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A letter from Sarah Henken in Bolivia

 October 28, 2010

Breathe in, breathe out ...

Since arriving in the Altiplano last week, I’ve thought a lot about breathing. The air is thin up here, forcing me to take it slow, to pause and observe the world around me. And what a world it is! with the colorful ruffled skirts of traditional Aymara women; the clanging bell that announces the proximity of the garbage truck around 8:15 each morning; the dogs that seem to be everywhere, both matted strays and carefully kept pets, some on leashes and some in arms; the variety of scents, from the acrid exhaust of ancient buses to the tempting aroma of hot, savory empanadas.

I’m reminded of an exercise my friend Terri leads, having us focus on our breathing as we slowly inhale, holding it until it gets uncomfortable. Then we do the opposite, exhaling for as long as we can. Perhaps it’s because of my training as a singer, but I generally find it much easier to spend time exhaling than inhaling — I’m accustomed to taking a quick breath in and then slowly letting it out in song. But up at this altitude I find myself drawing in many more long, deep breaths than I do in Los Angeles.

The analogy in this exercise is about the need for balance in our life, breathing in God’s love and grace, and breathing out service to the world God so loves. So here in this time and place where I find a physical need to focus on breathing in, I find myself reflecting on the many ways I have been a learner and a recipient of grace.

Even before I arrived in Bolivia, friends I had yet to meet were working to make sure I had a place to call home. Now that I’m here I have been shepherded through the initial steps of getting settled, shown how to use public transportation, introduced to the people who can continue to help guide and support me as I get my bearings in this place. I have been blessed with time to slowly adapt. And every time I marvel at how slowly I seem to be moving, Susan (a fellow expat and former mission co-worker) is quick to remind me that just breathing is an accomplishment right now. For the most part I've been able to accept that, and gratefully receive the kindness of the people who cross my path. Laughing at myself a good bit helps, too!

The other day my new friend Annel (the bookkeeper for Red UMAVIDA, the Bolivian Joining Hands for Life Network) came to help me sign the lease on my apartment and negotiate with the landlady, and then she accompanied me on some errands. We ended up sitting down together for a cup of coffee, sharing about our lives and families and our different experiences and perspectives. At one point she asked, “So, when do you start working?’ I took a moment to consider my answer and told her that, officially, I had already begun. My task in this first year is to focus on learning about my new culture and context and getting to know the people with whom I have been sent to be in partnership — not only here in Bolivia, but in the rest of the Andean region, in Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. This seemed to make sense to Annel, and I think it makes sense to me too. At the very least, I know it is a privilege.

So far I feel distinctly that I am receiving far more than I am giving — and that is how it should be. I am an outsider and newcomer here, and as I learn the rhythm and melodies of my new home, I cannot expect to sing them myself. As my body needs extra rest and oxygen, and my mind and heart need gentle help to process these new surroundings, I spend more time breathing in than breathing out, but in all things there is a balance. I trust that God is at work in the midst of it, molding and shaping me — and all of us, through receiving as well as through giving — to be faithful instruments of God’s love, mercy, and peace. This feels like a time of growth and new birth, a time for discovering what God has in store for us. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

Grace and peace,

Sarah

The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 295

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