Mt. Kinabalu

Mt. Kinabalu

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Birthday Blog: On Turning 23

On an island in Pitas, Sabah celebrating friendships and time together before I leave Malaysia
(photo credit: teacher Nelson)

I know it’s been awhile since I have posted but I figured a birthday is as good a reason as ever to do some reflection. 

I have never liked the idea of growing up and this year is no different.  Turning 23 does not have quite the same ring to it as 22 (I mean there’s no Taylor Swift song for it yet…so it can’t be cool).  My students were asking my age today and I was stumbling all over it.  There’s just something nice sounding about dua puluh dua…..dua puluh tiga?  What is that?  I proceeded to tell my students I feel old and they rebuked with “Kamu masih mudah Teacher!”  (You’re still young Teacher!)  and in all kinds of ways I am.  However, I experienced so much growth this past year!  There are times when I even surprise myself with mature ideas or reactions.  Perhaps this is part of being a twenty something...still being quite young and immature while simultaneously experiencing exponential growth.  I read one of those blogs posted about a thirty something writing a letter to her twenty year old self and one part in particular stuck out to me.  I can’t quote it directly anymore but the idea was that as a twenty something we should be embracing the unknown.  Let me tell you a little something about the unknown.  It’s starting to scare me a little less.

A year ago today I was sitting in a small café in Assissi, Italy celebrating with friends and knowing I was headed to Malaysia in just a few months.  I had a location for the next year of my life but no idea what that would mean.  At that point I probably would have still had a hard time locating Malaysia on a map honestly.  This year I spent the day with friends and students in Malaysia and I have no idea where I’m going next.  There is just this big wall of misty gray ambiguity in my future staring back at me the same way a blank canvas just stares at me when I begin a painting.  Its daunting pale white skin dares me to make a wrong move and expects insurmountable perfection from its creator.  What’s the only way to overcome this fearsome obstacle?  Put some paint on that canvas.  When I finally make that ugly first mark and the serenity of white perfection is broken, suddenly I feel like it must get better from there and can continue working.

About a week ago I interviewed for what I thought was my dream job and could not believe the possibility of getting it in my first year teaching in the states.  Last night I found out I did not get the job.  It was disappointing and a little heartbreaking but it did not crush me the way disappointing things might have in the past.  I think this year has had enough unknowns and even disappointments that somewhere in the misty gray ambiguity of unknowing I stumbled upon deeper meanings of my values and a much deeper faith.  You could say there wasn’t a lot of constant in my life this year with moving to a new country, having three country coordinators, hearing we would be the last country group here for a while, having our program end early, and traveling all over in between.  However, I have realized along the way that even in the mist I have been walking alongside an incredible international support system including family, friends, all kinds of people who are part of the YAGM or global ELCA family, and sometimes even strangers.

With the help of this support system I have seemingly stumbled out on the other side of the mist and am looking at the beautiful creation that was this past year.  It wasn't all rainbows and sunshine nor was it all difficult and challenging.  However, somewhere in the great deal of both sadness and happiness great beauty was made.  I have found a place of "knowing" here and I am about to be leaving it.  Now that’s scary.  All of that hard work stumbling around in the gray and now I have to leave the safety of this little piece of knowing?  At this point I really cannot think about it too hard.  However, it is comforting knowing that amidst the gray unknown ahead there is something beautiful inside and a little piece of knowing waiting for me on the other side.  I could have never imagined all the beauty in store for me sitting in that café in Asssisi last year.  So I cannot imagine that sitting here in Malaysia I will ever be able to conceive the beauty awaiting me in this next year.  Only time and a lot more stumbling around in the unknown will tell. 

Those ugly first marks on next year's canvas were made probably before I even realized I had made them.  It’s time to start throwing color at this messy beautiful yet to be created future that is mine.  I wonder where I will be sitting this time next year when I turn 24.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Important News

This news has been coming down the line for awhile but I finally feel confident sharing publicly.  With a heavy heart I announce to my blog audience that YAGM Malaysia's program will be ending early this year.  Over the course of our YAGM year the visa situation has changed much more rapidly than we could have prepared for and after our Hong Kong retreat several YAGMs had issues returning to Malaysia.  Please know our safety has never been at risk and the decision to end the program early was made with our best interest at heart.  Our final day in country will be May 12th, after which we will hold our closing retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  While it breaks my heart to be leaving Malaysia early, I have been given the incredible opportunity to serve one more month in Medan, Indonesia.  I will likely be teaching English again and am excited for the opportunity to learn and serve in Southeast Asia a while longer.  After some time traveling along my way home, I will return to the United States on July 16th. 

While this decision certainly comes with a lot of heartbreak, it does not take away from the joy and blessings of this year in my life.  My infinitely wise mother in response to my panicked tears of grief asked me, "How much time is ever enough?"  It is a question I have spent considerable time thinking about and has given me immense comfort in this difficult time.  This journey is ending faster than I had planned but that doesn't mean it wasn't everything it was meant to be.  Perhaps as I have felt time being ripped from my grasp I have learned to treasure daily moments more deeply.  Time is a funny thing, and as William Blake's, "Auguries of Innocence" describes, sometimes an eternity can fit into an hour.  As I continue to discover what this year means for my story I am excited to see how the eternities I have lived here and the eternities awaiting me at home will create new ideas and opportunities. 

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
-William Blake 

Please send prayers as we enjoy our final time in our communities and say our goodbyes to a place that has been home and people who have been family for the past year.

Please see the letter below from our program director for a more descriptive explanation of this difficult decision.  It is very much worth reading.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Celebrating International Day of Happiness with a video.  These images were taken with minimal prompting from my students and is pretty true to what a casual walk around Grace Center is like.  For a higher resolution video please visit:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

2013 comes to a close and the year of the golden horse begins!

SELAMAT TAHUN BARU! (Happy New Year!  I still can say this because we are just starting to celebrate Chinese New Year here)

I know I have not posted much over the holiday season.  This is mostly due to the fact that Malaysia's largest school holiday is from mid-november until January 2!  That's about a month and a half I spent out of my regular routine and not so much around spaces with great wifi.  So how do I go about summarizing a month and a half of life full of new experiences?  I don't think I can.  New friendships were made, new experiences were had, I went jalan-jalan (traveling around), and continued living my life here in Malaysia.  However I would like to share some of my favorite stories and some of the observations I have been making recently.

Some of my favorite times over the holidays were spent caroling with my friends in their kampung (village) or in Kota Kinabalu with BCCM KK  (E).  In the kampung this familiar tradition sounded a little different with some new songs, most of which were in Bahasa Malaysia or in Dusun but it was truly lovely walking from house to house under palm trees and starry skies.  As we crossed over grassy paths by candlelight my friends and I enjoyed simple conversation.  They taught me the Bahasa Malaysia word for star was "bintang" and I cannot remember what it's name is in Murut but I learned it that night.  It still amazes me the way people here can so gracefully make use of several different languages at any given moment.  True to Malaysia's passion for food, we were given treats along the way and at the last house we enjoyed a feast.

The Kampung Lapasan Caroling Team

Over Christmas I spent precious time visiting my friend Lilian.  As much as Grace Center is a wonderful home for me in Malaysia, it was really great to be able to go "home for the holidays" with someone.  I spent time taking rehat (rest), eating my friend's fabulous cooking, and playing with her many animals (including the cutest puppies!).  Lilian took me with her to family celebrations, which meant great company, fun games, and more delicious food.  Teacher Ebeth's sister was getting married while I was in town so I got to help prepare for the day and attend the event too!  I was not a whole lot of help because I sliced my finger open pretty good cutting onions.  However, I did get to learn how to play a few of the traditional wedding gongs (more about that in a future post.)  Of course over the holiday time I missed my family (We did get to skype on Christmas though!  And my family did an awesome flat Delia project which let me know just how present I still was at home despite the distance).  However the second best to being with my own family was being able to spend it with such a good friend's family.

Family Christmas Photo- Skype was truly a Christmas miracle this year

School began again in early January and I was overjoyed to see my students again and begin classes.  It was also rejuvenating to be able to start at the beginning of the semester instead of jumping in somewhere in the middle of the end of one.  Recently the teachers took a retreat up to the mountains where we had important professional development and prayer time.  Discussions about upcoming changes at Grace Center left me feeling challenged in knowing my role because truthfully I will only be here six more months.  My greatest hope is that while I am still here I can have a positive presence and help ease transitions as big changes come our way.  We also had a YAGM retreat with Rev. Heidi Torgerson-Martinez (Program Director of YAGM) and Franklin Ishida (Area Program Director for Asia and the Pacific for the ELCA) in KK.  While it was energizing time for the YAGM Malaysia team to be reunited there was also a lot of processing with the many transitions our program has faced this year.  We stayed in a hotel tucked away in the midst of a bridal shop, ate steamboat, and had lots of meaningful conversation together.

Grace Center Teachers enjoying morning tea in front of Mt. Kinabalu

Up and coming is a visit from my parents...they are literally on a plane as I write this!  I am so thrilled for them to meet my Grace Center family and at least get a glimpse into my life here.  Right after that YAGM Malaysia will be headed to Hong Kong so you can expect more pictures, stories, and blogs coming your way!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

First YAGM Retreat to Singapore

YAGM Malaysia had our first retreat mid-November to Singapore.  Before taking off we spent some time together in KK with our former country coordinator, Peter Harrits, who has accepted a position with St. Paul Area Synod to coordinate relationships with churches in East Africa.  We will miss him a lot but are excited to see how his gifts are used in new ways.  As it was the last time we would all be on the same side of the country with Peter we did some celebrating and had an island day!  It was nice to enjoy eachother’s company in the presence of the grand South China Sea where we spotted lots of nemo fish!   

Later on we made tacos and no bake cookies (the recipe my mom sent me has been a hit!).  We also gave Peter his going away present which was certainly a small miracle.  Weeks earlier Sarah and I had stumbled upon some minion fabric (It has been a running joke that we are Peter’s minions and he is Papa minion) and decided to have a shirt made.  Buying the material was one thing and finding a tailor was another.  When it finally happened I stumbled through ordering it in Malay and when they asked us what size I looked the tailor up and down and told him Peter was about his size.  Luckily enough, he was and the shirt was a hit.  Let’s be real, how many people can pull off this print?

We began the next morning sharing readings and discussing what we have learned about Singapore, Malaysia, and their relationship.  

Julia and I used big paper to create some visuals :)

 The next day we had a tearful farewell and were off to Singapore with Reverend Wendolyn Trozzo of the ELCA.  Aside from being the cleanest most organized city I’ve ever set foot in, the country has an interesting and complex history strongly connected to the history of Malaysia (it used to be part of Malaysia!).  During our time in Singapore we were welcomed with open arms by the Lutheran Church of Singapore, its Bishop Terry Kee, and former YAGMs the Dalagers.  In this time of transition, it was particularly comforting to be assured we are in so many good hands.  The fact that even people we have not met yet and may be in other countries have our backs is pretty incredible.  It’s quite the blessing to be part of such a caring church family worldwide. 

Here’s an overview of our Singapore retreat in photos :)

Spending time with YAGM alums Jacob and Hannah Dalager and eating fabulous burgers (something we don't get very often anymore)!

A live seafood lunch with Bishop Kee!  (Literally you could see them catch your food before you ate it!)  With dishes including bamboo clams, eel, ribs with a coffee glaze, and Singapore’s famous chilli crab.  All of it was fabulously delicious!

Bishop Kee (right) and Pastor Nick (left)

Chilli Crab

We got into the holiday spirit on Orchard Road, an incredibly long road full of malls and shopping, as it was already decorated with lights and Christmas displays.

We visited the Harmony Centre, an incredible place, which works towards peaceful interreligious dialogue and education. 

A trip to the National Museum of Singapore and its current art exhibit was of particular interest to me.  The exhibit explored the countries search for identity, both artistically and culturally.  Loving the art connections!

LOVE this quote.  I was in total art nerd mode the entire exhibit.

We had a Turkish dinner with the Dalagers!  Fabulously delish and with a great view of the mosque.


Our free day included a trip to the zoo, Singapore’s is one of the best in the world.  Sarah and I went on a trial run of the River Safari, the only zoo experience of its kind in the world, which was not open to the public yet.  We also got to check out the PANDAS! 

Cutest animal in the world.

Panda Capuccino!

One of our final Singapore experiences included eating at Makansuttra, famous for its superb street food, and heading up to the skypark to see Marina Sands Bay from the rooftops.  We had breathtaking views to end our refreshing and renewing adventures together as a YAGM team.   

Monday, November 4, 2013

Want to see through the eyes of a child? Hand them your camera.

Matthew 18:1-5: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  He called a child whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

I have never wanted to grow up.  You can ask my parents.  For some reason as a child I was always very content with my age and really didn’t want to be “grown up.”  In fact one of my more selfish reasons for becoming a teacher is so that I don’t have to grow up.  I can go back to elementary school every year for the rest of my life.  While that comes with a great deal of responsibility, it also comes with the freedom to be a child with my students every day.  This does not mean literally becoming childish and acting goofy all day long because we always have serious learning to do.  However, it does mean using silly voices to tell a story, making up handshakes, and laughing together because there is learning to be done in those things too.  It does mean embracing the silly moments because life isn’t all about school.  Children are almost always my greatest inspiration.  They inspire me with the way they have an ability to care about others with eyes not yet shaded by the judgments of the world, the way they are still determined to be “whatever they want to be” when they grow up, and the way they love while wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  They are some of my greatest teachers in life and I hope to be forever inspired by the lives and insights of children. 

Last week at Grace Center we had a “sports day” to take a break from the stress of the upcoming exams.  While there were many activities going on, I had no “official” responsibilities for the day. I grabbed my camera and what I anticipated as being a day of hanging out and being an event photographer sort of a deal turned into photography mini-lessons for my students.  As I was taking photos and showing the students the shots I had taken (they love checking out photos of themselves…who doesn’t?) I saw awe in their eyes of my big black massive camera.  I decided this was a learning opportunity.  I told them “hati-hati” (be careful in Bahasa Malaysia), placed the safety strap around their necks, switched my settings to auto, and showed them how to hold down the button.  I expected them to want to go take pictures of flowers or find some bugs, or take photos of the sports and games going on all around.  However, they took photos of what they care about most, their friends.  The results were beautiful.  I could not have taken better photos myself.  It gave me the chance to let them be “in charge” and with their new feelings of responsibility they were suddenly teaching me all sorts of new words and games.  I now have a student who gives me a quiz everyday.  She says, "teacher, tell me," and pulls on my shirt.  I respond with "saya baju hijau terang," (my shirt is bright green) and she gives a nodding approval.  The day was a great opportunity for me to be a “child” with my students.   This year my students are teaching me a lot about love and other things.  I’m sure there will be many more stories.  However for today, I leave you with what I have learned so far.  If you want to learn from a child, let yourself be one.  If you want to see through the eyes of a child, hand them your camera.  You might just see what love looks like. 

Below is a slideshow of a mere sampling of the photos from sports day.  Some of them are my photos and many of them were taken by my students.  You’ll never know the difference.  It will give you a glimpse of how awesome sports day was.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Teaching to Love

Hundreds of events, tragedies and blessings alike change our lives in the blink of an eye every single day.  Sometimes they go unnoticed until their result produces something of significance to our egocentric lives.  It is unfathomable to imagine how the events of the world in one single day impact every individual person.  However some events create change catastrophic enough to awake our human attention and sometimes those changes are really difficult.  Sometimes its inevitable and sometimes this change is chosen.

After hearing about YAGM from a friend at lunch I chose to apply.  After getting an invitation to the DIP event (where we interview) I chose to attend.  After receiving a call to go to Malaysia I chose to accept.   So many of my own decisions got me here.  I kept saying yes because I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be pushed, and I wanted to be uncomfortable and yet, there are moments every day when this is still really hard.  Some of these moments are more difficult to cope with than others but the truth is, as beautiful as this experience is, it is not easy. 

I once had a professor who asked our class a simple question, "who likes change?"  Aside from her own hand mine was the only one that went up.  I don't remember why I raised my hand or why I thought I like change.  However, most of my life I haven't really minded change.  Often times I was able to see change as a gain, of course the times when change meant losing loved ones, friendships, or communities being the exceptions, but for the most part I welcomed and enjoyed change. In my YAGM experience so far the simultaneous relationship between gain and change has resulted in quite the emotional roller coaster.  I am gaining so much.  Everyday I am building relationships with my students, friendships with my co-workers, and am getting a lot better at adjusting.  I am learning about this culture and am learning about myself with every challenge.  However, I also feel some incredible loss.  Like the simple loss of knowing how to shop in the grocery store for things I know how to make, the difficult physical loss of my support system, and the greatest loss of knowing how to walk into a classroom and teach well.  I have had to let go of the certainty of knowing how to do daily things like grocery shop, ride the bus, and knowing directions home.  Learning how to rely on the help and grace of others in that has been very hard.  I have always been independent and while I love to give it, I am not always good at accepting help.  I have had to let go of the certainty that one of my close friends or family will happen to be on facebook in the middle of the night when I need them.  Learning how to put that trust in new places is something I am still trying to figure out.  I have had to let go of the certainty that I know what I am doing in a classroom.  I am learning to focus on remembering why I teach everyday instead of how to teach.  In remembering I teach to love, I have found more direction and clarity than any ESL resource or website.  When I remember I teach to love, a different classroom atmosphere than I am used to suddenly doesn't seem so scary.  When I remember I teach to love, suddenly despite the language barrier my students and I always have a way to communicate.  When I remember I teach to love, suddenly all things seem possible. 

Having faith is how I am learning to deal with change.   Dealing with change is like learning to float.  If you are tense in the slightest you will sink.  It's when you learn to relax and have faith that either you will indeed float or your teacher will catch you if you don't, that suddenly the water effortlessly lifts your body and you are floating.  It is an incredible freedom. 

I read a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber about how the mustard seed parable isn't necessarily about Jesus asking his disciples to increase their faith but rather affirming they already have the faith they need.  The sermon also discussed the idea that just because you are struggling doesn't mean you lack faith.  It mentioned the idea of lamentation and offered that, "being the people of God has always meant a whole lot of both praise and lament."  These messages could not have come at a better time for me.  It's not that I want permission to whine, I just want to be able to say this is really hard and not feel less faithful or less adequate.  In fact, I perhaps feel more faith in my lamentation because it's like saying, "I hate how hard this is but I believe all things are possible through you and your people."  It may be harder to have faith in times of loss and in times of change but it strengthens my faith every single day.  The coexistence of praise and lamentation seems to permeate every corner of my life as I feel how equally difficult and amazing this journey can be.    

Adjustment also feels like a strange line to walk because this is someone else's life which is not necessarily difficult for them in the same ways it is for me.  So why is it hard for me?  However, last week one of my teacher friends asked what my favorite food was and told me we would go to the market to buy ingredients and make it.  She explained that she knows the food adjustment must be hard because if she went to my country she would probably have a hard time too.  It was so beautiful for someone to recognize my struggle with such perspective.  I am absolutely humbled and amazed by God's people every day.  I have often felt in service the people I serve do more for me than I could ever do for them, but holy cow this year feels more like I am straight up getting served than able to serve anyone else.  I am clinging to the belief that watching CSI or the Voice with friends and laughing together, or helping decide what to do with little girl's hair for the Grace Center Festival (which is tomorrow!!! blog post with pictures to come), or high fiving as many hands as I can while walking through school is love and is therefore enough.  While I want to be better at teaching English in a foreign country,  I am quickly realizing it's just really not the most important reason I'm here.  I would say it's more likely I am here to love and be loved.  I would even venture to say there are even more reasons still awaiting my discovery.  Time will tell.  Day by day.  For now change will keep happening and I will praise and lament as my faith grows ever deeper.

 In the midst of preparation for Grace Center Festival keeping us all very busy, my class called "Love" had some fun drawing "raksasa" (monsters) and described them using adjectives!