Peeling back the layers

"I created this blog with the intention of posting at least once a week but somehow it's been a month since my last post," says everyone who has started a blog, right? Or is it just me with all my fear and laziness? I blame my lack of writing on the the fatigue that comes from being a first year teacher while adjusting to a new culture, but I think that may be dishonest. I think that each word represents a piece of vulnerability that I'm so often unwilling to offer. At the recommendation of a friend, I started reading a book called "The Gifts of Imperfection." To be honest, I kind of hate it. I would still love for everyone to think that I am perfect, that I never feel ashamed, that I never mess up, that I never feel unsure. The truth is that I do not want to know the gifts of imperfection because I still hope that I can maintain a facade of perfection. Thus, no posting. I know for a fact that I will miss the mark in this post and anything I ever write. I will say something untrue. I will be too vulnerable with what I share and feel ashamed later. As an English major and English teacher, I will stain my credibility with a grammatical mistake or a lack of strong verbs. (Oh the horror!)

When I think about what I truly want to achieve through my writing, though, the word that comes to mind is "honesty." There is a part of me that would love to post eloquent travel blogs and trendy fashion pieces, but when I sit down at the computer my heart pounds "honesty." Writing can be used to honey-glaze our lives, taking off the edge of bitterness and leaving us with only sweetness. But writing can also strip away the layers of politeness and present the raw data. We get swept away in writing that entertains and woos. We rely on writing that informs. But, we linger with writing that puts words to what we already know to be true.

If we do not linger, we flee because there are only two choices when confronted with this type of writing. We reflect and nod in agreement or we turn our backs and chase the rose-colored dream. I love the dream. I feel like my life is a series of trains. I keep trying to buy the ticket for the pretty, freshly-painted train to dreamland, but instead I become engulfed every time in a crowd of slightly battered regular folk boarding the reality train. And I keep wanting to write the story about how I arrived in that ultimate dreamland with all my flawless friends, but I'm not on that train. My train experiences lots of hair-raising screeches and some crying babies but also a lot of belly laughing and conversations revealing warm intimacy between friends. I find the atmosphere so difficult to describe because the images are at once so dear and so hard. God must see it all so simply, but for me its a complex web with me tied up in the middle. 

So, I hope you will forgive my fumbling for words and my refusal to pretend I have a pretty story to tell or all the answers tied up in bows. You might prefer more sugar in your coffee, but I'm starting to like the black stuff because it celebrates coffee instead of masking it. And I think I prefer  representing the raw beauty of life in my writing to painting over it in pretty pastels. 

Without realizing what I was doing, I recently chose a novel to read for pleasure that masterfully exhibits honest, realistic writing. I have not yet finished Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles, but I was overcome by the grim symbolism in this passage as a hunted, wounded woman empathizes with hunted, wounded birds. Tess, the heroine, has been abused and cast off for years and is in this very scene hiding in the bushes from a man who seeks to accuse and harm her. While you miss the subtle connections to the full story, the tone of the novel is clearly apparent in this passage, which I will leave you with:

"She crept from under her hillock of leaves and looked around boldly. Then she perceived what had been going on to disturb her. The plantation wherein she had taken shelter ran down at this spot into a peak...Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out -all of them writhing in agony except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more.

With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself, Tess's first thought was to put the still-living birds out of their torture, and to this end with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find leaving them to lie where she had found them till the gamekeepers should come - as they probably would come - to look for them a second time.

Poor darlings-to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o' such misery as yours!' she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly. 'And not a twinge of bodily pain about me! I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.' She was ashamed of herself for the gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in nature." 

Cats and Chile's

When you travel abroad for vacation, you notice monuments and picturesque views. When you move abroad, you notice the minute details that become landmarks in the routine rhythms of your daily life. Writing about these details poses a challenge because they cannot be accompanied by perfectly cropped and filtered instagram pictures. Sometimes the details, like a pile of trash on the corner opposite your apartment, sound jarring on a well-manicured travel blog. When you have made this dusty place your home, however, the trash heap becomes a landmark along with the sweet old man who resides on the first floor of your building, ready to run your errands and help you carry groceries up the stairs. And sometimes, your least favorite animal hides in every nook and cranny of the city you call home.

Cats are to Cairo as squirrels are to Houston. They rule the streets. My first or second night here, I was awakened at 1 am by the nightmarish screeching of a cat. They prowl around the piles of trash. They lunge out in front of you as you are walking down the street. Despite my distaste for cats and, although I still distrust them, they have woven their way into the fabric of my daily life along with ice cream delivered to my door. Should I choose to never leave my flat again, I could have groceries, chips and salsa, ice cream, hamburgers, and drinks delivered every day. While in the U.S. I would never have chosen to eat at Chile's, now I rejoice at the announcement that my roommates have ordered chips and salsa and spinach dip from Chile's. How quickly preferences change! 

Even the cats serve a purpose here. Without them, my friend explained to me that the streets would be filled with rats instead....

I'll take the cats!!!

One of my favorite words is "perspective." Perspective is everything. So much of what we accept as social norms are only normal because of our perspective. Even a move to a different region of our home country can throw us off balance and challenge our perspective. We shout our values and opinions from the rooftops, and yet many of us might find them turned upside down or flat out irrelevant in a different culture. I laugh about the cats, but there are other new normals that puzzle me. I might wish the cats away, but then I would inadvertently choose rats instead. Are there other more serious social issues that operate similarly? I think the only answer is to bite my tongue when I feel a sharp response coming and watch to see what I am missing, how my perspective might need to shift. This does not mean that truth is relative. But, as finite creatures, we may be holding up as truth what is merely opinion or personal experience. Let's dare to question and search out the truths that span all cultural divides. 

The Truth about Goodbyes

Goodbyes feel like eating an atomic fireball. You pop it in your mouth, knowing it will burn. But, at first, all you taste is the subtle sweetness. And then it strikes, the burning sensation lasting longer than you remembered. You love this little red ball of cinnamon flavor, but the burning sensation is tempting you to spit the candy out. Goodbyes are the same - the sweetness, the burning, the desire to press pause on the whole sensation, and the gradual diminishing of the sweet pain that defines the trail of goodbyes. 

As I say goodbyes on the cusp of moving to Cairo, I feel a bit like I did in the plane before I went skydiving. My brother and I were excited to check this great thrill off of our bucket lists. After months of planning, we showed up at the skydiving place only to sit through another agonizing hour of safety training before gearing up. Finally, our gear in place, we are introduced to our trained tandem partner. These jovial guys joked around with us and made small talk as we boarded the plane and began our ascent. In a way, goodbyes feel like the small talk that takes place in a skydive plane. All you can think about is the wild, unfamiliar sensation you are about to experience. Your mind is racing, wondering if you will hesitate or panic right before your tandem partner pushes you both out of the plane door. All the while, these guys are asking you about stuff like what you're studying at school, which seems somehow insignificant compared to this life-changing jump you are about to make. And yet, it is impossible to make the jump without sitting through the safety debrief, binding yourself physically and conversationally to your tandem partner, and slowly ascending into the sky.

Goodbyes in one word: uncomfortable


One word redeems goodbyes: prayer.


Prayer has always been my safety word. When people ask me what makes me feel safe and at home, it's not preparation, courage, friendship, or adventure. It's prayer. The moment we acknowledge God, I am reminded of the all-important reality that I am not meant to manage every detail of my life and I cannot carry the emotional baggage of this kind of transition. A dear friend recently described this venture to Cairo, Egypt as "glorious." I love that word because it implies that God is involved. There is certainly nothing glorious about me. But, when he is in something, empowering someone, plowing the way ahead, it is glorious. And, suddenly I do not have to make apologies for being the blundering fool that I am. When we invite God in, our attention turns to him and away from mere people (including ourselves) who will disappoint. 

Recently, I read this Oswald Chambers' quote that offered a solution to the despair I often feel regarding myself and other people. 

"Our Lord (Jesus) trusted no one, and never placed His faith in people, yet he was never suspicious or bitter. Our Lord's confidence in God, and in what God's grace could do for anyone, was so perfect that He never despaired, never giving up hope for any person. If our trust is placed in human beings, we will end up despairing of everyone." - Oswald Chambers 


There's a popular song out right now that is crazy catchy: "Cheerleader" by Felix Jaehn. 

The chorus goes like this: "Oh, I think that I found myself a cheerleader. She is always right there when I need her." I'll go ahead and run the risk of disrespecting Oswald Chambers by drawing a correlation between he and Felix. As Felix sings, we desperately want a cheerleader, someone who is always right there ready to meet our needs. Instead, as Oswald Chambers points out, our "cheerleaders" fail us and our relationships fall apart unless we place them within the framework of God's grace. Prayer gives language to this framework of grace, as we draw together and look to the God who will truly always be right there when we need Him.

I witnessed an astounding picture of this on Wednesday night, as friends gathered around to pray for me. I appreciate each of them more than I would a personal cheerleader. They have the courage and faith to look to God and trust Him with both my life and their's. When my goodbyes look like this, I can feel nothing but hope. 


The Kingdom

"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

The kingdom sounds like a mighty fine gift, but Scripture says that the majority of people do not care to possess it. What do you picture when you picture the kingdom? A glittering palace, a dress like Elsa's in Frozen, servants who bring you breakfast in bed, an invisible aura of peace. Why not seek a kingdom like this? Because this is not the type of kingdom that the Father is giving.

This year, God has had me once again at a fork in the road. The fork is actually more like a city where I have made my home for a year. I sleep and work and discover little nooks and crannies I love here, but it's become pretty clear that this comfortable abode is just a stopping place along the journey. I feel a bit like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress at one of his many stops along the road to the Celestial City. Perhaps I am leaving the Palace Beautiful and on my way to the Valley of Despair. It's impossible to know exactly what lies ahead, but I have a choice to make. I can settle here in this comfortable in-between. I can try to find that glamorous kingdom of wealth and ease. Or I can take the road that leads to the Father's kingdom. How do I find it? Where do I start?

"Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail." Luke 12:33

Something about this command makes me wonder if I will have pretty clothes to wear on this journey. Surely, Jesus did not mean to sell everything. My books are noble treasures. My curling iron is really a necessity. I have a healthy love for guacamole and french fries. Don't question what I have chosen to purchase and treasure. I'm no diva. I look out for the people I love.

So, God, if you could just give me the kingdom and let me keep this little hoard of treasures, no one will get hurt. I'll be very agreeable on this pleasant journey.

But, Jesus has found me packing, and the truth is becoming clear. Not everything is fitting like I thought it would. He says it's time to go. The kingdom is waiting not far from here. But I can't lift my suitcase, and there's still a box of movies and snacks in case I get bored in this kingdom. I gaze at the box and back at Jesus. I stall. Let's have a cup of coffee before we go. "So tell me more about this kingdom," I say to Jesus over my coffee.

And he tells a story, a few actually, because Jesus is patient. He tells me of people who have seen visions of Him, but believing in him could mean their death. They open their arms to the reality of persecution because they have experienced an intimate, freeing relationship unlike any before. He tells me of children, abandoned at birth, who are drawn into the arms of a selfless people who see beauty and value even through the defects. He tells me of sick, soul-wounded people who have found a reason to smile again, although their body will always bear scars and the pain may never leave. He tells me of children grateful for one shoebox full of small Christmas presents, so overwhelmed you might think that gold coins had showered down on them from the sky. He tells me of my own helpless, lonely soul that found such comfort in him as a little girl.

And he also tells me of the Pharisees who cleaned the outside of the cup; they always looked good to the watching world. No one could criticize them. And yet they knew nothing of the kingdom. They have neglected the inner person and the unseen acts. And he tells me of the times when I too was a pharisee, concerned with looking good and feeling all too deserving of attention and blessings.

And he points to my baggage, the heap of things that are slowing me down, and he asks if this is my treasure. I'm not sure. There are more than just possessions in these bags; there are a lot of people's opinions of me and dreams I have that don't involve abandoned children or sick people. Whatever greater treasure I'm supposed to find in the kingdom, I'm not sure the messy crowd he describes, including my childhood self, are my crowd anymore. They don't have a lot to give. They don't sound like they know much about art or literature. Do they like eating chips and salsa? I like the people I like, and I'm kind to them (at least most of the time). Isn't that enough?

His patience does not prevent him from saying some tough things.

"The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my good. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God." Luke 12:16-21

I immediately leave my coffee cup (even though there is a half a cup left) and my pile of treasures and walk with Jesus down the road to His unusual kingdom.

Or at least that is the route I take in this blog. The truth is that I'm still dwelling in this quaint little inn at the side of the road, and Jesus hasn't come to pick me up yet. My friends say I shouldn't feel guilty for loving what I love, but I know how much I have stored in these barns. I pray that when he comes I'm already half-way out the door with a map to the kingdom and not a lick of baggage.