27 :)

Well, friends, here we are yet again at the 27th of January. Although this day is likely just another Wednesday for you, it happens to be quite significant for me. “Why?” you ask. I’ll give you a hint: it begins with a “birth” and ends with a “day.” That’s right! Today is my birthday! And in keeping with my annual birthday tradition, it’s also the day when I post an entry reflecting on the lessons and experiences of the previous year. Since this year I am turning 27 (yes, it’s my Golden Birthday!), I will share with you 27 lessons from last year. Here they are, in no particular order* (*except for the final one). Buckle up and enjoy.

  1. Students (and archivists) can be bribed with cookies. If you don’t have cookies, chocolate is also effective.
  2. I actually like Brussel sprouts.
  3. If you get upgraded to Premium Economy on an international flight, try not to spill the free wine all over yourself right after takeoff. Or you will smell like an alcoholic for the remaining 9 hours of the flight.
  4. Kill the first ant you see in your kitchen. If you let it live, you will regret it. 
  5. I don’t have to be intimidated by German grocery store dairy sections. TBD on whether I can overcome my fear of weird sliced German meats.
  6. Although I love teaching, I really, really, really don’t enjoy grading.
  7. If you turn the key twice while locking a Polish apartment door, it cannot be opened from the inside.
  8. I (still) have the best advisor.
  9. Double check the name on your boarding pass before getting in line at the gate, or you might be stuck in Heathrow for an extra 4 hours.
  10. If you register for a German bank account, don’t lose your officially assigned PIN number.
  11. When you’re having a bad day or things aren’t going well, be honest about your feelings, rather than pretending that everything is perfect.
  12. On a first date (especially one to a super fancy restaurant), go to the restroom after dinner. Even if you don’t need to use the facilities, this will provide a invaluable opportunity to check your teeth. Because the last thing you want is to look in the mirror at home 3 hours later and see that, yes, that piece of spinach is still there.
  13. There are few problems in life that waffle fries with Chick-Fil-A sauce can’t fix.
  14. You can make free phone calls to the US via Gmail without having a Google Voice number.
  15. Never go to Primark (or any equally popular European clothing store) on a Saturday.
  16. Essential prescription medications will inevitably get stuck for 6 weeks in Polish customs.
  17. Being a bridesmaid is a blast—and being a bridesmaid twice is even better!
  18. Airlines using the metric system are more forgiving with overweight luggage than those using the U.S. system. (ie, 1 kilo is less egregious than 2.2 pounds).
  19. Memes make everything better.
  20. If you’re planning to run 20 miles or more, don’t trust the weather forecast. Because chances are, if the forecast says “sunny”, you’ll get caught in a downpour. And if the forecast says “rain”, you’re going to get sunburned.
  21. I will likely never understand Polish numbers.
  22. The world is very, very small.
  23. If you decide to go to dinner with your roommate, remember that you are in public and not at home. Otherwise, you both might burst into made-up songs at highly inopportune moments.
  24. Call the Midwife is hopelessly addicting.
  25. Some random Facebook messages are worth replying to.
  26. Expat Thanksgivings aren’t so bad after all, especially when your best friend joins you for them.

One of the benefits of writing this blog post annually is, well, knowing in advance that I am going to write it. This means that I have ample time to reflect on the “big lesson” of the year. As I looked back on this 26th year of my life, I recognized that it was an important one, and I did a lot of significant things: taught my own class, ran my first marathon, wrote and defended my dissertation prospectus, moved home from Atlanta, learned to read old German handwriting, took 6 weeks of Polish, and moved to Berlin. It’s been a whirlwind–a very busy whirlwind. Yes, I’ve been around the world and back, and that’s pretty cool. But what makes the last year so special isn’t the “special” things I’ve done, but the fact that I have shared them with people who are special to me. And so, here is my 27th (or rather #1) lesson for this year:

Friendship makes life so much richer. 

While I was in Austria, I discovered that adventures are best shared. And though I still hold that to be true, my understanding of “adventure” has shifted. You see, I now understand that it’s not the extraordinary experiences in themselves that matter, but it’s the chance to do life alongside people you care about. Because even when those people are scattered across the globe–when they’re miles, time zones, and continents away–they still stay close to your heart. For my grad school peeps and my Atlanta church family, for my long-time kamp friends and my brand-new Berlin friends, and for all the other people I love both at home and abroad, I am grateful. Thanks to these friendships, my life is rich and my heart is full. And I know that I am one of the luckiest birthday girls in the whole wide world, because I have so many people whom I dearly love.

And so, my friends, as I celebrate my 27th birthday, I also want to take a moment to thank you for making this last year and the 26 leading up to it so wonderful. Thank you for bringing me joy, for enriching my life, and for reminding me that I am loved, even from afar. Without you, this “Golden Birthday” of mine would be a tarnished silver at best. 😉

Note: I’ve only included pictures from the last year. If you aren’t shown here, please know that it’s due to a lack of space, rather than a lack of love!

 

Kodak Moments

It’s safe to say that I have a picture-taking problem.

It started way back in 7th grade, when I got my first digital camera for Christmas. Complete with a super cool translucent purple case and approximately 1 MB (if that) of memory, this little camera helped me discover my love for amateur photography… and the importance of proper lighting. (If there wasn’t enough light, the camera wouldn’t take a picture.) Poor quality aside, this camera acted as the gateway drug to my picture-taking obsession. I was hooked.

For Christmas my sophomore year of high school, my parents upgraded me to a Kodak EasyShare, so I could capture the (mis)adventures my dad and I would have during our upcoming ten-day trip to Germany. The camera did its job well, although unfortunately I looked terrible in most of the pictures. (Growing out your hair for “locks of love” without owning a blow dryer or straightener can have that effect). But despite my *cough* less-than-stellar appearance, the pictures of Germany turned out great.

... case in point.
… case in point.

Although my formative photographic experiences came from these first two cameras, my picture-taking obsession reached all-new heights during my junior year of college. Before I left for a semester in Austria, my parents presented me with a brand new Canon Digital ELPH camera and a massive memory card. During the next six months, this little camera experienced about six-years’ worth of wear, so that by the end of the semester, the case was scratched, the front cover was held on by a strategically placed purple rubber band, and I had taken more than 20,000 pictures. This led many of my friends to refer to me as the unofficial photographer of Erasmus and to say that “if Steffi didn’t take a picture of it, then it didn’t happen.” Which, honestly, wasn’t far off the mark.

Mirek and I became the unofficial photographers of Erasmus. :)
Mirek and I became the unofficial photographers of Erasmus. 🙂

My picture-taking tendencies have oscillated in the last few years, with peaks, such as during my time at the Kanakuk Institute, and lows, such as when school is in session. And yet while I’ve become slightly less anal about photographing (literally) everything, I still love to capture my experiences… even if I’m terrible about uploading them to Facebook, haha. But although this photography obsession has often come in handy, such as when I was responsible for “Social Media” at Kamp or for my mom’s annual Christmas card, this compulsive need to photograph things actually points to a deeper, more complicated problem: I want to hold onto the present forever, and I really, really, really don’t like change.

And as fate would have it, I am about to experience a whole bunch of changes all at once: I am leaving Atlanta for 14 months and moving to Berlin for my dissertation research. When I came to graduate school, the year of research in Germany seemed like the best part of the program. After all, ever since I’d returned from Austria, I’d been looking for ways to go back to Europe. That’s why I’d applied for the Fulbright, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to study European history. And although I realize that this next year in Berlin will be full of wonderful new adventures with incredible new people, I can’t help but look at my already wonderful life and my all-too incredible friends and want to enjoy this leg of the journey for a little while longer. In the last three years, I have come to love Atlanta, with its many quirks, its terrible humidity and pollen season, and its abysmal traffic. Despite its many idiosyncrasies, this city has become my new home.

But though I dread it—and I hate to think about it—the reality is that I am leaving. In just a few days, I’ll head up I-75 with my parents and say goodbye to Atlanta for more than a year. Ready or not, the transition is coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

I know that everything will be okay, that I’ll keep in touch with my friends, and my life will be waiting for me when I get back. But it doesn’t change the fact that my heart hurts, and I am very, very sad. And in the midst of this sadness–and anticipation of sadness, which is almost worse–I keep coming back to this Switchfoot song, which I think at least partially captures how I feel:

Here’s to the twilight
here’s to the memories
these are my souvenirs
my mental pictures of everything
Here’s to the late nights
here’s to the firelight
these are my souvenirs
my souvenirs

[…]

I close my eyes and go back in time
I can see you smiling, you’re so alive
I close my eyes and go back in time
you were wide-eyed, you were wide-eyed
we were so young, we had no fear
we were so young, we had just begun
a song we knew, but we never sang
it burned like fire inside our lungs
and life was just happening (and nothing lasts, nothing lasts forever)
and life was just happening (and nothing lasts, nothing lasts forever)
I wouldn’t trade it for anything
my souvenirs

The pictures I take—and the memories they symbolize—are souvenirs of my life in Atlanta, visible reminders of the people and city I have come to love. And even though I know that, during this next year, I will inevitably look at them and feel sad, I hope that God will help me see these pictures and be grateful. Because my pain, though unpleasant, proves that these people and this place mean something to me. No one grieves the loss, even temporary, of something insignificant. And so while it stinks to say goodbye, I’m grateful that I have so many people to miss. And I look forward to that day 14 months from now, when I’ll be reunited with them and this quirky city we call home. In the meantime, I will look at my photos, I’ll pray for these friends, and I’ll keep in touch with them as best as the 6-hour time difference will allow.

And while I’m in Germany, I’ll also take a lot of pictures. After all, I have a reputation to maintain. 😉

camera and me

25 :)

A 12-foot-tall jar of Nutella?! Talk about a dream come true! :)
A 20-foot-tall jar of Nutella?! Talk about a dream come true! 🙂

It’s that time of year again—time for Steffi to have another birthday! And in keeping with tradition, I’ve compiled a list of 24 things I learned during my 24th year. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Polish makes German look easy.
  2. I should never buy Nutella. Ever.
  3. “No” is not a 4-letter word.
  4. Walking down 35 flights of stairs without stopping WILL, in fact, turn your legs to Jell-O.
  5. If God wants you to do something that seems impossible, He will provide a way to make it happen.
  6. The Christian family is smaller than you think, and hospitality makes it even smaller. (Thank you, Cookes, and the wonderful people at First Trinity Lutheran in Pittsburgh, PA!)
  7. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you would have planned. But though your plans may fail, God will never fail you.
  8. Snail mail is still the best form of communication.
  9. I love, love, LOVE my church.
  10. 8 kg is not very much weight. Especially when your empty carry-on suitcase weighs 5.3 kg on its own.
  11. Pinky promises are worth keeping. (Thanks, Mirek!) 🙂
  12. We are all works in progress.
  13. Contact lenses don’t come in strengths lower than .75
  14. Insurance companies are not forgiving, so always read (and reread!) the fine print.
  15. Americans don’t qualify for “student discounts” on European public transit.
  16. No matter how long it’s been or how far apart you live, real friends let you pick up exactly where you left off. (Love you, Anne-So!) 🙂
  17. Pep talks to my gastrointestinal system will not cure its gluten intolerance.
  18. Always have a Plan B and be fully prepared to use it—because you will probably need to.
  19. If you are proctoring a quiz about the map of Europe in 1648 and the classroom you’re in happens to have a map of Europe in 1648 on display, make sure you cover it up/hide it before the quiz.
  20. Never book a 6 a.m. flight if you can avoid it.
  21. I can go 3 weeks without drinking coffee.
  22. If you see a person walking down the street in a rabbit costume with a top hat and a bow tie at 1 in the morning, you aren’t crazy. It’s probably just the Furry Fandom convention. (If it’s not, then you might actually be crazy.)
  23. Done poorly, parallel parking can result in a flat tire.
  24. …………………. (pause)………………………………………..

January birthdays have their pros and cons. The con side includes things like the inability to have a pool party or that school might be cancelled for a snow day (… Oh wait, most people would consider that a pro, right?) But January birthdays also have their perks. In addition to getting more presents because your parents can shop at the after-Christmas sales (cha-ching!), they also give some extra time to reflect and think about one’s life. So while the rest of the non-January-birthday world had to come up with sappy and meaningful things to say by New Year’s Day, I had an entire extra month to think of something really good. 😉 So here goes:

24. In Christ alone, my hope is found.

24 was full of adventures— finishing surviving my first year of grad school, spending 6 weeks by myself in a strange city, attempting to learn a nearly impossible Slavic language, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, taking risks and learning from failure. 24 was wonderful, awful, emotional, lonely, challenging, joyful, surprising, rewarding and so much more. Perhaps more than any other year, 24 forced me to dig down deep and really ask myself tough questions about who God is, what He is doing in the world, and where I fit into His larger plan. And while I haven’t necessarily “arrived” at the answers yet (do we ever fully get there?), the process of searching has been incredibly gratifying. His Word holds true: the more we seek Him, the more we find Him—and are found in Him.

Which then brings me to my last and final lesson as shown above: in Christ alone, my hope is found. Compared with Him, nothing else matters; He is the only One who can fill my life with hope and joy and meaning. He is my Light, my Strength, my Song. He guides me as I go and illuminates my way. He holds me up when I fall and keeps me going when I feel too weak to carry on. And He fills me to overflowing so I can’t help but sing to Him in praise. My Cornerstone, my solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. Even when everything else around me crumbles, and nothing feels stable anymore, He remains faithful, and I can trust Him. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. Through Him, I can have peace with my past, confidence for my future, and real, true, abundant life in the present. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. From my entrance into the world 25 years ago until the moment He calls me home, He holds my life securely in His sovereign, nail-scarred hands. I can trust that He is guiding me, He is shaping me, and He will fulfill His purpose for me.

And so I repeat: in Christ alone, my hope is found. May this 25th year be full of adventures, of challenges, and of learning to trust Him more and more. 🙂

(78) Days of Summer

You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it. :)
You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it!

Das Leben ist ein Abenteuer. Życie jest przygoda. Life is an adventure. And for me, so was this summer.

This particular adventure began last October. My advisor was in town for a few weeks, taking a break from her sabbatical in Germany. She invited me to lunch and over a dish of gluten-free pasta asked me the question that every first-year graduate student dreads: “What exactly do you want to study?” I was about to reply that I wasn’t sure, that I was still trying to figure it out, and that I needed a little more time when out of my pasta-filled mouth popped, “I think I’m interested in Eastern Europe.” To which she immediately replied, “Well, I guess you need to learn a Slavic language. How about Polish?” So after lunch, I got on the Internet and ran a search for Polish language programs in the US. I found two that looked promising: a ten-week program in Pittsburgh with an abroad component in Krakow and an eight-week one in Indiana. So I decided to apply to both. If I got in and got funding for one of them, great. If not, then I’d find something else to do. Simple, right?

All winter long, though, I found myself worrying. What if this was just another dumb Steffi idea that sounded promising but then turned out to be a waste of everyone’s time and money? After all, if I didn’t get some kind of scholarship, there was no way I could afford it; foreign language classes are expensive. And even if I did get in and receive some funding, what if I didn’t learn enough Polish to actually use it? This felt like a fool’s errand, and the confused reactions (“Huh?”) I received from most people who asked about my summer plans seemed to confirm my fears. After I submitted my application, I shared these concerns with my mom, and (as usual) she gave me great advice.  She explained that in the Old Testament, Gideon was unsure, and he asked God for a sign. Gideon laid a fleece or a piece of sheep wool outside overnight, and told God that in the morning if the fleece were wet and the ground dry, then he would believe. Sure enough, God did just that. Still unconvinced, Gideon asked God to do it again, but this time make the ground wet and the fleece dry. Again, God answered, and Gideon believed. Along these lines, my mom suggested that I also pray for affirmation about my decision to learn Polish:  If God would provide for me financially, then I’d know I should learn Polish and this wasn’t just another Steffi-style pipe dream. So with this in mind, I waited to hear back from the programs and prayed for clarity with my $8,000 “fleece.”

And then the craziest thing happened: God answered! On Good Friday, I got an email from the Pittsburgh program with my acceptance letter and scholarship information. But though they offered a substantial amount of money, it still wasn’t enough to make the class affordable. The following Monday, I called the program director that Monday to see if I could transfer into the cheaper program without the month in Kraków. To my astonishment, she offered me a different package, one that would cover almost the entire program cost. My figurative fleece had dripping wet—and I was going to Poland!

And as if that weren’t enough, God continued to provide, over and over and over again. When I was looking for a place to live in Pittsburgh (where I knew absolutely no one), He gave my mom the idea to contact the local Lutheran church. And then He prompted a family at that church to connect me with their friends who needed a house-sitter for the summer. It could not have worked out more perfectly. And the Cookes (the family that stayed behind) became my unofficial “host family,” picking me up from the airport, welcoming me into their home, feeding me absolutely delicious food (their last name is very fitting!), and even driving me to campus when I accidentally overslept and missed the bus.

And if I could see God’s faithfulness in Pittsburgh, it was written in neon flashing signs everywhere in Poland (… in English, so I could read it, haha.) Looking back on my four weeks there, I can’t help but be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by all the incredible people at the Prolog language school, by my wonderful classmates from all over the world, by all the thought-provoking and meaningful conversations we had, by all the unforgettable places we visited and things we saw, and by all the memories I’ll carry with me forever. Oh yeah, and by all the Polish I attempted to learn. 😉

This summer was undoubtedly one of the best and most rewarding of my life thus far. Not only did I make so many new friends (Shout-out here to Lenna. Thanks for being my Kraków buddy… and for putting up with my terrible sense of direction!), but I also reconnected with old ones (Thanks for coming to visit me in Kraków, Mirek! And for letting me hang out with you in Paris, Anne-So!). And as if that weren’t enough, I even got to spend 3 days in the neighborhood in Germany where I was born (Danke schön to the Mauntz family and to all the neighbors, especially the Timpes and the Bergens! Y’all are awesome!)

As I write this, I am sitting in seat 21A on Lufthansa flight 444 back to Atlanta. When I boarded a smaller plane to Pittsburgh 78 days ago, I had no idea what was in store for me. But God knew. Even before that afternoon last October, He knew. He always knows, and He always has everything under His perfect and sovereign control. Yes, life is an adventure. And I’m so thankful to be along for the ride. 🙂

Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I've ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I’ve ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time. :)
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time… and take a picture of it.
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie! :)
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie!
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me! :)
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved! A perfect end to a fabulous summer.

Spare Change

A changing of stops or a stopping of change?
Hmmm…

They say that you eventually turn into your parents, and I’m getting dangerously close.

Take Saturday mornings, for instance, or better known in my family as “saling” day (as in garage-saling). Almost every Saturday, my mother can be found making her usual rounds on the bargain-hunting circuit. Having lived under her tutelage for 18+ summers, I now compulsively find myself looking for the tell-tale neon signs and making a very conscious effort to stay away. After all, $5 can be a lot of money for a grad student, haha.

My dad has rubbed off on me too, as I discovered all too well during our recent father-daughter road trip back from Atlanta. We had planned split the 15-hour drive to KC in half by stopping in Paducah, Kentucky, for the night. Everything was going well and we were having a grand old time… until we realized we’d taken a wrong turn… 3 hours ago. That’s right; when we were leaving Nashville, we both noticed the sign for Louisville, Kentucky, and commented, “Louisville? That sounds right!” Fast forward to 11:15 p.m. when we finally decided to look at our smart phones and discovered that we were on the wrong side of the state. Whoops. And because we’d agreed to meet a friend in Paducah the next day, we couldn’t just go from Louisville to home. Yay for three hours of back-tracking. Upon hearing about our unintended adventure, my Omi (my dad’s mom) summed it up nicely: “Oh dear. Those two need adult supervision.” Well said, Omi, well said. Overlooking minor major details? Like father, like daughter.

But the greatest way that I resemble my parents is in my response to change. As my mom says (and I often find myself repeating), “I don’t take changes very well.” As much as I love adventures and trying new things, I really don’t like change. While I’ve gotten much better enjoying the moment since studying abroad in Austria, this “living in the present” comes with an unintended consequence: I don’t stop to process changes until they finally come crashing over me like a giant tidal wave, and I’m swamped.

That’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago. The combination of not being at Kanakuk for the first time in 15 years, of living in a strange city where people use words like “yinz,” and trying to learn an almost-impossible Slavic language with more z’s than I thought humanly possible—all of this together created the “perfect storm.” All of a sudden, I found myself looking back over the last few years and coming face-to-face with how significantly my life had changed: I’d studied abroad in Austria and made incredible friends from around the world, but now we all lived thousands of miles apart. I’d graduated from Oklahoma State (where did those four years go?!) but had since lost touch with most of my college friends. Much to my surprise, I’d attended the Kanakuk Institute and watched God  to transform my life, but even those friendships had changed significantly in the last year. And while I probably have five more years of graduate school left in Atlanta, it’s going to fly by, if this past year is any indication. And then I’ll just have to pack up and move somewhere else that I’ll eventually have to leave again. In an instant, I was mercilessly struck by the temporariness of life, and all I wanted to do was curl up into the fetal position and cry. But while that might make me feel better for a little while, it wouldn’t fix the real problem. Everything around me would just keep on changing, and nothing I could do would stop it. I could try to ignore it and just “live my life,” but sooner or later, the reality would catch me again with a vengeance. But what could I do?

Having been a Christian for most of my life, I believe that the Bible truly is God’s Word and that He uses it to speak to us. For many years, I’ve read my Bible consistently, and on countless occasions, God has opened my eyes to new truths, and even in passages I’ve read a hundred times. So when I started to feel overwhelmed by the “change wave” a few weeks ago, I prayed that God would give me something new to help me through. But pray as I might, all I could see was the same stuff that He’d shown me months or years ago, but nothing new. Exasperated and desperate, I called my friend Nichole and explained to her my frustration at God’s apparent silence. Not missing a beat, she replied, “You say that you don’t like how everything around you is changing, but you’re annoyed that God keeps bringing you back to the same truth. In actuality, though, it sounds like God is answering your prayer—by being constant.”

Ouch… in a good way.

As always, Nichole had hit the nail on the head—and the truth in my heart. Here I was crying out to God for something steady and unchanging to hold onto, and there He was the entire time, waiting patiently for me to realize that He was holding onto me. And the same holds true for all of us. When everything around us is in flux, He can be counted on. When everyone around us is packing up and moving on, He’s not going anywhere. When it feels like we have “change to spare,” He isn’t changing. The book of Hebrews captures this truth with profound simplicity: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” The One who walked down the dirty streets in Galilee, healing those with just a touch of His cloak, is the same Savior who walks with us every day of our ever-changing lives. Faithful. True. Constant. That’s my—our—Jesus.

So as much as I hate change and would often give anything to slow it down or stop it, I know deep down that everything will be okay. Because while my circumstances will shift and friends may come and go, my God is constant—and He’s constantly with me. And if He’s with me, I don’t need to afraid of anything, even change.

…Speaking of change, I think I just saw a garage sale. Wanna join? 😉

13.1… and done

 1:59.00

History repeats itself. And that can be really, really annoying. Especially when it comes to half-marathons.

If you’ve read my blog for any extended period of time or know me personally, you may have noticed that I love to run. Call me crazy, but I find running to be relaxing, exhilarating and even fun. After being cut from the high school softball team (word to the wise: when playing catch, always make sure your partner is looking; hitting them in the head doesn’t bode well, especially if the coach is watching), I went out for track, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I made new friends, got in great shape, and discovered my inborn love for “running in circles and turning left.

After high school, my desire to run came and went. Sometimes I loved it; other times it was the last thing I wanted to do. But all that changed when I signed up for my first half-marathon during my junior of college, and I convinced my dad to do it with me. Eight weeks and lots of perspiration later, I finished my first half-marathon in one hour and 59 minutes. I’d accomplished my goal, burned approximately 1,550 calories, and couldn’t have been happier.

Fast forward three years to my first semester in graduate school. As I start a new chapter of my life, I recognize the need to develop good habits, become disciplined, and find a healthy alternative to sitting in my desk chair (Grad-school gain? No, thank you.) So what do I do? Run a half-marathon, of course! After a quick internet search, I found one nearby and signed up; my second half-marathon training had begun.

When December 9th arrived, my hopes were high, my goal time was low, and I was ready to go. Much had changed since my debut three years prior. I had developed a new running form, invested in Nike Lunar Foam shoes, and followed a more advanced and rigorous training plan. Much had changed… except my time, that is.

That’s right. I got the EXACT. SAME. TIME.

Seriously?????

Seriously.

You see, when the rubber met the road (pun intended) my new running form, more advanced training plan, and awesome (if overpriced) Nike shoes ultimately failed me. Why?

Because I was running alone.

“But, Steffi,” you say, “I thought you said you signed up for a half-marathon. What do you mean that you ran alone?” Okay, so “alone” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but in the end that’s how I felt. When I signed up for this race, I failed to read the fine print which said, “We keep our races small—50 to 60 runners max.”

Most road races have a lot more than 60 people. For instance, the Boston Marathon has approximately 26,000 entries; the New York City marathon has 45,000 runners. Even the Tulsa marathon/half-marathon (my first one) has almost 2,000 participants. Compared to those races, running with 60 people is basically like running alone, especially because everyone has a different pace. And that’s why my time didn’t improve. Bummer. Without people around me, pushing me, encouraging me, my time would never get better; I was doomed to stay the same.

Our relationship with Christ works the same way.

God didn’t make us to go it alone; on the contrary, he designed this Christianity-thing to be a team effort. We need each other. Togetherness isn’t optional; it’s a necessity. On our own, we can never become all that God created us to be; on our own, we’ll never grow and change.  A knife by itself stays dull, but a knife in contact with a sharpener becomes useful again.

For most of my life, I’ve been terrible at this, tending toward what I call “lone-ranger” Christianity. I found my identity in being the Christian, and I tended to avoid other believers. Plus, community was scary; if I let people get too close, then they would see that I wasn’t perfect. So I kept going solo. Being felt safe—and seemed so much easier than being real.

But then something crazy happened: God sent me to the Kanakuk Institute. Suddenly, I was surrounded by seventy other Christians, and the “only Christian” identity to which I’d clung was gone. And though it was scary at times, it was truly the best thing that has ever happened to me.  God used my Institute classmates, especially my accountability partner Nichole, to sharpen me, challenge me, and make me an entirely different person. It wasn’t always pleasant—do you think knives enjoy being sharpened?—but it was so very worth it.

I’ll never forget the day during my first track season when my distance coach pulled me aside and said, “Steffi, today I want you to run five miles with Jenny.” Jenny was a senior and a bit of a legend on the track team. Though she rarely won races, she was incredibly—almost bizarrely—consistent. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, marathon or not, Jenny always ran 8-minute miles. Always.

For the first mile or so, I felt great. I was keeping up with Jenny better than I’d expected. But when we reached the two-mile mark and the three, it became increasingly difficult. By the fourth mile, my lungs were on fire. When the fifth mile finally rolled around, I thought I was going to die. I’d never run that hard or that long before, and my body was crying inside. But even though I felt awful, I was so proud of myself. Somehow I’d managed to keep up with Jenny, and that was worth celebrating. After that, I ran with Jenny every day, and my times drastically improved. I eventually made it onto my school’s “all-time” list for the 800-meter and my relay team went to State.

At my last half-marathon, I needed a Jenny—someone to run with, encourage me, and to push me on when I wanted to give up. In the same way, we need friends to help us in our walk with Christ. Then at the end of our days, we’ll be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In the meantime, I’m going for a run. Care to join? 😉

13.1 miles later