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. 

Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

michael-browning-188999-unsplashA couple years ago I lived in Poland and taught English with a team of energetic, fun young people: Jewel, Sarah, Dervin, and Marlin. It was Marlin’s birthday, and he wanted us five to celebrate with a concert at the Philharmonic, and dinner afterward.

We chose Chianti Tratoria, a restaurant that I would never have chosen for a group dinner because it looked so romantic and other-worldly. Like, way out of my league. I’d walked past it for several years, always wistfully looking in the door, reading the menu, admiring the candles in the tall hurricane vases on the step. It’s the setting for the scene I describe in this devotional. But it was always out of reach, never for me. Until that night when we walked down the steps off Foksal Street and into the basement restaurant.

It was all so elegant and classy that we felt a little like country bumpkins, but the staff was gracious and welcoming. Our waiter was Michael, and he was everything a waiter should be. He answered all our questions about the menu and consulted the chef about the latest updates. When he knew we weren’t ordering wine, he swooped off our goblets. But one elbow caught a goblet and it crashed on the tile floor, and Michael swore so cheerfully that it made us laugh.

We were mission volunteers, poor as church mice, and ordered the most frugal entrees, and split some orders, but even so, it was delectable. My seafood risotto was perfection, except I couldn’t manage the baby octopus, so I think Marlin ate it for me.

Michael kept checking up on us, chatting whenever he could, maybe wanting to practice his English. He was elegant, and friendly, but not invasive. At the end of the meal, we told Michael that we weren’t going to order dessert with our coffee ( we didn’t tell him we couldn’t afford it). Then he cajoled the chef into giving us a plate of dessert samples for us to share.

While Michael was out of ear shot, Sarah said we should write him a thank you note to leave on the table. Someone had a piece of paper, and we all signed it with little notes.

It had been a most delightful time. On the way home, we kept talking about Michael and how much he’d done to make it a splendid time. Jewel wrote a review on Trip Adviser and mentioned his great service.

A couple weeks later, our little group was in Warsaw again. It was dark and rainy, and we were sloshing down the sidewalk, hurrying to make the train. We were passing Chianti, and just as it was behind us, I jerked back: Michael! He was outside the door having a smoke. We had recognized each other at the same time.

“Hey, good to see you! I remember you! Thanks for the note you all left for me–and you left a review on Trip Advisor too!” We were delighted to see him, told him we’ll be back when we can, and kept walking to the train in the rain.

I love remembering the delight of that evening, and of the serendipitous meeting in the rain. We were country mice, and he was an elegant waiter, but we impacted each other in ways that lasted longer than the meal.

These days, I’m not so good at enjoying people who are less than elegant in places of business. But I think I should try to notice the good things in them too, and affirm them. They work hard–at least some of them do–and they deserve recognition, and my world expands significantly when I engage with them.

Join me?

 

The Work of My Hands

Most of my day job requires sitting at a desk and working on a computer. It’s all good, and I enjoy it except when I get tired of being in an office by myself, when I go trotting up and down the halls looking for someone to talk with.

When I get home in the evenings, I want to avoid the computer. I want to do something with my hands, something tactile and less flat than paper and a monitor. Recently, that compulsion became very intense. I felt a deep, driving need to make a big layer cake. I’d never made a caramel nut cake, but I found a recipe on Pinterest, and simply had to make it. It was going to be a big, fancy cake, and I was going to take it to the fellowship dinner at church. Because whenever I make a lot of food, it becomes a small problem when my housemate and I can’t or shouldn’t eat all of it.

I bought the nuts one evening. The next evening, I made the caramel sauce for the icing and toasted the nuts in butter. The next evening, I made the four cake layers. That took me to Saturday, when I made the icing and put the layers together. I used to make small layer cakes to sell, and it was fun to find that my fingers still knew the motions.The steps of making it aren’t important here but they demonstrate how it was something to do with my creative, nervous energy every night and that I had to strategize how to manage the project. People who think single women have lots of time to do stuff don’t think about how all hosting and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and appointments has to happen outside long work day hours. But I digress. This was about baking a cake.

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The icing was complicated and didn’t turn out like the recipe promised, so I improvised and evolved an icing that tasted like the moon and the stars but will be impossible ever to replicate. The cake didn’t look like I’d imagined, but when I drizzled caramel all over it just before serving it, it looked mostly like the ooey-gooey, fancy, whopping cake I’d wanted to make.

Never mind that when I cut it into slices,  a quarter of the pieces toppled over onto the table. It was still a yummy, scrummy, rich, delectable cake that people picked off the table and licked off their fingers.

The point here is that I HAD to make a cake–a big, crunchy, meaty, caramelly, mile-high cake. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I made it. It didn’t look like I intended to, and it actually tasted better than I’d imagined, but the point was making it.

I’m a process person. I often like getting to a place almost more than arriving. Those nights, after intense days at the office, all I needed was to work with my hands and handle butter and nuts and hot, soapy water. It unified all the layers of my self, and relaxed me, maybe because it was something I could DO.

Several years ago, in another intense season, I felt the same kind of urging but with a different medium. As that day progressed, I knew that I had to go home and paint a pineapple with chalk pastels. It was going to be a big, colorful pineapple. That’s all I knew. I’d never painted a pineapple before, but now was the time.

When I was ready to start, I discovered I didn’t have the size paper I needed to make the pineapple as big as I needed to make it. So I went on a search. Newspaper would do the job very well. I took the paper and my pastels and some Google images to the picnic table and started sketching. This is what happened.

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There was pink in the pineapple, because I intended it to be an expressive, whimsical pineapple. It turned out to be a lumpy, textured, prickly pineapple, larger than life, which is just what I wanted. My favorite feature, apart from the pink, is the defining black strokes here and there.

I’m sure any art teacher would criticize how the darks are on the wrong sides of some leaves, but I don’t care. In that moment, I was using my fingers to create colors and texture that soothed my soul. I can’t bring myself to throw away that yellowing paper hanging in our kitchen because it always takes me back to that sweet, fun, surprising evening.

I’m learning to pay attention to the times when I feel my face scrunched and puckered into a tense lines, as well as the moments when I breathe deep and slow. Those are the moments when peace and rest seep into the cracks of my heart and make me feel newly-made.

Some of my friends feel their tension melt away when they work with soil and green things, or walk their dog, or ad lib at the piano, or watch the stars, or knit complicated patterns, or clean windows (which will never happen to me). What I love about doing things with my fingers is that it unifies the physical and emotional layers in me, focuses me on the project at hand, and I lose myself in it. For a little while, nothing else matters. This is not about escape. Neither is it about perfection, mastery, or being Instagram-worthy. It’s about being self-aware and entering into the ways we function best.

I wonder how God felt when He made things with His fingers. I wonder if it’s anything like I feel when I make stuff with my hands.

It’s not the same thing for everyone, but I think everyone should find the thing that makes their soul sing, and make time for it at least once a week. Only, I won’t make a huge cake every week.

Related post: Battery Recharging