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.

Free “Fall”-ing

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I love autumn.

Yes, I know that today is December 1st. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and Christmas trees are already bedecked with lights and ornaments. Starbucks has transitioned out of its “Pumpkin Spice everything” phase and is now advertising its winter drink menu. Radio stations have their holiday playlists (which I swear only contain 17 songs max) playing on repeat. And everyone is bustling about trying to stock up on some more holiday cheer.

But here in Atlanta, where summer reigns supreme and winter only comes once every few years, autumn isn’t quite ready to let go. The trees, though slightly less full, still boast a fair number of persistently colorful leaves. Although we reached the low fifties last week, the temperatures continue to hang out in the upper-60s range. And yesterday, as if in a deliberate attempt to stick it to winter, the weather forecast included a tornado warning. Don’t let the lights and décor fool you; Atlanta does not yet feel or look a lot like Christmas.

But honestly, I’m okay with that. Partially because I know that in a few weeks I will return to the Midwest—the real land of tornadoes—where I will get to break out my winter coat and fluffy scarves. And partially because I don’t think I’m quite ready to let go of fall. You see, I’ve always loved fall. For as long as I can remember, it’s been my favorite season. I love all the leaves and how they turn colors, especially on maple trees. I’m a sucker for flannel shirts and bonfire s’mores. And I can think of few things more satisfying than that first Saturday morning when the air is finally crisp enough for a hoodie and my favorite pair of jeans.

Last year, I didn’t get to experience much of a fall. In Berlin, the seasons change almost overnight from summer to winter, with barely a breath in between. The leaves had barely turned and then they were gone, replaced by 6+ months of colorless winter. It was miserable.

Maybe that’s why this year, like the dry brown leaves of an oak tree, I find myself clinging to fall, as if this would help it last longer. Or maybe I’m not ready for fall to end because I’m simply not ready for another transition. Maybe this year, perhaps more than all other years, I find myself identifying with fall, that perpetually in-between season, more acutely than ever before.

The last year and a half, and especially the last two months, have been filled to the brim with transitions. I’ve hopped from city to city, continent to continent, and now state to state with barely a moment to catch my breath. While that time has been good and I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything, it’s also been difficult. Apart from the obvious things, like missing my friends, Berlin, and European public transit, I also feel homesick in a way that I can’t quite pinpoint or articulate. Everything feels so transitory, as if I’m stuck in a place I can’t fully identify, lost somewhere in between. And to make things worse, even as I am reunited with family and friends, I find myself missing them too, or missing that sense of home that I once felt with them. And all that to say that, in this moment, I’m not quite sure where I belong anymore; all I know is that, like fall, I am stuck somewhere in-between.

And even in this feeble attempt to put my thoughts on paper, I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of displacement is somehow at the core of the human experience. If perhaps this sense of loneliness, this deep but elusive feeling of homesickness isn’t part of what makes us alive. After all, if we didn’t feel an emptiness inside of us, we wouldn’t turn to other people to fill it. If we didn’t desire something greater than ourselves, we would never seek after God. Maybe seasons of transition, with all their unsettling and reshuffling, are actually a backwards sort of gift, a “severe mercy”, a blessing in disguise. Not only do such times remind us that “this world is not our home”, but they can also stir up a longing for the One who is constant. Like a child asleep in its mother’s lap, we can find refuge in His unchanging and everlasting arms.

That’s what I’m trying to remember right now, in these moments when all these transitions and uncertainties leave me feeling lonely or sad. I knew this was coming—in fact, my very first blog post here dealt with reverse culture shock—and I know this too shall pass. So in the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to do the next thing, embracing all the emotions that come with it, and turning to the God who has been with me all along. And to my fellow homesick transitioners, keep hanging in there and don’t lose heart. Autumn may be over, but winter won’t last forever, and spring will come again. It’s okay to grieve the fallen leaves, but don’t forget that new ones will be here soon.

… and if all other mood-boosting attempts fail, at least Starbucks still has their Pumpkin Spice Lattes. 😉

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Photographed on November 30th. Autumn in Atlanta really does last forever. 

(Extra) Ordinary

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From the outside, it may seem like my life is anything but ordinary. I’m a grad student which means I’m (perpetually?) stuck in limbo between college and “real” adult life. I study history, which means that even when I do graduate and get a “real” job, it probably won’t be a “normal” one in the 9-to-5 sense. And because I study German history, I am spending a year in Berlin doing the research for my dissertation. And if all of that weren’t strange enough, we’ll just toss in the fact that I’ve been in Kraków the last three summers (trying) to learn Polish.

Even as I write down this mini resume of sorts, I find myself thinking that my life sounds pretty awesome and, oddly enough, if I weren’t the one living it, I’d probably be envious. And while I am enjoying it, and I am grateful for it, I can’t help but be struck by the sense of cognitive dissonance: that while my life and especially my current situation seem amazing on paper—or, perhaps more accurately, on social media—my life is actually quite ordinary, unexciting, and, well, normal.

You see, even though I’m living in Berlin, I’m not really a tourist. Yes, when friends come to visit, I show them around the city, take them on tours, and treat them to currywurst. And when certain really cool things happen—like attending the celebration for the 25th anniversary of German reunification—I’ll even post a picture on Facebook about it. But the reality is that I’m here to study and to work, which kind of makes Berlin an extension of my library office in Atlanta. Yes, it’s a much more exciting “office”, with museums and history and very tattooed and interesting people, but in many ways it’s still an office because I’m here to do my work.

Now don’t get me wrong; I am making time to fun things. I bought a year-long museum pass (which is fun for nerds, I promise!), I’ll be going to Karneval in Cologne (think Halloween costume party on steroids), and in a week I’ll be showing my best friend all around the city (I literally can’t wait!). But as awesome as these things are, they are more the exception than the rule, at least in how my time pans out. Most of my day is spent working in an archive, at my kitchen table or (less successfully) in the library. In the evenings, I may run, go grocery shopping, do laundry, catch up with friends, maybe watch TV and then go to bed. At 8 a.m., I wake up and start the process all over again, and the same continues until the weekend rolls around.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while I’m living in a really cool city with a fascinating history and a happening cultural scene, I’m still living here. And living includes a lot of really boring, ordinary, mundane things—things that don’t make the fancy Instagram-able cut. And in the midst of this ordinary-ness and my growing awareness of it, I’m starting to realize this: if life even in the most exciting places consists of a lot of unexciting things, then what we do with the ordinary must matter.

As I’ve been processing through this (often while doing boring things, like the dishes), I keep coming back to these words of Oswald Chambers: “Jesus Christ will not help me to obey Him, I must obey Him; and when I do obey Him, I fulfill my spiritual destiny. My personal life may be crowded with small petty incidents, altogether unnoticeable and mean; but if I obey Jesus Christ in the haphazard circumstances, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands and thousands were blessed […] If I obey Jesus Christ, the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God.”

Now, there’s a lot going on in this paragraph, and I don’t know if I fully grasp it all. But after a few days of ruminating on these hundred-year-old words, I’m starting to see that the ordinary things that make up most of our lives really do matter. Boring, insignificant, and silly as they may seem at the time, they do have a purpose. And somehow, by being faithful in them, we grow closer to and become more like God. No, I don’t understand exactly how my dishwashing, toilet scrubbing, room cleaning, and grocery shopping come to have eternal significance–or even what that eternal significance that might be. But I can still attest to the fact, that somehow in some way, when we learn to commit even the most ordinary activities to the Lord, we encounter Him in them. And through His presence, a sort of spiritual alchemy takes place, and the once-ordinary things somehow become holy, set apart, and even beautiful.

I don’t understand it, I can’t explain it, and right now I can’t even think of Bible verses to specifically back it up. And yet all the same, I’m finding it to be true. And I’m finding that having this perspective can make even the most ordinary things seem (pardon the terrible pun) a little bit extraordinary.

Berliner Blues

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When I started this blog a loooooooooong time ago (in “internet years”, 4.5 years is an eternity), I planned to post here often. Although I started out strong, life got busy, and after a few months I faded off. I had a new burst of energy in 2014 and made a New Year’s resolution to write once a week. However, this soon became “twice a month” and then faded into “almost never” once the semester got crazy.

Sometimes, like when the school year is in full swing and crunch-time is upon me, I simply don’t have the time and/or mental energy to write. This was the case during my first semester of grad school and then during my initial summer learning Polish. It turns out that learning to decipher academic texts and (impossible) Slavic languages can be equally exhausting. During other times of infrequent posting, I simply haven’t had consistent access to the Internet or a computer. My summers working at Kanakuk are the best example of this.

But there are other times when my lack of posting isn’t due to my lack of internet connection or energy. Sometimes, I simply have trouble figuring out what to say. Paradoxical though it may sound, in these moments I feel as if I have both too much and too little going on in my mind. It’s in times like these that I go into “avoidance mode”, looking for every possible excuse to avoid opening up a blank document on my computer screen. For instance, tonight (note: I wrote this post last Friday) I ran 6 miles, skyped with friends, cleaned my room, washed all my laundry, and even baked* a cake (*not from scratch). As I was finishing up all the things, I then tried to find something else to do next. And though I was this close to curling up with an episode of Sherlock (news flash: I finally got Netflix!), I wandered back to the kitchen table and began writing the words you are reading now.

You see, most of the time when sit down to write a blog entry, I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m headed. I’ll already have chosen a funny anecdote for the beginning, and I know basically which point I’d like to make. Which is another reason I was avoiding writing this tonight: I have no idea where this is going and, as you probably noticed, this post isn’t particularly funny. But I sometimes life is like that, and so tonight I guess I’ll just share with you what’s on my mind.

Honestly, the last few weeks have been kind of hard. In theory, everything should be great. After all, I’m a single adult living in Berlin, I can travel around Europe whenever I want, and I have easy access to some of the best culture, museums—and chocolate—in the world. And in that sense, I suppose that I am “living the dream.” But just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I miss my family and friends, I miss my church, and I miss my life back home. Yes, technology is awesome, and I am so grateful for What’s App, Facebook, Skype, email, FaceTime, iMessage, etc., but coordinating around time differences can be tricky, and my friends and family have their own busy lives. And, let’s be real, even with all the above resources and apps, they still haven’t invented a way to receive trans-Atlantic hugs.

Here I should pause and say that I’ve met some wonderful people here in Berlin. God was so good to lead me to an amazing church my first Sunday (the pastor’s wife is even from Nebraska! #Midwest), I’ve joined a small group, and I’m starting to make some friends. But friendships, by nature, take time to deepen. And though I am doing my best to be patient, a huge part of me misses having people who really know me. I’ve moved enough times to know this will eventually happen, but in this moment, I can’t help craving that feeling of being mutually known and loved.

Berlin is an amazing city, and I’m really thankful that my main archive just happened to be located here. (How different a research year I’d be having if I were stuck in the middle of nowhere!) This is a perfect place to be studying German history, the museums are incredible, and there are more cultural and academic events and opportunities than I could possibly ever take advantage of. But Berlin is also very big—very, very big. Especially compared with itty-bitty Krakow or university-town Graz, Berlin is gigantic. And while I’m starting to figure out how to efficiently navigate the S- and U-Bahn and I’m finally biking places without getting (quite so) hopelessly lost, Berlin still feels massive. And it should; after all, 3.6 million people live here. And as a result, it’s easy to feel very, very small and very, very insignificant.

So there you go. It’s a Friday night in the party capital of Europe, and I’m sitting at home blogging about how I feel homesick, lonely, and insignificant. Lame though I know it is, this is just where I am right now. So, other than Netflixing my cares away, what am I supposed to do? And how should I respond when the dream I’m living also comes with some less-than-stellar feelings?

I don’t have any perfect answers. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this rather pathetic blog entry.) But in the midst of my less-than-awesome mood—which is not in any way helped by Berlin’s perpetually gray sky—I have found comfort in these two verses. Genesis 16:13, “You are a God who sees’,” and Psalm 139, “You have searched me and known me… If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” All of these things that feel so absent right now, God promises to provide: He is the Friend who never fails (and is never 6 or 7 time zones away), He knows me completely and loves me wholly, and He fills each day of my life with value, worth, and significance.

I know that my homesickness will eventually pass, that I’ll develop deeper friendships here, and that I’ll start to feel more connected and at home in this place. Someday, hopefully not too far down the line, Berlin will join my growing list of “homes away from home.” But right now, in this moment and on this Friday night, I’m not there yet, and things still feel rather crummy. And while I don’t feel okay, I guess God wants me to trust that everything will still be okay. And maybe He wants this to be an opportunity to grow my faith, to believe that His words are true and to trust that He is caring for me even now.

Alright, that’s enough writing for tonight. Maybe it is actually time for Netflix. Sherlock, anyone? 🙂