Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Not in the Mood

Thanksgiving and Easter Sunday are my two favorite holidays!

But I'm having a hard time getting excited about making pies tonight.

Pumpkin pies, (the "calabazas" are sitting on the counter ready to be cut and cooked), Apple pies, Pecan Pie, and Pumpkin bars will be my contribution to the feast if all goes well tonight in my kitchen..... But I'm not in the mood.

Saying a final goodbye to my students at The Anglo today was harder than I thought it would be.  I like them way too much!  Their curiosity and creativity made me smile every week for two years.  I can't believe I had the same group of 46 students for that long.  I can still hear their voices when I think of their faces and names, and yet I know from experience that soon their unique way of expressing themselves will fade in my memory.

I don't think I ever enjoyed classroom teaching as much as I did the past two years.  It really was a privilege. The bilingual school has a great administration and good teachers.  I have taught in many schools and can feel the different atmospheres as soon as I step into a classroom.

These kids are energetic, curious, and gifted.  They're not always motivated 100% of the time, but neither am I!

I'm going to miss them.  I'm thankful for the opportunity I had to be a little part of their lives and hope they know how much their literature teacher loved each one of them and enjoyed reading new stories and poems right along with them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Something I've Always Wanted

When we bought our first house in California, I couldn't wait to start working on the front, back, and side yards.  It was a corner lot with lots of yard space.  I made copies of the house plan and sketched out my dreams.

After a few years of saving and working, we had a pretty green front lawn and neatly landscaped shrubs.  But I still longed for one plant that never seemed to like me. 


They were more common on the coast, but I had seen them thriving in the valley, too.  But after a couple of failures, I gave up.  They never lasted more than one season.

Now, in South America, I have a cemented patio in the back of the house with a grand, gorgeous purple bougainvillea.  It actually is planted in the neighbor's yard on the other side of the wall, but it tumbles over the top onto our patio, giving us shade and color.

I finally have a bougainvillea, a special gift from God. And I don't even have to fertilize or water it!  I can see it blooming from our bedroom window.

I also found out that this plant is native to South America and prefers sandy, coastal regions.  That explains why it looks so beautiful and healthy. 

And, a month after writing the above, I realized that I have one in the front yard, too!  It just hasn't bloomed this year so I didn't pay any attention to it. 

I trimmed it back the other day and woke up to the fact that I was trimming a bougainvillea.  I hope the trim wakes it up a little.  Even if it doesn't bloom, I'm happy it's alive.


How's the youth group?  the church? the weekly Bible Study? The young adult's study? the children's club?  One word sums it up: growing.  Recently I started shopping to keep the church stocked with snacks for the kids club and for the coffee hour after worship.  But we keep running short on cookies and cups.  It's because more people keep coming.

Last Sunday we had the joy of hearing four dear friends profess their faith in Jesus and the privilege of watching them be baptized.  It was beautiful.  That day five others joined the church, too.  And the sister church in Mercedes will also be partnering with us until they are more independent.  Our missions team just expanded when we added two young adults, members of Reformed Churches in Brazil, who are here to help with the youth group and kids club for a few months.  We just keep growing.

The youth group met last night and had a great time of study and fun.  They exchanged gifts and ate pizza until almost midnight.  Then Mark and Mauricio took them all home.  The group of kids is a nice mix of Brazilians, Americans, and Uruguayans.  Our goal is to establish a Reformed Uruguayan Church, not necessarily a multi cultural church, but we gladly welcome people from other countries who have settled in Montevideo.  This includes friends from Peru, Columbia, Argentina, and Chile. 

What have we been doing the past few months?  The haze of the first year has finally cleared, and we are in the middle of ministry, ready or not.  Mark is preaching more often, teaching Bible Study and continuing to lead the worship team.  Once a week he meets with a tutor to study advanced Spanish grammar which greatly improves his preaching.  He also meets people weekly for discipleship in our home.  We are traveling more frequently, too, as we work with the new group in Mercedes.  When Mark teaches their Bible study, he doesn't get home until 2 in the morning. Tomorrow morning, Sunday, we'll all leave at 6am to get to the service on time.

The kids have been taking their final exams and working on research papers and projects.  I'm so proud of each one of them and how far they've come this year.  I can't believe some of the exams they just completed, and all of them in Spanish.  Can you imagine physics, chemistry and algebra finals in a second language?  Sabrina and Joshua are on summer break now and Julia and Isaiah have one more week left.  They've grown physically, too, and now three of them are taller than I am.

I have two more classes left in my web design computer class.  I love taking a class in Spanish.  I've learned a whole new set of vocabulary.  I've also learned how to build a web site and maintain it.  The next step is working on our church web site as well as helping the Mercedes group get one running, too.

We've finally moved from point A to B in our visa process.  We can stay here legally for at least 3 more years on a "temporary residency" before we need to come up with a new plan.  We may need to show some Uruguayan income to get permanent residency.  But, a friend and I are working on offering English classes to local businesses as well as translating Christian books.  So, that may help us out.  It will not be much income, but hopefully it will be enough to prove to migrations that we are settled here.

As I think about this past year, I am thankful for the friends we have in church, the friends we have in our neighborhood, and our connections at the kids' school.  If I compare our major transitions from New Jersey to California to Costa Rica to Uruguay, our transition to Uruguay has been the hardest but also the most rewarding and satisfying. 

I've had to fight hard and push myself harder to get where I am now, one year later.  I've had to battle real fears: saying stupid things in Spanish, failing to get permanent residency on our first try, being very cold all winter, extreme exhaustion from the increased physical demands of maintaining the home, not understanding the simple things people say to me, serious misunderstandings with a teacher at school, getting attacked in broad daylight two blocks from home, feeling like I really don't belong here. 

And here I am, feeling more at home and excited about what is happening at church. I'm also thrilled with our new friendships.  How am I doing?  I'm still fighting.  And I'm growing... Growing spiritually and feeling a little stronger after one of the hardest years of my life.

Party Panic

Have you ever attended a party where you didn't know anyone?

Tonight I took Isaiah to a classmate's birthday party.  I fully intended to drop him off and read a book in the car, but the girl's mom insisted that I come in and attend the party.  I didn't know a single person!  You may know that personally this would be hard for me in the US.  Believe me, it's even harder for me in a new culture and language.  As a missionary, and as a Christian, when someone invites me into their home and into their life, I enter in faith and pray that I'll be a blessing (even if I'd rather hide in a book).

Everyone was seated in a long outdoor patio, wide enough for a row of chairs on each side and a small walkway in the center.  The parrilla was in the corner with a pile of burning wood stacked in the iron basket.  The coals were just starting to fall through the basket, down onto the brick base. Soon the coals would be scraped underneath the grill. 

By now, these are familiar sights and sounds.  It also helped that everyone was inviting and gracious.  They were curious, too, but in a friendly way.  One guest asked me if I was from Germany.  Nope!  Guess again. Great Britain? Nope! My Spanish was a little sluggish because every time I opened my mouth to speak, I could feel everyone's eyes on me.  (That's how Julia feels in her classroom, so she opted to sit in the front row so she can't see everyone turning around in their desks to look at her when she talks).

The girl's grandmom offered me plates of cheese, fainá, and alfajores, the girl's Mom refilled my drink and brought me a piece of cake, and her dad made me a grilled hamburger just the way I like it (with ketchup, lettuce and tomato).  They were serving 40 people with the same attention and keeping the kids entertained with a bounce house and piñata.  It was amazing.  And their family and other guests kept refilling my Coke, talking with me, and making me feel welcome.

For me, the hardest part was leaving.  Remember how I didn't know anyone? Well, if I wanted to leave the party gracefully, I would have to give everyone a cheek kiss.  This is difficult for a quiet, reserved person.  Since no one had left yet, I didn't have any examples to follow (I spend most of my life here playing follow the leader to learn how to do stuff).  But I figured I could remember the rules.  Skipping someone or kissing someone twice by mistake would be rude, so I would have to keep track of everyone. "Vamos," I thought, as I drank the rest of my Coke, shoved my napkin into the plastic cup and set it on the brick flower border behind my chair. 

The girl's dad saw my empty cup right away and offered me another drink.  "Gracias, pero me voy" I replied.  Without another word, he left his post at the parrilla and darted inside to get his wife so she could say goodbye to me.

All the bending over, cheek kissing, saying "mucho gusto, que pase lindo, encantada," and turning around to repeat it again and again in the long narrow patio made me dizzy, but thankfully I wasn't wearing skinny heels or I would have landed in someone's lap.  I left feeling loved and accepted despite my funny Spanish.

What a lovely family!  I hope to offer this kindness to each person who walks into our church.  I know I need to improve in this area as I often get sidetracked by serving in the background (like packing up the AV equipment or cleaning up the Sunday School classroom).  I realize now that this could be considered quite rude.  All the new greetings and farewells, new rules about entertaining, and the new variety of foods make hosting a little more complex.  But I'm committed to doing my best in Jesus' name.  The least I can do is make sure someone's cup is filled.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting Desperate

Our adjustment to living in a foreign capital city has been the biggest life transition I've ever consciously faced.

It's true.  The "before/after" contrast has been more radical for me than moving from "single" to "married" or even from "married" to "new parent"!  Getting married was exciting and I remember having pre-wedding jitters, but it was a natural, normal progression.  And I entered motherhood, another normal progression in life, with a healthy amount of confidence to see me through the late night crying jags. 

But a radical life style change from quiet, conservative, small town USA to large, noisy, foreign "ciudad" has been a test of how flexible I really am. The challenges here in Uruguay are unceasing, daily, and drive me to prayer like never before.

"Do you like living here?" my friends ask me.  That's a loaded question.  God uses trials like a refining fire, to test and transform us, to grow us.  I'm very thankful for that. But do we have to "like" the fire?

Two years ago, in the classroom at MTI, the professor told us something about cultural transition that I didn't believe would ever happen to me.  He said, "You will think you're doing just fine, adapting, learning the language, making adjustments. You'll like living there. And then something will happen that seems so contrary to everything you know and believe is "normal" and "right," that you'll just snap."

This charismatic, friendly, sensitive, Godly missionary then related a personal story of how he had been stuck in a ridiculous, completely unnecessary traffic jam at an intersection in an African city.  He actually got out of his car and unabashedly yelled at one of the police officers "directing" traffic.  "Huh!" I thought, "I would never do anything like that,"  I just wouldn't.

In language school in Costa Rica we had a classmate who regularly constructed Spanish sentences about poisoning the sick dogs who, penned up outside the vet's office across the street from our apartment complex, barked, yapped, and whined, sometimes squealing in pain like pigs, all night, and all day long.  We had been dealing with the stress, too, and I understood that he had intentionally put the words "dog" and "blender" in the same sentence, even thought the teacher gently tried to correct him. 

Another classmate reacted to the incessant cultural stress he was experiencing by ripping out a small tree growing in front of the apartments.  I was too good at cultural transition, I thought, to ever do anything that crazy.

It just took a little longer for me.  Because on Tuesday, after living in Uruguay for a year, I got desperate.  We were trying to follow all the rules and procedures, we even hired someone who knows the immigration system to make sure we submitted our paperwork properly, but we were denied permission to renew our Uruguayan Cedulas that expire tomorrow. 

The process I tried to follow correctly:

First, pay at a bank for the appointment to get new cedulas.  People have to pay in advance for the new cedulas - that way they are motivated to show up for the appointment for photos and fingerprints!  We were also warned by everyone not to let the cedulas expire, because getting new ones would be nearly impossible. I made the appointment for Wednesday morning.

Second, get documents from Migrations to show that your paperwork is being processed.  That should be easy, I thought, because they've been processing the paperwork since June.

So we went to Migrations.  After waiting three hours in line for the appointment, the woman behind the desk told us we could not renew our cedulas because our paperwork was not submitted correctly.  I asked her what we were missing.  She told us we needed "Constancias de domicilio" (an item on the list that our lawyer had specifically told us we didn't need).  She said to bring the Constancias that afternoon and take another number. 

So, we asked two of our neighbors to go with us to the police station (when? Right now, please!), and be our two witnesses that we did indeed live next to them.  They were so kind to go with us even though they were in the middle of a home improvement project with workers going in and out of their house.  They reminded us that we should bring a water bill with Mark's name on it to help prove where we live.

After running to the police station with our nice neighbors, we called the high school and elementary school and arranged for Sabrina to pick up the younger kids and bring them home on the bus.

Then we went back to Migrations and picked another number and waited.  I prayed that God would work everything out smoothly, and not choose that moment to teach me humility.  That morning I had read, "Del mismo modo, ustedes hombres más jóvenes tienen que aceptar la autoridad de los ancianos. Y todos sírvanse unos a otros con humilidad, porque Dios se opone a los orgullosos pero muestra su favor a los humildes." I Pedro 5:5 

I had been convicted that here in Uruguay, I probably appear as if my ways are superior instead of humbly serving others and graciously accepting new ways of doing things.  I know that at times I have a "my American way is better, but I'll do it your way if I must" kind of attitude.

Reflecting on humility made me think about Abraham.  He was rich and powerful, and yet he risked his own life and the life of his faithful servants to go and rescue Lot who had been kidnapped and robbed by a thieving group of kings.  "That was a humble and kind thing to do," I thought.  He didn't have to do it, but graciously he did.

After an hour of waiting, our number "75" showed up on the screen, and Mark and I went up to the desk with the Constancias, but she told us it was the wrong "75".  She explained: All the numbers for her department had been used up.  I had mistakenly pulled the number for another line in another department.

In that moment we learned that they only give out 100 numbers a day, and there weren't any left. They had been used up that morning.  I said, "But, you told me to come back with the papers this afternoon....." 

That's when I got upset.  I wasn't gracious or humble at that moment. I talked to a lady at the front desk.  She talked with the people in the department to ask what was going on.  Nothing changed.  Then the nice front desk lady told me I could knock on a door and see if anyone in there would help me. 

So, boldly and desperately, I knocked.  But the lady behind the door said, "No, you have to talk to the same person you talked with this morning." I said, "But we have an appointment to renew our cedulas tomorrow morning.  I need the paperwork."  "No."  "Sorry."  "No more numbers."

"I guess God chose today to teach me more about humility" I quietly fumed.  My desperation was internal, and the stress tightened my back and shoulders and stole my appetite.  I made the easiest thing possible for dinner, pizza bread, and went to bed without eating.

I don't remember where I read it, but a quote I had read in Spanish that week came to my mind, "El éxito es aprender a ir de fracaso en fracaso sin desesperarse." Winston Churchill.  (Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm). 

Early the next morning I waited outside, in the wind, in line for over an hour, to pick another number when the doors opened.  I got there early, but the line had started to form even earlier, and I knew we weren't going to get a low number.  Many of the people waiting are just holding a spot to get a number for someone else, or they're immigration lawyers who get paid to wait for their clients. Mark met me outside after dropping off the kids and finding parking for the car.  We got "23" and "24."

The appointment to make the new cedulas (that we had paid in advance for) was at 10:10, so we hoped that we could turn in the Constancias, get the documents to say that they were processing everything, and then renew our cedulas.  But, the numbers passed slowly and it was 10:20 when we finally spoke to someone.  After taking the Constancias, the woman told us that since we are here for "religious purposes" we are only eligible for temporary residency, and we would have to wait another month while they worked on the paperwork. 

She refused to give us any documents to show that our paperwork was in process so that we could renew our cedulas.  We would be left without any Uruguayan ID or visas or permits.  We can stay here legally while they're working on it, but we will have to resort to using our passport numbers again.  This really shocked me.  And disappointed me.

I never thought it would happen to me, but I snapped internally.  In that moment, I felt my love for Uruguay turn into a momentary but livid disgust.  I disliked everything Spanish.  The crowd of people in the room and all the cubicles went to gray, and tunnel vision forced me to grab Mark's hand. 

Thankfully, God had been preparing me for the moment, and my trust in His providence kept me from trying to regain control of the situation in a disrespectful way.  I just choked back the tears as we walked toward the door.  Our lawyer, who I had emailed a week ago, said she would try to find out what happened, but there's little she can do to change the situation. 

Being a foreign missionary is knowing how to go from one failure to another, trusting that God is in control of every situation, and will bless her faithfulness and humility in His time and in His way.

Today, I will head back downtown to handle more paperwork for Sabrina's education.  I have to finish it before the cedulas expire.  Please, God, no more lessons on humility. I need some time for the last lesson to sink in.

UPDATE: I waited in line for an hour, but once I got to the desk, the woman had Sabrina's paperwork stamped and ready to go! Regarding Visas, we are only eligible for 2 year residency with one possible renewal for another 2 years.  After that we will have to reapply for a longer stay and I may need to show income. We are praying for God's direction, and trust that He will provide solutions.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Heating Habits

Spring Break starts this week.  It’s my favorite time of year because the sun chases away the winter blues, and I can emerge from hibernation and soak in a patch of sunshine.  After surviving the coldest, dampest, moldiest, sickest winter of my life, I am more thankful than ever. 

I don’t think this winter flustered most of my Uruguayan friends.  They bundled themselves and their children like Eskimos.  Scarves, hats, coats, gloves, leg warmers, layers of shirts and sweaters, everything except ski goggles.  Our California kids resisted the bundling until it got really cold, and then they didn’t want to unbundle to get showers in the cold bathroom.  Although it rarely dipped below freezing, the arctic wind was merciless if one had to walk to the store or stand at a bus stop for more than 10 minutes.  

And the houses aren’t built for the cold.  Our kids’ rooms have very high ceilings so it was a challenge to heat them.  We tried rolling a propane heater in their rooms, one at a time, to warm them up a bit before bedtime, but a steady draft sucked out the heat out quickly.  And the humidity stayed behind, feeding the persistent mold on the ceilings and walls, and inside clothes closets.  Standing near a blazing hot parrilla outside with a leather mug of yerba is more than just a custom, it’s survival.

We tried to responsibly and economically heat our home during the day, only heating the bathroom and the kitchen.  But we didn’t want to leave the propane heaters running through the night.  Even with our preoccupation with keeping everyone away from the flames, our puppy’s tail caught on fire twice.  She wasn’t hurt, but burnt fur smells really bad!

The same was true about electric heaters.  We’ve already had two minor electrical fires.  A fan motor started smoking, and the water heater caught on fire when a friend was in the shower.  Thankfully, she had time to get dressed and warn us about the smoldering, melting outlet.  Our bedroom is at the opposite end of the house from the children’s rooms, and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep knowing that there was an open flame and/or an unreliable electric appliance running. 

So, the kids slept under piles of blankets.  The unrelenting chill, combined with sharing stuffy air on public buses and in crowded classrooms, played with our immune systems.  So we all caught several viruses, too.  Our family has never been this sick.  Even Mark was sick.  The kids missed several days of school, and I had a few days in bed with the worst cough of my life.  Josh coughed through the whole winter, feverish on and off, but was never sick enough to miss basketball or soccer practice.

When one of the kid’s teachers chastised me on the phone for not encouraging enough extra penmanship practice at home, my voice got shaky, and I started to cry. 

We had been concentrating on developing new strategies to use limited and strangely different resources to provide food, transportation, warmth, shelter, and legal residence for our family.  And at the same time we were involved in church ministry, community outreach, and language learning. 

I was more than satisfied that our children had learned enough Spanish to make friends, be comfortable in a new school, and correctly complete their homework assignments.  Penmanship and pretty notebooks, in the Uruguayan primary grades, are more highly prized than an ability to reason well, but they were not at the top of our family’s priority list this winter. 

Quite often, there would be a string of days when I did not feel warm once.  I got chilled and stayed cold.  Washing dishes and hanging out laundry with numb fingers started to wear on me, and I was unmotivated to complete housework.  I just wasn’t functioning at 100%. 

And that feeling of wanting to do more in the church and community, but settling for 75% efficiency, pretty much sums up our first year here.  We needed to take time to adapt to a new climate and different standard of living.  We are determined to be better prepared for next winter.

God has never once given me more than He can handle.  His grace is sufficient for me.  And so I emerge from the winter cave into the Spring sunshine with thankfulness.

Pretty scarves

Hot cider, hot chocolate, coffee, mate

Dry, Falling Leaves that dance in the Arctic wind

Hot fires, hot meat

New visitors at church.  The church is being blessed by God and is growing

Warm friendships.  Our church family has been so kind to us.  We have received so much more from them than we have been able to give.

Christian school and kind, helpful classmates

The prayers and constant stream of letters from our church family in the U.S.

Young, bright Uruguayan Christians who are excited to be a part of what God is doing in their country

Birthday parties with no frills gift giving (no card or wrapping required!  No obligatory thank you notes!)

A fun anniversary night out with Mark

A car with enough seat belts for all of us.  This week we won’t have to double buckle or send half the family by bus.

Safety for Sabrina and Joshua as they use public transportation and are more independent in the city streets.

A playful puppy for the kids

Fresh bread, pasta, fruits and veggies

Lots of rain, budding trees and flowers, and a few scattered days of brilliant sunshine

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Family Meeting, Plus Singing and Prayer

Recently I read a secular book about improving family life, searching for a few gems in regard to assigning chores and keeping a house running smoothly.  Instead, I came across the advice to hold a family meeting once a week.  It was recommended for toddlers as well as teens.

Since we usually eat breakfast and dinner together, we have time to discuss important family issues like, "Who keeps using my towel in the bathroom?" and "When do I get the cell phone you promised me?"  But having a meeting to make general announcements, bring up sensitive topics, and hear from each member of the family how things are going sounded like something we needed especially since the kids are tucked away at school for a large chunk of time each week.

We're now three months into the trial and it's been great. Each Sunday evening, I make popcorn or dump some cookies in a bowl and serve hot chocolate. We spend the first 30 minutes discussing family issues, and Mark or I jot down the kids' concerns. 

One of the issues was that party invitations kept getting lost in the shuffle of papers.  We agreed that a cork board in the kitchen would help us keep track of everything.  Each week at our meeting, Isaiah reminded us that we needed a cork board until I finally bought it and put it up on the wall.  Isaiah just tacked onto the board his two party invitations for this week.  Problem solved. 

Getting a dog was another frequently raised topic, and one night Julia gave us a presentation on different dog breeds and her recommendations for our family and house size.  We ended up with a mutt, some kind of yellow lab schnauzer mix, but everyone's happy.

Last week Mark and I discussed the concept of a missionary furlough so the kids understand that in a few years, they will need to leave our home in Uruguay and go back to the U.S.  They didn't say much, but that's O.K.

After the business meeting, we added two more vital components not mentioned in the self help book.  We sing hymns together, in English.  Thankfully we have two Trinity hymnals.  Singing familiar hymns keeps us feeling connected to our home church in CA, and also to the OPC denomination since the songs remind Mark and me of the many Orthodox Presbyterian churches we've been a part of since we were children.

And finally, the third part is prayer.  Sometimes we "pray for the person on our right" after sharing praises and petitions.  And sometimes we break up into pairs.  Isaiah and I were paired up tonight, and I smiled as he prayed that God would help me with the grocery shopping and picking up kids from school even though I hadn't mentioned those concerns.

Tonight, we invited a boy from the neighborhood to stay for the meeting.  During the business part, he told us about a volcano he was going to work on with his friends.  Then he sang the hymns with us, prayed with us, and is now making cookies in the kitchen with Mark and Julia. 

I just went into the kitchen to test the dough, and our neighbor chef gave me a strange, "are you kidding?" look as I put some in my mouth. "You can eat that?" he asked.  "Yes!!!! Try it!!!" I said. He hesitantly put a glob of snickerdoodle dough in his mouth.  The expression of pure delight on his face was priceless: "That's amazing!!!"  He had never seen or tasted cookie dough before.

Our prayer is that he and his family will also taste and see that the Lord is good, and that once they have tasted the gospel in Word and deed, they will follow Him faithfully.  This is our prayer for each one of our children as well, and I believe that our weekly family meeting, complete with popcorn, hot chocolate, and hymnals, will continue to be a sweet refuge under His wings.