(Extra) Ordinary

reunification post2

From the outside, it may seem like my life is anything but ordinary. I’m a grad student which means I’m (perpetually?) stuck in limbo between college and “real” adult life. I study history, which means that even when I do graduate and get a “real” job, it probably won’t be a “normal” one in the 9-to-5 sense. And because I study German history, I am spending a year in Berlin doing the research for my dissertation. And if all of that weren’t strange enough, we’ll just toss in the fact that I’ve been in Kraków the last three summers (trying) to learn Polish.

Even as I write down this mini resume of sorts, I find myself thinking that my life sounds pretty awesome and, oddly enough, if I weren’t the one living it, I’d probably be envious. And while I am enjoying it, and I am grateful for it, I can’t help but be struck by the sense of cognitive dissonance: that while my life and especially my current situation seem amazing on paper—or, perhaps more accurately, on social media—my life is actually quite ordinary, unexciting, and, well, normal.

You see, even though I’m living in Berlin, I’m not really a tourist. Yes, when friends come to visit, I show them around the city, take them on tours, and treat them to currywurst. And when certain really cool things happen—like attending the celebration for the 25th anniversary of German reunification—I’ll even post a picture on Facebook about it. But the reality is that I’m here to study and to work, which kind of makes Berlin an extension of my library office in Atlanta. Yes, it’s a much more exciting “office”, with museums and history and very tattooed and interesting people, but in many ways it’s still an office because I’m here to do my work.

Now don’t get me wrong; I am making time to fun things. I bought a year-long museum pass (which is fun for nerds, I promise!), I’ll be going to Karneval in Cologne (think Halloween costume party on steroids), and in a week I’ll be showing my best friend all around the city (I literally can’t wait!). But as awesome as these things are, they are more the exception than the rule, at least in how my time pans out. Most of my day is spent working in an archive, at my kitchen table or (less successfully) in the library. In the evenings, I may run, go grocery shopping, do laundry, catch up with friends, maybe watch TV and then go to bed. At 8 a.m., I wake up and start the process all over again, and the same continues until the weekend rolls around.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while I’m living in a really cool city with a fascinating history and a happening cultural scene, I’m still living here. And living includes a lot of really boring, ordinary, mundane things—things that don’t make the fancy Instagram-able cut. And in the midst of this ordinary-ness and my growing awareness of it, I’m starting to realize this: if life even in the most exciting places consists of a lot of unexciting things, then what we do with the ordinary must matter.

As I’ve been processing through this (often while doing boring things, like the dishes), I keep coming back to these words of Oswald Chambers: “Jesus Christ will not help me to obey Him, I must obey Him; and when I do obey Him, I fulfill my spiritual destiny. My personal life may be crowded with small petty incidents, altogether unnoticeable and mean; but if I obey Jesus Christ in the haphazard circumstances, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands and thousands were blessed […] If I obey Jesus Christ, the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God.”

Now, there’s a lot going on in this paragraph, and I don’t know if I fully grasp it all. But after a few days of ruminating on these hundred-year-old words, I’m starting to see that the ordinary things that make up most of our lives really do matter. Boring, insignificant, and silly as they may seem at the time, they do have a purpose. And somehow, by being faithful in them, we grow closer to and become more like God. No, I don’t understand exactly how my dishwashing, toilet scrubbing, room cleaning, and grocery shopping come to have eternal significance–or even what that eternal significance that might be. But I can still attest to the fact, that somehow in some way, when we learn to commit even the most ordinary activities to the Lord, we encounter Him in them. And through His presence, a sort of spiritual alchemy takes place, and the once-ordinary things somehow become holy, set apart, and even beautiful.

I don’t understand it, I can’t explain it, and right now I can’t even think of Bible verses to specifically back it up. And yet all the same, I’m finding it to be true. And I’m finding that having this perspective can make even the most ordinary things seem (pardon the terrible pun) a little bit extraordinary.

“You have a bad day…”

Good days include views like this...
Good days include views like this…
... watching the Berlin marathon...
… watching the Berlin marathon…
ritter sport
… and, of course, Ritter Sport chocolate. 🙂

Some days are great. The sun shines brightly, I have an extra spring in my step, and the world is my figurative oyster.

Since coming to Berlin 2.5 weeks ago, I’ve been fortunate to have many of these days. I found a church immediately, joined a small group, and met many really awesome people through that. Only a week after arriving, I managed to buy a bike for well within my budget, so now I can get around the (massive) city with relative ease. I even managed to register with the Bürgeramt (bureaucratic office) after only 2 days of trying, which I’ve heard is next to impossible. To top it all off, I have a wonderful roommate, Nutella in my cupboard, and cornflakes every morning. Yes, many days are great.

But on the other hand, some days aren’t all that awesome. You might think that, because I’m “living the dream” and doing my dissertation research in Berlin that everything would be hunky-dory. I usually think like this. And when I catch myself not being happy enough, I start saying (sometimes aloud) stuff like, “Get it together, Steffi!” and “Be happy, Steffi!” … which can be dangerous because there are a lot of German girls named Steffi, haha. I want to be happy. I want to be content. I want to experience joy. But if I’m completely honest, that’s sometimes just not the case.

Yesterday was one of those days. I was minding my own archival business when I stumbled upon a 20-year-old dissertation that bears an eerie resemblance to mine. And to make things worse, this discovery came just a week after I had a major breakthrough with my own project. After months years of trying to nail it down, I’d finally managed to nail down what I am doing and why it matters. And just as my happiness balloon had started to get off the ground, the “reality Grinch” snuck up behind me and popped it, leaving me feeling sad and deflated once again. All I wanted to do was crawl back under the covers and cry. But I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.

Grad school can be like that—a stupid, frustrating, manic emotional roller-coaster with no apparent way off. You can spend countless hours trying to carve out your own minuscule niche in the vast universe of knowledge… only to find out that the spot was taken decades ago. Uggggghhhhh.

Yes, I know that I’m ranting. Yes, I realize that this isn’t the end of the world. And yes, I even get that my dissertation’s Doppelgänger can’t be exactly like mine simply because I am a different person, using different sources, and writing at a different time. I understand all of this and can accept it on a rational level. But sometimes, like right now, I just don’t feel like being rational. Right now, I just need to be able to rant.

In moments like this, I don’t really feel like reading the Bible. And yet, if I stop and think about it, I’m profoundly grateful for the example it provides, especially in the Psalms. In a remarkably short span of verses, the psalmists often experience and express a whole range of human emotion: anger, frustration, discouragement, guilt, sadness, etc. This encourages me, not only because I identify with many of these feelings, but also because they remind me that God has room for my complaints. I don’t have to have everything together to approach Him; I don’t need to wear a happy face to enter His presence. Instead, He lets me meet Him exactly as I am—irrational rant and all. And I find this to be strangely comforting, like the spiritual equivalent of someone saying, “That stinks, and I’m sorry”, instead of trying to fix it. Sometimes there is no solution, or if there is, I’m not ready to accept it yet. Because sometimes I just need the room to rant and blog and cry.

Yesterday was crappy. In many ways, the sun did “come out tomorrow” (by that I mean, today), and I have a much better perspective on my situation. I know that everything will be alright and, at some point, this bad day will just be a distant memory (albeit one immortalized in a blog post). And looking back on yesterday, I am thankful for family, friends, and a Savior who love me enough to let me be upset. And I’m grateful for the Psalms and for their tangible reminder that feelings, even negative ones, are okay.

That said, I could still use some comfort food. Where did I put that Nutella?

Amen.
Amen.

Growing (On) Trees

Our house in August 2003.
Our house in August 2003.
Our house in 2003.
Our house in August 2003.

12 years can go by fast.

On August 14, 2003, my family (and our way-too-many belongings) left the house where I grew up and moved to another house across town. The move coincided with a lot of changes in our lives. I was leaving the private school I’d attended since second grade to start at a brand-new public high school. And after years of paying rent in a corporate building, my dad was moving his law practice into our home, exchanging his daily 20-minute traffic-filled commute for a few steps up and down the stairs. Thus, the new house filled a double need: it had the perfect space and layout for my dad to meet with clients, and it was located a mere .8 miles from my soon-to-be high school. The set-up couldn’t have been better. And as if to emphasize this perfection, our moving day even coincided with my first day of class, which meant that I left for school from one house to return home to another. In a span of just a few hours on a single day, our new lives in our new house had begun.

A lot has happened since then. I finished high school (and even had a stint as the mascot my senior year!), graduated from Oklahoma State, completed the Kanakuk Institute, and have survived my first three years of graduate school. From that perspective, August 2003 was a looooonnnnngggg time ago (and when I see pictures from my fourteen-year-old self, I am very grateful for that!). But time can be a funny thing. Because despite having lived here for 12 years, this house somehow still feels “new” to me.

But although my mind’s eye plays tricks on me, my actual eyes see a different story. Recently, my mom started transferring old photos from floppy disks (another testament to the passage of time) onto our computer. Somewhere between pictures of my awkward middle-school days (#unfortunate) and our family’s ill-fated trip through the Southwest, she stumbled upon photos of our moving day. When I saw them, I couldn’t help but stare—not just because my parents let me wear those clothes to high school, but because of how different our neighborhood looked. And it wasn’t just the empty lots and weeds that caught my eye; it was the trees, or, more accurately, the lack of them. When we moved to our house, the trees in our yard barely qualified as saplings. But today, while the Georgia pines would still dwarf them, they are now officially, undoubtedly, and definitely trees.

Our house (literally) today.
Our house (literally) today.
Our house today. :)
Our house today. 🙂

Out of all the pictures I saw, the image of these trees stuck with me and bothered me for the next several days. But try as I might, I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was nagging at me. And then, as I was lying in our hammock, staring up at the branches above, it hit me: I didn’t see the trees grow. Which I know probably sounds dumb and fairly obvious, so let me explain.

You see, I remember the neighboring houses as they were built (and I remember having an epic and very messy mud war with my sisters in one of the lot). Their construction was, relatively speaking, sudden and obvious. One day the lot was empty; a few months later it wasn’t. But the trees, on the other hand, were entirely different. I didn’t remember them growing, and I couldn’t pinpoint out a particular moment when they went from being baby saplings to full-grown trees. But when I looked at the old pictures, I could see it clearly. The growth was imperceptible, steady, bit by bit, but it was growth all the same. And now, twelve years later, I can lie in my hammock and—quite literally—appreciate the difference.

And that, my friends, I find to be incredibly, if not a bit strangely, encouraging. Because let’s face it; you and I have a lot in common with those trees. When look at ourselves on any given day, all we can see are saplings. The sky overhead seems so far away, and it’s easy to feel discouraged. But what we need to realize—what I think God wants us to realize—is that we have already come so far and He isn’t finished with us yet. And when our perspective is so limited and finite, when we can only see a day’s view at a time, He can look back over our dozen+ years and say proudly, “Look how far you’ve come.” He knows that, whether we recognize it or not, if we are walking consistently with Jesus and seeking to follow Him, then we are growing, even though we can’t always see it or feel it.

Incidentally, I started following Jesus a little over twelve years ago, just a couple months before we moved into this house. This journey has been one of fits and spurts (or as I like to say “spits and furts”), and more often than not I feel like the guy in this cartoon:

x-dragged-you-kicking-and-screaming

And yet, if I zoom out and shift my focus from today to the last twelve years, I can’t help but notice how much I’ve changed. I’m different now—fundamentally different—from the person I was in 2003, and from who I was even this time last year. And that’s not because of anything extraordinary I have done (after all, a tree doesn’t wake up in the morning and will itself to grow), but it’s the direct product of God’s patient, imperceptible, bit-by-bit working in my life. He truly is changing me from the inside out, and whatever good is evident in my life is due solely to Him and His life-giving presence in me.

Like the trees in my yard, I am slowly growing up in Christ. And while I move backward more often than I’d like and sometimes my growth feels minuscule or nonexistent, I hold on tight to this promise from Philippians: “He who began a good work in me will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

So in the meantime, I pray that God would make me like the tree in Psalm 1, which is, “planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, whose leaf does not wither, and in all that he does, he prospers.” And I pray that, in time and as the years add up, people would be blessed by the fruit of God in my life and the refreshing “shade” from His presence in me.

And that is officially enough deep thinking for one day. It’s time to hit the hammock. Has anyone seen my Harry Potter book? I’ve been meaning to read this series for the last 12 years…

The Ant Rant

For the last two years, I have lived in a cute little duplex on a quiet side street off a major Atlanta road. Set on a large lawn next to a peaceful creek and surrounded by massive pine trees and blooming hydrangeas, the house has perfect for two graduate students stumbling through their studies. The house is so quaint and the space so verdant that my dad even nicknamed it “the Shire” after the hobbits’ home in Lord of the Rings. And the name fits. The house is small, but cozy; tucked away, but not isolated; wild, but well kept…

… and very, very quirky.

I know that every house—even the suburban cookie-cutter variety—has its quirks, but I’m afraid mine has more than its fair share. And during the last two years, my roommate Maria and I had our share of fun discovering them.

The first was the “fog horn”, as we semi-affectionately called it. It began as a faint sound in the pipes, and it would last for a second or two after we used the bathroom sink. But over the next few days, it began to grow louder and louder. While we fiddled with the faucet as best we could, discovering ways to make the sound temporarily quieter, the noise continued. Over the next week or so, the fog horn became louder and more frequent, now happening whenever we turned on the shower, used the kitchen sink, and flushed the toilet. After it became clear that the problem was getting worse, we told our landlady (who lives in the adjoining duplex unit), and she promised to call a plumber. By the time he arrived, the fog horn had become its own veritable amplifier, vibrating the floorboards in Maria’s room and growing so loud that even our landlady could hear it. After three separate visits, the plumber finally managed to eradicate the fog horn, at least temporarily. He also did messed up our hot water, so for a few days our showers were not very warm. Before his next visit, we left him the note below, and he fixed it:

lukewarm

The washer-dryer unit provided the next quirk. Because of my chronic fear of shrinking my clothes, I don’t use the dryer very often. I do, however, dry all of my whites (because, let’s be honest, air-dried socks simply aren’t very fluffy). After washing and drying my sheets for the first time, I noticed something strange: my otherwise white pillow case had sprouted what looked like a tan-colored mustache. On further examination, I discovered similar mustaches on my fitted sheets and several of my wife-beaters. Puzzled by these facial-hair-shaped tattoos, I continued to study my laundry, looking for an explanation. Eventually I found it: the dryer had burned the corners of the tags on the sheets, which had then tattooed my laundry. Having solved the mystery, I cut off the tags and called it good.

And everything was good, until one fateful day in January my roommate and I smelled something burning. Concerned that our duplex was on fire, we rushed to the kitchen only to discover that, though our house was okay, our washing machine was not. The smell was coming from the agitator’s engine, which had decided to give up the ghost. For the next few days, we crossed our fingers and hoped it would revive itself, but our positive vibes were futile. The washer-dryer unit was toast. And thanks to our reluctance to tell our landlady—and an unexpected Georgia snow storm—we didn’t get a replacement for a couple more weeks. Which meant that our dirty laundry piles soon looked like this:

laundry laundry- maria

There have been several other strange quirks (like the time we thought our heater was broken, but we had actually just been paying someone else’s gas bill for the past 6 months. Whoops.), and I can’t go into detail about all of them here. However, there is one more that I’d like to mention before calling it a day:

Insects.

As I’ve learned over the last three years, bugs are a natural part of life in Georgia. In the summer, there are tons of mosquitos, and in the winter, I shouldn’t be surprised by the occasional spider or cockroach (although I absolutely hate the latter and selfishly asked Maria to kill them on more than one occasion). But these bug sightings are usually so rare that they don’t cause a significant problem. However, this spring our quirky little house became home to a different sort of six-legged critter, and before we knew it, we were hosts to an ant infestation.

I usually don’t mind ants. They work hard, are super strong, and generally mind their own business. And when I saw the first few ants in our kitchen, I didn’t really care. After all, how much harm can a few ants do? But then one morning as I was eating a bowl of non-cornflakes cereal, I discovered an ant that had drowned in the milk. I then grabbed the cereal box, and to my horror, I saw dozens of ants crawling around inside, contaminating my precious, gluten-free sugared cereal. This had officially gone TOO far, and now the ants had to go.

And so, my roommate and I purchased ant traps—lots of them—and stuck them all over our kitchen, in our cabinets, and especially next to anything containing food. The solution worked for a little while (hiding my cereal in the refrigerator may also have helped), and the mini ants disappeared. But as soon as I put my cereal back in the cabinet, I realized that, though they’d gone, a family of bigger and uglier ants had moved in. And to make matters worse, these ants were apparently invincible. They wouldn’t die even though I watched them eat the ant poison. AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

And to make matters even worse, I am 99.9% sure that I could have prevented this entire ant-invasion. A few days before the first cereal catastrophe, I watched a solitary ant crawl across the kitchen countertop. My first thought was, “Oh, that’s probably the scout ant, finding a route for his buddies.” My mind jumped back to last spring when a similar thing had happened; I killed the initial ant and no more had come. But instead of acting on my impulse to get rid of the ant, I simply left the kitchen and returned to my homework. And then, almost on cue, our house was soon overrun by ants.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this ant-infestation, wondering what it may be able to teach me (besides not to buy sugary cereal), and finally it hit me: I oftentimes react to sin like I did to the ants. Whether it’s worry, laziness, selfishness, bitterness or anything else that’s less-than-godly, I usually have a moment when I see the problem coming—the initial ant, if you will—and I think to myself, “Gee, I should probably deal with this before it gets worse.” But more often than not, I just continue on my merry way and try to ignore it, hoping it will go away on its own. Then before I know it, my mind and life are overrun with emotional ants. What might have easily been stamped out with a few moments alone or a simple prayer of confession has suddenly mushroomed out of my control. Yes, God is faithful and He can help me through it; however, the mess could have likely been avoided in the first place if I had simply paid attention to my gut instincts—and the Holy Spirit’s prodding—and acted accordingly. Maybe that’s what Paul means when he says not to “give the devil a foothold.” If we give him or our own sinful tendencies an inch, chances are they’ll take a mile.

God is merciful, and when we mess up, He provides us with the grace and forgiveness we need to make things right. However, through His Holy Spirit, He also gives us the ability to recognize many issues before they happen—and the strength to avoid them. Certainly, it’s not always that simple, and sometimes problems truly do sneak up on us. But, if I’m honest with myself, I can usually look back and pinpoint the “scout ant” that indicated what was coming. And I pray that, as I grow closer to Christ, He would help me recognize my sin and give me the grace take it out–before it takes me over.

Alright, that’s enough for today. It’s time for lunch. Maybe I’ll eat some cereal… 😉

Perfect “Time”-ing

This semester has been a whirlwind.

The next step after passing my exams in December was teaching my own class. “The Making of Modern Europe”, as the class is cleverly named, covers almost 500 years of—you guessed it—European history. We’re currently in week 6, and we’ve made it from the Reformation through the 1880s. Yikes. On a practical level, this means that every Tuesday and Thursday, 24 undergraduates show up in room 118 because they want to learn from what I have to say… and they don’t want to lose points due to my strict attendance policy. To get ready for these 75-minute class sessions, I spend significant time writing lectures, making PowerPoints, and searching for nerdy history memes like these:

newton meme

einstein you matter

And, of course, the occasional YouTube video:

As you can see, it’s been a lot of work (there aren’t as many appropriate history memes out there as you would think!), but also a lot of fun. After all, I’ve always loved a captive audience, haha.

In addition to teaching, I’ve also been hard at work writing my dissertation prospectus. “Prospectus” is a fancy academic-sounding word for “proposal.” Although these can range drastically in length (I’ve seen some that are 55 pages long), in theory this should be 20-page document explaining the background, logistics, and purpose of the project that will consume the next 3-5 years of my life. No pressure, right? At the end of March, I will “defend” my prospectus before my committee (ie, faculty who work on similar things) and a public audience comprised of whoever wants to come. Since I’m scheduled to defend next month, I need to have my project well defined and well-articulated very, very soon. Last week, I had a major epiphany about what I’m doing, which was fantastic, but it also meant that I needed to completely rewrite my earlier proposals. And since my advisor and I agreed on an “internal deadline” of this Tuesday for her to review my proposal before I sent it to my committee, I suddenly had a lot of work to do.

So, if this semester has been a whirlwind, then this past week was an F5 tornado. Not only did I need to plan my usual two lectures (and locate the accompanying memes), but I needed to rethink, research for, and rewrite my prospectus. Add to that the fact that I had promised my students I would their first papers and provide a study guide for the midterm by Thursday, and I suddenly had a lot on my plate.

Now, I’ve been through stressful and high-pressure weeks before. One doesn’t finish college and get through 2.5 years of graduate school without a fair share of late nights (or all-nighters), near-overdoses on coffee, and coming down to the deadline-wire. In that sense then, this week was nothing new. Infrequent, yes. Unpleasant, definitely. But not unfamiliar.

In theory.

In reality, this week was very different. But not because of the stress level, but because I was in a terrible mood for much of it. As in, abysmally bad. Like, getting annoyed with pedestrians for crossing the street. Or wanting to curse out a driver (*cough* multiple drivers) for not using a turn signal. Or with virtually anyone who got in my way or made my life even slightly more difficult. Even when I was serving at church, I found myself wanting to reprimand a toddler for simply being too toddler-y. Yep. I was a mess. And all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, pull the covers over my head, and let the bad mood pass. But, thanks to the aforementioned tasks looming on my to-do list, “sleeping it off” was the last thing I had time to do.

To make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was wrong. I don’t normally hate pedestrians (in fact, as a runner, I usually am the pedestrian), I don’t usually use mental expletives while driving, and I never before in my life have gotten so frustrated with a toddler. What in the world was wrong?

Then on Monday evening as I was stewing, I found a common denominator in my recent moments of irritation: I felt pressed for time. The pedestrian crossing the street made me slow down, the guy without the blinker ended up getting in my way, and I would have rather been working on my prospectus than watching the toddler. I felt like I wouldn’t get everything done, and so I reacted with anger and frustration.

A year or so ago, I read a book called Time Peace, in which Ellen Vaughn makes a similar observation. She argues that our responses to life are intricately linked to our view of time. If we think we have too little time, we will be stressed out and explosive. But if we believe we have enough time, we are more apt to be patient, loving, and kind to those we meet and to ourselves.

Vaughn then insists that our perception of time directly relates to our view of God: if we believe that He is eternal (ie, that He exists outside of time) and that He has unlimited resources at His disposal, then we can trust Him to provide us ample time for us. Ultimately, then, it’s not “our” time anyway; God gives us time to steward and use for His Kingdom purposes.

Not every time I get moody can be explained by my view of time. Stress is a real thing, deadlines are scary, and sometimes life truly does seem to ask more of us than we can handle. But even in those times—especially in those times—our Heavenly Father desires for us to turn to Him, so He can provide us with the energy, grace, and time we desperately need. For in the midst of the chaos, the deadlines, and the stress, He is our Source of peace and rest. The Psalmist captures this well:

“But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.”

Well, that’s enough for today. I need to start looking for memes for Tuesday’s lecture… 😉

einstein space time

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.

Happy Snails to You

This Vera Bradley pattern is called "Happy Snails."  What a misnomer.
This Vera Bradley pattern is called “Happy Snails.”
What a misnomer.

There’s nothing quite like an evening stroll.

That’s what my parents and I thought when we decided to take a walk together early last week. And we were right: there really was nothing quite like this particular evening stroll.

It started out normal enough. We walked out of our subdivision, waving to our neighbors at the pool. Turning right, we headed down the street toward the elementary school. We planned to go to the nature preserve behind the school because dusk is usually the perfect time to visit. Not only is the temperature cooler, but that’s when deer and other nifty wildlife come out to play.

… including snails.

You see, the weather had been especially rainy lately. In Kansas, that normally means that a few more worms will appear on the sidewalks and you should stay off the grass because it’s probably muddy. Or at least, that’s what it means in the civilized confines of a neighborhood. But out in the wilderness of the local nature preserve? Well, apparently rain means snails. Lots and lots and LOTS of snails.

When we noticed the first snail, we thought it was cute. I said something along the lines of, “Oh look, Papa! That little snail is trying to cross the path.” And then my dad, being the chivalrous, big-hearted, and small-critter-loving guy that he is, gently lifted the movement-challenged snail from the asphalt and placed it in the opposite grass. And that was endearing—for the first 8 times. And then it turned just plain freaky.

Not thinking anything of our recent snail encounters, we continued to follow the trail as it entered into the woods. Apparently the snails really like moisture (sorry for using that word), and in the shade the path was still sufficiently moist (sorry again) to attract them…. By the hundreds. That’s right. Little did we know that when we stepped into the shade we were also entering our own personal, snail-saturated version of the Twilight Zone (cue theme music).

Thus, what began as an altruistic attempt to help the snail cross the road (presumably, to get to the other side #badjoke) suddenly metamorphosized into a desperate attempt to avoid squishing them at all costs. And their camouflage only made that more difficult. Even though we were making every effort to avoid stepping on them, their well-disguised shells made them look just like acorn tops. Try as we did, we still ended up crushing a whole lot of them. I still haven’t brought those tennis shoes back inside. *involuntary shiver* It. Was. Awful.

In the days following that scarring, snail-filled experience, I found myself thinking about it… way more than I wanted to. There had to be a lesson in this—besides the obvious “don’t walk through the nature preserve after it rains”—but what could it be?

And then when I was running (on a different, less snaily trail) it hit me. Are you ready?

I’m not perfect.

Yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Gee, Steffi, of course you’re not perfect. Nobody is.” But while I know that this is true, I still try my very best to prove that it’s not. And when you expect perfection from yourself, you end up sorely—and constantly—disappointed. All you perfectionists out there can vouch for me (you Type B people, keep enjoying your carefree existence); it’s not very fun and it’s exhausting. And yet most of the time that’s exactly how I operate. I work my figurative tail off every day, convinced that if I can just try a little harder, focus a little better, and push myself a little bit more, I’ll finally, just maybe, be satisfied.

But as you’ve probably guessed, it doesn’t turn out that way. And when I fail yet again to be perfect—or at least to reach my own standard of perfection—I feel defeated. And even more discouraged than before I started.

So what in the world does this have to do with snails? A whole lot actually. You see, when I was following my parents down the trail, I wanted to do it perfectly. I made every effort to be careful, to tread lightly, and to avoid that sickening and telltale crunch. But try as I might (and I really did try, as my tip-toe-sore calves reminded me for days afterward), I couldn’t do it. The snails were hard to see, there were so many of them, I wasn’t able to balance well enough—the list went on and on. And even my parents couldn’t help me, despite the fact that they had just walked through the same place. They couldn’t see my exact situation. In other words, I was on my own. When I finally escaped into the snail-free sunlight, I was exhausted, moderately traumatized, and with no desire to look at the bottom of my shoe.

No, I’m not perfect and no amount of good intentions, willpower or effort is going to change that. And even with older and wiser people offering me advice, I’m still going to mess up. Simply put, I don’t have what it takes.

But Jesus does. And better yet, He not only has gone ahead of me, but He is right there with me every step of the metaphorically snail-filled way.

And that, my friends, is the heart of the Gospel. We are each broken, lost, imperfect sinners who have no chance of making it on our own. We are not and never will be perfect, at least not here on earth. But through Jesus’ perfect life and His sacrifice for us on the cross, His righteousness and holiness can become ours. We can’t earn it—even our best attempts will still be covered in snail goo—we can only accept it as the gift it is. And that’s the greatest news ever.

Whew, that’s a lot of deep thoughts for today. Anyone up for an evening walk? … Just kidding. 😉