When Writing Gets Creative, a Reflection on the Peace Corps Write On! Competition

Aliens. Robots. Environmental destruction. Pollution loving aliens. Secret agents. Witches. Killer friends. Dystopian futures. Birds engulfed in shadow. These are a few topics students at my college wrote about during the creative writing competition last month. I was honored to host Write On!, an international creative writing competition facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers around the world. Much of the instruction for Chinese college English majors focuses on memorizing long lists of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar to score high on standardized tests, so this offers them an alternative way to use and improve their English skills.

The rules are simple: students are shown two writing prompts (different at each grade level) and given one hour to respond to one of them without the use of any aid such as cell phone or dictionary. Their entries are judged based on creativity and overall structure rather than on grammar and spelling. As a host I chose 10 entries from each grade level (in my case, University freshmen, sophomore, and junior), and those entries were judged at provincial and national level against other students from other Peace Corps sites. Those national winners were then judged at an international level from other Peace Corps sites across the globe.

Over 170 students from Mianyang Teachers College (绵阳师范学院) came and tapped into their creativity. I was thrilled—and a bit overwhelmed—at such a great turnout especially because many were not my students. Even more thrilling, one student was selected as the National and International winner for 3rd year university (junior) level.

The stacks of entries for the writing competition.

I first met Chen Lin (陈林) when I told her she was the Write On! National Winner for juniors (we hadn’t yet learned the result of the international judging). I only teach speaking and listening for freshmen and sophomores, so it came as a surprise when 31 juniors attended the competition.

We sat down for a chat in the space at Mianyang Teachers College known as the “Bookend,” an ongoing project started some years ago by a previous Volunteer. The room features stacks of books in English and Chinese, and ranges from fiction and classics to dictionaries and textbooks all available for checkout. The Bookend also functions as a daily English Corner. As I talked with Celina (Chen Lin’s chosen English name), a group of 20 students were already engrossed in practicing pronunciation through tongue twisters.

With Celina (陈林), a junior and winner in the Write On competition at the National and International level.

Celina said she hadn’t participated in Write On! last year, but was eager to this year after she heard about it. When she began her study in Mianyang, she wasn’t too interested in English. That changed over time, in part, to having Gina (A previous Peace Corps Volunteer) as a teacher whom Celina still fondly remembers.

When I asked Celina about the thought process for her essay, she said she had considered a happy ending, but it wouldn’t have been interesting enough. When I read Celina’s essay, I was struck by the unique approach (She chose to write from this prompt: Every morning, a bird lands on your window and pecks at the glass. It is your alarm clock. One morning, it doesn’t appear. Instead, there is a note. What does it say? What happens next?). To me, her story is mysterious and haunting. Part of what drew me in to select her essay for the university 3rd year top 10 was the ending without a clear resolution, marked by two words: “Save me!”

Celina was quite surprised and humbled by the honor to be a national and international winner. Her face lit up with a bright smile as she softly spoke about her experience and future ambition.  She told me she is seriously considering earning a graduate degree after she finishes in Mianyang. She wants to pursue a career translation, and in fact, had perused the Bookend shelves for a translation textbook before our talk.

We parted ways after taking a photo together; she still seemed a little surprised. She wants to participate again next year, and I told her I would be happy to host another competition. Until then, she will be studying and preparing for the TEM-8, another big examination for English majors.

Celina gave her permission for her essay to be published online, and you can read it here on the Write On Competition page.


 

 

The Dubbing Competition and Just Rolling with It

So sometimes life in China as a university English teacher is a bit odd. We have to navigate a different culture, a different university system, and the sometimes awkward use of our own native language. My students seem well aware that spoken English in this country is often not correct, as they make jokes about Chinglish.

As Peace Corps Volunteers we’re prepped in our training about how things go here, culturally. Accept invitations, we’re told; first impressions are important, so make yourself known; and just “go with it.” Thursday evening was one of those time when all three applied.

A few weeks ago students excitedly invited me to a “Dubbing Competition.” Even after asking for clarification, I still didn’t know what that meant other than it had something to do with movies…and dubbing?. But one thing was certain: Myself, my Peace Corps sitemate, and another new foreign teacher were expected to attend and be judges in the competition.

Although I was told in advance, on Wednesday I received a decorated hand-made card–probably made by students on behalf of the Foreign Languages Department–inviting me to a “Dudding Competition.” Just roll with it.

On Thursday afternoon, 6 students were absent from my class, excused because they were preparing for the event. Just roll with it.

On Thursday evening, finally the event. There were about 10 other judges, and we gave scores on each performance. It was only living through the event that I realized they really meant “lip syncing” instead of dubbing. After the group gave a short intro-performance, they lip synced to a short movie clip. The clip was projected onto screens and both the language they were speaking and a Chinese translation was given.

Since this is the Foreign Languages Department, there were performances in English, German, Japanese, and French. Since I can speak German, I was fine with that, but even though I don’t know the others, I was nevertheless judging their pronunciation and performance. Yeah, just roll with it…

The best part of the night was seeing a group of my students perform the scene with the sloths in the DMV from Zootopia. That scene is something we all relate to and find funny. The whole room was laughing. And in that moment, it made all the oddity and dealing with the unexpected worth it.

An invitation to the journey

I remember it well—the day I became a student of Eberhard-Karls Universität in Tübingen, Germany. Paperwork with official stamps finally in hand, I bounced through the cobble-stoned streets of the Altstadt toward the bridge that hangs across the Neckar River. Looking out over the old buildings of this once-walled city neatly reflected in the Neckar’s still water, I savored the day’s accomplishments. It was indeed a fine start to my second week of life in Tübingen, on Tuesday September 11, 2001.

Thirty minutes later at the campus computer lab, my upbeat mood came crashing down when I read with disbelief the headlines about the terrorist attack in my home country. Outside, students carried on with their afternoon, not yet aware that thousands of people had died or been injured when planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. None of it seemed real; my heart sank, but I was not hopeless.

The next day, and in weeks following, I unleashed a series of emails detailing my perspective from abroad to a list of family and friends—revealing more than general updates and the life of a university student in Germany I had first intended. The email list began as a method to keep in touch, but evolved into a means to help others see their own country and the world in new ways.

During the year I studied abroad, I traveled within Germany and to 11 other European countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and Vatican City), writing home about each adventure. Through my correspondence, my family and friends watched Germans grieve with the US in the weeks following September 11; they joined me for Christmas 2001 in Finland, with a Finnish friend and her family as we broke tradition on Christmas Day and took an overnight boat cruise from Helsinki to Talinn, Estonia; they felt my curiosity as I rid myself of Deutschmarks and held the Euro’s paper currency for the first time on January 1, 2002; and they discovered what German universities have to offer, especially Tübingen’s unique charm and history.

When I arrived in Tübingen in late August 2001, I was no stranger to travel; however, that year embodied more than study or travel, it heralded significant change in my own worldview in addition to those around me. In the years since, I have traveled to many more places, and I intend to continue that way of life wherever I am, inviting others into the journey.

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Reflection on the Neckcar river in Tuebingen, Germany.

The above is a slightly edited version of something I wrote in early 2015 just for myself. Later in the year when I applied to the Peace Corps, I used part of it in my application essay. Now I post it to share that next month I will begin my service with the Peace Corps as an English Teacher in China.

More information forthcoming about what I will be doing and where I will be going, including a more formal announcement. Stay tuned…come, follow me on the journey!

Night Train to Colombo

Our three-wheeler pulls into the dusty lot used as a bus station. Several mini-buses and big red buses similar to school buses idle around, engines humming and doors open, all waiting to depart to various cities in eastern Sri Lanka. I grab my bags and step onto a patch of caked dirt.

My friend Apriliza emerges from the three-wheeler and stares at me. Two men walk by, discussing something in Tamil as another bus pulls out, kicking up dirt around us. Sri Lanka’s majority population are ethnic Sinhala, but here on the east coast are a pocket of Tamil Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Pastor stands next to me and points to a nearby bus. “This is your bus,” he declares in English.

A few days earlier I had traveled to this city called Kalmunai—a tiny dot on a map with no tourism to offer—by repeatedly mispronouncing its name to random strangers. I was in Kandy, a city in the center of the island, with a bus station many times larger than Kalmunai’s, bustling with buses and thousands of travelers. Not deterred by a few confused looks, I said “Kalmunai?” until a man with red betel nut stains between his teeth spat and pointed toward a mini-bus at the end of a long line of larger red buses.

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Wedding Crasher

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

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Keep Spirit

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.

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Hildegard’s Abbey

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.

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Elections and Hope in Sri Lanka

“In my country there will be an election,” declared Oskar my taxi driver, as he drove me through the center of Colombo.

An hour earlier, my flight had landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, 35km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and capital. It was Sunday, January 4, 2015, four days ahead of the awaited election.

In October 2014, then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for elections to be held in January 2015—two years before they were due. A month later, Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally to Mr. Rajapaksa, announced his candidacy under the opposition coalition. In his re-election bid, incumbent President Rajapaksa told voters to “go with the devil you know,” contrasting his longevity as a two-term president and the relatively unknown career of Mr. Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, the military had defeated the rebel separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, which gave him support from the nation’s Sinhala majority. His critics, however, allege human rights violations during the 26-year civil war. Both sides have been accused of violating human rights, although the government under Rajapaksa hadn’t acknowledged any abuses.

In the taxi, Oskar had begun with polite conversation at the airport—the usual where are you from, where are you going in Sri Lanka, how long will you stay—but his swift switch into politics surprised me.

“Who will you vote for?” I asked Oskar, curious, and hoping I wasn’t intruding.

“Maithri,” he said, not shy about his support for opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. “It’s time for change in this country,” he added.

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Chatting with a Monk in Thailand

IMG_3520Last December I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand to run the 3rd in a series of 3 half marathons. I spent the remainder of my time bicycling around the old city eating delicious food and finding peace in the various temples. One afternoon, while walking around Wat Chedi Luang, I noticed a banner hanging from a building on the grounds with an invitation to speak with Buddhist monks, titled “Monk Chat.” Curious, I walked over to check it out. I had never actually spoken to a monk before, and the idea sounded intriguing. A young monk promptly greeted me. We sat down at a table and began to chat, just as the banner had suggested.

I asked about his life as a monk. He told me his days begin early in the morning at 4am, with meditation, cleaning, and preparation, continuing with breakfast and other duties such as reading, studying, attending class, or collecting alms throughout the day. They survive on charity from people through donations of merit offerings, carrying with them few possessions. He explained anyone can be a monk for any length of time.

Originally from Laos, the young man in front of me recently became a monk, and therefore still a novice. He is a student at a Buddhist university, learning about his religion and also studying English. I told him I had just finished two years as an English teacher in Indonesia, and asked what he wanted to know about my native language. Throughout our chat, he jotted down new words and idioms, always eager to know more.

Who knows the future, but it is probable this young man will choose to leave the monk order after graduating and pursue a normal life outside. Learning English, he said, is a valuable skill for the future that could have many applications.

After an hour, I began to politely excuse myself—I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. Before I left, he asked if I had facebook and would I accept a friend request to help him practice English sometime. Of course, I told him, a little bit surprised he had facebook.

I learned a lot that day—about the practice of another religion, the life of Buddhist monks, and the aspirations of one young monk in particular—and I’m grateful there is still a way to remain connected so we can continue learning and sharing.

Wandering in Wales

Sometimes I get itchy feet. The urge to get out and about seizes me, and I am compelled to travel. Somewhere, anywhere. My most recent trip from December and January is evidence of that, but this wasn’t the first time; it started a long time ago, and I have no intention of stopping.

Eight years ago this month my itchy feet led me to the UK to wander. The first stop was in Wales to hike up Mount Snowdon. At 3,560ft, Snowdon’s peak lacks the ruggedness of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges of my home in the Pacific Northwest. Even so, Snowdon is an excellent hike with fantastic panoramas of the region. Well worth the time.

After some research, I decided to ascend via the Snowdon Ranger Trail, staying the night at the youth hostel near the beginning of that trail. It was there at the hostel that I met another bloke who intended to hike up the Snowdon the next day. We chatted at dinner and he suggested we go up together. Already prepared to go it alone, I was nevertheless welcome to the idea of having company.

As we walked, my companion Vern told me this day was his birthday. Climbing Snowdon was on his bucket list and he was ecstatic to have the opportunity to ascend on his birthday. I, of course, was happy to accompany him for the occasion.

We walked, talked, and generally had a good time. It was Vern’s suggestion that we descend a different path. Our descent through the Ryd-Ddu path was equally amazing and at the end of it we stopped in a small town for dinner. It was a day of the unexpected, and I went to bed that night full from the rich experience.

To my surprise he offered to drive me to catch my train the next day, and given the extra time that saved, we toured a bit more around the area, including a quaint old train called the Ffestiniog Railway. More unexpected.

I’m grateful for his generosity and companionship for those two days. It’s been eight years, but Happy birthday anyway, wherever you are now, mate. Cheers!

Snowdon Ranger Trail
Ascending on the Snowdon Ranger Trail
A shrouded path
The clouds obscure the view of the summit and make staying on the trail difficult. Piles of stones as waymarkers helped guide us to the top.
A Shrouded Path
At the summit looking back the way we came. Clouds still shroud the view.
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Beginning the descent, using the Ryd-Ddu path.
Vern
My walking companion on his birthday.
Ffestiniog Railway
Ffestiniog Railway, an unplanned extra excursion.

The people I meet: Cambodia

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This is Suon. He is a victim of the war and devastation caused by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. I met Suon while taking the tour at the War Museum in Siem Reap. The museum itself is little more than rusting old tanks, and an assortment of guns, landmines, and photographs. What makes the experience real are the personal stories of tour guides. Not only did I learn about Cambodian politics past and present, but more importantly I heard a man’s story of suffering and survival.

Suon’s family was killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was taken and made to be a soldier as a boy. His life as a soldier ended when he stepped on a landmine that blew off his right leg. The recovery was long and difficult without any family. Now he makes a living as a guide at the War Museum. He expressed dismay at the current situation in Cambodia, but hope that change for the good can come. I am amazed that such hope can prevail over cynicism or despair–but it is hope that is necessary to make a better future.

He asked if I had come to Siem Reap because of the half marathon race. Yes, I said. The day before I, along with about 7,000 other participants, had finished the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. He thanked me because the race was organized to help charities in Cambodia, especially for those who suffer because of land mines. The work to remove all remaining land mines and to care for the victims is ongoing and must continue.

A week earlier I had a brief encounter of hope on the way into Cambodia. The woman who sat next to me on the flight into Phnom Penh was visiting her country for the first time since her childhood. After leaving Cambodia, she became a US citizen and hadn’t returned since. She expressed a mixture of excitement and nervousness to see the country of her birth. Her life was very different than the tour guide’s, but they are all part of Cambodia. I don’t know what happened after we landed, but I hope the time was good for her, and that she found what she needed in visiting her country and with relatives.

I continue to think about Cambodia. I am thankful for the stories I heard and share in their hope for the future.

Christmas with my brother

It is now past the middle of February, but here is a story from last Christmas. For Christmas 2014 I had the opportunity to be with my brother in Indonesia. To the Western audience it must be said that I don’t actually have a brother in my immediate family–this brother is my Indonesian family, and I am his sister.

The family system of the Batak Toba culture is more complex than in Western cultures. It is seen not only in how people are addressed in daily situations (the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather), but also at a deeper level. The Batak people have distinct family surnames that are grouped together by ancestral line, which sets them apart from some of the other cultures within Indonesia (many Javanese have only one name). Those Bataks with surnames in the same ancestral group are family, and subsequently prohibited by culture to marry each other. To the Western ear it may ring as a bit harsh, but this is how they have kept true to their ancestors. They know when they meet a person in their group, that they really are family. Given this importance, it has never been nor will it ever be a custom for the woman to change her name in marriage; her family name is of higher importance.

What does this have to do with me? Because there is great pride in their culture and to share about it, some Batak people love to invite others into their family. I posted previously about preaching at a church, and the pastor and I have been close since. His surname is Lumbantobing (or just Tobing for short), and because he asked me, I am also boru Lumbantobing. It makes me think about family and naming, and what those mean. My family now extends far beyond my own blood and borders of my country.

I was glad to see my brother and his family for a few days over Christmas. Most of the time we were in the church, as the HKBP denomination holds worship Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas–but it was a blessing to be there. Mauliate, ito! (thank you, brother)

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Christmas Eve 2014

Meeting Krishna

For some of my posts now, I want to profile a few of the people I’ve met along my journeys. I traveled in India from the end of December 2008 to mid-January 2009. It was an amazing experience that cannot simply be wrapped up in few words.  Here is one story I wrote about an unexpected encounter as I traveled in the southern state of Kerala.

Meeting Krishna
8 January 2009 — Kumily, Kerala, India

Kumily appeared to be a busy junction in the middle of Kerala’s spice and tea region. The market was overflowing with tea and spices and the streets full of travelers from far and wide. I had purchased my spices from a shop and stepped outside to wait for my friend. I observed the scene–typical of Indian life there were people, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and animals occupying the same road. Inspired, I pulled out my camera for a photo of the busy street life.

Then a man robed in orange cloth approached me. “How are you liking India?” he said joyfully. He was thin and his robes bore signs of wear and long use. As I looked into his bearded face, I wondered if he was about my age.

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On Disfigurement and Grace

I stepped off the light rail into the damp afternoon air. I craned my neck, looking for a friend, when a man who had been in the same train car from downtown Portland approached me. We hadn’t spoken on the ride. In fact, I had been listening to my “Lent” playlist on my iPod, lost in my own world of thought.

He first remarked about the drizzle that fell lightly on us. What happened to the sun? Of course it rains when we’re off the train. I smiled.

Then he said this: “I like your smile. Hey, you know, I’m an honest person, so I hope you don’t mind me saying, when I first saw you, I wanted to feel sorry for you.” He motioned to his face, a reference to the disfiguring tumors on mine. “But I see life in you. It’s in your eyes.”

“Thanks, sir. I don’t mind at all.”

In fact, I was glad he noticed; I hadn’t that day. We bid each other bye, and walked our separate ways. This wasn’t the first time for such an encounter. However, it was a fleeting moment of grace, which I savored and filed in the back of my mind.

Two days later another knotty tumor appeared on the right side of my face; one more to add to the collection, an even more disfigured face to get used to.

DISFIGUREMENT
Now awaiting the word on what series of flights have been booked to Indonesia, I share this piece of me with you, dear readers, as it is a part of me wherever on this earth I go, whatever that calling may be—and it is very visible.

I have a genetic disease called Neurofibromatosis (NF). A more detailed explanation of NF can be found at the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Brief facts: NF type 1 affects 1 in every 3,000 births; NF2, 1 in every 25,000. Although it is genetic, and parents with NF (types 1 and 2) have a 50% chance of passing it on to each child, half of all cases are a result of a spontaneous mutation. NF1 can cause birthmarks, tumors, freckling, and learning disabilities among other manifestations. There is no cure, no drug yet to slow or prevent tumor growth. Neither is there any prediction of severity or when or where a tumor might grow; they can grow anywhere there are nerves.

I have NF1 with dozens of tumors all over my body, all of which are benign, and most of which are small and underneath the skin. The largest and most visible is the grouping of tumors on the right side of my face.

GRACE
I come from a culture where inner beauty is a nice idea, but that’s not necessarily the signals most often sent to me: I should have more stuff, acquire more wealth, and be thin and beautifully blemish-free; money can buy you all this happiness. Me, well, I’m full of outer blemishes, so I’ve learned to cling to grace daily.

I have difficulty accepting a theology that says God made me right down to my DNA. Who, then, slipped in that faulty gene? Who turns the switch to allow a new tumor? I’ll spend my lifetime supporting research to eradicate this disease—then probably some other gene will mutate to form a new disorder for the world.

Anne Lamott writes about David Roche, a inspiration speaker and man with a disfigured face, in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith. Unable to reproduce the whole story, here’s a snippet (p. 111):

There he is, standing in front of a crowd, and everyone can see that just about the worst thing that could happen to a person physically has happened to him. Yet he’s enjoying himself immensely, talking about ten seconds of grace he felt here, ten seconds he felt there, how those moments filled him and how he makes them last a little longer. Everyone watching gets happy because he’s giving instruction on how this could happen for them, too, this militant self-acceptance.

No, I wasn’t given this disease as a test, but I can live to the fullest and notice those raw moments of grace, just like David. I wish I didn’t have the tumors, or that I didn’t have to face a lifetime of wonder when and where the next one will appear. But I will, and I am compelled to share those grace-filled meetings, my love of life and God, and the courage in spite of disfigurement.

I share this as who I bring as a missionary. I may not write of this again, as I will soon be sharing other stories. As I have most of my life, I will be noticing (and writing) moments of grace while I’m teaching English in Indonesia. But most importantly, I mean to share this today: out of brokenness, beauty and wholeness; out of death, life. Is that not part of our faith as Christians? You, too, have brokenness in need of healing.

And now you know what it is on my face when you see photos of me.