Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Reflections

[This is a re-post from the entry I put on our family blog tonight.  Eli specifically requested that I post it on the mission blog as well, even though it's not missions-themed.]

The most momentous point in history was a time of great joy and great sorrow - a great paradox, as most of life tends to be.

An angel told Mary she had found favor with God and would give birth to a son, and "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:31-32).  But being favored by God doesn't mean being favored by people, and her "disgrace" nearly made Joseph divorce her till an angel intervened (Matthew 1:18-25) and it most certainly ostracized her from her own community.

The Savior of the world came as an infant, small and weak and dependent.  But that baby became a child, and "the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40), and that child would eventually "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).

The shepherds witnessed a heavenly host of angels who sang, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:13-14).  But tidings of peace did not last long in Bethlehem, as Herod "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" which led to "weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more" (Matthew 2:16-18).

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a front-row seat to all of these paradoxes.  She was a woman in favor at the same time she was a woman in dishonor.  She placed her newborn in a manger at the same time she knew the Lord would give Him the throne of His father David.  She rejoiced in the coming of her son at the same time her neighbors wept over the loss of their sons because He came.

So much joy, so much sorrow, so much paradox.  No wonder "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

I can scarcely imagine how much Mary had to absorb and process within the span of a few years.  That's a lot to take in, a lot to treasure and ponder.  This year, the way I've attempted to reflect on the Christmas story is to ponder the heart of the mother of Jesus from my own mother's perspective.  Our son Asa is still an infant and he is small (relatively), and utterly dependent on us.  His head bobbles, his mouth drools and his hands are barely able to grasp onto things.  And he is marvelous in our eyes.  It is incredible to consider that this is how our Savior came.  The Wonderful Counselor drank his mother's milk, the Mighty God couldn't hold his own head up, the Everlasting Father drooled down his shirt, and the Prince of Peace didn't sleep through the night.  But oh, what good news!  The answer to the plight of the world came in the form of a helpless babe, and an angel declared this to be good news that would bring great joy to the world.

As our son continues to tug our hearts everyday, we can testify that if ever there was a sign of hope for the world, it is in the beauty and innocence of a newborn, and if ever there was a proclamation of joy, it is in the smile of a baby.  I am treasuring and pondering this as I'm sure Mary did when her son Jesus was born.  This is what Immanuel looks like, to have God with us:

And so I sing with Mary,

"My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."
(Luke 1:46-47)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Beginning the Goodbyes

Our first goodbye happened back in September when we left Duluth.  A few days before we moved we had to say goodbye to Hannah, our babysitter.  She is one of the loveliest, most mature young women we've ever known, and she loved our kids well as she played with them and read books to them and prayed with them at bedtime.  Caleb and Kai absolutely adored her.  On the last day we saw Hannah, they waved to her out the window as she drove away, like they did every time she left, and innocently said, "There she goes!"  I waved goodbye too, and then started crying as I repeated our boys: "There she goes!"  She was going because we were going, to Michigan and then to Africa.  Hannah was driving away for the last time and it was incredibly hard to watch her go, and our boys had no understanding that they wouldn't see her again for a very long time.

last day with Hannah

I have no idea if Caleb and Kai will remember Hannah.  Actually, I'm sure Kai won't.  Maybe Caleb will, maybe not.  Two years is an incredibly long time in the life of a 3-year old and 2-year old, and their ability to remember isn't what it will be.  The thought that they probably won't remember Hannah very well, if at all, is perhaps that hardest thing because Hannah was like family to us while we lived in Duluth.  We had no actual family in town, but Hannah was there every week, loving our boys and teaching them and pouring into them.  She was familiar and safe and fun.  She was a lifeline to our entire family throughout residency and beyond and we could not have survived without her.  Hannah loves Jesus and loves kids and we were tempted to take her with us to Michigan!  But the time finally came when we needed to move on, literally, and leave our babysitter behind.  And I cried when she drove away.  It was our first goodbye before leaving for Kenya, and it was a hard one.

Last week we said more goodbyes.  We were in Minnesota once more, celebrating Christmas with Eli's family.  We had said goodbye to extended family before we left in October, so last week we chose to solely see immediate family, plus Josh and Jamie (Eli's cousin/best friend and his wife who happened to be one of my roommates before I got married, and they are some of our best friends in the world).  We had a fabulous week, hanging around the house and watching the kids play and eating lots of cookies and opening presents.  Then it was time to say goodbye, and it was hard.  The kids are all young and only the oldest (at age 4.5) had the slightest understanding that they wouldn't see each other for over two years.  They'll all be completely different people in two years than they are now.  They probably won't recognize each other next time and will have to start over with getting to know each other.  There's no doubt they'll pick up where they left off and still love chasing each other around the house, but it's hard to think that two years will happen in between now and then, which is half their lifetime (or most of their lifetime, in the case of the babies!).  So it was hard to say goodbye.  Our sister-in-law said it well: "It's hardest when you know how long it will be before you see each other again."  Which is true.  And in the grand scheme of things, two years is only two years.  But it's still a significant amount of time, particularly when kids are in the picture, and it will only be the beginning of many years of separation for us since our plan is to keep returning to Africa again and again.

 Horn cousins

Saying goodbye to Josh and Jamie was also hard for two particular reasons: 1) our kids didn't get to see each other to say goodbye, and 2) Jamie is due to have their fourth baby in just a few weeks, and we won't get to meet him before we go.  We had planned to eat dinner with them on our last night in Minnesota so the kids could play and say goodbyes, but that afternoon one of their kids became sick and threw up so we nixed our dinner plans in favor of not exposing our kids (especially the baby) to the flu.  These things happen, especially at this time of year, but it was a major blow because having dinner was supposed to be our goodbye.  And so I cried.  Thankfully Eli and I were able to go over later, after our kids were in bed at Grandma's house, so we had the chance to hang out and laugh with them once more before leaving.  It was much needed and we're so thankful for these friends who have loved and supported us on our entire ten-year journey to Africa.

with Josh and Jamie

Last month at Mission Training International we had a session on saying healthy goodbyes.  Something we were asked to consider is how we, personally, can say goodbye in a healthy manner.  For me, one of the biggest things is not saying all our goodbyes at once.  Having the time and space to say goodbye to different people at different times allows us to say proper goodbyes, rather than rushed or overlooked goodbyes.  Going to Minnesota last week allowed us the chance to do that with immediate family.  Moving to Michigan this fall opened the opportunity for us to do the same with my family before we leave soon.

I don't write this to play the martyr and evoke pity for all the hard goodbyes we're having to say.  I write this because it's true that it's hard, and it's a part of our story these days, and because a part of us is actually thankful for the chance to say goodbye because it means we have the chance to go.  And that is what makes our hearts glad: we get to go.  Jesus said, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29).  I once heard that this is true because people who serve as missionaries will increase their family and friends on the mission field by forming new relationships and investing in the global Church.  Because we're going to Africa, we will have the joy and privilege of "receiving a hundred times as much" in terms of relationships built and formed.  But it requires leaving family and friends behind.  The thing is, though, we're not the only ones embarking on a separation.  The family and friends we're leaving behind - they're letting us go.  After we say goodbye, we'll get to say hello to new people on the other side of the ocean.  They, on the other hand, will just be saying goodbye.  And that is hard.  In many ways it's even harder than what we're doing.  So we acknowledge the other end of the spectrum in this "saying goodbye" business, and we want to say, "Thank you for letting us go."

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Season of Rest and Final Preparations

It was a cool and cloudy day last week when I said to Eli, "I feel like I'm breathing deeply for the first time in months."  I was resting in my favorite recliner, nursing our baby, and not thinking about anything else but being present in that moment.  I literally took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  My soul was at rest.

It's a bit of an understatement to say that we've had a busy year, but...we've had a busy year.  We began training and fundraising on top of visiting family we hadn't seen in too long.  We traveled by plane eight times...and those were just the times we took our children with us.  We've sent more emails and made more phone calls than any other year because it's true what people say: preparing for long-term missions is like acquiring a part-time job.  We've made new friends in the process (and have deepened existing friendships) and have let our hearts and minds expand as our circle of friends does too.  And we added a new member to our missionary team by doing this not-so-little thing called "having a baby" which made our hearts and minds expand further still.  So we've had a busy year, but God has been gracious to sustain us as we've cast our cares on Him (Psalm 55:22) and now we've entered a new season: a season of rest and final preparations.

A beautiful thing about resting is that it's part of our final preparations before heading to Kenya.  We don't want to be tapped when it's time to go and be so exhausted that we're unable to function when we get there.  We don't need to go full-speed till the day we get on the plane; life has enough things to keep us busy as it is.  Dishes need to be washed, children need to be fed, potty accidents need to be cleaned up, emails need to be answered, groceries need to be bought.  So in this season of rest and final preparations, we're acknowledging what else needs to be done: candles need to be burned, chocolate needs to be eaten, naps need to be taken, Tickle Monsters need to visit, Netflix needs to be watched.  We are doing this to refill our empty tanks and breathe deeply before going to the mission field.

We're also doing some fun things during this season of rest to further prepare ourselves for living in Kenya.  First things first: learning to drink chai.

People in Kenya drink chai, or so I'm told.  The problem?  I don't like tea.  Or coffee, for that matter.  My hot beverage of choice is hot chocolate, which isn't that popular even here in the States let alone overseas.  But I knew that virtually anywhere else in the world we ended up, I'd have to learn how to drink tea.  I put it off and put it off, but yesterday I finally began the endeavor to achieve this goal.  My best friend likes chai tea, specifically spiced cinnamon chai, and she made me a cup and doctored it with extra fixings to make it palatable.  I was surprised and thankful that it tasted alright.  I drank the whole thing and decided I could do that again.  Later I went to the store and bought my own supplies in order to experiment further, and tonight I made my first cup of chai.  The result?  Not great.  But not awful either.  I have some work to do but I'm determined to figure out how to enjoy chai so I can drink it in Kenya!

We're also using this time to learn more about Kenya because, truth be told, we don't actually know much about it.  We know that it's famous for safaris and has one of the better economies in Africa, but we know little of its history or landscape or tribal culture.  So last week we headed to the library and found three children's books to start with.  And we're making it a family activity.  I've been reading the books out loud in the car as we drive around town, and Caleb's been enjoying the pictures and maps.  He can confidently tell you that Kenya is near the Indian Ocean, but will also tell you exactly where Michigan is within the country of Kenya.  It's a start!

Something else we hope to achieve during this season of final preparations is to learn some basic Swahili by watching YouTube videos.  We will be attending language school when we arrive in Kenya, and we are now well equipped to continue language learning because of the skills we just acquired at Mission Training International, but it never hurts to have a head start if possible.  There are many online resources for learning Swahili and we plan to utilize them before heading to Kenya.

So at the end of this busy year we are continuing to prepare for the mission field by resting, drinking chai, reading children's books, and dipping our toes into language learning.  It's good to breathe this deeply.