Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Few Macchiattos a Month

Before I tell this story, I need to give a little background info.  Ethiopia is the home of coffee.  Seriously.  And the coffee we drink here in America...well, it's really not the same beverage.  Maybe it doesn't even deserve to be called coffee.  I don't like coffee...except for those special coffee drinks that come with whipped cream and syrup on top.  When you're in Ethiopia, you're offered a cup everywhere you go.  A coffee ceremony is performed for every occasion, and black coffee is handed around in delicate little cups.  On my first visit to ET I never tasted it, and on this last trip I made it halfway through the week before a friend convinced me to taste hers. Oh. My. Goodness.  Now I know what coffee is supposed to taste like; it was smooth and rich, no bitterness, and it tasted like...well, coffee.  There's a chain of coffee shops in Ethiopia called Kaldis of which Ethiopians are very proud.  Jim and I laughed when we were there; it's been made to look very much like Starbucks, and it was actually a comfort to visit there (even if all I ordered that first time was a Coke; no coffee!) because it felt a bit like home.  At any rate, Kaldis sells their own version of the fancy coffee drinks we buy here at Starbucks, along with desserts (which are not a common part of one's diet in ET).  The most popular coffee beverage seems to be the Macchiatto, which we were offered every time we ate a meal in a restaurant.

Now, having explained about Kaldis, I want to share a story about a man I met in Ethiopia.  He's on the staff of Children's Hope Chest, and spent a lot of time with our team.  On the last day we were there, I had a long conversation with him (our team went out to lunch after church, and he and I sat together and had a very long wait for our pizza).  While we were waiting, Misikir told me about a passion God has given him.  Remember, he is already working for CHC, spending his days helping vulnerable children and their families, and he also has a beautiful wife and precious baby boy at home.  But he loves the Lord, and he has seen a opportunity to serve God and the ones He loves, and he is determined to help.  He talked to me about young Christians in Ethiopia who are struggling because they do not have the resources to be educated.  He described, with enthusiasm, his desire to see young Christians being trained and prepared to assume roles of leadership in bring about change in their country for the glory of God.  He told stories of young people he knew personally, of how he feels concerned about the choices they are making when they don't believe education is attainable to them.  He told me one story about a young woman who had been able to begin studying nursing at a local university, but when she was no longer able to pay the tuition, she considered selling herself as a means of earning the money to continue.  She knew that her future was bleak without an education, and saw no other means of attaining it.  My friend was convicted that he needed to find a way to help his younger brothers and sisters in Christ.  He went home to his wife one day and presented her with his desire to begin helping.  He wanted to begin paying tuition for one young woman out of his own income, and wanted to know if his wife would support this.  She, too, believed that God would ask them to help, and agreed.  This giving was sacrificial for this young family.  And my friend knew that there were many more young men and women who needed help.  So he began to share his passion with his friends, and even began to dream of starting an organization through which Christian young men and women could be assisted financially (toward their education), and also discipled by older Christians who could guide them toward seeking godly vision for their lives.

What does all of this have to do with coffee?  As I listened to this young man's passionate love for God and others, he said something that almost made me laugh out loud.  Actually, it was one of those "don't know whether to laugh or cry" moments.  He was telling me how much money is needed to pay one month's tuition at a local university.  He was saying that when he shares his vision with others, hoping to find support, he will sometimes tell them that the amount needed is "only a few Macchiatos a month." If I understood correctly, the amount was around 600 birr; roughly $30/month.  Just a few Macchiatos.  It was just such a familiar line to me, yet the illustration he had laid out for me was so powerful.  My friend and the other Ethiopians with whom we were eating that day are not living in poverty; they are earning a good income by Ethiopian standards, and providing for their families.  But by American standards...well, I am wealthy in comparison.  And yet this man was challenging himself and others to sacrifice more, perhaps to sacrifice one of a few pleasures that they allow themselves.

The price of a few Kaldis Macchiatos...a few Starbucks Lattes a month...really can change someone's life.  The cost for my friend to support a young college student while pointing him to Christ.  The cost of sponsoring a child...providing food, education, Christian teaching.  It's hard to measure that in terms of coffee.  Or maybe not so hard.    

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The "Star" of the show

Sunday evening was the children's Christmas program at our church.  Three of the "youth" (young adults!) at our church planned and directed the whole thing, and did such a great job.  I was really bummed that I didn't get great pictures (I have a new camera lens, was playing around with my camera set on "manual", and basically got a lot of unfocused pictures.  Sigh.)  Anyway, I couldn't resist posting a couple of the less fuzzy pictures.  E was the star of the show.  Literally.  Not "star" as in the main role, but the actual Bethlehem star.  If I can figure out how to download E's Flipcam, I'll definitely post a bit of video soon.  As soon as he stepped out (onto a ledge above the baptismal pool!), I told myself one thing.  Do. Not. Look at him.  I was laughing so much that I was afraid of snorting.  And the rest of the children were doing such a fabulous job, and the whole thing was so sweet, I just didn't want to miss it.  But the star...well, you kind of had to be there.  Nice job, E.  And for Jo March and her team of directors...fabulous.  Thanks.  :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sweet Girl

(NJ, R, E, and baby A)

December 12, 2011

Sweet A turned 7 yesterday.  I remember crying when she turned four; I felt as though I was losing my baby.  I think I cried when she turned five, too.  Somehow, I finally caught on that she just brings me more joy every year.  How can I not just look up and say, "Thank You" on her birthday?  On all of their birthdays?  Okay, okay, I still might cry...maybe when she turns 16.  But yesterday, and today...I am all full of "Thank You."

The day she was born is vivid in my memory.  She was due on Christmas Eve, which was still two weeks away, she was baby number four, and my babies were always just a little late.  I had been feeling a little funny at church that morning, but had already decided that I was not having a baby on that December afternoon. I didn't even have a bag packed for the hopital.  Hadn't really decided on a name for little girl #3.   At around 2:30pm I changed my mind.  Packed a bag, put the children in the van (R was 6 years old, E was 3, and little NG was not quite 2).  We headed in the opposite direction of the hospital to drop them off with a friend, then turned around and headed back toward town (I'm pretty sure I remember running a red light).  We got to the hospital at 3:05.  The birth was recorded at 3:11.  She has kept life just a little more exciting ever since. (We had been thinking of naming her Natalie Joy, because Natalie means "born at Christmas", and she was due on Christmas Eve.  But she wasn't born on Christmas Eve, and based on some experiences we'd had during the months prior to her birth, we named her Anna Christine. " Follower of Christ.  Full of grace". Those were our dreams for her.)

Dear A, on your 7th birthday,

You are such a gift to me.  You are funny, and smart, and you keep me laughing.  It has been a joy to see you growing in compassion over the past year, and to see your tender heart.  I love watching you care for your baby dolls with gentleness and smiles.  We all know how much you love bears, and everything about bears, and talking about, singing about, and looking at pictures of bears.  But you love your brothers, sisters, and friends even more.  Especially R; you look up to her and would do anything for her.  I know that the two of you will be best friends one day, and she will look back with smiles at all of the ways you loved her.  You also love to pray, and always remind us to pray for any need; if we are driving in our van and hear an ambulance, you are always the one to remember to pray for the one who is sick or hurt.  You have also started singing; you love music and dancing and singing, and it was so much fun to see you sing with the "Kinderchorus" at the Christmas program last week.  I'm guessing that it was the first of many such performances for you.  Your face was glowing while you watched the older girls singing.

As much as you love all of your siblings, I know it wasn't easy to go from being the baby of the family to being the "middle child" on that day (almost two years ago) when we got home from Ethiopia with Y and MJ.  You've told me wistfully, with downcast eyes, that you wish you were "either little or big."  Big enough to ride your bike to the playground without me, stay up late, or just hang out with the "big kids."  Or little enough to be the baby of the family again.  But over the last year you have settled into your new role with grace.  You are a great big sister.  There were many days when it broke my heart to watch you struggle, knowing that your little heart was breaking too...that you were afraid and insecure and feeling that your place in my heart was threatened by your younger siblings.  It never was.  Your very special place in my heart can never be occupied by anyone else but you. And God knew exactly what you needed, just as much as He knew what Y and MJ needed.  Had you stayed the "baby," you would not be the girl you are today.  He has grown you, refined you, and loved you.  Even as He will continue to do for many years and birthdays to come.  I can't wait to watch.  I will always be loving you, praying for you, and delighting in you.  

Love you sweet A.  Happy 7th.

Shall I Play for Him?

I love this video.  Love it. It made me dance in the kitchen this morning.  Made my heart sing.  Couldn't wait to show it to E this morning when he got up; music is his joy.  Maybe I could tolerate drums in the house after all...

Enjoy!   :)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What shall I give Him, poor as I am?

This is a story about a 13 year old girl, a set of earrings, and a mother's heart convicted. (I'm telling it with permission from said "13 year old girl). The story begins with R getting her ears pierced.  She wasn't sure she wanted them pierced, but she knew she would be allowed to do it when she turned 13.  We went away on a special mother/daughter "retreat" to celebrate her birthday, during which we visited Tyson's Corner for shopping and dinner.  While we were there (after much agonizing over the decision), she got her ears pierced.  She was told that she needed to wear the piercing studs (tiny gold balls which were used to pierce her ears) for six weeks, and then she could change them and wear other earrings.  It just happened that the end of the six week time period came just as we were ready to leave for Ethiopia.  A few days before we left, we purchased a little set of 4 pairs of earrings for her.  They weren't anything extravagant, but she picked them out herself with a friend and was excited to wear them.  So she actually packed them to take along to Ethiopia; a bit out of character since she was generally packing sparsely in order to make more room for donations, but those little earrings didn't take up much space.

Fast forward to the middle of our week in Ethiopia.  We had noticed that many of the little girls in the Kind Hearts Carepoint had pierced ears.  They looked as though they had been pierced with tiny slivers of wood, and often appeared to be infected. After having just observed the sterile and relatively painless method by which R's ears had been pierced, I have a hard time imagining the scene in which those little slivers had been forced through tiny earlobes.  Looking back, I'm not sure I actually ever noticed a little girl with earrings; I'm sure there must have been some, but what stuck in my memory was those little ears with the pieces of wood pierced through.  One of the members of our team mentioned that she wished she had a pair of earrings to give to her sponsored child, who was one of the girls with infected ears, but she hadn't brought a pair with her.  I was excited to remember that R had brought her little earring set, and said that I was sure she would be happy to give a pair away.

Later that night, I mentioned the conversation to R.  She didn't say much, but agreed that she would give away one of her pairs of earrings.  She climbed up on the top bunk where she was sleeping, inspected the set, and showed me a pair that she had chosen to give away.  I, not at all sensitive to any trouble brewing yet, pointed out that I thought one of the other pairs was cuter, and might be a better choice. This is when things began to go south.  I hadn't yet realized that those earrings were at the center of a battle going on over R's heart.  I continued the discussion, suggesting that she choose a pair which I didn't know were her favorites, and then wondering why she didn't just give them all away; there were several little girls at Kind Heart to choose from (all with splinters in their ears).

She did not want to give them away.  She particularly didn't want to give away the pairs she liked best.  In retrospect, I can consider that she was separated at that time from everything that feels familiar and comfortable and safe to her.  She was away from her Daddy, who is her compass.      She was exhausted, hungry, and stressed.  They were the first earrings she had ever had; she did not want to part from those earrings.  I, in my typical fashion of processing out loud (when will I learn to be slow to speak?) just burst out my disapproval to her.  I don't remember my exact words, but it was probably something along the lines of this: "Really!?  You seriously don't know whether you want to give away your earrings?  Did you notice that some of those girls don't even have shoes?"  I won't go on (it's too painful to admit any more), but suffice it to say that I stood myself up on a platform of self-righteousness.  And I'll confess that my pride was at work.  She was bursting my bubble.  I wanted her to respond perfectly (every time, of course).  I wanted her to gush lovely, unselfish words about those little girls being so much more important than her earrings.  (I was expecting her to be...better than I am.)  Instead, she was being honest about her feelings.  I'm sure she knew that she should've been happy to give those earrings away, but she just wasn't.  By the end of the evening, I had told her to just give me the earrings; that I would give them away, and replace them for her when we got home.  I was less than compassionate.  (I would love to be able to make excuses for myself now, and say that I  was also tired, hungry, stressed, and away from my safe places, but then again, I am not 13 by a long shot. I knew better.)

Morning came, and with it, of course....His mercies.  R had (figuratively) unclasped her fist from around those earrings.  She really didn't say anything to me other than to tell me that she would give them away. And she did. It wasn't until two weeks later, after we were home, that she told me that she had found joy in giving them away.  That God had changed her heart.  And He changed mine, too.  Because that day was a bit of a turning point for both of us.  When her dad (unaware of this whole ugly story) asked her to share with him one thing God had taught her through this trip, her response was, "I learned not to hold onto my stuff."  That might sound small, but it's not.  It's an area where her heart is vulnerable, and we knew it, and she knew it.  And her Father, out of committed love for her, put her in a painful position in order to expose it to her more fully and start healing her...making her stronger.  And as for me...I will be processing for a long while all of the things God showed me about myself on that trip.  But what I will share now is just what He taught me about my daughter.  That God is using her to make me better.  That her raw honestly, in clinging on to those little pairs of earrings, showed me a reflection of my own heart as I so often cling to things that can never satisfy me, while I miss out on the joy of just laying them down and running to Him.  But since I'm not 13, I have developed the finesse to hide my own selfishness much better than she can hide hers...sometimes I even fool myself.  She is honest.  She is full of sin and struggle and uncertainty about who she is and who God is.  She is beautiful, and showing me that I am beautiful to my Father, even as I fall and get up and fall again.  And since I am an imperfect mom, and so often fail even in helping her as she falls and struggles to get up again, I am so thankful that her Father is there for her.

So this is the verse that came to my heart this morning.  Matthew 13:44:  "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."

I'm so thankful that those earrings are in Ethiopia right now.  And just maybe, they were a down payment on a treasure.  Hidden in a field. 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;.  If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;  Yet what I can I give Him; give my heart.   
Christina Rosetti

Monday, December 5, 2011

What they don't know won't hurt them

It is Monday morning.

The six of them are sitting around the breakfast table, eating rice pudding.  The announcement of rice pudding for breakfast (instead of oatmeal) was greeted with cheers, and I'm thinking that they may perceive that I am in particularly good spirits to have cooked up this treat for them.  What they don't know is that I'm not.  They don't know that their breakfast banter is grating on me this morning.  They don't know that yesterday was a really hard day for me, and that I woke up still in a bad mood this morning.  I'm irritable.  I. am. not. in. the. mood.  I would rather have pulled the covers over my head than greeted them and fixed breakfast.  And yes, I got up early, opened my Bible, read and prayed (but didn't ever feel like it...even by the end).

But...I know that I can keep fooling them for a little while longer.  If I can just control my tongue...keep saying silly little things to them about St. Nicholas day coming tomorrow, and how if they leave their shoes in the hall tonight we'll put donuts in them.

Keep returning their hugs.  Hugging back hard and never being the first one to let go...even though I have to take a deep breath and force it.  Keep smiling.  Keep the Christmas music playing loud, and stir up the dough for gingerbread men.

Because here's the wonderful truth behind this tiny deceit:  If I can hold on, and put one foot in front of the other in obedience, even if I don't feel like it...I know that soon (very soon), the One who removes my sins as far as the east is from the west will likely make me forget that my heart isn't really in it.  And then my heart really will be in it.  I think I'm starting to feel it already...

He is so good.

(Postscript:  I added this later, because shortly after writing this post, the Casting Crowns CD we were listening to played a song that  Here it is.  Enjoy.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Last Sunday evening was the first Sunday of advent. We have some special traditions for advent that we've  practiced over the last few years, and we really look forward to the beginning of this special season.  We did have a couple of small changes to our routine this year.  First, though we have used an advent wreath for many years, in the past we've generally made it from pine and holly branches.  I admit, I've never really enjoyed making the advent wreath, and I've lived in fear every year that it would eventually catch on fire as it dries out through the weeks of advent!  We've always planned on designing and making a wooden advent "wreath" ourselves, but never got around to it.  Finally last year, during the "after-Christmas" sales, I purchased one.  I had almost forgotten about it, and was happy to find the box in the attic when we pulled out the Christmas decorations.  Every evening during advent, we light the candles and do our advent readings. 
We've used lots of resources for advent reading over the years, usually using a "Jesus Tree" or "Jesse Tree."  Last year I found one that has become our favorite (I didn't even look for something new this year).  This devotional at A Holy Experience captured my heart. (I knew it was the right one when I cried every time I read it.)  Below is our version of a Jesus Tree, with the first few "ornaments" already in place.  There's a reading and an ornament for each night of advent.
The Christmas tree is Jim's department.  In the past, he has never considered a tree to be truly worthy unless  acquiring it involved traipsing through the woods with a handsaw.  We've spent some long, cold afternoons hunting for just the right tree, finishing up with hot chocolate to warm up cold hands.  But for the last two years we've traded all of that in as we've sought to keep the advent season a bit more simple.  The last two trees came from....Lowe's.  Here's the finished product this year: (Jim wants to add that this is squashing his pride).   :)
 This is my favorite part of the Christmas decorating; the nativity.  We bought this one at a craft sale years ago, and it just fits us.  We have a Playmobile nativity that we get out the day after Thanksgiving for the children to play with, but this one plays a central role in our Christmas day routine.  Notice that the baby Jesus is absent...but he'll appear on Christmas morning.  We'll move the nativity from the mantel to a small table in front of the Christmas tree.  It's the first thing the children run to on Christmas morning, with candles all around,  flickering in the darkness of the early morning.  And we'll read the Christmas story from Luke. And sing O Come, All Ye Faithful. And we'll worship. It's the sweetest part of Christmas day. I've kind of always meant to have a collection of nativity scenes (like Noel Piper), but somehow this simple one has sufficed for many years.
 Okay, here's one of our advent traditions that's not very....traditional.  Beans and rice.  Rice and beans.  Every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We eat rice and beans, and we're saving the money we would have spent on more sumptuous that someone else won't be hungry.  We generally keep a strict grocery budget, so it's easy to keep track of how much money we're saving.  On Christmas morning we add it up, along with contributions the children make by earning money for extra chores during advent.  Last year the money went to World Vision, this year it will likely go to Children's Hope Chest.  One pound of black beans costs $.99.  One pound of rice; $.85.  So our family of 8 can spend less than $2.00 for dinner.  Okay, I'll confess; we generally do put a jar of salsa on the table, which makes the beans and rice a bit more palatable for some of the children when the novelty wears off (after about a week).  Still, even with the salsa thrown in, it's pretty effective.  We all get a very concrete picture of our capacity to sacrifice, give, and impact others.  We also have a much better perspective on how much we truly blessed we are.  Having beans and rice every night...a luxury to much of the world.  And we know that Christmas is coming. Both literally and figuratively, we are waiting for a feast.  We want to share it.
 Oh, and one more thing...not exactly a tradition, but certainly a familiar occurrence at our house at Christmas time.  Someone singing, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."  When that second top front tooth came out last week (and when A and I were going out to get her the Chick Fil-A peppermint milkshake I promised her if she'd let me pull it out), I was thinking that I'd be sad someday when there aren't any more toothless smiles around Christmas time or any time.  But I'll enjoy it while it lasts.  Gotta love that smile.  :)
A few more of our favorite advent traditions:

  • Visiting Bethlehem (or as close as we're likely to come to the real thing!)
  • Reading lots of Christmas stories, and in particular John Piper's advent stories and poems.  The Innkeeper is one of my favorites, and you can read it or listen to it here, or here (but have a tissue handy if you do).
  • "St. Nicking" our friends (on St. Nicholas Day each member of our family chooses a couple of families to surprise with a plate of cookies.  The children take turns sneaking up to leave the cookies, ringing the doorbell, and running.  This year we even bought a Santa hat).

 So far this advent season, the best part has been...the mornings. I'd been struggling for awhile to get up early enough, and I'd really been feeling it.  The effects of not having enough time alone with Him.  But I've discovered a wonderful benefit of jet lag.  When I got home from Ethiopia, my internal clock was such a mess that I was getting up crazy early (one morning I was up at 2am!).  I've been able to keep it up so far (well, not 2am, but a reasonable 5:30 or 6), and the time...with the One we're celebrating during advent...has been so sweet.  I'm already looking forward to getting up tomorrow...just to be with Him.

Wish I could hear all of your advent traditions...I love, love, love this time of year.