25 February 2011

Is the Glass Half Full?

Today is *roughly* the halfway point of my time here in Virginia. February 24th marks one month since I left Florida, and about a month until I return.  It’s hard to believe we only have a few weeks of training left, but at the same time, it has been a loooong month.  Many here have compared it to drinking out of a fire hose, which is a good analogy, if a bit prosaic.  I prefer to think of it as trying to sip out of Niagra falls with a crazy straw: you’re a lot closer to drowning than you are to getting a refreshing drink.

crazy straws = crazy awesome
We have sessions on all sorts of interesting topics taught by experts in their fields, but each one could probably be a semester-long class. We, however, get the information in somewhere between 2 hours and 2 days, depending on the topic.  I really wish I could retain more of what I’m learning because so much of it is valuable. But instead, I usually end up just feeling overwhelmed and mentally fatigued. 

The days seem to pass in one long continuous blur. Right now we begin at 8am with a morning study and worship time with the people in our small groups.  9am our sessions begin and run until noon. We eat lunch in the cafeteria and are back in sessions at 1pm. Depending on the day and topic and what else is on the schedule we finish between 3 and 5pm.  We have quite a bit of “free” time in the evenings, but you can imagine that is often a misnomer. There are a million details of travel arrangements, paperwork, reading assignments, and the like to occupy any time that isn’t pre-scheduled.

Now before you think that we’re enduring some horrible form of mental waterboarding, let me assure you that we do have fun, too.  Some people started a volleyball league, when it’s nice out we can get a game of Ultimate Frisbee going, and there are always people around if you are bored and want to get a game or conversation going.  Getting to know the others and hear their stories and learn about their areas of service is one of my favorite things. I especially love the people in my small group who will all be serving in South America.  I’m not a morning person but getting to start my day out spending time with them makes me not dread getting up so early. (They also have some pretty awesome kids who provide us with a lot of entertainment.)

I make occasional field trips into the local town for necessary errands, but also to grab a Starbucks or something other than cafeteria food for a treat.  They feed us well here, but the buffet style lends itself to overeating and the cooking staff is very um… creative? yes, creative is a good word… at reusing whatever doesn’t get finished off. Plus, they serve dinner at 5pm and my body is not accustomed to the early bird special, so sometimes you just need to escape!

The half way point means that most of the novelty and initial excitement has worn off for many people.  Reality is beginning to hit home, and doubts and questions that were easily brushed off before are now creeping back in, especially with our recent focus on security and persecution.  There are certainly days when I’ve sat there wondering why the organization picked me.  When you stand in the shadow of giants of the faith, hearing of their sacrifices and the great things God accomplished through them, it is easy to feel out of place. Surely I don’t belong here. I’ve done so many things that didn’t honor God. I still have so far to go and so much to learn. There must be someone else who is bolder, holier, more compassionate?

Yet, here I am.

And I know it isn’t a mistake. When I am tempted to question this decision, I remember the faithfulness of the One who brought me here. I look back and see His fingerprints on the circumstances and opportunities that led to this place.  He has led me faithfully and He asks that I follow Him in the same way.

We are tired, stressed, and overwhelmed at the magnitude of the undertaking before us, so it would be easy to get discouraged at this stage.  But when I read Psalm 46:10 the other day I read it from a new perspective. “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” I had always focused on the first part. We hear it quoted all the time and it’s wonderful. The second portion is often overlooked, but I love what it says! “I WILL be exalted among the nations. I WILL be exalted in the earth.” There is no question there. It’s a fact. God said it, so you can consider that signed, sealed, and delivered. He’s not waiting on us to get there. He allows us the privilege of being part of His work, but His glory isn’t dependent on my working and striving. One way or another God will be glorified and exalted among the nations. Isn’t that an awesome promise? We can be still and rest in that assurance, in that peace that comes from confidence in God. 
We may be halfway, but the glass is clearly more than half full. 

My metaphorical glass is filled with real sugar Dr. Pepper.

*And in case you’ve had a long week too and need a pick-me-up, check out this awesome story about a high school football game in Texas. You can't watch it and not smile!

22 February 2011

Paris, Tu Me Manques!

Tastes like success!
February 13th, 2008 I took my last final exam of college.  It was in my French foreign policy class at Sciences Po in Paris.  What a remarkably exhilarating feeling walking out of the building: FREEDOM.  Finishing college, I’m sure, is exciting in any circumstance, but in my case it was probably exponentially more liberating because I had been doing my final international relations courses in French. AND in the context of France’s education system which is a burdensome paragon of bureaucracy and antiquated ideology, or simply put…French.

Last week marked the third anniversary of that day I skipped down rue Saint-Guillaume grinning. (If you want the full account of that day, read here.) Thinking about it brings back a rush of Paris memories colored with the forgiving tincture of time. I love Paris, as anyone can tell you. And I’m probably a bit of an elitist about it, for which I make no apologies. I hope that you have the opportunity to spend some time in the City of Light, but I don’t think a visit really does it justice. I’m gonna hit the breaks right here and change directions because if I don’t I will be in serious danger of turning this into a rambling ode to the wonder that is Paris. I’m not saying that’ll never happen in a blog post,   but it is less necessary since I already have an entire blog nearly devoted to the topic.

First visit to Paris in 1994. 
(Yes, I'm wearing a Lion King shirt at the Louvre. It says "Ooo! The Little cream-filled kind!" 
Feel free to gasp in horror.)
My point here is that I’ve been thinking about my time in Paris a lot during training.  It is only natural, I suppose, since living there was my most significant cross-cultural experience and much of what we are learning is about living and ministering in a cross-cultural environment.  With all the constant reminders, I had begun to feel a bit homesick for Paris and a bit sad that I must now abandon my beloved and laboriously learned French in exchange for Spanish.  Fortunately, February 13th we celebrated European peoples during our cultural worship service and I was asked to pray in French.  We had scripture readings in Polish and Spanish, worship songs in German, a children’s skit in Welsh, and then the message in… French! It was an excellent message about how we as Christian workers measure success and about patience. I wish that everyone would have been able to understand it all. But beyond the content, listening to him preach in French was a little like going home.  It would have been easy to wax melancholy again about letting go of my French language and culture, but instead, I decided to focus on how nice it’ll be when I finally reach a level of comfort in Spanish where worshipping and listening to the Word of God in that language also feels like “home.” There’s a whole new realm of exciting cultures to be explored in Latin America, and I do not doubt that I will grow to love the people and places there.

My first attempt "growing to love" the Peruvian flute.

Of course, it’s also nice to remember that moving on to new adventures doesn’t mean leaving the previous ones behind. No one put it better than Hemingway:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Nutella is also a moveable feast. 
If it had existed when Hemingway was alive he probably would have written about it instead. 

*Want to hear something ironic? When I was discussing my possible international job options with my dad, he was less than thrilled with my choices in South America, Africa and the Middle East.  He voted for Texas. But then, conceding that while practically its own country, Texas was not in the company’s jurisdiction, he agreed that he would be okay with me going back to France. Well the other day a speaker discussing security issues pulled up the current threat list as maintained by the State Department. You know what’s on the list of serious threats of danger? France. You know what’s not? Peru. I think the State Department underestimates the threat of vicious llamas.* 

10 February 2011

Risky Business

Groundhog Day was last week and apparently Phil has decided it’ll be an early spring.  I don’t think Virginia got the message because it snowed again last night. Not much, just a thin dusting and I bet it’ll be mostly gone by lunch. Normally I’m not all that concerned about when spring is supposed to begin because in Florida it’s really all the same.  But here, in the frozen north, spring can’t come soon enough!  How is Virginia, you ask? Cold. Virginia is cold.  And often wet.  And so far, I’m not impressed.  But Virginia still has 43 days to make it up to me.  We’ll see.

 This was from the last blizzard, and not Virginia, but it made me laugh.

A couple weeks ago was an important anniversary: the 25th commemoration of the day the world was graced with Della Turner’s presence.  I think she and her awesomeness deserve a shout-out. 

She’s pretty stellar.

  It was also the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, so as I read the text of Reagan’s speech that day, this portion stood out:

“I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” 

Most of us will never have the opportunity to go to space.  Most of us will never risk our lives mapping uncharted regions of the planet, or climbing an untouched mountain.  We won’t have a hand in expanding man’s physical horizons. But we will all have the option of expanding our own horizons, of taking a risk.  Yet, when those challenges arise, many of us will walk away. We let the fear of change, potential loss, failure, or even death dissuade us from the venture.  As Reagan explained, when you take risks, sometimes painful things happen.  That’s true.  If you strap yourself to 1.6 million pounds of propellant and try to launch yourself into orbit, there’s a chance you’ll lose your life in the process. But here’s the larger truth: painful things happen. Period. Painful things happen to people living quiet simple lives in suburban USA just the same as they happen to astronauts exploring space…or missionaries taking the Gospel to a closed and hostile country.  No one is immune.  Cancer, car accidents, natural disasters… even terrorist attacks: they can happen any time, anywhere.  Yes there are certain inherent risks to everything we do,  but usually what we allow to create fear and keep us from acting are the perceived risks.

That becomes a problem when it comes to Christianity.  In America we don’t sense a great deal of risk attached to following Christ because it does not necessarily cost us much. We have this idea that God wants to keep us safe and comfortable, but David Platt puts it this way in Radical (Great book. Read it. Now!): 

“We say things such as, ‘The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.’ We think, if it’s dangerous, God must not be in it. If it’s risky, if it’s unsafe, if it’s costly, it must not be God’s will. But what if these factors are actually the criteria by which we determine something is God’s will? What if we began to look at the design of God as the most dangerous option before us? What if the center of God’s will is in reality the most unsafe place for us to be?”

Mark Batterson hits the nail on the head when he asks, “When did we start believing that God wants to send us to safe places to do easy things?” That’s not what we see modeled in the New Testament. As one of our instructors here in training keeps pointing out, the most normal place for Christians to be in the New Testament is in prison. And in many places around the world that is still the case. Following Christ is risky.  It always has been, it always will be.  And I’d go as far to say that it always should be, because Christianity that costs nothing produces the same. Nothing. And we KNOW that is not God’s will.  Refusing to take risks when God has called you to them means you are actually taking a much greater risk: being disobedient to Christ.  You are also risking missing out on what God is doing and missing out on His blessings. “We all want adventure, faith, miracles, and a deep knowledge of Christ, but you can’t have those things without letting go of safety, security, comfort, and control. You have to choose between safety and bravery. The bottom line is this: God’s will in a fallen world is dangerous. (Batterson)”

So yes, following Christ can be dangerous, but as we’ve already established, being alive is dangerous.  So doesn’t it make sense to go ahead and spend your life risking it all for the cause of the Gospel?

I’m sure I’ll ramble on more on this topic at a later date because it gets me fired up, so let's just call this "Part 1."  I leave you with an entry from one of my favorite books My Utmost for His Highest. (I love me some Oswald Chambers. And check it out, they have it in Spanish!) :

“Supposing God tells you to do something which is an enormous test to your common sense, what are you going to do? Hang back? If you get into the habit of doing a thing in the physical domain, you will do it every time until you break the habit determinedly; and the same is true spiritually. Again and again you will get up to what Jesus Christ wants, and every time you will turn back when it comes to the point, until you abandon resolutely. ‘Yes but- supposing I do obey God in this matter, what about…?’ ‘Yes I will obey God if He will let me use my common sense, but don’t ask me to take a step in the dark.’

            Jesus Christ demands of the man who trusts Him the same reckless sporting spirit that the natural man exhibits. If a man is going to do anything worthwhile, there are times when he has to risk everything on his leap, and in the spiritual domain Jesus Christ demands that you risk everything you hold by common sense and leap into what He says, and immediately you do, you find that what He says fits on as solidly as common sense.

 At the bar of common sense Jesus Christ’s statements may seem mad; but bring them to the bar of faith, and you begin to find with awestruck spirit that they are the words of God. Trust entirely in God, and when He brings you to the venture, see that you take it. We act like pagans in a crisis, only one out of a crowd is daring enough to bank his faith on the character of God.” 



02 February 2011

Entre Todos los Pueblos

I inherited a Spanish/English Bible recently.  By inherited, I mean someone left it in the college building several years ago and I discovered and claimed it after learning that I would be going to South America and learning Spanish.  If you are reading this and are thinking, “Hey! That’s my Bible that I lost 3 years ago in Daytona!” well…tough luck. You should have taken better care of God’s Holy Word.  Just kidding, but seriously. You can have it back if you’ll tell me where your dad got it (Yes, I read the sweet note in the front, or at least the parts of the Spanish I could decipher).  So anyway, I had been looking for a Spanish Bible and this one needed a good home, so I adopted it because I’ve found that a good start to learning a language is to read something with which you are already familiar. You have a general idea and context to begin with so it is easier to follow.  So a few weeks ago while sitting in the Sunday morning service I flipped through my bilingual Book to the Psalms, wanting to test out my Spanish reading skills, and just happened to open to Psalm 96.  I read it in Spanish, checking my translation from time to time and was pleasantly surprised to find that it seemed a very fitting passage for this next adventure.  I smiled at God directing me to that passage and went on about my business.

Less than an hour later I sat in Sunday School listening to a friend share about her recent mission trip to Haiti.  Most of you know that Haiti has a special place in my heart and my time there has impacted me beyond my expectations, so I was excited that someone else had the opportunity to go and I was enjoying hearing about her experiences.  As she told of her time there she mentioned that her team had one passage that became their anthem for the week.  And then she read, you guessed it… Psalm 96.  I had to laugh.  I’ve found that, with me anyway, when God wants me to pay attention to something he usually has to smack me over the head with it a few times.

Friday here at training we were given some time for personal retreat to spend in the Word and in prayer, and during this time I came back to that passage:

“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.  Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” – Psalm 96

There’s a lot jam-packed into that passage and I won’t attempt to go real deep into that right now.  The verses that jumped out to me were near the beginning: “Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” – Psalm 96:2-3

Did you catch that? All peoples.  I’ll let that sink in for a minute...


Everyone, everywhere = all. That little word never seemed so big.  Telling all peoples about the glory of God can seem a heavy responsibility and daunting task.  It’s tempting to feel a bit relieved that I’m taking a support job and not one that is explicitly focused on evangelism. However, while my official job description is “photographer,” every employee being sent to the field is first and foremost an emissary of Christ. But even if that wasn’t an expectation in my employment, it is still an expectation as a Christian.  Lest you think “Phew! Glad I don’t work for a missions organization where that’s my job,” this exhortation to tell all seems to be a command to all- all of us who have the hope of Christ owe the Gospel to all the people who have not heard. Really the responsibility is no different for those working desk jobs in the states than it is for those taking the Gospel to the unengaged people in Africa.

These verses did, however, speak to me specifically in my new job role. In a way I feel like this is my job description as a photographer working to spread the hope of Christ.  It is my prayer that my work will be a song to the Lord and that through my photography I will be able to proclaim his salvation and declare his glory and marvelous deeds to all peoples and nations.  Now before you go on thinking I have a pretty high opinion of my photographic talents, let me assure you that is not the case.  Ansel Adams I am not. But the cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words is a cliché for a reason.  Photography is a powerful tool.  A single image can impact millions of people for decades, or one person for a moment.  An image can communicate emotions, pique interest, raise questions, or inspire personal change.  So it seems reasonable that it can point to God’s glory and share the stories of his marvelous deeds around the world.  May His glory be my goal.

I could go on about this for ages, and I probably will at some point. But in the interest of trying to contain my verbosity, I’ll leave it here for the time being.  In case you want to learn those verses in Spanish:

“Canten al Señor, alaben su nombre; anuncien día tras día su victoria. Proclamen su Gloria entre las naciones, sus maravillas entre todos los pueblos.” – Salmos 96:2-3

*Side note: Saturday a large group of us went into town to explore Carytown and Richmond.  We browsed some fun boutiques, got some frozen yogurt, accidentally ended up in a pretty sketchy “diner” for supper, and laughed a lot.  I killed time just messing with the camera and did some extreme adjusting during the editing process that I normally don’t do. And, because of security concerns for my companions, I was shooting places and things instead of people, which I haven’t had the luxury to do much in the last year.  It was fun to play around with subjects and processes that I don’t normally use, but I have to admit, I miss photographing people.  My photo professor insisted we shoot people for every assignment because, as he said, the majority of photo jobs you’ll get involve people. There aren’t many photographers who make a living doing solely landscape or still life images.  We all whined about the requirement, but I can admit he was right.  And now that I’m used to it, people really are the most interesting subjects! These are a couple shots from this weekend.

Prayer Requests: For health- I’m down with a cold; focus- a lot of things fighting for our attention during this time of training; my accountability partner- Ashley G.; my teammates- Brittany, Steven and Kattie (+ Evelyn), Kevin and Ellen.