The Wine of Paradox

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

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

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

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

Home

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

Church

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

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

Work

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

Directions, Please

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know exactly where you are now.

I know the point where you turned off wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God So Loved That He Gave

One of times I felt most alive was when my friends and I swam in the Dead Sea. The buoyant water let us do gymnastics we could never do before! The clear, turquoise water, briny with salt and minerals, made my skin silky smooth, and soothed the sunburn I’d gotten a day earlier.

An Israeli company takes the salts and minerals from the Dead Sea and produces a beautiful line of skin care products, choosing the name Ahava for their brand. A friend gave me a tub of lovely Ahava body sorbet that I love using.

Ahava means love. It’s the same word God used in Leviticus: You shall ahava the Lord your God, and your neighbor, and the foreigner among you.

Why did God command a condition of the heart instead of action with the hands or feet?

The root word of ahavah means “to give.” To ahava the Lord and our neighbor is an act of intentional giving, serving, focusing on another. Love is far more than a warm feeling deep inside. It is action and generosity, sacrifice and service.

In this week of masses of pink and white fuzzy animals, red-foil balloons, and heart-shaped chocolates, it is normal to focus on what we might or might not get, and what makes us feel loved. Romantic love is beautiful and life-changing, and carries enormous power to heal and restore. Valentine’s Day is often the most noticeable, accessible form of love, but ahava is far bigger than a special day on the calendar.

God modelled ahava for us when He loved us so much that He spared nothing and gave His Son. God’s call for us to ahava is a call to the shape of a life, the deeds and habits of a heart that gives and serves the neighbor and the family member and the stranger. Ahava is not expecting to receive nice things or to stay comfortable. However, in a beautiful paradox and a curious exchange, when we ahava God and others, we receive stupendously in return.

In this week of pink and white and red all around you, how will you receive and give ahava?

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

A Brave New Book

About six years ago, back in the days of Google Reader, a friend told me about a blog.

“Sarah Thebarge is a physician’s assistant, and has befriended this Somali family, calls them the invisible girls, and blogs about their experiences.  I think you’d like what she says.”

I did like the blog, very much, and followed every post until Sarah took the posts down because they were the copyrighted content of her first book called The Invisible Girls and then I bought the book.

Since then, I’ve followed Sarah’s story and found her to be a rare soul. A cancer survivor and fighter for other’s well-being, she quite her medical job, sold everything that didn’t fit into her car, and traveled around the US talking to groups about her story and the Somali girls, and called people to care for their neighbors and spread love into the world. There are people who can speak, and others write, but Sarah is one of those rare ones who does both very well. I’ve not heard her in person, but have enjoyed a few talks on-line.

I read her blog posts, and feel her passion to love our neighbors and spread Jesus’ love one person at a time. She writes searingly, stunningly courageous words about the agony and unanswered questions of extended singleness. She knows hope and healing and devastation and tears and beauty.

Then she went to Togo, West Africa to work in a clinic for three months, and contracted malaria that nearly killed her. She came back broken in body and soul, and it took months to recover and start telling her stories.

Here are those stories! WELL released today! Find her on Facebook, or buy her book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Sarah says, “The book is brutally honest about the medical issues people face in the developing world, and it grapples with real issues and questions about how people can love on the developing world in a way that’s helpful and sustainable.  But underlying it all is the fact that Love holds our beautiful, broken world….and invites us to do what we can to make our world truly, deeply WELL.”

I agree.

Reading it is not for the faint of heart. There are medical details and agonizing questions that could shake you if you felt squeamish or unsure of your faith. In a big sister way, I would suggest that Sarah was too exhausted and overwrought even before she went to Togo, and thus wasn’t able to roll with the punches there very well. And there were some dreadful body blows. But it is well-written, and the last chapter is the best one.

Standing here now, minutes away from my feet touching American soil for the first time in three months, I suddenly had the humbling realization that

I had been making unfair and untrue value judgments for a really long time. I had assumed that loving people while standing on the soil of West Africa
was more valuable than loving people while standing on a sidewalk in the United States.

That traveling for hours on a plane to get to people who were suffering was more significant than driving ten minutes in my car to the local rescue mis-
sion, or the Somali girls’ apartment—or even walking to the neighbor’s house next door.

Somehow, I believed that I earned more cosmic points for loving people while jet-lagged than for loving people while well rested.

That eating strange food was more significant than eating leftovers from my favorite take-out place.

That serving people who speak a different language from me was somehow more important than serving fellow English speakers.

It took a hard three months in Africa to open my eyes to the fact that the Somali girls were never a consolation prize. That cancer didn’t deprive me of
God’s Plan A for my life. That I was where I was meant to be, and if I never used my passport again, the life waiting for me in the States was just as signifi-
cant as the life I thought I’d have as a missionary overseas.

As I pulled my heavy bag off the carousel, I thought, Maybe in God’s eyes, the soil under our feet doesn’t matter nearly as much as the compassion in our
hearts. Maybe the love we show to others is infinitely more significant than the ground on which we stand.

It’s Not Fair

One student makes straight A’s without trying, and another does everything she can to pull a C.

One sister has stair-step babies, and the other can’t conceive in twenty years.

One friend’s parents thoughtfully encourage their children’s strengths. Another set of parents disregards or disapproves.

One lady has a husband and a respected degree by age thirty. Another has neither at sixty.

One girl is wooed by the man of her dreams. Another girl is invisible except to a mental patient.

One friend has money to vacation in Italy while another can’t afford a $20 concert ticket.

One couple celebrates one year of marriage and pronounces the year fun. Another couple fights three kinds of deadly cancer in their first year.

It’s not fair.

You shake your head at the balance scales. You whisper the words to a friend because for some reason you’re not supposed to say them. Or you sob into your pillow until you snort, and the universe keeps on humming, and friends never mention the disparity, and  the scenario keeps on not being fair.

To the one with a grim diagnosis. To the single bridesmaid at the eleventeenth wedding. To the bereaved and wrecked and poor: it’s not fair.

This is reality when the sun shines or when the rain blows. The Almighty and Omnipotent Father sits on His beautiful hands and does nothing to level the balance scales. There is no justice. You can do everything right and be a good girl and do what you were always told to do but there are no guarantees and it’s a fallacy to believe that everything will turn out like it should.

Part of my journey to wholeness includes being honest about the injustices I observe and experience. It seems much more wholesome to be able to call a spade a spade than to act as if it’s something else.

So: it’s not fair.

There are things I weep and howl over, dreams I ache for, friends I hurt with, prayers I beg God with the most persuasive words I can find.  To do otherwise would be to deny reality and be a flippant, chirpy, hollow, obnoxious voice in a cavern of unanswerable questions.

While maturity acknowledges that things aren’t fair, wisdom doesn’t stay there. It’s a child who mopes and sits outside the game and whines that it’s not fair. An adult who does that for days and weeks and months is pretty ugly, in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no easy way to do this, but when that forty-leventh bride has been whisked into the sunset, you sometimes have to take yourself by the scruff of the neck and turn yourself 180 degrees toward the east and make a list of other things that aren’t fair.

This is part of my list:

  • I sleep on a dry, thick, super-comfy Tuft and Needle mattress while refugees sleep on blankets that hang out of their tiny, squished-together tents.
  • I have a job that enabled me to buy a car, while a friend can only afford to drive a borrowed car.
  • I’m lonely and long for companionship but it’s not fair that another woman’s loneliness is infinitely, agonizingly greater after her husband abandoned her and their three little children, the baby with Down Syndrome.
  • I had major surgery in a foreign country and had the best of care and no complications and have been given a new life but my friend battles incurable illness and huge medical costs.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupendously, staggeringly, unreasonably rich and spoiled and comfortable, and it’s not a bit fair. It’s not fair that my friends and the rest of humanity walk through crazy amounts of pain and tears that I never do. I’m not being glib or flippant about this. I cry often about sad things and injustice and longings on my behalf and others’. I experience hard, hard, things about each of my list entries.

But the great and grand and shining reality is that the present injustice is not all there is. It takes the long view to see more than is apparent to the naked eye. The long view is the truest view.

It’s ok to say it’s not fair, but it’s not ok to stay there. Because at some point–after about an hour or a day or a week–wisdom and grace and the presence of Jesus are waiting to turn us to the east and see light and hope and a far green country under a swift sunrise.*

*That last phrase is what Gandalph said.

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What a Woman Needs

Last year in psychology class, our teacher spoke briefly one day of gender differences. We girls all looked knowingly at each other when we listed the stereotypical things about us: emotional, verbal, soft-hearted, quick to cry.

Then the teacher shared a vignette of a marriage counselling session. He was encouraging a couple to understand their differences and be aware of what the other needs. (Live with your wife in an understanding way, the Bible puts it.) The husband could love her best if she could talk and feel heard. He doesn’t have to explain it away or find solutions for her, just hear her out.

In typical human fashion, I only heard what I wanted to hear from the teacher’s lecture. (I didn’t hear what the wife should do!) I heard an acknowledgment that women function best when they can talk. I did two things with that: 1) winced because I don’t have a husband to talk to and 2) took it as permission to knock on someone’s door to talk when I need it.

Those of us with opinions and fears and ideas and wishes and falterings need a place to get outside our own heads, have someone else look at what is jiggeting around in there, and sift through the stuff. Untangle the spaghetti. Bring to mind what’s been forgotten.

So this morning I was troubled about something I heard yesterday. I was out of my depth and didn’t know how to think about it. I needed perspective and it suited my mentor to meet over lunch. We met, I talked, and she talked. She gave balance and wise perspective and encouragement, and when my scalloped potatoes and salad was finished, I was good to go. I thanked her soundly, and hardly thought about the troubling issue again.

I’m saying this for any woman out there with spaghetti muddling her tired, clever brain: you need to talk with someone.

I don’t mean that you tell someone EVERY time you’re bothered, because that could be every five minutes or every five hours. Life gives bumps and questions and riddles. That’s normal, and we have to roll with the punches. But when there’s a niggling that won’t go away, a worry that festers, an unrest that simmers, find someone who can hear you talk about it, and then you can go on.

No one can do life on her own. Not even the independent ones who know their own minds. (And most of them are independent only because they have to be. But I digress.) We function best in teams, families, communities, small groups. The sum of the whole is worth more than the individual parts, and each gives to and benefits from the others, and we lose more than we realize when we isolate ourselves and try to push through on our own.

Bouncing ideas off someone or sifting through the things that simmer inside is a big part of staying emotionally whole and healthy. It isn’t a right to demand or be selfish about, but something to be honest enough and weak enough to admit need. I think there are a lot of women walking around who are slowly withering inside because they haven’t found a safe confidante or mentor or counselor. And that saddens me because bottling things up is not how we were designed to live, and there are options and better ways of living.

Some options:

  • journal
  • go on a brisk walk around the block
  • email someone if you can’t talk
  • curl into a ball and cry and talk to God for a long time
  • text or call someone to ask if they have time to meet

Burrowing into a book or scrolling through Facebook are not good options for a bothered brain, usually.

I’m unutterably grateful to be writing from a place of wealth, not want. I know loneliness. I know the ache of friends far away and confidantes too busy. I also know the little bit of courage that it takes to ask to talk gives huge payback in equilibrium and peace.

The tissues and tea help too.

Image result for willow tree heart and soul My Willow Tree figurine: “Heart and Soul”

 

 

Newest News

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In the spirit of things today, Cyber Monday, my book is available in e-format!

While I will always love the tactile experience of paper and ink, 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.)

I wrote the book for single women, but am often surprised and overwhelmed at how warmly other women–mothers and pastor’s wives– speak of it. The book focuses on living well in Plan B. That’s not only for singles. Turns out most of us everyone is in some form of Plan B and we all need input, encouragement, companionship in that situation.

Today, that voice just got more accessible!