Christmas comes to Almería

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Luke 2:10

Good news.

Great joy.

All people.

Yes, that means you, my friend. Do you ever feel anxious when someone brings you news? Even if it’s “good” news from their perspective, it may not be what you wanted or had hoped for.

But in God’s good news, we can find rest, whether or not His news fits into our tidy (and narrow!) plans. Why? Not because He is predictable, easy-going, and safe, but because He is good.

This Christmas, may you find rest in God’s goodness and find great joy in the reality of Immanuel, God with us.

kings day light show
Unexpected light show with the 3 kings’ crowns.

Well? What are you thankful for?

Well? What are you thankful for this year? 

Thanksgiving is one day that we set aside to be thankful for our blessings. 

Of course, we shouldn’t only practice our thanksgiving sitting down to a feast of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, homemade dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie. We know that. And I hope we practice that. But it doesn’t hurt us to recap a year of thankfulness before every Thanksgiving feast. 

I look back on 2019 and see things I wish had not happened, things I wish I had done differently, and things I wish others had done differently.

But even though we bumble through life, getting a few things right and a lot of things wrong, the “High King of Heaven” is always in control. He’s not up there sweating bullets that we will mess up His plan. In fact, He is letting us be part of His plan. Our sin and sorrow are never too big to be turned into a beautiful redemption story in His plan. 

As this year closes, I am thankful that after all I have done and faced this year, the Father blesses His child’s prayer:

“Thou and thou only, first in my heart.”

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tow’r:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Attr. Dallan Forgaill, tr. Eleanor Hull

Would I do this trip again?: North Africa part 5

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

The last two nights of my North African sleep were interrupted by an unsettled rooster in a concrete courtyard just over the wall. At 4 a.m., I began to envision a warm bowl of rooster noodle soup. Just a room away, Erika was preparing to brandish her shiny knife set.

Despite the lack of sleep, Erika and I made chocolate cupcakes and took them to Arabic language school. We laughed with former teachers about old times and chatted about the present. Then I wandered home in the sunshine and stopped for a potato patty sandwich with extra hot sauce.

That evening, we ex-pats fellowshipped, telling stories, talking about our dreams, and praying.

Time was winding down quickly.

In the morning, I hauled my heavy-laden backpack to the airport taxi. As the traveling hours stretched ahead of me, I tried to wrap my mind around all that had happened: starting with the multiple trips to the Almería immigration office and ending with the bumpy bus ride home.

Unless I took time to process all of the joys and sorrows that had been packed into this tiny space of time, I would not experience the fullness of my trip.

And bouncing along in that bumpy bus, I kept returning to one question: If everything remained unchanged, would I do this trip again?

Definitely.

“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well.”

(Nicholas Sparks)

Christmas this year

Christmas this year looks different. There is a usual busyness, made busier by a short trip to Africa wedged in between full weeks (more on that later).

It’s my second year of celebrating Christmas in Spain. But unlike last year, this year I have the opportunity to be with friends that don’t celebrate Christmas.

I love Christmas: lights, carols, gifts, markets, chocolates, roasted chestnuts, scarves and winter coats. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

This year I want to indulge in that warm, fuzzy feeling. I want to enjoy the celebration of Christmas. And primarily, not secondarily, I want to experience a fresh joy and excitement of the Messiah’s birth. A Savior, born into the world, a light born into thick darkness.

He’s still shining.

Sometimes, surrounded by people who know the Christmas story by heart and perform it every year, I forget to savor that first Christmas joy.

My sister has been telling my 1-year-old niece the Christmas story using a miniature nativity set (minus the minor character sheep which may have gone out with the trash).

Telling the story to someone who has never heard it makes the story exciting again. What would happen in my own heart this year if I could share the wonder of Christmas with those who have never heard?

Lost in the system- Part 2

Continued from Part 1

F-7. That was my number. There again in the place I would love to bid goodbye forever.

We were all scanned in, checked in, and trapped. Waiting for that computerized voice to say “H-65” or “F-7.” Not that we heard the voice against the background of a hundred other voices; it was just a reminder to check the screen.

The room was heavy with anxiety and stale cigarette smoke on winter clothes. We were different colors. Different nationalities. But all in the dilemma of surviving the system.

An hour passed. Another hour buried in a legal system. This time to get permission to leave and re-enter the country while Spain ate up months processing my application. My paperwork, started in October, was now complete until they mailed me a list of more documents to wring out of someone somewhere. But if I left the country without special permission, I would have trouble re-entering.

“You need to fill out a form, give me copies of your card, your passport, and this other form, and pay a tax.”
“Is this completely necessary?”
“Where are you going?”
“Africa.”
“Absolutely.”
“And I can’t get this done today?”
She looked at her clock. “Not today. Come back tomorrow!”

I couldn’t decide if I wanted to reach across the desk and grab her by the neck or simply burst into tears. Lost in indecision, I did neither until I was dismissed.

Out on the street, I fumed, determined to leave Spain forever. I was tired of these daily trips to immigration offices. Tired of being an immigrant! Eventually, I calmed down and rearranged my schedule to fit in two more trips to the immigration office, gritting my teeth as I crossed off the rest of life to make room.

But something happened when I stopped fighting for my schedule and opened my heart to joy. Something happened when I stopped wishing I could be somewhere other than where I was and embraced the present, bumps and all.

The world began to brighten. Not much. But a shade enough to make a difference.

Even more discouraging than being lost in the immigration system was being lost in the system of discouragement. After all, when we reject the gift of joy, we reject the strength we need for daily life. Check out Nehemiah 8:10 if you doubt it.

On the way home from my final trip to the immigration office, I met up with an acquaintance. I squeezed her little girl close as we bounced home together on the bus, letting uninhibited, contagious giggles complete the joy of the present.

Grandma

Grandma imagined a pump of cold, running water in heaven. She told me so as we sat side by side on the couch just before I left for Spain.

“What do you imagine?” she asked.

Heavenly mansions were on our minds, not the frailty of human life.

When I said goodbye, I hugged Grandma and then Grandpa. My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you again here, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

They both smiled.

But I couldn’t control that rush of grief. The memories, joys, sorrows, and love just landed in a heavy heap on my heart. I started to cry.

Like I am now.

Today is Grandma’s funeral and I’m an ocean away.

Grandma spent her whole life quietly serving others. She inspired almost subconscious admiration and love; she was the rock that we all leaned on but sometimes forgot was there. She always had time for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (and even our pets too!).

And yet, she loved to be alone, content to be still while the world marched by. She enjoyed life without needing to partake of all its luxuries, and contentment made her life richer. Her faith in God, her love for others, and her hobbies—collecting, organizing, couponing, gardening, reading— strengthened her for the hard things life threw at her.

On Friday, the hard thing was emergency surgery with very little chance of success. The family was stunned. We knew she was ready to meet her Maker, but we weren’t ready for her to meet her Maker.

And then she was gone. Before most of us had the chance to say goodbye.

It’s as if the book of some of my best memories has closed. No more melting plastic game chips on the threadbare carpet. No more sleepovers on crinkly pillow covers. No more poring over stacks of Berenstain Bear books. No more Keebler cookie snacks. No more tiptoeing around in the forbidden basement with cousins. No more strict “with soap!” hand washings. No more maneuvering the golf cart between the fragile fir trees at the risk of Grandma spotting us from the living room window. No more Grandma stories from when Dad was a little boy. No more of her French silk pie or other outstanding desserts and dishes. No more talks on the couch. No more phone calls or quirky, Grandma-style emails.

Her last email came the middle of October:

“Think I swept my time under the rug and now need to reverse that. All kind of things collect there under that cover up. That’s why some people insist on hardwood floors. Do you have hardwood floors or rugs with secrets?”

Her emails always put a smile on my face, no matter what kind of day I was having. Especially when they ended like this one:

“We don’t sweep love under the rug so you’re safe! Grandpa and Grandma”

On Saturday, I sat on the lonely beach, staring at the sea and trying to swallow the suddenness of her death. There’s just no easy way to say goodbye. No easy way to hurt. Friends from here and there and everywhere have decided to hurt with me and my family. Thank you.

Today we are grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother. And we’re also celebrating Grandma’s gain as she welcomes eternity.

I hope there’s a pump of cold, running water.

Writer’s block and little people

“The words don’t come anymore. It’s like they’re stuck,” I told my roommate. I used to love sitting down to answer emails. Now, despite the fact that I still love to get emails, it’s harder to sit down and respond to them. What used to be a joy now feels more like a discipline.

“It’s like the one thing I used to be good at no longer works!”

My journal entries have grown thin and factual. My blog entries are dry.

Sometimes I get tired of words, trying to recall or learn words in three languages. Tired of trying to make myself understood in any of those languages and their respective cultures.

Sometimes I want to turn off the words in my brain and just be—I want the “nothing” box that men claim is real.

So instead of writing something profound, I offer you some snapshots of my favorite little people: Carissa Joy, Clark David, and Albert Harris. My family kindly keeps me updated with pictures of my growing niece and nephews.


Featured photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Niece and nephews photo credits to my family

Two steep ditches I dig for myself

“If you don’t take your sorrows to God, they turn into bitterness. And if you don’t take your joys to God with thanksgiving and praise, they turn into idolatry.”

My brother learned this in one of his classes at Bible school.

But how one is supposed to balance on the narrow path between the ditches of bitterness and idolatry?

Late one night in the thick of my visa process, I was angry with life’s injustices. I curled up in my bed and started thanking God for His blessings. Thanking God seemed to be the spiritual thing to do.

But I didn’t feel thankful. I felt worried and scared and alone.

God saw through my flimsy façade. “Tell me about it,” He said.

“But, God, You have brought me so far already. I should be thanking You. I don’t want to be ungrateful!” Couldn’t He just accept my hollow thanks and be done with it?

Instead, He beckoned me to approach Him with my sorrow, no matter how frivolous or temporary it was. So I did. Would my silly little sorrow have turned to bitterness had I not given it to God?

See, I’m not sure that the path between these two ditches is so narrow after all. I don’t have to balance on a fine line between bitterness and idolatry. It’s not about balancing; it’s about surrendering.

God wants to be the One to hold our joys and our sorrows. The only two ditches are the ones I dig for myself when I don’t allow my Creator into my confidence and determine to face life alone.

Aisha- part 2

Aisha was waiting for me on my way to school the next day. And the next. And every morning that I had the early hour of class. Because of her, I began to recognize the network of house workers who met regularly to chat on the way to their respective jobs.

Although I was glad for the chance to practice conversational Arabic, I still was unsure of what she wanted from me.

The day she had invited me to stay at her house grew closer. Because of my apprehension, I managed to whittle the overnight adventure down to a day trip. On the Friday before, we rehearsed what would take place on Sunday: I would meet her at the same place under the berry tree across from the bus stop at 11:00 a.m.

I don’t think she believed I would follow through with the plan. She tried calling me five times while I was in church. And when I finally answered, I was on my way to the meeting place.

“I’m coming!”

She spewed a string of sentences I couldn’t understand, but what I assumed to be a reason that she was behind schedule.

“Okay. Okay. No problem. Okay.”

And I waited under the berry tree until a taxi pulled up and honked. Aisha was in the backseat, bouncing in her excitement. She grabbed me in a warm embrace before I had the chance to close the door behind me. And she talked, one rapid sentence after another, often missing the fact that I didn’t understand.

The taxi wound through the new city, behind the old city, and up up up on a hill. There was no containing Aisha’s joy as she led me out of the taxi and into her world.

It was the first bite of a day full of exquisite North African hospitality.

Ode to Marriage

The rain is banging against the tarp, filling the concrete house with a dull roar. Just the sound of it causes my bones to shiver. I promised myself a cup of coffee as long as I diligently planned the week’s English lessons. Then I opened a blank document and forgot my promise.

There is something about having a sheet of white on my screen that makes my fingers want fill it up with random thoughts. This time my random thoughts are about marriage.

What do I know about marriage? Very little since I’ve been single for nearly 30 years. Yet, being in a culture that points to marriage as necessary for one’s spiritual journey makes me contemplate this more than I would were I still in the States.

In one perspective, life begins at marriage. The unspoken idea is that one cannot be happy unless they have a significant other.

Then there is the perspective that life ends at marriage. Think about how countless movies and books end with a couple finally realizing that they are right for each other. Why do the books and movies end there?

And then, even more real to me in this culture is the perspective that once a woman is married, she becomes her husband’s servant and is bound to her home. Her only joy after marriage is having children.

At times, I’m envious of married couples who step into this new world together and get to experience things as a unit rather as individuals.

To me, that’s one of the most beautiful things of marriage: companionship. I told my classmate my thoughts and she looked at her husband and smiled: “Yes, that’s true. But once you’re married, you don’t DO as much!”

I suppose there’s a flip-side to everything. That’s why I won’t stress out about my marital status. The preparation for anything is in seeking God’s face.

These are my disconnected, rainy day thoughts.