Monday, March 20, 2017

A Political Post

So I've been working on this post off and on for a couple weeks, and today I find that my friend Nick Cash has summed up what I wanted to say in a few simple sentences.

"We are all looking for some breakthrough answer, some secret success strategy. But it all comes down to time alone with God and time spent building deep community with each other. There are no secrets, no tricks, no shortcuts. Life is relationships, and relationships take time, effort, investment, sacrifice."

Yep.  Feel free to turn off your computer and spend some time investing in your most valuable relationships!

But if you want to hear a much more rambling explanation of why Pastor Nick is right, then read on.

I have a cousin who swears up and down that there is a difference between the quality of sound you get from a cd and what you hear when a record is playing.  The reason for the difference, he says, is that all digitally stored information must at some point be recorded in binary combinations.  So every subtle variation of tone or timbre must ultimately be reduced to a bunch of infinitesimally small yes or no questions.  Inevitably, there is a variation that falls somewhere between the zero and the one, which must be swept one way or the other.  The resulting music is cleaner perhaps, but not as real.  It has been edited--admittedly at a level beyond what most ears can detect--but edited all the same.  A vinyl record, on the other hand, is a direct impression of the sounds that occurred at the time of its recording, where the creak of a chair is treated to the same level of accuracy as Yoyo Ma's interpretation of Bach.

We face a similar choice in the way we deal with the world around us--to run life through a strainer of yes or no questions so that everything can be properly classified, or to record life as it happens and run the risk of loving the squeaky chair as much as the cello.  The advantage of the digital approach (as any IT wizard will tell you) lies in the immense amount of data that can be processed, not just stored but sorted, counted, analyzed, and interpreted.  But of course, in doing so, we run the risk of forgetting that the data is not reality, but a binary interpretation of reality.

We who live in a digital environment like to think of the world around us as a series of interacting systems.   It scratches our itch for that all-encompassing "theory of everything."  If we could just process a little more information, we would be able to see the whole enchilada...and make significant improvements!  We end up weighing the relative merits of --isms like "Feminism" or "Patriotism" or "Activism," as if the "ism" creates the reality, instead of the other way around.  Which is probably why our attempts to alter "the system" so rarely work out the way we think they will.

Human beings are not digital.  We are gorgeous, unpredictable, analog beasts, every one.  The subtleties that breathe life into our experiences are the same frustrating aberrations that mess up our beautiful systemic solutions.  In other words, the closer we get to each other, the less comfortable we are with the predetermined slots we've developed for organizing the masses.  People do not fall neatly into categories of "acceptable friends" and "ignorant fools."  

So what if we tried living more analog and less digital?  What if we took some of the emotional energy we've been spraying onto the faceless throng whose trolling comments and confrontational bumperstickers declare war on everything we love, and instead we invested that energy into building good relationships?  

But wait, you say.  What about those dastardly powerful people who use their influence to pull all the political strings?  What about all the hatred and anger being shouted at us from the Evil Club?  Who's going to shout them down if not for us?

Well, maybe no one will.  Maybe they'll shout themselves hoarse while the rest of us get on with the messy business of loving each other.

Politically speaking, my grandmother lived a pretty unremarkable life.  She will not be remembered as one who "changed the system."  But she loved fearlessly.  She invested herself in the lives of whoever was fortunate enough to cross her path, from the bitter old lady in the nursing home to the neglected five year old living down the street.  Every interaction was a chance to build someone up.  And even though she's been gone for ten years, the love she invested in people is still alive and active today.  It lives on in the generosity of her husband and her children and grandchildren who regularly open their homes and their hearts to the lonely, the awkward, and the overlooked (all her favorites).  

No amount of political maneuvering is going to have a greater influence on the way I interact with strangers than the love I learned from my grandmother (which was echoed by my parents).  Compared to what my grandmother taught me, the attitudes modeled by any of the presidents I've been served by (from the Bushes to Clinton to Obama to Trump) have about as much influence as "a fart in a hurricane," as Grandpa likes to say.

And I'm not the only one.  

What if the world is becoming more cruel not because of some shady political conspiracy but because at some point we all began to love "the system" more than the humans who share it with us?  What if, instead of reducing everyone to a demographic category, we assumed that the majority of us have had wonderful grandmothers who taught us to love the stranger and be generous to those we disagree with?  We might get hurt, but I think I'd rather get hurt believing in people than take on the responsibility of judging them.  I would rather treat everyone with kindness because that's the kind of person I'm trying to be, than carry the impossible burden of determining how every other person in the world deserves to be treated because of what they may or may not believe in.

If our children are harsh and ungenerous, it more likely comes from seeing us act that way with each other than from the insidious influence of politicians they've only known about since last year or so.

And if our children are fearful, isn't it likely that they're learning that from us, too?

Please don't misunderstand me.  I don't mean to say that we should stop taking political sides and speaking up for what we believe.  I do have definite opinions about the right way and the wrong way to run a country, and they are probably not the same as yours (at least not all of them).  

But I'm not going to talk to you about our political differences until I've invested in our relationship enough to bear the weight of our disagreement, and then probably only if it comes up naturally in conversation.  

I think I'd rather influence you through who I am and how I love you (as imperfect and awkward as that may be) than how I think you should behave.  It's a longer process, and sometimes you can't even see anything happening.  But you know, all the really good things in life are like that.  I'd rather our relationship grew slowly, sturdily, like a tree, than quickly like grass.

Trees last longer.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hello Again

It's been a while.

I am sorry.

I think I've been waiting to post anything until I had something worthwhile to post, some sort of explanation or justification or even just a bit of resolution to my recent wanderings.  But I can offer you none of those things.  I'm writing this because I'd rather talk to you than wait.  I miss you.

Ever since I left the ship, I've been experiencing my own little "dark night of the soul."  It's a season of dryness, a feeling of distance from God, that scares the poop out of me whenever I think about it too hard (which is pretty much all the time, because I am never not thinking too hard).  I feel like I'm wandering around in a fog.  People keep asking me how things are going, but I can't even tell if I'm advancing or retreating.

Back when I first considered leaving the ship and coming back home I had this mental picture of myself sitting in a huge tree, blithely sawing away at the very branch I sat on.  I suspected I might be headed for some sort of tumble, but I figured that if God was asking me to fall then he would take care of catching me (or picking up the pieces).  And maybe he is doing that.  I just didn't think it would be so humiliating.  Or hurt so much.

I'm alright.  Really, I am.  I know it sounds terribly dreary, but there have been moments of sweetness and beauty too.  My niece Zoe knows who I am now--I mean really knows me.  We have our own little greeting even.  I say, "Hey Z!" (Z for Zoe) and she says, "Hey A!" (A for Auntie Lala--that's me).  I've had some really great conversations with my brother, my sis-in-law, my parents, my grandpa, uncle, cousins, cherished friends.  Things I could never say on the phone were wrestled out in person, and relationships are better for it.  I have been welcomed into homes, fed, ferried around, cared for, prayed for, included in friend circles and family routines.  I am deeply and profoundly loved.  For reals.

And I'm so, so grateful.

I just wish I could give you all some sort of return for the many ways you've invested in me.

Someday I will.
Or maybe I'll pay it forward.

Love is like a micro-loan.  You give yourself to someone in need, and when they're back on their feet, they do the same for someone else.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thirty three

In a couple days, I will be thirty three years old.

I don't even know what  to say about that.  I suppose I should be happy that I've made it this far.

But I'm looking around myself, and I can't see any of those comforting sort of landmarks that indicate a productive and worthwhile (read: normal) life.

I feel like I've let go of everything that made me legit, or even just me, and all I have left is a scared, disappointed, inexorably aging, lonely heart.

I have no children.
I have no husband.
I have no home,
no ship,
no job,
not even a plan.

I haven't earned a doctorate in anything.
I haven't published any books.
I've never been on tv,
or learned kung fu.
I can't even play the piano.

I am absolutely certain that I have not lived up to the potential that has been seen in me.
I'd give back all those awards and scholarships, but I'm sure everyone else has moved on already (and besides, I spent the money).

But here are a few things I do have.

I have family and friends who love me more than I'll ever understand.  People of diverse ages and interests and languages and cultures all hold me in their hearts and number me among their dear ones.  I am loved.  If this were all, it would be enough.  But it's not all.

I also have three diplomas, two certifications, multiple certificates, and various recordings, pictures, and program notes all bearing witness to the fact that I am capable of starting something and seeing it through to the end.

I have two passports full of stamps, spanning twelve years and four continents.

I have a tattoo that reminds me that I am not alone and that some messages are important enough to be carved into your arm.

I have thousands of crazy notions, precious meetings and partings, random adventures, and spectacular opportunities all simmering away in my memory, like ingredients in a delicious gumbo, adding flavor as they steep.

I have survived failure, rejection, neglect, loss, loneliness, bitterness, confusion, doubt, and far too many fears (rational and otherwise).

I have learned the value telling the truth (and the cost), and I know how to stand before several incomplete pictures of the future and make a choice.

And while this particular birthday finds me in what feels like a crazy free fall, I have thirty three years invested in a relationship with a God who has never once failed to catch me.

So maybe it is a happy birthday after all.


Happy Birthday to me.

I am glad to be here.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Big News

I am coming home.

Don't worry, nothing terrible has happened.  In fact, this year has been one of the best years I can remember.  I wish I could go back and live it over again, just because I enjoyed it so much.  Life on this ship is beautiful and amazing, and I only see things getting better for this precious and powerful community next year.  But deep in my heart, in the place where I know things, I know that it's time for me to come home to the US and be there for a while.

Now, I imagine that you probably have one or two questions for me.  I have therefore created this handy-dandy list of "Frequently Asked Questions" for your personal satisfaction and further illumination.

Sarah's Going Home F.A.Q.s

1. When are you coming?
The current plan is for me to finish out the field service here in Tamatave, sail with the ship to Durban, South Africa, and then somehow wend my way to Geneva, Switzerland for one last hurrah with some ship friends (and my mom!).  After that, I'll fly back over the "pond" and be state-side some time around the 12th or 13th of July.

2. What are you going to do when you get here?
This is a very good question.  My first plan is to spend some good quality time with family and friends in California, Idaho, and Washington.  I'm talking like two or three weeks in each place (if you don't mind giving up your couch for that long).  I want to re-connect and to invest in these relationships, to make new memories, to just "be" for a while.
After that, I am not sure what I'm going to do.  I feel myself being drawn in a certain direction, but I haven't quite found the right words to say exactly what that is yet.

3. Where, exactly, is home now?
Honestly, I don't know.  At present, I find myself in the beautiful but heart-breaking position of saying goodbye to a place that has become my home, and to people who have become part of the everyday fabric of Me.  My life is beautiful here.  I love my students, and am so proud of the amazing people they are becoming.  I love my friends, who take such good care of me.  I love my community, this delicious variety of cultures and personalities all bound together for a common purpose.  I love what we stand for, the spiritual hope of Christ made real in the healing and deliverance of the blind, the lame and the outcast.  I wish everyone had a home like this.  I wish we all had the chance to give up a measure of independence and comfort so that we could work as communities to invest in the poor, to heal the broken, to be a living breathing manifestation of the hands and feet of Christ.  I am seriously hoping I can find some sort of community like that when I come back.  I guess when I do, that will be home for me.

4. What about money?
Currently, the money that is donated on my behalf goes into a crew account, from which my crew fees, insurance, and other costs are withdrawn.  When I leave, I would like to transfer any leftover funds into Mercy Ships' general fund, where it will be used to continue the good work that we do here.  Of course I am going to need to spend some money to travel to the states and to start over, and I have a little bit set aside in my own bank account for that purpose.  If you want to help out with that, please let me know so that I can transfer your gift from my crew account to my personal bank account.  Otherwise, any other funds that I receive between now and the end of the field service are going to be used to support Mercy Ships.

5. Is this the end for you and Mercy Ships?
No.  I will always be part of the Mercy Ships family, and I certainly hope that I find myself traveling back to the ship (or even checking out the new ship after it's finished) someday soon.  I just know that for now, I need to spend some time learning how to live in America again.

6. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
African or European?  It doesn't matter because the answer is 42.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Crew Galley

Official Disclaimer:  these are not my muffins.  They are gluten-free peanut butter and chocolate chip muffins, baked by my friend Tracey.  And they are delicious.  

I am not much of a cook.  (Ask me sometime about the 'pickle soup' debacle.)  Oh, I know enough to get by.  I did successfully feed myself for several years before I came to live on this beautiful ship with its steady and sustaining 12-week menu, but I definitely fall into the category of single adult who can be counted on to bring the chips and salsa to pretty much every potluck dinner.  Sometimes I branch out and bring bean dip instead.

My lack of affinity for all things culinary notwithstanding, I want to tell you about one of my very favorite places on the Africa Mercy:  the Crew Galley.  (By the way, "galley" is sailor-speak for "kitchen."  Just so you know.)

All of our official meals are cooked by crew members who have been specially trained to handle massive amounts of food in a real and entirely legit Galley.  I have never been there, but I imagine that it is a miraculous place (making pancakes for a crew of 400 qualifies as a true miracle as far as I'm concerned).  Those of us who like to dabble are allowed to cook things in our own little specially set-aside kitchen, affectionately known as the Crew Galley.  It is a beautiful place.

The kitchen, I think, is really the heart of any house.  You can learn more about a family from half an hour in the kitchen than you could from a whole evening in the living room.  People relax when they cook.  It's warm.  It smells good, and if the conversation slows you've still got something useful to do.  Well, the same is true of our Crew Galley, only our 'family' is a little unusual.  On any given Saturday, you'll find people from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas all cooking their favorite recipes, the ones that remind them of home.  A warm cloud of curry flavored air clashes with the scent of baking brownies and cooling pancakes, all tinged with the metallic essence of the ever-present boiling fish sauce.  Overlapping conversations blend with the counterpoint of Garth Brooks and West African gospel songs, all over the reassuring clatter of pots, pans, oven doors, whisks, blenders, knives, and plastic measuring cups.  People hover around ovens and sinks like bees performing a complicated dance.  I don't have to be part of it, really, but peeking in occasionally to watch makes me feel all contented and steady inside.  I just know that things are going to be okay. If you're ever in the neighborhood, you really ought to stop by and spend a minute or two in our Crew Galley yourself.  It's well worth the time.

The best part?  Sometimes they let you taste the muffins.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Greetings from a B.A. Elf

Merry Christmas, everybody!

You know your students love you when they turn you into an elf with a really cool bow.  It's kind of hard to make out, but those big red patches are part of a giant Santa.  Apparently I'm about to fill his leg with arrows and bring him down like a great red woolly mammoth.  I confess that I'm equal parts proud and appalled.

Well, it's Christmas afternoon and I am sitting in my classroom listening to Michael Buble wonder whether he has told me lately that he loves me.  He hasn't, but that's alright.  I mean, we barely know each other.

Christmas on the Africa Mercy is a bittersweet time.  It's not often you get to celebrate such a well-loved holiday with such a tight-knit community.  Last night, the halls were filled with crew members flitting to and fro like overgrown elves as we filled each other's shoes with little gifts and goodies.  There are cookies and chocolates everywhere.  I had some for breakfast this morning as I opened Christmas presents with a few close friends.  (I got a set of magnets called 'Magnetic Monarchs'--portraits of all the kings and queens of England from William the Conqueror to the current Queen mum with her trusty corgy.  Esther, you know me so well!)  Then we all lazed around until it was time for Christmas Brunch, a true Christmas Feast, after which I felt the sudden urge to clean my cabin and do some laundry.  That last bit might seem a little out of place, but the truth is that in the midst of our celebrations we all have little currents of sadness woven in among the waves of joy that are flowing in and out of our hearts today.  At least, most of us grown-ups do.  And doing laundry can be comforting in a practical, getting-something-accomplished sort of way.  So can blogging, now that I think of it.

I guess I'd just like to say Merry Christmas (again) to everyone.  Because Christmas is a beautiful reminder of the heart of God.  Jesus, who had all the power and glory of God before time began, was so moved by love that he gave it all away on a crazy gamble for our hearts.  He looked at the fiery destruction of all our sins and, instead of turning away, ran straight into the flames to burn with us, and for us, and ultimately, to put the fire out.  He was willing to suffer so that he could draw us up to God.  I will spend my whole life trying to understand it.  

But today, I am just glad that he came.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Life is hard... and other thoughts

Have you ever gone through a season when you'd wake up in the morning and look at yourself and think, Who am I?  Is this even my face anymore?  Heavy stuff to be dealing with at 6:30 in the morning.  This is why I run so often.  When I'm running, all I can really think is, right foot/left foot/right foot/lef...somebody's breakfast smells good.  But my little ole body can't run every morning, and existential crises are no respecters of persons.  In any case, that's what's been going on in my head for the last few weeks.  And it's not a good time to be losing your grip.  I don't know about you, but I feel like this year has brought some particularly tough challenges for everyone.  Ebola, school shootings, ISIS nastiness, droughts, mudslides, separations, rejections, failures... Good thing I'm not the type who worries about everything.  Oh, wait, I am that type.  Rats.

The trouble in the middle east is particularly worrying to me because my brother has been deployed to that area.  This is a picture of him with his daughter Zoe.  He's been out there a month, with six months left to go.  While I realize that this is what he's been trained for, that he made the choice to put his life at risk with open eyes and a willing heart, and while I realize further that if he'd chosen instead to pursue a career in accounting he could still get run over by a bread truck walking home from the office, I still feel like my beating heart is being dangled over a pit full of ravenous wolves.  And I get to watch my sister-in-law and my parents suffer the same worry (and worse) from practically the other side of the world.

Life is hard.

Did I tell you I've been made Head of High School?  Technically, I started learning the ropes last year, but this year is when the rubber began hitting the road for reals.  And you know what?  This whole 'leadership' thing is not easy.  Suddenly, all the problems that I used to quite happily let other people take care of have become mine.  It's not that I have to do all the jobs, but I do have to see that they get done, and the mental burden of it all is surprisingly heavy.  Plus, after all the meetings and emails I still have my own teaching responsibilities, and I am not a fast worker, which sometimes puts me in the awkward position of not having finished the things I've been asking my fellow teachers to do on time.  Also, there's that pesky learning curve to consider, and being in leadership means necessarily that other people will suffer when I mess up(!).  I'm not complaining.  Okay, maybe I am.  I don't regret taking on the job, though.  It is an honor and a blessing, and I just know it must be doing some sort of good.  I'm sure we're all building a lot of character, right?

And then there's facebook.  Gaah!  Facebook! I search my feed hungrily for morsels of home, pictures of family, news of friends, anything that will help me feel connected.  But inevitably, I end up looking at a long line of wedding announcements and baby pictures.  Heck, my friends' babies aren't even babies anymore!  Suddenly, I'm crying all over my lesson plans.  Pull it together, woman!  How many of these same friends are feeling just as small because they don't get to live on a ship in Madagascar?  How can I, in good conscience, complain about ANYTHING when not a hundred meters from where I sit, people who have not had one tenth of the opportunities I've been given are just hoping to be able to walk normally, etc.?  Still, I won't deny that it stings.  After all the Huffington Post articles and mom blogs, I feel like a dead tree in a forgotten garden.  But that's how it is, isn't it?  We none of us know what our own paths are leading to, but we're absolutely sure we can see all the good things on other people's paths, just lying there like ripe apples for them to pick up and enjoy.  Never mind that we have no idea how hard it is for them to keep walking.

I don't want my own petty disappointment to get in the way of any of my relationships.  You are all far too valuable, friends, for me to let go of you.  That's why envy is a sin, you know.  It separates people.  As soon as you start comparing someone else's life to your own, you put them on the other side of a sort of mental see-saw, and the higher they get lifted, the lower you sink.  "She doesn't know what it's like," you say to yourself. "She won't understand, so why bother talking about it?"  Before we know it, we're either worshiping them or hating them, probably both.  Isn't that awful?

Listen, there is enough Beauty in this world for every single one of us to lead breath-taking lives. Beauty and Goodness are eternal things, because they are characteristics of an eternal God.  We are not competing for some finite commodity.  The see-saw is a lie.  Lighting a candle doesn't take away the brightness of those that have already been lit.  In the same way, your gifts and blessings, your triumphs and successes, your moments of love and delight can only add to the brightness of my own life, because I know you, and I love you, and that means that the things that bless you also bless me (just as your hurts also become mine).

So bring it on, Facebook!  Show me all your adorable Instagram pics.  Tell me all about those little angels with their sticky faces and quote-worthy sayings.  I love it.

And I love you, dear friends.  All of you.  Thank you for being part of my beautiful life.

PS- I got a haircut!  You can see it here in this photo of us teachers at the Academy's recent Science Fair. (Just for you, Mom.)