The Bus(es) That Got Away

Port_Authority_bus_Pittsburgh_3216Be careful what you pray for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rose-Colored” Pupils

At 3:47 a.m. on Thursday September 7th, I rolled over and woke up. I’d had too much water before going to bed, and my renal system had finished its civic duty. As I stumbled groggily to the restroom, I noticed an unfortunate sensation in my eye. Begrudgingly, I turned on the bathroom light and looked in the mirror. Closed lid, crusty substance, green goo and an overall nasty appearance. Just as I’d suspected: Pink eye.

I’d gotten pink eye a couple other times before, always in my pesky contact-lensed left eye. The first time I remember most vividly. It was early in the morning at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I’d arrived about 45 minutes before first hour (which never happened, by the way. This may have been the only time. Seriously). My friends were sitting at one of the group study tables in the library, and I joined them. I commented about my allergies acting up at which point my dear, sweet friend Rebecca looked at me and said, “You have pink eye.” She was absolutely right. (And now she’s in her second year of medical school. Get it, girl!) I went to the nurse who promptly sent me home with instructions to see a doctor immediately—and not touch anything.  What a way to start high school.

And what better way to start graduate school than the same way, with an unexpected case of pink eye. #irony. Having diagnosed myself, I made an appointment that morning to see a doctor at Student Health Services before my 2:30 class. And so my ill-fated, patience-testing, 48-hour adventure began.

I arrived on campus 30 minutes prior to my 11:30 appointment and searched for a parking spot in Peavine deck, where my overpriced parking pass was programmed to work. Though the pass worked like a charm, the parking lot didn’t. I drove through the entire 2-building, 7-level complex twice. Nothing. Not a single parking spot. Frustrated, I joined a line of four other cars leaving the lot in an annoyed hurry. With only five minutes until my appointment, I drove back to the Student Health clinic building and pulled into their lot. Cringing, I took a ticket; anything longer than 30 minutes would cost me $4, and over an hour $5. I later called the Parking Services office to see if what I was supposed to do if Peavine was full. Their response: It wasn’t actually full. If it had been full, someone would have been stationed there to direct me to another lot. Circular reasoning? I think yes. While the lady was kind, she told me that she couldn’t’ reimburse my parking fee. Soooooo frustrating, especially considering the arm and leg I’d paid for my pass in the first place. Just my luck.

After a 15-minute wait, I was finally admitted to the clinic. And after another 20-minute wait, I finally saw the doctor. Her conclusion was just as I’d (and Rebecca would have) suspected: Pink eye. Woo hoo. And then, just for the heck of it, she decided to look more closely at my cornea. At which point she found a corneal abrasion. Rats. Her solution? Refer me to a specialist and make me an appointment for the next day. The saga continues…

Oh, and since she found the corneal abrasion, she opted not to give me eye drops to get rid of my pink eye. Yay for still being contagious. And the whole thing took at hour and 10 minutes. Which meant that I had to pay another dollar, bringing my unnecessary parking tab total to $5. Sweet.

The next day, my appointment was set for 2:40 p.m. I had a meeting with my advisor at noon, so I waited on campus until heading over at 2 or so. Emory’s campus is quite large, so I knew it would take me awhile to get there; thus, I left with plenty of time to spare.

And it would have been plenty of time—if I hadn’t gone to the wrong building…

When the doctor made the appointment, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the details. So while I picked up on “2:40,” “Dr. Shah” and “3rd floor,” I failed to catch the most important detail: Building B. As a result, I hiked all the way across campus to the Student Health building (a 30 minute walk) only to discover that I needed to be at the University Hospital. Which, of course, was a 10+ minute walk in the direction I’d originally come from. Go figure.

Finally, after much sweating and speed walking, I made it to the ophthalmologist’s office. I checked in and waited my turn. And finally, after an hour and a half, a visit from a nurse technician, and a check-up from resident doctor, I saw Dr. Shah. After all that, she said I might have pink eye. But if I did, it was probably the viral kind, which means they couldn’t treat it, that I was still very contagious and it would likely spread to my right eye before running its course. Awesome. And I had “corneal roughness,” or a bunch of little scratches on my cornea. Even more awesome.

So at 4:25, I left Dr. Shah’s office to get my prescription filled at the pharmacy in Building A. 40 minutes later, I had my steroid eye drops and was finally ready to go.

And that is my epically long story of my most recent experience with pink eye.

Why am I telling you this? Great question. Because throughout that 48-hour adventure, I had many moments of frustration. Why did I have to pay an extra $5? Why didn’t the first doctor just give me the eye drops and let me go? Why did I have to walk to the wrong building? Why was everything so much more complicated, time-consuming and generally irritating than it needed to be?

As I reflected on these questions, I came face to face with an unfortunate truth: I am a sinner. No, it’s not a sin to be frustrated, life is certainly not perfect. God certainly doesn’t want us to pretend to be happy and act like everything is okay when it’s not. Yes, problems are real (although mine were/are “first world problems”), but as believers, we’re called to rise above our circumstances. Philippians 2:14-15 says, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” But how do we actually accomplish that?

As I was pondering this question (and feeling rather convicted), 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 came to mind: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Rejoice always. Be joyful and recognize the good in every situation. And praise God for it.

Pray continually. Talk to God about your hopes, dreams, thoughts, fears, frustrations, annoyances, cases of pink eye… everything.

And last, but not least, give thanks in all circumstances.

For me, this last command may be the most difficult, but it also makes the greatest impact. You see, when we’re giving thanks, our focus automatically shifts from the negative to the positive. We’re no longer dragged down by what’s wrong because we are too busy being grateful for everything that is right. No, that doesn’t eliminate the frustration, but it changes our perspective. We can see our situation not as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity to live out our faith and become more like Jesus. And most importantly, it takes our attention off the problem and puts it back on the Provider, where it ultimately belongs.

I’m by no means perfect at this. I do my fair share of complaining and arguing, and those two days were an unpleasant reminder of that. But fortunately, I serve a God whose grace is big enough to cover my shortcomings and who has solved all my problems in advance. And if my human weakness reminds me of my need for the cross, then I can be grateful even for that.

At least, that’s the way I see it… pink eye and all. 🙂

Sleepless (Not) In Seattle

The other night, I couldn’t fall asleep.

This wasn’t a new problem for me, by any means. Insomnia and I go way back. We’re old friends… or old enemies. Or old enemies that have known each other for so long that they kind of start to become friends, or at least have a mutual agreement of détente. Like the USA and USSR, albeit it on a much smaller (and less potentially explosive) scale.

Anyway, I couldn’t sleep. And to make things worse, I knew exactly what I needed to do to fall asleep, but I didn’t want to do it.

Kind of like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you realize that you need to use the restroom. Nature is calling, and you need to answer. (Nature doesn’t leave very nice voicemails). Your body has kindly given you advance notice by waking you up, and now it’s your turn. And you know, you know you need to get up and walk the ten steps to the toilet, but your bed is just too comfortable, and the restroom is just too far. So you fight it and fight it until finally (hopefully!) you give in and hustle to the toilet.

Well, a couple nights ago, I found myself in a similar-ish situation. But instead of waking up in the middle of the night, I couldn’t fall asleep. Why not? Because my nose was stuffed up, and my nasal spray wasn’t in reach. Phooey.

For most of my life, this wouldn’t have been a problem because, for most of my life, I couldn’t breathe through my nose at all. But having been spoiled by almost three years of vacant nasal passages, I couldn’t overcome my stuffy sinuses. Rolling over, I blindly reached for a tissue and blew, but to no avail. My inner nose was swollen, and a simple Kleenex wouldn’t do the trick. What I needed was my prescription steroid nasal spray.

Normally, this would have been easy to solve because, normally, the nasal spray lives in a drawer in my nightstand right by my bed. But this was no “normal” night. This was the night after I moved across the country. And my nasal spray was tucked neatly, nicely, and very inconveniently in a box in a closet outside my room.

Bummer.

Now, I’m not usually a lazy person. Generally speaking, I will gladly get up and do things for myself. Sure, there was that time in 2004 when I put Matthew 10:42 above the water dispenser on our refrigerator, so I could ask my family members to bring me water while I sat on the couch… But that was forever ago! (Note: The post-it is still there. A bit wrinkled, but still there.) All that to say, on a typical day I’m not lazy.

But this was not a typical day. It wasn’t even the day at all. No, on this night I was so tired and so out of it, that  I had zero motivation to fix my sinus trouble. The closet was too far away, I was too sleepy, and it just didn’t seem worth it.

11:52 p.m.…. Still awake.

11:57 p.m. …. Not sleeping.

12:01 a.m.…. Lots of well-meaning sheep, but no sleep.

12:01 and 30 seconds… Groan. Thud. I finally shuffled to the door, rummaged through the box and found my much-needed nasal spray. Two squirts in each nostril later, I was fast asleep. Zzzzzzzzzzzz…..

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

So what was the point of that? Great question. I can almost hear you now: “Umm, Steffi, that was, uh, interesting. But why did you share it?”

Well, I am so glad you asked. You see, as I was lying there, languishing in my sleepless state, I felt that feeling. The one that makes me inhale through my teeth, inwardly groan, and then exhale, “Oops.” The feeling known as conviction. And here it is.

We treat our relationship with God like I treated my nasal spray.

We go along our merry way, leaving it tucked in the closet, out of sight and out of mind, until something goes wrong. And even then, we loiter, complain and go groaning to the closet, where we pull it out, use it to “fix” the problem, and then put it back away.

But that’s not right—for nasal spray or God.

You see, the Lord has the solution—IS the solution—to all our problems, just like the nasal spray was the solution to my insomnia. He does want us to seek Him out, ask His help, and watch Him answer. But He is NOT a genie waiting in a lamp to grant our wishes. On the contrary, He is the God of the universe and, if Jesus is your Savior, He is also the Lord of your life. Therefore, putting Him in a box and leaving Him in your closet until you “need” Him is not only silly; it’s sacrilegious. If we truly believe He is Who He says He is, then we need to start treating Him like it. With reverent fear, humble worship, heartfelt love—and a committed, devoted, and daily relationship with Him.

When I first got my nasal spray prescription, the doctor explained to me how it worked. She said, “Steffi, this spray isn’t going to be a quick fix. Yes, it will work immediately, but in order for it to have its full effect, you have to use it every day.” Having used this spray for the past almost three years, I know she’s right.  When I use it every day, my breathing is better. And having followed Jesus for longer than that, I know that the same principle holds true with Him. When we meet with God daily, when we wake up early to spend time with Him, when we are disciplined in studying His Word, and when we seek to make Him the focal point of all we do every day, our relationship with Him has its full effect. Like the medicine, He starts to change us from the inside out—and He uses us to change the world. But it all has to start with Him.

Every day.

… even after nights when you can’t sleep. 😉

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. 🙂

The Five (Million) Second Rule

Life has a lot of rules. Some of them are written down, like the Ten Commandments or the “No Diving” sign at the pool. Others, though, fall into the common knowledge category. Here are some examples:

When in a crowded elevator, look straight forward with gaze slightly above eye-level. Keep your elbows in. And don’t you dare pass gas.

Look both ways before crossing the street. And if you’re vacationing in the UK, look again just to be safe. (Hint: Oncoming traffic will be coming from the right. Winston Churchill made this mistake; you could too.)

If it’s stuck to the bottom of a park bench, don’t eat it. The gum’s pretty color doesn’t change its “ABC” status. In case you missed kindergarten,  that stands for “Already Been Chewed.” Sick nasty.

Finally, there’s the Five-Second Rule. This one really needs no explanation because we all know it and most of us follow it. Although this rule comes with a few possible variations, such as the Three-Second Rule, the Eight-Second Rule, and, in extreme cases, the No-Second Rule. In short, if a piece of food has been on the ground or other unwanted surface for more than __X___ number of seconds, it’s no longer fit for consumption. Or put simply, DO NOT EAT IT. The length of time may vary based on the nature of the food, its level of stickiness, the cleanliness of the environment, the location (i.e., at home or in a public restroom), and other similar factors. But the one underlying principle doesn’t change: Food can become too contaminated for us to eat. Unless maybe you’re from Louisiana….

As the daughter of an anti-pathogen activist (also known as a germaphobe), I observe the Five-Second Rule with strict adherence, oftentimes leaning more toward the No-Second variety. However, occasionally, against my better anti-bacterial judgment, I make an exception. To be eaten by me after contamination, the food must be incredible, irreplaceable, and scrumdidilyumptious. Such an event is noteworthy and rare, like what happened to me a few weeks ago.

I was in Norman, Oklahoma (another rare event, especially for an OSU alum). It was early, and I was leaving the home of my dear friend and former co-counselor Lydia. And I was hungry. Fortunately, though, I had anticipated this moment a few days before while in Stillwater, where I purchased an extra cinnamon roll from Spudnuts.  Since most of the world hasn’t been lucky enough to eat a Spudnut, let me enlighten you about these heavenly pastries. Made from a secret recipe from elves from Germany using potato flour, these donuts don’t just melt in your mouth; they melt your mouth. And to top it all off, they are basically gluten free. Which means that I LOVE them. Unfortunately, though, Stillwater is my closest source for Spudnuts and since I don’t make the I-35 trek very often anymore, my Spudnut encounters are few and far between. However, in a moment of brilliant foresight, I bought an extra cinnamon roll to eat in Lydia’s driveway. And that’s when things got a little “Spud-nutty.”

If I had to wager, I’d bet that 99% of the cinnamon-roll-eating population eats them the same way: From the outside in. I’m no exception to this; I like to eat the outer layers before savoring the ooey, gooey, cinnamon-y center. That morning, I followed this usual pattern with my Spudnut,. I was just about to eat the middle when—BAM!—gravity suddenly cut in.

As if in slow motion, the center of the Spudnut slipped off the remaining outer shell and fell from my hand. Desperately, I reached out to save it, but in my frantic state, I only managed to redirect its fall (and get icing on my arm). Heartbroken, I looked down, expecting to see the ooey, gooey object of my longing covered with countless nasty things from the floorboard. But then I found it! Instead of falling to the land of the No-Second Rule, the Spudnut rested in the space between my seat and the door, miraculously not touching anything disgusting. After close examination, I declared it worthy of consumption, and I enjoyed the last bite of my Spudnut cinnamon roll. Mmmm, delicious. Then a thought interrupted my moment of glucose-induced bliss:

God has no Five-Second Rule.

At first glance, that may seem condemning. “Of course,” you might think, “God is judgmental and angry, like a dad I can never please. I’ve messed up so many times; there’s no way He would ever want me.” But that’s not the point at all. No, quite on the contrary. God doesn’t have a Five-Second Rule; He has a Five-MILLION Second Rule!!!

You see, God loves you. Even though you’ve messed up. In fact, the Bible says that God proves His love by sending Christ to die for us while we were sinners. He doesn’t look for people who are perfect; He’s not interested in the trophies in your case or the zeroes at the end of your paycheck; He wants you.  Exactly as you are. No matter what you’ve done. No matter where you’ve been. If you have Jesus Christ as your Savior, nothing, I repeat nothing, can separate you from His love. It’s too unwavering, too unconditional, too unconventional and too unrelenting. You may feel like squished pea on the floor; even if you weren’t stuck to the ground, no one would want you anyway. But that’s not how your Heavenly Father sees you. To Him, you’re the center of the cinnamon roll, the most important thing on His plate, so to speak. He cares about you more than you can even imagine, and He isn’t going to let you go. So quit running away, quit making excuses, and quit buying into the enemy’s lies and run. Run to Him. Cry out to Him. Ask Him to pick you up again.

And when you do, you’ll see something amazing: He’s been holding you all along. 🙂

A Glimpse of Grace

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Grace.

One of those Christian-ese terms that you often hear at church or in worship songs. While most Christians would tell you that they know what grace is, they probably wouldn’t be able to explain it. Why not? Because most of us have a vague idea about grace, but we don’t fully grasp it. After all, articulation is the litmus of comprehension. In other words, if you can’t explain a concept to someone else, you don’t really understand it.

When it comes to grace, I generally fall into the perplexed category. Although I wouldn’t call myself the governor of the “state of confusion,” I definitely have a local address, especially regarding grace. That’s because grace is more than just a far-off theological term or a prayer you say before chowing down. Not only is grace an integral part of the Gospel and, but it also plays an essential role in our lives. And that can make it difficult to grasp. Like a zoomed-in camera lens, we find ourselves too close to see the entire “grace picture.” Sometimes, though, God hoists us on His shoulders, giving us the bird’s-eye-view. In these moments, we catch a glimpse of grace. For me, Wednesday April 18th held one such moment.

For a week and a half, I’d been denying the existence of my combined sinus and ear infection, hoping that it would get bored and leave me alone. But finally after twelve hours of difficulty in swallowing, I broke down and went to my local Walgreen’s Take Care Clinic. Here the kindhearted nurse practitioner Shelley took care of me (no pun intended) and told me that, yes, I did indeed have a sinus and ear infection (Note: When infected, your eardrums look bloodshot. Weird, huh?). After fifteen minutes of friendly conversation and symptom checking, she sent me happily on my way. She even called in the prescription at the Wal-Mart pharmacy, so I could pick it up on my way home. Wonderful.

Looking at my watch, I realized that I was within the 2-4 p.m. Sonic happy hour, so I treated myself to a strawberry Limeade. Then I remembered that I had wedding gifts to purchase. Since Target was conveniently located right behind Sonic, I dropped in. Ten minutes later, I strolled up to the nearest register with an 8-pack of Sterilite mixing bowls and a set of four glasses in hand. My mission was almost complete.

Then my sweet cashier, bless his heart, offered to bag my gifts. No sooner had I said, “Sure,” did I hear the sickening thud and clank of the glasses, in their box, hitting the linoleum floor. More striking, though, than the sound of my purchase colliding with the ground was the expression on my cashier’s face. I could almost feel his heart sink as he quickly picked up the box to survey the damage. That’s when I noticed his “New Team Member” sticker where his name tag should have been. Poor kid. I drop things all the time. What if it were my first day on the job? Dropping a set of four glasses would have been my greatest fear. And that’s exactly what he did. Together we opened the box and checked all the glasses: Not a mark on any of them! Hallelujah! Smiling, I told him not to worry about it, that I would still take the glasses. He sighed with relief.

Thirty minutes later, I walked out of Wal-Mart, antibiotic in hand, and slid into my little red Volvo. As I started to back out of the parking space, I noticed a man in my rearview mirror. He was signaling me that I was clear to go. Normally, I am an incredibly cautious and competent driver. I’d never been in an accident; I’d never hit anyone or anything. But as I watched him motion me backward, I must have gotten distracted because, before I knew it, I heard the sickening sound of impact. My fender had just sideswiped the bumper and wheel of the car next to me. Shoot. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the traffic-director man then said, “That’s my car.” Double shoot. Every time I enter or leave a parking space and the car next to me has people in it, I hold my breath because I’m terrified of hitting them; it’s my greatest parking-lot fear. And that’s exactly what I did. Needless to say, my heart sank.

The next few minutes were a blur. He rushed over to examine his car. I called my mom to ask about insurance. His wife and newborn baby appeared from inside the store. As I was simultaneously trying to explain the situation to my mom and offering profuse apologies to them, the man and his pretty wife looked closer at the damage. The red mark from my Volvo came easily off the hubcap, and only a small paint scratch remained on the vehicle itself. When I asked if they wanted my insurance information, they said that a claim would only raise both our rates, and a paint scratch wasn’t worth the trouble. I gave them my name and number nonetheless and told them to contact me if something changed, but they told me repeatedly that it was fine and I didn’t need to worry. It wasn’t until after I’d backed out successfully and moved into an empty area that the tears began to fall.

Grace. In the span of sixty minutes, I’d given it and received it. And began to better understand it.

If asked, most Christians would probably define grace as “getting something you don’t deserve,” like a gift. And while I think that definition holds true to an extent, it also falls pitifully short. It fails to capture the emotion, the will and the heart behind it. Grace isn’t like purchasing a wedding gift or a birthday present, which is a one-time, semi-obligatory display of kindness. No, it’s a conscious decision, driven by compassion, to tell someone that it’s okay, that they are okay, and that they don’t have to worry because everything is going to be alright. It’s the choice to give a smile instead of a reprimand, a hug instead of a slap. It’s unexpected. It’s unwarranted.  It’s completely contrary to human nature. And that’s exactly why when Jesus calls us to be ambassadors for His Gospel, He wants us to be agents of His grace. Mercy triumphs over judgment, and God’s grace saves us.

Which I guess makes it pretty darn “amazing.” 🙂

#islandlife

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Branson, Missouri.

Where thousands of fanny-packed tourists flock from March to December to Ride the Ducks and watch Presley’s Country Jubilee. Where cars move at 15 miles per hour down the one-lane-each-way Strip all day and night. Where go-cart tracks and putt-putt courses are a dime a dozen, and Old-Time photos are ready for the taking. Where the skyline boasts the world’s largest patriot chicken, a three-story model of the Titanic and King Kong’s backside.

Branson, Missouri. Where I spent the best eight months of my life.

If, in 1997 when my family took our first vacation to Branson, you’d told that I’d live there in 2012, I would have likely done a dance for joy. But if you’d told me a year ago, I would have laughed in disbelief. In fact, I’m still laughing. Who would have ever thought I’d temporarily call a fake tropical island in the middle of Branson, Missouri, “home”? And I even have a local-discount card to prove it! Now “B-Vegas,” as my friends often affectionately call it, will always and forever hold a very special (and humorous) place in my heart.

How did I get to Branson? And what in the world was I doing there? If you’ve followed my blog at all for the last year, you know the answer. But in case you stumbled across this post during a stroll through cyberspace, I’ll explain. Branson isn’t just the location of the Hollywood Wax Museum and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Since 1926, it’s also been the home of Kanakuk Kamps and, since 2001, the Kanakuk Institute. The former brought me to Branson for the summer; the latter kept me there all year.

You see, last April I was notified in a very small envelope that I had not been chosen for the Fulbright ETA program. Disappointed, I was forced to turn to my Plan B. But as far as my heart was concerned, this should have been Plan ZZ. Although I had told people I would go to the Kanakuk Institute if I didn’t receive the Fulbright, in my heart I wanted nothing to do with it. Branson couldn’t have been farther from Berlin.. My aspirations were European, not Hillbilly-an. I wanted to be the middle of Germany, not the middle of nowhere. And I certainly did not want to be in Branson, Missouri.

Yep…. Enough said.

Anyway, I spent last summer working at K-Seven, my home base in the Kanakuk world. Here God slowly, patiently, and completely changed my heart. Through conversations with fellow staffers, Institute directors and alumni, and my family, I began to realize what I knew deep down all along: God was calling me to the Kanakuk Institute, and that’s exactly where I needed to be.

So on September 10th, I made the four-hour drive to Branson in my laden red Volvo. Having grown up with Kanakuk, I knew a lot about the Institute and had many friends graduate from it. So naturally, I had expectations. But I had no idea how much the Lord would exceed them.

This year was unbelievable. To use contemporary slang, it rocked my face and blew my socks off. As I sit here trying to capture it in a single blog post, I realize that it’s impossible. There’s too much to say, too much to remember, too much to share. Simply put, it can’t be done. Still, like Custer taking his fated last stand, I at least have to try. (cue dramatic music here)

Okay, that was a bit melodramatic. What I mean to say is that I’m going to do my best to recap this year for you along with a few larger lessons. However, it’s unrealistic to fit it all and keep this to a reasonable length. So please expect more Insti-posts in the future. J Having said that, let’s get started.

The year began in a whirlwind, with two weeks of non-stop action, serving and fun. Together, we camped in the rain and helped rebuild tornado-ravaged Joplin. Dressed in matching green t-shirts, we gave Gatorade to thirsty athletes competing in the Branson Half-Iron Man. We raced to the Branson sights for a photo scavenger hunt and then played sand volleyball at Table Rock Lake’s Moonshine Beach. In a Springfield cemetery, we pondered our own temporality as we wrote vision statements for our lives. And that was all before the year actually started! Now do you see why I need more posts? 🙂

At first glance, the last eight months seem lost in a blur of dinner duties, youth group meetings, daily classes, Ultimate Frisbee games, study sessions at Panera, pool horse, and random dance parties. However, as I look deeper, a few major themes emerge. Like James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, I will sift the flakes of gold from the silt…

Scratch that! The year was chock full of solid gold bricks. Now I’ll pull out three nuggets of platinum for your pondering pleasure. Here they are:

1. No Riding Solo: Jesus didn’t call us to be “lone rangers,” fading into the sunset on our trusty steeds (Hi ho, Silver!) On the contrary, He created us to live in community with other believers. Not only does this hold us accountable and to help us grow, but it also enables us to demonstrate His unfailing love to a lost and broken world. It’s no coincidence then that He tells His disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” How can we show that the world that we love one another if we aren’t together? Moreover, iron can’t sharpen iron from a distance. When believers commit to Christ by actively and unconditionally loving one another, the rest of the world can’t help but be amazed by—and attracted to—it.  Like fish were made for water, so we are made for community. For too long, though, I preferred to flop on the deck by myself, not realizing that my gills were gasping. But now that I have been immersed in Christian community, I never want to be a “fish out of water” again.

2. Pass it On:  In His last words to His followers, Jesus instructed them to “go and make disciples… teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Even though I’d read those words dozens of times, I’m embarrassed to say that, until this year, making disciples was at the bottom of my priority list. It fell somewhere between “organize my sock drawer” and “learn Japanese.” This was never a conscience decision; it was a natural result of my misunderstanding of discipleship. Before, I thought discipleship was a spiritual gift that God had forgotten to put under my tree. But now, after working with the “best and brightest” students at First Baptist Forsyth and having my dear friend Joy disciple me, I finally grasp what discipleship is all about. When Jesus tells us to disciple and teach others, He isn’t asking us to do the impossible. Instead, He simply wants us to come alongside and guide them through life, not based on our own ability, but solely on His grace. In short, Jesus has taught us, so we could teach others. He has equipped us with special experiences and unique personalities, so we can connect with and encourage other believers in their relationships with Him. Paul, the world’s greatest missionary, did this for Timothy. In his final letter to Timothy, he exhorts him to do the same, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) When we disciple others, we also reap the benefits; through teaching the truth, we come to richer, fuller understanding of it.

3. The Gospel is For Me: We are all broken, sinful human beings, incapable of saving ourselves. Yet a loving and merciful God sent His only Son, God-made-flesh, to earth to live a sinless life and die in our place. Through His sacrifice, we can be redeemed (bought back) by God, and through Him, we can be made completely new. This is fully, completely, 100%-ly from His grace, not based on our merit or accomplishments. This is the message of the Gospel; this is the hope that we can have in Jesus Christ. Over and over again at the Institute, God gently, yet persistently brought me back to this truth. Though I was a Christian, I tried to earn God’s love for too many years, desperately hoping to make Him happy… and winding up miserable every time I fell short. I saw God as a holy Being I could never hope to please, who loved me but didn’t necessarily like me. I felt as if I was always one misstep away from making Him angry at me—or worse—from disappointing Him. Though Jesus had technically set me free, I remained a slave to my own perfectionism, shackled to the impossible ideal of being “good enough.” But try as I might, I could never escape my own humanity, and my best-intended efforts were doomed to failure. Exhausted and broken, I came to the Kanakuk Institute. Here amongst the artificial palm trees, God not only opened my eyes to my chains, but He set me free from them. Now I constantly remind myself of the truth of His Gospel, that Jesus loves me and died for me not so I could be perfect, but that so I could be His. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, I’m clothed with His righteousness. Even though I stumble and fall, I’m still God’s daughter, and He’s using my failures and brokenness to make me more like Him.  This message gives life, and I want everyone to know it.

To say this year was amazing would be a gross understatement. Even as I write this blog, I’m struck by the overwhelming realization that this year wasn’t an isolated experience, but one that will continue to inform us forever. This year will act as a wellspring to which we return for encouragement and a touchstone after which we model and by which we test the rest of our lives. But most importantly, our eight months at the Kanakuk Institute is our launch pad, from which God sends us each out to fulfill His calling for us in the world. We know our beginnings, but only He knows where we’ll all land. Maybe in Texas. Maybe in Africa. Maybe in Germany.

Maybe even in Branson, Missouri. 😉

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