God


the shack a novel by william p. young

A Polish friend of mine has started a book club in Baku, and I am so grateful! It’s forced me to hop back on the reading wagon. I’m also more motivated to read carefully, think about a novel’s themes and context, and underline moving passages.

I’ve also discovered that my most popular blog posts are for my book reviews. It’s funny because after reading mind-blowing book reviews from the New York Times–they are my standard–my reviews come nowhere near theirs. Mine are short, quick, shallow and almost general because I refuse to put spoilers.

Our next reading assignment is on “The Shack” by William P. Young, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in God and/or spirituality to read this book. Yes, it is a Christian book, and it is a little American-touchy-feel-good-sappy, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking. It also forces readers to ask questions.

The novel is centered around Mackenzie Allen Philips, a devout father, who loses his youngest daughter, Missy. She is brutally murdered and found in an abandoned shack. As a result, Mackenzie becomes very depressed and angry with God.

Here’s why I think you should it read it–

1. The book emotionally hooks you in. The first third of the book tells the story of how Missy is kidnapped and brutally murdered. I’m a first grade teacher and I read the book during the Sandy Hook mass murder, which happened to coincide with an internal crisis. I completely related with Mackenzie’s “great sadness” and anger. He was a good father. A hero. He always tried to do the right thing. How could something so horrid, inhuman, undeserving, happen to his daughter and family? I cried for hours as I read through the first few chapters, which means that I imagined myself in Mackenzie’s shoes. I WAS RIGHT THERE! For a reader who has a mild case of ADD, I would say that Young is an excellent writer because he was able to make me fully empathize with his protagonist through the storytelling and dialogue.

2. It asks the age-old question–How can a God that is good allow suffering? Many people, including myself, fear suffering. If I don’t get what I want, am I still loved by God? If I am going through pain, why would a God that is good allow it to happen? The book offers interesting answers that will make you think.

3. It focuses on man’s relationship with God. Many religions around the world focus on ritual and doing good deeds. In the story, we see Mackenzie questioning God. Mackenzie is allowed to be angry with God. Sometimes people want to be the good “believer”. I’m using the word “believer” because I think this book can be read by anyone from any religion. Sometimes we are afraid of questioning God and shaking our fists at Him because, at least in my case, I want to be the “good Christian”. But when God invites us into relationship with Him and we say yes, sometimes, like any human relationship, we get upset and frustrated. The awesome thing with God is He is big enough to take our anger and this is depicted in the book.

4. William P. Young depicts God in an out-of-the-box way. Most of us picture our Heavenly Father as a man who takes care of us. The way Young describes God is in some ways almost laughable. (I won’t spoil it for you!) I also experienced an inner tension because of a gender stereotype that I grew up with.

5. The book ends with hope. Mackenzie’s circumstance didn’t change but his heart did. Young quotes Oswald Chambers at the beginning of chapter 18–Faith never knows where it is being led, but it knows and loves the One who is leading.

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I love waking up to sunny winter skies.  Baku, Azerbaijan.

I love waking up to sunny winter skies. Baku, Azerbaijan.

I was riddled with agony last December, to the point, where at times, I couldn’t pray. I had no words. I could pray for other people if they asked me to and gave me specifics. But I could barely whisper a prayer for myself.

I was asking God for a miracle. I know who my God is. He created the universe from nothing. He is able to resurrect the dead. My God is BIG, BIG, BIG. He is bigger than any situation.

But day after day, I faced a deliberate slap of silence. Un-forgiveness. A hardened heart. Hate, which is an unstoppable cancer. The reality that an upcoming death was imminent. And there was nothing that I could do about it.

Therefore, the agony.

Last night, I watched a video from North Point Community Church, entitled Red Letter Prayers, part 2: The Garden of Gethsemane. The speaker, Joel Thomas, talked about Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus KNEW what He, the son of God, God in a body, was going to go through. He KNEW that He was going to go through the whipping, the humiliation, the crucifixion. He KNEW he was going to die. He also KNEW His Heavenly Father, and He KNEW that His Heavenly Father, the creator of the universe, the one who had the power to resurrect the dead, could stop this at any moment.

Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow. In the book of Luke, who was a doctor, it says that Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus says the following prayer three times. Not one time or two times. THREE TIMES. Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Those words, the surrendered heart, Yet not as I will, but at you will, the acquisition of strength He gained from His Father, this strength, which allowed Him to bear unjust trials, physical pain, bloodshed, humiliation and the crucifixion, is unfathomable. It’s a supernatural strength that can only come from our Heavenly Father. It’s a strength that requires surrender and frees you from the fear of suffering.

What makes it more mind-blowing to me is that He chose death to save not just the people who believed that He is the Messiah, He chose death to save Judas, Caiaphas, the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate, the soldiers who whipped and tortured Him.

He chose a painful and humiliating death so those who hated Him could be reconciled to our Heavenly Father. If that isn’t love, what is?

It made me ask–Can I pray for the person who hates me? Can I bless them no matter what? Can I love the person who hates me and suffer through fruits of their hate?

Yes.

So this morning I woke up and was able to pray again. Not the prayers of agony that involved wrestling and anger and grief and demands of pachimoo.

(Ritual, recipes, formulas are sooooo much easier than relationship.)

Instead, Thy will be done.

View from my apartment window.  Baku, Azerbaijan.

View from my apartment window. Baku, Azerbaijan.

I am soooo excited about 2013! I love New Years because it’s a time for clean slates. I feel like I’m being given a new chance, a blank chapter that awaits to be written.

Yesterday, during Sunday service, J preached about expecting the best from God and giving our best to God. He quoted one of my life verses: Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

As I lift these prayers to Him for the coming year, I’d like to continue to declare that I only expect the best from God. I know that I am His daughter and He loves cherishes me. 2013, bring it on!

My prayers–

1. That I will continue to walk with Him each day. Relationship is not about ticking off my prayer time and bible study time with God. It’s not about going to Sunday service. It’s about DOING LIFE with Him, which means having him as part of EVERY area of my life.

2. To be part of a happy family. I wasn’t sure if I should write this or not because these days, admitting that you want to be married and have children is something people don’t want to hear. It’s embarrassing. It’s something frowned upon and scary. I feel judged for wanting something so natural. This is the culture we live in. It’s anti-family, anti-children, anti-responsibility. One more time I hear, Just be grateful for what you have, I am going to absolutely scream!

This is really the one thing that’s in my heart. I’m praying that God will give me the chance to be a good wife and mother to a man who loves Him and will cherish me. I’m praying for a man who has good intentions and wholeheartedly wants a family and children. I’m not expecting perfection but I pray that God will bless me with someone who can lead a family, love through words and actions and persevere even through the dark valleys which are inevitable.

This year will be the year of dating again and getting to know new people. I’m nervous because I’m an introvert but I’m also excited to see how God writes my story. 2013, bring it on!

3. To continue building meaningful relationships. I’m blessed with my parents and friendships. There have been trying times and I’ve learned that people fight. It’s inevitable. But cutting off relationships is not a solution. I’m reminded about how Jesus equated anger with murder and how he commands us to reach out and make peace with others before making an offering to God. I’ve taken this to heart. I’ve seen how true forgiveness, which means literally giving another a blank slate, can save relationships. And I’ve seen how anger and silence bludgeons them. I’m happy that some people who I didn’t expect to still be are around are by my side. That’s true friendship. I’d like to continue building these old friendships as well as cultivate new ones. I also want to have the strength to pray and love those who’ve cut me off from their life. That’s what Jesus did when I cut Him off from my life. I want to be like Him.

Phew. Two thouuusand thiiirteeeen, bring it on!

4. To continue being passionate about teaching my students. I’m so blessed with my twelve angels and it looks like I’m going to have one more. I just want to continue giving my best to them.

5. To eat healthier and continue taking long walks everyday. I’ve been eating rice for only once a month now and I’ve been walking 5 to 10 kilometers a day. Tomorrow, it will be time to limit sweets to once a week.

6. To learn Russian 10 hours a week.

7. To continue exploring Baku, take photos and blog. To continue reading and going to my book club.

Now reading "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk  So far, so good.

Now reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk So far, so good.

God, I can’t wait to see how you answer my prayers. 2013, bring it on!!

Let me start by saying that I didn’t want to get up this morning. I signed up for the prayer group in church, and today was my turn to lead. Thankfully, duty trumped grief, so I got up and took a shower.

In the past, I would pray for guidance on what to pray about. But these past few days have been difficult. I can’t pray. I have no words, at least, nothing proper. Nothing that I think, with my limited mind–and believe me, it is limited–nothing that I think God would want to hear.

The only story that kept popping into my head was Lazarus’s death. So with bible app on hand, I went to the meeting devoid of prayer points. All I had was this story in which I could fully empathize with Mary.

Mary had a relationship with Jesus and everyone knew it.–verse 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)

It’s very difficult for me to understand these verses. Why did Jesus wait?–verses 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days — Why didn’t He save Lazarus? Pachimoo? (Russian for why, currently my favorite word.)

This is me blaming God for death.–verse 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I know that Jesus is with me through grief. — verse 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 35 Jesus wept.

And then there is the ugly beast of shame. I want people around me to know that my God is real, not some delusion I created to make me feel better. — verse 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

J, is our prayer group leader in church. He is a simple African man. Today, God used him to speak into my heart. I told him I couldn’t pray. All I had was this story. He started praying for me and his words breathed life into my heart. The fog of grief I woke up with, literally lifted. He also told me to praise God for the grief I was in. What praise God for this?? Are you kidding??, would be my normal reaction, and there is no way that I would be able to in an authentic manner. But I’m doing this Christ who strengthens me. I see things from the perspective of eternity, not my self-centered emotions.

So now that I’m done with my looong prelude, here are 7 things that I am thankful for in 2012.

1. My relationship with Christ.

10_fountain square

Ritual is so much easier than relationship. Relationship involves time, prayer and letting God into every area of my life. Relationship means doing life with someone. Sometimes it means giving up things that are not aligned to His will because I love Him more than anyone and anything. I’m thankful that through the ups and downs He is there and I know in my heart He is good all the time and wants what is best for me. God is awesome. Thank you, God, for never giving up on me in spite of my shortcomings.

2. I’m thankful for my relationship with my Dad and Mom.

03_cafe ysabel

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It’s also been a roller-coaster ride with my parents. But in spite of everything, I would say that my parents and I have a very authentic relationship. We are so honest with each other. We can say anything we want and know that at the end of the day we will still be here for each other. Our relationship, our family, is more important than our pain. I believe that we are designed to always have a connection with our parents. Sometimes it’s painful, and it involves a lot of forgiveness and letting go of “being right”. I’m glad that my parents and I have a solid relationship no matter what the circumstances are.

3. I’m grateful for the death of someone I love.

11_flowers

I’ve accepted that I’ll never see this person’s buck-tooth smile again. I’ll never hug this person or hear their voice or receive another email. I’m grateful that this death is not the end. I will see this person again in heaven. This is where I go back to Lazarus’s Death. At the end of the story, Lazarus lives again. I’m looking forward to that day.

I’m also not going to let death define something that was full of happiness, joy and love. I’m not going to ask pachimoo anymore because the reality is, there is no answer. Only hope. Only resurrection in Christ.

4. I’m grateful for friends everywhere. In the Philippines, US, India and now, Azerbaijan.

12_friends

I love my friends. They have been a great blessing to me all of my life. Real friends stick together no matter what.

5. I’m grateful for my first grade class.

My beautiful first graders.

My beautiful first graders.

I love my little angels.

6. I’m thankful for my India experience!

The children of the Adivasi tribal community.

The children of the Adivasi tribal community.

I loved the teachers I worked with and just being immersed in a diverse culture.

7. I’m grateful for living in beautiful Baku.

Icherisheher metro station

Icherisheher metro station

And I’m looking forward to more open blue skies.

Thank you, 2012. You were a difficult year but I survived you. Thank you for the ups and downs. One more day and it’s 2013! I can’t wait!

A walk along the Caspian. Baku, Azerbaijan.

A walk along the Caspian. Baku, Azerbaijan.

This morning I woke up with a song in my heart.
So I’ve been in Baku,
this hidden jewel of a city
by the Caspian.
It’s been all about the dust settling down.
Work permits, getting my first graders ready.
Learning Russian. Okay so I’ve taken a hiatus but will hop back on the learning train again.
Spaseba.

It’s been all about meeting new friends,
many times, from unexpected places.

It’s been all about buying winter clothes–sweaters.
Winter hats.
These cushy tall shoes.

This morning I woke up with a song in my heart.
It’s been about waiting.
Giving second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth chances,
until there were none.

It’s been about taking long walks,
Along this polluted, damaged, devastatingly beautiful Sea.
But still, I go, walk,
drown in sky deep blue.

This morning I woke up with a song in my heart.
A song graced,
celebrating murky seas, dark valleys.
A song that skips with the highs of the Baku wind,
whistling.
A song that keeps me beneath its wing.
Warm, cushy.

This morning I woke up with my heart singing.
I’ve been gifted with a new day,
open skies.
Blue.
I’ve closed a door with my heart full of love, blessings and hugs.
Only blessings for the people I love,
and full respect for the choices they make.
So this morning I woke up with a song in my heart,
excited for new doors to walk into,
new possibilities.
God has no limit.
I’m excited for Him to write the next chapter in my life,
and see how it unfolds,
day by day.

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Looking back, it’s very hard to believe that on two separate occasions, I didn’t speak to my Dad for one whole year. (That makes two whole years in total!) I was resentful. Bitter. I felt like he didn’t know me and didn’t care to take the time to build a relationship with me. My heart was hardened. I was in the right. He was in the wrong. I didn’t care if he said sorry. I had decided to build a wall to protect myself from pain.

I’m not sure how things started to turn around for me and my Dad. All I know is that I had finally turned to my Heavenly Father. It was clear that He wanted me to forgive, give my Dad a blank slate, and honor him no matter what. Even in his imperfections. I had to make a heart decision, not once or twice, but several times. And I can tell you that although it was difficult, it was well worth it because I’m now enjoying the rewards of having a loving relationship with my earthly Dad!

Today, as I had lunch with him in Cafe Ysabel, it was obvious that he wanted to spend time with me just talking and enjoying each others’ presence. After being away for a year and a half, there is nothing more I want in this world than to spend quality time with him. Life is short, fragile, full of unexpected turns. I’m choosing to spend that time with loved ones.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Here are some lifelong lessons I’ve learned by seeing my Dad in action.

1. Never give up on the people you love no matter what the circumstance is. My Dad has stood by my mom, sister, brother and me through our ups and downs. We have hurt him deeply on uncountable occasions. But he has never cut us off or left us. My Dad’s greatest joy is the simple pleasure of seeing us and being with us. In today’s world of disposable relationships, where people break ties because they are unhappy or not getting what they want from the other person, my Dad has gone against the norm. He stands by us. Supports us. He is there for all of us when we are sick. When we need help. When we are broke. When we are stomping our feet and throwing tantrums. When we walk through dark emotional valleys that seem to have no end. When we turn our backs on him and betray him. My Dad stands by us, fights for all of us and protects us. I see this choice my Dad makes over and over again and it has cut my heart. I am amazed at his strength. He is like a boxer who keeps on getting knocked out but keeps on standing up again as he slugs through the pain. I can only pray that God gives me half of his strength through the inevitable dark valleys in life.

2. Treat people equally no matter what their race or socio-economic status is. My Dad used to take me to Aurora market, a wet market near Cubao. Every week, a man with cerebral palsy would limp up to him and sell him sweepstakes tickets. And every week, my father would buy a ticket from him. My Dad always greets doormen, waiters, waitresses and other service people. He makes them feel valued by engaging them in small talk.

3. Value learning. You’ll never see my Dad without a newspaper or novel. He is always reading or watching CNN and talking to me about world politics. In other words, he’s a nerd! He is always encouraging me and my brother to explore further studies. He values that I’m an international school teacher so I can share this love of learning with others.

I have the best Dad in the world who has taught me lifelong lessons through his actions. I am so grateful and glad that today I am able to spend time with him and honor him. I love you, Dad!

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