The Wine of Paradox

July 1 marked three years since I left my Poland home. Anniversaries like this always give me a space to reflect, compare, and contrast. They help give a measure of perspective that I don’t have in the middle of the thing.

It’s a mercy that I didn’t know how hard re-entry and transition would be. It’s another mercy that it happened and I didn’t detour it.

Arched over the last three years is the word belong. I was comfortable in different places on the globe but when I came back to my birth country, I found I didn’t belong anywhere. I found this disorienting beyond words. The disorientation happened mostly subconsciously but it was the undercurrent in every new relationship and every new situation. I was a loose ion looking for an atom to fit into. I was the spiraling whirlpool of an identity that had evaporated. If I wasn’t the English teacher eating Polish bread and pickles and walking on Polish sidewalks anymore, who was I? I had no idea.

As if bread and pickles gives you an identity. But when your world tips you upside down and nothing is the same anymore, you get sentimental about bizarre things.

Home

When I first came to the US, I said I was homeless. I hated when anyone asked where I was from, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d get shaky and unreasonably worked up and exhausted from explaining my homelessness. Slowly, I’ve come to coin the word “home-full:” I belong in many places. Many people claim me, and I claim them. They press me to spend weekends and holidays with them, and I know they’re not just being polite, and when I’m with them, my soul is utterly at rest. In three years, I moved from a dorm room to a tiny apartment then across the road to a trailer. It’s like living in a tin box, but I live with a dear co-worker, and we have everything we need, and it’s home. For now. I don’t expect to be here long term because I don’t love marshes and mosquitoes and six months of winter. But for now, I love where I live, and I’m home-full.

Church

The church search has been hard, hard, hard. A husband and family would make this decision more complex, but this single woman has found it hard, uncomfortable, and bewildering to navigate all the questions, implications, and dynamics regarding a new church. I have good people walking with me and giving advice. But still. It’s no picnic.

I’m grateful to be attending a church that feels increasingly right and comfortable. When I’m not there, I miss it. When I’m there, I think, “Yes, I agree. I like how they said that. And I really like the singing.” It’s not home. It’s not my church. But they’re good to singles, and it feels like maybe someday I could belong.

Work

Last month, I was on a Greek island and went swimming in the Aegean Sea nearly every day. The water was unbelievably clear, and when my ears were right at the surface, it sang its tinkling, golden song, and I thought I was in heaven. Then came this fleeting shadow: “Next week this time, you’ll be in the office.” But the shadow lasted only for a second, and it didn’t fill me with sadness or dread because I looked forward to whatever I needed to do in the office. I wasn’t going to rush there because no sane person would leave Greece before necessary, but I have no words to say how grateful I am for a job that I really, really love. I walk up the hill to work every morning and I think, “I’m living in a dream. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve lived in many dreams in other places. It’s the life I’ve been given combined with a million decisions to see goodness in the present moment.

I still miss Poland terribly. I miss teaching ESL. My friends and students there and my people in Ireland have no idea how often I think about them and ache to hear them talk and laugh. But I’m learning that embracing the details that comprise my present life no longer feels disloyal to my former life. Maybe these three years have expanded my heart to hold the paradox of both loving and grieving, both gaining and losing, both embracing and releasing.

Robert Capon said, “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency.”

I choose not to dilute my life. Its wine is piercing and sweet.

Directions, Please

Last weekend, I went to a gathering in a place that was new to me. I was told that GPS wouldn’t work after a certain point, and was given a sheet of directions to follow after I got off the main road. The directions seemed simple enough, but I found them confusing.  Driving in the mountains, my phone hadn’t had service for the last hour or so. I was on my own, with a confusing sheet of paper.

After I turned around a few times, I got onto a winding, steep, narrow, gravel mountain road. It was so narrow, I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone coming the opposite way. One place was so steep, I was afraid I would spin out. I was glad it wasn’t dark. Then the road opened up to a crossroad that led to a correctional facility, and I knew that wasn’t in the script.

I was whimpering and panicking. Where do I go now? I can’t do this. I’m alone and lost. Why do I think I can travel alone anywhere? Whimper, whimper. Blood pressure sky high.

The sheet of directions had a phone number, and the phone had service at that moment. Thank you, Jesus. I called the number and said in a rush that I’m lost and need directions and can you help me, please? The man asked who I was and asked me to repeat my question. He was calm, spoke clearly, and asked clarifying questions. I don’t know who he was, but I’m pretty sure his voice was like Jesus.

Yes, I know exactly where you are now.

I know the point where you turned off wrong.

When you get to that next road, be careful because it’s gravel and curvy and they just graded it.

I asked him several times about the directions on the sheet that were confusing me, and apologized for making him repeat himself, but he told me to start driving while I was on the phone, took all the time I needed, and explained the landmarks carefully.

Twenty minutes later, I was at my destination, and fell into my friends’ hugs, and had a most wonderful weekend. Two days later, I felt newly-made and refreshed beyond words.

As I drove home, I Voxed a friend about the good weekend, the traumatic time in getting there, and my ensuing questions. Why did I panic? God took care of me. I was never actually alone. Had it been a lesson to teach me the futility of panicking?

No, she said. I shouldn’t kick myself for that, or think I must never panic again. That emotion is an arrow to direct me to God. If I don’t know the depth of my need, I don’t know how able He is to meet my need, and I stay self-sufficient.

I know she’s right. When I feel panicked and alone, I can use that desperation to run to Him. He never scolds me for needing Him.

I hope I’ll remember in the darkness what I learned in the light that day: I’m never really and truly alone even if it feels like it.

Also, if I’m ever giving directions to a frantic girl on the phone, I might never know that I’m speaking Jesus’ words to her.

Enough Light

A long time ago, in another life, more than 15 years ago, I was a shop keeper. On Saturdays, I’d work 12 hours. After closing shop, I’d not-always-but-very,very-often drive over to my friend Jenny’s stone cottage. Her little girls were in bed, and her husband was working the night shift, and we would curl up in big overstuffed chairs in front of her wood stove. From a compartment in the stove, she’d whisk out a plate of nachos, toasty and gooey with cheese. We’d eat them messily with salsa, bites interspersed with tales of the week. Sometimes there was another kind of simple food, but usually the nachos prevailed because we loved them so much.

There was incense wafting from a wand in its holder, and the smell always lingered on my clothes even after I was home. At some point, she’d always bring me a tub of hot water, plant a kettle of boiling water beside it to replenish with, and say, “Now stick your hooves in there.” I would soak my feet until all the water got cold, then she’d rub my feet, and the hours and hours of stories and quandaries and dreams and hopes that would come tumbling out of both of us those nights are some of my dearest and most shaping memories.

We were both pilgrims on a journey, just like Christian and Faithful, and we knew very little about our path except that it led to the Celestial City.

That’s why I was ecstatic to go to a Greek island this month to be with my sister and her husband AND Jenny and her family! We had a most idyllic time, replete with all the food and swims and laughs and heart connections. And because we’re still kindred spirits and pilgrims on the way who need good footwear, we bought the same make of Greek sandals! (We like this picture because it looks like we were wearing baggy Turkish pants even though we weren’t, and even though we went to Turkey for a day.)

But I digress. Going back to the story of sitting at my friend’s wood stove in their stone cottage–

Eventually the clock would warn me that I would soon turn into a pumpkin, so I’d pull on my shoes and socks. Jenny would take the lantern that had been glowing in the window (these friends were off the grid when we first got to know them) and close the heavy wooden door behind us.

She’d take my arm and hold the lantern so we could find our way out the lane that had grass in the middle and a bend and a gate at the end. There was a little circle of light that showed us enough for the next step and kept us from crashing into shrubbery or the well or Mr. Austin, the antique car.

Just enough light for each step.

 

She’d open the gate, hug me goodbye and say, “Now be good, and God bless,” and then I was across the road and in my car, warm and smelling the incense that wrapped around me.

When I’m angsting about my present journey, and the impossible questions–how do I know? What should I prepare for whatever’s ahead? What is all this leading to? Jenny is one of my stable people who talks sense into me again. (Voxer and Whatsapp help enormously to close up the miles between us.) “Remember that lantern? It gave us enough light for the next step. We couldn’t see the end of the lane, but it got us there safely. All you have to do now is take the next step because you have enough light for that.”

In my current shadowy lanes, in my loved ones’ scary dark lanes, when I’m sure of nothing else, and I’m terrified of my imaginations of what’s around the bend, all I know and see is the circle of light beside me.

And it’s enough.

For this moment, for this step, that small pool of light is enough.

Set on Pilgrimage

Every Easter makes me pensive. When I read the story, I wonder about so many things. I’m awed that the biggest and best news in the world was first announced to women, and they were told to tell others. And this in the day when a woman’s voice didn’t count.

I wonder what Jesus was up to there. Was He making a statement about the worth of a woman’s word? Or was it just because He knew how much they love to be the first to hear things and tell them?

Either way, it’s beautiful.

Then I think about the men who ran to the grave. They didn’t believe the women’s words, so why did they run? That kind of stunning courage, running toward what could devastate them, knocks me over.

But my absolute favorite story is the walk to Emmaus. My heart always breaks a little when I read how the men admit “We had hoped he would be the Messiah” and I think of all the times I’ve heard (and said) “We had hoped…”

Three years ago, my sweet friend Lisa did extensive homework so that she could take me and my friends on the walk to Emmaus. On Easter morning, we met in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The bells were ringing so loud we had to shout to hear each other. We walked miles outside Jerusalem under blue sky and between pine trees. I kept looking up the sky and thinking it’s the sky Jesus saw when He was there, because nothing else around me was the same as in His time. Lisa read the story to us, and we ate chocolate at a picnic table and sang as we walked. It was the loveliest, richest Easter of my life.

I’m thinking that a walk, or any kind of journey, between Point A and Point B brings some kind of change. The men in Emmaus were in a different place in themselves when they arrived home compared to when they left, because of what happened en route. Christian was different when he came to the Celestial City than when he had left the City of Destruction, because the journey changed him. Sam and Frodo were different when they came to the White Ships, compared to who they were before they left the Shire.

‘Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” The Jews sang this on their annual journey to Jerusalem. I think good things happen any time we wrest ourselves away from what is familiar and cozy and predictable, and put one foot in front of the other, and walk toward Point B. Or Point T, as the case may be. And of course it’s the journeys of the heart that effect the most change, when we don’t board a train or a plane, but we push through the next hard thing to get to the other side, stepping into the narrow stream of light that shows the next step and no more.

There are alternatives. We can hunker down and stay in the same place (in our heart or house) and stay stuck in the mud because it feels too risky to do the next thing. People choose that option all the time, but I don’t think it helps to become better, bigger, more whole people. This is not  faithfulness and steadiness. This is choosing the easier thing out of fear of what might happen. There might be a lion out there, you know.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

The best part of the Emmaus story is how Jesus met them, asked them questions that He already knew the answers to, and walked with them. There’s nothing in the world I want more than that. Until I can walk beside Him in person, I know by faith that He has come to me here and now, walks with me, invites my questions, and eats with me. This kind of journeying brings about the most enduring change of any trip I’ve taken.

Prayer Day and a Paraphrase

Something I love about where I work is that twice a year, we have Prayer Day. The institute empties for most of a day, and people scatter throughout the surrounding area to find solitude and fellowship with God.

As part of my Prayer Day last Wednesday, I paraphrased parts of Lamentations 3. I thought it would be a nice exercise. I didn’t realize how accurately it would reflect my story.

My paraphrase of parts of Lamentations 3: 15-33:

He made me eat distasteful, disgusting things. He filled me with bitterness. When people bumped me, I spilled over with acid and scorn.

He filled my mouth with grit. I lay lower than the curb and sidewalks. I had no rest in my soul, no quietness, nothing to soothe me–not even a padded savings account.

I can easily recall the awfulness. It’s always just under the surface of my thoughts. It’s easy to say “I’m desolate, bereft, devastated, ugly. What I thought was lovely about me or my life is gone. God has broken my heart.”

The memories haunt me. I remember the depression, the acid, the hardships and injustice. I can feel the old darkness and and heaviness and suffocation again.

BUT

I remember something else, and this keeps me from despair.

I was low, but God’s immense, endless love kept me from death. His care and deep concern for me never stopped, even when I forgot Him and gave in to darkness.

The signs of His care surround me. Every morning’s light reveals new love notes from Him.

Every morning.

Every morning.

His mercy always shows up again.

So I remind myself of what is true: “My God is my life. I will die without Him. He has proved Himself, and when I can’t see or feel Him I will wait. I will rest quietly, confident that He’ll show up again. When my eyes are cleaned from their cloudiness, I see He was with me all the time.”

On those whose gaze is fixed upward and outward, He pours His goodness. To the one who craves His presence, He presses in close.

It’s good to be quiet and rest instead of strive. It’s good to watch, hand over mouth, at how He saves the day again. It’s good to work hard before I’m old because it develops the muscles of faith and teaches me how utterly and completely dependable He is.

Though He allows hardship, His care never stops. He weeps with me, and covers me with endless love. He doesn’t enjoy seeing His children struggling in loss and grief. He knows tears too. And He knows that pain isn’t the end of the story.

Come to the Feast of Love

You pass by this scene every day on your walk to work:

Candles flicker on the stone step outside the door. String lights swoop toward the center of the ceiling. Waiters place hors d’oeuvres onto tables sparkling with goblets and silver. You catch whiffs of expensive cologne, alfredo, lemon, basil, coffee.

You peer into the banquet room and linger in its fragrance for a couple seconds. But you never step further because you know you could never eat there.

It’s way too expensive.

I’m alone and it’s a place for couples.

I wouldn’t know what to do with all those forks and spoons.

My clothes smell like work.

This banquet and this hesitating is the setting for George Herbert’s poem called “Love.” The poem is a story recounting the exchange between Love and a soul. Each of us can read it in the first person, first placing our souls at the banquet door. (The words in parentheses are my responses.)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
 (My clothes smell like work.)
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
From my first entrance in, (He saw me every time I lingered outside the door.)
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.  

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
 (Me? No, you can’t mean me.)
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
I cannot look on Thee.’ (You are very kind, but I don’t belong here.)
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made thine eyes but I?’ (Hmmmm. He made this banquet—He even made me.)
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’ 

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’ (He says He made me worthy of this feast. He wants me here!)
‘My dear, then I will serve.’ (No, no—I won’t eat. You are my master. I’ll be your waiter tonight.)
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my Meat.’ (‘Says’ is present tense: He is still speaking!)
So I did sit and eat.

As we read George Herbert’s lines, we see that he knows how to be proper, dutiful, and fair. He knows about protocol and propriety to maintain at all costs. When Love pronounces him as the worthy guest of the feast, Herbert is incredulous and gives reasons why he can’t possibly accept. Sounds familiar, right?

When Love invites us to His feast, we learn, like Herbert did, that love is not a place, or a feeling, or a flavor. Love is a person, and His name is Jesus. Hearing His voice and seeing His eyes is the best thing that could ever, ever happen to us. And the banquet never, ever ends.

*****This is the final in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday from now on!

Love’s Posture

I wonder if you’ve seen how you’re surrounded by love this month. I wonder if you’ve been surprised or disappointed. I wonder how you’re responding to that surprise or let-down.

When we open our hearts to ahava, we risk loss, misunderstandings, and even heartbreak. One human response to this is anger and a commitment to avoid ahava in the future.

But the posture of ahava is an open hand. I’m here to serve you. What do you need that I can give?

Alternatively, the posture of anger is a clenched fist. I can’t wash my neighbor’s feet with my fists, and it’s hard to ahava (give to) someone if their hands are closed. There are a lot of clenched fists around these days. And sometimes the fists belong to me.

John, who found his identity in being the disciple Jesus loved, pointed out that love casts out fear, and he added that fear possesses terror. Apparently, he believed that the opposite of love is fear. Let’s contrast more words connected to love and fear.

These lists demonstrate love’s enormous power to transform, heal, and free. Like the sun shining on a cold day inviting you take off your coat, instead of the wind that makes you hang onto the coat even tighter, love melts open a clenched fist and a stiff exterior. It invites dialogue and a smile. It gives a cup of water, the simplest of gifts.

If we would love like Jesus did, generously and winsomely and in hidden ways, we could change the world! We can live in love and not fear when we embrace our deepest reality—that we are deeply, outrageously, undeservedly loved. It seems John knew how much Jesus loved him, and he never got over the wonder of it. It shaped how he saw himself, and influenced how he spoke and taught.

The ahava God pours on us is our endless supply to share with our world. We can approach the difficult person and the stranger with open hands, and mirror His warmth and comfort. In doing so, we help to soothe the crippling, damaging fear that keeps people from living with open hands.

If the posture of ahava is open hands, it means that love has nothing to defend and no personae to keep polished. It is genuine and honest, simple and frank. It is not driven by the destructive, irrational fear of criticism or failure. Living with open hands is possible by a power far beyond human limitations, and its results reach further than we can know or dream.

Will you move into this week with open hands, giving and receiving love?

*****This is the third in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!