Tuesday, January 13, 2009

survival...

At times I feel dry, as if someone took a shovel and scooped out everything from inside me that brings me life; now, I am left alone to try and survive as best as I can. When I think about "survival," my first thoughts go to those of physical life--breathing, moving, properly functioning organs, moving lines on a screen that alert those around it that the person connected to it still has a heart that is beating. Yes, these are "signs" of physical life... signs we view as precious because they encourage us to press forward in hope that the prospect of life and living is ours...

What happens, however, when lines on a screen cannot depict the heartache and pain that is a person's heart is feeling? How can we see that a person is failing? Even more so, what can that person do to survive?

When I first thought of this analogy in relation to my present life, I thought it a little bizarre; however now that I see it spelled out before me, I realize that I am precisely in this place. There came a point in my recent journey when all of my dreams were snatched away from me before I could even blink an eye or reach out my hand to grab hold of them. It was as if while I was sleeping, God changed the course of my life so drastically that when I opened my eyes in the morning, everything was different. It was as if I opened my eyes and found myself lying paralyzed in a hospital bed; I could see people around me, but I could not hear what they were saying. I could tell by the expressions on their faces and the way that they held me that they were speaking precious words of love and encouragement to me, yet not a word resonated in my mind or heart. I knew that my heart was still beating, yet I could not feel its rhythm; in fact, I could not feel anything. I questioned if what I was experiencing was a dream. I kicked and screamed and wondered when I would wake up to all the good that "had been." Day after day and month after month, I woke up to the same heart-wrenching truth: this is your life.

You better believe I wrestled with so many different emotions and questions that drained my soul. I cried, I got angry, I cursed, and when I felt like it was time to "get my act together" and believe God had a purpose for all my mess, I found myself so deep in anguish that I could not pick myself up out of it. Why, I asked, does God allow such pain and anguish in our lives? Doesn't He see that I cannot move? Doesn't He care? For the first time in my life since I began my journey of faith, I had no choice but to allow these emotions to spew out from my heart and onto the surface; they were so raw, so painful, so real. They demanded that I let go of my previous conception that those who walk with Christ must always be "put together" and be able to recite Bible verses in the brief seconds that they are able to lift their faces from their tear-soakened pillows. The tears came; many times, my heart was ugly. In my performance mindset, I never wanted to be seen as such a weak and struggling person; truth be told, the pain just came and I had no other choice but to walk through it. It didn't matter who was watching. I could not hold it back.

What a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching truth... we are so weak, and often times, we get so caught up in "looking right" that we do not allow ourselves to truly process our pain. Stepping away from the environment in which the deepest cuts to my soul have occurred has given me a perspective that I am still trying to assimilate into my heart, faith, relationships, and day-to-day life today. This past month has been a tiresome month, and although I still am carrying quite a heavy pack on my back, I know that small pieces of the load are beginning to be lifted. For the first time in my life, God has blessed me with an opportunity to simply be. I am free to be, free to love, free to grow, and free to make mistakes if that is what it takes for my heart to beat again. I am tired of performing; I am tired of religion; I am tired of spending my energy trying to do things that make those around me see me as something wonderful because truth be told, I am everything but. There has always been something about this place that whispers to my heart... be who you are, sweet Shelly; let your messy life be as it is. I can leave my dress clothes hanging in the closet and I can roam the dirt-trenched streets of Guayaquil in holey jeans and a bandana; I have never felt such freedom. I can take the time to get down in the dirt with precious children and smile at them as if they are the most beautiful beings in the whole world; most of them truly are. I can wake up with the sun and stand in its rays for hours, not once feeling the pressure to glance at a watch; I do not even wear one anymore. I can spend the day by the river, sitting on a bench and catching a glimpse of the joy that radiates from the laughter of the families around me; they do not even realize how their smiles are healing my heart. I can stay awake at night, listening to the sounds in the streets around me, the profound noise that silence makes when you take the time to stop and truly listen. Yes, I am truly free to be.

Free to love; free to stop for a moment and appreciate life for what it is rather than what I think it should be. This is reality and I am embracing it. My life is messy. My thoughts are scattered and I have too many "off" days than I would like to admit. Too often, my fears hold me back and I do not go after what I want. Some days, I sleep the day away and refuse to see the sunlight. More often than I'd like to admit, I could not find the words to pray to God no matter how hard I searched. My faith has been shaken and it is slowly being built again. My heart knows that I am tired of performance and religion; I am ready for something real. I do not have all the answers, and some days, I do not have the energy or the desire to ask the questions. Yes, this is my reality... the reality of what it means to simply be... to allow my life to be messy, knowing that God can and will turn it all into something more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The challenge before me is not a matter of mere physical survival. No; I dare tell you that it is something much more difficult. I must survive in a world that demands that I "get my act together" before it's too late. I must simply be as I am. Let my hair down. Play in the dirt. Embrace the moment. Smile at the rejected. Listen to what people say. Listen to what they don't say. Appreciate the beauty of it all. Yes... my heart shall beat again, and that is the most beautiful truth I can cling to.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

una noche linda...

Tonight was what Ecuadorians would call a "noche linda."

The Sisalema family remembered that I had said my three favorite things in the world are coffee, bread, and icecream.  After lunch, we all headed to the corner store and had icecream sandwiches. What a sweet blessing.

Afterwards, we went to the Sisalema family's church to prepare for their Wednesday night Bible study. Pastor Sisalema was beginning a new series on Philippians and we were beginning in chapter 1.  I have to admit that I felt a little out of place there not knowing anyone, however the Lord really used this time to refresh my spirit and remind me to rejoice in Him despite my past and present circumstances.  A hermano {brother} in the church played the guitar while we sang from a song book -- "Cantare de tu amor" (I will sing of your love) was such a beautiful song... I need to find the lyrics and write them to remind myself of what we sang.  I know it was beautiful and it reminded me of how often I "look" in the world for what my heart is crying for, and how I can only find the answers in God Himself.

Javier... a new believer, just accepted Christ tonight during prayer time at the Bible study.  After the service, I approached Javier and told him "felicitaciones" for his decision.  I laughed at my broken attempt to congratulate him and he smiled, assuring me that my spanish was understood.  What I gathered from Javier was that he is currently 27 years old, and from the icon on his shirt, he works for General Motors (GM).  Pastor told me later that he had come to Iglesia Nueva Vida two times before tonight.  He mentioned to another hermano that he felt like God was calling him, or as Revelations says, "knocking on the door" of his heart and his life.  Tonight, he has chosen to give his life to Christ.  I could tell by the look on his face that he was experiencing an array of emotions... excitement, fear, feelings of discomfort, wonders of what is to come in his life...

As another hermano told him, "his life is never going to be the same." Que lindo this story.  His courage inspires me and reminds me of the days when I first learned about Christ's love for me. Everything was new... the Bible was exciting, meeting brothers and sisters in the church filled me with joy, I was on fire... yes, the passion was real.

I am reminded of another hermano I met in the church. I cannot pronounce his name, but I will never forget His story.  He is originally from Mexico and lived in California working as a handy-man. He told me that He felt like God was calling Him to Ecuador, so he sold all of his things, bought a plane ticket, and came.  As he was sharing, I chuckled because I could relate to so many of the things He was sharing -- leaving everything and just going.  He asked me to pray for guidance in His life, and for confirmation of how God wanted Him to use the many gifts he had given him.  He also asked me to pray for his wife (an Ecuadorian woman he married after coming to Quito) and for his child on the way.  As he told me, he never imagined that he would be where he is today and when people ask him what he is doing here in Quito, he responds with, "I don't know. Ask God."

I am blessed to be here, if even for a short period of time.  Pastor Hector and Nancy are such caring people.  Tonight, they sat for a few minutes wanting to hear more of my story and how God had called me to Ecuador.  I shared with them the pain that caused me to live for five unbearably-difficult months questioning the Lord and His plans for my life.  I shared with them how God had used the recent pain in my life to confirm who He is and what He is calling me to do.  I shared with them how bitter-sweet it was to leave the states and how confused I am about the future.

They listened with such caring hearts and then prayed for me.  I am blessed to be surrounded by such a beautiful, godly family. I am thankful for the ways they have opened their doors to me and how excited they are to have me here.  Even if I stay for a week, I will have been blessed to know them and have seen the love of Christ being manifested in their home and community.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

sorry to burst your bubble...

It's 7:32 am and I am on a bus heading to Quito. I tried to begin this journal entry by making note of the date, however I quickly realized that I had no idea what day it was. It's the 5th, or maybe the 6th. I'm really not sure. For a moment, I even forgot that it was January. The climate here in Guayaquil is so humid and sticky, constantly bringing to my mind reminders of June, July, and August in the United States. I spent Christmas and New Years Eve without once encountering a cold front. The only snow I saw was on the dinner place mats that Mami Patti hand-painted and on the snowmen that had been placed in just about every shopping center window here in Guayaquil. Spread the Christmas cheer, they thought. To be honest, I have yet to feel as if Christmas even happened. It was here like I had never experienced it, and then it's "hype" quickly faded away. Mami Patti took her tree down soon after the new year came, stores stopped playing "Feliz Navidad," and for the first time in my life, the floor in my room was not covered with piles of gifts that I could brag about to my friends. No, it was not like that. In fact, no one asked me what I got for Christmas. If they did ask, however, I would tell them I got more than I could ever ask for: the opportunity to experience Christmas apart from the confinements of materialism, an image of a family union that is built upon love and sacrifice, more hugs and kisses than one could imagine, an life-altering conversation with an amazing friend, stories told by a missionary family that were medicine to my soul, and most importantly, both the opportunity and the challenge to "just be." These are gifts that cannot be wrapped in a box; these are experiences that cannot be captured in film. I keep them close to my heart and try my best to interpret their powerful significance into words. In light of my comment of feeling as if "Christmas" never happened, I would not trade these experiences for what we see as "Christmas" any day.

Writing for me is a sweet escape from the life happening around me. It allows me to step back from it all and truly learn to appreciate things as they really are. It does ask me to dream about what could be or how I want things to be; it simply asks that I open my eyes and appreciate the beauty of what already is. I am on this bus heading to the mountains, yet I have no idea what will happen when I step out of it's doors. My mind can try to imagine some things, but the reality of it all is that I have no idea what God is doing. Tears fill my eyes as I write that statement. I know that God is still God despite the clouds around me and all of the difficult lessons I am learning. I fear for one that I have missed what it means to truly love people and live a life of freedom in Christ. Somewhere along the line, I have made the choice to believe that I must live a certain way and acquire certain "things" to be a "good Christian." You need these things to be a good person, Shelly. You must do these things to be rightly serving God in ministry. How does one arrive at such a place as this? I believe that throughout these past few years, I have been confronted with certain pressures that I have shaped my life around...You must be leading bible studies and leading people to Christ to be making a difference. You must give your life to full time ministry. Secular jobs are not good enough. The secular world has nothing to offer you. Those who do not have Christ have no wisdom or beauty to add to your life. You must meet your husband at a Christian school or in a church. He should probably be a Baptist, and he most certainly should not be reformed.

The truth is, I have learned more about living in these past three weeks than I have ever learned living in my comfortable, Christian "bubble." I must learn to be who I am in all environments, whether I am comfortable or uncomfortable, whether I walk with brothers and sisters in the faith or walk alone, whether the road is easy or the road is difficult. Here, I have been spending my days with some of the most beautiful, caring, and gracious people I have ever met. So many of these people believe in God and live their lives prayerfully and gratefully. Through their lives, I see so much of what I want. I am tired of living in a box. Like them, I want to learn to truly live... serving others, loving those I come in contact with, giving of myself for the benefit of those who are less fortunate, persevering through life's difficulties, and having the courage to do whatever it takes to move forward. Too often, I find myself getting caught up in rules, pressures, and the opinions of others. I find that I too often am the one who keeps myself in bondage and far from experiencing the abundant life I am supposed to be living. This is what I want, but what if it's not what God wants? My dream is this, but what if I'm wrong? One day over breakfast, Mami Patti asked me what I really wanted in life and why I was afraid to go after it. "I'm really not sure," I responded, "I guess I'm afraid that I'm going after the wrong thing." She reminded me that we cannot live our lives always saying "maybe." There must come a point when we go after what we want with everything that we have, not being afraid to grab hold of the very thing that makes our heart beat. Are we truly living if we allow ourselves to remain dormant and afraid to move because we fear we are going to "step out of God's will?" Does God want us to sit around and wait for Him to map our lives out in the sky?

No. God wants us to live each day to the fullest. Make the most of the opportunities He has placed before us and not be afraid to take chances. How does this wrap into the fact that I am currently on a bus heading 8 hours away from my life in Guayaquil? I guess you could say I am "exploring" what God has for me. Before I made the decision to come to Ecuador, my "plan" was to spend 2 months in Quito staying with a Pastor and his family, serving in their church, and helping an IMB couple with their ministry in the city. While all of these things are wonderful opportunities, I must truly question whether or not God has brought me to Ecuador to fill my schedule this way. To be honest, I feel as if God is asking me to let Him do more IN me than THROUGH me. For me, this challenge from God to "just be" before Him is a lot more difficult than answering the call to serve Him through projects, bible studies, and children's programs. I will arrive in Quito later this afternoon. For now, I must rest in what is, and maybe by this time tomorrow, I will be that much closer to understanding all of this a little more.