I forgot to see the sky

Trees were only trunks, lining my peripheral with motionless human beings beside the square tiled sidewalk. But at the rhythmic slapping of wings against broad leaves, I looked up at the silhouettes of startled birds in the bright sky.

The sky. When was the last time I had seen the expanse of soft blue, white, and gray? Far above the wailing streets of traffic and layered buildings was majesty. And it watched me with quiet pleasure, waiting for me to remember. img_6386

Redeemed opportunities

Where do missed opportunities go? Are they gone forever or does God redeem them by giving us new opportunities?

Here in North Africa, where living intentionally should be as easy as breathing, I still miss opportunities. Why? Well, I’m busy; there is always language to study, classes to teach, emails to write, friends to visit, etc.

But those excuses aren’t good enough. Try telling a little boy that preparing lunch is more important than his soul. Maybe that’s not exactly what I said, but it is most likely what I communicated.

I was in the middle of a bad day when he followed me home from the store. People had been raining expectations down on me and I was exhausted although the day was only half finished. So when he jumped up and followed me, I rolled my eyes.

He only wanted one coin, he said. But to me, he was just one more beggar with just one more fabulous fable to accompany the outstretched palm. I tried to be pleasant, but my smile faded with his persistence. “Enough!” I said as he fell in step with me. “Be quiet!” I said. He didn’t. He followed me to my doorstep and only stopped when I closed the door behind me.

I had just started putting groceries away when my conscience awakened. What if I was the only person in that boy’s life who could have shared truth with him?

It took an hour or so before I was ready to face him again and apologize for my heartlessness. But when I went outside, he wasn’t there. Nor was he in front of the store. He had vanished.

So had my opportunity.

But my question is this: Has God redeemed my mistake by giving me another opportunity? Could it be having tea with that lonely widow? Or maybe taking time for a girl whose insecurity manifests itself in bullying?

God is a God of redemption. Because He has redeemed me, I know He is capable of redeeming my missed opportunities.

Blessed are they that budge

Blessed are they that budge for they shall be first in line.

If that’s not a North African proverb, it should be. Some days instead of the one being budged, I want to be the one budging. Let them see how it feels for once.

But I know that’s a selfish attitude. So the question lingers: How exactly do I cope in such a pushy culture?

For example, standing in line at a shop today, the owner served the 5 pushy people behind me before he fetched what I asked for. Then I stood with my money on the counter while he served the next 10 pushy people behind me.

It wasn’t until I said, “Take this, sir!” that he turned to me and apologized. I wasn’t even tempted to give him the customary, “No problem.” My inflamed temper wanted to clear the crowd at the counter with a giant push and then hurl my unpurchased items at the shop owner. I could even envision myself stomping out, bellowing that I would never return.

How should I have acted? Really, the question is: How should I act? This isn’t a one time occurrence but a constant cultural barrier for me. In my 9 months here, I have met few truly courteous strangers; most courtesy turns out to be greediness in disguise.

This is one of the only things in this culture of which I cannot even glimpse a bright side. So, practically speaking, what should I do? Hang around a shop until the owner notices and takes pity on me? Disobey God’s command to love others as myself and begin pushing like everyone else?

Well, maybe my first step is to stop gritting my teeth when people infringe on my right to be served before them.

Learning to listen

I was yawning between pages of War and Peace. The train’s rumble of metal on metal was soothing after three hours.

As we had moved from city to city, passengers had changed so often that they became a blur of faceless humanity. Across the compartment, someone took a seat facing me, another faceless being. I yawned again.

But then I smelled him. Cigarette smoke. I tried not to wrinkle my nose as I looked at him. Our eyes met. He blinked, and I looked away.

Him.

What?!

When I had started the trip, I had spent time in prayer. God,  I want to listen to Your voice today. Several times, women had sat down next to me, but most had avoided eye contact. All I had given or received was a smile or maybe a greeting. But now it was a man. I didn’t talk to men unless I had a reason.

Remember the woman at the well? Who talked to her? Was it a man or a woman?

But I can’t talk to him. And my Arabic is horrid. Besides, I will only get myself into trouble… Fine. Okay, but You have to make Your timing really clear.

More than an hour later, he stood up–was he leaving? No, he took the empty seat next to me. I continued to skim through a dry chapter of War and Peace.

Now? But what if I heard You wrong?

Then he stood again. “Can you save my seat for me?” he asked in perfect English.

Wait, he speaks English? 

It was only a few minutes before he drifted back to his reserved seat, bringing along a cloud of cigarette smoke. This time I did wrinkle my nose. “You’re killing yourself, you know?”

He turned to me. “Do you believe in destiny?” His voice was low and gentle.

A subconscious understanding of where the conversation was headed triggered words that I didn’t hear until they had sprung from my lips: “Are you a fatalist?”

From there, our conversation careened down a different path than he had intended. But it was exactly the path that God had intended.

I doubt I will ever see him again. But it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am learning to listen to God’s voice.

Too many hours on a train

img_7177Dear Journal,

I find that when I am forced to be inactive for a length of time, I begin to wonder things I normally don’t take time to think about.

Such as:

Is it only those with rushed, complicated lives that can appreciate the simple? Can those who are simple truly appreciate their simplicity when they’ve never experienced anything different? So then, can simplicity only be fully appreciated by those who don’t have it? And can the complicated life ever go back to being simple or does it always carry its baggage of experience with it? Can the process of losing simplicity ever be reversed? In short, can one both know and appreciate their own simplicity?

 

We are dust

Do you ever get tired of living by the expectations of the culture around you? I do. Expectations can be healthy, a type of accountability. In a way, expectations are what people give you when they can’t or chose not to give you rules.

Living in a different culture gives me two sets of cultural expectations to abide by. Suddenly, besides the way that I have been raised to behave, I am given a new set of standards from a very different culture. Sometimes I am stranded when the cultures clash: Is it better to be evasive and deceptive or offend someone by being truthful? Either way, someone is unhappy.

In short, I forget to focus on God’s expectations, which might mean disappointing both cultures. 

But are God’s expectations attainable? He was the one who placed me in this cultural conflict in the first place, so wouldn’t His expectations be the hardest to meet of all? And He does expect a lot:

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

His expectation is that we become more like the Son, more challenging than any cultural demand!

But He also remembers something that cultures forget: we are dust. Living to please cultural expectations would drain every drop of our resources, and like Solomon’s leech (Prov. 30:15), the culture(s) would still cry for more.

But God sees our limitations and coordinates them with His great expectation:

“As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14).

He doesn’t forget our frailty; he knows what it is like to be a human. His expectation for us doesn’t change, but as we learn, His grace abounds.