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

The Road Goes Ever On

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Last year, on the first Friday of May, I was in Rome.

It was the only day in my life that I ate (at least) three servings of gelato. It was glorious weather, and I soaked up the crazy, happy, loud atmosphere. I was touring there with a friend and her son, with reservations for 4 days. But I had only Friday there because my grandpa died that night. I’ll always be grateful that we had  lived that day so expansively, so thoroughly and freely.

The next day, travelling home alone and dealing with rude airline agents, part of my heart broke and died. The part of myself that always thrilled to step onto a plane or train or bus, ticket in hand, was gone, and stayed gone for the rest of the year. I flew several places after that, and always with dread and whimpering, even tears.

It was many things. Losing my gentle, globe-trotting grandpa. Disappointment of leaving Italy so soon. Later, it was about not having energy to travel. At Christmas, it was wonderful to fly home but having just had surgery and needing a wheelchair gave me a kind of identity crisis. Plane tickets started feeling like a bother. It didn’t help when one flight cancelled just as I was ready to leave for the airport in the middle of the night. Airports became something to endure, airline staff couldn’t wait to call me out on something.

I missed the thrill. I missed not being excited to travel when I had the chance. It didn’t feel like me. For most of a year, I wondered if I would ever really want to travel again.

Slowly, it came seeping back.

In February, I felt new energy, new impetus to fly. It helped that I wasn’t alone, and when Janelle and I stepped onto the jet-way in San Diego, we could smell the humid sea air, and suddenly that dead part of my heart felt warm again. We stood outside waiting for our bus, and watched the gulls and palm trees, and met friendly people, and then it came back to me– why I love to explore the far horizon.

It was confirmed when I flew back to Poland, via Amsterdam.  What other airport has an art gallery and museum, and a cafe where the booths are giant delft cups? I fell in love again with Holland. With travelling. With bags and airline workers and tickets and arrival times.

Not everyone has to travel to have a good life but I will never live long enough to see every place I want to.  Travelling isn’t a right for me to demand, so I’m grateful beyond words for the opportunities I’ve had. It has expanded my soul to talk with other people, observe different lifestyles, eat new food.

Especially gelato.

 

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Our Roads Converged

Jewel and I were hungry for kebabs so we trotted down the street to the doner kebab shop that’s on the road we live on.  It’s pretty heady, really, to think about being able to follow the road west to Berlin and Paris and east to Moscow if we’d go far enough.

The man at the counter was taking my order (cięnki, z kurczakiem, sos mieszana) and suddenly he said in English, “You’re not Polish. How long you live in Poland? You speak Polish well. I’ve lived here two years, and I understand everything but I still don’t speak Polish well.”

I told him I’ve lived here three and a half years, and I understand how he feels, because I understand more than I’m able to speak. He said he’s from Egypt, and I said I dream of travelling there, and he said that would be nice, but the economic situation there isn’t good right now. “Are you happy here?” I asked. He nodded, avoiding my eyes. “I live here because my wife is from here.”

Later, I stood where he was preparing our food. With no warning, he turned to me and spit out, “I HATE this country. I lived in Holland for six and a half years and you can have a wonderful life with everything there. I HATE this country.”

The venom in his voice and fire in his eyes took me aback.  I asked why he hates Poland. “People here are aggressive.” I didn’t comment on that, but said I think that in general people in Holland and Ireland seem friendlier and happier than here. “They’re racist here,” he said, and the way he spat the words broke my heart. I said I’m so sorry, and I haven’t experienced racism myself, but it’s a terrible thing. “I’m going to wait some time, then I’m going back to Holland.” His posture told me he was ready to defend his decision had I tried to dissuade him.

The kebab and cold Coke was wonderful comfort food, a splurge for a Friday night on a holiday weekend, but I was heart-sick, remembering the shards of his words. We’ll be back down the street for that good food, but the real reason will be to have a chance to talk with the sad man from Egypt.

All the roads of the world should unite us, not divide.