(No) Going Solo

DCIM100GOPRO
Sushi Party! 🙂

I am a hopeless extrovert.

When I was younger and less self-aware, I tried my best to be introverted. I checked out dozens of library books at a time, so I could spend countless alone hours reading them… but even then my sisters and I would end up reading together or (worse) pretending we were make-believe librarians and patrons. After sixth grade, I got permission to take my Latin textbook home over the summer, so I could study grammar on my own. I used it twice, preferring to spend my days at the pool with my sisters instead. I even attempted to have an imaginary friend—I mean, how much more introverted can you get than that?—but it didn’t work. I got so bored. So I gave up and returned to real people. After all, they are much more exciting.

Despite these childhood attempts at denial, I think I’ve always known that I’m extroverted. Even in my early teens, I showed definite signs of needing to be with people. During one summer when I felt particularly lonely (none of my school friends lived nearby, and there were very few kids on my block), I habitually rode my bike around the neighborhood, just hoping that a new friend would magically appear. Pathetic, I know. Fortunately, though, for my sanity (and for my non-creeper status) I did make a new friend that summer. Courtney and I met at the swimming pool, and I spent the rest of the break hanging out with her and her 7 siblings. Talk about an extroverted dream-come-true.

But in case I wasn’t absolutely sure about my extroversion, I got an undeniable confirmation when I started grad school. During fall break of my first year, my roommates left town, which meant that I had the entire weekend to work uninterrupted on a term paper. Although I did no strenuous physical activity, got a decent amount of sleep, and drank plenty of way too much coffee, by the end of day three I was completely exhausted to the point that I could barely keep my eyes open. Somehow, though, I managed to muster up the energy to meet a couple friends for dinner. And then, like magic, within just a few minutes of hanging out, my body and brain had come back to life. This wilted extroverted flower had been revived, thanks to the water and sunshine of human interaction.

As I’ve gotten older and periodically put down more roots, my simple extroverted need for people has shifted and perhaps even matured. While I still enjoy small talk, I now crave deeper conversations and the community that often accompanies it. In the last several years, I have come to appreciate and long for this type of community more and more, and God has consistently provided it, at the Kanakuk Institute, in Atlanta, and now this year in Germany. He has continually brought wonderful people into my life—not just to quench my extroversion, but to encourage me and challenge me and help me to grow in my faith. Saying goodbye to these friends was the hardest part about leaving Atlanta, and again it was the most challenging thing about temporarily leaving Berlin this spring. I’m a quintessential people person who also needs community. And as I headed out for two months of research in Poland, I couldn’t help feeling rather discouraged and alone.

Yes, I knew that God was going with me. And yes, I knew I would still be able to talk with my family and friends at home and abroad. But the prospect of spending the summer by myself in Poland wasn’t exactly appealing. Don’t get me wrong; I love Poland. But apart from a few people in Krakow, I didn’t actually know anyone here. And since I’d only stay in each city for a few weeks at most, I didn’t foresee myself making any friends, let alone finding any real community.

But as you’ve probably figured out, God has a way of providing for our needs—and going above and beyond in the process. On my first Sunday in Wrocław, I visited an international church. By the time I returned home that afternoon, I’d already been prayed for, received a half dozen hugs, gotten at least that many phone numbers, and had been invited to Bible Study that Tuesday night. Later that week, I left my Airbnb studio apartment and moved in with a Polish girl from the church. Over the next four weeks, I went out to dinner and ice cream, attended a percussion recital/concert, watched Finding Dory (in Polish!), and ate a whole bunch of homemade sushi and chips and salsa (not together) while watching the Polish Eurocup soccer game. When I left Wroclaw this past Sunday, I was sad but also overwhelmingly grateful. I had come to Wroclaw feeling empty and spent, and I left completely refilled.

And as much as my inner-extrovert is happy, I don’t think my current joy stems from simply being around people. After all, one of the world’s loneliest places is in the middle of a crowd; encounters with people are not automatically life-giving. No, my heart is full because God used His people at the church in Wroclaw to minister to me. He used them to listen to me, to laugh with me, to pray with me, and to give me lots of hugs. And in the process, He reminded me that we weren’t made to go it alone. In the Christian family, there can be no “Lone Rangers” or “Hans Solos”. For although God can and does encourage us individually, He often most clearly channels His love to us through other believers. That’s one of the reasons why in His almost-last words to His disciples, Jesus instructed them to love one another, because through this the world would know they are His people.

And that is exactly what I experienced in Wroclaw: God used His people to encourage my soul. And even though I was physically present with the Wroclaw community for just a few weeks, I will never forget their hospitality and kindness. And I really will thank God every time I remember them–both for their encouragement and for reminding me so tangibly of the value of community.

Alright, that’s enough blogging for today. I need some human interaction. Anyone up for a quick phone call? 😉

Catching Sunsets

Kansas Sunset :)
Kansas Sunset 🙂

98% of the time, I love living in Georgia. Autumn lasts for months, and is absolutely gorgeous. Spring is beautiful, and all the plants are covered with pink flowers (a color which I don’t claim to love, but apparently I do: my backpack, water bottle, and cell phone cover are all pink. When I wear my one pair of pink pants, I become hopelessly monochromatic. So much for my “professional” image.) Winter is quite mild… although the very mention of “snow” can shut the city down, as this past January and February proved. (I heard there were 800 car accidents, 2000 abandoned vehicles, and at least one baby born on the highway. We even got featured on SNL’s Weekend Update. Welcome to the South.) And in my last two years here, I’ve found the people to be incredibly friendly. It would seem that the phrase “Southern hospitality” exists for a reason.

That being said, Georgia has a few quirks that, although I’m learning to tolerate, I don’t particularly love.

  • The traffic. It’s awful. Atlanta has the worst traffic of any city I’ve ever seen. Depending on what time you leave, a drive across town could take you 15 minutes or days. Okay, more like an hour and a half. But that’s still a really, really long time. On the upshot, though, living here has made me significantly more punctual. If I want to be even remotely close to “on time”, I need to build in a 20- or 30-minute buffer for Atlanta’s roadways. And public transit isn’t much better: while there are a few trains through town, most of the city is only accessible by bus. And buses, as you know, must drive on roads… where there is traffic.
  • The humidity. Sometimes it’s so bad that, after going for a run, I look like I’ve been swimming. I gave up straightening my hair because by the time I walk the half-mile to the bus stop, it’s already wavy again. And although summer is obviously the worst season for humidity, it lasts all year long. So even though the winter temperature only gets down to, say, 35 or 40 degrees, the moisture in the air makes it feel significantly colder. Forget “wind chill”; Atlanta has a “humidity chill.” Brrrr!
  • The lack of sky, or rather, the inability to see it. In case you’ve never been to Georgia, it’s basically like living in a jungle with pine trees. They are HUGE!!! I’m not kidding. Most of them are between 90 and 110 feet tall! And while that’s great if you’re looking for shade to escape from the humidity-filled heat, it’s less awesome if want to see the sky. And as a Kansas girl, I really, really like to see the sky. Aside from the traffic, that was my biggest adjustment when I moved to Atlanta: from having tons of wide open space above me to experiencing tree-induced claustrophobia.

The worst part about this isn’t the phobia, though. It’s missing the sunsets. You see, I’m a sucker for sunsets. If I had to make a list of my ten favorite things, sunsets would be toward, if not at, the very top. When I was an undergrad at Oklahoma State, sometimes I would drive to the end of a street that faced west (and, incidentally, intersected with a road called “Western”) just to watch the sun go down. I call this “catching sunsets.” When I worked at Kanakuk Kamps, I would occasionally sneak away to the top of a waterslide, so I could watch the sun go down over Table Rock Lake. When I visited Kamp this summer, I went down to the waterfront and caught one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen.

K-Seven Sunset :)
K-Seven Sunset 🙂

But alas, since moving to Georgia, I’ve only caught a handful of noteworthy sunsets, and these were mainly when I was weaving my way through traffic on the highway—not exactly an ideal place to stop and enjoy them. Bummer. There has been one exception, though. And if you keep reading, I’ll tell you about it.

Last Wednesday, I was driving to my weekly Bible study meeting. The day, like most of them lately, had been pretty rough. I’d spent another nine hours cooped up in the library, reading for my comprehensive (ie awful) exams in November. And as usual lately, I was in a rather terrible mood. Studying all day can have that effect. Anyway, as I was driving along, I happened to look up at the sky, and the top of an obnoxiously tall pine tree caught my eye. It was glowing—truly glowing—an incandescent shade of orange and yellow. “Hmm,” I thought, “that’s pretty. The trees don’t normally glow like that.” I kept driving, winding my way around the traffic, down a hill, and through a neighborhood, until I emerged at the roundabout right by campus. And that’s when I saw it—one of the most stunning, vibrant, and gorgeous sunsets of my life. If I hadn’t been driving, I would have stared at it for a really long time, or at least taken a picture. But even that brief, few-seconds glimpse was enough to leave a huge impression. It was absolutely spectacular.

After exiting the roundabout a few moments later, I caught a glimpse of another glowing-topped tree and a thought popped into my mind: the sunsets are always there. Even the trees are obscuring my view and I can’t see them, they are still there. And that’s when it hit me: God’s love is like the sunsets.

My life has a lot of trees right now: the 400+ books I need to know for my exams (let alone the pressure of passing those tests!), grants to apply for, papers to write, and so many things to do. And in the midst of the pressures of being a grad student, it’s easy to get worn out and discouraged. When life is difficult and demands are high, it’s easy to lose sight of God and His goodness, just like when trees block out the sunsets. It’s in times like these that I need to trust that He is with me, that His love is constant, and His grace is sufficient. This can be really challenging, especially when my sunset-glimpses seem so few and far between. But I suppose that this is point of faith: believing even when—especially when—we cannot see.

I’m thankful for my glimpse the other day, and I’m praying that God would give me grace to keep going. And that He would remind me to look up to Him, so I can catch, rather than miss, His sunsets.

Georgia Sunset
Georgia Sunset

All the Small Things

Holding one of the "small things." Isn't he cute?!
Holding one of the “small things.” Isn’t he cute?!

I’ve always liked small things.

Especially animals. I even have a title to go with it. During my tenure as a “Fearless Leader” (aka coordinator) for Junior Greek Life at OSU, I was dubbed “The Fearless Leader of All Things Cute and Fluffy.” I’d like to say that this obsession with small furry animals has changed since I became a serious and mature graduate student, but it hasn’t. I still “ooo” and “ahh” over baby bunnies, and I might have taken 50+ photos of the chipmunk that lived behind my house last year. And every time I’m home over break, holding guinea pigs at the pet store with my family is a highlight.

Small children aren’t bad either. Granted, I’m not as much of a natural with them as my sister Rascal (Kids that don’t even know her will flock to her. She’s like a magnet. Seriously.), but I get a kick out of watching little kids. Just last week I was helping out in the nursery during my church’s Ash Wednesday service when I met one of the funniest kids. Sweet little Ella Mae sat on the floor for the entire hour and a half and did absolutely nothing. Didn’t move. Didn’t smile. I don’t think she even blinked. And no matter how hard I tried to make her smile, laugh, or simply change facial expressions, she wouldn’t. The girl was stoic, and it was impressive. But when her mom came to pick her up—BAM!—she snapped out of her trance and became an energetic, animated, and normal little kid. Talk about hilarious…. and more than a little bizarre.

Small countries are also cool. During my semester abroad, I was able to spend a few days in Slovenia. For those of you who aren’t experts on European geography, Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia and is wedged between Austria, Italy, and Croatia. It’s also itty-bitty. With an area of only 7,827 square miles, the entire country could fit into New Jersey with room to spare. And yet despite being tiny, Slovenia was easily the most beautiful and memorable country I visited. Filled with caves, castles built into mountains, turquoise rivers, and—my personal favorite—a bright blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, trees, and white sand (see below), Slovenia is the best kept secret in Central and Eastern Europe. To quote their cheesy (but genius) tourist slogan: I definitely feel sLOVEnia. 😉

Bohinj, Slovenia.
Bohinj, Slovenia.

But as much as I enjoy small things, my love for the miniature has its limits. Why?

Because I don’t like feeling small.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I am small. And let’s face it; we all are. Sure, we might be able to ignore our relative insignificance most of the time, but when it comes down to it, we’re all tiny in the grand scheme of things. According to the World Bank, there are 7.046 billion people in the world today. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that 108 billion people have lived on the Earth since its beginning.

To put this in perspective, take a look out the window next time you’re in an airplane. See all those buildings and streets below you? They are all filled—literally filled—with people. And that goes for the buildings and streets in all the other cities you’re flying over. That’s a whole lot of people.

aerial view

Maybe you’re like my mom and flying isn’t your thing. Instead, take a drive to your local grocery store or, better yet, Walmart. See all those products on the shelf? And all the produce by the entrance? Or the B-rate movies in the $5 bin? Each thing you see represents entire teams of people working behind the scenes, coming up with the product, writing the cheesy description, determining the nutrition facts, designing that eye-catching label, physically making it, and then delivering it to that exact spot on the shelf where you are currently staring at it. If that’s not overwhelming, then I don’t know what is.

Now to be entirely honest, I prefer not to think about my own smallness. If I had my way, I would be the center of my own miniature universe where I can feel valuable and purposeful and relatively big.

But what if that’s missing the point? What if God actually wants me—you, us—to feel small?

This week, my pastor preached about Moses and his encounter with the burning bush. When God tells Moses to free the Israelites from slavery, Moses responds by asking, “Who am I?” He’s a screw-up, a mess-up, a failure, an insignificant little guy—and he knows it. But rather than boosting Moses’ self-esteem with empty praise, God simply replies, “Certainly I will be with you.” And that will be enough. Essentially, God is saying, “You feel small because you are small. But I AM big. And that’s what matters.” His message to Moses is also meant for us. The question is do we choose to believe it?

You see, yes, we are small. Yes, in the great expanse of time, our lives are very short. Yes, there are 7.046 billion people in the world, and we each represent only one of them. But—and here’s the kicker—we serve an infinitely big God. And by His grace, we matter. He uses us tiny people to reveal His immeasurable glory. His power is perfected in our weakness. And in His hands our lives take on far greater purpose, meaning, and significance than we could have ever dreamed or created on our own. When we follow Him, we small people can make a big–and eternal–impact.

So whenever you feel insignificant or like your life doesn’t matter, remember this: God has a special heart for all the small things—including you and me. 🙂

I FEEL sLOVEnia 418