To all us glass objects… what if our brokenness makes the light beautiful? An inspirational poem about grace. (Click here to watch video)
To all us glass objects… what if our brokenness makes the light beautiful? An inspirational poem about grace. (Click here to watch video)
The first page of God Bless the Children of Tanzania, a memoir I am considering writing:
When people ask “What was it like to grow up in Africa?”, I want to tell them about the sun.
They are usually our family and friends from Minnesota, so they will think I am talking about the weather. I never understood how the weather could provide conversation material until I went to college in Minnesota. In Mwanza, Tanzania, the sun was an assumption. You depended on it waking you up just before the BBC news on the radio at breakfast. Its predictable leave was accompanied by the buzz of a mosquito and the scent of Queen of the Night.
Sometimes, provoked by the sun’s long harsh reign, the sky would throw a party with a strobe light and a thumping beat on the tin roof. My sister and I would run outside to join the downpour dance. Or when I was little, my siblings and I would jump up and down on our beds and build blanket forts for our stuffed animals, snuggling and giggling. In comparison to the power of thunder-lightning, the drizzle in America feels like someone spitting in my face. So if I say “rainy day” they will think I mean something sad.
But here I am being dragged into a discussion of the weather. I want to describe the sun. I want to describe opening my eyes on Saturday under a mosquito net shot through with sunlit dust. Only then, they will think my childhood was magical. It is tempting to be lulled into nostalgia.
If that were the whole truth, I would not be coming to talk to you.
I pour myself a cup of chai – by which I mean regular tea with milk, not the lattes with Pumpkin Pie Spice – and stir in a spoon of (cane) sugar. I settle into one of the wicker chairs with my back to the reception desk. The books on the display shelf are to do with Christian marriages, raising cross-cultural kids, and grieving. Outside the windows is a vibrant garden, bursting with the life of this Green City under the Sun, Nairobi, Kenya.
Yes, the sun was bright. But there was also darkness in the daytime that I am afraid to look at alone. I am waiting for you to examine my sunburn.
Shortly after my graduation from college, I posted a poem quoting Jacob’s prayer at Bethel: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Gen. 28:20-22).Like Jacob, I was on the move and concerned about life’s basic necessities. I had debated between opportunities with Christians for Biblical Equality, InterVarsity and my multicultural church. But I didn’t feel at peace walking down any of these paths. God called me – over Skype in the person of my dad’s dinner guest – to join the team working on the Africa Study Bible. Since my parents live on the same campus as some of the Africa Study Bible reviewers, a few months later I found myself returning “safely to my father’s house.”
But like Jacob, my life after this bargain with God was a struggle. When I arrived in Nairobi, I started from scratch. I developed systems to organize and track 2000 pieces by 250 writers through the editorial process. With my high school friends gone and most of my work being over email and Skype, I had to start over with friendships as well.
I felt helpless – like I was unraveling. But when I stepped back, I realized God was weaving threads back into my life in a providential pattern. In addition to my sociology and English majors, old skills of French and technology came in handy. Christians for Biblical Equality contracted me to write a Bible study guide for groups of young adults. In Minnesota I had planned to help out with a church plant or youth group. Instead, two months after I moved back to Nairobi, my family’s church invited us to help with a church plant nearby. I was asked to co-lead the teens class.
Like Jacob, I gave God a tenth of what he gave me. It only multiplied my blessings. Living with my parents enabled me to save money. I was able to pay off all my student loans within a year of graduation. My contract writing paid for a Kilimanjaro summit to celebrate twenty years since I first landed in Tanzania. God went above and beyond providing food and shelter.
Instead of helping out with InterVarsity, this weekend in Nigeria I met with leaders of their sister movements in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. We were defining a partnership to create a Bible study guide compatible with the Africa Study Bible. I marveled, “How in the world did I end up in this room with international leaders working on a project that could impact the continent?”
Jacob thought he was driving a hard bargain by nailing down the specifics of God’s provision. But he hadn’t listened closely to God’s unconditional promise the night before: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying… All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land…” (Gen. 28:13-15).
When God told Jacob he would bless him and make him a blessing to many nations, Jacob haggled for clothes and food instead. But God didn’t agree to settle for Jacob’s meager terms. Jacob had no idea of the scope of what God was going to do for him and through him. I’m beginning to realize that I have no idea either.
Watch the video on YouTube or read the poem below.
*trigger warning: child abuse*
What if I told you
That Roald Dahl didn’t write Matilda –
She could read nearly as soon as she could talk,
So no one was surprised when she grew up to become an author.
Believe with me for a moment that
she tried several times to write an autobiography
but it was too painful to share.
So instead she created Roald Dahl,
wrote his autobiographies “Boy” and “Going Solo”
which of course were realistic fiction.
Next she tried to reach out to her younger self,
With stories of villains vanquished by children.
Stories with lots of funny bits, like children’s books ought to have.
But when a boy came over for tea
from what she would later call Crunchem Hall Primary School,
She realized children needed to hear her story.
She decided to write fictionalized reality.
The headteacher who tested students on their times tables
And insisted on perfect cleanliness
would be called Miss Trunchbull.
Yes, people would be caricatures with labels for names
like Miss Honey the teacher and Mr. Wormwood the car salesman crook.
The kid readers would never wonder who was bad or good
Because Miss Trunchbull would never put on charity fairs or give scholarships
and the parents would be nasty and dumb.
The horror of the headteacher’s office
Would not be rumors of what he did to little boys there
It would be something concrete,
a cement cupboard lined with objects that pricked you.
And since teachers couldn’t stop the menace,
Matilda’s burning anger would become a magic power
She would save the kids and send Miss Trunchbull away for good.
Of course, in real life there was no magic.
Just because Matilda could read books on the top shelf
Didn’t mean she could reach them.
Even as the cleverest student in the class
Her brainpower produced no miracles or even cunning plots
Only test scores that made Crunchem Hall look good
And a tendency to distrust her feelings.
And no matter how her eyes burned with anger
She couldn’t lift a finger,
much less levitate a piece of chalk to write threats from a ghost.
maybe she could write
words powerful enough to right wrongs.
Miss Trunchbull got away with outrageous evil
Precisely because parents found it unbelievable
Truth is stranger than fiction, Matilda learned,
So call it a story if you want people to listen
Peddle lighthearted darkness.
Yes, she could write a comedy
where everything was obvious
and the vulnerable were protected by mysterious forces beyond their control
she could write it for the children
perhaps not an autobiography, strictly speaking,
but it’s what she would have wanted to hear.
that some precocious child who escaped to the library
would find her book on the shelf
would laugh at Matilda’s pranks
would know that justice wins in the end.
What if Matilda could save some kids yet?
Invite them to believe something so strange it might be true
That life is a comedy
That children’s books always have a happy ending.
… or in that case, what if Matilda wouldn’t have to save them?
Characters are not responsible for meting out poetic justice.
The author of the children’s stories would give them happy endings.
Mysterious forces protect the vulnerable
And I hear God’s in the business of saving.
What if I told you
the story isn’t over yet
but I know it will end well.
Believe with me for a moment.
What if I told you
The truest fiction I know how
Would you believe me?
Peace is “salama” in Swahili, much like the Hebrew shalom. The Homecoming is a poem about finding wholeness (view pdf).
I want to be an integrated and whole person.My life can feel fragmented: Tanzania, Kenya, the USA. Christian and secular environments. Extended family, family friends, peers. I could be a different person to everyone and probably get away with it. Online, everyone now has access to impression management simply by choosing who can see each facebook post. But I’ve found over and over that it’s a small world. I’ve seen hypocrisy hollow out foundations as effectively as termites. If I cut myself up into compartments I might not know who I am.
Like a building with structural integrity, an integrated person has a grounded sense of self to build a life on. If you have integrity, people trust you because you have consistently good character. To be the same person to all people, you need to integrate the various parts of your life. Shalom is Hebrew for wholeness and deep peace. I feel like becoming whole involves making peace from the pieces: the positive and the negative experiences, conflicting worldviews and different cultural environments.
But it’s impossible – and unwise – to be exactly the same to everyone. In some situations you should wear jeans, in others you should eat with your hands. The challenge is adapt to others’ expectations while retaining your essence. For instance, successful communication results in people understanding each other. So I adjust my vocabulary and accent to match the person I’m talking to. I avoid proper nouns that are unknown to my listener so that I don’t alienate them by exotic name dropping. But being a good chameleon can make it hard for people to see you. If people don’t read me in context, if I censor myself and translate my existence – will people understand who I am?Another meaning of shalom offers a potential solution. It is used as a Hebrew greeting and farewell. Amidst transition between so many worlds, saying hello and goodbye is a way of recognizing and welcoming each other. Just like one greeting prompts another, hospitality fosters more shalom. I invite people into one of my homes, introduce them to loved ones, let my guests taste my food and hear my music. When I feel welcomed, I add a Christian perspective to a sociology assignment and then bring the finished product to a family reunion. And in this small world, sometimes an old acquaintance speaks my mother tongue with all the proper nouns. Or a best friend and I stretch a string across the ocean and listen as good and bad rattles in our tin cans. Affirming the many parts of my life makes me feel whole.
When I make connections, I feel alive. I am a third culture kid, born into the in-between of a globalized world. It can be hard to hold two things together, especially in a polarized society. As my pastor once said, bridges get walked on. Social network theorists say that middlemen who connect two otherwise unrelated groups can benefit from bridging structural holes. I hope that integrating myself and my worlds brings peace to myself and others.
I’ve talked about integrating good and bad to make something beautiful in recent posts. Next, I’ll write about temptation’s threat to integrity and perhaps ways that my prayer for shalom has been answered so far. I’d like to hear from you too.
What are your perspectives on shalom and/or integrity?
When I started this site a year ago, I had just read Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown. I intended to share vulnerability in healthy ways.
This year I faced my feelings, including loneliness and homesickness. I faced shame about my work and my worth. I faced hurt from the past and anxiety about the future. And that’s only the list of what I shared on the internet!
I didn’t want to deal with pain. But God had thrown away the painkillers I’d always used to escape. I realized I needed to find healing for my hurts. When I brought them to God, I heard: “You are my daughter, in whom I am well pleased. You are understood. You are home.”
So this year was harder than I expected, but I was also braver than I thought possible. It’s been an adventure, I suppose. As Nicole Nordeman sings, “sitting in the rubble, I can see the stars.”
In Mark Shaw’s Work, Play, Love he talks about how theologian Jonathan Edwards’ categorized beauty: Simple beauty was symmetry. Complex beauty was a harmony of opposites, where beauty absorbs and transforms ugliness. Moral beauty was love for persons. God was complex moral beauty. This year I have seen how God absorbs the sin and brokenness of the world and makes something deeply beautiful.
When I first began to grasp the concept of grace, I wrote a poem about God using the imperfections and brokenness of a lightbulb to create a stained glass masterpiece. I called God a dumpster diving artist.
The creator made us beautiful, but we hurt ourselves and each other, resulting in a broken mess that should’ve been thrown out. But God wasn’t ready to give up on us. God dove into the dumpster of this world with us and became a human. Jesus immersed himself in people’s sickness, poverty and hurt. He opened his arms to our pain – and kept them open wide in a torturous death.
But God – what infinite moral complex beauty! – turned death into life, defeat by torture into eternal victory. And that’s why in heaven, there will be no pain. In the presence of such a God, bones take on flesh, ashes become beauty (there’s a song about that too). This is not the art that we envision. But the Holy Spirit invites us to join in. We too can make a collage or quilt from scraps.
Creating art and writing to share here has helped me look at my life in a new light. I can see that this year’s trash has been recycled by a dumpster diving artist into a new creation. And I hope I’m joining the Creator in making some garbage art.
Grandma (Ruth) Rasmussen turns 90 today! I’m celebrating from across the ocean by reflecting on 9 things she taught me:
Lately I’ve been processing what it was like growing up in Tanzania – in my school, family and Christian communities. In fact, if I do any more introspection, I’m at risk of turning inside out. I’ve discovered the power of a little word: “and.” It frees me to affirm the good memories and the difficult parts of my experience. In typical Hannah fashion, I memorialized what I’m learning by delving into a challenging art project laden with symbolism. I made a two-sided pillow. Like with this project, I hope I can make scraps of hard and happy times into something beautiful and useful to comfort myself and others.
“There’s steam coming out of the car!”
As the van climbed a hill in the strong afternoon sun, the temperature gauge had been climbing too. But my dad and I hadn’t noticed. Finally, the pressure cracked the plastic top of the radiator. It said, “Stop! You can’t keep ignoring me!”
Later that week, my emotions did the same thing. The temperature kept rising until the gasket broke. For three separate situations, I sat down with a list of feeling words and wrote: “I feel anxious because… I feel angry about… I feel afraid that…” It took a lot of tissues to mop up all that escaping water.
It was an answer to prayer.
Of course, I didn’t realize it at first. I asked: “What are you doing, God?”
Writer that I am, I journaled… for three full days. I listened to my feelings. I listened to music. I listened to the Bible. If emotions were like food, mine were as processed as sausages.
A Sanctus Real song echoed my thoughts: “Whatever you’re doing, inside of me / it feels like chaos / but I believe / you’re up to something / bigger than me / larger than life / something heavenly.”
Work tasks and deadlines were part of my stress. Finally, I tearfully told my boss that I was worried I would disappoint everyone when our project wasn’t done on time. I felt shame because my work wouldn’t be enough. I asked for management solutions, a more detailed plan, and clearer expectations.
They listened, then reminded me that it wasn’t my work. It was God’s. I only had to take responsibility for my part. In fact, I realized it was proud to think I could do it all myself. I read a familiar passage about Jesus’ humility. Just below it, I saw: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13). Work humbly – because God works in you.
I read: “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace… The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (Rom. 8:5, 6, 15). Focusing on what had to be done made me feel fear and shame because I couldn’t do it. My supervisors encouraged me to focus instead on what God had been doing – and replace my anxiety with peace.
With another situation I was anxious about, I imagined the opportunity in it. I remembered what God had done before and decided this might be another step in the same direction.
Then I took a big picture look at all the emotions of the past couple weeks. What are you doing, God?
I remembered that I recently prayed for a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit.
I’d hoped for really powerful prayers and maybe a miraculous experience. But I also told God to do things his way recently. So he put me in a situation where I need the Spirit’s strength. My boss called this my “baptism by fire” into ministry work. The phrase means a painful initiation, but in the Bible, being baptized with flames is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I often think of listening to the Spirit as sitting quietly and waiting for thoughts that are too profound to come from me. But I realized – music, journaling, the Bible – they’re all ways the Spirit speaks. I guess we have gotten closer lately.
I’d also asked to become pliable so God could mold me for his purposes. I’d prayed for humility.
Another supervisor compared this challenging time to how Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry. The devil tempted Jesus: “Prove yourself. Show your power and get the glory now – forget about the painful cross.” The liar tells me I’m not enough too, and I question whether all this is really necessary.
But Jesus fasted and chose the humble way. In fact, that’s where we get the 40 days of Lent from. We so often stuff the cracks in our lives with comforting distractions. But ‘tis the season to make peace with the cracks. This year I don’t have all the friends, ministry roles and accomplishments I often rely on to boost my self-worth. I’ve had to face the cracks and let the Spirit fill them. Maybe the Spirit’s leading me to the wilderness to prepare me for ministry, shape me for what’s next.
The crack in our radiator, annoying as it was, saved the engine from damage. Overheating forced us to stop – right in front of a car wash. We filled the radiator with buckets full of water and made it home. It took days with the mechanic, but our car is finally ready for its next adventure.
I feel… hopeful.