Monday, July 13, 2015

An August Moon


Last night, as I rolled over to go to sleep, I glimpsed the moon, in burnt ember splendour, a slice of citrus glowing over the house. 

 This morning, she is cool again, waiting to bid me good day as the sun rises to trade horizons with her. She is back to her white and grey dappled self against the blue sky of day. She fades as my coffee steams in the crisp air and the dog snuffles through the glass, oblivious. 

The sentry heads on to her next post, to light the night on the other half of the world, twisting as she goes. I don't know how she prepares herself for the atrocities she sees in her travels. I ask her to light the paths of communities I've just returned from, to peek in the windows of the children I love and somehow whisper, "We are together" as my mid summer moon becomes their mid winter light.

 A harvest moon transforms to light the ski slopes and the desert plains alike in the southern hemisphere. 

If only she could write a love story in the sky, a message to those who see her from the frightening shadows of a crowded street market, closed to legitimate vendors but open for trading in the fresh faced youngsters huddled there. 

If only she could point directly on those who need light and that that glow would afford them a force field of protection from those who hide in darkness, seeking to harm the vulnerable. 

If only she could bring comfort to those who are bereaved and vulnerable, grieving and lost - to speak over them with love and reassurance that they are seen and not alone. 

But all she can do, is illuminate the world in a single night, lighting what corners she can, at the mercy of clouds and shadows and darkness below. And pull the tides back and forth, beating the shorelines around the world. And keep gravity in check. As if that were enough. 

~written in August 2014 upon return from Zambia. 

You Go East, We Go West

In typical VanBinsbergen fashion, and by this, I mean the four of us VanB's in our household...this week unfolded with time off for all of us and conflicting plans on how to use it. Easton, of all of us, was the only one with a solid schedule for this week and if you know Easton, the irony is there for the taking. As it unfolded over the week leading up to the time off, we decided, to remain consistent in our travel plans and split up over the week.

Easton had signed up to be part of a wilderness camp led by our good friend, Will Hoff. This entails a week of sleeping out in the bush, hiking and packing in your own supplies and basically living off the land and whatever candy your Mom stashed in your pack for the week.  For a kid who's summer itinerary (written down and posted on the fridge no less) included daily time for: relaxing, learning something new, being creative, being active...this camp includes a bit of each with an emphasis on learning something new because let's face it, the kid's not had a lot of exposure to the great outdoors. 

So, with time constraints on Jason and Aidan's jobs, Easton and I packed up the car Saturday night and headed west early Sunday morning to get him to the Alberta foothills by late afternoon. We had such a great road trip, which involved far more bathroom breaks than it would have if Jason had been driving, and musical selections that we went full throttle with dramatic actions and gestures, much to the amusement of any who we happened to pass on the road. We laughed a lot and if there's one thing I have to commend Easton on travel wise, it's that he's a great navigator and co-pilot, his steady stream of chatter both educational and entertaining. Most of what I know about Dr. Who and Marvel super villains comes from travelling with Easton. 

Jason and Aidan and of course, Charlie, headed east to spend a couple of days at the lake with the cousins. Aidan hasn't been feeling well and in contrast to our trip, Jason messaged me the following pic of his travelling buddy.

Even when he's sleeping, he looks pretty cool. Of course, how's that for good company?
At one point during our trip, Easton asked me what I thought Aidan and Dad were doing right now on their road trip. I said, "Listening to SHINEDOWN and dashboard drumming..." and Easton agreed. Little did they know how much more exciting our trip was? While yes, I agree that driving through the prairies is fairly equal for seven hours in each direction. The view is the same...canola, wheat and flax fields, grain elevators and train sidings, gas stations and small towns....but at the end of our seven hours, we had a lovely 45 mins along the Red Deer river, through pine forests and amongst the ranches of the foothills and it was lovely. Dropping Easton off, I'll admit, was harder for me than for him. I drove away trying not to blow him kisses as I watched him immediately engage in the game at hand going on in the adjacent field. I played it cool and gave him the Hunger Games salute, cause I'm hip like that. 

So, while Easton is at camp, I'm nicely settled into the Hoff loft and writing this effort to put some solid framework on a book that may never see the light of day, but begs to be written. 
I'm so thankful for the space I've been given to come and rest and create and people watch and more thankful for the friends who share it so easily.  Jason and Aidan's days will be more adventurous than mine, spent on the tube behind the boat and laughing with the cousins and coaxing the dog from the lake, and Easton's will be great as well...spent with new friends and one of his favourite people in the world... and mine will hopefully be...productive.  Most importantly, for each of us, I hope it is restful and relaxed, for we've all been in a season of hard work and challenges. If nothing else, it will give us all a lot to talk about and to catch up on when we gather again around the kitchen island in a week's time. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Start Here

I know it can be overwhelming to figure out how to engage in alleviating suffering and poverty in a world where there is so much going on, so many hardships and so much suffering. Again, I just ask that you pick a country, even our own, and read and learn and take notice of what is happening in front of us. It may be that children in core neighbourhoods are not getting proper nutritional support right down the road from our own homes, or it may be that grandmothers are forced to flee on foot from rebel forces threatening rape, destruction and death. Whatever it is that doesn't sit well with your soul, listen to that.

If you are just beginning to take notice and aren't sure where to's a list of the top ten countries who are facing undernourishment of their people and hunger on a consistent basis. Choose one and learn about it. Keep an ear out for the name of that country in the news and recognize the stories surrounding it. Take notice of the absence of news and advocate for that as well. If we can learn more as a first step towards action, we can make better informed and appropriate responses based on the knowledge.

Start here. Start now. Start with what you have.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Articulating Gratitude

This afternoon, I joined a small east African congregation here in Saskatoon for their Sunday service. Apart from the air conditioning and cushioned chairs, there was something very familiar about it that made me feel right at home.

There were three hymns books, two dialects of the Sudanese represented in the church, and one traditional English hymnal. There were about 12 of us plus kids and it was lovely to have little ones running around, dancing and making noise. I miss that in "big church" where we've separated kids from parents for the sake of "distraction". I mean, they're adorable and funny and well...distracting in the best way.

This morning, Pastor Simon welcomed me and asked me to stand up and share something with the group. I'm not sure why, but if this happened in my church, I'd be embarrassed, even slightly offended and super reluctant...but this morning, it was natural and easy and I just told them a little of who I am and why I was curious about their gatherings.

We sang together, songs that anyone could suggest, and from the three choices of hymnals. I was able to read one that was phonetically spelled in their language, and of course the English, but there was one where I was just happy to hum along and listen to the words roll of their tongues. It's amazing really to hear familiar songs sung in a different language. It makes you really think about the words and that's something we often gloss over when songs become familiar.

The loveliest thing about this church was this ~ they spent time praying for our country and our government and expressing their gratitude for the way our country had taken them in and afforded them a better life than most of their families are living. Sudan is a war torn country - it was when they left in 1994 and it is today...with minimal periods of peace and stability in between. The pastor, who has been here for 12 years, told me that he had lived in a refugee camp Ethiopia with his family for years, with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no opportunity to thrive until Canada opened its doors to him and his family.

It reminded me today, as the week of July1st for Canadians, and July 4th for Americans, has just passed, that freedom is something we take so for granted. I was humbled to hear the prayers for our country articulated by those who've only recently been granted citizenship, or indeed are still waiting.  I think those of us who have grown up here articulate more complaints than gratitude sometimes, which freedom affords us the right to do. I would just say that freedom is never without cost. And regardless of whether you're Canadian, American, English or French, the fact that we live in countries where we have the rights and freedoms we do means we have a responsibility to speak and act on behalf of those who do not.

I've challenged my friends and family and readers before....choose a country that's in the news. Learn what you can about their situation and struggles. Find someone from that country and take them for coffee or tea and listen to their story. Speak for those who have no voice. It really is the very least we can do.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Perogies, Paper Routes and Pop Cans, oh my!

We've been busy around our house this past week in preparation for the upcoming travels in our family. Lots of you have been part of that and we're always so excited to see people engage and support the work we're part of. Again, whether it's Easton out on his paper route or picking up recyclable cans and bottles, we're using as much of our time and energy to get ourselves to Zimbabwe this October. The cool thing is that we have been there and we are motivated by the thought of being in Sukubva and seeing our friends there so it hasn't been hard to keep up the energy for this!

Over the past few days, we've launched a pretty good fundraiser, selling perogies. I mean, who doesn't LOVE perogies?!? Ironically, Easton hates perogies and yet...they are becoming a means to support his travel to Zimbabwe.

For those of you who are new to this website and have come as a result of seeing our posts, we're so glad you're here. I know many of you have asked how we got involved in this work and expressed an interest in getting involved as well. So, feel free to look through the blog and if you have questions, just send them my way.

First of all, the most FAQ and comments about our work with Hands at Work:

How did you get involved in this kind of work?

In 2007, I was working in a local church in Saskatoon and one of our college students,  Kristal, was looking for an overseas position teaching, as she was just wrapping up her education degree but wanted to do something overseas before settling into a local teaching position. At the same time, there was a post from a person in our church asking for people interested in serving in Africa to contact her re: a position with an education program through Hands at Work. Together, Kristal and I checked out this opportunity and the organization and it was such a good fit for her. Through that relationship and her subsequent years working there, we decided to support a community in Zambia and later, in 2009, put together a team to travel there to serve. Originally, my husband was going to lead the team, as I was not interested in the discomfort of travelling to Africa (never mind my fear of flying/bugs/outhouses/bad food/being separated from my kids...etc. etc.) but the team was made up of women at that time so I ended up leading the team. We did have one brave man join us, poor Shane, and I am thankful he still ended up marrying well and overcoming the trauma 8 women put him through! The moment I stepped into Mulenga and stood at the care point, I was completely overwhelmed with the feeling of being EXACTLY where I was called to be in that moment in time. Since then, I've led several teams, served with our family for four months and even travelled alone to Zambia, with every trip I feel more and more connected to our community there and really, still constantly consider living there full time.

What DOES Hands at Work do?

In simplest terms, Hands has committed to mobilizing the church outside of Africa (that's all of us who are Christ followers) to partner with the church in Africa to care for the orphaned and the vulnerable children left in the wake of the AIDS pandemic. Originally, Hands was grown out of a response of George Snyman and his wife, Carolyn, to the AIDS pandemic. They started by going home to home in poor communities, caring for the sick and the dying and then realizing that there were orphans being left behind that were unable to care for themselves. As they invited friends and fellow church members to join their work, they began to see the calling that God had for their lives and they followed it. You can read their story and all about Hands at Work here. It's an inspiring read - how when people just follow what is on their hearts...amazing things transpire.

What do you do when you serve with Hands at Work?

As a team of volunteers that are only there for the short term, our main purpose is to encourage the care workers that are volunteering day in and day out in the work that they are doing.  We walk alongside them and hear and share their stories of the children they love and care for. We go on home visits and serve in whatever capacity we have, whether helping bathe a patient or doing the household laundry for children living on their own, or sweeping or providing a ride and company to the nearest clinic, wherever that may be. We join in the work that is already taking place day in and day out, as the local volunteer care workers do every single day. It is emotional, tiring, inspiring and humbling and it changes you from the inside out to know that we have so much to learn from those that are living out the most beautiful caring life, without fanfare or attention or accolades.

Do you take donations of clothing or school supplies or medical supplies?

We don't. We take ourselves. And to be honest, that was a struggle for me as it is for all who go and see the needs of communities there. But, the truth is, there is nothing we can buy or supply that will fill the needs of those who are so vulnerable and alone. Our best is to take ourselves, be wholly present and to speak up for those who have no voice when we return. It's not easy. Our tendency as North Americans is to "fix" and to "give things"'s challenging when all you have is yourself and it doesn't feel like enough. And yet, I've seen first hand how the simplest thing, such as sitting and listening to a grandmother share her fears for her the small grandchildren she cares for, can be so encouraging and incredibly powerful in the her life. When we share the stories of what we see and hear and those who tell them, even just in our own circles of friends and co is powerful. And for a grandmother, like the one I met in Amulew on my first visit alone to Zambia, when I return and tell her that people have heard her story and know her name and her grandson's name and pray for them? She told me that she knew that I would tell her story. And she told me that there had been times in the year that I had been gone where she had laid down to sleep, with tears in her eyes, exhausted, knowing that people were praying for her across the ocean and that had made all difference.

How does your family afford to have one of you go each year?

Well, the hard truth is that we can't afford it on our own. We scramble for fundraising, Jason and I both work two jobs to make ends meet but when it's a priority in our life, it becomes like the mortgage payment and the grocery bill. It's something that we just accept as part of our life and we prioritize it. We don't take family vacations...seems we're always travelling somewhere separately though! I do love when one of the boys can come with me like Aidan did last year or Easton is this year. We have old couches, older cars, and our shoes are far from fashionable. No Starbuck's barista knows us by name but the SarCan workers know us well and we're happy about that too. We work security at concerts, do bottle drives, plan events for advocacy and fundraising and honestly, somehow, some way...there is always the funding to go. I wrote a bit about that here (Going Together) and it's worth a read, if I do say so myself. It's not easy. I won't lie, it gets tiring but the thought of missing an opportunity to be with the ones we love in Zimbabwe and Zambia? Not worth giving up. And so, until there's a time where we can say that it's not worth the efforts...we keep on.

And then, the list of reasons why not to go that we constantly hear and face ourselves....

I don't do well in heat.
I don't do well with spiders, snakes, strangers, crowds, dirt, bugs, crocodiles...
I am afraid of flying.
I'm afraid of Africa, I hear it's dangerous.
I'm afraid of everything.
I can't leave my kids that long. My dog that long. My job that long.
I need flush toilets.
It's too far. Too expensive. Too tiring. Too sad.
I'll cry too much.
I'll want to bring all those kids home.
I'd be useless.
I get sick from strange foods.
I would but we're...renovating a kitchen, taking a long awaited cruise, buying a car....

And that's just my list of personal objections that I have had to deal with. And so this is what I tell others.

These objections and fears are legitimate (well, not all...and the dog will look just as fat and happy when you get home) but they are not the thing that should ever stand between you and that in-your-heart-can't-it-off-my-mind type of yearning to be stronger, better and more compassionate.

I chose years ago, on my first time to Zambia, to take the leap, overcome the objections and face the fear. And it was not simple. Or smooth. Or socially acceptable in some circles. But here's the truth...I would NOT change a thing unless it would be to have done it sooner in my life. I spent too long being afraid and introverted and internally focused, even when it looked like I was putting "family first" or had the right priorities. I know now, that as good as those things are and well intentioned, they were keeping me from the life I have now. The one that has my family closer than ever, focused on relationships over possessions,  and fearless (ha ha....for the most part) in the face of challenges and things that years ago would have derailed me with sadness and anxiety. I still deal with those challenges but my perspective has seriously shifted.

So, there are the basics...ask anything. Nothing is off the table in regards to our involvement with Hands at Work and the love we have for our family there.

In the meantime, we're in the midst of prepping to go again...selling perogies, throwing papers, working security and stopping at SarCan... we may never get to Universal Studios to see Hogwart's but we'll be dancing in Sukubva in October and that in itself is a thrill ride we're not going to miss out on.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Thank You

Thank you so much to all of you who have dropped me a note or encouragement or solidarity with the post Speaking of Pride. I know that not everyone agrees with me and that's ok. I had a taste of it back when I wrote a post a while ago about participating in the pride parade. I, like many, like to be right over wrong, smart over dumb. Now,  I am finding a way to be okay with disagreement and respectfully allowing people to share their opinions. It's all about discussion and learning and openness anyway, isn't it? I read something yesterday from Donald Miller's new book "Scary Close" and with great apologies to my friend, Jessi, who loaned me her copy, I read it while floating in my friend Margie's pool which she so generously offered me the use of while she is on holiday.  (Let's just pause a moment in gratitude for amazing friends!) It's a salt water pool, and it's a good thing, because I topped it up with some tears of my own yesterday.

In his book, which I prematurely and incorrectly said I didn't love as much as his others, Donald has a chapter that I'm not sure if I missed the first time through or if it just wasn't in the book I read the first time through (ahem). I may have been skimming but the chapter is called "The Risk of Being Careful" and wow, did it ever cause something to break free in me yesterday floating around the pool in 30+ degree heat. So, tears streaming, salt water to salt water, I read this list of freedoms that Donald wrote for himself in regards to his writing. It reads: 
I am willing to sound dumb. I am willing to be wrong. I am willing to be passionate about something that isn't perceived as cool. I am willing to express a theory. I am willing to admit I'm afraid. I'm willing to contradict something I've said before. I'm willing to have a knee-jerk reaction, even a wrong one. I'm willing to apologize. I'm willing to be perfectly human.
This is what I felt the other day writing the post on celebrating gay marriage. It felt like a risk. It felt like I was contradicting something I used to believe. Wow to Donald Miller for writing what over the last 24 hours has become a mantra, replaying itself over and over in my head like a soothing voice to my own anxious humanity. The truth is, it was freedom for me to express the truth of what I feel and what I sometimes hide knowing in some circles it's unpopular, antagonistic and downright blasphemy. Yet, the people who responded in kind are some of the people I respect most in this world from all walks of life and that in itself seemed to confirm that the feelings I have are shared and celebrated by many. I wanted to punch myself in the face a little, for how painfully slow I am to catch on to these things in myself. Why on earth would I write a blog anyway if not to speak the truth and my thoughts freely? I don't have to edit myself for safety or acceptance. No one should have to - not in marriage, not in love, not in life - especially not someone like me who has the freedom to speak and write freely simply because of where I was born. To not exercise that freedom is foolishness. I'm such a slow learner.

This list of freedoms, so apt, catapulted this latest book up to the level of his last one, A Million Miles in a Single Step, in which I found myself over and over again repeating, "I'm a tree in a story about a forest."  He really does come up with a few very pointed and defining sentences on a regular basis.

So, laying in Margie's pool, thankful for the friendship that has spanned the years since high school, the distance of separate provinces, separate countries and 8 kids between us...and let's remind everyone, I only have 2... I felt a reminder that if I'm worthy of her friendship amidst the obstacles, I can cut myself a little slack now and then and embrace my inadequacies just as my friends do. And truly, this week, through discussions and questions, comments and texted arguments en route to backyard bbq's, I understand a little more that it's ok to be dumb or wrong or passionate or afraid. And that being those things doesn't exclude you from the right to be loved and disagreed with simultaneously. I'm surrounded by people who love me and have at one time or another probably muttered, "Oh my gosh, she's dumb" or "Seriously, you believe that?" out loud...I'm thinking of you Jacqueline Nadon. I'm thankful for friends who think differently than me, who challenge me and who applaud me when I finally get it right, and laugh with (at) me when I don't. I wish that was a requirement for all who huddle in to likeminded circles and just affirm their collective much they miss out on.

So, Jessi, my dear friend, I loved the book so much that I'm buying you a brand new copy for your very own. And it has nothing to do with the fact that your copy is now dog eared, tear stained and perhaps spent a little time of its own, floating around the pool in Margie's backyard.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Speaking of Pride

This is the first time I've sat down to write a post where I feel the need to make a disclaimer.
You know that something is lodged in my throat if that's the case, but here goes.

When I write, I write MY beliefs. My own. Not that of my employer (a church) or the organizations I represent or even my own husband or kids. I speak my own thoughts and no one else's. So, if you take issue, take issue with me. And this part is for my American friends... May cause your head to explode, your heart to expand, your blood pressure to rise...please only read on under the advisement of your own physician. My name is Shelly VanBinsbergen and I approve this message. 

So, we are. And here's the most inflammatory thing I'll probably ever say in my lifetime.


And it is not always easy to say this, particularly for a citizen of a country that is often referred to as "America's Hat" but I am inordinately proud of the Supreme Court decision today to recognize the legal union of gay couples.

And while I have already had numerous reactions to my post of the same flavour on my Facebook, I will say it here and be clear. I am a whole hearted supporter of gay marriage as a civil rights issue. I feel strongly that when two people commit to each other to be a couple, regardless of gender, that they should be afforded the same rights as other couples when it comes to speaking on behalf of their loved one in emergency and health situations, that they can be confident that they are able to remain the parent of their child even if their partner passes away and they are not biologically related. I think that even if I'm wrong about what little the Bible says about homosexuality, that the amount it speaks to about love and caring for one another and showing mercy and giving up our rights for those of others? Those are enough to convince me that love should win. Every time. Regardless. A mother's love for a child. A brother's love for his girlfriend. Or a father's love for his boyfriend. Love is love is love. And I know, some of you take issue only with the idea of this union being called marriage, because we somehow want the corner on that market? And for those of you who rattle off the indignant remarks about marriage and sanctity and biblical mandates, etc. are we doing folks? How ARE we doing in a world where the divorce rate is equal or greater in marriages that claim to be Christian?  Let's reflect on that. But, I'm not saying we should throw up our hands and give up on biblical marriage. It's just that it's not for the faint of heart and neither do we have the corner on love and marriage as Christians. Muslims marry. Agnostics marry. Hindus marry. C'mon. How many hills are you going to die on for this one?

Here's what struck me about this particular post today. I post numerous stories a week on the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable. I constantly speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I am NOT pointing fingers or divulging names when I say this, but not one person who  questioned my stance as a Christian today, has ever asked me a single thing about how to help those who have nothing, those who are hurting, those who are living under the threat of death daily. God speaks far more about the poor and the orphaned and the widow, and how we are to care for our neighbours, than he does about our sexuality and our stance on government endorsed unions. I'm not saying that those people don't do their share for the poor, I'm just finding it an interesting observation that this is the only issue they've ever chosen to dialogue with me about. But, not mistake this...I invite the dialogue. I do. You're just going to have to be comfortable with a lot of "I don't know's" and "I'm not sure but I feel like this..."

So, I know I'm on thin ice, if not already floating out to sea on a melting iceberg of theology, but pick your battles people. Side with love, whatever that looks like. Astonishingly, it will find a way. Perfect love. Once we achieve that, then I think maybe then we can speak into what it looks like in others' lives.

Perfect love is this:

It never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut.
Doesn't have a swelled head.
Doesn't force itself on others.
Isn't always "me first"
Doesn't fly off the handle.
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others.
Doesn't revel when others grovel.
Takes pleasure in the flowering of the truth.
Puts up with anything.
Trusts God always.
Always looks for the best.
Never looks back.
But keeps going to the end.

I'm not there yet. So, I'm not going to speak into how others should define their love.
I'm always going to fight for equality and civil rights, even when it doesn't agree with me.
I'm going to risk for it. And above all, I'm going to trust God in it.

If there's one thing about perfect love that I do know, it's that only He exhibits it. So, I'll leave it in His hands. In the meantime, I'm going to celebrate on behalf of some of the most loving people I know. This, in all its imperfect theology, is for you, my gay and transgendered friends, who don't demand perfection from me.  I love you each and am better for having you in my life.