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

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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The long journey home

Is it possible to suffer from jetlag after two nights sleep? I imagine, but I hope not. However, it is 11 p.m. and I am not sleepy. Our trip home keeps rolling over me like waves on a beach--or is that the jet lag that is making me dizzy?

I arrived in Austin about 6 p.m. Sunday night, June 7. The trip was long and arduous and not a little difficult (that is, "it was hard"). What else is new?

We had suffered (yes, that is not an exaggeration) through a delayed departure in Madang on Saturday morning (three HOT hours on wooden benches, after realizing I had lost my wallet and six debit and credit cards). I had already called Barry to inform him so that he could check the accounts and cancel whatever was needed. He sighed, and I laughed: "I'm baaaacccckkkk." He laughed. Thank you, God, for my precious husband.

The delay was just the beginning of our long journey home. Leaving Madang three hours late meant a "tense time" in Port Moresby. We landed with only 18 minutes to make our connection to Brisbane, but Air Niugini (pronounce that Air New Guinea, we learned) was determined. They picked us up at the baggage claim, took all our baggage tickets away from us so they could collect our luggage, then because it started coming off so quickly, let us pick them out ourselves. Then they hustled us off in three or four groups to our flight. The first group was led astray .... somewhere; we almost lost them entirely. The incredibly kind woman behind the counter issued our boarding passes so quickly, we were amazed. Then we found they were a mass of confusion (Jeanene's said "Jocelyn Reese." Jocelyn, Jeanene's daughtger whose name is now Wiebe, had a boarding pass--"Jeanene Reese." That is easy enough to understand if you know that Jocelyn's name has only been amended on her passport's last page, so the first page still says "Reese." But tell me why my boarding pass read, Mariana Long?" It was crazy! Still, you have to hand it to Air Niugini, they did get us on the plane, assuring us that our luggage was with us! But how could that be?

Landing in Brisbane, none of twelve bags had arrived. That was a bigger problem for teammate Jeanene Reese, who was flying on to New Zealand for time with hubby Jack, followed by teaching a two-week class. The rest of us were "overnighting" in a nice Brisbane hotel where I had found a bargain before departure (the hours would allow the luggage at least a bit of time to catch up). Still, filling out the lost luggage claims (after having turned over our tickets to Air Niugini) took time--lots of it. And just as we finished, a new plane landed, dumping hundreds of people into the customs line. So, I did what any unashamed leader might try: I begged the Qantas rep. "We have waited all this time with no line; now look how long the line is. Could you please see us to the front?" He looked doubtful: "Pleeeassee. After all, it was your fault we had to stand here." He looked a bit put off: I smiled: "Pleeeassee, we are so tired. I know it is not your fault personally, but the airline did lose all of our bags," and I smiled again. He broke. "Follow me." (Thank you, God!). The team had audibly gasped when I told him it was his fault, and even I thought I might have overdone my "but, sir" routine. But our escort helped us to make quick work of Australian customs, which had been relentless on the way in.

Somehow, the bus company I had hired for our transport from hotel to airport, made no big deal out of our late arrival--just catch the next shuttle, they said. (Thank you, God!) When we arrived at the Oaks Aurora Hotel--two hours late, no one was surprised by the blank look on reception's face when I told her we needed three two-bedroom apartments, not one. After some confusion, however, she realized that she did have the rooms, and we checked in. Tired and HOT all day, we were also blessed to find that though we did not have luggage, our rooms all had washers and dryers! (Thank you, God!) I won't go into the way we all had to sleep in order to wash our clothes (but we Come before Winter girls are nothing if not flexible and thankful, so take it from there!).

We held our "unpacking meeting--that is, details of the renewal, not our clothes" while we munched on delivered pizza and bottled water and drinks from the 7-Eleven just outside the lobby door. We worshipped the God who had brought us through two amazing renewals and a long day's journey from PNG.

The bus picked us up again at 8 a.m. on Sunday, June 7. Our flight would take off at 11:05 a.m.; that would be about four hours after we would land in Los Angeles, thanks to adjustments in time. (Is this what they call time travel?) The fourteen-hour flight passed fairly quickly, I guess, as we each pondered the days gone by and the reunions ahead. In LA, we found eleven suitcases! It would have been perfect, except one belonged to Jeanene--now in New Zealand. We were missing one small, but empty, team bag, and my own personal bag. Sooooo more waiting in line to fill out paper work.

We departed in groups--the first three off to Abilene at 9:30 a.m. (two hours before we took off in Brisbane), then four for DFW at 12:30, and I was last--on the way to Austin at 1:15 (or something similar). In Austin, I walked onto the escalator and looked down; my precious husband and good friend Cynthia were smiling up at me; I was home. As far as I knew everyone (who was supposed to be home) had arrived. A call from Mariana before we left the terminal verified it. Trip 18 was done.

I will write more soon about the PNG experience. It may take two or three posts! Thank you, God! And, by the way, I found the lost wallet. It had been with me all along--not in my lost luggage, as I had been hoping, but in the camera bag that never left my side. That's right, honey, I'm baaaackkk!