrilled. We took him a backpack and gave him the news that he now has a sponsor who will cover his school fees for an entire year.

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It was a good day for James. His grandmother immediately stood up with great difficulty and thanked us. I never know what to say to these expressions of gratitude. It isn’t me who she should thank. It’s all the donors and sponsors who have so generously given to Rising Village. You have come along on this journey with us, and I want to pass along the thanks to each one of you, not only for James, but for all our families.

Our next stop was to visit a Yaa Dufie whose husband died last year. She lives in one room with her five children.

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She has been given a Business Build Grant to begin her fish-selling business and will begin next week. While we were there, she showed us where she and her five children sleep: on one mat on the floor.

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I thought about my bed back home and the bedrooms that each of our three kids sleep in. I tried to imagine sleeping with my family on the floor. I couldn’t. Here’s the thing: I want the same thing for Yaa’s children that I want for my own children. At least that’s how it should be. I don’t always feel this way. Sometimes it becomes easy to believe that these children matter less than my own. They don’t.

This is what I have tried to remember with each step we have taken this week. And now, I want you to meet Eunice who is our newest staff member in Ghana.

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She is a teacher at the DA School, and will be assisting Isaac and coordinating the Classroom Connections program in the Methodist and DA School. We are so fortunate to have Eunice on the Ghana team. She is answered prayer. We don’t want Isaac to carry the load of serving and ministering to our families alone, and now he won’t have to. So we all wore our t-shirts today.

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This week, the four of us have prayed, and we have moved our feet.

When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me.” – Frederick Beuchner

I carry something of each person we have met with me, and I will summon you back to my mind every day. That’s a promise I can keep.

So, one last time, Goodnight from Ankaase.

Ghana Day Five: Jubilee Dinner

3 Feb

About a week before I left, Kyle and I had the idea to throw a dinner party for the Rising Village families. We thought this would be an opportunity to build relationships and encourage them to get to know one another better. We also wanted to communicate that our work in the village is a direct reflection of our love for God. We’re just doing what we think He would do. We felt the best way to do this is to serve, give, and bless each family with a meal and gifts of school supplies, and family photo albums.

It came off without a hitch, which is saying a lot considering Isaac had to leave us with the families while he traveled into Kumasi to get the food. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that Colin and I don’t speak Twi. I carried my Twi cheat cards out to the veranda where the families were gathered. They laughed when I tried some phrases on them. This is always a good feeling – not really, but that entertainment didn’t last long. Enter Eunice. Not only does she speak Twi, but she is a teacher in one of the village schools so she was able to quickly coordinate a craft time with the crayons, paper, foam cards and stickers we brought. When we exhausted that activity, I wrote everyone’s name in bubble letters and they colored it – even the parents.

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This was either the most awkward party or the most awesome party ever. I decided it was the latter. We don’t speak each other’s language well enough to make small talk, but this worked just fine since Ghanaians don’t do small talk. If they have something to discuss or something humorous to share, they will. If not, they are perfectly comfortable sitting in silence together. This makes me nervous. I feel the need to chit-chat so as to not be rude. They don’t need it, and sometimes I think my incessant babbling make them nervous. Relax, I can just hear them thinking. Don’t try so hard. So today, I learned how to sit down and shut up. I didn’t force Eunice to translate things I didn’t really need to say. Instead, we talked about things that matter. Then we served them lunch, which was beautiful. Most of these families eat only one meal a day, and several of them must scrape together food that barely feeds their family. We filled their plates up, and there were no plates with any food left in them when we carried out the trash box.

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And have you ever thrown a dinner party, and the children began to clean up for you? I haven’t.

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It was humbling to see these families all together at the same time in the same place.

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For those of you who are already involved in their lives, we are grateful beyond words. We couldn’t do this without you. The individuals we serve wouldn’t be able to enter school, start businesses, and receive safe bedding without people who believe in what we’re doing. When I look at each of these families, I see my own. We are not that different. I care about my children’s education and I want them to be healthy. Kyle and I want to have the dignity of caring for our own children, and not having to turn them over to someone else to meet their needs. These parents want the same things. It was a day to celebrate and to remember that God desires the very best for all of us. He loves us that much and I want to love in that same way.

Tomorrow is our last day in Ankaase, which is hard for all of us to believe. The work here in Ghana is in such good hands. Tomorrow I will introduce you to Eunice, who is our newest staff member. She will assist Isaac and coordinate our Classroom Connections program. They are a smart, capable, and compassionate team. What I have learned is that I really know almost nothing about working here. I have to rely on those who live in and know the culture, speak the language, and can discern and make decisions far beyond what I would ever be able to do. It’s humbling and wonderful.

I wasn’t able to post last night because we had to buy more data, so most of you are sleeping while I write this. We’re up early and heading out to another village school to meet with teachers, and then to meet James and Yaa Dufie’s families. I always feel as if I’m leaving some things unfinished. There are more people I want to meet and so much more I want to say to the families and our staff here. There are more pictures I want to take and so many things I want to observe and write about. When I get home, these opportunities are gone, but this is what keeps me coming back.

So this time, it’s good morning from Ankaase!

Ghana Day Four: Babies, Farms, and Betty!

1 Feb

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When I land in Ghana, sometimes it takes a couple of days to emerge from the slight culture shock. I feel as if there is so little that is familiar here. I look around and wonder what we have in common between the cultures. I’m always screwing up: getting my greetings confused, shaking a hand with my left hand, making small talk when it’s time to just sit and be silent, asking continuously, “So, when do you think the electricity will come back on?” But then something happens and I am reminded of  the things that are the same between home and Ankaase. Babies remind me.

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This is Ama and Kofi’s nine-day-old infant daughter. Babies aren’t named here until they are 10 days old, so she is just, “baby.” She’s daughter # 7 seven for Kofi and Ama, and child #8. If you were a part of donating to either Kofi or Ama’s Business Build Grant, you have already made a difference in this child’s life. Both parents are preparing to start their new businesses in the coming months. We traveled out to the farmland where Kofi will begin his cocoa farm as soon as the dry season ends. He is in the process of clearing the land, which after traveling there on the motor tricycle, I am convinced is located at the officials end of the earth. We took the motortrike as far as we could, and then walked quite a distance through brush in a heavily forested area until we came to what will soon be the cocoa farm. Kofi has a lot of work to do, but he also has this new baby girl and the other children to feed. He is surrounded by motivation, and now he has the funds to give his children a better life. We spent the afternoon talking to him about the plans for his farm. We’ll walk alongside this family as they build their businesses. Ama will be starting her Puff bread business on April 1. In the meantime, we’ll continue to help them pay school fees for the children, and provide the girls with new school uniforms. This is just an example of what they have been wearing:

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Would you want to go to school every day wearing that? Neither would I. There are good days ahead for Ama and Kofi, Charity, Margaret, Abigail, Dorcas, Rebecca, Samuel, and Baby. So I surrounded myself with the girls and Samuel for a photo, and I was so thankful that we were color-coordinated.

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So I also had to show you this photo (below) of Betty, Jennifer’s daughter. Jennifer is learning to sew with a professional seamstress and she is learning fast. We’re so excited to see the products she makes for us to sell, and she’ll receive the proceeds from those items. In case you don’t know what Betty is doing in this photo, she is trying to tie this “baby” on her back. She grew very frustrated, bending over to wrap the cloth around the “baby” just like the mamas here do it. But she never could get “baby” secured. This was the best she could do:

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What we’ve learned about Betty is that she is stubborn. She was not happy that her awkwardly shaped baby would not bend enough and she spend quite a bit of time yelling about it. If you have children, you’ve probably seen this look before:

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There is so much that draws us together. As we continue to work and build relationships in this village and beyond, I want to focus on those things about us that are the same. God has created us all, and we are all equally loved and cherished. We take that truth and continue walking, shaking hands, hugging, taking meals together, spending time getting to know one another, and sharing our resources with those who have little. We believe this is what God has called us to do here in Ghana.

We’re having our Jubilee Dinner after church tomorrow with the families. I’m so excited to have them all together at once: parents, children…and babies!

Until tomorrow, goodnight from Ankaase (we’re going to sleep really good tonight).

Ghana Day Three: To Kumasi and Back

31 Jan

I’m not a shopper, but we trekked through the streets of Kumasi (no small feat, see photo below) and when we returned to the Mission House late this afternoon, we officially all dropped. Isaac collapsed on the couch, Colin stretched out in the recliner, and Eunice was slumped to one side in a chair. But we had success! Wax fabric and beads have been purchased and a few other surprises we’re bringing back.

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We didn’t meet with any families today, but we purchased the fabric and beads for the items we’ll sell to help these families continue to rise. I’m not going to start marketing  our items in this blog post, but stay tuned to see what you’ll be able to purchase in the coming months. Hint: You’ll love shopping with us! The proceeds are going to go directly to the women who are in our income generation program.

Tonight we finished our groundnut soup and rice ball and have been sitting in the living area and singing along to hymns on Eunice’s cell phone. The singer is Sammie Badu, who I did not know before tonight. It’s amazing that I am sitting here singing the same hymns with my Ghanaian friends that I grew up singing in my grandmother’s church. They sing much better than I do, by the way. But get this: my friends also love Dolly Parton, Jimmy Reeves, and Kenny Rogers. Surprise! Eunice has “Coat of Many Colors” on her cell phone. This has completely made my night and not because I love Dolly Parton, but because it reminds me how small the world is. We’ve talked about everything from Illuminati to Snoop Dog. We don’t believe in either, by the way.

So tomorrow we’re walking to Kofi and Ama’s little house to meet their family and see the new baby (#8!) Then we’ll climb into the back of a motor tricycle and travel to Kofi’s farm where, thanks to donors, he will begin planting cocoa after the dry season. Ama will begin her Puff bread business after is back on her feet, in about a month.

The rain has brought a cool breeze that is making the curtains flutter just the slightest bit. I have old hymns running through my head and friends around me. I’m a little homesick, so I am grateful for these blessings. It’s been a very good day.

Until tomorrow, good night from Ankaase.

Ghana Day Two: Chicken Bones and Comfort Zones

30 Jan

Here is what I didn’t know about eating in Ghana: we eat the chicken bones, we don’t leave them on the plate. I’m not picky about my food, but I’m not sure about eating chicken bones. Colin did pretty well and gnawed around on his drumstick, but this is really is out of our comfort zone.

I could make a list of things that are out of my comfort zone here, but if I stayed where it is comfortable I would have never met this group of Junior High teachers. They are dedicated to their jobs, despite a frustrating lack of resources. These teachers and their headmaster at the Ankaase Methodist School are determined to get the students excited about learning, and so we sat under this tree for over an hour and talked about ways to do that.

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We all agreed that the students are worth it.

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We reconnected with our friends at the SDA School also, and this afternoon we got a visit from Kadri and Maria. For those of you who prayed for Kadri last summer, he is able to walk now, but unable to speak. His right foot was swollen from some kind of injury he couldn’t explain. He tries to communicate, but even Isaac was unable to understand him. Please continue to pray for this sweet boy.

If I stayed in my comfort zone, I would have never traveled to Nantan, a very tiny village on the outskirts of Ankaase where we spent the afternoon. We first met with the village chief to get his permission to continue on through the village and meet with our new family. After receiving his blessing we walked to where Janet lives with her relatives. Her parents were sent out of the village because they were thought to be mentally ill, so Janet remains behind with her aunts and their children, of which there were too many to count. Janet is not in school, although her cousins are. Often, children who are taken in by relatives are given what is left, which is not much in most cases. We’re committed to walking alongside Janet to make sure that she is given as much opportunity as possible in her environment. We have someone who wants to sponsor Janet (we seek sponsors for children whose parents have died or are no longer able to care for them).

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And we want to provide mattresses and bed nets for the room where Janet sleeps. Each night, her grandmother sleeps on the bed frame with two small children (and no mattress), and three other children sleep on the floor nearby.  Bed nets are in use, but they won’t work because they have holes.

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Mosquitoes love bed nets like these. By the way, we were told that the baby sleeping under the useless bed net has malaria. So we’re replacing these nets and providing mattresses for the children and grandmother. Here is the way we look at it: if we wouldn’t want to sleep in these conditions, why do we think they should? And an even better reason: lives are lost for lack of a good bed net and the education about how to use it.

I have to be honest – I’m exhausted today. Sometimes seeing the needs drain my mind and heart and I am suddenly overwhelmed. If I pull back and try to figure out how we’re going to meet all these needs, I get panicky. And then I get emails (literally in the middle of writing this post) from someone who wants to partner with us at $25 a month, and another someone who wants to sponsor James, one of our newest students and an orphan who also lives with relatives. And I remember that I only need to look at the next place where I’m supposed to put my foot: the next step. God doesn’t give me the responsibility to nail down every detail, but instead He gently reminds me that He is in the details, and I am in this place – outside of my comfort zone – because this is where He has placed me. “Walk by faith,” I remind myself with each step I take in these villages, “not by sight.” It’s becoming my mantra.

I’m okay with being out of my comfort zone at this very moment, but tomorrow I’ll probably have to wake up, take a deep breath, and start chanting. That’s good because it reminds me that this is not about me. Not one bit.

But I’ve decided that I’ll pass on eating the chicken bones. That’s just too far out of the zone. Or maybe next time.

So, the next step for me is a Skype with Kyle, and then on to bed. Until tomorrow, goodnight from Ankaase and Nantan.

Dresses, Backpacks and Bibles

29 Jan

Colin says that I have a technology curse. I think he might be right.

So, we had to drive into Kumasi today – our first day in the village – to exchange money and purchase a modem. It seems that every time I come to Ghana it gets a little harder to access the Internet. My handy little Vodaphone thumb drive modem failed me, so we took the plunge and purchased this little wireless modem that allows me to be typing this right now. We’ll see how this goes. I have yet to upload photos. If you seem them below, then the modem was a success. If not, then Colin may be right.

We met our seamstress apprentice, Jennifer:

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For those of you who helped fund Jennifer’s Business Build Grant, she’s already stitching dresses! Jennifer will be stitching new bags – a smaller version of the Ankaase bag, scarves, and headbands using the traditional Ghana wax fabric, and she will receive income from every one of those products sold. This income will help her support her mother, and daughter, Betty. They are in need of income to help improve their housing.

And these are four of our students:

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These are Yaw Mensah’s four children. He has been left alone to raise these children. After an injury, he is unable to walk without crutches and his wife left him soon after the accident.

And this is Philomena and Maxwell, who are receiving the Bibles they were given by their sponsors, the staff at First Baptist Church, Tulsa.

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and our newest hairstylist apprentice, Mary and her son Samuel.

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Besides the technology problems, everything here is great. Colin and I feel blessed to be walking the roads of Ankaase, and tomorrow, the village of Nantan.

Right now, I have to go tear apart the bedroom to hunt down all the things that I know I brought but can’t locate. There are suitcases all over my bedroom filled with all the things I packed but didn’t organize. I can’t find anything.

Thank you for your prayers, your support, and all the ways you have encouraged us. We are exhausted, but blessed to know that there are people back home who walk beside us as we walk beside these families.

So until tomorrow, goodnight from Ankaase, Ghana.

It’s Sunday, but Monday is Comin’

26 Jan

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We’ve packed the cheese and the onesies, the flashcards, the chalk, the extension cord and the conversation hearts, along with just a few other items. Every nook and cranny of our three suitcases is filled, and we’ve redistributed until we’re certain none of our luggage is over 50 pounds. We have luggage that is airline regulation weight. Believe me, it’s a first.

It’s Sunday night and for two days we’ve packed and repacked because, well, Monday is comin’. The tickets in my backpack say that we’ll board a flight at 12:45 p.m. tomorrow on Delta airlines (I swore “never again on Delta”, but cheap airfare always wins the day.) Every time I travel to Ghana, it sort of feels like a first. I look at the map and marvel that I”m able to sit on a plane, fly across the ocean and then walk dirt roads on another continent. I’m amazed that I will see in person friends I know, and meet people I have only seen in photos. In 24 hours I will be in Africa. This blows my mind just a bit. And makes me feel a little jittery. Not a lot, just a little.

Then, I think about all of you who have supported us and Rising Village Foundation, and I find this a good time to say a from-the-bottom-of-my-heart thank you:

  • to those who donated school supplies to students and village schools
  • to those who donated funds for our travel
  • to those who have signed up for Rising Village partnerships
  • to those who have committed to pray
  • to those who have purchased jewelry, t-shirts, and string art to help fund the programs that serve village families
  • to our board members who have come alongside to help direct this organization
  • to every single person who has listened politely and patiently while I rattled on about malaria prevention, income generation, and the importance of education for every child in the village
  • to everyone who reads this blog

I’m inviting each one of you along on this trip. I’ll be sharing the stories here and a few will show up on the Rising Village blog. God is really good, and as we enter the villages of Ankaase and Nantan, we hope to share love, joy, and peace with each person we come in contact with. My friend Shannon told me tonight to “live by the list,” so I’m taking her good advice. If everything is checked off my list, then I have nothing more to pack. It’s done. I’m kicking back and taking a deep long breath because Monday is closing in fast.

Goodnight from the U.S. for one more night. See you on Wednesday morning in Ankaase, Ghana!

Would You?

22 Jan

I’m posting this because we set a goal and it would be so wonderful to reach it before we leave for Ghana on Monday.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and wondering if it’s appropriate, but I’m taking the risk and praying that you don’t run the other direction when you see me coming. So here is my ask: We’re looking for 20 people who will make a commitment to give $25 a month to Rising Village Foundation.

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I could tell you that $25 a month is such a small amount that you wouldn’t notice if it was pulled from your monthly budget, but that’s not true for everyone. What I can tell you is that the $25 you give each month will be used to change some stories for families in a part of the world where life is hard.

My blog is titled One Good Story, but it seems that it is easier to focus on the negative. Sensational, frightening, fear-inducing stories seem to be everywhere and cause us to worry and lament where our world is headed. As a news junkie, I can easily fall into this, but I think we need voices that call us to something different. What if we told those stories with hope? And what if we used our resources to become that hope for those who desperately need it? I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a way that actually changes stories for someone besides myself.

I want to tell Yaw’s story with hope. He is a father of four children who was injured two years ago and did not have the financial resources to seek medical help. What little money he brought in to care for his wife and five children was gone. Yaw’s wife, overwhelmed by her inability to be the sole source of income, fled. She had little education and perhaps feared watching her children go hungry. Yaw was left alone with his three sons and daughter.

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For two years, he has depended on the charity of other impoverished family members in the village and this has left him drained of the energy to take care of his children. They attend school sporadically in worn uniforms. Yaw needs medical attention. His children need education. The entire family needs better healthcare and improved living conditions to become strong. We want them to be the kind of family that can make the village a better place to live. And yes, this is possible.

Our model is one family at a time. So I’m asking 20 of you to help us by clicking this link on the Rising Village website. It takes you to our partner page, where you can sign up for a recurring payment of $25 a month. If that seems like too much, we have an option for $10 a month. Or, $50 a month, and on up. Every little bit helps as we continue to walk where God is leading us. He provides, but He does this through people whose hearts have been moved by the stories we tell. And we believe these are stories of hope.

I know I’ve been making lots of asks these days, but we all give in different ways. Some donate school supplies, some write checks, some give their time to help direct and volunteer, some pray. I am grateful for any way that you choose to join in the work we are doing.

I’ll be posting here while we’re in Ghana, so don’t leave the blog because I asked you for money, promise? You won’t want to miss the stories  we’ll be sharing. And now, I’m off to the packing room!

Such Love

20 Jan

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You people amaze me. Today, I had all ages of friends coming to my door with sacks of school supplies for children and teachers in Ghana. One little girl bounced up my sidewalk with bright backpacks. Another friend who lives in a retirement community brought colored pencils, chalk and Cinderella flash cards. “It’s just a dab,” she said, and I told her that it was the “dabs” put together that would fill a suitcase for orphans and vulnerable families in the small village where we work.  It was a great way to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

We leave for Ghana one week from today. In the meantime we have a Rising Village board meeting, I have paperwork to finish for our Ghana NGO, tax receipts to generate, sewing patterns to print…and packing to start. It’s enough to make me turn in tiny circles, trying to figure out how it will all get done before we board the flight. There is “business” that must be done, but what really matters is the Rising Village families and the growing number of people who are helping to make life better for these families. Throughout the weekend, I’m reminded that this is what fuels me. We have three children in our program who are orphans. Their parents have died and they live with relatives who won’t ever be able to support them fully. On Saturday night, a neighbor dropped off several school supplies, including three pencil bags that look like tennis shoes – just the kind of special gifts we need for these three special kids. We want to remind them they are special, loved, and cared for by people who have never even met them. For all of you who donate, give, pray, and write letters to our families and children, this quote from Dr. King is for you:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

So keep bringing your “dabs” of love. You can leave them on the porch swing or the rocking chairs. We’re packing on Friday, so thank you for helping us fill our suitcases. I am humbled by such love.

The Empty Shelf Challenge

12 Jan

I try not to start things that I don’t intend to finish. This used to be a pattern with me – uncompleted projects were scattered throughout our house, including files of the first several chapters of different novels I tried to write and drawers filled with unfinished photo scrapbooks. After decades of beating myself up over this tendency, I decided to ditch it. I began to raise the red flag for myself whenever I uttered the words, “That would be a cool thing to do.”

So now, I  carefully consider if a new idea is actually going to be a cool thing to do – whether it’s learning to sew, making a collage of my mother’s handwritten recipe cards, or painting quotes on canvas. I try to stay off Pinterest because although others may not have this weakness, I get sucked into the idea that mine is going to look like the one in the photograph. It won’t. As for writing, it took me a long time to realize that I don’t prefer to read fiction, so I probably shouldn’t try to write it. The chapters are still in my files though, because I never give up on writing.

This decision to heavily evaluate new projects also keeps me from making New Year’s resolutions. I can’t bear to get hyped on January 1, only to fail a mere 28 days later. This has happened far too many times. But, I made an exception for 2014. Hence, the Empty Shelf Challenge. Jon Acuff put this on his website and I took it on because for me, this is a no-fail project. The hardest part of was clearing off the shelf, which I did. And then I took a lousy picture so that no one on my Pinterest board would mistake it for a cutesy idea.

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Actually, this little 2014 project fits me perfectly. I love to read, although I don’t make enough time for it so the empty shelf in my office will stare at me constantly with a friendly reminder to pick up that book and put down the phone and tablet. These devices push me to social media sites that are overloaded with trite phrases, campy quotes, and out-of-context Bible verses. So before my brain turns to mush, I took on the challenge to actually read things that stretch my mind.

After I took my lousy picture, I had to find a place for the books that were removed. I learned how to double shelf which looks messy as heck, but I’m not at a place in life where I can give away books. With the shelf emptied, the next task was to choose some books for the year. It was not an exhaustive list, nor will I be legalistic about it. If I choose to mark a book off the list before I read it, I have my permission to do that. The list was just a way to envision what the shelf might be filled with by the end of the year. In keeping with the spirit of my 2014 Word for the Year, I’m reading some things that I hope will widen my view of the world, God, work, culture. At least I hope so. Here my starter list of books for 2014:

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Ghana Must Go

The Long Loneliness

Hannah Coulter

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?

Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity

A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China’s Daughters

The next task was to finish the book I had begun before Christmas. Yes, this goes on the shelf because the challenge started before January 1. I agree with Acuff who says that “waiting until January 1st to do something awesome is stupid and fake.” So there you go.  ‘

The first book on my shelf is Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. My rating: five stars out of five. So, on the shelf it went, and then I took another lousy photo.

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It is now January 12, and I’m on my second book. The shelf still looks too empty for me to stomach, so I’m trying to read a little each evening. You should know that in my house, I’m doing this alone. Kyle is taking on a different challenge of writing 500 words a day. Good for him. Maybe my last read of 2014 will be his memoirs. So if you want to join me in the challenge I’d welcome the company. Just empty a shelf and start reading! And post a comment or send an email and let me know you’re with me: lisatresch@mac.com.

Happy shelf-filling!

It’s 2014 and I Have a Word for the Year

1 Jan

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Happy New Year! We rang in 2014 in the most anticlimactic way possible but that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to what it holds. I don’t really make resolutions because I never keep them. I just choose a word  that I will spend the next 12 months attempting to learn more about and live out. There were quite a few contenders this year, but I finally chose.

My word?

Wider.

Not wilder, mind you. Wider. Or maybe they are the same thing.

This word kept pushing other possible words out of the way. It came up in conversations, I heard it in songs, it showed up in a book I was reading. It’s an odd word to choose and it requires some explanation which I’m not sure I have in great detail. Here is what I can tell you about my word for 2014.

The opposite of wide, is narrow. Much too often, I’m more comfortable and content to live in a narrow world than a wide one. I stay close to friends who think like me, and I keep a safe distance from those who have different points of view. It’s just easier, right? I like my narrow schedule because widening my scope of activities or experiences doesn’t fit in to that schedule. I get comfortable in ruts, which is another form of narrow. And when it comes to who I really love, I’m a little narrow. I’m finding that it’s easier to talk about love than to live it out. Again, narrow. Narrow also creeps into my life when it comes to how I think about myself. I don’t give myself enough room to try and fail, and so my life stays…narrow. God forced me away from some of this in 2013, so I’m going to keep it going.

If I go wider, then it may involve some things that look odd, confusing, reckless, or edgy. I like that, and then again I don’t. It could get wild. I’m continuing to pay attention to the narrow places in my life and find ways think wider and go deeper, which is another word I really wanted to claim for 2014. Kyle and I choose our words at the end of each year, and he was adamant about it being one word. That seemed a little narrow to me, but I like to play fair. So I reserved deeper as a kind of companion word that I’ll also be contemplating and learning to live out. But don’t tell.

Wider.

I have some ideas about how this word may work into my year, but God is always full of surprises. I’m asking Him to give me the courage to look at the world in wider ways, to think in wider spectrums, to believe that He can work in wider ways, to love people with my arms open wider.

So that is really all I know about this word that just wouldn’t go away. I’ve claimed it and will attempt to understand it and live it during the next 12 months.

Reflections on a Word: Restoration

27 Dec

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It seems like just a few months ago I chose this word for 2013. This crazy year has rushed by. I try to balance my life so that busyness does not interfere with reflection, meditation, relationships, and other ways that I retain my sanity. While I’ve had stretches of time during the year to think, pray, and focus on what life is really about, they mostly came at a time when I had to make big decisions. Everything this year seemed monumental: loss, new beginnings, surprise detours. Where was restoration in 2013?

In December, I make it a habit to look back on my year through the lens of the word I’ve chosen, so here are a few thoughts on both:

I live in this world. In all honesty, I am not assured that I am only “passing through” as the old hymn declares. Despite my deep belief that there is a heaven, I don’t know whether it will be up, around, or right here on earth. There are places in scripture that allude to the possibility that we might be standing in the place where we will spend eternity. Maybe so, maybe not. What I do know is that God carefully, thoughtfully, and joyfully created this world and everything in it. He delights in it, yet at the same time experiences sorrow at the brokenness that has entered His creation. I see that brokenness all around me, yet I am not dismayed by it. Instead, I am increasingly aware that if I desire to be the kind of Christ-follower that I claim to be, then it is my privilege to reflect God’s desire to restore brokenness here on earth.

I’m a fixer, which is not a brag, but an admission. But I’m not the kind of fixer that works the knots out of tangled necklaces. That takes patience, of which I have little. I hand those things to Kyle. I’m the kind of fixer who wants high-speed, quick turnaround solutions that allow me to get back to business. If I’m not careful, I’ll run at that high-speed to solve a problem or resolve an issue, or (bad idea, don’t try this…) fix a person until I crash land. It’s happened. But during 2013, I was able to take enough time to listen and learn a little about the kind of restoration that God invites me to join him in. This is the kind of restoration that takes endurance, patience, faith, and heaping amounts of love. It’s the kind of restoration that believes people are not projects, but precious souls that are starving for honest, real relationships. Me, I’d rather make someone a project – complete with a proposed solution, timeline, high expectations, and a measurable goal. That is not restoration. That is control. And my mantra in this season of my life is “You control nothing and no one, so quit trying.” Restoration gives up control and replaces it with the harder task of loving people. Oh, and if you just skimmed that sentence I’ll state it another way: You and I find it easier to try and control someone than to really love them.

Restoration is the outward manifestation of love for God’s creation. When I chose this word last December, the mental picture was the man who gets up every morning and walks along the side of the busy road picking up all the trash and debris that has accumulated overnight. It’s a never-ending job, but the end result is not the “fixing” of the roadside. It’s the act of restoring beauty, if even for a moment. We all know that we can do the hard work of love with no guarantee that things won’t get incredibly messed up again. It’s not a quick-fix. Instead, it’s the tangled necklace that requires quiet patience. It’s the grassy roadside that will most likely get trashed again. But restoration means that we keep working to make things beautiful again.

I’m still reflecting on this word. Still trying to discover what it looks like in a given day. Today, it was the act of apologizing when I felt like ranting. Some days it’s giving an encouraging word instead of a lecture, or standing up and speaking truth, even when my voice shakes. And then, there are the days when restoration is working toward justice for those who live in poverty because it just seems like what Jesus might care about. But these are only my feeble attempts to make the world a more beautiful place because I love the world’s Creator. The real restoration happens inside my heart when I am reminded that God loves me without my doing anything to earn, deserve, or keep it. I am restored every day by the knowledge that God is completely pleased with me no matter how good or bad I am. And then, I have the freedom to look at the world and practice this restoration.

The year is almost over and it’s time for me to choose a new word. Every year builds: Descending leads to restoration, which leads to a deeper, wider life. Which causes me to wonder, can one choose two words for the year?

The Sameness of Advent

14 Dec

Advent 1

It’s December 14th and I’m just now sitting down to think about Christmas. Actually, I have thought about it, but we all know the difference between thoughts and actions. Earlier this week I had a big party to help our friends in Ghana, so I did get the house decorated. And we made over $2,000 so it was completely worth it. And by the way, if you came or donated, I am grateful to you beyond words.

Today, the party is behind me and I’m making gift lists, planning meals and laboring over whether Christmas cards are really worth it. We never take enough family pictures, so I’m leaning towards no. I was also starting to hunt down that really great Advent devotional book so we can focus on what this season is supposed to be about. Most years, the week before December begins, I scrape together some kind of special every-night Advent moment so that we can take 15 minutes out of our day to remember that we are waiting for Light, peace, rest, deliverance, and joy. Christmas is about celebrating, but first, we wait. And every year when we observe these Advent rituals, it occurs to me that much of it is a bit repetitive. We light candles, sing songs about the Christ-child, read scripture, meditate. My kids liked the Advent Conspiracy videos we watched last year, but they were glitchy on some nights and so we spent time troubleshooting technology. This will immediately and completely ruin an Advent moment, so I’m bypassing that one this year. It’s possible that I’ve run through every Advent-family-together-time option out there and maybe this is the year to take a break and let everyone experience this in their own way. And I wonder if the sameness of our little Advent exercises causes the whole thing to become meaningless and trite. I don’t want that. Goodness knows that my kids have been in church long enough to have every exciting adventure God might allow to be turned into a study, a program, or something to be completed in a six-week course. I’ve seen them roll their eyes when I came into the room during the Christmas season – Bible under my arm and a shoebox filled with clever little symbols of the season. Those were the years of the Jesse Advent Tree. Nothing wrong with it, but it wore out its welcome about two years before I finally packed it up. And they tiptoed to the four corners of the house (the bathroom was always a good hiding place) when I commanded them to lead our Advent devotionals. It’s not that they don’t love Jesus; they just don’t always like me to orchestrate how they should express that love.

I was lost on the whole family Advent plan, then, I read this beautiful post.

The beauty of Advent is that we get to experience it in a new way every year by doing the same things every year. We sing Advent hymns, light Advent candles, read Advent scriptures. These things are the same. What makes them new each year is the fact that we are never the same person twice. Every year that passes between Advents brings a new set of experiences. We have new triumphs and failures, new joys and sorrows, and each one changes us. It is that new person who rediscovers what it means to be people of God’s kingdom each time they celebrate Advent. The sorrow of lost loved ones and the joy of new babies help us to better understand what it is to be people of joy.

I am not the same person that I was on December 14, 2012. And, I suspect, neither are you. There has been joy and sorrow, loss and blessing, storms and beauty, and so many other moments during the past year’s journey. These transform the sameness of Advent into a fresh awakening. I understand better that God does not need me to fulfill His plans and purposes, but rather allows me join His story. And as I have attempted to reign in a sort of restless energy to “do”, I have also realized that God can use that restlessness if it is laid on the altar in faith and trust. The sorrows I have experienced and watched in others this past year have continued to smooth my rough edges. And the uncertainty of where my passions are leading me cause me to hold tighter to God’s hand. No, I am not the same person this year, which is cause for joy.

We no longer have little ones. Now, we have two adult children and a teenager. The days of the Jesse Advent Tree, cute Advent calendars, and scheduled Advent activities are gone for a while. These are wonderful ways to focus on the season, but this year I am going to invite my children to think about the journey of 2013 and to reflect on it in their own way. Our conversations should be organic (not always easy with a teenager), not programmed. My family has endured enough of my Advent directorship, so I’ll wait for God to lead us into moments where we can be honest with one another about the ways we are changing as we trust in the unchanging nature of God. The sameness of Advent is a reminder of this. One day, everything will be restored and we will no longer live in expectation of that fulfillment. While we wait, we also journey. And a journey is almost never about the destination, but what happens in the in-between, where we live each day of the year.

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