Love does not stay idle

discernment, faith

Love does not stay idle.” -St. Catherine of Siena (from Letter T82)

This is my 100th post on this blog, and to celebrate I thought I’d write a brief manifesto of sorts–a window into who I am and why I do what I do.

As I wrote earlier in my story about staying in the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen, I am aligned to be out in the world, in relationship and direct service with people.

Translating that into religious language, my calling is to Love God and Love Neighbor.

Out of God’s great love, grace, and redemption, I find a love that cannot be kept inside. I am compelled to love my neighbor. I am compelled to love and serve people throughout this country and world.

This means I will seek work that is fulfilling and servant-oriented. So far, for me this has been manifest in pastoral care, spiritual direction, direct service with the poor and homeless, dismantling racism, intentional community, and global service.

The work need not be overtly religious, because I know that loving one’s neighbor transcends religion and theology. One need not be religious to know the longing to love and be loved. One need not be religious to serve and have relationship to our neighbors.

What I write here comes from moments of grace I believe are worth sharing, the stories of life and relationship.

Grace is in the brief time I spent with Suon in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Grace is in the relationship to my Indonesian brother. Grace is in participating in weddings and funerals, hearing people’s hope for their country, and meeting a fellow pilgrim. And so much more.

This means that in my work and in my travel, I am motivated out of grace and love, and a desire to enjoy this amazing earth. It is my privilege to be able to share some those experiences on this blog.

Love does not stay idle.

Visiting the hospital in Balige, North Sumatra, Indonesia with the students.

Visiting the hospital in Balige, North Sumatra, Indonesia with the students. April 2012.

Sunday devotion with elderly group, village of Marihat Tiga, North Sumatra, Indonesia. May 2012.

Sunday devotion with elderly group, village of Marihat Tiga, North Sumatra, Indonesia. May 2012.

Meeting Krishna (far right) and his companions. Kumily, Kerala, India. January 2009.

Meeting Krishna (far right) and his companions. Kumily, Kerala, India. January 2009.

Hildegard’s Abbey

faith, story, travel

Charity abounds in all things, from the depths to high above the highest stars, and is most loving to all things; for to the high king it has given the kiss of peace.
— Hildegard of Bingen, “caritas abundat”

On the vineyard-covered hills above Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, sits the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen, where Benedictine nuns with heavenly voices still chant Hildegard’s ancient music. Hildegard of Bingen—writer, composer, and mystic born in 1098—founded the abbey that would eventually become what is now in Eibingen, above Rüdesheim.

Seven times a day the nuns gather to pray, in accordance with Benedictine rule (taken from Psalm 119:164). As Benedictines they also exemplify gracious hospitality, opening their doors to guests of all kinds. For a weekend in late March 2002, I was one of those guests.

It was Palm Sunday weekend, the time when Christians prepare for Easter by first marking Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem before his crucifixion death. The worship included a procession outside the chapel with palms and incense.

Atmosphere Meditation

faith

Here’s a break in my posts about my work and travel. I wrote this several years ago when I was in graduate school studying Christian Theology and Spirituality. It was fun to blend the interests in weather and spirituality.

Atmosphere Meditation
Text adapted from a meteorology textbook: Essentials of Meteorology: An Invitation to the Atmosphere by C Donald Ahrens.

Let us become aware of our breath, and to the air you take into your lungs…

Living on the surface of the earth, we have adapted so completely to our environment of air that we sometimes forget how truly remarkable this substance is. Our atmosphere is a delicate life-giving blanket of air that surrounds the fragile earth. It protects us from the scorching rays of the sun and provides us with a mixture of gasses that allows life to flourish. Between your eyes and the person near you are trillions of air molecules. Some of these may have been in a cloud only yesterday or over another continent last week, or perhaps part of the life-giving breath of a person who lived hundreds of years ago.

Give thanks for the timeless breath of our Creator God.

The earth without an atmosphere would have no lakes or oceans. There would be no sounds, no clouds, no red sunsets, no rainbows. The beautiful pageantry of the sky and poetry of clouds would be absent. It would be unimaginably cold at night and unbearably hot during the day. All Creation would be at the mercy of an intense sun beating down upon a planet utterly parched.

Give thanks for the ecological diversity on the planet.

Air influences everything we see and hear—it is intimately connected to our lives. Air is with us from our birth until our last breath, and we cannot detach our selves from its presence. In the open air, we can travel for many thousands of miles in any horizontal direction, but should we move a mere five miles above the surface, we would suffocate. We may be able to survive without food for a few weeks, or without water for a few days, but, without our atmosphere, we would not survive more than a few minutes. Just as fish are confined to an environment of water, so we are confined to an ocean of air. Anywhere we go, it must go with us.

Give thanks for the sustaining, life-giving air.

St. Francis and the Tropics, Or Why I Sing Praise to the Gecko

faith, Indonesia

October 4th is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Once a favorite of mine, I am re-reflecting this year about St. Francis and a spirituality of the tropical climate. As the Autumn season begins in North America and leaves are changing from green to yellow, orange, and red, life along the equator continues to be lush and green, with drenching downpours soaking already wet earth. Near the equator, there is no Autumn, there is no winter darkness. Alas, I returned to my native land more than two months ago. The Autumn is beautiful, but I do miss my tropical environment.

When I think of St. Francis, I remember his deep commitment and vow of poverty; I remember his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, which the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King was based on; and I remember his love of all creation and animals. I can’t help but wonder what a St. Francis in the tropics would be like. His life in poverty wouldn’t be far above some Indonesians. Would he preach to the Orangutan and the birds of paradise? Would he preach to a mosquito on his arm and call it his brother, or take a whack at it like I’d do?

Geckos (called cicak in Indonesia–that’s pronounced chee-chak, with a very short “k”) are friends to those who live in the tropical climate near the equator. These wall lizards are welcomed into the house, and in Indonesia there are also superstitions about the cicak. In my room in Indonesia I used to talk to the cicak on my walls, and thank them for eating the mosquitoes. In this cold climate with well-sealed homes in the USA (specifically in the Pacific Northwest), I miss the chirping of the cicak, and the comfort it gave me as it devoured mosquitoes. I can imagine the cicak as my brothers and sisters, and even St. Francis preaching for them.

Although I get laugh out of trying to imagine St. Francis being bitten by swarming mosquitoes trying to preach to the birds in the midst of a massive Sumatran downpour, I do think about walking and praising everything in the spirit of St. Francis–underneath the forest canopy and through the traditional markets and the rice fields of Indonesia. And that gives me joy.

My Indonesian friends might be surprised that many North American Protestants follow the calendar of saints and celebrate the lives of long gone Roman Catholics. It’s a beautiful thing to recognize the great people that have gone before us and help us connect with the Holy One. But it’s not just them; the saints are, in fact, all around us. They are us. We are all saints, and indeed sinners. I think about the saints dear to my heart and wonder about the ones I’ve never heard of. I think about creation, and specifically the rich biodiversity found within Indonesia’s archipelago.

On this Feast Day of St. Francis, I sing my praise to the cicak, the geckos of Indonesia, and I offer this verse reflecting Creation in the tropics that can be sung to the tune of All Creatures of Our God and King (but I’m still not ready to give thanks for the mosquito):

Thou brother cicak on the wall
who keeps us safe from dangers all
Oh praise Him, Alleluia!
Thou mother forest standing strong
Thou growing forest all year long

O praise Him, O Praise Him
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Gecko (cicak) on the wall

Gecko (cicak) on the wall

Preaching

Batak culture, faith, mission

I am back in the US now, and it is long overdue to catch up on some blogging about my time in Indonesia.

At the end of March, I was invited to preach in a congregation in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra, and some 7 hours from my usual residence in Balige. Actually, we had planned for the visit in 2013, however, I had to cancel due to the time I had to spend renewing my work visa. Finally having the time, I was graciously welcomed in the spirit I have come to know well among the Batak people.

Not only was I nervous about preaching in general, but this task was difficult because my deaconess companion speaks limited English (and I’m not good enough in Indonesian or Batak language to write a full sermon). So, in other words, I had to write a sermon in simple enough English that could be translated, true to Scripture, and all the while interesting enough. The lectionary followed by the HKBP church is different than Lutherans in the US, and the text that I was to preach on came from Ephesians 5:8-14. Thankfully, there is a simple theme in there: Walk as children of light.

It went well, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Below are a few photos:

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A full house

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The Podium was really high, like the old cathedrals in Germany.

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Giving me a blessing and presenting with an ulos, a Batak blanket, as a special symbol of our friendship.

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With the pastor and his wife, and a fellow deaconess

Advent at the Equator

faith, mission

**Apologies for the lengthy silence on this blog. Life never stops, and there are many stories to tell, but my attention to writing was drained by many tasks and a specific stressful situation regarding the completion of renewing my work visa.**

“I pray that God, who gives hope, will bless you with complete happiness and peace because of your faith. And may the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.” Romans 15:13

Downpour during the rainy season in Sumatra.

Downpour during the rainy season in Sumatra.

As much as I’m looking forward to spending my holidays in North America, I’m kinda loving this tropical climate at the equator. The daily warm sun, the ever growing plants and trees, abundance of fruit all year round, and even the torrential rains which are now more often than in June. Here is no bleak midwinter—it is now the rainy season—and although we can still light candles in the night, the amount of daylight is nearly the same as it was 6 months ago.

The beginning of this month I was stressed with the thought of not being able to get back to my homeland. I was waiting for several months for just one piece of paper from the Labor Department to finally complete the process to renew my work visa. It was agony, and I grew weary of waiting. The immigration office said the policy was to hold my passport, so during a span of four months, I was without it. Without a passport, of course, I wouldn’t be able to board my flight.

I angrily rejected that my waiting had anything to do with the gentle and hopeful preparation for the coming of Christ. I felt my waiting was an injustice, that I was stuck in between nightmarish bureaucracy and a corrupt government. I didn’t get in the ‘spirit’ of the season, and I’m still trying to return to a place of spiritual centering.

I’m still waiting for that document, but at least now I have the ability to spend some time at home. It has been 20 months since I left the US and haven’t been out of SE Asia during that time. In my absence there and presence in Indonesia, life has happened for my family and friends, too. Babies were born; my grandfather passed away; there were marriages and divorces; other friends moved locations, or got new jobs. So much life, here and there.

Here, in Balige, the small Christmas tree next to my office is some pine branches stuck into the stalk of a banana tree. If you stand at a distance, you probably couldn’t tell the creativity to create the holiday look. An advent wreath hangs from the awning above the common area outside my office. I write now with my door open; birds are chattering, roosters crow, and the sun is out. This is Advent in Sumatra.

Caroling at 4am in Balige to start the Advent season.

Caroling at 4am in Balige to start the Advent season.

We, too, prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ but the individualism and consumerism that pervades American culture isn’t present in Indonesia. We don’t need a break from shopping malls or advertisements, or holiday rush. Not every home will give and receive presents—but that isn’t the focus of Advent and Christmas for the Christians here. Actually, it is worship in the church that is the focus. Preparations for role-plays are being made, decorations are up, special hymns are sung.

On Sunday December 1st, the first week of Advent, I once again joined my students for pre-dawn caroling around town with candles. It was a beautiful way to welcome the season, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join them again this year. We walked while singing, and placed wreaths and several homes.

But there are more signs down here at the equator. The growing season never stops and the rain comes more often. A few weeks ago, I found myself, for the first time,  staring directly at a full double rainbow. It gave me pause.

Perhaps it’s a challenge to meditate on this Advent, for you in the northern climates. It’s not a typical symbol of Advent for the church, but in my time of anger and restless waiting, it gave me hope and brought me some joy in that bleak midwinter in my heart. And that is Advent.

Recent full double rainbow.

Recent full double rainbow.

We wait. We watch. We hope. And it makes me want to sing:

 
        Come, thou long expected Jesus, 
	born to set thy people free; 
	from our fears and sins release us, 
	let us find our rest in thee.  
	Israel's strength and consolation, 
	hope of all the earth thou art; 
	dear desire of every nation, 
	joy of every longing heart.

Blessed Advent and happy holidays to all who are celebrating this month.

One Year

discernment, faith, mission, teaching
Cascade mountains in Washington state, USA

Cascade mountains in Washington state, USA

Just like hiking the rugged terrain of the Cascade mountains of Washington state and the mountainous rainforest of Sumatra, I experience the joy of summiting peaks and the pain of dark valleys in my current life. This description is not anything extraordinary, as I know these kind of ups and downs in life are a common experience across oceans.

It’s been an amazing, lonely, beautiful and difficult journey (and so much more that I am unable to sufficiently articulate). One thing is for sure: looking upon the smiling faces of my students awakens my soul. They are the reason I am here.

Scene near the village of Siboruon, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Scene near the village of Siboruon, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

On March 30th, 2012 I quietly departed American soil, bound for a life unknown. I put to death a way of life that I knew and the habits of my culture and adapted to my new surroundings. A new life sprang up as quickly as plants grow in the rainforest of northern Sumatra.

Many things about this past year have surprised me—blessings and challenges—and I feel that I have not been very good about writing more often. Some days feel normal and I don’t know what to write; some days I’m angry when my students don’t try to speak English (but not for long). Some days I’m just lazy to write. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful for this journey and glad I have a place to share some of the stories.

Even though there are difficulties, there are days I’m so very proud for all their effort. Like just yesterday, when in my English Theology class, we spontaneously created an English translation to a song in Indonesian about the Prodigal Son after reading that Bible story.

Here’s our English translation of this song (Anak bungsu pergi ke negri orang):

Prodigal son went to another country
left his father alone
finally the money and things are spent
his life is very troubled
Come back my son
Your father misses you much
Come back my son
Always forgiveness for you

Always forgiveness for you. That’s a good message, indeed.

Some things you cannot plan for; I love those moments of spontaneity that tap into their creativity. And that pretty much sums up my year: living and creatively responding to the unexpected.

Holy Week

faith, teaching

Blessings during this Holy Week. Before the start of the Easter holiday, we had a morning worship. The 2nd year class I teach performed a role-play on the crucifixion of Jesus. I wrote the basic text in English, and they organized the acting. Most of them have a low level of English, so it was great to see them study and make the effort to speak confidently in their performance.

Jesus being questioned by Herod.

Jesus being questioned by Herod.

More of the Unexpected

faith, language, mission

…I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36

Quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning, I found myself walking through the streets of Balige toward the local prison. I was accompanying the 3rd year class of students at the deaconess school, who go into the community every Sunday and attend various churches, often singing a choir piece. I don’t always know where they go or have the opportunity to join with them, so this was a special opportunity.

Although I have not done prison ministry in the US, the differences, I think, are striking. Since we had come for ministry, the door was opened to us, and we walked in, unchecked. No one stopped to ask our names or look in our bags. The men, dressed in normal street clothes, were already sitting, some in chairs outside the church in the center of the prison. Without much time to look around before we sat down in the chapel in the middle of the courtyard, I couldn’t discern the guards from prisoners on the inside. But I was not afraid at all.

The liturgy and hymns were in the Batak language. I have the hymnal in Batak, but not the Bible in Batak, so I had brought with me the Bible in Indonesian. Suddenly came more unexpected. After reading in Batak, the worship leader asked if anyone had the Alkitab (“Bible” in Indonesian). The student sitting beside me nudged me and said yes, we do. The worship leader asked, “Dari mana?” (Where are you from?). “Amerika” I answered. He encouraged me to read. “uhmmm….saya mencoba, ya?” I stammered. (“uhhhmmm…ok, I’ll try.”)

So I tried. In front of my students and the prisoners, I read the Scripture (Genesis 15:1-6) in a language I’m still learning, and at a pace that others might understand although too fast to comprehend some words myself. The student next to me whispered pronunciation help when I stumbled. The preacher didn’t miss a beat as he began his sermon right after I finished. He spoke mostly in Batak, so I received translation from my student, but I had to take a moment to reflect on what just happened.

Abram looked at the stars and God told him that his descendants would be as many as the stars above. I am a Child of God. And so are the men whom I didn’t know that surrounded me, all convicted of one crime or another.

After worship we shook hands with each other, saying “Selamat Hari Minggu.” (Happy Sunday) It is customary and culturally important here to shake hands, and there was no exception in this prison.

I was in prison and you visited me.” I don’t know what their crimes were or what daily life is like for them in the prison or how long their sentences are, but I was moved by the experience grace in another unexpected place worshipping with them.

And I pray for them.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

Posing for a group photo after worship.

The 3rd year students posing for a group photo after worship.

Ready for the Unexpected

diakonia, faith, mission

Be ready for the unexpected. That’s a lesson I’ve learned here. Not that I’ve never had something unexpected happen in my life, but in this life in Indonesia, I’m often called upon to do something I didn’t previously plan on. And here, it can mean living and doing something without much detail or knowing what’s coming next. Flexibility is a must-have attitude. I suppose since I was never one to need all the details ahead of time, it’s easier for me to adjust and go with the flow around here.

So last weekend I had one of those moments of needing to be flexible. As usual on a Saturday morning, I was relaxed, sipping my tea after my breakfast meal of rice and fried egg. I learned from the director of my school, that I had been invited to an event in Samosir (an island in the middle of Lake Toba), hosted by the District President of the Samosir district of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP). The director of the school wasn’t able to attend, but I was still welcome to go. Although I had woke up that morning thinking I’d wash my clothes and get a haircut, this is the kind of thing that one is better to say yes to.

Two of my students accompanied me, excited to join me along for the journey. As we made our way by public bus and ferry, we chatted in a mix of English and Indonesian. We arrived just after the cultural event of boat races had finished, but right on time for lunch. Excellent. I was greeted by the district president and also the Ephorus (whom they call the leader of the entire 4 million member denomination). After a warm greeting we sat down for lunch, which was surprisingly relaxed for being in the presence of such Important People.

After lunch was a special tree-planting of the church leaders (the exact purpose of this being lost in translation). Another surprise of the day: they asked me to plant a tree, too. A nice little avocado tree. In a plot that had been reserved for some other church leader, I knelt down and planted my avocado tree just before the rain started.

What might have been a relaxing, and perhaps boring day, turned out to be full of the unexpected—traveling across the beautiful landscape along Lake Toba (rather than spending a few hours hand-washing clothes), meeting with church leaders, planting a tree on behalf of the church, having fun with my students. The day didn’t go as planned, but there was blessing in it.

Sometimes when encountering the unexpected, it isn’t so lovely an experience. But it is important to face that, too. Open your heart and mind and live in the moment, and surprising things just may happen.

The Ephorus of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) planting a tree.

The Ephorus of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) planting a tree.

Planting an avocado tree

Planting an avocado tree