Monday, December 24, 2007

this silent night

The crucifix still hangs around my neck.

A small silver cross purchased once upon a trip to Nepal. A piece of hemp, well worn, just a bit scratchy next to skin.

This is the necklace I have worn since December 14, when a dear friend in Kolkata handed it to me a few hours before we hailed a taxi and snail-snuck through smoggy streets to the airport.

"You can touch it when you feel nervous or afraid, ok?" she said.

I was nervous. I was afraid. The prospect of traveling 35 hours alone was one I had been dreading for weeks. I looped the cross around my neck, and I held on.

I held it in Kolkata, waving goodbye to my teammates as they rode an escalator to a different gate.

I held it in Delhi on the shuttle ride between terminals, gazing out at the darkness, a black blanket thrown over roads and buildings to disguise India as any other country.

I held it in seat 27A across the Atlantic, through the hours of movies and packaged dinner trays and of chasing sleep with a thin red blanket.

I held it in Chicago at the customs desk where a middle-aged man eyed my passport and said, "welcome back," words which made me want to hug the world right then and there.

And in Kansas City, I held it when the exit ramp emptied out into the airport, and I caught sight of my parents, tears in their eyes and in mine.

Tonight it's Christmas Eve. It is the night when He became our flesh. The night when He "made His dwelling among us." I reach up to touch the silver cross. Still there.

I'm in Bolivar tonight, the modest Midwest town where I first met the Man whose cross I wear. I was seven then, and I knew Jesus was good, but I didn't know how good. I didn't know what "Incarnation" meant. Or that in the miles to come, in the following Him into places far and foreign, this knowledge--that He wore my skin and cried my tears--would be the most precious thing I believed.

It is my hope, this truth that Jesus came to us. He came, and He has never left.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

when appliances were scarce

"In India, we made toast on the griddle," I say. Rachel stands at the stove, pouring Bisquick batter into a pan. Small circles, soon to be pancakes. We cover them with whipped cream and strawberries, and we sit at the kitchen table, me sipping coffee, Rachel with a mug of hot chocolate. We talk about her daughter, my niece. Seven month Abby, blue eyed and mostly bald (if we're honest), has stolen every square inch of my heart. We trade information about what we bought Peter for Christmas and decide together whether he'll like it or think it's stupid. Teenage boys are a difficult gift demographic. And in-between these bits of life, I slip in fragments of the four month season that changed me more than any other time in my life.

My sister is home from California for Christmas, and I am home from Kolkata for Christmas. Being with Rach loosens my tongue and unstops my heart. I can tell her how one week ago, I was making toast in a fourth floor flat, trying not to burn both sides. On a good day, trying not to burn either side. Sometimes, I need to talk about toast. Sometimes, I can't talk at all. Then, she sits with me in silence and strokes my hair while I cry or stare out the window blankly.

This is good for me, the companionship of my sister and best friend, because I'm back in the land of toasters, where one button push will send my bread down and a timer will resurrect it soon after. I'm distracted. It's Christmas season, and I'm wrapping presents and catching up with friends on the telephone and wasting time on the Internet. I try to journal, and five minutes later, I set my pen down and go look for some more sugar cookies in the kitchen. Everything in me says this is the apt time to process. I ought to think and write and talk about India, but the remembering is hard. Harder than I want it to be.

So I will begin with burnt toast tales.

It's a start.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunrise

I woke up this morning at 4. Jet lag, you remembered to come visiting for the holiday season. Thanks. :)

But, the positive side of waking up at 4 in the morning is that the world is quiet and still, and that is a side of the world I haven't seen much lately. I crept down to the living room and plugged in my mom's big, shiny Christmas tree. I sat in the recliner and thought about where I was one year ago and where I am now, and how I wasn't expecting a lot of what happened last year, and how I'm not sure where I'll be going from here. I opened up the accordian blinds that cover the huge windows in our living room. I have heard those windows are bad for heating bills. But for all the lack of cost-effectiveness, they are wonderful for looking outside. I waited for the sun to rise. Rise it did, arriving in layers of yellow and pink and purple. I am home, I thought. I am home where the trees are now in their elegant season, all icy and tall. I am home where three of the people I love the most in this world are sleeping nearby. I am home where I grew up from the ground, a fertile, tender ground that sometimes makes it hard to remember I am a pilgrim here.

I feel very broken right now. Kolkata feels like a dream, but this brokenness in my heart is evidence that yes, it did happen. In my prayers this morning, the Lord answered and led me to this:

Come, let us return to the Lord,
He has torn us to pieces,
but He will heal us;
He has injured us
but He will bind up our wounds...
let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge Him.
As surely as the sun rises,
He will appear.

As surely as the sun rises. I cried when I read that. God knows us intimately. As I watched the sun rise this morning, He already knew the heaviness of my heart. It did not surprise Him. It does not bewilder Him that I am back in Bolivar, although it is a bit bewildering to me.

To feel like a pile of pieces, torn apart and scattered, is the preface for His putting-together.

I will keep waiting. The sun does not rise in one quick moment.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

So this is goodbye

So many goodbyes.

Goodbye, Sishu Bavan, and my circle table of children who had the capacity to listen well but often did not demonstrate that ability. :) Goodbye to your "Good morning, Aunty!" greetings. Goodbye to tying the sashes of your uniforms when they came undone. Goodbye to singing "Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes." Goodbye to break time with Gugga from Iceland and Janelle from Canada, all of us perched on plastic stools around a table, a tin full of good biscuits and a metal teapot of hot cha in the middle.

Goodbye, Sari Bari, and the lovely ladies who are building lives of new hope. Goodbye to colorful stacks of blankets. Goodbye to squatting on the floor next to my friends, watching their steady stitches and hearing their loud chatter. Goodbye to G and U, my Bengali pals who help run Sari Bari and who are always managing to crack us up with a new phrase of English they've acquired. "Mind-blowing," indeed.

Goodbye, red-light, and the alleys of darkness, lit not with bulbs but with the faces of women whose smiles never dim. Goodbye to the questions of "When are you getting married?" and "When are you coming back?" Goodbye to sitting on thin mattresses with one clay cup of cha. Goodbye to holding babies and admiring bangles and saris. "Oh, didi, tumi khub shundor dekhte." Oh sister, you are looking so nice.

Goodbye, Kovita, my big sister. Goodbye to your spot on the sidewalk where I sat with you and laughed, where I thought, "This is the Kingdom coming." Goodbye to looking at your leg and noting the healing progress, slowly, slowly. Goodbye to your beautiful heart, a heart I know will find full redemption. Like the mending of your leg, sister, slowly, slowly, it will come.

Goodbye, Kolkata.

Here I have bartered in your streets, trading my despair for hope, my hatred for love, my apathy for compassion. May I hold tight to these new parcels in the leaving, and in the life beyond.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Hold up my arms

It's an Andrew Peterson song, and it circles through my thoughts today.

"Hold up my arms, like Moses in the desert, when the battle went long"

I feel the holding. It's a reality I have to re-direct my mind back to again and again, but it is there. I am being held. You are being held. And the hands that hold us are not hands which we must fear failing us. This grip on us is not one which might loosen at any moment, releasing us into the darkest and deepest of pits.

There is a jingle we sing at the Mother Teresa house when it is a volunteer's last day. It goes a little something like this...

"We thank you, thank you, thank you,
We thank you, thank you, thank you,
We thank you, thank you, thank you
from our heeeaaarrrtttt"

(You have to stretch the word "heart" out for a very long time.)

This are the words that I give to you, my friends and family. In a week that was the hardest I've yet had in Kolkata, I have felt huge measures of care and support through your emails.

What beautiful things I am learning in the heartache and struggle. All shall be most well.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Snippets

It takes about fifteen minutes to walk from the metro exit to our house. Last night, Sheila and I were walking home, and I was struck again by how intense and strange my life in India is sometimes. It had to be close to ten at night, yet there was a big band with brass instruments and drums marching down the street, led by a trailer with flashing lights and adorned with a Hindu idol. The band is playing loudly, there is crowd following behind, and meanwhile, I almost trip over a man sleeping on the sidewalk. How can he sleep in the midst of all this? But he has lived in India his whole life, and maybe he is used to it. I don't know. Earlier in the day, we went to visit Kovita. She was discharged from the hospital this week, and there was no place to take her but back to her spot on the street. There is a chance she can get placed into a home soon, so pray for this to happen. The street is not so kind.

I am tired and weary and struggling with anxiety and worry and hopelessness. That is the honest portion of how I am doing. But I am also finding a strength beyond my own in this weakness that I would not have chosen. I am finding that God's word is life and power and grace. I am finding Him here. Still.

Less than two weeks until home. I can't wait. I am excited to see my family, hug my friends, drink coffee, and sit by a blazing fire. In that order. There's a lot of other things to be excited for too.

Please keep praying for me on the home stretch...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Lessons from the bedside

Kovita.

She sits. Here. Hospital bed number 5. Two weeks past, she sat on the street. The street, her home. A hard enough home for the healthy, and Kovita was not healthy. Not after the taxi that hit her left her immobile on the sidewalk, a pair of open wounds on her ankles, two circles of black skin and blood and the edge of bone.

Kovita. Short hair, bright orange nightie. Her eyes are big and brown, and she smiles when we come around the corner into her ward. When we sit, she speaks to us in slow, slow Bangla. We are beginners, she knows. "Kalke Darjeeling didi eshechilo," she tells me. The Darjeeling sister came yesterday. That would be Lily, our British friend who first found Kovita on the sidewalk. "She brought me three mango juice drinks," Kovita continues, her eyes wider than normal, her finger poking the air for emphasis. "I drank two, and I gave her one." She motions to the elderly lady in bed number 6, who manages a wan smile.

Kovita is the hospital personality of her floor. She knows everyone's name, and she's not afraid to introduce herself to new visitors. One by one, she tells me the statuses of her fellow patients. Most of it I cannot understand; even when she speaks in slow and measured rhythm, there are many words which haven't made it into my small bin of Bangla vocab.

There is a problem with the bill tonight--something about how the hospital cannot change her dressing until we pay more. Sheila, who possesses a determination and gumption I do not, marches downstairs to sort the situation out. I stay perched on the edge of Kovita's bed. She is worried, about the bill and about the sorry lack of our Bangla. We do not know enough to adequately explain what we are trying to do. "We are straightening things out," I want to tell her. "It is going to be okay." But Kovita moves first, easing the conversation past its awkward halt. "What did you eat today?" she asks, leaning forward to touch me gently. This, food talk, I can do. I grin. "Bread and fruit and sweets and..." I pause. "Pasta?" I venture the English word, hoping she might recognize it. No. "Noodles?" I offer. Ah, yes, a nod. Noodles she knows.

"You did not eat rice?" she asks me, concern falling over her face like a curtain unrolled. I say no sadly. To go a day without eating rice is a grave offense in West Bengal. I do not tell her that I am trying to avoid rice, that I am actually tired of rice, that I will eat rice if Aunty serves it but I stopped voluntarily choosing it months ago.

Kovita. Our new friend who wants to come work at Sari Bari when her ankles heal, who motivates me to study Bangla although my leaving day is coming close, who teaches us about joy and life.

The road of love is paved with many tiny stones. I remember this today. Visiting one sick woman in one hospital in one Kolkata--it's a stone. Today, God asks me to lay this one stone with a pure heart and a set of willing hands. I will not lay the whole road today, nor in my lifetime. But with every new brick I am handed, I long to be faithful.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Now I'm a believer

They have been saying it's going to happen for months now. The cold weather is coming, they said. You won't always be sweating in Kolkata, they said. August swiftly gave way to September, September bowed out to October, yet it was not happening. We were still hot. So hot.
Until now. The weather is cooling, and this temperature change brings a lift to daily life. I walk down the street a bit more peppy because there is a breeze, and because I am wearing my hair down, and because for the first time in three months, it's not an epic disaster if I forget to wear deodorant.


By Missouri standards, it's not exactly cold. We're hovering at about 70 to 75 degrees here in K-town, but for natives of this city, this weather qualifies as "Brr! I'm getting out my winter coat!" For the long-promised picture, now worth a thousand words, here is my Uncle. All decked out in his winter glory. Sheila and I are still wearing t-shirts, but each to his own, I suppose.
Here are some other pictures from the last few weeks of life...
Banana flower is edible. Who knew? Sheila and I are helping Aunty with the peeling process. It's a tedious job, and I have to admit, when Uncle took this picture, I was probably thinking, "Can we just have grilled cheese?"

Here we are at Sari Bari, the sewing business where the ladies who leave the sex trade work. Sarah and I are doing some final inspection and patching of the blankets before shipment to the States. These blankets are beautiful. So vintage and cool.

This is pre-Thanksgiving prep. We peeled 8 kg of potatoes, 3 kg of apples, and snapped 1.5 kg of green beans. It was a classic afternoon, especially since we got to watch "White Christmas", which my family watches ever year on the day after Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. A little piece of holiday home. Gee, I never get tired of that movie. Our Thanksgiving table! Beth and her roommates laid out a lovely dinner setting in their living room. For the actual feast, a few other friends joined our team. The great thing is, none of them were Americans. Celebrating Thanksgiving with Brits, New Zealanders, and a Dutch couple was a jolly time.

Dinner itself. This picture is a little dark, but you get the idea. I missed family...but it was a sweet time with my Kolkata family. A simplified holiday with a lot of heart.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Question. Is it possible to Fed-Ex a turkey?

(Hold that thought.)

I don't have the picture.

Lame, I know. On Saturday, I made a huge deal about it, and now I have the audacity to write a new post with absolutely no pictures attached. The details of this Kolkata life are too many and wide to explain exactly why I can't produce the picture today, but please, believe me when I say, "It's coming soon."

Here are some things I have done recently:

-Emptied out my wallet except for the money I needed today. Yesterday's epiphany: the fear of losing my wallet could be greatly reduced if I removed all the important cards and extra cash. So now those things are hiding...well...come now, do you really think I'd post where?
-Sang the "Isty Bitsy Spider" two times in a row. Told Ashtami she couldn't hit Parul three times in a row.
-Ordered a fruit salad for lunch from Blue Sky Cafe. The star of Blue Sky Cafe is Samson, the waiter, who remembers everyone's name and face and even remembers that I don't like bananas in my fruit salad. Wow. Go Samson.
-Went with Sonny and Jodi to New Market where we successfully dodged the men with baskets. If you ever live in Kolkata for longer than a month, you will come to know New Market as the Scariest Place Ever. At least that's how I feel about it. New Market is a huge collection of shops all gathered under one big roof, which I realize sounds very much like a mall, but it is not like a mall at all. And the worst of it is the men with baskets. Escaping away from them is like a video game I don't want to play.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving! I am going to be Pilgrim Rock in our team skit. Sonny wanted to be Pilgrim Rock, but I beat him up and stole the leading role. Sorry, Sonny. But really, we are going to have a big bash at Beth's flat, and there will be chicken, potatoes, green beans, and perhaps even pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie without an oven? Is it possible? I'll let you know as soon as I find out.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. For you, I pray clear vision to see what God has done, and big hearts to hope in what He will yet do.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Save the date

You know those save-the-date cards? The ones people who are planning a wedding send out before they actually send out invitations? Kind of a way to say, "Hey, I'm going to have one of the biggest days of my life soon, and I'd like you to be a part of it, so don't go putting anything on your calender for this day."

Well, I'm not getting married. And it's probably not true that the biggest blog post of my life is coming up soon, but I do want to use this short entry as a sort of "save-the-date" card.

This is what you can anticipate. I have this amazing picture of my Indian house Uncle, but this computer doesn't have a USB port, meaning I can't download the picture off Sheila's camera. Meaning the picture will have to wait. But, guys, you are going to love this picture. I think it might be one of the best of my Indian life. Definitely in the top ten.

So until a later date...a date when I can find a better computer...

Monday, November 12, 2007

on suffering

Is there not wrong too bitter for atoning?
What are these desperate and hideous years?
Hast Thou not heard Thy whole creation groaning,
Sighs of a bondsman and a woman's tears?
-F.W.H. Meyers

"The problem of pain," as C.S. Lewis titled it with his book on suffering, has been rattling around in me these three months, knocking its way through the hallways of my mind, tipping over tomes of theology I thought I had arranged quite nicely. (I used that word for you, Andrew.)

I can't claim to have anything new--gosh, C.S. Lewis wrote a book on it. But here are some thoughts:

Pain hurts. And we do not know why. Why pain, why hurt. If I imagine pain's arrival in Kolkata, I see him holding a very large suitcase, a suitcase he immediately unlatched and shook, letting fears and tears and broken bones and hungry bellies scatter aross the alleys and streets of this city. Whenever I arrived in Kolkata, with my very tiny suitcase of hope and goodwill and dreams, I took one look around the place and wanted to sit in a corner and cry. Nothing I had seen in my safe and sterile past prepared me for this.

Pain and suffering aren't things the church talks about all that much. The American church the least, probably. There is no blame to place or finger to point. The larger part of our culture just doesn't have to--or perhaps more accurately, doesn't want to--deal with it.

In her book, A Path Through Suffering, Elisabeth Elliot writes this:

Suffering, even in its mildest forms--inconvienence, delay, disappointment, discomfort, or anything else that is not in harmony with our whims and preferences--we will not tolerate. We even reject and deny it.

This is me. This has been me even in India. Always looking for ways to preserve self, to settle myself in comfortably, to watch out for me. I do it so naturally.

Then I read snippets in the Bilbe, snippets that jolt me with their dissonance to the way I am living.
"though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials"
"in this world you will have trouble"
"but it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him"

It's like I am living in a different reality. When I live by the reality of this world, suffering makes absolutely no sense. When I believe more in earth than I believe in eternity, suffering sinks me. The ship goes down fast when I see children without mothers, men without limbs, women without escape.

Why pain? Why hurt?

Here I learn, some days most harshly, other days more gently, that suffering is something from which I cannot hide. There will be no cowering in the closet until all the dark clouds pass.

Elisabeth says this also,

"I know of no answer to give to anyone except the answer given to all the world in the cross. It was there that the Great Grain of Wheat died not that death should be the end of the story, but that it should be the beginning of the story."

I have nothing more than this either. Jesus suffered. Jesus hurt. At whatever depth to which the world's most intense pain settles, Jesus went to that depth. Yes, He has heard the whole creation groaning. Even this night, when I will try to meet sleep again as questions flit and dip through me, He hears.

Now, as He died, to change the meaning of death to a signal of life, of rebirth,

am I willing to die?

Friday, November 9, 2007

in the classroom of perfect joy

God renews our hearts in little ways. This is our God, He who is the founder of that business of renewal, restoration, and redemption.

Yesterday morning, at our weekly community devotion, God reminded me of the beauty to which I am called. A curtain pulled back to reveal a glimpse of what I know but had forgotten: His Kingdom is larger than we are, and it is a Beautiful Thing. We are blessed to be His workers.

Here is a poem I scribbled with the thoughts lingering after our community time.

There is a time to weep here
Hungry hands reel me in
Like the hands that pulled His robe
to heed their sorrow, to listen to this dukkito golpo*
He always felt the tug
Even in a crowd
Son of God, He wept
Shortest verse in the Bible, I am told
In brevity, mourners find a profound peace

There is a time to laugh here
Heads thrown back, teeth revealed
Stretched-out Savior by a banqueting table
lounging with the ones who know His Name
A cup of warmish cha
five rupee biscuit pack
spilling-onto-saucer life
Surely goodness and mercy follow me
In this wide green pasture, we circle and dance

There is a time to mend here
Sari-clad ladies squatting low
holding needle, pulling white thread
stitch up the seams and rebuild the walls
Those cities called fallen
He christens Sought Out
Can I carry one stone?
I will hold your baby and smile
across the canyon the Babel made when it fell

There is a time to rip apart here
pure hearts must often bleed
lashed with angry words, bruised
Those whom He came to serve the same who beat
His secret left behind
hard to swallow sometimes
In losing life, we find
Twelve baskets of bread handed out to the masses
the world's empty hands reach in and they tear

*sad story

So many paradoxes in Jesus' Kingdom. That which I resist and shrug away, namely brokenness and surrender, are the catalysts to joy and freedom.

Today is Kali Puja, which means that today, most of this city's 15 million are paying homage to the goddess of death and destruction. Pray for our team, as it has been a heavy week leading up to this dark day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

the jet plane doesn't leave yet

Here is what I need you to pray:

That in these next five weeks, I will remain fully here. My days are getting fuller and fuller the longer I stay here, which is a good thing. Fuller days mean more to do,. I have less time to project myself into the future. (I also have less time to process through writing, so my apologies if my blogging takes a sorry swerve south...)

I get so excited thinking about going home! I get excited thinking about my mom's Christmas music resounding through our house. About waking up to coffee. About holding my adorable niece. (We're talking Gap Baby model here.) About taking my little bro to Sonic to talk about his last year of high school and how he is feeling about going to college.

If I can be honest with you, I love what I do in Kolkata, but I don't love Kolkata. I often feel scared, alone, and lost here. I am learning to cling to transcendent truth above my immediate feelings, but it is a slow learning. This makes it easy to look forward to home as some shining city of light on the horizon, the place where all my hopes and dreams will come to completion. This is not true. Some days, I think it is true. :)

So please, friends, pray that my heart will be open and soft. That I will find joy in the daily work of this India life. That I will say with Paul, "I have learned the secret of contentment...in any possible physical location on earth."

And in the meantime, I love:
-reading stories to my kids in funny voices
-holding tiny babies I meet on the street
-seeing the girls in the red-light recognize hope and reach out to embrace it
-sitting in the chapel at the Mother House

Thanks, friends, for all your love.

Monday, November 5, 2007

there have been better blog days

Normally I update my blog when I first get to the Internet cafe. But today, I wrote emails, and looked around Facebook a little bit, and read the blogs of my teammates, even though I see them almost every day. All that to say, now one hour has passed, and I should leave soon. This post will be short and probably scattered.

Life is a collection of so many meaningful moments. Sometimes I find themes and connections, and sometimes I don't.

Beth and I were on our way to a restaurant yesterday, and a little guy came up to follow us and talk. Not unusual. We were walking in an area that is often frequented by foreigners, so a lot of kids who live on the street hang out there too. He was quite the conversationalist, telling us that those two dogs on the sidewalk were his, but did we possibly want them? (As a side note, I have never seen a sadder animal than a Kolkata dog.) Beth asked him about the plastic bag he was carrying. "What's in it?" she asked. Batteries and glue, that's what was in it. If I ever forget that there is a lot of pain in this world, Kolkata is quick to remind me. But this little boy, I want to hope for him. Maybe you could say a prayer for him, that Jesus will rescue him, help him, deliver him into safety and love.

Also yesterday, I was journaling as the day wound down, and I was freaking out. Five and a half weeks left here, and part of me wants to stay, and the other part of me wants to run away as fast as I can. What will it be like to return to America? How will I be changed? How will I respond to the things that I have seen? Will I ever come back to India? More immediately, will I be able to find a job in Missouri...do I want to live in Missouri...maybe...I don't know...

All these questions. Thoughts. Fears. The resurfacing battle of living in the present, the struggle of being content with this day and this situation. Out of the foggy mess, this one thought rose:

"But I trust in You, O Lord,
my times are in Your hands." -psalm 31:15

My times are in His hands. Here and Now. It is enough manna for today.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Some call it a strike...

But I call it two days of roomie love.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Kolkata had city-wide bonds, or strikes, which basically shut down the city's transportation systems. No buses, no auto-rickshaws, no taxis. And rumors of violent demonstrations between rival political parties. All things considered, Beth advised us to stay close to home on these two days. Sounds boring...and okay...maybe it was a little boring, but the way I see it, there are a few crucial ingredients to making a lock-down at home a success. One, crayons and a coloring book. Two, good music. Three, a roommate like mine.

Consider this post a tribute to my roommate, Sheila Nicole Yoder. Without her, my time in Kolkata would be much lonelier, and I would be stuck processing the theology of pain (among other things) with the bedroom wall.

Sheila and I did many fun things on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Oh boy, this is starting to sound like a grade school report.) We played hopscotch, and we chased boys, and we fell down and scraped our knees, and we also colored. Acutally, I'm lying about all those things except the last. We really did color. See picture below.

JBU buddies Nicole, Robbie, and Sarah sent me a coloring book and crayons a few weeks ago. Turns out I really like coloring. After completing a few masterpieces which I will soon be sending to friends in the States, I wanted to keep going. Then, Sheila and I had the great idea to color a picture for each person on our team. (Um, we had a lot of time on our hands.) This morning, when we ventured out of the house for the first time in over 50 hours, we presented our handiwork to the team. As you can see, the response was overwhelming. We are thinking about launching our own website, and yes, we will be shipping to the continental 48.There was only one tense point in the entire duration of our holiday at home. That would be the point when Sheila beat me at Speed Scrabble for the fifth time in a row. I was an English major for crying out loud! These losses hurt my pride. Those who know me well (aka my family and a few close pals) know that I can respond rather vehemently to losing. Once, at a coffeeshop, I burst into tears when I lost a round of Scumbags and Warlords. I was 18. But, ahem, I'm doing much better now. Sheila and I, like all good conflict resolvers, worked things out and moved onto the next thing. In this case, a little Johnny Cash on the iPod was enough to mend the broken bridges.

In one final accolade of my roomie, I would like to praise her hair-braiding abilities. French braiding is a girl skill that has somehow managed to evade me these 23 years. I just can't do it. But Sheila, she can plait one fine French braid. With her skillz, we were able to enjoy the days off with matching hairdos ...oh yes...I know, the excitement is almost too much. Almost.

I don't know, what do you guys think? Maybe we could open up a hair salon on the side of our art venture. I mean, neither of us quite know what we'll be doing after December. We're open for suggestions...

Monday, October 29, 2007

when night falls hard

My team and I just finished reading Bitter Chocolate, a book about child sexual abuse in India. Last night, when I turned the last page, I felt like vomiting. I felt like crying for a very, very long time until my tear ducts were spent.

What have we done?
What has the enemy done to our world?
Why do so many hurt with an intensity that ought to shove the spark of life right out of their ribcages?

I put the book away last night and moved to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I stood there, and I couldn't think about anything else other than the horror contained in those pages. Oh Jesus, have mercy.

What is my place in righting the wrong of this world, I ask myself. A question we all ask. I have been shown so much grace. I don't understand why I got to be the little girl who never knew physical or sexual abuse, why I got to grow up healthy and well-fed, happy, loved and valued. Why I had a Mom who prayed with me every night and braided my hair in pigtails. Why I had a Daddy who checked my closets for boogey-men and taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels. On the trail of these questions, Jesus' words in Luke follow close behind. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required."

I believe in hope. I believe in love. I think I believe in them more strongly than I did two months ago. But still...some nights I am not okay. Some nights I want to sob. Some nights I want to close my eyes to the pain and pretend the world is not fallen and we are lovers of people and of God, every one of us.

Some nights these things pile up heavy on me.

In a dark room, His Word is like the ruler-strip of light underneath the door, offering the promise of a better place beyond.

"Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning. I remember Your Name in the night, O Lord." -Psalm 119:54

When I put away my toothbrush and crawled into bed, I thought about when I was a child. When I was a child, the anticipation of my birthday or Christmas was almost too much to bear. A few lines of calendar squares away, there the event stood, blazing in all its glory. The long-stretching weeks until its arrival seemed to belie its actual existence. But did the day not always come?

So this day is on its way:
"It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be
established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say, "Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths." -Micah 4:1-2


Until then, Jesus, here are our hands for You to make strong.

Friday, October 26, 2007

He comes for her

"We are asked to carry light, to hold the hand of one of His beloved, to tell her she is remembered."

I went to the red-light district with Sarah and Beth for the first time Tuesday night. I don't quite know what to say. I think the first thing that struck me was how "normal" life appears in the midst of a trade that violates thousands of girls each day. Men selling fruit. Corner stores with soda. Children running from house to house. A neighborhood. Yet reality quickly returned with the sight of the girls--two rows lining each side of the street. Beautiful women. Old. Young. Some in saris, some in tight Western clothing. I am amazed by the human endurance for horrific siuations. In the first brothel we stepped into, I looked at these young girls--16 or 17 years old but who told me they were 25--and wondered, "How do you live? How are you still alive?"

Beauty hides in unexpected places. In rooms where bodies are sold for sex. In hovels where men sustain their lust with the price of young girls' dignity and wholeness.

Sonny, our resident Greek expert, says that the word compassion is the marriage of two roots: suffer and with. I struggle with this thought: is visiting these girls enough? Is it enough joining in of suffering to sit in that room, on that bed, and drink a small cup of tea? Easy for me. A brief reprieve for her. But I get to leave and she does not. It is easy to impose my reality onto her. For me, this is a chance to chat, a few minutes of building friendship, a tea break. For her, this is one spot of distraction from the ongoing flames of hell.

I have the small chance now to remember these girls on Tuesday nights, for a few hours. To love them. To honor them. To let them know with as much as a smile and my broken Bangla can offer that they are worth abundantly more than the label of "whore" that the world has slapped on them.

But, Jesus, He remembers them always. Jesus, a man of no reputation, a man who chose to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. When the earth wears out like a garment (and it will), all threadbare and stretched to its limits, He will endure. He stays with them through all the pain, and He will outlast all the pain.

"And He does. He remembers her. He comes for her, to her, into the darkest of nights, into her darkest of rooms. He stands with her there and holds her hand."
-Heather Coaster, WMF staff working in the brothels of El Alto, Bolivia

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

kolkata, we meet again

Homecoming is both hard and happy.

Last night, when we stepped off the plane and re-entered India, my heart felt really heavy. I'll be honest, coming back to Kolkata this time is hard. Kolkata brings out all my fears, and I don't quite know what to do about this. Keep bringing my fears to Jesus. Being here makes me read the Bible a lot more seriously. I need to believe I "have not been given a spirit of fear." I need to believe that I "abide in the shadow of the Almighty." At home, I'm not so often aware of my dire need. If in December, I organize these 120 days into a set of themes, I am sure one of those themes will be "weakness." My weakness keeps resurfacing here.

In little ways, it is hard to be back. Eight days of toilet paper, hot showers, American food, privacy, and independence spoiled me. I had gotten to a point where the absence of those things no longer was such a big deal. I felt like I was becoming an overseas stud. :) But now, well, now, I'm missing them again.

But this is also happy. I am happy to see Uncle standing on the door stoop, waving to us. "My daughters are coming home!" I am happy to see my kids at school. I am happy because there is much yet to experience on this trip. Today I get to go visit the girls in the red-light district for the first time. It will be prime opportunity to gather up all the bits of Bangla I know and PRACTICE! And I am also happy because I have new hope...

The time we spent with the WMF staff in Nepal was so encouraging to me. The first night of our visit, we went to dinner with one of the girls who is full time staff in Kathmandu. She works with guys on the street who sell drugs. Her stories broke me and challenged me. I needed to hear that Jesus is at work in broken places. Guys coming to Jesus and leaving heroine....little babies being given chances for life...the church praying and then seeing God's power! My prayer for this next half of Kolkata life is that the Holy Spirit will be moving...softening hearts...breaking strongholds...planting repentence. When I view life strictly through a physical lens, I get discouraged. Dirt and disease, poverty and politics, corruption and crime. But Christ's bride is not fighting just a human war! Please pray that our team would be diligent in prayer and for increased wisdom and insight. Pray that we will not grow weary. Pray that the Lord would expand our hearts and give us His visions.

Yesterday morning, before we left our Nepali guest house, the Lord gave me these verses:

"I, even I, am he who comforts you.
Who are you that you fear mortal men,
the sons of men, who are but grass,
that you forget the LORD your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth,
that you live in constant terror every day
because of the wrath of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction?
For where is the wrath of the oppressor?"
-Isaiah 51:12-13

Remembering the Lord my maker and leaving fear behind...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

where the sky is blue again

where I hear the rhythm of crickets
where the edges of white-tipped mountains poke through cumulus clouds
where green is the color of trees and grass and hills, not just the color of peeling paint

...this is a few days in Nepal.

I feel like I have been given a precious gift, that this world is a precious, beautiful gift. After being absent from nature the past few months, I feel like I have stumbled upon hidden treasure.
We just returned from the staff retreat. Dhulikel Lodge was our home Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. About an hour's drive from Kathmandu, it's a small cluster of buildings that overlooks a valley of terraced hills. In the distance, where the white clouds hover, we saw the tops of the tallest mountains in the world. Romans says that God can be seen in the things that are created. Sometimes in Kolkata, I feel like I am having trouble finding God. Maybe this is because nature and Kolkata don't co-exist. There are plenty of buses, cars, buildings, and a few million square meters of concrete, but not many trees, leaves, or hills. Some days, I even forget there is sky. The sky to be had is like a little gray toupee stuck onto the buildingtops.

Breathing in the Nepali countryside air was like being hooked up to an oxygen tank of pure hope. My heart, a little dry and crusty as of late, began to perk up. Only God could have made those mountains that look like they are painted right onto the sky. This God holds our lives in His hands, and He goes with us, whether down the dusty sidewalks of earth's biggest metros or along quiet trails hidden in the Himalayas.

Back in the day, I used to listen to a lot of Bebo Norman. I thought of one of his songs yesterday when I was journaling alone in a quiet spot off the path. "Walk down this mountain with your heart held high," the song says. For now, the peace of a retreat in Nepal is not my permanent dwelling place. I'm walking down the mountain. There is a month and a half ahead in Kolkata, and after that, something else. I do find God in the stillness of nature, and part of me thinks Thoreau was onto something when he moved out to Walden Pond for a two year tryst with the woods. But God is teaching me in these months that He is beyond place, that He is everywhere, even when I think I must have ended up in a city He forgot.

I'm thankful that He fills our cups.
I'm thankful that He calls us on.
And I'm excited.

How big can I dream, Lord?
"As big as I am"
My heart is small
"Mine is not"
I am afraid
"Fear not, for I am with you"
What will it cost?
"I gave the life of My Son"

Sunday, October 14, 2007

from Nepal

"I think if I had to be frozen in one position for the rest of my life, I would be holding a mug."
-Hannah

My love affair with coffee has been rekindled. Thank you, Nepal, for a wonderful cup of real coffee this morning. I like you, Nepal. I like your menus with filtered coffee. I like your rooftop terraces. I like your streets that are a little bit quieter than those of your southern cousin, Kolkata.

My team arrived in Kathmandu yesterday. We are spending today, Tuesday, and Wednesday in the city, and then we will be at a WMF staff retreat for the rest of the week. It's good to be here. As my sister said in one recent email, "Sister, you are going to Nepal and living in India. Doesn't that just blow your mind sometimes?" Yes, yes it does. I am newly 23, but most of the time, I feel more like I am 17 or 18. I think, what in the world am I doing in south-east Asia, within sight of Mt. Everest? Crazy, but cool.

Please pray for my ear. I have had a nasty infection for over a month now. I thought it was getting better, but then the pain came back, so I'm now on a 2nd round of antibiotics.

I was reading in 1 Corinthians this morning and found this:

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."

What would it look like here to know nothing but Jesus Christ and His death? It would take away my compulsion to prove myself. It would bulldoze my pride. It would remove my need to see enormously successful results. It would simplify things a whole lot.

Paul continues,

"And I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God."

In weakness? In fear? I read that, and it feels like I am reading a description of my time in Kolkata! I am there, in weakness, in fear, with knees that knock at the unknown, with a quivering and timid heart. But this is not about me! My renewed prayer of today is "Jesus, come and show Your power, because this is all about You."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

there's gonna be a great big party

One thin sheet of glass
separates my world from his
two brown eyes and two brown hands
small boy, looking in
Here is my cafe americano
There is his empty tin plate
I with 500 rupees
He with no spare change

"Let me in"
his silence says
his patient eyes lock mine
"Let me in"
to bright lights
muffin rows
"Let me in"
from dirty sidewalks
pushing crowds

There is a table coming
a feast to end all feasts
No more glass to keep you out
You will get one of the best seats
The King who made your frame
He will greet you there
The last have become the greatest
Come,
Enter in.

"And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." -Matthew 18:3-4

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. -Luke 6:21

_____________________________________________

My team heads to Nepal tomorrow for a one week visit. We'll spend two days in Kathmandu, the capital, and then we'll head to the countryside for a retreat with the WMF Nepal staff. I am so excited. Not only will the weather be cooler, it will also be restful for our team. Pray that we will hear Jesus' voice in what could be more quiet than we've had since our arrival two months ago. We're at the halfway mark, by the way! Hard to believe.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the places we've been

I am feeling a bit homesick lately.

This feeling comes on mostly at night, as I'm lying (laying? I can never remember this rule...) in bed, waiting, thinking, praying. Sheila and I go to bed around 9:30, so often, I'm don't fall asleep right away. Last night, with the whir of the ceiling fan overhead and my iPod in hand, I missed home. All the places I have settled over the past few years. I missed Bolivar, my grey and white home on 425th Rd. Dad sitting in the blue recliner, strumming his guitar. Mom working at the kitchen table on bills. Peter's music drifting up from the basement. I missed my dorm room at JBU. The cozy way it looked and felt with the lamps on and a cup of tea on the side table. Kristen, my roommate, always ready to drop whatever she was doing if I needed to pray, equally willing to join me in dancing around the room like a wild woman. Which we sometimes did. (We also sometimes played that fun game where you pretend like the carpet is lava and you have to move around the room without touching the floor. Yes, we were seniors in college. I loved that game.) I missed my Lake City family. The comfortable and happy home of Doug and Carol, full of friends and chances to cook, hold babies, or play an intensely competitive game of Nertz. The mountains that I saw every morning from their front step, the walk down into town past pine trees and a stretched-out sky so huge and so blue. I missed the summer weeks I spent living with my sister Rachel and her husband. Dinners of grilled chicken and corn eaten outside. Starbucks dates and grocery runs. Taking brisk walks after dinner.

But, you know what? In a few months, when I am home, and this Kolkata trip is over, I am sure I will miss India. I'll be lying (?) in bed, and I will start to think about the kids in my class, the ladies at Sari Bari, my team, Aunty and Uncle, street food, crowded bus rides, and I will miss it all. (Maybe I will not miss the crowded bus rides so much.)

This is life. This is loving and moving and living as life swings ahead. Not being able to be all places simultaneously. Leaving a part of one's heart at each place where one has loved and been loved.

Know that I miss you all.

Monday, October 8, 2007

a little help in imagining kolkata

About time for some more photos.
This is Uncle. With his "chOy choto mach." Or as we would say, "six small fish." Uncle is the proud caretaker of this fish family, and he has named them all after the American girls who have lived in his home at some point or another. So Sheila and I now have fish namesakes. I'm the "lOmbo lal mach." The long red one. To honor my height. 5'9" is quite towering for a woman in India.

Lovely leader Beth. With only two hands and a very beautiful smile, she shepherds six American kids through the streets of Kolkata.

Sonny and me hanging out at Beth's flat. We have community night every other Friday, and this past Friday Josh made some rockin' Southern food for dinner. Leave it to the Mississippi boy. It's funny, because at home, I wouldn't particularily relish fried chicken. But having fried chicken here = close to the yummiest thing ever.
My sweet and good-looking roommate. Guys, she's single. (And she'll probably kill me for advertising that on my blog.) This is our room. We're sitting on our bed. When we are at home, we spend, oh, probably 87.3% of our time on our bed. Aside from a bed, it also serves as a good desk, reading chair, talking-post, rat hide-out, etc. (The rats, by the way, have been much subdued lately. We're sleeping better. Thanks for praying!)

This is the wall outside our house. I think it's pretty. All the moss in-between the old stones. Thought you all might like to see one of the pretty walls in India.


And here is a pretty door. Also close to our house. I love looking for the small things that speak beauty. I love the doors in India. They're all sorts of fabulous colors that most Americans probably would not choose. Teal. Red. Sunny yellow. I think if I ever own a door, I will paint it a bright color.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

a big world

Indian culture is layered. As I'm sure all cultures are. I'm unearthing new layers each day, it seems, spading off the topsoil, surprised at all that comes uncovered. Some aspects of Indian culture are immediately noticable. For instance, it doesn't take very long to notice there is no toilet paper in the bathrooms, only a spigot on the wall and a small plastic bucket. Also evident within the first few days is the backbone of Indian diet--rice holds all things together. It can also hold all things inside, but that's a different story.

For all the visibles, there are many more invisible, pieces of this country and its people which are always present, but which my Western eye is halting to notice and my biased mind slow to understand. This morning, Sheila and I were finishing breakfast as Aunty sat closeby. Through the open front door, I could see a man approaching, two large jugs in hand. "Ghee!" he yelled. Then again, the second time louder and larger. "Ghhhheeeee!" A low, rumbling train of a yell, gaining momentum and speed as it barreled from his lungs to his mouth. I have seen so many odd incidents the last seven weeks that sometimes, I just shrug and keep going. This time, Aunty provided an explanation. "The ghee man," she proclaimed. Here, ghee is the word for butter or oil or both... or maybe shortening. I haven't quite figured out its degree of precision. "He comes and takes all the oil we use then not use anymore." See? This is the kind of layer I had no idea existed in India until today. A man who comes door to door to collect everyone's used grease! My mom drains it into a rinsed-out salsa jar and stores it under the sink. When it gets full, I guess she throws it away. I've never thought about it before.

To me, America and India often appear to be two wildly different landscapes. If one is forest, then the other is desert. If one is mountainous, the other is beachy. If one is tundra, the other is...well, what's the opposite of tundra? Rainforest, perhaps. In brief moments of drama, I wonder, "Am I even on the same planet anymore?"

Yet India does not reveal her differences to me without also showing me her similarities. The human shirt and pants she wears. Flesh stretched out over bones. A heart pumping blood to veins and capillaries. Underneath, a formless soul that throbs with pain and laughs with joy.

Just like me.

After the ghee man came by today, Aunty told us about her mom. In India, the unwritten and powerful code of family tradition dictates that sons, not daughters, are responsible for the care of elderly mothers. But the "very big problem" with this system, Aunty said, is that the daughter-in-law more often than not abuses and neglects the aging mother of her husband. Such is the case with Aunty's mom, who lives with Aunty's older brother. She is a widow, and the only place for her to go in a society that prefers men is the home of her son. Or rather he came and took over her home. And now she lives in poverty and oppression inside the very walls where she raised her children. Not such a good thank-you. Aunty told us all this and of how she visits her mom once or twice a week, taking food and medicine, but beyond this, what more can be done? Despair makes it hard for a heart to rest. As we lingered over breakfast, I saw with what heavy weight this problem presses on Aunty.

Watching her cry, I felt that all the differences between us were now slight, little more than wispy feathers. Tears are an equalizer, a common bond, a reminder of the pain all of us at some time know.

I think about the force of blatant injustice, how viciously it whips across weak lives, and I am angry. Angry first at India. Then, I remember Sheila's words of prayer offered after we sat with Aunty: "Anger won't do." I remember that India is not the sole harborer of injustice, that while he is bold and cocky here, he lives in America too, a different mask, a different look, but he is there. He has homes all across the globe.

Maybe, though, the greatest common denominator in all of this is not the fragility of our human state, nor the rampant and free epidemic of injustice and sin. Maybe it is the fact that we--in all of our brokenness--are occupants of the same sphere held by the same Two Great Hands. All creatures of His making, living in a world He owns. As the psalmist says, "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Or, as the Vacation Bible School song paraphrases, "He's got the whole world in His hands."

And in my smallness, I want nothing more than His bigness to be true.

Friday, October 5, 2007

teach me...

"Teach me Your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in Your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name."
-Psalm 87:11

Teach me Your way, O Lord, in this city.
In this strange and sometimes scary land, teach me Your way.
Teach me Your way, O Lord, as I pass the faces, the faces with no names, the faces whose names You know, the faces with names and hearts and dreams, all of which You know.
Teach me Your way, O Lord
, when the pain is intense and shocking,
when the little girl watches her parents die and then comes to my classroom,
when the woman is digging through the trash on the side of the road, looking for food maybe yet edible,
when the young teenager pulls at my sleeve, asking, "Milk for the baby, seester? Please, seester?"
Teach me Your way, O Lord, in the sun-spots of joy,
in Raju who always wants a hug and always has a smile,
in community night with my team, meals of American food and stories to make us all laugh,
in laughing with Sheila one more time as we fall asleep.
Teach me Your way, O Lord, as I search for You in Your word,
clinging to promises like I've never clung before,
praying for things I cannot see,
hoping for the end when Love Wins.

One thing I ask of You, oh Lord,
to dwell with You
in Kolkata or small-town America
to know Your heart
to learn Your ways
to love Your name

Thursday, October 4, 2007

an orphan's fear

Yesterday I arrived at school to find two new faces. One boy and one girl. I think they are siblings. Sister told me that they had come just that morning. A four hour journey from their old home to Kolkata. They were tired. But more than that, they were scared. The little girl couldn't stop crying. She was wailing, really. Clinging to the grate that separates the classroom from the outside. One of the nuns tried to give her medicine, but she couldn't swallow it and ended up vomiting all over the floor. The little guy was in slightly better shape. He joined my class at the table, but every so often, the tears would well up and then roll down. Big and droppy and fast. I knelt next to him and patted his back, and I began to cry too. He was so little. So vulnerable. So afraid. What kind of life had he come from, I wondered? What happened to his parents? What must it be like to be sat down in the middle of ten happy, loud, yet also pushy kids? Wouldn't I be terrified if I were four years old and had been thrust right into a flock of faces I had never seen before?

The kids in my class have all been at the orphanage long enough to appear well-adjusted. They are happy. They're well-fed. They fight, but all kids fight. It's easy for me to forget that they are orphans, because in the short time I am with them every morning, they seem like normal kids, kids who will go home to families at the end of the school day. I forget that Sishu is their home. I forget that they never get to sit on their daddies' laps. I forget that the reason they live at Sishu now is because they were once living in hell on earth.

That is one story. The story with the setting in which my heart is soft and tender.

Then I step out onto the streets.

Street-walking has been (and still is) one of the very hardest things for me about life in Kolkata. I hate it, if I can be perfectly honest. The worst of it is when I am alone. It's safe during the day, safe as in I'm not going to get mugged or assaulted. And because of our different schedules, I have to walk alone sometimes. But it is really, really hard for me. If I could sum the experience up in one word, that word would be vulnerable. I want to keep a soft heart--I want to be able to smile at people, to stop and make new friends, to try street food and then hang around and chat with the vendor. I want to know the whole world's name, actually! "Let's be friends, okay?"

It can't work that way in India. Men (not all men, but somedays it feels like all) will assume that since I'm white and Western, I'm loose. Vendors might try to rip me off or scam me. I think about these things as I walk. The walls around my heart go up a little more with each step down the sidewalk. Walk faster. Clutch bag tightly to side. Never, ever, ever look men in the eye. Pretty soon, my heart morphs into a bag of rocks. Hard as stone. People have become inconviences. The Indian culture has become inferior to my own. I just want to get where I am going, for goodness sake, so please don't stop me! Yet underneath the clipped pace and set face, I am really a pile of Jello, quivering at all that I don't know how to respond to.

These two stories collided during devotion time this morning. I realized:

I have an orphan's heart.

I am walking the streets of Kolkata with the identity of an orphan. I forget that I have a Father. Every day I forget. I walk around believing that I am alone. I think I am going to get left behind or taken advantage of. I think I have to battle hard for my rights, for my survival, for my protection. I've taken my safety into my own hands, but I know my incompetency, and so I end up scared. I have a Father! We have a Father! Once, a beautiful friend told me that for a season of her life, she woke up every morning and repeated to herself: "I have a Father. I am not an orphan." The fear that she was alone was almost paralyzing. I, also, have met that fear in India. Without a father, without a home, the world is indeed terrifying and frightful. The lie is that we are alone. Orphaned.

The truth is that we are children of God, God who has named Himself the "Everlasting Father." He will never leave us. He's not ditching town. He will give us refuge in His shadow.

Our Father's compassion is beautiful. This morning, my heart found peace in Him. I am praying that this little girl and boy will someday know the Father of the fatherless, that whatever memories of pain or rejection they store will be flooded out of their minds with the force of His love.

I need a Father
I need a Shepherd
I need strong arms that are bigger than mine

I need a Husband
I need a Lover
I need a companion to walk with me forever

It is You
It is You
All of my needs are covered by You

It is You
It is You
All of my dreams are bound up in You

I still don't know exactly how to respond to every situation on the street, but my heart is not so frantic. His presence brings us rest.

Even here?

Yes. Especially here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Are rats nocturnal?

Oh man. So much is happening here in K-town. Life is speeding along. October is here. October! How did you get here so fast?

A brief update on our rat situation. Let me give you the Cliff Notes version: out of control! This morning, in the wee early neighborhood of 1 am, these were my words to Sheila:
"We've got to wage a full-out war. Pull out all the stops."
My roommate of the super-sonic hearing had just heard Mr. Rat rustling about in our trash bag, which I would like to point out was hanging a good five feet off the floor and contained no food fragments. (We're trying.) She shook me awake, and the all-too-familiar huddling in the middle of the bed act resumed. Sheila has a wind-up flashlight, which happens to be incredibly handy for these nighttime crises. That way we don't even have to try to reach the lightswitch from the bed. She pointed the flashlight right on the trash bag, and then I threw the nearest small object at the bag. Out zipped the rat, away to his safe little hide-out behind the cupboard. I'm not sure what good that did, but at least we got him out of the trash.

I know this all sounds a bit silly, but I'm going to play the gender card and argue that--we're girls. Somewhere way back in our genetic code, it must be written that we ought to be irrationally afraid of anything grey with a long tail. It doesn't make sense, but take it up with our DNA.

If any strong men would like to make an emergency trip to Kolkata, you are welcome. We live behind Nepal Sweets. The white house. Next to the big apartment building. If we happen to not be at home, go on in and feel free to "pull out all the stops."

What's going on in my heart? Jesus has been showing me my pride and resistence the past few days. How I think I have something good going on inside of me without Him. I have been thinking about how radical the Incarnation was. I come to India, and I miss the comforts of Western life. But this is nothing compared to Jesus stepping down to earth and slipping on our flesh. He came to earth from heaven! Philippians says that he "made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." I say I want to follow Jesus. I'm seeing, though, that I want to follow Him without having to look like Him. All the things that I am afraid to give up in following Jesus, He Himself gave up! I resist pouring myself out for the poor. Yet Christ poured Himself out to death for the whole world. I resist the thought of remaining single, begging that cup might not be mine. But Jesus lived as a single man, and sometimes even His friends deserted Him. I don't want to live without a comfortable home. But the Son of Man had no place to lay His head, even as the foxes were running off to their dens and the birds settling down in their nests. I balk at suffering. Jesus suffered so much. Loss of friendship, loss of dignity, loss of family, loss of physical well-being.

I am amazed by what the Cross means. I am amazed at this Man Jesus. I am amazed that He has asked me to follow Him. And I am ashamed that I want the crown without the cross. Like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, I don't understand that suffering is a prerequisite for victory. I want to move into the glorious kingdom right now. Take the interstate fast lane and speed by pain, hurt, or disgrace. But how can the servant be greater than the Master?

Pray for me, that I will be willing to know Christ in His death just as I long to know Him in His life.

And also, even though I say this with a sheepish grin, please pray that Sheila and I will get some good sleep soon. We've been having restless nights, maybe partly due to the rats. To end on a positive note, I love our ceiling fan. I bet we would get even less sleep if we didn't have that ceiling fan. It runs so faithfully every night, all night long. There's a silver lining.

for now, good-bye...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Habakkuk for today

My good friend Sarah, who spent last year in Sierra Leone, sent me a letter a few weeks ago. In it, she said to read Habakkuk. A small book. An minor OT prophet, the whole of which fills up three pages in my Bible. I have to admit, I don't often get over to Habakkuk.

I read it last night, and I am so glad I did. Habakkuk asks a lot of questions of the Lord, questions of why injustice and violence continue, questions of where the Lord is and why nothing seems to be happening. The same questions I've been asking for the last month.

Saturday is the international day of fasting and prayer for sex trafficking. As we prepare for this day, the girls of the red-light district are heavy on my mind and heart. In Habakkuk, I see their story. Did you know that most of the girls who live and work in Kolkata's brothels are not there by choice? Did you know that thousands of girls every year are tricked into prostituting because a "friend" has lured them away from their villages with promises of good work? Others come because their husbands have died or left, and their families won't accept them back into the fold.

Habakkuk laments that
"The wicked foe pulls [people] up with hooks, he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet; and so he rejoices and is glad.
...for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.
Is he to keep on emptying the net,
destroying nations without mercy?" (1:16-17)

My heart tore at these verses, for I see the women who prostitute as the fish caught up in the nets of the wicked. So many are pulled into the trade by evil people who sell the bodies and souls of young girls for profit. As a poor woman in India, there's really not a lot of places to go if no one is offering you help. These women become trapped in the nets.

The Lord answers Habakkuk, assuring him that the answer is coming. "Though it linger, wait for it," says God. "It will certainly come." (2:3)

I find that I am in that waiting place. I wait in the foyer of tension. I hope. I pray. I fight. Yet it is a battle to sustain those actions, because the enemy is pushing back hard. "The righteous will live by faith," God continues. So I--we--keep faith.

We know what is coming. The fulfillment of this faith, the other side of the finish-tape line:
"For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Habakkuk 2:14)

This is my heart-cry. For myself, for the girls in the brothels, for all the nations. That all will be filled with "the knowledge of the glory of the Lord."

If you would, join me in praying on Saturday. Thanks for your prayers. I may have mentioned this already, but your prayers are a TREMENDOUS blessing.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"There's a certain slant of light"

...and it fell on me today.

Flip-flopping down the four flights of stairs from Beth's flat today, my heart so full, a string of chuckles lined up at the back of my throat, almost skipping down the stairs two at a time. One of those moments when I feel 10 again, my hair in braided pigtails, back when I could run faster than Peter and sit on him, strong enough to keep him pinned to the floor. Not that I ever did that.

On those stairs, I wished that I could teleport every one of you here to see this. There is only so much canvas these words can paint, and there are full-frescoed ceilings and walls to describe. A thousand little colorful and vibrant threads that are the tapestry of my life right now, and I want you to see them up close, to see how glittery and dazzly some of them are, to notice the rich tones of others, to run your fingers across the texture.

That's the pretty metaphor. But the one I really want to use is that my thoughts are a rink of bumper cars--I have so much to tell you, but my thoughts keep ramming into each other, and to try to get all the cars to fall into a nice, orderly track is, of course, impossible. My mind is jammed tonight, and I wish I could spill my stories out before you, and you'd watch them hit the floor and instantly understand. :)

As they say in Indian restaurants when what you've ordered can't be produced, "Not possible."

Here's the alternative. A list of the bumper cars, the thoughts. Just a list. In no particular order.

-Worshipping with my team, Jesus among us, remembering how beautiful it is when brothers dwell together in unity
-Praying Psalm 91 over each of the WMF staff
-The power going off in the middle of the Indian cricket World Cup
-Tea time at Sishu with the famed "Mother Teresa" biscuits--where do they get those biscuits?--and talking to girls from all over the world: Spain, Wales, Canada, Japan
-Cold showers with one big blue bucket and one small red bucket
-Standing on a crowded bus or the Metro--the soundtrack for these rides is Sesame Street's "One of these things is not like the other"--and I am the "not like" thing
-The banana/gingerbread/teddy bear sheet on our bed
-Finding a half-eaten potato behind the bed and resignedly sighing, "the rat."
-A tiny and wrinkled woman squatting on the red-brick corner who will say "Namastay" to you if you give her change and even if you do not
-Hugging three children at once while another climbs on my back
-Riding in an auto-rickshaw next to a smiley, plump lady who tries to talk to me in Bangla--and me trying to talk back
-The panicky feeling I have when I think I've lost my wallet--again--ten-times-a-day-again.
-Dinners of whole fish--Aunty telling us to chew up the head and then spit it out--"So much nice juice, no?"
-Washing my clothes on a concrete slab

There. A list-skeleton of India life. Please fill free to imagine in all the remaining gaps.

Do you ever feel like beauty just finds you? Like you're simply living, marking off the calender squares, trying to be faithful, and then BAM, beauty or grace or wonder--or all three--come and kick-box your front door down and suddenly whatever film has been glazing your eyes is gone. "A thin place," the Celts termed it. A place where the great curtain between heaven and earth is a bit lighter, more transparent.

That was today.

As Beth reminded me via the Message translation of Psalm 23, "goodness and mercy are chasing you down." I need to be chased. I desperately need it. I have felt foggy lately. Distant from God and maybe from others, although no one here knows me well enough yet to perceive this frigidity of soul.

Today, though, I was standing by the front door when it fell in, and Grace came stepping over the frame. I looked up, wide-eyed and stunned. "I thought You'd forgotten where I lived, but I'm sure glad you remembered." God is faithful. Jesus is near. The Holy Spirit is present and powerful. All this and more Grace recounted to me, and my dry eyes moistened, my hard heard returned to a soft, doughy lump.

This is the giddy stair-jumping small-girl impulse.

This is the list of bumper-car thoughts, the realization of a full life, the following thankfulness.

This is the new set of eyes that see the makings of a splendid photograph in every shadowed corner and sunlit street.

This is the peace that I am not in charge of Kolkata, nor the world, nor the universe, but that there is one in charge--One who has not forgotten my name or what place I occupy in the planets He is holding.

May Grace come knocking at your doors today, my friends. He comes to say you are loved, you are not forgotten, and that you are sheltered in the shadow of the Almighty's wings.

Lastly, can I ask you all to be in prayer for myself, the team, and WMF staff during the month of October? October is the season of the biggest pujas (Hindu holidays). It's basically the equivelent of the American Christmas season. Frenzied shopping, decorations, parties and gatherings. But all of it is to honor Hindu gods, and so there is much happening in the spirit world. Pray the blood of Jesus over us, and that we would be wise and perceptive. Pray for Jesus' Name to pierce the darkness. Light. For light. So much light.

Such a long post. Phew. So much to say. Saving the rest for another day...

lara

Monday, September 24, 2007

the rain has come

Bus ride to Sishu Bavan: 4 rupees
Morning snack of biscuits at a corner dokan (store): 5 rupees
Stamps for a letter to America: 15 rupees
Lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken: 70 rupees
Wading through a foot of water and laughing with new friends: priceless.

It's monsoon season in Kolkata. Until now, it hasn't rained more than one day in a row, but the last three days the heavens have opened up, and it doesn't look like they're going to shut anytime soon. My umbrella is feeling the force--one prong has already broken, and I'm afraid a total collapse is imminent. When it rains like this, the streets flood, and today I plunged through nearly a foot of water while walking to lunch. Really, it will probably be okay if my umbrella disentegrates, because I'm going to get wet no matter what. :)

We had a special treat of KFC for lunch today. KFC is in Kolkata. Weird, I know. Chicken strips have never tasted so good. My team met for lunch after volunteering at Mother Teresa's homes. I brought along five Canadian girls, and Sheila brought two guys from Indiana. It's so refreshing to meet new people, especially Christians, and we had a good time today talking about life and why we're in Kolkata and what comes afterwards. I miss JBU a lot right now. After being in India almost six weeks, I'm starting to realize that I'm not going back to college. Me: "Oh, you mean I'm not living in the eternal summer? This is life now?" Yup. Real post-college life. And not that I don't love this life; I do. But I'm caught between a longing for beloved past places and an excitement for the road yet unseen. Sound familiar to anyone?

So anyway. Hanging out with people today was a blessing. And if you can't get around the roads-turned-rivers, you might as well splash around in the water.

Saturday, I read the story of the woman who breaks her alabaster jar in front of Jesus. Jesus is at the home of Simon the leper, and He is reclining at the table. This woman comes to Jesus with perfume so expensive that all who are gathered at Simon's house are aghast at what she does with it: she takes the jar and breaks it, spreading the perfume all over Jesus. Pours it all out, right there. A year's worth of wages, the footnote in my Bible says, 365 days of salary all spilled over Jesus' head. The crowd is appalled. "The money could have been given to the poor," they rage. Jesus says this: "Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me."

I think that sometimes, I am the voice of the onlooker. Here's why. I want to replace costly discipleship with a giving that I can control. When I give to the poor, I feel like I'm "doing" something. When I give out of my pocketbook, I can manage the loss. But handing my whole entire life over to Christ? That's a surrender that I'm no longer in control of. Breaking the flask at His feet is a radical and extravagant move. It puts me so close to Him, in such an intimate position.

I want to break the flask.
No more guises of compassion and concern, maintained to appease a guilty conscience.
Jesus, teach me to love You recklessly.

Jesus, may our lives be "beautiful things" to You.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I love...

I love practicing Bangla with Aunty and Uncle.

Last night, we were all gathered in the living room, Uncle stretched out on the floor, Aunty on the couch, Sheila and I on two tiny wicker stools. Sheila was having trouble remembering a phrase Uncle had taught her, and he shook his head in mock disgust. "After you get a husband, then you will be remembering." Aunty and Uncle are pretty convinced Sheila and I need to find good husbands. :) Time for a classic language mistake. "Amar shamo kothay?" I pipe up with a puzzled and pained expression, which I thought meant, "Where is my husband?" Umm. Turns out shamo means samosa, a tasty little fried snack. Uh, husband would actually be shami. But I love practicing, and I even love making mistakes, because my goof-ups make Aunty and Uncle laugh so hard, and then Sheila and I laugh really hard, and the whole experience becomes one more of those beautiful moments that make me stop and give thanks for life, for adventure, for India, for following Jesus into places of both sorrow and joy.

I love realizing that what I'm doing right now matches so many of my dreams.

A few summers back, I read John and Stacy Eldridge's book, Captivating. I know there are some who find too much emotion and not enough meat in the Eldridges' books, but I did take away something meaningful from that book. Stacy wrote in one chapter about the deep places of a woman's heart, the things we treasure and hope for almost too much to verbalize. She suggested making a list of those things. So I did. I still have that list at home, and I remember almost everything that's on it, and last night, as I was journaling, I realized that so many of the deepest dreams I scribbed on that paper are here. Now. Children. Women. Freedom. Hope. Redemption. It was such a sweet "aha" moment. Remembering so many prayers and hopes. Not that they are now fulfilled once and for all, but I am starting to see the edges of those dreams. My heart is thankful.

I love wandering with Hannah.

Hannah is meeting me at this Internet cafe in a few minutes, and we're going to go gorte, gorte. Wandering, wandering. Hannah is my Kolkata wander-buddy. Maybe we will buy some fresh fruits and vegetables from the street vendors. Maybe we will find a special cafe tucked away on a tiny side street, and we'll have amazing food, maybe even the best food we've had so far. Maybe we'll meet a new friend. Or two or three. Maybe... Oh the possibilities!

In closing, may I just say "Happy Birthday" to my amazing Mom. If you live close enough to my mother to give her a hug today, do. Then give her another one. For me. I can't cry in the Internet cafe (that would be embarassing!), but I want to cry when I think of how many times she died in one way or another in order to give life to her family. She is selfless, hard-working, beautiful, strong, and gentle. My mom taught me how to pray, because when I was a little girl, I would get up in the morning, tip-toe into the living room, and find her kneeling by the couch. That was what I saw morning after morning. I love you, Mom. I miss you a lot.

And finally, a verse that cheered my heart yesterday:
"You have made known to me the path of life;
You will fill me with joy in Your presence."
-Psalm 16:11

Amen.
_________


Ok. A small p.s. I was looking around Facebook because Hannah came and was checking her email, so I had a few extra minutes, and all that introduction to say, I found the cutest picture ever on my sister's Facebook page, and it made me so happy that I just want to show everyone. Sadly, the only person I know even remotely close to me right now is Hannah. So I showed her. And now I want to show you, my blog family. Check out this link for the world's best picture of my dad and my precious niece, Abigail. I love this picture. I love them. My day is so happy right now.

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=866055&id=650470152

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ways to pray

I'm glad that some days, all it takes to be a successful teacher is the ability to draw a good elephant or ice-cream cone.

I was back at Sishu today for the first time in over a week. I missed a day last week due to an earache, and then we went to Darj. It was good to see them all again. To give them hugs and be happy with them. To realize that maybe they need love and attention and concern more than they need to be able to perfectly write each letter of the alphabet. And golly, we sure do have a good time coloring. My elephants are becoming quite nice, I think.

I would like to let you know some specific ways you could pray for me. Here are some things I jotted down in my journal a few days back.

-Continued spiritual protection and wisdom--satan doesn't like freedom and truth
-The future of WMF Kolkata. They are dreaming for the future. Ideas of a halfway home for the girls who prostitute and a daycare for the children of the women are two possibilities. I get really excited thinking about the daycare. Maybe someday, the Lord would lead me back here to be a part of that??!
-There is a lady on the road that I take to get to Sishu Bavan. She lives there, I think, because I see her every time I pass. I have stopped and tried to talk to her, but now I am sort of at a stand-still. She wants something from me, but I'm not sure what, because my Bangla isn't that good. Food, medicine, money? Maybe all. How do I love her in a real and relevant way? Pray for specific insight on this. I know I am not called to meet all the needs in Kolkata, but there is something about this lady that keeps tugging on my heart. I think her name is Ranu.
-Along with that, general sensitivity in listening to the Spirit
-A deeper revelation of God's love for me and the world
-Health. I had a bad earache last week, and now I have a sinus infection. I'm worried about the earache coming back, because it still feels a little funky inside there.

I miss you guys! I miss you so much. In three months, I hope to give HUGE hugs to as many of you as I can!

ALL praise to our God! So faithfully He teaches us and leads us. Grace to you as you love and serve Him wherever you may be.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's gotta be something redemptive about sweating

I'm back in Kolkata! We left Darjeeling Monday morning, all seven of us packed into a Tata Sumo (an Indian SUV) along with our driver and a luggage boy. Once down the mountain, we took an overnight train from Sunigiri to Kolkata. The sleeper car is quite the experience. People walk through the compartment at all hours of the night. I remember rolling over at 4 this morning to the sound of this voice: "CHA! KOFI! CHA! KOFI!" It was the tea and coffee man, coming through the train for all those early risers eager to start the morning. Like there is anyplace to go. :)


It's good to be back in Kolkata. The only thing that isn't quite so good is the sweating. Folks, it's still super hot here in K-town. Back to the tried and true ponytail. When I wore my hair down this weekend, I realized how long it is getting. I'm excited! I like long hair. I forgot that. I had the happy realization yesterday that if someone handed me a ticket to fly home today, I would say "Thank you, but no thank you." Kolkata is still right and good. It is still the chapter for me right now. I can say after a month of much hardness and even more goodness that I would rather be here than any other place in the world. Thanks to those of you who faithfully pray for my peace and joy. Those gifts are coming. And even better, they are staying.


A small story from the train station yesterday.
Jyoti.

I do not know what her name really means, but I think that I have read or heard somewhere that the English translation of the Bangla is joy. Her face shines with a smile that I rarely see in the children who beg. Most wear a weathered, hardened, empty gaze as they move their hands from stomach to mouth, the universal sign that crosses language barriers to ask, "Please, won't you give me some money or food?" Jyoti uses the sign too, yet her mouth explodes in an upward curve of happiness, and when I ask her simple questions in Bangla, she laughs.
One moment outside the train station.
In the next, I will walk inside and never see Jyoti again. How much of this meeting is mere chance or the inevitable result of a Westerner's presence in a crowded Indian venue? How much is Divine, a sweet and beautiful exchange orchestrated by the Magnificent Hands that hold us all?
I believe it is the second.

Oh! To have eyes that see life with the expectation of encountering the sacred around each corner and through every door! For God is with us, but He is also above us, guiding our steps and lining our paths with stepping-stones of purpose.
Jyoti, thank you for laughing with me today.
Thank you for reminding me that hope has not taken ill and died.
Thank you for teaching me that giving is a privilege, whether that gift is of myself or my possessions. So often I build a barbed-wire fence around my heart, but Jyoti squeezed under the sharp prongs today, and in her arrival I hear this truth:
How much life is found in giving.

And now, the momentous event you've all been waiting for! A little pictorial tour of the last month of my life.

Hmm. So I don't have time to figure out how to rotate this picture. So maybe all you viewers at home could just rotate your heads. :) This is Sheila, my dear and wonderful roommate, and me. We are in our room at home.

Dinner-time at home. The lady in the middle is our great Aunty, the all-time best Indian cook. Bengalis don't eat dinner until late (8:30 or 9:00 pm), so Sheila and I are already sporting our Indian nighties. Nice, huh? Oh, also please note that we are becoming true Indians and eating with our hands.

This is outside of our home. I think we're on our way to church.


Hannah and me at my birthday dinner! Somehow, someway, Beth managed to procure REAL LETTUCE for an AUTHENTIC SALAD. That lady knows me well, and she is amazing. Note my excitement. This is the first time I've had a real salad in nearly a month. We also had mac-and-cheese. Oh, the wonders of familiar American food when one is far from home. :)

Here is the rest of my team, minus leader Beth. This is on our way to Darj. Hannah, me, Josh, Jodi, and Sonny. What a crew. I love 'em.


Sheila and I found a cafe in Darj that served REAL COFFEE! Oh boy! Here I am, blissfully happy over such a fortunate discovery. Thanks, Darjeeling. You were good to us. Even if you are world-renowned for your tea, I will always remember you for the incredible French-press coffee you gave us.

That's all for now. Posting pictures takes a while. Sorry I don't have any of the women or children I'm working with. WMF and Mother Teresa's have pretty strict picture policies, for the privacy and dignity of the people they work with. But hopefully at the end I will get to snap a few pics of my new friends.

Thanks so much for your prayers! I was going to post some specific prayer requests today, but I have run out of time, so maybe tomorrow. Thanks also for emails, comments, and real mail! I got some real letters today, and while I didn't think anything could top getting mail as a college student, getting mail in Kolkata exceeds even that joy. :)

Ashchi!