The Light & the Dark

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1.5)

Sixteen days ago, I arrived home from Haiti. I brought home several hundred digital photos, a pound of whole dark roast coffee beans, and a deeper understanding of the nature of God. I left behind part of my heart.

I’m planning on posting several entries about my experience in Haiti, but when I sat down to decide what to write about first, one image came to mind. Sadly, it isn’t a physical image, but a memory that I can describe only in mere words.

On Monday, Jan. 2, two days before we left Haiti, our team accompanied Mrs. Sarah, the missionary with whom we were working, to downtown Jacmel, a city on the southern coast. We’d spent most of our week with the teachers at a nearby school or attending church services at Hosanna Ministries or spending quality time together at the mission house, so our team was pretty excited to see the actual city. Even with all the tragedy and poverty Haiti has experienced, beauty remains:

The French Quarter of New Orleans was modeled after Jacmel, and some of the older buildings are magnificent.

It’s all so very Caribbean. I love it!

We drove through downtown, perilously found a place to park, and headed to the market. Naively, I had imagined a scene similar to the market in downtown Charleston, but poorer and dirtier. Surely among the food vendors, someone would be selling crafts and jewelry. My mental image was so far removed from reality.

I have no pictures of the Jacmel market because, first, I was afraid my camera would be stolen in the crowd of people and, second, I felt like taking pictures would be exploiting these Haitian people somehow. The market was the dirtiest place I’ve ever been to and far worse than I could have even fathomed. Rotting food covered the ground, mixed in with trash and standing water. Raw meet sat on the tables, covered in flies and filth. Vendors packed every available space, trying to sell anything they could, and everyone stared at the white people pushing through the crowds. A few people greeted us in Creole, but most glared or murmured or cackled.

This scene, in the midst of this beautiful city, just one block away from the most beautiful ocean I’ve ever seen!

(This beach is actually a few miles away, but you get the idea.)

I couldn’t remove the scene from my mind. Never before have I seen a more perfect analogy for the kingdom of God. God created perfection, a beautiful Eden, a Caribbean island with white sand beaches, palm trees, balmy weather, and water the color of jewels. And man’s sin and filth has the potential to destroy such perfection. But if I walked away from the market, I could leave behind the sin and filth and witness God’s glory once more. I could leave behind the darkness and return to His light. This is image that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I left the market that day.

In Haiti, I felt much more sensitive to the distinction between darkness and light. In the United States, we’re comfortable, we’re complacent, and we don’t often believe that demons hold so much power. In Haiti, though, I met people who’d been possessed or oppressed by demons, and I heard testimony of those who’d been redeemed. Supernatural beings–be they divine or demonic–hold incredible power in Haiti. Those who’ve accepted salvation seem to radiate so much peace and light, but those who still live in darkness appear so defeated. The market in Jacmel and the streets of Port-au-Prince reveal so much destruction, at odds with the beautiful skyline and coast. The kingdom of God perseveres, even while others remain enslaved to sin.

God is moving in Haiti. He is calling His children to Him, and He is sending others, like my team, as his emissaries. I cannot deny that God called me to spend that week in Haiti, and I’m praying that He’ll send me back there again. Meanwhile, may I continue to testify about what I’ve seen in Haiti so that the name of my Father may be forever exalted!

The Fragility of Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers–
That perches in the soul–
And sings the tune without the words–
And never stops–at all–

And sweetest–in the Gale–is heard–
And sore must be the storm–
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm–

I’ve heard it in the chillest land–
And on the strangest Sea–
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb–of Me.

-Emily Dickinson

‘Tis the season of Advent, of waiting, of expectation, of hope. This is a time when hope seems, paradoxically, both to abound and to seem so hard to grasp.

I love this poem by Dickinson because I think she captures this paradox beautifully. Hope is birdlike, described as having feathers, ephemeral, fragile. A storm could–but doesn’t seem to–destroy this fragility, but hope manages to hold on even in the fiercest condition, never demanding, just always existing.

Hope doesn’t demand. We don’t actually have to work for it. It’s always there, always available, simple and steadfast, abiding side-by-side with faith and love.

Waiting and hoping are not natural for me. For example, I’ve been fighting and struggling in my attempt to make a decision about what to do after I finish my Master’s degree. I have myriad options–a long list of schools to which I plan to apply. I also have the option, of course, to wait, to rest, to take time off from school for the first time in years. And even though I know that waiting and resting and seeking God’s will is the right decision, that knowledge has not stopped me from trying so hard to plan and make lists and DECIDE my future. I have been clearly resisting patience and rest in favor of a plan that I cannot grasp yet. I have been tense and frustrated and lost in hopelessness at times because I don’t know what my future looks like. I have a strange peace about knowing I’m supposed to wait, but that peace is often shattered by the voice in my head that’s telling me that I need to know, that I need to decide. In that tension, hope seems to fly away.

And, because I’m fortunate to be an emotional female, when one major thing in my life feels upended, so does everything else. Suddenly, I’m not hopeful about much of anything, and the assaults keep coming:

Sure, it’s Christmas, and you’ve always loved Christmas, but it’s never going to be the same, is it? Your grandmother’s been gone a year now, and Christmas will always be tinged with her loss. 

Yes, your friends and community are wonderful, but you’re always going to leave them and go home alone, aren’t you? You’re always really going to be alone, aren’t you? 

Of course your family loves you, but they don’t care anything about what you care about. Try talking to them about school and the books you love, and just see how much they really don’t care.

Interesting: hopelessness appears in the face of loneliness and overwhelms with the thought of being alone. Damn you, lies. When one comes, they all come, a legion of hope-destroyers. Suddenly, the Christmas lights and cheer seem taunting, and the dark, cold night seems welcoming, and the hope and Truth I celebrate starts to slip away, just when I need it most.

Hopelessness is not something I can actually fight. I can’t work hard and suddenly have hope again. This is when I have to stand still and remember that the fight has already been fought and won. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome. If I grasp and fight and struggle, the little bird flits away. But if I stand still, waiting, holding my hand out, she comes back to rest and delight.

Now is when I need hope more than ever. In 8 days, I’ll be on a plane to Haiti, a trip that I’ve waited a year to take. The darkness I see now is nothing compared to the darkness that I know exists in that country. Haiti is a place for which I have cared and prayed and mourned for two years now, and I will finally experience it. This next week, I will spend with my family, which will hopefully be a restful, peaceful time of preparation for my trip.

And if you’re reading this, if you’ve made it this far in my, once again, lengthy blog, I ask for your prayers: for peace and hope for my team members and myself as we prepare, for unity among the six of us traveling together, for the people of Haiti who’ve experienced so much darkness, and for light and Truth that overwhelms all else in our lives.

Hello, 2011…

…you’re not starting off the way I thought you would. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

In January, I made a list of 5 goals for the year. I accomplished exactly none of them. I came close on a few and completely abandoned others. It seems that sometimes life takes unexpected turns. Many of them. Sometimes all at once.

This past year ended in ways that I didn’t expect and began similarly. But let’s review–my goals and my 2010 before I get to speculating about what 2011 will hold for me.

Goal 1: Don’t check my email before I go to work in the morning. Sometimes, I do, but now I’m more careful not to lose track of time.

Goal 2: Read 100 books I’d never read before. Well, I made it to 79, but my downfall was that I re-read a lot of favorites, which took time away from previously unread books. Alas, this is still quite an accomplishment, I feel.

Goal 3: Devote one hour a week to scrapbooking or crocheting. This resolution was made before I was accepted to Gardner-Webb, before I had a semester in which I taught 36 students in 2 sections of remedial writing while working a full-time job and attending graduate school. Yeah, it’s hard to find time for crafting when there is not enough time in one’s week to begin with.

Goal 4: Help my parents organize and clean their house. This is a work-in-progress. A slow one. But maybe one day.

Goal 5: Mark 12 things off The List. I marked 11 off. Close. So close.

Now, let’s see how the year shaped up, shall we?

January: The year started off great. On Jan. 2, Harvin, Ticcoa, Georgetown, and I headed to Savannah, where I marked two items off the list: visiting the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home and climbing the Tybee Island Lighthouse. January also marked the beginning of my second semester of teaching at NGU and an unexpected acceptance into the English M.A. program at Gardner-Webb University, a program that I love being a part of. All in all, a good month.

February: This month brought the beginning of the Lent season, which once again proved to be a great learning experience. Also, at the end of February, my friend Chris and I traveled to Lexington, KY, to visit a New Monastic community called Communality. During that weekend, I made several new, amazing friends, and I learned a lot about how to live in a community of believers who love each other deeply.

March: This month brought several more adventures, courtesy of The List: I went to Jamboread, a children’s author festival at the Spartanburg County Public Library, with Harvin, Ticcoa, and Becky, where we met Lois Lowry, Jane Yolen, and Paul O. Zelinsky. Then, later in the month, Harvin, Ticcoa, Michele, Stephen, and I headed down to Milledgeville, GA, to visit Andalusia, home of Flannery O’Connor, and Eatonton, GA, to visit the Uncle Remus Museum.

April: This month, I focused mostly on school. Working on final papers and presentations, getting my students ready for finals, etc. I also bought a MacBook and attending my cousin Summer’s wedding.

May: Most of what happened in May was also school-related. The end of my first semester at Gardner-Webb, finishing up that class in Caribbean Women’s Writing and starting a summer school class on African-American literature, which was also great. This was also the last concert I attended (how has it been so long?): Civil Twilight and Switchfoot at The Music Farm in Charleston!

June brought my 25th birthday on the 10th, on which I climbed a rock wall, one of the items on the list. The next day, Harvin and I headed to Myrtle Beach to stay with our respective families at the SC Firefighter’s Association Annual Convention. Woohoo! I also visited the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum here in Greenville, marking another item off the list.

July brought the move from our apartment in Greer to our little house in Greenville, so that month was mostly consumed with packing, cleaning, cleaning, unpacking, settling in. That sort of thing. Also, a trip to Filbert, SC, to meet SC writer Dori Sanders.

August: The first week of this month was The Second Annual Road Trip of Epicness. Because Harvin was experiencing back pain, the itinerary changed drastically in the few days before we left, but the trip involved Ticcoa and I driving to Pennsylvania, making stops along the way, and Harvin flying up to meet us at Michele’s aunt house, where we stayed for a few days. My favorite memory of this trip was visiting Antietam National Battlefield, where my great-great-great grandfather was killed during the Civil War. We also visited Philadelphia, touring the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall.

Upon the return to SC, I started my third semester of teaching at NGU, where I had 36 students enrolled in my classes, more than I’ve ever taught before. I also started my third semester at Gardner-Webb, taking Literary Theory, a class which I really enjoyed.

September was mostly settling into school routine. Balancing teaching all those students with my work in the library and the writing center and my homework for lit theory. The first NGU football game. Apple-picking with Harvin and the Leisters. And, most importantly, my decision to apply for a spot on a mission team to Haiti.

October seems to be the point when my life sped up. The first weekend was the Southern Appalachian Culture Series at Gardner-Webb, my first attendance of a literary conference. Then, on Oct. 12, I applied for my passport. On Oct. 19, I found out I was on the mission team to Haiti. On Oct. 21, I had my first meeting about mission teams and found out about the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and on Oct. 22, I received my passport (marking #100 off the List). In the midst of all of that, I attended my friend Sarah’s wedding, worked a quiz bowl tournament, went to NGU’s Homecoming, graded and editing lots and lots of papers, and did tons of literary theory.

November: So. Much. Work! Grading student essays, working longer hours in the writing center than I ever intended. Writing literary analyses, reading convoluted theorists, drinking lots of coffee, sleeping not enough. Thanksgiving Break with my family.

December: By far, the most difficult month out of my whole year. The end of the semester at North Greenville, and saying goodbye to my students and friends. Getting ready for my own final exam at G-W. Looking forward to Christmas. Then, on Friday, December 10, I got a phone call from my dad, who told me that my grandmother, who had been in the nursing home for 6 years with Alzheimer’s wasn’t doing well. (I’ve written about her before here.) She had stopped eating, and she wasn’t expected to live much longer. I spent the weekend grieving for what was coming, wincing every time my phone ring, waking up early every morning to call my dad and find out if Mama Kat had made it through the night.

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, I was at work, with plans to leave early because my final exam was that evening. Just after 1:00, my mom called to say that my grandmother would die that afternoon. Through the grace and peace of God, I made it to her bedside in time to say my goodbyes. My family was standing around her bedside when she stopped breathing at 4:17 that afternoon. The funeral was on Friday. Maybe I’ll post later about what it’s been like to lose a grandmother whom I love dearly, but not now.

Anyway, as a result of my grandmother’s death, I didn’t get to take my final exam for lit theory. I have an incomplete in the class, and I’ll make up the final later. The student in me hates that this class is still hovering, incomplete; at the same time, I’m glad I made it home to say goodbye to Mama Kat, and that’s worth more than any grade.

After all of that, I still had to get through Christmas while trying to frantically prepare for the trip to Haiti. I’ve been following news coming out of Haiti for a long time, and little of it has been good. Thousands dying from cholera, and many more contracting the terrible disease. Many days of riots, some of even which caused the airport in Port-au-Prince to be shut down for a week. Distrust of foreign aid workers and the Haitian government.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, I was meeting with fellow team member Eliza to plan our lessons for what we would be teaching in Haiti. I got a message during that meeting from our team leader, telling me that we had new information and were reconsidering the trip. An announcement about the elections is to be made tomorrow, and the potential for rioting is high once more. Yesterday, New Year’s Day, the trip was officially postponed. We may go over the summer. Who knows, though?

Back to the beginning of this post and my expectations for this year and last. I didn’t expect to lose my grandmother right before Christmas (who does?). And I fully expected that my Christmas break would involve much prayer and preparation for Haiti, culminating in my first overseas mission trip. Instead, everything in my life just seems off-balance. I miss my grandmother daily while simultaneously rejoicing that she is no longer suffering. And since September, I’ve been so focused on Haiti and my trip there that I have thought of little else. Now, when I should be finishing packing and on my way to the airport just 12 hours from now, I find myself unsure of what I should be doing. I’m not boarding a plane tomorrow morning. I’m not going to be in the Caribbean this time tomorrow afternoon. Instead, I’ll go back to work in the library this week. Beyond that, I’m just not sure of what my life is supposed to look like right now. I’m feeling all sorts of emotions simultaneously: severe disappointment that I’m not going to Haiti right now; relief that I won’t be caught in the midst of volatile political tension; a bit of guilt for feeling relieved.

Every situation in my life right now is truly out of my hands, and I’m reeling from the experience. From past experience, however, I know that God works the greatest in my life when I admit that I cannot control anything. All I have to grasp onto right now is God’s promise that He will never leave me or forsake me and the knowledge that everything works together for His glory. And while I don’t understand why God would bring me so close to Haiti only to have the trip postponed, I do know that I’ve learned so much by simply being obedient when He called me to go to Haiti. I know that I care so much about Haiti that I can’t wait to be there. And while my traveling to Haiti may not happen during the first week of 2011 as I previously thought, I have hope that it will happen sometime this year. And maybe my heart won’t be changed while I’m in Haiti, but will instead be changed because I’m simply willing to be a part of God’s kingdom.

There will be no New Year’s resolutions or goals. No expectations for the year beyond seeing where God takes me.

#100: Get a passport.

Today, an envelope from the State Department arrived at my house, containing my very own passport. Ten days ago, I applied for it, and I did not have it expedited. I’m not really sure how the government managed to be so on top of things, but I’m glad.

God willing, the first stamp in my passport won’t be for England or Canada or any of those other countries I’ve always thought I would visit. Instead, it will be Haiti. In January.

A month or so ago, NGU held their annual Global Missions Conference. A few days before, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, grading papers, when I realized I’d been staring off into space for about 20 minutes, thinking about the upcoming missions conference…and thinking about applying for a L.I.G.H.T. team, one of the missions teams NGU sends out every year.

The idea came out of nowhere. I cannot explain it (which is what makes it so good). A few days later, I went to the first chapel of the missions conference, and then at lunch, I picked up an application for a L.I.G.H.T. team, knowing that I was taking a huge leap just by opening the brochure.

I knew that, in the past, NGU had sent teams to Greece. I very much want to visit Greece. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Spending spring break in Greece, working for Jesus? But God had other plans.

Many of the missions teams are specialized: you have to play a musical instrument, you have to take a certain course, you have to be a football player. Only a few of the teams was I actually qualified for, including Greece. But Haiti seemed to be beckoning me.

You see, my church Radius has had a partnership with a church in Pignon, Haiti, since last fall, well before the earthquake occurred. Our church made a decision to sponsor a school and provide meals so that every student would be able to eat for a year. We raised the money, sent it to the missions organization, and the food arrived in one of the Haitian ports…in January…right around the time of the earthquake. Instead of supplying food for the school, we were instead able to feed refugees.  This year, we renewed our partnership, raised much more money in a shockingly quick amount of time, and we’re supporting Haitian school students, including some recent orphans from the earthquake, for the next year.

All that to say, I’ve been able to hear stories coming out of Haiti for over a year. “Coincidences” that are so obviously God-ordained; stories of redemption in tragedy. Added to that, I took a course in Caribbean Women’s Writing at Gardner-Webb in the spring, and I read Edwidge Danticat’s book Krik? Krak! and fell in love with the Haitian people through the writing of one of the most talented women I’ve ever encountered.

The day that I picked up the application, the only word that I could think of to describe that moment was that I was compelled to do so. God has been lining this event up for me for a long time. To be quite honest, I’m scared. When I take my eyes off my Father, and I start to think about crime rates and cholera outbreaks, and I start to have these doubts of “What can I possibly do in Haiti?” then my fear returns, and I wonder if I’ve made the right decision. It’s been an almost constant battle, this week especially, to remind myself that my obedience is more important than my safety, that God will accomplish great things with or without me, and that apart from Him, my life is meaningless. Nothing in my life–my job, my friends, my education–nothing matters if I’m not following my Creator.

So I cast my cares upon my Lord, and I pray that God prepares my heart to follow His will. I pray for the Haitian aid workers there now who are dealing with the cholera pandemic that blew up just two days ago. I pray for the missionaries and pastors, the students and teachers, that my fellow missionaries and I will be working with. Please, please, please pray with me and for me as this adventure approaches.

[Also…I bet this wasn’t the entry you were expecting when you saw I had my passport, was it? 🙂 ]