Thursday, July 7, 2011

Journeyin' Through the Holy Land

Bedouin friend, taken by a Bedouin student.
Baptisms in the Jordan River.

The Old City of Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock, and Mt. Of Olives.

I left for Israel on May 15th, 2011.
I returned from Istanbul, Turkey on June 2nd 2011.

And during the course of those 19 days, my life was forever changed.

I traveled to Jerusalem, Israel; Petra, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey during my time in the Middle East. I came face to face with Jesus, religious conflict, history, and love in a variety of colors. I slept in airports, in hotels, in buses, on floors, on tables, and in airplanes. I ate food of all different colors, shapes, and kinds. I took many pictures. I journaled LOTS. I laughed and cried and loved until my heart was full.

I went on this trip through Lee University with their education program (seeing as I'm an education major, and all...). 30 kiddos went, and none of us really knew each other before the trip. We traveled to Atlanta, flew to London, flew to Tel Aviv, and drove to Jerusalem where we would be living for ten days.

In the Middle East, I encountered God. I encountered Him as God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, God the Comforter, God the Author, and God the Creator, just to name a few.

God the Father: We were in the Middle East on a study abroad trip. And as educators, we toured many different schools to get a taste for what the education system in all these different countries looked like. We went to a Tali school (basically their curriculum combines both Arabic and Hebrew cultures in the curriculum- which is unheard of, but a great idea to take steps toward peace!) during our time in Jerusalem. We also visited a deaf school in Jerusalem because we had a friend who worked there as a soldier teacher (she is in the Israeli Army). Here, I met Jonathan, a precious little 7 year old who was hard of hearing but had the most beautiful smile I have seen in my life. He diplomatically made eye contact, waved, and smiled to every member on our team. More than once. I had to fight with everything in me not to scoop him up and take him home with me. Blessed my soul. :)
While in Bethlehem, which is part of the West Bank and a Palestinian settlement, we visited a Catholic boy's school.
In Jordan, we visited a Bedouin school. The Bedouin people are nomads and live in caves or tents in the desert. The Jordanian government is forcing these people to move into permanent housing, in order to better keep tabs on them. It was here that I saw God as Father.
This school was also an all boy's school. Naturally the guys from our team were totally stoked, seeing as they could play soccer and do man stuff with these new friends. We visited the classrooms, were treated like royalty (much like in Malawi!), and took lots of pictures.
During recess, while many of the boys were playing soccer, I was walking around taking pictures of the fun and a few boys caught up to me and wanted to take a picture with me. I was nervous to give them my camera (a Canon Rebel, whom I love very much), but I slid the strap around their neck and explained to them how to take a picture. Which was more difficult than it seems, considering I don't know a lick of Arabic, and they knew very little English. But the boys caught on quickly, and lots of fun followed.
I instantly, and I mean INSTANTLY, was in my element and overcome with peace. I was doing two things I love: teaching, and taking pictures. The joy on the boy's faces was so evident, and I couldn't help but thank Dad. As I watched them laugh and take pictures of their friends, I couldn't help but think of the Lord's extravagant love for them. "Red, yellow, black, and white" just kept playing over and over in my head. The Creator of this universe loves those little Bedouin boys. They are His children, as much as I am. Talk about humbling.

God the Son: Jesus. It is a powerful name that has traveled through languages, time, across borders, and around this world. And I've walked where He has.
The interesting thing about Jerusalem is that it looks like nothing that I had conjured up in my head before going. I was picturing camels, and desert, and shepherds, and cobblestone. Thank you, Beginner's Bibles and flannelgraphs from Sunday School!
But it's nothing like that. It's modern, ancient, unified, and divided all at once. It's crowded, it's a melting pot, it's so full of Jesus I can't even describe it.
We toured the Garden Tomb/Golgatha, Nazareth, Capernum, the Mt. of Beatitudes, the Dead Sea, Masada, Ein Ghedi, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, the Via Delarosa, the Old City of Jerusalem, David's Fortress, and the Western Wall. I've touched where Jesus was born, where the cross stood, been in the tomb where he was buried, and walked the land where He did His ministry. Many, if not all, of the holy sites from the Christian faith have churches ontop of them. (Even Peter's mother in law's house. The Franciscans built this weird looking UFO church right ontop of it. ) But the thing about these holy sites is that some of them may not be totally accurate. We know a few things for certain, like Peter's mother in law's house and where Mary's house was, and the cave where Christ was born. But we don't know exactly where Christ's cross was put in the ground, or where He cried on the Mt. of Olives.
But it doesn't matter WHERE it happened. It only matters THAT IT HAPPENED. He was born of a Virgin, revolutionized the world with love and truth, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God and He will one day come again. All that matters is that He came. And He rose. And He's coming again. Hallelujah.

God the Holy Spirit: Birds are my thing. Birds are my God thing. There have been quite a few times that the Lord has spoken to me through creation, but most specifically the presence of birds. Peace and joy come when I see birds, and it always seems to be at just the right time.

Day one, we are standing at the Western Wall. Now, the Western Wall is significant because it is the last remaining wall of Solomon's temple. It's a place of prayer for the Jewish people, and is a very beautiful picture of the love and devotion they have to their relationship with God. As I stood in the Western Wall Plaza and took everything in, I noticed a soup kitchen directly across from the Wall. Which excited me, because of my big ole heart for missions. And I had just been wondering about homelessness and the needy in the community of Jerusalem. I just thought it was so neat, and such a cool picture, to have the last remaining wall of Solomon's Temple directly across from a soup kitchen. What a picture of the kingdom being lived out.
As I continued my little 360 -degree-tour to look around the Plaza, I noticed something: birds. Hundreds. All congregating around the wall, flying to and fro. But all reminding me of the Spirit's presence, and God's love for the Jewish people. And my heart began to beat a little happy tune.

Shortly thereafter, we were sitting in the Garden of the Garden Tomb, looking at the face of Golgatha. As I sat there and contemplated Calvary and fought back tears, a dove swooped down right into my line of vision. A dove. With the shadow of Calvary in the background. I almost lost it. How cool is He?!?

The next day, we visited David's Fortress, which is the highest point in the Old City. The view is spectacular; the Mt. of Olives, the Old City, the New City, the West Bank, and Jordan are all visible from this spot. As I was looking around, I felt a tug on my arm. Marissa was next to me, pointing at something. I squinted and looked closer. And there, in the middle of this great big fortress that we were climbing around, sat a dove. As peaceful as it could be. Just a little sign of God's love. With my name on it.

God the Comforter:

Psalm 51:11 says "Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit away from me."

The Psalmist is writing to God, pleading for his transgressions to be removed from him and in return, be given praise for the King. Shortly before my trip to the Middle East, I went through a big and tough decision in my life that was covered in prayer, but was heartbreaking. I was nervous to go halfway across the world without my family and closest friends, but I knew that the Lord had called me to go on this trip. And boy, did He ever. And He never, ever, ever left my side. Glory be. My doubts, fears, and heartache was cast aside. In exchange, He gave me beauty, dancing, and joy. How He loves.

God the Author: I was originally supposed to be going to Egypt for this trip. Due to some civil unrest in Cairo (where we would be spending the majority of our time), the trip directors decided that it would be better if we switched our trip to Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. So this trip was "Plan B." This trip that so radically changed my life, wasn't originally the plan. But God is the Author of all things and the Great Orchestrator, and He had a plan. He knew how much I would learn and love and be challenged on this trip. And He used it. He used, what I considered a "Plan B." So although I took a giant leap of faith at the beginning of this summer and made a tough decision, I know God's got a plan. He orchestrated an unbelievable three weeks in the Middle East. I trust Him to pen a beautiful path to my life. Although I originally thought that this path was "Plan B" after my big decision and therein my heartbreak, I am now seeing that it's not Plan B. It's His plan, and I'm in the palm of His hand, and nothing can take me from there. So the pen is in His hand. And I trust, just like He took care of me in Israel, He will carry me through.

God as Creator: I am an artist. Well, I like to think I am. I know my way around a Hobby Lobby, I love to paint, and I poke around with photography. God speaks to me through creation- His earth, and the creations of His children- through songs and artwork of all kinds.
The second leg of our trip was in Petra, Jordan. Petra was the Middle Eastern equivalent to Cleveland, Tennessee. There were a few shops, a few restaurants, but nothing really of note here. Until we went to Petra Park.
Petra Park is a national park that honors and displays the life of the Nabateans, an ancient people group of southern Jordan and the Canaan area. They're important became they carved lots of really cool stuff from rocks (see pictures below). Petra was important to me because it reminded me of God's splendor.
Our tour guide showed us around the park a little and told us quite a few stories I don't remember. Then, we were let loose in this national park for the whole day. We had a liter and a half of water and a sack lunch to last us. I had snacks in my pack. I thought ahead. Thank you, CliffBars! The park was huge, and we didn't even scratch the surface.
The small group that I was with decided to climb the first flight of stairs we came across. Little did we know this flight of stairs was 817 steps long. Which wouldn't be too terrible, if:
1) I was in shape
2) the steps were all even and smooth like in America
3) it was not 50 million blazing degrees outside
[Note: it didn't start off 50 million blazing degrees. But it eventually got there, oh say around lunchtime.]

We climbed. We stopped to have a snack. We climbed. We stopped to take pictures. We climbed. We stopped to let the boys throw rocks off the side of the cliff. We climbed. We stopped for water. And to pet some cats and talk to some Bedouin ladies. We climbed. I thought I might die. We climbed. I thought I literally was on the Stairway to Heaven. We climbed...

...and finally got to the top. We had climbed up what we later found out was one of the sacrificial mounts of the Nabateans. Which was eerie but neat. We stopped for lunch and to look at the view and for the boys to pretend they were going to fall off the side of the cliff to their sure death far below and give all the girls heart attacks. We took more pictures. Then, the boys decided to boulder up another mountain on top of this sacrificial mount.

Keep in mind, we are in the middle of the desert. Which was breathtakingly beautiful, surprisingly. But we climbed nonetheless. Good thing I wore my trusty Chacos. :)

We bouldered up mountains and stood at what was surely the top of the world. As I looked around and saw Petra in the distance, and mountains rolling across the horizon and clouds hanging low in the sky, I couldn't help but think, "Lord, you have a really awesome view." And I heard in reply, "This is only the beginning." Which made me smile. And feel very very small. His hands, the very ones that hold me, carved the mountain tops and scooped out the valleys. They poured the waters in the rivers and planted trees. He uniquely stitched together the blue lizard I came across (ie: almost stepped on), and specifically designed each bird I saw to survive in such an environment. He made it all. I've never felt so big and so small at the same time.

I made new friends. I laughed until my sides hurt. I Dougie'd ontop of our hotel in Jerusalem. I played Dutch Blitz in a no-man's land between the borders of Israel and Jordan. I bouldered in the desert. I used a squatty potty. I bartered in the Old City of Jerusalem. I ate street corn. I loved until I thought I'd burst and I was loved on until my heart was overflowing. I was reminded, day after day and moment by moment, of God's unfailing love and faithfulness. And it is His faithfulness and His strength that lead me, guide me, and carry me through.

His strength is my joy and my song.

The sign on the door of the Garden Tomb.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Once Upon A Time...

...I was a small second grader with big dreams of being a teacher just like Ms. Honey on the movie Matilda. I would live in a cute little cottage and be super sweet and love all my students. For "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" Day, I wore pink dress up heels and had my hair tied back and carried around a notebook. I wanted to be a teacher.
...I was a third grader with dreams to be a teacher just like my teacher, Ms. Schnarrs. She typed so quickly, loved Disney, her room always smelled good, and she told me that one day my brother and I would be best friends. (She was right.)
...I was a fourth grader with dreams to be a teacher just like my teacher Ms. Paris. Her desk was always a wreck, she cast me in the class play (which gave me momentary dreams of being an actress) then encouraged my love for writing, (which gave me momentary dreams of being an author) and she loved Dr. Pepper.
...I was a fifth grader with dreams of being a teacher, so I collected all the extra worksheets from my teachers, brought them home, and enlisted the girls on the street to play school with me.
...I was sophomore in high school and was entrusted with my own kindergarten choir class at church. I learned how to manage a classroom of rowdy 6 year olds, I learned how to carry on a very lengthy conversation about Bob the Builder, and I learned how to interact with parents.
...I was a junior in high school, and I took my first trip to Africa. Where I realized that I was a world changer, a Daughter of the King with a passion for helping the least of these. With a thirst for knowledge and a desire to see love spread around the globe.
...I was a senior walking across a stage to receive my diploma, and I was walking into the next chapter of my life.
...I was a freshman in college and I took my first trip into the inner city culture of Lower East Side Manhattan. Where I quickly learned the art of being firm and asking, "Where are you supposed to be?" To students wandering the halls. Where I learned that love sees no color and that kids are sponges.
...I was a sophomore in college, and I took my second trip into the inner city culture of Chattanooga. And I learned that prayer in school can never be removed when a teacher is praying ceaselessly for her students. And I met my first friend who is from an abusive background. And I was taught how to dougie from three second grade girls. And the same girls micro-braided my hair, which took quite awhile to shake out of my "white girl" hair.

Last week, I was at an elementary school in Chattanooga with Mrs. Y's second grade class, observing my little friend for a class back at Lee. On this particular day, the class had a funky schedule which put us outside on the playground for an extra hour, which lent itself to an extensive game of Duck Duck Goose.

As I watched 60+ second graders sit in the grass, laugh, and enjoy the early April sunshine, I was overcome with love for these guys. I genuinely cared about each and every one of them. Their well being, their futures, and their educations. I scanned around the little circle, and I counted two white faces looking back at me. Two. Out of 60.

I should be used to this. I've been at this school many times before, I'm in the inner city of Chattanooga, I've taught in NYC, I'm looking at and praying about being an inner city teacher, for crying out loud. I should be used to this.

But where I'm from, it is lily white. If there's a black kid at school in the Wilco, it's like a fly in milk. Lots of money, lots of affluence. My high school minds well have been a private public school.

I once heard that educators teach in similar environments to the ones they grew up in. I hope not. I love the Wilco, but no thank you.

As I watched my second graders play Duck Duck Goose, I couldn't help but think about the statistics that are stacked against my precious little ones.

Incarceration rates are 6 times higher for black males than white males.
Black women have the highest teen pregnancy rate.
Each year, 1.2 million students drop out of high school. Over half of these are from minority groups.

My heart shattered into a million pieces. My precious little ones were literally going to have to fight to not be another number. A sense of despair began to creep into my heart, but I realized what a great responsibility had been laid on my shoulders.

No matter where I teach, if it's in an affluent neighborhood like Franklin or in the Bronx of New York City, I am a world changer. I can impact the lives of the future of my country. I fill young minds with the knowledge of the world around them, and I can encourage them that education is a ticket out, a ticket to a better life.

Overseas in developing countries, an educated woman is more likely to have a healthier, smaller, and more educated family. She is less likely to sell her body. She is more likely to attain a higher paying job and make a steady income.

Education leads to opportunity. As an educator, I hold the key to opportunity for all the students that will pass through my classroom. And if I can help just one, if I can just change one student's life for the better, I will have made an impact.

Change just one. Feed just one. Love just one.

On the same day that I was in Chattanooga playing Duck Duck Goose, I was in the parking lot walking to my car back at Lee later that day. A woman approached me and the small group of girls I was with, and she began to tell us her story. She had just recently lost her mom to cancer, she was struggling to pay her bills, she had suffered a serious car wreck, and the electric company was going to shut off her electricity the next morning if she didn't come up with 40 dollars.

As she told her story, I will admit that I thought, "Oh, I am not about to enable this woman to go to the supermarket and buy alcohol. I will not enable her." But that thought was quickly stomped out by, "Satan, get away from me. Jesus loves this sister just as much as He loves me."

I asked the woman her name. She told me Rebecca. I apologized that I didn't have any money, but some of the girls I was with did have cash that they shared with her. I asked her if we could pray for her, and she excitedly said yes. So right there in the parking lot, we prayed. We prayed for provision and for Dad to remind Rebecca that she is loved.

I think of Rebecca everyday. Because even though I was not able to help her in her situation, I was able to pray with her, and I pray for her everyday.

Feed. Love. Teach. Heal. Help. Serve. Pray for. Just one. But don't stop at just one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

2011 [thus far] has brought:
My first New Year's kiss
Passion 2011.
Passion 2011.
Passion 2011.
Passion 2011. [I really loved Passion.]
Lots and lots of snow.
The start of my 4th semester of college.
Chad and I's one year anniversary since we started dating!
New friends.
My first Valentine's Date Night. :)
Taking lots of pictures.
Jesus. Lots and lots of Jesus.

About a month ago in my Art History 2 class, we were discussing Raphael. I really like his stuff. He's pretty smart. But my professor explained to us that Raphael "burned the candle at both ends" and met an early death and demise. Apparently he was a killer and thief and just really liked to party. So that's what my Art History prof meant by "burning the candle at both ends."
But I began to think: what if I burned the candle of my life at both ends? What would that look like? It was during this time that I also ignited my intense love of Lecrae's music. Thank you, Chad! Lecrae is this really fantastic Christian rapper who has an AWESOME story and platform for reaching people, if you didn't know who he was. I like him a whole lot, and find myself being so encouraged every time I listen (which is usually at very high decibels in the car or during my exercise time). So it was shortly after the Art History lecture that I was in the car listening to Lecrae. And one of his lyrics just struck me right between the eyes. In his song "Go Hard," Lecrae says:

If the cross don't move me
I don't wanna breathe no more
If I don't see Christ
Partner I don't wanna see no more

Those are some pretty heavy words. But they hit me nonetheless. If I wasn't moved by the cross, and the unfathomable and immeasurable Love that is displayed there, why even live?. If I am not seeing Christ in everything and everyone I come into contact with, then why even see? This all may sound really morbid and depressing, but it's so true.
I am on this earth to shout for the Kingdom of God and His beautiful glory. I'm on this earth to reflect my Maker.
I'm on this earth to "burn the candle at both ends" for His glory. I carry the Name of the Creator of this universe. Burning the candle at both ends in the heavenly aspect looks a lot different than it did for Raphael. I am called to speak truth, to worship, and to love all those I come across, just as Jesus loves me.
He has gifted me in so many ways, and He has blessed me in so many ways. But all of this is so that I may sing His praises and lift up His Name. So if the cross doesn't move me, if I am not undone at the touch of His word and awestruck by the love that He has for me, then I'd rather not be here. If I am not seeing Christ in my roommate, my professors, the precious girls on my hall, my friends who live on the streets in Atlanta, my family, my Chad, and my sweet Malawian friends that I think of everyday, then I don't want to see anymore.

I was going to Egypt this summer with the education department at Lee. Now we are going to Israel. I am going to be living in Israel, more specifically Jerusalem, for three weeks.
I remember being little and returning from DisneyWorld for the first time. I was watching Disney Channel, and I saw NSYNC standing outside of MGM Studios...exactly where I had been a few weeks before. I instantly hit the roof. I was quite the little NSYNC fan growing up, so to see them standing in the same place I had been a few weeks before just overjoyed little 10 year old me.
Fast forward a few years. I'm 18 years old, and at the Coldplay concert in Nashville with two of my girl friends from high school. I was beside myself in excitement: I was in the same room as Coldplay!! Once again, so excited to have a thread of relation to these superstars.

Now the 20 year old me is going to Israel in a few weeks. I am going to walk where Jesus walked. I just know that I'll be crying the entire time I'm there, but that's perfectly alright. I'll just pack plenty of Kleenex.
I've walked on the same ground as NSYNC, I've been in the same room (albeit a huge stadium) as Coldplay. But nothing in this whole world can compare to walking where Jesus has walked. To see the places that I read of in Scripture literally come alive right in front of my eyes is something that I've always dreamed of.
Philippians 2:9 explains to us that God gave Jesus the Name above all names. Jesus is above NSYNC and above Coldplay. Jesus is higher than Beth Moore and bigger than Francis Chan or David Platt (all whom I deeply love and respect and look up to). Jesus is higher than Joseph Kony and what he is doing to my precious Ugandan friends. Jesus is bigger than President Obama, and Jesus is bigger than Justin Beiber. Jesus, my Jesus, is the Famous One. And I am going to follow in His footsteps...LITERALLY! I've always known that Jesus is the most famous Person ever. But this adventure is putting it into a perspective that lil' ole me can wrap my mind around.

The blessings in my life are innumerable. Some days I just stand in awe of the Lord's fingerprints that are all over my life. In pillow talking, baking, laughing, and dancing with my precious roommate; loving, serving, laughing, discussing, eating, and snuggling with my incredible Chad; and laughing, eating, loving like crazy, talking, and adventuring with my family, I am always struck with just how much I am loved by those who surround me and the One from whom all blessings flow.

There have been some absolutely precious moments in the past 3 months. From playing in 8 inches of snow (the most I've ever seen) with the girls I live with, to being nursed back to health after being stricken with the flu (on our 1 year anniversary, no less!) by the greatest, most God-fearing man I know, to laughing or talking Jesus with my precious roommate Sharon until the wee hours of the morning, to just some really great Jesus moments...I think it's safe to say that 2011 has been a year of blessing, thus far.

With the completion of my sophomore year, a trip to Israel, a vacation to the beach, more time with Chad, time resting at home with the family, beach camp, summer classes, and a summer job all in my near future, I really can't wait to see what the Lord has in store!