Together and separate: a quick update

It was almost 11 p.m. on Saturday evening. 

Below me rang voices of a family celebrating the close of a day long fast. Day 2 of Ramadan. 

Beside them was the bouncing of a hollow ball against concrete walls and ceiling and the laughter from a family typically strained, but not tonight.

Beside me, just across the thin wall I heard the steady swish of a paint roller in time with thumping background music. 

This is Spain during lockdown where we all do life so close together and yet so separately. 

Spain is slightly smaller than the state of Texas, although much more populated. There have been 223,759 reported cases as I write this and 22,902 deaths. Are the news reports exaggerated? Possibly. It’s not my place to make uneducated calls. What I do know is that the level of news validity doesn’t ease the pain or fear of the sick and their families. For this, the nation mourns. 

Simultaneously, we are tired of our houses. Part of me loves the quiet aloneness, but the other part of me is starving for any kind of human interaction. I am tired of staring at screens; regardless, they are my main connection to the outside world. Sometimes, I think I’m going crazy, not from boredom but from being with myself and no one else for too long. 

Maybe that’s not such a strange place to be after 6 whole weeks at home and 2 more to go. 

As I write this on Sunday morning, I hear a few children pass by on the street below. Today is the first day that children are allowed to go outside for 1 whole hour. We’re grateful that the most deprived (and most energetic) demographic has a chance to get some outside air in their lungs. Their voices bring delicious life to our neighborhood. (A friend laughingly offered to loan me one of her daughters so I would have an excuse to get out too!)

And this evening, maybe I’ll see a few neighbors when the neighborhood steps out on their balconies and roofs to applaud healthcare workers and listen to our local violinist.

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

Signs of summer

It is starting to smell like summer outside. At street level, it’s sun-baked tile and rotting garbage. The air feels closer somehow and every scent is intensified. Even the nothing smells stronger.

Cars roar by with music pulsating through open windows. I even get a “howareyou?” from a car that stops as I cross the street.

Fireworks pop off and on all day long. I have long since stopped trying to see them. A sea breeze billows the curtain in the window. It feels almost fresh and cool when it’s not carrying the sun. In the distance, is the sleepy, tranquil sea.

Along with the first signs of summer comes Ramadan. It’s now week two. Ready or not, it’s here to stay. And I’m answering a lot of “Do you fast?” questions and trying not to eat or drink while I’m with friends. But I sampled an olive at the market the other day and didn’t remember until I was tossing away the pit that I was right beside the North African produce stand. (However, those were some of the best olives I have found yet and I don’t regret that I walked away with a container of them swimming in their brine.)

I am trying to convince myself that it’s too early to pull out the window fan. My summer wardrobe is already hanging in my closet. If I get out the fans, there will be no cooling technique to pull out of my pocket when the real heat comes. It’s only May, after all.

Belated birthday trip: Madrid

Two years late, my friend and I began to plan our 30th birthday trip. Ten years ago, we had dreams of celebrating in India. Then India morphed into Portugal. And finally, Portugal became Madrid, Pisa, and Florence. And the 30th birthday notion got a bit murky when my sister joined our group and helped plan the trip. After all, why not? None of us are 30 anyway. 

So there were three of us bouncing along in the Almería-Madrid bus. In Madrid, we met up with our airbnb host and attempted to regain our land legs by climbing the steps to the top story of a too-tall apartment building.

We had dinner in an unimpressive restaurant with a flickering fluorescent light. Madrid had to be better than that, we knew.

It was.

The next day:

But our favorite part of Madrid? The street musicians.

Awesome

“Our God is an awesome God.” Amen.

One night, we watched a video with the song “Awesome God.” As pictures of God’s glorious creation flashed across the screen, my heart sang the words. A beautiful sunset. God, you’re awesome! A craggy coastline firm against the crashing waves. God, you’re so awesome! Rows of mountains carpeted with lush green trees. Wow, God!

But partway through the song, my enthusiasm dwindled. How do I miss God’s awesomeness in everyday life? I would like to say that it’s because I live in a world of asphalt, concrete, and tile and I’m not exposed to many of the scenes portrayed in the “Awesome God” music video.

But what do the great outdoors have to do with it? Of course, nature reveals a bit of God’s awesomeness. But it doesn’t define it.

Why can’t I see God’s awesomeness in today, even in my asphalt, concrete, and tile world?

Can I see an awesome God while sipping tea with someone made in His image? Can I marvel over Him as I watch hibiscus flowers turn tea a deep purple-red or chop vegetables for a salad—squirting tomato seeds, fanning cilantro leaves, pale rings of an onion? Can I be breathless before His creativity when I behold the variety of personalities in a room full of chatty women?

I’m writing this as I reminder to myself to be wowed by an awesome God in the everyday. Maybe your everyday looks different than mine, but God’s awesomeness is still in your day too. Look for it.

Note: I will be out of the country next week and will most assuredly not take time to update my blog. More on that later. 🙂

A gift from Gift

One of the customers in our thrift store is a little girl. Her name means “gift.” Her mother brings her in a stroller.

Gift is 2½ years old. She has spent a lot of her time visiting doctors and having surgeries. Her weeks are full of bus rides and appointments.

“Her bones are short,” her mother explained.

Gift is a dwarf.

With all of the trials in her young life, some days Gift is pensive and tearful. Yet, most days, Gift faces life with a delighted grin. And she loves music. She waves her hands in the air, rolling her wrists to pretend she is dancing. And if you join her, she bursts into giggles, which is music itself.

Due to a recent operation on her spine, she is learning to walk. She still falls a lot, but that doesn’t stop her from insisting on being freed from her stroller while her mother sits down for a cup of coffee.

One day, I was folding clothes around the corner when I heard the tappity-tap of her little shoes. I turned to see that delighted grin and eyes bright with the pleasure of finding me.

Oh, Gift. People will always stare at you. People will talk about you in low tones. And your schedule may always be full of appointments and surgeries.

But, Gift, your life is precious. Keep spreading delight.

20 things I’m thankful for

  1. The golden ribbon of light along the curtain as the bedheaded sun peeks beneath the shade
  2. The perfume of dirt, black with rain
  3. Voices in harmony: “Come to my heart, Lord, come with anointing!”
  4. The blue blue blue of the Mediterranean from my bedroom window
  5. Talks that mean something
  6. Streets that are mine
  7. Second-hand clothing that smells good
  8. Fat babies in strollers, new and content
  9. Libraries of musty books
  10. Old men with hats and canes, lined up on park benches
  11. Rest beneath the late shadow of a palm
  12. Church bells
  13. Harmonious trails of busy ants
  14. A terrier grinning at me from the driver’s seat of a parked van
  15. Teenagers breakdancing in the park, conscious and proud of curious passersby
  16. Bright vests against black skin that whiz by on bikes
  17. The sweat and paint on a laborer just leaving work
  18. The echoing jingle of keys in an otherwise silent stairwell
  19. A real letter in a real mailbox
  20. Weary clouds in silver pajamas for bed

All we get are windows

“All we get are windows,” he had said.

And this after my week of cancelled plans, disappointed tears, and familiar feelings of uselessness. But his words rang in my head all weekend so that now in the middle of a lively West African church service, my mind was still stuck.

The dissonant keyboard chords, the steady drums and tambourine and my mind was thousands of miles away in last summer.

I could still hear those testimonies of broken men and women who were crying out to God for the meaning of their years of overseas service—men and women who felt they had little to report except failure.

“All we get are windows of time in people’s lives. We walk with them while we can.”

Sometimes those windows feel pointless. Like walking with someone on their journey is a waste of time and couldn’t God please bring someone else into our lives? Sometimes the windows feel so nice that we frantically try to prop them open when they begin to close. But they close anyway and we label them as aborted opportunities.

In the snippets of time we have with people—these “windows”—sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture and think that the windows are all that matter. That’s when we feel useless, like failures.

The keyboard, drums, and tambourine faded as a new song leader took the microphone. Pacing back and forth, she started an African version of “Alleluia.”

“Alleluia. Alleluia. For the Lord God Almighty reigns.

“Holy, holy are you, Lord God Almighty!”

Behind the song leader was a pillar that supported the center of the little church building. There on the pillar, neat rows of pink and white silk rose buds formed a cross.

“Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb! Amen!”

Amen. So where will I place my focus? On my interpretation of efficiency or on the bigger picture: the glory of the Lamb? On the brevity of the windows of time or the fact that the Lamb is worthy of a life spent in faithful service?

Permanence

Barf bag? Check. Peppermint oil? Check. Ginger? Check. I wasn’t going to jeopardize the rest of the trip by getting sick on the first of my three flights.

Now for the distraction. I plugged in earbuds and cranked up Handel’s Messiah.

The plane taxied. The engines roared. And we were up, up, and away. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” boomed the bass soloist.

Forty-five minutes later, the wheels touched the runway. “Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the hiiiiiigh-eeeest!” the choir shrieked.

Amen. Flight #1 was done. But flight #2 was the doozy: Chicago to Madrid. I glazed over after hours of my seatmate’s flickering screen through my closed eyelids. When flight #3 came around, I couldn’t keep my eyes open during the safety demonstration but drifted to sleep on my seatmate’s arm.

Traveling to my new home took less than 24 hours, but it’s going to take me longer than that to adjust. As I walk the familiar streets, I’m continually surprised when I realize that I’m a Spanish resident, not just a visitor.

For years, I have been longing for a sense of permanence. Now I have it and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Not yet.

But Someone in my life understands permanence better than I do. In fact, He has never changed. And He is the best part of the permanence in my life right now. “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27a)

What leaving feels like

I leave tomorrow. I’m excited and almost ready. But right now, Spain seems far away. Maybe life as it is now will go on forever: me almost leaving, a surgery here, a new job there, a new baby a state or two or three away.

To not be part of this ever-changing cycle at home is unfathomable. And when I do fathom, I burst into tears. My nostalgia remembers the days, weeks, and maybe even months that used to pass dry-eyed.

The other evening, I stretched out on the carpet with my head next to Clark’s. I stared into his bright face and could not cherish the moment. Neither could I reject the moment to protect my heart. The moment just was and I watched it pass.

Later as my nephews were leaving, Albert got zipped up in his too-big, puffy coat. Soon he will fill up that coat and I will not be here to see him do it.

I made gingerbread cookies. My sister made coffee. We hung out with Christmas music. And at night when I crawled into my own little bed, all I could do was cling to the ghosts of those memories and cry my tears of regret that I hadn’t experienced them more fully. Or sealed off my heart from loving.

And I cried out, “Oh God, why do I have to follow You?” There was no answer. I knew, and He knew that I knew. There was no warm, fuzzy peace either. Just a calm that felt more like resignation as I braced myself for more goodbyes.

I hope tomorrow things will look different. But this is what leaving looks like today.