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. 😉

(78) Days of Summer

You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it. :)
You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it!

Das Leben ist ein Abenteuer. Życie jest przygoda. Life is an adventure. And for me, so was this summer.

This particular adventure began last October. My advisor was in town for a few weeks, taking a break from her sabbatical in Germany. She invited me to lunch and over a dish of gluten-free pasta asked me the question that every first-year graduate student dreads: “What exactly do you want to study?” I was about to reply that I wasn’t sure, that I was still trying to figure it out, and that I needed a little more time when out of my pasta-filled mouth popped, “I think I’m interested in Eastern Europe.” To which she immediately replied, “Well, I guess you need to learn a Slavic language. How about Polish?” So after lunch, I got on the Internet and ran a search for Polish language programs in the US. I found two that looked promising: a ten-week program in Pittsburgh with an abroad component in Krakow and an eight-week one in Indiana. So I decided to apply to both. If I got in and got funding for one of them, great. If not, then I’d find something else to do. Simple, right?

All winter long, though, I found myself worrying. What if this was just another dumb Steffi idea that sounded promising but then turned out to be a waste of everyone’s time and money? After all, if I didn’t get some kind of scholarship, there was no way I could afford it; foreign language classes are expensive. And even if I did get in and receive some funding, what if I didn’t learn enough Polish to actually use it? This felt like a fool’s errand, and the confused reactions (“Huh?”) I received from most people who asked about my summer plans seemed to confirm my fears. After I submitted my application, I shared these concerns with my mom, and (as usual) she gave me great advice.  She explained that in the Old Testament, Gideon was unsure, and he asked God for a sign. Gideon laid a fleece or a piece of sheep wool outside overnight, and told God that in the morning if the fleece were wet and the ground dry, then he would believe. Sure enough, God did just that. Still unconvinced, Gideon asked God to do it again, but this time make the ground wet and the fleece dry. Again, God answered, and Gideon believed. Along these lines, my mom suggested that I also pray for affirmation about my decision to learn Polish:  If God would provide for me financially, then I’d know I should learn Polish and this wasn’t just another Steffi-style pipe dream. So with this in mind, I waited to hear back from the programs and prayed for clarity with my $8,000 “fleece.”

And then the craziest thing happened: God answered! On Good Friday, I got an email from the Pittsburgh program with my acceptance letter and scholarship information. But though they offered a substantial amount of money, it still wasn’t enough to make the class affordable. The following Monday, I called the program director that Monday to see if I could transfer into the cheaper program without the month in Kraków. To my astonishment, she offered me a different package, one that would cover almost the entire program cost. My figurative fleece had dripping wet—and I was going to Poland!

And as if that weren’t enough, God continued to provide, over and over and over again. When I was looking for a place to live in Pittsburgh (where I knew absolutely no one), He gave my mom the idea to contact the local Lutheran church. And then He prompted a family at that church to connect me with their friends who needed a house-sitter for the summer. It could not have worked out more perfectly. And the Cookes (the family that stayed behind) became my unofficial “host family,” picking me up from the airport, welcoming me into their home, feeding me absolutely delicious food (their last name is very fitting!), and even driving me to campus when I accidentally overslept and missed the bus.

And if I could see God’s faithfulness in Pittsburgh, it was written in neon flashing signs everywhere in Poland (… in English, so I could read it, haha.) Looking back on my four weeks there, I can’t help but be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by all the incredible people at the Prolog language school, by my wonderful classmates from all over the world, by all the thought-provoking and meaningful conversations we had, by all the unforgettable places we visited and things we saw, and by all the memories I’ll carry with me forever. Oh yeah, and by all the Polish I attempted to learn. 😉

This summer was undoubtedly one of the best and most rewarding of my life thus far. Not only did I make so many new friends (Shout-out here to Lenna. Thanks for being my Kraków buddy… and for putting up with my terrible sense of direction!), but I also reconnected with old ones (Thanks for coming to visit me in Kraków, Mirek! And for letting me hang out with you in Paris, Anne-So!). And as if that weren’t enough, I even got to spend 3 days in the neighborhood in Germany where I was born (Danke schön to the Mauntz family and to all the neighbors, especially the Timpes and the Bergens! Y’all are awesome!)

As I write this, I am sitting in seat 21A on Lufthansa flight 444 back to Atlanta. When I boarded a smaller plane to Pittsburgh 78 days ago, I had no idea what was in store for me. But God knew. Even before that afternoon last October, He knew. He always knows, and He always has everything under His perfect and sovereign control. Yes, life is an adventure. And I’m so thankful to be along for the ride. 🙂

Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I've ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I’ve ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time. :)
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time… and take a picture of it.
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie! :)
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie!
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me! :)
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved! A perfect end to a fabulous summer.

Spare Change

A changing of stops or a stopping of change?
Hmmm…

They say that you eventually turn into your parents, and I’m getting dangerously close.

Take Saturday mornings, for instance, or better known in my family as “saling” day (as in garage-saling). Almost every Saturday, my mother can be found making her usual rounds on the bargain-hunting circuit. Having lived under her tutelage for 18+ summers, I now compulsively find myself looking for the tell-tale neon signs and making a very conscious effort to stay away. After all, $5 can be a lot of money for a grad student, haha.

My dad has rubbed off on me too, as I discovered all too well during our recent father-daughter road trip back from Atlanta. We had planned split the 15-hour drive to KC in half by stopping in Paducah, Kentucky, for the night. Everything was going well and we were having a grand old time… until we realized we’d taken a wrong turn… 3 hours ago. That’s right; when we were leaving Nashville, we both noticed the sign for Louisville, Kentucky, and commented, “Louisville? That sounds right!” Fast forward to 11:15 p.m. when we finally decided to look at our smart phones and discovered that we were on the wrong side of the state. Whoops. And because we’d agreed to meet a friend in Paducah the next day, we couldn’t just go from Louisville to home. Yay for three hours of back-tracking. Upon hearing about our unintended adventure, my Omi (my dad’s mom) summed it up nicely: “Oh dear. Those two need adult supervision.” Well said, Omi, well said. Overlooking minor major details? Like father, like daughter.

But the greatest way that I resemble my parents is in my response to change. As my mom says (and I often find myself repeating), “I don’t take changes very well.” As much as I love adventures and trying new things, I really don’t like change. While I’ve gotten much better enjoying the moment since studying abroad in Austria, this “living in the present” comes with an unintended consequence: I don’t stop to process changes until they finally come crashing over me like a giant tidal wave, and I’m swamped.

That’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago. The combination of not being at Kanakuk for the first time in 15 years, of living in a strange city where people use words like “yinz,” and trying to learn an almost-impossible Slavic language with more z’s than I thought humanly possible—all of this together created the “perfect storm.” All of a sudden, I found myself looking back over the last few years and coming face-to-face with how significantly my life had changed: I’d studied abroad in Austria and made incredible friends from around the world, but now we all lived thousands of miles apart. I’d graduated from Oklahoma State (where did those four years go?!) but had since lost touch with most of my college friends. Much to my surprise, I’d attended the Kanakuk Institute and watched God  to transform my life, but even those friendships had changed significantly in the last year. And while I probably have five more years of graduate school left in Atlanta, it’s going to fly by, if this past year is any indication. And then I’ll just have to pack up and move somewhere else that I’ll eventually have to leave again. In an instant, I was mercilessly struck by the temporariness of life, and all I wanted to do was curl up into the fetal position and cry. But while that might make me feel better for a little while, it wouldn’t fix the real problem. Everything around me would just keep on changing, and nothing I could do would stop it. I could try to ignore it and just “live my life,” but sooner or later, the reality would catch me again with a vengeance. But what could I do?

Having been a Christian for most of my life, I believe that the Bible truly is God’s Word and that He uses it to speak to us. For many years, I’ve read my Bible consistently, and on countless occasions, God has opened my eyes to new truths, and even in passages I’ve read a hundred times. So when I started to feel overwhelmed by the “change wave” a few weeks ago, I prayed that God would give me something new to help me through. But pray as I might, all I could see was the same stuff that He’d shown me months or years ago, but nothing new. Exasperated and desperate, I called my friend Nichole and explained to her my frustration at God’s apparent silence. Not missing a beat, she replied, “You say that you don’t like how everything around you is changing, but you’re annoyed that God keeps bringing you back to the same truth. In actuality, though, it sounds like God is answering your prayer—by being constant.”

Ouch… in a good way.

As always, Nichole had hit the nail on the head—and the truth in my heart. Here I was crying out to God for something steady and unchanging to hold onto, and there He was the entire time, waiting patiently for me to realize that He was holding onto me. And the same holds true for all of us. When everything around us is in flux, He can be counted on. When everyone around us is packing up and moving on, He’s not going anywhere. When it feels like we have “change to spare,” He isn’t changing. The book of Hebrews captures this truth with profound simplicity: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” The One who walked down the dirty streets in Galilee, healing those with just a touch of His cloak, is the same Savior who walks with us every day of our ever-changing lives. Faithful. True. Constant. That’s my—our—Jesus.

So as much as I hate change and would often give anything to slow it down or stop it, I know deep down that everything will be okay. Because while my circumstances will shift and friends may come and go, my God is constant—and He’s constantly with me. And if He’s with me, I don’t need to afraid of anything, even change.

…Speaking of change, I think I just saw a garage sale. Wanna join? 😉

An “In-Tents” Summer

11.

11 is a good, solid number. When I was 11, I played my dream role of Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. At 11:11, you make a wish (especially last year on 11-11-11). Apollo 11 was the first spacecraft to land on the moon (Yay, ‘Merica!). After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, the other apostles were referred to as “the Eleven.” 11 pipers will forever be piping in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” If you’re from Canada, eh, the maple leaf on your flag has 11 points. And last, but not least…

11 is the number of weeks I spent this summer living in a Teepee.

In case you can’t do the math, that’s a reeeeaaallllllyy long time.

But that’s not all. After some audacious addition yesterday, I discovered that—after nine years as a Kamper and four summers on staff—I have spent approximately 42 weeks of my life sleeping inside a Teepee.

Yikes.

To those of you not acquainted with Kanakuk’s K-Seven Kamp, let me clarify. Yes, these are, in fact, real, bona fide Teepees. No, they do not have air conditioning (don’t worry; they do have two large fans to move the hot air around). And yes, we actually live in them.

Now you might be asking the following question, “Steffi, why in the world would you want to live in vinyl, non-air conditioned, plastic cone for the entire summer?”

That is a great question, one that I’ve pondered on many occasions, especially during the 110+ degree heatwave. Here are some answers I came up with:

1) The evening events are awesome!

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Seriously, where else can you play in 9-foot-tall unscented foam? Or watch your coworkers get pied in the face with whipped cream? (Or pie them yourself, heehee) Nowhere else can you see incredible (and hilarious) talents, including but not limited to: a girl hypnotizing a live chicken, a nine-year-old playing the banjo, angry-duck impersonations, a fourteen-year-old piano prodigy, and a random, nonsensical sock-puppet show—all in one place. #ridiculous

2) The activities are a blast!

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Only at Kamp do you get paid for playing with kids (and acting like a kid)! Our pool features a 70-foot vertical water slide, a giant multi-colored blob, a curvy slide, AND a flying trapeze! More of a beach bum? Check out our lake front, complete with sailboats, kayaks, canoes, catamarans, and tubing. Prefer the high life? Try out Treetops, our high-elements ropes course, the rock-climbing and rappelling wall, and our zip line. Want to laugh so hard you cry? That’s why we built the world’s best slip and slide! At K-Seven, having fun is part of our job description.

3) The people are the best!

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Some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met come from K-Seven. From Kristen, our wonderful scheduler, to Jenni, our super-duper office leader, from Cash, the Programs guy with record-setting sideburns, to Hutto, the guy who can do everything (including a mean Scottish-Australian accent!), our staff is chock full of amazing, fun people who love Jesus. Working with them is a case study in how a team (and the Body of Christ) should function. In other words, they are awesome.

But although all these reasons are valid, and I certainly love the events, activities, and the people, they mean nothing compared to why I’m actually at K-Seven:

For the Kingdom. For the Kids.

Often abbreviated to “FTK2”, this catchy, concise phrase encapsulates everything we do at K-Seven and Kanakuk. It’s our motto, our purpose, our heartbeat. We are here to reach kids with the love of Jesus Christ. All is for Him, for His Kingdom, for His glory. That’s why we have the fun activities; that’s why we create wacky evening events. That’s why our staff keeps coming back year after year after year. Because we love kids, and we want them to love Jesus. To quote the Hokey Pokey, “that’s what it’s all about.” One purpose. One goal. One heartbeat.

So here I am back in “real life,” as we at Kamp call it. The land of Teepees and heckles and Wednesday-morning coffee cake is still fresh in my memory and near to my heart. And as I continue to ponder the 11 weeks of my summer, I am drawn continually back to this question. What if?

… What if we lived every day with a singular purpose? What if we were so committed to that purpose that nothing—not rain, hail, 115-degree heat, or anything else—could stop us? What if we were so passionate about that purpose that we quit worrying about how we look, what we wear, or what people think of us? What if we cared so much about that purpose that, in comparison, nothing else mattered?

…And what if our all-consuming passion were to know Jesus and to make Him known?

I’ve seen it. I’ve tasted it. I know it’s real because this summer I had the chance to experience it. And having experienced it, I can tell you with humble confidence that it’s not only the best way to live; it’s the only way to live. Sold out for Him, with everything you are. I’m the president of imperfection, the chief of sinners; I still have so far to go. But I know this: Without Jesus, you have nothing. But with Him, you have everything. Because He is everything.

And so I ask you this question, as I ask it to myself: Do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus is the reason for your existence? Do you believe He is all He says He is? Do you believe He’s worth everything you have and are? And if you do, then are you willing to live sold out, full-throttle, all-you’ve-got for Him and His glory every moment of every day for the rest of your life?

… 11 seconds at a time.

Mid-Summer Musings

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Hello, WordPress world!

First, I’d like apologize for not blogging recently. Since May 20th, I’ve been working at Kanakuk Kamps and have had only intermittent access to my computer. (No computer = no blog). I’m currently on the tail end of a 24 (i.e., 24 hours off), and I felt compelled to write. Unlike my usual planned-out blogs, I have no idea what I’m going to write about. But hey, we all need a little spontaneity now and then, right?

Kamp has been incredible so far. Exhausting, exhilarating, exciting, and extremely different from my other four summers on staff. Rather than being a counselor or a Unit Coordinator (aka a counselor to counselors), I’m on the Leadership team, working behind the scenes—and sometimes around the clock—to make Kamp run smoothly. I carry a walkie-talkie, do all kinds of odd jobs (like tweeting and blogging. Follow me @kanakukkseven and http://kseven.kanakuk.com/  #shamelessplug) and fill in wherever needed. But I don’t think the change in title has caused the difference I’ve noticed. The reason goes far deeper… all the way to my heart.

You see, I’m a different person this summer. Why? Because God transformed me, or in slang terms “rocked my world” this past year. And that’s what I’d like to share with you today. Having said that, this entry is going to be more candid than usual, but I hope the message will make the shift in writing style worthwhile.

If you’ve paid attention to my blog at all this last year, you know that I attended the Kanakuk Institute. This wasn’t my first intention; in fact, I really didn’t want to go. But our Plan B is often God’s Plan A, so I ended up in Branson for eight months. During my “island adventure,” I knew I was growing and changing, but I had no idea just how much until this summer when I returned to Kamp. As bookends on the year at the Institute, my summers at Kamp provided the perfect window into all God has done in my heart and life. And now for some specifics…

I no longer compare myself to other people or worry about what they think of me; rather, I’m content with who I am in Christ.

I don’t get down on myself about mistakes I’ve made, but I learn from them and move on, trusting that God will use them for His purpose.

I’m not worried about the future, but I’m thankful for every moment that I’ve been given. I trust that the Lord will take care of the rest.

I’m genuinely joyful. Even when I’m having a rough day or just need to cry, I have a deep-seated and happy trust in my Savior.

And most of all, I have found real victory and freedom—in Jesus.

Why am I sharing this with you? Simple: I want you to experience this too. Growing wasn’t an easy process, and this year wasn’t always pleasant. But now, standing on the other side and looking back at it, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Never have I been more at peace. Never have I felt more alive. And I desperately want that for everyone, including you. True life is found only in Christ. He’s the answer to all your problems, the solution to all your needs. But more than that, He’s the God of your heart, the Creator of your being, the Lover of your soul. Nothing else will satisfy you; nothing else can make you whole. I don’t know where you are in your “spiritual journey” or if you’ve even started. I have no idea what you believe. But I do know this: your Maker is the only one who can make you complete.

With that, I’m turning off this laptop and heading back into the woods. I’ll try to write again soon (next time, I will be funnier; I promise), but until then, please think about these words. Goodbye, friends!