Hugs from Heaven

Yeah, the title is a little cheesy, but it suits the story I’m about to share.

So, last month was pretty rough for me. My mom sent a message on June 5th that my grandma had passed away. It was a lot sooner than everyone expected (although, these things tend to happen suddenly). I was bounced back and forth between my ticket agent and the airline that whole week in vain. I stopped trying eventually out of frustration because nothing was making a difference, and I was going to miss my grandma’s funeral. She and my mom had told me earlier that they understood if I wasn’t able to go, but it was still hard for me to accept that. Then, I broke up with my boyfriend at the end of the same week. I had been dating my close friend for 4 months when a situation made it clear that things were not working. It didn’t end the way I had imagined and it just capped off the terrible week I was having.

As you can imagine, by that next week, I was so emotionally and physically done. I’d slept poorly for the last 3-4 days, and I prayed a lot. That Tuesday, I had made a video with remarks about my grandma to send for her service. And the rest of that day had felt really heavy. I didn’t sleep well. I ended up dozing off and on, eventually feeling like I needed to pray. It was exactly during this prayer — where I started to really surrender my brokenness and accept His peace — where I heard this sound. It was about 4 AM and the sun was already up. I figured it was a bird at first because the magpies sometimes make a crying noise. But it came again and I could tell it was inside the building, and that it was definitely a cat.

I went out and up the stairs to the attic/storage space, and in the dark, I saw this little white creature scurry across the floor to duck behind some suitcases and boxes. I recalled hearing a crying sound like this the morning before, but I had been half asleep then and more distracted. And my roommate had said something ran across the floor when she went up there later that day. The distress in his cry told me he must be pretty hungry.

So I hurried downstairs to scrap together whatever I could find. I had a can of tuna and some bottled water, so I grabbed a food container and went back up to the attic. He cried very loudly and had come all the way outside the door to watch if I’d come back. As soon as I approached him, though, he ran right back into the bags and boxes, afraid. I tried coaxing him out with a piece of tuna, but he was too scared. Leaving had worked once, so I pretended to go away and hid behind the door to the attic. He cried, walked out, noticed me right away and the minute I took a step, he ran back inside quickly. We went at this for about 15-20 minutes before I finally cornered him in a dirty, cob-webbed corner of the attic and wrapped him up in a worn t-shirt.

 

He didn’t cry after that much. There was a little bit of struggle, but wrapped up snug and gently pet on the head, he calmed down right away and started to doze.

Now, besides being a sweet story about how I found my cat, there’s some symbolism behind it. I grew up with cats and have a deep fondness for them. In fact, my love language from God is whenever I see a cat or have a chance to encounter one, it’s like God reminding me how much He loves me and is thinking of me in that moment. After all the hurt and stress I’d gone through the last week, for me to encounter this random animal in my attic, seemingly out of nowhere, was kind of an ‘a-ha’ moment for me.

Most of that morning, I looked after him. He had some tuna after a while and napped a little bit. He looked pretty healthy: no mites or fleas from what I could tell. And he was pretty young. A friend of mine said about 5-7 weeks.

At first, I went about trying to find him a new home, but no one I asked wanted to keep him or couldn’t. There aren’t any cat shelters in Tomaszów, or really much of anywhere in Poland, and I was leaving for the States in a few more days. I thought to just let him go outside again where he probably came from, but he flipped out and scrambled around the parking lot at my apartment building, running under the parked cars and looking terrified. I caught him up again and he immediately calmed down. “Well,” I thought, “I have a cat now.”

nor

But still, I had a problem of where to keep him while I was in the US. He was too young to fly and would need to get his vaccinations in order first anyway. God totally provided. A friend’s family said they could help me by keeping him while I was away and that settled my decision. And so, I named him Miłosz  because he’s a symbol of God’s love and thoughtfulness of me and also because he’s really quite a sweet, loving cat.

Currently, he’s doing quite well and making some new friends where he’s staying. I promise he does more than sleep, but I do think that’s his favorite activity.

milo i mietek.jpg

z Miłości (with Love)

Tomy church hosted a women’s conference a few weekends ago with the theme of love; how it’s able to transform and heal in relationships through God’s example to us. We had a special guest performer, Agnieszka Dębowska, who was a contestant on The Voice Poland, and amazing speakers from our community that shared their stories.

The opening session began with a look at 1 Corinthians 13: how the Bible defines love; that it goes beneath the surface things and looks at the actions outpouring from the heart. Love gives our life meaning. And how to meet these expectations with behavior. If we replaced “love” with our name (i.e. “Theresa is patient, Theresa is kind”), would it ring true? And that without God’s grace to help fill in the gaps, we wouldn’t be able to do so.

The second half was an interview portion where three women from three different  backgrounds shared their stories about when they struggled to love, and when sometimes that meant no, and how that “no” shaped their lives going forward. I resonated most with the single woman who had to eventually say no to a relationship that wasn’t going to work, and uproot her plans to follow God’s lead in a different direction. Not that I was leaving a relationship, but the process of deciding to leave something familiar — my plans — for God’s plans is one that I’ve experienced before coming to Poland long-term, and in some ways, since.

Afterward, we each had discussions at our table about our personal experiences in loving people, experiencing love toward us, and times it was hard to love someone. For me, loving a person well is making the time and space to be with them, caring for their cares and praying over their concerns. It’s so much more than giving gifts or compliments. I shared some experiences I’d had in times when it was hard to love someone, and how God helped me break through those moments and healed my hurts enough to care about them.

The last session, one of our school directors shared her experience in learning what love meant through Jesus Christ, how it is healing past wounds in her life personally, and that God’s ultimate act of love — sending Jesus Christ to die for us — changes everything, and brings hope of real transformation and renewal. Then we were asked to think about a person who has been or still is hard to love, write down their name on a heart to pin to one of the boards they had at the front of the stage, and to pray for them — for whatever hurt or disappointment they caused us to keep us from loving them and to pray that God breaks through all that so that we are able to do so now. It was a really powerful moment and helped me realize there are some people and situations that I still need God’s love to heal.

The influence of this past conference continues still. We had a staff meeting to review updates and a really cool story came up. A group of women who aren’t part of Proem staff volunteered to organize different parts of the conference like drinks, food, decorations, etc. Well, there was a woman who attended who was going through a really difficult time: she was pregnant, living with her mother in law, and her husband was in prison. She’d been orphaned at a young age and hadn’t had a lot of stability in her life. Well, these same women, after learning of her, decided to throw her a baby shower and buy all the things she needed to care for her child and herself.

It’s really incredible seeing how God is using our presence here in Poland to change lives and provide a community of loving people to lean on in good and bad times. The follow up Bible studies post-conference have had about 40 women attend so far, and there will be another 4 meetings in the coming weeks between Łódź and Tomaszów. I pray that they will impact the women who attend and continue to define God’s love for them.

 

Lighting the Way

It wasn’t too cold. There was a bit of mist falling from the sky, but nothing like the torrents of rain we’d had lately. The sun had stayed behind clouds all day, and it was pretty much night by 5:00 PM. K and I had stayed inside, cleaning the apartment, attempting to plan lessons for the next day, and binge-watching Netflix episodes of the latest popular series. After about 3-4 hours of this, some fresh air was a good idea and for me, it would be my first experience.

November 1 in Poland is a day of sad or solemn remembrance for some, dutifully traditional to others…I don’t really know the gambit of emotions. I don’t come from a Catholic background and Halloween overshadows All Saints’ Day where I’m from. The limited scope of emotions I gathered came from the people walking around that I saw and one conversation with a student during Konsultacja yesterday afternoon. But it’s definitely a special thing to see while here.

There were several lantern and flower sellers lining the street outside the large cemetery in Tomaszów, which was blocked off from car traffic by a police van. There’s usually a few permanent kwiarnia that sell flowers and candles year-round outside the wall, but it was at least double that this time. And it wouldn’t be Poland without some bread sellers as well — I saw at least two stands on the side we were walking on. Cmentarz Rzymskokatolicki (I totally copy-pasted that) is pretty huge, spanning a few blocks all around. It rivals most of the city parks in size. So I was actually really excited to see how it would look lit up with lanterns and was not at all disappointed.

The photo I featured here really doesn’t do it justice. My phone camera is not a fancy SLR by a long shot, so you won’t see the same depth and atmosphere as I did, but I’ll do my best to share the feeling in words. The wall is solid brick as you walk up to it so I didn’t get any glimpse of what the inside looked like before coming up to the open gate. Immediately, your surroundings are illuminated in golden light and far off into the distant corners of the cemetery (when the second wall doesn’t obstruct your view), you can see lit lanterns resting on the graves. They reminded me of stars from far away in the dark. And because it wasn’t completely night, there was still a bit of blue-gray in the sky and you could see the trees beyond the reach of the lantern light. There was a huge variety of lights as well: some sites had only red-glass lanterns, some had open oil lamps with real flames, and there were some with color changing LED bulb flames too. The flowers were hard to see, but what I did catch were a lot of white chrysanthemums and roses.

Walking through, close to the path, there were very small graves of children — I didn’t check to see how old all of them were, but I remember one was 12 years and there were smaller stones than that nearby. There were also quite a few young adults — one said 27 years, another in their 30s. Each of them had at least one lantern lit. I can’t imagine how hard it must be, coming back every year to pray and light a flame for them. It toned down the whole experience for me at that moment. I didn’t become sad so much as sobered by what I was seeing and the sentiment behind it.

I was reminded that there are no guarantees of our time here. What legacy will I leave behind? How will people remember me? I have faith in heaven and God’s mercy. I have purpose in sharing of Jesus and leading people to him through how I live. I hope my example — my attitude in joy and hardship, my response to living, the way I treat others — will have lasting influence for his glory. And moreover, I want to be remembered as genuine. Not religious or just a good person or any of that. Real. Gut-level. I follow Christ; not because I was taught to as a kid, or I’m following a crowd, or only that it’s the right thing to do (while I believe that’s true, my reasons go deeper). I follow him because he’s offered me, completely and undeservedly, his all. I’ve seen incredible change in the person I’ve become from being open to his teachings and obeying them. My heart is light. My mind is at peace (…most of the time, hah). We are not made to burden ourselves with baggage and trudge through the hazards on our journey alone. He’s promised to be there always, and he truly is. Just as families remember and honor their past loved ones, I must remember daily the God I serve and who’s love for me goes beyond my capacity to grasp wholly.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. 17 Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. 18 And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. 19 May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”

Ephesians 3:16-19

Pains and Passage

This week has been tough. The extent of the culture shock I’m experiencing really hit me hard. I cried over not being able to explain an order error at McDonald’s. Like, legit felt humiliated and stupid. I ended up leaving the restaurant because I didn’t want to get stared at with tears streaming down my face and the fresh air would be better for me anyway. I prayed in frustration and ended up calling another missionary who helped me regain perspective. She told me this is all still new (October is my second month here), and the things that were easy in the US are not going to be here for a number of reasons. There’s a grieving process happening and it’s completely normal. All of the veteran missionaries have been through it. You feel the loss of something you took for granted: normalcy.

And she was right. Besides the culture shift, I’m working my brain cells overtime trying to convert Polish words and sounds into cohesive meaning, all while managing and teaching young children which is a huge mental and emotional drain already. All of this seemed forgotten because all I could think about in that moment was the embarrassment of not being able to order a hamburger meal. My pride was hurt.

I know I keep referencing James 1:3-4 a lot (and Romans 5:3-4 is a similar message), but its exactly what I am in the midst of. Refining and growth to build endurance: painful, awkward, and uncomfortable; the results of which are a strong and resilient person, rooted firmly in faith because she was tested and came out better.

All is not grim struggle here, though. I’ve made new friends, strengthened previous relationships, and really, I have an amazing community here and in the States. I love being here. There are just days when it makes me feel like screaming or huddling under a blanket away from everything. One cool thing is that even my limited experience of living abroad and being on mission allows me to share advice to those about to do the same or considering it.

My best friend is on her way to teaching English in Korea. We had a chance to Skype the other day and it felt really good to reassure her about living overseas and how God has been pruning and pushing me. To encourage her to set aside misconceptions or insecurities, and know that God is the one opening and closing doors. I thought, while I was talking with her, how I felt the same just 2 months ago, a week before I was going to fly to Poland. I didn’t know fully what to expect or how my life was going to change. I couldn’t have been prepared for the challenges that cropped up or the emotional waves that I’ve had overwhelm me. But through it all, I have Jesus. I have the people he’s put in my circles. I’m not alone in this and remembering that makes a huge difference.