When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines.
The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it.
We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night.
To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road.
Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane.
To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.
When February starts, I feel a deep settling in, a sense of, “Here we go.” They say our birthday is the day we entered the world, but I think our lifetimes mark days when we are reborn. February holds most of my beginnings.
On February 4, 2009 I boarded an EasyJet flight from London to Geneva, Switzerland. I was in the middle of my trip around the world and about to head into the one part of the trip that was totally unknown. Most people who travel do it for the sense of adventure, the longing to see new places and meet new people, being in an unknown European city would be a dream, but I still don’t know why I did it. I’m a homebody and an introvert, and I had no interest in Switzerland. If I was going somewhere in Europe, I would have gone to Italy, Greece or Spain, the places that fascinated me from my history textbooks.
My bank account was running low, and the Australian dollar was crashing, and I didn’t want to have to figure things out for myself. I wanted to be somewhere where someone else was taking care of me and telling me what to do.
So why was I in Geneva? The answer is one of those awkward “Christianese” responses, but it is the truth. God told me to go.
When I share this story, most people fixate on the God telling me part. How? They ask. That is amazing, they exclaim, How did you know for sure?
But for me the fascinating part isn’t that God told me. It is that I went. And to unwind that story, I have to take you back to Northwest Arkansas in 2003 and my friend Amber.
She has brown hair and brown eyes, and in those early university years, something was happening to her. What I remember her talking about was how God would talk to her, in prayer, through the Bible, but also just prompt her to pull over and talk to the person walking on the road and other things. She wasn’t telling me about who God had told her to marry or what she was going to do with her life. She told me about the person she stopped to encourage, the moments when she sensed she was supposed to go and do something that didn’t make sense and the conviction in her spirit of the things that she was supposed to do differently.
Maybe it was because she was a “dependable” Southern Baptist and not a “crazy” Pentecostal that I trusted what was happening in her life, maybe it was because I knew her and loved her and could see first hand the transformation. Listening led to obedience, hearing led to action, and I witnessed a slow deepening of love in her heart for the things of God, it unlatched freedom in her life, and I watched, captivated by the life of adventure unfolding in her life.
I knew I wanted what she had.
After Christmas break in the drive back to my townhouse room, I decided 2003 was the year I was going to start listening to God. I didn’t set an alarm and depended on the Holy Spirit to wake me up for class (he didn’t, I started setting an alarm again). I could tell you lots of crazy stories, clothing I threw out, music I deleted from my computer, and the many other zealous signs of youthful passion. I could tell you about reading Isaiah 61 and memorising those words, Beauty for ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, oak of righteousness a planting of God, and holding on to those promises to get me out of a period of depression.
Maybe you smiled, maybe you rolled your eyes, but I can tell you that 2003 is the year when God became my friend, it was the year the words in my Bible started to live inside of me. There was a trust unfolding in my soul as we talked through each day, the knowledge that God would never leave and that I could expect his hand to be faithful.
It is difficult to obey someone you don’t trust, but the more I listened, the stronger his voice grew, the more familiar it sounded. It called me home, slowly redefining my identity, shaping my beliefs, creating a space in my life that was both terrifying and tender, sacred and funny. And slowly obedience became easier.
So much easier that when it made no sense at all to fly to a small town in Switzerland, I did it.
I often wonder what I would say about Geneva if I never met the man who became my husband five days into that two-week February visit.
I think I would say that learning to listen to God and do what he says has been one of the sweetest, most frightening experiences of my life; that you cannot predict how it will go; that obedience is both painful and lovely; that you will wonder if you hear right and you will question yourself; that there is grace abundant for each moment and each day.
For the girl wandering around Lake Geneva in a coat that wasn’t warm enough and for you today, I would say, You can trust him, and it is worth it. You will never regret saying yes to God.
I’m linking up with Amy Peterson today with this story. Amy wrote a beautiful book, Dangerous Territory. I read this memoir in a few days, the writing is solid and meaningful, the story is compelling. For anyone who works overseas in a ministry context, this book will give you language for the many stressors and complexities of missionary work. For anyone in a western country, this book will give you words for your own desire for a meaningful life and the broken ways we can create that for ourselves. I highly recommend it.
For the past week, every time I read the news from any part of the world, I can feel fear wrap around me like a blanket. Strong, heavy, unbearable. I can hear the stories from my history classes in university and high school, stories of people turning against each other, of wars and raids, of the destruction of people, of corruption and power, and it seems like we are running toward our destruction.
We are not nearly as good as we thought we were.
Whatever corner of the world you are in when you read this, it doesn’t matter. I sense that you want your life to matter, and you want to live beyond the seemingly hopeless realities in the news. You feel a call to do something, but what? How? When? You feel helpless. I know I do. This is for you – the one who wants to fight, the one who wants to create and not consume, the one who knows you have something you want to do but isn’t sure how to do it.
Our action step – plan to find daily moments of rest from the news and information, set aside a day week when work stops completely.
Find the margins.
There is always work to be done in the margins. There are people in all of our communities who are forgotten, and who believe that their lives are worthless and disposable. Two weeks ago I was in the library and witnessed a young person mistreating a child. A few days later, I saw the same person again in Kmart. I don’t think this was a coincidence. Both times I was faced with someone in the margin, a bewildered, hurting child and a lost, broken parent. I had no idea what to do then, but I know that this was not a coincidence. It was an invitation. To do something. To ask questions. To provide wisdom and truth. To be present. Your margins are different from my margins – be present in your community and find the people who are afraid and pushed to a corner. Who could you connect with in your community? What are the needs of your schools, government and neighbourhoods? Where do your gifts connect with the needs around you?
Our action step – read your local newspaper or website, go to a part of your town that you haven’t been to, maybe a part that is unsafe, listen to members of your community who are involved and find out what needs to be done.
Pick one thing
Choose one issue to which you can devote whatever time and resources you have. It is impossible to do everything, and in this age of information I can get passionate about everything. But I wonder if everything is distracting me from the one thing that I can do. Find your one thing. Learn about it. Research it. Do what you can. The one thing will also lead you to the people you need to work with.
Our action step – what is one issue to which you want to devote your time and resources? Is there an organisation or team you can partner with? Who can you contact? What can you do?
You are not just a witness to history today. You get to play a part in creating it. Let’s reject helplessness together, let us embrace the small ways we can lend our life toward the needs around us.
Now it’s your turn:What are you going to do today? How can you rest from the anxieties of daily life? What are the margins in your world? What is the one thing you can do?
Most of you may be thinking (or trying not to think) about a certain international event of importance. Me? I can’t help myself, I’m still looking back. History has always fascinated me, it was my favourite subject in school, I majored in it at university, and it continues to be something that keeps me grounded both in my daily life and also in the way I perceive the future.
2016. What was it like for you? As the world seemed to descend into chaos around me, our little world in Melbourne, Australia pieced itself together. I dropped one child off at kindergarten, played with the other one, cooked, started the slow work of getting to know people, reconnected with some of my dearest friends and family, traveled to Alaska, became my niece’s “Wevi.” A million ordinary moments and a few extraordinary ones, the making of a life in one place.
So here’s what I learned this year in no particular order.
Rest is the start I began the year by reading “Soulkeeping” by John Ortberg, and this quotation from the book served as a foundation for the year, undoubtedly for the rest of my life:
“The soul was not made for an easy life; the soul was made for an easy yoke.”
I think that year after year, maintaining a sabbath practice, both daily and weekly, is key to the rest of my life, the root system out of which everything else grows.
Grocery shopping stresses me out I go to the grocery store usually two times a week, sometimes more, but this year was the first time when I realized: This is causing unnatural stress. My kids are wonderful shoppers, which is why I didn’t allow myself to see it (I kept telling myself how blessed I am to shop with kids). We experimented with online shopping and Husband taking care of the groceries, and it has made a difference.
Hold the gifts inside There are two beautiful things that happened to me this year, and my instinct was to share it. Write about it on the blog, tell someone about it, put a photo on Instagram, but something about the the glory of these two gifts stopped me. Sometimes there is space to share about the beautiful things but not the way in which it most deeply touched my soul. I learned to enjoy the gift on the inside, to turn it over in my hand and watch the way it changed in the light, to enjoy watching its different facets and what the process of time did to it, and to let the gifts become part of a system of internal resources, something to rely on during the harder weeks and seasons of life.
My children know when my love for them comes with requirements I used to write a lot about parenting here, and I haven’t in a long time. There’s a reason for that. The past two years have just about done my head in as a mother, not just because of my children, but because of myself. Perhaps the most humbling thing about parenting is the way it will pull out every evil thing in your heart on display for the most easily influenced, innocent members of your family. Someone asked us in August if we weren’t perhaps expecting too much of our children, it was a turning point for us in so many ways. You cannot give your children something you cannot give yourself, and it has been six months of relearning or maybe learning for the first time, the nature of grace and love.
Trust takes time I’ve spent a lifetime rushing into deep relationships, and this was the year when I learned to slow it all down, to pay attention to my soul and to my circumstances, to honour the needs of my husband and kids and the way it impacts my ability to relate to others and connect with others. There are longer, deeper thoughts here, but for now here it is: It takes time to build relationships that are based on trust and connection, and that time has to be taken to sustain healthy, truly deep relationships that are characterized by freedom and love. 2016 was the year I decided that I will take the slow path to healthy relationships; it has been a painful but very worthwhile lession.
A hopeful vision for the future I read The Atlantic Monthly’s essay about Donald Trump in the middle of the year, and it was the source of one of my major “aha’ moments this year. The article helped me to see the powerful way with which fear can drive me, and in contrast I saw the way God leads, through hope. In the middle of my fears (and I have many of them), I sensed God saying to me, I have a hopeful vision for your life. It has served as an anchor and a reminder when I am afraid that God has a different narrative for my life.
Our brains can change I went to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s seminar in Melbourne about renewing the mind, based on her book “Switch On Your Brain,” and even though there are things I disagreed with, this basic truth was profound to me: God made our brains in a way that they can change. The connections in our brains can be rewired, and our thoughts directly impact the way our brain is formed. Something about this seemed like the truth that I know is found in God – he makes all things new, his mercies are new every morning, there are second chances for us when we fail again and again. Change is possible. He has literally wired it into our brains.
There is time Alaska. I spent a week there on a writing retreat in September, and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life. I went into it saddled with many writing fears: Can I sustain a writing life? Will I miss out if I don’t do anything now? Each one was answered not by any person but by the love of God in many tiny, intentional moments. I see you, I know you, and you have time. 2016 was the year when I decided to take the timetable stress off my life, my marriage, children, writing, passions and calling and to embrace instead a trust that God has all of these things in his hands, I can trust the process, and I can enjoy learning along the way. I don’t think I have ever received such an extraordinary gift as the week I spent in Alaska, I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking the beauty of it all.
Thanks for journeying with me on the blog last year. It was a joy to get to know you and share in your highs and lows as well. I look forward to another year of walking and growing together. Now tell me, what did you learn in 2016?
Two weeks ago, Husband was away for less than 48 hours, and I lay in my bed at 2:30am and could not sleep because I was terrified at every creak and noise I heard.
My best friend starts a a new job in the centre of the city, and I wonder about a terrorist attack.
Many people dear to me live in Germany and Sweden, and day after day I’ve scanned headlines about shootings, bombs and stabbings and wondered, where next?
I watch conventions and read tweets and fear washes over me wave after wave after wave.
Fear shows me my expectations, it unveils my entitlements. Fear highlights where I place my confidence. If my expectations are security and safety, anyone who threatens it causes fear. If I am entitled to a stable society where I can retain the privileges of my life, someone who aims to take it away or adjust it gives me reason to be afraid. If my confidence is in the way I look, my accomplishments or the contents of my bank account, the loss of any of these elements causes insecurity and uncertainty.
Our fears grow out of the grief and pain of not having the life we want. It blossoms when we believe something we deserve is being taken away from us, and our fears are then exploited by the people and systems who have something to gain from our fear.
But we have a better hope.
Hope that is stronger than fear.
Hope that is beautiful.Hope that is eternal. Hope that cannot be taken away.
Hope that will not disappoint us, hope that will not put us to shame.
What role is fear playing in your life today? If its voice is louder than than anything else, maybe these truths will give you strength for today.
We think our minds are enlightened, we read, ponder and debate the opinions of pundits and pastors, and we find lifelines in their ideas. But it is your spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus that we need. You truth brings life to our soul, your breath forms our bones.The eyes of our heart need your enlightening, we need to know, experience and believe the hope to which you have called us. (Ephesians 1:15-18)
We feel small and lonely, like there’s a huge army of people out there who believe differently, who hate us, who want us dead. We feel like our territory is shrinking, stolen a meter at a time by laws or bombs or people. We think we deserve to be in power because we are right. Our eyes are full of the dirt of the world, our ears are full of pride. Wash our eyes, cleanse our ears. We forgot that the only power worth having is your immeasurably great power, the power that walked Lazarus out of the grave, the same power that lifted Jesus out of the tomb, and this power is for the working of good, it is not to keep giving us the life we think we deserve. Your power is for the raising of the dead. Send us out to raise the dead in our world. Take us to the wounded, to the one who cowers in terror and let your power restore. Remind us that the word of truth we heard, the gospel came to us not because of our racial superiority or our inherent worthiness. We received it through grace, we did not deserve it. We did nothing to earn it. And this same gospel is in the whole world, and it is bearing fruit and growing because it is alive, and God is patient, not wanting any to perish but all to come to eternal life. (Colossians 1:3-6, Ephesians 1:15-23, 2 Peter 3:9)
We confess that the thought of physical and emotional hardship and injustice terrifies us. When we suffer, we want to find whom we can blame. We want to vote away the anguish in our minds, we will buy our way out of our pain, we will follow the one who promises to take our suffering away. We will do everything except receive that it may be from you, and that we could even rejoice in it. The strongman is not the answer because we already have the answer. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory. You are alive in us, nothing can harm us. No one can promise us glory or safety or freedom that you have not first already put in us. (Colossians 1:24-27)
We believed irreverent, silly myths—that our worth and value came from our marital status or that how we parents determines our children’s faith or that we have undue political influence—we believed that it is our work that produces faith in people, we lived like every success of our family had something to do with us. We needed a stable marriage, well-behaved kids and the trappings of a well presented life to feel like we succeeded. Retrain us, God. Retrain us for godliness, and show us that we toil and strive not for something on earth but because our hope is set on a living God. Help us set aside our weak and useless rules and draw us closer to you through the better hope you offer us in Jesus. (1 Timothy 4:10, Hebrews 7:19)
We want to believe that the life we had was a good one, that we were essentially good, nice people, making decisions that benefited people. We shared, we gave, we were good. But we know better now, that the life we had without God was foolish, we were disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures. Remember our hearts? We hated, we envied, we thought horribly of other people. But goodness and loving kindness rained down on us, God appeared. He saved us. We were entitled to nothing in and of ourselves, we were entitled to nothing in our society, but he washed us, he renewed us, he made us right by his grace, and instead of our passport or the flag to which we pledge our allegiance, we became royalty. Heirs of a kingdom that cannot be moved, altered or shaken, according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
Our confidence is not our access to people who are important or information that no-one else has. Our confidence cannot be found in the strength of our might, our ability to outwit terrorists, or the wisdom of our economists and policy makers. Our confidence is that we can walk into a new and living way, opened for us by the blood of Jesus. We can draw near with a true heart, believing that our hearts and bodies have been washed clean, there can be no greater confidence than this, that God has done everything for us to be with him. Being with him is better than being safe, being with him is better than being secure, being with him is better than being right. Hold fast to the confession of your hope. He promised. He is faithful. (Hebrews 10: 19-23)
Holding on to our hope is the only way to walk through fearful days. When the darkness closes in, we know there is a light shining in the darkness for the darkness cannot be light to Him. When the world shakes, we know we have a precious cornerstone, and He cannot be moved. When we feel robbed of the life we think we deserve, we recognise that our inheritance is not written in a constitution or an amendment, our inheritance is not held in a bank, a tax code or a will. God gives us a living hope, and our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1 Peter 1:3-9). It will last forever.
Our hope is in the finished work of God, it is not in our circumstances, in our own transformation, or in the state of affairs in our communities and nations. Nails and a cross gave you and I free access to God in three days he gave us power over sin and death. Jesus’ act of love on the cross means we are accepted as we are. The trying can stop. The performing has no place. Fear is impotent and irrelevant. When faced with the truth that God himself loves us, died for us, rose again and will one day return, only hope can live.
The hope that what our eyes see is not the full story.
The hope that the fear assaulting me is empty.
The hope that the ending is good because of his innate goodness.
The hope that the cross has the final word, the empty grave is the final answer.