Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Actually Leaving the Desert

In other news, I thought I was moving past Mauritania.  Even if I haven't processed it fully (or at all for that matter) and haven't packed it away in a neat little box or compiled it in a concise blog post, I thought I was a normal person again (as normal as I ever was).  I even caved and changed my profile pic on Facebook!
But, I am definitely not normal.  For example, I still find myself craving long baguettes made of only flour and salt, or a huge bowl of spoiled milk camouflaged with excessive amounts of sugar.  I fight the urge to obsessively shake everyone's hands whenever I walk into a room or leave it.  I find myself putting my hand over my heart and averting eye contact when I encounter a man, especially one that I don't know very well.  I find myself telling people things are "bismillah" or "tewf," or "zayn hatta!" and expect them to understand me!   I wear sweaters in the summer in Texas and really can't comprehend certain disciplines such as not eating too much, exercising, reading/studying, being alone, or getting to work on time.  To top it off I'm pretty sure my hair is still falling out!

And yet I still thought all of that was behind me.  Until I started working back in a refugee resettlement agency.  All of a sudden I am surrounded by people who are not only interested in my experiences, but have heard of Mauritania and can also ask somewhat relevant questions about my experience!  And I run into Iraqis in the lobby talking about cell phone plans in Arabic and it sounds like a TMobile commercial I'm watching on Dubai 1!  And today I helped a young guy from Iraq named Mohammed and a young guy from Somalia (also named Mohammed) go on job interviews which went really well, and it was such an amazingly cohesive moment.  Suddenly my worlds are colliding and it makes sense!  I don't have to relegate poor Noura to life in her alternate world of Mauritania and pamper Melissa here in the US as though nothing is different.  Mauritania happened and life is happening now.  I can say Salamu Aley kum and there are some folks around that understand.  Or they don't and that doesn't matter.  And although I'm still unsuccessful at processing my experiences so that I can parcel Mauritania off into a pretty little box (only to be dusted off and opened during the scattered Ramadan and Tobaski phone calls), I think I have a pretty good shot at adding it to an overall mosaic of my life, that is turning out to look pretty beautiful after all.  All the disjointed pieces that I thought would never fit anywhere are sliding into places and it's not such an issue, them coexisting, after all.

I am who I am and I've been where I've been.  It's all a part of the person I've become and the person I'm becoming.  And it doesn't really matter if I don't see the big picture or can't pull some profound meaning out of every experience.  Because there is a bigger picture, and it's all coming together for a bigger plan, one that all of our mosaics are ultimately going to fit together in a giant portrait of beauty, redemption, grace, and joy!  So, I'm embracing those pieces, and excitedly watching as my life swells into a pretty cool piece of art.  I may have left the desert and taken the camels off my wall, but I'll never put them behind me!

Leaving the Desert

So I don't really know that I have passed some spiritual testing or anything like that, but Joel and I are finally starting to move from our personal desert crisis of being broke to one of financial stability. It's been quite a frustrating process, but like most of its kind a learning one. We've learned a lot about community, and about relying on God. I think I mentioned a bit about it before, but basically I was confronted with some real testing of how I trusted in God. I definitely trust in His provision, but was throwing around a lot of catch phrases like, "It'll work out," or "God's in control."  The part that rocked me was realizing how God has promised to provide--not necessarily by getting Joel and I jobs where we could fall into a comfortable income bracket. I saw His provision coming from family, friends, and seemingly random situations. Which was awesome. But I really started to get nervous that it might be permanent, and maybe His way of providing wasn't going to be the way I wanted!

Turns out, God did provide in an awesome way that I was also ok with :o). It took longer than I'd wanted, but I just got a job with the YMCA doing employment development for refugees! It is exactly where I want to be right now.  The job doesn't pay great, but I'm sure in the long run it will still be more than we need.  I've learned a lot about true community and being part of the universal church over the last few weeks, and am starting to view my belongings a lot less as mine, and more as a the possessions of God, intended for His purposes and His people.  They have been lent out to me temporarily, but should be incredibly fluid--much more than I have tended towards in the past.  What would my life look like if I didn't truly own anything?  Definitely a more sold-out version of committed living.  That may sound redundant, but my committed living doesn't always seem very different from normal life.  And it needs to.

So, thanks to everyone that has helped us along the way as we've been struggling somewhat.  Way to be part of the Kingdom here on earth!  I've only had 2 days on the job so far, but they have been so exciting--which is all the more affirmation that I am in the right place and moving in the right direction.  Like I said--He provides!

Monday, September 28, 2009


Just a quick update on how life in our new apartment is going:
We've settled in pretty well so far, and are really liking the neighborhood.  We've been getting to know our neighbors somewhat and hope to really build some relationships there.  We are also really centrally located, only minutes from fun places like the Astro's ballpark and the museum district.  An added bonus is that we are still only 30 minutes from Joel's family, and really close to where I'll be working as well.

Our apartment itself is really pretty fun.  It's 2 bedrooms, which is more than enough space for us--in fact we've been having trouble filling it!! Since we've found ourselves short on seating, Joel and I decided to build a new couch from cardboard.  Joel has been blogging about it some, but I wanted to give an update about it, since my part has now come into play.  Joel's was building the actual structure, my job was to make it something someone would want to sit in.  But the whole goal was to make it 100% recycled and 100% free.  The cardboard took 1 easy trip to the dumpster, but we have been stumped with how to make it look nice.  Well, last night I came across some new items, and am trying to figure out how to use them!  Anyone know anything about furniture upholstering from scratch?

I obtained these fabrics and some cushioning last night.  Although I'll hopefully get my hands on some more cushioning, I am trying to figure out what to do with this material so that it doesn't look like a janky dorm couch (or our other couch, for that matter).  For any artsy readers out there, thoughts or suggestions?  I could really use some help!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Enough of this Individualism Business, Let's Have Some Collectivity

So I really love my friends, family, and all of the crazy people in my life that are constantly encouraging me and driving me to be consistent, be more loving, and truly consider what my life should look like in this crazy world that we live in.

Lately we've been talking a lot about faith and problems with church.  In Biblical times, the early church was growing.  It says in Acts that numbers were being added to it daily!  We are talking hundreds.  Because there was something about it--something authentic and something different and something attractive that was drawing people to it.  Something that seems to be missing from churches today, which to be honest tends to evoke images of little old ladies, booming organ music, boring sermons and lame guilt trips.  But Devin, JasonDavid and several others have been having discussions lately about what the church could and should look like, living actively in community and promoting service and social justice throughout our world.  Joel and I have been talking about the things we think are missing.  And today Joel's brother was talking about our complacent congregations--people that are showing up each Sunday set to receive and never really giving.  Our pastor today talked about racism and classism and other issues that keep members of the church from true community.

The fact is, Jesus' love is transformative.  No matter how often we reject Him, He is loving us (past, present, and future)--demonstrating that through His ultimate sacrifice on the cross and His healing ministry during His life on earth and today through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But many of our churches don't seem transformed, and don't even offer people many areas to show that if it's present in their own lives.  So Joel's dad had this idea which expands on the analogy of the body of Christ.  He talks about fishing, and how today we "cast our lines" in isolation, as opposed to a more effective way of casting our nets, the way people fish when they want big results.

So, since I'm always searching for relevance, I was trying to figure out what he meant and how to really apply that in the church, and here's the basic workings of an idea that I've come up with (credit going mostly to Joel's dad and everyone that I listed above.  Basically I'm just compiling what they've said):  What if churches had a centralized way that they ministered to each other--everyone giving and receiving as was intended?  I can envision a huge database of members, skills, availability, gifts, etc.  When I did volunteer coordination at World Relief, a lot of people couldn't figure out what their gifts were and only wanted to donate their time in a general way.  What if someone could take 20 minutes with members of the church and help really identify ways they could serve--be it tutoring high schoolers, a free tennis lesson, offering childcare (mom's with several kids could handle one more), space in their home, training on excel and other databases, vocational training, ESL training, music lessons, a homecooked meal, microfinance loans, or clothing donations?  The list could go on and on and on!!  And if there was a way people could access these potential ministries or notify the church of their needs--with no embarrassment because everyone was doing it as a part of the same unified family.  The church could actually be MEETING those needs in a tangible way and not just dumping money off to parachurch organizations they think could do it better.  The church might become more relevant in our communities.  And as those around us see the way we truly care for each other, it might be something they want to be a part of.  As they see the way we really love others, the way we share our lives, they might decide there is something to this Jesus business.  And isn't that what the early church was all about?  We aren't supposed to be doing it alone. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mud Pies at the Ocean

"Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us."
CS Lewis

David's comment on my earlier post made me remember this quote. Basically Lewis gets to the crux of what Paul and as a result I were talking about. Infinite joy, infinite treasure, infinite glory is awaiting us. What are we wasting our time for? Shouldn't our lives reflect our yearning for this--striving to touch the glory, to obtain the reward?

True Greatness

I've been thinking a lot lately about Philippians 3:7-14. Basically, Paul examines the things of value here on earth and points out that compared to knowing Christ is Lord, they are all worth absolutely nothing. Paul says he counts EVERYTHING as loss because of the far surpassing worth of knowing Christ. So lately I've been wondering exactly what that means. Does he mean that any time not spent towards the kingdom is a complete loss? Or is he saying he's willing to give up everything for the sake of Christ? Actually, he does say that later--even the things he has suffered for his faith don't matter because he is gaining Christ as a result.

So, what is the rubbish in my life? What is complete loss because it has nothing to do with knowing Christ? What of my relative "sufferings" should I embrace as leading me closer to being found in Christ? What does it mean to become like Christ in His death? In His death he gave up His entire life so that we could be holy before God. So we also should be giving up our lives in some form.

But here is my constant struggle and what I am not figuring out--what does that look like?? I ask a lot of question but don't have a lot of answers. Are there models of this life here in America?? I certainly have a lot here, even though I know I could pretty easily abandon this lifestyle and go somewhere with absolutely nothing. Maybe my problem is that I view the things of this life as rubbish. I look at job, status, friends, family, and possessions as good things. Some of them are perceived as "Christian values." But Paul says he counts EVERYTHING as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ as Lord. Maybe the problem is we don't treasure that knowledge the way we should. Which makes me wonder, do we really possess it? I mean, imagine the most priceless treasure in the world. Who among us could look upon that and not recognize its beauty, not wish it for ourselves? And if we had it, how could it not consume our entire being? How could we not want to look at it, touch it, and show it to everyone we see?

So to sum up: do I recognize the surpassing greatness of having Christ in my life? If so, then everything else that I am working towards is a lost cause, worthless. If that's not the case, then what am I missing? How do I keep forgetting that?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What's the Big Deal? I Can't Take it With Me, Anyway.

My blogging tends to get long, so I'll try to keep this entry shorter. But I've been learning something about myself recently and it has held several real glass shattering moments so I thought I would share it! It's about being poor...

There's a lot in the Bible that talks about being poor. It talks about taking care of the poor and loving them and giving all that you have to them. I just spent the last 2 years of my life living in Mauritania, an incredibly poor country, because I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to give value and truly help the poor is by living among them, offering respect and friendship and spending myself to share the opportunities of health and education that I have been given and have always taken for granted. I've always been on that side of poverty. And I can say with an 80% confidence level that I always will be.

However, the Bible has more to say about poverty. It talks about trusting in God to provide for me. It talks about how He cares if even the smallest sparrow falls. He provides for the plants and the animals—how much more will He provide for me?? It also talks about storing up my treasures in heaven—because I can't keep the ones I find here on earth!

So, that being said, here is the thing I've just learned about myself: I'm afraid of being poor!! I need to have some store here on earth so that I feel secure. Maybe this is not a glass-shattering thing for you. But for me, I was never the richest kid and Joel and I try to live modestly. I've always thought that I was a pretty faithful person. I've always assumed that I trusted God to provide. And I still least on an intellectual level. But I've been really worried about money recently, and in a way I have never experienced for. I mean—I just spent the last 2 years of my life living on slightly less than $2 a day and I never worried for a second. So I thought I had poverty figured out.

But in the Peace Corps, those $2 were guaranteed and taken care of. Some months cash was tighter than others and I had to eat really gross food, but frankly I didn't have many expenses. And I lived pretty well off of care packages. If I didn't have rent, I just told my neighbor or paid him less that month. It evened out because on months that I was doing well I gave him a few extra thousand ougiya. So what is different this time?

Right now there is no income coming in, or projected on the horizon. I have NO IDEA where a paycheck is going to come from, although I'm pretty sure (or at least I was) that it will come from somewhere. This is the longest I've been out of work since my junior year of highschool. On Tuesday, I sat at home staring at my bank account online just waiting for 2 checks to bounce and nothing to do but pray that they didn't get cashed that day!! (Alhamdulillah—they didn't!) Really bad things could have happened if they did (losing our apartment being one of them). And though I racked my brain there was nothing I could come up with to fix it!

So now as our bank account and measly Peace Corps allowance has continued to dwindle, I find myself actually worrying about what we will eat and what we will drink and what we will wear. I panic when the car makes a funny noise—I mean, if we can't get to job interviews how can we get the $$ to fix it if it breaks?? And I am ok with rice and beans every day sure but what if even that doesn't keep coming in?

Now. I post this with some reservations. As I said, I am 80% sure that I will never be truly poor. I can say that because a) I have a college degree (albeit one of the things making me poor right now). That puts me in the top 1% of the world right now. b) I have a strong family support network. Although things are tight for everyone right now, no one in mine or Joel's family is going to let us end up on the streets or starving. But nevertheless the anxiety is there. And it is a lot to ask of anyone right now for loans.

So, in conclusion, I actually do know in my head that we will be ok. Even if something sad happens like having to default on our wonderful new apartment. But, I have never felt worry like this before. I have never felt my confidence in God's providence stretched like this before. And I am definitely still trusting Him to provide. I guess I'm getting a little bit worried about the manner He is providing in. After all, he promised to care for all of our needs, not necessarily provide that cute little apartment or give us more than beans and rice. But I know this to be true: He works all things together for the good of those that love Him. I know it will work out. I know we will be ok. But I have also had a new experience of poverty (and I hesitate to use that word, because sociologically we do not fall into the sphere of poverty just yet, even if our income would indicate such), and a new feeling of compassion for the poor. It is a terrible thing to wonder where your next meal will come from—or where your child's next meal will come from. And in the rush of work or job-hunting or broken cars, it is not always easy to access the abundant services that we may have so readily available in our country—because those things can keep you in the very cycle you are trying to work your way out of.

I guess that's all, just something I've been thinking about. Fortunately I'm looking ahead at the glory to come and not dwelling on my earthly treasures (of which I have managed to hoard more than a few). Sorry about 2 posts in 1 day. I didn't like the earlier one very much anyway.

**Disclaimer: a big part of my current freak-out is induced by how much everything costs here! And I'm sure this isn't just that I'm used to everything costing a penny and being able to fight if I feel I am being unjustly charged by 30 cents. I really think things are more expensive than they used to be!! Not to mention the cloud of desperation everywhere! People attack sales and job posts like they are the last place on earth. People can really be downers. Where is the hope?? Can anyone back me up here? I know a can of tomato paste should not cost me a dollar--especially when it's not even organic!

Keeping my Eyes on the Glory that is Coming!

I've been trying to figure out what it looks like to live a life obedient to Christ—one where I have completely relinquished control and am bearing that cross no matter the cost. I think a lot of people assume the Christian cross is all about the “thou shalt not's,”...restrictions and things God doesn't want us to do. And this blog (title at least) probably seems an affirmation of that. But from what I've been finding out—I promise it's really not! The Bible is filled with God's promises and the FREEDOM that we have in Christ—through obedience. To me that sounds like a contradiction (is it freedom or is it obedience?), so I've been thinking a lot about obedience and sacrifice lately. There's a lot in the Bible about it--Jesus being our greatest example, having been fully obedient to His Father and ultimately sacrificing His entire life.
When thinking about being a follower of Christ, the concepts of sacrifice and self-denial always come up. I tend to dwell on the parts of me that I consider to be more worldly and how I can shut those out; like a lifestyle fast. For example, my desire for comfort. Maybe I should sleep outside like I did for the past 2 years instead of renting an apartment (because you know, there are people in the world that don't have shelter--it is selfish to want that for myself!). Maybe I should not eat any food that tastes good, or go to the effort to cook delicious meals (because you know, there are people that not only do not have good food, but don't have any food at all!). And maybe those do lead to sin or idolatry of sorts. But lately I've been seeing surrender a little bit differently when you are living in submission to Christ. I don't think it's just taking hopes and dreams and desires and impulses and abstaining from them. I think it's denying the deeper part of yourself that wants to be in control by giving Christ complete Lordship over you. It doesn't make sense to cut out the things I am good at or find enjoyable just because I am supposed to “deny myself.” Christ made me a certain way with gifts and desires that in His hands will be beautiful, but He will never force me. However, if I try to hold on, it is ultimately the same thing as giving control to Satan, because he will and I am too weak. But instead I trust that in abandoning my own desires and plans to God's call there is an implicit promise that He is not going to leave me empty-handed. Full obedience means partaking in His divine nature.

So technically there is a cost, otherwise it would not be called picking up your cross. But the way I see it, attempting to retain my own mastery has to be even more costly in the end! Keeping eyes on the glory that is ahead shouldn't really be a sacrifice at all. Practically, I think that is less of a self-denial and more of a daily self-offering and openness to God's direction.

For me, this has recently played out in a big change of plans. I was excited and ready to go to Tulane—so excited and ready in fact that I barreled way ahead of schedule and began to feel a gentle nudging to put on the brakes. I didn't feel like God was asking me to give up Tulane or my MPH—in fact I feel like that is still definitely in my future. But I felt like He was inviting me to learn something, or participate in something much greater He had planned for Joel and I in Houston this year. So as reluctant I as I may have been to do a complete 180 and defer my enrollment for the fall, there has not been any regret. I still feel excited about what God has going on and discovering the reason He led us here. I am so happy to have taken a step in obedience towards His divine nature, and although that might have had it's costs—future career plans, family, current job/money situation, etc, I'm looking forward to what there is to come.