Tag Archives: travel

Life Is Beautiful

A few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, I tapped the brakes slightly on my motorbike, and as a result, went sliding down a rain-washed mountain curve, leaving a 15 foot long scar on the pavement and a barely noticeable bruise on my leg. Shaken, but not hurt, I righted my bike and continued down the mountain in a proper fashion.

A few days before that, I finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital waiting for a health certificate in order to renew my driver’s license. Finishing the book at the hospital seemed fitting, even when I had no reason to be there other than to get a piece of paper.

Kalanithi writes poignantly of his battle with cancer and even more poignantly of his search to find purpose and meaning in life. Somehow when you read a book in which you know the author dies in the end, you read it with an expectancy of being on the brink of learning a great secret of life. It’s like leaning breathlessly over a death bed trying to catch the last words of someone who is ready to cross over to the other side of that blurred glass. You feel that someone that close to death must have a key to the purpose of life.

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Perhaps that is because death and life really are not that much different.

The gist of Kalanithi’s story kept echoing in my soul several days after I put the book down. Kalanithi’s words, the fact that I slid down the mountain, the fact that I am close to adding another full year onto my life, and various other factors turned my mind to take a deeper look into my own life. One afternoon as I was patting one of my K1 students to sleep, a thought exploded in my brain.

If I live till fifty, I am over half finished with my life. If I live to 75, I am a third finished with my life.

I hated that thought and wished it away. It scared me. It made me panic.

You see, I’ve been living life in the same manner that I’ve been using crayons at work. In a classroom of 21 children, crayons are expendable. Once one of them becomes a little stub, it ends up in the trashcan without much thought and is easily replaced.

Life is not like that. But I’ve been living it like that. And suddenly with the realization that I’ve been alive for 27 years and at best have 60 more years left, comes the realization that I can’t afford to live life carelessly. I could die tomorrow. I could die in two weeks. I could die in 20 years. And the brutal fact remains– I’m not getting any younger.

My young students remind me of this daily. One day while playing “doctor” (I was the patient; they were the doctors) one of them discovered the white hairs in my head, exclaimed over them and made it her self-appointed duty to pick them out immediately. Just a few days ago, I leaned over a table, talking to a three year old, while raising my eyebrows. At the end of whatever I was saying, he didn’t respond, only wonderingly lifted his finger up and traced the wrinkles on my forehead. No, I’m not getting younger.

What does it mean to really, truly be alive in this world? This is the question that comes back to me over and over again.

There are lots of good quotes and words out there about what it means to really live, what a life well lived looks like. Cliché. Well meant. Good stuff.  But somehow I’ve reached a point in my life where I myself need to come to a conclusion about what it really means to live.

As I was trying to form a conclusion for this post, I only was able to come up with a hundred more, disjointed random questions and thoughts.

Like these:

Does truly living mean pouring yourself out trying to meet the needs and demands of the people around you until you are totally exhausted in the evening and lack the energy to even make your own supper?

Or is it the opposite, saying no to the needs around you so you can live your private life, follow the desires of your heart and stop and smell the roses and drink all the coffee you want?

I don’t think it means either of them. For the last few years, the former has been the story of my life. On some days I drag myself home at the end of the day, thinking, “Is this really what a fulfilling life looks like?”

But the fight within me continues. I have a hundred things that I would love to do before I die. I want to gallop across the Sahara desert on an Arabian horse with my hair down. I want explore Southeast Asia and visit the deserts of Mongolia and find my way into North Korea. I want to live in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. I want to write another book, a really really good one.  I want to read books. I want to live at home and appreciate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of my own culture. I want to live in a Karen or Akha village in the mountains of Thailand. I want to learn another language. I want to live in Tibet. I want to get married and have children of my own.

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Pu’er, China. Photo credit: Sarah Jantzi

But I only have one life. And it’s not my own.

Can I justify doing things to satisfy my own wanderlust and desires?

What do the words mean, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?” Am I not in tune enough with the Father’s heart to have my desires be his yet?

What does it mean to enjoy the gift of life that God has given us to the fullest, and yet being in tune to the needs of millions in this world who lack the privileges of money and freedom I have been given? Can I justify using my time and money in following my own desires while others are struggling to simply live?

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Kampong Speu, Cambodia. Photo Credit: Sarah Jantzi

What does it mean to be a Mary who serves?

Is it wrong to spend time reading literature just for the fact that it is well written, even if its spiritual benefit is low?

When is it right to spend money on your own comforts when it is something you could live without?

How do you decide where to pour out your life when there are so many things you love to do and would love to learn?

Paul was an apostle who poured out his life so others could hear the gospel. But did he ever stop on a mountain peak and drink in the glory of the natural world? Did he rejoice inwardly in the beauty of each culture he visited and delight in the different stripes and colors of each country?

This life is beautiful. The people and the world around me are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and gloried in. There are hundreds of amazing accomplishments of humanity that should be celebrated, not because of the human ability behind it, but because of the gift of talented brains and gifted hands that God has given us. There are hundreds of beautiful cultures and customs that express the image of God.

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Chintaluruh, India. Photo Credit: Diana Weiler

To sum it up, the question that remains is, “How do I live and taste this beautiful life to the fullest, without getting wrapped up in things that take away from the purpose God has given me?”

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.

Awe

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Doi Pui, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo credit Lori Hershberger

Dreams come

Spinning on the fingers of shafted light,

Caught on the echoes of a far off song,

Whispering in the stillness of a midnight watch,

Bursting in the glory of a rising sun,

Or….

Calling on the expanse of a thousand

mountain ridges rolling, rolling, rolling

rolling, until mist, horizon, and sky

meet as one.

 

Lord, here am I.

Send me.

Why Sightseeing Is Not Enough

The following are some ramblings from tonight. I seem unable to fully put into words what I really want to say, like usual. But I decided to go ahead and publish itself in its imcompleteness. Perhaps others will have another perspective. Also, this is not saying that foreign long term missions are the only way to go. What I’m trying to say is don’t be somewhere where you can’t be all there, and where you can’t stay and plug in your heart.

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Doi Tao, Chiang Mai. (photo credit JJ Burkholder)

I love traveling. Few things thrill me like standing in the huge Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and watching the swarms of people, all of them going places. I love the feel of the airport, the delightful mix of ethnicities- from the turbaned Arab of the UAE, to the excited, jabbering Chinese tourists, to the veiled Islamic Iranian women, to the purposeful, striding Americans to the gentle Thai bathroom cleaners.  The call of the unknown beckons. There’s the excitement of running to catch your plane, the interesting conversations with your seatmates like the man from Uzbekistan who is searching for truth or the Indian woman on her way home for the birth of her child. And sometimes you sit beside people who plug up their ears with earbuds as soon as they take a glance at you. Those are the times you look out your window and gaze in awe at the clouds below, glinting the rays of the afternoon sun, or at the sight of the gigantic blue earth so far, far away and so beautiful that you would never guess the sorrow and the pain that is rooted deeper than the roots of any tree.

Neither do I need to fly to get into the feeling of being a tourist. Chiang Mai has more tourists than a street dog has fleas. You can’t go into the inner city without stepping on them. They come from all over- Belgium, Germany, France, China, USA, Canada, Russia, and more. They walk the city with their hiking backpacks and long blonde hair and funny accents when they try to greet a native in Thai. And they’re always going somewhere. To the elephant camp. To the pottery shop. To the Hmong village. To the longneck Karen village. To Tiger Kingdom.

We are constantly on the go. We fill our passport with visa stamps and are a wee bit proud when we need to add extra visa pages in order to have enough to scratch the travel bug on our itching feet. (excuse my mixing metaphors). We go home with colorful stories of the people we met, or the food we ate, or the amazing pictures we took of the Akha child in her gorgeous tribal headdress, or the brilliant eyes of the Indian slum girl. We can even add in some stories that pull on heart strings and make others want to go view the same.  And we’re always talking about the next place we’ll be going to. We want to do all these things, as many as possible, before we die, like we won’t have any room for adventure after we die.

I’m not saying it’s bad. The travel bug hits me hard and plenty. Words like “wonderlust” and “beyond the horizon” used to resonate with me.

But now they sound so empty.

Empty.

People say travelers have rich experiences. And they do. But when we go and see and do and go home, we are denying ourselves some of the richest experiences of our lives. And that only comes when we go and see and do and stay.

We forget that the real treasure in everything we experience lies in the heart of God.

No matter how unique, or cool or amazing all those amazing sights are.

And one of the ways to knowing the heart of God as deeply as possible is to know and understand the human heart.

We forget that immersing into a new language and a new culture is one of the most beautiful experiences a human can have, as well as the most painful. Because if you learn to understand  someone’s culture and their language, you begin to understand their heart.

Suddenly they are no longer just a picture, or a story, or even a random person you met on the streets of Vietnam.

They become a part of your heart. From being just a picture of an Akha girl with a stunning headdress, she becomes a friend, a student, or a daughter.The Indian girl with the deep black eyes becomes real too- not simply a photograph or a story, a memoir from your travels.

Instead of traveling and  viewing  magnificent or notorious sights, and grinning to ourselves as we cross it off our bucket list, while planning our next trip, we actually experience what we see. By living in it. By becoming a part of it. By making this people and this land ours.

When that happens, sometimes some of the glossiness gets wiped off the pictures. When we actually get our hands dirty and realize the extent of the pain this world has to offer, we would rather move on, skimming from country to country, not carrying these people in our hearts anymore.

Two weeks ago, I took a short trip to a hill tribe village way back in the mountains. We spent a night and a day there, traveling roads that curved and climbed impossibly, playing with the children, watching in the New Year on the lookout. We slept outside under stars that were deeper and brighter and closer than any I’ve ever seen, punched out of a sky of velvet. We ate rice and spice like nothing else I’ve had. I even got a bite of rat.

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Karen children at Doi Tao, Chiang Mai (photo credit: JJ Burkholder)

 

But it wasn’t enough.We had a less than 24 hours actually staying in the village. I needed to talk with the most of the  villagers through the help of the children translating from my Thai to the Karen language. I had no idea what these people’s lives were like in the last 10 years before we met. I didn’t know their struggles, or their hopes, or their passions.  Sure, I got an experience, something to write home about and something to shock my mom with (the rat part.) But it wasn’t much more than a passing experience.

It all seems so useless if you don’t stop and stay and become.