What is the power of one word?

Mingalabar, the customary greeting here, was the only word we ever spoke to each other. But we spoke it often, as I passed her home on the way to a walk around the lake in the late afternoon and again as I made my way home through her neighborhood. The simple greeting was usually accompanied by big smiles on both her face and mine, and waving with two hands (a sign of respect) by both of us. We couldn’t speak to each other, but we clearly could connect.

She was obviously sick. Most nights in October and November she lay quietly outside our her home, getting a bit of fresh air, and watching whatever activity happened on the out of the way street. Her house was simple. Members of her multigenerational family were always coming and going. Her husband often stood at the end of the street and silently looked into the distance. When we came back in January he began responding to our greetings as we passed him there. His wife, however, was no longer outside. We could see her lying listlessly on the floor inside, turned away from the door with her face towards the illuminated television. We always called out, “Mingalaba!” and when she could, she would turn and exchange the greeting.

Yesterday, we noticed a change when we approached the home. People were talking in loud voices, sounding upset. We called out our usual greeting, but the older man didn’t even hear or see us, even though he was looking directly at us. A woman, sitting in the chair that the our friend had usually occupied, was crying. We stopped, but lacked the ability to do more that try to express with our faces that we understood something bad was happening. Feeling the powerlessness of being able to communicate more, we continued on.

Then suddenly, we heard the shriek that needs no translation. Women all over the world make the same sound when someone they love has died. It pierced the quiet of the neighborhood. Then, a woman, emerging from the home, ran to other women who were standing on the corner, her wailing growing louder and expressing more of the grief she was experiencing.

Feeling helpless but very concerned, we looked on. Our hearts, joined to this family by nightly greetings, felt a longing to help in some way, to be present in this experience of pain. But we could say nothing comprehensible and we were unaware of the appropriate cultural protocol. “This isn’t our place,” was all I could think to say to Tim. We turned and walked on in silence, reaching the pathway that skirts the lake, feeling what comes so naturally when one encounters the reality of death. Quietness, resistance, sadness for those who are left behind, and general disorientation overtook us. After some time, we shared our thoughts, memories, and concern.

As we headed home about forty minutes later, we once again passed the family’s home. Fourteen women sat silently in the porch area. I thought of the church ladies in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, who came to sit with Lars when his beloved was dying. “This is what we do,” one said, “we wait together.” The husband, standing to the side, greeted us with a weak, “Mingalaba” which we returned, along with an English sentence expressing our concern (the words which of course he didn’t understand). We wanted to communicate that we understood that something very sad had taken place and that we cared. Thank heavens communication is approximately 93% non-verbal.

As we continued on, we encountered a young woman who spoke a little English. She told us that the woman had just died of a heart problem. We asked that she express our sadness to the family. She thanked us for our kindness. We told her we would pray for them, folding our hands in front our hearts to show what we meant. She assumed the same prayer position, and we bowed to one another.

One word is enough to bring relationship into being.

One word is enough to create a bridge of mutual care.

I never took a photo of our friend. I was waiting. I wanted our greetings to create more connection so that when I did take her photo it would be a portrait, not a snap shot. I wanted that image to express the beauty that I experienced in her greetings. I wanted it to speak of her living and her dying. Interestingly, I do not regret never having taken that picture. Her image is imprinted in my heart, which is enough.

And it all started and ended with one word.

Questions for reflection: What words of connection have I spoken today? How can the words I use today bring me closer to those I encounter?

Prayer: God, may the words I speak create bridges over which I can travel to others and over which they can travel to me. Amen.

Trusting in God

“Look carefully, look care-full-y” was the message I received when praying early on Sunday morning.

Later, when we arrived at a house church, I was ready “to see whatever there was to see.” Making my way into the kitchen to greet the pastor’s wife, I was startled and delighted to find a 16 day old baby.

I asked if I could hold her. She and I looked into each other’s eyes. I felt as if I was witnessing something beyond words, something beautiful, deep and true.

All through the service, I kept returning to the wonderful feeling of holding and connecting with that new life. My heart felt completely open to her, completely curious, completely smitten! I wanted to look into her eyes some more.

After the service, I watched as others held her. Then I got my turn. She was sound asleep, so I lay her on my knees.

Looking down, I saw a vision of complete trust. She slept so soundly, so peacefully, so securely in my lap.

Of course I struggle to trust God, like every adult I know. But in that moment of seeing, I was given an image to encourage and inform  me. I am just as safe and secure in God’s care as that precious life was in mine. I knew it then, and even now, four days later, as I recall the feel of that baby’s warmth, I know something I didn’t know when I arrived at church. I know that no matter what happens (and we all know many things happen in this life), I can find a feeling of trust in God that is true.

Question for Reflection: If God reminded me to look carefully, to look care-full-y, what might I be alert enough to see today?

Prayer: Thanks be to You, God. Thanks for beauty that is beyond words, truth that is shared by looking into the eyes of another, love that has no strings, and trust. Help me to rest as I trust in You and Your love.

Scriptural Touchstone:
“… happy are those who trust in God.”
Proverbs 16:20b

What Makes Me Pause

Sunrise behind a pagdoa

The day starts beautifully. I stopped writing an email (internet connections are fastest before 8:00 am)  to appreciate the rising of the sun.

On the way to school, I gaze out the window of my taxi. I consider the lives of those around me.

Through the lens of my camera I see the incredible blessings of our lives–meaningful work,

students who are eager to learn,

and a shared value of using your gifts in service of others.

After class, I walk through the neighborhood. The construction of a new classroom building is the fulfillment of many years of prayers.

Arriving at the home of a friend, we share a cup of tea and a conversation that takes us to the heights and depths of our lives. A sense of gratitude for our friendship of twenty-plus year wells up within me.

When the community gathers for worship, my voice joins many others. Singing lifts my spirit into the presence of God; I let myself feel my body resonating with the shared sound and message.

Tim waits for me as I stop to enjoy the beauty of a woven hat sitting on a pole. Beauty is everywhere! It’s a joy to see it.

Sharing greetings, laughter and bits of news with a woman from the Peace Studies Center who I worked with two years ago is an unexpected surprise.

On the way “home” to our hotel, I take in the sounds, sights, and smells of the urban streets. I wonder about the challenges of feeding a family.

Two colleagues have been attending a conference held where we live. They join me for an hour of discussion, questions, and laughter.

Afterwards, I pause to sleep. The fullness of my life can feel almost overwhelming. Gratitude seems to keep me grounded. Being in the habit of pausing when I notice that something important, beautiful, or out of the ordinary makes the fullness vibrant.

Question for Reflection: When did I last pause to appreciate what is happening? What would help me to do this more?

Prayer: God, for the gifts of this day, a gorgeous sunrise, a friend’s loving smile, an important question to ponder, the joy of community, and rest, I give You thanks. Amen.

Why Bother Going To Church?

Here are a few answers to the question, “Why bother going to church?” that came to mind yesterday morning as I sat in the worship service.


A weekly infusion of Mystery helps me stay balanced.

No matter where I am in the world, I am never alone. Brothers and sisters in the faith always welcome me into their community. (A special thanks to Alan for inviting us to this particular worship service.)

I love being reminded of the Biblical stories that speak to my heart. I love pondering them.

There are often surprises that delight. In Asia, you approach the altar with bare feet. That’s what I call a treat!

Beauty calls with a voice that can strengthen in the most amazing ways.

Plaque Caption: Blind missionary to the blind...

Stories–verbal, visual or embodied–inspire me.

Tabernacle Carving

My soul is fed.

Beforehand and afterwards, there are always people to meet, and conversations to be shared.

There are some other significant reasons that I embodied yesterday: singing connects my heart and mind, praying for all those people and concerns that I am carrying in my heart is encouraged and supported, appreciating the sense of history and the unseen communion of saints that are with us fosters a sense of awe, kneeling is a posture that reminds me of who God is to me, hearing the stories of Scripture in new ways based on my current life circumstances happens, pondering my life in the presence of God occurs naturally when I sit still for twenty minutes (if the sermon doesn’t hold my attention, I still use the time to let God influence my perspectives), being challenged to let go of the past and live into God’s deep desires is something I value and need.

Question for reflection: Based on your most recent experience of being in worship, how do you answer the question, “Why do I bother going to church?”

Prayer: God, thank You for helping me to get to church yesterday. Thank You for meeting me there–in my heart, the Scriptures, the light, the wine and bread, the images, the stories, and those who worshipped with me. Amen!

Working Hard To Understand

Student in one of Tim's classes

Learning something new is hard work. First of all, it takes desire, then the right material, an open mind, and often a lot of will power to stick with one’s commitment when new concepts don’t make sense right away or demand change. I was reminded of this as I watched with admiration the students in Tim’s Friday afternoon class listening to his lecture, participating in the exercises he proposed, responding when he asked how concepts applied in their contexts, and asking him questions so that they could wrap their minds around the ideas he was proposing.

Like the students, we are working to hard to understand many things as well. We know that what we see is conditioned by how we have been trained to look, but that doesn’t help us know how to interpret what we see. How for instance, might I understand the purpose and meaning of a tree shrine with used light bulbs stuck into it’s bark?

When others speak, we hear sounds, but we can’t decipher them, unless the person is graciously using their second, third, or fourth language, English. The smell of curry simmering in our kitchen directs my mind to my favorite Indian restaurant in Minneapolis, or Paris, but its origin is not from across the ocean, it’s from across the border. Things are the same and “different”.

Working in a cross-cultural environment calls for a lot of humility, a good sense of humor, and an inquisitive mind. Wherever we travel we have found friends and colleagues who are very willing to help us understand more about what we are experiencing–if we ask. I’ve learned, often the hard way, that even when I think I know “what is going on”, it’s best to ask a trusted interpreter from inside the culture whose answer will shed light of the validity or inadequacy of my ideas. The hard work is letting in what is real (not what I want to be real), being willing to rethink ideas, and when appropriate incorporating the new learning into my life. True learning demands change. It’s hard work–and like Tim’s students, I think it’s worth it.

Question for reflection: What am I seeking to learn? How committed am I to the process of discovering what is real? How am I readying myself for the changes the new learning will invite?

Prayer: God, for the privilege of being alive, I give You thanks. Thank You for the desire to learn, friends who are willing to teach, and the courage to let experiences form me. As I change, I pray I will more fully reflect You. Amen.

Seeing With The Eyes of Your Soul: Don’t Look Away!

Our late afternoon walks take us across six lanes of busy traffic (no crosswalk), through a neighborhood with high-end and very low-end homes, and beside a tranquil lake, its shores littered with trash. Tim and I enjoy talking about the events of the day, what we’ve been reading, and upcoming ministry opportunities.

Neighborhood soccer game

Contrasts reign along our route. For example, just before we pass the biggest mansion that boasts a very high security fence and what looks through tinted windows a lot like an indoor swimming pool, we gingerly make our way around a small pack of very mangy dogs who have claimed the spot as their own. Every time I see them lounging in the sun on the bamboo-backed bench I think back to my doctor’s pleas that I consider a rabies vaccine. Their sores and patches of hairless skin frighten and repel me.

Lover’s Lane might be an apt description for the walkway beside the water. Young couples huddle behind umbrellas that block out the bright sun as they sit together on metal benches talking and touching. They often look at us with curiosity, and sometimes laugh when we greet them in the local language. Their physicality reminds us to reach for each other’s hand, and enjoy the connection and comfort our relationship brings.

We join all manner of humanity on the paved walkway: ex-patriots jogging in their shorts and t-shirts, police or military officers with their guns, children dressed in ragged clothes picking up plastic bottles, overweight businessmen in suits wiping the sweat from their faces with towels, buddhist monks in maroon robes, groups of youth sitting together playing guitars, men dressed in fatigues fishing with extraordinarily long wooden poles, day laborers directing water from a bursting spigot as they try to wipe away a ten or more hours worth worth of mud on their arms and legs, senile grandparents being led by members of their family, an older gentleman who walks with a golf club as a cane and seems to hold court, workers cutting the grasses with machete-like tools, friends sharing a laugh, men and women bidding good-bye to the sun. As the ball of fire descends, we are all happy to share time outdoors when the tropical heat is least oppressive.

While there are happy moments of connection and greeting, there can also be tense moments when a band of young men, high on drugs, or passing a bottle, approach. What seems important is to live all the moments. It’s harder than one might think.

After a long day in a culture not our own, it can be tiring to look at the complexity of a society as it manifests itself all around us. We can lose ourselves in conversation, which of course is an enjoyable thing to do, but can also be a defense. Letting in the effects of poverty, suffering and social inequality is never easy. Just as challenging can be making the effort to stop and let the beauty of the moment reorient us. This week the pampas grass is in bloom; you have to look out towards the islands on the lake to notice.  The sunsets, gorgeous as they are, also remind us that if we don’t keep moving we’ll be crossing those six lanes of crazy traffic in the dark. There are so many ways to not be present right where we are!

Yesterday, I spied a man sprawled out behind a bougenvalia bush. I found myself wanting to look away, to “give him his privacy” (even though he was passed out!), to pretend that he wasn’t there. Truly “seeing” suffering means feeling its truth. But I was surprised to discover that there was also a temptation to let the magnificent sunset go unappreciated. To look at it meant having to stop and turn slightly, and such intentionality strangely seemed a burden when our rhythm pushed us forward.

The world with all its complexity is our home. It doesn’t seem as if it would take much effort to be fully alive right where we are; but it does. There is the seeing that lets in more than light, it is present with what is real in that moment and space– whom we are with, and what surrounds us. I am trying to see these things with my eyes, but also with my heart. I wonder why I redirect myself when fear or awe invite me to pause.

Question for reflection: What is right in front of you, or all around you, that you would like to see more clearly? What makes it difficult for you to see with your heart?



Prayer: God, for this breath that makes life possible, I give You thanks. May I be brave enough to let both terror and amazement help me to see more clearly and deeply.

Coming in for a Landing

As I travel with Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries, each time a plane lands, I find myself in a “different” place. But before the wheels touch the ground, there is an in-between time. Periods of transition are useful as one looks back and forward without any point of grounding; one is “up in the air” both literally and metaphorically. From this vantage point, life can be seen more objectively.

Big questions can surface and be considered. “Where is God?” often comes to mind (even though I believe that God can not be so isolated as to be totally localized), as does the echo of Psalm 139:7-10

…where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

 

With each landing, I arrive in a new context. There is much to do to ground myself. At the same time, the Ground has been below me always, supporting me.

 

Question for reflection:

What grounds your life?

 

Prayer: Ground of all Being, Ground of my being, may I sense my roots extending into Your soil—in this place and in every place that I land and live. Amen.

Sacrifice

A beheaded plucked chicken sitting before a Nat House honoring the property’s guardian spirits, caught my eye as I basked in the humid warmth of the Bangkok morning. I was eating breakfast, looking into the garden area of our modest hotel. My mind wandered back to college and seminary classes when I had studied animism. The need to feel secure in a world where one often feels out of control is basic to humans. We use many different strategies to feel safe and remain hopeful even though life seems unpredictable and deeply challenging.

A young hotel employee approached the altar area dedicated to the spirits of the area, took off his plastic sandals and placed a very appetizing frozen coffee drink before each of the two miniature houses on raised platforms. So many questions flooded my mind. How did this young man understand his actions? Would someone drink these delicious looking frappaccinos or would they “go to waste” (my bias)? What religious behaviors do I use to try to bring balance to my life? How can one differentiate between human beliefs that “help” and those that “harm?”

Nat Houses, Bangkok Hotel Garden

Stepping into a different culture is very engaging. People do things that seem odd. Sights, sounds, and smells are not only different, but often incomprehensible. Questions arise out of almost every experience. Cultural assumptions are revealed and reviewed.

Garden Ornament, Bankok Hotel Garden

I find that my conversations with God sound different when I travel. This morning as I lingered in prayer, I meditated in God’s presence on Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

What types of sacrifice do feel compelled to offer to God? What makes you think that these are worthwhile and efficacious? What do they say about who you believe God to be?

Prayer: God, Thank You for the love in my heart for You. Thank you even more for Your love for me and for all people in this troubled world. Melt our fears and transform them into hope in your goodness, kindness and mercy. May my body, my living sacrifice to you, be a conduit of Your gracious invitation to trust in You as You use me to share the love that Jesus embodied when he walked among us.

Nat House in the corner of a parking lot in Bangkok

 

Come Along!

Welcome! I invite you to journey with me around the globe. May my images, words and prayers be an encouragement as you seek to know, love, and serve God better!

Leaving the United States, I’m heading back to Asia for the next two months. The question of “home” is vital to us all and very present to me as I separate from loved-ones and anticipate joyous reunions with beloved sisters and brothers half the world away. Is home a place? A cluster of relationships? A state of being? I wonder where you feel most at home?

Chartres-style labyrinth installed in Asia, 2009

When I close my eyes
travelling to the center of my Being,
I am Home.

When I put down my shopping bags
so that I can ring the bell
that sounds in God’s heart,
the front door opens, and I am greeted,
“Welcome home!”

When I lose myself
in service for the One I love,
I find myself at home.

When in the presence of those
whose faithfulness to Christ
shines through prayer,
I rest in their home,
that for a time becomes mine.

Home within
has meaning
that home without
only begins to mirror.

Home is where all is well.
Home is what we all need.
Home is where I long to rest.
Home is who I want to know.

Prayer: Home, may we all find our way to You. Amen.