A Garden Tea

summer-783344_1280She’s been my student for several years, a woman older than I with a husband and grown children. She lives in the same apartment building I do, and for our last meeting, instead of having an English lesson, she invited me to her house. But first, she said, if the weather is nice, we’ll go to her in-laws to see their garden.

Sure, I said, that would be lovely.

So we met outside our building, and the sun was warm, and she took me first to a bakery down the street. The best bakery in town, she said, and she had me choose two kinds of cake. Then we walked around the block to her in-laws and before I walked through the gate, I had to stop and smell the wall of roses in front of the house.

The garden was pristine, orderly, a well-hidden opulent secret behind a fence on an ordinary street. They told me the place had been in the family for 3 generations, and their passion for the place shone in every corner. We took off our sandals to walk in the grass–it’s a carpet! the mother-in-law said with sparkling eyes.

The three of us sat in the garden to have tea and cakes, and had a glorious, easy mix of languages. The older lady brought out the elaborate cards that her daughter had made so that I could admire the hand-work, and we talked about hobbies and her family and mine and how we used to have a garden too.

Then the noises we heard above us stopped, and a wizened and spry elderly man came out of a tree with a saw in his hand. The father-in-law. He lifted his cap at me, sat a little to the side of us, and told me a couple jokes, then climbed back up into the tree. I felt that I’d just entered a story.

One of the jokes: A Polish man walked into a English dentist’s office and said he has a tooth that needs to be pulled. The dentist asked “Where?” The man said “Tu.” And the dentist pulled two of the poor man’s teeth!

A drop of cream from a piece of cake fell on the grass. Oops, I made the carpet dirty, the older woman grinned. It was incredibly easy to talk with them. Of course there was a lot behind our conversation. I’ve spent hours listening to my student tell me how she eats special diets and prays and goes on pilgrimages and learned about forgiveness and how worried she is about her family members who have cancer.

They talked between themselves for a minute, then my student said her mother-in-law is wondering how old I am. I thought we’d talked about our ages in some lesson, but she didn’t remember, so I explained that last Friday I had a birthday and now I’m 41. Both women jerked back and gasped. I don’t believe it–I said you’re not more than 25 or 26, the mother-in-law said. Which of course made me laugh and laugh and endeared them to me even more.

She hugged and hugged me good-bye and wished me all the best, and as we walked past the flowers to the gate, I held the lady’s arm and said when I’m her age, I want to be as hospitable as she is. You will be, I feel it, she said, her eyes twinkling.

I don’t know what inspires a woman to take in her daughter-in-law’s foreign language teacher and push tea and cake into her hands and show her all around the garden and love her as generously as an old friend would.   I don’t know why the elderly monkey-man came down just to say a couple genuinely funny jokes and disappear again. I don’t know how time stops but the watch keeps moving and forces me to leave so that I can make the next meeting.

I only know that I was graced with exceptional kindness yesterday, and I have a new role model.

Waiting on a Platform

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Authors are supposed to “build their platform” and put out engaging blog posts at least every couple days so that they can confidently tell their publishers that their blog gets several thousand hits a day.

Well.

This writer once wrote a book with a message that she really cares about, and technically, she should be trying to engage more readers and sell more copies to potential readers and write engaging, pithy quotes on Facebook-able photos.

But these days, never mind a blog or Facebook. She’s doing good to answer texts on her phone as they come in, and catch up on emails about once a week. Her days and minutes are full of other kinds of words–words sprinkled between coffee and meals  and a couple private lessons and walks to the park and good-bye hugs.

There’s another good-bye nearly every day, and the occasions are filled with the dearest, most beautiful conversations and overflowing hearts, and little gifts handed both ways, and she repeatedly talks to herself where no one can hear, “This has been really lovely, but I have to go away and cry now.”

But mostly, she laughs and wonders at the rich blue of the sky and the fragrance of mock orange, and eats another chocolate.

Or loses herself in a riveting book. Or on Facebook. Didn’t someone say Facebook is the opiate of the masses?

There are moments when she wants to wail that she’s a homeless bird and a refugee and she’s going to hyperventilate and die when she lives in the US again after not having lived there for 19 years. Then when the histrionics pass, she knows that she’s not  refugee: she has a definite place to go to, no trauma to escape from (although maybe language barrier has been a kind of trauma?), she’s not leaving with only the clothes on her back, and she is actually very, very rich.

She’s leaving what was joy and security and delight, a foreign country that gave her wide experiences and deep relationships. To uproot all of that will be hard, hard, hard, but it’s not a bad hard. It’s not a tragedy. It’s the end of her current world as she knows it, but something else lies beyond the horizon, and the earth isn’t flat, and she won’t fall off the edge and splatter to pieces.

And if she does fall apart now and then, well, that’s a fairly normal occurrence for her in any place.

Hopefully, tucked away somewhere in the next chapter of her life, she’ll find words again to put on her blog, and be able to think about whether she should try to build her platform, whatever that means.

For now, she’s focusing on loving well and finishing well.

Whatever that means.

A Strong Weapon

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So there’s this verse in Revelation that gives us a peek into the future and how the story will end. It says the Christians overcame the enemy, that ancient serpent, by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.

“Testimony” is a powerful word, more than we usually realize. Among other things, I think it means telling our story, and not keeping truth to ourselves.

Listening to each others’ stories–giving testimony to what God has done–can be strengthening, encouraging, and helps keep us from feeling alone in our life experiences. This can be a method of spiritual warfare, fighting shoulder to shoulder, and reminding each other to keep heart.

However.

Does listening to someone’s testimony also sometimes take you aback, just for a second? It does for me.

Not often, but now and then, I hear or read a glowing testimony and it leaves me with a little thud inside. I don’t mean to be cynical. I don’t want to be hard or skeptical. But sometimes I want to say, But what if that necessary phone call hadn’t come 5 minutes later? What if that long night of the soul hadn’t been relieved the next month? Would He still be great and faithful and a help in time of need? Is your good story the reason you love Him?

I ask this because sometimes your testimony doesn’t have a tidy, happy wrap-up where all the pieces fit and everyone is smiling and the house looks like a catalog. Mine doesn’t, anyhow. Don’t get me wrong–I love my life, and I laugh a lot, but I also weep a lot and my heart gets shattered regularly.

Because we’re on a battlefield and it’s not pretty. There are cosmic-sized wagers going on over every soul. There is a snake who is bent on killing and destroying saints, and he fights ugly.

Beyond that, God is generous and merciful and long-suffering, but He will not be bargained with. He’s not a genie for us to rub and get our pet wishes. His purposes are wondrous but unsearchable, and we very often don’t see through His infinite decisions.

So sometimes your story script has the doctor saying words you don’t want to hear..

Or your husband absconds.

Or your old Bible and journal are stolen along with your van.

Or the troubled relationship stays troubled.

You can add your own list of griefs and losses, and they are real and not just something to brush away with a pat answer.

Those stories don’t come out so quickly in a prayer and praise service when the moderator asks for testimonies. Because it feels weird to tell a story without a sweet ending. Or it hurts so much that we’re afraid we’ll bawl all over the pew.

But that grief? That loneliness?

That’s your testimony, and a powerful one that can be used to wreck the enemy. Because if it’s about how you’re talking to God about it, your story includes trust.

The people we consider giants of faith were probably sometimes silent when their friends gave sparkling accounts of how God came through for them. They were misused, misunderstood, and didn’t get what they were asking God for. But they are the witnesses in the grandstands now, cheering for us, saying “Keep going! Keep talking to Jesus–look at Him! The best part of your story is still coming!”

Think of Hannah, who was blubbering so desperately that she was mistaken as a drunk. Before she knew how her story would finish, she was beating on God’s chest, imploring, not denying her raw ache. I bet she’s in the grandstands now, saying, “Go on–tell God how much it hurts–He can take it! He has the whole world in His hands–you can TRUST Him–He’s SAFE!”

God’s blessing comes to the one who trusts, the Psalmist says, and trust means being honest with God.

Trust doesn’t insist on answers and solutions.

Trust weeps because she knows her God sees and collects her tears.

Trust says “though He kills me, I will trust.”

And “even if He doesn’t deliver us, we will not bow down.”

And “even if the fig tree doesn’t bud, I will rejoice in God.”

Trust never swaggers but croaks out, “I believe; please help my unbelief.”

Trust holds onto His promises and believes His goodness even when the agony doesn’t end and the answer doesn’t come in 5 minutes or one week.

Sometimes I think our tidy testimonies are fine and good but border on implying “God did x,y,z for me, and so now I know He’s big and trustworthy.”

I think the saints’ stories that defeated the enemy were not the chirpy, tidy, sparkling testimonies that are often in the periodicals or the Sunday morning share times. They were the stories that said, “Life stinks right now–my brother got sawed in two pieces yesterday–but I know God is still good.” (Please don’t hear me knocking beautiful, glad stories of God’s provision. The point here is that those aren’t the only stories out there, and what then?)

Trust is most visible in the dark, in the loneliness, in the scary diagnosis, in the fallout from the enemy’s attack. Trust is maybe the loudest, clearest defeat to the enemy.

It says we will go down fighting for Light and Truth and we will not swallow lies or follow the mini-gods of pleasure and ease or despair that tantalize us.

He blesses trust with His presence, the greatest gift possible.

And His presence defeats the enemy.

That’s why your testimony is worth so much.

A Fast From Buying Clothes

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It started out mostly from a whim, and then from the intrigue of a challenge.

I like to be pushed, and I like the idea of minimalism and less consumerism.Could I really do this? Could I stick it out for a whole year? I decided to try.

So at the end of February 2014 I agreed with myself that I wouldn’t buy any clothes until March 1, 2015.

It was a really good experience, a good year. I learned valuable things such as:

  • contrary to what I used to think, a woman really can have too many scarves.
  • you save great amounts of time and money walking past used clothing stores.
  • you save great amounts of regret if you don’t walk inside used clothing stores.
  • life goes on even after you walk away from something you really, really want
  • there’s always next year
  • if you don’t wear a jacket more than twice a year, you can get rid of it painlessly.

Some things that helped:

  • I told a couple friends what I was doing, so they could hold me to my word
  • I liked the clothes I had (most days)

Part of what took me to this kind of action is that I’m moving out of the country this summer. After living here 5 years, I’ll need to condense my stuff into probably no more than 2 suitcases. Every piece of clothing will need to be weighed (literally) and culled according to its value and serviceability.

It’s a great discipline for someone like me who idealizes doing with less and simplifying life. I’m not interested in being shabby and thread-bare, but I despise being bothered with stacks and shelves and boxes of Stuff to Wear.

Probably it’s harder for a Mennonite to maintain a good working philosophy of buying clothes when you/I can find them so cheaply. In our Polish backwater town, there are more used clothing stores on any given block than I’ve seen in any other town, and the siren call is out there every day. It appeals to our thrill of the chase, and the victory of getting more with less.

But sometimes, for whatever reason and whatever season, it’s good to say a hearty, clarifying NO. It’s surprisingly freeing. Part of discipline, I think, means carrying out a decision that you made well before the heat of the moment. It’s empowering to walk past something you really want and to know that it didn’t get the best of you.

And now that I can buy clothes again, I’m having fun, fun, fun!

Maybe it’s because I have a hard time moderating moderation and tend toward being all-or-nothing. Maybe it’s because I treasure the privilege I have now to buy some nice things.

Two anecdotes:

  • The day before March 1 was a Saturday and I had some free time, so I asked my friend to come with me to give me advice on buying a piece of fabric for a Simple Clothing Project that I’d been dreaming about for months. I bought it (it was more expensive than I’d expected) took it home, did what the recipe said, and it was a dismal failure.  I think there’s hope for it, but for now, it’s crumpled up on the floor, waiting for its redemption. I don’t think it’s a punishment for breaking the fast a day early but maybe it’s a lesson about not rushing into things and being humble enough to do a trial run first.
  • The one time I allowed myself to go into a used clothing store (to buy scarves for a project I was doing for friends) I saw this perfect, beautiful linen/cotton white top. It was really painful to walk away from it, but I managed. It haunted me for a long time. Would I ever find one so perfect again? Months later, I went to Jerusalem and was shopping in the old city and several times I walked past a white top that caught my eye. My friends said I should just ask about the price. I did, and about 15 minutes later, left the shop, wearing the piece! In the process, I learned how to bargain, which was hysterically fun. Do I miss that first linen top? Not for a skinny minute.

To wrap up: fasting isn’t fun. I haven’t girded up my courage yet to fast from second helpings or from chocolate. A year’s clothing fast was the thing I needed to do that was hard, but not impossible.

I don’t know what you’re grappling with, but you might need a fast from whatever it is that is getting the best of you. It could be music, work, entertainment, stuff, people–anything. For some do-able season, for some honorable reason, can you say NO? The discipline will make you stronger than you realized you could be and teach you surprising things.

Who knows? You might learn to bargain with a dramatic Middle Easterner.

 

 

An Epiphany About Running

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Last week I flew from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in order to spend Easter with my friends in Jerusalem. Sound exotic? Yes, it was. I’m still floating.But this is not a travel blog, though I dream of that. This is about an epiphany I’m still living with.

The plane was filled with Polish Jews and there was a beautiful, exquisite atmosphere with the families mingling and smiling and comparing notes. “We’re going for Passover in Jerusalem then rent a car and travel further. What? You too?” Polish Jews have suffered so much in this country, and I could feel the pulsating home-coming atmosphere and was so happy for them.

Wedged between two pleasant gentlemen, one wearing a kippah and editing his movie of a rabbinical school, I opened my Bible to Luke’s account of the resurrection. I wanted to enter into the story as much as possible in the next several days. I wanted to hear and see and smell what Jesus and His loved ones did. (As it turned out, it seemed that I could only see the same sky they did, because not much else is the same, but that’s ok. The journeys of the heart are what really change us, I think, not a physical pilgrimage.)

Luke says the women found the tomb empty and heard the angels say that Jesus was no longer dead, and then went back to tell “all the others” about it. You know how women are when they get to be the first to tell someone their exciting news.

This was the best news that could ever happen, and to the disciples, Luke says it was idle tales.

Empty words.

Jibberish.

Jesus had repeatedly confided in these men. He’d told them He would die and rise again. He’d done what He could to prepare them for the devastation they would feel, but it did not compute for them. Now this morning they were so crushed that they couldn’t let themselves believe what the women were saying.

Do you know how blankety-blank hard it is to sustain hope? It’s easier to write it off as nonsense and foolishness and tell yourself not to care anymore.

Mark says the disciples didn’t believe the women nor Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus who had walked and talked with Jesus that day. It’s pretty much impossible to believe news about a miracle when you watch all your hopes dangle on a bloody cross in an earthquake.

When everything you counted on is gone.

When you don’t even have the remains of what you loved.

But Peter ran, Luke noticed. John’s version includes himself in the running. Peter had loved Jesus the most boisterously, the most rashly, and he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard but he had to check, just in case, and the men couldn’t wait or walk calmly.

They ran, and I weep over their eagerness and their stunning bravery. They ran head-long into the situation that held the potential to break their hearts even more–if it’s possible to break a heart that’s already pulverized. There was no precedence for what Jesus did, and they had no proof of the women’s words being true.

Except they had Jesus’ words earlier, which is life and power in itself.

Wedged in a tight airplane seat, I tried to surreptitiously wipe my tears on my scarf because I didn’t want the men to get worried about me crying.(“No, no, I’m ok–I’m not scared of flying–everything’s ok!” I would have said.) But I can’t stop crying about it even now. There is maybe no other scene that speaks so powerfully to passion and longing and life than this one–of the men running toward what they coudn’t believe.

There are half a million things I hope for myself and those I love. Sometimes I get a tiny glimpse of how things could be. How a miracle would change things for them or me. How we could enter more fully into what we were created for.

But it feels so impossible, so far away, that I write it off as pish-posh. Or I believe the lie that we don’t deserve these miracles. Or we’re not one of the lucky ones and God is handing out miracles to others but forgot about me and my people for awhile .

And lies and fanciful tales don’t sustain and don’t give life. In fact, they starve me. Poison my system. Shut me down. Keep me from running.

With the power that woke Jesus from the dead, I want to run toward the things He wants to show me. Not wait around and see what happens. Not discount it as excitable women’s words.

The best thing that could happen had just happened, and Peter couldn’t believe it, but he still ran, and by the Lion’s mane,  that’s how I want to live.

 

 

The Hardest Peace, book recommendation

 

Hardest Peace  I first heard about Kara Tippets when I read a letter she wrote to a young lady who was suffering from cancer and planning a physician-assisted suicide because she didn’t want to fight it and suffer the ravages that were sure to come. Kara has cancer too, and could identify completely with the lady’s pain and fears, and Kara plead for her to look for beauty and hope, because it’s there.

The letter was so beautiful and compelling that I went to Kara’s blog to read more of what she wrote. She was an English major, so it figures that she has a way with words. I loved what she wrote, but I left the blog and didn’t go back to it for awhile because it felt voyeuristic to read about the body blows the cancer was wrecking on her.

But I went back when I realized the wonder of how Kara writes with beauty and grace about their immeasurable pain and sorrow, and it showed me how grace and light is always bigger than whatever darkness is around. I started following her on Facebook because I wanted to bear witness to that light and strength and joy.

Kara is 38, a wife of a church planter, and mother of four children. They never expected their story to look like this–beautiful, but not pretty, as she says.

I was restless this week for a good book, found Kara’s book, The Hardest Peace, on my house-sister’s bookshelf, and finished it today. It undid me in many ways. I cried through most of it. It is poetic and heartbreaking and honest and brave and anointed. Everyone should read it, but you should probably have someone to debrief with.

Kara is home from hospice now, her hair is growing back, but she’s writing less and less. Most mornings, I wake up and wonder if she’s still with us. There is a network of believers laced all over the globe, praying for her, supporting the beautiful family, waiting with them in wings before she enters the throne room. This waiting is sacred, crushing, unbelievably cruel, and beautiful.

Mixed Media

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I’d been breathing different air all day because of a lighter teaching load, and a field trip to the library for my babies’ class, my affectionate term for my six and eight year olds. We read Dr. Suess stories in honor of his birthday yesterday and ate marshmallows and, back at school again, colored green eggs and ham pictures for the wall.

A side-note: In this school, we LOVE Dr. Suess! He makes our job easier and more pleasant in many ways. I love the magic of the babies stumbling to sound out English and hearing words fall off their tongues and catching the hang of the rhythm even if they don’t understand all the words. I laugh with them at all the crazy creatures and the colorful feet. If you’re trying to elicit language, these stories help!

Then I had a no-show student, and another cancelled, so I could go home early. On the way, I walked past a gift and art supply shop, and stopped to see the new window display and gasped at the beautiful new mugs. Every day, this proprietor changes at least one of the three window displays and I get huge pleasure out of just looking at things as I walk past. They’re always closed when I pass in the evening, but now I was earlier than normal, and remembered I needed some paper for a project and couldn’t resist the siren call.

This shop is cram-jam full of porcelain and glass and canvases and frames and notebooks. The walls behind the counter are covered and double-stacked with paint tubes, brushes, pastels, and more pens and pencils. I always imagine the paint flying out of all the tubes to create fantastic bright swirling designs in the space above it. This place holds endless possibilities to plan and dream about but I knew I had to keep moving because it was minutes before the shop closed and I didn’t want to make them impatient.

The younger shop assistant helped me graciously with a mixture of English and Polish and found the paper and pen I needed. The older lady appeared in her fluffy, elegant, white chignon, looking the perfect part of an art patron. I paid, but couldn’t quite leave. I just stood a couple seconds and looked around and sighed and said smiling, “I want many things.”

A rollicking chuckle came out of the girl, and she said, “Me too!”

Laughing with a stranger who speaks a different language from me is simply wondrous.