My Friend Ella

Our friendship began with my grudging, dutiful invitation to breakfast. It was in 2009. I’d heard that four German girls were touring Ireland and visiting our church Sunday morning, and I knew the right thing would be to ask them to my house for breakfast on Monday. I felt I was too busy, and I didn’t feel like hosting strangers, but it felt like the right thing to do.

God and Ella gave me far more than I deserved at that simple, pretty, dutiful breakfast. I don’t remember remember what food I made that morning—I’m sure it involved folded napkins and coffee—but I remember it only took a few minutes to discover the four ladies were delightful, fun, and gracious. Especially Ella, who was four years younger than me. She and I recognized each other as kindred spirits, and when it was time for them to leave, I didn’t want them to go. Esther was one of the four friends, and now she lives in Canada and I help edit her children’s books, but it was Ella who picked up the friendship right away.

Ella had bought my book, found my email address in it, and started emailing me in the next year. She was an English teacher in a Christian school in Germany, loved young people, loved life and travelling, and loved Jesus. She prayed about everything, and she pursued me and my interests more than I pursued her. I often felt like I was riding on the wave of her exuberance and love and enthusiasm, and it was delightful because usually in a friendship I feel I’m the one with the most words and energy.

I moved to Poland in 2015, and now we were closer neighbors. We brainstormed of ways and places we could spend time together. We emailed epistles to each other, moaning and dramatizing and dreaming and sharing delight about life, our English students, and our different worlds. She sent me Lindt chocolate frogs in hopes that one would turn into a Prince Charming.

We exchanged countless emails and gmail chats, howling around, laughing or groaning or complaining. During one chat in a dark, depressed November week, she suggested I join her in Ukraine for a youth mission conference the next week. “I’ll translate for you! You can meet nice people and see a different part of the world!” I bought tickets the next day, she arranged a ride for me from the Kiev airport, and we were set!

At the missionary conference, Ella forgot to translate most of the time, but we met lovely people and I had a great time in a camp where youth were lectured for hours on the importance of being missionaries. I still have the lesson plan that an English teacher gave me there. Ella explained Ukrainian/Russian Baptist culture, how I can’t pay for hospitality but can give gifts, how the women work so hard and age early, what’s appropriate between single men and women, and what’s expected of an American. Late at night, Ella and I laughed until we cried over my faux pas.

November 2012

Ella always talked about how much work she had as a teacher to grade papers, prepare lessons, and plan trips for her students whom she loved fiercely. She was equally loyal to her friends for whom she was always planning or hosting bridal showers or special birthday parties, and she would be out of breath about everything she needed to do, plus see after sick family members. She lived at an insane pace, but she was happy that way.

We wanted to go to Russia together. (She’d been born in Kazakstan.) She had family in Moscow whom she frequently visited, and we could take the train. She said it was too dangerous for just us two to go alone, and she had a guy cousin who could accompany us. I checked into tickets but I couldn’t afford the visa. I’m sad I never got to go with her. I was fascinated with her Russian Baptist take on the world, especially her deep distrust of Russian government. She talked about when they visited Kazakstan: “And we all got sick because, you know, the government poisoned the water.”

Ella travelled more than anyone I know. Every year, she led student groups to Pensacola, FL and New York City, plus multiple European cities. When I moved to PA in 2015, we discovered I lived two hours from Ella’s sister Liza and her family in Pittsburgh. Several summers, Ella visited and we’d spend a day together, talking as fast as we could about the art teacher she was in love with at her school, and our broken and stubborn hopes and dreams for romance and what were we going to do with our lives. We always laughed a lot because she was so dramatic and enthusiastic about everything. She gushed and gushed about her English classes and how fun it was to teach The Great Gatsby and she persuaded me try to reading it again. In a magical day with her and her nieces and nephews, I felt like I’d been in Europe again and it was so refreshing.

Summer of 2018

Ella had no space in her hectic life for social media because she prioritized her people in real time and presence. I don’t know how our long-distance friendship survived so well. When we got smart phones, we graduated to voice messages and stopped emailing. We loved the immediacy of voice and video. Again, she was always the one who pursued me, asked how I’m doing, sent me meaningful music videos, and always said she was praying for me. 

Then finally, finally, in 2020, after a long on-again, off-again relationship that stretched over the last years, she and the art teacher, Niels, got engaged! She asked me to be her bridesmaid. But of course with the year it was, I couldn’t consider going. During our stay-at-home season, she video called me out of the blue. “I’m trying on my wedding dress in the dress shop, and the sign says to turn off your phone, but I just HAD to call you so you could see this!” 

After their wedding, she’d update me on their house renovation, and how long and hard the process was. Then she got a tumor behind her ear, and was in a wreck and needed weeks of therapy. Her life was unravelling, and she’d message to ask for prayer and ask how she could pray for me. She got very sick with covid and suffered from long covid. It was a dark, hard season for her and I felt helpless to help her.

In April 2022, after a long time of covid keeping me from travelling to Europe, I started planning a June trip that would include Ella and Cologne, Germany—her home and her husband whom I’d not met. I also wanted to go to Poland, but I didn’t know if the war in Ukraine would make it unsafe to go. “Oh yes, Poland is so dangerous,” she laughed. “You need to plan to stay in Germany with us the whole time, and not go further east! My brain is exploding with so many ideas for what we could do!”

“We’ll go up to the North Sea where Neils’ family and their church is having a conference, and my in-laws want you to stay with them.” They’re from a closed Brethren group that doesn’t celebrate holidays, but they had a conference over Ascension day, and I was so excited to get in on it. They carefully planned our lodging: Ella and I would share the guest room and Niels insisted he was happy to sleep on the couch. From the North Sea, Niels would go home but Ella and I would train to Berlin for a weekend, where she’d show me her favorite places. She booked a hotel and made our schedule work with her school schedule.

Then: “Would you like to go to Mallorca when you’re here? I have Christian friends there and it’s so beautiful!” That’s why I loved Ella. With her, everything was possible and beautiful and wonderful. She’s one of the few friends who has more superlatives and adjectives than I do. But we couldn’t fit Mallorca into our week’s plan.

On May 20, she voice messaged: “Have you bought your ticket to Warsaw from Berlin? I just got out of the clinic. I have cancer, but we don’t know what kind. It has metastasized. You’re still welcome to come but I don’t know if we can go to Berlin.” She cancelled our Berlin booking, and we decided we’d roll with whatever happens when I got there.

She met with her oncologist June 2, the day I arrived in Cologne. Ella had arranged for a niece to meet me at the train and take me to her family until Ella could come. I loved being immersed in Russian German culture again. They are very special people, so comfortable and hospitable. One niece told me how much Ella raves about The Great Gatsby to her too. I determined again to try to read it. Ella’s diagnosis was grim: she has weeks or months left, and no recommended treatment. We had bread and cheese and tea around the table and talked about heaven and the uncertain summer ahead. 

Ella felt fine and wanted to show me her beloved Cologne that evening. She was an enthusiastic tour guide with back stories and experiences at every street corner. She didn’t feel like eating anything but we walked around the old streets at sunset and it was wonderful and we were happy. For just a bit, everything was right with the world and nothing was falling apart.

  

We stayed with her parents for the night, just outside the city. Ella’s their youngest daughter. She was gracious and happy, but distracted, and we prayed she could sleep well. Her parents had no English, but her dad would greet me with a hearty, sober “Boker tov!” that delighted me. I could understand most of their German: “The table is set for you. We welcome you because you’re God’s child.” Her mom cried to me, saying parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. When I stood in their kitchen and listened in on their Russian conversation, I felt like I’d stepped into a painting. 

We weren’t sure how to reconfigure my trip plans since she needed to be with her family now, not sightseeing with me for the next week. Ella matter-of-factly said she’ll buy me a ticket for Ireland. Of course I refused her generous offer, but I was able to get a ticket to fly home to my family in Ireland the next day, which seemed so novel.

For two nights and a full day, Ella and I talked fast, laughed, walked, prayed, sang. She drove us via the scenic route to her house in Gummersbach 40 minutes away. Old German towns are like walking in another world, and she loved sharing the wonder with me. She gave me a tour of their house, and I finally met Niels! We were very in the moment all day, but with some valid distractions. We decided that one of two wonderful things will happen: 

  1. She’ll get better and I’ll come back to Germany and we’ll visit the North Sea and Berlin another time.
  2. We’ll find each other in heaven and go exploring there.

Niels served us wonderful donor kebabs, Coke, tea, and baklava for our last meal in the sun in their back garden. We laughed a lot. There was so much goodness and sweetness and humor around us and we were here for all of it. I felt that Niels was suffering the most because he was going to lose the most. Ella knew that she had nothing to lose in death, but he knew he was going to be a widower, but wasn’t yet, and it was a terrible place to be. We were in a very thin space, where earth and heaven mingled in startling, sacred ways.

We prayed at the top of the steps and they took me to the train. The ticket machine refused our money, so Ella cajoled the conductor to let me pay on the train. “She’s from America and doesn’t have a ticket. You’ll help her, won’t you?” We hugged quickly and said “See you in a better place!” and the train took me away. Later, the conductor refused to let me pay for the ticket he printed for me. 

They waved me off.

At the airport the next morning, the check-in agent informed me that my flight to Dublin was cancelled. I messaged my family to pray for an alternative itinerary then burst into tears. I hadn’t cried while I was with Ella but the whirlwind of change and joy and sorrow made me fragile. When an unhelpful agent finally got a delayed alternative for me, I tried to drown my sorrows with a wonderful coffee and croissant and cried some more. 

I had hours to wait for my flight, so I breezed through a duty free shop and this perfume caught my eye. There was just one box left, and it wasn’t expensive, and I liked the fresh but musky scent. Best of all, the name was “Celebrate NOW” and I knew I needed this and would wear it in honor of Ella. I love wearing it! 

Over the summer, Ella kept telling me that they’re seeing miracles every day, and the doctors can’t believe she’s not in bed. She sent me a picture of all the hair that fell out one day onto the shower mat, and I cried but she was brave. They got a friend to take their pictures before she lost all her hair. I was in awe again of how Ella’s face exuded joy and vivacity. She glowed at normal times, but in these pictures, she was incandescent.

In the last month, she couldn’t message anymore. Up until then, she’d ask briefly for prayer, and ask how I was. Esther, our mutual friend, put me on the German chat group for updates. I understood very little of the voice messages but I’d swipe the texts, copy it into Google Translate, and follow what was happening. Ella’s friends cared for her, sang, bundled her up and opened the windows when she couldn’t breathe, prayed, laughed, cried. Esther shipped her big harp from Canada, flew to Germany with her baby, and played for Ella for hours. One day this week someone organized a 24-hour prayer chain sign-up sheet and in less than two hours, over 100 people had signed up. 

Ella had loved prodigiously, fiercely, shiningly all her 44 years, and everyone wanted to give something back to her. This week her pain was off the charts, her face was gray, and they couldn’t warm her feet. We prayed for her and Niels’ faith to stay strong, and that she could go quickly. This morning she got to go home to Jesus and we are so sad and so glad.

The Muddling Middle

Photo by SUNBEAM PHOTOGRAPHY on Unsplash

When I first joined Instagram, I followed artists and calligraphers. At bedtime, I relaxed while watching the swoosh of their swoopy lines and the gentle colors curving out of their brush or palette knife. Now several years later, very few artists post real-time videos of their works in progress.

Same with cooking videos. They’re carefully edited so that their project appears in a few magical blips, or the time laps shows the completed product in impossible speed. Because of course no one has time to watch the laborious carrot peeling and chopping, or the vinaigrette blending, or the donuts rising.

In this culture of same-day Prime™ delivery and made-to-order food-to-go, the normalizing of unbelievable speed is working on me—and on all of us. Our moms learned how to depend on pressure cookers and microwaves, and our generation has taken speediness to the next level. I’m not mad about progress and efficiency, but I’m saying it’s messing with my sense of real time and my expectations.

I’m a very impatient person, (even though I try awfully hard to be polite and not demanding) and I care enormously about efficiency and not wasting time or energy. I’m also a dreamer and an artist, so when I imagine something, I feel that it should become reality instantly. Why do I need to walk down the steps if I want to get outside? Why can’t I just want to walk outside, and then I’m there? My personality in this culture of instant gratification is volatile in daily life. And on the level of spiritual growth and character development, my impatience really takes a beating.

I read a book years ago about a missionary doctor. It was a good-sized book, well over an inch thick, and it told of amazing developments and improvements in the doctor’s ministry in Africa. I remember thinking that it was a good story, but unrealistic because 1.25 inches of story couldn’t possibly portray the agonies and rigors of 20+ years of ministry. Turns out any story, any photo or video or beautiful testimony, can never capture the creaking reality of the time it takes to get to the finished product.

There’s no way to hurry the slow, tedious processes of tiny increments of progress. The finished product I want, whether it’s a lovely painting or a gorgeous cake or wise character, only emerges after laborious, un-documented, inefficient steps that often look like muddling and wasting time.

We want to treat life like a Starbucks drive-through where we get to hold exactly what we want, exactly as we like it within two minutes—double shot, extra hot, half-syrup—and if it takes five minutes, we want to talk to the manager.

Instead, in the pursuit of a cherished end product, we need to embrace the process of time it takes to get there instead of despise the wait or get mad when it doesn’t happen in a one-minute clip.

We need to value the journey just as much or more than the destination because that middle muddling space is where most of life happens. I hate it, but it seems to be true. This slow reality calls for a radical shift of expectations and a new definition of normal.

In my experience, the healing, growth, and good thing I want doesn’t instantly appear in the space of one eloquent prayer—and not even after ten or a ten-hundred good prayers. What I long for eventually takes shape in teeny, tiny ½ second bursts of light and insight that add up over umpteen repetitions of invisible, boring days of showing up and doing the next right thing. So those unseen acts matter. The middle muddle is important, not something to hate or talk to the manager about.

This week my piano teacher had high praise for what I played her. (As opposed to last week, when I played the worst ever. She’s always super gracious but there was little to praise then.) “What did you do differently this week?” she asked. I hadn’t done anything different. I’d only set the timer, practiced and practiced, and the repetitions came together at the lesson to produce my best performance.

I don’t know why God keeps me—and all of us—waiting so long for good things. In God’s economy of time, it often feels like time isn’t part of His equation. Being over time and controlling it, He doesn’t need time to make His art or complete His projects. He isn’t bothered with inefficiency like I am. Could it be that He sees more value in the process than in the product?

God’s ways are mysterious, because while He’s irritatingly unhurried, His sovereignty still aligns our finite time with His bigger plans with surprising precision. We slice and dice our time because it’s a precious resource. We stack our schedules so we can do several things at once. We plan tight time frames, breathlessly racing from one obligation to the next. He’s not so rushed or frantic, and His plans still produce beautiful results.

I don’t speak glibly about waiting. I have no illusions that patience is easy.

But I know He knows that we’re dust and that time is hard for us to live in. And He never forbids us to dream up, long for, create, and want good, beautiful things. What I love about God is that He wants goodness and beauty even more than we do. I think our biggest job is to join Him in the tedium, the ache, the muddle, the impossibility, and watch Him make everything beautiful in His time.

And if that seems too much like a fairy tale, castles in the air too good to be true for you to believe it, let’s wait it out. I’ll wait with you.

Travel Tears

     

Three years ago, I spent a week each in Ireland and Poland. Travelling went smoothly except my luggage came a day late in both places, and I had a complicated itinerary and by the end of the trip, I had let anxiety get the best of me. I couldn’t relax and enjoy the journey because I felt so alone and unable to cope with the uncertainties that come with travelling solo.

I came home and cried to my mentor that I’m so done with travelling alone. She heard my story and said, “I’m sorry. That’s hard. But you’ll travel again.” She said it gently and confidently, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her.

She was right, of course.

Last month, I travelled alone in Europe for three weeks. Alone, as in alone in the airports, trains, and bus, as I went from place to place to see friends and family. I got to see lots of favorite places and lots of favorite people. I wasn’t a tourist so much as I was connecting with people in their spaces and it was a rich, intense, beautiful vacation.

However, I cried a lot in airports—something I’ve never done in all my travels. I’d always internalized the stress of travelling, or gotten angry or anxious, but this time, the distress came dripping out in tears.

In Cologne I hugged my terminally ill friend goodbye and we said to each other, “I’ll see you in a better place!” but I didn’t cry then. The next morning at the check-in desk, the agent said the flight to Dublin is cancelled. I messaged my family to ask them to pray about it then burst into tears. Later, after an agent rerouted and rescheduled my itinerary and I found a lovely coffee and pastry to drown my sorrows, I still cried.

I cried into my coffee in Dublin airport, reading the Sermon on the Mount with big feelings. When I got to Copenhagen and ran a mile to my gate and found it closed, I cried.  When I got to Warsaw, my luggage didn’t come, but I didn’t cry then because I was glad to finally be there. I did ask myself why I go to the bother of travelling when it brings this much upheaval but when I saw my friend who’d come to meet me, I remembered why I travel. The luggage came 36 hours later.

On my last layover, headed back to the US, in London Heathrow, I made myself buy something sustaining to eat, and as I ate a falafel and hummus bowl, I got the message that my youngest sister had just lost her baby. I’d been with her two weeks before, and when I’d hugged her goodbye, I’d said, “I’ll hold your baby at Christmas!” The pregnancy was 15 weeks along, but the scan that day showed no heartbeat. So I cried in an airport again. Alone, far away from anyone I know, and so, so sad.

It’s a weird, alien feeling to be surrounded with hundreds of people and be crying alone.

However, on this trip, for whatever reason, I enjoyed and interacted with fellow travelers and crew like never before. I saw so much beautiful humanity in people, laughed, surmised, discussed which lines moved the fastest, watched their luggage. Laughing with strangers is magical!

But bigger than the tears and human connections, two concepts grounded me and kept me from the anxiety and anger I’d felt three years ago. These ideas colored my trip more than the tears and distress.

The Lord watches over the alien. I’d found this verse in Psalm 146:9 and read it on behalf of all the refugees in the world. But I decided to claim it for myself on this trip. I wasn’t a refugee, but I was a lone stranger in foreign places and I needed to know God was watching out for me. And He did. In all the cancellations and delays and reroutes and tears, I knew His eye was on me and it was going to be ok. I felt a deep peace that went way beyond positive thinking.

I understood that I was experiencing privileged loneliness. Often in those three weeks, I heard myself say, “Oh this is so good again. I miss this so much.” It was wonderful to be in Europe and I reveled in it. I felt overwhelmed with the goodness surrounding me and felt small and undeserving of experiencing so much richness. All I could say was “Thank you thank you thank you, God.” So I was very lonely in spots, but it was a privileged loneliness, and a place to feel deep gratitude. The goodness around me was immense, outrageous privilege handed to me without even having asked for it.

Strange how that works. The deepest voids are the places where God’s goodness splashes all over.

Pair o’ Ducks

When I left Poland and came to Pennsylvania in 2015, I stopped taking pictures. I gave away my little digital camera because why would I need it anymore? Over a year later, I got my first smart phone, but even then I didn’t use the camera except when I went overseas.

My camera use and my minimal pictures indicate how I saw my States-side life. It wasn’t worth documenting or noticing–not compared to my colorful students and the old world charm of Europe. I have megabytes of photos from there, but not from here.

This summer will mark seven years since I left Poland and came to the US for one year, which stretched to now. I still scan the horizon and the road sides and trees and food for photogenic moments, and I rarely find something to document.

I can hear howls of protests from readers who love their home state, and I concede that my few pictures reveal more about my poor vision than about the world I live in now. The beauty of this blog is that no one pays to read it, and if my dismissal of the USA offends you, stop reading here.

Stephan Gingerich spoke at REACH about Third Culture Kids like me with excellent insight and advice. He said those of us who return to our passport country should be quiet for two years, and I’m sure he’s right. I bite my tongue every day to stay quiet about another life and another world that I know and love. But indulge me for a minute while I list things in America that make me cringe and want to be a million miles away.

  1. People put sugared, candied nuts on salads. This is a grave confusion of the proper place of sweets and savories. Salads are for any kind of crunch and textures and colors, but they are to be strictly savory, not sweet. Mixing candied, caramelly nuts is offensive to the character of the bright flavors of cheeses, garlic, and herbs. Along the same line, people bake ham and cheese sandwiches doused with a syrupy mixture with poppy seeds. The first time I had this, I honestly thought the cook was serving us a mistake. Now I know they have recipes for this, and I can’t imagine a poorer use of calories.
  2. I opened a fridge door recently (not mine) and saw not two or three, but FIVE different flavors of coffee creamers. This baffled me on several levels, not the least of which: how is dairy-free, artificially-flavored so wonderful? I wondered if five in a fridge indicates the next level of entitlement and it also reminded me of how incredulous I was when I first saw the rows and rows, shelves and shelves of creamers at Walmart.
  3. To kneel for prayer in traditional Mennonite churches, people whirl around, half standing, half crouching, and put their faces into the place they were just sitting. It’s awkward and illogical and embarrassing for anyone unfamiliar with this tradition. Why not gracefully kneel forward and lean your elbows on the seat back in front of you? I cringe for the visitors most of all.
  4. People talk SO LOUD on their phones and at restaurant tables.

Sometimes I catch a whiff of loveliness, a view that takes my breath away. It took me a long time to look past my bias against the US and recognize beauty here. People might not be as whimsical or colorful as my English students, but I meet gifted, passionate, fun people here. They tell me their big, beautiful, impossible dreams and stories of healing and generosity that remind me that Aslan is on the move here and life is wonderful and worth celebrating here.

Last summer I was gifted a missionary debrief retreat. Those sessions helped me start to acknowledge and name the vast chasm that spans the various worlds I’ve lived in. In many ways, I’m living my best life now, but I still cry from the losses of my former life.

The retreat leaders had a word for this: paradox. This word gave me permission to hold opposing realities simultaneously.

During the first evening of the retreat, each of us was given two rubber ducks and a Sharpie. We were told to mark up one duck. I eagerly and generously covered one duck with stitches and a black eye and broken heart and bruises. He’s the yuck duck and the other is the yay duck, and I hold them both in one hand. Both yuck and yay are true and real at the same time.

Because I tend to live in an all-or-nothing mode, and because I love tactile lessons and puns, the pair o’ ducks gave me an enormous step toward wholeness. Now I recognize paradox in many places. And instead of rushing to one of two opposing views and camping out at one place, I slow down and recognize that both the yuck and the yay are here, and neither of them ignores or denies the other.

I can’t tell you how freeing this concept is for me. I see paradox in people, how we’re all beautiful and broken. I see paradox in events or situations, and the blend of terrible and wonderful. As a TCK, paradox gives me permission to love the present while mourning the past.

The Apostle Paul lived with paradox too. In II Corinthians 4, it’s like he’s holding his own pair o’ ducks.

I may never completely settle in the US or come to peace with plastic creamers and startling traditions. But my ducks remind me that not everything in Europe was yay, and there is wonder and joy right here. The ducks are odd desk ornaments but I have a hunch they’ll sit here a long time.

The Most Important Thing

Photo by T. Kaiser on Unsplash

Back in December, I spent two weeks volunteering with ARC in Wisconsin. I went with a teen girl from church, but didn’t know any of the 20+ other volunteers when we got there.

At the end of the first week, we were in the food line at Sunday dinner and apparently some of them had been talking about me because one of the girls said, “Anita, I’ve been with you this whole week and I didn’t know you wrote a book!”

Her surprise amused me, and I shrugged. “Well, it’s not the most important thing about me.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “So what IS the most important thing about you?”

I was spooning gravy onto meat as she posed this question of shattering, earth-shaking import. We don’t plan these things. We can’t anticipate all the wonderful, unpredictable questions and conversations that pop out of nowhere and lead us to new discoveries.

“Hmmmm. The most important thing about me,” I slowly restated her question, “Is that Jesus loves me.”

It was a Sunday school answer, but I knew in the deepest part of me that this was the highest, widest, most wonderful reality about me.

Saying that wonder out loud—being asked to say it out loud—was an enormous gift my new friend gave me.

We women are too good at comparing ourselves with others. Depending on the day or the mood or the neighbor at hand, we give in to believing lies about our incompetency and superiority.

And it makes us shriveled and wrinkled and ugly. (Some wrinkles come with years, but that’s another subject.)

Inferiority and pride make us touchy and snippy and territorial and does nothing for us.

Have you noticed how a bride glows? She may or may not have the prettiest face, but her eyes and her smile tell us she knows she’s chosen and loved, and she isn’t crippled with needing anyone’s approval except her groom. 

Brides glow because they know they’re loved. Have you seen how love is a wonderful beautifier?

I wish we wouldn’t think “Jesus Loves Me” is a children’s song. I wonder what would happen if we would sing it every Sunday, all together, loud, as if we mean it and are over the moon excited about it. 

The most important thing about us has never been how much work we get done, or how little money we have. Or the way we do or don’t stay up to date with clothes and décor and hobbies and child training and world news.

When comparison stops, the game is over. The important thing stays the most important thing and nothing else matters.

The most important thing about me is not which of my spiritual gifts people see, or how much I’ve been hurt. The most important thing about me is that I get to be one of billions of people that Jesus loves wide and deep and long. If I could see Him, I would see the glint in His eye and I would see that He likes me—and not just me, but all of us—regardless of how cool or uncool anyone is, and that is the best, most important, glorious thing in the world.

People of the Dash

I came home last night after two weeks of volunteering with Anabaptist Refugee Committee at an army base in Wisconsin. The base housed 13,000 Afghan refugees in August. Many have resettled, and approximately 6,000 are left and hoping to be resettled in their new homes by the end of February.

It was a wonderful two-week stint, spending time with these beautiful, brave people who have lived through more devastation than anyone should have to, and who are attempting to start a new life in a new country. I lost my heart to the children and teens, so lively, so bright, eager to learn, respectful. I wonder what schools they’ll land in, how much support they’ll get, and if they’ll come to love this new world.

If you or someone you know can spare two weeks between now and the end of February, and can comply with the newly-mandated vaccination needed to work with refugees, consider applying now with ARC!

I wrote this poem months ago when I first heard the term “people of the dash” but I feel it more deeply now. This post has no pictures because it’s illegal to share them publicly. But I saw people who looked like relatives of the sad, beautiful Afghani girl in famous National Geographic cover photo. Their effortless beauty and liveliness took my breath away.

People of the Dash

Iraqi-Yezidi.

Ukranian-Polish.

Afghani-American.

People-of-Care from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar.

People of the dash

Live between worlds,

A hyphen of time without home.

 

Stories of full lives behind

And hope for life ahead

Are the only sure things they own.

They exist on the cramped short line

Between empires with tapestries of legends and lore and

Today’s mercy (or none)

Of authorities who speak a new language:

Food line. Documents. Tent. Blanket. Permission. Quiet. Stop.

Their sleep cracks with violence and staggering loss.

 

O Jesus, Man between worlds

Who also had no pillow,

How long until the crescent wave of your justice

Washes this groaning globe

And ushers your beautiful, broken people of the dash

To their long home, carrying their spangled splendor?

 

How long, dear Jesus,

Once homeless God-Man,

How long can you wait?

Advent Jewels

This gentle turning of the season into gray and cold and sometimes snow has been lightened now with words and music and berry trees. I want to share the wealth, be the town crier, tell you about the gems that sparkle for me. If they don’t shine for you, it’s ok. Words, and songs, like books, are for seasons that are not always now.

Poetry
These mornings, I’m paging through Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson: a book of blessings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Epiphany. I find the verses thoughtful, infused with Jan’s experience of deep grief and hope.

I come back again and again to this favorite from Malcolm Guite: “O Emmanuel.” Guite plays with words and allusions with holy playfulness. The layered meanings of each word and line slows me down and fills me with awe at his skill. My favorite line is the second line: O long-sought With-ness for a world without. I love hearing artists talk about their work, and this podcast on Spotify has the author reading all seven of his Advent poems and some of the backstory of each. Go to 30:00 to hear him read this one:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Music
While I love all the carols of the season, (not the chintzy songs about chestnuts or holly!) Advent songs meet me right now like nothing else. I’d like to sing #121 in the Mennonite Hymnal every Sunday: “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People.” For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad/And all flesh shall see the token that His word is never broken.

Two pieces on repeat these days:

  1. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Voces 8.
    LIsten to the long, plaintive first “O,” how the tenor voices shimmer throughout the song, and the strong, desperate quality of the voices calling.
  2. “O Radiant Dawn” by The Sixteen
    I heard this live twice last week, and each time, I couldn’t stop the tears. It’s raw, longs for light and justice, and calls COME because there’s nothing else to say.

Art
A friend gave me this card, a painting by Liz Hess, because she knew I’d like it. I keep it on my desk because so much love how the kings of the earth are bringing their glory to the lion and the lamb at the manger.

Last year pastor John showed me what he was making for his daughters and I was cheeky enough to say I’d love one too. Soon one morning, I found this on my desk and of course I cried. I love its simplicity and these days, Mary’s arms are empty.

Blog post
Every year about this time, I reread and share this blog post by Lanier Ivester. I found it years ago during an especially dark season, and it gave me hope and light and a giant shift in perspective.

The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness. It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one.

The blog post also introduced me to the beautiful words attributed to Fra Giovanni in 1513: There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

Advent is a season of waiting, watching, preparing. We light pink and purple and white Advent candles every week, and we wait for many things but I often think we know nothing of waiting like the Jews did for their Messiah and deliverance, or like refugees wait for their papers. But we still wait. The whole earth waits, weeping for justice and goodness and beauty.

This year, more than I could last year, I can enter into the season of hope in waiting. I’m ready for light to seep up from the horizon, ready for smiles to grow strong and confident, ready for faith to become sight. Ready.

Feasting

Photo by Oksana Melnychuk on Unsplash

Linens, candles, clink of cutlery and pottery

Paint an impression of uncounted sweet,

Friendly, nostalgic feasts

Around tables.

 

Winks, questions, stories, guffaws, songs

Stay with me much longer

Than pasta, mousse, exquisite blends

Of textures and vibrant flavors.

 

Welcomes, farewells, celebrations

Circled around platters, friends, neighbors,  strangers,

Centered for one thin slice of time

Then scattered.

 

The guests and palates changed

At every year and table,

Warming, filling, nourishing me still

At tonight’s solitary soup.

Something Bigger Going On

 

Photo by Brent Ninaber on Unsplash

You know what it’s like to listen to a new piece of music where there’s dissonance and crashing, and you think “I’m not enjoying this. Where’s the fast-forward?”

Sometimes I go to the next piece on the playlist, but sometimes the crashing is happening in a favorite piece like Beethoven’s Ninth, or Dvorak’s New World Symphony and I know I have to ride out the harsh parts until they resolve again and go back to the strong, secure lines I love so much. I can endure the crashing and screeching places, the lines where I’m tempted to click “fast forward” because I know there’s a symphony going on here–something big and glorious and well-designed and it’s not going to keep crashing for the next hour.

These last months, I keep thinking the same thing about life and me and the world in general: there’s something bigger going on here. Let me hold still  and breathe deep and wait out this crashing and banging because it’s going to come to something.

When I sit at the east window every morning, the sun rises further south every day, marking a smaller arc. Sunlight is scarce, weaker than it was two months ago, and I want to cry about the gray days. Right now the sun looks like it’s fading away to the edge of the horizon forever. But there’s something bigger going on. Spring is coming even though it’s six months away. This is seasons, and orbits, and summer comes again.

Animal babies become independent of their parents within a year of being born. But human babies die if no one sees after their needs for years. I cuddle a baby and wonder what God is up to in this little bundle of cuteness and helplessness. There’s something bigger going on here for their moms and dads–bigger than the sleep deprivation, illnesses, total dependence.

In relationships, one person deeply disappoints another, erodes trust. They limp toward forgiveness, slipping and sliding, lurching. There’s a bigger story arcing above them, another plot line they’re part of. If we could see the story line, the myriad intersections, the spiritual armies fighting, it would take our breath away.

I hear of accidents, crushing disappointments, crises that keep mounting and piling up, layer on layer of percussion and brass rising to shrill chaos, and will the crashing ever end? The Sunday school answer says that in the sweet by and by, everything will be ok, but I don’t want to wait that long.

The good Sunday school girl folds her hands  and quotes Romans 8:28 primly but do I?

Nope.

I howl around and panic and hyperventilate over everything that shouldn’t be this way and I simmer and fume and complain and look for a fast-forward button to pound.

But I’m trying really hard to learn to quiet down, step back, and look for something bigger happening over the din and the wrong.

What’s God up to here?

What’s the metanarrative, the story line arcing over this current heartbreak?

Where are the grace notes in the chaos?

If God’s doing something bigger here, how could I join Him in it? Instead of fighting it?

In any piece of art, zoom in far enough, see just a quarter inch of the colors and lines or hear just two measures of a line or read two lines from a story, and it looks like chaos, nonsense, accident. But there’s something bigger going on.

I think we’re not big enough to always know what the bigger piece of art looks like. Time limits us and space cramps us, and we are too small to see the end, the arc of the plot, hear the soothing cadence of the aria that’s coming.

Zoom out, sit still with the crashing rhythms and shades, trust the artist to put to rights what looks chaotic right now.

This is what I tell myself, what I believe deep in my heart is the truest reality even though I hate the current noise. This is not all there is, not all there will be.

Faith declares that what is not yet seen or heard is still true.

Love knows the artist’s heart is absolutely committed to goodness and beauty.

This is all I know, and for now, in the middle of the symphony, it’s enough.

Words When There are None

Screenshot from Every Moment Holy website

I don’t know why, but I usually have more words than one person needs. However, the supply comes and goes. At both tips of the deep lows and soaring highs that my personality tends toward, I have no words. Only tears or gasps, like last night on my walk when I saw the enormous orange moon slipping up from the horizon. Or in times of confusion and anger and sorrow. Or when I don’t know how to pray.

My culture came away from rote prayers, prayer books, and liturgy, ostensibly because we valued direct connection with the Holy Spirit, and I’m glad for that. I don’t like to be tied to a form that becomes hollow.

But in the cascading sorrows of this season, as well as the shimmering beauty that lingers, I found a place that has words when I have none. I don’t use the book every day, but I go again and again to the first volume of Every Moment Holy, and I sit with the words that remind me of simple truth, enduring safety, and the anchor of God’s sovereignty. You too? You forget too that something bigger is going on here, and God is still in charge of the world? Yeah, me too. That’s why I love this prayer book so much.

Sometimes I call it a prayer book for millennials, because it has a prayer for drinking coffee, a prayer when reading too much news, a prayer when seeing someone beautiful, a prayer when camping, a prayer before going on stage. One of my favorites alludes to a Narnian story: it’s a prayer when feasting with friends, and reminds us that eating together is an act of war. Yes! Count me in to fight the dark side by feasting together!

Screen shot of the Every Moment Holy, partial list of contents, vol. 1

Jesus countered the proud, public prayers of His day by telling us to pray secretly, and He modeled that in His solitary nights of prayer. For all of us individually, secret times of connection with the Father shape our character and anchor our public service. If we crowd out these secret moments, we lose way more than we can know.

Other places in the New Testament show God’s people praying together and collectively pushing back the dark powers around them. Humans are finite and limited and near-sighted enough that we forget the spiritual reality that shimmers beyond our sight. If we would see and hear what happens in the spiritual world around us, it would take our breath away.

I hold enormous comfort knowing the Spirit prays for me when I have no words. I also love using this prayer book, but I dream of these prayers printed and handed around small groups and church benches and Sunday schools all over the globe. The second volume is prayers about death, grief, and hope, which I don’t have yet, but seems appropriate and necessary these days.

Liturgy for a Time of Widespread Suffering

Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow

In collective prayer, we hear each other say the words we can’t string together, reminding ourselves of what is enduring, verbally expressing hope and joy and sorrow, and audibly saying words we know to be true even though we don’t feel their reality. We often do this unconsciously in songs. What if we would intentionally speak words together in prayer—words and phrases and silences we don’t have but someone else wrote for times like this?

These two volumes make lovely gifts. Here’s a short list of PDFs from volume two, but you probably should buy copies of both volumes for yourself and your friends.

Instead of God’s people being known for their suspicion and outrage, I long for God’s people to be known for their love and worship. To have child-like faith. To keep our faces turned toward the God who will one day right all the wrongs that rain around us. To instinctively reach for someone’s hand and pray for them or with them when we don’t know what to say.

Imagine if neighbors would say “Have you heard about their prayer meetings? Do you see how crazily they love those who disagree with them? They look like they have a shining secret! I wonder what makes them so gentle and beautiful?”

Imagine if prayers would be the words we’re remembered for.