A World in a Grain of Sand

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In a disorientated week sandwiched between a summer of crazy weeks, yesterday was blocked off for free time. It was a to be a girls’ day out–seven of us with a friend who is leaving soon.  You don’t celebrate these things; you just acknowledge them and squeeze the goodness out of each minute.

On the train to Warsaw, we talked logistics and plans for the next weeks on Hope Singers. We found a restaurant in the city center and I had my favorite Polish soup, chłodnik: cold sour cream purple with beet juice and thick with grated beets and fresh dill. Fantastic! The pink color is enough to charm me well before the lush flavor hits.

We rented bikes in Powiśle and followed the bike path for nearly ten kms toward Wilanów. It was easy cycling, mostly flat, through shaded parks and past apartment blocks. We took our time. The sun was hot and I was thirsty so I stopped at a roadside fruit stand and bought a treat: fat sweet cherries and blueberries. It was better than water or chocolate, which is saying a lot.

I was last in the string of seven, not being as speedy as some of them, but enjoying every minute.  Suddenly, turning a corner, I recognized where I was.

Just down the road behind that building is the hospital where I was last December.  Maybe I will always be fragile regarding hospitals and operations and waiting rooms because it all washed over me again and I couldn’t stop whimpering. Hysterectomy, that nasty word, and how it shook up the surgeon because it was so much worse than she was expecting it to be, the units of blood and brick of ice on my stomach for hours and me out of my mind in pain.

It was just down around the corner, eight months ago, and now I was biking past, eating fat sweet cherries from my bike basket, wearing sunglasses, the breeze drying my tears.

I don’t know how the heart expands to hold so much sadness and gladness in one day, and even in one moment. But it does.

Wine of the World

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I wrote this free verse some years ago. Usuallycommunion tells me about the past, but during one communion when I was empty of wine and life, I caught a glimpse of the future–the wedding feast when Jesus said He would drink the wine again.

In the day of Jesus’ first public miracle, it was a disgrace for the host to run out of wine. On that last great day, He, the gracious Host, will have enough for everyone. I share/repost this for anyone who may be empty, in disgrace, and in need of hope for refilling.

“I have no more wine,”
I say to Him at the edge of the crowd.
Palms up, shoulders hunched.

Conversation dwindling, smiles fading,
The crowd thins.
No sparkle,
No celebration.
We have no more wine.

“Woman, what have I to do with you?”
But His eyes belie the cold words.

“What do You have to do with me?
My Lord! My Maker!
The True Vine from which True Wine comes!
Leave me not alone.
Forsake me not in this disgrace.
Do not deny me dancing feet and songs.
I cannot bear to leave this place of light.
Without You, I will go out into darkness and die.
But You are here, and You are my life,
And I will do whatever You say.”

He commands the water pots to be filled.
Clear, splashing rivers that cleanse and refresh.
Full and sloshing over earthen rims.

The harried, frazzled MC takes a sip in a deserted alcove.
His eyes beam over the edge of the chalice.
Then he shouts.
THIS IS THE BEST WINE IN THE WORLD!
COME, PEOPLE, TASTE AND SEE!
START THE MUSIC AGAIN!

I find Him at the crowd’s edge again.
He says nothing, but
Smiles at me.
The silence between us fills
With music.
Rolling, trilling, glorious music.
It sings of sweetness and life,
Of vibrance and light,
And the guests raise their cups high
To the health of the bride and groom.

The music swirls again, and
Everyone’s feet wear wings.
He is still in the alcove with me,
Watching.
Is He thinking of a grander wedding feast
In another place,
Without time?

Bread of the world in mercy broken,
Wine of the world in mercy shed,
*
I pledge my life to You.
You fill the hungry with good things.
I come to You in emptiness and desperation
And You always–always–
Fill, refresh, give reasons to dance.

And on that last great feast day,
I will see You smile again,
And it will be as we said back then:
You saved the best for last!

*These are opening lines from a hymn by Reginald Heber who also wrote “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics/4850731034/”>jenny downing</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

I Don’t Like Scary Stories

A couple days ago I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring and was coming up to the saddest part of the story. (No spoiler here!) It’s the nth time I’ve read the book, so I knew what was coming. I found myself wanting to stop reading because I didn’t want the sad part to happen.

Sort of, I guess, like a baby who doesn’t have object permanence.  If I close my eyes, it doesn’t exist. If I don’t see it, it’s not happening.

But I pushed through the Mines of Moria, and now they’re in Lothlórian. The fellowship still has great sadness, but their grief didn’t destroy them, and they found rest.

The same kind of reaction happens when I read the Gospels and I know when the sad part of the story is coming. I read the tender, last words, and I want to stop reading because what happens next is too terrible to think about.

Maybe if I don’t read it, it didn’t happen.

This evening we had communion, so I couldn’t avoid the sad part of the story. I’m not supposed to forget it, Jesus said. I should not try to forget that part of His life because all of history hinges on it. It’s good to push through the terrible parts and come out on the other side, knowing the tragedy wasn’t actually the end of the world even though it felt like it.

There’s a lot to take home from that. Trust. Hope. Confidence. Defeat for the enemy. Redemption.

I think maybe the biggest thing to take from that awful story–apart from gratitude for Jesus saving my soul–is that the dark, terrible parts of the story make the light brighter at the other end. Joy is fuller after the grief. Healing is more wondrous after the brokenness.

For the fellowship, the story doesn’t end in Lothlórian. Most of the journey is still ahead of them, and it will be hard.

I have walked in darkness and brokenness, and this current place of light and healing is more precious for it. But my story isn’t finished yet, and the road will be hard and yucky and scary.

Knowing other stories lets me know that difficulty and blood and tears doesn’t end the story. It’s part of the story. Adds to it, in fact.

And some day, we will lose our object permanence. We won’t see sorrow and it won’t exist anymore. Like good old Sam wondered in bewilderment after the great shadow had passed, everything sad became untrue.

This is how I have courage to keep reading. And living.

Sitting with Masters

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I’m blown away this week with my students who are masters at what they do. To tap into their interests and abilities gives a lesson wings to take off and fly high.

One is a checkers player, so I asked him to tell me how to play the game. I didn’t have a real playing board, so I printed a board and cut out little black and white checkers. Of course I’ve played checkers a looooong time ago, but forgot most of it, and I’d never played with someone who routinely plays in tournaments. It was a great exercise for him to explain everything in English, and as we played, of course he creamed me, but the exciting thing was that he talked non-stop.

A teenager? Talking freely and not putting his head down on the table? He was in the moment, explaining positions and fields and defense moves. I was agog. He explained that in the past weekend, he’d been at a competition and his team won 2nd place in Poland in his age division. Plus, the team they were coaching won 2nd place. He said each player has 90 minutes to play a game, and sometimes it take 30-40 minutes to plan one move.

“Is it hard to concentrate for so long?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I love it!”

I’ve been teaching him for two years now, and never knew he had it in him to talk so long and excitedly. Or that any teen is happy to sit and think in silence for 30  minutes. I wanted to cheer!

Another lesson was a listening exercise for a student who’s a musician. We watched one of my favorite TED talks, and it connected with him since he’s a conductor and music teacher.  We talked about poetic words like waft, and of the connection between musician and listener, and of Zander’s definition of success: how many shining eyes are around us. At first, my student wasn’t sure this definition of success applied to businessmen and shop keepers, but as we discussed it, I saw the light dawn on his face. Because he understood what it is to empower others and enlarge their capacity to learn and perform, he acknowledged that commerce also needs shining eyes.

During another lesson, my student talked about how she makes baskets from willows. Her English level was low. I think none of my students has ever used the word “willow.” She did, because it is her interest and ability. She loves to work with her hands, knows folk art and hand crafts, and can respect others’ work.

These days, I am absolutely drained by evening, and try hard to stay strong and not melt into a puddle of  exhaustion. What helps is that most of my work does itself if I just tap the right buttons and pick up on what  my students care about.  And it’s wonderful to sit and listen to someone talk about what they do well. I see the light in their eyes and the passion in their gestures, all unconscious, and I’m so happy that I get to sit with masters.

Related post: Tigers’ Shining Eyes

Golden Lives

I was catching up with an acquaintance.  He asked me why I’m still in Poland, his country.

“I love teaching English,” I said simply.

We talked about his family, farm, neighbors, and circled back to my job.

“My students are wonderful,” I said. “I LOVE my students!”

“No,” he corrected me seriously. “You love your JOB.”

Hmmm, well. That’s not what I just said.

He was making the point that when you’re happy in your work, you’re willing to put up with bad days, and it doesn’t make you start looking for an opening somewhere else.

I love my job, it’s true. When class is in session I forget about pretty much everything outside the classroom. It always surprises me how soon the clock say it’s time to wrap up. (There are rare exceptions.) I’m definitely in my zone when I’m teaching English, but it’s way more than my joy in gerunds, infinitives, and pronunciation.

Because my students are absolutely the best. They are brimming with life and whimsy and cleverness. They tell me the wildest stories and ambitions. They are quick and kind. They are beautiful and fascinating and brave.

So I laugh with the lady who told me she’s so practical that her boyfriend’s first gift to her was a mixer. To the new father whose baby cries a lot, I say that I’m praying for them, and he is profusely grateful. I’m in awe at the woman who lives in joy and forgiveness for her husband who divorced her. I treasure the surprising turn of phrase and sparkling eyes. I do everything I can to equip my students to have good English conversations, but most of all I want them to feel safe and loved, no matter their level of English.

Most people have few places where they accepted just as they are, without being judged or scowled at for their clothes or education or occupation or performance or weight. Disapproval especially seems to hang thick in the air of this post-communist country. Hardly a generation ago, people on these streets were paid to be informers on their non-conformist neighbors, and old habits die hard.

But the tendency isn’t unique to certain political systems. I know my own insidious tendency to rank, cull, and venerate at will, and I know only Jesus’ presence is what can erase judgement and disdain. He is my leader, and His love was magnetic, and I want to be like Him.

This is what I pray and sing:

Heal their hearts, feed their souls,

Their lives can be golden if Your love enfolds.  –Bill Whelan

 

 

Who is a Mother? Part II

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If you sit with empty arms on Mother’s Day, and your life feels devoid of beauty and miracles, ask God for opportunities to be His reflection of love and nurture.

In Isaiah 54:1, He promises that the childless woman will have more children than the mother with a husband and family. God keeps His word in amazing ways—try Him and see! When I asked God to help me be as Christ to people, He gave me opportunities that I would never have imagined. But, as all birth mothers know,  high callings and great privileges come with the price of servanthood and selfless love, and sometimes the cost makes me stagger.

After the Emmaus walk with Jesus, it was in the breaking of the bread that the men recognized Him. If we women symbolize bread as nourishment for our world, it is in the breaking of that bread that Christ is made visible. Spiritually broken and consumed in hidden, thankless, ordinary places, we are part of a calling that is bigger than any of us—the privilege of introducing the real Christ to people for whom He may be only a dusty relic.

Motherhood—nurturing in brokenness—is a beautiful but demanding calling to which childless women are not exempt.  This calling is not just a spare hole to fill in life’s puzzle. It is the whole purpose for which He created us women.

Following Christ’s example of love and service can make us feel drained and exhausted. But God anticipated these feelings of being used and spent. In Isaiah 58: 10 & 11, He promises that if we spend ourselves in behalf of others, He will satisfy our souls in return. While we pour out our lives as Christ did, God pours out even more life to us. We can never out-give Him!

And His care is not only spiritual or intangible or theoretical. He sends people at just the right time to remind us of our worth and help us feel the sun on our shoulders.

When my sister-in-law became a mother and was looking forward to celebrating Mother’s Day for her first time, she anticipated how some of us would feel, and she ordered a bouquet for the church house. After the Mother’s Day service, all the ladies who encouraged and influenced younger ones were invited to choose a flower from the bouquet to take home.

I chose a white tulip—white to symbolize purity and a tulip to symbolize hope. Because hope does good things to my heart even if I’m never given what I long for. And I can know that even if the shape of my life is different from most women my age, my calling still carries value and beauty.

It is Mother’s Day and I am not a mother. But because I am God’s daughter and want to reflect His character of care and nurture to a world devoid of these virtues, my identity is already sure. My value is not based on how many babies I have borne. That He should trust His perfect character to be reflected by this fallible, easily-distracted lady is a high honor indeed.

For this privilege, I thank Him today.

Yesterday: Part I

Who is a Mother?

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It is Mother’s Day and I am not a mother. Other ladies open their pretty cards, and cuddle their babies. Bouquets declare it and preachers proclaim it: today mothers are the most special, honoured people in the world.

But my arms are empty and so are many of my friends’ arms. Who are we on Mother’s Day if we don’t have babies to cuddle or older children to give us flowers and fancy cards? Are we extras in the play, supporters of the star roles?

We are women. And being made in God’s image, we are life-givers. Because of His power in us, we give birth to miracles. Not biologically, necessarily. The miracles don’t always involve babies. But when our life goal is to accurately reflect God’s character, we will be nurturers in some way.

In creative ways, in diverse ways, in beautiful ways.

A school teacher patiently tutors a slow learner. A girl writes notes to encourage a homesick room-mate. A shop keeper befriends a lively family. A pat on a child’s head, a  smile for the cleaning lady at the mall, patience with co-worker’s prattle, a chat with a widow: all are tokens of the life-giving love and self-forgetful acts that characterize mothers.

No woman is exempt from these privileges.

It was women who followed Jesus to the cross when His disciples ran away. It was women, crushed with grief, who came to the tomb to do the last thing they could for Him. To accompany loved ones and care deeply for them even at great cost, this is what it means to be a woman and a mother.

Besides nurturing people who enter our world, we also nurture attitudes that shape our hearts. We can nurse grudges and complaints. Or we can incubate gratitude and acceptance that will spill out into our world and shape it. We nurture feelings just because we’re human, and we nurture Christ-like virtues because He has made us holy.

Tomorrow: Part II