God doesn’t owe me results

The night was a failure. Even after a day of prayer and fasting.

No one noticed that my heart was beating in time with the Father’s. No one noticed that my soul was alive and refreshed.

People were out breathing in the cool night after the long, scorching day. Last week on my nightly strolls, I had met several women. Under the cover of dusk, we had sat on park benches and talked while children played around us.

But tonight there was nothing invigorating.

A stop at the local store made me wonder where the line between friendly and amorous should be drawn. And why was I always the one to draw the line?

And then there was that woman again. The shriveled Gypsy for whom I had once bought bread and eggs and now every time she saw me she snagged me with a long, anguished tale and a request for a couple of euros. How could I communicate love? Bread, eggs, and euros were not going to alleviate her poverty of soul.  Her granddaughters averted their blushing faces.

And that was all. No one else seemed open to conversation. Alone and discouraged, I finished my route and turned toward home.

That’s when truth started to sink it, settling between the churning waves of injured pride and self-pity.

God doesn’t owe me results. He doesn’t owe me deep, blossoming friendships and engaging conversations. If I cultivate a certain level of spiritual maturity, He doesn’t owe me the world on a silver platter.

My service is not qualified by my carnally-defined successes but by my faithfulness. Am I loving (and consequently serving) God with all of my heart? My soul? My strength? My mind?

Years and years ago, my Sunday school teacher gave me a quote that I have kept tucked inside of my Bible ever since. “There is no more powerful force for rebuking all evil things, whether of conduct or of opinion, than that of the quiet, strong, persistent life of a man or woman who goes on from day to day doing the duties of the day well, cheerfully, and with joy.”

As I walked those final blocks home, my sense of entitlement slipped away. “What if?” I wondered. “What if in my day to day journey, I start counting each blossoming friendship and engaging conversation as a blessing rather than my entitlement? What if I named each interaction as a gift rather than my payment for growing in Christ?”

The neighbor man waved and smiled. “Good evening.”

I waved back. “Good evening.” And it was.

A cathedral, cave houses, and amateur flamenco

The end of June, just before I left for the States, my roommate and I took a short trip to the nearby city, Guadix. In all of the July activities, I neglected to put up pictures… until now.

Overall, it was a good trip, although it did have its downsides… like being in town on a holiday weekend when businesses were closed, realizing that our trusty map was on my broken-down phone, getting hot and tired from wandering through the old city streets in search of our elusive airbnb. But those were the not-so-fun things that I didn’t bother to capture on my camera. So enjoy the happier things that I did…

Guadix is known for its splendid Baroque cathedral which was built from the 15th to mid-18th century.

Guadix is also known for its cave houses. Before you start picturing primitive etchings in rock walls and cavemen wielding stout clubs, take a look at these pictures.

Rather from being formed from natural caves, these cave houses or “troglodyte houses” are carved into the rocky landscape. The cave houses maintain a temperature of 18º C (64ºF.).We toured a church in the cave community. The church had marvelous nooks and crannies and tottering staircases to explore.

I noticed the window shoppers after I took the picture. And I definitely don’t have anything against window shopping. Especially since that’s how my roommate and I found a flyer for a charitable event hosted by a flamenco school of dance. We went.

group of female flamenco dancers in black

Summer in Immigrantville

Summer in Immigrantville, Spain is not an easy thing to endure.

Why not? For one reason, it’s hot. As I write, a breeze billows the curtain, bringing dust and the sensation of standing within range of a hairdryer. They say it has been a relatively cool summer so far. Fine. But I’m still turning on the fan.

With heat comes lethargy. Trying to think of something to ingest other than iced coffee. Trying to drag myself off of the couch to get out and talk to people. Of course, this whole “getting out” thing is over-rated anyway; very few people brave the heat of the day, so why should I? On the other hand, staying “in” should produce deliberate choices to study language rather than Dickens.

But heat and lethargy are not all that is wrong with the summer here. The worst part of summer is summer vacation. In Immigrantville, this means that families scrape together the means to travel back to their countries for months at a time. Slowly, the town empties and the streets grow quieter. There are fewer people to bump into. Fewer people to talk with.

But that’s the pessimistic view of summer life in Immigrantville. Fortunately for all of us, I can only think of 3 negative aspects. And I can think of a few more positive aspects from my experience so far. Like…

  • Volunteering to help a local thrift store employee reorganize her store. Mostly, I just put clothes on hangers and affirmed her ideas to rearrange clothing displays.
  • Washing my clothes by hand because splashing around in cool water helps beat the heat.
  • Preparing new recipes for foods that can be eaten cold.
  • Taking a grocery trip to a nearby city. Of course, the trip required a date with my Kindle at an air-conditioned café in order to fortify me to haul heavy groceries from store to bus station and bus stop to home.
  • Learning it’s okay to rest in the afternoon while the town is hiding in their respective homes under their respective fans.
  • Strolling down the boulevard after sunset when the remnants of the population emerge from their homes. In fact, one time I even walked home with an invitation to couscous and another to an afternoon tea.
  • And last and least but not least, studying. The quieter days provide a chance to brush up on my languages and pertinent topics. (Note: As much as I love the idea of this opportunity, I am still learning the art of self-discipline.)

See? Rather than wallow in sweat and loneliness, I might be able to enjoy my summer in Immigrantville after all!

Tips for surviving Spain- Part 1

Thinking of moving to southern Spain? Or even just visiting? Here are some helpful tips that my roommate helped me compile:

  1. Learn Spanish (I might as well start with the obvious).
  2. Carry your own shopping bags with you, recycle, conserve water, etc. Europe tends to be greener than America.
  3. Weigh your produce when you go shopping… or you’ll get to the counter without prices and the cashier might roll her eyes.
  4. Bring cash. Not every store accepts credit and/or debit cards. And many stores want small change, not large bills.
  5. Don’t read dates backwards. Dates are written by day/month/year rather than month/day/year. Don’t show up for an appointment on January 2 that was set for February 1.
  6. Read schedules by the 24-hour clock. Otherwise, you might expect a train at 6 p.m. that actually went at 6 a.m.
  7. Allow more time to complete tasks. The Spanish are fairly efficient… most of the time. But don’t treat the shopping world like a Wal-Mart. Shops tend to be more specialized and it takes longer to get everything you need (but it’s more fun!). And don’t expect buses to arrive on time… or arrive at all if it’s a holiday.
  8. Relax a bit. The average schedule runs about two hours later than the American schedule: shops open at 9 or 10. Lunch is at 2 or 3 p.m.
  9. Don’t try to shop between 2 and 5 p.m. In fact, don’t even bother going outside unless you’re looking for some quality solitude. And in the summer, you might burn to a crisp if you’re out in the hot sun between 1-6 p.m.
  10. Watch your step. At least in southern Spain, many people have little yippy dogs that leave behind deposits on the sidewalk.
  11. Realize that when it’s dark outside, it is NOT time to go to bed; the party is just beginning.
  12. Eat meat. Most Spaniards are unapologetically carnivorous. They especially love pork. (Be prepared to see the jamón serrano everywhere.) Some restaurant billboards would send animal rights activists into a tizzy.
  13. Don’t expect to find chicken in restaurants unless the restaurant name specifies chicken. Most menus are laden with pork and seafood options.
  14. Get used to eating bread, bread, bread. Fortunately, the Spaniards are excellent bread makers.
  15. And learn to love olives while you’re at it. Don’t worry; Spanish olives are amazing.

To be continued as we continue learning…

Hot

I have spent most of my summers in humid Illinois, a few in Mexico, and last summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Yet, every time spring yields to an overpowering summer, the heat catches me off guard.

Sure there are ways to survive even without air conditioning. Here in North Africa, spray bottles, fans, popsicles,  and cold water bottles come to mind.

The sun hovers directly above the city and beats its rays into the vast stretches of concrete and tile. Don’t picture me lounging on lush green grass under a generous shade tree. If I reclined on the ground, I would probably fry like an egg. And most of the shade comes when the sun dips behind the concrete buildings.

I have little energy. Staying hydrated is a chore. Headaches are routine. Sometimes I’m even sick to my stomach.

Yet, this miserable heat brings out the camaraderie that wouldn’t be here if the weather were perfect. After the sun goes down, people unite on the streets, visiting, shopping, or just watching the world go by. The carefree atmosphere comes from the underlying sensation of “Whew! We survived another day together!”

Quiet corner=buried treasure

Have you ever stumbled across a place that you were subconsciously looking for? It takes a bit for you to catch your breath as your heart smiles: “Yes!”

It might be as trivial as a little café, buried in a North African old city where few tourists trod. Except us. A friend and I were wandering down one narrow cobblestone street after another. We walked right past the café the first time, not because we didn’t notice it, but because the owner spotted us and began to holler that we were welcome. We darted down another street to avoid him. But that street was a dead end and eventually we had to turn around.

Hot and tired, we were easy victims when we passed by the café the second time and the owner called out his menu just in case we changed our minds. Then he said the magic words: “We have orange juice!”

We sat on white plastic chairs and admired the blue art hanging from metal chains on the blue walls. The reed table runner covered the rusty metal table and smelled like fresh hay. Sitting felt wonderful. The shade felt wonderful. We pulled off our sunglasses and mopped the sweat from our foreheads.

The juicer was whirring inside a makeshift hut, the café’s kitchen. A moment later, we heard slurping and a satisfied, “Ahhh!” Apparently our juice had met the café owner’s approval.

He brought out tall glasses on little metal plates. “My name is Rashid.”His sunny smile brightened when we tried to speak Arabic. But he left us alone until we were finished enjoying the shade and every last drop of our fresh orange juice.

glass of orange juice on wicker table next to blue wall

The belt slinger

Sitting in the shade of a damp sheet strung across two clotheslines hadn’t been too bad. But now out on the street, I had to stop pretending it wasn’t hot. The concrete tossed the day’s heat into my face as we walked down narrow streets of the tall apartment buildings in Aisha’s neighborhood.

It was the day of Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. As the sun considered setting, people started to appear on the streets, freshly scrubbed and in new clothes. Time for the party!

Aisha had explained that all of the children would be out on the streets in their new clothes, playing, dancing, and laughing. We were on our way to witness this delightful street party now.

But we were only approaching Aisha’s mother’s apartment when we encountered a slight glitch in our plans: apparently, Aisha’s nephew had whacked a neighbor girl with his belt. The girl’s mother approached the few family members lingering outside of Aisha’s mother’s apartment. She was furious as she displayed the belt’s point of contact with her daughter’s face.

Along with the others, I peered at the unbruised, unbroken skin, trying to ascertain the validity of the crime. Her inflammatory remarks didn’t set well with the boy’s family. An instant wall of excuses met her accusations: this wasn’t the boy’s problem, but her daughter’s problem, the family told her.

The little girl’s shaky sobs were lost as the confrontation exploded. Hollering escalated, echoing up and down the street. Neighbors rushed to the scene to offer unwanted advice and intercession. Others stood in the background to observe. Above us, others leaned out of windows to watch the drama unfold on the street below. A bit of pushing began, but tapered off quickly as friends dragged the more aggressive ones away. There was little effort to control any display of temper.

I was the only foreigner, the only one who didn’t quite culturally grasp what was happening. I leaned awkwardly against the doors of a closed shop to watch, fighting my own instincts to intervene.

The original crime had been so trivial. Why the big fight in the middle of the street?

Meanwhile, the little belt slinging offender was running around slaying other children with his belt, unhindered and unnoticed altogether… except by me!

Ramadan blues

“Am I hungry or just bored?” I muse as I peer into the refrigerator.

Summer has set in where the nights rarely descend with a breath of cool air. It is warm all of the time. And what is worse is that I feel trapped inside. And what is even worse is that my roommate chose this month to travel to Germany, another friend left forever, one classmate is in the UK and another classmate is in Spain. I am trapped with myself.

I make plans here and there, but the reality is that any plans are contingent upon the time of day. The hours that are too hot are off limits because street robbers might prey on the few people who are out. The hours right before the breaking of fast are even worse; there are hardly any people or cars to be seen and a fog of silence enshrouds the street.

Even if I do go out, most stores would be closed anyway. And the cafés and restaurants definitely are.

Why didn’t I just go home for part of the summer? Never mind the long journey or the money. Maybe that would have cured some of my recent homesickness.

I am tired of studying on my own, reviewing, practicing, listening, jotting down notes. I am tired of the food in my fridge. I am tired of sleeping.

For a melancholy, boredom breeds self-pity. At least it does in this melancholy. The light at the end of the tunnel is fading. Ramadan will NEVER end! Instead of thinking how hard it would be to fast for thirty days, I think about how unfair it is to plan my life around those who are fasting.

Selfishness. Yes, it all comes down to a perspective saturated in selfishness. Time to go count my blessings.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Tricked by hope

As North Africa heats up, people are disappearing from the streets to hide in their houses with drawn shades and fans.

But there are some who cannot hide.

Like the homeless sub-Saharan African man reclining in the shadow of a doorway. The despair in his eyes tore my heart.

Even worse is seeing that same despair in the face of a child. Like today, when I passed a family: a disabled father and a young mother with a toddler strapped to her back. The boy’s face was stricken with hopelessness.

I have so much. And I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about hope. Even in the valley, I can still see the mountain.

But what about them? What do they see beyond the next moment? What would cause them to lift their heads?

Tricked by hope

The child is weeping
because there is nothing,
not even a horizon.

His mother's heart will not hear
because it won't
be tricked by hope.

And every man's disrobed dream
sinks
in the mire of the present.

Life is nothing
and beyond nothing is the dark
that dogs every moment.

Do we hear them?
They're clawing at the gates of hell,
believing there's nothing better.

Walking in Phoenix

The drying sun scalds
A tree of drooping red pods

The humming planes are low enough
To brush with jealous fingertips

Shrubbery sprawls over landscape
Like frazzled starfish

A name--Jason--engraved
In concrete not yet dry

A squeaking rope fastens
A willful flag to its pole

Windows of a lonely skyscraper
Glow pink in sleepy sunlight

Choruses of weary air conditioners
Ricochet between adobe houses

Breezes dance along baked concrete
And chase us inside

Photo by PJ Gal-Szabo on Unsplash