Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Ministry of Enthusiasm

In the summers of 2011 and 2012 I was, hilariously, a children's ministry intern at my home church in Gresham.  And one of the most important things I learned as a children's ministry intern (other than how to throw an awesome summer camp and why everyone should have a DEEP, ABIDING RESPECT for children's workers everywhere) was how to properly respond when a child asks whether his dog/cat/hamster/turtle/rodent will go to heaven. Notice that this is a when situation, and not an if situation.

As modeled for me by the incredible Cecelia Alway and Melody Taylor (also the ones who taught me why everyone should have a DEEP, ABIDING RESPECT for children's workers everywhere), the best way to respond when little Geoffrey asks if his rat, Big Mama, is in heaven sounds nothing like my instinctual answer ("Geez, kid, I  don't know").  The best way to respond goes something like this:
Listening!

Eye contact!

Sincerity!

"Geoffrey, I think God knows how much you loved Big Mama. I think He knows exactly how bad it feels when you miss her. And you know what, He has already promised to take care of everybody who follows Him. So I think you can trust Him with the things you love. Now, let's pray together and thank God for Big Mama, and ask Him to help you when you miss her."


And in my experience, this answer has proven satisfactory every single time, even though you and I both know it's not really an answer.


Well, I should rephrase that.  It is not an answer to the question little Geoffrey spoke, but the reason it always proves satisfactory is because it is an answer to the real question that little Geoffrey is asking.  Geoffrey's real question was NOT: "What are the nature and implications of Big Mama's eternal soul [if existent]?"  What Geoffrey wants to know is this:

Does God care about the things that are important to me?

I'm telling you this because I've begun to realize how often we ask this capital Q Question.  Not only "Does God care about me?" (because there's that song and all those books and those bumper stickers and t-shirts that have kind of watered down the answer to that one), but "Does God care about the things that are important to me?" Like, does He, really?  Does He even know?  Is He, are His people, the kind of people I can trust with the things that are precious to me?

I've asked this Question.  I think you've probably asked some version of it.  And since I believe that my one wild, driving purpose in life is to share the message of Jesus with other people, I think part of my job here is to tell the answer:

Yes, baby, He does.


But of course, I could say this every day and write a fabulous blog about it and get thousands of shares on the internet, and it would still be as crappy and meaningless as all those other viral blog posts if it was just words.  If you say you love someone, you ought to love them.  If you say God values someone, you ought to value them, too. And if you say God cares about what someone else cares about, you ought to start caring, too.  What I'm suggesting here is that a good way to show someone that God cares about them is to get excited about the things they get excited about.

Which, I have learned this year in Canada, IS MY FAVORITE THING.


IT IS PERHAPS TOO MUCH MY FAVORITE THING.

When people start talking about things they're excited about, it's SUPER easy to get excited about it with them.  And, if you're me, it's equally easy to immediately go overboard with whatever idea it is.
When Fernanda got married, for example, I volunteered to play music and make paper flowers.  And then, a few weeks later, this happened:

"Hey, are you still making paper flowers for the wedding?"

"AT ANY GIVEN POINT IN TIME, YES."

"Oh...How many are you planning to make?"

"ALL OF THEM."

Because Fernanda was getting married, and I think God cares about that.  And that is the story of why I still have 200 paper flowers in my house and I don't know what to do with them and I'm not throwing them away because they're pretty. So there.




And when, for example, Ladan's middle school graduation got cancelled because of the month-long teacher's strike (even though she had already made plans and gotten a new dress and everything), I got really upset. And then, before I recognized what had happened, I had suddenly bought decorations made a bunch of paper graduation hats and made Fernanda calligraph a diploma, and written an honest-to-goodness commencement speech.  Because Ladan was graduating middle school, and I think God cares about that. 

 
And that is the story of how we had an actual graduation ceremony in Sunday school, with hats.

Looking back on the last year, I see that one of my favorite parts of being here has been getting excited with people. And then getting too excited, and then watching as it all somehow works out.

There's the story of the Persian baby shower at which I had to explain at 3 different points that the baby would not actually be taking a shower. Because Mahsa was having a baby, and God cares about that.  So even though I historically haven't gotten along too well with babies, and even though Persians generally don't have baby showers, we partied with baby Ariel and had a fantastic time.

There's the story of Easter, when Kiana fearlessly played the piano with our little worship band in front of everybody, even though she'd never played a note before.  Because Resurrection Sunday is our most sacred holiday, and even though none of us play piano, I think God cares about that. So I put blue painter's tape on the keys she was supposed to play, and we faked our way through an entirely new set of songs. And it was awesome.  

And then there's the story of Ladan, who came up to me with an initiative I'd never seen from her before, and said, "I made up a dance. Want to learn it?" To which I could only reply:

"Oh girl. We're not just going to learn a dance..."

"We're going to start a dance crew."

And that is the story of this world-premiere Ladan Pourkaveh original choreography music video:

video


Because Ladan loves to dance, and I think God cares about that. [At this time, I would like to thank Fernanda for always coming with me when I go completely overboard with my ideas.  What a gem.]

My real point in all this is that none of these ideas should have actually worked out. They should have been awkward, well-intentioned messes that pop into my memory at inopportune times for decades to come. But they weren't. And I honestly think the only reason for this is that Jesus was there, getting really delightfully excited with us, giving us a gift because He knew what our deep desires were.  He cares about stuff like that. He loves it.  He eats it up.

And, as I have found in each of these projects, people respond powerfully when we show this in our lives. I mean, wouldn't you? Wouldn't it be easier to trust God if you had concrete evidence in your life that He cares about things that are precious to you? Wouldn't it make you want to know Him if His people treated you that way?


And also, isn't it just YOUR FAVORITE THING????

I think I want to answer that Question in the way I live my life.  I want to celebrate with people in a way that tells them the answer.  And if you have any doubts, I want to lay it down for you here, too:

I think God knows how much you love that dream, that project, that person.  I think He knows exactly how it feels to care about something like that. And you know what, He's already promised to take care of the people who follow Him. So I think you can trust Him with the things you love.

And, if you want, me and Fernanda are down to party with you, too.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Post 13--So There Was This Good Thing...

I'm a huge fan of the "First World Problems" meme.  And I know there's a lot of disdain for it because of the whole white guilt issue, but I find it legitimately hilarious.  If you're not familiar, a First World Problem is a problem that comes from an abundance of wealth, which, when viewed from the perspective of people facing tragedy or poverty, seems like the exact opposite of a problem.

For example:







These FWPs are fabulous tools in creating guilt in the fragile hearts of First Worlders, and I like to think that looking at our problems from this perspective can also do wonders for our attitudes on life, particularly if your life has been dedicated to following Jesus.  I get confronted with this a lot in my job up here, because a lot of our church members have some SERIOUSLY INSANE stories about their journeys to Canada and Christendom.  It's been really good for me to hang out with all of these incredible people, because it really helps me not freak out about my own problems.  

Observe:


"Hey Ames, did you have a rough day?"

"Yeah..."

"Oh yeah?  Did the secret police search your house for Bibles again?"

"What? No. That never happened."

"Oh?  Was it your family? Did they disown you because you converted?"

"No"

"Did they sign your execution warrant in front of you because you wouldn't name names of church leaders?"

"..."

"..."
"Also Santa Claus isn't real."

So in my experience, a lot of things I've called "bad problems" were really just small parts of "good problems" that Jesus was working out around me. WAIT, DON'T PUKE. HEAR ME OUT ON THIS.

If this sentiment immediately nauseates you, I get it. Because it sounds dangerously close to the kind of thing that alway turns me off, too.  I'm going to be honest, I tend to think philosophies that say "I don't believe in regrets," or "there are no mistakes" or "all accidents are happy ones" are pretty stupid. Because a) The Killing Fields happened b) AIDS exists and c) The Civil Wars broke up. And I just cannot find redeeming value in any of those. And the Christian equivalent of these philosophies, which sound like "God won't give you anything you can't handle" or "God won't take you to it if he can't get you through it" or DEAR GOD ANYTHING THAT RHYMES, have never proven helpful in real times of need.

But I also think when your life has been taken from you and made into an adventure better than you even knew to ask for, you really can find Jesus in a lot of your problems.  I've found him in a lot of places, recently.

It was actually my Whitworth RA team that made this real for me.  Cameron Williams (my "Burn Out Buddy") and I were discussing the job during a particularly stressful season of leadership, and concluded that RA life (and life in general) will always be summed up with either "there is this good thing...but then there's this bad thing"  or "there is this bad thing...but then there's this good thing."  And after that conversation I think my worldview was a lot healthier.

Shout out Duvall RA team 2011-2012

So theres this bad thing:  Our Centre, our beautiful Community Centre that I love, is on hiatus, because we've outgrown our space and haven't found a new building.

This is hard for us as a church because the Community Centre is such a tangible, accessible way to reach out to the community.  We believe there is a real need for it.   We're not a very big centre, but we exist because we recognize what it feels like to be suddenly immersed in country, language, and culture that might actually be the opposite of your own.  Many of our staff have literally been there before.  We do resumes, help people with taxes, hold monthly events where people can just gather and talk in their own language, and stay open just in case someone needs to chat (since this is a city, and it's hard to make friends even when you do look like everybody else).  Now, we're all trying continue to provide the same services, but without a central place in which to do so.

But there's also this good thing:
Basically, we have all become real-life RAs. And it turns out I really loved that job.

(Second shout out to Duvall RA team, you fine-looking bunch of people)

The transition is a big change for all of us.  For me, it's because a big part of my job here was teaching English and music classes. It was really important to Joan and I to keep the classes going even after we closed, so we had to relocate to the window table at the nearest Chinese restaurant.

This is not a joke.  The restaurant is called Happy Mom's Cafe, and is run by Joyce, the happy mom.  We love her, and we love her restaurant, too.

Can I get an ALL-DAY BREAKFAST AMEN?

But it's hard to teach this way.  Before Joyce began letting us store stuff at the Cafe, this was me on the way to class:










"Good Morning."

So there's this bad thing:

I have become the traveling vacuum salesman of English teachers.



But then there's this good thing.

See, I'm having a moment of clarity, so let me take this opportunity, right now, to tell you one of the best things about all this:

Sometimes, you ask yourself, "how will I live a fulfilling life?  How will I keep myself from becoming complacent, from selling out?  How do I live my one wild and precious life on purpose, without drifting through it in a haze of mediocrity?

But other times, you are telling the story of the Prodigal Son to four Farsi-speaking adults in the middle of a Chinese restaurant, wiping the rain off of your white board and asking, "tell me about the Father in this story? What is he like?" and realizing they don't even have to think about the answer.

And then you don't ask yourself silly questions anymore.





Friends, pray for me.  But also, thank God for the problems He's given me.  I don't really think I deserve them.

Please remember that I always need donations.  You are beautiful parts of God's story.

Love, Ames

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Weddings, Yo.

The thing about weddings is that everybody shares their opinions on them.  Sometimes, this even includes the bride and the groom.  In fact, even I (never married, never close to married, can't express complex ideas without crayons) felt entitled enough to have drafted an entire blog post about my opinions on weddings and marriage.

Here, by the way, is the only read-worthy part of that blog post:


Even eight months an a country removed from that small Christian college culture, my reaction to marriage announcements is still full of the same mixture of elation and concern that I get when I see really old people driving really nice cars.

Because on the one hand, it's like:

"ALRIGHT! You GO! I WANT YOU TO BE THIS HAPPY!"

But on the other hand, I'm all:


"ALRIGHT...But how are our vital signs right now?
Have we considered talking through our life choices?"

And quote.  And I was all ready to post it, too.  I had pictures and everything.  But then I saw like thirty articles like this and this and even this and this one, too, and by the time I was done with third one I had already started losing my hair and stress-eating Nutella out the jar.

I'm tired of people's opinions. OH MY GOSH I'M SO TIRED OF THEM.  I'm tired of my own opinions.  They're not even that good.

And that's why, instead of trying to dole out wisdom, I'm just going to describe to you the cultural smoothie that was the wedding I went to two months ago.

The Players:

Fernanda Velazquez.  Mother Tongue: Spanish. Learned Languages: English, Medical jargon. Fernanda is a gem among gems.  We are friends for many reasons, and among them are the facts that a) she is the same height as me and b) she speaks Spanish to me and thinks I'm funny.


Naser Abdollazadeh.  Mother Tongue: Kurdish. Learned Languages: Farsi, Turkish, English.
Naser is solid in every sense of the word.  Soft-spoken, confident, and gives Fernanda's friends rides home when it's raining.  I approve.

The Guests:
A palooza of 180 people from Mexico, El Salvador, Canada, The U.S., Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the four corners of Kurdistan. Think about this for a second.  This wedding was the cultural equivalent of that drink preteens make at Burger King by putting all of the sodas into one cup. And it was about a million percent more delicious.

Actual photo of me as a preteen.

The Ceremony:
Most of our guests came from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds, and many told me they'd never seen a Christian wedding before. Apparently, they were all very excited to document it, because there were at least 10 people standing at the foot of the stage, filming and flashing cameras. That is not an exaggeration. So, in addition to being my first Mexican/Kurdish wedding, it was also my first wedding as a celebrity.
"Thank you, thank you. No really, it's too much."

One of these guests commented to Joan: "This is what wedding should be.  Making promises to each other in front of God." And that's exactly what it was.  It was unconventional, sure.  Guests sat at tables and talked (even yelled) throughout the ceremony.  Kids ran back and forth during both the English and Kurdish sermons.  Sepideh and I sang three songs in four languages. Fernanda and Naser did their vows in English, while her family watched on Skype (side note: the sound wasn't working, so Fernanda's mom made a sign that said "hello, I am Fernanda's mother," and held it up whenever people came to wave to her, and I just think she's the coolest).

And it was all really, actually beautiful.


The Dancing:

The three most prevalent types of dancing were Kurdish, Persian, and Mexican Salsa.  Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how I do (read: fake) each.

Kurdish:


Step 1: The leader gets a scarf and twirls the bejeebus out of it, then he (or she) comes up with a basic step.  
Step 2: Grab hands with the leader to form a giant snake, which continues to do the step in a giant circle around the room.
Step 3: Repeat forever. Until you die of exhaustion.



Persian:

Step 1: Stand like you are the king.



Step 2: Move your hands like this:


Mexican Salsa:


Step 1: Move your feet (FROM YOUR HIPS. ALWAYS FROM YOUR HIPS) in a cha-cha-cha- STEP, cha-cha-cha-STEP kind pattern. Spin around when you're feelin cool.


Step 2: Realize that you are the only one without a partner.


Step 3: Recall your sophomore Sadie Hawkins Dance


Step 4: Thank Jesus that you've left your awkward stage and keep cha-cha-cha-STEPping until the music changes.


The Verdict: And really, because it turns out I can't stop myself from adding to the ocean of opinions out there, the Velazquez/Abdollazadeh wedding was an amazing picture lesson in community.  Joan did the decorations. Shaghayegh did the flowers. Sepideh did the coordination and jewelry. Amin and Tim did the ceremony. Naser's relatives did the food.  Sepideh and I did the music. Kiana was the official wedding Skyper. That's a lot of people to talk to, and a lot of opinions to translate. We were from everywhere, spoke everything, and understood way less than we thought we did.  Sometimes living in community is obnoxious, yo.

But at the end of it, the decorations were beautiful. The flowers were fragrant.  The ceremony was heartfelt and God-filled.  The food was delicious.  Our team was a team because the thing we had in common is that we think Naser and Fernanda and their marriage are worth celebrating.  We love them big, and we will protect them always.  Weddings are community events.  And even though I know we can be stress-inducing, I think having a team behind you as you start your new life is special enough to outweigh all the silliness.  

Fernanda and Naser are special because they have the whole world (almost literally) represented in their community.  At their wedding, they showed this community what it looks like to love somebody else more than yourself, and to love Jesus most of all.  I feel more than happy that I got to participate. I feel grateful.

So congratulations, Fernanda and Naser. Your team has your back.













Also, I know for a fact it was a good party, because this was me the day after:

"grrreuhhhhmmmmmmm..."






"I'm not getting up."

"This is my life now."

Actually, I'm still there. Send help. Even better, send pizza.

Thank you all for being on my team.  Please remember that I'm always accepting donations, and that I'm trying really hard not to be embarrassed about that.  Love to all of you.