Africa changed nothing–and everything

Backs on the grass, faces to the sky, we counted stars as the music from an Irish band on the stage a couple dozen yards away filled our ears.

“There’s one!” “And another!”

We so seldom look at the night sky. By the time the sun sets, we’re usually inside, ready for bed, at least the little ones, and we live close enough to the city that stars are sometimes a luxury.

The half moon shone brightly, illuminating a plane in a way I’d never seen before.

And my thoughts drifted to Africa.

We saw the stars in Kenya, close enough to touch. We looked up one night on our way from one place to another and paused because we couldn’t number them and they seemed so near. We looked for familiar constellations in a different spot in the sky. “Look for the southern cross,” we were told because it’s not something you can see in our part of the world. I think we might have seen the Milky Way, too.

As I lay in the grass in Pennsylvania looking at the same sky from a different perspective, I marveled at how a person could see things so differently but still be on the same planet.

We say that sometimes, when people are disagreeing with us or can’t seem to see what we see.

“Are you from another planet?” “What planet are you on?”

It’s the wrong question because we’re all walking this same earth, but what we see from where we are is just so very different.

The same week we returned from Africa, I yelled at my kids over something that wasn’t important. I was tired, probably, and still trying to process all that happened, and we were adjusting to each other again.

But none of those are excuses. I beat myself up for freaking out at them.

Didn’t Africa change me at all?

It’s been almost three weeks since we’ve been back and I know the answer to that now.

It did. And it didn’t.

I didn’t go to Africa and come back a different person. I’m still the same body, mind and spirit.

But I did come back with a different perspective. Like seeing the stars from a different spot on the earth, I’m seeing my life and God and faith from a different angle.

Fundamentally, though, I’m still the same. Africa wasn’t like a magic potion that automatically made me more patient or compassionate and head-over-heels in love with my kids every minute of the day. There are still roots of sin and selfishness, things that didn’t die just because I left the continent.

Expecting Africa to change everything about me in one trip is an unrealistic expectation. I know that now.

But shouldn’t something have changed?

And what about Africa? Did we change anything by being there?

Two days into our Kenya trip, but we didn’t know about it until afterward, our pastor, who was on the trip with us, received an e-mail from someone who didn’t identify themselves criticizing our decision to raise $30,000 for a mission trip to a boarding school for missionary kids in Africa. Weren’t we wasting our money? the person asked.

It’s a valid question (although I have to question the timing, and my years in journalism have made me unsympathetic to anonymous opinions and criticisms). You can read our pastor’s full response here. Here’s the heart of it, though:

We have concluded, however, that it is vital for first world citizens to get out of their comfort zones and see the world with their own eyes. The impact is much greater than simply watching video or seeing pictures. Are there other local, less expensive means to achieve the same result? Possibly. Perhaps I was totally wrong for facilitating this trip. But I also watched God provide for this trip in miraculous ways. He has the ability to fund this trip as well as the needs of the people in Kenya. Sometimes he uses a trip like this to open our eyes, rend our hearts, so that we can be the means to raise the money for the needs in a place like Kenya.

I think most of us on the trip would agree that we didn’t change Kenya, but Kenya changed us.

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 And I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m still discovering how Kenya changed me.

I wrote about how my lungs are different after hiking a volcano, and that holds. I took a lap at the park with the kids this week and I’ve never been able to walk the entire loop without gasping for breath. I wasn’t even winded after two laps.

But it’s more than that.

I find myself talking to strangers more. In Kenya, life is more relational than transactional. I’m a task-oriented person by nature, but just before we left for Kenya, I was convicted about this. How I elevate convenience over people. (That’s another blog post, maybe, for another day.) In Kenya, it’s rude to not ask about people’s families or make conversation before getting to the point. Even while shopping at the local shops, negotiating a price is seen as a relational act, not something to be offended by.

In the weeks since we’ve been home, I hear myself making small talk with people I would have passed by, like the people offering food samples at Costco. Usually I just want to get in and get out, especially if a crowd is gathering, but I’ve made tiny bits of conversation. At the concert in the park the other day, I addressed a couple behind us when we moved our blanket back so the kids could dance in front of us instead of behind us.

“It’s for your safety,” I said. “They get a little wild.”

“They look pretty harmless,” the woman said. “We have two grandkids, so we know.”

It was not an important exchange, but it was human connection. I need more of that, and Kenya helped spark that change.

Whatever happened in Kenya, it’s far more important that I was changed than that we left a mark on Kenya. That sounds selfish, but if I’m changed because of my experience in Kenya, then I can effect more change. If all I did was paint a dorm and hand out some T-shirts to some kids who need clothes, then the impact will only last until the paint peels and the shirts wear out.

The view while painting

The view while painting

Maybe going to Africa looks like it changed nothing, but maybe over time, it will have changed everything.

When it’s not you, it’s me

It’s going to be different.

That’s what I think every time change is on the horizon. It’s what I thought a few months ago when I was survival parenting, barely hanging on to sanity by a thread.

Once we’re moved, things will be different.

Now we’re moved. And things aren’t all that different. I’m still frustrated with my kids. I’m yelling more than I’d like. I’m overwhelmed by housework, in serious need of some “me time.”

Where I'd like to spend my "me" time

Where I’d like to spend my “me” time

Once Izzy goes to school, I think, things will be different. It’ll just be me and Corban for the day.

Things will be different.

I’m detecting a pattern here.

I’m pushing through to the next thing, whatever it is, on the promise that once I’m there things will be different in a good way. Yet, when I get there, it’s more of the same.

The common denominator: me.

Circumstances will change. Settings will change. Schedules will change. And all along I’ve been hoping that those changes will be the elusive thing I’m looking for to make life better.

The problem is this: I’m no different in each of these changes. The same frustrations I felt earlier this year I carried with me to our new house. And just because I’ll be less one child come fall doesn’t meant I won’t still be overwhelmed.

I don’t want to keep living as if the next thing to come will be the better thing. I don’t want to say my marriage will be better when the kids are grown because I’ve seen marriages dissolve after that. I don’t want to think that life will be easier when both kids are in school and I’ll have more time to write because I know I can procrastinate with the best of them. I don’t want to hope that by the end of my life I’ll be a better person than I am today without making any effort to change. <Click to tweet>

I’m in danger of becoming bitter about life. Of missing the joy in each day because I think tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year has more potential for joy than right now.

How can these adorable guys not bring joy?

How can these adorable guys not bring joy?

I recently finished reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp and I’m feebly attempting to list 1,000 joys I find in the everyday. Maybe I’ll make it by the end of the year. I hope to be changed by the intentional looking for reasons to say “thank you, God.”

It’s a start. I need to change. Not just my setting or my circumstances but me. From the inside out.

Because when I’m honest with God about my life, the old break-up cliche fits: It’s not You; it’s me.

One word to guide my year

I’m bad at making–and keeping–resolutions. Who isn’t, right?

So when I stumbled onto the opportunity to simplify my new year’s resolutions into one word, I decided to give it a try.

A Facebook friend blogged about her experience with Oneword365 for 2012. And I was inspired by the idea that I could spend the whole year letting one word transform my life, my attitudes, my behaviors.

It’s not a to-do kind of word but a to-be kind of word, not a rule but a guide.

I’m totally game.

So I spent a couple of days thinking of possibilities. They’re endless, you know. So many words to choose from. Peace. Grace. Joy. Love. I’d be thrilled if my capacity for any one of those increased over the year. But none of those seemed to fit.

The right word came to me in the middle of an emotional breakdown. I’d shut myself in the bedroom, asking the kids to please play by themselves in the living room or their room for a few minutes so I could have some space to cry and journal and pour my heart out to God about how yuck I feel about life right now.

He listened as I raged–on paper–and let my emotions spin wildly out of control.

Then He whispered, “Let go.”

I am a control freak, and nothing scares a control freak more than the idea that she’s not in control. Parenting has yet to break me completely of the notion that I have little to no control over anything. (Have you ever tried to get a preschooler or toddler to do anything you say? Not pretty.) But our circumstances have put me in a position to realize that I have no control. I can’t make anything happen. It’s not up to me to chart the course of our life. My job is to wait. And listen. And take the appropriate steps.

Since “let go” is two words, I wanted to replace it with a one-word synonym. “Surrender” is one, but to me, that sounds like giving up. I know surrender is a biblical thing, and I’m okay with surrender, in general, but I don’t want to put myself in a mental state of giving up.

So, here’s my word for 2013:

Release.

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I’ve felt myself holding tightly to things in the last year. Expectations. My plans. My way. People’s perceptions. Excuses.

This year, I want to unclench my fists and hold my hands open and let go of what I think I need. Hold my heart open and let go of pain I’ve been harboring. Hold my mind open and let go of perceptions, of me and of others.oneword-release-rope

I’ve heard that when you’re at the end of your rope, you should tie a knot and hold on. I’ve heard, too, that there’s another option.

Let go.

And like a free fall, trust God to support you, even if you can’t see how.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)

Release. 2013.

I’m hoping to check in here once a month about what a mindset of release is teaching me.

Have you considered one word for the year? Find out more here. And join the journey.

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Issues? What issues? Review of She’s Got Issues by Nicole Unice

I started this book almost two months ago, and I’m usually not a slow reader. But where some books I read are like a bowl of ice cream I gobble up in a few minutes,  She’s Got Issues is like a multi-course meal I wish wouldn’t end. Author Nicole Unice gives us–women, especially–plenty to chew on.

At first glance, I wanted to deny. Issues? What issues? Then I scanned the Table of Contents: fear, anger, insecurity, unforgiveness. Oh. Those issues. The journey into and through your issues, whatever they might be, can be scary, but Unice is like a seasoned travel guide through the darkest valleys. She doesn’t preach from on high. She’s talking to us from the trenches of transformation. Her style is humorous, fresh and real. She doesn’t hide her own struggles, and she doesn’t want us to hide them either.

I started journaling when I began reading, and I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the whole book might be underlined. Unice offers thought-provoking questions, surveys and quizzes, as well as honest prayers. At the end of each chapter is a link (and one of those smartphone doodads) to watch a video related to the chapter. (Yeah, I’m tech savvy.)

Here are some of the truths that have stuck with me:

  • A blessing is the infusion of something with holiness
  • Every woman becomes either beautiful, bitter or beaten (having given up on life) by the time she’s 40. We either face our stuff or we don’t. Six years from the big 4-0, I’m tracking toward bitter or beaten. That’s a hard truth to face, but my eyes are open to how I can face my issues and let God work through them.
  • There’s a Lord for that. I don’t have to hold it all together.
  • Growth is awkward. What if we began to think of our insecurities not as shameful places to hide but as opportunities to see God working in our lives?
  • Secure women know their strengths and aren’t afraid to own them. They also know about their weaknesses and aren’t scared by them. They admit when they’re wrong but don’t beat themselves up. They take risks and fail but try again.
  • When it comes to comparing myself to others or wishing I had someone else’s life, this statement punched me in the gut: The competition is between you and the you God wants you to be. Ignore everybody. Stay in your own lane.
  • Among Christians there is a fear of rage, a surplus of resentment, and a shortage of indignation.
  • Sanctification is about the very interruptions and issues I want to ignore.

Seriously, get a copy of this book. It’s not self-help because Lord knows, I’ve tried to help myself through these things. No, it’s more like a self-can’t-help book. It’s, as the subtitle to the book says, “seriously good news for stressed-out, secretly scared control freaks like us.”

Check out Nicole’s Website, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter. The book has a DVD curriculum, too, which I’m guessing would be a great Bible study/women’s group resource.

Asking the right question

I’m not often able to watch daytime television, but in recent weeks, my husband has occasionally tuned in to ABC’s “The Chew” to cultivate his “bromance” with Michael Symon. One afternoon, I caught a preview for a new show called “The Revolution.” The show brings together a team of experts in areas of design, fashion, health, fitness and therapy to help people transform their lives “from the inside out,” according to the Web site.

It was the “t” word that first caught my attention. Transformation.

So, I tuned in to the debut episode and was surprised to hear host Ty Pennington use this word repeatedly. He even referred to the team of experts as a “community.”

Transformation. Inside out change. Community.

Those words sounded familiar. I’ve heard them in church from time to time. But here, on TV, was a model for what the church could be doing to live out its mission in the world.

“The Revolution” is not the only show of its kind. Pennington’s previous show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” contained these elements. TLC’s “What Not to Wear” offers people a change in how they see themselves by showing them how to dress to accentuate their beauty. “The Biggest Loser” gives severely overweight people the tools and opportunity to literally lose half of themselves.

Changing people’s lives seems a popular idea these days, especially on television. I’m not saying the church has to be popular, but I have to wonder what causes people to allow their lives to be changed. It involves three steps.

  1. We have to know there’s a problem. I think, whether we admit it or not, we all know an area of lives we’d like to change. And there are lots of reasons we don’t. Maybe we’re embarrassed to admit it. Or we don’t know how to make the change happen. Or we’re afraid of the work it will take. Or we think we don’t have time.
  2. We have to be willing to ask for help. Most of these programs solicit nominations or applications to be on the show, so the person or a friend has to make the need known.
  3. We have to be willing to receive help. People trust the advice these “experts” have to give because they’ve seen the results on other shows or they’ve read their credentials. Those who want to give help have to prove, in some way, that they have the expertise to do so.

I’m reminded of a story in the Bible, recorded by the apostle John, when Jesus encounters a man who had been an invalid for 38 years (John 5). The man was lying near a pool that was said to have healing properties when the waters were stirred. By lying there, he had admitted his need.

Jesus’ question to the man has always puzzled me, though. He asks him, “Do you want to get well?” I’ve thought that’s a dumb question because the guy has been this way for 38 years. Isn’t the answer obvious?

But the man’s answer is equally puzzling. He doesn’t come right out and say, “Of course I want to get well!” Instead, he offers reasons why he isn’t already better. “I have no one to help me.” And, “someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Jesus, because he has the authority to do so, heals the man, and his life is changed.

I’m wondering why people don’t seem to be interested in the inside-out transformation the church has to offer. Because Jesus is still in the business of changing lives.

Maybe the changes in our lives aren’t obvious. I know it’s not always easy for me to admit, “yeah, I’ve got problems but this is how Jesus helps,” or to say, “you know, my life used to be like that but then I let God in.” It’s so much easier to pretend that we’re OK and we’ve always been that way. As if God somehow created a group of people who are immune to everyone else’s problems.

Maybe we ask the wrong questions. We ask what people need, if they’d like to come to church, if they know about Jesus, but how often do we ask, “Do you want to get well?”

Can you imagine a community of transformed people getting together regularly to celebrate the changes in their lives and the One who made it possible, offering themselves, their expertise and their experiences to people looking for a change in their lives?

It would be a revolution of its own kind.

Jesus isn’t going to give you $5,000 to spend on clothes in New York but He will clothe you with character qualities like kindness, compassion, gentleness and humility.

Jesus isn’t going to make you super fit, but He will exercise your faith.

Jesus isn’t going to give you a new house but He will prepare a place for you to live eternally.

He will give you a new heart. A new life. A new purpose. He will do all things for your good, even when it doesn’t make you “happy.”

Transformation is big entertainment business, it would seem. The church has the chance to make it her business again, too.

That’s my cup of tea for today. What’s got you wondering?