Set on Pilgrimage

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

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

Either way, it’s beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

Home Goings

I had already cried quite a lot that day. Easter night, I had walked around my old haunts–the fountain, the Palace, the little pond. Walking down Warszawska, tears kept falling out of my eyes. Tears leaked into the pillow that night, and into my coffee the next morning in the place where I had always had coffee and watched the light coming in the windows. I cried to Lolita in the van, and when our friend met us at her door, she said, “Oh Anita, are you sick?”

I said no, I’m just sad. I’m so happy where I am, but so sad not to live in Poland anymore. Then we drank coffee and ate chocolate blok, and who couldn’t be uncheered with this on Easter Monday?

Then Lolita and I took the train to Warsaw to revisit more old haunts and imbibe the atmosphere that I miss so much. We lingered long over lunch and E. Wedel drinking chocolate and stories and joys and worries, and were nearly ready to leave. When she came out of the restroom, she was crying, asked me to pay while she goes outside to call someone, because she doesn’t want to tell me in here. So I did, when the waiter finally brought the check.

Out on the sidewalk, she could hardly get the words out: Our… sister Beat…is home.

Incredulous. Stunned. Shaking my head. We cried on each other’s shoulders, and I kept shaking my head. Then it occurred to me: she’s healed, she’s healed, she’s dancing. But why was I shaking and crying?

There was no point in looking at sights. The shock had suddenly chilled us, so we found a coffee shop, warmed up a little, read the terse news article. Beat’s car had hit a horse and she was killed instantly. We got the next train, went to friends of Beat’s, and talked and cried and prayed together.

The next day, my friend and I returned to the US as planned. It was hard, hard to leave, and harder to come back to a surreal atmosphere. All week, a fog seemed to cover the place and I kept pushing through jet lag and emotional numbness. Thursday my mom had surgery to remove lymph nodes for analyzing and determining treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. It was a yucky week, all around.

Saturday was the funeral. Finally, I could let myself be sad. Even though it was still surreal. The form I saw in the casket wasn’t Beat. I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t around a corner somewhere, chortling and chatting. Someone so alive can’t be gone for always. Singing “Under His Wings” in a Faith Builders group helped me feel I could DO something with my grief. Telling my favorite story about her at the open mic at dinner helped take some weight off my heart. But it still felt surreal.

It seems to me that this fog of grief is two enormous things: loss and shock. My heart can’t accept what my ears are hearing. Yesterday all the staff and students gathered in the chapel for a memorial time to remember and celebrate her life.  I knew I wanted to be there, but I kept thinking this is just a weird kind of exercise because we all know she’ll show up again and we’ll laugh together at how ridiculous and impossible it was that we thought she died. I cried when we sang “safely in His bosom gather…such a refuge ne’er was given,” because I’m sooooo glad she’s safe and healed and radiant.

I remember Beat’s soft heart and gentle love. How could she possibly remember everyone’s favorite food and make sure I’d gotten my favorite bar that last week? Her irreverent, shrieking howls were part of the reason I loved her. Her honest tears were beautiful to me, not weakness.

In the memorial time, it was fitting that there was more laughter than tears. We ended with some little howls ourselves. I did, anyhow. My favorite story recounted is this: Someone complained to her, the head cook, about the food. “Just put more Ranch on it,” she said.

The layers of complexity and wisdom and understatement in that line is priceless and howl-worthy and so Beat.

She was a queen in God’s Kingdom, and in the kitchen, and she is a hero.

An Epiphany at Easter

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This is a rerun from the archives of 2 yrs ago. These days, I’m reliving those memories: grainy, zingy zatar–the stinky camel ride and my breathless laughter–glorious Dead Sea swim–Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee and eating a lunch of humus beside it–the ache of the Wailing Wall on Good Friday–the shine of one man’s eyes telling another “He is risen!”–the walk to Emmaus with sunshine, friends, songs, and a turtle. I will never be the same.

Last week I flew from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in order to spend Easter with my friends in Jerusalem. Sound exotic? Yes, it was. I’m still floating.But this is not a travel blog, though I dream of that. This is about an epiphany I’m still living with.

The plane was filled with Polish Jews and there was a beautiful, exquisite atmosphere with the families mingling and smiling and comparing notes. “We’re going for Passover in Jerusalem then rent a car and travel further. What? You too?” Polish Jews have suffered so much in this country, and I could feel the pulsating home-coming atmosphere and was so happy for them.

Wedged between two pleasant gentlemen, one wearing a kippah and editing his movie of a rabbinical school, I opened my Bible to Luke’s account of the resurrection. I wanted to enter into the story as much as possible in the next several days. I wanted to hear and see and smell what Jesus and His loved ones did. (As it turned out, it seemed that I could only see the same sky they did, because not much else is the same, but that’s ok. The journeys of the heart are what really change us, I think, not a physical pilgrimage.)

Luke says the women found the tomb empty and heard the angels say that Jesus was no longer dead, and then went back to tell “all the others” about it.

You know how women are when they get to be the first to tell someone their exciting news.

This was the best news that could ever happen, and to the disciples, Luke says it was idle tales.

Empty words.

Jibberish.

Jesus had repeatedly confided in these men. He’d told them He would die and rise again. He’d done what He could to prepare them for the devastation they would feel, but it did not compute for them. Now this morning they were so crushed that they couldn’t let themselves believe what the women were saying.

Do you know how blankety-blank hard it is to sustain hope? It’s easier to write it off as nonsense and foolishness and tell yourself not to care anymore.

Mark says the disciples didn’t believe the women nor Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus who had walked and talked with Jesus that day. It’s pretty much impossible to believe news about a miracle when you watch all your hopes dangle on a bloody cross in an earthquake.

When everything you counted on is gone.

When you don’t even have the remains of what you loved.

But Peter ran, Luke noticed. John’s version includes himself in the running. Peter had loved Jesus the most boisterously, the most rashly, and he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard but he had to check, just in case, and the men couldn’t wait or walk calmly.

They ran, and I weep over their eagerness and their stunning bravery. They ran head-long into the situation that held the potential to break their hearts even more–if it’s possible to break a heart that’s already pulverized. There was no precedence for what Jesus did, and they had no proof of the women’s words being true.

Except they had Jesus’ words earlier, which is life and power in itself.

Wedged in a tight airplane seat, I tried to surreptitiously wipe my tears on my scarf because I didn’t want the men to get worried about me crying.(“No, no, I’m ok–I’m not scared of flying–everything’s ok!” I would have said.) But I can’t stop crying about it even now. There is maybe no other scene that speaks so powerfully to passion and longing and life than this one–of the men running toward what they couldn’t believe.

There are half a million things I hope for myself and those I love. Sometimes I get a tiny glimpse of how things could be. How a miracle would change things for them or me. How we could enter more fully into what we were created for.

But it feels so impossible, so far away, that I write it off as pish-posh. Or I believe the lie that I don’t deserve these miracles. Or I’m not one of the lucky ones and God is handing out miracles to others but forgot about me and my people for awhile .

And lies and fanciful tales don’t sustain and don’t give life. In fact, they starve me. Poison my system. Shut me down. Keep me from running.

With the power that woke Jesus from the dead, I want to run toward the things He wants to show me. Not wait around to see what happens. Not discount it as excitable women’s words.

The best thing that could happen had just happened, and Peter couldn’t believe it, but he still ran, and by the Lion’s mane,  I will too.

Ruminations and A Little Adventure

Yesterday I was ready to walk out the door after attending a women’s conference in Holmes County, OH. One lady told me goodbye and said, “I’d like to sit with you awhile because I think you have lots of stories behind you.” I told her she can read the stories on my blog, but right now I live a very normal life with no exciting stories. I was shaking my head and chuckling, surprised at how odd but fine it felt to say that.

For so long, I was the girl who lives far away and has Adventures. Now that girl lives in the sticks of gray PA and has no sweet little grandmas pressing money into her hand for fish for Christmas, and doesn’t fall into (many) atrocious language mishaps. Her car shimmies badly and gets dirty, and her orchid is pushing buds. Every day, she has very honest discussions with God and quiet, deep chats with people , but none of that stuff is story material or blog-able.

She has a lot of Thoughts and wonders about a lot of things.

  • Someone needs to write a Mennonite philosophy of the body.
  • What is to be done with songs with lines like “send grief or pain” or “I’ll trade sunshine for rain, comfort for pain–that’s what I’ll be willing to do”–when no sane person would say any of that.
  • What does it mean to mirror God’s image of creativity in us?
  • We can observe the ripples of traceable influence from Amy Carmichael to Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, but who’s next? Who will the next Christian heroes be? Are we walking among them now? How will their stories be preserved to influence and shape the next generation?
  • How can we come to understand more deeply the profound impact of words, and how they give life or death? How do words exercise man’s dominion over the created world, which includes the spirit world?

But none of that translates into stories. Hence the silence here.

But something funny did happen to me this weekend, and it makes a story to laugh about, and it was a little adventure.

The conference I went to asked me to speak in one session, and reserved a room at a nice hotel–one much nicer than the kind I reserve when I’m paying. The girl at the desk gave me the key and instructions, I found the room, swiped the key, and stepped in.

I saw lights turned on and clothes  and an open suitcase and I knew there would be a body on the bed. In the half second it took to assess the situation, I backed straight out, walked downstairs, and told the check in girl. She had no idea what was going on, and looked terrified and bewildered. She said someone had checked out of that room earlier in the day, didn’t know why someone was in there, and had no extra room to give me because they were booked full that night. I knew (but didn’t say) that we had an Agatha Christy plot on our hands. She gave me the employee’s restroom and I changed and left for the evening session. I couldn’t quite relax all evening. I knew a reputable business would take care of me, but still.

When I returned  hours later, the same girl was still there, falling over herself with apologies. The conference organizers had made two room reservations for two of us speakers. The check-in girl had given the other speaker the room with my name. That girl had already left when I came, so there would have been no body on the bed, but oddly enough, she said it went through her mind that she’s always a neat freak, but this time someone will come in and see the mess she left.

To compensate for the mix-up, the hotel gave me a $25 gift card for a local business I’ll probably never patronize, but it was awfully kind of them. Human error can happen anywhere, and happily we could laugh about it.

Who Am I?

Last Sunday we were given a chance to talk to each other about our memories of our grandparents. Two of our girls had just lost their grandfather who was a pillar and a patriarch, and they told us some of the things they’ll miss about  him.

These times can never be comprehensive and say everything there is to say, but the opportunity brings to the surface some of the cream, the richest and most enduring aspects of the people we love.

I heard myself talking about my grandpa. Totally ad lib, some words and memories came tripping out.

I didn’t know my grandpa as soon as most children do, because he lived with his family in El Salvador when I was very little. They came up on furlough when I was three, and my first memory of him is when this tall black-bearded man crouched down with his arms open, expecting me to run to him. I was afraid of this stranger and refused to go to him.

They lived in Central America for more than five years and he would happily have spent the rest of his life in El Salvador. He learned to preach in Spanish. Locals there called him Papi Juan.

Recently a friend used her wise counselor voice on me: “I wonder if your itchy feet and love for the open horizon is part of your pathology.”

Hmmm. It was a new idea. It’s possible that it’s part of my brokenness. I don’t want to be trapped. I like plenty of space and freedom. It might not always be a good thing. I remember how Bilbo said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

But I also wonder: this man who tromped easily around foreign countries and opened his heart and arms to people, I carry some of his genes. It is ironic to me that I was tramping around Rome the day I got the call he was dying. Maybe his endearing himself to his big world is part of the reason my heart feels stretched tightly across continents. Living that way is part of my normal. It’s how my family and extended family have lived. (There’s a cost to that, maybe some pathology, but this post is not about that.)

This is the tribute I wrote on the flight from Europe to Chicago, and had the honor of reading at his funeral. Today I’m asking God what it is that would give Him the most glory–where should I live, what should I throw my energy into, who does He want me to embrace and care for? Following my Grandpa’s footsteps means “home” is not necessarily a static address. It could be that, but it’s not a given.

It took someone else’s grandpa’s death to remind me of how I’m shaped, how I make my own choices but they’re not made in a vacuum. And I have more than one grandpa, and not two, not three, but four grandmas. Family lore, genes, traditions, even broken places, help to shape the pieces of me.

None of us are self-made people. This is cause for deep humility and gratitude.

An Epiphany About Running

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Last week I flew from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in order to spend Easter with my friends in Jerusalem. Sound exotic? Yes, it was. I’m still floating.But this is not a travel blog, though I dream of that. This is about an epiphany I’m still living with.

The plane was filled with Polish Jews and there was a beautiful, exquisite atmosphere with the families mingling and smiling and comparing notes. “We’re going for Passover in Jerusalem then rent a car and travel further. What? You too?” Polish Jews have suffered so much in this country, and I could feel the pulsating home-coming atmosphere and was so happy for them.

Wedged between two pleasant gentlemen, one wearing a kippah and editing his movie of a rabbinical school, I opened my Bible to Luke’s account of the resurrection. I wanted to enter into the story as much as possible in the next several days. I wanted to hear and see and smell what Jesus and His loved ones did. (As it turned out, it seemed that I could only see the same sky they did, because not much else is the same, but that’s ok. The journeys of the heart are what really change us, I think, not a physical pilgrimage.)

Luke says the women found the tomb empty and heard the angels say that Jesus was no longer dead, and then went back to tell “all the others” about it. You know how women are when they get to be the first to tell someone their exciting news.

This was the best news that could ever happen, and to the disciples, Luke says it was idle tales.

Empty words.

Jibberish.

Jesus had repeatedly confided in these men. He’d told them He would die and rise again. He’d done what He could to prepare them for the devastation they would feel, but it did not compute for them. Now this morning they were so crushed that they couldn’t let themselves believe what the women were saying.

Do you know how blankety-blank hard it is to sustain hope? It’s easier to write it off as nonsense and foolishness and tell yourself not to care anymore.

Mark says the disciples didn’t believe the women nor Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus who had walked and talked with Jesus that day. It’s pretty much impossible to believe news about a miracle when you watch all your hopes dangle on a bloody cross in an earthquake.

When everything you counted on is gone.

When you don’t even have the remains of what you loved.

But Peter ran, Luke noticed. John’s version includes himself in the running. Peter had loved Jesus the most boisterously, the most rashly, and he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard but he had to check, just in case, and the men couldn’t wait or walk calmly.

They ran, and I weep over their eagerness and their stunning bravery. They ran head-long into the situation that held the potential to break their hearts even more–if it’s possible to break a heart that’s already pulverized. There was no precedence for what Jesus did, and they had no proof of the women’s words being true.

Except they had Jesus’ words earlier, which is life and power in itself.

Wedged in a tight airplane seat, I tried to surreptitiously wipe my tears on my scarf because I didn’t want the men to get worried about me crying.(“No, no, I’m ok–I’m not scared of flying–everything’s ok!” I would have said.) But I can’t stop crying about it even now. There is maybe no other scene that speaks so powerfully to passion and longing and life than this one–of the men running toward what they coudn’t believe.

There are half a million things I hope for myself and those I love. Sometimes I get a tiny glimpse of how things could be. How a miracle would change things for them or me. How we could enter more fully into what we were created for.

But it feels so impossible, so far away, that I write it off as pish-posh. Or I believe the lie that we don’t deserve these miracles. Or we’re not one of the lucky ones and God is handing out miracles to others but forgot about me and my people for awhile .

And lies and fanciful tales don’t sustain and don’t give life. In fact, they starve me. Poison my system. Shut me down. Keep me from running.

With the power that woke Jesus from the dead, I want to run toward the things He wants to show me. Not wait around and see what happens. Not discount it as excitable women’s words.

The best thing that could happen had just happened, and Peter couldn’t believe it, but he still ran, and by the Lion’s mane,  I will too.