Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm"

"Americans tend to be problem solvers," said a veteran-professor during our orientation with Global Scholars in July. Danny has been in Nigeria for about 25 years, and he knows what he's talking about.    If something can be done more efficiently, Americans will figure out how to do it. This can lead to marvelous inventions such as a single-handled faucet to control water temperature. It can also lead to some serious head-scratching when we come up against the methods employed in other cultures.

So it is in Guadalajara.

One of the first things we noticed here were insanely high or steep curbs. Our apartment, for instance, has a parking garage under our portion of the building, but we use the one in the section next door because there is no way to get into ours. Why not? Well, the curb is high, and the ramp into the garage is so steep that you would need a monster truck to cross the curb without scraping off the bottom of your car.

"It wouldn't be difficult to shave that down," Kraig the engineer commented. Will it ever happen? Probably not. And we certainly won't complain about this because it means we can send the kids down there to play without concern of cars rolling in, or cars getting bopped by our kids or their balls.

Another head-scratcher is the sink in our utility room:

Look at it closely. The faucet runs into the right section of the sink...which is lower than the left section. "So?" you ask. Well, do you see that drain in the left section? That's the only drain in the sink.... And this isn't a fluke. Apartment 1, where we spent our first month, has the same kind of sink. I know it is used as is, too, because one of the apartment staff who cleans the floors always fills the lower portion with water...which we then have to bail out. I'd like to ask why the sinks are made this way, but I'm going to need to learn more Spanish before I can ask the question without sounding like I'm complaining that the sink water is left in there.

And then there is the field next door. The grass and weeds have grown long and lush over the past couple months of the rainy season. 

Whoever oversees this field determined it was time to cut the grass, which was far too long and thick for riding mowers or push mowers. So last Wednesday a handful of workers were sent out to chop it down...with weed whippers. 

As Kraig says, "To a person with a hammer, everything is a nail." Or, in this case, "To a person with a gas-powered weed whipper, everything is a weed to be trimmed." 

This, apparently, is the standard procedure for cutting grass. 

It is very loud. It is very slow.

By Saturday the field looked like this:

Every day the workers started into their whirring at about 10 or 11, and they didn't stop until about 7. To say the least, unless we closed all of the windows and the door wall on that side of the apartment, I was a frazzled wreck by the time they wrapped things up for the night.

On Sunday, I was sure they'd take the day off. But this was not to be.

They finally finished yesterday. At least I think so. I know I heard a weed whipper for a little while today, so maybe they have some final touches to do. 

The first day Kraig looked at them flailing away at the tough grass and said, "You know, a machete would make a lot more sense." He told us about two workers going out to clear an airstrip in Central African Republic where he lived as a kid. "They had long blades, like straight scythes," he said, "and they just moved down the strip, swish-swish-swish, and in two days they had finished it. It was quiet, and a lot more energy efficient."

Apparently the Africans are better problems solvers than the Mexicans in this case. Or they just hadn't been given gasoline and a weed whipper. 


I'm just praying they won't have to cut it again for a long, long time.

Of course, while we may have solutions, we also have to make sure we don't push our weight around to try to solve everything. Such is the joy and balance of living in a new culture.

To give credit where credit is due, though, the drop-off and pick-up for the kids' school is the most stream-lined machine I have ever seen. Much better than weed whippers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Communication Skills

I do not know Spanish.

I can boast of lots of language exposure, and I know a lot about how languages work and how they affect culture, but I am not fluent in any language.

And now we are living in a country where Spanish is key to survival. Sure, there are plenty of people who know English, but even then there are times when things are easily misunderstood because of the way language works, assumptions that are made, and there are unfamiliar cultural procedures. If I use Google translate to figure out how to say, "Can you show me an example of this?" I may be using words or turns of phrase that are not used here, and I certainly won't follow the whole response given. 

We realized this full-force as we entered the education system for the kids. Not only was their registration a full-onslaught of sticker-shock (How much does a uniform cost?), but since it was all in Spanish I had to go through things line-by-line to try to translate. I ordered the uniforms and books online, then got the school supply list printed so we could start our collection.

When it came to the school supplies, I tried to be thorough. One evening new American friends came for dinner, and I had Jeannie sit down and go through the list with me. She's a teacher here, so has more experience with the system, plus she knows Spanish. I learned a few vital details from her, such as when the instructions say "label all items with the child's full name" it means all--every pen, every crayon, every eraser. And when they say "child's full name" this means first name, middle name, last name, mother's maiden name. Do that with "Warnemuende" a few times....

After these delightful discoveries, I still needed to clarify a few items on the list. Each child needed multiple notebooks (a particular style, which, we discovered, costs about three times as much as your typical spiral notebook) and these notebooks needed to be covered with certain colors of paper. We now have a lovely collection of colored paper that I plan to use for gifts down the road. Oh, and don't forget clear contact paper, too.... Anyway, armed with my questions which I'd figured out how to ask in Spanish (I hoped) I went into the office at the school. The staff is very helpful, and some know more English than others. We played a fun game of "find that item" so they could show me examples of different things. Once this was accomplished, the kids and I started our hunt at stores in the area. Supplies were bought and stashed in the cupboard, waiting their colored covers and name tags.

Well, the other week we were told our school order had arrived, so I went into the office to get them. The uniforms were delayed, I found, but we did have books...a few piles (How will they get through these texts? I don't know. That's a story for down the road). And we also had--Ta Da!--school supplies!!! 

There, neatly organized and fully labeled in two beautiful boxes were all of Clare and Evie's school materials: the notebooks, the rulers, the pens, the pencils.... Everything was there, covered and labeled. Apparently these items were included in the list of books that I had ordered online, but the staff had only noticed this the previous day. There was much apologizing that they had just caught this, and Jon still needed his items, but there it was. It was done. 

To say the least, it was one of those moments where I had the choice to laugh or cry, and thankfully God helped me take the laughter route. I kept thinking how much money we'd spent--Yikes!--and the fact that Kraig's paycheck was still nonexistent, and that I'd heard it was often hard to return items here. But still, laughter was the response despite the frustration. It was so obviously a miscommunication involving language, assumptions and culture. Evie kept asking why this all had happened--she was almost in tears, poor girl--but we managed to see the bright side. We'd learned a lot of Spanish vocabulary and we'd learned the area better as we'd traipsed to different stores.

We headed home with our supplies in hand and I pulled all of our purchased stuff out of the closet, thanking God that I'd only covered one of Clare's notebooks and nothing had been labeled. We sorted out a few things we needed to keep for home or had already opened, then I pulled out receipts and bagged the returns. While home, my sister-in-law called and we got to chat for a good long while and she let me vent (and laugh). As we wrapped up, she said, "Hey, let's pray about this now," and she took our situation straight to God to handle. Smart woman . We said goodbye, and the kids and I headed back to the three stores to do returns.

And we did it! Each store took our items back with no questions, and handed me cash refunds so we didn't even have to deal with in-store credit. We also were able to knock off a couple more of Jon's needed items and we got a bunch of groceries. Thanks to my sister-in-law's encouragement and prayer, there was no question in my mind that God had helped us in the process. 

This won't be the last time this happens, I know. Stay tuned for more cultural faux-pauxs.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

One Year

One year ago today I wrote a blog post about the death of my friend Joann, and death in general.

I haven't written a blog post since.

It's not just because Joann died, or that the death of others has occurred in the past year (which it has) and more people have gotten cancer and other horrible diseases (because they have). I haven't succumbed to any great depression or given up on God--far from it.

It's actually more because so much life has happened in the past year that for one, there hasn't been much time to write posts for the world to see ('cause you know the world is watching :) ). The other reason is that we have been on the path of a huge family transition which meant a major job-change for Kraig and we didn't want to make that known to his employers too early ('cause, of course they're all reading my blog. Oh. Wait.).

But now life has shifted and things are falling into new routines, and I've had some posts running around in my head that need to come out. But I thought I should write some sort of transition post before jumping into this whole new world.

We are in Guadalajara, Mexico, and least for one year, and who knows what all will happen.

Life is happening whether we are ready for it or not.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dry Lawns and Promises

I mowed the lawn today. It's that time of year when everything is slowing down; it's drier and the grass isn't shooting up every week. I get to the end of a row and turn, and second-guess. Did I mow that line already? Or is it the line left from a week ago? And so I mow it again, just in case, and by the time I decide the yard is finished, I am hot and sweaty, longing for refreshment...and I am not satisfied that I really succeeded in mowing the lawn.

Today I feel like death is becoming that way to me. I've seen it before. It's happened before. I'm tired of it; tired of the grief, tired of the pain, the ramifications. I am resigned. It is the same line mowed over and over, and it doesn't seem to benefit anyone or anything. There is no refreshment. I am apathetic. It is old and dry.

But then I think of Job who suffered death and grief beyond anything I can imagine, and I hear his words, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him," and I know I believe it. The words from a new song by Andy Gullahorn repeat over and over in my mind:
They say God listens to our prayers,
When you're suffering, He holds you.
I don't feel Him anywhere,
That doesn't make it any less true.
 I listened to those words earlier this week, and while I was hit by the stark truth I wondered, "How do I prove that to people? How do I say, 'Yes, this is the God I believe in, and I do not doubt Him'?"

My friend Joann died yesterday morning after a brief battle with cancer, a form of leukemia. Hers was a hopeful case, despite the shock of it to her and all of us who called her friend. The doctors caught it early, she started chemo and responded well. On top of that, her two brothers were a 100% match for a bone marrow transplant. Despite the hiccups, really, everything looked toward a healthy, hopeful recovery. We rejoiced with her, we prayed with her. We prayed for her husband and young son, for her extended family. She and her husband encouraged us with their trust in God's hand, no matter what.

And then a few weeks after the transplant, her husband sent out word that Joann was sick. And then we got the word that the cancer had returned and it was acute. Then a coma...then death. No miracle of healing. No grand stories. The same old, same old specter swept in and dried the field. One more notch on the death belt.

I'm writing this out of grief. I'm not angry or bitter. I'm tired, yes. I feel like I'm going over the same row that I've already mowed. I wish Joann's story had the ending of another young mom I heard about last week who had had stage 4 cancer, but has recently received a clean bill of health. The doctors can't find any trace of cancer in her body. I know that God can do that. I've believed it for Joann. I wonder if I needed to hear about this other mom last week so that I could remember God's sovereignty and omnipotence. Joann didn't die because He's not capable of miracles and of healing.

So why did she die? I don't know. But I know I trust God and that His promises are true:
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die," Jesus said to Martha after her brother Lazarus died. (John 11:25 & 26)
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
"For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4)
As I've been writing this, I've glanced out my window at our vegetable garden. While the lawn may be dry and slow-growing at this point of the summer, the garden is lush with fruit. Ruby tomatoes weigh down emerald branches, waiting for me to reach out, pluck them and enjoy the burst of tangy sweetness. They will refresh my body as God's promises refresh my spirit.

In the midst of suffering, there is always hope. I know that if God's promises were only true when they played out the way I think they should, or when I feel them, they wouldn't be promises, and God wouldn't be God. I will trust Him and enjoy the fruit that He has for me.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Parables and Seeking Truth

This morning I read Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed in the book of Mark, chapter 4, followed by the final chapter of Through a Screen Darkly, by Jeffrey Overstreet, and some thoughts converged. Always a little dangerous, I know, especially because these converging thoughts led me back to a conversation from my student-teaching days, which is now about twenty years ago. Time flies and all that.

Anyway, it wasn't the parable itself that hit me this morning, it was the context surrounding it. After Jesus told the story, his disciples pulled him aside and said, "Um, so what do you mean?" I love that, because it's such a human response, and so often my response. "Would you mind giving that to me line by line? I didn't catch it." In Jesus' response I can imagine him shaking his head a little sadly, maybe even in frustration. At one point he says, "But if you can't understand this story, how will you understand all the others I am going to tell?"

Immediately before that, he says something that seems absolutely insane.
"You are permitted to understand the secret about the Kingdom of God. But I am using these stories to conceal everything about it from outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
'They see what I do, but they don't perceive its meaning. They hear my words, but they don't understand. So they will not turn from their sins and be forgiven.'" (Mark 4:11&12, NLT)
He used the stories to conceal things from outsiders so that Scripture could be fulfilled? What kind of loving God would do something like that? Why wouldn't He desire people to turn from their sins and be forgiven? Why wouldn't He make things so clear that even a child could get it?

I've gone over these verses many times over the years, I've heard good sermons preached about them, and even though I get them on one level, I find I have to think through them all over again when I return to them. I have to go back to who I know God to be based on all of Scripture: He is loving. He does not desire any to perish. He provided the one and only way for us to be rescued from self-destruction: Jesus. The problem is mostly that Jesus himself is an enigma, a stumbling block. And God is, too.

So Jesus told stories. And really, that was the best way to make his truth so clear that a child could get it. How many times have my kids truly understood things because they heard a story rather than a lecture? It's just that as adults we tend to hear a story and scoff, "Well, that's just a tale. Let me give you reality."

In his final chapter of Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffrey Overstreet hones in on a point he's made throughout his book: that the art of cinema is one that can lead us to the truth that is in Christ and in God. If we will see it, though, we have to actively engage it rather than letting it wash over us. Sure there is a place for pure entertainment, but much of movie-making is an art, and Truth (with a capital T) can be found in some of the strangest places. He writes how he is encouraged to see more Christians engaging this art with thoughtful intention, and as a result, engaging our culture more effectively.

Overstreet talks about a Christian arts festival he attended that showed films from Flickerings 2003, a venue for short films by Christians with strict limitations. Some of the restrictions included "Refrain from the use of popular religious symbols, including the cross. No church scenes. No conclusions that involve a conversion to Christianity," etc.
By these rules, Flickerings' founder coaxed Christian artists away from the simplistic, didactic, sentimental and condescending qualities often found in contemporary Christian art and entertainment, nudging them toward the language of metaphor. This unsettled some artists. they worried that viewers wouldn't "get their message." It's true--some didn't get their message, but some did. And some got more than the filmmakers had ever meant to convey. (p. 328)
 And I thought of the disciples asking Jesus for a translation, and Jesus telling stories so only those truly seeking him would "get it" (and even then we have to ask a lot of questions--which builds our relationship with him...I wonder if that's on purpose). And I remembered teaching the Medieval morality play Everyman to a group of Christian high school seniors. We delved into the story Everyman portrayed--a good-works-saves-you story, and we talked about the culture of that time where the majority of people couldn't read the Bible for themselves so had to rely on these defective plays for biblical understanding. One of my students asked, "But if this is all they had, how could they learn the truth?" It's a question that has resonated with me ever since, because I see so many things in our world that don't present the truth. I mean, most Christians don't present the truth, whether through words or conduct. We are certainly a faulty picture of Christ.

But God is actively at work, and His Truth is inescapable for any seeking it, no matter how badly the tale is told. And as believers, we need to let Him tell the tale through us, which may mean that our own lives will be strange stories that will either draw or repel others. I wonder, too, in this day and age where the written word is undervalued and visual media is the primary source of information and entertainment, if movies are the modern parables and morality tales.

The Truth is there for those who seek it.

"He who has an ear, let him hear."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Seeing Things Darkly, Seeing Things Clearly

There's nothing like seeing random thoughts, memories, experiences, and a movie collide. It happened to me yesterday. I'm not sure what I expected would happen, but apparently that's what did. I'm still sorting it all out.

I'm reading Jeffrey Overstreet's Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Even better, I'm reading it as part of an online discussion group with whom I've read some other fabulous books this past year such as The Mind of the Maker which I reviewed last summer. Add to this fun, the author is contributing to the discussion, which makes for intriguing interactions. Overstreet wrote movie reviews for Christianity Today for a number of years, and his work still involves movie criticism, but he's also a gifted author and has written a terrific fantasy series, The Aurelia Thread.

So to say the least, the book is amazing. I have never been a connoisseur of movies; Kraig and I typically watch videos that require little brain engagement--something we can watch at night after the kids are in bed and we're doing some jobs that require hands and not brains (folding laundry, anyone?). But I do like to dissect things--I've always enjoyed literary criticism, or art, and dissecting movies is no different. Also, even though my movie viewing is fairly lightweight, I am always evaluating what I see and holding it up against the grid of what I believe. This book helps challenge that and is forcing me to think more.

It has also piqued my interest to see movies I would never have thought to watch, and why, yesterday, I clicked on a YouTube link to watch the 2004 documentary, Born Into Brothels. You just never know what kind of dangerous territory you may enter when you read, "Jennie knew, as I and so many others have discovered, that Zana Briski's documentary is bursting with joyful surprises and unforgettable characters. She knew that the darkness of the context only makes the lights flare out all the brighter, making this a veritable Fourth of July extravaganza." (p. 188)

The "unforgettable characters" of this film are the children of prostitutes in the Calcutta red light district. Briski, a photographer, went there in order to record and spread the word of the dire straights people live in in this part of the world. What she hadn't counted on was the curiosity of the children, and she ended up handing out cameras to these kids and teaching them photography. In the process, she saw their world through their eyes, and she recorded it for all the world to see. Overstreet writes, "Even sinful behavior, seen through the lens of a child, can tune the delicate intruments of our hearts so we see things the way they should be. By giving us beauty with the ugliness, joy with the pain, laughter with the groans, these revelations give us a vision more complete and more affecting than any slideshow of poverty and pain half a world away" (p. 189).

The beauty is inescapable. The eyes of these children are dark liquid pools that sparkle to life as they grin. When they are solemn, you feel the weight of their lives. They have wisdom beyond their years and certainly beyond their academic education. And yet it was like they were my Indian neighbors' children who play with my kids. This girl and boy are the children of affluent, educated parents who can travel back to India to see family every couple years. Yet they are as spiritually needy as the children born into brothels, and they have the same beauty as any creation of God. I was humbled, as I thought of how, more often than not, I'm annoyed by these two kids who tend to push my patience, show up at inconvenient times, and get into fights with my kids even as they long to play with them and be friends.

These children of the brothels were like the brother and sister I've been taking to VBS last week and this who live in the apartment complex within a mile of our home. It's a low-income complex that I've known only by reputation for eighteen years until I drove into it for the first time last week. I've gotten to know some of these kids and their parents through my daughter's school, but only at school, not at their homes. In the past couple weeks, I've had to evaluate my attitude. When I drove there after seeing this film yesterday, my mind kept superimposing images of chaotic Calcutta over the neat, quiet townhouses in that complex. What stories were the silent rows hiding inside? It made me wonder if the places were really that different...and if they were really that different from my own white-collar neighborhood. No, I don't live in a city of millions packed in tight quarters, much less even have remote experience with brothels, but isn't my hometown as lost as Calcutta? Aren't the children at my kids' school and in our neighborhood made in the image of God as much as the children that Zana Briski connected with? What am I doing to touch their lives? Am I doing all that I can to seek the beauty in them and help them connect to the Giver of True Beauty?

I am awash with this storm of thoughts and am still trying to process this. It was all so familiar, perhaps in part because there were cultural bits in the film that reminded me so much of my childhood in the Philippines. And I think it was also familiar because it was such a true picture of humanity. The joy in the film made the sorrow that much more poignant and real. So much more something that must be opposed.

I'm praying that I will be faithful to what God wants me to do to take part in this battle.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Return of Brown Bear

 I didn't expect to have a sequel to our story, much less such a happy ending. But God has a way of surprising us with joy, particularly when it fosters our children's faith in Him.

Yesterday morning I got a call from the secretary at Clare's school.

"You were the ones who lost the bear, right?" Ms. D asked. "Have you found him?"

I told her we hadn't.

"Well, I think we may have him. When I came in this morning, there was a bear on my desk. Is your bear tan with eyes you can barely see?"

"Um, kind of. Maybe it's him! We'll come check!"

I tried to keep the kids and me grounded as we got ready to go to the school. "It may not be him," I warned. "After all, he's not really tan, more caramel." (And it's an elementary school where kids often bring their stuffed friends, and it has been a week-and-a-half...) But there was a chance! Evie and Jon discussed the pros and cons.

Eventually Jon and I arrived at the office; he dashed to the door while I followed with bated breath. We stepped inside...and there was Brown Bear, looking fit as ever, and waiting patiently for a little boy to swoop him up in a death-grip hug.

Where Brown Bear has hidden this past week is a mystery. Jon informed me that Brown Bear had come down in a space ship to Clare's school, but I haven't seen the space ship. Maybe it's hidden by an improbability field.

"Where was he while he was gone?" I asked Jon.

"At a fwend's house," Jon said.

So there you have it.

But can I just say, it's hard to find something sweeter than this: