I recently had someone completely misinterpret what I had written in one of my posts. At first I was upset, wondering how she could have thought I meant or implied something that I hadn't. But after thinking about her background and some of the hard times she has experienced in her life, I realized how she could have thought I meant something completely different than what was written. All by simply reading what was between the lines through the lens of her own experiences.

What do you see? Old woman or young girl?

It reminded me of how, while working as a social worker, we were encouraged to listen to clients' stories and gather their personal histories with the underlying willingness to start where the person was at. Meaning: What someone believes to be their reality, is their reality, whether it’s true or not. They will operate their daily lives from that vantage point. As social workers, we were told to start where the person saw themselves and their situation and move from there.

What we believe about ourselves, others, and the world around us is powerful. And it will dictate our thoughts, behaviors, and even our feelings.

I was reminded of this again this morning while reading my Bible. And I was challenged by the question: What do I really believe about God?

Li Mei and some of the Ni Hao VBS students.
This week we are highlighting Li Mei Danzeisen. 

Li Mei works at the College of St. Benedict as a instructor of the Chinese language and culture. When approached this spring by about helping lead a Chinese/English Vacation Bible School experience for children ages 5-11, she jumped at the chance to share her culture and language with others. 

Over the past several weeks, we've been highlighting some of the amazing things people are doing for others over the summer months: missions trips, initiatives within their communities, hikes and runs that raise money to support charities.

And all of those things are wonderful. And yet, they cause me to wonder - what am I doing? I'm not going on a missions trip. I'm not running across the state. And my neighbors - although we truly appreciate them - are not always uppermost in my mind. 

On Friday night, we had a group of church folks over to our house for the DVD series, "Love & Respect." And as we talked about what we'd like to do to give back or help others in the community as a group, one gentleman matter-of-factly mentioned how low food shelves' supplies can get in the summer. And I thought -- oh, yes. Of course.

You see, it's easy to think about giving during a season of giving. This past winter, Kendra, Julie and I committed to Advent Acts of Kindness in the weeks leading up to Christmas, each day consciously choosing to help someone else.

But it's easy to forget about Christmas in July. 

I’ve been in Panama only a few days and already I am aware of the blatant differences between here and my home in America. Being in a place where you are the minority, don't speak the language, view the landscape as unfamiliar, and worry that your ability to sense what is safe or appropriate is not always accurate is challenging. It makes you feel vulnerable and rely on others around you to help you navigate your surroundings.

It is also exhilarating to experience something new and different. The food is different, the smells, the shops, the people. All allowing for experiences I would never have tucked safely in my home. It stretches me, and that’s okay. So here are some reasons why I’m realizing everyone should go on a missions trip.

  • It pushes you outside of your comfort zone. By coming to an unfamiliar place, I have to step out of what is comfortable. I engage in activities I may never have done before, I meet people I do not know and I see things I never have. It disrupts the norm of what I know, opens my eyes to new things, and affords me the opportunity to see things differently.

  • It makes you realize how good we have it in the United States. When you come to a place that has no social programs to protect the country’s children, no programs to offer assistance to women and children who need it, no protection from abuse or neglect, you realize that no matter how flawed you believe our systems may be, at least we have something in place to help people. We have assistance programs that can help people find food and shelter, however limited those resources may be. And for most of us reading this, you realize that just by having a roof over our heads, a little money coming in (however small it may seem), and food on our table means that we are BLESSED far beyond many others around the world.

  • It motivates you to offer compassion and friendship to people back home who may be foreigners or immigrants. As I sat in a Panamanian cafĂ© this morning, unable to communicate beyond pointing and hand gestures, I realized how many foreigners and immigrants live close by to me. And I wonder if I’ve been kind to them. A friendly face. Or I wonder if I have just ignored them, going about my business in a place familiar to me. Being here has challenged me to reach out to those around me who may feel uncomfortable or unsure of their new home.

  • It affords us with opportunities to experience new things. Some good. Some bad. We’ve gone to school assemblies that give us the opportunity to interact with students in a very different way than we would in America. We’ve helped gather supplies, sort things, and serve meals. We’ve interacted with locals at shops, cafes, and hotels. We’ve helped set up and run a girls conference. All things we have never done in the States. Kyle and I have found some amazing new things to eat. I’ve had some of the best food of my life in Panama…except maybe plantains. 

  • It makes you realize how different and yet how similar we as people really are. For as many of the differences you realize there are when you arrive, and for as much as you can read about or watch television that shows the variety between people groups -- when you come to this place and interact with people face to face, you realize we’re really not all that different. Everyone experiences fear and joy, pain and happiness. And when you start to engage someone, even when they do not speak the same language, there is a connection that we make. We acknowledge who they are. And they acknowledge us. And when that happens, you realize that differences are nothing to fear; in fact, they can be embraced. Because our differences speak to our amazing ability as human beings to live uniquely, thousands of miles from one another, and yet share similar experiences. Challenges. Hopes. Dreams.

What some only see through a screen or read on paper you experience in real time. In real life. The sights, the sounds, the people become a part of your very experience. And your world expands. Your compassion and perspective enlarge. You realize that God is not just your God, or the God of America. But he is the Creator of all of this. Across the world. Far beyond what you know or could ever experience in just one lifetime. He is here. As he is at home. And it is awesome to behold.

This week we are highlighting Kirsten Wagenius and her family as they are intentionally being better neighbors this summer. 
Kirsten Wagenius

What are you doing? 
"This summer I'm becoming a better neighbor. After almost nine years in the family house, on our block, in this neighborhood I am finally realizing that being a good neighbor starts here, right where I'm standing. I am now about ten months in to an experiment to renew a sense of neighborliness on this block."
This week we're interviewing Eric Aspling who decided to combine his love of bikes and service to others this summer by organizing and leading a community group through Living Way Church, repairing bikes for residents of Place of Hope, a local homeless shelter in St. Cloud MN.

What are you doing?
Eric and one of his boys working on a bike at Place of Hope.

I’m doing tune-ups at Place of Hope to help people with limited income who may not be able to go to a bike shop to get their bikes fixed. For a lot of them it is their transportation, they don’t have cars they have a bike. When you can’t go to a bike shop and drop $30-$50 on a tune-up your bike tends to not run that well. So I’m helping them to run better, and stop safely. If they need a new part I am able to salvage parts from other donated bikes, or if I need to I can rig up a temporary fix. The same goes for tires, if they are so far worn that you can see the cords we’ll find replacement ones whether new or gently used.

How did your involvement come about? How did you come up with the idea?

I just really love bikes. I love riding them and I love working on them too. I’ve worked as a mechanic at a bike shop and at a rental company in the past. Every summer I do tune ups for friends and relatives. I figure that it’s something I love to do, and I’m good at it, so why not do it to help people out.

Our church does service projects and this past Easter we served dinner at Place of Hope. I saw the bike racks out front full of bikes with flat tires, backwards handle bars, bent parts and rusted chains and the idea to work on them just popped into my head. I thought why not just cruise over here and do what I can to maybe get someone get around town easier.

How can others help/get involved?

Just show up, it’s really not that difficult to work on a bike. There’s no set skill that you need. Plus it’s kind of fun to talk to these people and just kind of hang out. It’s not as complicated as you’d think to change a tire or just pump up tires. It can look intimidating, but when you have someone there that knows what they’re doing it’s pretty easy to pick up. We have another couple of work days this summer; July 14th and August 25th both at noon.

People can also donate tubes of all sizes, specifically 16”, 20”, 24”, 26” and 700c. Place of Hope takes donated bikes, but I would say only donate a bike you would ride yourself, not something that is rusted or missing spokes. Those would take more time to get running than they are worth.

If you would like more information on how to join Eric's group, click here.