To Be an Ear

Some years ago, I was one in a quartet of English teachers in Poland. We’d taught and traveled and joked and experienced lots of things together for two years. We knew it was an exceptional season of our lives and things wouldn’t always be this fun.

So the day a team member left to go back to the US was a very sad day.

We waved him off at the airport, then joined other friends in downtown Warsaw. I put on sunglasses to hide my red eyes, tramping around being tourists. They were a big, jolly group, and I loved the chance to share our capital city with them.

On the hour ride home, we caught an old train without AC, and it was hot. Often Polish passengers don’t like any moving breeze, even in high summer, but since our group filled the whole train car, we slid open all the windows.

While the others sang and laughed and made up fun games, I stood by a window. It was open at shoulder-height, so I folded my arms on the rim and rested my chin on my hands. I watched the birch trees and poppies flit past, soaked up the blue sky, and let the hot breeze wash over me and dry my cheeks because tears kept dripping onto them.

Soon Manu, the group’s photographer, came to stand at the window next to mine. We stood elbow to elbow, leaning on our window rims, watching the countryside, while he took pictures of this and that. He turned to me to say something about the sky, and I couldn’t turn away quickly enough to keep him from seeing my tears.

A man who stays steady when a woman cries is a strong, good man. Manu turned back to his camera as if he’d not seen anything amiss. After a minute, still watching the trees, he said, “I guess you had a pretty hard day today.”

I don’t know what I said, but yes.

“It’s really hard to say good-bye,” he said.

Suddenly, I realized who I was talking with. This was a young man who’d grown up in an orphanage in Romania and had loved scores of people who eventually walked out of his life. He’d known more goodbyes than I did.

“It used to hurt so much when someone left. Finally, I decided not to care or get attached, so that their goodbye wouldn’t be so terrible.” His voice was calm, matter-of-fact. “But cutting my heart off still hurt me, so that wasn’t a good choice.”

We talked a little more, about how love and friendship enriches more than it depletes, even if it breaks our heart. Then we lapsed into silence, watching poppies and birch trees flash past. Soon I felt calmed enough to turn away from the window and join the rest of the group and laugh at their games. I was fragile for the rest of the day, but that short exchange at the train window helped me turn a corner.

It wasn’t so much what Manu said, though that was good and gentle and thoughtful. It was more what he did: his calmness and understanding that helped steady me and not feel alone.

Several years later, Manu married my good friend, and now they have two active little boys. I always feel calmed and loved when I’m with them. In my days and dreams for life, I care a lot about wholeness and healing for myself and others. These late summer days of clear skies and warm sun remind me of that season back then and how Manu helped me that day. It was an important step in my growth as a person. He showed me that helping someone is mostly about listening and staying present in their distress.

I hope I never forget it.

Muscles Have Memory

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A mom called the phys ed teacher to complain that the teacher worked the children too hard, and her son felt too sore to take out the trash that evening. I couldn’t believe that a mom couldn’t put the pieces together and figure out that no child is going to be thrilled to take out the trash.

It made me start thinking about how entitlement and instant gratification seems to be in the air we breathe, but how that stunts and limits humans from reaching the potential God created us for. I remembered this TED talk, found out a little more about Alex Honnold, and wrote this blog post for The Dock. (The Dock is a website for conservative Anabaptist educators. You’ll need to register to comment there, or come back here to tell me what is your life’s biggest YES!)

Alex Honnold is the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical cliff in Yosemite.

National Geographic describes his practice routine: “He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch.”

Alex has been climbing since he was ten, gradually taking on higher and more taxing climbs. At age 30, Alex thought El Capitan seemed “very scary” but he practiced for a year in order to climb it free-solo. (Free-solo means climbing alone with no ropes or safety gear.)

Probably none of us aspires to rock climbing, and we likely won’t encourage our children to try it. But in our pursuit of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, we should cultivate a lifestyle that habitually and intentionally incorporates discipline. We need automatic, habitual responses to the weights and vices around us. This requires often saying no when it would feel easier to say yes.

Children and adults who are accustomed to no live more productive, fulfilled, and vibrant lives than those who avoid denying themselves their whims. Anyone can act on a whim, but mastery requires repeating a million small decisions that eventually become automatic for the cause of one goal. Mastery means saying no to many little things while saying yes to one big thing.

It’s easy to make a list of things to say no to:

  • Junk food
  • Screen time
  • Sports that distract from study
  • Sleeping until noon every day
  • Spending more money than we make

Saying no (incorporating discipline and rigor) is important for flourishing. The human body thrives best when its muscles live with some level of resistance and challenge. Without daily exercise and testing, muscles become flabby and limp.

But discipline is costly, uncomfortable, and unpopular.

It seems that, except for extraordinary athletes like Alex Honnold, people in our society prioritize comfort and convenience over goals or principles. Christians are not exempt from the lure of pleasure and instant gratification. Some of us have imbibed the mentality that we deserve a good life and God wants us to be happy. Others of us have organized, systematic disciplines that we defend passionately, but we focus only on saying no, which becomes wearisome at best and disposable at worst.

Jesus’ greatest commandment does not address what we should avoid, but what we should love. God is far more for good than He is against evil. His people should be known for what they embrace rather than for what they decide against.

It’s easy to hate the vices of the age. It’s easy to decry the evils of video games and smart phones and movies.

But what if technology isn’t the enemy? What if social media isn’t our teen’s greatest foe?

Finish the post here >>>

Smells Like Home

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When I was little, my school friends and I used to have scarves or gloves that looked the same, and when we got them confused, we’d sniff the item and know whose it was.

I’m still fascinated with what makes every household smell different, because we all know and recognize our friends’ houses smells. It has something to do with how much garlic the mom cooks with, what laundry soap she uses, what oils she diffuses, how much accumulation she allows in the laundry basket and trash cans.

One house’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Sometimes more than anything else, my sense of smell tells me what country I’m in.

It happens every time I leave Europe and walk from the jet way into the airport. I breathe in deep, feel the coolness of a generous air conditioning system, and smell the commercial, clean American fragrance. It smells light, sanitized, synthetic, luxurious.

The Dublin airport isn’t over cooled, and the air smells less clean than American airports, but pleasant. Past the smokers standing outside the door, I smell the brisk, damp, salty air, and breathe in as much as my lungs can hold.

In Poland, people tend to avoid any moving air. Stepping outside the airport, I smell the dry continental air. Some stores have little or no air conditioning, and the air smells heavy, briny, earthy. On the sidewalks, people frequently brush past me with an aura of rich, glorious fragrance that makes me want to follow them, sniffing like a puppy.

Rumor has it that Americans have the wasteful habit of taking a daily shower while Europeans take fewer showers and stronger cologne. The rumor might be true.

Our English school in Poland used to have a student who worked for a designer perfume company. She would sniff vials all day, testing endless combinations of compounds. To clear her palate, she’d frequently have to go on a walk and breathe other air for awhile so she could do her job.

I have a keen nose, but that job would exhaust me in fifteen minutes. But I kind of identify countries with my nose.

One country’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Surprised by Paradox: a Review

In Worldviews class, our teacher quoted Robert Capon’s lines: “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency,” and deep inside me, the words rang clear and true.  My soul knew that categorical propositions don’t explain all of reality and the human experience, and contrasting wine and water seemed an eloquent metaphor.

I’ve written before about the paradox of being a Third Culture Kid. There are many more paradoxes I live with, such as

  • God’s sovereignty and man’s free will
  • a woman’s veil affirms beauty and highlights humility
  • writing is simultaneously blankety-blank hard and life-giving
  • the human body is both sacred and broken

Enter a beautiful, thoughtful new book: Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. I love that its title joins the lineup of  the other rich surprised books: Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Wright’s Surprised by Hope. And I love, love the creativity in its cover design! If you could judge a book by its cover, this book would already be a winner. This is my copy as I read it, with a pen to make notes and a pansy on a stem for a book mark.

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Five years ago, I read Jen’s first book, Teach Us to Want, and found her words and way of thinking so compelling, honest, and practical, that I’ve been following her ever since. When I read that she was looking for volunteers to join the launch team for her Paradox book, I applied, and was delighted to be accepted.

I’ve spent much of my life looking for answers to questions, solutions to problems, explanations to mysteries. In the last few years, I’m finding that more than answers, I need Jesus. More than tidy formulas, I need the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through me. Jen says paradox is the tension between certainty and mystery, and in that space, we meet God.

It’s true.

Since I tend to be all-or-nothing, either-or, the concept of paradox in my relationships, daily life, and my perception of God gives me a third way–an option that fits reality and frees me from needing to scrunch unwieldy, vast ideas into tidy, stackable boxes. And the current Postmodern air we breathe is kind to a book like this, when other eras might have labeled it as heresy. These days, most of us aren’t satisfied with Bible-thumping, simplistic explanations that don’t acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and we’re open to mystery, ambiguity, and paradox.

But claiming paradox isn’t a cop-out. It’s not fixing an easy answer onto complex questions, and it doesn’t mean we can’t be sure of anything. In fact, paradox delights in certainty. Jen wrestles well intellectually and theologically, taking in the wisdom of orthodoxy and her current gritty  experiences, and inviting us to recognize the wonder and humility of holding opposing ideas in tension. Her footnotes reflect wide, respected, delicious resources. Jen’s theology is sound and conservative, not pop evangelical, which makes me feel that I can trust her. I even felt that in the sections about Grace and Kingdom, she sounds very Anabaptist.

 

We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.

We don’t vote the kingdom into office; we live its compelling hope every day.

A kingdom life is always a nonconforming life, and subversion is a form of witness.

The book covers four themes that reflect Jesus’ life:

  • incarnation: His birth
  • kingdom: His public ministry
  • grace: His crucifixion
  • lament: His resurrection and ascent

The section on lament spoke most deeply to me. It’s rare to hear such profound honesty and powerful invitation to weep over what God weeps.

Lament tells us there are complaints worth raising, and God’s suffering assures that someone hears.

From the epilogue:

Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not. Let’s remember that paradox, with its attendant wonder, is its own way into the meekness of wisdom James describes in his letter.

Mystery draws us to wonder, which is also to say the limits of our wits. But rather than our finitude bringing us to despair, paradox can cause us to praise.

In the month coming up to the book release date, Jen shared weekly video chats with the launch team. These were lovely points of connection with her as a person and with the content we were reading. But she really had my attention on launch day with these:

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This screen grab shows a pair-a-ducks a friend gave her, used to help TCK’s debrief their experience. The clean duck illustrates their yay feelings, and the bandaged, dirty duck illustrates the yuck feelings. Since I’m a TCK and a pushover for a good pun, this pair-a-ducks fit me perfectly.

We can hold both the yuck and the yay of our experiences, not discounting or denying one at the cost of the other. Embracing all the aspects of life and all the complicated realities of loving God and our neighbors makes us bigger and better people, with wide hearts that are more prepared to worship–which is the ultimate reason He created us for.

I’m so grateful for Jen’s careful, curious, wise work in Surprised by Paradox. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and order your copy!

 

 

Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me?

My Unfair Life

Scene 1

I approached a tall metal gate with my sister. She showed her ID to a guard. Dust swirled around us.

“Can my sister come in with me?” she asked him. “Just for 10 minutes?”

“No.”

I tried to make it easier for him to say yes. “Just for 2 minutes?”

“No. No ID, no entry.”

It was the day before Christmas, and I was at the entrance to Camp Moria on the Greek island Lesvos. Refugees milled around us, wrapped in coats, talking on cell phones.

My sister, working in the camp with her husband, had done the required paper work and could go in and out of the camp when she showed her ID on the lanyard she wore. I waited at the gate while she went in to talk with Butterfly, the Iranian friend she wanted to invite to cook a meal for us.

I stood outside the gate, my eyes taking in everything they could. I squinted as wind swirled the dust around us. A tall chain link fence with razor wire towered above us. I couldn’t be angry at the guard for refusing to let me enter because this place held hundreds of vulnerable people who needed protection, and even though the razor wire looked dehumanizing, it gave a semblance of safety for the ones inside.

I waited and watched. Bright sun. Clouds of dust. Cold air. Umpteen nationalities and ages. Then an African man stepped up to me and asked what I was doing and where I was from.

“I’m from America. I’m waiting on my sister. She works here.”

“Oh! You have come a long way! Why are you here?”

“I came for ten days to be with my sister for Christmas.”

In that moment, I felt the immense weight of injustice fall onto my shoulders. This man had probably risked his life to come here, and I got to jet in and out like any other pleasure-seeking, happy-go-lucky tourist. There was no justice between our stories. The man had every right to scowl at me and resent my privilege.

“Oh! You did a good thing. You must love your sister very much!”

“Yes, I do love her very much.”

I blinked in the sunlight as the man kept smiling, nodding his head and repeating his words. “You did a very good thing.”

His grace and joy crushes me. I don’t know why he was so happy for me. I don’t know why I got to travel in ease and go back to a steady job that automatically deposits money into my bank account.

There is no justice in this scene.

Scene 2

Several days later, I stood at the same chain-link gate again with my sister, and she asked the guard if I could come in for ten minutes.

“Only for ten minutes.”

So we walked fast.

She took me to the info tent, the hub of activity that EuroRelief organizes. In the portable cabin behind that, sealed off with chain link, I saw stacks of hats, coats, and gloves. I noticed white boards and diagrams and numbers that kept track of spaces and families. It looked like organized mayhem that does its best to give the barest basics to the neediest. I’m so proud of the men and women who pour their souls into this overwhelming, gritty, endless work.

We walked up the hill. Tinny Turkish music blared from a radio. Pieces of clothing stuck into the chain link to dry in the cold sunshine. A few sullen faces glared at each other and us. Are they angry? Let’s get out of here. Past the latrine. Past the fenced-in family compound where a friend stood to guard the door so no unauthorized person would come in. He must have been freezing and bored, but he grinned and waved at us.

Tents lined the gravel path, four or five deep. They were a mass of billowing, flimsy canvas, roped to any available stable surface.

Then the scene that seared itself onto my brain and replays itself endlessly: two hands reach out of a little tent, fumbling to pull in the thin layer of blankets that poke out onto the gravel. Fumble. Pull. Shake. Yank. Get the blankets in and the zipper closed. A pair of sandals lies outside the zipper because someone doesn’t want dirt in their tent. Someone sleeps on a very thin layer of blankets. The padding can’t possibly be warm enough or protect from the gravel underneath.

Ten minutes is up. We walk out of the dusty gate that has razor wire over it.

Reflection

All good stories have a conclusion but this one doesn’t. Greece broke me in a way that I’ve not recovered from. These scenes are still with me, over 2 years later. They part of the texture of my life of ethnic food, colorful people, and stimulating conversations. Are they also inciting incidents that will usher me to another chapter of service and care?

I don’t know.

I only know that it’s right for me to be thankful. Every night when I lie on my thick mattress and under my feather duvet, I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am. And when sit in front of a fresh, colorful meal. And when I buzz down the interstate in my car or walk onto a plane.

I know that, after seeing all those flimsy tents and thin blankets, I should never again complain about living in a swampy area that has 6 months of winter. I also know it’s right to use my resources to nurture His kingdom that stretches all over the globe.

But I don’t know what that will look like.

 

photo credit, a refugee artist in Moria Camp: https://www.facebook.com/riadh04

This post was first written for Daughters of Promise, and was first posted on their beautiful blog.

Camp Moria, about the size of a large Walmart and its parking lot, was built as an army barracks to hold 1,500 people. Right now, about 7,000 people are crammed in it, with more arriving.

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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Closing down one year and turning the page to another always makes me a simmering mess of melancholy and excited, reliving sweet memories, shuddering at hard memories, anticipating and apprehensive and curious about what’s next.

Writing things out helps unscramble the mass of the months and moments, sifts the favorites from the non-favorites, and reminds me of what is true.

Here is a sanitized, public-reader-appropriate list of 2018’s high points. Those closest to me know the crazy and the agony parts, the hysterical and impossible and guffawing and sparkling moments that we shared this year. But that stays with us. This list is neither chronological nor ordered in priority, but savored, round and round, like pearls on a string.

2018

  • Introducing 40 women to doodling at a women’s retreat. Helping them find their inner artist.
  • Traveling to KS with friends and singing in a concert for Nelson & Hannah’s wedding.
  • Tea with mentor friends, late, after an age-long day. Tears. Decision. Unutterable peace.
  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterworth
  • 2 visits to NYC.
  • A Makers Weekend where a pile of friends made stuff and talked and ate food and talked and talked.
  • A late-night invitation to neighbors on my birthday. Fire and jackets and stories. Laughter and star light.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A week auditing a Christian anthropology class in a seminary.
  • A week in Greece. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Swimming. Family. Unbelievable food. Sunshine.
  • This concert of peace. In the heat of summer. In the front row. Healing tears dripping off my chin.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday. Carnegie Hall. Messiah. 500 voices.
  • Connections in my new church, surprising and sweet.
  • An Ola Gjeilo concert where the composer was the accompanist and we heard him improv “Ubi Cartitas” with music heard only that one time.
  • Rings of friends, arriving alone or in dozens, in our living room. Rollicking laughter. Stories. Art parties. Tea.
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Friends who took me in as one of their family. Different states. Different occasions. So much love.

2018 brought me choking anxiety and peace, sobs and shrieking laughter, a staggering, preposterous torrent of blessings, joy, and love so deep and so tall, there is no way to measure or describe it.
This reality tells me to walk into 2019, hands opened wide for more.