Friday, June 24, 2011

Gratitude in the Midst of Nitty Gritty Life

I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, but the title alone intrigues me, and the book pops up everywhere I look on the internet. Plopped down in a city of 4 million Muslims, I am worlds away from Ann’s Mennonite farming country, but her One Thousand Gifts website has touched me with its message of gratefulness and wonder over God’s gifts.

Petty complaints and giant obstacles

To be honest, when life gets tough and things go wrong, my tendency is to complain, worry, or feel sorry for myself. I love the unique cross-cultural life and ministry God has given us, but it’s easy to get bogged down if I focus on daily frustrations like:
  • No central air conditioning with summer temperatures of 40 Celsius
  • Equipment and furniture that break frequently due to a lack of quality control
  • Trying to organize my time among people who do not plan
  • Occasional water, electricity, phone and internet cuts
These are petty complaints I’m almost ashamed to mention, but the greatest challenge is slow work that often seems like three steps forward and two steps back in a hard land.  Response to our message of hope is slow.

I don’t want to miss out on God’s gifts

Even though we face obstacles, I don’t want to miss out on the joys of the life God is giving me now.  Ten years down the road, I don’t want to look back and realize that I can’t remember the myriad grace gifts of God and the joys of raising a family because I was focused solely on the challenges of serving in a Muslim country. I want to be present each day to receive God’s love and grace and to give him thanks for His gifts. 

Years ago someone challenged me to thank God for 5 things every night before bed, and last month again God convicted my heart about cultivating gratitude.  I’ve been encouraged by the 1000 Gifts dare: “Ann invites us to embrace every day blessings and embark on the transformative spiritual discipline of chronicling God’s gifts.” (her website) I see bloggers everywhere are making lists of things they are thankful for, so I decided to make one myself.  Every morning before my quiet time, I write down 5-7 things I’m thankful for.  Here are some examples:

109.  My 14 year old son playing guitar as we worship together as a family

110.  My daughter, who styled my hair the other day and did a great job

111.  My husband, who serves all of us in so many ways

112.  Dear friends and a sister who generously gives her possessions, money, and spiritual encouragement

113.  The garlicky deliciousness of Turkish green beans cooked in olive oil, tomatoes and onions

114.  The chance to put my feet in the Aegean, squish my toes through the cool sand, and listen to the waves come against the shore last weekend

115.  The daily presence of God, whose love and mercy never leave me

116.  The slow but steady advancement of God’s grace touching lives here

I’d like to say that making this list is transforming me into a more grateful person, but I’m not there yet. I have to confess I still complain, but my 1000 gifts list is helping me to open my eyes and reminding me to enjoy my blessings.

Have you read One Thousand Gifts?  What did you think? If you haven’t read it, leave a comment about what you’re thankful for today.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How to Handle Goodbyes with Grace?

Did you know that the average American moves 11.7 times during his life?

 In today’s mobile society, farewells are part of everyday life, especially during the summer when school is out.  Last week I wrote about making new friends, but you probably spend as much time and energy saying goodbye to old friends as you do to making new ones.

If you’re serving overseas, goodbye is part and parcel of your calling.  You say goodbye to your family when you move overseas.  You say goodbye to national friends when you go home on furlough.  You say goodbye to fellow workers who return to their home countries. 

Two farewells in particular stand out in my mind.  Two years ago when we left Turkey for a furlough, my Turkish sister cried a river and hugged me tight at the airport. Last spring when we left Texas in order to return here, my sister-in-law cried and my nieces and nephew huddled around us while we said goodbye.

Last Thursday we gave a going away party. Karl and Ellen, some of our closest friends, are moving back to Sweden after 9 years.  We came to Turkey the same year, and our children have grown up together.  We’ve lived near each other and have worked together.  They’ve added laughter and joy to our lives, so although we’re happy for them, their leaving represents loss for us.

Frankly, I don’t like good-byes, but I might as well learn to live with them, because whether I like them or not, they’re something I have to go through!  I might as well weather them with grace. Here are a few thoughts that encourage me.

Use Goodbyes as a time for reflection

I try to focus on the positive and give thanks for beautiful friendships God has brought into my life.  It’s a gift from God to have people I love so much that it hurts to say goodbye.  What would be sad would be to have no one you care about enough to not want to say goodbye to.

Letting go of friends also renews my eternal perspective on life.  Other friends may come and go, but Jesus continues to be my closest, most faithful friend, the only one who will never move away. 

Allow yourself to grieve, but keep looking ahead

At our going away party for Karl and Ellen, one of our Turkish brothers wept openly as we prayed for them.  This tender scene touched me deeply, and I have shed many a tear as I’ve thought of them leaving. Giving myself permission to grieve ultimately helps me to move on, embrace the future, and look ahead to new relationships God has for me.

Look forward to keeping in touch

Goodbye doesn’t have to be the end of the road. Of course a dilemma of modern life is that even if we have 600 Facebook friends, we can’t maintain every relationship we’ve ever had at the same level, but we instinctively know which people we really want to continue investing in. It takes effort, but keeping in touch through e-mail, occasional phone calls, or yearly letters adds richness, joy and continuity to our ever mobile, changing lives. My husband and I have shared many special moments with old friends we look up when we travel.

So when we take Karl and Ellen to the airport next week, I hope to smile and focus on thanking God for such special friends! Have you said goodbye to anyone recently?

Friday, June 10, 2011

What Turkish Coffee Reminded Me About Establishing Friendships

My neighbor took me totally off guard.  All I wanted to do was to drop off a plate of cake for her kids at the door.  My afternoon tea guests had just left, and I was thinking about cleaning up the kitchen, getting chores done and cooking dinner. What WAS I going to cook for dinner?

But Ayla said, “Meltem and I are going to Kahve Diyari for Turkish coffee in ten minutes. Why don’t you come?” I looked at my watch. Almost 5 o’clock. No way could I have dinner on the table at 7.  I was too tired.  Too peopled out already.  

Then I thought, “Why not? Haven’t I been looking for the opportunity to spend time with my neighbors? The world won’t end if dinner is late.

Our one hour coffee date ended up being a serendipitous ending to my day.  I laughed to learn that Ayla and Meltem had already had coffee at the same cafĂ© at 11 a.m. that very day. We sipped our coffee in the 5 o’clock shade, enjoying the breeze and talking about our summer plans.

That cup of Turkish coffee started me thinking about friendships. Ayla and Meltem have been neighbors for 10 years.  They drink coffee together every morning at 11 a.m., usually at home. They shop together, go to the doctor together, and eat breakfast every Thursday with a group of women they’ve known for 20 years.

Maybe that would be too much togetherness for an American woman like me, but Ayla and Meltem can teach me a lot about community and friendships. Turks live in tight knit communities, and it’s easy for a foreigner to feel like an outsider once the initial show of Turkish hospitality is over.  Cultivating friendships across cultures is challenging and takes time.   Here are some keys that have helped me.

Take the First Step
Don’t wait for people to approach you.  If you want to develop friendships, be willing to pick up the phone, and make the first call.  Step out and knock on someone’s door, or speak to a stranger at the checkout line in the supermarket.  Call someone you haven’t seen in a long time, instead of waiting for them because “it’s their turn” to call you.

This sounds obvious, but sometimes it takes a bit of courage. Living in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and now Turkey, I’ve often had to force myself to be bold and take the first step, but I’ve been rewarded with many friendships as a result.

Be approachable and available
Whenever possible, I try to be open to people approaching me spontaneously. This means being flexible and ready to set aside my agenda for interruptions, even if it’s not always convenient. I hope this communicates to my friends that I value them.

Build Bridges
I look for common interests: hobbies, children, jobs, cooking, books, and vacation spots.  If I’m lost for conversation, I just ask people questions and listen!

Give Relationships Time to Grow
We moved to a new apartment building a year ago, and although I knocked on a few doors to invite neighbors to my house, they rarely came. I thought they didn’t like me!  Slowly people have gotten to know us, and they’re more open to us.  I’ve realized that not everyone opens their hearts as quickly as I do to new friends.  Growing friendships takes time. 

How do friendships and community develop where you live? Do you have any advice for me about growing friendships?

Friday, June 3, 2011

What's so Important about Joy?

This week I had a quiet panic attack when I realized I’d left my residence permit --the one that costs $60 along with the $600 application fee-- at my daughter’s skating center.  I kept it quiet because I was desperately hoping to retrieve it before my dear husband found out! Praying and holding my breath all the way, I raced to the center in the car with my two kids.   I must have been uptight because as we walked into the building I accidentally dropped my glasses right in my daughter’s path.  I let out an involuntary scream, “Don’t walk on my glasses!”  She pretended not to know me.

Fortunately the trusty handy man had found and locked up my residence permit for safekeeping. After I picked it up, I went into the parking lot and tried to get into someone else’s car.

“Uh, Mom,” my son said.  “That’s not our car.” That had been why my key wasn’t working.

Next we drove to the pet shop.  After making my purchase I walked out of the store and left my credit card on the counter.

The shop keeper came out running.  “Ma’am, don’t forget your card!”

I thought, “Hmm, am I seeing a pattern here?” That’s when I started laughing. All the way back home, I turned up the music, and my kids and I laughed about my mishaps.

One of my goals is to be a more joyful person even when life’s glitches come up. Sometimes it helps just to stop and laugh at myself. On challenging days I try to take a deep breath and tell myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)

For me joy is not just extra frosting on the cake of life. It is crucial to a fulfilling life. Joy gives me strength.  Joy gives me a new lens on life, but it’s not just something that happens to me when all of my problems are solved and everything works out okay.  It doesn’t always fall into my lap.

Joy is something I can cultivate.  Here are ways I seek to do that:

  • Enjoy God
One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 16: “In your presence there is fullness of joy.” This reminds me that no matter what happens, I can take joy in God’s presence with me and in his love for me. 

  • Enjoy Life

Let’s face it. A lot of life is pretty ho-hum. Sometimes it’s difficult. I pray often, “God, help me to enjoy the life you’re giving me today.” I want to embrace my life today, and try to enjoy even the simple, mundane tasks. I want to savor simple pleasures like conversations around the dinner table.

  • Laugh and smile as much as I can

It’s amazing how smiling can change my attitude on a bad day. 

  • Make room in my life for things I enjoy

Here is a list of practical things I can do to increase the level of joy in my life.

  1. Walk in the park.
  2. Call a friend on the phone.
  3. Plant flowers on my balcony.
  4. Reach out to someone who may need encouragement.
  5. Make time for friends.
  6. Talk to my kids or my husband about what interests them.
  7. Drink Turkish coffee with my neighbors.
  8. Cook some slow food.
  9. Read a good book.

What do you enjoy doing? How do you seek to keep a positive attitude?