Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Those Outside the Gate...

Recently, I put together this photo collage to put up on my inspiration wall in my home office. It is now hanging on the wall right above my computer screen. It is the first thing that my eyes see when I look up from working on my computer.

All four are images of children outside the gate... and they are the reason why our family tirelessly advocates for Compassion.

I am guest posting today over at the Compassion Family blog. Come on over and read about each of these children and also about how our family spent this past weekend and how this verse ties into it...
Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. God’s kingdom belongs to people like them. (Mark 10:14)
I hope to see you over at Compassion Family...! :)

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Our Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis... for such a time as this!

We all saw it... that heart-wrenching photo of little Aylan Kurdi's body washing up on that Turkish beach.

It was a lazy summer evening in early September and our whole family was sitting around watching late-night television. Hubby is a self-proclaimed news junkie so he was characteristically scrolling through the news on his hand-held tablet as we all watched a show together.

I will never forget the look on his face as he handed me his hand-held device and said, "You'll want to read this." It was this CNN article. I read the first couple sentences and was instantly undone...
The 3-year-old lies face down, his head to one side with his bottom slightly up -- the way toddlers like to sleep.
But the water is lapping around his face and his body is lifeless. (Source: CNN)
I am quite embarrassed to admit that, until that night, I was oblivious to the Syrian refugee crisis that was ballooning out of control

The next few days, my eyes were glued to the news and to my social media feeds. The world, it seems, just like myself... got jolted out of its obliviousness

I will forever be grateful for people like my friend, Ann Voskamp, who chose to use her powerful online presence to speak out for Syrian refugees. Within a few hours, she had set-up a Facebook page called Aylan's Dreams which ballooned into this movement called We Welcome Refugees, in partnership with organizations like World Relief and The Justice Conference among others.

That very night, my girl penned a letter to little Aylan even before we knew his name. Dear Nameless Boy, she writes... 
We've filled churches on Sundays while you and your people filled boats and sailed straight to death - and are we really being the Church or just filling steepled buildings hollow?
Because we're full of empty good intentions and real-sounding excuses when we should be full of the love of Christ.

And sweet boy, this is my apology, this is my outcry, but mostly this is my confession. 
I woke up to her words the next morning and they pierced the very depths of my heart.

Later that day, Ann Voskamp pens her own letter to little Aylan and links to my girl's letter at the end of her own.
Now, NOW, is the time for the Church to be the Church. We cannot, cannot, afford to miss this opportunity — and miss Him.
In the past, the Church may have been defined by what the Church is against, but, in this defining moment in history, may the Church be clearly defined by what it is for.
And the Church has always been for the stranger, the sojourner, and for being like the welcoming arms of the Saviour.
How can we not move heaven and earth to let the broken in — when heaven moved and came to earth to let us in?

Sunday came and my heart was still heavy. My girl's words rang clear in my mind, but mostly in my heart: "Because we're full of empty good intentions and real-sounding excuses when we should be full of the love of Christ." 

I knew then that God was asking our family to act, to do something... for such a time as this.

A quick chat with our Lead Pastor revealed that there were at least a handful of people in our church family ready to act, ready to do something. Without knowing what that something is, I told him, "Yes, I am willing to head up this initiative... whatever it might be."

That YES started a whirlwind week of fact-finding which resulted in our church community committing to sponsoring two refugee families from Syria via Mennonite Central Committee.

From this Toronto Star article.

I wasn't prepared for the outpouring of support... 
What started as an interest from just a handful of people resulted in an outpouring of support that I have never experienced or seen before! It has been so heart-warming to see God working beautifully in people's hearts.

Steve, a brother from our church family, shared his own family's refugee journey and many hearts were moved to respond. My girl consequently writes a second letter to little Aylan... in it she writes about just how blessed we are to have a church family whose response to this refugee crisis has been more than what we have asked for or even imagined!
This is community.
This is how we come together as the Body of Christ to respond to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
We're smack in the middle of history and when it's all said and done we want to be remembered as the generation who welcomed the strangers as if they were Christ himself, running into Egypt, fleeing Herod's slaughter as a refugee.  

Friends, this week Mennonite Central Committee tallied all the donations that have come in for our fundraising registry and seeing the total dollars raised literally moved me to tears --- $68,190!!! This is evidence of God beautifully at work in people's hearts. Only God...

I am deeply grateful... and deeply humbled.

Now that the hard work of raising funds is over, the even harder work of preparing and waiting starts. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of leading an amazing committee of people that God has called together for this very purpose, for such a time as this.

I saw this Instagram photo by Bianca Juarez Olthoff today and it drove home for me the significance of what our church family has committed to doing --- that is to bring these two families into the safety embrace of our country and our community, a safe place that we so often take for granted or don't even think about. As the caption on this Instagram photo so eloquently puts it, "It was nothing to me, but everything to her."

"No mother puts her children in the sea unless the sea is safer than the land." -#SyrianRefugee I'm leaving Greece completely undone for the men, women, and children fleeing #Syria for their lives. Last night while passing out jackets in the cold, a mother leaned over the fence and called out over and over for jackets for her children. @tonysebastian1 told her repeatedly to form a line but she refused to move shouting louder and louder for what must have been her desire for jackets. I motioned repeatedly for her to get in line, but she didn't move. She wouldn't move. She refused to move. We didn't speak the same language but we were probably the same age. She has two kids, I have two kids. She was leaving her home, I am going home. When you're desperate, you do desperate things. Undone with her begging, I handed her two jackets and smiled. It was nothing to me, but everything to her. Her new life begins with her pleading still echoing in my mind. May I be a mother who fights for freedom in a way that she fought to be heard.
A photo posted by Bianca Juarez Olthoff (@biancaolthoff) on

As we wait and prepare, please pray with us... for these two precious families that have been matched to us as they wait for all the requirements to be completed for them to be travel-ready. Please also pray for our committee members as we start to plan and prepare, that we will keep these words in mind:
Place your trust in the Eternal; rely on Him completely; never depend upon your own ideas and inventions. Give Him the credit for everything you accomplish, and He will smooth out and straighten the road that lies ahead. (Proverbs 3:5-6, The Voice)
For such a time as this... #WeWelcomeRefugees.

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Half A Century!

A very special man is half a century young today! :) Yes, 50 candles!!!

And when I say special, I do mean special... this man is the grace of my life and is definitely a keeper.

This is a man who “fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments.” (Psalm 112)

Each day, I thank my Heavenly Father for blessing me with this man, to do life with and to serve Him together.

I honestly don't remember a time when I didn't know hubby. Our families have known each other since we were children and since he is six years older than me, I don't remember not knowing him! Isn't that awesome?!?

We promised each other forever almost 25 years ago now and I can honestly say that who I am today, this better version of myself, is no doubt because of God's great love for me... and packaged within that great love is this gift of a wonderful man whom He has given me to walk this thing called life together.
... a marriage made in Heaven is one where a man and a woman become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone. ~ Frederick Buechner.

I couldn't have asked for a better life partner...
God is gracious and He truly gives good gifts, #1000gifts --- "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17)

Through his sacrificial love for me, I have been given a tangible example of just how much Jesus loves us, His Bride... the church.

Through seeing him be a father to our children, I came to truly see, for the first time in my life, God as my Heavenly Father.

Happy 50 candles to my best friend, the one my soul loves, the amazing life partner that this girl isn't deserving of, one who is immeasurably more than I could have ever asked for or imagined

I love you and I thank you because...
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
When I am down and, oh, my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.
There is no life - no life without its hunger;
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
But when you come and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.

Edited to add... that true to his selfless character, this is how he is inviting family and friends to celebrate with him today:

Click here to go directly to MCC's online donation page.

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!

Friday, September 4, 2015

As Summer Draws To A Close...

This boy's birthday always signals the end of summer for us. Born on the evening of Labour Day fifteen years ago, we always celebrate his birthday on this long weekend before the start of school.

This year, it's no different. Tonight, we will celebrate at his favourite restaurant --- one we head to just once a year on this very special occasion.

Yet, somehow the end-of-summer this year feels different than previous ones.

I'm not sure if it's because this girl is off to university and classes started yesterday, before the Labour Day long weekend... or if it's something else.

Sadly, I do think it's something else. My heart seems heavy as this summer draws to a close.

It's been an eventful summer... both in our family's life and in world news.

This summer brought us to Guatemala where we came face-to-face with our Compassion daughter, Esperanza whose story unfolded not quite the way we expected

We came face-to-face with young girls who have been forced into child labour or experienced physical and/or sexual abuse whose lives are being restored at Oasis Girls' Home.

We stood stunned, speechless, frozen... gazing at the scene in front of us, with a multitude of vultures circling above our heads. A scene so surreal it was as if it was playing on a TV screen... right in front of us is a massive pit known as the Guatemala City Dump with many, many, many people, including children, working and scavenging and l-i-v-i-n-g in it.

One month after returning from Guatemala, the scene still haunts me today. The only thing that is a balm to my heart is knowing that God is at work in that place through the ministry of Compassion International.

Our world is broken, very broken.

We come home to atrocious news of leaked videos about body organs from babies being sold, to shocking news of leaked data from an infidelity site, its main office located right here in our city, that proves Christians not being immune to it.

We are faced with a sudden and unexpected possible change in our family routine when God calls us to that oh-so-familiar outside-our-comfort-zone place where He seems to always call for our obedience, our yes!

We receive news of childhood friends dying, both mine and hubby's... gone to soon, way too young.

Our world is broken, very broken.

We are inundated with election news, with reports of a global financial crisis, and with trivial social media posts on one's political stance when in other news, there's this report of ISIS enshrining a theology of rape, a news article that had me in an ugly cry before I even finished reading the first paragraph.

We were inundated with social media posts of people up in arms about a dead lion when in other news, there's a dead baby who has washed ashore in Turkey because the world has ignored the worst refugee crisis we've seen since World War II. We knew the name of the lion faster than we found out what that sweet little boy's name is. His name is Aylan Kurdi. 

No wonder my heart seems heavy as this summer draws to a close.

It just wants to scream, "Lord Jesus, have mercy! Lord Jesus, heal our land."
... if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. ~ 2 Chronicles 7:14.
It just wants to pray this prayer of confession...

But as this summer comes to a close...
My heart, though heavy, still dares to hope --- "Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. (Lamentations 3:21-23)"

His faithful love is evident when, on her very first day as an International Development Studies student at the University of Toronto, my girl pens this letter to little Aylan Kurdi, even before we found out what his name is... and I am one proud mama, proud of this young lady and of her brave and bold words.
Dear Nameless Boy -
Oh, I squirm while saying this to you - we've been living mindless lives instead of loving you until you're simply able to live.
We've filled churches on Sundays while you and your people filled boats and sailed straight to death - and are we really being the Church or just filling steepled buildings hollow?
Because we're full of empty good intentions and real-sounding excuses when we should be full of the love of Christ. 
And sweet boy, this is my apology, this is my outcry, but mostly this is my confession.
His mercies are evident when, on this his fifteen birthday, my boy is choosing to make a birthday donation to help little boys just like Aylan Kurdi who, together with their families, are currently seeking refuge in refugee camps and to make a similar donation to help our sister church with the sponsorship of a refugee family so that they can come live in Canada... and I am one proud mama, proud of this young man and of his heart of gold, one that beats in sync with God's.

If you would like to help Jon celebrate his birthday with a donation to either fund via Mennonite Central Committee, please click on this link or this link. If you are American, click here (so you can receive an American tax receipt). And if you do, we would love to hear about it!

No wonder my heavy heart still dares to hope as this summer draws to a close.

Because these two, my Generation Z children, though growing up in a very broken world... like many of their peers, have hearts of gold and have their eyes set on making this world a better place. 

So yes, a big resounding yes... as this summer draws to a close, this mama's heart smiles big and it still dares to hope. 

... love will run on.
And we could be like a river of that living water.
We could widen and deepen, we could course our way through hard things and plow fresh new ways.
And our perspective could reflect a Kingdom, our lives could be a refuge and our choices could be a courage that goes against the current.
You can feel it in the air these days:
Something beautiful is rising.
~ from this must-read blog post by Ann Voskamp.

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

When the story unfolds differently, still Esperanza...

We are home... from that land of majestic volcanoes, lush rain-forests and ancient Mayan ruins and from being face-to-face with our Compassion daughter, Esperanza

These beautiful horses took us to the peak of Pacaya Volcano.
When your desire is to see, to know, to touch, to understand — with an openness of mind and heart — that is a pilgrimage. And like all pilgrimages, you cannot remain the same at the end of such a journey. Pilgrimages lead you to reflect on your own identity and purpose.
A pilgrimage leads to changed and restored relationships. It’s a result of not visiting the poor, but visiting with the poor.
Visiting with the poor becomes another expression of the love of God and of community. And this idea is deeply ingrained in God’s desire and gift for wholeness.
It’s a mutual embrace of life as it can be.
Friends, it truly was "a mutual embrace of life as it can be" --- beautifully sacred, like being on holy ground.

Ten days before our departure date, I wrote these words...
We are beyond excited to hop on that plane. I have a feeling that Guatemala will take a hold of our hearts in a very special way. 
We will meet our Esperanza and we will witness esperanza... hope.
I am excited, actually beyond excited. Yet, to be honest... I am, at the same time, scared of the many unknowns and of how our hearts will be broken afresh.
But I am keeping my eyes on Jesus because He is our blessed esperanza and because broken is the most blessed you can be... and I am looking forward to that wild joy that will follow this yes!
Little did I know just how true those words would ring in the coming days. A few days later, just one week before our departure date, I got word from Compassion Canada about some news they received from Compassion Guatemala.

Our Esperanza, at age 17, is with child, was recently married, and will be leaving the Compassion program effectively immediately. This visit will be our final goodbye.

This is not how I imagined the story to unfold.

Aren't we supposed to still have a-year-and-a-bit before Esperanza turns 18 and graduates from the Compassion program to continue our sponsorship of her? Isn't this visit supposed to be the start of cultivating an even deeper relationship with our Esperanza before she launches into adulthood?

Everything about this story's unexpected unfolding just seems to be wrong and unfair.

But I quickly snapped out of my pity-party when God reminded me that... these summer pilgrimages of ours aren't at all about our comfort and our preferences, it is all about our role in God's story of redemption --- His desire and gift for wholeness, for us and for all we come in contact with.

A few days before our departure, God impressed this verse from Isaiah 52:7 on my heart --- “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!”

How fitting as Guatemala is a country of beautiful mountains! Side note: My very sore legs sure were not impressed with me at the end of each day during our trip. ;)

With those words from Isaiah 52:7 in mind, we knew we needed to go with hearts ready "to see, to know, to touch, to understand --- with an openness of mind and heart" --- because that is what a pilgrimage is.

Visit Days, July 30 and 31...
These days couldn't come fast enough. They were smack right in the middle of our 10 days in Guatemala. We left Guatemala City very early in the morning. After 8 hours of driving through winding mountain roads, yes... e-i-g-h-t long hours!, we arrived at GU-996, Palestina Child Development Center, in the mountainous community of Chisec, Alta Verapaz, during the mid-afternoon.

A large group of children lined a pathway towards the church building to welcome us. It was the most awesome welcome I've ever experienced!

This Compassion project serves an indigenous Mayan community whose people speak the Queqchi dialect and whose highest education level is Grade 6. It is run by the local church, Iglesia Bautista Palestina, led by Pastor Javier and Project Director Martin. Pastor Javier's vision for this Compassion project is "to show the way of truth in Jesus, teaching registered boys and girls how to generate income for their families." They have almost 300 registered Compassion kids!

Esperanza, her family and Pastor Javier only speak Queqchi. Project Director Martin speaks both Queqchi and Spanish. Our host from Compassion Guatemala, Ruth, speaks Spanish and English (very good English, in fact!) and we only speak English (plus understand a few basic words in Spanish). All that to say, there was a four-way translation going on which made for a very interesting way to communicate.

We came to the end of the children-lined pathway and there was our Esperanza. Also there was her mother Doña Maria and her husband of one month, Hernan. Hernan is 18, just a year older than her.

Everyone enjoyed a lunch of Pollo Campero and Domino's Pizza which we brought up from the City of Coban for them. Coban is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away so these luxuries are virtually inaccessible for the people in this community especially since the bus fare to go there and back is $10 per person and the average income is $3 a day! We would later learn that Esperanza has only been to Coban three times in her entire life!

We chatted over lunch and as I learned more about their way of life, I realized that when we are willing "to see, to know, to touch, to understand --- with an openness of mind and heart" --- and when we don't overlay our first-world template on everything, we start to see things in a very different light.

Esperanza belongs to an indigenous Mayan community. They still largely live a typical Mayan life --- they are farmers, most are not formally educated, the majority start a family at a very early age. Esperanza's grandmother, in her mid-60s, is already a great-grandmother to a teenage girl!

My first-world mind couldn't fathom how this ancient way of life is still in existence today. But my first-world heart silently longed for the simplicity that this way of life seem to offer. Though I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Esperanza owns a cell phone! :)

These two young women... their worlds couldn't be more opposite from each other.
Yet both are infinitely, equally and uniquely loved by our Heavenly Father.

So... while being married and having a baby at age 17 might be foreign to me as a first-world citizen, it is quite normal to them in this Mayan way of life.

While being married and having a baby at age 17 would seemingly spell disaster for a teenager in this first-world which we call home, Esperanza is merely entering the logical next step of life as is expected of her in this Mayan community which she calls home.

Logical? To Esperanza, yes! 

When you are only fluent in an ancient Mayan dialect that is only understood within your own Mayan community and when you don't know very much Spanish...

When you've earned just a Grade 4 education at age 17, even though it already is much better than those who didn't even get any formal education...

When you know your future is to live and work in this community which you call home...

When all of the above is true, the next logical step for you is to start a family. 

Yes, even at age 17.

And this is where the beauty of Compassion's ministry comes in: Even though Esperanza is now leaving the Compassion program, the church will continue to be there for her as she starts a family. It will be just like she never left the program. Her support network remains intact. The difference truly is Jesus!

After lunch, we had the opportunity to tour the facilities at this Compassion project. The children were in their classrooms being taught Bible truths, learning some Spanish, singing, dancing. The facilities are honestly the poorest I have seen in all of our visits to Compassion projects... but the joy evident on the children's faces and the enthusiasm of the teachers truly exude Jesus!

In fact, this region has the most extreme poverty we've seen in all of our travels. We were told that this region is known as the forgotten region... forgotten by the government, forgotten by humanitarian agencies. Thankfully, not forgotten by Compassion International!  
The Maya Q’eqchi’ in Alta Verapaz suffer some of the worst poverty and health conditions in the country. Nearly 90% of the very poor are indigenous, subsistence farmers living on mountainous terrain. (Source)
Then, we were invited to visit Esperanza's family home. I must say that it also is the poorest of all the homes we've seen of our sponsored children. Yet, the sense of family is so strong. Everyone gathered around when we arrived, several generations of family.

Grandma was boiling corn on the fire to make tortilla with. Father was just home from the farm. Sisters and brothers milled about. Children and babies played together. Like a little community in and of itself!

My boy was thrilled to be able to ride in the back of this pick-up truck on the way to Esperanza's house!

It is Esperanza's hope that she and Hernan can build a house right there in her family's homestead so that he can help farm their land. Her homestead is also more accessible from the main road. Hernan's family lives in an even more remote area where one has to cross a river to get home so it is a less ideal place to raise a family. It is our desire to help Esperanza's hope become a reality --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be." 

Time flew and it was soon time for us to leave as we still had a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Coban where we were staying the night.

I will always remember the goodbye hug that I exchanged with Esperanza. She clutched my shirt so tight and wouldn't let go. It truly felt like a last goodbye...

Hubby took this opportunity to counsel Hernan to love and take care of our Esperanza. That exchange made my heart smile.

As we gathered around to pray, as is the custom of this community everyone prayed out loud all at once. It was such a powerful moment, beautifully sacred, brought me to tears, like we were on holy ground --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be."

As I went to sleep that night at the hotel in Coban, I couldn't help but be deeply grateful that God orchestrated to have us say our final goodbye to Esperanza in person. Not a final letter, but an actual face-to-face, skin-to-skin goodbye.

As our Compassion host, Ruth, so eloquently said, "I firmly believe that Esperanza’s life will not be the same and that there is a higher purpose for you being able to meet her."

So very true. And... I believe that our lives won't be the same either --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be." As I laid on that hotel bed, utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the day's events, my heart was overwhelmed with joy --- and I smiled, realizing... ah, yes... this is that wild joy that follows our yes to God!
And like all pilgrimages, you cannot remain the same at the end of such a journey. Pilgrimages lead you to reflect on your own identity and purpose.
The next day, we had a couple more hours with Esperanza as we arranged for her, Hernan, Doña Maria and Juan, a Compassion project staff, to come into the City of Coban to join us for breakfast at McDonald's! Can you believe she's never eaten at McDonald's before?!? Perhaps that's a good thing, don't you think?!? ;)

After breakfast we took them to Paiz, a store owned by Walmart, so that we could get Esperanza some groceries. Very soon after, it was time for the actual final goodbye...

Words aren't adequate to describe that final goodbye... it was like a piece of my heart stayed behind there with Esperanza. Imagine leaving your pregnant teenager knowing you won't ever see her again nor will you know what her baby looks like. Yeah, that.

But it was there, as I tearfully and fervently waved goodbye, that I saw esperanza. Yes... I saw hope.
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. ~ Lamentations 3:21-23.  
Because we serve a God who is always good and we are all His beloved. He loves Esperanza infinitely more than I ever can. He holds her in the palm of His hand... and she knows that, largely because of Compassion's ministry in her life through the local church since she was just a little girl.

As she walked towards the store's exit, I watched her go. She turned around to wave as often as she could. As she disappeared around the corner, she waved one last time and tears started to fall from my eyes and my heart was simultaneously overwhelmed with deep gratitude... 

Because, the difference truly is Jesus! 

At the Compassion Guatemala office.

With our Compassion host, Ruth.
She served with the love of Jesus, going beyond what her "job" entailed and did it with such obvious joy!

With Compassion Guatemala's Country Director, Jose Carlos Prem.

Friends, will you sponsor a child with Compassion today? 
~ Canadian friends, please click here.
~ All others, please click here.

:: :: ::

Five days later, as our plane descended into Toronto, I uttered this prayer of my heart...

Until next time, Guatemala! God has used this beautiful country and its people to impact our family in a very profound way. I think we're going to soon be looking for another Guatemalan girl to sponsor, a Compassion sister for our Esperanza!

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!