Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Togo, the Sled Dog Who Saved Nome.

     When I was really little, I remember watching a movie that I really liked called Balto. It was an animated movie based on the real sled dog who was famous for his role in transporting medicine to remote parts of Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic in the early 1900's. There is an annual sled dog race in honor of those dogs each year, and the finish line for that race is in Nome, Alaska, where I will be moving in August. I also learned recently that there was another important dog on Balto's team, and his name was Togo. As you probably already know, I spent three weeks in Togo, Africa on my last mission trip, and that is where I decided that I wanted to pursue mission work full time.
     So why am I telling you all of this? It's not just to give you a history lesson, but you're welcome for that added bonus. It's because  I don't think of all of these things as random coincidences. In my mind, finding out about that dog who shared a name with the last place I went on a mission trip was an affirmation that Nome, where he delivered life saving medicine, truly is my next mission field. It's also a reminder of how God uses a bunch of seemingly little things working together to carry out His plans.
      I don't like to talk about growing up with a disability very often, because that's not how I want to be defined. And compared to many children, I had it pretty good, so I don't want to over-dramatize the truth and make it seem like I had some awful, traumatic childhood. Overall, it didn't bother me or even slow me down that much.  But there were a few times when things got pretty rough for a little while, and as I look forward to this exciting move to Alaska, I can't help but remember those times. These times revolved around hospital stays and long recoveries, with a fair share of setbacks and a few brushes with some pretty scary stuff, like Staph infection and one particularly scary allergic reaction to anesthesia. It was in those times that, though I was completely unaware of it, I was developing skills that I will need as a missionary.
        I was learning to trust God when things like recovering from surgery weren't happening on the timeline I would have preferred. Admittedly, I am still working on this one. I was also learning what it is like to feel isolated and alone, which is why I think I am quick to notice other people who may be feeling the same way. Most of all, I was starting to understand how vital my faith is to me, which led me to wanting to share that faith to others.
      One unfortunate side effect of going through some hard times is that I seem to have an odd habit of not processing good things very well. It's hard not to constantly be wondering when some unexpected hard time is going to derail my plans. But I'm slowly learning to let myself fully enjoy good things. I know that inevitably there will be more hard times, as there are for everyone, but if there's anything my life has taught me so far, it's that, with faith, I can make it through hard times.
     I'm so excited about the direction my life is moving in right now. And though it has taken me a long time to get to this point, I'm beginning to be thankful for hard times in my life, because now I know how important they were.

(Left) A scene from a hospital stay. There were plenty of less idyllic pictures of this time, but I decided to go with this one, where I was almost smiling, thanks to my cool new Kindle and some pretty strong painkillers. (Right) I had no idea watching this movie as a child that I would live in Nome one day.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

No Turning Back

     I have a very vivid memory of standing in a brightly painted courtyard at an orphanage in what the internet claimed was "the most dangerous city in the world.", surrounded by excited children competing for hugs. It was hot, and loud, and overwhelming in the best way. I remember my friend asking me if I was okay, bringing me out of the daze I must have been in. I was okay, more okay than I had been in a long time. I felt like I had just found something I had always been looking for.
     I have another, more recent memory of sitting in the dirt surrounded by chickens in a remote village in Africa, miles from anywhere recognizable. A baby was being passed around, and after a while he was placed in my arms, naked with only a blanket to cover him. As I held him I made eye contact with his mother, or rather she made eye contact with me. We didn't speak the same language, but the look in her eyes didn't need translation. She was a mother who loved her son very much, and like all good mothers she did her best with what she had, the only problem being that she had next to nothing. She was allowing a stranger from a foreign country to hold her baby for a moment, and it was a great honor.
    There was no turning back after that moment. I returned home, returned back to my family and friends and to the motions of every day life, But something had changed inside me, something I couldn't ignore for long. So, I began what I referred to as "looking into longer term mission opportunities." And I am so excited about what I eventually found.




Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Second Family

     The first time I ever attended Salem Church was on Mother's Day, seven years ago tomorrow if my memory is correct.  In those years, I've grown from a teenager into a young adult, and I've grown in other ways too. I've grown from someone who simply showed up on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights, into a member of the church who is more aware of and sometimes involved in the details of what keeps a church going.
     I have my spot in the parking lot, and my pew where I like to sit.  I have even slept (or tried to sleep) there during a youth group lock in. I have been there through three pastors and various youth leaders, through births and losses, one of those losses being especially personal to me. I have laughed there, cried there, eaten there, and learned there. My church has become a part of my life, and a place that feels as familiar as my own home. My church family has become almost as familiar to me as my own family, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I love them.
     But like all families, church families are not perfect. They are made up of people with unique personalities and perspectives, people with different life experiences that allow them to see things in very different ways sometimes. When I'm 45 minutes into a meeting that is getting too intense, and considering converting to the Episcopalian church, or when I'm sitting in the pew one Sunday morning and can feel a tension in the air that sometimes hangs around for a few weeks. those are the moments when I start to understand friends I've met who have left the church because the people who are supposed to be known by their love all to often become known by their conflict.
     Perhaps I'm just too much of an optimist who is seeing my church through rose colored glasses, but at the end of the day, I love that place. It has stood in it's place through countless historical events both good and terrible, and and has never crumbled because of an unstable economic or political climate. It is not perfect, but I choose to embrace the imperfections so that I can also embrace the love, the friendship, and the feeling of home that I get from my church. For better or for worse, I am a proud member of Salem United Methodist Church. To borrow some words from the tried and true Sunday morning order of service, Thanks be to God.




Saturday, April 22, 2017

Even If

    I still remember the humiliation I felt when someone called me a show-off because of the way I answered a question in English class when I was in eleventh grade. I remember the book we were discussing, and I remember the answer I gave, which I was very proud of until I was quickly shot down by this comment from a classmate. Most of all, I remember what it felt like step out and share my thoughts with other people, only to be met with hostility and criticism. It is experiences like that one, combined my sensitive nature that I can't seem to shake, that make it hard for me to share certain things sometimes.
     I've had a feeling for a few weeks now that there's something I should write about. I've tried to shake the feeling by telling myself that hearing the same song over and over again is not necessarily a message from God, it's just something that's bound to happen when you listen to the same radio station for all forty days of Lent. But Lent has been over for a week now, and the beginning of the infamous pledge drive has prompted me to change the radio station, but the feeling still remains. There's something I feel like I need to say, and I'm probably not going to be able to write about anything else very well until I say it.
     Right now, I am waiting to hear if I have been accepted to be a part of something that is very exciting to me. It's become so important to me that I haven't wanted to talk about it with many people. First, because I don't really want to talk about the very real possibility that it might not work out. I have no idea how good my chances are, and for all I know they could have thrown my application in the trash as soon as the interview ended. The second reason I don't want to talk about is it is that it's just too sacred to me. I care about it a lot, and the outcome, good or bad, is going to affect me.
      But I feel that I need to acknowledge, to myself as much as everyone else, that even if this doesn't work out for me, I will be okay. It's difficult for me to even say that because I desperately hope that this opportunity does work out in my favor. It is difficult to say, but I do believe it. There have been many times in my life that I have not gotten the outcome I wanted, and it's always painful in the moment. But looking back, I can say that I have always been okay. I have been sad, even heartbroken. I have struggled more times than I can count with not understanding the way situations have worked out in my life. But I have never been completely hopeless, and I can't shake the feeling that I need to acknowledge that feeling during this time of waiting, when I don't know the outcome yet.
     When you get down to the root of it, I think that's what makes me a person who has faith in God. Being involved in mission work is very important to me, and I love my church family dearly. But at the end of the day, those things are not the reason for my hope. Those things are not the reason that I can hand a malnourished baby back to his mother in a third world country and not come home hopeless. Those things are not the reason that I can hear of the death of two precious children I met in Honduras, and still have hope that I will see them again one day. My hope comes from my relationship with God, my faith in Him. If this opportunity works out for me, I will be overjoyed. But even if it does not, I will still have hope.















Monday, April 10, 2017

Stop Rubbernecking!

     It was a foggy morning, there was a steady drizzle falling from the sky. I was behind the wheel of the drivers-ed car, carefully navigating down the road while my teacher entertained me with funny stories from the passenger seat, interjecting every once in a while with minor corrections and reminders. "Remember to check your rear-view before you merge...watch your speed, it's not a race." Everything was going smoothly, until we came upon an the aftermath of an accident in the ditch. It wasn't even a major accident, but the flashing lights of the police cars caught my eye.
     Without thinking, I instinctively took my eyes off the road and turned to look at the commotion happening off to the side. It was then that I got an important driving lesson that doubled as a life lesson. "Stop rubbernecking, keep your eyes on the road. I can't tell you how many accidents are caused by drivers who take their eyes off the road to look at an accident that's already happened."
     To rubberneck, according to Google, is to "turn one's head to stare at something in a foolish manner." That day years ago, I had literally taken my eyes off the road, which is something I like to think I don't do often now that I am a more experienced driver. But in areas of my life that have nothing to do with driving, I am a rubbernecking repeat offender. Most of the time, I have good intentions. I believe that God has a plan for me and I start off focused on following that plan, but it doesn't take long before my I get distracted from the road in front of me by the flashing lights on the side. Flashing lights that come in may forms; the "what-if" scenarios about every possible thing that could go wrong, the little things other people unknowingly do that damage my fragile feelings, my bad habit of comparing my life to the lives of my peers. If I keep giving in to all of these distractions that compete for my attention, I am eventually going to end up in a ditch.
      If I had been scolded and criticized when I made that beginners' mistake back when I was a new driver, I think I would have had a much different reaction. But the firm yet gentle reminder that I got was exactly what I needed, and it has stuck with me for all of these years. Perhaps when we become distracted by the flashing lights along the roadway of life, we just need that gentle reminder to keep our eyes focused on the road ahead, no matter how tempted we are by the drama and distractions happening off to the side.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Holding on to Ashes

     If you've read the past two or three posts I've written, you may have noticed a theme, one that's not particularly cheerful. If you're wondering what is going on to cause all of these pensive thoughts I've been expressing, there's really not much to tell. It's just the season that I have been in, but I'm at the place now where I think I can spot the end of this season on the horizon. I believe all seasons of life have a purpose, and maybe the difficult ones are meant to teach us something. In finding my way back to a more cheerful side of myself, I have learned some important lessons. A verse that has been particularly comforting to me over the past few weeks is Isaiah 61:3 ...and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
     As I say frequently in my writing, I'm not a theologian. You know by now that I write from my own perspective, which is one of a person who has had no formal training in the area of theology and is just sharing her thoughts the best she can For the sake of clarity, here's how I'm defining ashes in this context of this blog post. In the literal sense, as I'm sure you already know, ashes are the remnants left over after everything else has been burned up in a fire. Figuratively, in this verse, ashes are the things we wrestle with internally when we go through hard times in our lives. 
     Why would I hold on to ashes? Shouldn't getting rid of the negative junk on my mind be something that I look forward to? In some ways it is, but I have found that the process of trading in my ashes has not been without it's difficulties. I've learned that the first and most difficult step to trading ashes is the act of acknowledging that I have them, which can be a problem for a person like me who has a tendency to shove negative things to the back of my mind instead of confronting them head on. I also know that there is someone, devotional writers like to call him "the enemy" but his street name is Satan, who knows that this process is bringing me closer to God, which is the last thing he wants. The more I try to trade in those ashes, the more he tries to make me believe that it would be easier to just keep holding on to them. He even tricks me into having a twisted sense of pride about my ashes, tempting me to believe that I can use them as proof of some sort of personal strength I have as a result of going through hard times. In reality, the only thing holding on to these ashes is doing is preventing me from seeing the beauty that comes from trading them in. And so, I have decided that I no longer wish to keep them. I am making a trade for something better.   
     Sometimes, getting rid of your ashes is a very personal and private process, and there's nothing wrong with that. I happen to be someone who processes things by writing about them, and the results are blog posts like this.
      I'm trying to get rid of all of the ashes, and I have found that it's not as quick or easy as I would like for it to be. But I feel like it's something that needs to happen, and if I can get some good writing material out of the process, I just consider that a bonus.



Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons on Bravery from an Unlikely Teacher

     Having a blog can be a really strange thing sometimes. I, or anyone else with access to the internet, can write about whatever I want, and send it out into the universe for anyone to discover and read. There are no rules, unless I choose to set them for myself. Most of the time, I don't worry about it very much because I don't get a ton of feedback, and the things I write about aren't typically scandalous or shocking. But seeing the number of views on my last post, compared to the numbers on other recent posts, was a reality check for me. While I was very happy that so many people were interested enough to read what I wrote, my eyes were opened to the fact that I am putting my feelings on the internet for the world to see, and the world, or at least a part of it around me, is taking notice.
     Obviously, being real and honest and vulnerable is something that people connect with. I try my very best to write from a place of authenticity, and I'm usually quite open about the things I share. But as open as I may seem when it comes to writing, there is a side of me that is not so comfortable with people knowing so much about me. Many of the people who read this blog are people I know in real life. I might see you in the grocery store or at church after you've read all about my feelings, and I would be lying if I said that doesn't make me feel a little uncomfortable at times.
      As I've been thinking about the impact of being so vulnerable so publicly, I looked at many bible verses, devotions, and articles about vulnerability, and also this issue of guarding my heart that keeps coming to my mind whenever I worry that I am sharing too much.  In the end, the thing that helped me find my answer didn't come from a Bible story or academic article. It came from one of my childhood heroes, Franklin the Turtle. Franklin starred in a TV show and also a series of books, whose opening lines are somehow still etched into the farthest corners of my long term memory. "Franklin could count by twos and tie his shoes..."  I remember when I had to have a minor surgery when I was probably four or five, and my parents gave me the book Franklin Goes to the Hospital. For some reason as I began writing about vulnerability that book came to mind, so I decided to revisit my childhood and look it up. Something that fictional, animated animal says is exactly what I want to say."Everybody thinks I'm brave, but I've just been pretending." What if, after reading that I've really been struggling with my feelings, people who once thought I was brave now start to change their minds. Now, instead of a brave young woman who's gracefully endured hardships throughout her life, I'm just another "snowflake" millennial talking about mental health and feelings on the internet? For the record, I believe that talking about mental health is very important and something we should do far more openly and often, but that's a topic for another day.
     This is not the first time I've worried about losing my bravery badge. I have felt that way so many times, since I was very young. Is it brave to endure life with a disability that makes me different, and the struggles that sometimes come with it? Maybe, but I don't exactly have a choice in the matter. I did not choose to be born with a birth defect, it's just who I am, and since it's not going away, I try not to focus on it. I'm not sure if that's bravery or just a coping mechanism.
     Is it brave to travel to a foreign country alone, and stay there for three weeks? Some people say so, I say it was an experience that I loved. To me, the issue of bravery only kicked in once I returned home and had to face the ways I had changed. When I had to realize that I had returned different than I left, in ways that I don't yet know how to fully describe.
     As strange as it may seem coming from a person who has endured some pretty gruesome medical drama and traveled to two foreign countries that aren't exactly tourism destinations to do mission work, I think the bravest thing I've ever done was to be open and honest about my feelings. I am still struggling to find a balance between guarding my heart and allowing my weakness to be on display, but here's what I know for sure; If my struggles can help someone in any way, even if only to let them know that they are not alone, then I believe it is important to share my experiences as honestly as possible. It can be scary for me to be so honest sometimes, but I know a thing or two about bravery thanks to a book from my past about a beloved cartoon turtle.
     What part of your story are you keeping to yourself, because it feels too risky to share? You never know who needs to hear the chapter of your story that you've always left untold.