Friday, December 7, 2012

Breaking Down

Let me take you back to a day about fourteen years ago. I'm standing on the blacktop basketball court in front of my elementary school's playground staring at the sky. The clouds above me are a murky grey, ominously promising rainfall. I wonder what the clouds must feel like. Are they soft like my stuffed animals?

A dozen other six year olds are scrambling around me, lining up to go inside after recess.  
"Come on, Alexandra!" my teacher calls to me from down the sidewalk.

I tear my gaze away from the clouds, completely dazed. My teacher motions with her arms for me to hurry up. With a glance back up at the expansive heavens I say a secret goodbye to my cloud imaginations. I begin to take a step toward my teacher then–WHAM–my body slams face-first into the solid cold concrete.

"Move!" yells a voice behind me as a girl from my class pushes over my fallen body.

At first, I am too shocked to even move. Then, it comes: the pain. First it's just a light stinging in my forehead, then I feel the giant lump on my left cheek beginning to form, and finally I realize that the skin on my knees has broken open and notice the warm blood dripping down my tiny legs like water from a leaky faucet. And I can barely breathe. I can barely breathe because it hurts so bad. 

After reprimanding my attacker and promising the child a punishment when we get back to the classroom, my teacher runs over to me.

"Oh, sweetie! Are you okay?!" she asks me in astonishment.

I can't talk. I'm using all of my willpower to keep myself composed.

My teacher looks at me with those all-knowing adult eyes and realizes how close I am to falling apart.

"Alexandra, you can cry, honey!" she whispers to me as she leans down to help me off the ground.

I take her hand but shake my head. "No," I say, "I don't cry at school."

And it was true. As much as I could possibly avoid it, I didn't. I'm not sure how it started, but even as a first grader I had this conviction. 

Don't cry at school. Don't cry at school. Don't cry at school.

It was a motto I more or less lived by. And as I got older, the motto expanded and became, "Don't cry at school, or in front of your friends, or in public. Ever." 

At eight, I fell at my friend's skating birthday party and fractured my wrist. My face grew boiling hot with the pain, but I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. Later, in middle and high school, I'd often feel gripped with the pain of being the subject of snide comments or false rumors spread by the people I called friends. And it would hurt. It would hurt so badly. But as much as I could help it, I wouldn't let the public see my tears.

Today,  there's a part of me that still tries to hold onto those old mottos of childhood. "Don't cry in front of people!" my mind shouts at me whenever I am on the verge of falling a part. 

But last summer in Swaziland my eyes saw and my heart felt far too much for me to be able to live very effectively by my motto anymore.

I saw distended bellies protruding from dust-covered shirts. I saw the tattered shoes worn by seven year olds who walked three miles to get a meal for the day. I saw the rickety roofs and crumbling walls of one-room structures that were inhabited by five or six people, but completely empty of any furniture or material belongings.I saw dozens of beds crammed together in a big open room, filled with sick children, some of whom I know have gone up to heaven by now. I saw the sparkling eyes of a twelve year old boy and heard his sweet soft voice uttering, "That was beautiful." as a friend and I sang to him at his bedside.

I saw the pain. I saw it clearly. But I also saw the joy.

I saw children with smiles so vibrant it was almost breathtaking. I heard the cheers of the boys on the soccer field and the shrieks of laughter from the girls as we each took a turn dancing in the middle of a big open circle. I heard the tremendous voices of children singing the most heart-felt praise to God. 

I saw gratitude. I saw faith. I saw love.

And so, a few weeks ago, when I stood in front of the building that contained my classroom on a murky grey day much like the one I experienced at age six, I was hit, quite suddenly, with the realization of all that I had left behind in Swaziland. 

My classmates were bustling past me, my teacher stood a little ways down the sidewalk and I was stuck, feeling that white-hot pain that makes it impossible for me to breathe.

"Don't cry at school!" my six year old self shouted in my mind.

But, I couldn't listen. I couldn't obey. I couldn't follow my motto anymore.

All I could do in that moment was cry. And as the first glimmers of shame and embarrassment crept into my mind, I realized right then that crying in front of people wasn't going to destroy me. I realized that there are magnificently huge pits of exquisite emotion within all of us and that sometimes keeping these pits tucked away and hidden is not only an overwhelmingly impossible task, but, in fact, is a disservice to the world.

In that moment of breaking down on the sidewalk in front of my classmates and teacher, I let more than just my emotions fly out of me. I let out my story. I shared part of what makes me who I am and I had to be frighteningly vulnerable to do it. But, instead of this locking me in a prison of shame as I had expected it to for all of those years, I found that it was in breaking down, that I was finally able to set my story free. 

And now, I can only wonder what the world would be like if all of us, instead of being gripped by the fear of vulnerability, were flooded by the power that comes from showing the world exactly who we are.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Swaziland Remembered

Not a day goes by where I don’t think about my brothers and sisters across the world. Sandile, Kholiwe, Danele, Colile, Takhona, Gizy, Tlamiso, Dumsile and dozens of other names and faces run through my head as I go about my daily activities. It’s been almost three months since I left for Swaziland and I’m still processing. I’m still on that struggle bus.

When I first got back to the USA, everyone I came across flooded me with questions about my trip. They asked what I did, what I saw, what I learned, what I accomplished, how I changed. For two or three weeks I was constantly reminded of what I had experienced. I was forced to pull up memories that were both beautiful and agonizing. My heart stung with grief every time I had to recall what I had left behind, but I was glad to tell everyone so many stories and details from my trip. During those first weeks home, I felt like I had the power to impart on people what I had encountered, the power to change their minds and their hearts, to make them realize what lies beyond the American reality.

But just as I began to feel this sense of power, the questions started becoming less and less frequent. Until, somewhere around week four, people stopped asking me about Swaziland all together.

My power, my strength, was just an illusion.

The only thing harder than telling people about those heartbreaking stories from Swaziland, is not telling them. I feel like my experiences are stuck inside me like an oversized animal in a tiny crate. I walk around carrying this knowledge of the grave reality of Swaziland, and the people in my American life have all but forgotten that I even went there.

At times I feel sucked into what our culture calls normal. I complain about long lines and lunch menus. I spend far too long picking out the perfect shining piece of jewelry to go with my far too clean clothes. But there’s a part of me always whispering, “Why are you doing this? This doesn’t really matter.” There’s a part of me that can’t ever truly live the American dream, a part that was shaken awake, a part that can’t close its eyes or turn away from what’s uncomfortable to think about.

People have forgotten my summer in Swaziland. They have forgotten because to them, it’s just stories. They haven’t seen the children with legs caked in red dirt smiling up at them, they haven’t felt the dry wind in their faces or the warmth of a tiny dusty hand glued to their own, they don’t know the absolute joy and terrifying pain that pervades a tiny nation far away.

Sometimes I wish those things were just stories for me. I wish I too could forget, that my experiences in Africa could fade away like sidewalk chalk on a rainy day. But they can’t. My experiences still cling to me. They comprise me. And every time I try to rinse away what happened in Swaziland from my mind, God pulls at my heart and says, “Remember. Remember Swaziland.” And so I hold fast to my memories, to my experiences, to the exquisite beauty and devastating pain of it all. I remember. I remember Swaziland. And I know He does too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Else Can You Do About It Except Laugh?

Monday morning was my first day of class. I got up around 7:30 am, got dressed, and plucked my toothbrush and toothpaste off the counter in my room and carried them down the hall to the bathroom. There are four sinks in this bathroom. I went to the one farthest away from the door. I applied toothpaste to my brush and began brushing. After about a minute, I spat and turned the handle of the faucet to wash my mouth out. Sounds simple enough, right? There was only one problem, when I turned the handle of the faucet, no water came out. Thinking I must be imagining things I tried turning the other handle of the faucet, still no water came rushing out, not even a trickle. Unwilling to accept this, I went down the line of sinks, turning the handle of each one. Water did not present itself.

After a moment or two I realized that I still had a full water bottle in my room so I jogged down the hall with my tooth brush in my mouth to grab the bottle. I returned to the bathroom and finished brushing my teeth with the water from the bottle. As I peeked into the bathroom stalls and saw the mess people had been forced to leave in the toilets, I felt a surge of anger come over me about the situation. I wasn't so much angry about the inconvenience this was to me, but about how the rest of the residents in my dorm would act. I am the RA for the first floor of my dorm. While I love being a RA because it means I get to help take care of people, the job also has its downsides, one of which is that resident advisors tend to get hit with a lot of complaints. I don't know many Americans who are used to going about their daily routine without water so I expected I'd be met with dozens of angry residents. Just what I needed on my first day of class!

I am happy to say that I was completely wrong. As I walked down the hall and met people with soap suds drying on their legs, water bottles and toothbrushes in hand, I was shocked by the strange and unexpected reaction I got from my residents. They were smiling. Each and every person I ran into was smiling. And when their eyes met mine, we all just burst out laughing. And I mean hysterical, tears-rolling-down-face laughing, because as one resident said in between giggles, "Well, what else can you do about it except laugh?"

Some students ran over to the recreation center to take quick showers. Others (myself included) headed over to the student center for a bathroom, face-washing run. And as I ran into more and more people trying to get ready for the day all over campus, the more laughter and hilarious comments I heard.

And so for that morning, I was proud that people were able to walk across the street to use the toilet without their whole world crashing in. I was proud that people either took the trek to the rec center to take showers in good spirits, or realized that going one day without bathing wouldn't kill them. That morning, I was proud of people from my culture. I was proud that I heard laughter in abundance and not a single complaint. I was proud that people could defy my expectations and that we could all accept that crazy stuff does indeed happen and being inconvenienced doesn't mean the day should be spoiled by bad attitudes. 

Sometimes, things don't go as planned, even something as simple as brushing your teeth. It's so easy to get angry or annoyed in these situations but so much more fun to laugh and embrace the spontaneity of life.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I Am Here and It Is Now

 Since I got on that first sixteen hour flight to South Africa, time has not been pulsing at its normal rhythms for me and, on occasion, has disappeared from my consciousness all together. I didn't wear a watch in Swaziland, my cell phone remained off, I didn't check Facebook, and only checked my email twice for the sole purpose of assuring my parents that I was alive and wishing my grandma a happy eighty-sixth birthday. Occasionally I would ask a teammate what time it was, perhaps out of habit, but I don't remember ever really listening to the answer. So, as you can imagine, it came as a shock to me to today to check my calendar and suddenly realize that as of tomorrow, it will be a week since our last day at the carepoint.

Nearly a week has past since we said our goodbyes and my heart broke and grew and transformed all at once. I can keep saying that over and over in my head but it still doesn't seem real. I haven't quite come to terms with the fact that I am in America, that I have, as people keep telling me, "re-entered." Every once in a while I feel like a map with a big red X and the words, "You are here" is being shoved under my face as my mind tries to convince me that I should accept my surroundings. But, my heart insists, "You are there. You are there." and I don't have the strength to argue because I want so badly for that to be true.

It's hard to be back on a schedule, to have to adhere to the rigid command of time. I have to wake up at seven, shower at eight, eat breakfast at nine, go to training at ten, break for lunch at noon, return at one, train some more until four, work on projects in the dorm until seven, eat dinner, work some more, go to sleep and repeat it all again the next day. I am virtually always aware of what time it is down to the minute and as much as I love my job and my friends and my school, I find myself missing my life in Swaziland where time wasn't a constant grip on my neck, but a soft hand on my back, pushing me ever so gently throughout my day.

Time isn't just holding me, it's holding our entire culture. I've been asked what time it is by a friend at least ten times in the past two days. Every time this happens I get a surge of distress. I want to scream at them, "You are here and it is now! That's all that matters!" But, instead, I slip back into the cultural norm, pull out my cell phone and inform my friend that it is one o'clock and that we need to get back to training.

I feel like I am starting this life all over again. The twelve days I was gone feels more like twelve years. Everything I once called normal seems completely unfamiliar. This world feels like a museum instead of a home. Things are too clean. I am too clean. I miss blowing dirt out of my nose at the end of the day and shaking rocks and dust out of my shoes. I miss really having a reason to shower. The roads in this world feel too smooth, the lights feel too bright, the cows are far too fat and the dogs are ostentatiously well-groomed.

There is time here. There is so much time. And it has so much power. I want to love it. I want to say I feel so blessed to be back in America. I want to say I am so glad for all of the freedom we have. I want to be proud to call this place my home but I'm just not there yet. I'm not sure I can ever fully be there again.

It's 10:35 pm in Iowa and I don't know what that really means. I am here and it is now and I'm still living and breathing and ready to be in reality again serving my brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Inadequate Words

I'm sitting in my dorm room in Iowa, tired, sore and sweating. With the help of my father and several friends, my stuff has all made it into Hildenbrand Hall and I start Resident Advisor training tomorrow. It's crazy to realize that four days ago I was in another country, continent, and hemisphere. Everything that's happened since landing in America has been a blur. I feel disconnected, like a brainless robot performing tasks but unable to truly think or feel.

One of my family members asked me the other day if Swaziland had been an unbelievable experience. The truth is that it wasn't unbelievable, not at all. I have never felt anything so incredibly real as I did during the few weeks I spent in Swaziland, I have never felt so alive. The experience that's unbelievable is returning to America, returning to a place that I once called home and realizing that my heart is still in the rolling hills and mountains of a country far away. What's unbelievable is waking up each morning ready to spend the day at a carepoint with smiling, wonderful children and realizing that it will be at least another year until I can be in their presence again. What's unbelievable is spending my time away from my loving and fantastically supportive teammates who, in a matter of hours, became my family. What's unbelievable is coming into a world where we complain about five extra minutes in traffic, a broken air conditioner, hair in the sink, too much grease on food and a million other minute details. Swaziland was real. The shock of America is what's unbelievable.

As I adjust to existing again in my native land I feel, as my friend and teammate Sierra would say, like I'm on "The Struggle Bus." Friends and family members alike have been asking me countless questions about my experience in Swaziland and as I recount story after story to them I realize how incredibly inadequate my words are. I can describe my horror and pain witnessing the children's ward of the hospital we visited, I can describe the landscape and how many children came to the carepoint barefoot, some traveling three or four miles on roads of dust and rocks. I can describe the crumbling huts made out of branches and mud that many children come home to with no dinner on the table or parents waiting to care for their needs. I can describe so much of the pain and suffering I witnessed and experienced alongside the people of Swaziland but it's inadequate to just tell these stories without being able to describe the unspeakable joy and peace that permeated the entire country and its people.

I don't know how to describe in words the source of the light that shone out of the children of Ludlati Carepoint. I don't know how to explain their gratitude and contentment despite the grave odds they face. I don't know how to explain their resilience, their kindness, their bravery, loyalty, or beauty. I don't know how to convey to people how inexplicably happy these children are, how blessed they are to be able to survive on God's grace alone and be constantly thankful for even the smallest blessings. I can't explain how much peace I felt holding little Danele against my chest, or the excitement of a chat with the animated Colile or how my heart shattered into a million pieces as sweet Kholiwe called out to me, "I will pray for you all year!" as I walked towards the van on our last day.

My words are inadequate and that's hard. I want so badly to tell everyone the stories of my trip but nothing I describe can truly bring that place justice. I am on The Struggle Bus and don't know if I will ever be getting off. I can only take peace in the fact that while my words are inadequate, God's love for these children is not. I rejoice in the fact that while so much about the lives of these kids is broken, their spirit remains strong. They are an indescribable blessing that I can only make feeble attempts to put into words.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tomorrow Came Way Too Fast

I am flying to Swaziland tomorrow and I'll admit it, I'm slightly terrified. I've been playing it cool all this time thinking, "I've done long flights and a foreign country before. This is no big deal!"Honestly, I think that the only reason I felt that way was because I couldn't believe that I was actually going to Swaziland. Getting to go on this trip was such a crazy blur of events that were so incredible I couldn't even grasp it all. I kept saying, "I'm going to Africa this summer!" But, it was just talk, just a concept, too amazing to be a reality. It feels like forever ago when I was riding home from Iowa for spring break and got a text from one of my friends who saw on Facebook that my sister had won a t-shirt contest. That moment of pure joy and gratitude put me into a kind of blissful shock and today I woke up and realized that this crazy "leaving tomorrow" thing came way too fast.

I feel unprepared even though I've checked and double checked that I had everything I needed for this trip. I've crossed everything off my list but no matter how much I reassure myself that I've got everything down, I can't help but be completely positive that I don't have anything down at all.

But when I stop and really think about that, I realize that it's going to be okay to be unprepared. Yes, I undoubtedly will forget something, maybe even something important, but it's okay because it's going to work out for the best. The beautiful and terrifying thing about all of this is that I don't know what "for the best" is. I don't know what to expect and that's mortifying but spectacular too. I used to say that this was no big deal, but it is. Going on a mission trip to Swaziland is a big deal, but it's also the right deal. It's a deal that I suddenly found my heart fully committed to before I ever knew that there was a crazy t-shirt contest in store for me. This is what I am supposed to be doing. Yes, I cant shake the feelings of nervousness, terror, feeling unprepared, and a thousand other things that are haunting me right now, but I also can't shake the overwhelming knowledge that this is beautifully and inexplicably right.

Tomorrow is happening. It's going to be here before I can blink an eye and I'm not ready, not at all. But  even with all the time in the world to spend thinking and preparing, I still never would be. All I can keep telling myself is that the fear, the nerves, and everything else is okay. I've never been in this alone.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Do I Absolutely Need?

Today is Saturday and I just finished cramming most of what I need to survive in a third-world country for nearly two weeks in a backpack. It's a large backpack, but still, a backpack. I am leaving for Swaziland on Tuesday morning. Well, sort of. First my team has to get all of our bags loaded in a van, then drive to Chicago, then fly to Atlanta, then catch tremendously long flight to Johannesburg, South Africa and then, finally, drive the five hours to Swaziland.

I've never thought of myself as a particularly heavy packer. I know girls who go through three outfits a day. I only need one, thank you very much! I don't straighten, curl, or even blow dry my hair. I wear a minimal amount of makeup if I wear any at all. I always try to pack just what I absolutely need. But, as it turned out this time, what I absolutely needed wasn't able to be zipped closed in my bag. I tried rearranging again and again to no avail. I simply had too much stuff.

I was in a predicament. Most of this stuff was just what our team leader had instructed us to pack. But, clearly, something had to go!

"Okay," I thought, "What do I get rid of when I have everything I am supposed to have?"

I stared down into the chaotic tumble of travel items. The first thing that caught my attention was the mini pillow and blanket. These were not huge items. It wasn't like I was bringing a full sized pillow and a comforter, but did I really need both for the plane? No. The blanket could be folded to make a pillow if I needed it and I already had two sweatshirts with me. So, just like that, a surprisingly large chunk of space appeared.

Next came the shoes. Did I really need a pair for the carepoint, church, and the plane? No. The shoes I wore on the plane could very easily double as church shoes, so I chucked the shoes I had carefully matched with my dress for church into a pile in the corner.

I got rid of some skirts, t-shirts, pairs of socks, bras, and limited myself to one pair of jeans (sorry if that horrifies anyone). Eventually, the bag zipped and honestly, I am pretty sure that I am still over-prepared in the wipe, tissue, snack, medication, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, and soap department.

It's funny how much I still have even after stripping away nearly a quarter of what I was sure I needed. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if I got rid of a few more things before I leave on Tuesday!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Grieving to Gratitude: How Thankfulness Changed My Life

            In my lifetime, I’ve heard more than a few rumors about myself. People have spread falsehoods about my family life, my friendships, my romantic relationships and more. I thought these rumors would end after high school but they are just as prevalent now, in college, as ever before. The most recent rumor I heard about myself is that I’m always happy. Apparently, I never stop smiling, am always in a good mood, and practically radiate positivity. Although this rumor is flattering, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am not always smiling and am most definitely not in some kind of eternally good mood. I get angry, sad, and feel pain far more often than most people seem to realize. I have my bad days just like everyone else. I’m human, not a Barbie doll with a smile plastered on its face.
            “You’re so lucky to have such a positive disposition. You can always find the good in every situation,” one of my friends informed me a few weeks ago. Yes, I try to find the good in every situation and yes, I tend to have a positive disposition but it’s not luck that made me this way. Life didn’t just coincidently grant me with a positive attitude. I wasn’t born an infinitely happy miracle baby. As a young adult, I do feel blessed to have a positive spirit but I was not always this way, I was not always able to find good in my life. No, I am not lucky to be positive. It was not by chance, but by choice, that I came to accept the gift of gratitude for my life.
            In the summer of 2010 I was miserable. I spent as much time as I possibly could in my bed sleeping because living was a nightmare. Every night before I fell asleep, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I asked Him to save me from this excruciating existence and every morning I opened my eyes in despair and anger realizing that God expected me to make it through another day. I thought He was trying to torture me and I despised Him for it.
 I was lonely all the time. Even when I was around other people, I felt completely isolated in my own mind. I dreaded every breath I had to take and looked forward to nothing except sleep.
            On one particularly horrible day, within a two-hour time period, I found out that the boy I was in a relationship with at the time was going to move away because he had gotten a scholarship to a school across the country and also that my mother was moving out of the house. When I got the news about my boyfriend, I cried uncontrollably for over an hour. My stomach ached so badly it seemed like a piece of lead must have been lodged inside of it. Each beat of my heart felt like a baseball was being pitched straight at my ribcage. Just when I had pulled myself together, I got the news about my mom. This time I didn’t cry, not even a little. I went numb and stayed numb for months.
            Then, one day, about three weeks before I started college, I decided I’d write in my journal. I felt so dull that I could only manage to put one sentence down: “I’m thankful that I have food on my plate.” I recall staring down at those words for several minutes in shock. Did I really have something to be thankful for in my miserable existence?
            The next day I wrote in my journal once more. Again, only one sentence and it said, “I’m thankful for waking up feeling better than when I went to sleep.” Like the day before, I stared down at the words I had written hardly believing they were my own. I wasn’t sure why I had said that, after all I always looked forward to sleep and dreaded waking up. I was intrigued by what I was writing and so I decided to continue. Everyday I sat down with my journal, stopped thinking, and wrote a sentence. I discovered that I was thankful for friends, laughter, technology, beauty in nature, giving and receiving love, family, patience, new opportunities, and more. Writing down a sentence of gratitude became so much of a habit that even on my bad days I found something to put down. It became a game to me, and I wasn’t about to let any negative emotion keep me from winning.
            “I’m thankful for tears because they mean I have something to lose,” I wrote one day. Another day I wrote, “I’m thankful for the pain in my heart because it means I’m alive.” I even went as far as to be thankful for the people who had made me angry because without them I would have never learned how to forgive.
            For months, I wrote down one thing I was thankful for every day no matter how tiny or silly it seemed. I wrote when I was happy, sad, tired, angry, desperate, and excited. Then, one day, I looked down at my journal and discovered words that I never, even in my wildest dreams, thought could come from me. I had written, “I am so incredibly thankful for my life.”
And the amazing thing was that beyond just seeing those words on paper, I actually felt it. I felt so grateful to be living and so thankful that I had woken up all of those mornings I had begged God not to let me. I was thankful to exist, to be a walking, talking, breathing, loving, being.
Last August, I went through a break-up with the same boyfriend who had moved away the year before. I can’t lie and say it was easy or that I handled it even remotely well. I wasn’t smiling or feeling positive. In fact, I was doing quite the opposite. However, there are two journal entries during that time that stand out to me. The first one is from the day we broke up and it says, “I am thankful for love and for life and for the people who have shaped me.” The second entry is from the day I said goodbye to him because I was heading off to another semester of college and it says, “I am thankful for you.”
Those were two of the most painful days I’d had since my misery summer of 2010. I felt completely heavy and depressed. If I was smiling, it was forced.
I’ve had plenty of terrible days since then. I’ve suffered. I’ve felt sad and hurt for dozens of reasons. I’ve been so venomously angry that I’m almost ashamed to talk about it. Despite what many of my friends think, I am not always happy or positive, and I’m certainly not always smiling. But, I am always thankful.
Now, instead of opening my eyes in despair each morning, I open them in anticipation. Instead of waking up grieving over the torturous life God is making me go through, I wake up grateful to be able to live the life He has blessed me with. My circumstances don’t always provide me with an easy path to happiness. I am not lucky. I am simply thankful everyday for whatever comes my way, and that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cancer-Based Love

I am usually a pretty friendly person. I make an effort to be nice to everyone and I am mostly successful. I try to love and not judge, but sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, there are people who just grate on my nerves.

Not long ago I met a man who, to be quite honest, drove me a little insane. I noticed him on the first day of one of my courses at school. He was an older gentleman, and by older I mean older for college. He was probably around fifty and he liked to talk, a lot. Whenever the teacher explained anything, he always had a comment to make or a story to tell that somehow, in his brain at least, related to what we were studying. Every day we heard story after story about his life, and don't get me wrong, they weren't bad stories I just didn't want to hear about them during class time. This gentleman was not in the least bit unintelligent, however, I began to feel agitated every time he opened his mouth because I knew something longwinded would come out. Even when his comments were helpful to my understanding of the subject matter, my annoyance far out-shadowed my thankfulness.

One day, I noticed my class seemed strangely quiet. I scanned the room and unsurprisingly the gentleman wasn't there. I felt a little thrill. For once, I wouldn't have to listen to those stories! The next day, the gentleman didn't return. Nor did he come on the following day or for the rest of the week. I began to feel hopeful that maybe he had dropped the class. The class discussions had changed quite a bit and I can't say I minded that he was no longer there to dominate them.

This Monday, my teacher announced to the whole class that the gentleman had officially dropped the course. I wasn't sad. I wasn't disappointed. I had secretly been hoping for this. But then, my teacher told us why.

The gentleman had cancer and would be needing treatment and operations right away.

And suddenly, I couldn't breathe. I felt like an entire elephant family had just planted itself on my chest. My whole body ached and I thought my heart might explode out of my ribcage and spray on every person in the room.

I had always considered myself a nice person. I had always thought that I tried to love everyone.

But I hadn't succeeded this time. I hadn't loved this fellow at all. Even when he was kind to me and had helpful advice, I couldn't get past my own judgement to listen to it. I had rejoiced in knowing I wouldn't have to deal with him in class anymore.

This gentleman has cancer. This gentleman that I didn't love has cancer and I was happy to have him gone. Can I still call myself a nice person?

No. I can't really say that about myself anymore. Or, more accurately, I can't call myself perfect. I can only call myself human and infinitely flawed.

The problem is that I could only see as far as my limited perception. I could only see my annoyance. I could only understand my frustration.

"If I had only known, I would have responded differently. If I had only known, I wouldn't have felt so annoyed, I would have just loved."

Those were my thoughts after initially hearing the news. Yet, I can see now how infinitely flawed those thoughts are too.

If you only love someone when you find out they are suffering, it's a weak love, a guilty love, a conditional love. That's not the kind of love God asks for and it's not the kind of love I am okay with giving anymore. God asks us to love our neighbor as ourself. He doesn't say love your neighbor if you find out your neighbor has cancer. He doesn't even ask us to love our neighbor because the neighbor might have cancer. God says to love your neighbor. That's it. No questions asked. No conditions. Just love him.

The most beautiful and terrible thing about being human is that you can't ever really know what's going on inside of someone else. You can't ever fully understand the journey that other people have traveled on to get to where they are. You can only see them as they are. And if you judge everyone by your first impression, never truly understanding the intricacy of the joy and pain that knits all of humanity together, you miss out on one of the most spectacular commandments: unconditional love.

I can't go back and change my actions or my attitude toward this gentleman. I can only pray for his life and continue on with my own having learned something of infinite value.

I know now that I can't go on loving in conditions. I can't go on judging first and loving later. I have to love first, and love unconditionally because if I do that, the judgements I would have made in my lack of love, will no longer exist.

If there's anything I want to teach the world from my unfortunate mistake this time, it's just to love your neighbor, always. And I don't mean love your neighbor because you never know if he might have cancer, I mean to love your neighbor unconditionally. Because, in the end your love for your neighbor shouldn't depend on if he has cancer or not.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Do We Really Deserve?

Have you ever had something happen to you that you felt like you didn't deserve? Has anyone ever treated you poorly without provocation or have you ever been given something extraordinary that you didn't feel like you earned in the slightest?

The idea of deserving is interesting to me. When we do good things do we deserve to have the same amount of good repaid back to us? When we mess up do we deserve to get our own lives messed up? What we do we really deserve and who decides it?

A few weeks ago my friend made a comment about a woman who got an abortion. She said, "Well we all know where she's going. She'll be getting what she deserves."

Those words shocked me. But what shocked me even more was the certainty with which she said this. In her mind, the woman who got an abortion was, without a doubt,  going to hell. She was getting what she deserved. That's it. End of story.

But is that really it? Does that have to be the end? Would Jesus have looked at that woman who got an abortion and said, "What you did was terrible. Good thing you're going to get what you deserve!" Would Jesus have left it at that? Or, would He have lifted her up, pointed her to his Father, and forgiven her? 

The truth is, Jesus died just as much for my white lies as He did for that woman who got an abortion. What if we all got what we really deserved? What if Jesus looked down on all of us with no compassion and said, "Well I sure know where you're all going!" and walked away without looking back.

What would that mean for my life? What would that mean for yours? What if we all truly got the punishment we deserve?

I can only be grateful that the story doesn't have to go like that. It doesn't have to go like that for me or for you or for that woman who got the abortion. I can only be grateful for compassion, for forgiveness, for love. I can only be grateful that we, as humans, have been given the capability to embody these things, even if we must do it in a flawed and infinitely imperfect way.

Not a single person on this earth is entitled to life. Life is a blessing. Each minute of it is a blessing and you can spend it rejoicing in someone's iniquity, or you can show that person forgiveness, you can show that person the light of God.

Before you comment on what someone else deserves, remember what you also deserve, and remember who took the punishment for you.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Greatest Blessing You Never Asked For

Why me?

How many times have you spoken that phrase or screamed it inside your head? I've lost count. Up until a few months ago those words were stuck in my heart by the superglue of misery. In high school, they were as much apart of me as breathing was. Every day, I found something wrong with my life and would mutter to myself, "Why me? Why is all of this happening to me?"

I said this when the boy who told me he loved me had a summer fling with another girl, I said this when I lost my best friend, I said this when my parents told me they were splitting up, I said this when I was accused of being a bully and when I got arthritis in my toes at age seventeen. I said this when I sprained my knee, when loved ones passed away, when the boyfriend I'd been in love with for years broke up with me, and pretty much any time my life wasn't going just how I wanted it to.

"Why me, why me, why me?" I'd repeat over and over in my head.

But lately I've been thinking, why not me? Why should any of this not have happened to me. Where would my life be if everything had gone exactly how I wanted it to during the time of my struggle? 

Not here. That's the answer. I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be in the amazing place I am. I wouldn't be writing this blog or going to Africa if I still had a boyfriend to devote my time to over the summer. I wouldn't be nearly as interested in serving others if I hadn't first been accused of being a bully. I wouldn't know half as much as I do now if even one of those things hadn't happened to me. 

I asked, "Why me?" because I could only see as far as my own head. I couldn't fathom that there was a bigger plan for my life. I only knew my plan and my desires. I was looking at the world through clouded eyes, through flawed eyes, through human eyes.

But I know now, that there's a bigger picture and if I got to choose everything that happened in my life, I would never really learn or accomplish anything. I would have nothing to be thankful for because I'd feel entitled to everything. Life would not be a gift. Nothing would be a blessing.

There is something incredible about not getting what you want. There is something fantastic about understanding that you cannot control every circumstance. There is something amazing about realizing that every challenge, every struggle, every heartbreak, could be the greatest blessing you never asked for.

I always used to think that the pain I went through would destroy me. I thought it was going to break me and never realized the amazing place it could take me.

What if we all said "Why me?" for every beautiful thing that happened to us instead of every struggle? What we asked God how we could be so lucky to have so many moments of sheer happiness? What if we asked why we had too many blessings to count instead of why we had to deal with a few moments of hurt? 

I am serving in Africa this summer because of incredible circumstances, and incredible doesn't even begin to describe it. How can this be happening? How can I be so lucky? What were the odds of my sister winning a t-shirt contest? Why am I so blessed? 

Why me?

Friday, March 23, 2012

My Sister's T-shirt

At the beginning of last week I wrote a blog post about a contest that offered a free mission trip as a prize. The rules were simple: buy a shirt that benefits orphans in Haiti or victims of sex trafficking in Moldova and get one entry to win the trip. If you post a link in your blog and someone buys a shirt from it, you get one extra entry to win.

My blog is fairly new and I haven't been trying very hard to get much traffic. I decided I'd post the link to the t-shirt store in a short post and figured I might be able to get a couple extra entries from friends and family.

And I did.

The first person to buy a shirt off the link in my blog was my older sister Aliyah. I was excited and thankful but I knew my chances at winning this contest were still pretty slim. Still, I kept my spirits high and knew that win or no win, I'd find a way to Swaziland this summer.

The next day after Children's HopeChest tracked Aliyah's purchase from my blog, their president, Tom Davis, wrote an article about my post. I was very moved by his article and in the following days I received many messages of encouragement from people I had never met. I began to realize that regardless of if I won the contest, the support I was getting was a true sign that I was on the right path. It gave me more drive to make sure this trip happened for me.

When the t-shirt store closed, I kept talking to my friends and family about ways to fundraise money for my trip to Swaziland. It seemed pretty unlikely that I would win the mission trip contest. After all, 676 shirts had been sold and I only had a few entries. My sister told me not to lose faith and reminded me that even if it seemed unlikely, it was still possible. Still, I felt there was almost no chance my name would be selected. And I ended up being right. My name wasn't selected. I didn't win the mission trip contest.

My sister did.

My sister who had bought a shirt off my blog so I could get an extra entry into the contest, my sister whose purchase drew attention to my blog and subsequently provided me with an incredible amount of encouragement, my sister who told me that winning this was always a possibility no matter how unlikely it seemed, won the contest.

But Aliyah didn't keep the prize. She gave it to me. 

When we were kids and I had to share with my sister, I always wanted "the big half" and Aliyah never complained. She let me get the most of anything we had to share because she knew someday I'd learn better. She knew someday I'd understand my mistakes and turn from greed and entitlement.

So, yesterday, when I learned of the prize she was giving up to me I screamed, laughed, and nearly cried, but most of all, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Aliyah gave up her prize to me. She gave up "the big half" so that I could give it back, not to her, but to people in desperate need.  

I didn't win this, I was given a gift from my sister. Aliyah's purchase brought others to my blog and miraculously, her purchase gave her the winning entry into this contest.

676 t-shirts were sold. Aliyah bought just one. She bought a single shirt but it's going to change far more than just a single life. I am beyond thankful, I am in awe. 

And though I am grateful for all of the heartfelt congratulations I have gotten upon receiving my sister's gift of this prize, I hope nobody forgets about the 675 other t-shirts purchased by people who want to create change in the world. Personally, I want to send my congratulations to them and I pray that each person who entered this contest continues on in their quest to better the lives of others.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jesus On Purpose

The theme for the last few months of my life has been honesty and communication. Through lovely experiences and challenges I have discovered the immense importance of being able to share your heart with the world. I have learned that the most effective communications and the deepest friendships are cultivated when you can be be real, when you can share yourself and your imperfections as easily as your finest attributes. This is what I aim to do in all of my interactions and something I would also like to be able to do on this blog.

So, today I will be sharing some of my story. I will be explaining how and why I chose to make a mission trip to Swaziland my goal for this summer. This is going to be a tad lengthy, but it is something I hope you take the time to read.

I think it's important for me to begin by saying that I love Jesus. I wasn't raised in Christianity and throughout my adolescence I actually put up many walls toward it. I had Christian friends, but absolutely no interest in listening to them speak about their faith. Instead, I used the news as my main source of information about Jesus and Christianity. Media showed me hypocrisy, prejudice, self-righteousness, and hate and I decided that if Jesus was okay with all of that, I most certainly didn't want to know Him.

I assumed every Christian I met was a cookie cutter impression of what the media had shown me. I stereotyped, I made assumptions, I closed off my heart. I felt resentment toward Christians because I believed they were outrageously judgmental. 

But during the summer after highschool, something started catching my attention. I was becoming very close to two Christian girls I had known since childhood and I realized that there was this incredible openness about both of them. I felt like I could tell them anything without fear. Our friendship deepened because of our mutual understanding of our extreme imperfections. They never made me feel like they were above me. They didn't judge my flaws and insecurities, but shared their own with me.

Our conversations began going to faith and I was amazed at how comfortably I could talk to them about my questions and doubts. I told them that I had always believed in God, always prayed to God, but how I felt like I was on a search for Truth where I always seemed one step away from actually knowing God. My friends listened. They never told me I was wrong, they never told me I was going to hell, they simply shared what they believed about Jesus's love and continued to support my journey to find God. 

I saw a kind of strength in both of them, a light that shined through their incredible character and gently nudged its way into my heart. I wanted to find the source of that light. I wanted to know what made my friends so strong. 

And then, one day when I was feeling exhausted from the challenges of life, I looked online for inspirational quotes. The first one I read nearly made my heart stop.

"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe,
by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are,
but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."
-Madeleine L'Engle

I was simply astonished by how this quote exactly described my experiences with my two Christian friends. I realized then how hasty I had been in my assumptions about Christians. I had accused them of being hypocrites and yet, I too was a hypocrite. After all, I had been outraged at them for being judgmental, of not bothering to understand anyone with different beliefs, but I was doing the same thing. I was judging Christians for being judgmental. I had thought myself to be far more open-minded and accepting than any Christian, but the reality was that I was not at all. I had stereotyped Christians so completely, that I had shut off my heart.

I decided to look into the bible. I read chapters at random and a funny thing happened. I enjoyed it. In fact, I loved it. I saw so much truth in the scriptures, so much wisdom that I had assumed could not be there. And the more I read about Jesus, the more open my heart became. I felt respect and above all love toward Christians. I saw how passionate so many Christians are about adoption and orphan care. I saw how hard they strived to serve others. These were things that had been growing in my heart at the same time as I began reading the bible. Through my reading, I became more and more interested in service, more and more interested in loving my neighbor.

Last fall, I knew I had to act. I could no longer suppress my love for the world, for all of creation. I could no longer sit back and watch so many people live in poverty while I lived a comfortable life. I didn't really think I was capable of changing the world but I decided it didn't matter. It didn't matter if what I did for others wasn't good enough, it didn't matter if I wasn't good enough, I had to act anyway. I had to just begin.

I joined a non-profit organization in my town that does service in Tanzania, I joined a volunteer club so I could help with local community service projects and I began sponsoring a child in Ethiopia. I began to realize that this wasn't just a phase. Service was something I wanted to dedicate myself to for the rest of my life.

 Then one day when I was looking in my Facebook news feed I saw that my friend's mother had posted about a trip to Swaziland some members of her church were taking. I looked at their website and read about what they had done on previous trips and I was inspired by their work. But, I felt something stronger than inspiration. I felt a giant push. I felt like this trip was one I had to take.

I knew I loved Jesus, I knew I wanted to understand Him, but I hadn't become a Christian. Why then, did I feel so strongly about this trip? This was a Christian mission trip. There were a million secular service trips to Africa out there and yet I couldn't shake the desire to go on this one. 

I know it isn't some weird fluke that I feel this overwhelming call to go on this trip to Swaziland. I know it isn't some kind of accident that I sponsor a child through a Christian organization. I know it isn't by chance that the first friends who joyously helped me with fundraising and continue to put efforts toward getting me to Swaziland now, are my two Christian friends. 

It is because of their light. It is the source of that light within my friends that is drawing me in. I want to understand it. I want to understand Christianity. I want to open my heart to the people I judged so harshly and give to the world with them in love. I want to know the God I have always been one step away from.

I know that this trip will change me beyond any expectation. I am already amazed by my experiences. Never in my life have I had so many people expressing their support, encouragement, and respect for my desire to do something. I never could have guessed that I'd be getting so many of these expressions from people I had never met in my life, people who didn't know the journey I had taken to get to this point but saw that I too was responding to Jesus's call for us to love one another.

I am faithful that this trip will happen, but not just because my desire is so strong. If I make it to Swaziland this summer to serve along with Christians who have responded to the same call to care for orphans and serve the world, it will be because of the people who showed love to me. It will be because of the people who knew of my imperfections and shortcomings but also of my potential. But, I guess in the end, this isn't even really about me. This is about the world, about change, about God.

If you have read this far, thank you. I hope you fully understand how non-accidental my choice to go on Christian mission trip is. I am not going on this trip with the attitude of just tolerating the Christian nature of it but to understand it. I chose a Christian mission trip on purpose to learn about the people I judged so harshly. I chose this trip as a way to learn about Jesus through service, completely on purpose and while I don't know exaclty how I will feel after I return, I know that in one way or another, this trip will be transformative. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Soap, shoes, and a blanket...

Two of my greatest teachers share a birthday today. The first is my second grade teacher, Miss Sweeney, who inspired me to dedicate myself to the education of children, and the second teacher is a young woman named Diribe.

Diribe is turning thirteen today. She loves to play group games like hide and seek, her favorite color is green, and her favorite animal is a cat. When she grows up, she wants to be a doctor.

I have never met my teacher Diribe. She lives in a village in Ethiopia. She is a second grade student whose legs have been crippled by Polio. Diribe's father passed away so her mother takes care of Diribe and her siblings. Diribe helps her mother with cooking and running errands.

Every month, $38 dollars is taken out of my bank account to help support Diribe through supplemental food, clothing, and education. When I am able, I send extra money for special occasions like her birthday. I also write her letters as a means to send whatever encouragement I can.

You may be curious how on earth I could call a thirteen year-old girl in second grade who lives all the way in Ethiopia, my teacher. How can this child be a teacher to a nineteen year-old adult, especially when we've never even met?

I can tell you the answer in just a few words: soap, shoes, and a blanket.

No, that's not what's on my weekly shopping list. Those were the items listed in a thank you letter I received from Diribe this year. That's what was purchased for her by the child development center she attends with my Christmas money.

Let me repeat that. Her Christmas gifts this year were soap, shoes, and a blanket.

And here's where my lesson comes in, here's where she becomes my teacher. The letter she sent me in response to receiving those gifts expressed how happy and thankful she was for those items.

Do you know many people who would be content with soap, shoes, and a blanket for Christmas?

Or, like me, do you know people who would feel insulted by those gifts? Do you know people who would scoff and complain about receiving such things instead of the latest Apple technology? Do you know people who would find a Christmas gift of soap, shoes, and a blanket beneath them?

 Diribe has wisdom. She has taught me more than a thing or two about thankfulness. Since the beginning of my sponsorship journey with her, she has taught me how to count my blessings, and through her letters I have discovered how rich and abundant my sea of blessings actually is. Because of her, I notice the little things. Through a little Ethiopian girl who wants to be a doctor, a little girl content with soap, shoes, and a blanket for Christmas, I have learned some of my greatest lessons.

Happy Birthday, my sweet teacher Diribe! May you one day understand how thankful I am for you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Who really wins?

This morning I got on Facebook before heading to class and was very surprised by a post in my newsfeed. It was from Children's HopeChest and it said, "Alexandra just got one extra entry in the mission trip getaway. See what she's going to do if she wins!"  and had a link to a blog underneath.

I had to do a double take. That girl they were posting about was me! I couldn't believe an organization as large as Children's HopeChest would post about my blog on their Facebook page. What an amazing way to start my day!

I went off to class in a good mood but I found I couldn't focus. I kept thinking about the mission trip contest. I thought about how amazing it would be to win the contest, how grateful I would be. But then I caught myself. 

"This isn't about you, Alexandra," I thought, "This isn't about you winning a prize. This is about giving to people in desperate need. This is about serving others."

The truth of the matter is that I committed myself to going on this trip to Swaziland before I found out about this contest. I committed myself to doing the service no matter how challenging it was to get there and as blessed as I would feel to win a free mission trip, I have to remember how blessed I already am. 

I am not in this to win, I am in this to put my whole heart into something I am passionate about. I am not in this to win, I am in this to learn about my world family. I am not in this to win, I am in this to serve. Children's HopeChest has provided us with an incredible opportunity. I really can't say that enough!

 I will lovingly celebrate whoever wins the mission trip because I know that it's much more than one person who is really winning this contest. The prize really goes to the people we are serving. In fact, the prize really goes to the world, because anyone who receives the opportunity to give themselves up in service, will never turn back. They will change because of this experience and will keep on serving. The world will be bettered no matter who wins the contest and therefore, as global citizens, we are all winners in this one.

When I got home from class today I saw another post on the Children's HopeChest Facebook page. The president of the organization had read my blog and had written an article about it. 

I cannot tell you how thankful I am for that act of kindness. I am humbled, in awe, and ecstatic, not because I think this will win me a trip, but because it makes me more determined to give. His post gave me a more powerful resolve to stay in this for the long haul. It reminded me once again that while, yes, my goal is to serve in Swaziland this summer, this trip is not the end of my commitment to the world. I don't take my dedication to service lightly and no matter what happens with this contest, or this trip, my whole heart is still devoted to service.

I may lose this contest, but the world is going to win because of it, and that is the best prize I could ask for.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Recently, I learned about a mission trip through my friend's church that takes a service team to Africa every summer. The church who has partnered with Children's HopeChest supports a carepoint in Swaziland where at-risk children and orphans can come for supplemental food and education but the carepoint also serves as a safe place to create a loving community atmosphere for the children. My friend's church and other donors support the carepoint year-round but use their summer trips to create and develop personal relationships with the people they work to serve. During the summer trips the travel team does orphan care work, delivers much needed supplies, performs home visits, and creates fun learning opportunities for the children.

As a college student who has lived a very comfortable life (in the sense that I have always had food, clothes, education, and family support) I feel an intense calling to give back to the world. If your brothers or sisters or friends are struggling, you help them. In my mind, it's really that simple. It doesn't matter where in the world your brothers, sisters, or friends are located, and it doesn't matter if you've never met them. When you learn of their struggles, you don't turn your back.

I want to go on the trip to Swaziland, not for fun, not for a vacation, but to start something bigger in my life. I want to dedicate my life to educating children and eradicating global poverty and for me, the logical first step is to visit the world and experience communities that do not have the luxuries I take for granted. I want to learn all I can from the people there so I can begin to understand what is needed to create change.

In order to go on the trip this summer, I need to raise $3,411. This number seems a little daunting but I know it's possible. Already, I've had friends and family members do bakesales, create jewelry to sell, and donate parties and dance lessons to auction off. I am also planning to raffle off my unopened ipod shuffle and am looking for other things of my own to sell.

I also found out about an incredible opportunity through Children's HopeChest. They are selling shirts to benefit orphans in Haiti and survivors of sex trafficking in Moldova. With every shirt you purchase you receive one entry to win a free mission trip through Children's HopeChest (up to $3,000) and if you don't want to go on a trip yourself you can transfer the win to someone else. Also if you purchase a shirt from the link in my blog, I automatically receive another entry for the free mission trip. 

This is a really fun way to support many good causes at once! Please consider purchasing a shirt from this link:   

Remember, if you click the above link straight from here, when you purchase a shirt it could help me go on a life-changing trip to Swaziland this summer!

Thanks to everyone for your support!

To learn more about the organization I am going to Swaziland with, please visit:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Being Me

Last month I was in a poetry class that challenged me beyond any expectation. At the end of the course, we were required to do a poetry reading at a cafe in my town. I've never thought of myself as a poet and the mere idea of sharing my work in front of a large audience was absolutely terrifying. However, I knew I had to do it if I wanted to pass the class so I forced myself to pick a few poems to read.

When I was looking through my poetry portfolio, I realized how much of it was forced eloquence. Most of my poems were wordy and sounded puffed up like they were trying to impress someone. And perhaps the worst part about them was that I couldn't even hear my own voice in the writing.

Originally, I had thought these poems were some of my best. When I wrote them, I thought they were graceful. I thought they sounded how poetry was supposed to sound. But then it hit me: there is no "supposed to" in poetry. There is either your voice, or a mess of random words. You can either use writing as an expression of your truth, or you use writing to pretend to be someone else.

I wanted to be me, one hundred percent, authentic me. So, instead of picking the poems that had any ounce of eloquence, I picked the three poems that I had written not to impress anyone, but just for myself. I stood in front of the audience, terrified, because I was opening myself up to a crowd of people, some of whom I didn't even know. I was showing them what was inside of me, what was stirring in my heart and my soul. I stood in front of that crowd, completely vulnerable, completely exposed. But, I have never felt so free as I did when I had every single eye on me that night, and every single ear listening to my truth.

The first poem I read was called "Jesus in Disguise" and was inspired by Matthew 25:37-40,

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
   40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In my life, I have witnessed a lot of hypocrisy. Many times, I have been a hypocrite myself. But whenever I read this bible verse, I experience a slap in the face, a wake-up call. It makes me think about what it truly means to love and our responsibility to care for others in the world. I know that many people will not agree with my interpretation of this verse, but I would like to share my poem anyway so that, if nothing else, you can see my point of view and then draw your own conclusions.

I still don't think I am a poet, but my goal is not to become one. My goal is to be authentic and truthful in my experience every day that I live.

Jesus In Disguise

By Alexandra Warwick

Have you found Jesus?
I have.
He’s right there.
Do you see that homeless man you walk past in disgust every day
whose putrid feet stick out of an ancient pair of tattered brown leather shoes?
The homeless man, right there
who you don’t love?

Do you see Him?
That’s Jesus.

Have you found Jesus?
I have.
He’s right there.
Do you see that woman with an elegant blue hijab on her head
smiling sweetly to herself while you carefully avoid her eyes?
The woman with the hijab, right there
who you don’t love?

Do you see Her?
That’s Jesus.

Have you found Jesus?
I have.
He’s right there.
Do you see that homosexual waving a brilliant rainbow flag at the pride parade  
whom you have never spoken to or bothered to understand,
yet took the liberty to condemn to hell?
The homosexual, right there
who you don’t love?

Do you see Him?
That’s Jesus.

Have you found Jesus?
I have.
He’s right there.
Do you see that beautiful, bright-eyed girl,
whose feet wouldn’t even reach the pedals of a car
selling her body on the street?
The prostitute, right there
who you don’t love?

Do you see Her?
That’s Jesus.

Do you see how exquisitely imperfect He seems?
Do you see how exquisitely imperfect you are?

Have you found Jesus?
I have.
He’s right there.
Right in the spot where you turned your back.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"The world is just too messed up for me to take care of it..."

A few months ago when I was having a conversation with a good friend about politics, he told me he wasn't paying attention to what the presidential candidates were up to anymore because he had given up on our country completely. His proposed solution to his frustration was to find work outside of the country as soon as possible. 

        "If you dislike the way our country is run," I said, "Why don't you work to change it instead of running away? Why don't you take action to fix what you're frustrated with?"
        "The world is just too messed up for me to take care of it," he replied.

I've heard variations of this phrase uttered from my friends' and family members' lips a thousand times and I know I've said it to myself as well.

It's ridiculously easy to go about life thinking the problems in the world are too big and you are too small to make an impact. I went through elementary, middle, and high school believing that injustice was some kind of dark monster; but it was a dark monster that lived inside someone else's closet and was therefore, not my responsibility to take care of.

But one day, during my first semester of college, my mind whispered, "What if that dark monster was attacking your neighbor, your friend, your sister? Or, what if the monster was attacking you, and the rest of the world glanced over and saw your terror and pain, but did nothing."
 "Sorry, Alexandra" the world would say, "but that monster is just too big, ugly, and scary for us to face. Besides, it's attacking you and not us so I guess you're on your own this time."

I realized then that when we become aware of an injustice and do nothing, even if we are not the ones causing it, our non-action causes it to continue. Injustice exists because of hatred but is sustained by the nourishment of indifference. We may not be the reason a problem occurs, but in denying responsibility, we become the reason for the problem's survival.
Yes, the monster of injustice is big. Yes, it can be ugly. Yes, it can be scary. 
But it only lives when you feed it.

The minute you choose to open your eyes, the minute you choose to care instead of abiding in the comfort of indifference, the minute you realize that the people the dark monster oppresses are, in fact, your neighbors, your friends, your siblings and yourself, the dark monster begins to starve.

Injustice is huge, but nobody said you had to take it on all at once. Start small. Start with opening your eyes. Start with caring. Start with not turning your back on someone else's suffering. Start with standing up and speaking out about what you know to be true. Start with getting one person out of injustice's clutches. Because, if you start small, others will follow your example and pretty soon the world will be taking over injustice instead of injustice taking over the world.

You can submit yourself to the notion that the world is just too messed up for you to take care of it. Or, you can decide for yourself that the world is just too messed up for you not to take care of it.

Giving Back the Big Half

My desire to give back to the world stems from an unexpected source. It began years ago with a sweet bundle of delicious batter and scores of smooth chocolate chips, baked into mouth-watering treats by my mother.  After cooking up a storm in the kitchen, she allowed me, my sister, and my dad to have one cookie after every dinner. This kept everyone content for a few days, until, at one unfavorable dinner, we faced the ugly reality of having only a single cookie remaining. My parents graciously bowed out of the competition, leaving the prize for the more animated candidates. Thinking they were clever, my parents split the cookie in two pieces so that my sister and I could each have our share. With a quick glance at the cookie my parents had tried so hard to break evenly in half, I immediately determined that one portion was slightly larger than the other.
“I want the big half!” I exclaimed, and snatched the piece I had appointed for myself off of the plate. My sister, being seven years older than I am, understood that the half inch or so of extra cookie she was missing out on wasn’t a huge loss and ate her portion of the cookie without complaint.
Nobody thought anything of my behavior that day. I was only four or five, and wasn’t yet expected to have grasped the concept of how to be selfless. I probably wouldn’t even remember this incident today if there hadn’t been at least a hundred others that were precisely like it. Throughout my childhood and early adolescence, every time anything was split between my sister and I, my share had to be bigger or better.
Now, when I look back at my behavior, I am disappointed in the sense of entitlement I possessed. My family laughs at my childhood obsession of getting the “big half” and don’t see it as any indicator of my current character. I was a child then, and know better now.
However, what truly frightens me is that my childhood passion for always getting the most, is present in so much of our culture. As children in the western world, we learn practically as infants the value of owning things. We notice when our parents buy us more toys than we could ever play with and when they buy excessive amounts of their own kinds of toys. We are bred by the societal norms of excess and learn that if we have money, we are entitled to luxury first and foremost.
Wanting the “big half” might have been a cute thing for a little girl, but I watch now as millions of adults, corporations, and nations scream, “I want the big half!” at each other and the cute factor just isn’t there. In fact, when it’s put on a larger scale, this fixation with getting the most of everything, all of the time, becomes a driving force for international discord.
The problem with the little girl who always grabs the big half, is that she only notices what she has gotten and never what she has taken away from her sister. As a first-world nation, we have been known to take abundant resources for ourselves without thinking at all about the rest of the planet.  We then we congratulate ourselves for what we have gained, believing the rest of the world should too. Yet as we celebrate our new found wealth, we choose not to see the immense poverty that plagues so much of our world. We keep taking because it feels good, it feels powerful, and eventually it seems necessary. All of us who are blinded by material wealth cannot grasp the concept of what it truly is to live within our means and as a result, others, who we conveniently turn our backs on, have no means by which to live.
Perhaps even worse, is that our “big half” keeps getting bigger. Our sense of consequence has all but evaporated. We see the resources that were never meant to be completely ours as being infinite and we continue to rob the earth. Our “big half” is growing, but our sisters and brothers who we are supposed to be sharing with, are getting less, and less, and less. We think of ourselves as living in freedom because we think we have the most, and our vision is so impaired by our sense of entitlement, that we cannot see why those who we take from do not praise us for our gain.
America takes pride in being free. Yet, freedom means nothing when it’s confined by the borders of a nation. Freedom is not sitting back and living in a country with a relative amount of justice. Freedom is opening your eyes to those who are oppressed by injustice, and advocating for them. Galatians 5:13 expresses true freedom perfectly: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give back enough to counteract all of the excess I’ve taken from the world in ignorance. But, my life would be meaningless if I spent it dwelling in the guilt of the past. When you live in ignorance, you have an excuse for selfish actions. When you have been made aware, however, you are guilty if you do nothing.
I want to do something. I want to serve those in need. I want to advocate for those whose voices are drowned out by prejudice and misconception. I want to invest my resources in someone else’s life, even if the only resource I have to invest is my heart. I want to love my neighbors in the best ways I know how. I want to learn, every day, how to be a better human being.  And if I can do all of this and more to invest myself in the world, then, and only then, can I possibly be on my way to giving back the big half.