Friday, May 29, 2009

To Dance in the Rain

Since I've been thinking about Liberia, I decided to post a memoir I once wrote for a college assignment. I've grown as a writer since then, but I will leave this in its original 1997 form, for sentiment's sake.


To Dance in the Rain


I keep a rock in the bottom of my jewelry box. It’s just an ordinary rock to most--its long and fat, and fits perfectly in my hand when I wrap my fingers around it. It's been rubbed smooth by the sand in the ocean, but it's not particularly pretty so I don’t display it for fear someone might think it's useless and throw it away. But I know it's there. And this rock is one of my most important possessions, for it represents something in my life extremely dear to me.


I found this rock on the shores of West Africa where I grew up. I had often picked up rocks in the clear blue waters of the ocean near my home because they sparkled in the sun shining through the water. When they soon dried off and weren’t so pretty anymore, I got rid of them, but for some reason, this one I kept. One day the rock fell off my window sill and a piece broke off.
When I was twelve, on the last day I was in West Africa, I took that piece of the rock and hid it in a corner of our house. I took the large portion with me back to California. I was only going to be in the States for a year, I thought, and when I went back to Africa I would unite the two pieces of the rock and my heart would be home again, where it belonged.

Home......for a long, long time I considered my home to be Liberia, a small country on the coast of West Africa. I was six when my family first moved there as missionaries, so I don’t remember much before that time. To me, Liberia was a beautiful place, a wonderful place, a perfect place for a child to grow up. I remember it as a place full of trees to climb, flowers to collect, and rain to dance in. Completely cut off from almost any American influences such as television or Toys R Us, I instead grew up with children from all over the world in the absolute freedom of the outdoors. I saw everything and anything as a treasure box for my imagination, waiting to be opened and explored.


Saturdays in Liberia were my favorite days of all. People in Liberia knew how important it was not to work on Saturdays, so almost all of the 100 or so families that lived on the mission compound went to the beach. Our house was only a few hundred feet from the ocean, so Mom usually let my brother Paul and I run down ahead of her. The water was always warm and clear, and oh, so beautifully blue. My friends and I pretended we were shipwrecked or mermaids or beautiful princesses in a castle by the sea. Sometimes we built intricate series or tunnels in the sand or examined the millions of baby crabs that had just hatched on the rocks. On low tide days, the water was so shallow that we could walk all the way out to the reef and not even get our knees wet. Then Dad brought buckets and Paul and I pulled live cawlry shells off the rocks. Dad then boiled them to get the animal out, and the house stank all day, but we would have beautiful shells as a result. One Saturday every July the Portuguese-man-of-war jellyfish washed up on the shore. Whenever that happened, we kids went down to the beach and discovered the sand littered with blue and purple bubbles. But those “bubbles” had long, invisible tentacles that could kill a person, so we couldn’t go swimming that day. Undaunted, we ran home and put our shoes on, then walked along the beach and popped the jellyfish with sticks. Saturdays were made for fun, I thought, and any problem of the week could be solved by a Saturday at the beach.

Saturdays were great, but I liked school too. School always started early in the morning, at 7:00, and ended at 1:00, because the afternoons were too hot and humid to have classes in the suffocating tropical heat. So my friend Mindy and I always walked the half mile to school together, usually taking the shortcut through the jungle unless it had been flooded. On rainy days it rained so hard in Liberia that it was no use trying to stay dry. We just took off our thongs so that the mud wouldn’t flip up on our dresses, and then we walked to school, in the rain, barefoot. We were soaking wet by the time we got there, but the air was so warm that we would dry quickly. A few times my teacher even had to cancel class on rainy days because the rain poured so hard on the tin roof that we couldn’t hear her talk. Even if we could hear her, she always had to stop talking when the thunder sounded because it was so loud. My heart always beat a little faster during thunderstorms; they were so exhilarating. My classmates and I whispered and giggled, “God’s bowling,” we said, “He just got a strike.” Thus, school was often unpredictable, but always exciting.


Mindy and I often took a long time walking home from school, if it wasn’t raining. Sometimes the sun shone so brilliantly on the ocean that it sparkled like millions of turquoise jewels. Mindy and I picked flowers and put them in our hair, or we pulled handfuls of the tiny ones and threw them gleefully into the air, until the whole road was covered with tiny flowers. Sometimes we stopped and talked to the Liberian children who traveled from house to house, selling fruit from large pans balanced on their heads. Life was relaxed, but never monotonous. I rarely had appointments or places I had to be, but I was never bored. I always just waited for the next adventure to come along--because it always did.

I always had the afternoons free to play. Mindy, our brothers, and I thought up all sorts of things to do together. Someone had a canoe, and the four of us often piled in and took a tour of the lush tropical swamp right next to my house. We paddled in amongst the lily pads and the water beetles skimming across the surface, and sometimes we all carefully climbed out and scrambled up the mangrove trees growing in the middle of the water. “Don’t fall in,” our mothers said, “or you’ll get leeches on you.” But we didn’t care about the leeches. We were just afraid of the crocodile that all the kids said lived in the swamp. There was never a lack of material for our imaginations.

Sometimes I went over to my friend Esther’s house after school. Esther was Liberian and Liberian girls are expected to do all sorts of chores like washing clothes and making dinner. I always waited for her to finish, and then we played together. We followed little streams through the jungle just to see where they went, and we picked mangos and ate them right off the trees. Esther sometimes braided my hair the Liberian way, or showed me how she made peanut butter or fried plantain chips from scratch. Sometimes I forgot that I was supposed to be an American girl--and rarely did I think about the fact that very few of my friends had ever stepped foot on American soil. The similarities of childhood often overlook the differences of culture.



In the late afternoons, Dad came home from the hospital where he worked. He picked up Paul and me on his motorcycle, and we would drive to the administration building to pick up our mail. He would always take us to a special patch of beach that was his favorite, and we picked up shells and watched the sun set over the glorious Atlantic ocean. It was always peaceful, and secure, and wonderfully beautiful. I was given a utopian picture of life--that whatever problems life held could be solved by sitting on the hammock on the front porch and watching the lightning hit the ocean, or a spontaneous water balloon fight with friends, or singing joyfully in church with people from all over the world.

Liberia was my home for a long time. So when we packed up everything to come to California for a year, and I left that piece of a rock behind, I was leaving part of my heart behind.

We never went back.

In 1990, when we were in the States, a civil war started in Liberia. It has never ended. For nine months we waited, hoping the fighting would stop and we could go back. But it never stopped. All the remaining missionaries were evacuated. The mission compound was bombed by rebel forces, and we received sketchy reports on the location of Liberian friends. Newspapers gave us headlines like “an orgy of killing and mutilation.” And all the while, I was thinking, “That’s my home--that’s my home they’re destroying.” With it, a part of me was destroyed too. That summer when the war started was the summer I grew up and was faced with reality--the reality of hate, and killing, and evil. My view of the world had been hopeful--that people from all different countries could get along, that life could be simple, that a hard days work could earn reward. I had seen poverty and sickness, but I had also seen miracles and sunshine and hope. But when Liberia was destroyed, so was my dream that life could be perfect--or at least could be made better.

Thus, a piece of me was left behind in Liberia, a piece of my childhood, and of the childlike faith that the world isn’t so bad after all. The two pieces of my rock will never be put back together. But I will never forget the beautiful dream that once was my life.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memories of Home

Liberia, 1983

We’ve had a visitor staying with us for a few days. Not unusual for us, but this time it wasn’t a student or a short-term team.

This time it was a school administrator from Liberia. Our mission has connections with her church in Liberia, and when her pastor was visiting Tanzania in February, he visited HOPAC and wanted to send this lady so that she could learn and be mentored by teachers at HOPAC. Hence her visit.

But for me, this was pretty significant.

Because I grew up in Liberia. I spent five years there between the ages of 6 and 12. When I was 13, my family was on home assignment in the States. We had planned to return for all of my high school years. But while we were in the States, war broke out in Liberia and all the missionaries were evacuated.

The war lasted 15 years.

It took me a long time to mourn the loss of the country that I called home for most of my childhood. For the last 20 years, I have had no face-to-face contact with any Liberians, except for the pastor whom I briefly met in February.

So having this lady in our home for 5 days was surreal to me. I heard Liberian English spoken again, a sound I had not heard since I was a little girl. (It’s more like a dialect than an accent). She cooked me greens and rice. And she told me about the war.

We hear about wars all the time, on the news. Somalia and Congo and Sudan….all are experiencing war. And I have read much about what happened in Liberia. But it’s different when you hear about someone telling you about things that happened in the country where you spent your childhood. This lady lives just a couple miles away from where I grew up. She is very familiar with my childhood mission compound. She even attended the same mission school in the 70’s that I attended in the 80’s.

So when she told me about the fighting near her house, I knew the places she was talking about. When she talked about how many people in her family died, I saw faces of other Liberians I knew. When she talked about how there was one week when the fighting was so bad, that no one could find food anywhere, in the entire city, I cried.

Can you imagine telling your children that you have no food for them? Not, “No, we can’t have tuna today; mama needs to go to the store.” But looking at your hungry child in the eyes and having to tell her, “Sweetheart, we can’t find any food.”

People ate leaves and dirt to survive.

No schools. No hospitals. Fighting for the lives of your children, for 15 years.

For almost 20 years now, the entire country has been without electricity or running water.

Such a strange thought, to imagine someone coming to Tanzania and seeing it as progressive! But Tanzania is indeed blessed among African countries to have peace for so many years.

She spent three weeks at HOPAC and said she learned a lot. Her school is growing in leaps and bounds, of course. The country is trying to get back on its feet and people are eager to try. But perhaps most exciting, is that God’s church is growing in leaps and bounds. Churches by the dozen being planted, every year. And for that, I weep as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Close Encounters with New Wildlife

There's bunches of these little guys at our house.

Okay, maybe not bunches.

But they come out every night. And we always know when one appears because the dogs go crazy. They bark without ceasing and dance around it and even put their mouths on it, but they won't bite them or massacre them the way they do with rats and snakes. I mean, would you?

And then the hedgehog screams bloody murder. Kind of sounds like a small child crying. A mad small child.

"Pick it up," my husband says to me.

Pick it up? Like with my hands? You want me to pick up a prickly, pokey rodent which I'm sure has teeth in there somewhere? The dogs won't touch it; why should I?

So we compromised and used a lid and a stick. He's actually kind of cute, don't you think?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

20/20 Vision

(What I’m Teaching, Part 3)

What do Hannah Montana, Cinderella, Aladdin, Harry Potter, and the Bernstein Bears have to do with God and the Bible?

Nothing, most kids would say. Except maybe that Harry Potter is very, very evil because it has wizards and witches in it.

But the other ones? There’s no sex or violence or cussing or witches, so those ones are okay.

This is a big problem with kids. It’s a big problem with Christians in general. I didn’t start to see it myself until a few years ago when I really started studying biblical worldview.

The problem? We categorize things. We make a pile of “good” things: church, the Bible, “Christian” books, “Christian” movies, pastors, missionaries, etc.

Then we make a pile of “bad” things: movies rated PG-13 or higher, alcohol, drugs, sex, cussing, not going to church, gambling, clubbing, tattoos, etc. The denomination a person attends will often help to determine what is “bad.”

Then we make a pile of “neutral” things—neither “good” nor “bad” nor “religious”: school, plumbers, computers, owning a house, buying a car, art, history, food, books (as long as they don’t have “evil” in them), and kids’ movies.

Many Christians assume (as I did, once upon a time) that if you do something or think about something in the “good” category, then you are a good Christian. Then you avoid the “bad” category and you’re doing even better. And the “neutral” category? Well, those are just normal things that normal people do that don’t really have much to do with God and don’t really require much analysis.

Is that really how God created the world? Is that really how God expects us to live our lives? Or could it be remotely possible that everything in our world says something about God and the way He runs things? That sometimes things in the “good” category can be so poorly done that they do injustice to the glory of God (think: cheesy Christian romance novels)? That sometimes things in the “bad” category can tell us important things about the fallen human condition or about the culture we live in? (What comes to mind immediately is “Gran Torino”—a movie I recently saw which is rated R but is an incredible, powerful, touching story of redemption and forgiveness). Or, perhaps most importantly, did God really create anything to be “neutral?” Perhaps what is neutral is most dangerous of all, because we go through the motions, or put things in our head without thinking about them, without digesting them—and therefore, they affect us in very subtle but powerful ways.

This is a big topic for Gil and me. I will resist the temptation to go on and on and instead write about what this has to do with what I am teaching.

Our spiritual theme for HOPAC this year is 20/20 Vision: Creation Chaos Christ. The banner you see above is prominently displayed at school.

Our goal is to help develop a biblical worldview in our students, to help them see the world--every aspect of the world--the way God sees it.

Gil and I teach elementary school assemblies (chapel) on Tuesday mornings. The teachers are integrating biblical worldview into history, science, math, etc. (and we have been doing some training with them), but during assemblies we have been focusing on popular culture.
So this is what we do: We show a clip, play a song, or read a book that is popular among elementary aged kids. Then we talk about how to look at it with “our Bible glasses on.” Some examples:

Cinderella: Can we admire Cinderella for her gracious, kind heart? Absolutely. But should we allow ourselves to think that finding our perfect “prince” is going to solve all our problems, when God is the only source of lasting happiness?

Bernstein Bears: Why is Papa Bear always portrayed as such a dope? Is that the way God wants fathers to be?

Harry Potter: Is the biggest problem with the “magic,” or with the fact that Harry gets away with lying and disobeying the rules in the name of saving the day?

Hannah Montana: Is life really a party? And do we really have control over our own lives? (themes in her songs, for those of you unfamiliar with tween culture)

High School Musical: Are we really supposed to “follow our hearts” or follow God’s Word?

Aladdin: Why is Aladdin seen as such a hero when he steals and justifies it?

The Lion King/Brother Bear: Does the Bible teach that we can talk to our ancestors or that they are watching over us?

Jack and the Beanstalk: Why is it okay to steal from someone, even if he is a mean giant?

And so on. We teach the kids that first of all, they need to obey their parents in what they watch and read and listen to. But secondly, they need to think about everything they are putting into their minds. Not just blindly watch and listen and read, but to think while they are doing it. Digest it. Analyze what the Bible would say about it. Have their "Bible glasses" on. That it’s not necessarily wrong to watch or read or listen to these things, but it is wrong to do it without thinking—because otherwise they will influence you without your permission.

Since this is such an important topic for me, I can’t go away without endorsing some books:



I've written about this book before, but it doesn't hurt to write about it again, since I think every Christian should read it. Powerful, fascinating stuff. Definitely in my top 5 most influential books I've ever read. Everything in this post? Influenced by this book. Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.

This one's also very well written. Excellent explanation of worldview at a level that any average high schooler can understand.
Still haven't found anything written for kids on this subject. Hmmm.... maybe someday when I'm retired....

Monday, May 4, 2009

Just Grace and Mom on an Adventure

As soon as her feet hit American soil on this trip, she became an American citizen. Yay for no more visas! (for one child, at least)

With her beloved Aunt Kimmie and Uncle Paul (my brother)


Easter Sunday in my dad's unbelievable garden


My aunt brought over 200 eggs....my dad is still finding them.


My family


At Great America: she is definitely a roller coaster girl!


It really was love at first sight.

Out to lunch with our FCC home group: We are so blessed by these people!


Friends!


Disneyland with our So. Cal. family

with cousin Natey

During the street parade, Grace got pulled out of the crowd to dance in the street. She danced her little heart out!

with Cousin Maddie

As far as Grace was concerned, this was the crowning moment of her three years.

She has officially lost her photogenic phase. Let's hope it returns soon.

with brand new Aunt Shannon

At Buca's with Bibi and Babu

Helping Uncle Paul with his birthday candles. She chose the frosting color too, can you tell?