Monday, February 20, 2012

Not Quite What You'd Expect

Surprises aren't safe. I've never really liked surprises, probably because it means I am not in control. However, the more I know my JESUS, the less I mind them. Each one reminds me that HE is in control and I am along for the ride. So, it's actually turned out to be pretty fun...and humbling to be surprised by people who are not what I expected.

Have a little fun being surprised with me...

It's easy to dismiss the people here as uneducated and dumb. But that is a huge mistake.
Mr. T is a small, quiet, older man. He smiles easily, laughs big and gets really excited over beef jerky! I've seen people yell at him, pass knowing looks about him and brush him off as if he is clueless. He never answers back, or stops smiling. It's obvious he is very kind and patient.
I didn't know he spoke 5 languages.

And there is definitely more to Al than meets the eye. He has a humble job that requires him to help people who often don't even speak to him. He thinks little of himself.
I knew he had strong opinions that he only shares if you want to hear them and that he really listens to others'.
I knew he was smart when he overheard me pondering a math calculation and instantly threw out the answer.
I didn't know that as a child he was taken in by a kind CHRISTian man who poured into him and that after that man died he was on his own when his family couldn't care for him any longer. I didn't know that he survived abandonment, worked hard and studied physics and chemistry at a university in a neighboring country.
I didn't know he was forced to drop out when a violent civil war broke out and that he had to return to Guinea and take a simple job so he could live.
Al is married now, and school is something restricted to the confines of his memory.
He didn't believe me when I told him he was probably smarter than most of the people he serves.

My dad says that you can tell who someone really is by the way they treat the people who (they think) can do nothing for them.
Well, it is these very people who surround us the entire day: store clerks, taxi drivers, mail men, janitors, dishwashers, trash collectors, and the vegetable lady who may provide us the most interesting part of our day. No one is insignificant.

So, if you want an adventure, ask GOD to open your eyes to the wonder HE has for you to see in the people HE has positioned around you. Enjoy the beauty you find in the Unlovely, and the wisdom you find in the Simple.
Be surprised...and while you're at it, do a little surprising of your own ;)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Leave Your Fears At Home

There are some moments that require you to stop and soak in your present reality.
I've had a lot of those moments lately...and yesterday was one of my favorites.

Dee*, an exceptionally cool lady I recently met, invited us to go on an adventure with her. I can hardly keep up with all the adventure I have in the small radius I operate in now, so I didn't really feel like going. But, I am glad we did...

We started early and after clearing the congestion of Conakry, spent another couple of hours driving through villages in the bush. We navigated through mountains, alongside steep ridges and twisted through forests. When the weaving roads proved too much for Wildheart, she objected by vomiting all over my legs. We stopped briefly to recover. I'll not soon forget the faces of the natives whose peaceful day was invaded by our chaotic and wildly putrescent, interjection.

We cleaned up and continued on. I was struck by the contrast of our modern vehicle driving on dirt roads through "neighborhoods" of thatched huts.
I felt like an intruder barreling through their quiet world.

We passed women and children at work, and one of our friends commented that they were doing things they same way they had for a hundred years. As a native of a country that has a new, more efficient way of doing things every five years, I was amazed.
I love the ingenuity of Americans...but I must admit, I was enamored with the beauty of simplicity and community of their methods.

Eventually, we parked at the top of a ridge and hiked down to a clearing where a table had been set in preparation for our arrival. Next to a small hut by a river, under the shelter of trees we sat and broke bread with a few precious ones. We sat on chairs made of sticks nailed together. Goats and chickens wandered by and we offended them by eating some of their rather delicious relatives. Blossoms twirled their way down from the tree branches, finding haven in our glasses. While we sipped juice of the Bobo tree, we took in a sweet smell the breeze was delivering from nearby trees. All of our senses were striving to keep up.

We finished and geared up for another hike, deeper into the bush. Little Aggie, walked ahead of me, periodically looking behind to make sure his old mama was keeping up. As we descended through thick forest, balancing our rocky steps, I was reminded of a few years ago when the LORD began telling me HE wanted me to live free of fear. There is still so far to go, but I realized that if HE hadn't begun that work in me, I would never be here, hiking my babies through a snake-filled African forest.
I relayed this observation to Dee, who added that life in Africa requires leaving your fears at home. After all, there really is no safe place but with the FATHER. It's safer to be on the ledge of a cliff with HIM than to be camped in an armored fortress HE didn't call you to.

Finally, we began to hear the roar of a waterfall. The trees cleared and we approached a stick foot bridge. Little Aggie ran fearlessly across while I followed a little more cautiously. On the other side we found the small beach of a pool whose waters were fed by the tall, glorious waterfall.

The kids charged into the cold water to swim and play. All I could do was stop and take in the reality of where I was. After several minutes, Curly Girl came up to me with a huge smile and no words.
I knew she was feeling the same thing as me.
"Can you believe you're swimming in a waterfall in the middle of a forest in Africa?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"Do you think GOD thought of us when HE made this waterfall? Do you think HE knew the Smith Girls were going to loooove this one?"
"YES!" she responded and then turned and bounded off to swim.

Adventure isn't without cost. There were so many things to be afraid of there, and you can bet that some of them crossed my mind. But, we wouldn't have this experience if we couldn't let go of them.
Francis Chan once compared this life to a gymnastic routine. Imagine a gymnast who spent the entire routine lying down, hugging the balance beam and then finished by carefully sliding off to stand before the judges. Not very exciting. Wouldn't you rather be the one who flips and jumps and barely maintains their balance on that narrow beam and finishes with a dramatic leap to the floor, hands in the air?
Well, I think that's what life with JESUS is meant to be. And it's only scary if I'm seeing it with earthly eyes. Spiritual eyes see beyond what looks scary. Spiritual eyes see that the FATHER has prepared the way ahead of you. Spiritual eyes see the joy and the wonder of abiding in HIM. Spiritual eyes see that when you're with JESUS and HE plans the adventure, all you are is safe.

I'll take an adventure like that anytime.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Ties That Bind

My bed was crowded last night. A small, young woman I met yesterday dominated my thoughts. Even sleep couldn't rescue me from her. She was there beside me all night, robbing me of any real rest.
Robbing is what she does. She's a thief, you see. That's how we met. She sneaked past the guard next door, entered the house and grabbed money, a computer and some other things before the guard spotted her, caught her and tied her up.
For some reason, I was called to come over and see. Probably because everything in Africa is a communal event. When I arrived, the guard and a friend of mine were standing at a distance from the criminal, discussing the event.
Only, she didn't look like a criminal. She looked like a frightened, guilty little twenty year old.
She was a thief, to be sure. She was caught red-handed and I could see in their faces that they were disgusted with her.
I approached her and sat beside her. They called out, "Do you feel sorry for her?"
I did.
But not for the reason they thought. It was not because I was a naive American feeling sorry for an impoverished orphan who turned to theft in desperation. I was grieved because I knew that her bondage was much deeper than the ropes that restricted her little body. She was a prisoner to darkness and deception.
It tore at my heart that she didn't know the freedom of living in the light, of having nothing to hide. She was just being used, you see. That's the enemy's way. He uses people. He incites them, uses them, and abandons them. He has no mercy.

I put my arm around her and although I was told she didn't know French or English, but only one of the village tribal languages, I prayed that somehow GOD would help her to understand what I was telling her. Her head was tucked on her knees, but I leaned in and asked her her name. I told her that she didn't have to steal, that she could be free. There is hope, I said, "Do you know there is hope for you?"

She nodded "yes".

That was all I could communicate. She didn't seem to understand too much of what was being said about her, except for the word "Gendarme" (the local police). Whenever she heard that word, tears would stream down her face. She was terrified. I would have been too. The Gendarme have a reputation for brutality and corruption. Unless you have money to pay them off, you really don't want to ever see them close up.
The guard was waiting on the master of the house to arrive. He would decide her fate. We pleaded with the guard not to allow anyone to beat her. He agreed, as though it were up to him, but said that his master was a good man.

My MASTER is also good. HE doesn't run from troublemakers, thieves and liars. HE doesn't abandon mess-ups and failures. When sin and bad decisions threaten to ruin our lives, HE has a plan of hope.
I once heard someone say that GOD has a plan for you, and if you get off the plan, HE always has a plan to get you back on the plan.
The enemy has a plan for this dark little beauty and his plans end up just as she was, bound and frightened. He gave her what she wanted, prosperity for the moment....for a very small moment. But that's all he can give, you see, because he can't give the good things that last.

My MASTER can.
HE may withhold some things in this temporary life, but it is only so that we can have the riches that last forever. HE isn't content to satiate us with corruptible things. HE wants us to enjoy the things that are forever enjoyable...things that get better and better with time and can never be stolen away from us.

I wish I could tell her that. But, I can't. So, I'll tell you.
Maybe the ties that bind you aren't literal ropes. Maybe they are tighter and deeper and darker.
Hear me! GOD is not afraid of you. You are not the one mess up that HE can't fix. You have not done anything that HE cannot forgive, fix and begin to use in your favor. That's what HE does. HE takes the things that restrict and ruin us, and HE makes them make US victorious!

I'll prove it to you. Here's what JESUS said...

"The SPIRIT of the LORD GOD is upon me;
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
HE has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our GOD;
to comfort all who mourn,
to grant to those who mourn in Zion---
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (a spirit of despair),
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that HE may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations...
...Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
Isa 61:1-4,7

I am living proof that this is true. Can I be honest with you? Throughout the night, when I saw that beautiful girl's crouched body, her head hung in despair, I saw myself.
I lived with ropes for a long time. I didn't see them as ropes, of course. In fact, I tried to make them fashion accessories. It worked for a while, but they just got tighter and tighter.

Then, my WILD MAN burst in and did exactly what HE said he could. HE gave me beauty for ashes.
I don't like ropes as a fashion accessory anymore...I prefer that "garment of praise". Its much more comfortable and it comes without the high price tag of shame.

(Try it on! HE has one that fits you too!)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

In the Quiet

I fought every tendency to "do" today. Once the momentum of going and accomplishing was halted, I was surprised by how much thinking has gone on.
When I was a little girl I would lie on the grass, surrounded by cornfields and look at the sky. I would notice the shapes of the clouds and the blue canvas they decorated...and I would just think. I remember the quietness of it.
Today was a throwback to those times. Days like this won't get me on any Fortune 500 list. I'm not likely to be MVP of anything. 3 year old thinks I am very, very cool.

We had a Kung Fu battle. We kissed little chickens. We played football. We looked at pictures.
I read. I stared. I noticed lizards and birds and flowers and colors and architecture. I thought about smart things people have said and brave things people have done.
I like thinking. In fact...I think that when I return to the land of "doing"...if I decide "doing" will be better because I thought.

I feel sure there is more I could write about this...but I don't think I'll enjoy this glorious breeze as much if my eyes are open.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My Boys

Our flight into Conakry arrived after dark. So, the next morning all of us woke to the morning light with great excitement to explore our new digs. When we got to the balcony, we looked over into the street behind our house and saw a group of boys playing football. They stopped their game and began waving wildly at us. When they saw that we were just as excited to see them, they took that as their cue to run around the block and stand outside our front gate. They blew kisses to WildHeart and she waved sweetly back at her adoring fans.
We continued the tour in our front yard and while speaking with a friend there, we heard someone calling us. We looked over to see that the boys were laying on the ground peeking through the open space at the bottom of the gate and extending their hands to touch us. When WildHeart and Little Aggie saw them they also lay on the ground on our side of the gate. Through that small crack, contrasting little hands and contrasting little lives greeted one another with great affection.
We see these boys in their football jerseys and plastic shoes playing football almost every day. Many times they stop their game to wave and call out to us. Sometimes, we beckon them to the gate to give them a treat. We had been warned not to give out things to groups of children here because they can get vicious and greedy and steal from each other. Not with these boys. They wait patiently for their turn and they say "merci beaucoup".
Yesterday I was returning from the market with the kids. Curly Girl and I each carried a bag full of groceries. As we turned down one street on our journey, we saw some of the boys in the distance. They saw us and ran up to us. Immediately, they took the load from our arms and escorted us the rest of the way to our house. I didn't ask them to and they didn't even expect anything in return.
They were just being gentlemen., doesn't that title conjure up an image of some classy white guy, English perhaps, who says all the right things, uses the right fork and dresses dashingly?
None of that describes my boys. But they are gentlemen.
I think sometimes the real gentlemen among us may be the ones we hardly notice by their appearance but who rise up with acts of honor when the opportunity presents. Maybe its a small opportunity--giving up their seat when their legs are just as tired as everyone else's. Maybe its a huge one--running into a situation everyone else is running out of. Maybe it means they give up their comforts, maybe their lives...but they give it.
I know we're in a culture now that worries that exalting men is really a secret slight to women. I'm not afraid of that.
So, here's to the gentlemen tucked into every country, every color, every age, every neighborhood-we respect you, we appreciate you and we are a lovelier world because of you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


There are a lot of things here that bring me sadness. In fact, there are so many that if I didn't accept that sad things are the reality of what life is here, I wouldn't be able to function. I'd be useless.
Sometimes, though, I am so grieved over something I see that I must give in to the sadness or I wouldn't be able to function. I'd be useless.

Yesterday was like that. A precious man who has served the body of JESUS in Guinea for a long time thought he was finally on the verge of a good job, a priceless thing in this land. Only, it didn't work out that way. Not only did the job prospect fail, but if failed because they discovered something about him, that even he didn't know. He is HIV positive. The people he lives with, who love him so dearly said "People here lose all hope when they get that news."

I can't get that out of my head: They lose all hope. Lately, he has had a lot of hope and I had hope for him. Now, I cannot think of that small, sweet man without tears stinging my eyes.

I know that Africa isn't the only place where people get bad news.
The poor do not have a monopoly on heartbreak....and neither do the rich have a monopoly on hope. We all get some of both.

This week, Guinea has graciously shown me some of the other side too...

A young Guinean born to one of the many wives of a kind Muslim man shared with me how he came to CHRIST along with every one of his brothers and sisters. Amazingly, his father has supported their path and even encouraged them in it. Recently, his uncle asked him why he always hears him pray in the name of JESUS.

A young mother from Ghana spent an afternoon sharing with me how she had begun working as a very young child. I was on the edge of my seat as she ventured into memories of abandonment and abuse. Now, she and her husband have given their own children a safe, happy and loving home. Although, she lamented that she had never been able to go to school, I knew that nothing she would have learned in a classroom could have molded a more amazing woman than the one who sat before me.

An old African man gave me an envelope about 10 minutes after we met. Inside was the resume of a dreamer. He wanted me to have it just in case he makes it to America one day. He felt I would need it in case I wanted to recommend him for a job when he got there.
I'll never get rid of that envelope.

Yesterday, I sat outside visiting with an older woman from Holland. She was about to fly out of the country. She was kind and simple. Nothing about her would cause anyone to look at her twice. I almost overlooked her. Thankfully, I stopped talking and began listening to her and when I did I learned that she had either supervised or worked on a team that has put over 200 different African languages into written form. She is single, had no children and said she has little family to speak of. Yet, the entire continent of Africa is different because of her.

These are people of hope.

Although my heart grieves over cruel disappointments and broken dreams, I realize that hope is not so fickle a thing as we think. You see, true hope cannot ever really be lost. True hope, the kind found in CHRIST is not based on what I wish would happen; it's based on fact, on concrete reality. And HE even gave me proof---HIS very presence in me reminding me of what is to come. That's my hope.

And hope does not disappoint us, because GOD has poured out HIS love into our hearts by the HOLY SPIRIT, whom HE has given us. Romans 5:5