WIO: Watering Cans

A month ago or so, 24-7 Prayer asked our leadership team to write a blog about our latest outreach to the Westman Islands. I was nominated and so undertook the slightly intimidating process of writing a blog that I knew would be read by hundreds of people. (A little scary). The link below is the blog that was shared with the 24-7 Prayer community all around the world and on their website.

Seeking God in Unexpected Places

But I also wanted to share with you the full version of what I wrote, because so much had to be cut for length. If feel like this reflects so much more of what I actually wanted to say. Think of it as the extended version. Enjoy…

[[[A few years ago, they started calling us the Coffee Angels. And the name stuck.

With expectant hearts, we show up with canisters of coffee as they come rolling out of their tents in the late morning. Offering free coffee, we walk through the debris from their parties the previous night and dodge ill-placed tether lines from tents staked into the ground. The air contains the lingering stench of booze mingling with other things that are perhaps better unmentioned. While grateful and groggy Icelanders receive the steaming cups, another hand is thrust out from a neighboring tent to collect one for themselves. “You guys are life savers!” But, whether they know it or not, they are receiving more than coffee.

It seems to be God’s plan to use small, unlikely things to bring big, long-term changes. And that is what we do in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland (The Westman Islands in English) during the outreach. The Þjóðhátíð festival is held every year in an ancient volcanic crater. What began as a way to commemorate Iceland becoming a nation, has been deluded into a huge drinking party with bad music. But some of the roots still persist. For many people, it is tradition and they come for the fun and community. However, a dark side of the festival has only been addressed in recent years. Even among Icelanders, the festival has a bad reputation for violence and sexual assaults. The situation seemed hopeless, but that is where we come in.

People come from all over the world to the little island in the south of Iceland to serve at the festival. Some are friends and some are strangers, but we are all family by the end. The plan is simple. It begins with prayer and then love flows out in the form of coffee. It is amazing how thankful people are for free coffee when the wind is cold, and the hangover is brutal. It is the definition of love to meet people where they are with no strings or expectations attached. They shoot us suspicious looks as if waiting for the catch. But, we are only there to give coffee and conversation if they want it. “Why would you do this?”; “You have come all the way here just to give me coffee?”; “You really are angels.” But, through this simple gesture, seeds of God’s love are planted.

Last year’s outreach was a time of open doors. It was year seven, and while we have seen God move and gradually soften the hearts of the people we encountered at the festival, it has been a slow process. Every year, the festival-goers are more receptive to what we have to say and are more willing to talk about their lives. We are building relationships and trust. Every year, the heavy, dark spiritual atmosphere grows lighter. Last year was the start of another shift. God showed us ground that He wanted us to move forward into. To claim. Things that were not possible before were opening up.

This year, He confirmed it all. Now there was even more space for us to move. This year we pioneered a new expression of our ministry at the festival: a night team. As is our routine, the whole team went to the festival site in the evening to watch the crater lit by bonfire, flares, and fireworks. But this time, some of us stayed out until the sun peeked over the horizon again at 3 or 4am. After midnight are the peak party hours. We weren’t sure what to expect, but God used us to help the festival staff watch out for people in vulnerable situations. But also, to offer help where the staff would not. From walking stumbling people back to their tents or homes to helping someone to find their lost cellphone, it was a new way of making connections and to build on what God did through our encounters during the day. Some even recognized us from when we gave them coffee that morning! It turned out the new night team naturally flowed out from what we did during the day. There was no doubt that this was a new direction for the outreach.

It makes me wonder: if we are seeing these improvements just for a weekend at the festival, what is God doing in Vestmannaeyjar the rest of the year? On top of that, people come from all over Iceland to join the festivities. What is God doing in all the other small places in this nation? Could it be that this festival is not only a measure of God working in Vestmannaeyjar, but a litmus of Him moving in the hearts of all Icelanders? And maybe the cycle keeps moving upward. What if Icelanders come to the festival with the seeds of whatever God is doing in their life during the year to have those seeds watered by free coffee in Vestmannaeyjar?

It may seem like very small things happening here. But for those of us who live here in Iceland, we know that it is to those little victories that we need to cling. Throughout history, God has a track-record of using the small places and unlikely people to show His glory. To use a tiny island off the south coast of an obscure island country near the arctic circle seems to fit the profile.

I have always imagined that we are on seed-planting duty in Vestmannaeyjar, but what if God is now exchanging our seed packets for watering cans? And perhaps this hope is premature. There are still many rocks to dig out of the soil and seeds to be planted. We will still need our rakes and seed packets. But I would like to fill my watering can just in case.]]]

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WIO: Backstory

I know. It has been a long time. Well, hello again.

I would like to start a little series of posts about the outreach that I get to be a part of every year to Vestmannaeayjar (the Westman Islands) in the south of Iceland. A team assembles from all over the world to pray and serve coffee to people at the Þjóðjátíð Festival and hopefully show a bit of God’s love too in a place known for violence. I want to start out by going backwards and post a part of my newsletter I wrote about the festival last year (2017)…

[[We start in the prayer room at midnight the first night and the prayer continues for almost a week before the Festival begins. The time is broken into hour shifts and everyone signs up to pray for about 2 hours a day. My favorite shift is 2-4am. There is just something really amazing about waking up in the middle of the night to spend time with God, knowing you are the only one awake, keeping watch, and going back to sleep again. We set up the prayer room as a place set apart to encounter God in creative ways. Painting and drawing. Writing. Reacting. Worshiping. It is such a special space and it always feels so peaceful in there. I really think that the prayer week is actually the most influential part of the outreach. We would not be able to do what we do at the Festival if it was not for the breakthroughs God has shown us in prayer.

During this week, the focus is on prayer and preparation. It is important to convey the purpose, focus, and history to the team so everyone is on the same page when it comes to Festival time. These evening meetings make for some really good story times of past outreaches. We also meet in the mornings for devotions (led by me) to study God’s word and apply it to what we do on the island. We also find it important to rest and enjoy being together, as we have found that having fun is also a way to combat the restless, heavy spiritual atmosphere. So we climb volcanoes, roast chocolate bananas in the heat vents, go to the pool, take walks in the lava fields or along the beach, watch the sunset, play games, watch movies, and the like.

And then people start to swarm the island. A population of 4,000 swells to 16,000 during the Festival weekend. And then the chaos begins. People flooding the streets, having loud block parties at the bar beside the church, plastic cups strewn on all the sidewalks, and the smell of alcohol is inescapable. People go mainly to get drunk the entire weekend, but it is not all bad. Families set up large white tents in the old crater where the Festival is held and decorate them like cozy living rooms. Events are held for children during the day and there is a good sense of community in the air. Every night at midnight, there is a different event. Friday is lit by an enormous bonfire and on Saturday, there is a great fireworks show. On Sunday, flares light up the rim of the crater, one for each year of the festival. (Have you caught on to the fire theme? Might have something to do with the volcano…) And on Sunday before the flares, one of the strangest things happens. Fifteen thousand people gather on the hill of the valley and sing folk songs led by one man playing guitar on stage. And the lyrics are on the screen. It looks surprisingly like a worship service! (We like to sing along and make up replacement worship lyrics for fun). The remainder of the Festival nights is filled with dancing, drinking, and generally bad music. (Not bad because of the lyrics, necessarily. Just bad. You know, from a music standpoint. But it seems everyone is too drunk to notice). After praying and walking around for a while to see if anyone needs help, we usually head home between midnight and 2am.

And then, in the morning is where we come in. They call us the Coffee Angels. Breaking into smaller teams, we take free coffee to the hungover masses struggling to rouse from their tents. And oh are they glad to see us! (It wasn’t always that way, though. Until only a few years ago, people would ridicule and mock the team. Big changes! Go God.) “Are you Jesus?” “No, but I know him pretty well.” (Actual encounter from one of the girls on our team.) We also get a chorus of: “You saved my life”, “You are like angels” (hence the name), and “Will you bring me coffee again tomorrow at 11?”. But we often get asked why we are giving them free coffee. So we get to tell them that we wanted to share a bit of God’s love with them. And then they wait for the catch. They expect us to start preaching because that is what has happened every time before. And so they are shocked when we don’t.

My favorite part of outreach, I think, is seeing how God changes the atmosphere since the last time I was there. The changes are subtle but they are there. It did not seem like we were struggling and fighting so much this year spiritually. And people were much more open and comfortable with us being Christians. No one even said a bad word or mocked any in my group about it this year! Some recognized us from previous years. It has taken six years to get to this point, but God has given us more ground and we just need to take it. He has made that so clear to us leaders this year, and has given us confirmation to take the outreach to the next level. For next year, we are planning to buy a white tent of our own and set it up as place to welcome people who to talk, pray, or even just need a safe place to be. We will also be starting a night-team that will help the Festival stewards look out for problems or vulnerable people.

I did not encounter so many deep conversations this year, so I am not sure I have any other great specific stories to share with you. (Besides maybe sitting with a group and chatting for about an hour. Oh and getting asked if I knew where to get some acid.) But somewhere in the midst of coffee giving, small talk, and explaining our purpose, God showed me that sometimes the best way you can love someone is giving a simple cup of coffee. And through the simple loving gesture of meeting them where they are, no pressure and no expectations of something in return, we have the chance to undo some of the lies told about who God is, reclaim some ground, and plant another seed in their lives.]]

Moana

Ok so, if you have not seen the movie Moana (or Vaiana. Depending on what country you are from), go watch it, because it is fantastic. But don’t read any further because I don’t want to spoil anything for you.

(INSERT OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING HERE)

God often speaks to me through stories. Movies and books. There is something about a good fictional story that bring out truths that we might have difficulty expressing otherwise. This is one reason fantasy draws me in with such gravity. So sometimes, when watching a movie, a message (probably not even intended by the makers) jumps out like neon lights by the finish. It was this way with Moana. I watched it for the third time a couple weeks ago. Every time, another layer of meaning peeled back with different symbolism.

The first and second watches, it was the theme of identity that caught my attention. (And of course, some of this might be a stretch because it is Disney, but God can speak through anything if He wants to.) Moana, the lead character, struggles with following the desire to be who she feels she is and the role her parents want her to take. Maui’s identity rests entirely on having his magical hook and what people think of him. And both, by the end, understand a bit more of what their identity is actually defined by. Circumstance, and learning the truth of her ancestors, called Moana to be who she was meant to be. And it turned out, that she did not have to choose between her calling and her role after all. She was meant for both. And for Maui, he sees that he is still himself and he can still be a hero even apart from his hook and what people’s approval. He even chooses to sacrifice his precious hook to aid Moana on her mission.

 

But I caught an even deeper thread that last time I watched it. The scene at the end (Watch here: Moana Confronts Teka) when Moana realizes the enemy Teka is actually the one she is trying to save, Te Fiti the goddess of life. She walks through the waves toward an angry, flaming monster (so epic!). “They have stolen the heart from inside you. But this does not define you. This is not who you are. You know who you truly are.” It struck me. This is the truth of the human condition. We have forgotten who we are. Our heart was stolen (or rather we gave it away) and we adopted a new identity. A fiery, ugly identity. It might look more powerful and more in control from the outside. But it is destructive to its core. We build this new image of ourselves based on what people say about us and the lies we believe. Putting them on like new skin. But actually it is a crusty, ashen shell that only serves to cover and hides our life-giving nature beneath. But all it takes is a little piece of truth placed back into where our heart used to be. Even for a brief moment, we remember who we are.

And maybe sometimes, we need someone to confront us with the truth “this is not who you are.” Sometimes (about every hour of every day in my case) we need a reminder. We are not what people expect us to be. We are not what people say we are. We are not what we do or how many approve of us. And we are not the destructive sin and lies we have covered ourselves with .

At our core, we are life-bringers.

Réttir

Every summer, all the sheep in Iceland wander free. So then every autumn, the farmers spend a week in the mountains gathering any sheep they can wrangle and bring them to a corral designated for their area. There, the whole community of farmers, family, and friends turn up to sort them to their respective owners. It has been done this way for many generations and is one of Iceland’s oldest traditions. And this year, I was invited by some friends to join in the festivities.

On the way, the mountains and lava fields were bathed in golden light. My friend´s family welcomed us for dinner. And at the summer house on a hillside, the dancing nothern lights greeted us in the night while we soaked in the hot tub. The next morning was an early start. Clouds hung low but the coming sun still cast its light on the mountains through the haze. There was a pleasant chill in the air lingering fromm the cool night. Autumn is coming. Dressed in layers and wool sweaters, hiking boots, and waterproof pants, we arrived at the sorting location. Horses silhouetted against the moody lighting of the mountains. A loud chorus of mehhh´s swelled from the valley as we passed the Faxi waterfall nearby with its gentler roar.

A circular corral with wedge-like pens radiating around, was filled with sheep and people. The farmers and their helpers step over the sheep to position their neck between their legs to hold the lively wool-ball-with-legs. Grasping the sheep’s horns at the base, the farmers walk the sheep in a quite comical manner toward the pen matching the number on the ear tag. After watching a while and managing to overcome a bit of the overwhelming nature of the sight, I was taught to do the same. With a struggle (he was a very stubborn sheep), I successfully deposited the sheep in the correct pen. I had to take a rest after that and catch my breath. What an adrenaline rush! I was shaking from the effort. And what a strange feeling that must be to be one of those sheep. But how the farmers could do the same for many more sheep was a mystery. And sometimes taking two at a time! But of course, they had been practicing since they were children. So after a while, with some more encouragement from my friends, I managed to take three more.

After a few hours, the sheep were all sorted back to their owners. A group of old farmers gathered and in low, beautiful tones, sung the songs they do every year. The weight of community and tradition drew me in in an envious way. The pens began to empty as the farmers released the sheep to drive them back to the farm. Some in trailers and some free along horse-trails by the road. The farmer we were helping chose the latter option as the farm was not too far away. So for about an hour, we helped herd the sheep alongside the road, urging them along. Some farmers sat tall on horses while others of us walked.

Throughout the evening of visiting farms and family, eating hangikjöt and lamb soup, the draw of real Iceland lingered and the calling mehhhs of sheep echoes in my head.

Surprised by a Good Father

One thing I love about God is that He keeps blowing up the box I try to contain Him in.

Just in the last few months, He has challenged my idea of Him, tested my trust, and brought my faith to a new level.

I think my default picture of God as a Father is one who is loving and proud and caring but who is not always around. I believe in God’s power and I know He is capable of the impossible. But somehow, without even realizing it, I separate myself from that power and assume He would not actually do those things. So I believe that God could do anything, but apparently not that He necessarily would. It turns out this a very small container.

This default assumption of mine appears to be the root of many of my reactions. Especially the attitude I adopt when God asks me to do something. After the initial denial and tantrum, my reaction is usually: “Right. Well then, I will get on that” along with the fear of being alone in it. And fear of God’s disappoint when I fail. (Of course, all of this is ridiculous and ungrounded). It is like I assume, after the wonderful moment together when He gives me the task, He leaves to go do other important things, leaving me to the work He gave me to do. (Where do I get these ideas?)

A short while ago, God blessed my mom with a house. The old house had become a source of worry and God was challenging her to leave it behind. So, she had been planning to move and was working toward that goal, but financially and practically, it seemed impossible any time soon. I new God would work something out, but I never imagined it would be like this. He gave her a house. And it is all she needs and even ever wanted!

I was completely blown away by God’s goodness. How could it be that He would arrange it in this way? Of course, I knew He could do these things but never expected Him to! God blew up my box again. But in my heart, I expected a catch. I didn’t want to but I doubted the blessing and God’s goodness. And then, some time later, it seemed that the catch did come. I won’t get into details, but something came up that could have prevented my mom from moving into what had seemed earlier as an obvious blessing. And I was wrecked. It surprised me how wrecked I was. I thought I had a stronger trust in God than that. But as I was crying out to God, being honest with Him about how He felt cruel and unfair, He showed me a bit of understanding. I may trust Him with a my own life, but it is much harder to trust Him with the people I love most. I doubted His goodness. I believe that God’s love is far beyond my understanding. But somehow I overlooked that the same is true of His goodness. God’s goodness does not play by our rules of fairness or standards or entitlements. He is good because He wants to be good, not because He wants something in return. So then, why do I always think that way? God’s goodness doesn’t come with a catch. So I did my best to trust Him, even if the situation did not make sense. But then, God gave us another miracle. The problem dissolved and my mom could move in! And this time, the box was blown and a stronger foundation was unearthed.

Sometimes, things are just good.

And then, there is another layer to this.

A thought dropped on me while singing Good Good Father at church last week. You know how in John’s gospel he refers to himself as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’? It seems that people often joke about it since it seems like a prideful thing to say. And at the end of the gospel, he is like ‘oh yeah, and by the way, the disciple Jesus loved? That’s me.’

But what if it wasn’t pride? What if John’s identity was so wrapped up in this truth that he was the one loved by Jesus? What if this was his identity? So much so that his name really was a kind of ‘by the way’ sort of thing. So in that way, it isn’t pride at all. It seemed that John might have struggled with pride in his early years following Jesus, but he probably wrote the Gospel at the end of his life. And it is so consistent with how John writes about love in his letters!

I decided that I want to be this way. To be so grounded in the love of Jesus. The love of a good Father. I want to have my identity so wrapped up in being a ‘disciple Jesus loves’ and the ‘loved daughter of the Father’ that I forget my own name.

Lingering Easter

I know that Easter is well over but there is something that I can’t quite shake from it this year. I was talking with some friends about what Jesus did for us, you know, the typical Easter story. I’ve heard it a million times and sometimes I can forget it is actually my reason for living. We were discussing how Jesus was fully God and fully human—and how we can never understand how that works. And that led to this mind-blowing thing: Jesus had the power to escape the punishment of the cross if He wanted to. He could have easily come down from the cross. This is one of the things that makes the gospel so beautiful. Jesus not only endured extreme pain, suffering, and death on our behalf, He chose to when He had the power not to.

But another connection dropped into my mind. One that I have never thought about before. Jesus chose to die for us but He also chose to feel all of it. If He had the power to come down from the cross, He probably had the power to diminish the pain He felt. Jesus could have died and got the job done, but just lessen the pain a little. Why not? But this would have cheapened it, wouldn’t it? There is no way we can comprehend the anguish He endured in our place. The physical, emotional, and spiritual torment of taking on the sins of all of history, present, and future. To become sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God [2Corinthians 5:21]. And He chose to feel it all. That is the extent of His love. He didn’t want to show us cheap love. He wanted to show us real love. The kind that bleeds and sweats and hurts.

And it struck me. Who am I to cheapen God’s love? I guard myself and build walls and hide away. All because I am afraid to feel too much, to feel pain, to get hurt. To care too much. I have steeled myself against the hurts of the world to the point of numbness. I have been on this journey with God over the past year in which He is awakening my heart. A journey past obedience to the place of risky love. God has created me as an empath with the ability to feel intensely and deeply. Who am I to waste it when Jesus chose to feel everything? God has issued this challenge to me: to allow myself to be moved to love, to feel everything and not steel myself against it. Because that love that Jesus displayed, that love is my armor.

Words From a Monk

It is not enough to know God as a theory, from what we read in books, or feel some fleeting motions of affections for Him, brief as a wave of feeling, or glimpse of the Divine, which prompts them; OUR FAITH MUST BE ALIVE and we must make it so, and by its means lift ourselves beyond all these passing emotions to worship the Father…

–Brother Lawrence from The Practice of the Presence of God

Ramblings about my missionary adventures