Jul 22, 2014

A Lesson in Grace

Grace is one of the words we like to throw around.  We feel like we understand what it means.  We say "but for the grace of God" and so on.  We say grace before meals.  We believe we are the beneficiaries of God's grace, and indeed we are.  Every day we experience grace extended to us, but more often than not we are insensible to it.

To actually feel what it is to be a recipient of grace is a truly humbling and beautiful experience.

To experience grace is to receive something that you did not earn.

To experience grace is to receive something that is a gift of great value but that is not your due.

To experience grace is to receive something that is so valuable  that you cannot possibly match it in kind with your own resources.  Any thank you that you can devise will be paltry in comparison to the magnitude of the gift you have received.

And so thankfully, to experience grace is to be given a gift with no strings attached, with no expectation of repayment.  All that is expected is that you will be grateful, that you will enjoy the gift, make good use of it, and when possible share the gift with others.

I, like all of us, have received grace from God.  But, it is in receiving grace from others, that I have come to better understand the grace God has shown me.

To the forty-three people that found they had the resources to extend a gift of grace to my family and me this past spring, I can only say a heartfelt thank you.

We had our "Columbus Support Team" over for lunch on Sabbath, May 10, 2014.  I think it was  late afternoon of Thursday, April  18 when we were relaxing at the Mandi  Asian Spa on the north end of Saipan that Babs and I started talking about this special group of hometown supporters:  Albert & Anastasia Bailey, Benin & Renee Lee, Marc & Lisa Lavalas, Ruth-Ann Thompson, and Pat Fountain (not pictured, unfortunately she couldn't make it to the meal).  As we looked out at the Philippine Sea from our perch in the Mandi's infinity pool we concluded that this group would really love visiting Saipan, and we decided if we ever, someday, somehow had the funds to do it, we'd surprise this entire group with a trip to Saipan  with us.  Of course we'd felt like in a sense we were taking all forty-three of our supporters with us to Saipan, through our regular Facebook status updates and photos.  But this group, unlike many of our donors, had never been to Saipan.  And as we thought about each of these special people we realized that they would especially love visiting our island.  While it's true that the grace they showed us cannot be repaid, in our dreams we imagined being able to truly share the Saipan experience with them.  That would be a thank you worthy of their generous support.  But in the meantime, we figured we'd bring a little Saipan back to them with a special island-themed lunch and sharing pictures and videos from our trip.  

Chamarro-style red rice.  Babs and I decided to do something we'd never done in all our eleven years living in Saipan, despite being  adventurous cooks and dedicated foodies:  We decided to cook local food.  This was a risky proposition of course, but one we could get away with since there wouldn't be any actual Saipanese in attendance to "ai adai" our humble first-time efforts. 


Grilled eggplant with coconut milk 

Chicken kelaguen (vegetarian chicken. . .heresy, I know)

Babs made a good Mid-western Adventist favorite, special K loaf just in case the island food was too much for our guests' palates, but in the end they loved everything we made, including my famed peach cobbler for dessert (which has nothing to Saipan food other than I made it all the time there and it became a favorite among my students there).  While it was a far cry from when our Saipanese friends do it back on the island, we thought it turned out pretty well for our first try.

Jul 12, 2014

The Uncertainty Principle

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together means being at peace with uncertainty.

Rich Mullins once said  "I think if we were given the scriptures it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the scriptures it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing. Which is what makes them so much fun to read, especially if you are not a fundamentalist."

I always loved that quote, but I don't think I ever fully understood it until the other day during my morning devotions.   I've always had the sense that every time I read the Bible, I should be able to: 1) understand what the passage means  and 2) understand how it speaks to me and my situation.  When that doesn't happen I've tended to feel discouraged, like a spiritual failure.  I've wondered if my connection to God is as strong as it should be, and sometimes I allow doubt to creep in, assuming that if I can't figure out what this scripture means then perhaps it has no meaning at all.

Which is pretty arrogant when you think about it.  It's like when a students says "math is stupid" mainly because he doesn't understand it.  In the learning process, our ability to understand something says nothing but it's intrinsic value.  The same is true of the Bible.

The fact is that we won't always understand everything we read  (yes, even if we ask for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Sometimes it's the Holy Spirit's guidance that keeps us humble enough to say--hmmm, well I don't really understand that rather than forcing an interpretation or creating a self-serving lesson).  We don't always need to have an Answer, and we especially don't need to have a little lesson to take away from each time we open God's Word.

I've long felt it a mistake to treat the Bible as a history or science textbook (which is not to say that there isn't any history or even a little science in it), but more recently I've also come to be wary of the Bible as prescriptive "guide for living."  The whole "Biblical approach" to managing finances or  marriage or child-rearing or health feels a little suspect.  I'm just not sure that we're using the Bible correctly when we approach it that way.  To me the Christian Bible is a narrative that reveals the story of God and His interaction with His wayward creation.  It begins with God shrouded in mystery. The picture is often cloudy, unclear and maybe even inaccurate, but the narrative climaxes with the clearest picture we have of the character, nature, intentions, and heart of God towards us in the person of Jesus.  The Old Testament is primarily the back-story to Jesus, but it is a rich back- story, filled with flawed and colorful characters clumsily seeking after God, various dead-ends and misunderstandings, but also myriad hints of Jesus and foreshadowings of the Savior to come.

The primary purpose for reading the Bible is to be in the presence of God and to look for Jesus.  Sometimes in our meditation on Scripture it all seems to come together to create a clear picture.  Other times the pieces of the puzzle just don't seem to fit--and here as with a jigsaw puzzle, it's important not to force a fit when one isn't there. Just be patient.  Accept and even rejoice in the humble realization that we just don't have an answer now.  Have faith that just because I don't see the solution, doesn't mean that there isn't one.

Jul 11, 2014

The More Things Change. . .

Change is the one constant in Saipan (except when it comes to the weather, which is record-setting in it's sameness).  People, buisnesses, fortunes, and even the contours of the land itself come and go, like the ever shifting sands of the shore washed by the sea.  Naturally, a lot has changed in the five years since we left Saipan permanently. Some of the changes are good, some are sad, but either way Saipan felt very much the same when we returned if only because so much had changed.

The new school and the growth of the Adventist church in Saipan.
The Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School

I thought we would miss the old school.  I mean I knew the new campus would be great and all, but we're talking about 11 years we spent in that little building down in San Antonio. Certainly, in the months and weeks leading up to our trip, I could only picture myself speaking in that tiny little lunchroom chapel space. Surely we'd feel a pining for the old building, a nagging nostalgia for the old stomping grounds.  But, I found that I adjusted very quickly to the new school location.  Of course, it was already familiar.  I'd spent countless sports association meetings in one of the second floor classrooms and innumberable volleyball and basketball games out on the athletic fields back when the campus had been the home of Calvary Christian Academy.  But I was amazed by how quickly I acclimatized to the places as the current Saipan SDA School and not the former CCA.  It is truly a wonderful campus and we instantly felt at home.  So little was our longing for the tiny old campus that we never got around to visiting it until the night before we left!
The very impressive sign at the entrance to the campus.  Most of the following photos were taken on Sabbath, April 19 after church.  We drove by the campus specifically to get some proper photos of the place.

From the school parking lot, looking back towards the road

This photo was taken during the school week.  It was nice to see that they moved the playground Barbara purchased from the old campus to the new one.

Liah Wabol, one of my former students at Saipan SDA School, and now one of the pre-school teachers, with her students at recess.

The Adventist church seems to be finally beginning to flower after years of germination on what had seemed to be fairly unfriendly soil.  There are now three Adventist churches thriving on the island.  The old San Antonio school campus has been reborn as the home of the San Antonio Seventh-day Adventist Church.  And the Kagman church plant that began about seven years ago as the seed of an evangelistic campaign in the village has taken root.  Most of the members of the churches are still non-indigenous, but slowly but surely a local presence is growing in the membership.  It's no longer possible for all the church members to fit into the main sanctuary, the Central SDA Church--which says a lot.  The satellite churches are now a necessity and not a convenience.
The old school campus and the new church building in San Antonio village.  These pictures were taken on our quick visit to the property the night before we left Saipan.  Saturday, April 19, 2014.  The sign covers what in various years was the music room, the library, and classroom.  Below is the former principal's office.

A little bit editing and the school sign originally donated by the Saipan SDA School  8th grade class of 1993 became the sign for the church.

The sanctuary of the San Antonio Church.  This space formerly housed three classrooms.  When we first arrived in Saipan, two-thirds of this space was used for our weekly joint worship services. It is worship space once more (although this time the worshipers don't have to sit on the floor!)

The rise in tourism.
P.I.C. (Pacific Islands Club), Sunday, April 13, 2014.  We had a great time relaxing at one of our favorite resorts.  The place was packed.  At lunch, we actually had to wait for awhile before we could get a seat at Magellan's, P.I.C.'s main restaurant.

One thing that really did my heart good was to sense that there was finally a glimmer of good news for Saipan's economy which for so long has ranged between bad and horrible.  Tourism seems to be picking up.  We noticed it right away on our first night time drive through Garapan, the main tourist district.  The place was actually. . .bustling!  Shoppers were in the stores and spilling out on to the sidewalks.  Visitors were out and about taking in the nightlife.  It seemed a hopeful sign and made me glad.

The decline of San Antonio.
This was the former home of the Marianas Medical Center and the New World Market right across the street from the old SDA School campus in San Antonio.  Now everything is gone, except for the poker joint, which seems impervious to the surrounding decline.

While some parts of the island seem to be pulsing with new life with the uptick in tourism, others seem to have missed out on the good fortune.  Particularly sad, was the noticeable decline of our old neighborhood--San Antonio village on the southern end of the island. In the past I found most Saipan neighborhoods looked more or less the same, but this time there was an immediately noticeable difference from San Antonio and other parts of the island.  The boarded up shops, the abandoned factories, ghostly barracks that used to house the workers of the now-defunct garment industry.  Most places from the Marianas Medical Center to the Labor and Immigration offices to our favorite mom and pop shop, New World Market have packed up and moved away.   P.I.C. seems to be one of the few exceptions.  Though under new management, it still seems to be going strong.  I imagine the tourists rarely venture into the surrounding neighborhood though.
During our years on Saipan, this place was the beautiful Pacific Gardenia Hotel and Restaurant.  I had more than a few good breakfasts at this place in it's heyday.

The road to our old apartment in San Antonio.  The overgrown bushes and high grass on the right almost completely obscure the empty barracks and  defunct garment factory that once thrived here.

Our first apartment on Saipan (the door on the left).  And just a few steps away in the other building on the compound.  . .

.  . .our second apartment on Saipan (the screen door on the right).  The screen door and the awning are new additions since we moved away, as are the bars on the windows.  I guess break-ins became too commonplace and the bars were added as a deterrent.

Great new places to eat.
With former students Neischangapi Satur ('00) and Myla Capilitan ('02) at Saipan's hippest joint for a healthy crepe or shake, The Shack. Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Saipan has always had a disproportionately large number of great places to eat.  Since we left some new places have opened up.  The Shack is an ultra-bohemian place literally yards from the former Oleai Beach Bar & Grill.  They specialize in crepes and a variety of healthy, trendy offerings in a very laid back, friendly environment.  It is a must-visit on your Saipan culinary itinerary.  Shennanigans, located in the Garapan tourist district opened up mere months after we moved away.  They hired on the old Coffee Care chef and it shows in their delicious menu.  Babs and I splurged there on Thursday evening, May 17, our one date night of our trip after an afternoon at the Mandi Asian Spa.  It was perfect.

Other joints aren't new but  have moved and/or reinvented themselves.  Spicy Thai  Noodle House moved out of San Antonio to Garapan where the action is.  They've got spacious new digs in a tucked away corner across from American Memorial Park, but the food is every bit as good as it's always been.  You can't go wrong with lunch buffet and a Thai tea with milk.   The Naked Fish is now the new It place to eat on Saipan, with a new, larger location in Susupe near the World Resort.  We never made it there, unfortunately, but everyone talked like it was THE place to eat.

Though Ebisuya is closed, the Kimawari Japanese bakery in Garapan sells similar food: great bento lunches, the best Danish pastries, sushi.  It's not new, I don't think.  I know I went there at least once with Ken Pierson after a dive, but it was a regular stop for us on this trip, and so felt new to us.

Some great grub is gone.

 With the exception of Spicy Thai, all of my favorite restaurants in the whole world have closed. Or in the case of Coffee Care, is now a mere shell of its former self.  The place was virtually empty when we went with our friend and former SDA School parent Michelle Zayco (Bless her and her sweet daughter Danielle for being willing to eat there with us) and with good reason.  The menu was the same as it always was, but the food was barely palatable.  Barbara's favorite dish the sun-dried tomato pasta, was missing many of the purported ingredients: the ricotta cheese, the olives, and even the sun-dried tomatoes!  Our Saipan friends couldn't sympathize with us on Coffee Care's sad state; most of them hadn't been there in years.

The view is still delicious, but the same can no longer be said of the food.  The empty tables tell you that Coffe Care's days of glory are long past.

The people.
 There were many familiar faces: Virle and Joeie, the Piersons, Bev, the Lacortes, the Quinns, the Kosacks, Galvin former students like Nei, Myla, Michi, Kei, Kono, Joy, Liah and the Wabol clan and many others but not as many as before.  We imagine there will be even fewer when next we make it out to Saipan.  There were many new faces and we made some new friends:  Bill & Sarah Jane Shearer, Silvia and Tina, Sharon Nguyen among others.  But all of these new friends have either already left Saiipan or will be leaving the island shortly, and they add to the growing list of names, faces, and friendships that we associate with Saipan that are no longer there. Most have served there time and moved on.  We were disappointed to miss Manny and Kathleen Serrano who had moved to Guam just weeks before we arrived.  The Staffords had moved on about a year earlier. The majority of my former students have grown up and moved away.  And then there were those who we know we won't see again in Saipan or anywhere else this side of eternity.  Mr. Chinen and Ronnie Ringor both passed to their rest in the recent months before our visit.  It was nice to see Emer and the rest of the Chinen family, and to see Ronnie's sons, but the absence of these friends was keenly felt.
Lunch with the Kosacks at Capriciosas (another favorite restaurant that is still going strong). Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joeie and "Lil' Mister" as we've taken to calling our youngest

The boy clowning around with Russ Quinn

Kanae and Russ Quinn with Elijah and Elephant Elephant.  The Quinn's treated us to delicious home cooked lunch at their beautiful home on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

Former student Yuko Takayama ('08) stopped by for a visit

Our kids chillin' witht Pierson kids.  Can you believe we neglected to take a single picture with the adult Piersons!  They had us over for dinner Wednesday evening, April 16.

Virle and the her not-so-Little Feller.  Both our boys just loved, loved, loved being with Joeie and Virle throughout the week.  Having our guest lodging right next door to their apartment was such a treat for them.  Both boys would walk right next door whenever they could just to hang out with their favorite aunties.

Babs and I with Joeie, Sylvia, and Virle.  Meeting Silvia and Tina was sort of like meeting celebrities. We'd "known" them via Facebook for years. What a treat to finally meet them and find out they were every bit as cool as they seemed on social media!

Before Mama Sandy, before Ms. Palmer, before Ms.  Rose. . .there was Venus.  This was Elijah's first babysitter, Venus Zietzke.

The boys with Antonee and Girlie Aguilar.  The Aguilars now live in our old apartment, where this photo was taken.  Sabbath, April 19, 2014.

The friends that came to see us in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 20.  With each departure this group grows smaller as more and more of them take their own Long Walks and close the chapter on Saipan in their lives.  I wonder how many of those in this picture will still be in Saipan by the next time we visit?

Saipan is life writ large.  Enjoy it the way it is now, with the people currently sharing your journey, because one thing is certain.  In far too short a time, the places and people you now know will be gone.  Other people and new places may take their place but like a tropical sunset, the unique today you are currently experiencing will only happen once and never again.  Make the most it!