Advent at the Equator

**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.

L I M I N A L__S P A C E

Puget Sound Morning
LIMINAL SPACE

clickety-clack, clickety-clack
this train ride at the threshold
has no time of arrival
and no certainty of where it will stop.

clickety-clack, clickety-clack
let the rhythm of the rails take hold.
stare out the window
hour after hour
and think: oh, the places you’ll go!
welcome to the liminal space,
an expansive neither here nor there.

clickety-clack, clickety-clack
what more to do
but let go and sit back.
come, make yourself at home.
let the rhythm of the rails take hold
here in the liminal space.

I wrote the above as a result of my train ride from Seattle to Portland yesterday. It’s not even what I’d consider a finished poem (and I don’t write poetry often), but I share as part of my process. I’ve taken that route many times before, and I know: whether rain, shine, fog, or in that case, snow, there is never a shortage of beautiful views from the tracks. The above photo is of the south end of the Puget Sound. From the train I watched the snow fall into the Sound. It struck me odd that it is mid-March, and snowing in a region where little snow falls, and yet I’m told on that very day it was above 70 degrees in South Dakota.

Sometimes, things don’t turn out as we expect. It’s mid-March and the mild winter has some things topsy-turvy. It is mid-March and I am not in Indonesia as I once expected. I use the words “liminal space” to describe where I am. It is a place at the threshold, between two worlds. Soon, I hope I will cross over the threshold (via the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line) into a new life.

Lent and Blessing the Waiting

sagebrushSince my return from the orientation in Toronto in January, I have been staying with my parents in southeastern Washington state. Recently on a trail, I ran among the dry sagebrush steppe and contemplated the desert and my lenten journey.

How do I form and hold onto a spiritual practice for lent as I continue to wait in this liminal space? I haven’t answered that yet.

All of my belongings not going with me are packed away, leaving me to that which I can carry. I don’t have to take time out of my busy day to think about lent—I have time, lots of time. Well, the newness of waiting has worn off, and as the weeks pass by, it has become increasingly difficult to retain my earlier reflection on the deliciousness of ambiguity. So, it seems, as the liturgical season turns, so has a season in my spirituality. But this desert isn’t desolate.

Over the weekend, I returned to Seattle and said goodbye to my parents. And yesterday evening my church community, Church of the Apostles, blessed my waiting. In our nearly 10 years of existence (I’ve been around for 7 of that), we have laid hands upon many to bless their various journeys near and far. As it is not yet time for me to leave the country, I asked for prayer in my waiting. Standing in this liminal space, and surrounded by my community, hands were laid upon me to bless my waiting.

Today I wonder: what will this week of waiting and wandering bring?

I’m still waiting, so why not run a half marathon?

I am still waiting. I can’t say that the last three weeks have been easy. Some days I have felt very much like my previous post, taking delight in the blessings; there have been other days, however, when I have felt most anxious. Someday I may unpack this time of waiting, and find important lessons. But right now I just really want to step into a plane, make my series of flights, emerge on Indonesian soil, and get to work.

In these three weeks, there hasn’t been much to do or to write about. Prior to February, I packed away belongings, mentally prepared to leave, and assembled most items to pack. Without a visa or a final date of departure, everything is on hold.

I was out running last Thursday, and it dawned on me that there was a half marathon race in town on Sunday. At the end of my run, I resolved to do it. Even though none of my recent runs came close to the 13.1 mile distance, and the race was only three days away, I had to do it. I knew I could do it, and I did it; one foot in front of the other, stride by stride, mile by mile.

I’m no stranger to distance running—I’ve run multiple marathons and half marathons, so I knew what I was getting into when I signed up. Long distance races are a physical challenge for sure, but the race is also a mental challenge to find the courage to keep on going, and for me, they a profound spiritual experience. My pounding feet on the pavement become a rhythmic psalm of the body; the labored breath of latter miles inhales new life, and exhales pain; the finish line, also the beginning, is an expression of deep joy and gratitude to God for this life.

It is Sunday evening now; I’m a little sore but spiritually centered, ready to enter into the week, whatever it will bring.

By the way, I’m prone to plan vacation time around races. You may see a future post about a marathon/half/10k in places such as Bali, East Timor, Malaysia, Singapore, or Thailand. This is, of course, if my body adjusts to the climate and I have time and space to run.

Delicious Ambiguity

Morning Light
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

(Psalm 130:5,6)

Waiting. Each morning I arise and wonder, is this the day all loose ends will finally fall into place? And when, oh when will I have that visa?

Today, while out running under the gorgeous afternoon sunshine, I was reminded of Psalm 130. Over the years, I have often returned to this Psalm in times of waiting. For the time being, I’m occupying an in-between space with a pile of clothes and medicines stacked in a suitcase in one room and my 9-month old niece playing and learning to crawl in the next.

Xmas Day runThroughout my life, running has been a stress release and spiritual practice. Today was no different. With each stride next to the dry sagebrush of southeastern Washington state, I pounded anxiety away and praying, hoping in God.

These thoughts have come to me because this date is about the time of my original anticipated departure for Indonesia. Or so says my letter of agreement, drafted and signed back in the fall. Though still young in years, I have lived enough life to know things don’t always go as planned. Waiting, I know, is hard; but God is still here. God is here in this ambiguous space, and though I am impatient, I have peace.

Back in late July, in those few days of waiting after my interview at ELCA headquarters in Chicago and before I knew I had this position, I came across a quote. At my church (Church of the Apostles), we always have “Open Space” in the middle of worship. It is a time for prayer, reflection, and interaction. With an unknown future on my heart and mind, I walked a labyrinth during the open space. In the center was this quote:

“…some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner

It is nighttime now, and like in the Psalm, my soul waits more than those who watch for the morning. Tomorrow, I will arise again, and wonder, is this the day I will know when I’ll depart for Indonesia? Is this the end or the beginning? But, sometimes in the end is the beginning, and they are indistinguishable.

I take this time of waiting and delight in life’s many blessings, hoping for the many blessings soon to come. Delicious ambiguity, indeed.