Safe

It’s been a year now.

My youngest sister Hannah was pregnant, and we were so excited! She and her husband Yann were on their way to Uganda with the goal of fostering and adopting children there, and then they sent us a scan of the tiny baby going with them, and it was so exciting.

When she was 21 weeks along, I was at work when Yann messaged the family: “We’re at the hospital. Please pray for the early labor to stop.” This was her fifth pregnancy and none of the other babies survived and this was the longest gestation of any, so we were hopeful.  I asked for a quick prayer meeting with two of the women in my office, and we cried and begged God to keep this baby safe and stop the contractions.

That was noon on Wednesday and I heard nothing for the rest of the day. Thursday morning, I lay still in bed a long time before I had the courage to pick up my phone to see what had happened during the night.

I found that after a long labor, (the drugs had slowed it to 24 hours but couldn’t make it stop) their baby boy had been born just 30 minutes before I woke up. He was alive, but they were planning a funeral service for him.

I cried, exchanged messages with my family, got pictures of Yann and Hannah holding the baby, loving on him, crying over him. They said he responded to their voices. I wiped my face, made coffee, stumbled to work, told my co-workers who had prayed with me, and tried to enter the duty of the day. I could stay focused, but sometimes tears leaked out.

They named him after my brother and Yann’s dad: Nathanael Pierre. He was perfect, but too little to live and after three hours, he faded away.

When she had time and space to talk, I called Hannah. We cried and I heard how God’s people banded together, looked after details, thought about things they couldn’t, asked good questions, gave comfort and food and blankets to wrap the little body.

My friends stood around me those days, gave gentle hugs and words, helped me feel not so alone. My pastor and his wife took me out for supper and helped me talk it out then relax with chit chat. The loss highlighted how scattered our family is. We were all stunned with grief, and scattered across five countries and seven time zones. We had to bumble our way through caring for each other across thousands of miles, and it was hard. There’s no script for this. How do you know how your sisters are when you can’t see them? How do you weep with your brother for his namesake when he lives seven time zones away?

The Ugandan church family organized the funeral and sent us a live-stream link. My family’s church in Ireland met an hour earlier than their normal meeting time on Sunday morning to join the church in Uganda and watch the funeral together. I saw a picture of the group in Ireland watching, joining the Ugandan service in real time, and it seemed like sweet solidarity and fellowship of suffering.

I didn’t watch it in real time (those pesky, miserable time zones) but later in the day, I asked two friends if they’d come to watch with me. They were gracious and generous with their time. We cried and watched the children and heard the songs. I wished Yann and Hannah had family with them—a parent or sibling to hold them, but no one could come so far so quickly. Their church family was everything they should have been, but they’d only had three months with them and didn’t know them like family does.

I gasped when the pallbearers accidentally tipped the casket on its side as they carried it to the grave, and my friend instinctively grabbed my hand because it shocked her too. (The men felt very badly about the mishap, but the ground was uneven and easy to stumble on.) Everyone helped fill the grave, then Yann got down on all fours and patted the earth down all over the little mound, as if putting his little boy to sleep. The red dirt reminded me of missionary stories where babies and children died and were left behind in foreign graves and now it wasn’t a story, but it was happening to my sister and it felt so wrong and unfair and mistaken.

A month or so later, we had a morning staff prayer circle at work and each had a chance to give short updates or prayer requests. I passed my turn, because I didn’t know what to say, but right afterwards I thought I could’ve mentioned our family’s grief. I could have. I should have. But I didn’t know how to talk about it so I didn’t.

I don’t know why God sat on His hands and did nothing to save their little baby. I don’t know how to reckon with the real-but-intangible loss of someone I never knew. It’s been a year now. The body knows how the air smelled and and the sun felt those days, and these days the grief comes washing over us again. We will always claim little Nathanael and miss him.

Hannah is pregnant again now, 30 weeks along, and doing as well as can be expected. We have a lot of hope for this baby to make it, but it’s not a naive hope. And we often think about little Nathanael, and how he’d probably be nearly walking by now. How will we know him in heaven? Will he be little, or matured to the fullness of his intended life?

We found out last month that the five-year-old girl Yann and Hannah have fostered for the last year has needed to move to a Ugandan home. The girl’s dad put a stop to their fostering, and the adoption system is broken beyond hope for them to adopt her. This has shattered us. Two children gone in a year. There are no good answers for our losses and questions.

I know that love is never wasted. I know that we and all the little children of the world are safe in Jesus’ care. This is all I know. Tonight, a year later, that’s enough to know.

You Prepare a Table Before Me

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More than 15 years ago, in a dark season, I made myself start a Thanks Journal. At the end of every day, I’d list at least one thing that I was thankful for, or one way in which I’d felt God’s presence. Sometimes I’d have to sit for awhile before I could think of what to write, which of course says more about me than about God, but other days the list was long.

That daily discipline shaped me profoundly. It was a way to name the goodness that surrounded me. It was a way to fight darkness with light. It was a way to defy the voices that said everything’s wrong and bad and terrible and futile. Some seasons were darker than others, but I could always find goodness and joy and reminders of God’s presence when I looked for it.

Over a year ago, I stopped the nightly list making. I think I thought it’s kinda become second nature to me, and looking for the good is now the shape of my life, and I don’t have to write it down.

That might have been true, but then high summer came and in two nightmare weeks, a torrent of bad sad terrible heavy things hit—bam bam bam bam. Death and cancer and fostering/adoption gone awry and wicked men victimizing children and more cancer and more sudden death. One friend’s suicide was terrible but two suicides in two weeks made me start wondering if everyone is at risk, and are my people ok, and am I ok?

I cried and ranted and wrestled this summer more than I have for a long, long time. The heaviness sometimes kept me from eating or sleeping well. Sometimes I’d breathe deep and think, oh, that felt good—I’ve not breathed deep all day. I had good people to lean on, and lots of tissues, and I wrote awful poems of lament and listened to “Jesus Strong and Kind” on repeat because that was all the light I could hold: Jesus said. Jesus said. Jesus said.

Then I heard wizened teacher Jonas say that God’s favorite word is “Come.” And Jonas described Psalm 23, and how there are enemies all around, but God invites us to a table in the middle of those enemies where we can feast.

In my mind’s eye, I saw werewolves and swords and dark, snarling, evil forms circling a clearing in the forest, and in the middle of the clearing was a table heaped with goodness and a line of lit candles down its center. And me and my people were laughing and talking and singing and eating around it. And I knew that going back to my Thanks Journal habit was a way I could eat at that table.

Remember when Edmund was on the sledge with the White Witch and they came upon the Christmas party, and she saw the party as treason? She hated the feasting because it made a statement about who was really in charge, and that the thaw was coming, and it would soon be Christmas.

Intentional gratitude—feasting in the presence of enemies—never says there are no enemies, never avoids the awfulness that staggers me. It never denies the tears that simmer just under the surface, but it declares that light is stronger than darkness and Jesus says “Come.”

I don’t know how or why God sits on His big beautiful hands and lets people do atrocious, despicable things to children. I don’t understand the fragile hair’s breadth between health and illness and death. I know He weeps too, and our sorrow matters to Him.

I don’t know much more. I just know I need to sit quietly every night and list the good things heaped on the table.

Let’s Move the Conversation

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Photo by Natasha P. on Unsplash

When our family hosted guests for Sunday dinner, my favorite times happened when we stayed at the table for hours after we ate, and it wasn’t because of the food. If we moved from the table to sit in the living room or go outside on the grass, the conversation always took a hit. We could never pick up talking where we left off. Even if the chairs were harder and we had to sit straighter, I didn’t mind staying for hours to talk and laugh and sometimes sing.

I don’t know what the psychological term is for this phenomena of how the conversation changes when the location changes but it seems like a thing and it should have a name.

These days, I wish the conversations on-line would move to the dining room.

I keep a carefully curated social media feed because I don’t have time/energy/space for shouting matches. Even so, many voices have disappointed me, scared me, kept me from engaging because it seems everyone is winging caustic words, and if I say anything I’ll be shot down because it was somehow the wrong words or ignorant ideas and don’t I know better? At the very least, don’t I know that THIS ISSUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD?

I’m grateful for a few gentle, rational voices, but they are very, very few, and to all the others I just want to say “Can we move the conversation to the dining room?”

In the real world, neighbors talk to each other over porch railings, across the street, shout HEY to a pal. It’s ok to raise a voice there but real connection and change doesn’t happen on the street. When the conversation moves inside, however, it changes. Especially when there’s ice cream involved.

We speak differently depending what room we’re in. It’s about boundaries, respect, self-awareness, intimacy. Words, tone of voice, volume all change depending on whether we’re on the street, porch, dining room, living room, or bedroom.

The shrill comments and shouted judgement online have no nuance, no shared history, no awareness of the other. (I exaggerate here to make a point.) The shouting is happening on the streets of the cyber world but we should move the discussion to the kitchen table. What if no one shouted at each other? What if they sat down, talked quietly over Coke and chicken curry, and asked clarifying questions at a civil volume level?

I listened to a lunch conversation where men gave strong, insightful comments about racism and current buzzwords and their connotations. Had the men put their comments on Facebook, they would have been shot down and villainized in 30 seconds. But I trusted their character, I heard the inflection in their voices, I knew some of their back story, and I agreed with what they said.

Those men’s wise, solid voices don’t have a chance on the noisy street or the shouting match on the porch. They matter, and they make a difference, but they’re not noisy and the crowds don’t hear them.

Words spoken at the table are the words the world is starving for, but who facilitates those conversations? Kitchen table conversations are where real change takes place, not comments fired at each other on Facebook. Where are the voices who seek to understand and offer compassion instead of opinions? Where will the shaming stop? It might stop when we eat together.

They’ll know we’re Christians by our love, not by our allegiance to the right or left or our adamant statements.

Let’s move the discussion to the kitchen table. I make a good chicken curry. Come on over!

Ordinary Art

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have said this, and I agree with him. I also feel that God intended all people to be artists with different mediums. Some use words or flour and sugar or plants or ideas or house paint. Creating something that hasn’t existed before reflects God’s creative stamp on us and engages and aligns all the layers of a person, which is why I think everyone should regularly create.

I’ve learned that limited mediums help me create more. If the whole world is my oyster, all the choices overwhelm me when I want to make something new. But when I have only a few choices, I know better what to do. Limitations are freeing and clarifying.

When someone at work ordered a big whiteboard, it came in a box taller than me, so I claimed the cardboard before they took it to the recycle pile. Cardboard is the poor artist’s canvas, and I have a different way of recycling it.

I’d pinned this luscious image on my To Paint board on Pinterest. I’d found it on a blog I follow, which is created by a poet, photographer, and writer.

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Here is where most of us artists want to insert disclaimers, before we unveil our work:

What I did is nothing like the picture.

It’s not that great, really.

Someone else could do much better than this.

While all of that is true, I believe there’s something even truer: whenever we create something that didn’t exist before, and if it brings some measure of truth, beauty, or goodness into the world, it’s something to treasure, and not make excuses for. 

There’s always someone better than us, and there’s always something we could’ve done to improve it but there’s so much goodness in the process of creating, in the courage of putting paint on a blank piece of paper or cardboard or wood, that it should keep us from giving much air time to the disclaimers.

Over several month’s time, I worked on this mixed media project. First, I sketched  a rough outline of petals, and swiped the highlights with white acrylic paint to give it a raised texture. When it dried, I propped the cardboard on a chair for my easel and stroked, layered, and blended chalk pastels with fingers and thumbs and palms. Some evenings, I took it outside to work on. I sprayed it with fixative, because chalk brushes off easily, and then saw more colors to add, so I put chalk on top of fixative. I discovered by accident that this really worked well, because the spray gave it a little more tooth, as chalk artists call it, which is roughness of the surface. The cardboard gives it its own texture, which adds to the overall impression.

Some time after it was finished, I came across a line from Robert Capon, and I knew where it belonged, and added it with a gold marker.

Only miracle is plain. It is the ordinary that groans with the weight of glory.

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Another way this evolved is when I cut the upper left corner to follow the contours of the flower. This is the beauty of using cardboard. The downside to it is that the paint made it buckle. I painted the back of it to balance it, which helped, but it’s still curved. The other downside to cardboard is that I don’t respect it as much as a canvas, and poke tacks in it to mount it on the spare room wall, which is probably unwise.

I like all the colors and texture here.

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I keep it because I don’t want to throw it away yet, but also because of the deep joy in smearing, rubbing, and layering all the delicious colors. Creating aligns my head, heart, and hands so that for several glorious hours, all the parts of me aren’t fragmented or confused, and I feel whole and new. I value the process just as much or more than the finished product, and this artwork on my spare room wall reminds me of how fun and exhilarating that process was.

Already But Not Yet

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Quite a long time ago, I saw these paintings on Pinterest. The blue one caught my eye and it looked simple enough for me to do. There were even directions to go with it but I didn’t follow them because I wanted to tweak it.

A year or two later, I came across Conspirare singing Let the River Run, and it moved me deeply. It wasn’t intended to be a religious piece, and “New Jerusalem” wasn’t referring to heaven, but I heard enthusiasm and excitement, a call to dreamers, and bright hope for what will be, which, of course, for Christians includes the new heaven and new earth.

I asked an artistic friend for advice on how to paint a cityscape with a river, and she said to consult Google images and drawings in black and white. That gave me some ideas, so on a hot summer day, I found an empty study room with AC.  I gathered a few paints, a wet rag, several paintbrushes. I found the large 27″x30″ calendar I’d squirreled away for this project, put it face down on a table, and started painting a blush-pink sky: the dawn behind the gold.

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My favorite feature is the pink dawn shining where the gold is thin.

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I added black to a bright blue paint to make a midnight blue city. It didn’t take long, and it was so. much. fun. I loved the simplicity and the flexibility. If a spire didn’t work out right, I could put gold over it. I messed up the writing, but covered it up by changing the shape of the river. If it’s stressful, I don’t do it, and that’s why my artwork is super simple.

Part of me thinks that if I repurpose old calendars, maybe I should respect my art enough to put it in a frame. The more pragmatic part of me says part of the message is the medium, the thin metal strips stabilize it, and it’s ok. For awhile, I used thick tape on the back side to mount it, but that wasn’t nice in several ways, and now I use tacks, though that’s probably not respectful either.

I like having it on my sliding closet door. To me, it shows the already-but-not-yet that I live in. It promises a golden city coming down someday, but for now we can walk beside its river.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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Surrounded by Love

On my desk at work, I have a Willow Tree figurine. She’s holding a spray of red flowers and burying her face in them. The title of the figurine is “Surrounded by Love.”

I keep her there because she reminds me, with her relaxed posture and exuberant enjoyment of the flowers, that I, too, am surrounded by love. It’s in the air I breathe on my walk to work, the flavors I relish at lunch, the laughter I join in.

Now and then, I forget that love surrounds me. I become fretful, touchy, defensive. I think I need to prove myself to my world. I need to control my surroundings to be safe and predictable, because no one else is making that happen.

Those days could be titled “Surrounded by Fear.”

This is not an attractive, restful picture. It’s ugly and obnoxious, and no one would ever cast a figurine of that to keep on a desk.

Here’s a thought experiment:

What would change in us if we lived in the awareness that each of us is truly, deeply, freely loved? That we could never earn or perform well enough to deserve the love that surrounds, covers, carries us?

How would this awareness change how I see my world? How would it affect the way I look at other people, knowing they are loved like I am?

This week, look for the ways you’re surrounded by love. Write them down. Because you see what you look for, chances are good that you’ll come up with an impressive list. If you can’t see anything, ask God to open your eyes to His love. Read I John and Luke to see God’s heart demonstrated in Jesus.

Looking for His love might mean that you see in a shape you did not expect. You might be in for some surprises!

*****This is the first 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!

Translators Needed

You know how sometimes memories emerge that were buried for years, but now and then they pop up on the screen of your mind? This story reemerges now and then, with no particular trigger, but it illustrates what seems to be part of my life work.

I was in my teens, eating Sunday lunch at a church family’s place, and they were also hosting a visiting couple who had never been at a Mennonite church before. So the dinner time was full of discussion and questions. I was listening and observing. The conversation went to how we value community and help each other in difficulties.

“So for example,” our host explained, “When someone’s house needs major repairs like putting on a new roof, we’ll have a frolic.”

Something washed over the guest’s face, and I knew that when he heard “frolic” he did not hear what my host meant.

Two things happened in that moment:

  1. I stayed quiet (another subject for another day)
  2. I knew that someone got a grossly misleading impression, and it never got resolved.

Worse things could happen.

But.

Sometimes what you say is not what I hear, so I don’t know more than I did.

If we don’t care about communication and understanding each other, we may as well all stay home and talk to ourselves and take selfies all day.

But if we were designed to do life beside and among and around people, and if we have something that’s beautiful to say, I care that that message gets transmitted well, and translated when necessary.

When I finished five years in Poland and came to the US, I reveled in talking English to my heart’s content. I mean, I could walk into a store and ask ANYthing! I could even make small talk with other customers. So novel! But every now and then, in those first months, I heard a mumbled announcement or a colorful idiom and I would catch myself whirling around to make sure my neighbor understood it. Translating to my friends in Poland had been such a way of life for me that it took awhile to realize that everyone here knew more idioms and one-liners than I did and I could take off my translator hat now. Other times, everyone around me was laughing at some remark, and I didn’t know what was funny. I think now that it was all part of reverse culture shock or culture fatigue or something else unpleasant like that.

Language and communication and understanding has so many intricacies and nuances and layers that it takes special effort to do well with it. Humor and laughter require another dimension to understanding. When different languages and cultures come together, the dynamics become exponentially complex. Among English speakers like at that Sunday dinner, wires get crossed. Sometimes even people who’ve known each other all their lives still need a translator.

There are many places where we need translators between people and groups. Actually, wherever there are people, we need translators. I think of it especially in some church services. Maybe it’s because it’s generally a formal place, where there is tradition and unspoken expectations, and a new-comer feels especially foreign.

This is not a critique about how to do church. That’s a subject for wiser, stronger people than me. This is a call to think about being translators for visitors, new friends, foreigners new to your culture and your spoken or unspoken languages.

I was glad for a translator when I visited a church where the minister asked for testimonies from the audience, but the lady beside me leaned over to tell me that he is talking to the men, because the women don’t speak.

I wished for a translator when visitors at church weren’t oriented to what was happening now, nor what would be happening next. Especially when the speaker asked us to kneel and everyone swirled around in their benches. Just between you and me and don’t tell anyone, I think kneeling back into the place we were just sitting is very uncivil and undignified and I love the gracefulness of kneeling forward to pray. However, if that’s not your culture’s tradition, you can help the visitor beside you by translating the invitation to kneel.

If I could do that Sunday dinner over now, I wouldn’t hesitate to clarify for our guest what our host was saying. It could be done without making anyone feel foolish. The point is clarity and explanation and education, and at the end, everyone understands each other better. Which would actually help a lot of issues everywhere, come to think of it.

Anyone can be a translator. At least, anyone who values what they have, and wants to share it beyond their borders. And anyone who understands that English doesn’t always sound like English.

My Stone

Nie mój cyrk, nie moja malpa. Not my circus, not my monkey. I’ve heard that this is a Polish maxim, but when I was living in Poland, I never heard it that way. I usually just heard nie moja sprawa.

The monkey line was whimsical and made me chuckle, but I could never remember it at the right time.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a women’s retreat and it was a wonderful time of fellowship and refreshment, everything a retreat should be. As a parallel to the décor of ferns, water fountains, moss, and stones, there was a basket of small stones at the registration table. Every one was supposed to choose a stone and was instructed to carry it with them all the time.

Then someone read the story of the man whom God asked to carry some stones to the top of the hill. On the way, other people asked him to take their stone, and in his good nature, the man accepted. The load got so heavy, he started blaming God for asking so much of him. But God reminded him that He never asked him to take on all the extra stones.

In the retreat, some of us were told to plant stones surreptitiously  in people’s bags and laps, to see what the women would do when they discovered more than their own pebble. Unfortunately, I was socializing too much and didn’t drop any stones anywhere. But one busy bee was planting them everywhere. She was sitting beside me in one workshop and afterwards we had this serious conversation, but when I turned my back, there was a hot pebble under my Bible, and the lady was gone. The pebble was warmed all through, holding its heat from being clenched in her hand, waiting for the right moment. The turkey!

She may or may not have had several handfuls of pebbles mysteriously scattered between her pillow case, sheets, and blanket that night. As always, the laughs are the best part of being together.

A couple days after the retreat, I heard bad news from several places, and it all wanted to paralyze me. Then I thought, No, that’s not my stone to carry.

I care deeply, will listen, pray, stay alert, but put it down. It’s not my stone. There was an extra stone in my bag when I came home, and I pitched it. I took the original one I chose from the basket, wrote my assignment on it with white-out pen, and put it on my desk.

This is my stone, the biggest current assignment that God is ever so gently but persistently asking me to carry. I don’t have room right now to carry any others.

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