Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I Believe

At Christmastime, there are always discussions with children about believing in Santa Claus and the excitement of little voices when they talk to you about him. I don’t remember the exact moment when I learned that Santa Claus was played by mom and dad, but I do know for a fact that it was my big sister who ruined it for me. Thanks Amy! I believe that it’s good for children to believe in Santa Claus, as it makes the holiday more magical, at an age where their young, precious minds probably cannot comprehend the true meaning of Christmas. And who doesn’t need a little magic in their lives?

So, I digress now into what types of things that adults believe in. And it’s this sentimental, spiritual, heartwarming, magical time of year when I start thinking about all of the things that I believe in: the things that give me hope, joy, and promises for the future; the things that make me tick and help me get through each day; the things that make me human, whether they be feelings, thoughts, or mistakes I’ve made. I believe in all of these things because they make me who I am and different from who you are. So what do I believe?

I believe that a smile can change the course of a day.
I believe that not everyone that comes into our lives is meant to stay.
I believe in love.
I believe that traveling the world gives me a much needed perspective on life.
I believe that more often than I’d like to admit, I wake up needing an attitude adjustment.
I believe that a good dose of coffee and dark chocolate can make the world a better place, even if just for a few minutes.
I believe that peace can be found in the midst of chaos if I look hard enough.
I believe in my girlfriends.
I believe in having a song that I can sing, in an instant, at the top of my lungs, and not be embarrassed.
I believe in crying when I need to.
I believe in second chances.
I believe in making charitable contributions.
I believe that there really are certain times of the month when women are more emotional. And that’s not even up for discussion.
I believe that a good book can remove me from reality and that sometimes I don’t want to come back.
I believe in having four seasons.
I believe in the healing power of a hug.
I believe in contributing my fair share to this world.
I believe that having crushes is healthy. It reminds me that I’m human.
I believe in riding really, really scary roller coasters, even when I think I’m too scared.
I believe that more often than not, I’m too prideful.
I believe that if you call someone and you want them to call you back, you need to leave a message.
I believe that having butterflies in my stomach is a fantastic feeling.
I believe in the joy of karaoke.
I believe that I really am impacted by the people around me.
I believe that I don’t do enough for others in this world, and that I need to change that.
I believe that grudges are powerful and painful.
I believe that it is too easy to become complacent in life, and that I need to fight it better.
I believe that experiencing other cultures allows me to better appreciate my own.
I believe that pets are good for my soul.
I believe in breaking the rules on occasion.
I believe that vacation days should never go unused.
I believe that life does not revolve around money or possessions.
I believe in spending time alone.
I believe that sometimes people are living the life they’ve always dreamed of, but just haven’t taken the time to notice.
I believe that life on a farm is refreshingly simple.
I believe that I do too many things in my life out of obligation.
I believe that small, sweet indulgences are a necessary splurge in life.
I believe that I could live anywhere in the world if I was surrounded by the people I love.
I believe in speed limits.
I believe in learning the language of the country in which you live, even if you don’t have to.
I believe that I need to exercise more.
I believe in the importance of self control.
I believe in always putting myself in the other person’s shoes.
I believe that I judge people too often and too quickly.
I believe that white twinkle lights make everything dreamy.

But mostly……
I believe that Christ died for me.
I believe that I have His grace, and that I certainly don’t deserve it.
I believe that only Jesus can teach me how to love the way I’m supposed to, and that I still have a lot to learn.
I believe that I am going to heaven to spend eternity with my Savior, and that I’m really, really going to like it there.
I believe that I don’t lean on me Savior nearly enough.
I believe in the power of prayer.
I believe that I am supposed to give my life away.
I believe that God has a plan for me.

So this Christmas season (at the risk of me sounding cheesy), as you are spending time with family and friends and watching “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow”, perhaps take a few moments or a few days and reflect on the things in life that give you hope, joy, and promises for the future; the things that make you tick and help you get through each day; the things that make you human, whether they be feelings, thoughts, or mistakes you’ve made. I know there are many more things on my list. And I'm curious, what do you believe?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tiny Treasures

It’s always during this time of year that I become a reflective person. Or shall I say an abnormally reflective person. I think we all do to some degree. After all, this is the holiday season and I think we just can’t help but get a little sentimental and hopeful. When I think of all the things that I have, and all of the things that many other people don’t, it causes me to stop and pause. Those things in my life, material or otherwise, are often taken for granted. And I’m the guilty party here folks. Are you the same?

I heard this term the other day: tiny treasures. I loved it. It was used in the context of trying to recognize tiny treasures throughout each day so that we can acknowledge that Jesus is very much a part of our lives. That He strategically plants these tiny treasures in our days. It really made me think of all of the little things in life that make me a happy person, a successful person, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a co-worker who hopefully makes work life a little better, a neighbor. All of these “positions” that I have in life are impacted by tiny treasures.

So given that I’m an uber-reflective person right now, and Jesus has seemingly tasked me with searching for the tiny treasures in my life, I thought that I would make a mental treasure chest with all of them as I come across them. Here is what I’ve come up with so far:

Independence – I love that I’m an independent person. I crave alone time and could honestly spend days by myself and I’d be okay. And it means that when I do spend time with people, it’s a conscious choice and heartfelt desire of mine. And it’s a way that I can let people know that they are tiny treasures in my life. I have spent the last couple of days shopping and running errands by myself. I loved it. I love that I can just create a plan and execute it with a scary level of precision.

My love for cooking – I love cooking. A lot of people really can’t cook, or at least they don’t have the desire to cook. For me, it’s a way to release energy, be creative, and serve others. I love being adventurous in the kitchen. I love trying new things. And even if they don’t turn out so great, that’s part of the fun. With my new job, I don’t get to cook as much because of the travel, so now it is an absolute treasure to spend time in the kitchen. I don’t take it for granted at all. How can I when it makes me so happy?

Seasonal coffee creamer – this makes my mornings better, period. How can you go wrong with fair trade coffee that supports orphans (http://www.justlovecoffee.com/teamhuss), coupled with spiced pumpkin, sugar & spice, caramel apple, or white chocolate raspberry creamer? It’s heaven in a coffee mug, and an absolute treasure. I miss this when I travel. And if I’m not at home, a gingerbread latte from Starbucks will do just fine, thank you. But you get the idea, seasonal tastes are sensational!

Bible study with a blanket – I love nothing more on a Saturday morning then to grab a cup of coffee (see point above) and sit on the oversized chair beneath my window and do my Bible study, curled up with a comfy blanket and a cuddly fat cat. It’s probably the most relaxed that I ever am in life. Me, Jesus, Kenna, and coffee = bliss. These moments never go unnoticed and are definitely in my treasure chest.

Friend time – I am very careful about not taking my friends for granted. I consciously make an effort to spend time with the people who are important to me, and I am forever grateful that I have so many amazing people in my life. They are tiny treasures that have been dropped off by Jesus in every aspect of my life. And when I get to experience special moments with them, well, I am just thankful with every ounce of my being.

The sun and the moon – have you ever been so impressed by a sunrise, or sunset, or the moon, that you want to tell every person that you see to look at it? Lately I’ve been noticing them more than usual. God doesn’t have to make them beautiful, but He does. I think He must like to see us just stare up at the sky at the marvels that He creates. What a simple and beautiful way to get the attention of His people. Just remember to acknowledge Him next time this happens :-)

A short line – especially during the holiday season, we need to be thankful for short lines. I always seem to notice when I have to wait in an extraordinarily long line, but I’m going to try and be better about noticing the short ones too. And then be thankful for them. Because long lines make people grouchy, and we certainly don’t need any more grouchy people around at the holidays!

So there you have it, my mental treasure chest, with just some of the many tiny treasures that I have recognized in my life. And I try to add to that treasure chest each and every day, and throughout the day. I have found that if I take the time to acknowledge little things in my life that are going right, they really do add up, and the bad things don’t seem so bad after all.

I encourage you to retrain your thinking. Retrain how you look at each day and search for the tiny treasures that are hidden amongst your daily routine. Be thankful for all green lights when you’re in a hurry, or a perfectly baked cake. Or a moment when you experienced Jesus. They probably happen more often than you realize. And they are life’s tiny treasures.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Globetrotting: Israel, Part II, the Secular Side

If you have read the “spiritual side” blog post, then you will know that I was completely entranced with Israel. Every aspect of it just made me happy in my bones. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I hopped on the big jet plane and headed over the Atlantic (and the Mediterranean Sea!). But I was more than pleasantly surprised with what was waiting for me on the other side. I’ve already explained the spiritual side of this trip, so let me switch gears here and just talk about the personality of Tel Aviv and the amazing trip to Masada and the Dead Sea.

Life in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is a bustling city. And it is quite fashionable. With an amazing coastline on the brilliantly turquoise Mediterranean Sea, it’s no surprise that there is a lot going on in this city of about a million people. I loved Tel Aviv at night because there was a cool ocean breeze, and whether we walked along the water to a beach restaurant where we could eat with our toes in the sand, or inland to the neighborhood streets, lined with cafes and gelaterias, it never failed to be pleasant, calming, and enjoyable. And it had the most amazing sunsets! Sunsets that made you want to absorb the beauty of them and never forget the vibrant colors.

There is something for everyone in Tel Aviv. Small local shops and massive shopping malls; yummy local food and “safer”, typical Western food (one night we got $2 falafel pitas from a lovely man who was proud to share with some Americans, and another we went to a Michelin-rated local seafood restaurant on the new harbor that was expensive, and divine); meandering along the promenade at the beach or hopping in a taxi to head into the city. Whatever my mood was, whatever I was hungry for, however rushed or relaxed I felt – Tel Aviv was just right.

Someone walking down the promenade at the beach could very easily think they were in California. I arrived on the Sabbath (Saturday) which the Jewish population in Tel Aviv takes very seriously. Because it is a day of rest, the beaches and promenade were full of families having picnics, playing games, and enjoying the sun and the water. And the people of Tel Aviv are not modest by any stretch of the imagination (except for the Orthodox Jews), so let’s just suffice it to say that I saw more Speedos in a day in Tel Aviv then I really ever care to see in my life!

There are really just two things that reminded me that I was not in California: the fact that every sign is in Hebrew and the Israeli men’s obsession with this game called matkot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matkot). I’ve included the Wikipedia link, so I won’t try to describe it, other than saying that you would never want to get in the way of one of those balls. Walking down the beach, it’s like a symphony of matkot games. And most of the men play in Speedos.

Tel Aviv also has the area of Jaffa, which is one of the oldest port cities in the world. Parts of Jaffa have narrow walkways with high stone walls, with little shops, restaurants and apartments tucked away within. You can easily get lost in what becomes a labyrinth of stone steps, but the safety of the water or the main square are never far away. A clock tower marks the center of Jaffa, and is surrounded by tourist shops, and a few streets away, local antique and flea markets. The cultures in Jaffa vary greatly since there is such history there for both the Jews and the Muslims. Currently, the oldest and probably largest mosque in Tel Aviv resides in Jaffa.

The people and the food
I can’t talk about the Israeli people with talking about religion. For most of them, being Jewish defines them. Granted, there are plenty of nonreligious jews, and there are many Orthodox Jews (although most live in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv), all of whom have varying levels of commitment to their beliefs, just as we experience in America. But putting aside religion for a moment, the Israelis are a likeable people. They are friendly, most speak three or four languages, and they seem to have no animosity toward Americans. I will say (with no intention of creating a stereotype here), that the Israeli Jews are physically a very homogenous culture. They all come from varying backgrounds, but they generally look very similar. I was amazed at this, and it made it quite easy to distinguish a local from an American or European tourist. The most distinguishing features are the eyes, nose, and the general way in which they carry themselves. And a lot of men over there are bald. And they wear Speedos. Have I mentioned that yet? :-)

I loved that as an American, I didn’t get treated any differently then a local or any other tourist. When I travel, I love getting treated as a local (but I will take that English menu, thank you) and merging into the culture. It makes me feel at home. And in Tel Aviv, it was very easy to feel at home. For a girl who loves pickles and hummus, I was in heaven. Every restaurant we went to made its own pickles. Yum. They pretty much make their own everything. I love that about foreign lands – their food is so much less processed than ours in America and so much better for our bodies! I honestly did not have a bad meal the entire time I was there. Everything was delicious, whether it was a lamb kebab, a cheeseburger, chicken shwarma, gallons of hummus, salads, gelato, fresh fish, etc. You get the idea – I did not starve in Tel Aviv :-)

A life of constant tension
So being the somewhat ignorant and oblivious American that I will ashamedly admit that I can tend to be, I knew the extreme basics of the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I mean, we’re talking basic. After this trip, I am proud to say that I have a comfortable level of knowledge about the situation. I’m not a political person and I generally choose to stay out of political conversations. There are too many people in this world who don’t know enough about politics, but who speak passionately as if they do. I don’t want to be one of them.

The main areas of conflict in Israel are the West Bank (as in west bank of the Jordan River, even though it’s in the east of Israel) and the Gaza strip, in southwestern Israel on the border of Egypt. I won’t continue to give a lesson on this Israeli/Palestinian conflict (mainly because I know I would screw something up), but I will tell you how it impacted our trip. In general, there were not many noticeable impacts during my time in Israel. The biggest impact was when we were going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which crosses into Palestinian territory from Israeli territory. Our tour guide in Jerusalem, who was an Israeli Jew, could not take us into Bethlehem, so we had to have a different tour guide for Bethlehem who was Arab.

When going between the two territories, we had to cross a checkpoint. We had no issues whatsoever, and the entire process was very seamless for us. I have heard stories where the guards ask a lot of questions, but I think that because we were clearly a group of Americans, there were no issues.

Every man and woman in Israel is required to serve in the army; men for three years (with one month of reserve time per year thereafter) and women for two years. There are certain exemptions, but for the most part, every Israeli has served in the army. Can you imagine telling each American that they have to serve in the army? I don’t think that would go over very well, but then again, this is what they are used to and it’s all they know. And Israel does not have a large standing army. It depends heavily on the reserves.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this conflict one way or the other, but it is clear that the people of Israel and those residing in Palestinian territory (including the disputed territory) are passionate about it. This is clearly something that cannot be resolved over night, but I do hope that everything gets resolved rather peacefully in time.

Masada
My next example of Lisa-ignorance is that I had never even heard of Masada. And I feel ashamed, as this is a fantastic story of greed, insanity, ingenuity, and ultimately death and sacrifice. The day after we went to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, we went with the same tour leader and driver to Masada and the Dead Sea. We drove back through Jerusalem, and then kept going east. As we drove down past sea level, we were almost instantly in the desert. It was amazing how quickly the landscape changed. We learned a lot about the agriculture historically, and today, and why certain vegetation (such as date palms) thrive, and why other plants require to much water and don’t grow well naturally.

We got a teasing glimpse of the Dead Sea before heading to Masada. Masada was built as a fortress on top of a mountain by King Herod, just before the birth of Christ. I vividly remember the three adjectives used by our tour guide to describe King Herod: excessive, paranoid, and a builder. I think these are important because they are really the only logical explanation for why he built this fortress on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

Masada was amazing. It still had some of the old original stone remnants of the structure, and we could see where the storehouses, bathhouses, sleeping quarters, synagogue, guard stations, etc. were located. We literally walked in the midst of this fortress city. To make what could be a very long story quite short, after King Herod died, and during the time that the Romans were destroying and capturing the Jews, a group of about 1,000 Jews escaped to Masada for refuge. They sustained themselves at Masada until the Romans came and sieged the fortress. Once the Romans breached the walls of Masada, the Jews decided to commit a mass murder/suicide instead of succumbing to the Romans either through death or slavery. I was so captivated by this story, and will be watching the Masada mini-series starring Peter O’Toole very soon; as soon as Netflix mails it to me!

Today, visitors can either take a cable car up to the top of Masada or hike up and down on foot. You can walk all over the settlement and even go into the cisterns that were built in the side of the mountain to capture rain water as it ran down the mountain. I’m telling you, these people were engineers. And they certainly didn’t have the modern equipment that we have today. It was impressive!

The Dead Sea
What trip to Israel is complete without a trip to the Dead Sea? Some quick facts about the Dead Sea before I launch into my storytelling:

- The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, at about 1,400 feet below sea level;
- The salinity of the Dead Sea is about 33%, which is almost nine times saltier than the ocean (from personal experience, I don’t recommend tasting it!);
- The salinity causes the water to be very dense and buoyant, which allows people to float in the water;
- The Dead Sea abounds with minerals, which are thought to have healing properties and offer up a free full body mud mask!;
- The Dead Sea continues to shrink through evaporation each year. The only major source of water coming into the Dead Sea is the Jordan River, and rainfall in the area is scarce to none;
- The middle of the Dead Sea marks the border between Israel and Jordan. At the narrower parts, you can see Jordan clearly on the other side;
- In addition to the salt content, and the minerals in the water, the atmosphere around the Dead Sea provides relief for asthmatics, cystic fibrosis patients, and those suffering from eczema and psoriasis. This is because of the higher atmospheric pressure and the reduced ultraviolet rays from the sun (as a result of being so far below sea level).

So, now that you all have a crash course on the Dead Sea, it’s time for storytelling again.

We left Masada and headed for a quick stop at Qumran, which is where the first Dead Sea scrolls were found in the surrounding caves. These scrolls have provided a lot of the history that we know about that area.

Then it was time to go play in the Dead Sea. I’ll admit, when I first saw the beach and the area where we had access to the water, I was disappointed and it was very anti-climatic. It was muddy, dark, over laden with tourists, and just overall a bit gloomy. After seeing the Mediterranean Sea and its pristine turquoise water, I was shocked to see dark, murky water. But it totally makes sense, right? There is nothing living in the Dead Sea, the bottom is mud, and the water is thick with salt and minerals.

So, after getting over the visuals, I was eager to get in. I thought that the floating properties were probably overrated and exaggerated. I was happy to be wrong! I felt like a little kid, and probably acted like one too. It was just plain, simple, fun. You can literally walk in, sit down, and float on top of the water. No effort, no struggling, no drama. Just sitting or laying in this water that is supposed to have amazing properties. I could’ve stayed in there all day.

Then it was time for a full body mud mask. Picture yourself covered in rich, black Dead Sea mud. And then floating on top of the water. It was fantastic. But it stank! We stayed covered in mud for about 20 minutes while we all took lots of pictures and tried to let it dry, and then it was time to clean up. I will tell you, my skin has never felt softer in my life. And it lasted for days afterward. Any mud that is packaged and sold from the Dead Sea cannot be near as good as the real thing,, scooped up with your own hands from the bottom of the Dead Sea. Nothing beats the real thing.

So after we’ve all showered and changed and were mud-free, we stopped to have a quick drink at the “Lowest Bar in the World” after heading home after a fantastic but exhausting day. I encourage you to get to the Dead Sea before it evaporates even more. It would be a shame to miss out on a free full body mud mask :-)

Summing it all up
So it seems that I’ve said all that there is to be said about Israel. Well, not really, but all that I think you can handle. So let me just say this: GO. Go to Israel. Experience the spiritual side. Experience the surreal elements of the Dead Sea. Experience the vitality of Tel Aviv. Experience the history of Jaffa, and Masada, and Jerusalem, and every other city in Israel that has more history than America could ever have. And then I promise, when you get back, I’ll sit with you and you can tell me all about it. And how you fell in love with it, just as I did.

(At the time of posting this, the pictures would not upload, so apologies for all of the words. I hope to upload them at a later time!)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Globetrotting: Israel, Part II – the Spiritual Side

I have been blown away. Blown away by historical landmarks unlike any other that I have ever seen. Blown away by a people who live in a country of constant turmoil, but still manage to be happy, polite, passionate, and hopeful. Blown away by the beauty of a landscape that goes from the sea, to the mountains, then below the sea to the lowest place on earth, in the span of just over an hour. Blown away by Biblical history, and experiencing where it all took place. Blown away by falafels, hummus, homemade pickles, and kebabs. Blown away by sitting at dinner with sand in my toes and a mojito in my hand. I have been blown away by Israel: a country of which I held an uncertain expectation, but which has managed to exceed any expectation that I could’ve ever had.

There are many different elements of this trip, which when added together, created probably the most meaningful travel experience of my life. In order to do this trip justice (and save you readers from an even longer novel), I broke this blog post up into two parts: the spiritual side and the secular side. This is the spiritual side. Welcome to my journey!

To set the stage, I went to Israel for work for two weeks. The work week is Sunday – Thursday, so our weekend started on Friday. I was fortunate enough to have traveled with a great group of people who were adventurous (some more than others!) and all had the common desire to see the Holy Land. So on Friday, we headed off to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with a private tour guide, and geared ourselves up for a day like we had never before experienced.

Jerusalem
Before you read this, you should know that I’m a Christian. It’s probably blatantly obvious when you look at my blog (and let’s be honest- really only my friends read this and they know this about me anyway), but I wanted to make sure that ANYONE reading this blog knows this about me. I love Jesus. He is my Savior. I was a Christian in the land of Jews. And it was okay.

I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive taking this weekend trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with a large group of co-workers who didn’t know me well at all, who had outspoken, mixed faith and beliefs, and whom certainly did not know the depths of my faith. This was an important trip for me, and I wanted to be able to enjoy it and absorb every morsel of spirit, truth, love, and Jesus that I experienced during this trip.

So what did I ultimately do? I took my Bible with me to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. My big, fat, heavy, NIV/The Message side-by-side Bible that weighs probably 5 lbs, and I lugged it around in my backpack. But I’m so glad I did. I loved that I had my Bible so that I could open up to the scriptures that explained what happened at the exact places where I was standing.

We started at the Mount of Olives bright and early on that Friday morning. And I opened up to Genesis 22:2 where God said to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

So I’M standing on the Mount of Olives, looking at where Mt. Moriah was. And that same mountain was where the first Temple was eventually built, and destroyed, and the second Temple was built, and destroyed, and now is where the Jewish people believe the third and final Temple will be built. It is the holiest of places in Judaism, and all Jewish prayer is faced towards the Temple Mount. And Jewish people are all buried with their feet facing the Temple Mount. When you look at it now, you see a Muslim mosque. It is the third holiest sight for the Muslims in the World. I struggle with this. But you get the idea, it‘s a pretty significant spot.

And then we start walking down the hill, on what is called the Palm Sunday walk, where Jesus began the trek to His crucifixion. And we come to the Garden of Gethsemane. THE Garden of Gethsemane. And the olives trees were amazing. They were old and creepy and huge and thick. The trees that are alive today are only hundreds of years old. They are descendants of the original olive trees that were in the garden. But I’M standing in that garden and opened my Bible to Matthew 26:36-46, and read about the place where Jesus spent the last night with His disciples. And this garden, the place where I was standing, was ultimately where Jesus was betrayed by one of them and arrested.

Not far from the Garden of Gethsemane was the Church of Agony that housed the rock where Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” And again, I’M standing in that church, looking at that rock, and reading in my Bible about this agony that Jesus is going through. It was solemn and inspiring at the same time.

So as the morning is progressing, I’m just in awe of where I am. I didn’t care that I was with a bunch of my co-workers who may not have known my faith at the beginning of the morning. They probably had a pretty good idea of it at this point. And before we continued on to the point where Jesus was nailed to the cross and began the stations of the cross, we saw both the birthplace of the Virgin Mary and the place where she was believed to have been buried.

And throughout all of this, we had an incredible history lesson by our tour guide, not only from a Biblical perspective, but also from a secular perspective (if there was such a thing back then). We learned about the landscape, the agriculture, the weather trends, the religious tension, the Romans and how they lived to conquer everything, the magnificent capacity to build things, about greed and money, and most of all, I learned to appreciate the Jewish people and what they went through. And I learned to understand why they are who they are today. They are a people who have been truly formed by the past of their ancestors. It was incredible.

So we’re walking toward the gates of the city at this point, and I must pause here, because I never really understood the concepts of these gates. And I’ve read a lot about them in books! These gates are a small, miniscule piece of a massive stone wall. Nothing is getting past these walls, or through them for that matter. They were there for protection of the city. Today, the walls of Jerusalem still stand, and entrance is only through one of the several gates. The city is no longer bound by these walls, but back then, it was. And that was an important part of our history lesson.

As we’re walking through the Lions Gate, it is noon on a Friday. It is the Muslim Sabbath. And for those of you who are like me and do not understand that Muslims are as prevalent in Jerusalem as Jews are, you would’ve been shocked too. The call to prayer came at noon, and a swarm of Muslims began cramming through this gate to head up to the mosque. It was a sight to see. We proceeded to enter the gate and head in the opposite direction.

At this point, we are nearing the point of the first station of the cross, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, and the crown of thorns was placed on His head. Several of the stations of the cross are marked with a church. Others are just marked on a sidewalk or by a doorway. I won’t go into details of all of the various stations, but I will say that they took us through the markets of Jerusalem on the via Dolorosa. These markets were incredible – buried away in little narrow alleys and walkways, bright and colorful, bustling with families buying what they need to prepare food for the Sabbath the next day, fresh bagel carts flying past you on cobblestone streets – it was a complete sensory overload and I loved every minute of it.

We stopped to have lunch as a group at a local dive. We were told by our tour leader that we had ten minutes to eat. At this point, we are staring at her like she’s crazy. At the same time, plates of falafels, pita, hummus, salad, and pickles start to come out in hoards. And they don’t stop until we say stop. It was delicious and fast, and couldn’t have been better, really. I still dream of that hummus as I sit here typing.

We took a break from the crazy but fabulous local markets and from the stations of the cross to head into Old Jersualem. It was an instantly noticeable change from the Jerusalem of today, but it was just around the corner. There were areas where you could see, in plain sight, that the city had literally been built upon itself over and over again. You could see down into the guts of what used to be the city, before it was covered by new growth, and then covered again, and again. And we saw remnants of what once were magnificent stone walls. The fact that some of them were still there is proof that time doesn’t change everything.

There are quite a few apartments and small terrace-type homes in Old Jerusalem, so as we were walking down the narrow cobblestone alleys, we could smell food cooking as the families were preparing their meals for the Sabbath that followed the next day. And there were many Orthodox Jews in their full attire meandering through these alleys on their way to and from the markets. I almost felt like I was intruding on their lives. It was definitely an off-the-beaten-path diversion, but one that made me realize that there were real people living in a real city, who don’t just cater to tourists.

And then we came upon the Western Wall. Instead of trying to explain the significance of the Western Wall in my own words, I will rely upon the expertise of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Wall), so that you can take the time to read about it and get a clear understanding of its history. We did not go down to the wall for lack of time, but it was obvious to anyone who saw it that it is a spirit-filled site. There are male and female sections of the wall. People write prayers down stick them into the stones of the wall. Regardless of the reasons that people were there, I was refreshed to see such an honest exhibition of faith.

As we continued heading through the markets, and learning about both Biblical and secular history, I couldn’t help but just praise God. Praise Him for not only the opportunity to visit this truly Holy Land, but for everything that’s in it. He is responsible for each person on this planet; each person walking through those streets of Jerusalem, whether they were believers or not. He loves all of us. He created all of us. And to physically be in a place with such significant history was awe inspiring. Yes, certain parts of Jerusalem were commercial, and certain parts were so overcome with tourists that I couldn’t help but want to run out of there as fast as I could, but when I closed my eyes and breathed in the air of a place where Jesus, as man, once was, somehow He overshadowed all of those other things.

My time in Jerusalem finished up with a frantic scurry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the spot where Jesus carried the cross to His death. And nearby, the place of His resurrection! This church was one of the busiest tourist spots in the entire city. I won’t lie; it was difficult to fully absorb the significance of this place. But again, there was faith and holiness oozing out of every nook and cranny of that church if you just took the chance to notice. Even amongst the group of seemingly a hundred Japanese tourists, all with their bright yellow hats. Or the Europeans who barely managed to wear enough clothing to enter the church. Or the children running around having no clue why so many people were in tears. Or countless Americans gabbing and texting on their cell phones.


So amidst all of that chaos stood the stone that marked the spot where the cross was erected on top of Golgotha, as in Matthew 27:32-37; and the stone that represents what Jesus was laid upon for His burial, covered in olive oil and rose water and being kissed by countless people; and finally, a short distance away, the place where the tomb was believed to have been, marking the spot of the resurrection. And as we left Jerusalem, it was nearly time for the siren to go off in the city, signifying the beginning of the Sabbath: a day of rest.

Bethlehem
Without getting into the political drama of getting from Jerusalem (which is in Israeli territory) to Bethlehem (which is in Palestinian territory), I’ll now move on to our trip to the birthplace of Jesus. There are two primary sites to see in Bethlehem, the first being the Shepherds’’ Field where in Luke 2:9-12, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”


Shepherds used to roam the field that I was walking through, tending to their sheep. And further along there are several caves, where the Shepherds retreated at night. These are the original caves, as evidenced by the black soot on the inside roofs of the caves, as a result of fires used for cooking and warmth. And these exact caves, are where the shepherds were told of the birth of Jesus.

The second site was the church that housed the birth ”spot” of Jesus and the area where the manger was kept. This was the second longest line I had seen all day. Luckily, because we were a small group, we got to bypass most of the line and sneak in the back way to see the star that signifies the spot where Jesus was born. And across the same room was the manger. Two very cool pieces of Biblical history. And something else that struck me unexpectedly was the fact that within that church complex, there were areas designated for the Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox churches to worship. It was almost like an internal battle.
After our visit to these two sites, we did a bit of shopping and then it was time to head back to Tel Aviv after an amazing day, and one that I will never forget. Religious or not, the history in Israel is really incomparable to any other place in the world. It holds such significance for so many of the foundations that the world today is built upon. My prayer is that every believer in God, and in Jesus Christ the Savior, has the opportunity to go to the Holy Land some day. And I hope more than anything, that for those who will never have that chance, that this blog has helped to give you a little better idea of what these places are really like, and that perhaps you felt, even if just for an instance, that you were experiencing it. Because it is a powerful place.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Globetrotting: Israel, Part I

I’m going to the Holy Land. I’M GOING TO THE HOLY LAND!!! It’s still a bit surreal to me. I know I’m technically going for work, but this is one trip where my priority is the weekend and getting out of Tel Aviv to see Jerusalem….and Bethlehem….and the Dead Sea….and Masada.

So I’ve been doing some research to prepare myself for this trip. Again, I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to details about Israel. Here is what I do know/think:

- Hebrew is the national language and the work that I will be reviewing will be in Hebrew, so we will be using translators to help us;

- The Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict forever. I sort of understand the depth of what the entire conflict is about, but sort of don’t. I think I know just enough to keep me out of trouble, but actually hope to learn a lot more about what’s going on over there during my visit;

- My hotel is on the Mediterranean Sea (which I fully expect to have bright, turquoise, clear water) and the weather is meant to be highs around 80F and lows in the mid 60s…and SUNNY. How perfect is that?;

- I have heard that getting through airport security over there is a bit of a nightmare, so I will mentally prepare myself for long lines and pray for patience;

- History, history, and more history. It’s times like this that I kind of wish I lived in a country that had more history. The U.S. is so young compared to so many other parts of the world. I mean, where I’m going…..it’s in the Bible! Utterly unreal and amazing;

- I have printed out information about Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv, to read on the plane so that I am armed with more knowledge than the average Joe.

Other than that, I don’t really know what to expect from Israel.

(P.S. As I finish this blog post, I am sitting in Tel Aviv after about a day and a half. So forgive me for making this so short. I didn’t want to ruin my Part I blog post with actual impressions. We’ll save that for Part II.)

I’ll just say for now, that Lonely Planet just voted Tel Aviv as the 3rd best city in the world :-)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reality Check

Lately I’ve found myself saying this phrase quite a lot: “Well, I guess it’s time to get back to reality”. I say it when I’m leaving a hotel, when I get off a plane, or when I’ve had a surreal experience in a foreign city. But, I’ve come to understand that this is my new reality now. And the times that I think I’m living in some dream world? Well, that’s my life.

Usually when someone has been away from home for two weeks, it’s at the end of a vacation and the thought of going back home, back to reality, is a bit unsettling. I remember leaving Jakarta after my two week business trip last week and saying to the hotel staff (whom I had become friends with and who knew me by name), that it was time to go back to reality. Well, I now recognize that traveling, and staying in hotels, and becoming friends with hotel staff, and being on airplanes IS my reality. It’s my life. It should come to no surprise to me that I come and go on such a regular basis.

So when do I get to go back to reality? That’s a good question! My life right now is so full of opportunity and new experiences. I’m starting to get used to it and have sort of stopped feeling like I’m in some dream land. My whole life is like a dream land. And I don’t mean that it’s dreamy and everything is hunky dory all the time (because that certainly is not the case), but I do have to pinch myself on a regular basis. I need a reality check!

What else is now a part of my new reality, apart from hotels, airplanes and surreal experiences in foreign cities?

My new reality includes seamlessly making the transition from being overseas, to being at home in Houston. In the past, I’ve had to spend a couple of days getting back into the swing of things after being away from home for a while, especially after an overseas trip. Now, I don’t waste any time acclimating to home anymore. I jump right in, jetlagged and all. My house looks the same as it did when I left. Everything is still in tact and ready for me. And thankfully, after a good night’s rest, I don’t really miss a beat. I can’t afford to as my time at home is too precious!

I usually get home on Saturdays after a business trip, and my Sunday School class gets the pleasure of me showing up on Sunday mornings looking and acting a bit like a zombie. But you know what? I can always count on them to warmly and enthusiastically welcome me home. And it feels great. And I am so thankful for them. I always worry that people are going to forget about me and be a true reflection of the “out of sight out of mind” theory. But they prove me wrong. They care about me, they ask about my trips, and they miss me when I’m gone. And I miss them, and we love catching up when I get back. That’s my new reality.

Kenna stays with my parents while I’m out of town, and she understands what’s happening now; which means I have to be super sneaky when I’m getting ready to leave. I have to act like nothing is different (except for my luggage of course, which is a dead giveaway), so that she doesn’t go hiding somewhere before I have the chance to put her in her crate for the ride in the car. And then I get shunned in the car as she so kindly puts her back to me the entire way up to my parents’ house. She won’t look at me. But you know what? She is so excited to see me when I get back in town, and proceeds to purr like a V8 engine and give me endless cuddles. So I’ve learned to accept the fact that I get ignored up front, because I know that I’ll be loved a little extra on the back end. And that’s my new reality.

When I was home on a regular basis, I think I took my friends for granted. Not their friendships, but the fact that they were around and available. I might go two months without seeing one of my friends and think nothing of it. It’s easy to do when you know someone is around – there’s always another time, right? Well, my new reality says that’s wrong! I’m only home for about two weeks a month. So I have this urgency to see people when I’m home; which means that I see a lot more of my friends now than when I was home all the time. I kind of like it! You know when you just say you’re going to meet up with someone for dinner, then someone gets busy at work, or is tired, or just doesn’t feel up to it, and it’s easy to say, “we’ll reschedule for tomorrow or next week”? Well now, if you cancel on me (or vice versa), it’s likely to be a month before I get to see you again. Let’s just say that my social calendar is full, hardly anyone cancels, and I LOVE it! What a great new reality.

An Amazon Kindle has also become my new reality. I fought it for a long time in favor of a tangible book, with pages I could feel between my fingers and smell as I flipped them. But when I travel for 24 hours on a plane, each way, on a monthly basis, I find that I read…..A LOT. I power my way through books. And who wants to lug several books with them all the way across the world? Not me! So my mom finally convinced me that I needed a Kindle, and I pretty much have a love affair with it now. The best part is, I can download a book anywhere in the world thanks to the Kindle’s 3G service, and so I’m always armed with fresh reading material…..and a depleting bank account. My carry on is no longer stuffed with books. And that’s a fantastic new reality!

I love cooking, and I love going to the grocery store. I seriously love it. Even though there is just one of me, I often times cook a normal size recipe for four, meaning I have leftovers for the next couple of days or frozen goodies to eat a few weeks later. With my new travel schedule, and my full social calendar, I don’t cook much anymore. It’s somewhat depressing, but I’m getting used to it. I generally just make a quick trip to the grocery store when I return home, for some fruit and veggies and breakfast stuff, but other than that, I’m eating out a lot and don’t have the need, or opportunity, to hang out in my kitchen and cook. I may have to do something about this, as I don’t really like this new reality. Neither does my grocery store!

The reality is, life doesn’t change all that much while I’m gone. Most of the time I don’t get to check Facebook while I’m overseas, and I’ve learned that I don’t really miss much without it. That was a refreshing revelation! Sure I miss some special events and gatherings in the lives of my family and friends, but I make up for that when I’m back in town and have great friends who keep me posted on their lives while I’m away. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’ve spent this blog post talking about the significant changes in my life that have come with the start of my new job. Some are good changes and some I don’t like so much, but I know this is where God wants me right now (even if I’m not so sure why) and I’m just embracing these changes and taking things day by day. I am experiencing things that most people won’t experience in an entire lifetime, and I am grateful for this opportunity. I still try to soak in the culture of all of the foreign lands that I visit, and I will also try to soak in the culture of home when I am here. This is my life. This is my new reality.

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
– Matthew 6:33-34 (MSG)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Globetrotting: Indonesia, Part II

Well, I've just returned from my trip to Indonesia, and I don’t even know where to start. I had no expectations of Jakarta. But it left me with a lot of memories, and a lot of fun facts. I feel like an Indonesian encyclopedia now! I truly hope that I can capture the essence of this massive city with the few tidbits and stories that follow.

(P.S. For those of you wondering, I left before the tsunami and volcano and was not impacted at all. Praise the Lord!)

Things I learned about Jakarta (the capital city) and Indonesia (the country):

  • Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world by population. It follows the good ole US of A, which is preceded by China and India. I had no idea that Indonesia has 240 million people;
  • Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. You know those 240 million people I just mentioned? Well, 200 million of them are Muslim. But, it’s not a Muslim country! It’s a secular country, and the other 15% or so is made up of Christians, Buddhists, Hindu and those who simply just don’t believe;
  • Indonesia has the second largest variety of vegetation in the world. This is because is lies in between Asia and Australia and has access to the waters in between the islands. And the weather is always tropical. There are 2,500 different types of orchid and hundreds of varieties of bananas and mangoes. Yum!;
  • Jakarta has several “downtown” areas, so no matter which direction you look, you’ll see a group of tall buildings. Talk about getting disoriented!;
  • There are no tourist activities in Jakarta. The local people are the ones who told me this. What do they do for fun on the weekend? They go to the mountains outside of Jakarta or to the shopping malls. There are what seem like a bigillion shopping malls, all really nice, and this is their big outing on the weekends;
  • Jakarta has the same weather all year long. How boring. Nice, but boring;
  • Jakarta is very “entrepreneurial”. And what exactly do I mean by this? Everyone is looking for a way to make a buck. Teenage boys stand in the middle of traffic and direct it, allowing cars to turn or change lanes when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and then they get a couple thousand rupiah from the thankful driver whom they helped. And there are “3 in 1” roads during peak traffic, where you can’t drive on the road unless you have 3 people in your car. So what do these “entrepreneurs” do? They hop in your car for the length of this “3 in 1” section, you give them a couple thousand rupiah, and then they take the public bus back to the beginning to do it all over again, and still net a little bit of cash. And just to put that in perspective, the exchange rate at the moment is about 9,000 rupiah to the U.S. dollar. All I can say is, at least they’re not just standing on the corners asking for handouts;
  • Komodo Island is one of the main islands of Indonesia, and is the home to the Komodo dragon. It is one of only four islands within Indonesia where these creatures roam free. I had no idea;
  • Sumatra Island is the home to the largest flower, the infamous Corpse Flower (aka Titan Arum), known for it’s odor of rotting flesh. For those of you in Houston, this may sound familiar to you as there was big news about our very own Corpse Flower, “Lois”, at the Museum of Natural Science this past summer. Only 28 Corpse Flowers have ever bloomed in the United States. Sumatra Island is there native home;
  • Indonesia was originally settled by the Dutch a long time ago. Since then, the people of Indonesia are a blend of Malaysian and Chinese. Some of them look more Polynesian (think dark island looking Asians like in Hawaii, and some of them look Chinese).
So now that you know a little about Jakarta and Indonesia, I’ll tell you what made it a special place to me, and a great overall experience.

Indonesia is made up of lots of miniature people. I don’t mean to sound rude when I say that, but I felt like an Amazon woman the entire time I was there. Six Americans on an elevator took up about as much space as twelve Indonesians. But that didn’t seem to intimidate them. I have never seen a people so assertive when it comes to getting on and off of an elevator. There is no waiting for anyone, and they certainly have no concept of elevator etiquette. It’s a free for all. After about a week of this stressful experience, we opted for the escalators :-)

There were surprisingly a lot of expats in Jakarta. It really is a nice city, and I can see why people can easily live there. The food was varied and delicious, the infrastructure is sufficient, it’s a relatively safe town (even though all you ever hear about it is related to terrorism), there is good nightlife, and you kind of just fit right in (well, other than the fact that you may not be miniature).

The hotel that we stayed at was connected via an underground walkway to what we would classify as a 5-Star shopping mall. That shopping mall was also connected to the office building in which we worked each day, so needless to say, my experience was perhaps better than it should have been since I didn’t have to deal with Jakarta traffic at all. Every entrance to every building requires you to go through a security checkpoint – some more serious than others – but the intention is at least there. The security guards between the mall and the Ritz knew us after a couple of days.

Jakarta has many western establishments – McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Tony Romas, Wendy’s, Benihana, etc. But there is also a lot of great local and regional food. I ate lots of sushi while I was over there, and some of the best stir-fried noodles I’ve ever had. They have a lot of Australian Wagyu beef (like our kobe beef) and lamb, which I quite happily indulged in.

One of the members of my team tried to eat “American” pretty much every day, and he certainly never caused the rest of us to have food envy. I’m sorry, but if you’re traveling overseas a lot as part of your job, branch out a little, huh? If you’re scared to partake in local flavors (within reason, of course), perhaps you shouldn’t travel overseas for a living. Just sayin’. I had ice in my drinks AND ate fruit AND ate vegetables AND ate the local fish, and I’m still alive and kickin’!

And we learned that service is sporadic. Meaning, I get my meal within 5 minutes of ordering, and my co-worker doesn’t get his until 15 minutes later. And that’s normal to them, and they think that it’s okay to put me in the position of having to choose to eat before my co-worker has his food, or have a cold meal. I’m not okay with that. But I got over it. I ate first :-)

On the weekend in between our two weeks of work, half of the team went to Bali and the other half of us stayed back. A former co-worker of mine now lives in Jakarta with her husband and family, and she invited me to come spend some time in the mountains with her family. The mountains are about two hours outside of Jakarta. What I didn’t realize was that they have this amazing villa and surrounding plantation with every fruit and vegetable that could possibly grow there, complete with a pond stocked with fish and some imported Australian deer. I had such a wonderful time catching up with her, meeting and hanging out with her family, eating lots of local foods grown on their property, and getting out of the big city. It was a generous display of Indonesian hospitality!

Her family is also very active in their church, and help with the Christian orphanage that houses 25 boys and girls. All of the kids are allocated to various church families to take home each weekend, so her family had three of the girls that weekend and they were up at the villa hanging out with us. They were adorable and it was even a better experience being able to spend time with them. I’m still amazed that with so many Muslims in Indonesia, I got to hang around with part of the 2% of the population that are Christians. What are the odds???

What else did I love about Jakarta?

  • the almost daily, scare-your-britches-off, afternoon thunderstorms. It looked like the world was going to end. But we always survived :-);
  • the 10 minute process that it took me and a co-worker to get coffee with milk from Dunkin Donuts each morning. It was a ritual that involved paper bags and tape;
  • the fact that every employee in the Ritz Carlton knew me by name by Day 2, and knew that I had coffee with breakfast and wine during Happy Hour. And this even includes the staff in the fitness center who would brightly welcome me each morning with a “Good morning Miss Mason”. Gotta love the Ritz!;
  • the 20 minute cab rides in a Mercedes for the equivalent of $4;
  • the fact that they didn’t really treat me any different because I was American. It seems that they are accustomed to expats. And I loved that. I just want to fit in. Well, as much as I can being an Amazon woman.
I’m not really sure what else to say, other than that my impression is that Indonesian people are hard workers and take nothing for granted. Jobs are created for people to keep them busy. They may not be paid a lot, but at least they are working. The city is well kept (at least the parts that I saw), and although there are a ton of people within the city, it’s well controlled and I never felt threatened. It’s very green, very close to the equator, and has little earthquakes pretty much every day.

Would I recommend going to Jakarta? Apart from the fact that there is really nothing to do, absolutely. Next time I may venture down to Bali to see what all of the hype is about, but I left Jakarta with a smile on my face. And I really couldn’t have asked for more than that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fallen

I have officially, blissfully, completely, fallen in love. It’s for real this time. There is no doubt in my mind. It’s exhilarating.

I have fallen in love with the dry air, and the chirping birds, and the brisk mornings, and the pep in everyone’s step. I have fallen in love with FALL. Ahhhhh!

I know that pretty much everyone loves Fall. Who couldn’t? For some it’s the end of a brutal summer (thank you, Houston), and for others it’s a milder version of what’s to come in the winter and a time to watch the leaves change. Either way, it’s a welcomed change. Houston has about two weeks, on average, of Fall weather each year. We are currently half-way through the second week, so perhaps we will be blessed with an extension this year. Here’s hoping!

So what else does Fall mean, and why is it such a beloved season? Here’s my take on it:

Fall baking: nothing else compares to this, ever. We get to put pumpkin in everything, and pumpkin makes everything better. And Fall baking makes the house smell good, and gets our minds focused toward Thanksgiving rather than July 4th. My favorite is this scrumptious chocolate chip pumpkin bread that I make. The best way to get Vitamin A that I know of! The first batch has already been baked and consumed this year, and there will be many more to follow.

Fresh air: this may not mean much to a lot of you, but the fact that I get to use the sun roof in my car instead of the air conditioning, well, that’s just a pure blessing. I love driving down the freeway with my hair whipping in the wind, and I’m not sweating! This is a sacred occasion as it happens so rarely. And the same goes for opening the windows at my house. Fresh, outside air is so much better than recycled air. And the fat cat just sits underneath the open window with her nose in the air taking all of the new smells in and enjoying every minute of it.

Warm things: think down comforter on the bed instead of a blanket (this transition was made 2 nights ago and I have not slept better in weeks!), long sleeves instead of tank tops, cozy pajamas instead of the bare minimum, blankets on the couch, hot tea – you get the picture. I love being cozy. I love wrapping up in something. There are really few things in this world better than being cozy. I would pick a log cabin in the mountains, in front of a fire, over the beach any day!

Football: I will caveat this by saying that I’m not actually into football anymore. I really just don't care all that much. BUT, I love the energy that is in the air during football season. People become friendlier because they discover they cheer for the same team, they bond over fantasy football leagues, and they talk to others they would not normally talk to. Football brings out hoards of people (albeit some obnoxious and annoying) together for socializing and relishing in the cooler weather. So even though I don’t actually watch the football games, I love the energy that this sport creates. I love just sitting back and enjoying the vibe.

You feelin’ frisky?: Have you noticed that animals are much friskier in the cooler weather? And people are in better moods? Why is it that the heat drains so much out of us? When Fall comes, every animal and every person seems to have more pep in their step. All of a sudden we’re outside exercising, doing chores, etc. and we are loving it! I don’t know about you, but sometimes, the feeling of Fall makes me believe that I can conquer the world. That’s pretty powerful!

I know I’m not saying anything here that most of you haven't already thought or experienced, but my love affair with this season has been extraordinarily powerful this year. Maybe it’s because I now have a job where I can leave at a decent hour and enjoy being outside at night having dinner at a cafĂ© or walking the park with friends. Maybe it’s because I am traveling a lot more now, so when I experience this amazing weather while I’m home, I just soak it up and appreciate it even more. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve taken the time to acknowledge all of these little aspects of Fall that have made me fall in love. Whatever it is, just know that I have fallen. Have you?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Globetrotting: Indonesia, Part I

I’m going to be honest with you, and I’m a little ashamed to admit this: I don’t really know much at all about Indonesia, or specifically Jakarta, the city that I’m about to be living in for the next two weeks. I guess I’ve just never really known anyone to go there, nor have I really cared. It’s not been one of my most wanted travel destinations. When I lived in Australia, a lot of Aussies would go to Bali on vacation. That’s really all I had ever heard of Indonesia. But I’m not even going to Bali.

So, I’m about to embark on an adventure to a place that I really know nothing about. I know that there have been problems with terrorism in the past, that the “Love” portion of “Eat Pray Love” was in Indonesia (Bali specifically), and that it is going to take me a very long time to get there from Houston. That’s really about it. All I’m really equipped with is a wide open mind and a lot of curiosity.

Here is what I do know:

It is taking me one 10.5 hour flight, one 11.5 hour flight and one 1.5 hour flight to get to Jakarta. Tag on 2 extra hours on the way back;

I am probably most excited at this point that I am staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta. I don’t know if it’s safe for me to post that on here, but I just did. And I’m going to love every minute of that hotel. I can feel it in my bones;

For some reason, I expect lots and lots of seafood in Jakarta;

If I can find a little medicine man like the one in “Eat Pray Love”, I may very well just fold him in half, stuff him in my suitcase, and bring him back to America with me as a souvenir. I think he and Kenna would get along nicely;

Apparently, there are over 17,000 islands associated with the country of Indonesia. I kind of don’t believe it, but that’s what Google tells me. And Google knows everything;

The population of Jakarta is just under 10 million, so it’s a big city by any measure.

So off I go in a few days to the next country in my “I” trilogy. I look forward to being taught what Indonesia is all about, to not having to take malaria pills, and of course, to business class travel on Singapore Airlines.

Part of me is glad that I have no expectations. It's somewhat exhilarating. It leaves my mind free from bias and open to what this unknown world has to offer. So with that in mind, Jakarta, here I come!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Little World

Do you ever sometimes feel like you are sinking under the weight of life? The weight can be good weight (i.e. spending lots of time with family, friends, and doing the things that you love – the “want tos”), or bad weight (i.e. working way too much, or getting stuck in the rut of “have tos” instead of “want tos"). But in the end, it is still weight, and it pushes down on you. It impacts your physical body, your mind and your spirit.

It seems that lately, a lot of people in my life, including myself, are carrying a lot of weight.
In fact, my weight tends to fluctuate on a daily basis. Regardless of the kind of weight that we are carrying, sometimes we just pack too much into our schedules and don’t spend enough time at home alone, with ourselves and with Jesus. Or with our cuddly fat cats!

I do a daily devotional each morning called Jesus Calling that has really changed my life. I cannot thank enough, the dear friend who got me turned on to this devotional. It really just rocks my world. I would buy one for every person that I know if they would promise to read it and appreciate it. And on one particular day, it did just that – it rocked my little world:

“Though you live in this temporal world, your innermost being is rooted and grounded in eternity. When you start to feel stressed, detach yourself from the disturbances around you. Instead of desperately striving to maintain order and control in your little world, relax and remember that circumstances cannot touch My peace” – Jesus Calling, August 26

People!! We live in a little world!! We really, really do!! Jesus says so. It really hit me on that particular Thursday morning. Our lives, the things that we control and feel that we have power over, are so small; so insignificant, when compared to God’s kingdom. We think that we have it all in line here, and we need to remember that what He has in store for us is so much better than we can imagine, and so much better than what we could ever do for ourselves. He promises us peace in Him, if only we can step back, relax, and receive it.

I did a little Google research on some populations in this world, see below:

Houston, Texas – 2.2 million
The State of Texas – 25 million
The USA – 307 million
The World – 6.7 billion

I will not argue that there are a lot of people in the world. It’s a big world from the perspective of land mass and people. That certainly is not up for debate. But why are we so consumed by petty things as we live out our daily lives here on earth? We get sucked into our comfort zones with our family, friends, co-workers, church family, even within our own state and certainly our own countries. And I believe that this so often causes us to be consumed with all of the wrong things. Why is it so hard for us sometimes to see the bigger picture? Because there certainly is a bigger picture out there! We just need a different perspective. And we need to remember that ultimately, we are not really in control.

Look at the populations above – Houston is the 4th largest city in the country, but that means there are three more cities with larger populations. Texas is one state, within one country with 49 other such states, within this world with hundreds of other such countries, here on earth, which is one of several planets. And it’s a great big world by any standard. If you have not been out in it lately, I encourage you to grab your passport and go. Open your eyes to what the world has to offer and you will be a changed person – forever. I promise.

But no matter how big this world seems, there IS something bigger. In the midst of us worrying and being consumed by things in our little world, God is busy preparing a place for His children, for the believers, in His kingdom. Nothing is bigger or greater than that.

I don’t say any of this as an excuse to quit caring about things of this life. And I don’t think that God intends us to do that either. There are many important elements to what we are doing here today on earth, including living out God’s purpose for our individual lives. But in the midst of living here in our little world, we need to more often remember the Kingdom that is yet to come. And try not to get consumed with the things in life that are weighing us down.

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?

You put us in charge of your handcrafted world.

- Psalm 8:3-4, 6 (MSG)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Globetrotting: India, Part II

If I could sum up India in two words, they would be something like chaos and curry. Or traffic and trees. Or perhaps even rickshaws and rain. I hope you get the idea.

I’ll begin by saying that I have nothing against India. The people were pleasant, the food was divine (could live on that garlic naan), and I didn’t have a single bad experience there. But it seems to be a society that just barely functions. Delhi has over 14.5 million people. I feel like I saw at least half of them out on the streets on any given day – walking, waiting for the bus, sleeping, working, riding bikes etc.

So how did my expectations compare with reality?

Business class air travel: Far exceeded my expectations. Two words: sky bed. That means that I got to lie flat. Totally flat. With a proper pillow and blanket too. And I got my five-course meal served on real dishes, my free wine, my individually created ice cream sundae, and more movies than I knew what to do with. Continental BusinessFirst gets an A+ in my book! This makes all of the traveling bearable.

Indian food: Again, far exceeded my expectations. We did not have a bad meal over there. Even our Western-style breakfasts at the hotel were delicious. One thing is for sure, they know how to cook in India. I had everything from butter chicken, to lamb curry, to tandoori chicken and prawns, to paneer tikka (marinated cheese cubes), daal (lentils w/cream), saag (spinach w/cream), plenty of garlic naan – and the list goes on. We ate such large and late lunches that I only ate dinner one night the whole time I was there. That was probably for the best. I would be the size of a house if I had eaten three meals a day.

Monsoon season: It was well and truly monsoon season. Apparently it has not rained this much in India in over 20 years. It was miserably soggy and steamy. It really put a damper on my mood for a large chunk of the week. When the sun finally came out, it was amazing how the city just sprung to life! And I was happy as a pea in a pod. Too bad it was the day that we were leaving….

Poverty: While the poverty was bad, it was not nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not sugar coating the situation, but from what I now hear, the poverty is much worse in Mumbai. I saw plenty of poor people, and people who were living out of tents. But they weren’t the type of people that you looked at and just cringed. They were happy. They were living their lives the best they knew how and adapting to their situation. People who lived near the river had to relocate due to all of the water, and they were living in tents along the side of the road. These tents housed their pots & pans, cots, clothes, all personal belongings, and their goats and kids. They are waiting for the water to recede so that they can move back home. They self-sustain because that’s the only option that they have.

God moments: I must say that I can’t remember a specific moment during my trip that just stuck out as a God moment with respect to India. And that disappoints me a little. But I also know that He was with me on that trip, teaching me things and making me realize things that I hadn’t realized before. And part of that was because I powered my way through the book Redeeming Love in just a few short days. So I guess I did have God moments, they just didn’t have to do with India. You know what? I’ll take it.

A rich culture: So I didn’t get to see the Taj Mahal. I’ll live. And the first day that we went out sightseeing, it was gloomy and wet. Not the best opportunity to see a city and experience its culture. But as the week progressed, I grew to love those people more and more. Their hospitality and their genuine kindness were so appreciated. We had a driver the entire time that we were there, and we became pretty close with him. I know his name and his age, his wife’s name, the names and ages of his three kids, where he grew up, what pets he has, what he does on his days off, etc. We were so lucky to have him and we legitimately bonded with him. We took him to lunch with us and learned so much from him. And the staff at the hotel, and the staff at the company that we were visiting – they were all so helpful and friendly. We had the same waiter at breakfast every morning. He knew our orders after the first day, and our names, and sat us at the same table each morning. He gave us some free food to send us off on our last day since we were leaving. So that’s what I left with thinking about their culture. Not monuments and tourist attractions, but the people and their ability to make me feel welcome and share a little of themselves with me.

Color: the color that sticks out the most to be is green. Delhi was a lot lusher than I expected. Sure there was a lot of pavement and dirt, but it was amongst trees, trees, and more trees. All the more for the resident howler monkeys to play in! We did take a drive through Old Delhi one day, through a local market, and it was a lot of what I pictured India to be like. We didn’t get out of the car, but I could tell the difference between the tourist market and the local market. Lots of color and fabric everywhere.

Bikes and cows: In India, cows are Gods. At least to the Hindu people. They are worshipped and taken care of. I think I would want to be a cow if I lived over there. Not that I want to be a God, but it would be nice to be secure knowing that I would live to see the next day. I saw cows tied up to things in the middle of the road and standing next to the tent homes that people were living in. And then there were the bikes. Normal bikes, pedi cab bikes with flatbeds attached, scooters, motorcycles, you name it, they had it. And the poor people have been riding around for over two months in monsoon season. They don’t sweat it, they just put on their ponchos and go. Or they get soaking wet. It’s their life. Many of them don’t have a choice. And I quickly realized that it was normal for an entire family of four to be on one bicycle: dad pedaling, mom sitting side saddle in the back, and two kids squashed in between. Can you imagine what would happen if someone did that in America?

So would I voluntarily go back to India anytime soon? Probably not. But I have nothing against India. As I mentioned before, they seem like a society that barely functions. And I often wondered when I was over there how exactly they do manage to operate day-to-day. I don’t understand it, and I probably never will.

Often times while I’m traveling overseas, I look back at America and wonder where we went wrong. I wonder why we have to be so critical of each other, why we have this sense of entitlement over so many things that we are NOT entitled to, and how religion and the church has become such a point of contention. But on this trip, my perspective changed a little. In India they worship cows. COWS. In India, they may be laid back and carefree, but that’s because it probably does them no good to stand up and fight. Maybe because nobody will listen. And in India, it seems that they have very little sense of entitlement, except for what they have worked for and own fair and square.

So, I will take my experience in India and tuck it away in the special globetrotting section of my brain, and look back at it on occasion as a point where I realized that America may not be all that bad after all. And neither is India.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Globetrotting: India, Part I

About this time last year, one of my very first posts was about my world travels. I wrote about some of my favorite places, and why they were my favorites. Traveling the world is a passion of mine, and one of my fears is that I will die without really experiencing all that I would like to. There are just too many places in the world that I want to see, and not enough time. And I worry about some day becoming desensitized to the excitement of experiencing a new culture. I hope that never happens to me, no matter how far or how often my globetrotting takes me away.

Luckily, my new job provides me with the opportunity to travel the world. Yes, I do have to work during these trips, but I still am hoping to get a glimpse of these various countries and their cultures, and actually have time to see some sights on the weekends. And then when and if I really want to dig deep, I can always go back on a personal trip.

That being said, I leave in a couple of days for my first destination: India. I thought that it would be a good idea to blog about some of my expectations before my trip, and then after my trip, I can blog about what it was really like over there and how my expectations measured up. I’ve never been to India. I’ve only heard stories about what it's like. But I want to see for myself.

So I am going to list some things that I am excited about and some things that I expect to see and experience. Then we’ll see how life, and international travel, really is when I get back!

Business class air travel: flat bed, yummy food on real plates with real silverware, the ice cream sundae cart, free wine, the “goodie bag”, feeling special. I won’t deny it. I’m very much looking forward to this. I love settling into my extra wide seat with comfy clothes on, a full belly, and a movie or a book, or both. On a 15 hour flight, I think I'll have time for a little of everything :-)

Indian food: I am always up for trying local food when I travel in a foreign country. It’s always so much more authentic than the westernized versions that we get over here in America. And I L-O-V-E curry. Yes, I realize that after a while curry will likely ooze out of the pores in my skin, but I'm hoping it’ll take longer than a week for that to happen :-)

Monsoon season: it is rainy season in India right now. I looked up the weather forecast on the internet and it shows rain showers every single day. Nice. So, I will tote my umbrella, a rain coat and a poncho with me to New Delhi. A girl has to be prepared! And don’t think this will stop me from getting out and about. I’ll just look like a drowned rat in all of my photos. And I won't have many, if any, photos in the sunshine. And this will NOT help my desire for a tan, or my Vitamin D deficiency.

Poverty: I am expecting to see the worst and most severe poverty that I have ever seen in my life. This is what people have told me is waiting for me over there. And while I think I’ve prepared myself for what my eyes will see, I don’t think I really have ANY idea of what reality is like over there; like poverty so prevalent that you literally cannot get away from it, no matter where you go. So stay tuned for this sad reality.

God moments: I am indescribably excited about the moments when I am over there and truly experience God. Something about being in a foreign city, in the midst of a foreign culture – God just seems to work in those moments and show His face. I cannot wait for that.

A rich culture: although we are not able to see the Taj Mahal during this trip (next trip, hopefully!), I am looking forward to seeing some of the sights within New Delhi. I’ve done a bit of research and it looks like there are some pretty amazing things to see (in the rain of course!). So I’m hoping that I can teach my blog readers a little about what New Delhi has to offer when I get back.

Color: so many of the pictures of India that I’ve seen are full of color. I don’t know if it’s really going to be like that, or just in the markets, but in my head I can see spices, and fabrics, and beads. I can’t wait to take it all in.

Bikes and cows: is it weird that I picture in my head bikes and cows when I think of India? I'm sure it's a result of television and movies, but if I don't see any, I think I'll be blown away, and maybe even slightly disappointed.

So off I go in a couple of days, with my DSLR in tow, so that I don’t have a single moment where I say “I wish I had brought the good camera”. And don’t think that I have not packed portable Clorox wipes and Wet Ones too. And that I didn’t go get a flu shot and malaria pills. I am ready to tackle India head on, and I cannot wait to get back and share my experiences with all of you loyal blog readers! :-)

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Block

It's official. I have "the Block"- writer's block, that is. I have no less than three blogs started right now. But I just cannot seem to finish them. I'm not feelin' it. I get these brilliant ideas, jot down notes as I think of things to include in my blog, even start writing the blog, but then the door slams in my face. BAM! And I don't want to just babble incessantly.
And it's very frustrating for me because I love writing blogs and the words typically just flow.

So, this short post (which I realize is SO uncharacteristic of me) is simply to let all of you cyber-blog readers out there know that I have not crawled under a rock, I have not dropped off the face of the earth, I'm simply experiencing a serious case of writer's block. So bear with me, as I try to bear with myself, and get some of these blogs finished :-)

And then get ready, because you will likely get bombarded with more blog posts then you can handle!

Much love xox

Friday, August 20, 2010

I Just Know

There are times in my life when I just know that I have it all figured out. Really, I do. I am full of confidence. I bounce around the various aspects of my life with ease, happily settling into each little nook and corner, not favoring one over the other. Just enjoying them all. And I feel…..happy and blessed. That’s how it’s been for me lately. I’ve been happy and have felt very blessed.

There has been a lot of change going on in my life over the past couple of months. A new church, a new job, meeting lots of new people, and just a different focus in life overall. I have loved every minute of it. I like change – I need change. And through it all, I’ve been very careful about thanking the person in charge of all of this. And acknowledging that it is He who has bestowed all of these blessings on me, and has given me the heart and mind to recognize them.

I’ve also noticed that He really does listen. I have proof. Well, not "proof", like something tangible that I can show you – not something that scientists would ever consider to be proof. But I just know. When an idea just pops into my head after I’ve been praying about something? Well, that’s Him. That’s God. And it’s not just a random thought. It is the perfect answer to whatever question I had posed to Him or doubt that was running through my mind. And although I may not always like the answer, I know it’s His answer, and I just have to roll with it.

Case in point: I have been really working on spending more time with Jesus lately. Just me and Him. Talking to Him, reading all about Him in the Bible, and reflecting on every aspect of His character. This is something that I have been praying about a lot lately. And even before that, I really wanted to get to a point where He was my perfect portion. A point where I realized that He was enough for me right now. It’s a hard spot to get to when we live in this fallen world and there are other distractions for our time and our energy. I was getting there; I’d like to think that I still am getting there.

And then other things come up, and I begin thinking about some of these distractions, and all of a sudden they become the subject of my prayer. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They may be good distractions. But there’s a conflict now isn’t there? Have I put Jesus in a situation where He cannot answer both prayers? Perhaps I have. And it wouldn’t be fair to me to hold Him accountable for that, would it? I can’t get upset because both things aren’t happening. I have to listen to Him, and realize that maybe I can’t have both of them. At least maybe not right now. And this is exactly what He has told me. So maybe I walk away from one, or He takes one away from me. Either way, I rest in the confidence that I have in Him to guide me down His path.

So, there are times in life when I just know that I have it all figured out. And then He gives me His answer, instead of my own, and I realize that I’m not even close to figuring any of it out. And that’s kind of a relief. Why? Because I can be confident that I am living in His world and He has control over everything. I may be a control freak, but I try really hard to be happy in relinquishing control to Him.

Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. – Psalm 25: 4-5 (NIV)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Coming Into Focus


I’d like to think that I’m quite good at giving people advice about their own lives. I offer a different perspective on their situations, and I can only assume that it’s because I’m not in the middle of them, they most likely don’t impact me, and it’s easier for me to speak the truth to somebody about their life than it is to actually speak the truth to myself about mine. Are you the same?

I was at a concert not too long ago and in between songs the lead singer starting talking about our life as a canvas. And how sometimes we are way too close to the canvas, and when we are that close, things are blurry and the picture isn’t clear. He said that we need to remember to step back every now and then to get a view of the big picture that is our life, not just the particular view that we are looking at with a big zoom lens. And when we do that, the picture – our life – starts becoming clearer; it starts coming into focus.

I have recently begun indulging in a long-time interest of mine – amateur photography. I bought a digital SLR camera a couple of years ago, but never really invested the time or energy into learning about it until a few months ago. One of my new favorite things to do is to go to the zoo and take pictures of the animals at various times of the day. It’s amazing how different their personalities are depending on what time of day you catch them. My favorite time of day is early morning, when they are active, playful, and entering the world again with curious eyes.

I’ve noticed that with my big zoom lens, I can capture some great moments. I can really zoom in on their personalities, but I can also control what I see, or what someone looking at my pictures will ultimately see. I contrast this with a standard lens that captures more of the view. It provides the panoramic background and setting for the photo, rather than focusing on one particular piece of the photographic puzzle. It’s like stepping back for a more complete view.

For example, I can snap a great photo of Baylor the baby elephant, zoomed in to see his adorable face and the little hairs on the top of his head. It’ll be a great photo that reflects him and perhaps even his playfulness that day. But, if I zoom out, I am then able to capture the fact that he is standing there under the protection of his mom Shanti and aunt Methai, and next to his “brother” Tucker. It tells a different story, a bigger story, a more complete story; one that is not seen when I’m zoomed in. It tells of a family, their cohesiveness, their love and protection for one another; and it’s an entirely different perspective.

Isn’t this the same for our life as a canvas? I think sometimes we are too zoomed in; standing too close to the picture of our lives. Being that close means that we are not able to focus and things that are happening in our life may not be clear. We are consuming ourselves with the small, minute details, and not paying attention to, or appreciating, the big picture. Sometimes we don’t know what this big picture looks like, so it’s hard to step back, to zoom out, and really see it for what is really is. We may miss out on something because we are too close.

God has written each one of our lives. He has written our story, or in this case, painted our picture. Sure we can make choices that deviate from that story (we do it all the time, actually), but ultimately He knows us and our lives. He is zoomed out and sees each life, each canvas, for what it really is. He has everything in focus while we are trying to control what everyone else sees and we struggle to focus on anything but the here and now.

I think that maybe we need to put just a little more faith in God. I know it seems like a no-brainer, but I really think that consciously giving up control of our lens, zooming out of our own lives to try and get a little of God’s perspective, would be healthy for us. We may see our lives differently and pieces of our own puzzle may start to make sense. Things may start coming into focus. You know, like when you’re right up next to a painting and can’t focus on anything, but when you step back, you can see everything clearly?

So how do we do this in our own lives?

I don’t know. Applying this is the tricky part, but at least thinking about it is a good start. I rest in the fact that God uses everything in my life for my own good. It may be a tough lesson learned, or a sad experience to go through, but each experience helps to mold me into the person that God created me to be. So instead of zooming in on the canvas of our lives, perhaps we should zoom in on God instead. He already knows the big picture. He’s already focused.