Autumn Epiphanies

I had an epiphany recently. Actually, two.

Every fall, I hear women making endless happy sounds because it’s PSL weather, and time for cozy sweaters and boots, and happy fall ya’ll, and my favorite season is pumpkin spice latte season, and pumpkins/candles/fuzzy socks/coffee, and fall shows us how beautiful it is to let things go, ad nauseum.

It makes me want to curl up in a corner and whimper.

I don’t care about any of the hype. I don’t care about the positive spin. The leaves are brilliant, and I love, love, love all their colors, but I can’t cheer because it’s fall.

Fall means things are dying and we’ll have more night than day, and we have to put on  eight to ten layers to go outside and I see nothing to be glad about any of that. Even the word FALL is negative. The British have something over us because they call it autumn.

The first epiphany was this:

Only the privileged get to chortle about their favorite season.

Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a favorite season and changing their wardrobe and décor accordingly. Most people are just trying to survive, find enough food for the next meal, and have enough shelter from the elements to stay alive.

If I complain about the season, it shows how privileged I am, how entitled I am to feel comfortable all time, how I deserve to reject or praise whatever season I want to.

It’s ok to have an opinion. I have lots of them.

But it’s not ok to be grumpy or complaining because something about the season doesn’t suit me. This epiphany has the potential to change my life because I’ve done more than my share of complaining about mice moving into the house when it gets cold and snow keeping me from driving where I want to and six-month long winters.

I still don’t like orange, and I still wince at inconvenient cold and I still get super stressed driving in snowy weather. I will probably never stop fantasizing about living in Italy or Greece. But I’m rich beyond belief, and have more than I deserve, and I should never complain.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed. –Mary Oliver.

My friend Hannah did this calligraphy on a chalkboard and I cried when I saw it because it’s so beautiful and true.

Then, the 2nd epiphany:

I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes because spice doesn’t belong in coffee.

Coffee belongs in coffee (and maybe cream) but spices belong in tea. So bring on the spicy chai! I dream of pots and pots of creamy, spicy chai every week for the next six months. Take that, winter.

This was the first one, in a tall mug, with friends at a darling coffee shop in Manheim, PA.

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I discovered I can make a mean batch of chai. It wants to be made in a batch, not just a single serving. In case someone else out there shares my sentiment for un-spiced coffee, you might like this alternative.

This is not a recipe, but a guide:

Count on 3 tea bags per cup you want to serve.
Put them in water that comes to half the amount you want to serve. (The other half will be milk. The idea is that you’re making super strong tea.)
Turn on high to bring to a boil.
While the water and tea bags warm up, add:
Cinnamon (about 1 tsp. per 3 servings)
A very small sprinkle of cloves
A knob of grated fresh ginger (or 1 tsp. dried ginger–you must have ginger, or it’s not worth drinking, as I discovered recently when I served mediocre ginger-less chai to friends)
About 1.5 cardomom pod per serving, or a generous dash of ground cardomom (this is where the magic comes: the wispy, ethereal aftertaste that’s almost there, then gone)
A good sprinkle of black pepper

Simmer all of this for 20-25 min. Taste to check the spices, taking in account that it’s going to be bitter and strong. But does it have the right spice balance? This is the question.

Remove the tea bags, leaving in the cardomom pods for maximum effect. This is your chai base, to use now, or refrigerate for later.

To serve, warm the chai base, add approx. 1/4 cup brown sugar, and enough milk to nearly double the volume. If it’s too milky, it’ll cover the spice, so be conservative with the milk to start with. The point is to have it spicy enough to be almost peppery, but sweet and milky to be warm and comforting. Heat until steaming (if you let it boil over on the stove, you’ll be sorry, as I was many times), use a whip to stir and froth a bit, and serve. You might want to strain the spices out or you can just let them settle.

You can take it to the next level by squirting whipped cream on top and drizzling caramel sauce over it.

Probably no Indian or African would claim this as their chai. It’s pretty blatantly American, but ever so warming and comforting.

To Be an Ear

Some years ago, I was one in a quartet of English teachers in Poland. We’d taught and traveled and joked and experienced lots of things together for two years. We knew it was an exceptional season of our lives and things wouldn’t always be this fun.

So the day a team member left to go back to the US was a very sad day.

We waved him off at the airport, then joined other friends in downtown Warsaw. I put on sunglasses to hide my red eyes, tramping around being tourists. They were a big, jolly group, and I loved the chance to share our capital city with them.

On the hour ride home, we caught an old train without AC, and it was hot. Often Polish passengers don’t like any moving breeze, even in high summer, but since our group filled the whole train car, we slid open all the windows.

While the others sang and laughed and made up fun games, I stood by a window. It was open at shoulder-height, so I folded my arms on the rim and rested my chin on my hands. I watched the birch trees and poppies flit past, soaked up the blue sky, and let the hot breeze wash over me and dry my cheeks because tears kept dripping onto them.

Soon Manu, the group’s photographer, came to stand at the window next to mine. We stood elbow to elbow, leaning on our window rims, watching the countryside, while he took pictures of this and that. He turned to me to say something about the sky, and I couldn’t turn away quickly enough to keep him from seeing my tears.

A man who stays steady when a woman cries is a strong, good man. Manu turned back to his camera as if he’d not seen anything amiss. After a minute, still watching the trees, he said, “I guess you had a pretty hard day today.”

I don’t know what I said, but yes.

“It’s really hard to say good-bye,” he said.

Suddenly, I realized who I was talking with. This was a young man who’d grown up in an orphanage in Romania and had loved scores of people who eventually walked out of his life. He’d known more goodbyes than I did.

“It used to hurt so much when someone left. Finally, I decided not to care or get attached, so that their goodbye wouldn’t be so terrible.” His voice was calm, matter-of-fact. “But cutting my heart off still hurt me, so that wasn’t a good choice.”

We talked a little more, about how love and friendship enriches more than it depletes, even if it breaks our heart. Then we lapsed into silence, watching poppies and birch trees flash past. Soon I felt calmed enough to turn away from the window and join the rest of the group and laugh at their games. I was fragile for the rest of the day, but that short exchange at the train window helped me turn a corner.

It wasn’t so much what Manu said, though that was good and gentle and thoughtful. It was more what he did: his calmness and understanding that helped steady me and not feel alone.

Several years later, Manu married my good friend, and now they have two active little boys. I always feel calmed and loved when I’m with them. In my days and dreams for life, I care a lot about wholeness and healing for myself and others. These late summer days of clear skies and warm sun remind me of that season back then and how Manu helped me that day. It was an important step in my growth as a person. He showed me that helping someone is mostly about listening and staying present in their distress.

I hope I never forget it.

Just Ask

Five years ago, my friend Janelle and I flew to San Diego for a Storyline Conference that Donald Miller was hosting. I learned and observed things there that I still think about and refer to, it was that powerful and significant.

The strength of the weekend was how Don shared the stage with many other people who have learned to live well and impact their world. People like Bob Goff, Shauna Niequist, Mike Foster, Tricia Lott Williford, and others.

One of the speakers was Jia Jiang, who told us about his experience with Rejection Therapy. His motto was “Just Ask. “ He got into about 100 adventures, like getting a ride in a police car and playing soccer in a stranger’s yard.  (Listen to his TEDx talk here.) The ask that put him on the map was his request at Krispy Kreme for five donuts in the shape of the Olympic symbol.

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PC: Jia Jiang

Just ask, he says. Asking for what you want can open up possibilities where you expect to be rejected. Also, there are ways to ask that help to disarm the person you’re asking and equalize the space between you.

The last day of the conference in San Diego, our hotel shuttled us to the venue, Point Loma Nazarene University (a gorgeous destination in itself). But we didn’t know when the evening session would be finished and couldn’t book the shuttle for the evening.

In the cracks of that day, I kept thinking about the dilemma of getting back to the hotel that was over two miles away. In the evening, it was dark and raining, so walking wasn’t an option. I wasn’t worried, but very curious about how we were going to get back.

After the last session, in the line waiting for the restroom, I happened to stand beside a girl I’d talked with in the morning. She’d told me then that she had driven there, and was staying with an aunt. In a crowd of 1,600, what are the odds that I’d bump into the same person twice? I remembered the “Just ask” speech and asked if she could take Janelle and me to the hotel.

Of course! she said. She was glad to help us out, refused payment, wished us the best, and we never saw her again.

I’ve learned “just ask” is a useful motto in many scenarios. Asking is usually something I want to avoid, because it puts me in a needy place. It reveals my dependence. It’s risky because being refused means I was too much or too something else. But if it’s not unreasonable or demanding, asking appeals to the human, soft part of a person who is happy to help.

Does it mean I always get what I ask for?

Nope.

But I’m collecting adventures too, when I just ask.

Recently I wanted to book an Airbnb in a little town that I’d fallen in love with. I wanted to spend Labor Day weekend there by myself, exploring, reading, and resting. But I waited too long, so the place I really wanted wasn’t available.

I debated about changing my plans, but then felt strongly that I could at least message the owners to ask if they could refer me to someone in their town.

Just ask.

In a couple hours, they responded, saying they’d blocked those days because they’ll be gone, and they prefer not to have first-time guests then. But they’d like to accommodate me because I seem like a sweet person and a fan of their charming village, and what dates do I need the apartment?

We messaged back and forth in a flurry, and in a few hours, they unblocked the dates and I made the booking. They’re going to be gone, and I’ll have the place to myself the whole blessed weekend. I’m excited beyond words.

Just ask.

 

 

The Only Way Forward


So the news last week was that Josh Harris divorced and says he’s not a Christian anymore. I felt heavy hearted about it on several levels.

I want to weep at the vitriol, sarcasm, disdain, harshness toward him that rippled through social media. Sin is sin, yes, and divorce is a travesty. But is public contempt and expecting the worst of someone ever, ever, redemptive or bring the healing and repentance that Jesus asks for?

The Josh Harris news hit me hard because he’s my age. Which isn’t old, but it’s old enough to have done some good or some hurt. I love being my age but I often wish I’d done things differently. I’d like to retract the heavy-handed, glib things I said when I was in my 20’s. I cringe when I remember my inept ways of being dean and teaching at Calvary Bible School. I made stupid, thoughtless decisions that had to have hurt people who trusted me. I wish I could redo my first ESL lessons, because they were pathetic.

James is absolutely right when he writes that teachers will be judged more severely, and sometimes I wonder why anyone would choose to be an influencer.

And then I remember that everyone influences someone.

Some people have a louder voice or a bigger platform or more attractive words than others, but every time we open our mouths, we make some kind of impact on the ears around us.

Or on the eyes reading our blog. Or Facebook comment. Or the scorn in a conversation.

If we could see the knock-on effect our words have, I wonder if we would say less or more.

“I’m hungry for ice cream–let’s go to McDonalds!”

“That picture of the refugees made me cry.”

“How are things going for you?”

“He thinks he’s so cool.”

Words of passion and zeal and knowledge without wisdom are lethal. Truth without grace is a sledgehammer swung around without direction, volatile, harsh, dangerous. If we always have to be right, and always decry the latest scandal, and constantly shout truisms, we destroy the trust necessary to win an audience and make the difference we’re wanting.

That doesn’t mean we compromise truth. Jesus is full of truth and grace, and His people should reflect those qualities. If we don’t, something is seriously broken.

God’s Kingdom needs bold, winsome, confident, inviting words flung like confetti around the world. No one needs more hate, doubt, or hostility thrown at them.

One of my friends says that her husband prays every day to be humble and confident. I think that’s a posture that God would honor. We don’t have to be slinking around, doubting ourselves, making every disclaimer before we say something. The Holy Spirit said He would help us say the right thing at the right time. The problem isn’t that He doesn’t have the right words for us. The problem is that we aren’t always quiet enough to hear Him.

Josh Harris made some grave mistakes in his 40+ years.

I have too.

We all have.

Repenting and depending on Jesus with humility and confidence is the only way forward.

Muscles Have Memory

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A mom called the phys ed teacher to complain that the teacher worked the children too hard, and her son felt too sore to take out the trash that evening. I couldn’t believe that a mom couldn’t put the pieces together and figure out that no child is going to be thrilled to take out the trash.

It made me start thinking about how entitlement and instant gratification seems to be in the air we breathe, but how that stunts and limits humans from reaching the potential God created us for. I remembered this TED talk, found out a little more about Alex Honnold, and wrote this blog post for The Dock. (The Dock is a website for conservative Anabaptist educators. You’ll need to register to comment there, or come back here to tell me what is your life’s biggest YES!)

Alex Honnold is the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical cliff in Yosemite.

National Geographic describes his practice routine: “He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch.”

Alex has been climbing since he was ten, gradually taking on higher and more taxing climbs. At age 30, Alex thought El Capitan seemed “very scary” but he practiced for a year in order to climb it free-solo. (Free-solo means climbing alone with no ropes or safety gear.)

Probably none of us aspires to rock climbing, and we likely won’t encourage our children to try it. But in our pursuit of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, we should cultivate a lifestyle that habitually and intentionally incorporates discipline. We need automatic, habitual responses to the weights and vices around us. This requires often saying no when it would feel easier to say yes.

Children and adults who are accustomed to no live more productive, fulfilled, and vibrant lives than those who avoid denying themselves their whims. Anyone can act on a whim, but mastery requires repeating a million small decisions that eventually become automatic for the cause of one goal. Mastery means saying no to many little things while saying yes to one big thing.

It’s easy to make a list of things to say no to:

  • Junk food
  • Screen time
  • Sports that distract from study
  • Sleeping until noon every day
  • Spending more money than we make

Saying no (incorporating discipline and rigor) is important for flourishing. The human body thrives best when its muscles live with some level of resistance and challenge. Without daily exercise and testing, muscles become flabby and limp.

But discipline is costly, uncomfortable, and unpopular.

It seems that, except for extraordinary athletes like Alex Honnold, people in our society prioritize comfort and convenience over goals or principles. Christians are not exempt from the lure of pleasure and instant gratification. Some of us have imbibed the mentality that we deserve a good life and God wants us to be happy. Others of us have organized, systematic disciplines that we defend passionately, but we focus only on saying no, which becomes wearisome at best and disposable at worst.

Jesus’ greatest commandment does not address what we should avoid, but what we should love. God is far more for good than He is against evil. His people should be known for what they embrace rather than for what they decide against.

It’s easy to hate the vices of the age. It’s easy to decry the evils of video games and smart phones and movies.

But what if technology isn’t the enemy? What if social media isn’t our teen’s greatest foe?

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Smells Like Home

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When I was little, my school friends and I used to have scarves or gloves that looked the same, and when we got them confused, we’d sniff the item and know whose it was.

I’m still fascinated with what makes every household smell different, because we all know and recognize our friends’ houses smells. It has something to do with how much garlic the mom cooks with, what laundry soap she uses, what oils she diffuses, how much accumulation she allows in the laundry basket and trash cans.

One house’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Sometimes more than anything else, my sense of smell tells me what country I’m in.

It happens every time I leave Europe and walk from the jet way into the airport. I breathe in deep, feel the coolness of a generous air conditioning system, and smell the commercial, clean American fragrance. It smells light, sanitized, synthetic, luxurious.

The Dublin airport isn’t over cooled, and the air smells less clean than American airports, but pleasant. Past the smokers standing outside the door, I smell the brisk, damp, salty air, and breathe in as much as my lungs can hold.

In Poland, people tend to avoid any moving air. Stepping outside the airport, I smell the dry continental air. Some stores have little or no air conditioning, and the air smells heavy, briny, earthy. On the sidewalks, people frequently brush past me with an aura of rich, glorious fragrance that makes me want to follow them, sniffing like a puppy.

Rumor has it that Americans have the wasteful habit of taking a daily shower while Europeans take fewer showers and stronger cologne. The rumor might be true.

Our English school in Poland used to have a student who worked for a designer perfume company. She would sniff vials all day, testing endless combinations of compounds. To clear her palate, she’d frequently have to go on a walk and breathe other air for awhile so she could do her job.

I have a keen nose, but that job would exhaust me in fifteen minutes. But I kind of identify countries with my nose.

One country’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Surprised by Paradox: a Review

In Worldviews class, our teacher quoted Robert Capon’s lines: “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency,” and deep inside me, the words rang clear and true.  My soul knew that categorical propositions don’t explain all of reality and the human experience, and contrasting wine and water seemed an eloquent metaphor.

I’ve written before about the paradox of being a Third Culture Kid. There are many more paradoxes I live with, such as

  • God’s sovereignty and man’s free will
  • a woman’s veil affirms beauty and highlights humility
  • writing is simultaneously blankety-blank hard and life-giving
  • the human body is both sacred and broken

Enter a beautiful, thoughtful new book: Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. I love that its title joins the lineup of  the other rich surprised books: Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Wright’s Surprised by Hope. And I love, love the creativity in its cover design! If you could judge a book by its cover, this book would already be a winner. This is my copy as I read it, with a pen to make notes and a pansy on a stem for a book mark.

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Five years ago, I read Jen’s first book, Teach Us to Want, and found her words and way of thinking so compelling, honest, and practical, that I’ve been following her ever since. When I read that she was looking for volunteers to join the launch team for her Paradox book, I applied, and was delighted to be accepted.

I’ve spent much of my life looking for answers to questions, solutions to problems, explanations to mysteries. In the last few years, I’m finding that more than answers, I need Jesus. More than tidy formulas, I need the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through me. Jen says paradox is the tension between certainty and mystery, and in that space, we meet God.

It’s true.

Since I tend to be all-or-nothing, either-or, the concept of paradox in my relationships, daily life, and my perception of God gives me a third way–an option that fits reality and frees me from needing to scrunch unwieldy, vast ideas into tidy, stackable boxes. And the current Postmodern air we breathe is kind to a book like this, when other eras might have labeled it as heresy. These days, most of us aren’t satisfied with Bible-thumping, simplistic explanations that don’t acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and we’re open to mystery, ambiguity, and paradox.

But claiming paradox isn’t a cop-out. It’s not fixing an easy answer onto complex questions, and it doesn’t mean we can’t be sure of anything. In fact, paradox delights in certainty. Jen wrestles well intellectually and theologically, taking in the wisdom of orthodoxy and her current gritty  experiences, and inviting us to recognize the wonder and humility of holding opposing ideas in tension. Her footnotes reflect wide, respected, delicious resources. Jen’s theology is sound and conservative, not pop evangelical, which makes me feel that I can trust her. I even felt that in the sections about Grace and Kingdom, she sounds very Anabaptist.

 

We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.

We don’t vote the kingdom into office; we live its compelling hope every day.

A kingdom life is always a nonconforming life, and subversion is a form of witness.

The book covers four themes that reflect Jesus’ life:

  • incarnation: His birth
  • kingdom: His public ministry
  • grace: His crucifixion
  • lament: His resurrection and ascent

The section on lament spoke most deeply to me. It’s rare to hear such profound honesty and powerful invitation to weep over what God weeps.

Lament tells us there are complaints worth raising, and God’s suffering assures that someone hears.

From the epilogue:

Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not. Let’s remember that paradox, with its attendant wonder, is its own way into the meekness of wisdom James describes in his letter.

Mystery draws us to wonder, which is also to say the limits of our wits. But rather than our finitude bringing us to despair, paradox can cause us to praise.

In the month coming up to the book release date, Jen shared weekly video chats with the launch team. These were lovely points of connection with her as a person and with the content we were reading. But she really had my attention on launch day with these:

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This screen grab shows a pair-a-ducks a friend gave her, used to help TCK’s debrief their experience. The clean duck illustrates their yay feelings, and the bandaged, dirty duck illustrates the yuck feelings. Since I’m a TCK and a pushover for a good pun, this pair-a-ducks fit me perfectly.

We can hold both the yuck and the yay of our experiences, not discounting or denying one at the cost of the other. Embracing all the aspects of life and all the complicated realities of loving God and our neighbors makes us bigger and better people, with wide hearts that are more prepared to worship–which is the ultimate reason He created us for.

I’m so grateful for Jen’s careful, curious, wise work in Surprised by Paradox. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and order your copy!