Friday, December 30, 2011

A Sinner's Look at 2012

Christmas and New Year’s. On our calender they happen within a week of each other, and we associate them like peanut butter and jelly. Bacon and eggs. Kids and chaos. Chocolate and….more chocolate.

It’s a birth, and a new beginning.

When Jesus was born, He came to give all the outcasts of the world a new beginning. And from the time His public ministry began, He went out of His way to break every barrier the law had made between God and imperfect humanity.

Jesus made a point to personally touch every person forbidden by God’s law to enter the temple and God’s presence. Women. Gentiles. Lepers. Blind people. Prostitutes. Beggars. Murderers.
It’s a good time to remember this, when on any given day I’m in several of these categories.

I’m always a woman. Always a Gentile. I’ve been a divorcee for the past five years which in certain company kinda feels like being a leper. On some days I’m blind to how I hurt others. Occasionally I’m just a single gal who is really tired of celibacy and not always pure in her thoughts. When I don’t turn to Him to meet all my needs the way I should, I’m definitely an emotional beggar. And when I let anger get the better of me, my unkind words bring death.
But He has broken down the barrier between my daily sins and my relationship with God. He reaches out and touches me on my worst days.

I’d like to think 2012 is a fresh start. But in reality, I’m sure it is going to be another year of needing grace and forgiveness for my sins on a daily basis.

So I’m glad for this reminder that comes as we celebrate Christmas and New Year’s one week apart. Because I’m sure that by one week into the birth of 2012, I’m going to need the grace of another new beginning. And another and another.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In the Month of my Not-Wedding-Anniversary

“If you could go back in time and not get married and have kids, would you?”

I froze, and my heart stopped for a full three beats. This is not the kind of question I wanted to hear from the mouth of one of my beautiful and intelligent offspring, product of a painful marriage that ended in divorce.

I believe in telling the truth. I also believe in protecting my children from hurtful things whenever possible. These two mandates were now at cross purposes.

Or were they?

My mind spun back light years to the person I was before I got married. I imagined the life I would have had, untouched by years of abuse and betrayal. I would be happier, but infinitely more shallow.

I imagined my life without all the exposure I had to hypocrisy in many people and places around the world. I would be more trusting, but less discerning.

I imagined my life without three pregnancies and deliveries. I would be less scarred, but also less sympathetic as a midwife.

I imagined my life without my three remarkable children. I would have much more freedom, but I would be more selfish and more lonely, less patient and less understanding.

I imagined my life without a marriage that put me on my face in desperation before God. I would be more proud, more thinking I was living the life I deserved, less broken, less intimate with the One who has also suffered, and less able to comfort others in their sufferings.

I imagined all these things in less than a minute while my daughter waited for her answer.

And I took a deep breath, smiled, and answered truthfully, “I can’t imagine my life without you.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Carnival at Niagara

So, most of you know that I “had” to go to Niagara Falls to take my NARM test this week for midwifery certification. Thanks to some flight credit earned on an earlier trip for taking a delayed flight, plus a friend who let me stay with her and use her car, I got off really easy.

So sure enough, the falls were as powerful and majestic as I remembered when I first saw them 20 years ago. But what I had managed to miss on the previous trip, were the attractions that were built up around the falls. Not just hotels and restaurants and welcome centers with information, but arcade centers, wax museums and haunted houses.

I found the contrast irreconcilable. The fresh natural beauty of the falls, mist floating several stories in the air, the roar of the water heard from blocks away, right next to… a glow in the dark indoor miniature golf course?

As I walked around and enjoyed the day before my test, I had to walk down the carnival street to and from my hotel and the testing site. I kept being drawn to the falls, and away from the schmaltz. I really couldn’t see the appeal. I was in no way tempted to tour the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum as I headed for another view of one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.

I wondered how they stayed in business. But deep down, I knew. Our culture tells us constantly we have to “do” something- we can’t simply sit or stroll and soak in something beautiful for long. Or enjoy the company of family and friends as we walk. We get restless. We need activity, games, lights, competition, sports, media, and electronics. We need enhancements. In other words, a carnival.

Sometimes we Christians in this culture can find ourselves “going carnival” too. Living our lives in God’s awesome presence next to our friends and family isn’t enough. Like the carnival street next to Niagara Falls, we feel the need to add activities, programs, events, advertising, conferences, concerts and media to what was originally a simple yet powerful choice of faith. 

None of these are intrinsically wrong, but some people may be so distracted by the hype that they never get down to the water front, to see what got us all to this location in the first place. Or else we are so busy running and maintaining the sideshow that we don’t have time to fully appreciate the real attraction ourselves, or keep that the main focus.

Maybe we would all do well to get off the Giant Niagara Sky Wheel and sit and gaze at Niagara Falls itself for a while. I know, we think we have to “do” something. “Hey everybody, step right up, see the great wonder of the world, right here, over this way!” Then we feel the need to narrate it. “Just breathe it in, just soak in the beauty, just lift up your hands and feel the mist!”

But maybe not. Maybe Niagara Falls is powerful enough and real enough to draw and hold people without our carnival. Maybe the fact that we simply go there ourselves and invite others come along to enjoy it with us for what it is, is more than enough.
It might be true of our faith as well.

Maybe our relationship with God could be more simple too. He always was more into people sitting at his feet and listening to him, than the busy activities of cleaning the house and making the dinner and sending out the invitations and putting pressure on people to get busy and help.

Maybe that’s kind of like building and running carnival in His throne room.

Maybe. Just something to think about.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Toilet Talk

“Oh, you’re here! Now we’ll have someone to help clean up afterward.”

These were the first words I was greeted with by one of my pastors at the ladies meeting I attended at my church last month. I was outside my usual circle, having made an extra effort to attend something I rarely have time for.

Even as a person who makes not being easily offended a top priority, I found these words a special challenge. The fact that they were followed by a quick “just kidding” and a laugh did not ease the sting. (FYI people, “just kidding” is not an eraser. If you say it, it means you shouldn’t have said what preceded it.)

Yes, it’s true, I do a lot of cleaning in my life. Not only do I have my own apartment where I clean up after myself and my three kids (with their help, yes, kids if you are reading this, I am not griping about you, YOU ARE A BIG HELP!), I make up for the deficiency in my missionary support with a two day a week janitorial job. Plus I moonlight and clean houses once or twice a month. Plus there are always things to clean up after a birth when I attend one, or at the birth center where I work.

For the most part, I haven’t minded. I’ve generally been grounded enough that my self-esteem and self-worth hasn’t been threatened by scrubbing toilets or other necessary labor jobs taken along the pathway of life. And, I’m deliberately trying to model for my kids, if you need money, work for it, whatever you can find to do. (I even sub-contract part of my janitorial work to them as their tailor-made economics class, but that’s another story.)

But after that comment was made, it got me thinking. Is that really how people see me in a social setting? Not a missionary, not a leader, not a lady, but the person who cleans the toilets? Does the fact that I am willing to do cleaning jobs for extra money somehow affect my image and cause people to look down on me?

As I pondered this (okay more like obsessed) two people thankfully came to mind. Gladys Alyward and Jesus.

Gladys Alyward was a British missionary who started out as a domestic worker. She was told by a traditional missions organization that she wasn’t qualified to be a missionary, so she saved her own money (from cleaning jobs) and went by herself to China where she became quite famous for all the right reasons.

Jesus, He confronted the job/image issue by washing his disciples feet. His disciples freaked out. They wouldn’t touch that job, lest it affect their images. And then Jesus went out of his way to do it, just to show them up. 

“Hey guys, we are all supposed to be servants. And no amount of doing dirty serving jobs will taint you, or change who you really are- a child of God.”

And that really is the bottom line. What we do isn’t who we are. So we are free to take care of whatever needs to be done, at whatever level. The only people who will look at us differently are not people we want as friends anyway.

So, general public and random individuals who have stumbled upon my blog, don’t look down on the person scrubbing your toilet.

Or washing your feet.

You might just be getting shown up.

And hard working people, if you are the one scrubbing, or flipping burgers, or waiting tables, or throwing boxes in a back room somewhere…

Just think about Gladys and Jesus. You are in good company.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wrong Words, Right Heart

A top news report today concerned an American diplomat who made an offensive remark about India. In referring to a train ride she took, she said her "skin became dirty, and dark like the Tamilians.”

The offense is instantly understood. And yet, if you listen to the rest of her speech, and its context, a person who is not caught in the emotion of being affronted might see that she wasn’t at all trying to insult Indians. Any person who spent two years in India twenty-three years ago and rode on a local train across the country was obviously not looking down on the culture from an ivory tower- or private air conditioned SUV -but out to embrace and experience it at a grass roots level. “I traveled across villages to understand the culture better. I was amazed at the graciousness and friendliness of the people," she said.

I’ll bet she was dirty when she got done with that trip. And so was everyone else on the train. Every Indian and every American and every European who has ever traveled on a steam engine in any country during any period of history to date knows that. It was an unfortunate pairing of words and ethnicity which got her into trouble. And when it comes to this kind of insult, our modern world and media is unforgiving.

No one is stopping to consider that this is a former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in education who has worked with foster children, refugees and low-income and homeless populations around the world for much of her life. None of that counts.

Although I comprehend the offense, today I felt much more sympathy for this woman than I am usually wont to do when these kind of diplomatic faux pas hit the media.

In a recent setting in America where I was describing midwifery practices I had observed in another country, someone took great offense to a couple of words I used too. In less than 60 seconds, in a group of people who had known me less than 24 hours, I was iron cast into a role of white imperialist who comes to judge and impose her culture on others and look down on people of color.

Sigh. Like the diplomat and her listeners, my audience hadn’t been with me for the last 30 years of my life. They didn’t see me stand up for the first African American piano student in my studio when I was just 11, and refuse to ever play again at a woman’s club where she wasn’t allowed to play because of her color in 1980. They didn’t see me cross racial lines to make friends at my grade school, much to the amazement of the other kids of all colors. They didn’t see me, married to an Indian man and embracing his culture in every possible way, living in Asia, having bi-racial children, and carefully raising them to treat all people equally. They didn’t see me standing up for woman’s rights in Nepal. They didn’t see me as a midwife, attending women of all races without discrimination.

And yet, I have made mistakes. It is impossible not to. I am still a white girl, born in Texas at a time and place that was less than politically correct by modern standards. I’ve done my best to rise above the fact that my grandfather was a member of the KKK, and my grandmother was one of the founding mothers of the aforementioned woman’s club. It’s a good thing I watched Sesame Street, 'cause it was the only place I got positive images of a multi-cultural neighborhood.

One of the many things I learned while married to someone from another culture is that no matter how much you are educated, traveled, and exposed, there are times you unconsciously revert to your culture/mentality of origin. You catch yourself, but it happens. My man occasionally reverted to his village of India mentality, and I occasionally reverted to southern white girl. Much as I am embarrassed to admit it, I still do.

Like the other day when without thinking I told my kids not to run down the hall of the church like “a bunch of wild Indians.” It’s something my mother, born in 1942 who grew up listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio on top of the ice box would have said. (I read it as a child in Little House on the Prairie too, a classic early American series also recently labeled as racist.) My outspoken and politically correct daughter (‘cause I raised her that way) instantly said, somewhat tongue in check: “Excuse me, we are Indians, are you implying something?”

It was the joke of the day and not a mortal insult, because my kids know I love them and love India. Good thing I wasn’t on a platform holding a microphone in front of a camera with a less understanding audience, or I would also have been accused of insulting all Indians, both American and Asian.

So I had to laugh when I read one of the errant diplomat’s peer's observations: "I've seen this type before--idealistic middle-aged person with an NGO or Peace Corps background who joins the Foreign Service without an awareness that everything s/he says is subject to be pounced on, scrutinized or twisted."

Yep, that’s me. The idealistic middle aged person with a missionary background. Doing the best she can, but not expecting to be pounced on when she slips up and says something that can be twisted into a racist remark. I expect people to take me at face value. Really, do you think I would go to Liberia to start a clinic if I didn’t deeply care about and respect people of color, specifically Liberian women who are dying in childbirth?

I will put out this challenge to my readers, one that was put out to me when I began traveling and living internationally. See beyond people’s words to their hearts and what their lives stand for. I learned not to take it as an insult when my Nepali friends came running out to see me and said, “Oh sister, you must be doing well, you look so nice and fat,” because although that is the worst possible insult in America, in Nepal it is a complement. In Liberia too. On my last trip one of the young men commented, “Since last summer you look fatter. And younger.” (I decided one out of two ain’t bad.)

These folks weren’t trained as diplomats either, and I knew that. I gave them the space to be who they were and see that they didn’t mean to insult me. They did the same for me. When I made cultural mistakes, I was laughingly and lovingly corrected, because they knew I loved them and their country or I wouldn’t be there. This has happened over the years literally hundreds of times in various cultures I’ve lived and traveled through, with verbal and cultural missteps on both sides.

In most cases we were all simple people, just tryin’ as they say in Liberia. Not politically correct diplomats. Good thing that most of the time we chose to operate under the Christian principle that “love covers a multitude of sins.”

So let me just set the record straight. When I said Liberia was “my” country, I did not mean to imply I was taking the country away from the Liberians, or overriding their ownership or responsibility of their own country, or thinking of myself as superior to them in any way.

I was actually thinking of a young man named Obadiah, who told me on my last visit to his country, “This is your country now. Do not think of other countries. Think only of Liberia.”

He obviously isn’t a diplomat either.

And when I used the word “lackadaisical” to describe attitudes in medicine, I was thinking beyond midwives who don't listen to heart tones (the subject we were on) to that same Obadiah after a severe motorcycle accident with a skull injury, laying unconscious in a hospital bed waiting days for a simple x-ray because the tech had gotten paid the day before and couldn’t be bothered to come in to work until after the holiday.

It isn’t against the Liberians, but for them that I want to affect change. And for that, I do not apologize.

This quote from the best-selling book on human rights violations, “Half the Sky” sums it up for me. “So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths and cultures.”

So, I’ll promise not to use the word “lackadaisical” to describe anyone of color anywhere in the world again, and not to use the personal pronoun to refer to Liberia (at least until I get back there where they might be offended if I don’t).

How about in return you stop and look at a person’s heart before you get tripped up on his words?

You might actually like what you see.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Decoding Missions

“Has the Lord laid anything on your heart about going into missions full time?”

“Um, actually I already am in missions full time.”

“No, I mean going over to Africa full time.”

“Well, I am working full time for my organization that is working full time in Africa. I just do some of the work here.”

“Well, I mean, move over there.”

“Yes, eventually, that is a possibility. In the meantime…” and I went on to try to explain again what it is I actually do. Full time. In missions. For Africa. From America.

It’s a misconception battle many Christian missionaries face. In the modern world, not all missionaries are off for years at a time living and working in a foreign country. Many of them work in offices and homes in the country where they were born. They are busy raising funds, writing grants, channeling resources, strategizing, recruiting, researching, communicating, facilitating, proofreading, spread-sheet-ing, developing software, making phone calls, answering emails, texting, and generally carrying on the necessary administration for the work of sharing the good news of God’s love (by some means) to continue all over the world.

That, by the way, is our mission as Christians, which is why we call this kind of work "MISSIONS".

And they are REAL MISSIONARIES. They may live in a modern apartment or house and drive a car. They may shop at Walmart. Their kids may go to school and play soccer with your kids, or they may homeschool and be a part of your homeschool group. They may sit in the pew next to you at church, and bring casseroles to the church potluck. They might usher or teach children’s church. You might see them in the pulpit of your church, or you might not. They may be not even be in church every Sunday, not because they are backsliding (Christian lingo for falling off the wagon), but because they are speaking in another church.

But their job, their work, is MISSIONS. And chances are, that means they do not get a regular salary. It means they have to “raise their own support.” In blunter words, to ask other Christians to give them money to live on, so they can keep doing what they do.
It is part of our Christian responsibility, as laid out by Jesus. We are all told to “go into all the world and preach the gospel (remember that's the "good news of God's love") to every creature.” This responsibility has been labeled the “Great Commission”, probably because it is a commission and it is great.

But not everyone wants to go. So, in order to obey this final command of Jesus, some Christians opt to sub-contract the Great Commission, if you will, and give money to the people who want (“feel called”) to go. Or who feel called/want to work in the administration department of the Great Commission.
Some of these missionaries do live overseas. Others live next door. They may not being doing what you picture as traditional “missionary stuff.” Missionaries do a lot of stuff besides preaching. (They do that too.) But most, if not all of it, takes money. And that money has to be “raised.” That means “asked for” either directly or indirectly from other Christians, depending on the missionary’s organization, personal style, and philosophy.

If you are a Christian and you aren’t a full time missionary, that’s YOU.

You pay our salary. And we are your hands and feet as we go to the world with whatever it is we like to do and are able to do to share God’s love.

For some of my missionary friends, it’s Bible translation work. (That’s putting the Bible into a language it hasn’t been translated into yet, so people can read it for themselves and not just take other people’s word for what it says, ‘cause that leads to big problems, check out history, but I deviate. But by the way, it might also include first making a written language from those folks from scratch if there isn’t already one of those, and that includes teaching people to read it first, which makes them literate, and even if you don’t think the Bible is that important you probably think reading is, so you can see how this totally rocks.)

For other missionaries it’s teaching in schools, working in orphanages, trying to rescue girls kidnapped into sex trafficking, doing medical work in clinics, providing health education, feeding poor people, working with street kids, getting sponsors so underprivileged children can go to school, starting churches where there aren’t any (“church planting”), working politically and practically to help persecuted Christians (yes, they are, often, like, ostracized and beat up and put in prison and killed), or providing job training, building houses, or digging wells. For every one of these jobs, (which are all ways to spread the good news of God's love - the MISSION) there are one or many administrative office jobs backing them up.

And me? I’m trying to get a clinic open in Liberia where we can save the lives of women and children and offer them eternal life all at the same time. You want to help? No problem. I need midwives, nurses, doctors, as well as admin people to work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

None of those things up your alley? It’s still no problem.

If you can’t deliver a baby, send a check. We’ll put it to good use. 


Hope that helps explain things.

Your missionary,

Romans 10:13-14 “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?
And how shall they preach except they be sent?”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Not in This World

Edmund Pevensie at the army recruiting office in England:
Recruiter: “Are you sure you’re eighteen?”
Edmund: “Why, do I look older?”
Recruiter, opening the ID card skeptically. “Alberta Scrub?”
Edmund: “It’s a typographical error. It’s supposed to be, ‘Albert A. Scrub’."
Lucy, entering the room from the back and calling: “Edmund, you are supposed to be helping me with the groceries.”
General laughter as the recruiter hands the card back to Edmund. The man behind him in the line tousles his hair patronizingly: “Better luck next time, eh squirt?”
Edmund, leaving the building angrily and talking to Lucy: “Squirt?! He barely had two years on me. I’m a king! I’ve fought wars and I’ve led armies.”
Lucy, softly but with finality: “Not in this world.”

Initially I didn’t have much sympathy for Edmund in this opening scene of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He came across as petulant and spoiled. Recently, though, this scene came to mind in a completely different setting, and I felt more sympathy for the character.

On April 21st I arrived in Davao City at the clinic where I would intern as a midwife for a month. On April 22st, I went for my orientation. Most of the material had been sent to me previously. However, some of it was new. And that was the part that caught me off guard.

Learning that “no experience counts except experience here,” I was given some unexpected guidelines to meet before I could start delivering babies. The fact that I was already a fully trained midwife and had practiced for four years wasn’t going to count for much.

Although I had come to learn and gain experience, this bothered me more than I wanted to admit, even to myself. Although on the outside I did my best to be agreeable, I couldn’t help but compare it to my previous internship where my supervisor immediately gave me privileges and, more importantly to me, respect in the birthing room as a colleague and an equal.

My first couple of weeks in the clinic were long. All my shifts turned out to be slow, and so the process of attaining the required prerequisites was painfully extended. It was so excruciatingly slow, that I started working double shifts in hopes of speeding up the process. Roxanne’s MO is when something she needs or wants isn’t working out, she pushes herself and works harder. And so I did. I worked so many shifts the supervisors started laughing or shaking their heads whenever they saw me staying on or showing up for the next one.

In the process, my greatest battle was to keep a good attitude. Being at a clinic where over 200 babies are born every month and getting to deliver hardly any was a challenge, to be sure. Especially after I had worked so hard to raise money to come just for that purpose. So I deliberately tried to focus on other things.

And that is where my salvation came. This particular birthing center attracts applications from all over the world for two year volunteer positions, as well as short-term volunteers like me. The Christian women who surrounded me on shift and off during my stressful ordeal were young, beautiful, brilliant, godly and motivated by higher and deeper things than your average chick on the street. Every day when I would come back to the house next door to the clinic where I was boarding, exhausted, sweaty and discouraged after another long quiet shift, there they would be. I'd find groups of two or more sitting around in the sweltering heat trying to stay cool, joking, laughing, cooking, studying and discussing.

Being with them was energizing. And encouraging. And humorous. And most importantly, it helped me to get my eyes off myself. I finally came to the point that I said to myself, “If I don’t take the NARM exam this year, I don’t. But I sure met some great folks.” The openness of these young ladies half my age in including me in between shift activities like trips to the store, Easter sunrise service, Jesus film outreach, durian and coke night at the fruit market, care group, snorkeling, and most of all, general conversation definitely went a long way in preventing me from having a break down.

And then, when I had pretty much resigned myself, my new friends came through for me. Thanks to several of them generously stepping aside in the last week and allowing me to deliver their babies on their shifts, I achieved all I hoped for on this trip in birth numbers.

I learned a lot through this experience. I learned what it feels like to be the most inexperienced person (or newest) in a clinical setting. There were supervisors and midwives who went out of their way to be helpful and kind, and those who didn’t. I learned equally from both- what to say and do and what not to say and do. In the future, both the pleasant and the painful memories will help me to be a better clinic director when it is my turn to be in charge.

I also got a deeper spiritual lesson on the limits of accomplishing things in my own strength. I really think God intentionally did not allow me to reach my birth number goals simply by working harder and longer, but allowed me to struggle through that to a place of surrender, and needing the help of others.

In summary it was challenging, painful, exhausting, humbling, exhilarating, stretching, inspiring, informative, educational, productive, and life changing. My thanks to Mercy Maternity Center, the wonderful people I met, and most of all, to God who brought me through the experience. My time in a world where I was a squirt instead of the one leading the army - and the grace I was shown in that setting - was exactly what I needed.

Important disclaimer on behalf of Mercy Maternity Center: I was not guaranteed a certain number of births before I went, and therefore the events that I chronicled here and how they affected me were in no way the fault of the administration or staff of MMC.