My box of hope.

My box of hope.

I received my box of hope today. With all my clothes inside, methinks. Fedexed. I haven’t opened it. I’ll probably open it tomorrow. Or the next day. And unpack my clothes. Clothes left in hope.

Grief is good once you decide to walk through it. I’m treating this as a death, because whenever we lose people we love, it is a death. And I’m saying grief is good because I’ve decided to walk through it. Carry my cross. Surrender.

Unwrestle.

One thing I am grateful for, in receiving this box of hope, is that I once again see a glimpse of the person I thought I knew. Good heart. Generous spirit. The man who took responsibility. It got lost somewhere.

But with this box of hope, I see a glimpse of it again, and for that, even if my heart bleeds, I am grateful today.

For this box of hope.

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.

49_above the smog

Photo taken from www.amazon.com

Photo taken from http://www.amazon.com

We’ve been using Stepping Up: A Journey through the Psalms of Ascent for the past few weeks in bible study. I highly highly recommend this book to any Christian woman who desires a deeper relationship with God. I also recommend that it be used as a bible study guide.

The workbook takes us through Psalms 120 to 134. It is an interactive book which asks you to read and study the bible, as well as discern how you can apply God’s word in your life. The book comes with a DVD where Beth Moore shares her insights into the Psalms of Ascent. Her talks are full of substance. You can tell that she studied God’s Word within its historical context.

Here is why I think you should read this book:

1. Beth Moore’s writing reads like a conversation. Her language is simple and engaging. I feel like I’m sitting right next to her as I read the book.

2. In spite of the simple language, the book is full of substance. I learned a lot about the historical context of the psalms of ascent, which made me understand God’s word in a deeper way.

3. It’s led me into a deeper relationship with God. I learned how to pray on my knees, face down, to my King of Kings. Somehow, this made me realize how awesome God is, and how worthy He is. I can’t explain in this in any rational manner. It’s an intimacy that you can only experience when you try it out. Once you see God s the King of Kings, everything, problems, negative emotions, all of it, shrink.

4. If you’re thinking of putting structure into your daily bible reading, this is the perfect guide. I’m the type of woman who needs structure to keep motivated and get things done. This book helped me read my bible everyday.

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!

Door to my apartment building.  Baku, Azerbaijan.

This is an experiment in fiction inspired by a photograph where I was looking out a door window. It is also my way of grieving and knowing that when you lose someone here on earth, through death or other means, it is not the end. One day, I will see their face in heaven again, and that gives me the peace to let go.

I have no idea if I will finish this because once school starts my focus will be on work. But if you have any ideas, suggestions on how to improve upon this, I’d love to hear from you.

***

There was the uncertainty,
a new air in her lungs.
As if breath wallowed inside,
reaching, penetrating
slicing gut,
sub-cells.
Her bones.
New, she whispered to herself. Everything new.

Then, an old faded memory
slight stink of mold,
of darkness, writhing,
under green covers
peeling flesh
refusing doctors.
Lumps lumps lumps.
All she could think of
amidst the wetness of tears
was the other side
face dry.
Light.
The other side,
the glass door.
Take me to the other side.

And now, here she was.
This uncertainty,
skin white,
iridescent
new, the word popping in her mind, new new new.
and all that breathing.
As if each breath cell were solid,
something to eat,
sweet,
delicious
filling her up.

And then, there was him.
She always knew he was there,
a thin presence
as she spoke to the invisible
on bended knee
face down
endless tears
as no change for the better happened.
And instead decay.
She waited for decay.
Black rotten.

He walked towards her.
Crown on head,
stones, colors,
she couldn’t name.
Yet approachable,
Warm slush in her heart.
His eyes
reflecting her softness
her crumbling heart.
Her knees gave way.
He caught her hands.
Gravity escaped.

“Pachimoo?” Russian for why.
She refused to ask this question on the Other side.
Sometimes the word, Pachimoo,
would slip in the crevices of her thoughts,
and she liked that word.
Pachimoo.
It lacked the seriousness of its English counterpart.
It meant that she could laugh at the script she played out on the Other side.
It meant that she knew,
one day there would be no more lines.
Just a blank sheet,
no words,
and a deep longing to leave stage.
Pachimoo meant walking towards the door,
looking back,
giggling,
at how serious we actors were,
truly feeling love and anguish,
just to have the lines yanked out.
Mid-word.
When you still had so much to say.

“Pachimoo,” the whisper flew off her tongue,
and she regretted it.
She was afraid he would dislike her.
Not call her his daughter, his friend.
Praising him with her lips one second,
questioning him another.

He placed his hand on her forehead.
It was warm,
and then there was the unraveling.

“You are released from the clutches of war.”