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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Returning Comes Twice

Maybe this is part of the integration process on my journey, I explained to my mother after midnight on a Saturday evening, relying on the verbal cues to communicate as best I could as the frustratingly limited internet forbade me from seeing her face through a video chat. I'd been sharing a little of the emotions that had been coming to the surface in the past week or two, initiated by sparks of sudden memories which were oddly enough, not from here or from my past BC (before California). These memories were from the country I'd simultaneously despised and struggled to adapt to for nearly half my life. These were memories from California.

I'd spent 17 years in California resigning myself to unfulfilled yearnings when the sensory flashbacks would come. A smell of ketchup on kebab, a misplaced call to prayer, dancing lights on a runway, all evoked memories that no longer had a home to attach to so they floated in my mind, pulling me while even then knowing that I could no longer return. At least that is what I thought. Until I found myself on a plane heading for home.

Yes, I struggled with culture shock and adapting and proving wrong the assumption that just because I'd lived here before, it would be easy to fit back into the fabric of people's lives who had continued to thread colours into the empty spaces after I'd left and would now to have to find a place for me in whichever way felt most comfortable for them. At last the flashbacks would end, I assumed. After all, I was now home where the majority of these memories had been created.

I walked the campus I'd been as a teenager, solaced my heart with the reassurance that I wish I'd known all those years ago that I would be able to return, and began creating new memories. I spoke at a conference, sharing my life story in 6 minutes and 40 seconds, a coalescence of a lifetime of loss and love that made me who I was today. I blogged, I processed, and I decided that I was ready to leave behind my TCK label as the sole definition of who I was and assume a new identity that I was yet to completely unfold.

Then these memories began to come. I found myself emotional once more, wanting to visit such idiosyncratic places as the mall, favourite restaurants, or the local public library. The missing was not for the campus where we had lived for so long, but it was for the life I had created outside of that campus, escaping at least once a week for retail or food therapy, and through the repetitive finding the familiar. Now I was listening to Sara Groves Painting Pictures of Egypt and realizing she described my journey exactly.

Remember, you lived this life for 17 years, it is part of who you were, my mother gently reminded me. She understood the angst I felt at having to fold into who I was today the difficult years where we lived in fear of my father popping up unexpectedly or attempting to kidnap my baby brother, where we fought to keep a semblance of normality on a campus where spirituality had been twisted into a false religion, where our accents and ways of relating to life were just different enough to make us stand out but not enough to make us interesting.

As I listened to my mother, I realized that this too was part of my integration journey. Perhaps for the TCK, integration necessarily becomes the lifelong journey. Perhaps we can never completely leave behind who we are, or believe that the process of bringing together all the pieces is ever finished.  

And the places I long for the most are the places I have been. . .But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned, those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned. . .

Friday, May 26, 2017

Come Thou Fount

It was one of those days. A day when you just barely caught up to your breath and there was no time for thinking. Processing. A day when you smiled but the smile didn't reach the crinkles in the corner of your eye. A day when you were thankful for the small things because suddenly they became the big things. A day when you asked for that little bit extra grace to help you walk those extra five miles in aching feet. A day when you shook your heart's fist at a Father Who lived in the invisible. A day when you dug your finger deep into your palm to keep the tears still, frustrated that the pain from too-short nails wasn't stronger than the silent keening.

It was one of those nights. Except this night was a little more intense than the others. He'd had nights like this before. When He'd escaped the crowds that had pushed around Him, jostling for a chance to be close but not knowing why, though they felt the inescapable attraction that drew them near. He loved each person dearly, whether they knew Who He was or simply saw Him as another novelty to gawk at. Yet He needed to find strength to meet their needs and having limited His power by choice, He retreated in the blackness to reconnect with the One Who freely filled His heart. 

His friends didn't understand why He chose to spend a night praying instead of sleeping. "Don't You feel tired in the morning?" they queried, confused as to His priorities. Long trudges through village after village, or standing in the desert heat, wearied them physically and at night their eyes often closed before their bodies relaxed in sleep. Yet He treasured those quiet hours when He would pour out His heart and feel the power revive His body that was not wearied physically as much as emotionally. 

See, He was an emotional Person. That was another part of His being that His friends couldn't quite connect with. Most of them were simple fishermen whose experiences were set in a night on a boat. Sure, they felt emotion, but they weren't emotional. He cried when Lazarus was in the tomb. He cried when He saw Jerusalem and envisioned its destruction. Now He cried again. Yet this grief was of such intensity it was almost hard to breathe. And as He cried, His friends slept. 

It didn't matter as much the other nights. He preferred to be alone with His Father so, as His friends snored deeply, He knelt under the stars and lifted His hands and eyes up to heaven in a gesture to connect closer to the One He desperately needed and quietly missed. Tonight, though. Tonight He felt a deep need for their prayers. For their presence. Yes, He was God but He was also Man. Vulnerable in sorrow. Aching in grief. Questioning in loneliness. He knew rationally that His Father was close by but in this moment He could not see and longed for reassurance through those who knew Him best here on this earth. 

Even His three closest friends were oblivious to His pain. The three He'd brought into more confidences, spent more time counseling with, and entrusted with responsibility succumbed to sleep not once but twice. He faced the future-altering decision alone. Anguish, distress, and grief pressed down heavily on One Who had done no wrong but now must assume all the wrongs every committed or still to tear His Father's heart through thousands of years. 

In His time of deepest need, Jesus turned to find all had failed Him. When He looked for support, there was none. Though we know the end of the story, and that an angel came from heaven to give Him strength, this part of the story is one that isn't often spoken of. Jesus needed community. He needed to be close to those who could speak encouragement to His heart.

Somehow this is encouraging to me, particularly on days like today. I am finding myself in that limbo-land once again as I prepare emotionally for my soon-departure. Unlike the four we had a farewell for today, I plan to return within the month so it is not a goodbye of finality. Yet each time I step onto a plane that takes me from my heart-home, I shiver inside at the thought that something unexpected could happen and I would not be able to return. Just like before. Except before it was planned and I was supposed to be happy about it.

As I process the tension of emotions, from grief that I must leave to relief that I can have a long vacation to longing for my family to unresolved bitterness with the place my mother still lives at, I think about how very much I identify with Jesus' experience in those oppressive hours. I don't mean the decision to take our place. I mean the very real need to be with loved ones who He could see.

I sat alone in vespers tonight. The closing song, #626, brought a flood of memories back as the congregation sang In a Little While We're Going Home. I was back in my Opa and Oma's previous apartment, my Opa jubilantly pedaling away on the organ as he played and sang while we provided the accompaniment to his enthusiastic singing. It was 2004 and we didn't know if we'd be going back home, to the home we now knew in the US. Ironic, then, that now I was singing it and preparing to return to the US for holiday whilst once again pleading silently with my Father to let me come back again. Same song, different stanza.

My friends left after vespers, their little ones ready to go to sleep, and I texted them saying I was going to bed early. I was tired and it had been a long day. It was true but I was missing out on Friday evening tea with snacks, laughing around the dining room table. Instead I retreated to my room, then slipped into comfortable clothes, black suede flip flops that exposed my freshly painted black-red toenails, and headed to the parking lot to walk.

I was texting a friend, having a casual conversation about the day, when I invited them to join me walking. They fell silent and I didn't ask again. Pushing the ear buds further into my ears, I listened to a favourite mix from Women of Faith even as I wondered whether I would always feel this way. Then a young man walking by stopped me.

He was one of the students on campus, a quiet guy, who faithfully did his work and went to classes but didn't draw much attention to himself. He'd asked me to pray for him several months ago, and I had for that week, but figuring his prayer was answered, I'd moved on to pray for other items on my list. Tonight, though, after small talk, he asked again for prayer. With some emotion, he shared his need for daily prayer as he tried his best to follow God. I reassured him I would keep him in my prayers and then I asked if I could pray for him right there. He quickly agreed.

I never thought of myself as much of a praying type of person. Yes, I pray privately, but whenever I was asked to pray in public or with a friend or two, my prayers tended to feel canned and lifeless, as if I was reciting one from a prayer book. I hated being second or even last in a prayer group because by the time it got to me, the others would have already covered all the highlights and I would be fumbling to find something of substance to pray for. Yet in the last couple of weeks, God has been drawing me into prayer as, whether praying for friends or being prayed for, I am beginning to see the community found in prayer is as precious as the community in every day connection.

After I finished praying for my friend and he carried on his way, I realized that God had answered a previous prayer in a very meaningful way. I had asked Him to clearly show me that He had a long-term plan for me here. I needed some sort of indication that my life had purpose, meaning, and a mission. Otherwise, I figured, I might as well return to the US and sink into a life devoid of joy but following the responsible career path that a single woman as the eldest daughter of a single parent should do.

In asking for prayer, my friend showed me that I was someone he trusted enough that he could ask for prayer from. And in those couple of minutes, as our heads were bowed and we earnestly approached God, I realized that prayer was a ministry I could embrace and engage in with my whole heart. I had a purpose--to be available when someone needed prayer. I had meaning--to intercede with sincerity and conviction. I had a mission--to pray.

Yes, it was one of those days. A day when God hid behind the thick fog of the morning, peeking out in a stunning sunset, then withdrawing once more as the melancholy of solitude swept in. Yet it was also a day when God turned all my expectations upside down and replaced them with a knowing that surpasses man's greatest intellect of today. He brought someone to me who was struggling to see Him, and in prayer we both saw the heart of One who cares immeasurably for us. Thank God for one of those days.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

And I Am Not Lost Anymore

How are you doing? Do you need a job? There's openings for academic records personnel, graduate enrollment coordinators, etc. 

I stared at my phone's screen, the email from my graduate program's advisor staring back at me. It was a face-off and I wasn't sure who was going to win. Sure, he'd sent me links to apply to before, he'd recommended me for positions within the department, or departments he had connections with. I'd even been flown in and put up for the weekend when short-listed for assistant registrar three years ago and then put back on the short-list for a similar position in distance education just before I came out here.

Now I was settling in to life in Beirut, Lebanon. I had a good job with a variety of tasks so I was never bored, an excellent boss who valued my work and my opinions, dear friends who brought such joy to my life, a wonderful church family where I felt like I fit in, a cozy little room that had just enough room for all my things, and the most stunning view of the Mediterranean Sea just out my front door. Life was good. Not perfect, but good.

Then the email came.

In the past, I would have sent back a quick Thank you for thinking of me but I'm happily settled here email as I had done a couple of times before. Now, like that second thought of an old boyfriend who was never right but you couldn't quite shake, or that second glance that leads to the second slice of cake you know you shouldn't be eating at midnight, the doubt began to creep in. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe I should apply and see if doors opened. True, I had a life I was happy with here but there were still some things missing and maybe if I moved back to the US I would find those.

Every time I closed and locked the door to my studio-apartment-sized bedroom with ensuite bathroom in the past 15 months, I sent up a silent prayer. Please God, let me come back. Each time the plane lowered itself down to touch Lebanese soil just after gliding over the sea, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was home again. So why the angst at a suggestion, a hint, that is entirely my choice to ignore, delete, pretend it never existed?

Perhaps it's because I still feel that weight of responsibility weighing heavily on my shoulders. True, here I am serving on sacrificial wages, particularly when compared to what I could make if I were to work in the US in a position comparable to my level of education. Yet I don't think about that. For me, being here is being home, so I'm just happy to have a job that allows me to stay and pay for my expenses while saving up a little for the future. The question still nags though. Am I being responsible enough? Should I be working a job where I could save five times as much so I could buy a house for my mother far sooner?

A job in the US would mean financial stability, a hefty retirement package, being closer to my mother, the increased possibility to marry an American, and a recognized job within the SDA system at my alma mater. The campus has a large international body, the employees are kind and intellectual, and I could start working on my doctoral degree, taking one free class every semester. But would this bring my heart joy?

I'll admit, there have been many days recently where life hasn't been as easy as it was in the fall. I've started to see the cracks in the makeup, started to see my days slip into weeks too full of administrative responsibilities and too few chances for service, started to realize that life is mostly made up of the mundane and it's not possible to keep up a constant round of activities and excitement. The joy seems to have shrunk, like a teenage boy's polyester t-shirt accidentally mixed in with the hot wash.

Even in the swirl of this, though, there is still hope. There has to be. Hope that the deep joy will once more fill my heart so that I cannot even breathe in anticipation of tomorrows. I catch glimpses of it and for now, that is enough to keep me going.

Should I apply? I picture myself, trudging through snowfall up to my waist, sitting in an office where day after day I must look at the same paperwork, then returning home to a small apartment filled with books but devoid of memories. Suddenly I know why I must stay. This country is the keeper of my memories, the sacred trust of who I was, and for the past 15 months, who I am today. Lebanon is slowly bringing together my two identities, while helping me forgive the years lost between. I cannot pick up and move now. It would be disrespectful to the process, shattering the puzzle before I had even built the border around it.

Tomorrow I'll send a little email to my advisor. I'll thank him for his consideration and remind him that I've accepted a position here. But I won't say what's really the reason I'm still here. I need to be here to feel fully alive, fully at home, and fully at peace. This is why I stay.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Wings of the Morning

I woke up this morning with the words of the song God Hears My Prayer in my head. It was a song that Rachel had taught us one summer when we had a little choir and ever after, the tune had drifted into a corner of my mind and refused to leave, just like the other encouraging choir songs we'd learned in college. I left for work rather hurriedly, trying my best to make it in time for worship. I arrived just before 8 but after I unlocked my door, my boss had a couple of things to share so I managed to slip in to the conference room just in time to hear the last part of the devotional thought. Then, because I rarely joined them, my colleagues asked me to pray, so I did.

I returned to my office, flipped open my laptop, and quickly typed in my password. My mind began to scramble as I reached for a bottle of water. There were too many deadlines looming all at once and I was worried about getting everything done on time. Someone came asking for a letter they'd emailed me about the day before. I hadn't managed to type it up yet, as I had to wait for verification from another person first. My boss promised I would get it to them before noon. Someone else emailed me with a project that needed to be done that afternoon and when I replied, saying I wouldn't be able to get to it before the next day, they insisted, saying it had already been delegated to me. This was how the first hour went, until the office was quiet.

I hurried downstairs to the women's restroom, locked myself in the farthest stall, closed the toilet lid, sat down on top of it, and cried. I couldn't handle all of this. It was too much.

When you first get to know me, you may assume that I'm an open person who easily shares her burdens and joys with others. While I will get into debates about hot topics, or gripe about how I haven't had a chance to do my laundry because the washing machines have been full every time I passed by them, I don't as easily share personal things. I will talk about things that others can relate to, that are disconnected from my deepest heart, but I will not be vulnerable. I have to know that I can trust you first and that trust can take years to earn.

I hate getting emotional in public because as a woman, I am automatically stigmatized and any words that may accompany the tears are dismissively seen as PMSing or not based in logic. So I keep my emotions to myself, try really hard to be positive and kind, and if I have nothing nice to say then I try not to say anything at all in order to avoid conflict.

I realized, sitting there in that bathroom stall, that I needed prayer. I looked through my phone contacts, wondering who I could ask. My family was fast asleep in another time zone, my sister busy at work. I sent them a message but knew they likely wouldn't read it for several hours and I needed prayer now. Finally, I settled on one name. I knew he prayed, it was part of his vocation after all, so I sent him a couple of lines, saying I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at work and would appreciate a prayer if he thought of it. Then I promised to pray for him in his work that day. He replied right away, which was somewhat unusual for him as he often wouldn't see my texts for some time, and said he would pray.

I left the bathroom and returned to my office. Less than 10 minutes later, I realized that I no longer felt like bursting into tears but felt calm and at peace. Did prayer really work that fast? I wondered. Later that morning, after a chat with a good friend and colleague, I asked if I could pray for her in an upcoming transition and she agreed. When the prayer was over, my heart felt full.

In the afternoon committee, I was asked to pray. Being the recording secretary, I don't usually speak, but I had yet another opportunity to pray. Miraculously, the committee finished early and I had just enough time to do two loads of laundry before hopping in my friends' car to head down the hill to our Arabic church for Week of Prayer. My family sent me encouraging text messages as they started their day and then an email came through from AVS. I stopped and looked at my screen, amazed at how perfect God's timing was. The email was titled Praying for you today.

The last time Andrea had sent me a little email reminding me that the AVS staff were praying for me was February 28 so it had been nearly 3 months since my name was on the rotation for prayer. Andrea said they were praying for me and then said May this be a reminder that His love is constant, and He is always with you as you serve Him in Lebanon. She included Psalm 139:9-10 and Hosea 12:6 in the email and closed as she always did by asking me to let her know if I had any specific prayer requests.

Live as if your prayers are already answered. I struggle a lot with believing God answers prayer. It's really quite ridiculous, because I have some very tangible examples of how God has answered my specific prayers. I can say with certainty that every day I've been here in Lebanon, God has been close to me and pursued my heart by personalizing special moments just for me. His heart's intent towards me is only good--I know this logically but am struggling to feel it emotionally.

There are glimpses, though, like today when I feel His love especially close. Today, I had seven different encounters with prayer. I prayed for worship, my friend prayed for me, I prayed with another friend, I prayed for the committee, I went to week of prayer, my family prayed for me, and AVS prayed for me. Truly, God was sustaining me and holding me up through those prayers today.

If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there Your hand will guide me, and Your strength will support me. . .Wait for your God, and don't give up on Him--ever!

I'm not a front-lines missionary, I'm not giving evangelistic meetings to thousands, and I'm not running a school for refugee children. I'm leading out in song service during Sabbath School, when only 10 people show up. I'm bouncing a 15-month old on my lap to give a pregnant mother a few moments rest. I'm sitting through an hour-long sermon in Arabic and smiling and nodding at the visitors afterwards because it's all I can do to communicate in a language I don't understand. I'm staying up late to edit a student's paper so they can do well in their class. I'm sending an encouraging email to someone I've never met, thanking them for their prayers and reminding them of how important their work is to strengthen and support others. But these are just simple offerings. They are not grand, they are only a widow's mite. Yet somehow I hope God will bless these efforts just as the prayers multiplied to wrap me in comfort today.

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. ~Zephaniah 3:17

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

To Find Home In

I didn't get a chance to call home this weekend. I think in a way, that is the hardest part about being away from home. It's knowing that I can connect but finding that the reality is I can't connect as much as I would like. Sure, we have a family chat where we share photos and jokes, ask questions, plan family vacations between three continents, or just keep each other updated throughout the day. But it's not the same as being in the same room as each other. A video call is a poor substitute but at least I can hear voices and see facial expressions. When I can't have even that, I struggle.

The streaming quality here somehow manages to let me watch episode after episode of Masterchef but can't handle a video call properly. Usually I'm left peering at a screen where my mother's face has frozen in a strange position, or I'm trying to decipher a sentence out of the disjointed syllables and partial words that have jerkily filtered across the airwaves. Occasionally, and then often only briefly, I will see them crystal clear and it's then that I study their faces intently, memorizing, and wishing they were closer so I could feel happy that I was with them.

My sister had other priorities on Sunday and my mother's laptop was on silent, as usual, so she missed my messages til it was too late and I had given up and gone to bed. Last week I'd talked to my mom and brother and it had been two and a half weeks since I'd spoken to my sister. I realized that perhaps this was part of life, the slow separation as we each lived our lives, but I wasn't ready for it. I needed to stay connected.

I know why the ache is so strong. It's because my mother, my brother, and my sister are still the world to me. No one has taken a parallel place in my heart until now so I find my home in them.