It’s official – we’re delayed one year

We finally made some decisions. Here they are:

– We have moved our leaving-for-China target date from February 2006 to February 2007, because we’ll need an extra year of school.

– We’ve applied to a school in Southern California. It will take us year to complete the remaining Intercultural Studies and International Development courses. We’re actually pretty excited about getting into their particular program for a lot of reasons – one being that for much of their offerings they use a “block” model of graduate education rather than the standard 3-credit lecture format. They’ve done this for 5 years and love it.

– We’re leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Surrey, British Columbia, Canada on November 17. It’s about 45 hours of driving time, but we’re hoping to drop in on some conveniently-located friends in Colorado and Montana. We’ve gotta get there in time for Julia’s starring role in Fiddler on the Roof!

Classroom vs. Real Life

Regarding the value of graduate-level education it was recently said that, “Even rectal thermometers have degrees!” Regarding the type of people who make those types of comments it was slightly more recently said, “Sure, but a rectal thermometer without degrees is just a pain in the butt!” I’m personally conflicted over this, as I have major sympathies with both sides.

But the battle over theory vs. experience was driven home in my life at the beginning our recent 2600 mile road trip, manifesting itself this way: 26 years old, 8 years of college education, and I can’t drive a stick. The car we gratefully borrowed for our 3+ weeks on the road was a standard, so it was either I learn, or Jessica would have to drive the entire trip. I’m happy to say that after 2600 miles I can drive a stick – at least, I can drive that one. But moving understanding from your head into your hands (and heart) takes the willingness to go through a learning process that usually can’t be found inside a big box with desks and chairs. Here’s some of what it took for me to learn to drive a stick (note – some of these are connected):

  • Green lights sat through until they turned red… 1
  • Honked at by other drivers… 1x
  • Red lights accidentally run… 1
  • Very frightened in-laws… 2, at least
  • Furry woodland creatures killed… 1
  • Number of times Jessica hit the hazard lights… [incalculable]

Understanding something in my head and having a real feel for it are two totally different definitions of understanding (remember your honeymoon? Ha!) Our friend from Brazil talked one day about how it’s easy for him to have a cultural discussion about English “swear words” and necessarily use those words in the discussion. He can explain the cultural significance of those words but doesn’t feel the cultural significance when they’re spoken. At the same time, he won’t have the same conversation in his own language with Portuguese swear words because he feels those ones when they are uttered, and it feels wrong for him to use them, even in that kind of discussion. Driving a stick, sexual intimacy, cussing people out, and living in another culture all have this one thing in common: you won’t really get it if it’s all just in your head. Head knowledge is good and in most cases necessary, but it can only take you so far. You’ve got to do it and experience it and start living it to have any hope of really understanding it.

I can’t wait for China!

Perspective Shift…

Even though we aren’t currently at the shelter, I wanted to make sure that I posted about one of the biggest lessons that I have learned from the experience of working there and developing friendships with the guests. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, as we were driving through the South and visiting different organizations, there were a few days that I would be so frustrated at our current stage in life. Currently, we have no job, no home (though we have had many gracious hosts), and the future of our plans is somewhat uncertain. We have lots of plans and ideas, a few people to share them with, and nothing scheduled beyond October. In all of this, we are so well taken care of and God has provided for us in so many ways, but on some days, I would get a bit frustrated at our migratory stage and long to be settled – to belong somewhere again.

It didn’t take much time down at the shelter for my perspective on our current state to be radically shifted. My friends there have lost everything (jobs, homes, pets, independence, and so many other things), many aren’t certain where all of their family members are, and it will be a very long time before most of them are truly “settled” again. Our little “transition stage” pales in comparison. Several of the older ladies in particular were a great example of faith in the midst of trial. They often shared about how their faith in God was the only thing that was carrying them through the uncertainty, saying “I lost everything in that hurricane, but God is still with me. I know that if I’m going to make it through this hard time, He’s going to be the one that carries me through it. When it comes down to it, He’s the only one I can trust in.” They also encouraged me about my plans to serve God and said, “He will provide a way for you…just trust in Him.”

I am so saddened by this disaster, by the way people’s lives have been uprooted and rearranged and by the personal tragedy that so many are walking through right now. But I am also very thankful that God brought us to Baton Rouge during this time. The opportunity to help was amazing, but even more amazing were the lessons I learned from my friends. Three of the ladies in the picture have left the shelter and are now staying with family in Mississippi. It’s not likely that I will ever see them again, but I know that I will never forget them and the way that they shared their faith with me even in the midst of their many struggles.

Now we are back on the road, going back to West Texas for a few days, but my attitude toward our migratory stage has changed for the better. I hope that in the midst of these small trials, I can develop the kind of faith that withstands the much larger storms…the kind of faith thatmany of my friends at the shelter have shared with me over the last two weeks.

In a Baton Rouge shelter after Katrina

I have no deep reflective thoughts yet composed regarding our experience with this, so I’ll just pass along these: “Shouldn’t’ve named it after a black woman. She’ll just come through and tear everything up!” So said two black men at our breakfast table the morning of the day we turned the Baton Rouge Church of Christ’s Christian Student Center in a hurricane relief shelter.

There’s about 50 people from New Orleans (including four UNO students from China) living here now. Things are going amazingly smooth and the refugees are great, though in shock. We’ve already spent many hours working alongside some of them, all of today and yesterday. No one wants to talk about who and what they left behind. The ones we have talked to admit being in denial, saying that if they start thinking or talking about what’s happened they’ll pretty much fall apart. One woman who last heard that her fiancee was on a roof volunteers for all the work she can get just to stay busy and distracted. Others have seen footage of their neighbourhoods – now underwater – on TV. We don’t ask after their experiences beyond generalities, but provide opportunities for them to talk.

There’s several whole families here. People have lost their homes, businesses, jobs, and are missing family members. Most don’t know if they’ve lost anyone or not – though everyone seems sure they’ve lost their property and it seems everyone is missing somebody. No one knows how long they’ll be here… a month? 6 months? These are the people we’re trying to serve and help cobble together a giant home for a giant family.

Jessica and I were planning to join a Chinese student retreat this weekend but the camp is also now a shelter, so that’s off. We made it into Baton Rouge from Huntsville, Alabama at 5am Monday, about two hours before some fences were blown down and roof tiles ripped off. But the real impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city is felt now. Major intersections are still without lights and uncounted numbers of refugees from New Orleans and the surrounding areas have drastically swelled the population of Baton Rouge (some estimates say it’s doubled). This makes traffic is unbelievable. People have nowhere to go. Churches and community buildings are becoming shelters. The city is swollen with a huge extra population of desperate, worn out people. Rumours of looting and rioting come out of downtown. The church van was stolen and some property broken into. Some gas stations are out of gas – the police coordinate the line-ups. You can literally walk into Walmart, strike up a conversation with a few strangers, and find people who came from New Orleans and have nowhere to go. But the facilities at the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ can only hold so many, though they are considering some more-creative options to expand their capacity.

Had a previously scheduled visit with some LSU students tonight – they just happened to be covering Luke 4.37-49
46″So why do you call me `Lord,’ when you won’t obey me? 47I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then obeys me. 48It is like a person who builds a house on a strong foundation laid upon the underlying rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against the house, it stands firm because it is well built. 49But anyone who listens and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will crumble into a heap of ruins.”

Many of these people have literally had their lives reduced to whatever their foundation is. Puts our own little transitory, ‘faith-building’ stage of life in perspective, that’s for sure.

Embodied Metaphor of Marital Intimacy

I don’t know if there’s a word for embodied metaphor but we took some pictures of one. You’ll have to click these and view them full size to see what we’re talking about.

These trees are growing together in the Parish Hermitage bayou. Two separate and whole trees, each a different kind, reaching skyward beside one another. At points, they’ve grown together. Bark overlaps, each on the other’s trunk. In some places the trunks have joined, becoming one flesh, yet each retains a distinct identity from the other. They don’t join together out of weakness – just the opposite. As each one grows stronger, taller, thicker individual trunks and branches, the potential for connection and oneness increases because it brings them closer to each other. Younger, smaller, lesser trees, weaker trees, would not have the ability or opportunity to grow together as these two are. The expression and expansion of each tree’s unique identity brings them closer to each other, creating opportunities for oneness. Healthy individuality as a required ingredient for intimacy.

With Christ as the source of our identity and the affirmation of our incredible value, finding our selves in God becomes the place from which our ability to be intimate grows.

Places of Peace

Have you ever experienced a tangible spiritual peace – one you’re intuitively sure comes from the Creator – that seems to be imparted simply by physically being in a certain physical place? …as if you could simply walk into it like walking out your back door into a downpour on a miserably hot day, drinking the rain as it soaks your clothes and saturates your skin?

In my experience, Kent and Karen S.’s home intimates spiritual calm and stillness as a gently, tenderly offered gift – more like a personal-worth-affirming warm bath to a shivering tramp than an overpowering rainstorm. The peace of God there is easily received by the willing and, at least at first, easily avoided by the fearful; it’s the kind of strong, patient peace that is willing to wait faithfully and graciously. A morning at the Parish Hermitage, at least for me, is more like the rainstorm. The peace is thick, almost overpowering — maybe you could avoid it if you got back in car and took off, but the more you surrender to it, the more you want to. The deeper it sinks in past your skin the deeper you want to open up and give yourself to it. The world seems more real, nature more intriguing, personal interaction more genuine and unguarded.

These are just two of many ways God is providing for us in abundance during this jobless, homeless, migratory season of our lives.

8 years of college but still learning the hard way

Today I (Joel) received a distinctly West Texas education. You’d think after 8 years in college I’d know how to answer this question:

“What should you do when it’s 40 degrees C outside, you’re driving your ’77 Nova at 45mph with the windows down because it’s short trip and the a/c takes a while to kick in, and you see (and smell) a large hairy carcass formerly belonging to a now-unindentifiable animal dead-centre in your lane 10 meters ahead? It has not yet been flattened. Should you:

a) swerve around it, like all the drivers behind you who know better

b) speed up and try to flatten it, just for kicks

c) try to straddle it, driving directly over it so that (in theory) your wheels pass by safely on either side, even though the suspension on your car gave out years ago and you already ride mere inches above the ground?”

I opted for “c”, and the results were… instantaneous. Even if my aim wasn’t off and I hadn’t nailed it with the driverside tire, we ride so low that it would probably have got hooked on the underside anyway. We had to smell that thing all the way to our small group meeting and back. People like my younger sisters already think our car is nasty – I’m afraid I can’t really argue with them anymore, at least until that stuff cooks off in the Texas heat.