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Monday, December 24, 2012


When I was about 9 years old, I remember being taught the passage of scripture in Matthew 8:20 – the one where the Savior says “the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”  That was the first scripture that made me sad – I felt sorry that Jesus had no place to lay his head.
Benjamin has that non-time-
 bound perspective.

A few days after I was introduced to that scripture, my mother came in to say goodnight to me, and found me hugging the far side of the bed, with an extra pillow on my bed.  “Why are you up against the wall?” she asked.   “I’m leaving room for Jesus,” I answered matter-of-factly.  “He doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head, so he can share my bed.”

Bless her heart, my mother didn’t say anything, she simply smiled and kissed me goodnight.  With the short attention span of childhood, my wall-hugging sleeping habits soon passed, but every time I come across that scripture, I smile.   And I bless my mom.

My mother allowed me to keep my simple, non-time bound perspective.  She probably chuckled about it with my father, but neither of them ever reproached me for thinking that the Savior of all mankind would deign to rest in a bed next to a 9-year old.  My faith was very simple; I knew that Jesus Christ loved me, and any loving person would respond positively to a heart-felt invitation.

Children are the best part of Christmas, and that is true in Tonga as well.  Christmas is different in a subsistence culture, but gifts are still shared.  One friend of mine remembers that as a child her mother would slice bread and butter it and send the children out to deliver platefuls to neighbors.  Often the family would give away all their food, but because their neighbors also shared, the family still had breakfast on Christmas morning.

Most Tongan homes are very humble.

Another friend remembers her father dragging her along to go caroling to the widows in the neighborhood.  She reluctantly sang at a few houses until one widow wept during “Silent Night”.  This little girl suddenly understood that she was giving a gift  - that the simple act of singing was a way to share.  Her attitude changed, and she happily made her way to the rest of the homes that Christmas morning. 

I think more at Christmas time than any other, I am reminded of the purity of a child’s perspective.  I need to make more heart-felt invitations, and be a more loving person and respond to others’ heart-felt invitations.  I need to remember the Tongatapu proverb, “Tonga’s only mountains are in our hearts,” and summit my own mountains by offering service more freely and showing gratitude for simple gifts.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” - Mister Fred Rogers

In the US, this week was marked by the third school shooting of the year, but this one was different because the student victims were all under 10 years of age.  I have shared my heartbreak with friends both here and in other countries, but I am convinced it is my duty to BE one of the helpers that Fred Rogers spoke about.  I am limited in my choices of how to help; I am assigned to be here in Tonga, so I am not able to physically go to Connecticut. But there are still ways to offer my help, and I will find a way.

In considering this tragedy, I have reflected on my own life.  Being a helper has brought me wonderful blessings.  I have a different perspective on life because of the opportunities I have had to help others.  Whether helping in dramatic circumstances or quiet ones, helping has made me a better person.  And I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve.  

During the early 1990s, I lived with my family in South Korea.  My husband was a high school principal, and I taught second grade to children whose parents were serving in the military.  One of those years, North Korea started threatening to invade South Korea.  After seeing soldiers practice drills and rehearse for war, watching Patriot missiles be positioned on the base, and feeling the tension in their parent’s attitudes, my little second graders became quite concerned.  One day I finally opened the issue for discussion in our class.

“What will happen to us if there’s a war, Mrs. Szoka?” 
“Yeah, if my mom and my dad both have to be gone, who’s going to take care of me?”
“What if the North Koreans try to take over the base?”

More and more questions like that rang out.  I pondered the questions, and knew I could not simply dismiss their feelings.  These children were genuinely worried.  It was up to me to show them that the military was prepared to keep them safe, too.  I smiled calmly at my students.

“Somewhere under this base is a very big underground bunker. It is large enough to hold every man, woman and child who live on this base, plus all the Americans who work here but live off the base.  If the North Koreans head for our base, we will hear sirens that will tell all the grownups to get their families together and go to the bunker.  If the sirens go off while we’re here at school, our school buses will take us to the bunker.  Then once we’re there, we will be divided up into groups to make sure everyone is safe.  I will stay with you the whole time, until your parents can come for you.  If your parents have to stay out of the bunker and fight, I will be with you.  I will keep you safe.  I will take care of you, and things will be okay.”

My students breathed a collective sigh of relief, and though there were still war games that brought soldiers too close to the school for my own comfort, they were able to go back to concentrating on their own job – that of learning.  I was grateful that God gave me the words to help those children.  Fortunately, the North Koreans did not invade, and life returned to a more peaceful calm for us on that base.

A few years later we were living in Naples, Italy, and I was involved in a car accident.  Before I could even think about what to do, two lovely Napolitanos were at my car door making sure I was unhurt.  I spoke only a few words of Italian, they spoke no English, but they invited me into their home, served me a glass of water, and gave me their telephone to reach my husband and notify the military police of the accident.  They even took the phone and gave specific directions to the police about where the accident had happened in Italian, so the police could get there more quickly.  In a very short time, my husband arrived with the police, and the car was taken away and we were provided a ride back home.  With new eyes, I watched highway behaviors from then on, and saw that no one who ever pulled over to the side of the road was ever left alone for more than a few minutes; Napolitanos helped someone in a broken-down car on the side of the highway today because they might need that same help tomorrow.    They took turns being helpers.

I have been a helper, but one of the strongest memories I have involves the comfort others brought me in a time of tension and fear.  During September and October of 2002, the so-called “D.C. Sniper” was at large, and no one knew when or where he would strike next. I worked at two schools in Northern Virginia that fall, and one of the schools was only a few minutes away from one of the sniper’s murder scenes.  Everyone was fearful; students did not complain when they were told there would be no outdoor recess until the sniper was caught – even the youngest kindergarteners recognized the schools’ efforts to keep them safe.  

One day as I was driving home after school, I tuned the radio to a station I had listened to with my parents as I grew up, and discovered a familiar voice.  One man who had been on the radio 25 years earlier was still with the station, even though the station’s format had changed.  As I listened to this man’s voice, I was filled with comfort; it was as though this voice from my past was sending me a message of hope.  The man’s words did not matter; it was his voice that I needed at that moment.  Simply hearing his voice in my car helped me, as I tried to deal with the tension of those weeks.

Another part of that story in which I watched the helpers took place at the school that was very close to one of the places where the sniper killed a victim.  Each morning at the school, buses would pull up to take turns discharging their students one bus at a time.  When students exited the bus, they found themselves in a gauntlet of teachers, a line both to students’ right and to their left, framing their path to the school’s front door.  These teachers voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way on behalf of their students, and the students realized that.  As a result, students’ appreciation for these teachers grew by leaps and bounds in those weeks.  The harmony at the school that year was remarkable; students knew exactly who were their helpers, and depended upon teachers for comfort and safety, as well as academic learning.  It was a remarkable event to witness.

When Jim and I came to Tonga, we came to help.  We knew we had a lot to offer, and the longer I am here, the more urgently I see the need for what help I can give.  But if there has been one “loud and clear” message from my time here, it is that the act of helping is like a see-saw.  You help someone, and that action helps you.  You receive help from someone, and that action helps them, too.  

Tongans will bend over backwards to help.  Jim was given a flash drive at the open-air market just because he was wearing his missionary badge.  “No, you’re a missionary, take it,” said the young man, refusing to take any money for the item.  “I know I will be blessed for helping a missionary,” he said.  Just the other day, I took some of my Primary children Christmas caroling around the homes here at Liahona, and just for singing a few songs, some of the families wanted to invite us in to share some food, or they gave us an entire tray of sweet rolls, or they wanted to take a picture with us – their delight at being given a free gift was wonderful, and they wanted to give us something in return.  Most Americans are happy when they get help from someone; Tongans are happiest when they can GIVE help to someone.  They know that helping someone helps them, too.

When I am helping, I know it is not just me helping someone else.  I know I am gifted with the opportunity to help, the words, the actions, the perspective.  I know the source of my strength.  And I am grateful for the strength of others, when I am in need.  I hope I can continue to look for opportunities to help, and be humble enough to accept the help of others when they offer.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012


The green is still that new, "spring" green, even under the
trunk of a fallen tree. 
It is spring here in Tonga.  The grass is that bright shade of “new green”, and the crops are maturing at an incredible rate.  We have green mangoes – so called because they never really turn pink – and golden pineapples once again.  And I’m already salivating because the avocadoes are coming on the trees.

Outcroppings like these can be over very shallow or very deep water,
and the beach is very different at high or low tide.
We enjoyed exploring to a new place the other day, and watched a Tongan family play in the water at a beach that was only about 40 feet across, framed by coral outcroppings.  The parents and five children (ranging in age from about 16 to 3)  jumped into the water, raced the waves up and down the beach, swam through the surf, and tried (and succeeded) to catch a few sea creatures.  One boy caught a  creature of some kind – it had a shell, but I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.  He was quite excited to put it on the wet sand, watch the creature flop toward the water, then grab it again and move it back up on the shore.  He finally wrapped the creature in some aluminum foil, and took it home with him when the family left.  The crustacean will probably become part of the family’s dinner tonight.

The most fascinating moment when the youngest daughter, about 8 or 9, finally freed a crab from an abandoned net the family had dragged out of the water.  She took it over to her 16-year old brother, who talked to her about it for a few minutes. Then she handed him the crab, which surprised me, because she had not let any of her other brothers take the crab.  But she willingly handed the crab over to her oldest brother, and he in turn lobbed the crab back into the water.  Then the family began gathering together, and decided it was time to go home.  Within minutes the beach was quiet, as the last of the family waved goodbye to us.  The rest had already disappeared into the mangroves.

I was fascinated with the conversation and the actions of these two siblings, because they demonstrated to me a change in traditional family dynamics here in Tonga.  Most of the time authority rules here; fathers are feared more than loved, older siblings get their way at the cost of the tender feelings of younger siblings.  But not this time.  This older brother chose to teach his sister about this crab.  Perhaps he explained that it was not edible, or that it was too small.  In any case, her accomplishments and tender feelings were honored, and she in turn honored his greater knowledge, and allowed him to rescue the crab and return it to its saltwater home.  And both she and her brother were happy.  It was like watching a bit of “new green” in family relations here. 

We sat under a mangrove tree like this one.  
What a lesson.  It was an honor to watch this family enjoy each other’s company today, parents and siblings taking turns helping the little three-year old get used to the strong surf, younger brothers and sisters cartwheeling and flopping in the sand, and the older ones jumping into the water from the outcroppings.  Jim and I were blessed to be witnesses as this family shared a simple yet profound expression of love and joy in each other’s company.  As the season of spring continues, it is wondrous to watch the growth in the people of this tiny island.