26 :)

A not-yet-boiled pierog, which looks remarkably like a smiley face. :)
A not-yet-boiled pierog, which looks remarkably like a smiley face. 🙂

It’s that time of year again. Time for Steffi to have another birthday.

Which means it’s also time for Steffi to dedicate a blog entry to reflecting on all that has happened since her previous birthday. So in keeping with tradition, Steffi has compiled a list of life lessons from the past year. She will now stop writing in the 3rd person (she knows that referring to oneself in the 3rd person is slightly obnoxious, but she figured she could get away with it—at least temporarily—because it is her birthday), and she will commence her self-reflective list-making. 🙂

25 was a big year. I finished up my graduate coursework (I’ll never have to take another class again! Yay!… oh wait. Now I have to teach. #details), I completed a half-marathon in Nashville in a time of 1:51.30, beating my previous personal best by a whole 7 ½ minutes, I took an unconventional spring break trip to Holland, Michigan, and experienced a true northern “heat wave” (ie, when the March temperatures reached—gasp!—a whopping 33 degrees Fahrenheit). Along these weather lines, I survived my first southern Snowpocalypse and even taught my friends the joys of snow-diapering (far superior to sledding) and making snow-ice cream. Delicious!

The summer was equally memorable, with an 8-week trip to Germany and Poland by way of Kansas (because that makes so much sense geographically). While autumn left much to be desired in terms of sleep and a social life, the satisfaction of passing my comprehensive exams made all the hours spent as a “library troll” (at least mostly) worthwhile. And so with that fairly sappy introduction, I will move onto the part you’ve all be eagerly waiting for….

Steffi’s 25 biggest lessons of being 25 (Note: my initial list included 37 points. Apparently I’m a hurry to age, haha):

  1. The Polish words for “Kathy” and “buckwheat” are essentially the same.
  2. Babies don’t universally hate me. At least when they are sleeping. 🙂 (shout-out to Blake, my brand-new baby cousin).
  3. Fried pierogi > boiled pierogi. Hands down.
  4. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is still my favorite book.
  5. Never walk through a nature preserve after it rains. Unless you enjoy the brisk crunch of snail shells beneath your shoes.
  6. I will never be too old for sleepovers.
  7. The Emory shuttle waits for no one. Even when it’s pouring down rain.
  8. God hears and answers specific prayers.
  9. You never know who you’ll meet in Poland.
  10. Sunsets are worth catching.
  11. Natural Gas companies aren’t perfect.
  12. I am capable of more than I think.
  13. When the motor in your washing machine breaks, you should probably talk to your landlady sooner rather than later. Because no matter how much you hope the machine will magically fix itself, odds are that it won’t.
  14. I actually enjoy hiking.
  15. Grad school and acne go together.
  16. Even extroverts need solitude sometimes.
  17. I can write 24 pages in 24 hours.
  18. Even 5 years later, Erasmus friendships are such a gift.
  19. Kansas City has a world-class baseball team. (See what I did there? #punny)
  20. Being single isn’t a bad thing.
  21. If traveling in a foreign country, don’t use the self-check-out lane.
  22. Whether in Kansas City or Minnesota, weddings are worth the trip.
  23. How we view God directly impacts how we live.
  24. I am still addicted to Milka bars.
  25. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

All in all, 25 was an incredible year, full of laughter, friendships, and meaningful conversations. Perhaps like never before, I witnessed God’s hand shaping my life and orchestrating each day. But 25 also contained its share of challenges, with its many “ups” matched by a set of corresponding “downs.” Because for all its joy and life, 25 was also a year of loneliness, frustration, anxiety, and discouragement. I complained more than I care to admit, and I wasted more time worrying than I spent having a rock-solid faith. But it was in the midst of this fear and frustration that I came to understand what Paul meant when he wrote, “But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

You see, as unpleasant as these low points were, it was during them that I discovered Jesus to be kinder, closer, more faithful and more loving than I had ever dared to hope or imagine. And because I have experienced His presence and His care in this deep, real, and personal way, I can’t help but love Him—truly love Him—all the more.

So here’s to you, 25. You were great, you were challenging, and I’m not sure I would repeat you if given the chance. But I am thankful for how you shaped me more into the person I am today. 26, you have a tough act to follow. But since the Author of my story is infinitely creative, I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll be up for the challenge. 😉

My favorite photo from 25. :) Credit to my very patient from Anja.
My favorite photo from 25. 🙂 Credit to Anja, my very skilled (and patient) friend.

Veni, Vidi, Volvo :)

They say that you never get over your first love. And although I hate sappy statements like that, I think they have a point. Because no matter how much I try to get over him, I will always miss…

… my first car.

The Black Pearl on my first day of senior year :) #throwback
The Black Pearl on my first day of senior year 🙂 #throwback

Yes, I know that most Americans are sentimental about their first set of wheels, and my feelings probably seem ordinary. But there was nothing ordinary about my first car. Let me explain.

My parents bought the predecessor to this once-shiny black Volvo in Sweden in 1989 and brought it with them to the States. Fast forward a few months to a snowy winter day on the highway. The brand-new Volvo breaks down, and while my mom is with baby Steffi at a nearby gas station, a Semi totals our original Swedish beauty. But thanks to insurance, we soon got an equally shiny replacement car. And thanks to Volvo’s amazing quality, that same car continued to run through my childhood, tween years, and high school until it eventually became mine. Along the way, it earned the nickname “the Black Pearl,” because like Jack Sparrow’s beloved pirate ship, this ebony auto refused to die. By the time I inherited it, the odometer read 308,228 miles—and continued to say that for the next 2.5 years because it stopped counting. And so the same Volvo that had taken me to kindergarten drove me to football games, forensics tournaments, and graduation parties.

For all its sentimental value, the Black Pearl also had its share of quirks. The air conditioning quit working when I was nine (although the heater powered through until the very end. Oh, the Swedes and their priorities.), so we used the moon roof to cool us off. That worked great… until the roof quit closing all the way and it started to leak. Kansas summers in our air-conditioning-less black Volvo became torture after we sealed off the opening. But hey, at least the windows worked!… for the next few years, that is.

But as unpleasant as summers could be, the Black Pearl’s other stories made it worthwhile. The best one happened to my dad. The Volvo had recently been to the shop (likely to have its laughable Scandinavian air conditioner looked at), and my dad needed to drive it to a conference downtown. Air conditioning aside, all was well for the first part of the trip, but then something strange happened: every time my dad turned the steering wheel to the left, the horn would honk. And this began just as he was passing through a neighborhood with some rather sketchy characters, where he needed to turn left several times. So what did he do? Smile and wave, of course. 😛

Now while I loved getting to call the Black Pearl my own, I wasn’t always sure whether this would happen. My fear had nothing to do with the car breaking down (we always knew he would last forever) or with my parents selling it (we run cars into the junk yard. In fact, when our most recent car was about to die, the mechanic said, “Let me put it like this: when it runs out of gas, it’s totaled.) No, the main concern was with me. You see, the Black Pearl had a manual transmission, and I had a very hard time learning to drive it.

The first few times my parents tried to teach me were awful, and one Sunday afternoon was especially memorable. Try as I did (for 30+ minutes), I couldn’t get the car into gear. The engine simply would not catch. I was doing all the things right: easing onto the gas and off of the clutch, but it didn’t work. My dad was frustrated, I was frustrated, and I’m sure any onlookers in the cul-de-sac were equally frustrated. It was terrible. Finally, my dad had enough of my almost-but-not-quite attempts, and he took my place in the driver’s seat. And that’s when my moment of redemption came: the whole time I’d been trying to start the car, it had been in 3rd gear, not 1st gear. As anyone who has driven a manual transmission before knows, starting in 2nd gear can happen. But getting a car to start in 3rd? Good luck with that! But luckily we figured it out, and I was able to drive the Black Pearl my senior year, always double-checking the gear first.

So besides the fact that this is a funny story—and everyone loves a drive down memory lane—why am I telling you this? Because last week I found myself in a spiritual version of that cul-de-sac and, thanks to the Lord, I also found my way out. Let me explain.

I have an absolutely wonderful life full of incredible opportunities, friendships, and sources of joy. For the last several years, God has been teaching me about the importance of a thankful heart, and I have become much more grateful as a result. Yes, I have my downs, but even in them, He usually helps me to be thankful and joyful.

But sometimes even in the midst of my wonderful life, I can start to feel discouraged and down. Because let’s face it, no matter how many gifts God has given you or awesome things you get to experience, life can also be hard. The reality of this hit me full force last week with a metaphorical tidal wave of stress, exhaustion, frustration and pressure. And no matter how hard I tried or how much other people encouraged me to, I couldn’t “thank” myself out of it. I then tried talking to Him about my frustration. While it felt good to vent a little bit, my honest prayer session didn’t offer any solution either. Fed up and frustrated, I wrestled through this for several days. And then finally on Friday morning, I woke up to the answer:

I’d been starting in the wrong spiritual “gear.”

You see, all week long I tried to kick-start my attitude through thankful and honest prayers, but it didn’t work. My heart just wouldn’t get into gear. Because although my gratitude and sincerity were good, on their own they weren’t enough. Why? Because I had skipped over first gear: having a right view of God.

This, my friends, is the key to a fulfilling and fruitful spiritual life. If we don’t consciously recognize God in all His power, holiness, goodness, etc., then our most heroic attempts to obey Him will come up short. He must be the foundation of all we think, say, do, and hope to become. Only once we see Him in His proper place–sovereign and reigning over all things–can we have an accurate view of our circumstances and a thankful heart toward them.

The Scriptures capture this perfectly with words like “but as for me” and “yet.” In many of these passages, the writers begin with an assessment of their (often bad) circumstances and end with an affirmation of their faith. And running through and between the lines of all these verses is an understanding of who God is, along with His mercy, sovereignty and love. Yes, each time involves a conscious decision. But these decisions are only possible in light of the Lord Himself.

And so although my circumstances haven’t changed at all, my heart toward them has. By His grace, I’m now praying that He would put me in “1st gear” by giving me a right view of Him.

… or at least as “right” a view as I can get on this side of those black pearly gates. 😉

"But as for me..."

One Man’s Trash…

Garage Sales: Trash-dumping and Treasure-Hunting :)
Garage Sales: Sites of Trash-Dumping and Treasure-Hunting 🙂

I’m not really into TV.

Maybe it was the fact that my family didn’t have cable growing up. Occasionally we would get a month for free because the cable guy (not Larry) felt sorry for us. During that month, we would record as many episodes of My Little Ponies and Carebears as possible, so we could watch them on repeat during the other 11 months of the year. But we never signed up for a cable plan. My parents wanted my sisters and me to spend time reading books and playing outside. And to boost our book-worminess, they even paid us a penny for every page we read… In retrospect, cable might have been cheaper.

This lack of cable-culture has followed me into my adulthood. While lots of my friends invest in TV-internet bundles or subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu+ (or all three), I can’t seem to make the leap. Yes, I know that there are loads of great shows out there, and I’ve even become mildly addicted to a few of them (Lost, Once upon a Time, Psych, and most recently, Downton Abbey), but for some reason I’m still not willing to pay the $7 per month to watch them whenever I want. Old habits die hard, and my family’s cable-free existence has proven especially resilient.

But fortunately, a cable-free life isn’t all bad, and public access TV isn’t completely terrible. To this day, my family still only has local television, and I still get to watch How It’s Made marathons and the NASA channel. The space shuttle Thanksgiving episode is top-notch, by the way. Don’t hide it; I know you’re jealous.

In fact, if I had grown up with cable, I might not have discovered one of my all-time favorite programs: The Antiques Roadshow. In case you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s exactly what it sounds like. People bring in their random old stuff (hence the “antiques”) to have it appraised by experts who travel around the country (hence the “roadshow”). It’s awesome, and you never know what you’ll find. Sometimes, stuff that seemed valuable ends up being complete duds. But other times, that apparent piece of junk painting that someone’s grandmother’s cousin’s daughter bought at a garage sale for $5 fifty years ago ends up being worth a ton. The owners’ reactions are the best part. When the expert tells them that their trash is actually a treasure, their responses are priceless, as this video shows. (Parental Advisory: She says a bad word at the end.)

But what makes something valuable? That’s a great question. While I’m not an expert on antiques, I am an expert on The Antiques Roadshow. Having watched it for years, I’ve noticed some interesting things. You see, despite the name “antique,” an object’s age usually isn’t actually the most important part. A lot of times, old junk is simply old junk. What really matters are these three things:

1) Who made it

2) How rare it is

3) To whom it belonged

So if the expert can tell that the $5 garage sale painting was made by early American artist Benjamin West, is one-of-a-kind (or of a very small number of prints), and belonged to George Washington—BINGO!—the owner has quite literally hit the jackpot.

So why am I telling you about The Antiques Roadshow? Great question. You see, lately, I have been really struggling with my value and sense of worth. I place so much emphasis on how much I accomplish, how well I perform, and how much people like me. Without meaning to, I wrap my identity up in things that ultimately don’t matter, or that matter for a very brief time and then are gone. And then I end up feeling empty and inadequate, because no matter how hard I work, how well I do, or how many accolades I accumulate, they are never enough. Sure, they may buoy me for a brief moment or lift my spirits for a day or two, but then they disappear again like dust in the wind. And I’m left behind feeling just as anxious, worthless, and empty as when I began. I’m stuck on a never-ending emotional rollercoaster with no way off, and I’m prone to motion sickness. Go figure.

As I was walking home from campus yesterday and pondering all these things, The Antique Roadshow suddenly came to my mind. Confused, I stopped and thought about it, wondering how in the world it could relate to my current emotional conundrum, and then it hit me:

We are each a piece of antique junk. … in the best sense.

You see, try as we might, we can’t see our own value. In our eyes, we are ordinary, plain, boring, not good enough, etc. But that’s not the whole story. The Expert (God Himself through His Word) reveals to us what we really are: valuable, priceless, and loved. And why are we all those things? Because of who made us, how rare we are, and to whom we belong. The Bible tells us that the same God who made the heavens and the earth created each of us in His own image. And He didn’t simply make a whole bunch of carbon-copy prints; instead, he uniquely crafted us to be truly one-of-a-kind. You can’t get any rarer than that! And as if that weren’t enough, Scripture says that He “bought us with a price” and adopted us into His family, setting His seal on each of us. We belong to Him, and we are His.

Don’t you see? Our value goes so much deeper than what we do or who we try to be. In reality, it’s at the center, the heart, the very core of who we are. According to The Antiques Roadshow’s standards (and God’s) we are each priceless. But not because of anything we have done; rather because of who He is—and because we are His.

Whew, that’s a lot of deep thoughts for one day. I think I’m going to unwind with a snack and something on the NASA channel. Freeze-dried popcorn, anyone? 😉

 

 

In My “Personal” Opinion

My life as a Pittsburgh Steeler? Hmm...
Maybe the “real me” is hiding behind a Pittsburgh Steeler cut-out? Hmm…

I really don’t like writing personal statements.

In fact, if I had to place it on my list of my least favorite things, writing personal statements would rank somewhere between that feeling I get after eating gluten (which I not-so-affectionately refer to as “gluten gut”) and playing house. It’s not necessarily that I’m bad at writing personal statements. After all, I was accepted into a history PhD program… despite my statement listing the wrong year for German unification. (It’s 1871, NOT 1873. Whoops. Minor details.) I just don’t enjoy the process of writing them.

Fortunately, though, I only have to write personal statements once in a while. But unfortunately, that “once in while” happened this week. Though the assignment was disguised as a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” it essentially a personal statement. Begrudgingly, I sat down to write it. And in the process, I remembered why I don’t enjoy this genre.

You see, personal statements are, by definition, personal. When I study about historical topics, I maintain a “critical distance” and write about them in an impersonal way. But in a personal statement, the tables are turned. Suddenly I become the subject of analysis, and I’m expected to write about myself in a thoughtful and perceptive way. In theory, this should be simple. But in reality, it’s next to impossible. Why?

Because to write about oneself, one must first know oneself. And that’s where things get tricky for me—and personal statements become daunting. If I’m honest, I don’t think I know myself very well at all. Yes, I’ve taken countless personality tests and inventories, and I could classify myself as a yellow-and-blue, ESFJ-like, beaver-retriever. But what does that actually mean? And to make matters worse, the harder I try to find my “true” self, the more elusive it becomes. It’s as if the answer is on the edge of my peripheral vision, taunting me, and as soon as I turn to look, it disappears. Yes, I know a lot of facts about myself, and I could make a long list of the people, places, and experiences that have shaped me. But I can’t help but think—wish, wonder, hope—that I am greater than the sum of my parts, that I am more than a composite of my past. But how do I figure it out?

Fortunately, this is not my first mini-existential crisis (nor will it likely be my last). One of the more recent crises happened during my first semester at the Kanakuk Institute. While this meltdown wasn’t personal-statement-induced, the concerns I expressed were the same. Desperate for encouragement, I called my dear friend Sarah. Sure enough, God used her to speak truth to my stressed-out heart:

“Stef, quit worrying about knowing yourself. Instead, ask the Lord to reveal to you who He is. Only by knowing Him will you discover yourself—and become who He made you to be.”

Like cool water on a summer day, her words calmed the panic in my soul. She was right; God knows me far better than I know myself. He understands everything about me—from my deepest desires and dreams to my goofy quirks (like my inexplicable affinity for songs in ¾ time). He’s never confused, even when I confuse myself. I can rest in the truth that I am deeply, truly, intimately, and fully known. And in case I wasn’t sure about it, He dedicated an entire Psalm* to this, just to be clear.

Yes, I may still feel confused now and personal statements may remain the bane of my writing existence, but I can rest in the knowledge that the God who made the heavens and the earth knows me. And He promises that someday I will know Him even as I am fully known.

So in the meantime, I’ll keep seeking Him, and He’ll keep revealing more and more about who He made me to be.

… And if I’m lucky, maybe give me some insight before my next personal statement. 😉

*A portion of Psalm 139

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know [a]when I sit down and [b]when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You [c]scrutinize my [d]path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
4 [e]Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in [f]Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will [g]overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
12 Even the darkness is not dark [h]to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.

13 For You formed my [i]inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will give thanks to You, for [j]I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
15 My [k]frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.

Just Say “No”

Poland Cztery 111

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved words. Especially big ones.

My all-time favorite long English word (featured on my “About Steffi” page—yes, this word should feel special) is arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. Onomatopoeia (BOOM!) is another quintessential choice, and you really can’t go wrong with words like jurisprudence, rhododendron and flabbergasted.

At some point, I got bored with long English words. (Sorry, “antidisestablishmentarianism.” You just aren’t that cool. And let’s be honest, your “anti” and “dis” technically cancel each other out, and then all you have left is “establishmentarianism.”) So I decided to move onto bigger- and better-worded pastures. And where did I land? In German, of course. When I looked around and saw words like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company captain), siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig (7,254) and Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law), I knew I’d found my Heimat.

This summer’s Polish intensive course added a new element to my long-word language obsession. Even though the words were substantially shorter than the aforementioned German giants, the consonant clusters should count for extra credit. Words like przepraszam (excuse me), dziewiȩtdziesiąt (90) and proszȩ przechodzić przez skrzyżowanie (please cross at the crosswalk)—these are the stuff of Slavic language learner’s nightmares (No lie. When the Russian students at Pitt complained about their language, their teacher would show the crosswalk sentence… and they never grumbled again).

And yet despite conquering the absurd precision of German and the next-to-impossible dreaded Polish consonant clusters, my hardest word is still one of the shortest in the English language. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to master this monosyllabic morpheme:

“No.”

That’s right, these two letters—or rather, the lack of these two letters—have caused me more trouble than any German, Polish, or antidisestablished word combined. For some reason, I have a ridiculously hard time saying no.

In high school, this meant that I was over-committed to too many things. The best (or worst) example comes from the second semester of my junior year when I found myself taking two AP classes, running varsity track, playing club volleyball, in charge of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in the spring main-stage play—all at the same time. (I remember one particular afternoon when I had triple-booked myself and had no idea how to be three places at once… and then we had a snow day. Thanks for enabling me, nature!) College wasn’t much better, and I managed to fill up my plate(s) yet again to overflowing. If you’ve ever tried to keep full plates spinning, let me tell you a secret: it inevitably makes a big mess. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by the time I reached grad school, but history repeated itself (no pun intended). And that’s how I found myself exhausted, burnt out, and on the edge of tears when I arrived at my church’s small group leader retreat two weeks ago.

The week had been terrible—another classic instance of Steffi taking on too much and not saying no. As president of my university’s Graduate History Society, I’d been in charge of not one, not two, but three GHS events that week in addition to taking three courses and TAing for one. By the time I got to the retreat that Saturday morning, I was spent. And Ashley, my Education Pastor, could tell.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Okay,” I replied.

“Really?” (with one eyebrow visibly raised)

“No,” I admitted.

“I didn’t think so. Let’s talk.”

So we did. In the course of a very tear-and-snot-filled hour and a half, God used Ashley to show me His heart—and the value of saying “no.” You see, all my life I’d never felt good enough. Yes, God had opened doors for me to do the things I love (like learning Polish this summer or going to graduate school for history), but I never felt content with it. Or more accurately, I could never let myself be content. Instead, I felt guilty about God’s blessings, so rather than receiving them with gratitude, I tried to add to them the things that I thought were somehow “more valuable,” such as leading a small group at church or doing one more extracurricular leadership activity. Driven by shame and fear, I constantly overcompensated and wound up over-committed… which left me feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and guilty. Because nothing I did—and nothing I could add to my already-full spinning plates—was able fill the void I felt inside. And ironically, my attempts to add meaning and purpose to my life caused me to miss the calling God had so lovingly, graciously (and let’s be honest) obviously placed in front of me. By trying to make myself better, I was missing out on God’s best for me.

And so I said “no” to being a small group leader this year—a very unexpected take-away from the small group leader retreat, to say the least! Though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have said “yes” in the first place, God was sovereign over that decision too: if I hadn’t initially agreed to be a leader, I would have missed out on a huge lesson about a very little word. You see, contrary to popular (or at least, Steffi) belief, saying “no” isn’t a sign of failure or weakness. Rather, it’s an indicator of maturity and strength. While I definitely have a long way to go, I’m starting to understand that sometimes the best way to say “yes” to God is to say “no” to something else. As finite human beings, we can’t do everything, but by God’s grace we can do some things to make His kingdom come—things He’s specifically prepared in advance for us to do. With His help, I’m going to follow His call wherever He leads. So here’s to living in freedom and obedience…

…one two-letter word at a time. 🙂

A very serendipitously timed text message from this week.
A very serendipitous (big word!) text message from this week.

The Bus(es) That Got Away

Port_Authority_bus_Pittsburgh_3216Be careful what you pray for.

I learned this lesson a few summers ago at Kanakuk when I thought it would be a good idea to pray for a sense of humor. Not five minutes later I encountered the worst toilet clog of my life, and because I was a Unit Coordinator (aka Kamp’s go-to person for tasks that no one wants to do), it was my job to plunge it. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it may or may not have involved a live cockroach. Sick nasty.

Then there was that time during my junior year of high school when I made the mistake of praying for humility. The next day as I was running terribly late (as always) for my first hour English class, I somehow managed to stab myself up my nose with the wrong end of a mechanical pencil. When I hobbled into class with blood gushing out of my very sore nose and a very embarrassed look on my face, all my classmates just shook their heads and laughed. Talk about humbling… or just humiliating.

This summer, I’ve been praying that God would grow me in new and substantial ways. For the last several years, my time working at Kanakuk has been an integral part of my spiritual development. When the Lord didn’t call me back to Kamp this summer, my first thought was, “Oh no! How am going to grow this summer?!” Hence, I’ve been asking God to mold, shape, and refine me, even though I’m not at Kamp. I’ve also been praying for inspiration for another blog post. Today God answered both of my prayers simultaneously, and I’m pretty sure I could hear Him laughing.

The day was doomed for disaster even before I walked out the door. Instead of going with my gut (and with the weather forecast), I decided to trust my own temperature gauge and went with jeans instead of a skirt. By the time I made it to the bus stop half a mile away, I was sweating like a pig, and my fitted gray t-shirt (another poor wardrobe choice) made sure that everyone could see it. Whoops. It would only get worse from there.

This would be a good time to let you know that I’m in Pittsburgh this summer attempting to learn Polish—emphasis on the word “attempting.” More accurately, I am getting my backside kicked by the Polish language for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. While my coming to Pitt and participating in this program is an answer to many prayers, that’s another story entirely. So in the interest of time and space, we will return to the original story about my day.

On Tuesdays, the Summer Language Institute provides inexpensive pizza for students to buy for lunch. However, instead of distributing the pizza at a convenient, central location (i.e., the building where ALL language students have class), the directors decided to set up shop at a different building about a five minute walk away. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem; however, they failed to publicly announce this decision. And because I needed to use the restroom, I got separated from my classmates and had no idea where to go. This meant that I searched in vain for pizza on multiple floors of the 36-story Cathedral of Learning before finding out where I needed to go. By the time I finished the Pitt edition of “Stairmaster 300” and then hiked across campus and back, my pizza was cold and my gray t-shirt was sweaty yet again. Yippee.

But this afternoon definitely took the cake… and ate it too. After class let out at 2:50 (I feel like a high school student again. Eek), I made a detour to the library to return a book. Five minutes later, I reached the bus stop at 5th and Bigelow just as both buses I could have taken pulled away, one after the other. In theory, the buses should come every fifteen minutes, but in reality, they come when they feel like it, if at all. 25ish minutes later, I hopped on the 71A and rode it to ALDI, where I planned to finish shopping in time to catch the next bus. But—de ja vu—I walked out of the store only to watch it drive away. Moving my groceries into the shade, I waited… and waited… and waited… and waited….

……………………… and waited…………………………………………………………………………………………

………………………………………………and waited…………………………………..……………………..

………………………………………………………………………and waited for a bus that never came.

With my milk and ground turkey now fifty-five minutes warmer, I rolled up my pant legs and started walking. I’d made it 0.5 of the 1.6 miles home when a bus (a different one; I still don’t know what happened to the 71A) picked me up and took me to my neighborhood. Finally, at 5:36 p.m., bedraggled, smelly, and with a shirt now in various shades of gray, I arrived at home. What. A. Day.

At some point this afternoon (maybe when I was waiting for the bus the first time), my prayer for the summer popped into my mind, and all I could think was, “Dang, have I got a long way to go before I become like Jesus.”

It was just a bunch of small things—wearing the wrong clothes, missing the bus(es), having to walk across campus for pizza—but that’s all it took for me to get frustrated, annoyed, and more than a little bit ticked off. Now I’m not saying that frustration, annoyance, and anger are inherently sinful; emotions and feelings are a normal part of being human. However, just like a bruise is an outward sign of broken blood vessels, so can frustration be symptomatic of sin deeper down inside of us. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, this inward sin will manifest itself on the outside. This afternoon, God gave me a glimpse of my inward ugliness, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

You see, I like to be in control of my life, to make things go according to my timetable and schedule; I call myself “responsible” and “mature.” But whether I choose to admit it or not, the truth is that I really want to be the god of my own miniature universe, where everything revolves around me and my convenience. When something goes against my plan and the rubber meets the road—or the buses fail to come down the road—I get angry and frustrated and upset. Days like today reveal the giant gap between my “Jesus is Lord” lip service and my actual life service. How often I return to humanity’s major pit-Fall and seek equality with God. Lord, have mercy on me.

All that to say, today turned out nothing like I expected, and I would have definitely never chosen it for myself. But as much as it stunk in the moment (and I literally stink as a result), I’m very thankful for it. Because as unpleasant and frustrating as today was, I know that God used it to make me more like Jesus. Even when I mess up, I can rest in the knowledge that His grace is sufficient, and He’s not giving up on me. So I’ll keep praying for Him to refine me, even though it means I’ll probably have more days like today.

… besides, it still seems a lot safer than asking for a sense of humor. 😉

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