Life is for Living, Regardless

Recently, my friend Abby told me that she read my book when she was 10 or 11 and I laughed and laughed. She was definitely not the demographic I had in mind for an audience when I started writing it back in 2004.

Still, she said the book started her thinking about living fully and she decided then not to be shriveled and shrunken. The way she lives now, more than ten years later, demonstrates how well she internalized the book’s message. A big chunk of her heart is still in Greece with refugees after she worked there for five months. Now she invests her time in helping in special needs classrooms in public schools.  She’s dating a wonderful young man, and I cheer for their vision for life, and I know that they will become even more attractive, effective, vibrant people as they live well and don’t wait around.

When I wrote the book, I heard that the average marketable life of a book is 1-3 years. However, I expected it to stay in print for a long time because I thought that every year, another group of young women will discover they’re single and want guidance in it because there’s not a lot of great help out there, at least not in the pro-family conservative Anabaptist culture.

It seems that young women discover themselves to be single at different ages, depending on their context and the expectations of people around them. I was pushing 30 when I looked around me and realized that most of my friends were married and I wasn’t. I hear from girls who feel very single at 18 and I want to say, “Honey child, you’re not single, you’re just growing up yet!” But in their context, grown ups marry at 19, so of course they feel left behind, forgotten, not-belonging.

It’s almost 12 years since the book came out, and what has surprised me most is how many moms and preacher’s wives tell me that it connects with them.  The book isn’t a how-to book for singles, but an exploration of what it looks like to pursue living well in the middle of Plan B.

Turns out everyone is living in a story they didn’t plan, and we all need to know that there are ways to do well with adjusting expectations and learning how to flourish.

book cover

You can order the book at Christian Learning Resource. Order from the website (it’s not out of stock even if it says so) call (814) 789- 4769, or email clr@fbep.org.

Alternatively, it’s an ebook, available here, for only $4. If you or a friend speaks Spanish, you can download it for free here!

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the book in print. For now, it’s puttering along, leading a life of its own, and now and then a nice story comes tripping back to tell me what it did. It’s a very happy stage to be in, because I care about God’s people living good stories, and if my book can help with that, I’m delighted.

 

The Seduction of Sehnsuht, Part II

yohann-lc-1052234-unsplash

It seems that sometimes God stops us in our tracks and fills us with the deafening thunder of loneliness. Real-time, raw, gritty loneliness.

You don’t have anyone your age at church to talk with. You emailed your mentor but she’s too busy to reply. You feel trapped and stressed with conditions at work and have no one safe to talk it through with you.

Many times, loneliness is God’s invitation. It’s when He stills you enough so that you can hear Him saying “Press hard into Me. Can you tell Me about it? I call the stars out by name and I know your feelings of isolation and I’m big enough to take what you’re feeling.”

The wonder of this invitation is that we can never ask too much of Him. We can never confide in Him too much, or ask for His presence too often. We don’t even have to articulate the Sehnsuht in our soul, but only breathe “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and He understands what’s underneath the breaths.

Loneliness drives us all to different places—self-soothing to forget the ache, a stranger’s arms or fantasy for comfort, hard work or delirious pleasure to distract, stoicism or denial to appear strong and not-needy.

But as long as we stay strong and distracted and numb, we will never experience the fullness and depth and width of God’s comfort and companionship, which is the truest, deepest intimacy He created for us.

And Jesus knows something about loneliness, so His words aren’t just theory. He gets it when you tell Him you’re lonely. He had no strong co-worker with whom to debrief His frustrations with people. He never knew the comfort of coming home to a woman’s warmth. For all we know, His times of solitude included hours of wordless breaths of “Father, Father, Father.”

Loneliness, the deep, dark cavern, instructs us. It tells us—when we listen—that we’re not as alone as it feels. Loneliness sharpens our sensitivity to others who hurt and smart even more acutely than we. This is a most healing, positive discovery because it lifts our eyes off ourselves and urges us to look up and out.

I had lunch one day with three women. All live in different states, all of them are married to leaders who are gifted visionaries. These women partner with their husbands to serve and pour out their lives on behalf of the Kingdom. They are intelligent and talented and full of life, and over our extended lunch, we laughed and cried and asked questions and heard each other’s stories of the past year.

What eventually came dripping out of all our eyes, in different moments and stories, was how each lady feels profoundly lonely. I was the youngest of the four, single, living in an isolated mission, and loneliness understandably goes with that package. But them? These witty, positive personalities, with attentive husbands and beautiful children?

Yes, them.

No place or person on earth will protect anyone from isolation, misunderstanding, loneliness. The stubborn existential loneliness is a clingy cat that’s constantly underfoot and we keep kicking into it even when we think it’s gone.

While we can let loneliness work for us and follow the nudgings toward the eternal and infinite, we can also choose to stay in a dangerous no-man’s land. In that terrain, the enemy’s taunts feel completely plausible.

“You’re here because no one likes you. They don’t like you because you’re too intense, shy, emotional, boring, threatening. Look at you—who would actually enjoy you? Time you get yourself into shape like everyone else.”

When you hear these lies, your best option is to RUN. Run, gasping only for Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. He will repel the dark lies with His light and the words you need to hear.

Do you know someone who’s listening to those toxic lies? Take their hand and run with them. Run with confidence to the comfort and light of Truth. The truth is that He is never far away, and He’s always waiting to respond to your call for help. This truth frees you and lights a flame in the darkness that could suffocate you.

While everyone grapples with existential loneliness, often singles carry a pronounced, practical loneliness. It’s important to recognize this and be honest about how heavy it feels to make major decisions alone and absorb inter-personal pressures alone and go to sleep alone every night. Alone was not how we were designed to live and it makes life hard.

But many, many others are even more profoundly lonely. I think of abandoned wives, and mothers with chronically ill or handicapped family members, or women who married unwisely. I think of widows and women with unbelieving husbands and I should probably stop listing categories now because there’s many others I’m missing. Palpable loneliness can tend to overwhelm people and skew their perspective of life and God. Could it be that you can be comfort to them? That you can carry or speak or paint or bake a token of God’s presence for them?

Your loneliness can help someone else’s loneliness? Who knew! God’s economics are wonderful and nothing is ever wasted.

We carry His presence, you know. In a stroke of wild vulnerability, He put His Spirit in us to ignore or treasure at will. The Spirit is the Comforter, the One who comes along-side. He is safety and light and truth, and He tents in us. We take Him with us into our world—the world full of lies and arrows and the tears of Sehnsuht.

The Sunday school answer is still the only enduring answer. Could it be that you, carrying the treasure of Himself, are part of the answer to someone who’s crying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?”

The Seduction of Sehnsuht

yohann-lc-1052234-unsplash

“I understand your loneliness,” he told me.

I was in a meeting to discuss an issue at school. It morphed into a conversation where three people were telling me how their spouses help give them perspective and advice about their issues and idiosyncrasies. I said I have no one like they do to lean on and ask for insights when I’m puzzled, so I feel very alone.

When he said he understands my loneliness, I wanted to shake my head and wail, “But you just told me your wife helps you with your blind spots, and you know I’m single—how can you understand?”

But I stayed quiet and did my best to pour grace into his words.

My gentle friend went on to say that even their healthy marriage carries an emptiness in its core. The cave inside doesn’t mean something’s wrong with the relationship. It’s just the way things are.

Later, it came to me: I’d been talking about my practical, tangible loneliness, and he was talking about existential loneliness, so I had felt like we weren’t understanding each other.

Existential loneliness, I’ve learned, is the ache of emptiness that caverns inside every human. It’s the thirst after every pleasure and the whimper at every dream come true.

There’s an old German word, Sehnsuht, that explains it best to me. Everyone feels it, but it seems only the bravest, most honest writers, artists, and composers try to express it. They explain it as the inconsolable longing for a place you haven’t seen but know as home. You could call it nostalgia, or homesickness, except that it’s the reverse of that, a hungering for a place we haven’t been to yet. The emotion is so profound and intense that sometimes we’re aware of the ache, but don’t even know what we’re aching for.

Sehnsuht is the tendency to demand presence and availability from someone who can never ever be big and wonderful and sensitive enough to fill the holes in your soul. It’s the drive to go further and longer and higher into uncharted horizons because maybe just out there is the place that will fully soothe your soul. It’s what keeps you talking and discussing and pushing for concepts that solve all your dilemmas perfectly.

The Sunday school answer to this insatiable thirst is that Jesus satisfies it. Happily, it’s true, but it can be hard sometimes to know or experience how it’s true.

God, in His inscrutable design, created us with this cavernous loneliness without creating something that fills the cavern. Only He, the Infinite, can fill to overflowing, satisfy, and soothe the Sehnsuht He gave us.

God also thought up countless creative, beautiful ways for us to live whole, full, rich lives. We are awake to textures, colors, sounds, flavors, memories, dreams that constantly entwine with incredible, gifted, winsome, deep, whimsical people around us.

But Sehnsuht still haunts us.

I read an interview of a playwright who said, “All the best stories have to do with loneliness.” We connect best with what what’s been our experience, and everyone has experienced loneliness, so the stories that include that theme are the ones that become enduring. Sehnsuht crept out of the theater stage and connected with this playwright’s audiences because it connects with every human.

You’ve seen the same hunger demonstrated in your friends in their life choices, in the characters in your favorite novels, and the lyrics of your go-to music. Many people can’t put Sehnsuht into words, but Bono was brave enough to call it for what it is when he sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

The search drives alive, sensitive people to breathtaking thrills. I can’t scorn the lady who endlessly pursues expensive exercise regimens and takes any man who gives her attention. Or the man who loses himself in games and adrenaline. Their search is part of being human, alive, and honest about their thirst. But they short-circuit the search when they settle for something less than Infinity.

This post concludes tomorrow. 

Pixels and Pages

How about an extension to Cyber Monday? This is a post to promote my ebook, found here.

While I will always love the tactile experience of paper and ink, (and marking it up with notes and lines) there is much to love about this e-book.

  • It’s cheaper than the printed version. (1/3 of the price)
  • You get it instantly.
  • You get a preview of it while you decide you want it.
  • It adds no bulk or weight to your purse or book bag.
  • You can buy a copy for your friend and have it emailed to her. (Think easy, thoughtful, inexpensive Christmas gift.)
  • It’s also available in Spanish for FREE here!

On Thanksgiving Day, I was with friends who invited other friends for the dinner. We had lots and lots of gorgeous food, hearty laughter, and out of the blue, a most rousing discussion about extended singleness. We didn’t come to any conclusions about the dilemma. One of the single ladies told us abut her friend who counseled her to buy a rehearsal dinner outfit, put it her closet, and pray for the outfit to come out and be worn! (That strategy had worked for the friend who had found herself single and near 40.) We howled a long time about that idea, but none of us feel like trying it. There are still questions, ideas, hypotheses without clear solutions.

Maybe that’s ok.

Maybe if we figured out how to detour the unpredictable, unnerving situations we find ourselves in, we wouldn’t need community and wouldn’t be as desperate for the infinite love and companionship for which we were created.

When dreams come true, it’s easy to say that God is up to something good, or that He’s always about redemption. But even if the dream doesn’t come true and the ache doesn’t go away, and we live with brokenness and loss, (and I don’t think extended singleness is the heaviest loss) even then God is up to something good, is intending redemption, is arching over everything with His sovereignty and character of light. If this weren’t true, He wouldn’t be God, and I would despair.

I wrote my book 10+ years ago with the conviction that God made us for more than to bide our time and put life on hold until marriage. I was sure that knowing Him and His character would shape women into the vibrant, thriving individuals He dreamed us up to be and who are not dependent on stuff or situation for joy. I didn’t want it to be a glib how-to book, but more like a travel guide with a comrade who is still walking and discovering His love and light. (The book’s 2nd edition is available here.)

A considerable bit of life happens in 10+ years. During that time, I’ve known darkness and brokenness that would have derailed me except for God’s fierce, relentless pursuit. I know Him better than I did back when I was writing the book, but I hope to discover even more about Him and live into His purpose for me in the next years.

Join me?

And if you’ve read the book, it would be sweet if you’d write a review on Amazon!

 

My Book Comes In Spanish

These days, I listen to endless conversations and questions and hand-wringing about technology and the changes in communication. It’s a live issue, and I care that we navigate this uncharted landscape with wisdom and prudence.

I understand the insidious pull toward more, more, more connection. I feel the dopamine rush of what shows up in my feed. When I feel alone, I know how easy it is to slip into a virtual world to feel surrounded with happy, caring people.

But I always feel like a dinosaur because I don’t see that this plethora of communication options is an enemy. Technology has given me wide, enriching friendships and opportunities that was never an option for my grandma. I’ve published a book without ever meeting the printer. I paid someone to transpose the book into an e-book, and never met her and never read the ebook, but now and then Amazon drops deposits into my bank account from people who’ve bought it. I regularly email and message friends that I never see in person. I LOVE Whatsapp to help connect with family and friends across the Atlantic and the local hills.

Technology is not my enemy. I say that with deep gratitude, not cockiness.

And just recently, my book got translated into Spanish and is now available as an ebook, and I never met the translator, facilitators, or publisher. It just happened with networking, courtesy of the world wide web. And a lot of trust and patience and vision.

In 2010, a friend (whom I’ve never met) emailed me about getting my book into Spanish.

I really really want to see this happen, for a couple reasons. The top two are that 1. A girl’s value in Central America is defined much more heavily by her getting married than here. They need to hear the truth in your book 2. Our girls do not have encouraging resources available like in English. They devour all they have, all we can lend to them, and ask for more. And they deserve more, I think.

Then someone else emailed to ask if they could translate the book into Spanish, and the technological ball slowly started rolling, and here we are.

I’m thrilled that Spanish-speaking women can have free access to material that can potentially encourage, give perspective, and cheer as they live their Plan B. I hope my book helps them to hear God’s heart for them, and that although marriage is their design and a beautiful gift, it is not life. Jesus is life, and He is utterly good, true, and beautiful.

Feel free to pass around this link to your Spanish-speaking lady friends. The Spanish ebook for Life is for Living is FREE and only a click away.

Three cheers for technology!

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 in 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 back 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 the church 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 in 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.