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I never meant to become addicted to coffee.

In fact, I almost made it all the way through college with barely touching the stuff. Sure, I’d occasionally indulge in a white chocolate mocha (a guilty pleasure) to get me through finals week, but I generally didn’t need caffeine to keep my brain afloat. But that all changed during the second semester of my senior year when I enrolled in a Latin American history class.

Don’t get me wrong; Latin American history is anything but boring. However, the combination of the class taking place from 3-4:15 in the afternoon and the professor speaking with a barely audible, essentially monotone voice (case in point: I sat in the second row and had to strain to hear him) made it very difficult to stay awake. And so on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I got in the habit of picking up a cup of coffee from my sorority’s kitchen. Thanks to this little boost, I managed to make it through the class… but I also began the downhill slope of my coffee addiction.

I spent the next year at the Kanakuk Institute, where daily classes from 8 a.m. to noon made coffee into an essential part of my daily routine. About halfway through the year, I learned the hard way that I needed coffee to stay awake. One of my classmates thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the rest of us. When he was on “breakfast duty”, he swapped the fully-leaded coffee grounds for decaf. We all filled up our travel mugs and headed to the morning’s lecture, completely unaware of his bait-and-switch. That is, until we began falling asleep in class and noticed him laughing in the back of the room. Although his joke was well played, our decaffeinated state made us all very, very unhappy.

Since starting graduate school five years ago, I’ve come to terms with my coffee habit. I try to keep it in check by only having two or so cups a day, though during exams and finals season, this number inevitably increases. Occasionally, I detox by going cold turkey, especially over Christmas break when my brain doesn’t need to be engaged with schoolwork. And overall, I’ve learned that, generally, if I have coffee within my “caffeine window” of 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., I won’t have any withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, though, I can get away with skipping my daily cup of joe and be just fine; it all depends on how tired I am, what I’m doing, and how active I am that day. For instance, if I’m out and about running errands or exploring a city, I may not need coffee. But if I’m reading at an archive, then caffeine is pretty much essential.

A couple weeks ago, I relearned this lesson the hard way. I was in Warsaw, doing my last bit of research at the Polish version of the State Department archives. This archive was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which are fairly limited hours compared with other archives. Plus, it was closed on Friday. Since I didn’t get into Warsaw until Monday, this meant that I would only have three days to plow through as much material as possible. Using my trusty Google maps app, I figured out my route for the 45-minute trip on two buses. I figured at least one of the bus stops would have a bakery nearby where I could grab a cup of coffee. But as you’ve probably guessed, I thought wrong. Not only was there no coffee shop anywhere in sight, but the archive itself was at the end of a long residential street essentially in the middle of nowhere. And unlike the German State Department archive, which has a vending machine for coffee (and even for milkshakes!), this archive had nothing. I was up an archival creek without a caffeinated paddle.

At first, I thought I’d be fine. After all, I am fine sometimes when I go without coffee. And besides, I had some ibuprofen in my backpack if I started to get a headache. Plus, I needed to work so intensely that a wave of adrenaline should have kicked in at some point.

… except it didn’t.

And neither did the ibuprofen. By 1 p.m., I had a splitting headache, I could barely keep my eyes open, and my Polish comprehension abilities had reverted back to a beginner level. To quote many a millennial, I literally couldn’t even, and the struggle was unbelievably real. At some point, I realized that my plan to tough it out simply wasn’t going to work. If I were to make it through the afternoon, I was going to need a caffeine injection STAT. Leaving the reading room, I asked a security guard (in broken Polish) for directions to the nearest gas station. Ten minutes later, I was halfway through an XXL-size cappuccino and felt significantly better. The caffeine had kicked in, and I knew I was going to make it through the day.

As I was waiting for the bus that afternoon and thinking about my day, a thought struck me:

How does my need for caffeine compare to my desire for Jesus?

I’ve been a Christian for many years now and have consistently carved out daily time with God for the last several years. And yet if I’m honest with myself, these “quiet times” can often become an item to check off my list rather than an actual encounter with my Savior. Especially when things are good and life is going well, it’s easy for me to slip into a routine in which these times are rushed, or if I am busy, non-existent. So while I may sing songs about loving Jesus and desiring His presence, these lyrics far too easily become empty words and good intentions, rather than an actual reflection of my heart.

Yet that’s not the way I want to be, nor is it the abundant, Spirit-infused life that I see in Scripture. The Psalmist talks about craving God, saying that “as the deer pants for the water brooks, [his] soul thirsts for God, the living God.” And elsewhere we are told to desire Him above all else and to rejoice in His presence. Put differently, if we love God, we should increasingly crave His nearness; our souls should need Him in the same way that our lungs need air or, to continue the above analogy, that my body needs coffee.

But if I’m honest, this is often not the case for me. All too often, I don’t crave Jesus, and I certainly don’t desire Him above all else. When I fail to spend intentional time with Him, my day tends to look pretty much the same; my soul doesn’t show withdrawal symptoms until much later. And even then, this frequently comes in the form of “I should read my Bible” rather than “I desperately need this time with God.”

Yet while this revelation is convicting, I take comfort in the fact that I want to want Him. This seems to be a good place to start. I am praying that the Holy Spirit would grow in me this thirst for Jesus and this hunger for His nearness and His presence, so that He would truly become my heart’s greatest desire.

And with that, my brain is now tired… time to find another cup of coffee. 😉

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Good (at) Grief

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There are certain compliments you really don’t want.

“You have a face for radio” or “she’s got a great personality” are the first that come to mind. I remember receiving one in middle school when my sister told me (in complete seriousness), “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, Steffi; I think you’re great.” Similarly, my dad told me that, in the army, you don’t want your annual report to say, “he/she takes criticism well.” After all, it’s better to avoid criticism by doing things correctly the first time.

Over the last two months, I have added another less-than-ideal compliment to my list: being “good at grieving.” And based on the number of times I’ve received this compliment, it would seem that I am. I’m not saying that, if grieving were a sport, I could go pro. But I apparently have a shot at the minor leagues.

What does it mean to “grieve well”?, you ask. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to wager, I would say that it might involve A LOT of the following: crying, taking walks around my neighborhood, listening to hymns on repeat, and talking the ears off of those family members and friends who don’t mind hearing the same things over and over again.

I’d also guess that grieving well means embracing whatever you are feeling in a given moment, no matter how unpleasant or unwanted that emotion may be. It means sleeping a bit later than usual, and then needing an extra hour in the morning to muster up the courage to face the day. It means being honest when you aren’t doing well, and then taking the steps to take care of yourself. But most of all, I’ve found that grieving isn’t just puffy-eyed crying (although that’s certainly part of it). No, being good at grieving means being okay with not being okay–and then giving yourself the grace to be angry, sad, or upset until you’re ready to feel okay again.

Grieving isn’t fun, even if you’re apparently “good” at it. Because let’s be real; we’d all rather avoid the loss in the first place. If I could rewind to 10.5 weeks ago, before things fell apart and prevent that from happening, I would. Once I realized that there would be no rewind or do-over, then I just wanted this process to be over. I so badly wanted a shortcut through this suckiness. But deep down, I knew that, just as there had been no detour around this situation, there would be no shortcut through it. The only way to emerge on the other side (if there really was another side) was to put my head down and trudge through it. And then trudge, and trudge some more.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there were days when my sadness felt like a permanent rain cloud, or like a lead apron from the dentist’s office had camped out on my heart. I couldn’t picture being happy again, let alone feeling moderately okay. Could the wounds inside me, still so deep and raw, possibly ever heal?

The pain isn’t fully gone yet, but it’s gradually becoming less intense. And while I’m not yet “better”, I am on the way to getting there. And as I look back over my shoulder at that darkness, here are few things I see. (*Caveat: Although grief is a universal process, people grieve in different ways. So feel free to take or leave my takeaways as you see fit.)

  1. Let yourself cry.
  2. Don’t grieve alone; open up and let people carry the pain with you.
  3. But while people can grieve with you, they cannot do it for you. Only you can go through the grieving process for yourself.
  4. Time is your friend. It won’t necessarily “heal all wounds”, but it can make your pain less acute.
  5. Grief is more cyclical (and circular) than linear.
  6. You may never get answers to your questions. And even if you do get them, they likely will not satisfy you in the way that you hoped. This is a hard truth, but there is freedom in accepting it.
  7. Though it may feel impossible, you will get through this season, and you will somehow know Jesus better for having experienced it.

That’s my current (still incomplete) list. I’m sure it will continue to grow as I journey further down this path. But I thought I would share it with you in the meantime because maybe you, too, are walking through a season of pain. If you are, please know that I am sorry. Keep hanging in there. And if you aren’t grieving but you know someone who is, maybe this list can provide some (meager) insight for helping them.

In the meantime, keep trudging, my friend. Someday, by God’s grace, the sun will fully shine again.

Ice, Ice-Bergy

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The Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri. This photo op was the closest I came to going inside.

In 2015, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Titanic.

I’d never actually seen the movie until that summer when I spent the weekend at my Omi’s house. In addition to our usual thrift-shopping/garage-saling and me learning (or attempting to learn) to bake, our hang-out times usually involve a classic movie or two. When I was younger, we would watch Anne of Green Gables, eventually making our way through the entire series. Then right before I moved to Atlanta, we watched Gone with the Wind. And so it seemed only natural that in the summer before I left for Germany we would add Titanic to the list. After all, I needed to see it at some point, and watching it with my Omi seemed like the best possible choice.

Needless to say, the movie that has been proclaimed one of the best films ever produced did not disappoint. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself sucked into the love story despite already knowing the tragic ending. I finally understood why Titanic got and, even 20 years later, continues to get so much hype. It really is a masterpiece. Depressing, yes. But a masterpiece all the same.

My experience of the Titanic did not end with the credits. Fascinated by both the original story and the making of the film, I started compulsively reading trivia and facts on the IMDB page and other fan websites. I found out about the captain, the ship’s architect, the band leader, and all sorts of other real-life characters from the movie. I learned about the ship’s construction and the iceberg that sunk it. I discovered that there really was a Titanic passenger named “J. Dawson”, whose grave in Canada remains one of the most visited (and decorated) by strangers to this day. And I read analyses by self-proclaimed “experts” about how there actually would have been room for Jack on that piece of wood if Rose had simply moved over. And then several hours later with all of this fascinating yet depressing information crammed in my head, I went to bed.

… which proved to be a big mistake.

You see, not only had my waking mind latched onto the Titanic, but apparently my subconscious one had become obsessed with it as well. That night, I had the first of many recurring nightmares about the Titanic. Sometimes, I was trying to hold onto the railings of the bow as it broke in half and sunk. Other times I was running through the ship’s hold as it filled with water. And in still other versions, I simply jumped overboard and hoped to make it. But in all cases, I woke up feeling upset and more than a little bit freaked out. And to make things worse, these dreams lasted not just one night but on and off for several months.

That said, my nightmares probably would have stopped sooner, had it not been for Celine Dion. Because not only could the abnormal amount of Titanic trivia floating around my brain trigger my nightmares, but I started hearing “My Heart will Go On” everywhere. I’m not kidding. For the next several months, I would hear this song or an instrumental version of it at least once a week and sometimes every other day. To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I also listened to playlists of classical music and soundtracks to study for hours at a time. But be that as it was, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular song was following me. And although there are worse stalkers that Celine Dion, I didn’t enjoy the nightmares that frequently accompanied her.

Fortunately, though, my Titanic-induced nightmares eventually faded away, and my sleep patterns finally returned to normal. Hallelujah. But recently, that doomed transatlantic liner has invaded my thoughts again in a relatively indirect, but no less impactful way.

Over the weekend, a dear friend let me know that I had recently behaved in an unkind and hurtful way. When I found this out, I felt awful. Not only had I been a jerk, but in the process I had hurt someone I care about. It’s one thing to do something stupid and harm myself, but it’s a completely different matter when my actions cause pain to another person. No Bueno. Even though after apologizing and receiving forgiveness, the situation and my action have continued to eat at me. And a few days ago, I realized why.

My sin is like that iceberg that sunk the Titanic. And because of that, my friend only saw the tip of a much deeper problem. Pride, selfishness, insecurity, envy, judgement—all these sins and more hide just below the surface of my life. While I’m often able to hide this, and I come off to most people as “nice” and “sweet”, I know the truth about what’s inside of me. My hurtful actions toward him were not an isolated problem, but the product of an iceberg’s worth of ugliness deep inside of me. Jesus recognized this about mankind (and about me) when He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19) and “Out of the overflow of the heart a man speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Needless to say, this is a hard pill to swallow, and I don’t particular enjoy being brought face to face with my own sin. But it’s far better than the alternative. You see, ignoring my sin or minimizing it is like not bringing enough lifeboats on the Titanic. It may work for a short time, but in the long run it will prove a tragic and costly oversight. Managing my surface-level symptoms will only go so far. If I really want to be free from own darkness, I need to admit that these sins live in me, and then bring them out into the light. Because try as I might (and try as I have), I can’t melt this iceberg on my own. I need God’s help to have an accurate view of myself and my sin. Though it’s painful and frustrating in the moment, it ultimately results in peace and freedom. This is why 1 John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I have been reminded of this many times recently. While I would have rather not acted hurtfully to begin with, I am grateful that God used even those self-inflicted crummy circumstances to re-teach me a truth about myself, His goodness, and His grace. He sees the complete iceberg of my sin and loves me in spite of it. And together we can chip away at it, until one day this ugliness in me will be no more.

Alright, I’m thirsty and it’s time for a drink break. Ice water, anyone? 😉

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Seen at the ice-sculpting competition in the parking lot of the Branson Titanic Museum. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

“Where are you, Christmas?”

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The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

The Sting

Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters in London, 2008.
Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters (London, 2008).

I found out Sunday on Facebook.

I was procrastinating on some work, per usual, by scrolling through my Newsfeed when I saw that one of my OSU professors had been tagged in a photo. As I read the accompanying caption, my heart sank. After 5+ years of fighting, Dr. Steve Harrist, professor of Educational Psychology and one of the kindest and most patient people I have ever met, had lost his battle with leukemia.

I didn’t study Educational Psychology, but I had the good fortune of taking a summer course with Dr. Harrist after my freshman year. Although the class only lasted two weeks, the final project extended well into the fall, with each student writing an original research paper. Because I was only a sophomore, I had never written a substantial college-level research paper. And so, even though summer had long since ended, my visits to Dr. Harrist’s office continued, as he patiently guided me through the process of brainstorming a project, asking good questions, sorting through sources, and articulating my findings. With his help, I later applied for a Wentz research grant to fund a follow-up study, which I would then complete with a history professor during my junior year. When I look back on my college career and think about my trajectory into graduate school, Dr. Harrist’s class stands out. Because even though he wasn’t a history professor, he taught me how to ask valuable questions and discover the answers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with Dr. Harrist very well the last few years. I knew his cancer had relapsed, but I had no idea how sick he was until he was already gone. And now my heart hurts. For his wife, for his kids, for his extended family, and all his friends. For his students, for his colleagues, and for all the countless other people whose lives this kind man touched. I am sad, and I am angry. Because Dr. Harrist was an incredible person, and he of all people should have lived a long and happy life. But he didn’t, and that feels wrong. So very, very wrong.

And although I’m not an expert on death and grief, I would hazard to guess that loss always feels that way, at least to an extent. Even when people live to old age and die peacefully in their sleep, we who are left behind still feel the injustice and tragedy of it. My mother’s parents passed away several years ago, both at fairly old ages and having lived fairly happy lives. But that knowledge, though helpful, falls short in comforting me. Because even though they both died long ago, I still miss them. My heart aches because they are not here, and I feel like they should be.

I’m fortunate in that, apart from my Nana and Opa, death has largely not left its mark on my family or my close circle of friends. But I don’t have to look very far to find friends or acquaintances for whom this is not the case. Since my cohort began grad school three years ago, 2 of our 7 students have lost their fathers. In my Kansas neighborhood, two children died tragically in freak accidents in 2013. I can name several people who have lost children, siblings, or parents in head-on collisions. The list goes on, and it will only continue to grow. Because as much as it sucks, death truly is a part of life on this earth. And, try as we might, there’s nothing we can ultimately do to prevent it.

But even though death has become normal in this “circle of life”, death was not part of God’s original plan. And I think that’s why naturally feel so angry, confused, and broken by death when it touches those around us—we know deep down that this isn’t right; this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Jesus even experienced this when his dear friend Lazarus died. If you’ve hung around the Bible trivia circuit long enough, this story probably makes you think of the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” But if you’re like me until recently, you probably never noticed that, before Jesus wept, he became livid. Most English Bibles translate this as “moved” or “deeply troubled”, but the more accurate translation is that He “snorted with anger”, like a war horse charging into battle. Yes, Jesus wept, but He wasn’t just sad. He was ticked. Death was not part of how His Father’s good creation was supposed to operate. Jesus not only knew in the sense that He is God and knows everything, but He acutely felt it when He lost His friend—even though He would bring Lazarus back to life just a few minutes later.

So if the world isn’t as it should be, why doesn’t God just fix it right now? I don’t have a good answer. The problem of evil and suffering is complicated, and theologians have spent thousands of pages and (literally) tons of ink to try to explain it. And while I too have attempted to tackle this question before, my reason for writing today is different. You see, I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately, not just because of Dr. Harrist’s passing, but also because of Easter. Let me explain.

In Atlanta, I attend an Anglican Church, and we follow the liturgical calendar. That’s Christianese for saying that we have special names for different times of the year or “seasons” in the church. For instance, during February and March, we were in Lent. Right now, we’re in Pentecost. And for the 50 days before Pentecost, we were celebrating Easter. And during Easter, we talked a lot about the Resurrection of Jesus and what this means for us as Christians and for the rest of the world. In the process, I ended up reading a book by NT Wright called Surprised by Hope.

While I don’t know if I would recommend this book from a pleasure-reading standpoint (Dr. Wright’s writing can be a bit dense at times), the former Bishop of Durham has helped me to rethink the idea of heaven and resurrection. Using a lot of Scripture as well as information about orthodox Judaism and first-century paganism, Wright argues that Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection not only happened, but was a complete game-changer. By coming back to life, Jesus inaugurated a whole new world, a whole new type of existence in which God’s future Kingdom is already begun here in the present. And moreover, just as Jesus was raised to life—physically, literally, bodily raised to life—so too will we be raised. Although I don’t know how this will work or what it will look like, I do know this: death is not the end of our story. Paul refers to the resurrected Jesus as “the first fruit”, the beginning or the down payment on this new world He is creating. And someday, though I have no idea when, God will finish what He started with Jesus 2,000 years ago. He will raise all believers to new, unending, and perfected physical life, in which we will never experience pain, decay, or death again.

That’s why Paul proclaims boldly that death will be “swallowed up in victory” and asks provocatively, “Death, where is your sting?” Yes, death does sting very painfully for those facing it and those touched by it. But its victory is only temporary, for as John Donne so perfectly wrote,

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me
[…]
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

For those who are in Christ, this is our hope. Yes, death is horrible, tragic, and heartbreaking, but it is not our end. For those of us who know Christ will also be raised with Him into a new world and a wholly remade creation. And in this place, He will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more.” So while we grieve, suffer from, and mourn over the loss of those we love, we do not have to lose hope. For as bleak and tragic as this world may be and our lives may become, our story will not end in sorrow. The hero will win, and the happy ending—or according to CS Lewis, the “happy beginning”—will be ours through Jesus Christ, who already defeated death. Amen.

Relentless Lenting

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Spring has sprung here in Atlanta. The birds are chirping, lawnmowers are running, and the pollen is everywhere. Even as I sit on my back patio to write this post, a fine layer of that allergy-inducing dust is already settling on my computer. But as much as I hate the pollen, I can’t help but love this time of year, especially in the South. The weather is beautiful, the flowers are blooming, and the city that hid away during the “depths of winter” is finally coming back to life.

Spring also means the beginning of the most important season in the Church calendar: Easter. Although the toy and electronics industry will try to convince you that Christmas is superior, Easter is more significant because it’s when we celebrate the death and resurrection of our Savior.

But I have a confession to make. I don’t always love Easter. Yes, I understand its theological implications. Yes, I intellectually grasp what it means that Jesus died and rose again. But if I’m truly honest, this “holiday of holidays” usually just passes me by, lost in the pollen-laden (and paper-writing) sands of time at the end of the school year. Life in the spring is especially hectic, and I don’t often manage to pause long enough to make Easter meaningful.

Back in the day, leaders in the Christian church recognized that this might be a problem for people like me, so they instituted a season called “Lent” leading up to Easter. During these 40 days of fasting, Christians are asked to make space in their lives to contemplate their own mortality and focus on God. As we “sacrifice” (by not eating chocolate or drinking coffee… or the other 99 things on this BuzzFeed list), we are called to remember Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.

This year, I tried really hard to observe Lent. I went to Ash Wednesday services, I gave up Facebook, I added more time of silence and contemplation into my schedule, and I even picked up a copy of Great Lent by the orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. I so badly wanted to make Lent meaningful, so that Easter’s celebration would be that much sweeter to me. But try as I did, nothing “worked”:  The silence I sought soon filled up with noise. I only made it halfway through Great Lent (and of what I did read, I barely understood any of it). And even though I did stay off of Facebook, I only succeeded because my mom had changed my password; on my own, I would have never had the self-control to make it. In the end, instead of becoming more focused on God, I just became more discouraged and distracted.

Sure enough, despite all my attempts at relentless “Lenting” (pardon the terrible pun), Holy Week managed to sneak up on me—and fill me with dread. Here I was, a week away from Easter, and I didn’t feel any closer to Jesus than when Lent had started. I’d griped my way through most of Lent, lamenting my workload far more than my sin. I felt like the disciples on that last night of Jesus’ life, when He asked them to stay up with Him to watch and pray. But over and over again, they fell asleep; they couldn’t do the one thing He asked. He needed them, and they failed Him. That’s exactly how I felt. Jesus had asked me to journey with Him during Lent, and—on the days I actually managed to peel myself out of bed and walk—I only managed to trip over my own feet. What an epic and miserable failure.

Still feeling discouraged last Wednesday, I hauled myself to church for our monthly evening of worship and prayer. During this time, we literally create space (by clearing out a lot of chairs) for people to (surprise) worship, pray, and spend time with God. As I sat there journaling, venting about my frustration and discouragement, writing about how stuck I felt and how my faith felt like a dead end, I suddenly stopped… and began to doodle.

Here I should pause and say that I never doodle. I tried when I was a kid and I got so disheartened by my abysmal stick figures that I quit. So sat there last Wednesday and felt the inexplicable urge to doodle, I couldn’t help feeling curious about what would happen.

No, the result wasn’t the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t even much of a drawing, per se. On the paper were two curvy lines, like a mountain range with the sun coming up over the ridge. (Or at least, that’s what I interpreted it to be; again, I am not artistically gifted.) And on top of the sun (or what looked like the sun), I wrote the phrase “new mercies.” Despite its childish simplicity, the image stirred something in me, and I thought of Lamentations 3:22-24,

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for Him.’”

Ever since last Wednesday, I’ve been pondering this passage, and over and over again I am struck by its beautiful simplicity. God is faithful. God is good. And His compassions—His mercies—are new, not just when first meet Jesus, not just on Easter, not just when everything is going our way or we are following Him perfectly, but they are new every morning. He loves us, truly and deeply loves us, and because of this we have hope and victory, rather than defeat. So even when I feel spent, even when I’m in a terrible mood, even when I don’t manage to follow Lent, He is still abundantly, absurdly, extravagantly compassionate, faithful, and good.

This, my friends, is the hope we have in Jesus. Even when we weak and full of frustration, brokenness, distraction, and shame, God meets us daily with His new mercies. He is just that good. No, my Lent didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, but He managed to redeem even that disappointment this week—by reminding me again of His unfailing love. Just like He proved on Easter by raising Jesus from the grave, our God brings life to the dead and lifeless places inside each of us.

Amen and Amen.

Now, where can I find some chocolate to celebrate? 😉

Stone Mountain Sunrise :)
Stone Mountain Sunrise 🙂

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.