This tomb, seen along the roadside in Israel, reminds me of another tomb where God testified regarding eternal blessing and renewal.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More than all we ask or imagine...

Back in 2001, the vision for Come before Winter hardly exceeded the completion of our first event: an equipping and spiritual renewal for women in ministry serving in Brazil. The team of eight agreed to raise the money and serve based on little more than the calling in each woman's heart. We planned carefully, but when we arrived, we had to admit to the 26 women attending that we hardly knew why we had come. Our own anticipation of witnessing what God would do overshadowed any hope that our own plans would succeed. "Thus," we said, "if at any time we discover that the ministry plan we have brought will not provide what is needed, we promise to toss it out and begin anew!"

For the most part, Come before Winter's business plan has been one of planning, preparation and service, then watching and listening to discover what God has in mind. In response, He has regularly unfolded a ministry that delivers more than we ever asked or imagined. We began, hoping not only to renew hearts, but to infect women in minstry everywhere with a love and commitment to serious Bible study. However, because of our limited language abilities, we knew our first obligation would be to English-speaking women.

As years have passed, God has shown us His amazing penchant for creation, offering us opportunities to serve women who do speak "foreign" languages--even English. Since 2003, I have been blessed to study with groups of women in Russia, Brazil, and Albania, helping nationals to practice the art of biblical study. In 2007, after four years of dedicated study, one such group of Russian women hosted the first Come before Winter renewal in a language other than English. Still, every training event was taught in English.

Germana Downing of Recife, Brazil, attended the first CbW renewal in 2001. She remains one of the ministry's most ardent disciples, having studied with me as she taught Mark, Matthew, Philippians, 2 Corinthians, and 1 John to her own small groups. Married to American-born missionary Dennis Downing, Germana's grasp of the English language, her continual commitment to teaching small groups, and her experience with our approach to the exegetical process inspired my pursuit to teach a four-day study in Mark to a group of Brazilians, half of whom did not speak English.

We met together outside Recife at a small but lovely hotel in the country: ten of us--eight Brazilians, CbW board member Linda Forrister, and myself. As I looked around the group, I could hardly believe what God had done. Of the eight Brazilians, He had given me a personal history with half. Besides Germana, Marisa Signoretti and Marta Braga serve our home congregation as missionaries from Southern Brazil to Natal (in the north). Westover's work in Natal dates back over a decade, and Barry and I have visited Natal multiple times, even hosting the Signorettis in our home while they visited Texas. I know only a few whose gifts for teaching, pastoring, and service equal those of Marisa and Marta. I was even more amazed by the presence of Cida Amazon, a native of Recife who received the gospel while living in Austin, TX, and later attended a small group study in my home before moving back to Brazil. She and her husband Giacamo and their three children now attend church with the Downings, and Cida attends Germana's small group weekly.

I did not know what to expect; I had never taught for four days, stopping after each phrase to wait for translation. Once again, I had to go on faith, admitting (again) that if God failed to show up, the entire effort would fail. I have taught women biblical exegesis for over a decade now, and the process never fails to challenge. I often hear student complaints. "Who cares?" they ask. "Need Bible study be so challenging?"

What an amazing experience we had in Brazil! Despite hearing everything twice due to translation, these women literally ate the Word and the concept. They engaged the book and the process with questions that revealed sincere commitments to hear, understand and see Mark's Jesus. By the morning of the fourth day, they sat around a table together, sharing in tears what they had learned and how these lessons would be put to work at specific points in their lives the next week. They also committed to complete their study of Mark by early next year and to host a study for women, sharing what they learned. Since our departure, they have already met twice to begin working toward these goals. If all goes well, and I have every confidence it will, Linda and I plan to return next fall to continue our study in another book.

Wow, God! Wow!

Winging our way home on the winds of prayer

One week ago today, I was on an airplane, returning from Brazil on one of the most convoluted journeys to date. The trip itself (time spent in Brazil with Germana Downing of Recife and seven other Brazilian women sandwiched between short visits with Germana's family) had been a total delight. God blessed the four-day seminar, engaging the book of Mark in ways I could never have planned. Traveling buddy Linda Forrister and I agreed that our time in Brazil had been time well spent.

The trip home was something else. We began our day in Germana and Dennis's kitchen, praying for her family, particularly her two beautiful daughters Paulina and Victoria who faced a round of significant tests later in the week. I remembered off and on all day and night that Dennis prayed for us and our trip, as well--a trip that would be riddled with mechanical difficulties.

Within 30 minutes of our prayer, the transmission in Dennis's car gave way in the middle of a six-lane divided thoroughfare on the way to the airport--but praise the Lord! The car immediately following proved to be an empty taxi; we were able to offload our luggage (in the middle of the street!) from the Downing's trunk to the taxi and continue on!

Since we were trying to check in two hours before takeoff, we thought time was tight. But no, the plane from Salvador, Brazil, was delayed for undisclosed reasons. I am guessing that delay was rooted in mechanical issues, as well. I say this because of the announcement that greeted the passengers on AA 980 about two hours before our anticipated arrival in Miami: the deicer on one of the wings was not working. "Though it is nothing to worry about, federal law requires that we set down at the next nearest airport--San Juan, Puerto Rico." So, we did.

Instead of arriving in Miami at 5:55 p.m., per our original itinerary, we arrived at 2 a.m.--only a slight variation in plans. The bad news: the AA attendant in San Juan had scheduled us for a 7:30 a.m. departure the next morning. Including travel time to and from the Doubletree (where American was picking up the bill) and an hour lead time for check-in, we could sleep about three and a half hours after our 20-hour travel day--maybe. Thankfully, the representative at the end of yet another line in Miami found us a later departure, affording us six hours of sleep. More lines for flight changes in Dallas, and we arrived in Austin early afternoon, thankful for a safe, if unbelievably difficult, journey.

In spite of it all, we were remarkably blessed. We did land safely! We never waited hours in line, though some did. The shuttles were waiting, both to and from the Miami hotel (which had wonderful soft linens on luxurious queen beds!). AA picked up the tabs for all our meals. Even elevator doors opened on our approach. I am not sure I ever remember so many little things going absolutely perfect! Blind luck? Blessing?

Thank you, God! And thank you, Dennis (and everyone else!), for your prayers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three-Year-Old Angel, Bearbarry's Swingin', Dancin' Delight

I never thought I’d understand when my husband “fell in love” with another woman, but I do.

In truth, he’s “in love” with two (to date)—our granddaughters Eleanor Abigail and Elizabeth Lenna. This post is in honor of Eleanor, our second oldest grandchild who turned three on September 24. The flu, a bad back, and preparations for a trip to Brazil have delayed this post.

Still, NO ONE makes you feel more special than this little lady—Bearbarry’s (her rendition of “Granbarry”) and Dranna’s (same story for “Granna”) precious princess. She has a laugh that can supply enough energy to light up the world and a spirit that calls for everyone to step in line.

Eleanor entered our lives softly. She was born four weeks early—tiny and beautiful. Her mom
said that from the beginning she held her hands around her face in the traditional “princess pose” (see picture at right), and we thought that was appropriate. She was a perfect lady, after all—easily pacified in daylight hours, at least. She slept and ate and smiled and cooed at all the appropriate times. Her gentle spirit drew us in as she claimed her space in our hearts.

She has the prettiest red lips any of us had ever seen. Jo's mom accused her of putting lipstick on her to take her picture...but no! It's all natural.
I want to share a few meories:

First Chrstmas in New Mexico: A little bewildered, but all bundled up for a sleigh ride in the snow.

Granna's model: Is there anything better than taking pictures of your grandkids? And look, what great material!

Daddy's girl: This little one has melted and molded her Daddy's heart. One of my all-time favorite "store-it-away-in-my-heart" memories is of Brent, looking at his daughter and sitting by Jo at the hospital on the day Eleanor was born. The look on his face said it all. The lights had come on, and this man was just beginning to envision the delights life would hold as a father.

Second birthday: Since we couldn't be there on her special day (we went a few days after), we sent balloons! I didn't know if she would be old enough to enjoy! But oh my, she LOVED IT! It made my day!

Granbarry's girl: On the weekend of the Bosnia team's training retreat, we thought Jo had gone into labor. Since I was at the pretreat, as we call it, Barry went alone to DFW. The house was a hive of activity, and he spent the weekend crawling on the floor with Eleanor. From that day forward, no one, and I mean no one, has held a candle to "Bearbarry." Eleanor's love for her Granbarry (who I also called "Bear" while we were dating) has delighted her grandfather's heart like nothing I have ever seen. My eyes get misty just typing the words. While I may gain some ground occasionally (coloring, baking cookies, playing in the playhouse under the stairs), Granbarry is not to be displaced. She loves him so well! Hats off to you, Eleanor! Happy third birthday (a couple weeks late)! I love you so much!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Preparing for Brazilian Study Seminar

The emails keep coming: translation, "more" translation, translation "again," and "still more" translation. I open each one, read the sweet note from my Brazilian partner, then crack open the attachment and start copying and pasting.

I'm publishing--in Portuguese. Technology is amazing! Using the latest version of two English Come before Winter notebooks, I managed to pull together the text for a new 23-page study guide on the exegesis of Mark.

My precious Brazilian friend and study buddy (turned Portuguese translator) Germana Downing translated every word and continues to send it back as she finishes specific pages. I only need copy paragraphs of Portuguese over the corresponding English in the publishing file's various text boxes--and voila! I (who can read not one word of Portuguese) am publishing in an unknown tongue! Move over, Pentecost! (Okay, so that's tongue in cheek.)

Having taught journalism for ten years while sponsoring literally hundreds of student newspapers and too many yearbooks, I am keenly aware that it shouldn't be so easy. There are issues in dealing with type! A story rewrite will rarely fit into the same template box as the first draft--even when they are both in English! I don't know why that is true, but it's a rule--similar in nature to trying to put a man's dress shirt back into the wrapper once it has been unpinned and unfolded. Good luck!

Yet these 23 pages have almost fallen into place, and I am so thankful. Thank you, God! I'm a believer in current day miracles!

I think it's a good sign: God is already blessing the four-day seminar we will host in Brazil week after next. Linda Forrister (CbW board member, friend, and traveling/ministry buddy) and I will join Germana to host a teaching seminar on the book of Mark in Portuguese.

Germana, who attended the first-ever Come before Winter renewal (Brazil, 2001), was one of the first to fall in love with the ministry's approach to study. Since that time, she and a group of women in and around Recife have studied with me the books of Mark, Matthew, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and 1 John. Our goal in Recife later this month will be to further enhance this group's exegetical skills to the point that they soon will be able to teach the approach to others. We have hosted similar seminars in Russia and Albania. The Russians (after three consecutive years of study seminars) hosted their own renewal in Russian in October, 2007. May the Brazilians be so blessed!

Linda and I will depart (Lord willing) Sunday, October 11. Please join us as we pray for God to allow for the presence of each woman who has planned to attend. Pray that the translation/teaching will be rich, despite the language differences. Pray for hearts to open to one another in prayer and encouragement and pray for each woman to be blessed and renewed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fall: Preparing to Claim the Growth of Another Year

I continue to marvel at the order of this world. September rolled around, and automatically the days became cooler, the air a bit clearer, and my energy levels began to rebound. Amazing!

I once read that everyone has a cycle of energy and efficiency, a time when the stars align (not literally), resulting in greater productivity, more emotional stability, even happiness. Somewhere back in the day, I discovered that my clock reads “fall.” I am unsure whether I developed this rhythm from so many years returning to school--as a child, in college, then as a mother and a teacher--or whether I liked school because it rolled around every year at the time when I felt the best, but I love it. I love the colors, the air, the temperatures, Longhorn football,--and seeing my boys (all four) love Longhorn football--sweaters, boots, and fires in the fireplaces. Okay, so now I am into a Texas winter, but I like it all.

Come before Winter has blessed my fall several times. We were in Italy and Germany and Russia in the falls of 02, 05, and 07; last fall we hosted our first stateside renewal in Texas. Three October trips to Siberia rank high on my list, not to mention my favorite fall experiences—three fall vacations with my hubby.

A part of me thinks that's odd—rather out-of-sync, likely fall, that is. I mean, really, things begin to die in fall, don’t they? Or is it just shedding the past year’s growth in preparation for the promise of what’s to come? Isn't it all part of renewal?

I get excited when I think about what God might have in mind for 2010. My calendar is already marked with things I am praying occur: My youngest will leave (Lord willing) for a six-month mission to Swaziland in January. Shane and Kara will be revving up their ministries in Mexia, and Brent just might put the entirety of the CPA exam behind him in 2010—hope, hope! Come before Winter will be traveling to Paraguay in March and to Thailand in June. Our younger protégé teachers, Brooke Hollingsworth and Arlene Kasselman will take over all the lead teaching in Thailand, and Jeanene and I will turn our sights toward developing what we hope becomes an advanced seminar—a pilgrimage, of sorts.

As last year’s growth prepares to drop off, I am hopeful that something about it looks half as beautiful to others as the fall leaves look to me. I am feeling a sense of fulfillment, a testimony from within that declares that God has not only carried me through another year but that somehow, He has allowed me to participate with Him in His Work. And I am looking forward to 2010 and what will surely emerge, clearly autographed as the sanctified art of YHWH.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chinese Excursion

We returned home from Beijing Tuesday morning--early; we were in bed and turning out the lights just as the Lord was raising one very large one to begin a clear blue central Texas day outside our bedroom window: 5 a.m. Today is Saturday, my birthday, actually, and I was hoping that tonight might be the night I went to sleep before midnight and didn't awaken until the next morning--not just a couple hours later. It is now after midnight! I am not so good at uploading these pictures!

China was full of surprises. One minor surprise was the fact that Facebook and all blogs are blocked in the People's Republic. Thus, it was impossible to post. I hope to write more about various thoughts and impressions, but tonight I want to post a few of the surprises that awaited us on the other side of the globe:
We rarely saw the sun--and NOT because it rained every day. The air was extraordinarily polluted. We were blessed with one day (in 14) when we could see blue sky through the haze. Thankfully, it was the day we went to the Great Wall (an amazing sight!). On another day, we could "see" the sun. Check out the picture at the right. We are told that once upon a time residents of Beijing could see that the city lay at the foot of mountains. No longer. The view from our 18th floor hotel room did not always allow a view more than 5-6 blocks away.
  • We worshiped in a government building on our last Sunday. I had to pinch myself throughout the days of the Asian Missions Forum to remind myself that I was in Communist China.

The food:

We ate Tex-Mex twice! Maybe it wasn't the best, but I have had MUCH worse in the Lone Star State! And, oh, what a treat in China!

We learned we could eat with chopsticks. Barry thought that if we stayed long enough, we would have definitely lost weight, though. Check out the size of his bite in this picture!

Additionally, KFC appeared to be a Chinese staple--every 100-200 yards in some places and always crowded.

Unless I have missed something, today's Chinese architecture is far more advanced than in the U.S. This building was built for the Olympics, representing the "flame." Barry and I wondered whether the lack of such diversity in the U.S. was strictly due to the artistic passions in China or whether labor costs here might prohibit such daring design? Whatever it is, I loved it, and I have heard that Shanghai is even more amazing.
No gray hair! Well, almost none. I was told by someone that gray hair is disgraceful. (Is that true?) We did see this older, and I think rather distinguished looking gentleman, on the street, but otherwise among hundreds, even thousands of heads of all ages--almost everyone had dark black hair.

Many love their pet birds, taking them out for walks, carrying them along the street, and to outings in the park. (It is a bird in the older gentleman's cage on the left).

My experience at the Asian Missions Forum was a total blessing--one of the most positive teaching experiences to date and a spiritually uplifting time personally. Thanks to Gary and Danita Jackson, Beijing missionaries, and the other teams of missionaries in Beijing who played host to all of us, and thanks to Monte Cox and Dan Rodriguez for inspiring and challenging messages and to everyone who attended from various areas of China, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Russia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the United States and I know others I am forgetting--only because of my feeble mind.
A special thanks, to Timur and Irena Rahimov from Tomsk, Russia, who met Barry and I at AMF (and to everyone who helped make that possible); you are (all) a blessing to my life.

Since I lost the camera I had taken before the conference began), I am greatly indebted to Timur Rahimov for most of these photos. Longtime friend Ron Green took the one of us on the Wall.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Princess!

Elizabeth turned four on July 12. That is, four YEARS old. I can hardly believe we have had her for so long; only one short year and she begins school! Can that be? I already grieve the disappearance of that little baby that could laugh out loud with me for five minutes at a time from the age of 6 months—no kidding. I never knew what could be so funny to her; she was the item that kept me laughing. She had/has the most contagious laugh I have ever heard. We were (I was, definitely) silly, maybe because our emotional ages seemed to be perfectly aligned!

My mother died when I was 21. As a young girl, she had told me over and over that she wanted more than to be my mother; she wanted to be my best friend. She didn’t mean that she wanted to act juvenile or that she refused to be a disciplinarian—she was never the former and always the latter. She meant that she wanted to be close; she wanted me to want to spend time with her. She wanted to matter in my life, and she did. I married at age 19 (I can hardly believe it myself by now), and though I dearly loved my husband and believed then and until this day that he was the best choice I ever made, I missed my mom. We had just gotten to know one another again—after the requisite years of tension known as my teens (and even then we never had the kind of volatile relationships some of my friends had with their moms). So, when Mother died only two years after I married, I was devastated; truly I had lost my best friend. One of the things that sustained me through those months was my hope that one day I would have a daughter with whom I might rekindle the deep, emotional fellowship I shared with my mom.

Well, I didn’t have a daughter. God blessed my life with three sons, three marvelously diverse, incredibly handsome young men. I honestly believe that from the moment of their births, I celebrated each of them with as much vigor as any mother could, and I worked hard to build a personal relationship with each one. I tried with a good measure of success to reserve time every week to be alone with each one—until they outgrew the experience…and, of course, they did. When they became men, their dad began receiving more phone calls (as well should be); watching their relationships with him blossom blessed me, too. I could see some of my relationship with my mom in their interaction with him. As a mom, my children have blessed me extraordinarily. They have treated me far better than any daughter ever treated her mom; mothers of sons get the kind of honor every woman craves, and I love every minute of it! But I always wondered what God had in mind when I didn’t have a daughter. Well, I think I have an idea, but this is not the place for that topic.

When our eldest Shane and his beautiful wife Kara announced they were expecting, we all anticipated a boy. Why not? The Alexanders have boys! But God had unfinished business.

Elizabeth Lenna Alexander (My mother’s first name was Lenna) was born July 12, 2005. She has blessed us all with more joy than we could ever anticipate. A friend of mine told me before she was born: “You will be totally unprepared for how totally overwhelmingly wonderful it is to be a grandmother.” She was so right! I have never been the same since.

I now have two granddaughters (delights in every way) and two grandsons (also delightful, these guys bring home such amazing memories). Elizabeth and Eleanor. Peyton and Asa. Thank you, God.

On Sunday, July 12, we worshiped on the ranch—at its highest peek. Some of the time, I held Elizabeth in my lap (when she wasn’t loitering far too near the edge of the cliff). As I held her, my mind retraced some the journey of these past four years:

• Her first birthday party (thrown by Granna): she was two weeks old (isn’t that crazy?)

• Our first “giggle fit,” reading the little book, “Here we go round the mulberry bush,” and all those that followed. –six months

• Listening as she argued with herself about whether she really needed the milk she so badly wanted: “I want miiiiilk…. No, no, I don’t-want miiilk…. “I WANT MIIILK!”

• Hearing her call up from the bottom of the stairs when she thought it was time for me to get out of bed and join her and her Granbarry downstairs—“Gran-aaaahhh!”—18 months

• Her first Easter dress after she could walk…sliding out like a princess to show off for Daddy. 20 months

• Waiting (impatiently) on Peyton, then being totally surprised and infatuated when he arrived!—2 years

• Playing “I ‘py” (I spy) with Granna all the way home from Colorado—three years

• A never-ending cue for laughter and silliness: “Granna, let’s just talk about puppy dogs and kitty cats, okay? –three years

• Loving (and, well hating is far too strong a word) Shiloh, her puppy.—3.5 years

• Loving the repetition: “Granna,” she has often said, “You’re my best friend.”

Happy birthday, Princess! You make my life so rich!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts from the Sea

Last week, I had opportunity to sit in the warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico with my granddaughter Elizabeth. Every morning Elizabeth swore to each of us that while she was “going to the beach,” she was not going to “swim at the beach.” Actually, Elizabeth doesn’t yet swim anywhere. She meant she was not planning to get in the water; she would play in the sand, but the water hurt her eyes. Each morning we agreed: don’t get in the water if you don’t want, but certainly come to the beach. She would nod. Yet, each morning before the carloads of supplies were fully unloaded onto the sand, Elizabeth ran into the water. The allure of the waves seemed to call her name, and she couldn’t resist their beckoning.

Elizabeth is only three, however; she will be four in a couple of weeks. And even if she were a swimmer, she would not be strong enough to deal with the waves of the sea. So each morning when she ventured out toward the surf, one of us followed. It was often me. I would take her hand and together we would walk into the water until the waves reached just above her knees (not very far) and we would sit together, tossed and turned, talking and laughing, both of us pondering in our own ways the motion of the sea.

As I sat in the water, holding little Elizabeth tightly in my lap, our backs to the waves, the variety in the swells caught my attention. Certainly some of the ocean’s waves merely roll past, a rise and fall of water. Yet even on the calmest shore, waves gather momentum. Some cap, others do not; but even those that cap bear variety. In my attempts to protect her eyes, I tried to keep at least one of my own focused on the waves, an attempt to anticipate their force. But I was tricked at first. Some that had capped with vigor just a few feet behind us seemed only to wash over us, devoid of the anticipated force. Others that capped in exactly the same fashion crashed into us with such strength that only the most determined concentration allowed us to remain in our place.

That’s when I began to understand the power of the undertow—the force that pulls the waves back out to sea thus acting in obedience to God’s command: “You may come this far, but no further.” Like the waves, the undertow moves in and out. When it moved in, the waves could crash into my back with seemingly unrestrained force—as if even in the shallow waters on the beach, all the power of the sea were moving in one direction. But when the tide changed, the deepest water—that nearest the ocean floor—began to revert, moving against the incoming wave with enough authority to suck the water back out to sea; the wave’s crashing power overcome.

Truly, life is not a beach. But perhaps life under the power and authority of God is not so different. The one who commands the waves will also orchestrate life. In the seemingly unpredictable tides of life, there remains an undertow of control, a force strong enough to not only tame the waves, but to design them. Life jerks us out of any attempt to control our own destiny. Life’s surges can offer mornings sitting in the surf with a child tucked protectively under one’s arm or thrilling moments when one might ride the waves, but they also produce hurricanes and tsunamis when the power of the sea seems to reign unrestrained and uncontrollable. How might we justify such a disparity?

Perhaps we miss the point. Left to human power and understanding, the waves and the sea are uncontrollable! But there is One whose authority dominates creation, One who imagined it all and formed it all. What if the only response is to rest there, in the power and authority of God, allowing the undertow of Will to reign? What if a connection to that safe place is the only answer?

Yes, the waves can be dangerous! But without the crashing waves, the beach would be only a scorching and unproductive dessert. Barry’s mom even noted the similarity as we neared the coast—the barren landscape stretching out before us with only little and low vegetation. The water, uncontrollable as it may be, calls us to the beach, cooling the coastal breezes and evaporating just above the horizon, blurring the definition between the water and sky, the earth and the heavens. And life is like that, too, a veritable smorgasbord of experience.

When I am near the beach, just the sound of the ocean, that audible struggle between the crashing waves and the authoritative undertow, possesses a power to still my last frayed nerve, to calm my spirit. Thus despite the heat I will open windows and doors, sit outside on patios and decks, walk along shore, or build sand castles all morning in the relentless sun to partake of its therapeutic offering. Like Elizabeth I too awoke each morning, thinking that perhaps I might skip the beach that day. But like Elizabeth I also went there each morning—along with Eleanor, Asa, and Peyton, their parents Shane and Kara and Jo and Brent, their Uncle Zach and Granbarry and great-grandmother Granbe—and the three carloads of things we would need to exist there. Why? Because anything that calms the spirit so effectively eventually wins me over.

And so it is with the Lord. Existing on the beach of life requires camping near the Maker. So I look for the moments when I might come to know Him better. Like a trip to the beach, not everything about arranging those moments seems enjoyable. There are any number of packages that must come along, be carried over the dunes of everyday life toward the water in order to enjoy the soothing ebb and flow of its tides. But I go, and when I don’t, I miss the unspoken instruction of the waves, God’s claim that only Authority will rule chaos.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aussi, Aussi, Oi, Oi, Oi!

"This one has to rank somewhere at the very top!" said Suzy Jeffrey as she and I walked to the elevator after closing the Australian renewal--our 17th. I agreed. What an amazing week with such touching, beautiful, godly women!

The Gold Coast Renewal, held May 25-29 at Surfer's Paradise Hotel Watermark, went off without a hitch. The women arrived early, we never heard a word of complaint about the schedule, which opens each day with a 7:30 a.m. worship before breakfast and ends each night at 10 p.m., following 15 minutes of evening prayer. They arrived on time, engaged the process wholeheartedly, tackled their assignments with expectation, saved us places at dinner, and laughed at our facial hair on Thursday night! It doesn't get any better than that!

The food was out of this world, beautifully presented and sumptuous. The Waves Restaurant offered daily an omelet chef for breakfast (and/or you could have eggs, sausages, pancakes, yogurt, fruit, cereals, pastries, toasts...almost anything you could imagine). Lunch menus included pizza, burger plates, stir fry, fish and chips, and the evenings...yum. The dinner delivery included a stir fry station, an Indian station, a pasta station, plus all variety of steamed seafood--prawns, oysters, crab, and even several dessert bars. It was delightful and certainly a highlight of this particular renewal. The food has never been better (though Germany in '05 could be a rival).
The women won our hearts with their sweet and stoic presentations and their vulnerable, surrendered hearts. One-on-one prayer times blessed and challenged us as much as them. I am unsure whether I have ever met a sweeter group of God's servants: unassuming, genuine, and fun. The reading groups were lively and interactive, and these women engaged the artistic reflection with a joy that made all of us want to run in for another try. Their work was outstanding--beautiful. As a group, they crafted the most artistic pieces ever. Our newest lead teachers, Brooke Hollingsworth and Arlene Kasselman, delivered inspiring, mature, and instructive presentations. The sharing was open and honest, confessional and full of love and prayer. Sweet! So sweet! Our youngest "Aussi girl," little Ella, daughter of Nicole Whaley, blessed us with her guarded smiles and sweet cheeks, just right for kissing! She served as a reminder all week that God's hesed, his steadfast love, endures to our children's children.

And the Thursday night celebration? The waiter commented to Mariana: "I have never seen people have this much fun without alcohol!" As we wrapped it up that night, he added, "Best night's work ever!" To be honest, the party was exceptional. Jocelyn Reese Wiebe and Georgia Freitas of Dallas set the celebration bar even higher with their rendition of our Texas Country Party, complete with our silly dances (line, cotton-eyed Joe, even the chicken dance). This time, though, she surprised the team with mustaches and wanted posters. Each woman received a bandanna and a sherriff's star in order to be able to deal with the 12 banditos that roamed the room. The hotel served up what they called a Texas barbecue. Though it wasn't very Texas, it was even better since it contained not only steaks but that great seafood we had been getting all week.

On Friday, our closing worship was the one of the sweetest I can remember, full of expressions of love and praise from the women of New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia. The closing ceremony rang out with personal exclamations that proclaimed how well we had grown to love and understand one another in a week's time. Then we said goodbye to 40 new friends and ended the renewal tired, but with enough energy to look forward to the next week. We left Surfer's Paradise early Saturday morning, May 29, to fly to stifling hot Papua New Guinea where we would begin our work again with 41 new women two days later, June 1.

During our sharing, Maxine Klingenberg had told of taking her little granddaughter to the Special Olympics a few years earlier. The particular race of which she spoke began without much fanfare. The lethargic audience remained quiet as the athletes made their way with much effort around the track. However, Maxine's granddaughter knew that one of her countrymen was running. "Where is he? Where's the Aussi," she would ask. Then on each lap as the young disabled runner would approach her side of the track, one small voice in the crowd began to yell the country's chant: "Aussi, Aussi, Aussi, Oi, Oi, Oi!" At first no one paid much attention to the voice, but as the race advanced and the runner tired, one voice became a few, then more, then grew to encompass the whole crowd. One voice had made all the difference as the young runner finished his race, head held high.

The Australian missionaries serve a difficult field. Though the food is scrumptious and the land is beautiful, the people remain godless to a great extent, certainly "Post Christian." Though two-thirds of the population claim at least a "nominal" faith in God, fully one-third claim no faith in anything whatsoever. I sat next to a couple on my overseas flight home; the two women seemed truly curious about my reasons for having been in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They asked several questions throughout the "night." At breakfast the barrage began as they tag-teamed to instruct me regarding aspects of biblical inconsistency and opinion. Though they were asking questions, they rarely waited to hear an answer. Instead, they spoke more to one another.

"I think religion is for those a bit daft, don't you?"

"I think God would much rather have me help my mum in the garden on a Sunday morning than go to church with a group of do-gooders who only want to tell me I am going to hell; I don't believe that!"

They were nice enough girls; they had been polite throughout the night; they had wanted to engage me in conversation, but they had no desire to hear anyone who might point out that they had totally mistaken Christianity and Christ as voices intent on condemning souls to hell. They had made up their minds already. In the stadium of life's race, one significant runner remained unseen; Christ had become just another part of the drabness in life.

That was when I thought of Maxine Klingenberg, Mary Hobbs, Marina Gray, Stacey Power, and Little Ella Whaley in Australia, of Anna, Va, Nancy and Nilu from Fiji, of Bernadine, Helen Mary, Melinda and the others from New Zealand. Lord multiply their lone voices so they can lead the chant directing others to see you! Aussi, Aussi, Aussi, Oi, Oi, Oi! to all Christians in the South Pacific, whether they be in Australia, New Zealand, or Fiji or elsewhere! Aussi, Aussi, Aussi, Oi, Oi, Oi!

Or something just like it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More pictures and comments about PNG

Our luggage which contains not only our personal items but an entire renewal's materials, appears legendary. When we travel, we look like Victorian women on a cross-Atlantic journey. We have difficulty expressing the volume to those who plan to transport us from the airport to the hotel. Thus we often find ourselves in what could be embarrassing situations had we not had to surrender our pride years ago. Can you see the tire deflating as the heavy suitcases are loaded into the small truck?

The potholes in the roads (it was rainy season, to be fair) could swallow whole vehicles. Drivers darted back and forth across the roads, missing as many as possible while team members rocked and rolled along, taking pictures and marveling at the ride!

The beautiful paradise we
visited boasted more natural inhabitants--those that flew. The hotel staff warned some of us upon arrival on that fruit bats lived in the trees and had been known to occasionally swoop down on an unprepared visitor. We kept the knowledge to ourselves, however, to protect team members whose phobias might not have permitted them a moment's rest had they known what could happen. Only at the end of the week did Mariana snap this shot, telling us that these bats were not the 6-12 inch variety we had envisioned, but had a wing span more like that of an eagle--almost 3 feet in diameter. Oh, my. With or without phobias, my stomach began to roll as I looked at the picture! Sorry, AK, the secrecy was out of love!

Heads UP!

The coconut trees were gorgeous and the fruit literally dropped to the ground around us... with such veracity that we didn't need the warning from the locals: "Beware!" Though the fastest way to the meeting room was through the groves, you went at your own risk. A falling coconut to the head would cause concussions...or worse!

Safe and Sound!
Although there were many hazards, we were well protected. The resort grounds were guarded all night by (I believe) eight native men, seriously armed with bows and arrows.

PNG finds sweet spot in memory bank

Each renewal spreads its own blanket on the lawn of my memory. They invite me over to feast on picnics lovingly packed, enjoyed with good friends on autumn afternoons or spring mornings. No matter the actual temperature at a renewal, whether a blustering snow storm in Russia (2003) or the sweltering temps of Thailand (2003), Benin (2004), Indonesia (2006), Kenya (2007) or Papua New Guinea (last week), the memory eventually records the days as more than pleasant--they are extraordinarily sweet, always enjoyable.

The fact that the team has threatened me if I post our pictures, the ones that show exactly how bad we actually looked last week, remains beside the point. For even today, only three days after my return, the memories have begun to shift away from the stifling, thick, and humid air and the perspiration- (make that sweat-) covered limbs to matters of more importance. I recall the precious, godly servants who attended, women weary and worn from life in such an extreme environment, women whose hearts long to serve God as if every day could be lived in the energy of fall afternoons or spring mornings.

Though we grow amused with our repititions, we again admit that we have never hosted a renewal like this one. Then again, we have never before visited Papua New Guinea, home of the largest mission post in the world--Ukarumpa. By now, we long to see this "city," this one square mile of something that must be similar to a military outpost, built for the safety of the troops. About 80 percent of our 41 participants serve there. We are told that the fence bears barbed wire coils across the top, that it is guarded night and day and that the tribes that inhabit the area are at war; the children can count the armed guards and hear the gunshots from the battles outside the walls. Inside the walls live about 1500 who support Wycliffe's work to translate the Bible into the 800-odd languages that inhabit this small South Pacific country. They are linguists who enter the villages to learn those languages, sometimes even developing the written language and teaching it to the natives; they are translators going back and forth between the village and "city," busily exegeting the current text, translating and preparing to translate the Bible into the natives' languages; they are teachers, assigned to the area's school where about 250 students from more than a dozen nationalities receive their educations; they are workers who assign housing, receive goods, and generally work in support of one another. Those who must go out into the villages do so for stints averaging 4-6 weeks at a time. Children younger than seventh grade can go with their parents. After seventh grade, their timely education demands that they remain behind in a hostel with loving care-givers, but separated from their parents, nonetheless.

These are women who believe in the sacrifice they are making, but that does not make the sacrifice any less difficult. They are not complainers; they are disciplined and decided and determined. Most live in the "Highlands," that is in the mountains of the country where it is cooler, but also more remote than the resort where we stayed. They have limited Internet access, limited food options, and limited medical care. An injury or illness of any consequence requires an air-lift to Caines, Australia, an expensive endeavor that leaves families in debt. Because they move to and from the various villages, they rarely lodge in the same place more than a group of months. Each time they go to the village, most must move out--lock, stock, and barrel--to make room for the next. When they return, they usually move into different lodging. Each of these missionaries raise their own support but work, nevertheless, within long-established rules and disciplines. Wycliffe missionaries founded the city in the mid-to-late 50s. More than one of those we served had parents or friends who had served there a generation earlier. Like all places, it is a place to love and a place of challenge, but it is life.

We can blame that life for the fact that we had more cancellations (all for good cause) than ever before; it is also the reason we filled every slot as fast as it came open. In the last week before the renewal, we had four cancellations and six additions--four new names surfaced after we left home. Whereas Monday morning (the day we open) is normally reserved for mental preparations and putting together last minute details, the Monday in PNG was full of decisions and just plain hard work. Someone who has never seen our program cannot truly appreciate all that had to be done for one addition--much less four! We had to rearrange our rooming lists which had been "finalized" a couple weeks earlier. The hotel had no more vacancies, but they were willing to add beds to rooms we had already reserved. Rearranging rooms meant switching roommates, a prayerful effort requiring lots of attention to age, ministry, interests and requests. And of course, we had to locate more gifts, more notebooks and materials, name tags--well everything. For the first time ever, we had to improvise because the number had outgrown our provision. I was so proud of the team; we adjusted, bringing to bear all of our creativity and flexiblitly; each one stepped up to fill the gap as we set about to mirror our God and bring order out of chaos. Even so, we were (almost) ready when the women began arriving a few hours before registration officially opened. That is, we were ready except for showers, our team picture and our final prayer time.

Once a renewal begins, the experience is like slipping off the side of a mountain crevice in snow skis--a free fall of exhilaration and excitement. Once you touch the ground, you depend on each turn to provide the necessary control to maintain balance and progress down the hill. My friend Mariana Long sighed in Australia on Monday morning a few hours before opening, "It is almost over," she said. She was right. That is exactly how it feels. We have worked years on a renewal to get to Monday, but once the opening ceremony begins, any old hand knows that the time is already drawing to a close, so quickly one stage follows the next.

And so it was in PNG. Clusters began after Monday's dinner, a nightly time of sharing and prayer in a small group. Reading groups, times for examining the text, begin on Tuesday morning, as do three different "brands" of reflection--silent, active and artistic. One-on-one personal prayer appointments begin Tuesday afternoon. By Wednesday night, all the scheduled "classes," reflective periods, and individual prayer sessions are complete. Thursday becomes a day of sharing what God has done, a day of celebration! Friday awakens with the closing ceremony, lunch and departure.

The time slips by in a mist, but such a beautiful haze it is, airbrushing the horizons of each picture with a vignette that somehow captures the sweetness of the Christian experience. Each one can be framed in joy and thanksgiving. We loved our time in PNG, meeting some of God's most diligent and sacrificial servants, and when we left, it was if the island demanded that we leave a part of our hearts behind. So we did; it seemed only appropriate.

Photos by the FABULOUS Mariana Long.