Leaving Luxury

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Surprising my little brother at camp.  Hugs are one thing I miss terribly in my village home, so a month of hugs in abundance was just what my heart needed.  

Written September 16th, 2017

Tonight you could call me an Israelite.  Not the courage-exuding, faith-filled, battle-winning type.  More along the lines of the desert-wandering, ever-whining, luxury-craving kind of Israelite.

I sit here next to my Neno friend, in the nearby village we are visiting for a celebration, one we have been anticipating for over 2 months.  Yet instead of being grateful and excited to actually be here as planned, all I can think about is how uncomfortable this small piece of log is to sit on.  If one didn’t balance just right, it could easily roll back and deposit one in the dust.

Worse, my thoughts then wander to the bathroom, which is better left undescribed.  Suffice it to say that it is not as “nice” as the community bathrooms in our village, and would score very low with regards to both hygiene and practicality.  In stark contrast to my normal water-ingestion habits, I wonder what would be the smallest quantity of water that I can drink in the next 36 hours, without getting dangerously dehydrated.

But I half-heartedly try to pull my mind, which starts kicking and screaming, in an attempt to focus on what is being said from the platform, trying to piece together as much as possible from the words and phrases I understand.  Oh, it’s hard.  My brain drifts to the delicious ice cream, nachos and rye bread I ate last month, the pizza, deep-fried chicken and kielbasa we never had time to make, and the grapefruit I fully intended to buy and eat, but forgot.  Oh, that grapefruit would be so refreshing right now – cold, citric and juicy.

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First meal back in the States, at Panera Bread, with Dad and Mom.  Delicious sandwiches, plenty of water, and wonderful conversation in a language I understand.  

Then I catch another couple phrases of the message…

So this must be the drudgery of missions.  To be sure, much of this life is a grand adventure – everything from trekking through the jungle to eating piranas and making new friends.  But there are moments when missions is made up of little more than scorching heat, biting bugs, self-discipline and mental focus.  There are no obvious eternal differences being made, people believing in Jesus, or even practical contributions being made to the community.

Nonetheless, this daily grind is the toil and labor necessary to become part of a new culture.  All of it is an intentional investment, a foundation to be built upon, preparation for what is to come.

Do you remember the list of questions Paul asked in Romans 10?

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?

and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?

and how shall they hear without a preacher?

and how shall they preach, except they be sent?

Considering the context of missionary work that crosses cultural-linguistic barriers, I would ask also,

And how shall they preach, unless they learn the culture and speak the language?

And how shall they learn these things unless they live them, day in and day out, until by them they are changed?

The apostle Paul didn’t deal with many language barriers, as far as I know.  He was blessed to live at a time when Greek was spoken fluently across the Roman Empire, so his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to preach anywhere he went.

However, in considering the cultural barriers he dealt with, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write,

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;  To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.  – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

In our specific case, unto the Neno, we become as the Neno, that we might gain the Neno.  It is not for us, but for them, and for the gospel’s sake, and most of all for our Savior, the One who died and rose again.  Oh, that He might receive the glory of His suffering!

And oh, that I might stop whining and complaining and getting distracted by heat and other temporary inconveniences!

Father, help me to stop wanting the luxuries of last month.  It really was fun being spoiled by the way my family and others blessed me in abundance, and by our encouraging, joyful time together.  All of this was a gift from You.  But that month of comfort and ease and family time is over.  For now I’m back in another world, this wonderful place to which you brought me, to lose my life, that other reality, for your sake.  Give me the grace to choose contentment.  Teach me to make the most of every moment here, refusing to waste my life on the trivial.

 

Make me willing, by your grace, to leave all the comforts and luxuries and favorite foods and pleasant climate and people I love.  Granted, I’ve already left them literally, traveling by car, plane, bus, and taxi, but help me to leave it all behind again mentally too.  May I not be distracted by desires or memories of what is there, concentrating instead on the reality what is here…a language to learn, people to love, and a culture to become part of.  All of this is included in the adventure of following the one who must be the constant object of my focus – Jesus, my Master and Lord, my Joy and Prize, my All in All.

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May I live out the words of Mary Dagworthy James’ hymn, especially the fourth verse:

Since mine eyes were fixed on Jesus,
I’ve lost sight of all beside—
So enchained my spirit’s vision,
Looking at the Crucified.

All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Looking at the Crucified.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Looking at the Crucified.

– All for Jesus, Mary D. James

 

Footbugs

This may not be a landmark in my journey deeper into the Neno culture, but at least it helps me relate to my friends and some of the daily inconvenciences of their lives.  I got my first “num” (pronounced a bit like “gnome”, quickly, forcefully, low tone).   Or if you prefer the Portuguese, it would be “bisho de pe”.  Literally translated into English, that would be “foot bug”, but I have no idea what their true name in English is.*  We don’t have these little creepy-crawlies in Upstate New York).  Thinking through my options, I decided to go to my friend and language helper who has 4 young children.  Figured she is probably one of the most experienced at removing the little critters.  I took my own pre-sanitized safety pin along (couldn’t find a needle) for hygiene reasons.

Within about 10 minutes, Mariana had expertly removed my little parasite, saying that it was huge, and had probably been there for over a week.  Yuck.  We had an audience of about ten people watching.  Like a good language learner, I had pen and notebook in hand to record phrases related to this semi-cultural event.  Removing “nuwej”** is cultural; it was just in the missionary’s foot this time.

As a child, I remember reading dozens of missionary stories borrowed from our church.  Eagerly checking one out each Sunday, I would devour it voraciously, hoping that the other children would read and return their books so that I could get a new one the very next week.  In one of these books, written from the perspective of an MK (missionary kid) the family dealt with burrowing “foot bugs” which would leave egg sacs in between their toes.

It grossed me out so much to read about these bugs that laid eggs in people’s feet and had to be dug out with needles.  And now, guess what?  I live in a jungle where these gross bugs (or their similar cousins) live.  Hooray.  Strangely enough, “foot bugs” are not nearly as bad in real life as in missionary books.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to dig them out myself.  Needles are my friends when their purpose is sewing, cross-stitch, or plastic canvas.  But when they are being inserted into my flesh for any reason, they are not friends at all, often creating sensations of dizziness or faintness.

Not sure how I managed to donate blood on several occasions.  Of course the last time, the poor Red Cross workers had to keep me in the “blood donation center” for almost an hour afterwards, because each time I tried to stand up I nearly passed out.  The worst part was, I was the last donor of the day, and they were trying to clear out of the “blood donation center”, which was actually the gym at the local school.  An entire girls’ volleyball team sat on the floor outside the gym, watching my delayed recovery.  Most of those girls probably made heartfelt pledges on the spot…to never donate blood in their lives.

Back to our little “num” friends, though.  A couple weeks later I found one in my left foot.  This one was even bigger, and already “had babies”, as my other Neno friend said, when she finally was able to dig it out.

The strange thing is, in other people’s feet, they supposedly itch like crazy, or hurt, yet I don’t even notice them.  The second one I didn’t feel at all, even after it was huge.  I only found it because that toe was dirty so I washed it.  Yes, I do wash my feet in the shower, including my toes, each day, but without glasses, I would never see a footbug.

(Note added in September:  If I am remembering correctly, I have now had 6 “nuwej”  in all.  However, dry season is the time they are more common, so that number will probably go up soon.  Also, in case you are wondering, these critters are often carried by dogs, so the more dogs there are around, the more likely people are to get “nuwej” also).

*Research back in the city revealed that in English “num” is chigoe flea.

**plural of num – the M changes into a W and then EJ gets added.

Language-learning Laughs, take 1

Here is the debut post of a newly-invented feature on this blog.  Just think of it as the ongoing “blooper reel” of my Neno ACL* adventure.  Based on previous experience with Portuguese, you can expect numerous editions of “Language Learning Laughs” in months to come.  

*Aquisition of Culture and Language

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Capybaras at the side of the road, near the village.  They really wanted to be photographed for  this blog.

One morning in July, as I kneaded a batch of pizza crust, a friend who was outdoors sweeping the cleared dirt area in front of her house called to me,

“Does your mother have any sisters?”  (Well, that’s what I thought the question was).

So I replied, “No, only brothers,” in a slightly sad tone, knowing that in the Neno culture, the relationship between a woman and her mom’s sister is a very special type bond, which I will never have.

My friend stopped sweeping and looked at me in a way that made it obvious that “No, only brothers,” was not the correct answer.

She repeated the question and I realized she was asking if I had another propane tank!  We use those for our gas stoves and someone else in the village had run out of propane.  Nothing to do with my mom’s siblings at all.

In my defense, the literal way she asked the question was, “Does your propane tank have a sibling of the same gender?”

And the words for propane and mom are very similar.  So it was an understandable mistake, yet I laughed off and on the rest of the day, just thinking about it.

If it doesn’t make you laugh, try to imagine yourself in the place of my friend.

You ask someone, “Do you have another propane tank?”

“No, only brothers.”

Uhh…say what?  Not sure how this would be interpreted…

  1. ”I don’t have another propane tank, but I have brothers.”
  2. “I don’t have another propane tank, but my brothers do.”

Neither of those facts would be especially helpful or relevant.  But at least they’re good for laughs.

Burning Season

(written in October 2016)

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For days, the familiar jungle landscape has been disfigured by hazy smoke.  It is burning season.

Today the fires were closer than any uncontrolled fires I have ever seen.  The chief burned his crop area, but the fire went past it, scorching a path through the jungle, until the end of the village where my coworkers live was half-surrounded by a semicircle of fire.

Imagine the largest roaring bonfire you have ever heard, and turn the volume up.  That loud, crackling sound was our background music all afternoon.  There were moments that my ears tricked me into thinking it was the sound of a storm, with strong winds and distant rain.

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It made me want to call Smoky the Bear, or drag everyone into an underground shelter to hide.  Ingrained in my early childhood memories is this directive: when fire approaches, leave the vicinity.  Fast.  But the Neno do this every year.  The village itself is clear from trees, brush and undergrowth, so it is safe.  Fire can’t burn across empty patches of dirt.  Science.  So there we stayed, everyone occupied with their daily activities, seemingly paying little attention to the fires around us.

The words of Hebrews 12:29 blazed brightly across my mind,

“For our God is a consuming fire.”

Despite the many times I have meditated on these words, they have taken on new meaning for me during burning season.

God is a consuming fire.  He comes, blazing like a wildfire.  We may have our own premeditated idea of who we think God is, of where we would like Him to work, of how we expect Him to act in our lives.  What we often fail to realize is that once we invite God to begin His work in our lives, what happens next will be out of our hands.  It is as if we allow God’s “spark” to be released in us, and then there is no turning back.

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Imagine that we ask God to work in a certain area of life – one overwhelming situation, one difficult relationship where we need His grace, one important decision.  God steps in, works, moves, and acts, so we are thankful.  Then all of a sudden, we realize that God is not finished.  Oh, no.  He has only just begun.  That one small area was the starting point – the spark for a fire that would start blazing a path across your entire life, even the areas you didn’t think needed any intervention at all.  Yet God must think differently, because all of a sudden, He is burning through thick underbrush that you would have rather left alone.  You wonder what on earth you unleashed when you asked God to work in your life. 

Like a fire blazing through the jungle, God is unstoppable.  He is unpredictable, grand, majestic, awe-inspiring, tremendous, splendid, glorious, holy.  He is uncontainable.  And none of the adjectives we could use, in English or Neno or any other language, do Him justice.  God is indescribable.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis, Jesus is represented by the lion Aslan.  While visiting the kingdom of Narnia, four children meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who describe Aslan to them.

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

And that is the Truth that overarches everything.  Of course God is neither safe, nor tame, nor predictable.  Yet since God is good, He can be trusted, even when the flames roar.

Charred, barren areas of your life may look like God made a huge mistake.  Why would He have ruthlessly destroyed what seemed healthy and alive?  It may have been wild, untamed jungle, but at least plants grew there, and animals were sheltered.  Now – nothing.

Yet in the jungle, out of death comes life.  From ashes come rich, fertile soil.  After the burning, comes the sequence of planting, growing, and eventually a bountiful harvest.

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In the midst of these and other Burning Season meditations, I found myself on my knees one night, asking God, the All-Consuming Fire, to do His work and have His way in my life.  You see, even though God has worked in my life for years, I know there is more.  And I long for more.  I long for God.  I long to see Him move in power, in me, around me, and through me.  It was a sobering moment of prayer, however, as I realized more intensely than ever, that I have no idea where His fire will end up, what areas of my life will be forever changed or destroyed, or what crops and fruit He plans to cultivate.

Do you want more, friend?  Do you want God?  Do you want Him to work in your life?  Just ask.  And then allow the spark to be kindled in your heart, as God begins to move in ways that are mighty and powerful, perhaps even terrifying at first.

You might be tempted to do the only logical thing – try to control the fire of God – set a limit, a boundary.  If that fails, you might consider running as fast as possible in the opposite direction.  But please don’t.  The God who is a Consuming Fire is also Good.  He is Love.  He knows all and sees all and has a purpose and a plan, not just for the world, but for you as an individual, if you will give your life and your future to Him.

So my challenge to you today, is to do the unthinkable.  Ask God to burn away anything in your life that does not glorify Him, to take control of your heart in a deeper way than ever before, to make you fertile ground for whatever He wished to plant.  You may want to find a friend you trust to pray with you about this, to help you remember your petition and commitment in days ahead.

Burning season for the Neno people comes in September and October, a regular part of their yearly routine.

In our lives, however, burning season may start at any moment.