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Gifts of Summer

I was looking through my folder of updates that I send to people at home and found the one I wrote just after I got back to Chiang Mai from my summer at home. 

I cried. 

It was hard for me to adjust back into the swing of things here in Chiang Mai after my colorful summer at home. But once I was adjusted, I almost forgot about it. And that makes me sad, that I would forget something that beautiful. 

So I decided to share it on here. 

I miss them. 

Gifts of Summer

(May 12-July 28)

Lights from the Chinese airfield are bright in my eyes at 4 AM. The floor is hard, yet not too hard to sleep. Something bites my feet and I wonder what kind of insects would inhabit the carpet of Guangzhou airport. 11 hours down and 6 more hours to go until my rescheduled flight leaves. The night has been long, but the people who befriended me have been kind. We have our own little Thai corner in this Chinese airport, these disappointed travelers and I, and we dream our troubles away.

Home feels just right. It is Monday morning and I wake up to a drizzle on the roof. A robin’s rain call echoes. Dad comes striding in over the lawn after fetching the newspaper after the morning’s milking. Smells of breakfast drift up to my jet-lagged body. Life feels good.

The little blonde boy holds the strawberries in his hand and laughs with delight. We sit on the west porch and first munch our fruit, then wash it down with “coffee” which is flavored milk in Grandpa’s mug. He is quite pleased that he uses Grandpa’s mug. “Now we have to watch the birds,” he says, meaning the swallows that swoop over the lawn in the morning.

The night is soft and cool. The train whistle splits the evening air. We run laughing, breathless and barefoot to meet it at the crossroads. Its thunder drowns our heartbeats and we savor the power harnessed by man.

The fork clinks onto the plate of pie. One coconut, one peanut butter chocolate, one apple. The pie case door thumps as it shuts. Ice tinkles as it is scooped into a glass. Someone laughs. The smell of French fries and a thousand other fried things drifts up to the front. I clear the leftover pie plates from the table. Put the tip in my pocket. Scrape the food into the trash. Scoop ice. Fill waters. Grab silverware. Smile. “Would you like anything else to drink besides water?”

The volleyball thumps onto the cement floor before hitting the fence with a “ching.” In. Next serve goes into the net. The spicy smell of evergreens pervades the air, the air is cool and the moon is bright tonight. It is late. I should be in bed. But tonight I am 16. And I am having fun.

The motor throbs in the early morning. The sunrise glows in the east. Cows crowd into the barn. Wipe the dirt from the teats, dip them, strip out a stream of white milk, wipe them clean, put on the milker, dip them, open the gate. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

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They come streaming onto the benches that squeak under the weight. 28 bare feet wiggle as 14 mouths sing the old German songs of Summer Bibel Schule. I relive my childhood in those days, remembering how the big boys used to sing the refrain of “Nur das Blut das Lammes Jesu,” and how deep and scary their voices were and how awe-inspiring they were to little first graders. Then we sing, “Herr ich Komm” and I remember the little jumps we liked to add to the chorus, and wonder how exasperated our teachers must have gotten.

Thistles blow in the wind. The wide sky touches the green world around me and grasses wave. Thrust the spade down. Dig up the roots. Clip off the pretty purple flowers and put them in a bucket. Breath deeply and stretch. The air is medicine.

“Sing it again!” she says fascinated, her eyes bright. I sigh and launch into the 31st rendition of “Boom di ya da” in Thai. “Chan chaub du pukao, chan chaub du talee yai…”

The wheat field sighs. It is pregnant with its harvest and only awaits the teeth of the combine. Elevators seem dominate the horizon, even though there aren’t any more than before. Tractors, trucks and combines drone late into the night. The harvest lures me, calls me, fascinates me.

5:00 AM. June 20. My sister’s cell phone rings and I hear her answer it sleepily from my room. It is my older sister, Susan. “Happy Birthday,” she says.

9:49 AM. June 20. I answer the phone at my sister’s house. “Happy Birthday,” says my brother in law. Evan Samuel, born June 20. Yes, happy birthday!

The bean row is long. Longer than I have ever seen before. And there are 6 of them. Stretching all the way from Pleasantview to Yoder. Yet a feeling of satisfaction fills me as I wipe the sweat off my face and look at the fruits of my labor. It feels good.

Mozzarella sticks. Onion rings. French fries. Mountain Dew. We are not eating healthy this afternoon. Two excited boys share the booth seat in front of me. We eat our fried things with relish, laugh at ten year old boy jokes and sing the worm song as we suck the onions out of the breading. Happy Birthday, Davon.

Creak of the saddle. Sunflowers in my horse’s bridle. Laughter of friends. The night is soft. Lights create crazy silhouettes of rider forms running through the dark and dust. We gallop through the dark, and gallop and gallop and gallop….

Itch….. itch……. Itch…itch… Itch..Itch.Itch.Itch.Itchitchitchitchitchitchitch. The red rash reminds me that I am not immune to poison ivy after all. Itchitchitchitchitchitchitch…..

The cravings come at odd times, late at night when people on the other side of the world are eating their spicy, mouthwatering, lime-juice laden, cilantro-decked food over fluffy white rice. I eat an egg sandwich. And munch cereal.

Cancer. The word splinters the joy of summer with shock. Breast cancer. Brain cancer. We discuss the implications with furrowed brows and hushed voices.

We cram into the cabin as rain drums outside. Twenty-five Hershbergers in one cabin is quite a feat. And quite noisy. The left-behind ice chests finally arrive and we eat the creamy ice cream it contains, savoring the cool before we sing some songs. We have this moment to hold in our hands.

Colors go wild. The wake of the boat swathes white into the blue of the water as we skim along the surface. Red bluffs and blue sky, bluer water and white foam, green grass and white gulls. A gull follows us for a while. We do a loop in the water and I put my hand out to feel the spray. The little blonde boy falls asleep.

Six of them. I count heads again to make sure, make sure none of them bobbed beneath the water too long. We splash in the water and laugh, chasing sticks bobbing on the surface, savoring life.

It was summer. We lived it. It was good.

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Dispelling Commonly-Believed Slightly Exaggerated Myths about Young Anabaptist Females Living in and Working in a Cross-Cultural Setting in Southeast Asia

*Disclaimer: Not all of these myths or the shattering thereof are applicable to all mission workers or others in volunteer service around the globe. I speak of my own personal experience and those in my household in Asia.

*Disclaimer 2: This is not to prevent people from asking me about some of these myths. I don’t want people tiptoeing around me, afraid of saying something for fear that they voice a wrong assumption. This is only an effort to put some light on the truth of what it is like to be a young Anabaptist female living in and working in a cross-cultural setting in southeast Asia. People tend to put workers of that mold on a pedestal. Pedestals can become very lonely at times.

  1. We are strong, independent and don’t need others.

While we may appear strong and independent, it is because there may be a slight element of truth to that. We have been forced to become strong and independent or at least appear so because there are others looking to us for guidance. However, seldom a day goes by when I do not check my email, wishing for an encouraging email or a simple “hello, I am thinking of you.” I also am grateful for each and every one of the older couples on my Asian side of the world who offer me a comfortable shoulder to cry on if I need one. 28 year-olds can feel a lot like 5 year-olds at times.

  1. We don’t have personal problems or doubts

WRONG. Mission workers can be some of the most messed up people in the world. Your problems do not magically melt away the moment you step foot on foreign soil. In fact, they are usually compounded. Working in missions usually means working with people, which means the junk inside of you gets stepped on. A lot.

  1. We don’t want to get married.

This is a big one. I’ve had various friends over the years make the statement or assume that I am so focused on my work and I have so much purpose in my life that I don’t want to get married and that is why I am not married. Sure, back when I was 13 years old, I drew a picture of what my life career was going to be and it included sitting at a desk writing with cats on my shoulder and in every part of the room. I labeled it “Old Maid Writer.” While it looks like I am well on my way to that goal, I can also say that I have grown up a bit since I was 13. Yes, we are passionate about what we do, but we are also women with personal dreams and desires. While giving up work to become a wife and mother would require some refocusing of the mind, we also believe that the calling of being a wife and mother is every bit as important as being a full-time mission worker.

  1. We are living in mud huts and eating plain rice every day. We are usually scared for our lives.

Sadly, no. While I would at times prefer the mud hut to the city life I live, it’s not the case. Yes, there are some conveniences we miss about living stateside, but we really are a pampered lot. We have a microwave, internet access, mail from the other side of the world that can be delivered in about 10 days (ok yes, it does get lost at times), fast food restaurants, shopping malls bigger than anything I have ever seen in small town Kansas, coffee makers and beds to sleep in. We do experience the occasional rat or snake and food poisoning, but majority of our lives are not spent looking over our shoulder to check for a tiger or a guerilla (the human kind), and the main things that keep us up at nights are the cats fighting on the roof and the spicy Northern Thai Larb that we unscrupulously devoured at 8 PM. We even forget to lock the gate at times.

  1. We don’t get cynical or discouraged about the work we do.

Nope. See number 2.

  1. All our prayers are answered on a daily basis and we see miracles happening every day

God is the same God on that side of the world as He is in America. Sadly, we are also the same people and if we don’t let God have free rein in our lives in either place, He will not work like He wants to. Yes, sometimes more miracles may seem like they happen in foreign countries, but that usually happens when we place ourselves in situations that require a miracle. The main miracles that I see happening on a daily basis is the sun coming up and me being able to breath and live out another day without losing something or forgetting something. (ok, so that last miracle doesn’t necessarily happen on a daily basis.)

Are there any I missed?

Hurry

Hurry has no poetry.

It only rushes, muttering, grumbling.

Dashing here. Dashing there.

Nibbling. Never tasting.

Dabbling. Never diving.

Skittering on the surface.

No, hurry has no poetry.

 

For poetry lives in the soul of the rain,

That slowly comes, murmuring,

Mysteriously through the night;

Whispering, never shouting,

Trickling, never pounding,

Soaking to the heart of the earth.

For poetry lives in the heart of the rain.

August 19, 2016

Those Poor Children

Author’s note: I am not disclaiming the need in any way for humanitarian aid, justice for those oppressed or at risk, or education for those who lack it. Those who know me best will attain to that fact. However, I am simply restating the well known fact that wealth and prosperity have  never been known to bring happiness. 

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I’ve seen children sitting afloat pieces of junk in a murky little sewer stream, splashing in the water, challenging each other to jump across, or pretending to push each other into the smelly depths. I’ve seen these same children fight out a game of “sabaa” on a dirt road, similar to bowling but using small round stone-like seeds, plucked from a tree in the mountains. They squat in the dust and with screams and squeals play the game, squabbling as they play, but usually emerging from the argument with a smile and laugh. Dirty- faced younger siblings play in the road as well, fighting mock battles with sticks, or other trash pulled from the dump that borders the Thai slum village. It’s dirty. It’s dusty. It’s smelly.

And then….. I turn around.

And see immaculate houses filled with toys, crammed with food, with all the comforts you would want. I see children with no siblings and with abnormal levels of self -entitlement screaming their wrath to the world because they were denied a certain color crayon.

I see parents bowing to all wishes—- Child, “I want this toy-a!”

“But honey, you’ve got one at home!”

“But not just like this-a!”

“Ok, ok, honey! We’ll get you one as soon as we can!” Heaven forbid that we cause another tantrum!

I see parents with their children on an unseen leash, protecting and wrapping them in invisible bubble wrap—“Dear, don’t run! You might fall!”

“Darling, don’t go out into the sun! It’s so hot!”

“Honey, don’t get wet! You might catch a cold!”

Disobedience is met with a “Oh- you’re -so -cute -and –so- bad- and- what –on- earth- will- we –ever- do –with- you” shake of the head and a sigh.

Forgive me, parents. I know that if I ever have children of my own, I might look back with a little more understanding.

But please….. Let the child climb that tree and stomp in that puddle and make that mud pie and use that hammer! Let him fall! Let him bleed! And please, please, don’t, don’t give him everything he wants!

I endured one of the happiest childhoods of anyone. We swam in the dirtiest water you could imagine— the algae infested cattle tanks on our farm. We made mud pies and shot baby sparrows and set them in the middle of the mud pies. We painted our faces and made teepees in the grove of evergreen trees and made paper boats and floated them off down the ditch after a hard rain. We built dusty houses out of small square straw bales and climbed the barn walls in search of sparrow nests and built tree houses in as many trees that God allowed to be suitable for tree houses. We had tea parties on the roof; we woke up at 4:30 to watch a summer sunrise; we rode our pony full speed down dirt roads and through grassy fields; we drank out of hoses; we ran through the sprinkler; we acted out Indian powwows; we rattled around on one speed bikes, reenacting the Kentucky Derby. We used our imagination where our resources were low.

We also worked. We planted potatoes and green beans and corn. We picked strawberries until we thought that we were going to die and threw the rotten ones at each other when we were bored. We pulled weeds. We harvested potatoes and green beans and corn and vowed to never, ever plant 5 long rows of green beans when we grew up. We fed baby calves. We milked cows. We brought cows in from the pasture and on sweltering days stepped into the manure patties in an attempt to cool off our bare feet. We broke ice for the calves’ water when the weather turned freezing.

We were deprived of TV, computers, and internet. We got to go to town at the most about once a month. We went out to eat as a family at the most 3 times a year.

Were we happy? Yes. Were we perfect? No.

But …. I sorta feel like we turned out ok.

And none of us grew up with the belief that the world owed us anything. If anything, we owed the world. Sheltered as we still were, we still knew there was a big, mean world out there, and we were inwardly, as much as children can, grateful that we could live the simple life we did.IMG_0816

My growing up years were far from being that of a street urchin. However, sometimes I see the two pictures in my mind—one of the slum children squatting by the dirty little stream and one of the rich little girl demanding the right kind of toy from her parents.

And I wonder.

Which one should I really feel sorry for?

 

 

 

When Tears Become a Language

Sometimes as I travel home late at night on my motorbike I feel a sense of camaraderie with those other late night travelers as we stop at a stoplight, waiting for the warmth of the green signal again and then shooting off again in the night, going for home, wherever it is. Sometimes I feel lonely as I round the curve under the glare of the streetlight with no other vehicle in sight. Sometimes I feel exhilarated with the speed and the wind on my face and the deep night sky in the few places stars are visible.

But usually its sadness, the inexplicable burden that rises in the darkness of a half sleeping city and hovers over my soul as I sweep along the snaking three lane highway at night. Sadness, that grips and coils like the tentacles of a giant octopus with no explanation for its heaviness. Sadness, with no story to foretell its coming and no voice behind its burden. Just sadness. It clings over my soul like the smog clings to the city in the daytime. A sense of melancholy, but more an ache.

Sometimes sadness brings a song, a dirge. This has nothing of the sort. This is only a cloud hanging over my soul, caught from the winds blowing from the heart of the city, the true heart. It is the cloud that collects the dust of unbelief, the ashes of hope burned unrestored, and the fog of fear from a world caught in senseless cycle of animism and materialism.

Man cannot drive it away. No amount of positive thinking or meditation or even goodness will cleanse this smog of sadness without the cleansing rain of the Maker of Hope.

It creeps around my soul. I lift my eyes to the sky, let the tears fall and cry out for those who, too, have become my people and whose storyless sadness numbs my own soul.  These tears become the medium and the voice for the sadness of these people whose sin has burned into existence this cloud. The cry echoes out of the emptying streets of sleeping Chiang Mai, swirls above the hundreds of exquisite and grotesque temples, circles the mountains and the high places where thousands worship each day, and climbs, climbs, climbs the heavens to the very throne of God.

And at the right hand of the throne, stands One who intercedes for those whose sadness has finally been given voice. Even if only through tears.

 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Romans 8:26

 

Why Sightseeing Is Not Enough

The following are some ramblings from tonight. I seem unable to fully put into words what I really want to say, like usual. But I decided to go ahead and publish itself in its imcompleteness. Perhaps others will have another perspective. Also, this is not saying that foreign long term missions are the only way to go. What I’m trying to say is don’t be somewhere where you can’t be all there, and where you can’t stay and plug in your heart.

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Doi Tao, Chiang Mai. (photo credit JJ Burkholder)

I love traveling. Few things thrill me like standing in the huge Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and watching the swarms of people, all of them going places. I love the feel of the airport, the delightful mix of ethnicities- from the turbaned Arab of the UAE, to the excited, jabbering Chinese tourists, to the veiled Islamic Iranian women, to the purposeful, striding Americans to the gentle Thai bathroom cleaners.  The call of the unknown beckons. There’s the excitement of running to catch your plane, the interesting conversations with your seatmates like the man from Uzbekistan who is searching for truth or the Indian woman on her way home for the birth of her child. And sometimes you sit beside people who plug up their ears with earbuds as soon as they take a glance at you. Those are the times you look out your window and gaze in awe at the clouds below, glinting the rays of the afternoon sun, or at the sight of the gigantic blue earth so far, far away and so beautiful that you would never guess the sorrow and the pain that is rooted deeper than the roots of any tree.

Neither do I need to fly to get into the feeling of being a tourist. Chiang Mai has more tourists than a street dog has fleas. You can’t go into the inner city without stepping on them. They come from all over- Belgium, Germany, France, China, USA, Canada, Russia, and more. They walk the city with their hiking backpacks and long blonde hair and funny accents when they try to greet a native in Thai. And they’re always going somewhere. To the elephant camp. To the pottery shop. To the Hmong village. To the longneck Karen village. To Tiger Kingdom.

We are constantly on the go. We fill our passport with visa stamps and are a wee bit proud when we need to add extra visa pages in order to have enough to scratch the travel bug on our itching feet. (excuse my mixing metaphors). We go home with colorful stories of the people we met, or the food we ate, or the amazing pictures we took of the Akha child in her gorgeous tribal headdress, or the brilliant eyes of the Indian slum girl. We can even add in some stories that pull on heart strings and make others want to go view the same.  And we’re always talking about the next place we’ll be going to. We want to do all these things, as many as possible, before we die, like we won’t have any room for adventure after we die.

I’m not saying it’s bad. The travel bug hits me hard and plenty. Words like “wonderlust” and “beyond the horizon” used to resonate with me.

But now they sound so empty.

Empty.

People say travelers have rich experiences. And they do. But when we go and see and do and go home, we are denying ourselves some of the richest experiences of our lives. And that only comes when we go and see and do and stay.

We forget that the real treasure in everything we experience lies in the heart of God.

No matter how unique, or cool or amazing all those amazing sights are.

And one of the ways to knowing the heart of God as deeply as possible is to know and understand the human heart.

We forget that immersing into a new language and a new culture is one of the most beautiful experiences a human can have, as well as the most painful. Because if you learn to understand  someone’s culture and their language, you begin to understand their heart.

Suddenly they are no longer just a picture, or a story, or even a random person you met on the streets of Vietnam.

They become a part of your heart. From being just a picture of an Akha girl with a stunning headdress, she becomes a friend, a student, or a daughter.The Indian girl with the deep black eyes becomes real too- not simply a photograph or a story, a memoir from your travels.

Instead of traveling and  viewing  magnificent or notorious sights, and grinning to ourselves as we cross it off our bucket list, while planning our next trip, we actually experience what we see. By living in it. By becoming a part of it. By making this people and this land ours.

When that happens, sometimes some of the glossiness gets wiped off the pictures. When we actually get our hands dirty and realize the extent of the pain this world has to offer, we would rather move on, skimming from country to country, not carrying these people in our hearts anymore.

Two weeks ago, I took a short trip to a hill tribe village way back in the mountains. We spent a night and a day there, traveling roads that curved and climbed impossibly, playing with the children, watching in the New Year on the lookout. We slept outside under stars that were deeper and brighter and closer than any I’ve ever seen, punched out of a sky of velvet. We ate rice and spice like nothing else I’ve had. I even got a bite of rat.

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Karen children at Doi Tao, Chiang Mai (photo credit: JJ Burkholder)

 

But it wasn’t enough.We had a less than 24 hours actually staying in the village. I needed to talk with the most of the  villagers through the help of the children translating from my Thai to the Karen language. I had no idea what these people’s lives were like in the last 10 years before we met. I didn’t know their struggles, or their hopes, or their passions.  Sure, I got an experience, something to write home about and something to shock my mom with (the rat part.) But it wasn’t much more than a passing experience.

It all seems so useless if you don’t stop and stay and become.

 

 

 

I Was Not Made for this World

I Was Not Made For This World

 

I was not meant for this world, this place

I was not meant to live in such a realm

In such a realm of shadows and fog

And window glass dirtied with dark sin-smog

That blurs sharp details of that glorious Face

That I seek

No, I was not meant for this world, this place

 

I was not made to live in this skin

This body of muted hearing and feeling and touch

That cannot grasp the story so long

That faint, faint echo that kindled its song

In that Eden place I was made for before my sin

Dulled my senses

No, I was not made to live in this skin

 

I did not ask to be born in a fight

Where every breath and thought is a move in a battle

And life itself is a war-torn field

Of past mistakes, future fear; and offenses wield

Pain as a bait when hope loses sight

And is blind

No, I did not ask to be born in a fight

 

 

Yet, somehow, here I am, and I fight, and I live

In a world and a skin I was not meant to have

I seek for a Face that is blurred by the glass

And echoes of that Eden place where greener is the grass

And with a Power I cannot explain, I stand and I give

All glory and praise

To the One who enables me to fight and to live

LH- Written July 2014