The Gift of the Middle

The summer before my junior year of college (yikes, 12 years ago!), I traveled with a group to Ecuador for a summer study abroad experience. We were mostly based in Quito but spent almost every weekend visiting the coast, the jungle and exploring other parts of this beautiful country.

On one of our adventures, our group crowded into a little suspended cable car to take a ride over a valley. Halfway across as we enjoyed the gorgeous views, that little car stopped.

I am NOT a fan of heights and really have a very small heart pocket that thrives on adventure. Stepping into that cable car and leaving the safety of the canyon edge was pretty risky, and getting stuck part way across was not exactly my idea of fun.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about transition lately. In many ways I have left the safe and predictable edge of life as I’ve known it the last few years. Most of my ministry commitments and relationships have paused or ended, leaving me with a blank slate and a lot of unknowns. But I haven’t gotten to the other side of the transition where I can put roots down again and establish routines, finding the stability that steadies my heart. I’m right there in the chaotic middle, and it can feel pretty scary.

I’m learning that this messy middle of transition can also be a gift. Even though I knew how to handle the stability I was leaving, it was also becoming unhealthy and I know that this change has been really good. I have no idea what is coming and yet I have been granted a season of rest. I don’t yet have new responsibilities and demands on my time. I can seek God’s heart for this season and the one to come, letting His peace reign right there in the middle. In His perfect timing, He will lead me to the other side and establish His purposes for me there. In this, I can rest content, safe, held.

That cable car in Ecuador eventually began moving again, but while we hung suspended over the valley, my fellow classmates and I were able to laugh about the situation and enjoy the view. While I’m here in the middle of the transition process, I can strive to do the same.

Middle cable car

Lesson from a Twisted Clump of Wires

I want the beautiful without the messy.

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Like this picture. Poofy, white clouds were building up over the palm trees and we were getting ready for a non-rainy season rain. Humidity was thick and the air desperate for just a little relief. I love this view, and I stood at our front door trying to imprint it all on to my memory.

I tried to capture this scene, but all I could see was the messy tangle of electrical wires and the sharp barbed wire and glass on top of our fence. They are reminders of some of the things that frustrate me the most and steal the beauty of the creation around me.

I’m getting ready to say goodbye for awhile to the place that has been my home for the last five years. Part of me wants to say, “So long and good riddance.” The last few months have been hard and it is easy to zoom in on the messy. Hot season has been in fully swing, dehydrating both my body and my soul. We’ve had some crazy electricity issues (remember all those clumps of wires?), and through different situations I have been reminded that human beings are far from perfect, myself unfortunately included.

Yet, just like our life, the messy and the beautiful come all together in one package. When I take a moment to look up, the tangled wires are still there, sure, but I don’t want to miss the brilliant colors of bright green against pure blue sky. I don’t want to miss the fact that even when we were trying to navigate how to fix our electricity at 7:00 pm, God sent a man we hadn’t met to be waiting outside our gate so he could make calls and explain complicated concepts outside our vocabulary bubble- and who knew those words in English too so he could help us feel more at ease. When my heart felt desperate and dejected this week, God breathed life again with a story of hope, a story of a part of our labor bearing fruit in souls transformed by our Father.

So I can’t separate these two, and together, they are a sweet gift, one that I will carry with me as I say goodbye, for now.

The Story Isn’t Finished

I’m not sure I have the best track record when it comes to perseverance. Speaking of track, I could never run the whole mile at our homeschool track and field day. I studied violin in high school but never actually learned to read music and haven’t played much since my last lesson before heading off to college. I have attended graduate school but will probably never get my doctorate, I studied ballet for a whole 16 weeks, split between when I was 10 and my senior year of college.

My organization has audacious goals and big faith to see God work in the hard places around the world. I get to hear stories of those pushes of the Spirit to birth disciples and churches and movements. They give me goose bumps and fill up my hope tank. But I live in a difficult place. Nothing is happening yet. I feel like I try and fail, give up, beg God to send me home or give me an out so it doesn’t look to the whole world like I have been unsuccessful. Perseverance is hard.

One thing I realized recently though, is that all those amazing stories started somewhere in darkness. The beginning was messy and uncertain, and the middle was long. I get to hear the end, the summary, and I can marvel and praise my Heavenly Father. But the story was pushed forward with perseverance, with seasons of joy and hardship. In those moments before the breakthrough came, I’m sure there was hesitation and despair. Or boredom. Or disappointment.

On an ordinary night near Bethlehem, a bunch of shepherds were going about their business. I don’t know what they were waiting for, if they were happy in their work or longing for more, looking for a way out or a better life. Maybe they were sad or just tired.

But then God showed up. He came in bright lights and angels singing, His glory brought forth in the most amazing proclamation. And He came as a little baby in a manger, when no one on earth could have known all that was still to come. The wait for the Savior spanned centuries, and the story wasn’t even finished yet. Yet everything changed because God moved and He moved in to the space that felt heavy with a reminder to never give up. The story wasn’t just about those breakthrough moments. It was about the waiting, the preparation, the darkness before He came.

My story, the story of the place I live now, isn’t finished, praise Jesus. Someday, and oh I hope it is soon, the light will break through and the unfolding account of glory and transformation will be told. Do I have to wait to share until it’s all over? Can I reveal the story right where it is now, unfinished and broken and beautiful?

I hope we can do that, all of us together in the beginning and middle and end of the stories God is writing in our lives. I think it will help us to persevere as we hear the stories that are ongoing, the glimmers of hope that shine because God is faithful in the darkness too and we can trust that He will show up. The story isn’t finished yet.

Story Isn't Finished

Surviving Christmas Overseas

I love Christmas music. I mean, who doesn’t, right? As I was assembling my playlist of favorites for this season, I just couldn’t include one particular song. When I hear the words “I’ll be home for Christmas… if only in my dreams”, I normally dissolve in a puddle of tears or start making a list of all the things I’m missing at home, turning my heart into one big discontented mess.

I’ve spent 4 of the last 5 Christmases thousands of miles from my loved ones and snow and favorite traditions. Honestly, those first couple of years were pretty miserable (due in part to bouts of food poisoning on Christmas Eve. Twice.) I’ve learned a few things, though, and want to share some ideas for not only how to survive when you’re on the other side of the world, but how to hold tight to joy and Jesus too.

DO decorate. It might take a lot of creativity, and keeping things simple but take the time to make your home festive for the holidays. My first year in Cambodia my teammate and I couldn’t afford a big tree (although there were actually some available!) and we lived in a tiny apartment. We settled for a little one-footer, and got busy with scissors removing the gaudy gold decorations that were glued to the branches. We visited a few local NGOs that had ornaments for sale, grabbed a red scarf from the market to use as a tree skirt, and made one corner of our living room as beautiful as we could.

Make new traditions. One of the hardest things for me has been how much I LOVE my family’s traditions and yet most of them are impossible to carry out overseas. So, my teammate and I have put our heads together and mixed elements from both our families’ traditions, then brain stormed ways we could actually make some things happen and become traditions from year to year. For several years we made a Christmas vacation trip to the coast and dipped our toes in the frigid water- definitely not something that happens in Nebraska in December!

Set aside extra money in your budget. It might be to get that nice tree, or to have a few special treats shipped over. Or if you’re in the tropics like me, it might be cranking up the AC so you can sip hot chocolate and put together a puzzle without dripping sweat all over. Intentionally plan ahead for ways to really make things special.

Don’t forget special scents. It’s amazing how many memories are triggered by specific smells, isn’t it? Stick a pine scented candle in your suitcase and pull it out when you decorate. Or, have a friend send you the Christmas Spirit essential oil from Young Living. Diffuse it, add a few drops to a cotton ball and tuck it on a shelf in the bathroom, or just inhale it straight out of the bottle (um, that would be me).

Don’t be afraid to invite friends over. I was usually afraid of letting my local friends know I wasn’t being totally immersed in the culture and bringing in traditions from home. But I’ve found my friends love learning new things! Use it as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas.

Share specific ideas with friends and family. It is hard for them to know what might be the most encouraging to you, so go ahead and be specific! Ask them to scan their Christmas card and email it to you if you’re afraid the snail mail version might get lost somewhere over the ocean. Amazon, iTunes, and other gift cards make wonderful gifts and are something easy and cost-effective for friends to send (and are a great gift for you to give as well). It’s okay to let people know!

Let Jesus be your comfort. Sometimes when we are lonely and longing for home, it can be a reminder of our true home and the reason we celebrate a baby born thousands of years ago. When my heart feels anything but peaceful when I’m overseas at Christmastime, I need to turn my focus to the Prince of Peace.

If you are living overseas, what are some ways you have found to truly seek out joy in the Christmas season? 

If you know and love someone serving overseas, do you have any fun ideas for how you encourage them? 

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