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?

Finish the post here >>>

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!

 

 

The Seduction of Sehnsuht, Part II

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It seems that sometimes God stops us in our tracks and fills us with the deafening thunder of loneliness. Real-time, raw, gritty loneliness.

You don’t have anyone your age at church to talk with. You emailed your mentor but she’s too busy to reply. You feel trapped and stressed with conditions at work and have no one safe to talk it through with you.

Many times, loneliness is God’s invitation. It’s when He stills you enough so that you can hear Him saying “Press hard into Me. Can you tell Me about it? I call the stars out by name and I know your feelings of isolation and I’m big enough to take what you’re feeling.”

The wonder of this invitation is that we can never ask too much of Him. We can never confide in Him too much, or ask for His presence too often. We don’t even have to articulate the Sehnsuht in our soul, but only breathe “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and He understands what’s underneath the breaths.

Loneliness drives us all to different places—self-soothing to forget the ache, a stranger’s arms or fantasy for comfort, hard work or delirious pleasure to distract, stoicism or denial to appear strong and not-needy.

But as long as we stay strong and distracted and numb, we will never experience the fullness and depth and width of God’s comfort and companionship, which is the truest, deepest intimacy He created for us.

And Jesus knows something about loneliness, so His words aren’t just theory. He gets it when you tell Him you’re lonely. He had no strong co-worker with whom to debrief His frustrations with people. He never knew the comfort of coming home to a woman’s warmth. For all we know, His times of solitude included hours of wordless breaths of “Father, Father, Father.”

Loneliness, the deep, dark cavern, instructs us. It tells us—when we listen—that we’re not as alone as it feels. Loneliness sharpens our sensitivity to others who hurt and smart even more acutely than we. This is a most healing, positive discovery because it lifts our eyes off ourselves and urges us to look up and out.

I had lunch one day with three women. All live in different states, all of them are married to leaders who are gifted visionaries. These women partner with their husbands to serve and pour out their lives on behalf of the Kingdom. They are intelligent and talented and full of life, and over our extended lunch, we laughed and cried and asked questions and heard each other’s stories of the past year.

What eventually came dripping out of all our eyes, in different moments and stories, was how each lady feels profoundly lonely. I was the youngest of the four, single, living in an isolated mission, and loneliness understandably goes with that package. But them? These witty, positive personalities, with attentive husbands and beautiful children?

Yes, them.

No place or person on earth will protect anyone from isolation, misunderstanding, loneliness. The stubborn existential loneliness is a clingy cat that’s constantly underfoot and we keep kicking into it even when we think it’s gone.

While we can let loneliness work for us and follow the nudgings toward the eternal and infinite, we can also choose to stay in a dangerous no-man’s land. In that terrain, the enemy’s taunts feel completely plausible.

“You’re here because no one likes you. They don’t like you because you’re too intense, shy, emotional, boring, threatening. Look at you—who would actually enjoy you? Time you get yourself into shape like everyone else.”

When you hear these lies, your best option is to RUN. Run, gasping only for Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. He will repel the dark lies with His light and the words you need to hear.

Do you know someone who’s listening to those toxic lies? Take their hand and run with them. Run with confidence to the comfort and light of Truth. The truth is that He is never far away, and He’s always waiting to respond to your call for help. This truth frees you and lights a flame in the darkness that could suffocate you.

While everyone grapples with existential loneliness, often singles carry a pronounced, practical loneliness. It’s important to recognize this and be honest about how heavy it feels to make major decisions alone and absorb inter-personal pressures alone and go to sleep alone every night. Alone was not how we were designed to live and it makes life hard.

But many, many others are even more profoundly lonely. I think of abandoned wives, and mothers with chronically ill or handicapped family members, or women who married unwisely. I think of widows and women with unbelieving husbands and I should probably stop listing categories now because there’s many others I’m missing. Palpable loneliness can tend to overwhelm people and skew their perspective of life and God. Could it be that you can be comfort to them? That you can carry or speak or paint or bake a token of God’s presence for them?

Your loneliness can help someone else’s loneliness? Who knew! God’s economics are wonderful and nothing is ever wasted.

We carry His presence, you know. In a stroke of wild vulnerability, He put His Spirit in us to ignore or treasure at will. The Spirit is the Comforter, the One who comes along-side. He is safety and light and truth, and He tents in us. We take Him with us into our world—the world full of lies and arrows and the tears of Sehnsuht.

The Sunday school answer is still the only enduring answer. Could it be that you, carrying the treasure of Himself, are part of the answer to someone who’s crying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?”

The Seduction of Sehnsuht

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“I understand your loneliness,” he told me.

I was in a meeting to discuss an issue at school. It morphed into a conversation where three people were telling me how their spouses help give them perspective and advice about their issues and idiosyncrasies. I said I have no one like they do to lean on and ask for insights when I’m puzzled, so I feel very alone.

When he said he understands my loneliness, I wanted to shake my head and wail, “But you just told me your wife helps you with your blind spots, and you know I’m single—how can you understand?”

But I stayed quiet and did my best to pour grace into his words.

My gentle friend went on to say that even their healthy marriage carries an emptiness in its core. The cave inside doesn’t mean something’s wrong with the relationship. It’s just the way things are.

Later, it came to me: I’d been talking about my practical, tangible loneliness, and he was talking about existential loneliness, so I had felt like we weren’t understanding each other.

Existential loneliness, I’ve learned, is the ache of emptiness that caverns inside every human. It’s the thirst after every pleasure and the whimper at every dream come true.

There’s an old German word, Sehnsuht, that explains it best to me. Everyone feels it, but it seems only the bravest, most honest writers, artists, and composers try to express it. They explain it as the inconsolable longing for a place you haven’t seen but know as home. You could call it nostalgia, or homesickness, except that it’s the reverse of that, a hungering for a place we haven’t been to yet. The emotion is so profound and intense that sometimes we’re aware of the ache, but don’t even know what we’re aching for.

Sehnsuht is the tendency to demand presence and availability from someone who can never ever be big and wonderful and sensitive enough to fill the holes in your soul. It’s the drive to go further and longer and higher into uncharted horizons because maybe just out there is the place that will fully soothe your soul. It’s what keeps you talking and discussing and pushing for concepts that solve all your dilemmas perfectly.

The Sunday school answer to this insatiable thirst is that Jesus satisfies it. Happily, it’s true, but it can be hard sometimes to know or experience how it’s true.

God, in His inscrutable design, created us with this cavernous loneliness without creating something that fills the cavern. Only He, the Infinite, can fill to overflowing, satisfy, and soothe the Sehnsuht He gave us.

God also thought up countless creative, beautiful ways for us to live whole, full, rich lives. We are awake to textures, colors, sounds, flavors, memories, dreams that constantly entwine with incredible, gifted, winsome, deep, whimsical people around us.

But Sehnsuht still haunts us.

I read an interview of a playwright who said, “All the best stories have to do with loneliness.” We connect best with what what’s been our experience, and everyone has experienced loneliness, so the stories that include that theme are the ones that become enduring. Sehnsuht crept out of the theater stage and connected with this playwright’s audiences because it connects with every human.

You’ve seen the same hunger demonstrated in your friends in their life choices, in the characters in your favorite novels, and the lyrics of your go-to music. Many people can’t put Sehnsuht into words, but Bono was brave enough to call it for what it is when he sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

The search drives alive, sensitive people to breathtaking thrills. I can’t scorn the lady who endlessly pursues expensive exercise regimens and takes any man who gives her attention. Or the man who loses himself in games and adrenaline. Their search is part of being human, alive, and honest about their thirst. But they short-circuit the search when they settle for something less than Infinity.

This post concludes tomorrow.