August 26, 2016

Such a Joy!

A picture, so they say, is worth a thousand words.  But every once in a while a picture needs a thousand words to explain it!

A few days ago I posted a picture on social media, a photo my daughter snapped of me feeding a baby with two other children climbing on my lap and another little guy getting ready to give me a hug.  The caption reads, Such a joy!  And it is 100% true!  In that one moment, there is nothing else I would rather be doing and nowhere else I would rather be!  My days as a foster parent are often full of smiles and kisses and snuggles.  It truly is the #bestjobever!

What the picture does not show, however, and what the caption does not fully describe, are the people in the picture.  The real-life people with real-life struggles, doing the best we can to love one another.  Individuals, sometimes even strangers, whose lives are being intertwined to create this thing we call family.

August 12, 2016

An Ordinary Day

It begins as just another ordinary day.  Well, as ordinary as a day can be in a Third World country.  The feral dogs roaming the streets had been barking most of the night, the sounds of their yelps and snarls freely entering the screenless windows, which are always open in hopes of catching the slightest breeze.  My eyes and throat feel scratchy from the smoke that lay heavy in the sticky humid air, smoke from the debris burning in the surrounding area.  What other options are there when there are piles of trash lining the streets, and no other way of disposing of it?
I carefully crawl out from underneath the net covering my bed, thankful for the protection it has provided during the night.  One of my strongest fears is becoming sick in a foreign country, so I protect myself as best as I can against mosquitos whose bites could infect me with malaria or Zika or other strange tropical diseases. 

Before joining the rest of our mission team for the day, I brush my teeth, remembering to use clean bottled water.  Although the guest house where we are staying does have running water, we have to be careful not to ingest it, knowing it could be contaminated with bacteria that would surely make us ill.  After being in Haiti for only a few days, and seeing the level of poverty all around me, I am thankful for running water at all.  And a bed.  And electricity.  In this country, those things I normally take for granted are pure luxuries!

We all pile into the back of the large truck, and venture out into the bustling city of Port-au-Prince.  Despite the early hour, the streets are already filled with vendors selling their bananas and water packets and suspicious-looking pharmaceuticals; goats and pigs and dogs rummaging through the debris; mothers lined up at the well, waiting to pump water into their buckets to use for cooking and bathing their children; adults and children carrying their belongings in large bins balanced perfectly on top of their heads; mounds of rubble and broken down buildings that remain, even though it’s been 6 years since the devastating earthquake that destroyed their city; and unbelievable traffic, cars and trucks and motorcycles and bicycles and colorful “tap-taps” erratically zipping in and out of imaginary lanes at dangerously high speeds, miraculously avoiding the brave pedestrians. 

At home in the U.S., if I need something, or even if I don’t, I simply drive my air-conditioned SUV through my tree-lined suburban neighborhood to the local super center.  A quiet, predictable journey there and back.  And if I use the self-checkout while I’m there, I may not ever speak to a single person. 

So here in Haiti my mind has trouble processing all of the sights and sounds and smells that are simultaneously assaulting my uninitiated senses.  It’s shocking and slightly traumatizing.  It’s almost impossible to imagine that for the people who live here, this mass of humanity is normal.  For them, this is another ordinary day.  A day of trying to survive.  Of trying to eek out a living and feed their families. (1)  Of living in constant danger of disease, crime, and exposure to the elements.
A few miles outside of the city we turn into a large gated property overlooking the gorgeous blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea.  We are here to meet and serve alongside an amazing ministry that uses soccer as a tool to reach children and their families in the community.  

It makes sense, really . . . a few days ago we had interviewed over 150 children for a sponsorship program.  One of the questions we asked each child was, “What is your favorite activity?”  Every boy, without exception, had exactly the same answer:  Foutbòl!

I freely admit that I am not a sports fan.  As I often say, “I may have many talents, but athletic ability is not one of them.”  Fortunately, however, there are other ways to be involved today than just playing soccer.  In partnership with a world food organization, every child who participates in this sports ministry – all 1,300 of them! - is served a meal when they arrive.  

Equipped with a tiny “kitchen”, which is really just a free-standing building the size of a closet with no electricity or running water, a large pot, a  serving spoon, and an open fire, the cook prepares rice and beans for the children.

What a joy to serve bowls of food to these hungry children!  I’m sure their coaches reminded them as they stood in line, but almost every child, as I passed them their bowls said sincerely, Mèsi!  Thank you!  

When they were finished, they handed their bowls to the clean-up crew, who scraped, washed and rinsed the bowls in their basins of hand-pumped cold water.  The guys who scraped the remains had an easy job . . . most of those bowls were licked clean, with not one grain of rice remaining!

One teeny little guy with arms like twigs, had been brought via public transportation from a nearby orphanage.  The director there had practically begged this ministry to allow their children to participate, knowing that it would mean some nutritious food, exercise, and social interaction.  Earlier in the week our team had visited an orphanage, and saw first-hand that the only place to play outside was a small concrete courtyard, barely large enough for all of the children to stand, much less play.  Absolutely these orphaned children needed fresh air and room to run!  They were so small and under-nourished, however, that it would have been impossible to pair them with children their own age.  So the 8-10 year olds from the orphanage played on the team with the 4-6 year olds . . . and sadly, they fit right in!

So here is this little 9-year-old-the-size-of-a-4-year old, obviously one of the puny kids from the orphanage, standing in front of me asking for a bowl of food.  I know that his team has already come through the line, and I had been given strict instructions not to hand out second servings.  So I ask him, as gently as possible if he had eaten already.  T'ou manje deja?  He looks at me with total innocence and shakes his head no.  Unfortunately, the Haitian women serving alongside me notice the tell-tale pieces of rice still sticking to his lips, and begin to reprimand him – whether for coming through the line again or for lying, I don’t know.  I barely understand a word of Creole, but their tone is clear, and this little boy is in trouble.

He starts to cry, deep guttural sobs, and my daughter instinctively reaches to pick him up and comfort him, ignoring the tears and snot that are running down his face and onto her arm.  Shhhh, she whispers to him, rocking him and attempting to comfort him.  He just keeps crying, over and over again, Mwen grangou!  I’m hungry!

My whole life, I have heard of “all those starving children in the world,” but today I saw him.  I touched him and held him and saw his tears.  I saw his scrawny limbs and felt his bony ribs.  It was devastating!  Even if I could speak his language, however, what could I possibly say to this hungry little boy in front of me?  God loves you?  What does that even mean to a starving child?  Is it even true?

I thought I was coming on this mission trip to share the love of God with the people of Haiti.  I even told my friends and family that’s why we were going!  But now, I realize the naiveté of that goal.  Even if I could speak the language, how do I tell the woman with the black eye, most likely the result of domestic violence, All things work together for good?  What do I say to the young man who wants to be a doctor, but instead of going to school, he is practically illiterate because he spends his days helping his father care for their goats and tend their meager plot of land?(2)  Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?

I hear a kid’s deep wracking cough that is most likely tuberculosis, but what can I do?  The hospitals are all closed because the doctors and nurses are on strike.  And even if medical care was available, the family can’t possibly afford the treatment.  And how would they get there anyway?  On their donkey?  Can I really judge his parents for taking their son to the witch doctor, who uses voodoo to “beat the illness from his body?”  What would I say them? God is good and has a wonderful plan for your life?

When we visited the orphanage a few days ago, I held an infant whose mother had died in childbirth, and whose father brought her to the orphanage with her umbilical cord still attached.  Utterly unwanted and abandoned. As I held that sweet baby, I never even considered malaria or Zika or typhoid or HIV.  All I could do was kiss her as tenderly as I would have my own child, and sing over and over into her tiny ear, Jezi renmen ou.  Jesus loves you.  I want her to know it and remember it and feel it.  

Unfortunately, I know the reality of her situation.  She will most likely spend years, if not her entire childhood, right there in that cold, impersonal orphanage. (3)  Without a family.  Without anyone to love her.  Without the security and attachment and hope that comes from having a mother and father who are fully committed to her.  Even if she remembers the words, how can she possibly understand Jezi renmen ou?  What does it mean to her?

In spite of the desperate, unimaginable hardships and the daily struggle for survival, God’s Word is still true.  I know it is!  His love is still real.  His promises are every bit as applicable for the destitute people in Haiti as they are for the affluent people in the United States.

If I could speak their Creole, or if these precious people of Haiti could understand my English, here is what I would say:

We are all broken, my friends.  It’s just that sometimes our brokenness looks different.  Your brokenness is visible and obvious and heartbreakingly transparent.  My brokenness, though I have perfected the art of hiding it, is every bit as tragic and painful.  I won’t pretend to understand what it is like to live in poverty, every day a struggle for survival.  But my life of privilege does not make me immune to brokenness.  I understand all too well what it means to live in darkness, paralyzed by fear and anxiety and guilt.  Trapped in my sin.

God is the Healer.  He is the One who can restore and renew and rebuild what the enemy seeks to destroy.  He is the One who sacrificed His own son in our place, so that we might find joy and hope and purpose.  Those can only be found in Him!  The abundance of my possessions and financial security can never give me joy, just as the desperation of your poverty can never steal your joy.  Our God is the author and source of our hope, and once we have found true hope in Him, nothing and no one and no circumstances can ever take that away.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I. When I see you standing in your little rural church, both arms raised in praise to God, my heart soars right alongside yours!  I may not understand your words, but God does! 

When you weep, my heart mourns with you.  When your child is starving or suffering from a preventable disease; when your family is broken and when babies are abandoned; when your dreams for the future are crushed under the weight of reality . . . I see your tears.  And more importantly, God sees your tears!  He counts them.  Not one of them is wasted.

Absolutely, I can say to you, with full confidence and assurance and conviction, Bondye renmen ou.  God loves you.  And you can remind me, when I am so prone to forget, that God loves me too.  Oh, how we need to encourage one another with frequent reminders of that beautiful truth.

Long after my visit to Haiti is over and I have returned to the familiar world I know, I can continue to pray for you.  I can pray that, even in your dire circumstances and sparse resources, your faith would be strengthened.  That He would dwell richly in your hearts, and that you would be able to comprehend the riches of His love for you. (4)  

And guess what?  That’s exactly the same prayer that I need from you!  That my faith would be strengthened!  Not complacent in my comfortable and convenient life, but fully dependent upon Him.  Trusting fully in His sufficiency.

Once we truly understand the joy and hope and freedom that can be found in Christ; once we experience abundant life that can only be found in Him – a life that has nothing to do with our physical circumstances; once our hearts are alive and fully surrendered to Him . . . we will never be the same.

When Christ opens our eyes, we will never see the same.  When He breathes life into our hearts, we will never feel the same.  His love and His truth and His promises – they change everything.  In Christ, our lives have new meaning and purpose.  True joy and hope and peace and freedom. 

Once we comprehend God’s incredible love for us and all that He has given us in Christ, never again will we be the same.  Never again will we have “another ordinary day.”

1.   The unemployment rate in Haiti is more than 70%.  The average annual income is a mere $400 per year (compared with $33,000 in the United States).  It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
2.   Over 50% of the population in Haiti is illiterate.
3.   Due to violence, AIDS, and maternal mortality rate, 15% of all children are orphaned or abandoned – the highest percentage of orphans in the Western Hemisphere.  Of the estimated 750,000 orphans in Haiti, less than 150 were adopted last year.

4.   For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14 - 19