As the Romans Do

It was a day like any other day. I’d been third grade for almost a week, and it was alright. More of the same classmates, more Shirley grammar assignments, more math review before starting multiplication tables. Nothing exciting had appeared on the horizon, and it looked as if I’d simply be repeating the bland, boring life of second grade. And then it happened.

Mrs. Semple walked into our classroom, toting a stack of Level 1 Latin primers. And before you could say, “Amo, amas, amat,” I was in love.

Now I know what you are probably thinking: Why in the world would a third grader be learning Latin? At my classical Christian school, Latin was an integral part of the elementary curriculum. We started in 3rd grade and continued until 8th, when we shifted to the wonders of Logic and Critical Thinking. Oh, the syllogism-filled joy!

(Note: I realize the second question you might be asking is, “Why in the world would a third grader be giddy about learning Latin?” Rather than re-delving into my already oft-explored intellectual idiosyncrasies, I will simply direct you to my other blogs on this subject. Simply put, I’m a hopeless nerd.)

For the next five years, I thoroughly enjoyed my tri-weekly Latin classes and was truly saddened when I had to choose between Latin and German upon entering high school. Don’t worry; I got to take Latin IV my senior year. #bestclassever.

Now some of you out there are still unconvinced that Latin was worthwhile. Yes, it’s a dead language. And yes, no one speaks it anymore (that’s why it’s called a “dead language,” in case you were wondering.) But Latin really does come in handy in everyday life. If you’re taking the SAT or GRE, you’ll find Latin roots everywhere—and your score will drastically improve. Like the show Law and Order (or the movie Legally Blonde)? Understand bona fide terms like pro bono, mens rea, habeas corpus, and quid pro quo. Plus, Latin makes you look cool, albeit in a rather nerdy way. 🙂

So as you can see, the uses and applications of Latin are multifaceted and conglomerate. And because we are still using Latin, this dead language is very much alive! (Or should I say, “vivacious”?) Isn’t that magnificent? But wait; there’s more.

This week at the Kanakuk Institute, we studied the book of Romans. And although this book was written almost 2,000 years ago to a group of people who, like their native language, are now very dead, we can stilll learn so much from it today. So strap on your sandals, tighten that belt, and readjust that toga because we’re going on a quick journey through the book of Romans.

The scene opens on the apostle Paul. He’s just finished up his third missionary journey through Asia Minor and into Greece and Macedonia. The year is approximately 57 AD. A church has been growing in Rome ever since the Messianic Jewish believers returned there after experiencing Pentecost in Jerusalem. Though Paul has never personally visited the Roman church, he plans to do so soon. In the meantime, though, he decides to write them a letter explaining all the tenets of the Christian faith—the culmination of his years as a bondservant of Jesus Christ. In a sense, you could call this book his magnum opus (Latin for “great work,” of course.)

The overall outline of the letter is simple: Behavior follows belief. In other words, you have to know what you know before you can live it out. Thus, he spends the first eight chapters on belief. Like the Marines, he completely breaks down all their paradigms and rebuilds new ones. Then in the last five chapters, he explains what to do with it.

“Now wait,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t there 16 chapters in Romans? That only adds up to 13!” Yes, your math skills are exquisite; I did leave out three chapters. But don’t fret; we’ll come back to those.

Okay, so back to the beginning. Let’s break this down.

In chapter one, Paul explains a central truth: God has revealed Himself. That’s right; all of creation shows who God is, His divinity, and His unlimited power. (Don’t believe me? Visit Niagara Falls.) God also reveals His wrath. Why? Because He is completely, fully, undeniably righteous. And we are not. As the epitome of righteousness and as our Creator, God has a right to hold us to His perfect standard. But instead of choosing to submit to and obey Him, we choose to go our own way and make gods for ourselves. Result: Sin. And a general state of crappiness.

In chapter two, he addresses the Jews. Aren’t they special because they’re Jewish? No. (And yes. But we’ll get to that later.) No, they aren’t special because they have failed to keep God’s law. They’re failures. Just like the rest of us.

Chapter three: We stink. Badly. God gave the world His law to show us how to live, and we didn’t keep any of it. He’s the only righteous One. Like arrows missing the target, we’ve all fallen hopelessly and miserably short of His perfect standard. But according to His great mercy and love, He did something incredible. Instead of leaving us to wallow and decay in our sin, He sent His only Son Jesus as the payment for use. By His blood, He bought us back and redeemed us. #awesome. #understatement

Cut to chapters four and five: We are saved through faith alone! It’s only by Jesus’ sacrifice and grace that we can have a right relationship with God. Before Jesus, we were ruined by the sin born into us through Adam and Eve. But now because of Jesus, His righteousness and holiness is imputed—spread through—to us who believe. #reallyawesome #anotherunderstatement

Moving right along to Romans 6: What do we do with this grace? Keep sinning? Heck no, techno! No, instead we are continually made new through a process known as sanctification; this is a fancy word to say that God is setting us apart for Himself to be like Him. We are now dead to sin; it’s no longer our master. Instead, we are alive in Christ and free to live for Him.

Chapter 7: No more Law! According to the “power of suggestion,” the Law tempted us to sin even more. No bueno. This internal struggle of the sin nature (old self) versus the spirit (new self) continues through the process of sanctification. Paul expresses his frustration about it. #bummer

(And now for my favorite chapter in the Bible. Romans 8! Go read it for yourself! Right now!!! I mean it!)

Did you read it? Okay, good! Romans 8: Just as we are waiting to be finally made perfect and be freed from the frustration of sin, the world waits eagerly to be redeemed. Even during this in-between time, God is working powerfully. Everything happens according to His greater purpose of conforming us more and more into the image of His Son Jesus. Nothing can separate us from His love, and through Him, we can overcome anything.

Now we come to those special three chapters: 9-11. These all deal with God’s chosen people, the Jews. Paul is beyond distressed about the condition of his kinfolk. He so desperately wants them to be saved, that he would trade his own salvation for theirs. They are special in God’s sight, but they will only be saved through Jesus. He will restore Israel in due time, but right now, theJews have rejected Jesus, so Gentiles could be brought into the covenant.

How to apply all this? Let’s look at chapters 12-15. As believers, we should give ourselves fully to God as living sacrifices, ready and willing for Him to use us. We honor Him when we use our gifts for His kingdom, when we treat others with love, when we submit to His will, and when we worship Him with our entire lives and beings.

And last but not least, the end of 15 through 16: Paul concludes by telling the Romans to get ready, get set and go. Prepare to take the gospel to those who haven’t heard it. And then go do it!

So whether you’re a third grader, a Law and Order cast member, or just someone who stumbled upon this blog (no pun intended), I encourage you to carpe diem and read Romans for yourself. Examine it. Study it. Internalize it.

And then “do as the Romans do.” 😉

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A “Trippy” Road Trip

You know that expression, “We plan; God laughs”? Sometimes, I think He has a special version of it for me: “Steffi plans, and God doubles over and rolls around the floor of heaven guffawing hysterically.” Not quite as catchy (or theologically correct), but the point is clear. Basically, no matter how much I structure my life, no matter how thoroughly and assiduously I work, and no matter how much I try to expect the unexpected, God enjoys turning my plans on their head. And generally speaking, my plans don’t like headstands. However, as uncomfortable, frustrated and freaked out as I feel, God always, always, always comes through. And His “divine redirections” always turn out better than my original, bullet-pointed, cross-referenced plan.

Case in point: My trip to the Passion conference in Atlanta. “Epic” redefined. So buckle your seatbelts and get ready for this wild ride (puns intended). Here goes…

Before I begin, I should preface this story by saying that I wasn’t planning on being one of the 44,000+ students going to Passion 2012 at the Georgia Dome. However, just like coming to the Kanakuk Institute and so many other incredible things in my life, the things I avoid often turn out to be exactly what I needed most. Having said that, I didn’t officially buy my ticket to Passion until the middle of December, only three weeks before the event. Why did I drag my indecisive feet? Well, one major reason was the cost. While I could afford the registration and I had a friend to stay with once I got to Atlanta, I didn’t have $350+ for airfare to get there. Then, lo and behold, I found a ride with some sorority sisters from OSU. I bought my ticket, thanking God that He had so surprisingly provided a ride.

At this point, He chuckled. Little did I know how little I knew about His surprises.

Fast forward to December 23rd. Passion starts the evening of January 2nd, so I contacted my sorority sister to work out some details of the trip, i.e. when we were leaving, when we would get back, etc. However, it soon became abundantly clear that this would be a very complicated trip. I could still go with them, but we would all be much better off if I could find a different ride.

Cue my 1st “freak out” moment. And God’s second divine chuckle. It’s less than 2 weeks before Passion, and I have no way to get there.

“That’s okay,” my family reminds me. “You still have time, and God is going to work everything out. You just need to start looking for another ride. Don’t worry!”

So I worry. And start contacting people. Lots of people. As in, everyone I know from Kansas, Oklahoma, St. Louis, Memphis, Arkansas, the Institute (which isn’t a city or state; sorry for any confusion) who might possibly know someone –or know someone who knows someone—who was going to Passion and might be able to offer me a ride. Approximately 48 hours and 58 text messages later, nothing.

Cue my 2nd “freak out” moment. And God’s 3rd divine chuckle. I’ve exhausted all my relational resources, and I still don’t have a ride. I even contacted my friend’s little sister’s boyfriend and asked him to ask his friends. Nothing.

Then on Christmas night, it hits me (Not literally like the disc during a game of Ultimate Frisbee on Monday. Ouch.) “I’m on Twitter; I have a Facebook,” I think to myself.  “Connecting with new people—isn’t that what social networking is all about? Well, it’s at least worth a shot.” Taking a deep breath and saying a “here goes” prayer, I log into my Twitter account. In the search bar, I type @passion286generation and press enter: 5,379 hits. Not very helpful. “Hmmm, what if I narrow it down by location?” So I add the filter of “near Kansas City.” And Enter.

2 hits. A guy and a girl. Cool.

Then I switch tabs to my Facebook page. I look up both of them. The girl (Katie?): 0 mutual friends. The guy (Andrew Matthew Wermselknacken [*name changed slightly]): 2 mutual friends + a curly blonde afro. This might be promising…

“Alright, Lord. This is it.” Exhaling slowly, I write him a message explaining my situation and that I really, really, really need a ride. Less than an hour later, I check my inbox. Not only has he replied, but he tells me that his group is driving! And that I should give him a call. Say what?!

So I call him. And to my utmost surprise, not only is he driving with a group from Kansas City, but he also has room for me to ride along! We’d leave from Kansas City on New Year’s and drive overnight to Atlanta. Sweet! If I can give $50 to help with gas, then we’ll be set! Speechless (except for the laugh rising involuntarily from my soul), I hang up the phone. God had provided a ride for me—and with someone with a really cool German last name, to boot!

Fast forward a few days. Plans change slightly. I’m meeting them in Springfield instead to pick up a large church van, which will give us more room for the long drive. My friend Kyle from OSU is also going to join us here. Awesome!

Skip to New Year’s Day. Approximately 1:30 p.m. Cue Andrew’s phone call… and God’s 3rdgiggle at my expense.

“Hi, Steffi, ummm, so we have a problem. The guy we were meeting in Springfield woke up sick. He’s not going to Passion anymore, so we won’t be going through Springfield. The good news is we still have room for you and your friend. The bad news is that it’s going to be a really tight squeeze… and Kyle needs to get to Kansas City by 8 tonight for us to leave.”

Alright. The thought plickens. (Like the “plot thickens” haha…. Get it?)

Immediately, I call Kyle. Immediately, he packs his things and drives 5 hours to Kansas City. He arrives at my house, and my dad immediately takes us to our meeting point at Denny’s. Then we immediately cram ourselves and our stuff into an itty bitty Ford Freestyle (7 seats = me + 6 guys) to begin our epic adventure road trip to Passion. Which was awesome.

This post is already getting long, so I’ll spare you the details of the trip itself and the experience at Passion. But I’ll sum it up with this lesson:

God is intimately involved in the details of our lives, and He always provides… often in the most unexpected ways. While I was freaking out about getting to Passion, God knew all along what He was doing. If you would have told me when I bought my Passion ticket that I would find my ride via Twitter and Facebook, I probably wouldn’t have purchased it. But God’s plan is infinitely better than mine, and He works things out perfectly, according to His timing and His plan. Now looking back, I can’t help but chuckle along with Him. I not only got to go to Passion, but I made some amazing new friends along the way: Andrew “Werm” who has an incredible, active, and inspiring faith (and a love for making fun of SMU and TCU); Aaron who experiences God in awesome ways every day; Scotty who loves life, Jesus… and Waffle House (thanks for the laughs!); Brett and Jacob who love music and who are actively growing closer to Jesus. And then of course, Kyle (aka Blondie), my OSU buddy who is a wonderful friend and brother in Christ.

So here’s the moral of this long and drawn-out story: Next time life takes an unexpected twist, look to Him for a solution… and  then listen closely. You just might hear Him laugh. 🙂

A Chapter in “His Story”

Ahhh, history. The major for those who can’t do math. The choice of study for people who like to ramble about nothing. The field full of dead people. … Er, not literal “field” like a place with grass and dirt. (which, when full of dead people, is also known as a “cemetery.”) “Field” as in “area of expertise.” As Ingeborg Bachmann, the Austrian writer, cleverly stated, “Die Geschichte lehrt dauernd, aber sie findet keine Schüler.“ History has much to teach but no one wants to learn. In light of this, I would like to propose a new slogan for history students everywhere: The few. The learners. The history majors.

This week at the Kanakuk Institute, my classmates joined the ranks of the amateur historians. Together we embarked on a journey through a very special, yet often unexplored aspect of history: the history of the Church.  When most people think of Church history (which is rare, if ever), they probably visualize one or two stereotypical things. If you’re Catholic, the Pope likely comes to mind. If you’re British, you may think of Henry VIII. If you paid even the slightest bit of attention in your Western Civ class, you might visualize the Reformation. Overall, though, if I had to hazard a guess, I would speculate that most people know very little about Church history. Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, that is a travesty, for the Church has had an undeniable and indelible impact on the world, especially in the West.

However, as much as I would like to spend the next umpteen words enlightening you on the fascinating nature of Church history from 33 A.D. to the present, I know that a) you would get bored very quickly and b) that would make for an extremely long blog, even for me. So instead, I am going to simply tell you about one of my favorite characters in this 2,000-year-long story. And his name is Martin Luther.

Normally, I tend to sympathize with people who are left out of history’s limelight; I prefer to study those off the beaten intellectual path. But as a born and bred Lutheran, I can’t help but make an exception with good ol’ Martin Luther.

Born in Erfurt in 1483 in Eisleben, Luther had no dreams of grandeur; his father simply hoped he would become a lawyer. But history—and God—had other plans. Tortured by his own sin, Luther struggled to believe that he was saved and forgiven. After a traumatic, near-death experience in a thunderstorm, Luther became a monk. But as he studied the Scriptures day-in and day-out, his anxiety increased. How could he be sure of his own salvation? And would he ever be free from this agony of uncertainty? Of this time, Luther later said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”

But then—lo and behold!—Luther discovered something incredible in Romans 1:17, which says, “The righteous will live by faith.” Until this point, Luther had done everything possible to become righteous on his own, yet he still felt the crushing weight of his own inadequacy. Then, like an anachronistic light bulb from heaven, the truth illuminated his mind, filling his weary soul with a liberating hope. Faith, not works, brings salvation! Luther had rediscovered the essence of the Gospel—and the Truth was about to change European history forever.

Soon after this epiphany, Luther wrote the now famous (then infamous) 95 Theses. In them, he challenged the Catholic Church for its many non-Biblical practices, including the sale of indulgences (paper certificates of forgiveness) to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On October 31, 1517, he hammered the “nail heard round the world”—and started the wave whose ripples can still be felt today. Luther then went on to translate the Bible into German, so the common people could read it for themselves. Thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz, the Scripture spread like wildfire. Soon the Church in Rome could smell the smoke.

Naturally, as head of all spiritual authority, the Catholic Church was more than a little peeved about this chain of events. So in 1521, the Diet of Worms (No, this is not a disgusting way to lose weight; it was a conference in the city of Worms, Germany.) was convened and Luther was summoned. Under threat of excommunication (i.e. permanent removal) from the Church, he was ordered to recant everything he had said and written. In response, Luther uttered the following memorable and courageous words:

„[Da] … mein Gewissen in den Worten Gottes gefangen ist, ich kann und will nichts widerrufen, weil es gefährlich und unmöglich ist, etwas gegen das Gewissen zu tun. Gott helfe mir. Amen.“

Which translate as, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Even though Luther lived 500 years ago, his words still speak to us today. As humans, we must remain true to our consciences and courageously stand up for our beliefs. And as believers, our beliefs must be rooted firmly in God’s Word. When we see something that contradicts what God says, we have a duty—nay, a responsibility—to stand up and speak out in love. Yes, this will likely be scary; and no, we may not want to do it. But if we look over our shoulder, we can see many great heroes of history, like Luther, cheering us on. And more importantly, the Author of history—the One who is writing “His story”—is on our side. Then we, along with Luther, will be able to confidently say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Party in the US-eh?

It’s my least favorite time of the year.

Or rather, it’s my least favorite time every four years. That’s right; it’s election time.

Yes, I realize that Election Day isn’t until next November, which is still way off in the distant (but here before we know it) future. Honestly, I don’t mind the actual Election Day. I wouldn’t call it my favorite quadrennial 24-hour period; however, it doesn’t arouse feeling of intense antipathy like the true object of my loathing: Pre-Election season. Maybe “loathe” is too strong a word (I am rather prone to hyperbole), but it does frustrate and aggravate me. Why?

My first reason is simple: conflict and I don’t get along. As you might remember from my family’s great Southwest misadventure, I don’t enjoy conflict. Whereas some people might drink it up like a Route 44 during Sonic’s “Happy Hour,” conflict is not my cup of tea.  (Fun fact: America’s first Sonic Drive-In is located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. There’s also another one less than a mile down the road. Too much of a good thing? I think not. 🙂 ). Hence, the pre-election season of inter- and intra-partisan conflict makes me want to hit the road rather than drink it in.

However, I understand that conflict can be healthy and, because everyone is wired differently, people aren’t going to agree on everything. In a free country, the ability to express our opinions without fear is one of our most precious rights. Peaceful discussion is a positive response to conflict. I’m not suggesting that politicians circle up, hold hands and lead our nation in a round of Kum-ba-yah, but I believe we can be a bit more civilized in our approach to politics. For instance, mud is nice. Mud is harmless. Mud belongs on the ground, where it can help pretty flowers grow. Mud does not need to be slung at other people; it’s all fun and games until someone loses a contact—or their reputation. When political debate degenerates into name-calling and opponent-bashing, its value depreciates, and my confidence in the candidates drops significantly. On the other hand, if candidates present well-reasoned points, seek to emphasize their own strengths, and don’t focus unnecessarily on their opponents’ weaknesses, I can take them more seriously.

Finally, I highly dislike the pre-election pandemonium because, to me, it highlights not our progress but our shortcomings. Please don’t get me wrong; I love my country. I am so blessed and thankful to live in a land of freedom, opportunity, and more blessings than I can even begin to enumerate or appreciate. However, for all our successes, we also fall incredibly, terribly, and decidedly short. Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, you can find flaws in our country’s system. Whether in foreign policy, moral issues, involvement or lack of involvement, the U.S. has disappointed you somehow and to some degree. This makes complete sense. Human beings aren’t perfect; therefore, anything we create or engage in will also be defective. It’s the nature of sin’s beast. In the face of this inevitable failure, it’s easy to become disenchanted and discouraged, resigned to the impossibility of change. I personally fall into this trap often, believing that simply because action is hard, inaction is better. But we aren’t called to give up. No! We need to get up! And do something. But what?

As a history major, I love to study the past and glean lessons from it. And fortunately for me (and by association, for you), this week at the Kanakuk Institute has been centered on exactly that. And conveniently, we have been examining the Kingdom of Israel and its leaders, a topic which relates perfectly this blog. (Gee, it’s almost like that was planned or something. Haha). So what have I learned that could apply to election season? I’m so glad you asked! Here goes…

1. Down is Up. Yes, I am directionally challenged, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean to say is this: Humility matters. If you truly want to be a leader, you must learn to serve. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). The Kingdom Era is full of people who exemplified true servant leadership, from prophet/judge Samuel doing whatever God told Him, to Jonathan passionately supporting his best friend David’s becoming king, even though he himself was the rightful heir. When selecting leaders, we should look for people with genuine humility, those who truly value others as more important than themselves. But more than that, we also should strive to be unselfish servants, whether or not we hold “leadership positions.” After all, Jesus is the King of the Universe (aka a REALLY big deal), and He chose to serve us. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then nothing will. This was His whole purpose, not to “be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). And He wants us to do the same.

2) Think Inside Out. If Abraham Lincoln were to run for president in 2012, would he be elected? Pretend that the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation never happened, so you have no history on which to base your decision. Would he win? And would you vote for him? Honestly, I think “Honest Abe” would lose. Why? Because of his looks—or lack thereof. Tall and gangly, Lincoln had an unimpressive, high-pitched voice; his eyelids drooped; his asymmetrical face sagged. In short, Lincoln was not a handsome, enchanting fellow. Based on that description, do you think he would have made it past the primary? Probably not, and one of our greatest presidents would have been lost to the ages. In a time of unbelievable technological advancement, when we can see anyone’s picture online instantly and—if we don’t like what we see, we can change it through makeup, Photoshop, or surgery—it can be so tempting to focus on appearances. Israel had the same problem; they wanted a king who would look good, be impressive, and compare to those of the surrounding nations. So God gave them Saul who fit their description and, to put it mildly, was an abject failure. In stark contrast, God chose Saul’s successor David based not on his Abercrombie-looks but on his heart. As 1 Samuel 16:7 clearly states, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” If we want leaders of solid character, then we would be wise to follow His example and look to the heart, because that’s what truly counts.

3) God’s Got It. This statement applies to countless facets of life, but here specifically, I mean that He has the whole political process in His hands. (Kind of catchy, eh? Sing with me: “He’s got the whole political process in His hands; He’s got the whole political process in His hands…” haha) I realize that this may seem a bit extreme or bold, so let me explain. God doesn’t necessarily meet voters in the booth and give them a vision, nor does He individually check every chad to ensure that none are left hanging, but His will is ALWAYS done. Because God is sovereign (fancy talk for “supreme” or “absolute”), He works through and cares about everything, including governments and elections. Nothing can happen outside His will, and His plans cannot be thwarted. As Daniel says, “[God] changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them.” (Daniel 2:21). So even when the result may not match up with your “plan,” remember that God is working out His, and that is infinitely (literally) more important.

As we head into the coming election season, I challenge every voter—including me—to take these lessons to heart. If we choose to elect leaders with character and humility, and if we trust God to take care of it, our country will be forever changed—for the better. And even if I still don’t like the pre-election season, this truth makes my every-four-years frustration a little more worthwhile. 🙂

Through the Eye of the Storm

Do you ever have those moments when something clicks? When all of a sudden, out of the blue, everything makes sense? Some people call it an “ah-ha moment.” Shakespeare liked the word “epiphany.”  But whatever you choose to call it, everyone has likely experienced it. And my most recent one happened while I was driving around Joplin, Missouri, two weeks ago.

But we’re not ready for that part of the story yet, so let’s back up a few steps. Don’t worry, though; we’ll come back to it.

First, we’ll rewind a few months to May 22nd around 5:30 p.m. While I was pulling in to the K-Seven parking lot to start my dream summer, the city of Joplin was slipping into its nightmare. With next-to-no warning, a massive tornado swept through the town, flattening most homes and businesses in its 6-mile path and leaving untold devastation and death in its wake. The EF-5 tornado was the 7th-deadliest in U.S. history and the 27th-deadliest in world history. 157 men, women, and kids lost their lives that day, while hundreds more lost everything except their lives. And for every single person in Joplin—and for many more beyond it—their lives will never be the same.

Now fast forward to the middle of July. My mom, sisters and I headed to Joplin for a day to help. After registering at with Americorps and arming ourselves with water bottles and work gloves, we boarded a school bus to take us to a project site. The Americorps headquarters was located on the campus of Missouri Southern State University on the northeast side of town, relatively removed from the tornado’s path, which made for an unforgettably sobering 15-minute bus ride to the worksite. As we drove through the town, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Piles of rubble. Trees stripped bare. Chimneys standing alone. Pain as far as the eye could see. The wreckage was beyond overwhelming. It would take months, no years to clear out all this debris, let alone rebuild again. How in the world would they ever finish?  As I slipped on my gloves, my heart broke for this town and its people. Would Joplin ever be fixed? I wanted to have hope, but with so much devastation, hope seemed foolish, if not impossible.

Fast forward again to two weeks ago. My Institute class went to Joplin to help. The staff at the Americorps Recovery Center (now in a building instead of the MSSU parking lot) assigned us to different sites, and I ended up with a group doing “various tasks.” (We affectionately nicknamed ourselves “VT.” Like Virginia Tech, but way cooler.) Our project was to put the finishing touches on a house that would become a “transition home” for families getting back on their feet. Thanks to the generosity of Grace Baptist Church, these families would be able to live there for free as they searched for jobs and housing. By the time we arrived, the project was almost completed and, with our help, the first family would be able to move in the next week.

Somehow, though, I didn’t work end up working on the house, at least, not at first. No, for some reason unbeknownst to me, I was designated as the “errand runner.” (At first, my duty only included trips to Lowe’s for wire snips and other supplies. However, later when I came back with the coffee requested by Howard, the head guy, I became known as “the intern.”) Anyway, to make a short story even longer, this is how I found myself driving around Joplin by myself. And it was here that my latest epiphany happened.

But we still aren’t quite ready for that yet, so keep being patient. It’s coming; I promise. You see, before I went on my wire-snips/coffee mission, I stopped by the church office for cash. When I stepped inside, I was amazed by what I saw. Now, I don’t know if you have a history with church offices, so here I should point out that they aren’t usually “amazing.” Usually, they consist of a couple desks, a few computers, a phone, some cheesy posters with Bible verses and baby ducks, and maybe a potted plant or two. Nothing to write home about (or to blog about), that’s for sure. But this church office was completely different, and these differences left me speechless. Instead of the baby-duck posters, the walls contained four dry-erase boards filled—literally filled—with numbers, names, and phone numbers, color-coded and organized into tidy little boxes. The wall space between the white boards was covered in huge sheets of paper, and these papers were packed with lines and numbers and itty-bitty colored boxes. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this pixilated panorama, but then it hit me: Joplin was being rebuilt, and the church staff was organizing it.

Still pondering what I had seen, I climbed in my Volvo and headed to Lowe’s. How could such a tiny church undertake such a project? And did they realize how long it would take them to finish? The task was enormous; there’s no way they could do it themselves. Didn’t they understand what they were up against?

Waiting in the left-turn lane for Range Line Road, I let my eyes wander to my surroundings. So much brokenness around me, and yet people hadn’t given up. As the overflowing Lowe’s parking lot indicated, they were rebuilding with a vengeance. And not just a vengeance. With hope.

That’s when it hit me. I finally understood. My mental light bulb clicked on, filling my mind and soul with light:

We are all Joplin.

We are all broken and ruined. Sin has turned each of us to rubble. We have been flattened; we have been discarded; we have been devastated. In an instant and without warning, our enemy destroyed everything we held dear. We are stripped to nothing. All that remains is a sorry, pathetic, eerie shadow of what we were created to be. No one understands our loss; no one can grasp our grief. No one even seems to care. We are hopeless.

And then comes Jesus.

When all is lost, He finds us. He rides in, strong and mighty to save. He pulls us out of the wreckage that traps us. He binds us up and dresses our wounds. He gives us rest and helps us heal. And then, once we are finally able to move again, He does what seemed impossible: He begins to rebuild.  Unswayed by the enormity of the task, He rolls up His sleeves and gets to work. Even though the progress seems slow if not imperceptible, even though the hours are long and backbreaking, He knows exactly what He is doing, and He is not giving up. Like the staff at Grace Baptist, He has a map with a grid. The Master is following His own Master Plan. And little by little, color-coded square by color-coded square, He puts us back together again. As Solomon so eloquently said, “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” including us. And one day, His work will be complete.

Then we’ll spend eternity’s worth of “ah-ha” moments praising Him for it.

 

Make Like a Tree and “Leave”

Autumn is—hands down, without a doubt, no question—my favorite time of the year.

Now that I would make such a judgment is rather significant in itself. For some reason, I have never been willing to “choose favorites” about this sort of thing. All my life, I’ve somehow felt bad about saying that I prefer one thing over another. For instance, it’s taken me years to decide that country music is my favorite genre. I’ll proudly tell you that the sunset is my favorite time of day. Now I will finally state that my favorite color is green, especially of the lime variety. It wasn’t until recently that I decided that “O Holy Night” is my favorite Christmas song. As a child, I think I convinced myself that it would be unkind to leave something out. However, rather than an irrational fear of hurting the feelings of inanimate objects or concepts, the real source of my non-favoriting (yes, I did just invent a new word. Call me “Shakespeare.” Haha) was actually indecision. Bizarre, but true.

Okay, so back to autumn. Note that I called it “autumn” rather than “fall.” I was chatting with my friend Fraser in Scotland awhile back, and he politely reprimanded me for saying “fall.” So, Fraser, it’s out of respect for you and your kinsmen across the pond that I say “autumn.” (But I still refuse to spell “realize” with an “s”. haha) 🙂

Okay, so why do I love autumn? Well, I’m so glad you asked! I have many reasons. Where to begin?

One wonderful reason to love autumn is the wardrobe change. Don’t get me wrong; I love my Nike shorts (aka “norts”) and t-shirts, and I enjoy wearing a sundress now and then, but I get very excited about my autumn clothes. When the weather becomes brisk enough that I need a cardigan or jacket, I could do a dance of joy (don’t worry, I will spare you the viewing dis-pleasure and refrain from doing one now). Call me simple, but I love donning a fresh, crisp pair of jeans and warm, cozy sweatshirt. Mmm, heavenly.

For all you sports fanatics out there, football is another fantastic reason to root for fall’s arrival. Autumn wouldn’t be complete without those Friday night lights or those “Boys of Fall,” as Kenny Chesney so poignantly sings. Whether you played this all-American sport or cheered from the stands, football likely holds a very special place in your heart. Whenever I watch a high-school football game, I can’t help but smile as I remember standing for the entire game, holding up my fingers to signal the arrival of the fourth quarter (and our impending victory), and waking up hoarse the next morning from yelling… except during my stint as mascot. Big fuzzy tigers don’t yell. Haha.

Although the majority of my readers probably won’t agree with this next reason for loving fall, I’m going to share it anyway: School begins. While the rest of the world mourns the end of summer, I always get a little giddy. Each school year is a fresh start, full of new things to learn and new experiences to have. As an unashamed nerd, I find autumn exciting and exhilarating, like inhaling the brisk October air.

But without a doubt, my favorite of all favorite parts about my favorite season (yes, I did just use “favorite” three times in one sentence—wait, now four times) is absolutely, positively, resolutely, undeniably, indefinitely, ecumenically, metaphysically, and presynaptically…

The leaves. 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, the sunset is my favorite time of day. For half an hour each evening, pinks and oranges and yellows swirl together to create a masterpiece on the sky’s canvas. As often as possible, I enjoy this ever-changing, ephemeral magnum opus, soaking it in one color at a time until it fades into the shadows of twilight. Unfortunately, sunsets are very transient, lasting only a few minutes. But autumn’s leaves last much longer, like a month of constant sunsets to brighten up my day.

However, like each sunset, autumn must come to an end. One by one, the beautiful leaves fade to brown and fall to the ground, soon to be raked into a pile and taken away. And here in this pile of wilted leaves—or rather, above this pile—is where we find our lesson: the tree.

Not long ago, the tree was beautiful, the center of attention. The tree had fulfillment, security, and joy in its leaves. The leaves completed the tree, and as a result, the tree was happy.

But then the time came for the tree to lose its leaves. So the tree obeyed, slowly surrendering its precious, once-vibrant but now brown leaves one by one to the expectant ground below. Soon, the tree was alone again, bare and leafless. But not without hope.

You see, the tree knows something vital: Spring will come. Even though the leaves are missed. Even though the winter will be cold and long. The spring will come, and new leaves along with it. And so, the tree lets go of the old, dying leaves in faith, knowing that the new, living leaves are coming, just around the seasonal corner.

I would be a terrible tree. Instead of letting go, I hold onto things with a white-knuckled grip for as long as I possibly can. Desperately, I cling to the past because I understand it; it seems safe. I know the past; it’s predictable and it isn’t going to change. I don’t want to let go of it; I’d rather hold onto it, even the painful parts because at least it’s something. I’m an oak tree, stubbornly gripping my ugly, crusty leaves for as long as I possibly can.

But that’s not how God wants me—or you—to live. On the contrary, He comes to give us life, and life abundantly. So often, though, we choose our brokenness and heartache instead because it’s familiar; it feels safe. But when we do that, we miss out on the joy He longs to give us. We miss the hope He died to bring. We miss the life and plan He has for us. And most importantly, we miss Him, our Savior.

But when we let go, when we finally surrender those bits of our pasts, those parts of ourselves, those things that are so afraid to give up, that’s when we find freedom and hope. That’s when the healing begins. And that is when our life really starts.

…Which I guess makes spring my second-favorite season. 😉

Follow Your Nose…

&%$@##&!!!!!

I’ve never been one to use expletives. Normally, I resort to humorous phrases like “holy cow!” or “sacred bovine!” Occasionally, I simply say “Expletive!” to get my point across. But this time, ohhhh, this time was almost an exception. Fortunately, the extreme nature of my pain—and my temporary inability to form coherent words–hindered me from breaking the third commandment. But it hurt like Hades. Who knew nasal surgery could cause so much pain?

Yeah, I’d gotten my wisdom teeth out a couple years before, and that kind of hurt. (Conveniently, my wisdom teeth surgery happened to be right after the release of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. My doting family tried to make me see it with them in theaters… not because they actually wanted to see it, but because they wanted to see people laugh at my chipmunk face! Thanks, guys; I love you too.) I’d even gotten a dry socket, and that was a bit unpleasant. And way back in fifth grade, I broke my left ankle… doing a cartwheel. Yes, that was a tad painful. But dry sockets and foot fractures had nothing—I repeat, nothing—on this.

Maybe I just have a low tolerance for pain; this could legitimately be the case. But before you write it off as my wimpiness, let me explain to you the surgery, and then you can judge for yourself. I was born with what is known as a “deviated septum,” which basically means that the inside of my nose was crooked. Specifically, my left nostril was completely blocked by a little piece of bone about halfway up. And this little piece of bone or “deviation” meant that I could never fully breathe through the left side of my nose. In addition to frequent nosebleeds and really bad morning breath, this also translated into a permanent sinus infection. Starting at about three years old, I had sinus infections pretty much all the time. By my surgery, I had taken almost every type of antibiotic, used just about every nasal spray, and had gone through hundreds of boxes of Kleenex and Puffs Plus.

Here I should note that my nose also left emotional scars. All during grade school and high school, I was notorious for my vociferous nose-blowing. In sixth grade, my classmates started calling me “the honker” and eventually kids started plugging their ears when they spotted me heading to the tissues. One fateful English class my senior year, the nasal pressure was especially unbearable. I’d reached the point that I couldn’t even concentrate on my Hamlet essay because it was so debilitating. To breathe or not to breathe? That was the question. The answer was obvious, so I reluctantly sidled up to Mrs. Eagleton’s desk, where I grabbed a wad of tissues. Then I had a brilliant idea! The classroom was in a mobile building, so I could step outside—actually outside—to blow my nose! Quietly I tiptoed out the door, making sure it didn’t slam behind me, and then I blew and blew and BLEW as hard as I possibly could. Oh, the liberty! Oh, the joy! Oh the sweet Kansas air filling my nasal passages! I could breathe! I could breathe! But then… I went back into the classroom where everyone burst into a collective fit of laughter. Apparently the walls of the mobile weren’t as thick as I’d thought. Oops. :/

Having said all that, when the time for my surgery finally rolled around, I was more than ready. Finally, I would be able to blow my nose at a non earth-shattering decibel. Finally, I would be done with antibiotics. Finally, I would be able to actually breathe. As they inserted the tranquilizing IV and I drifted off into the medicinally-induced abyss, I could not have been more excited. My time had come.

What I didn’t count on, however, was the pain that would inevitably accompany it. And boy, did the pain keep me company. That first week and a half after the surgery was awful and the pain was borderline unbearable. I felt like my nose was about to implode, and all I wanted to do was blow it, but I couldn’t. I hurt, I looked terrible, and when I wasn’t laboriously sucking in oxygen through my mouth, I was wishing my nose would cease to exist. Needless to say, it was not among my top five favorite life experiences thus far.

However, looking back on it a year and a half later, I have a rather different perspective. Now I only buy two boxes of tissues per semester instead of two dozen. Now my breath smells (and tastes) significantly less atrocious every morning. Now I only need a single digit of Z-Packs per year. And now, most importantly, I can actually breathe through my nose. Whenever I think about it, I inhale and smile, every breath a reminder of my own personal nasal miracle.

So why do I share this story with you? Do I actually think you want to hear the medical history of my olfactory system? No, not at all. But I think that my nasal passages hold a very important lesson (in addition to their trace amounts of mucous. Haha). And what is this lesson? I’m so glad you asked.

Sometimes the greatest gain is born of our hardest pain.

This lesson holds true in more instances than just my nasal surgery. The most beautiful rainbows come after the heaviest storms; the most fragrant roses bloom on the thorniest stems, and we grow the most during times of difficulty and pain. Just like my doctor planned the surgery for the perfect time when my body was ready, God’s timing is also perfect.  And He doesn’t abandon us, but rather stays right by our side, making sure everything works out as He intended. Though He brings grief, He also shows compassion; so great is His unfailing love. He doesn’t abandon us; rather, with skillful, loving hands, He removes our spiritual “deviations,” strips away everything that hinders us, and removes all that holds us back from Him. Then He carefully, lovingly, tenderly binds up our wounds and waits patiently for us to wake up. Even then when we feel like hurling expletives at Him, even when we angrily ask Him, “Why me?!” He never lets us go; He never forsakes us. And some day, eventually, our pain fades away, and we can finally see what He was doing all along.

Because He always, always “nose” best. 😉