A Backpacker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Duffel-bagging through rural Ireland :)
Duffel-bagging through rural Ireland 🙂

Backpacking (or in my case, “duffel-bagging”) is many things: an adventure, an exercise in minimalism, a diet. Above all, though, I contend that backpacking is a religious experience. Or at least it was for me.

I must start out by qualifying my status as a “backpacker.” My three weeks of living out of a bag was merely a short glimpse into the world that is backpacking. True backpackers do it for months at a time. Relative to them, I am a novice, an inexperienced tee-ball player with a view of the major league.

That being said, however, my three weeks of backpacking taught me so many, many things. Like, if there is free food, eat it. And if you pay for a meal, then by all means, eat the entire thing. Spoons and forks are precious commodities, and if your utensil is plastic, take it with you; you never know when you might need it. If a bathroom is free, then use it—even if you don’t need to. (Trust me, something dies inside when you have to hand over 1.50 euro just to pee) And the list goes on and on and on and on … don’t stop believin’… ha ha

On a more serious note, though, backpacking teaches you a lot about yourself, and, if you are a Christian, a lot about God. I could share with you all I learned, but I need to work on homework (I know, you thought based on my previous blogs and such that I never do homework. Well, I do…. Once a week. Ha ha). So, to keep things short (Me? Be concise? Wow. Miracles do happen.), I will just share with you my most memorable lesson and the story that goes with it.

Lesson: There are no coincidences.

I know you have probably heard that expression before. Either you agreed with it, or you opposed it. I’ve heard it my entire life, too, and most of the time, I tacitly agree with it. Yeah, sure, God is working. Yeah, sure, He has His hand in my life and what happens. But is He really involved in the little details? The minute day-to-day goings-on that even I don’t really care about? Before backpacking, I would have said “yes,” but I don’t know if I would have fully believed it. But now, I can’t deny it; God isn’t in the coincidence business. Here’s how I know.

If you have been keeping up with my semester abroad, you might remember that Jodie (Canadian friend) and I visited Budapest toward the end of February. Though I loved the city and had a wonderful time there, the experience itself wasn’t especially noteworthy, and, as such, I didn’t even have a blog entry about it. While in Budapest, we stayed at a place called “The Backpackers Guesthouse;” while we were there, we met a group of backpackers—4 guys (2 from Canada. Jodie was happy) and 2 girls—who had been traveling together for a while. We hung out with them a little bit during our two nights’ stay, but we didn’t go to the club with them or spend any significant amount of time with them. And when we left to come back to Graz, we basically said, “have a nice life” and then went on our way, never expecting to see any of them ever again.

Fast forward two months. Jodie and I are in Galway checking into Barnacles hostel when some guy asks the person at the front desk where he can find an internet café nearby. I didn’t notice his face (I think I was trying to dig my money out of my wallet or something), but after he left Jodie said, “Oh my goodness, I know him. I don’t know how, but I know him. I think he was at our hostel in Budapest.” Weird. But highly unlikely. And I didn’t see him, so I couldn’t make a judgment call either way. Plus, we were staying at a good-sized hostel, so even if he was here, our odds of running into him in the next two days was pretty slim. So we went up to our room (an 8-bed mixed dorm), where we saw a large backpack with the tell-tale Canada maple leaf patches sewn onto it. Hmmm. Two of the guys in Budapest were best friends from Canada. But that would be too crazy… there’s no way….


Sure enough, when we got back from the pub that night, Canadian-and-Budapest guy named John was there, staying in the same hostel, in the same room, in Galway, Ireland, of all places. What are the odds? There are none. Crazy.

After we reintroduced ourselves and shared several minutes of mutual shock and elation (we seriously couldn’t get over how bizarre this was), we settled down with our other roommates and started to play a drinking game. The same thing had happened in Budapest, and yet again, I politely declined, saying that I preferred to watch.
After an hour or so, when the others decided they were going to head out to a club and were getting ready, John stopped and asked me, “You didn’t drink in Budapest either, did you?”

I replied that no, I didn’t. And that he had a very good memory. He asked me the usual follow-up question, “Do you ever drink?” Instead of giving my standard answer of simply, “I have a gluten allergy” or “I just prefer not to,” for some reason, I said, “No, not really. I’m a Christian, and I want to honor God with all my actions. And I think that’s much harder to do after drinking a lot.”

To my surprise, the conversation didn’t stop there. He continued, telling me that he was a Christian too, or at least that he had been an altar boy as a kid, but now he didn’t believe any of it. He asked me if I was saving myself for marriage, and I said yes. And he wanted to know if I really believed all of it, and I said, yes, that my faith is the most important part of my life. I think he asked me a few other things, which I can’t remember now, but I do remember this. At the end of our conversation, he said, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” Wow.

A few minutes later, they headed to the club. Jodie and I saw John again briefly the next day but didn’t talk to him again except to say good-bye (with, of course, a “maybe we’ll see you again” ha ha). And that was basically that.

Someone far wiser than I am has likened God’s work to a tapestry. Countless threads of various vibrant shades are woven together to create a masterpiece of unspeakable beauty and intricate detail. As individual threads, we only get to see our little section; our perspectives are so limited. And even though we may know that this incredible tapestry exists, it’s very easy to forget that we are a part of it or to doubt its existence altogether. Sometimes, though, God gives us a moment to see from His point of view; He gives us a glimpse of the big picture, of his magnum opus in the making. For me, the conversation with John in Galway was one of those moments. I don’t know whether anything will come of it or if I will ever run into John again, but I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the great Artist is at work in John’s life, and that He made our threads cross paths again for a reason, though I may never know it. But this I believe with my whole heart:

There are no coincidences, only a masterpiece in the making. 🙂

(Originally posted on April 30, 2010. For more of my study abroad adventures, visit http://steffi-in-austria.blogspot.com/)


For Art’s Sake

One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. "Where is the art?" Who knows? :)
One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. “Where is the art?” Who knows? 🙂

It’s a new year. And one of my resolutions is to be more honest about my own weaknesses. So here is my first confession of 2014: I have a terrible memory for historical details… And I’m a historian-in-training. Uh-oh.

Fortunately, though, I don’t have a hard time remembering all details, just certain types of details. And military history is among the worst. I came face to face with this shortcoming during my junior year of college when I signed up for a class called “Civil War and Reconstruction.” I breezed through the first third of the course about the “antebellum period” (#SATword) and the last third about Reconstruction. But that pesky little third in the middle? Well, it posed a significant problem. You see, no matter how hard I studied, how often I quizzed myself, and how many flashcards I made and mneumonic devices I created (Ex: “Pea Ridge was no Confederate glee ridge”) , I simply could not remember anything about the Civil War itself. It just wouldn’t stick. And unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, in a class titled “Civil War and Reconstruction,” the Civil War is pretty significant. If it hadn’t been the generous help of my classmate John (who, incidentally, is now a PhD student in American Military History), I likely would not have passed that test. And even with all his help, keeping Appomattox Courthouse and Antietam straight in my brain was still an uphill—and often losing—battle. (Pun intended; metaphor accurate). I am just not cut out to be a war buff.

But if my comprehension of military history is terrible, my understanding of Art History is abysmal. Through high school and college, I had ample opportunities to enrich my knowledge of art through numerous European history courses. But as with military history, no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t retain the information. And to make my situation even more pathetic, I’ve seen much of this artwork firsthand. During my semester in Graz, I visited the Louvre, toured the papal museum at the Vatican, and wandered through most of the major art museums of Rome, Florence, and Venice. But apart from a handful of “big name pieces” (the ones that even Jeff Foxworthy’s 5th graders should know about), I can’t remember the specifics of what I’ve seen. If it weren’t for the hundreds of pictures I took, I would have absolutely no recollection. And this isn’t from a lack of effort either. It’s just that no matter how hard I try, Art History simply doesn’t stick in my brain.

There is one exception, however. In the sea of nameless (or better, names I’ve forgotten) artwork, a small collection of pieces stand out.

At the Accademia Gallery in Florence, just down the hall from the larger-than-life shepherd boy David, is a small group of work that Michelangelo never finished. These sculptures, together known as the Four Prisoners, were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but they were never completed. The Pope halted work on his funerary memorial, and Michelangelo found himself busy with other projects. When he moved to Rome in 1534, he left the Four Prisoners behind in his workshop, never to be completed. Today these half-carved sculptures stand neatly in a row, waiting for tourists like me to stop and stare. What were they supposed to be? How did Michelangelo want them to look? While we’ll never know for sure the answers to these questions, as I sat down to rest my aching study-abroad feet, I couldn’t help but wonder. What was the master creating them to be?

Four Prisoners

And that’s exactly why, 3.5 years later, I can’t get these four sculptures out of my mind. Because even though Michelangelo didn’t finish them, you can still feel what he wanted them to be. And even though they are made of cold hard marble, you can’t help but think that they are almost alive. It’s almost as if these half-completed sculptures spent their entire existence trapped, just waiting for the master to set them free. As if at Michelangelo’s touch, they began to stir and wake and they have spent the last six centuries straining against the stone that constrains them, hoping for that moment when the master’s work will be finished, and they will finally be complete, finally be who he intended them to be.

Just like me. And just like all of us.

You see, like those Four Prisoners, we are each trapped inside a block of brokenness and sin. Yet the Master has claimed us, and He recognizes a beauty in me—in each of us—that we cannot see in ourselves. In His hands, our marble hearts become malleable. He patiently carves away the uneven places, the broken spots, the jagged edges–everything that doesn’t look like Him. And just like Michelangelo with his chisel, He patiently transforms us into the beautiful new creations He made us to be. This is redemption in action; this is what God does for us.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Michelangelo never finished these sculptures. Maybe he got tired of working on them, maybe he moved onto what seemed like more promising projects, maybe they were just too heavy to haul to his new studio in Rome. Or maybe, like me, he saw in these unfinished Four Prisoners the message of restoration. Maybe he recognized in them, as I did, the beautiful tension of a creation ready to finish becoming.  And even though Michelangelo never finished this work, our Master will. We know that “that He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Because of this, I have hope. He’s not finished with me yet. And if you are in Christ, the same is true for you. So here’s to another year of the Master’s transforming work in our lives. Although we don’t know how it will turn out, we can rest assured that He won’t give up on us. Not for art’s sake, but for our sake.

… And maybe, just maybe, He can even help me understand military history. 😉

The PhDealio

My dear blogging audience, my dedicated readers, and all of you who stumbled across my blog because you ran a Google image search for “Dodge Caravan 1998”, I owe you an apology for disappearing for two-and-a-half months. I never meant to abandon you. I never forgot about you. And while you may have been far from my home page, you remained close to my heart. I’m very sorry for neglecting my blog for almost three months. 😦

Needless to say, I feel like I owe you an explanation for my extended absence. Last fall was my first semester of grad school—grad school for a PhD in European History. Yuck. If you’ve ever taken a history class, then you know that, like all the Liberal Arts, history requires a lot of reading. And in grad school, you actually have to read it…. ALL OF IT. Double yuck.

And wherever there’s a lot of “reading smoke,” there’s also “writing fire,” so to speak. Thus, last semester when I wasn’t reading, I was writing; and when I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And in those rare moments when I was doing neither, I was probably thinking about what I needed to read or write. Which meant that in my spare time, the last thing I wanted to do was stare at my computer to read or write. My blog obviously paid the price.

Having said that, I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to be a better blogger. I’ve heard from numerous sources (i.e. 2nd– and 3rd-year students in my program) that the first semester is the hardest. So now that I’m officially in my second semester, I presume that life will be full of butterflies, rainbows, and, of course, more blog posts. 🙂 And what better way to demonstrate my renewed commitment to blogging than with a blog post! And since I took last semester off, why not tell you all about it in this post?

The adventure begins on approximately December 11th. I say “approximately” because dates and details became hazy after Thanksgiving break; that’s when the two weeks from Hades began. As a history grad student, I need to be concerned about my grades; however, unlike my friends in the sciences, I don’t take final exams each semester. Instead, the major portion of my grades rests on final papers. And, of course, final papers are all due around the same time. Which meant that sometime between returning from Thanksgiving break and 7 p.m. on December 17th, I needed to write 50ish pages of original, A-worthy work. Yikes.

Here I need to interject that I am a diligent, self-motivated student. I had worked consistently on these papers for the previous three months, visiting my professors’ office hours, sending countless emails with questions, and sitting at my computer, reading and typing away. But because this was my first semester of grad school, I was constantly learning new things, and all the new things I learned needed to be incorporated into my final papers. More often than not, I would be forced to start again from scratch. So while the continual epiphanies were good in theory, in reality they were challenging. Because of this, I had approximately three weeks to get from square one to 50 pages of polished, finished product. Fortunately, I finished my 10-page paper for “Advanced Study in History” with relative ease and submitted it on December 11th.  This left me with less than one week to finish the remaining 40 pages of my first semester—15 for “Revolutionary France and Napoleon” and 25 for “Reformation Theology and Historiography.” Here are the highlights of the final stretch of my semester:

Monday, December 10th: I ask my mom to change my Facebook password, so I won’t get distracted. Goodbye, social media; hello, 16th– and 18th-century dead people.

Wednesday, December 12th: I wake up early and work all day, pausing only to do a much-needed load of laundry. At 7 p.m., I arrive at my small group Bible study’s Christmas party. At 7:04 p.m., I have an unexpected miniature breakdown. Under the supervision of a friend, I bawl for 15 minutes in the backseat of my car. My mascara is gone, but I feel significantly better. IMG_5868

Thursday December 13th: I wake up early and work all day again, stopping only to visit my Reformation professor’s office and ask some last-minute questions. Sick of working in my room, I turn the kitchen table into a paper-writing space. I return home and work until my Kamp friend Lydia comes from Florida to spend the night before catching her flight the next day.IMG_5870

Friday December 14th: After dropping Lydia off at the MARTA station, I head home and—guess what?!—work all day (are you starting to see a pattern?). That evening, my Reformation class eats dinner together at our professor’s house. Social interaction is a welcome distraction. The thermostat at my house dies, but I don’t have time to figure out how to fix it. IMG_5881

Saturday December 15th: The pressure increases as remaining time decreases. My appetite disappears, and my stomach starts to hurt. Pepto Bismal and chicken broth suddenly sound delicious. I also drink approximately 5 cups of coffee. Tired of sitting for a week straight, I run for an hour, logging exactly 7 miles. Around 7 p.m., I realize that I have more to do than I can possibly get done, so I psych myself up for what will become an almost all-nighter. More coffee and pepto bismal. Yum. Unable to keep myself awake, I fall asleep around 3:30 a.m. after setting an alarm for 7.IMG_5875

Sunday December 16th: Unfortunately, my alarm does not go off. But fortunately, my body jolts awake at 8 a.m.  After brewing another gigantic pot of coffee (and dressing it some vanilla creamer from the massive bottle my roommate so kindly left me; thank you, Sarah!), I settle in to work again. T-minus 33 hours until the world—or at least my semester of grad school—ends. Again, I work all day, pausing only to attend the evening service at my church. After coming home from church, I brew yet another massive pot of coffee and settle in for another incredibly late night. Around 12:30 a.m., I find myself nodding off, but I fight through the exhaustion by having a one-person dance party in my kitchen to the Kamp classic “Go Buck” by Flame. At 2:30, though, my brain is done for the day. I fall asleep only after making sure that my alarm for 6:30 will go off this time.


Monday December 17th: The final stretch is here. The clock is ticking as the hours dissolve into single digits. Mercifully, all I have left is some editing, part of a conclusion, and citations. Needing a mental distraction, I half-watch, half-listen to a movie in the background as I add the citations. All seems well. I drink more coffee. At 3:45 p.m., I finish the citations and edits for my Reformation paper only to discover that, because of my editing, my paper is now a page and a half short with a little over an hour left before it’s due. Frantically, I manage to come up with another 750 words to fill the gaping void. At 4:56 p.m., I email the finished copy to my professor. I work another hour and forty-five minutes on the French Revolution paper. Finally, it’s done and submitted. I meet my friends at a burger joint and enjoy my first real meal in three days. IMG_5887

Monday December 17th at 9:25 p.m.: After dinner with my friends, I wheel an over-sized suitcase full of books to the library where I exhaustedly, euphorically and half-unconsciously drop them two-by-two into the return slot. I wheel it empty back to my car. My first semester of graduate school is finished. Praise God.IMG_5886

As you can see, the final few weeks of my semester were a wee bit crazy. In fact, on multiple occasions, I wondered if I was going crazy. But even in the midst of the late nights, emotional breakdowns, and pots of coffee, I experienced an incredible peace. I knew that God was with me, that He was helping me, and that everything would be just fine. I didn’t need to worry or freak out because He was taking care of me. Together, we could do this; all I needed to do was rely on Him.

I know that the first semester of grad school is a relatively small trial compared to challenges that many people face. But I’m learning that it’s not the size of our struggles that matter; it’s the size of our God that counts. Though circumstances change,  our God never does, for He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And He’s always with us, no matter what we’re going through–be it divorce, cancer, abandonment, heartbreak… or a really hard first semester of graduate school. He doesn’t despise our neediness, and He never holds our weakness against us. On the contrary, He enters into our humanity and becomes our strength. After all, it’s in our weakness that His glory shines best.

So wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, remember that God is with you. Be encouraged and don’t give up. Oh, and if you have a blog, try not to neglect it for three months straight. 😉 God bless.

Color Me Happy (New Year)

rascal coloring

I hate coloring books.

Okay, “hate” may be too strong of a word. Maybe a better choice would be “highly dislike.” No, coloring books never did anything to me; I just never particularly liked them. My little sisters, on the other hand, LOVE coloring books. In fact, to this day they still get coloring books as gifts for most major (and even some minor) holidays. Especially Rascal. She’s moderately obsessed with them. But me? I never got into them.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have coloring books. On the contrary, I had quite a collection. I just never colored in them; instead, I traced them. Looking back, I now recognize that as moderately pathetic, but in a weird way it still makes sense to me. If I colored the pictures (as most normal people do), that would be it; I would never get to color them again. My decision would be made, and they would forever be pink or blue or green or some unfortunate combination of the same. BUT if I traced the pictures, I could enjoy them forever and ever. So if I used a color I didn’t like or accidentally went outside the lines, no problem! Simply retrace the original and—viola!—I’d magically have another chance. Minimal risk, maximum results—that was my approach to coloring books. After all, why color when I could trace?

My tracing theory seemed to work quite well. Over my childhood, I cranked out a massive collection of beautifully-colored pictures (at least, my mom said they were beautiful). And when I saw my artwork hanging on the fridge, held up by free Pizza Hut magnets, I grinned and felt like the next Picasso. Precision was my purpose, and thanks to my tracing technique, I could eventually make every picture perfect. Except one problem remained: there were only so many pictures. Before long, I’d exhausted the entire supply of my simple-to-trace coloring books. Thus, what my magic-marker masterpieces boasted in perfection, they lacked in variety. And worse, because they were all loose-leaf copy paper rather than bound in the coloring book, my pictures were eventually lost; my magnum opus vanished without a trace. Bummer.

I realize this coloring-book story probably sounds silly. I mean, what kind of kid doesn’t actually use a coloring book? The kind of kid who grows up to be me. With age comes understanding, and as I’ve gotten older, I now understand the reason for my pathological tracing:


Fear of failure, fear of commitment, fear of the color purple (just kidding), fear of letting go. I so badly want to be in control of my life, to manage it, to keep everything neat and tidy and perfectly inside the lines that I get stuck. Stuck in guilt, stuck in regret, stuck in my own frustration. The world is full of oranges and greens and blues and pinks, a veritable rainbow of possibilities just waiting to be tasted, yet so often I choose to stick with my number two graphite grayness. The choice isn’t conscious, but it’s habit-forming. My fear keeps me trapped, and as a result my coloring-book of life remains pitifully, pathetically, and disappointingly empty.

But what if it doesn’t have to be like that?What if there’s more than this dull and colorless existence? What if we were made for more than this? What if you and I and all the other color-phobic people in the world have a choice, a choice to create, imagine, and enjoy life to its fullest? What if all that were possible?

It is.

You see,  the Creator of the universe, the One who paints the wings on butterflies and makes the flowers grow, that same God fashioned you and me. The ultimate Artist crafted us with creativity in mind. He made us to make things—to live and love and color the pages to our heart’s content. Yes, He drew lines for you to stay inside, but rather than causing frustration or fear, those limits are life-giving; after all, without the lines, there would be no picture. Your life is a work of art, a masterpiece just waiting to happen. But if, like my childhood self, you spend your time cautiously tracing and retracing, you’ll miss the point and have nothing to show for it. Safer isn’t always better.

So in 2013, be brave. Wield the magic marker, not the colored pencil. Pick your favorite crayon, be it cerulean, jungle green, or tickle-me-pink, and create. Don’t let critics—whether internal or external—hold you back. Feel the freedom of living beyond your fears. Use bold strokes. Read between the lines and see the big picture. Learn from your mistakes. Know that this life is your gift, a page that only you can color. And above all else, remember that the Master Artist is the only Audience who matters. Because of Him, you can be free; because of Him, you don’t have to be colorblind anymore.

2013 is a blank slate, a clean sheet, a picture eager to be colored in. The pages are open and ready, loaded with possibilities. What color will you choose first?

Rascal Coloring

Split Seconds

(Originally Posted on October 17, 2010.)

Sometimes a split second makes all the difference.

Sunday October 10th around 9 p.m. was the time of one such split second. Jake Henry, 21, and his girlfriend of 8+ years Stephanie Conn, 22, were driving back to the University of Kansas after a day visiting their families. But they never made it to Lawrence. Instead, they were in a head-on collision with a vehicle attempting to pass from the other direction on the undivided, two-lane highway. And in a split second, three precious lives disappeared from this earth forever.

On Friday morning, I attended Jake and Stephanie’s funeral. Mrs. Henry, Jake’s mother, was my sisters’ and my high school Latin teacher, and as such is very dear to our family. Although I had never met Jake, Mrs. Henry had entertained us with enough stories about him that I knew all about him. But when we entered the church for the funeral, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I would cry, but I didn’t realize that my life would be so impacted. Forever.

You see, Stephanie and Jake may have seemed like typical college seniors. But they were so much more than that. As middle- and high-school sweethearts, they planned to marry shortly after graduation and enjoy happily-ever-after together. They loved and honored each other, putting the other before themselves. Frugal, they were good stewards of the money they worked so hard to earn. They cared greatly for their families, putting them before everything else. Firm believers in the value of doing the right thing, they lived morally and set an example for those around them. Funny, compassionate, joyful, and kind, Stephanie and Jake were the sort of people you would want for your best friend, knowing you could always, always count on them.

But most of all, what made Jake and Stephanie so special—what made them stand out from the rest—was simple: their faith in Jesus as their Savior. And their desire to live every day for Him.

God called these two stellar young people home. Too soon, it would seem, especially to their families who are still reeling from the loss. Even in the epicenter of sorrow, their Heavenly Father has a purpose, and His timing is perfect. And He catches every tear that falls for Jake and Stephanie, and holds their families’ breaking hearts.

I’m sorry to be so serious. It’s hard to be upbeat when thinking about this subject. But even in the midst of this darkness, God leaves a lesson, and with it a bright ray of hope.

Stephanie and Jake have passed on to heaven, but their legacy remains. Together, they touched countless people, many of whom came to their joint visitation and funeral. They lived well, laughed often, loved much—and most importantly, pointed others to their Savior. God used their lives to make the world a better place, and His plan continues even with their deaths. Though it’s impossible to understand such a tragedy, though we can’t grasp why God would call them home so soon, He remains faithful, and He will fulfill His purpose. Because God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good.

All that being said, I did a great deal of thinking this weekend. And my mind kept returning to the same question: What kind of legacy am I leaving?

You see, this life doesn’t last forever, as last Sunday’s accident clearly demonstrates. When we are no longer here, people will remember us for what we did, both good and bad. Our life is made up of myriad different legacies; we leave an impact wherever we are: at school, in our living situation, with our friends, with random strangers who cross our paths—in everything. Each experience is an opportunity to leave a footprint, a mark on this world. We shouldn’t just worry about a legacy when thinking about our eulogy one day; rather, we should strive every day to make a difference in the world and lives around us.

Nicole Nordeman, a Christian artist, expresses this notion well, in her song titled “Legacy”:

“I want to leave a legacy. How will they remember me? Did I choose to love? Did I point to You enough to make a mark on things? I want to leave an offering. Child of mercy and grace who blessed Your name unapologetically—to leave that kind of legacy.”

So that’s my challenge and prayer for you—and for me—today. Decide what sort of legacy you want to leave, and then start living like it. Now. Because you never know what the next split second might bring.

God bless. And please keep the Conn and Henry families in your prayers.

(This repost is dedicated to Connie Henry. Thank you for letting me use this blog to share Jake and Stephanie’s legacy. Love you and praying for you, dear friend. Psalm 34:18)

Right On Track

I never meant to run track. In fact, I wanted to be a softball player, just like my mom. She’d been a star high school pitcher and even went on to play in college. Although I knew a career in the NCAA was out of my league, I figured that I could at least make the BVHS roster. However, I forgot to factor in a few minor details.

1)      I couldn’t throw overhand. For years I had tried, but to no avail. My arm simply wouldn’t cooperate. And apparently, throwing is an important part of softball.

2)      Batting was a challenge. Although I could zip around the bases with semi-remarkable speed, I had a hard time getting on them. Which is kind of essential.

3)      Try-outs aren’t my forte. Something about performing athletically under pressure—and the watchful eye of a coach—makes me really nervous. As a result, the week of try-outs was disastrous. During the pitching session on Monday morning, I got nailed in the head with a softball. And it was all downhill from there. By the way, the term “softball” is a misnomer; they are definitely not soft.

Needless to say, my high-school softball career was short-lived. And by that I mean that it never even existed. Somehow I made the C-team, (I think the coach felt sorry for me because of the large bruise on my forehead), but even that didn’t last long. After a week of failing miserably at practice, I faced the warm-up music and realized that Kansas 5A softball wasn’t for me.

But I’ve never been one to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs, so I needed something else to do. And that’s when my former volleyball coach suggested I go out for track. At this point, I’d never run more than a couple miles at a time—and even then I thought I might die. Freshman year I started to run a little; volleyball conditioning and PE class had whipped me into better shape. (At the end of the year fitness test, I decided to run the mile with the guys instead of the girls. But at the starting line, I accidentally tripped Matt Sobcyzinski, and he fell on his face. I still feel bad about it). Anyway, I’d always been athletic, but I had never considered myself a runner. So I took her advice and came to practice. And that’s when I fell in love with running.

Scratch that. I fell in love-hate with running.

You see, running is not an easy-to-love sport. Yes, you can love the results of running, or you can love the satisfaction of finishing a race or a difficult route. But with the exception of a few top athletes (or clinically crazy folks), you can’t always love running. Because running is hard; it’s exhausting. Heck, it involves breaking down the bonds between your muscles and depriving them of oxygen for extended periods of time. Yuck. Though rewarding, running isn’t always pleasant. But for some reason, I keep doing it. Why? Great question.

Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote about running, and his words might hold a few clues. I don’t know if he competed in the first annual Nike sandal 10K, or if he was part of the “run barefoot” movement, but he understood running and my paradoxical relationship with it. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, he urges believers to “run in such a way as to get the prize” and to “rejoice when [they] run into trials and problems, because they develop endurance” (Romans 5:3). But my all-time favorite Paul-ism on running comes from Philippians 3,

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Just like I’m more motivated to run if I’m training for a specific race or goal, Paul encourages us to run with the end in mind. If I sign up for a half-marathon in July (which would be crazy since July is ridiculously hot!), my likelihood of running consistently skyrockets. Having a tangible goal is essential to successful training. Otherwise, I’ll take every chance to eat that bag of potato chips rather than jog around the block. But if I have a race ahead of me, suddenly my workouts take on a whole new meaning and purpose. I’m no longer running aimlessly or just for the heck of it; no, I’m running to win… or at least a finisher’s medal.

In the same way, Paul urges us to run with purpose. Don’t look backward; that’s a great way to face-plant. Instead, look ahead and press on toward Christ. HE is your goal; HE is your prize. Keep your eyes fixed on Him, and run for all you’ve got. No, it won’t always be fun. Yes, you may trip or get a shin splint or two. You will get tired, and you will be frustrated sometimes. But in the end when you cross that heavenly finish line, you’ll hear the saints and your Savior cheering your name.

So in the meantime, “we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God.” (Hebrews 12:1-3, The Message).

I’ll see you on the track. 🙂

Because He Lives

Writer’s block. Symptoms include sweaty palms, churning stomachs, mental congestion and, worst of all, an empty page. Causes for this dreaded disease can vary, but the result is the same: the inability to express one’s thoughts and emotions—not just ineffectively, but not at all.

Fortunately, I’ve only suffered from writer’s block a few times in my life, and it’s been easily circumvented by a change of location, a jog around the neighborhood, or a random outburst of gibberish. Sometimes, though, on very rare occasions, I can’t break free. Right now is one of those occasions. When I don’t just stub my toe or bark my shin, but slam my whole body into that treacherous, unexpected and wholly uninvited writer’s block. Ouch.

Earlier today, a friend/fellow wordsmith and I were discussing this common conundrum. To our dismay, we came to this conclusion. The more important the topic is to you, the more difficult it is to write about. Her suggestion was simple: write from the heart; write for yourself. The audience will appreciate it.

So now as I sit to write about my trip to Israel, I will do my best to follow her advice. Here are my thoughts and impressions; here is a glimpse into my heart—and the land where my Savior captured it again. Bear with me. I can’t promise it will be perfect, but I sincerely believe (and earnestly pray) it will be worth it.

My journey to Israel began back in October during a conversation with my father. Habitually frugal (and borderline stingy), I’d already made up my mind not to go to Israel. But when I called my parents for their affirmation in this decision, I found exactly the opposite. Much to my surprise, my dad suggested, even insisted, that I go, saying that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I should definitely take it. So, slightly bewildered but inwardly excited, I wrote a check for my deposit and made a copy of my passport. I would be going to Israel.

Fast forward a few months. We started having meetings about the trip. In the midst of learning what to pack, what NOT to say at an airport, and how to discreetly make your lunch using the breakfast buffet and some cleverly concealed Ziploc baggies, we also received a list of Scripture passages to read and things to pray for. The preparation had officially begun. But little did I know what God was preparing to do in my heart.

Then Friday February 24th finally arrived. All at once (i.e. after a five-hour bus ride to St. Louis, a three-hour flight to Philadelphia, and an eleven-hour haul to Tel Aviv), we were in the Holy Land. Where Jesus lived. Where Jesus walked. Where the most important event in history happened. We were really there. Wow.

I repeat. Wow.

For the next eight days, our group of 56 students and adults followed our wonderful guide Herzl, a Messianic Jew (he believes Yeshua is the Messiah!), on an unforgettable journey through Israel. We floated in the Dead Sea. We rode camels and stayed the night in Bedouin tents. We honored the victims of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem museum. In a word, it was awesome.

But we didn’t just follow Herzl; no, we also followed our Savior and walked in His footsteps. Into the wilderness where Satan tempted Him. Into the water of the Jordan River where He was baptized by His cousin John From the synagogue to Peter’s house in Capernaum where He healed his mother-in-law. To the edge of the cliff where the people of Nazareth tried to stone Him. Down the street of Bethsaida where the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touched his cloak and was instantly healed. Onto the hill where He preached the Sermon on the Mount. To the Pool of Bethesda where, because of Him, a crippled man leapt for joy for the first time in 38 years.. Onto a boat in the Sea of Galilee where He calmed the storm with the words, “Be still.”

To Jerusalem. Up the road where the crowds waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Up the southern steps of the Temple to Solomon’s portico, where He turned over the tables of the money changers. To the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane where He sweated the first drops of His precious blood during His agonized prayer, “Not My will, but Yours be done.” To the house of Caiaphas the high priest, where He was questioned and flogged. To the Antonia Fortress, where Pontius Pilate washed his hands and gave Him over to be crucified. And to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where this Jesus—this precious, sinless, perfect Jesus—willingly sacrificed Himself for humanity. And as He was dying, the very people He came to save mocked Him, saying, “Save yourself, Savior!” We saw where He breathed His last as the Temple curtain was torn and the ground broke open. Against all hope, the Author of Life had died. Crushed by the weight of this cruel reality, this unbelievable injustice, we followed Him across the way to a tomb in the garden. But when we went inside, we discovered what we already knew: He wasn’t inside! Why? Because He is risen, just as He said!

Even now, almost a week later, I’m still elated by all I saw and experienced. And as I attempt to sift through the gold mine of experiences (and my 1,917 photos), I’m drawn again and again to this simple truth: My Jesus is real.

He’s not simply a storybook character or a Jewish version of Ghandi. He wasn’t just a good man who said some nice things. He wasn’t forgettable, and He can’t be ignored. No, quite the contrary. He is the very real, wholly unforgettable, impossible-to-ignore risen and reigning Son of God. He really lived; He really died, and He really rose again. And He’s living now—inside of me and all who trust Him as Savior.

And here’s something even crazier: You don’t have to go to the Holy Land to find Him. No special, epic pilgrimage is needed. This very real Savior is here in this moment waiting to meet you wherever you are. He asks you the same question from He gave His disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Either He is who He says He is—the one and only Savior of the world—or He’s not. You’re free to answer however you please, but, choose wisely, because your answer changes everything. There’s no room for fence-riding; indifference isn’t an option. You must choose, but the choice is ultimately yours.

Maybe you already know Him and are pursuing a relationship with Him. If so, great! Be encouraged and keep it up! Or maybe this “Jesus stuff” is as foreign to you as falafels. If you claim the latter, don’t worry. You see, following Jesus is the biggest, most life-altering decision you could make; it’s not to be taken lightly. So my challenge to you is this: Take some time and get to know Him. Start now; don’t wait. Read the Gospel of John; see how He lived. Take His invitation to come and see Who He is, and then decide your answer. Maybe you’ll conclude that this Jesus thing isn’t for you. That’s fine; you can choose as you please. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll see Him for who He is, your Savior. Maybe you’ll follow to that empty tomb and realize, like me, that there’s no turning back. And, like me, you’ll want the whole world to know your Jesus too. Not just because He really lived.

But because He really lives.