Saturday, December 29, 2007

Listing and Listening - and Comments on 'Screams in the Desert'

After having a pretty light workload for many months I’m entering a busy season. How will I respond to the challenge? Two weeks – 14 days! – after I return to life in the office I leave on a two-week international trip. Then it’s a week to recover and catch up before leading a week-long training in research methods (if registration figures are high enough to avoid canceling it). Immediately after that (the next day) is a trip to Indiana to teach a couple of Perspectives lessons, then out to San Diego (probably flying from Indy) to teach on the history of Islam (new topic for me - much study required). I go back to Denver for a week, then have 2-3 nights of additional Perspectives teaching (different lesson, but one I know) in Arizona. That’s a lot of travel and teaching to prepare for. In between I want to get more editing done and keep the magazine running, among other tasks.

If all this goes as expected, January 1 to February 28 will be very full, maybe more than I can manage. Or so it seems. Of course, here I am in Seattle, with plenty of down-time between things; these trips will take me away from home but may actually include some wide-open spaces for thinking, praying, resting, working, and friend-making. It’s just hard to predict from this vantage point.

In response, I’m ‘listing,’ in several senses of the word: ala Saint Nicholas (making a list and checking in twice), in the sense of the Tower of Pisa (responding to the shifting, settling ground beneath one’s feet, structures flexing some but groaning under pressure, possibly causing spectators more and more unease about the looming collapse), and as a sailboat does in a good wind (sails stretching, winds drawing the whole vessel to new angles as they carry it along).

I think I need to keep listing in that simple sense of making and using lists as a tool to get my head around what is real, what is important, what can be done, what should be done. The key is to ‘list’ past the point of being stressed out, to the point I think of as ‘numbering my days aright.’ Or to put it more plainly, I need to get beyond the point of recognizing real problems to the point of making good plans. That, of course, is more work, but well worth it.

What’s the key here? Mmm, maybe it’s listening to God, seeking and submitting to the wisdom and direction he offers freely to all without finding fault, finding my resources, safety, and strength in him rather than in my assets, favorable circumstances, or personal achievements (all of which are considerably more elusive, I find!)

Listen God, I’m Speaking

“One Sunday I was teaching a group of four and five-year-olds about Samuel. Samuel was a young boy who was sleeping when he heard a voice call his name. He thought it was Eli, the priest, but Eli told him it was God and that he should reply, “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.” I asked the children questions and they knew the story pretty well, so I decided it was time to act out the story to reinforce the importance of listening to God.

“One little boy was excited, yet a little nervous to portray Samuel. After some encouragement, he was ready to begin. He heard his name called out and ran to ‘Eli’ and then went back to answer God. He heard his name being called again and in his nervousness called out, ‘Listen, God, I’m speaking!’ His little face looked up at me and he said, ‘That wasn’t right, was it?’”

That’s from Sue Eeningenburg’s Screams in the Desert, one of the books I read on my 24-hour journey from Denver to Seattle (see below). Don’t you love the title? It also lived up to its subtitle, “Hope and Humor for Women in Cross-Cultural Ministry.” The author did a good job choosing aspects of her life with which other women could identify – not just church-planters in the Middle East but women working in other parts of the world and in other kinds of cross-cultural ministry, too.

I think it would be most useful to married women with kids. Life can be much different for single women in cross-cultural ministry. There are some things single women have in common with the missionary moms, but in many ways their lives are more like those of those women’s husbands. I suspect many of single women reading this book would feel that difference pretty strongly: that this is a book for moms. Actually, I think much of it would jive with moms who aren't living overseas, too - any woman who is trying to live wisely and follow Jesus while navigating marriage, parenting, keeping house, and keeping sane.

This book is set up as a devotional. Personally, that's not a format I prefer. I want to read things in bigger chunks. I still can, of course – if I don’t mind skipping over the “Stop and read 1 Samuel 3 and answer the questions below…” bits. But many of those for whom it is written probably have less time to read and a greater need for takeaway, from the time they give to something like this. So, this may be the best approach for them.

And some of the “questions below” revealed great insights into the stresses and traps of cross-cultural living. Any one of these would be great to throw out in a team meeting for further discussion. I suspect the author, who probably does a good bit of member care / counseling / encouraging / training, has used these questions with others many times.

I know women (and men!) who could write volumes about these topics:

“What is the worst culture shock you have experienced so far? How could you have prepared better for culture shock? Share your answers with your sending agency to help others.”

“Do you prefer routine or adventure? Why? …What situation is tempting you to feel unsettled or afraid?”

“How has your self-image been affected by living in a different country?”

“What changes have you seen in the relationship between you and your children since you moved overseas?”

“What are the challenges of growing in godliness in a cross-cultural setting?”

“What looks impossible to you right now?”

“If there is one thing or person that intimidates you, what or who is it?

“In what ways have you adapted to your host culture? Why? In what areas have you decided not to culturally adapt? Why?”

“What is the hardest thing about being hospitable in a different culture? Brainstorm with your family for a strategy to help make hospitality less stressful for you.”

“Are there any areas of your life that you are holding back from God or in which you are angry at him for intruding?”

“How has living overseas intensified or decreased the feelings of loneliness?”

“Of what are you most afraid in your new country? List the reasons you are afraid. Verbally give each reason to God and explain to him why you are afraid.”

“Write out some ways that your faith has grown since leaving your home and arriving in your new country.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day Thoughts on Gift Giving

Quest for the Perfect Gift

I stopped reading the papers for most of the month of December, frustrated with their thinly veiled “advertorial” content. Editors seemed to assume the whole world was frantically seeking advice from strangers on what gifts to give their loved ones this Christmas. Nevertheless I clicked through to a “gift suggestions” article put together by two homemaker friends on their web site, “Not Oprah.”

One bit of wisdom I appreciated was this: “Don’t give a practical person a sentimental gift, and vice versa.” It’s a bit of an oversimplification – there are more than just two kinds of people in the world, and it’s probably a continuum and not an either/or situation – but I do wish people would think about this. Don’t worry, I’m not saying this because my friends or family offended me this year; but because I think our culture has some assumptions we’d be wise to challenge.

One almost always hears just the “vice versa” on this suggestion, and it’s almost always linked to gender. In particular, it seems widely believed and joked about that men are going to want to give their wives or womenfolk practical, unromantic gifts that supposedly no woman is going to want, as if just because she’s female a woman is going to be hurt because someone gives her what she actually wants and needs, instead of knick-knacks, perfume, and things that may serve no other use than to be cute or pretty. But wait! It’s not a gender thing, people, it’s a personality thing! Best gift I got last year? New tires for my car. Perfect.

The Stress of Trying to Be Fair

Here’s another thing I noticed this year, and maybe it’s related: How stressful it is to try to keep gift-giving equitable, and the sad inevitability of failing in this regard, most of the time. How do we either give up on “fair” or achieve it, to some extent? At any rate, are there ways we can reduce the stress and increase the peace?

Sometimes it feels like an old Western showdown – on the count of three, draw! Inevitably there is some inequality that can tempt the giver and/or recipient to feel guilty, ashamed, or disappointed, rather than generous/blessed. Exchanging birthday gifts with my sister, as we are twins, can hold this same stress more than the more common “turn taking” of other sibling birthdays (“When it was my birthday, she did this, so I’ll do that…”)

You can find some level of peace within yourself by giving everyone the same thing or items of the same value for Christmas; I think most people try to strive for that. It does, however, squash the spirit of giving and generosity a bit, and may mean the gift does not say “I understand you!” as much to the recipient as it might otherwise (e.g., you know you got the banana bread because everybody else got banana bread too).

And it does nothing to recognize perceived inequities on the recipient’s part: e.g., the kid notices that the divorced dad gave him a ‘wii’ while Mom only got him clothes. It makes Dad look better than Mom. How many moms will find this stressful and discouraging, not feeling they can “compete” in such matters? (Women are often more practical than sentimental in comparison with men in these situations, you’ll observe!)

Do We Spoil the Surprise by Talking about It?

Another thing we can (theoretically) do is communicate about these things openly in advance. I know, communication is something that requires effort, vulnerability, and trust, so sometimes it seems impossible!

The various ways many families and other social groups set across-the-group rules (while it may knock the sparkle off) can greatly reduce this stress and may therefore be an act of kindness to all involved. “Drawing names,” setting price limits, and proscribed gift “exchanges” of various kinds usually greatly reduce the inequalities. And sometimes they have additional elements of fun. How do you feel about such things – do you like drawing rules and setting boundaries, or not? Is the sentimental/practical divide the operative element here, or not?

Or Try This...

I just heard of a funny twist on gift-giving that seems to maintain an element of surprise, without losing the element of control (on the recipient’s side at least). A man and woman, married, went out and each bought themselves a nice gift, brought it home and wrapped it. On Christmas morning each opened the gift their spouse had bought, instead of their own, to discover what they had given their mate!

(Personally, I'd often rather not get a gift than to have to pick it out myself - I hate shopping!)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Redondo Beach Boardwalk

I think this beach is the one closest and most accessible to my mom's new house - just a couple miles away. She and my stepdad moved to this area a few years ago. They are in the town I lived in for a year or so after college.

I've enjoyed discovering and rediscovering its special places.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I arrived at the airport shortly after 4:00 for my 7:00 flight. I anticipated holiday crowds but did not find them. After the difficulty in getting out during the holidays last year (due to weather) - and a lot of running around today getting ready to go - I was pleased how smoothly it all went. I used the extra airport time to have a nice dinner, take advantage of the DIA’s new free wireless service, and browse in the shops.

Then I moseyed to the far reaches of C terminal to catch my flight. It was first delayed, then canceled. Now it looks like I’ll be on one that doesn’t leave for another four hours. It will get me into Seattle in the wee hours of the morning.

I don’t know if I’ve ever spent eight hours at DIA. Have you? [Note - ended up being closer to 10, then a few hours in a hotel, then a few more back at the airport the next morning...]

When there’s nothing uncertain to fret about and when you’re not exhausted, airports can be an interesting place to be - a pause between things, a window for observing human nature (often human nature under stress, but still, interesting).

Brings to mind these words of Chesterton. He may have never spent time in an airport, but had some similar experiences with train stations:

"The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to be late for the one before. Do this, and you will find in a railway station much of the quietude and consolation of a cathedral.

"It has many of the characteristics of a great ecclesiastical building; it has vast arches, void spaces, coloured lights, and, above all, it has recurrence or ritual.

"It is dedicated to the celebration of water and fire - the two prime elements of all human ceremony.

"Lastly, a station resembles the old religions rather than the new religions in this point, that people go there."

G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

This may be my favorite of Chesterton's books, just for sheer playfulness reined in a bit by the demands and skills of the newspaper editors for whom the pieces were originally written. Project Gutenberg which will allow you to download it (and many other public-domain works) freely and easily.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Making deliberate efforts to avail myself of simple pleasures and healthy pursuits helps, but I'm still falling into grouch mode for hours each day. I find myself such unpleasant company, sometimes! What's going on here? Why am I so anxious and stressed out? Am I depressed?

It's 3 am and I cannot sleep. But life should look better in the morning. Meanwhile, I made some tea and English muffins and am going to do some writing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


... Shopping days until Christmas? Not unless you celebrate on Epiphany (not a bad idea).
... Cookies I've eaten already this week? Not quite that many. I don't think. I'm not counting though.

No, it's 17 MICE I've killed in as many days. And I don't think I've got them all. Here I was, proud of the fact that I'd found and sealed up the hole behind the stove last time, and that even when everybody else was having mouse problems this fall, we weren't.

That's no longer true.

Their favorite thing is to climb into the dog's dish and carry away her food, one piece at a time. Close behind that are: startling my roommate, and tidily stealing the peanut butter from the traps I set out (without getting caught or even springing the traps. I've used three different kinds!) This means war. I'm talking poison...!

Self Pity

That’s just one of the ways these are hard times in our little household. I'm a little grouchy about it.

Our aging dog keeps falling off the front porch and hurting herself, if she even makes it outside. (The carpets show signs that she is not managing to do that very consistently.)

And then, last week, our washing machine broke, nearly flooding the basement. That one could have been much worse, I'll admit. And much more expensive. Between the friend who replaced the leaking hose (and its mate) for free, and the other friend who loaned us a large collection of fans to help dry things out, all I had to pay for was the rental of a carpet cleaner, which did an admirable job at getting the water up.

Still, I don't feel like leaving, but wish this were my Christmas to stay in our cozy (if mouse-infested) house over the holidays. I'm not ready; my plans are not in place. Hate phone calling, managing logistics, and find myself hopelessly unprepared. Traveling too much lately, I guess. It's also the powerlessness of being someone else's guest, of running around trying to fit into someone else's schedule. Well, must not get set in our ways, eh? I did get my work-at-home Wednesday this week. Probably by Saturday I'll be ready to get on the plane and go 'home' to the Northwest!

I've also been feeling poor – not poorly; my health is fine – but impoverished. I only have about $100 in the checking account. Oh, there's more I could tap into, but it's supposed to be investments, so I haven't touched it. Payday IS just around the corner. I wouldn't be in this position except that the agency owes me $2,000 in reimbursements. It's my fault; I didn't realize that the way the company policies were set up I'd have to buy plane tickets in November and couldn't get my reimbursements covered until payday at the end of January - tough luck.

However, I think I have a work-around for next time this happens, to cover expenses in a way that doesn't rely on a cash-flow situation governed so strictly. And one of my supporters sent a gigantic check that, once it gets to Orlando, will not only get me out of the (small) hole my ministry account is in but also cover all those reimbursements as well as the increase in my health insurance rates (again!) End-of-year giving usually does a lot to set me up for any slim months to come. So, the poverty is a very temporary problem.

But Enough Grouching....

Tell you what I'm going to do. There are, as usual, some easy fixes to my crummy attitude, if not all of the various plights that underlie it. I'm going to light a candle, make myself a cup of mint tea, put on some gentle music, and curl up with a beautifully written book or two. Yeah. I already feel better.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sense of Reality / Sense of Humor

Went to see Michael Card in concert last night - man, it was good. Deep, artful music, played by a guy who seems humble, thoughtful, and authentic. Although it was a Christmas concert, the performance and commentary really seemed to emphasize that hey, life is tough; as human beings we often feel trapped, alone, or misunderstood. In coming to us as he did, Christ entered that world – his birth announced to people on the fringes of society – his body wrapped in rags – his purpose and message, as he grew, often misunderstood – his grace, so often rejected. Michael Card has written a couple books about lamenting, and now he's working on one about slavery. Not exactly 'positive and encouraging' stuff that so often comes out of the Christian subculture...

Anyway, I particularly appreciated the Michael Card concert because the two Christmas-oriented events I'd been part of the day before left something to be desired. One was intensely religious and just downright weird; the other was – well...

I'm part of a group I'm struggling with. The individuals in the group are not bad one-on-one, but you know how every group has sort of a culture of its own? And with this group, I really don't like how the culture is developed. There's lots of joking around. That ought to be a good thing; humor can be a powerful tool to bring people together. And maybe that's what some people feel is happening. But to me it seems just the opposite. It seems like junior high – a bunch of insecure people posturing for one another.

The jokes are almost all a bit gross, cruel, demeaning, or, mostly, downright stupid. I don't think my instincts are off on this - that really everything is OK and I need to just accept it. But on the other hand, if a big part of what is bugging me is sense of humor – that’s a highly subjective thing, isn't it? We talk about people who have a ‘great sense of humor’ as opposed to ‘no sense of humor’ but is it fair to say some people may have ‘a bad sense of humor’?

Do the trends I’m fighting have anything to with the fact that the group’s dominant personalities are all men? They seem to hide behind that ("We can take cheap shots at each other and tell gross-out stories because we're men and that's the way we are.") I find gender stereotypes really annoying and don’t like people to put gender-related expectations on me (for example, I don’t like to have people make a big deal about noticing and mentioning how I look, or expect me to like shopping or organizing things). I want to be treated like a person, not just a woman. So, I don't want to say, this isn't a problem because boys will be boys.

On the other hand in many cases the stereotypes can be tools to help us understand and appreciate one another – just because they aren’t one-size-fits-all doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. So I don’t want to dismiss them all together.

Meanwhile, I’m longing for wholesome and intelligent conversation, and for whatever reason, it’s often not to be found in this context. And unfortunately it's not a group I can extract myself from, not without great cost. So, it's hard to socialize with them.

Sigh. It's possible that if I am faithful to love the people in the group, over time it will become more the kind of group I want to be part of. But I'll admit I have a hard time being committed to loving the group, and if I can't do that, I don't think I can be part of the solution.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Heals, Binds Up, Determines, Calls by Name, Understands

Something happened this morning that brought a whoooosh of loneliness over me, but I'll hold onto this:

He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.

He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.

Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.

Psalm 147:3-5

Friday, December 07, 2007

Photo Card Trauma

I have no excuse - no kids to keep in line, no hideous scars to conceal - but for some reason I have a hard time getting decent photos of myself for newsletters, etc. I have a couple of mug shots that I'm happy to use online or for speaker bios, but sometimes you need something more.

For example, a staple item in this whole missions biz is the 'photo prayer card.' The picture, the logo, and something like 'thank you for praying for the Jones family.' I've done a couple of them over the years. When our organization got a new name last year and dropped our old email addresses, I thought I should send out a new card. I did sort of a home-made one - not very permanent-looking, but it's still hanging on my mom's fridge. Which is a problem. Because no sooner had all this happened than the organizational info became out of date again. So, I guess I ought to do a new one. It's a little depressing to have three organizations in as many years!

This time I've had a hard time getting a decent photo. Bad hair day... weird lighting ... problems beyond the Photoshop fix. Even the otherwise OK ones won't work, because it turns out something is messed up on my camera. The resolution quality was too low on almost every shot. What's up with that?

I finally got something usable today, on my third 'shoot'!

I'm not taking chances on the organizational info: this time, just a photo. Only $38 for 200 of them from Target, and I get them back on Saturday.

Well, I won't spoil the surprise by posting the image I chose. Look for it in your Christmas card. Here are some of the ones I can't use. Glad to have the process done with!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men

I've been reading a couple of books for groups I'm part of through church -
The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
, by Ken Sande, and Intercessory Prayer: How God Can Use Your Prayers to Move Heaven and Earth, by Dutch Sheets.

What stood out to me today as I was meditating on the former was that help - strength, power, peace, wisdom - is available for the asking. Amazing!

There is a question which neither book has really addressed, yet. It may lie at the intersection between the two. Brace yourself. It's kind of a big question...

Is it possible to have peace on earth, goodwill to men? World peace is something we pray for and long for, even as we sort of mock that ambition. Well, in our day, should we give up on it, or strive all the more for such an ambitious goal? Some of this came up in the comments on my October 10 posting. I wrote,
"...I am not holding my breath waiting for world peace. ... The humanistic worldview says that people are basically good and we just all need to learn to work together. But there's a problem. Reality. Human nature is flawed. Every one of us tends toward sin, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness. Under such circumstances, glimpses of peace on earth are rare, indeed."
Someone commented, "Does that mean that trying to achieve peace isn't worth the effort?"

I am still wondering.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

'Penguins ARE Christmas...'

I'm seeing penguins everywhere. This is really odd when you think of it, seeing as the nearest non-zoo-dwelling penguins live many thousands of miles South of here. I mean, Colorado is just not penguin country. So why all the penguin art and knick-knacks?

Is it globalization, or a resurgence of affection for birds, black and white, or Antarctica? Not only that, it's also Christmas. At the mall near my mom's house a whole flock of these flightless fowl now attend Santa, replacing the elves and perhaps the reindeer as well.

How did penguins get associated with Christmas? Has our notion of geography gotten so off-kilter that we don't realize the South Pole and North Pole are kind of far apart?

No sense getting too snippy about 'new traditions,' though: The old(er) ones are no less bizarre. Many, many strange things have become associated with this holiday. It seems that everyone wants to cosy up to Christmas.

What does the birth of Christ in a small town in the Middle East have to do with the bleak midwinter (here in the N. hemisphere anyway), evergreen trees, lights and tinsel, snowmen, large red socks hung by the chimney with care, or a fourth-century Byzantine bishop? And why should that particular bishop be said to still be living, perpetually wearing a red suit, and hanging out in the Arctic where he tracks childhood morality, makes toys, and and circumnavigates the globe (in a night) each December? It is pretty ludicrous, I guess.

So maybe the penguins are not so strange after all. If they hang around I'll probably get used to them after a while. But I'm not an 'early adopter.' I still look on Rudolph with suspicion, considering him an unwelcome interloper crowding in on Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen. But somebody invented them, too, and apparently the canon is not closed.

Well, if I were a penguin I might rather hang out at the mall with the guy in the red suit. After all, Antarctica isn't what it used to be what with global warming and all. And if that turns out to be a fad and it's really global overpopulation we need to worry about (the latter fear only relatively recently replaced by the former one) then the penguins might as well get used to people. Before you know it someone's going to put up a mall at the Pole of Inaccessibility. I guess it's kind of encouraging that the penguins have someplace to go: the schoolchildren of America love them.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Light of the World?

"I am so tired of Christmas music, already," a cashier announced to me recently. With Thanksgiving falling early, America's "Christmas Season" is well under way. "Do you like Christmas in general?" I asked her. "Oh yeah. I just don't like the music. But I love getting stuff for my kids and watching them open their presents... I love Christmas," she said.

Is that what Christmas is about, the presents? Deb and I haven't got out our 'Christmas stuff' boxes yet; our halls are soberly undecked. Unlike most our neighbors we decided to conservatively wait to put up lights until December had actually begun. Each of us has done considerable shopping, though - is this what it really means for an American to get into the Christmas spirit? We are nothing if not shoppers, customers, consumers. And the stack of catalogs and ads in the recycle bin grows higher.

Like so many things in life, though, I find this whole gift-giving aspect of Christmas holds both traps and opportunities. It tempts me to greed, discontent, frenzy, overspending ... but at the same time provides a chance to affirm and build relationships: saying thanks, I appreciate you, I want to bless you.

We have so much to be grateful for.