Six Years

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6 years is a long time.

In 6 years, a newborn can become a first-grader.

In 6 years, Jupiter successfully completes half of its orbit around the sun.

In 6 years, World War II began and ended.

And after 6 years, I am still a graduate student.

Yes, technically, I realize that I am currently in my 6th year, which means that it’s been 5 years and some change since I started my PhD. But while 6 years have not passed since I took my first seminar, I still am technically a “sixth year.” Which means that I have been in graduate school for a very long time.

I usually make light of it, though, and try to poke some fun at my situation. For instance, when strangers, after learning that I am a graduate student, innocently ask what kind of degree I’m pursuing, I reply, “It’s either a PhD or a really long Master’s.” I’ve also started copying my best friend and fellow sixth year Elizabeth. When people as about her dissertation defense date, she responds, “I’d rather tell you how much I weigh.” Our old age in graduate-school years has made us both a bit snarky.

I’ve found other “productive” ways to cope with my perpetual studenthood. Together with Elizabeth, who also happens to be my roommate, I finished the entire Parks and Recreation series. In a moment of creativity, I purchased and repainted some patio furniture. And, perhaps most importantly, I have adopted a guinea pig. Isn’t she adorable??

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Meet Latte! Isn’t she the cutest?! 🙂

Grad school isn’t easy, though. And despite my healthy coping strategies—guinea pigs really are the best therapy pets—this journey often becomes exhausting. I guess this makes sense; after all, I’ve been working on this degree for more than half a decade. My friends who started their Master’s programs with me in 2012 have been gainfully employed for at least three years now. Some of my other friends have worked multiple jobs since finishing college. Still others have gotten married and had their second kid. Yet here I am, still a student. I realize that getting a doctorate is a job in itself, but I can’t help feeling like I’m caught in an extended form of adulthood-limbo. And sometimes I find myself wondering whether pursuing my PhD was the right thing to do. Whether all the hours—YEARS—pouring over books, traveling to archives, and staring at a computer screen will eventually be worth it.

On my good days, when I find an interesting source, when I run into a former student, or when I receive positive feedback on my work, my answer is yes. In those moments, it’s easy to believe that this journey, with all its ups and downs, has been and will be worthwhile. I try to hold onto those days when they happen, and to recall these “small victories” even after they’ve passed. But in reality, those “good” days don’t happen very often. They can be rather few and far between, and their memory fades much more quickly than I’d like. The majority of the other days aren’t “bad”, per se, but they can become rather wearisome. Almost-six years of delayed gratification can have that effect, I suppose. I am worn out. And while I’m not going to quit—I have come waaayyyy too far for that—sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a really, really long time. Rest is a good thing, I know; and I am doing my best to take it along the way. But at some point, I have to muster up the energy to just keep going. And sometimes that seems very hard to do.

I’m currently in Germany on a one-month research stay at an institute in Marburg. It’s been good to have a break from “normal” life for a bit, and I’ve found some information in their archive that has helped with my project. Anyway, this institute (and the guest apartment where I’m staying) happen to be on top of a mountain. This means that, when I go grocery shopping, run errands, or do anything besides hang out at the institute, I have to end by climbing back up the mountain. Last week, I decided to go for a long run along the river and through the city center. The run was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and my legs felt so happy. Until, that is, I started climbing back up the mountain. It. Was. Brutal. My lungs were heaving, my legs were twitching, and according to my Garmin watch, my heartrate was embarrassingly high. I found myself stopping every 1/10th of a mile to rest, which made for a very slow trek up the ¾-mile-high mountain. It was awful.

As I was trying to coax myself up another tenth-of-a-mile segment, the first few verses of Hebrews 12 popped into my head. This was one of my favorite passages; I used to quote this passage to myself when I ran track, so I wouldn’t give up during training runs or the merciless 800-meter races. I hadn’t thought about it in awhile, but my brain oxygen-deprived brain would take any distraction it could get. And so I started repeating it to myself: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus… so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

I am weary. My brain is tired. My body is tired. I am tired of working on the same project, staring at the same computer screen, thinking through the same questions and ideas. I know that graduate school is a privilege and that not many people get to do it. I understand that, and I am grateful. But I am so tired. Very, very tired. So I guess the question posed to me is this: what am I going to do with that exhaustion? Will I curl up in a ball and sleep for days on end? Will I get down and discouraged like I am often so tempted to do? Or will I do everything I can to “fix my eyes on Jesus… so I won’t grow weary and lose heart”?

I wish I could answer once and for all, but I’m finding that every day (sometimes every moment) asks me that question again. And oftentimes, all I can muster up the energy to say is, “Help me, Jesus.” I guess that counts for something.

Tonight, though, it’s time for some R&R. If only I could hold that adorable little guinea pig… 🙂

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Cappucci-yes

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I never meant to become addicted to coffee.

In fact, I almost made it all the way through college with barely touching the stuff. Sure, I’d occasionally indulge in a white chocolate mocha (a guilty pleasure) to get me through finals week, but I generally didn’t need caffeine to keep my brain afloat. But that all changed during the second semester of my senior year when I enrolled in a Latin American history class.

Don’t get me wrong; Latin American history is anything but boring. However, the combination of the class taking place from 3-4:15 in the afternoon and the professor speaking with a barely audible, essentially monotone voice (case in point: I sat in the second row and had to strain to hear him) made it very difficult to stay awake. And so on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I got in the habit of picking up a cup of coffee from my sorority’s kitchen. Thanks to this little boost, I managed to make it through the class… but I also began the downhill slope of my coffee addiction.

I spent the next year at the Kanakuk Institute, where daily classes from 8 a.m. to noon made coffee into an essential part of my daily routine. About halfway through the year, I learned the hard way that I needed coffee to stay awake. One of my classmates thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the rest of us. When he was on “breakfast duty”, he swapped the fully-leaded coffee grounds for decaf. We all filled up our travel mugs and headed to the morning’s lecture, completely unaware of his bait-and-switch. That is, until we began falling asleep in class and noticed him laughing in the back of the room. Although his joke was well played, our decaffeinated state made us all very, very unhappy.

Since starting graduate school five years ago, I’ve come to terms with my coffee habit. I try to keep it in check by only having two or so cups a day, though during exams and finals season, this number inevitably increases. Occasionally, I detox by going cold turkey, especially over Christmas break when my brain doesn’t need to be engaged with schoolwork. And overall, I’ve learned that, generally, if I have coffee within my “caffeine window” of 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., I won’t have any withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, though, I can get away with skipping my daily cup of joe and be just fine; it all depends on how tired I am, what I’m doing, and how active I am that day. For instance, if I’m out and about running errands or exploring a city, I may not need coffee. But if I’m reading at an archive, then caffeine is pretty much essential.

A couple weeks ago, I relearned this lesson the hard way. I was in Warsaw, doing my last bit of research at the Polish version of the State Department archives. This archive was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which are fairly limited hours compared with other archives. Plus, it was closed on Friday. Since I didn’t get into Warsaw until Monday, this meant that I would only have three days to plow through as much material as possible. Using my trusty Google maps app, I figured out my route for the 45-minute trip on two buses. I figured at least one of the bus stops would have a bakery nearby where I could grab a cup of coffee. But as you’ve probably guessed, I thought wrong. Not only was there no coffee shop anywhere in sight, but the archive itself was at the end of a long residential street essentially in the middle of nowhere. And unlike the German State Department archive, which has a vending machine for coffee (and even for milkshakes!), this archive had nothing. I was up an archival creek without a caffeinated paddle.

At first, I thought I’d be fine. After all, I am fine sometimes when I go without coffee. And besides, I had some ibuprofen in my backpack if I started to get a headache. Plus, I needed to work so intensely that a wave of adrenaline should have kicked in at some point.

… except it didn’t.

And neither did the ibuprofen. By 1 p.m., I had a splitting headache, I could barely keep my eyes open, and my Polish comprehension abilities had reverted back to a beginner level. To quote many a millennial, I literally couldn’t even, and the struggle was unbelievably real. At some point, I realized that my plan to tough it out simply wasn’t going to work. If I were to make it through the afternoon, I was going to need a caffeine injection STAT. Leaving the reading room, I asked a security guard (in broken Polish) for directions to the nearest gas station. Ten minutes later, I was halfway through an XXL-size cappuccino and felt significantly better. The caffeine had kicked in, and I knew I was going to make it through the day.

As I was waiting for the bus that afternoon and thinking about my day, a thought struck me:

How does my need for caffeine compare to my desire for Jesus?

I’ve been a Christian for many years now and have consistently carved out daily time with God for the last several years. And yet if I’m honest with myself, these “quiet times” can often become an item to check off my list rather than an actual encounter with my Savior. Especially when things are good and life is going well, it’s easy for me to slip into a routine in which these times are rushed, or if I am busy, non-existent. So while I may sing songs about loving Jesus and desiring His presence, these lyrics far too easily become empty words and good intentions, rather than an actual reflection of my heart.

Yet that’s not the way I want to be, nor is it the abundant, Spirit-infused life that I see in Scripture. The Psalmist talks about craving God, saying that “as the deer pants for the water brooks, [his] soul thirsts for God, the living God.” And elsewhere we are told to desire Him above all else and to rejoice in His presence. Put differently, if we love God, we should increasingly crave His nearness; our souls should need Him in the same way that our lungs need air or, to continue the above analogy, that my body needs coffee.

But if I’m honest, this is often not the case for me. All too often, I don’t crave Jesus, and I certainly don’t desire Him above all else. When I fail to spend intentional time with Him, my day tends to look pretty much the same; my soul doesn’t show withdrawal symptoms until much later. And even then, this frequently comes in the form of “I should read my Bible” rather than “I desperately need this time with God.”

Yet while this revelation is convicting, I take comfort in the fact that I want to want Him. This seems to be a good place to start. I am praying that the Holy Spirit would grow in me this thirst for Jesus and this hunger for His nearness and His presence, so that He would truly become my heart’s greatest desire.

And with that, my brain is now tired… time to find another cup of coffee. 😉

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(The End of) the End

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They say there’s a first time for everything.

What they don’t say is that sometimes there’s a second time, and this second time may come quickly after the first.

At least, that’s what happened last month when I ripped my pants.

Prior to then, I had never, ever, ever ripped a pair of pants. Sure, as a kid, I’d torn holes in the knees (a natural hazard of refusing to play “house” unless I could be the dog). One time I accidentally ripped a dress when I was running up the stairs. And of course I’ve retired some jeans after noticing signs of wear around the back pockets. But ripping them completely? That’s just the stuff of sitcoms and low-budget kiddie movies.

I was wrong.

When I was initially preparing to leave Atlanta for the summer, I decided to bring three pairs of jeans. And because I have become an expert packer (schlepping one’s belongings for months on end can have that effect), I knew exactly which to take: a pair of Gap skinny jeans, a trusty pair from American Eagle, and another pair I had bought during my year in Berlin. They each matched my jeans travel criteria. All three were sufficiently comfortable for long bus rides and hours of sitting in archives. And all but the skinny jeans passed the “capri test”, i.e. the legs could be easily rolled up in case of unexpectedly warm European weather. I had contemplated bringing only two pairs of jeans (in this case, the skinny ones would have been left at home) but decided against it. While two pairs would have been enough for typical summer weather, a third pair could come in handy during the 10-day trip I’d planned through Scandinavia.

After starting my summer with a conference in Hamburg, I caught a day-long train to Copenhagen, where I spent a few days braving the icky weather, eating seafood, and learning about Hans Christian Andersen. I even had a pleasant surprise when a friend from my semester in Graz hopped over from Sweden to visit me. With my heart happy and all three pairs of jeans intact, I headed to Stockholm. The weather was unexpectedly warm, so I gladly donned shorts for two of my three days there. During my visit, I learned about Vikings, took a ferry ride through the archipelago and even discovered that pickled herring actually tastes good. With a full belly and a few hundred grams of real Swedish fish, I caught a flight to Bergen, Norway, blissfully unaware that my first pair of jeans was about to meet its end.

For every bit that Stockholm’s weather had been pleasant, the weather in Bergen was crappy. The sky was completely gray, and the rain came down with the kind of irritating persistence that makes being outside completely miserable. Only once did it briefly let up during my 18-hour stay, and of course this respite happened while I was indoors eating. The gray and gloom wouldn’t have been so bad if it at least been warm, but the temperatures refused to creep above 55 degrees. Although I should have expected this weather—a Google search revealed that Bergen has an average of 231 rainy days per year—the advance notice did not make the experience any more pleasant. I hate being wet, and I hate being cold. But I really, really, really hate being wet and cold. Still, I recognized that since this would likely be my only visit to Bergen, I chose to tough it out. Pulling on my trusty old American Eagle jeans and grabbing an umbrella, I ventured outside to hike Bergen’s main tourist-attraction mountain.

The trip to the top was cold and rainy but, apart from a brief accidental detour (*cough* I got lost *cough*), it proved wholly uneventful. I enjoyed the view, got a few pictures, and then headed back down to the city. I then walked around the harbor, grabbed dinner, and organized my luggage—completely unaware that I had a gaping hole in the back of my pants. I only noticed when I changed into my pajamas that night, hours after the rip had happened. But rather than being mortified, I managed to take it in stride. I mean, what a classic Steffi moment, to have torn straight through a pair of pants without even noticing. Chuckling to myself, I bid adieu to my now-worthless American Eagle jeans and climbed into bed.

Fast forward three days. In the intervening time, I had journeyed through the fjords, wandered around Oslo, and caught an early morning flight to Berlin, where I’d be visiting friends for a mini-homecoming. I couldn’t wait. As fate would have it, my jeans had their own homecoming as well; I was wearing the pair I had bought in Berlin two years earlier. But since the weather in Germany was ridiculously hot, I wasn’t planning to wear the jeans for long. Changing into shorts was #1 on my to-do list. And guess what happened when I did… Yep, I saw that these jeans were ripped too, just like the first pair. Right down the middle? Right down the middle. My second pair of jeans had bit the dust.

In the weeks since my jeans’ demise, I have shared this story with friends and family who, like me, find my “pants problem” quite entertaining. I purchased some new jeans (on sale!) at H&M, just in case my remaining pair suddenly decides to follow suit. And I’ve also spent some time thinking about my initial (hours-long) embarrassing moment and its soon-after sequel. I mean, who unwittingly walks around Europe with their underwear showing, not once but twice? And how did I fail to notice that my jeans split down the back? Could I have seriously been so oblivious to something that was so painfully obvious to everyone else? As I was pondering these questions about my jeans, another thought hit me:

I can be just as clueless about problem spots in other areas of my life.

Just like I when couldn’t see the hole in the back of my jeans, I’m also can’t have a hard time recognizing places in my life where I am falling short and/or need to grow. That’s why I need close friends, mentors, and my family members to walk alongside me–or for the sake of the metaphor– behind me. Because their perspective is different from mine, they recognizes patterns, weak spots, and shortcomings that I don’t automatically see. Sometimes their words may be difficult to hear, like when they point out an area where I’m struggling to surrender things to God. But more often than not, their different perspective allows them to offer insight and encouragement in the places I most need it. Regardless of how their advice may feel in the moment, I can trust that they’ve “got my back” and that they truly want God’s best for me.

My jeans story would have likely played out very differently if I’d been traveling with a friend. While I eventually figured out that my pants were ripped, a friend would have noticed much earlier and, ideally, would have cared enough to tell me. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them [rips her jeans], the other [will tell her] companion. But woe to the one who [rips her jeans] when there is not another [to let her know].”

The moral of the story? Surround yourself with godly people you trust.

… and always pack an extra pair of jeans. 😉

 

(Don’t) Forget It

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Oh, how well I can identify with this. Source: https://sallyinthehaven.net/tag/forgetfulness/

For me, the most basic things are often the hardest to remember.

For instance, when I was in fifth grade, we were making our annual Thanksgiving trek to visit my mom’s side of the family in St. Louis. We were about 45 minutes into the drive when I looked down and realized that I’d managed to forget my shoes. I had a pair of Mary Janes for church, but these would be woefully inadequate for playing in the woods by my grandparents’ house. And so, we turned around and went back to Kansas City, so I wouldn’t have to go barefoot. To this day whenever we are leaving on a family road trip, everyone not-so-surreptitiously looks at my feet to make sure I’m wearing shoes.

Another classic moment of forgetfulness happened yesterday afternoon. Since I was getting ready to leave for the summer, I spent a few minutes cleaning out my car. After all, no one wants to return after 2.5 months to a messy vehicle. I took out all the trash, organized the glove compartment, and even made a daring peek under the seats where I found some unused post-it notes. Because I helped some friends move last weekend, my back seats were still down. So I reconfigured the back seat and trunk before returning to my front-seat tidying. But in my trash-removing zeal, I forgot to close the back door. Until, of course, about 20 minutes after a thunderstorm. Oops.

As if these moments of spaciness weren’t bad enough, I also have a terrible memory for details. As a historian, this is especially  frustrating. When I’m teaching, I make up for this by bringing really detailed notes. So if I can’t remember a name or a date, at least I know where I to find it. But this poor recall gets very frustrating, especially when I’m trying to tell a historical story without my cheat sheet. For instance, I cannot even count the number of times I tried to tell the story of my favorite 20th-century Hungarian conman Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln only to say something like, “So there was this guy… and he pretended to be someone he wasn’t… and it was really crazy!” Forget being a steel trap; my mind is more like a strip of lint-covered Scotch tape. Very little sticks to it.

Harmless though this forgetfulness can be in everyday situations like tennis shoes and Hungarian conmen, it has a darker side when it comes to my faith. Even though I have been consistently reading my Bible for years, and even though I’ve heard literally hundreds of sermons about God’s love, I still have a hard time remembering it. For some reason, this truth bounces off my lint-covered Scotch-tape heart. No matter how hard I try, information about God’s love and care for me tends not to stick.

Since I’m a historian, you think I’d be extra skilled at remembering past examples of God’s goodness. In theory, I should be able to recall them at the drop of a hat, and stories of His faithfulness should continually be at the tip of my tongue. And while this is sometimes the case, and I have moments of being overwhelmed by God’s goodness, provision, and love, these reflections are far rarer than I care to admit. More often, stumble forward in nonchalant forgetfulness, simply wandering from one thing to the next. When life is going well, this forgetfulness doesn’t seem like a problem. Yes, it would be better to remember, but it doesn’t feel urgent. But when life gets tough, when I am afraid of the future or feel ashamed about the past, this forgetfulness can become catastrophic. In these moments of difficulty, when I am blindsided by this destructive form of “soul amnesia”, I forget. I forget God and His goodness. I forget that He has been with me in the past. I forget all about His love. Rather than treading water or reaching to the side of the pool for help, I flail and thrash and start to sink. It’s awful. But what can I possibly do about it?

The answer is fairly simple. In the words of the great philosopher Mufasa, “Remember who you are.” Especially in moments of difficulty, God calls us to remember who we are–and Whose we are. He helps us by using other people, who encourage us and speak truth to us. He speaks to us through His Holy Spirit, who lives inside us and who helps us “call to mind everything [Jesus] taught” us. And He does this through His Word. But the truths don’t magically jump off the page and into our brains; there is no passive spiritual osmosis. Rather, we must be diligent to read it, to spend time daily soaking it in, and sitting with its Truth. In doing so, we are reminded of our identity as God’s children, and we learn that our lives truly are “hidden with Christ in God.”

As I have been struggling lately to grasp and hold onto the reality of God’s love, the movie Fifty First Dates keeps coming to mind. In this film, Drew Barrymore’s character Lucy suffers from short-term memory loss. When she wakes up each morning, she has completely forgotten everything from the day before. Despite this obvious challenge, Adam Sandler’s character Henry falls in love with her, and (spoiler alert!) the two eventually get married and have a family. But Lucy’s memory problem doesn’t magically go away. So what is the solution? Henry makes a short video about their relationship and their family, and Lucy watches this every morning when she wakes up. Before she begins each day, she is reminded of who she is and where she belongs.

I think the same must be true for us. If we are going to flourish in Christ–i.e., if we want to live consciously in light of God’s love and our place in His family–then we have to start each day by letting Him remind us of who we are. This is absolutely essential to an abundant life in Christ. No, reading the Bible won’t magically make all of your worries, fears, and problems go away. But it will remind you of the God who cares for you in the midst of these things. And this awareness of God’s love, my friend, is unbelievably important.

Alright, that’s enough for today. I have a flight to catch. I should probably make sure that I packed my shoes…

Good (at) Grief

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There are certain compliments you really don’t want.

“You have a face for radio” or “she’s got a great personality” are the first that come to mind. I remember receiving one in middle school when my sister told me (in complete seriousness), “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, Steffi; I think you’re great.” Similarly, my dad told me that, in the army, you don’t want your annual report to say, “he/she takes criticism well.” After all, it’s better to avoid criticism by doing things correctly the first time.

Over the last two months, I have added another less-than-ideal compliment to my list: being “good at grieving.” And based on the number of times I’ve received this compliment, it would seem that I am. I’m not saying that, if grieving were a sport, I could go pro. But I apparently have a shot at the minor leagues.

What does it mean to “grieve well”?, you ask. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to wager, I would say that it might involve A LOT of the following: crying, taking walks around my neighborhood, listening to hymns on repeat, and talking the ears off of those family members and friends who don’t mind hearing the same things over and over again.

I’d also guess that grieving well means embracing whatever you are feeling in a given moment, no matter how unpleasant or unwanted that emotion may be. It means sleeping a bit later than usual, and then needing an extra hour in the morning to muster up the courage to face the day. It means being honest when you aren’t doing well, and then taking the steps to take care of yourself. But most of all, I’ve found that grieving isn’t just puffy-eyed crying (although that’s certainly part of it). No, being good at grieving means being okay with not being okay–and then giving yourself the grace to be angry, sad, or upset until you’re ready to feel okay again.

Grieving isn’t fun, even if you’re apparently “good” at it. Because let’s be real; we’d all rather avoid the loss in the first place. If I could rewind to 10.5 weeks ago, before things fell apart and prevent that from happening, I would. Once I realized that there would be no rewind or do-over, then I just wanted this process to be over. I so badly wanted a shortcut through this suckiness. But deep down, I knew that, just as there had been no detour around this situation, there would be no shortcut through it. The only way to emerge on the other side (if there really was another side) was to put my head down and trudge through it. And then trudge, and trudge some more.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there were days when my sadness felt like a permanent rain cloud, or like a lead apron from the dentist’s office had camped out on my heart. I couldn’t picture being happy again, let alone feeling moderately okay. Could the wounds inside me, still so deep and raw, possibly ever heal?

The pain isn’t fully gone yet, but it’s gradually becoming less intense. And while I’m not yet “better”, I am on the way to getting there. And as I look back over my shoulder at that darkness, here are few things I see. (*Caveat: Although grief is a universal process, people grieve in different ways. So feel free to take or leave my takeaways as you see fit.)

  1. Let yourself cry.
  2. Don’t grieve alone; open up and let people carry the pain with you.
  3. But while people can grieve with you, they cannot do it for you. Only you can go through the grieving process for yourself.
  4. Time is your friend. It won’t necessarily “heal all wounds”, but it can make your pain less acute.
  5. Grief is more cyclical (and circular) than linear.
  6. You may never get answers to your questions. And even if you do get them, they likely will not satisfy you in the way that you hoped. This is a hard truth, but there is freedom in accepting it.
  7. Though it may feel impossible, you will get through this season, and you will somehow know Jesus better for having experienced it.

That’s my current (still incomplete) list. I’m sure it will continue to grow as I journey further down this path. But I thought I would share it with you in the meantime because maybe you, too, are walking through a season of pain. If you are, please know that I am sorry. Keep hanging in there. And if you aren’t grieving but you know someone who is, maybe this list can provide some (meager) insight for helping them.

In the meantime, keep trudging, my friend. Someday, by God’s grace, the sun will fully shine again.

Ice, Ice-Bergy

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The Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri. This photo op was the closest I came to going inside.

In 2015, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Titanic.

I’d never actually seen the movie until that summer when I spent the weekend at my Omi’s house. In addition to our usual thrift-shopping/garage-saling and me learning (or attempting to learn) to bake, our hang-out times usually involve a classic movie or two. When I was younger, we would watch Anne of Green Gables, eventually making our way through the entire series. Then right before I moved to Atlanta, we watched Gone with the Wind. And so it seemed only natural that in the summer before I left for Germany we would add Titanic to the list. After all, I needed to see it at some point, and watching it with my Omi seemed like the best possible choice.

Needless to say, the movie that has been proclaimed one of the best films ever produced did not disappoint. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself sucked into the love story despite already knowing the tragic ending. I finally understood why Titanic got and, even 20 years later, continues to get so much hype. It really is a masterpiece. Depressing, yes. But a masterpiece all the same.

My experience of the Titanic did not end with the credits. Fascinated by both the original story and the making of the film, I started compulsively reading trivia and facts on the IMDB page and other fan websites. I found out about the captain, the ship’s architect, the band leader, and all sorts of other real-life characters from the movie. I learned about the ship’s construction and the iceberg that sunk it. I discovered that there really was a Titanic passenger named “J. Dawson”, whose grave in Canada remains one of the most visited (and decorated) by strangers to this day. And I read analyses by self-proclaimed “experts” about how there actually would have been room for Jack on that piece of wood if Rose had simply moved over. And then several hours later with all of this fascinating yet depressing information crammed in my head, I went to bed.

… which proved to be a big mistake.

You see, not only had my waking mind latched onto the Titanic, but apparently my subconscious one had become obsessed with it as well. That night, I had the first of many recurring nightmares about the Titanic. Sometimes, I was trying to hold onto the railings of the bow as it broke in half and sunk. Other times I was running through the ship’s hold as it filled with water. And in still other versions, I simply jumped overboard and hoped to make it. But in all cases, I woke up feeling upset and more than a little bit freaked out. And to make things worse, these dreams lasted not just one night but on and off for several months.

That said, my nightmares probably would have stopped sooner, had it not been for Celine Dion. Because not only could the abnormal amount of Titanic trivia floating around my brain trigger my nightmares, but I started hearing “My Heart will Go On” everywhere. I’m not kidding. For the next several months, I would hear this song or an instrumental version of it at least once a week and sometimes every other day. To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I also listened to playlists of classical music and soundtracks to study for hours at a time. But be that as it was, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular song was following me. And although there are worse stalkers that Celine Dion, I didn’t enjoy the nightmares that frequently accompanied her.

Fortunately, though, my Titanic-induced nightmares eventually faded away, and my sleep patterns finally returned to normal. Hallelujah. But recently, that doomed transatlantic liner has invaded my thoughts again in a relatively indirect, but no less impactful way.

Over the weekend, a dear friend let me know that I had recently behaved in an unkind and hurtful way. When I found this out, I felt awful. Not only had I been a jerk, but in the process I had hurt someone I care about. It’s one thing to do something stupid and harm myself, but it’s a completely different matter when my actions cause pain to another person. No Bueno. Even though after apologizing and receiving forgiveness, the situation and my action have continued to eat at me. And a few days ago, I realized why.

My sin is like that iceberg that sunk the Titanic. And because of that, my friend only saw the tip of a much deeper problem. Pride, selfishness, insecurity, envy, judgement—all these sins and more hide just below the surface of my life. While I’m often able to hide this, and I come off to most people as “nice” and “sweet”, I know the truth about what’s inside of me. My hurtful actions toward him were not an isolated problem, but the product of an iceberg’s worth of ugliness deep inside of me. Jesus recognized this about mankind (and about me) when He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19) and “Out of the overflow of the heart a man speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Needless to say, this is a hard pill to swallow, and I don’t particular enjoy being brought face to face with my own sin. But it’s far better than the alternative. You see, ignoring my sin or minimizing it is like not bringing enough lifeboats on the Titanic. It may work for a short time, but in the long run it will prove a tragic and costly oversight. Managing my surface-level symptoms will only go so far. If I really want to be free from own darkness, I need to admit that these sins live in me, and then bring them out into the light. Because try as I might (and try as I have), I can’t melt this iceberg on my own. I need God’s help to have an accurate view of myself and my sin. Though it’s painful and frustrating in the moment, it ultimately results in peace and freedom. This is why 1 John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I have been reminded of this many times recently. While I would have rather not acted hurtfully to begin with, I am grateful that God used even those self-inflicted crummy circumstances to re-teach me a truth about myself, His goodness, and His grace. He sees the complete iceberg of my sin and loves me in spite of it. And together we can chip away at it, until one day this ugliness in me will be no more.

Alright, I’m thirsty and it’s time for a drink break. Ice water, anyone? 😉

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Seen at the ice-sculpting competition in the parking lot of the Branson Titanic Museum. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

Heavy Holidays

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Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin.

Hollywood lies.

I’m not talking about Disney princesses and Prince Charmings. My frustration is at an even more basic level of expectation versus reality. You see, according to Hollywood, bad things happen in dark and empty alleyways. And according to Hollywood, sad scenes almost exclusively take place in the rain. But if the music is in major key and the setting is bright and cheery, then, according to Hollywood, the scene should be happy. And so it follows that, according to Hollywood, German Christmas markets should be among the happiest and safest places on earth.

But the events of Monday night in Berlin laughed in the face of this cinematic logic. Because while people were chatting, shopping, and enjoying life, the unthinkable happened. Evil—heartless, senseless, and unspeakable evil—revved the engine, jumped the curb, and left death and carnage in its wake.

Two days later, my heart is aching and my insides still feel numb. Because not only am I upset by the blatant cruelty of this tragedy–I mean, how could someone attack a Christmas market?–but this hits unbelievably close to home. You see, I lived in Berlin on and off for almost a year, and in the process, this city became like home. I care deeply about the people there, and the fact that someone would murder them is nauseating. And that they would hijack the truck of a delivery man from Poland–another country I have come to love–is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking.

But I’m also upset on another, perhaps more jarring level: last year, I stood in that very Christmas market with my best friend, chatting, shopping, and enjoying life. After a late lunch at the KaDeWe, we headed down to this market, where we sipped Gluehwein, bought souvenirs, and marveled at the colorful stars for sale. Out of all the Christmas markets I frequented last winter, the one at Breitscheidplatz was by far my favorite. With its massive Christmas tree next to the glowing-blue stained glass Gedaechtniskirche, this market felt particularly magical. That this very same place became the site of such senseless violence and that the people who died there were just like me is a lot to take in. If my research year had fallen just a little later, I could have been there on Monday night with them. One of those 12 dead or 48 injured could have been me.

These are heavy thoughts, I know, and they have been weighing on me since I got the news on Monday afternoon. Now as I sit at home in Kansas, surrounded by all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas, I can’t help but feel the disconnect. Between the sorrow I feel on the inside and the joy I’m supposed to exude on the outside. Between the happiness that Hollywood tells me should accompany this season and the suffering that is happening around the world. Between the darkness sitting heavily upon me and the light I so badly want to believe that Jesus came to bring.

All Advent season and well before Monday happened, I have been wrestling with these thoughts. The Hollywood version of Christmas claims to be “merry and bright” and a season of endless joy. But this year, Christmas seems anything but happy. The civil war in Syria shows no signs of ending, and the remaining citizens in Aleppo are facing almost certain death. The families of terror victims across France and Belgium, as well as those who lost loved ones in the racial violence in the U.S. this summer, are still mourning. And then there are the countless families who still grieve those lost in more “normal” but no less tragic ways, such as cancer, car accidents, and suicide.

Taken together, there is a lot of darkness and sorrow in this world of ours. And during these last few weeks of Advent, I have felt the weight of it, perhaps more acutely than ever before. How are we supposed to be filled with “Christmas cheer” when so much of the world appears to be falling apart? Where is that joy that I’m supposed to be experiencing? I find myself resonating with that old Christmas hymn,

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Aleppo, Berlin, and countless individual sorrows seem to mock the idea of Christmas. But then again, isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? That into the darkest places of pain and the most broken parts of humanity, God comes to us.

Even as I write this, I know that answer feels Sunday-schooly, perhaps even a bit trite. Especially if you’ve grown up in the church, it’s easy to say things like “God came to us” without thinking about what that means. But these last few weeks, and especially these last few days, have turned such Christianese-esque indifference into a luxury I can’t afford. I am hurting, and I want answers. And even more than answers, I need to know–deep down in the painful places–that God has come and that He cares. That’s my prayer as this Advent season draws to a close, that His light would shine into this darkness of our world and this darkness that I feel, and that I would remember again the rest of that old song:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Please.

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Light shining into Darkness. Stars for sale at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market.