In one week I will be saying goodbye to the people I have come to love and the place I have come to call home these past five years. I am leaving Mongolia. Those words don’t sound right on my tongue yet. I’m not sure when the reality is going to fully sink in. I have watched a lot of my friends leave these past couple years because of visa problems, health problems, burnout, and various other reasons. As I watched them go, I said to myself, “that will never be me.” I really thought I would be here for much longer than this. But what I have realized is that God calls us OUT of places just as surely as he calls us TO places. I have come to understand that my call isn’t ultimately to Mongolia, a particular people group, or a certain ministry, but to God. Following God’s call means being in tune with his voice and willing to go when he says go, to stay when he says stay, and to leave when he says leave. What a learning process my time in Mongolia has been! I am excited to share with you in future blog posts how he is leading me and what future steps I will be taking. But for now, I want to be a bit nostalgic and share some of my highlights these last five years through pictures I have taken.
The map of Mongolia on my wall has a star on all the places that I have visited in the last five years. Well, not ALL the places…many places I have been cannot be located on a map! Of the 21 provinces, I have now visited them all except for the two farthest west. I feel privileged to have seen so much of the country in such a short amount of time. I typically prefer going to places with green rolling hills, rivers, lakes and trees, but for some reason, this year I kept finding myself in the desert. This spring I spent time living with a family in a desert town out west. This summer I spent two months even farther south in a town where I am pretty sure the camel population was greater than the human population. And just recently I traveled the farthest south I have been, to the gobi desert bordering China. During the fifteen hour bus ride down there, we literally only passed two towns. The rest was just camels, sand, thorny bushes, and very very bumpy dirt roads.
My experiences in the desert this year have been some of the most challenging times I have spent in the countryside since coming to Mongolia. Not only are the weather and living conditions more challenging in the desert, but the sense of isolation and loneliness is more pronounced. The desert puts everything in perspective. There is little comfort to come by out there, and there is nothing like endless vastness to remind you of how small you are!
I understand better now why it was in the wilderness that so many prophets and men of God (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the Israelites, Elijah etc.) experienced God’s presence and power and heard him speaking to them. I read recently in a book that in Hebrew, one of the translations for wilderness is actually “speech.” In this same book there was the following quote: “The Spirit of God is heard when the senses are silent.” My senses were definitely “silenced” during my time in the desert. When you are eating the exact same thing every day (in my case, sheep, flour, and rice), your cravings and desire for food just go away. When there is no internet, tv, or entertainment of any kind, there is suddenly more time to read, think, and spend in prayer. And when there is no one to talk to in your own language, you kind of just get used to long periods of silence.
At one point this summer I called my friend during a particularly trying time and in an attempt to encourage me she said, “Why don’t you just take a little trip somewhere else for a few days and get away?” To which I replied, “First of all, I have no means of transportation other than my feet and second of all where would I go? Three hundred kilometers in every direction is nothing but more desert!” As challenging as my countryside travels were this year, I am so glad that I experienced what I did. With my senses silenced, the Spirit of God did speak to me. In fact, I came back from the summer with more clarity than I have had in a long time about what God is calling me to do. You are just going to have to stay tuned to hear more…
So in a few days I’m heading off to spend two months in the Gobi Desert. During all my travels in Mongolia, the Gobi is an area I have tried to avoid going to, mostly because I am more of a green rolling hills, trees, and rivers kind of girl. But if I have learned one thing during my time here, it is that it rarely comes down to what I want. Following the call means being willing to go anywhere, even if anywhere happens to be the middle of nowhere!
The town I will be working in is a new place we have never worked before, in fact, no other Christian organization has. It will just be me and another young Mongolian teacher working together, building relationships with the local people and doing outreach. There is no church and no believers that we know of, so I guess you could say it is an unreached place. Here are some stats about the town so you can join with me in prayer:
Name: Baruun Bayan-Ulaan (west rich red town)
600 km southwest of the capital Ulaanbaatar
2,580 people (mostly herders that do not actually live in the town)
137,470 animals (camels, sheep, goats, horses, and some cattle)
320 school aged children (80 of them live in the dormitory during the year because their parents are herders)
Five years ago when I came to Mongolia I wouldn’t have dreamt that I would be spending my summer teaching English in a remote desert town. But God has given me a heart for herders in the countryside and the best way to reach them is to live among them. I cant wait to milk some camels and climb some sand dunes, but mostly, I cant wait to see how God works this summer!
“Melissa, we need to find you a herder with lots of camels to marry.” You wouldnt believe how many times I heard this in the two weeks that I recently spent in a village in mid-west Mongolia. I made the mistake of telling everyone I was not married when they asked me the first day. I also made the mistake of telling them that I could eat ALL Mongolian food. So I was offered an array of delicacies ranging from fatty mutton soup, to sheep head, to goat intestines, to curdled sour milk drinks. When they saw that I could eat it all, then they were quite convinved that I was fit to marry a wealthy camel herder. Wonderful.
The reason I spent two weeks in this village is because I was invited there by the local governor to teach some English classes to students and adults in the community. I had visited this village last summer so I knew some of the people already, but this was a unique trip in that I went there by myself and lived with a family with no one from my organization with me. No one in the village knew any English (including the two English teachers that I worked closely with), so it was a good immersion experience. In my two weeks out there, I taught over 300 children and 50 adults from 10 am to 8 pm every day. I ate nothing but meat, flour, and the occasional potato. I sat around in the evenings watching over-dramatized Korean soap operas with the Mongolian family I was staying with. I helped the children round up the goats in the evening and I even tried my hand at combing a few cashmere goats. I met with the handful of local believers and encouraged them as best I could with my limited Mongolian. I went to people’s gers and sipped tea for hours while looking at their picture albums. I spent many hours walking by the river and praying for the community. And I read 7 books in 14 days because when I wasnt teaching English, rounding up goats, or sipping tea in peoples’ homes, there literally was nothing else to do.
One night after I came home from a particularly exhausting five hour English teaching session, I was a bit irritated to see that five people had come from out of town to stay with my host family. When I came inside, I saw that two kids were sitting on my bed, going through my stuff. I wanted to just walk right back out the door and into the night to be by myself for awhile, but I felt a little prompting from the Spirit to stay. So I got on the floor and started helping them make dumplings for dinner. As I entered into the dinner making process, I actually started enjoying myself. The conversation was light and fun, and after a few minutes, my spirits greatly improved. The power went out around 11:30, just as we finished making the dumpling soup, so we all sat around by candlelight eating together. They all wanted to know about America and I was even able to share with them about my faith and what Christians believe. It ended up being one of the best nights I had with my host family. I am continually learning to be stretched beyond the limits of my own comfort to allow God to reach people, and I think with every trip to the countryside I will learn more and more in this regard.
In June I head to the countryside again for two months. It will be another immersion experience, and undoubtably a challenging assignment. However, I am excited at the thought that the place I am going is unreached with the Gospel and that there will be many opportunities for me to engage life with the people there and be used by God in new ways. Life is a crazy adventure, and mine, a little crazier than most, but I wouldnt trade it for anything.
I see now why so many foreigners that live in Mongolia take off to Thailand in the middle of winter. February in Thailand is more than 100 degrees warmer than February in Mongolia! For me, these past seven weeks have filled me up in more ways than I could have imagined. I knew I was a bit “empty” going in to this time. A bit burned out and depleted. But I had no idea just how much, until I got here and started being filled by things that I have long gone without. Here are just a few things that have filled me up:
Along with these things, I have also been filled up by stimulating teaching that has given me fresh perspectives on my life, work, calling, and God’s heart. I have been filled up by corporate worship times and fellowship with others–by living in a community of people that speak truth into each others’ lives and live authentically. And most importantly, I have been filled up by God himself–he has filled me to overflowing with his love and I have experienced him in new and deeper ways during this time.
So just one week left of soaking up all that Thailand has to offer and of hanging out with these amazing people that have taught me so much. You would think I would be bummed that my time is coming to an end but instead I am feeling refreshed, renewed, and ready to return home to Mongolia. As Christians, we tend to overlook one of God’s biggest and most important commandments to honor the Sabbath. These last few months have made me realize how crucial times of sabbath rest are. Not just for the body, but for the spirit. How often do we actually slow down enough to really engage with each other and with our God? In my life, the answer is not often enough.
During a thanksgiving meal with friends here, we had a time of sharing the highlights and lowlights of our weeks. This was right after I had been robbed by a group of teenagers who then later found out where I lived and tried to use my stolen house key to break into my apartment, so needless to say, I was having a difficult time coming up with a highlight. I think I said something like, “Well, at least the phone they stole from me was a cheap one!” To which someone said, “That doesn’t count as a highlight, Melissa.” So instead I mentioned how I had received a care package from home full of Hersheys chocolate. This may sound like a trivial thing, but it’s amazing how the smallest things can bring such great encouragement. This was the first care package I have ever received and it couldn’t have come at a better time!
Every morning as I walk to work I think to myself how cold and dark it is. After the sun comes up, there is usually still a cloud (or smog) covering that doesn’t tend to burn off until early afternoon. But when it does, it is truly glorious! Even when its -30 degrees outside, having the bright sun shining does a lot to lift ones spirits. I am finding that each day has “smoggy moments” as well as “bright spots”. I am learning to focus on the bright spots instead of the smog. Here are some of my “bright spots” this week:
Monday: Had a great time hanging out with my roommate in the evening, laughing about how we always manage to burn the Tsuiven (Mongolian noodle dish), and how we have invented our own language in order to communicate: “Mongolish” (a mix of Mongolian and English that probably sounds completely incoherent to others listening).
Tuesday: There is an Austrailian woman who lives in my apartment building that I have known on a casual basis for three years. She came into the clinic with her dog and I ended up having a long conversation with her. She told me how lonely she is and how much she is struggling, and so I invited her to church and she wants to come with me this Sunday!
Wednesday: I received permission to be able to go to a Missions conference in Thailand in January and I am so excited…I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything like this since coming to Mongolia. And I haven’t had a real vacation in quite some time either =)
Thursday: I had a very encouraging time fellowshipping and studying the word together with some friends.
Friday: Spent some time talking and praying with one of my Mongolian co-workers who is going through a difficult time. Hearing her struggles really put things in perspective for me.
Saturday: Skyped with my mom, dad, brother, and sister-in law who are all together in Washington D.C. Was reminded of how blessed I am to have a family that is so supportive.
Even on the smoggy days, I am finding there are always “bright spots.” Walking with God means that we never have to walk in darkness and we never have to walk alone. Feeling so thankful today for the light of HIS presence in my life!
If you had asked me in college where I saw myself living in ten years, I would have probably said some beautiful little remote place surrounded by a motley crew of critters, eking out my living from the land. So how exactly did I end up living in a one room apartment in a polluted city that is cold and grey 80% of the year? The best way I can answer this is Proverbs 16:9: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” It was God, not I, that determined my steps to Mongolia. As I head into my fifth winter here you would think I would be looking at my life thinking, “What in the world am I doing here?” But instead, I find myself thinking, “Thank you God for leading me here!”
It took a recent trip to China to make me realize just how much I love Mongolia. There was a Christian NGO there that was trying to recruit me to come and work for them. They tried to coax me by treating me to an endless array of sichuan delicacies and commenting how much warmer it was. I so enjoyed geting to know them and hearing about the work they were doing, but if I have to be honest, I found the food so spicy and oily I could barely enjoy it, the humidity a bit oppressive, and the materialism in the big city a bit overwhelming. As I met with Chinese believers all I could think about was God’s heart for the young growing church in Mongolia. These were all signs to me that I am where I am supposed to be. I remember as I was flying back into Ulaanbaatar I looked out the window and thought to myself, “This is home.” Not exactly the home I pictured for myself when I was younger, but it’s where my heart is.
Sure, there are times when I question what I am doing living in a city, especially when I look at the herders here and start wishing I could be one! In fact, one reason I decided to get a rabbit for a pet is because I wanted something that eats grass and I couldn’t exactly picture living in an apartment with a goat. I spent all fall picking grass and making hay on my balcony to last the winter. Everyone thought I was crazy going around picking grass and dandelions, but I found it quite therapeutic. There are just some things non-city people must do to keep themselves sane here, and for me, this was one of them! Frequent trips out of the city is another. And growing plants in my apartment is another. Somehow my kitchen has turned into somewhat of a jungle. So with the smell of hay wafting through my bedroom and green plants everywhere, I have found the winters here in the city to be much more manageable. The dreams of my youth to live in the countryside are still there, but I have been realizing that God is giving me new dreams that are much bigger than my own personal desires. The lesson he keeps revealing to me over and over: my own plans and desires don’t hold a candle to His! Having just celebrated my four year anniversary here I can honestly say I am quite at peace calling this place home until God choses to direct my steps elsewhere. Five months of bone chilling cold, smog, and ice ahead? Bring it on!
It’s a little hard to blog when you don’t have internet. That’s my excuse for not writing this summer, and I think it’s a pretty good one. But now I’m back in civilization and don’t have any more excuses. So I thought I would write about just a few of the things I learned spending two months in the Mongolian countryside.
#1. You can survive just fine without vegetables. I learned to be quite content only eating the same five ingredients every day: mutton, flour, potatoes, onions, and rice. For awhile we even had a few carrots, cabbage, and ketchup which really spiced things up! I can honestly say that after about the three week point, I stopped craving other foods and was genuinely content with what I had.
#2. I have developed an iron stomach. One day we went to visit a family and sitting on the table was a 15 liter bowl of fermented mare’s milk. They thought it would be fun to play this game that is kind of like “rock, paper, scissors” only you count to three and chose one finger to point at the other person. Certain fingers win over other fingers, and if you lose you have to drink a bowl of mare’s milk. Well, my whole team kept losing which meant that the bowl kept getting passed to me. I think I had to drink six or seven bowls! I definitely gagged a few times getting it down. The game ends when the 15 liters is finished (which took about an hour of drinking). The two Mongolian teachers I was working with got a bit sick afterwards but amazingly, I was fine! Like a said, I must have an iron stomach.
#4. I wouldn’t make a very good herder’s wife. After an hour milking goats in the hot sun, I managed to get more milk on me than I did in my little pail! Then I proceeded to try to milk a yak and it kept kicking me. At one point it turned its head around and gave me a look like, “what do you think you are doing?” The herder woman said something like, “Before we find you a herdsman to marry, we should work on your milking skills.”
#5. Our lives are cluttered. Let’s be honest, there isn’t a lot of “clutter” in the countryside. For two months I didn’t have TV, internet, movies, a car to go places with, or even electricity at times. Most Americans would go crazy in this setting because we are so used to being busy all the time, wired into the internet and, well, just plain wired. How often do we really take the time to get away from it all and silence our thoughts long enough to hear what God is saying to us? Without all the distractions this summer, I found that I had time for something far more important: relationships. Most of my time was either spent hanging out with the kids and local people, or on mountaintops talking with God. It was possibly the most peaceful summer of my life. Now that I am back in the city I am trying to take the lessons I learned this summer and apply them, and so far its been a lot harder than I thought it would be! I got so accustomed to taking off every morning and evening to spend time with God on the mountain and now I am barely taking five minutes in my day to spend with him! I also got so used to just sitting and talking with people for hours on end, and now I find myself sitting in front of my computer for hours on end. I know I cant spent my life on a mountaintop forever, away from the clutter of this world, but one thing I can do is make sure that the clutter isn’t taking the place of relationships. So of all the lessons I learned this summer, this is by far the most important.
So the other day I was sitting reading my Bible and a verse that I have literally read a thousand times kind of jumped off the page for me. 1 Peter 2:11: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” Being a stranger and alien. Now that I can relate to! I recently received my “alien registration card” here in Mongolia. It is a little card that looks like a drivers license that I am supposed to carry around with me all the time in case I am stopped on the street and asked for proof of why I am allowed to be here. There honestly hasn’t been a day that has gone by without me being reminded that I am a foreigner here. I am learning that part of having white skin and blond hair here means getting used to the constant stares, being spoken to in Russian all the time (quite annoying actually), the obvious target for pickpocketers (I got my purse slashed just a couple weeks ago with a knife…luckily I didn’t lose anything), being ripped off all the time, taken advantage of, and yes, sometimes even being punched in the face while innocently walking down the street (remind me to tell that story sometime). It took me awhile to get used to everyone calling me a foreigner. In Mongolian, the word foreigner is actually translated “outside person.” And most of the time I do feel like I am sitting on the outside looking in. I love Mongolia very much but the truth is that I will always be an outsider here, no matter how many bowls of sheep fat soup I eat or how well I learn the language and culture.
So this verse that I have read so many times before has taken on a whole new meaning for me since living overseas. Am I really living like a stranger in this world, like heaven is my true home? Or have I become comfortable here on earth, seeking to fit in instead of seeking to be set apart and different? Its hard to be different sometimes. Believe me, I know! But an alien by nature is different and strange. And that’s what we are to be while here on earth. Oh the multitude of lessons that God has taught me in just these three short years in Mongolia…the greatest of them being that my true home is heaven… not Oregon, or Mongolia, or somewhere in between (though it feels like it most of the time). Just as I will never fully be comfortable here in Mongolia with my white skin, blond hair and affinity towards green leafy veggies, so too I never want to be completely at home here on earth. I think many times our struggle is not in embracing our heavenly citizenship so much as it is in embracing our earthly alienship.
I recently made the conclusion that fishermen are some of the craziest people on the planet. Second only to missionaries maybe. (I happen to be both, so I wonder what that makes me!) I came to this conclusion just the other week when I went steelhead fishing with my dad on the siletz river in Oregon. We went on a day forecasted to be 30% chance of rain. It was raining at 4 am when we woke up and it didn’t stop pouring until 9:00 at night. So much for the weather report! So there we were, standing in a boat for eight hours in the cold and pouring rain casting salmon eggs into the murky waters, snagging our lines on tree limbs and submerged stumps, trying to thread the hooks with frozen fingers, all in hopes of catching “the big one.” Every fisherman we passed looked pretty much like we did: soaked to the bone and clinging to the hope that there were actually hungry fish down there.
Our patience finally paid off. They started biting and we wrestled to get them into the boat (losing about half of them in the process…they are strong suckers!) At one point, our boat was going under some low hanging branches and my dad hooked a branch, I hooked a trout, and my dad’s friend who was trying to steer the boat hooked a steelhead all at precisely the same time. What ensued was mass chaos. In the end, we snapped the line on the tree, I threw the trout back in and we got the 10 pound steelhead in the boat. This is the kind of thing that fishermen live for: the anticipation of hooking the big one, the challenge of navigating the water and battling the elements, and the excitement of reeling it in and getting it in the boat. Eating it afterwards isn’t too bad either.
While I have been home many people have asked me how long I plan to be in Mongolia and they sound surprised when I tell them I am in it for the long-haul, until God calls me elsewhere! I think many people look at me and secretly think to themselves, “Why does she want to live THERE?” Just like they sometimes look at fishermen and think, “Why do they want to do THAT? Don’t they know how ridiculous they look casting worms into mud puddles?” What keeps me in Mongolia is the same thing that keeps those crazy fishermen out on the river.
First and foremost, fishing is somewhat of a calling. It takes incredible patience and tenacity but once you have hooked the big one, you just cant stop. Ministering overseas is the same. As hard as it is sometimes, I’m totally hooked! What really keeps me going is the anticipation of seeing God do something big, of being used by Him to “reel in” a catch and bring those who are lost into the kingdom, the challenge of wrestling in the spiritual realm and advancing the kingdom despite obstacles, and the excitement of going where few have chosen to go. This is the stuff I live for. I head back to Mongolia in a couple days and cant wait to see what kind of fishing opportunities God has in store. Not real fish of course (all the rivers are still frozen solid), but fish of the human variety like in the picture above =)