Saturday, March 31, 2018

a sense of wonder

Austin, TX
This winter, my city received an unexpected snowfall.  An exciting event since the last time it happened was over a decade ago.  What made it even more special was that this snow was not predicted.  It caught the whole city unexpectedly, unpredictably, and completely by surprise.  The snow began falling around 4:30 pm and continued until about 8:30 pm. It wasn’t just any snow, but the kind that falls in big fluffy flakes, that you try to catch on your tongue.  As you’re driving, it swirls and falls from the sky and it looks like you are watching the beginning credits from the Star Wars movie in front of your car window. 

When it began I was sitting in the hair salon, having my hair colored, (do not judge) when all the technicians went outside to see the snowfall.  Imagine, me in a chair, hair foiled and watching them mass exodus out into the parking lot.  As the technicians looked up at the snow, some tried to catch it, and others twirled in its presence.  Many exclaimed that this was the first time that they had even encountered snow.  And, then it hit me. There was no escaping what we were experiencing.  It was a sense of awe - a sense of wonder.  
That evening, parents allowed their children to stay up and play in it.  They let them go sledding, build snowpersons and be a part of this wonderful exciting unexpected event as Austin went from a city scene to a winter wonderland in a few short hours. 

It amazes me, as I sit on a plane now half way around the world, how snow can take a normal day, and turn it into something extraordinary.  I was more amazed by the snowfall in Austin than I am about being able to travel half way around the world by plane.   How quickly we get over our amazement, our wonder, and our awe?  We cease our ability to wonder when we think we understand something.

In today’s language, we use the word wonder to describe a feeling of amazement and admiration.  We use it to describe something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar.  Wonder creates emotions, which are excited by novelty, the sight or mind of something new, unusual, strange, great, extraordinary, and not well understood.  Wonder commands the attention by its grandeur and inexplicableness.

Throughout Scripture, God’s use of the word wonder means something totally different.  While generally it means to be surpassing or extraordinary, the Hebrew word for wonder, pala, indicates something deeper than just an uncommon event or something out of the ordinary.  It reflects a phenomenon, which is lying outside the realm of human explanation; it is that which is separated from the normal course of events.  It cannot be explained. It has to do with what we see, what we perceive to be true, and what we try desperately in our humanness to understand.  While wonder is in front of me, and I see it, and I cannot deny that it is happening or that it has happened, for I have witnessed it.  Just as the snowfall this week was incredible, it once again caused me to reach out and grasp pala…. something extraordinary

Pala is found in both biblical and modern Hebrew.  It occurs some 70 times in the Old Testament. The first time we see the Hebrew word pala it is used in Genesis 18:14, when God replies to Sarah’s laughing about having a son in her old age.  He simply says,  “…. Is anything too hard for the Lord?”   This pala translates as - is anything to marvelous, wonderful, surpassing, extraordinary, hard or difficult for Him?

When the world pala is used, it is primarily with God as its subject expressing actions that are beyond the boundaries of human powers or expectations. Wonder is chiefly a miraculous work.  In the Gospels, the feeling of wonder is drawn out by the marvelous displays of Christ’s power and wisdom.  In Isaiah 9:6, Jesus bears the titles of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  Wonder points us towards God’s anointed as He continues the marvelous acts of God. 

Wonder is often indescribable.  It is an attribute of God, such as His holiness.  This divine title shows us the very nature of God.  He is the miracle-working counselor.  He is able to do what no one else can do. Isaiah 28:29 says, “the Lord’s counsel is wonderful and His wisdom is great.” Exodus 15:11 claims, “Who is like you, O Lord…majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders.”

Messiah as counselor can be hard to understand. The Hebrew language gives us a pictorial image of king giving counsel to his people.  Specifically this biblical idea of counsel involves both careful listening and clear advising by someone who is wise and really knows how to live.  According to Isaiah 9:6, Jesus is amazing and strong.  He brings wholeness and completion, as well as friendship between man and God…forever.  His wonderful counsel comes through Him.  It is who He is.

So what should our response to wonder be?  We should be just like the city of Austin as it was captured with the snowfall.  We should be in total awe.  Standing in the swirling flakes and when His grace catches us off guard, we should understand that we have just witnessed a small part of His glory. According to Scripture, “many are Your wonders, which You have done”.  They are too numerous to count.  Even the heavens praise Your wonders. Wonder is our only response to God’s acts of judgment and redemption of man.  May we stand in awe and wonder before our God. 

travels in afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan
This winter, I have had the privilege of being a guest of a United States corporation at their facility in Afghanistan.  They provided me with housing and security; all of which are essential for women traveling in Afghanistan. 

While I was there, I discovered this amazing transitioning country outside the gates. The people that have been in Afghanistan over the last 11 years have commented that the people are no longer afraid to go outside because of the Taliban.  So, you witness millions of people moving around a city that hasn’t had movement in years.  However, there is always a military/police presence.  People live, work, and shop in these conditions.  

Life in Afghanistan
About 35 million live in Afghanistan with only about 50% being literate.  The locals can make anywhere from $50/month to $1600 a month depending on their education and connections.   

Some of the local Afghan young men were explaining their traditions of marriage here.  First, there is an engagement party…usually costing around $10K-15K.  The fiancé’s necklace, made out of gold, should cost around $5k. 

The wedding will take place when the groom can pay for everyone to attend  (around 600 people for a weekend).  It usually is around $25k and takes place in a wedding hall.  From the outside it looks similar to a casino in the United States.  There is usually a 2-5 year waiting period between engagement and wedding due to the cost.  The groom is required to pay for all of it.  On their low wages, you can see how this could be a concern.

 Most people don’t realize the minerals and precious gems that are abundant in Afghanistan.  I have been a fan of their handmade jewelry for years.  Lapis is their claim to fame, but you will find tiger-eye, gold, rubies, opals, jade, and other gems that are mined here. 

One of the biggest issues in Kabul is the air pollution.  Remember, this is a developing nation that doesn’t have the same heating options as developed nations.  So, they burn anything and everything including boxes, leaves, dung, and tires.  One of the security personnel told a story about the asphalt road outside the Airport that had to be paved twice because the people used pick axes and chopped up the road to burn it as fuel for their homes.

Americans in Afghanistan
The compound I have been living on is smaller than other compounds.  Because of the high walls it looks kind of like a prison, but actually it is a common tradition and practice in Afghanistan to wall your property and guard it due to the years of conflict.   On our compound, US citizens work, sleep, and live 24/7. Many of the US citizens that come here and work in these developing nations are highly intelligent and wickedly funny.  Most work 14-18 hours a day.  All have left family, friends, and all of their possessions to sojourn into these endeavors.  Not for fame, or even fortune, but for the belief that they can make a difference to the people of Afghanistan and ultimately the world.  They believe that there is a better way ahead for Afghanistan and these workers are committed to building the country’s infrastructure

Living in an emerging 2nd world country is hard on all military personnel and contractors. As you can imagine, due to their limited access to the outside, exercise becomes really important.  I really had to work to get my 10,000 steps in everyday.  One loop around the compound was only 450 steps.  To stay fit and mentally alert, you must go to the gym. 

The biggest complaint I heard from all contractors (on several compounds) is the availability of food and the quality of the food.  Most of the compounds have dining facilities that provide two to three meals a day to the workers.  The nicer facilities have trained chefs.  These facilities are the envy of everyone in Afghanistan.  The workers at my facility play the game, “What is it?” at almost every meal.  So they are not the envy of all the other compounds.

Most of the workers here are pursing advanced degrees or certifications as well as working. They really try to enjoy their daily life to fight off mental fatigue and culture shock.  The men and women living in these compounds become a functional/dysfunctional family of sorts.  With limited ability to leave the compound, they find ways to entertain themselves.  I have witnessed ugly Christmas sweater day, played pool, and played the card game “What do you Meme” where I didn’t understand the 20+ something language that is used.   I also have watched more UFC fights and wrestling matches than I ever have in my entire life.

Private security details are an essential support element here in Afghanistan.  I have found that most of the men and women in the employ of these companies are former military….from all over the world.  However, they almost always have the same gear – with a tweak to their personal preferences.  The hardware they wear is quite impressive inside and outside the compound.  I now have a healthy appreciation for guns.  As explained to me, they are not used so much as a force of power, but as a deterrent to anyone who might be up to no good.  Private security teams are so comfortable with moving around with these weapons.  They sit, eat, and walk with them attached to them.  They are constantly updated with security briefings and are tasked with keeping the workers safe inside and outside the compound.  It’s quite impressive to see how quickly they respond to an event and how comfortable they are with responding

When traveling anywhere outside the compound, as an American, you must have a security detail.  I asked the security team what the biggest threat is and all of them responded without hesitation – kidnapping.  So, as a woman, I am strongly discouraged…shall I even say commanded, not to go out of the compound unescorted.

The other threat is stopping the vehicles with US citizens in them.   The goal of the security detail is to keep the people inside the vehicle safe - nothing else.  As a woman I also had to have my head covered when I was outside the compound – even inside the vehicles.  Since I am not Muslim, my headdress is simple, like the ones used by US military women when deployed to the area. 

I walked out of one secure compound into another compound and was outside the walls for literally – 5 feet.  However, because of the threat, men with machine guns escorted me from the exit of one compound to the entrance of the other.  Think of TSA on steroids in terms of the entering process.  There are badges and scanners and pat downs, even from one secure area to another.

The NATO military base has provided incredible income and opportunity for the people.  Even though you live and work inside a compound, the NATO base is the basis of operation for the reconstruction and construction projects in Kabul.  Since the troops that are supporting this effort come from many different countries, it is interesting to see where we overlap culturally with other countries. 


Afghanistan is a country in flux.  While there is plenty of opportunity here for developed nations to step in and aid Afghanistan in rebuilding, the rural and uneducated population has caused problems in the past with the process.  Most companies will give up due to loss of capital, property, or lives during a project.  However, for the men and women in Afghanistan who want something different, there is great hope with this continued effort and aid from other countries.  Even with all of its issues, Afghanistan has a beauty and simplicity that you can hardly find anywhere else.

 Note: the pictures in this article are representative only and do not accurately depict the secure places I visited.

christian refugees in lebanon

Beirut Lebanon
There is this undercurrent that you pick up on as you walk down the tenant streets. With 2 million refugees in Lebanon, that is a lot of pressure on the financial, health, utilities, and other infrastructure in the country. 

You couldn’t help but notice that many of these refugees were in a holding pattern.  Waiting for the war to be over, waiting to return to Syria, waiting for the UN to grant them access to Canada, waiting…and while they were waiting, they were having children and their children were growing up. 

Most of the young people looked older – wearied from the years.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of the three sieges of Jerusalem by Babylon.  First, Nebucanzzer took the noble men and educated (Daniel and friends), then, he took the trades people, and what was left in Jerusalem were the weak.  It seems that most of the young people have left Syria. 

I had the opportunity to do a teaching as part of the local discipleship class.  There were about 60 women in attendance and 10 men.  I taught on Daniel and being in the lions den.  Basically, Daniel was faithful and loved by God, yet he still had to face the lions.  When I shared this story, I realized that some of these women would be killed due to their faith.  Their lions were going to eat some of them.

 I encouraged them to learn to read and write, to be mentored with a stronger Christian, and specifically challenged them that if I returned in 6 months would they be different?  At the end, I had several women ask for prayers for their children and themselves.  It was humbling to serve in such a manner.  I was a unique creature for these women.  I had a profession.  I taught bible studies.  And, I had a husband. 

My group conducted over 30 home visits while we were in Beirut.  All of our visits were Syrian refugees associated with the Nazarene church in Beirut. All lived in tenant buildings.  Most lived in 1 room, where the family ate and slept.  The children were not in school and their parents themselves have very little education.  New believers were encouraged to start mentoring people (2-3) in your home immediately.

Memorable Stories
One young woman had two sewing machines set up in her apartment.  She said that an organization had helped her establish her in a trade.  She was able to provide some income for her family this way.  When she became a Christian, her father gave her photo to ISIS and had her brother join ISIS.  Basically, a hit was put out on her for betraying her faith and her family. She and her family had gone into hiding until the hired hitman was caught

Another woman had a child that was sick, She had prayed at the Mosque, she had asked for healing from Allah, yet, none came.  So, she decided to pray that if Jesus were real, her son would be healed.  And, the next day, the child’s fever broke and he was eating normally.  That’s how she knew Jesus was real.  There were many stories of healing.  These people were stacked in housing, poor living conditions, and inadequate health care.  They had to depend on Jesus to heal them.

Our interpreter was 14 when he left Syria.  He had been on the streets of Beirut for 5 years.  His education was limited, but he wanted to go to Argentina and become a computer programmer.  I have no doubt that one-day; he will be working in a software company in California…just as he wishes to.

I had a small six-year-old girl with small gold earrings curl up next to me in a chair.  I wondered why she took to me – a stranger.  It wasn’t long until I saw two older girls start kicking her chair.  She was being bullied.  I turned around and glared at the girls and they stopped.  But the little girl had figured out who would protect her.    When I visited in her home, the young girl immediately sat on my lap.  She wanted to play with my watch, bracelets, and rings.  Then, she took pen and paper and started drawing.  Her family couldn’t afford to send her to school.   I think this experience hit me the most.  This young girl knew she had to have a protector.  It wasn’t lost on me that the wrong conditions or the wrong person, she could be a victim of sex trafficking or worse.

I met several women Syrian pastors.  And, like the woman I am, we started visiting and soon bonded.  They found great delight in finding out I couldn’t cook and didn’t have children.  They went on to tease me all weekend that I would make a horrible Arab wife.  (Good thing I married an American).  As the weekend proceeded, the women approached me over and over and shared their stories.  Mainly, they told me that my laughter was healing to their heart.  They hadn’t laughed in so long.  And, with me, it was easy. 

The Syrian pastors I met were very different than the refugees I had worked with in Beirut.  They were committed to staying in Syria.  They were going to rebuild.  They were going to survive.  They were not waiting on anything.  They were moving in the flow of God.  After each story, the women would all say, “God is sovereign.”  These women had claimed it as their mantra.  And, quite refreshing, they owned it. 

One morning, a delightful young woman approached me wanting to share her testimony and a selfie with me.  After we had secured a translator, she began to share how God had changed her life.  With ISIS, she had seen her brother beheaded.  She shared how she was bitter.  How could God allow such things and yet demand love in return?  Then she went on to say that one-day, she felt like her son, who was a mute, shouldn’t go to work.  She said, “Jesus spoke to my heart”.  So, she desperately searched and tried to contact her son.  Her son, who was a barber by trade, communicated that he didn’t go to work because he felt like he shouldn’t.  Later that morning, the barbershop was bombed killing 12 people in total.  Then she said, I knew then that God was good.  And that He didn’t cause my brother’s suffering. 

When the young woman had finished her story, there were more selfies and about 5 other women surrounded us.  They each asked me to pray specifically something for them.  So, I wrote it down.  Then, they asked what I could they pray for me.  I told them what I needed prayers for.  And, they each wrote it in their bible.  My name – in their bible.  I was so humbled by the gesture.  They valued me much more than I had valued them.

Another woman told me that she had been very wealthy in Syria.  She had a restaurant and a 3500 square foot house.  She had several cars.  However, in 24 hours her house was robbed.  Her restaurant blown apart, and she was living in a home with 15 other people.  God had saved her and her family and she loved Him for it.

Another women, a teacher of Arabic literature, lived in a resort town and loved skiing.  She discipled 15 women each week in her home.  When I asked, how do you host them, when you only have electricity 2 hours a day and resources are limited?  She said, that at the start of the war, she planted various fruit trees: cherry, apple, apricot, lemon…. etc.  She said that she often could only give fruit to the women.  Her planning and her fruit for lack of better word struck me.  It solidified what bearing good fruit meant in my mind.

At the end of the session one evening, I was asked to walk with the women around the hotel as they shopped.  The Syrian women said that Lebanese prices were much higher than Syria and they couldn’t afford anything.  As we windowed shop, we talked about Christmas and whether they decorated.  Both women were wealthy and said that before the war they had trees and presents.  However, now, some put trees up, some didn’t, but the most profound thing said…I use to buy gifts for my family.  But now, each year, I put a bow on my head and say, you get me!

Upon my return, my neighbor asked what my biggest insight was…the question that haunts me from this trip is would I be faithful?  At the loss of family, business, possession, income, and comfort, would I be able to stand a faithful Christian- before my God and be happy, joyful, and content as these people that I had met.