How Beauty Rests

It was the worst, hardest week of 2016. I was blindsided with issues and dynamics and baggage that I didn’t want to think about but couldn’t get away from. I felt as limp and anemic as an over-cooked strand of linguine, and tears would drip without warning. But I lived in an institution and had to be presentable most of the time, so I breathed deep and kept my head down.

And it “just happened” that at the end of that horrible, terrible week, I went with friends to Cleveland hear the American Boy Choir. On 2-hour the drive up, my friends sang choir songs with their beautiful voices, and I listened and soaked it up and wondered at how voices can be so beautiful and so harmonious and accurate. The boys’ concert, in a gorgeous stone church, was these exquisite waves of sound soaring up and wrapping around and giving delight. Outside, the tulips were blooming bright and the sky was clear and the breeze fresh with spring. On the way back, we took turns reading to each other from Peralandra. My friends had no idea of my turmoil (unless they noticed the tears that leaked out when I closed my eyes to rest.) The time filled with easy conversation and comaradarie and simple enjoyment.

That evening, I felt washed and clean, because beauty had soothed and rested and refreshed me enough to start the hard work of addressing the things that were tormenting me. I learned that day how important beauty is in giving wholeness and balance to a soul that is fragmented and given to extremes.

Beauty comes in many forms.

  • musical harmony
  • color, shade, shadow
  • order, simplicity
  • surprise, serendipity
  • smiles, tears
  • laughter, giggles
  • shared jokes
  • texture
  • rest, quiet
  • water, sunshine
  • fragrance
  • courage

We are a very practical people, and if something isn’t useful in some way, we tend to discount its value. If this is always our modus operandi, I think we miss out on the beauty that’s bursting all around us, and our souls suffer for not feasting on it. We shrivel and wither and are less than the people God wanted us to be when He dreamed us up.

Or maybe it’s just me whose soul needs beauty like lungs need air? Or like leaves need rain?

I only know that when I heard a friend tell her incredible love story, I felt washed and refreshed because it was so beyond-words-beautiful. Or when I painted something, I felt like a new person. Or when I walked around the block and saw the brilliant sunset colors that filled me with gasps, I felt washed clean. Or when an instructor came to me that terrible week to say “I noticed you looked troubled yesterday in class. Were you in distress or did you have allergies? [I’d actually been crying my eyes out just before walking into class.] Are you ok?” The beauty of concern gave an increment of healing that will always stay with me.

Words, stories, color, love–these reflect God whose character is beauty, rest, and delight. For us to witness and enter into beauty is part of knowing God’s character better and becoming more healed, whole, and true to His design for us. It is a travesty for Christians to be shriveled, negative, and whining when they know the most beautiful Person ever and the world is dying for lack of hope and light and joy.

Moses said: And let the beauty [delight, splendor, grace] of the Lord our God be upon us…  (Psalm 90:17)

We can start by opening our eyes and ears and hearts.


My Stone

Nie mój cyrk, nie moja malpa. Not my circus, not my monkey. I’ve heard that this is a Polish maxim, but when I was living in Poland, I never heard it that way. I usually just heard nie moja sprawa.

The monkey line was whimsical and made me chuckle, but I could never remember it at the right time.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a women’s retreat and it was a wonderful time of fellowship and refreshment, everything a retreat should be. As a parallel to the décor of ferns, water fountains, moss, and stones, there was a basket of small stones at the registration table. Every one was supposed to choose a stone and was instructed to carry it with them all the time.

Then someone read the story of the man whom God asked to carry some stones to the top of the hill. On the way, other people asked him to take their stone, and in his good nature, the man accepted. The load got so heavy, he started blaming God for asking so much of him. But God reminded him that He never asked him to take on all the extra stones.

In the retreat, some of us were told to plant stones surreptitiously  in people’s bags and laps, to see what the women would do when they discovered more than their own pebble. Unfortunately, I was socializing too much and didn’t drop any stones anywhere. But one busy bee was planting them everywhere. She was sitting beside me in one workshop and afterwards we had this serious conversation, but when I turned my back, there was a hot pebble under my Bible, and the lady was gone. The pebble was warmed all through, holding its heat from being clenched in her hand, waiting for the right moment. The turkey!

She may or may not have had several handfuls of pebbles mysteriously scattered between her pillow case, sheets, and blanket that night. As always, the laughs are the best part of being together.

A couple days after the retreat, I heard bad news from several places, and it all wanted to paralyze me. Then I thought, No, that’s not my stone to carry.

I care deeply, will listen, pray, stay alert, but put it down. It’s not my stone. There was an extra stone in my bag when I came home, and I pitched it. I took the original one I chose from the basket, wrote my assignment on it with white-out pen, and put it on my desk.

This is my stone, the biggest current assignment that God is ever so gently but persistently asking me to carry. I don’t have room right now to carry any others.



Farther Along


It’ll be hard, they said.

Give yourself at least a year to adjust, they said.

So I gave myself a year, and July 1 marked the day, and most days since then, I’m not sure that a year did any good in helping to adjust. I’m still fragile enough that tears are usually simmering just under the surface, and I would happily board a plane tonight to go back to Poland. 


That strike-through option shows me that a year does something more than I’ve realized. I couldn’t freely board a plane to leave because it would mean tearing up the little burrow I call home and leaving work I’m coming to love and people who have come to mean a great deal to me.

But if I’d have known how harrowing the year was going to be, I’m pretty sure I’d never have had the courage to start.

“There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” That’s what Sarah, plain and tall, said. Her words have helped keep me from feeling completely insane in this crazy mix of being happy and sad in the same second.

I miss simple, flavorful European food without sauces that disguise whatever it is. I miss living in town and walking wherever I want to go. I resent needing to drive everywhere. I miss taking the train or bus to the next town or across the country. I miss elegance and stately city designs. But I love how easy it is to drive away for the weekend, and how stores are air-conditioned and how customer service agents laugh with me on the phone.

I always hesitate when writing the date–is it month or day first?–and I feel like a deviant either way I write it. I push down the anger when people talk so LOUDLY in public places because it feels terribly invasive and indecent to me. I shudder at the shocking amounts of artificial coloring in food. I’m agog at how effortlessly church fellowship dinners appear and I did nothing to contribute. I still hate answering the glib question about where I’m from. I still feel like a foreigner, an oddity.

But I know my address by heart now, and that feels like a huge accomplishment. I have a PA driver’s license and a local library card. I know my way around town without a GPS. I walk around campus with this incredibly rested, relaxed spirit, singing, instead of feeling the tight, nervous, nameless fear of a year ago. And most delightfully, there are people with whom I share inside jokes and confidences, and I didn’t even know them a year ago.

hmmmm.   Maybe a year makes a bigger difference than I thought.

Maybe I’ll always feel like an oddity. Maybe it’s deeper than feeling European and a “returned missionary.” Maybe it’s part of the human condition, which is why I talk about it here. I’m not that eager to dump my feelings on the internet, but maybe someone else feels like a forever transplant. Maybe another human out there feels odd and mixed up. I’ve met more of those this year than I ever knew existed. We’re a weird bunch, puzzled and dazed and mystified at how it’s possible to function in this world while feeling very attached to another place.

There may not be compensation for the losses sustained in our fragmented hearts, but I’m slowly, slowly coming to see that what’s behind us gives us more to go forward with. It’s possible there’s a largeness of soul gained from our experiences that gives us something more to offer our world than we could have otherwise.

These ideas are just tentative. Maybe in another year I’ll know more about it.


Live a Good Story

(This blog post is the more polished, non-nervous version of the short speech I gave at the singles’ seminar yesterday at Penn Valley, about my story of living with passion.)


“Beauty will save the world.” This is what Dostoevsky said, and I think I agree.

But I like to tweak the line to say Stories will change the world. And I’m out to live a good story.

I was born and raised in Virginia, and when I was 21, my whole family moved to Ireland and that’s where they still are. I lived there 14 years, and 5 years in Poland. The shape and the energy of my life have to do with words and people. Which is stories. In Poland, I taught English as a second language, and it was wonderful because words were my currency of exchange and all I had to do was sit in front of someone make them talk. In Ireland, I thought about doing what good missionaries do, which is to write  book about being a missionary in a foreign country. That book didn’t get written because I don’t know how to be a good missionary, but something else happened that I never expected.

When I was 29, I was reading a letter from a friend who  mentioned something she was learning in her walk with Jesus as a single. A voice from the ceiling told me, “You need to write a book for girls like this.” I doubted the voice; I thought it was my colorful imagination, so I told God that if it was Him, could He please confirm it? For the next week, nearly every day, He nudged and reminded and confirmed that it had been Him.

My motivation was to encourage and inspire. It’s not a how-to book, with lists of formulas on how to recognize a good man or how to become perfectly content. I saw women who were looking at being 30 without romance, and they became desperate and bitter, and I knew that God intended more than that for His creation. The book is largely about acknowledging that very few of us are living the life we were planning to live, but finding beauty and richness in it regardless of changed plans.

Maybe it’s a woman thing, or maybe it’s just me, but my deepest fear has been that I am or will be completely and utterly alone. That I have no one to walk with, lean on, depend on. I don’t mind solitude, but the fear of being existentially, profoundly on my own with no other resources has terrified me. I don’t say this cockily, because I still have fleeting moments of that fear but the experience of writing my book has taken most of that fear away. Because it was such an incredibly companionable walk with Jesus, a partnership with Him, where every step was in the dark, and I depended on Him to tell me what to do next and how to do it, and I now I know, as I never did before that I am never, ever alone.

I didn’t know how to write a book. There are things you should do and shouldn’t do, and I didn’t know what they were. But at every step, God put the right people in my path to help or give advice–some people with whom I haven’t had contact since, but they were there when I needed their expertise.

One day at work between customers, I made a list of the words about topics I wanted to cover. That list became my working outline. I’d write a chapter about each topic, and two years later when I got to the end of the list, I stopped, and that was the book. The outline morphed into sections of living with purpose (what is settled in the past, behind us), passion (what we do with today) and promise (what to look forward to.) I’m not much for cutesy alliteration, but that just happened. I should maybe mention that several readers have said my India story makes them wonder if I’m married. I’m not married. The story is completely fiction, even while it is scarily what I could do.

I have a new job now, working on a dynamic team that’s developing a history curriculum for elementary students. I’ve never taught history, and never taught these grades, so my current learning curve is huge. But I feel that everything behind me has prepared me for this moment. Among other good things, it combines words and people (stories) so it’s something I can put my whole heart into.

Stories will change the world. Not everyone needs to write a book, but everyone can live a good story. Donald Miller says a story is when a main character wants something and goes through conflict to find it. You have desires and dreams. Keep them! The minute you cut off your dreams and decide they’re too messy or ridiculous, your story stops. When you have conflict, don’t try to avoid it. Conflict is what makes your story. Think Joseph. Without the conflict with his brothers, he wouldn’t have had a story; he’d have just been Joseph in the field. Living a good story is not about muscling through and making things work, but it’s about keeping in step with Jesus and entering into His life and love.

Because life is such an incredible, beautiful gift and we should make the most of it.

Taste and See

daisy-712898_1280We were getting ready to practice the opening song for our friends’ wedding. It was composed for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a sweet, simple melody: “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” You can listen to one version here.

Before we started, our director told us to get out our pencils and write across the top of our sheet music: Taste the graciousness. My cousin sang the soprano solo, soaring way up there so high, I don’t know how she does it. The song was over way too soon to suit me, but I keep mulling the words. Taste the graciousness. Blessed, trusteth, Him.

You could say Taste His grace but I like graciousness because it means the focus is on God’s essence more than on what He does or gives. I think about what it means to taste, and I want to it be the shape of my life–to savor, enjoy, affirm the goodness. This is not automatic behavior for someone like me who complains quickly and is constantly bumping into the reality of living on this side of Eden. Things are not as they should be, BUT GRACIOUSNESS IS ALL AROUND US! It takes my breath away. We should all stop and stare at the wonder of it all. The telling of it is like counting the pearls on a string or drops of dew on a blade of grass or tear drops on a cheek.

The billows of wildflowers lining the roads.

Laughter with a child.

Phrases of songs that replay themselves in my head, healing and comforting.

Simple food with a friend.

I wondered a little why David wrote that verse with the two phrases that don’t seem to have much connection with each other. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” What does tasting have to do with trusting?

Then I remembered how Larry Crabb wrote in Inside Out: “Desire much and pray for much but demand nothing. To trust God is to demand nothing.” Tasting is savoring, keeping an open, soft heart, not demanding.

Picking a few daisies, not taking an armful.

Laughing with friends, not insisting on always laughing.

Savoring musical moments, not demanding a concert every week. Or a feast every day.

To taste and acknowledge the graciousness means trusting God for the places that still ache. To affirm the good things and trust God with the lacks and empty spaces and fractures, demanding nothing.

Those are high words to reach for, but I want it written across the top of my life: taste the graciousness!



The Water is Wide

I call her my Polish mom, though she said she’s more like my big sister. She’s a grandma and has lived lots of life, so that’s why she’s like a mom figure to me. The drama and the dreams she comes up with are like no other, and forces to be reckoned with. By her own admission, she has ADHD, and it’s a standing joke and explanation for how crazy and boisterous it gets when she’s around.


But she’s not just loud and wild. She cries and hurts and agonizes. What’s more, she hurts with other people’s pain. She has this enormous heart that she spreads over me and those in her world. I don’t have to say anything (and often I can’t because we don’t speak the same national language) and she knows what’s going on inside me. Is that because my eyes reveal so much or because she’s so incredibly perceptive? Probably some of both. Very often, she would ask how I am, and I couldn’t wiggle out of the direct question, so I’d be honest, and she’d say she knew it already. Then she’d cry with me and tell me it’s going to be ok.

It was an experience that’s hard to describe–how two verbose women who didn’t share the same language could talk or be silent and still understand each other. Tears and laughter are their own language. And God’s Spirit in both women is a perfect translator.


We talked food and people and traveling and teaching. Having taught school for decades, she’s a master at handling children and teenagers, and winning their hearts. Her big heart wraps around them and they cannot stay untouched.  She asked me to be her English teacher, and it was delightful.  I especially loved how she praised me to the skies for my teaching ability even though she constantly lapsed into Polish and I couldn’t tell if I helped her English. I think the biggest benefit was just that our lessons were meetings of the heart, and probably that’s more beneficial than retaining language.

She knows heart break and the ravages of a devastating divorce. She knows ache and poverty and dreams that never come true. That’s why it’s so beautiful to see the power of Jesus’ transformation shining out of her. One of my favorite stories about her is here.

I left Poland last July 1, and she told me when she’d be at the school to tell me goodbye, but she never came. I was sorry, because I need closure. I don’t love pain, but not saying goodbye is worse than saying it. But clearly it was going to be too hard, and this was the easier route for her.

There is no right way to walk away from a vibrant, life-giving relationship. It’s impossible to cross an ocean, live among English-speaking people, and go on as if nothing happened.  My heart strings are still raw and dripping. Tears are always shimmering under the surface. Always. It’s different with my family even though they’re far away. They’ll always be family and we’ll always be in touch. Ela is FAR away, in another language, separate from anything here, involved in her own world, even though I know she’ll always love me.


Yesterday I Skyped her for the first time since the time we didn’t say goodbye. She’s the same Ela, full of smiles and exclamations and wild dreams, pouring out so much love. She read me, as always, and observed that I’m doing better than when I left. But she didn’t see the quaking, shattering in my heart that went on the rest of the day and made it hard to concentrate because her voice and grin kept coming back to me and yet were so far away.

Sometimes I hate the globe and limitations of space.

A Little Girl in a Red Dress

So one day, about last Friday, there was this girl who went on a cabin retreat with her fellow students. There were about twenty girls bunking in one room, and when this girl was sleepy and tucked up in her bunk in the corner, someone in the room asked her to tell a story. Because she was in a stupor of exhaustion, she told the story of her day in about three terse sentences, beginning with “Once there was a girl in a red dress,” then she said “Good night.”

This is a slightly expanded version of the story. Is it terse? It’s impressionistic, after the style of her favorite artist.

One day there was this girl who was sad about some things, so she decided to wear her red dress because that’s her happy color. She went to classes and listened to lectures and discussions about literature and teaching the Bible. She packed her bags for a two-night retreat and hated that it takes so much Stuff to be civilized for two days.

Then for a couple hours, she went with two people to the children’s section of the library in town to find books they might use for history curriculum writing.It was fun and informative and felt productive in the way that touching something feels like progress and reality. In other words,  paging through a book in your hands and running your finger over the illustrations feels much more productive than just reading customer reviews about it on Amazon.

Mid-afternoon, she found herself in a car with friends, and before she knew it, she was wading in Lake Erie and her red hem got comfortably wet, swirling around her. The water was clear and cold, and she wished she could go for a swim.

In the evening, she led a fantastic team that used finger paints to replicate Monet’s “Sunset in Venice” and she felt as if she was high on some kind of drug. The colors, combined with the tactile connection of fingers in paint, plus the camaraderie, soothed something deep in her that had been restless for a long time. When she watched the real sun set over the real lake, she reveled in those colors and knew that it would be completely impossible to mix  colors so vivid with either paints or pixels, so she let the image make its own lasting impression on her soul and thought of the sunset happening just beyond the horizon and remembered these words that always make her gasp:

We could have lived on a dark planet. And been told that there would be one sunset. And we’d have lined every west coast of every continent and every island on the planet. And as we saw the glory of that event and tears came to our eyes, we’d have written about it in our journals and regaled our progeny with the glory of that event. But what must God be like, that He has made our planet a perpetual kaleidoscope of sunrises and sunsets?!

Soon she wrapped herself in her red, fuzzy blanket and someone read them a story and she ate ice cream and went to bed.

The End.

(The quote is referenced here.)