Thursday, June 9, 2011


I went to a wedding last weekend. I didn’t actually receive an invitation or know the couple well, but other friends did so I tagged along. Aspects of the service were tailored to the preferences of the bride and groom (e.g., the hipster music, handmade programs, etc.), but it was still a wedding, and as such followed the general patterns that all weddings do. There were candles and flowers, words of welcome, vows, and some sort of homily. At the reception there was cake and coffee; mingling, eating, chatting, and dancing.

Nate and Amanda’s first dance as a married couple was haphazardly choreographed, but lovely nonetheless. There was something truly beautiful in watching them attempt to synchronize their movements and work together. Following the first dance was the father-daughter/mother-son number. As the bride and groom embraced with their respective parent a slideshow was projected in the back of the room.

It was one of those slideshows you see at graduations, anniversaries, and other celebrations of life. The ones that start with a baby photo taken in a hospital and conclude with the most recent semi-professional photograph of the person being celebrated, honored, or remembered. In the middle are snapshots of holidays and family vacations, a toddler in a bath tub or Superman underpants; girl with a princess crown on her head and chocolate cake all over her face. Though onlookers don’t remember the trip to the Grand Canyon or know the significance of the pink-spotted rhino, we stay and we watch; and even if we’ve only met the subject of all those photos just a few weeks ago, we’re somehow sad when the screen goes black. It’s not that we’re saddened by the end of the show, so much as the gravity of an individual life. Each of those photos, each of those memories captures a person, a place, a story.

I was going through Facebook albums the other day and was struck by some of the faces looking back at me: my friends as children, my college professors as students, my mentors and advisors as young parents with bad haircuts. I see them and I wonder, Is that middle school football player the man who moved across the country to attend medical school? Is that decked out prom queen the woman who bakes pastries for our small group on Saturday mornings? I viewed albums from trips I never took, schools I never attended, holidays I didn’t celebrate. Later on I met one of those friends for coffee and wondered – Is this Eric the one that competed to be Mr. North Kansas City, or the one who is going to seminary in Atlanta? Flipping the question back on myself, am I the 9-year-old girl who wanted to be an author or the recent graduate who wanted to teach overseas?

The answer is yes. I am and he is and we are all of those people we have been, all of those experiences and stages that we’ve gone through all wrapped up into who we are today. Sometimes I forget that everyone comes with past experiences and selves - even me. I forget that Ellen did not always speak Spanish and Carolyn did not used to live in Kansas City. When we look at slideshows, when we flip through photo albums we’re given a chance to see someone as they were five years ago, five months ago, and five days ago and now, all at the same time.

This, I believe, is closer to the way I think God must see me. He does not look at me today and take me for what I am, but also for what I have been and what I will be. He sees a four-year-old girl dressed in a crown and pajamas, an eight-year-old fighting with her little sister, a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a car, and a college student packing her bags for England. He sees all of me – all I have done and felt and experienced – and knows all of me, even parts I don’t know. And even when he doesn’t like what he sees (like the time I lied on a job application), he loves who he sees.

Rushing through Paris

Having completed a three-and-a-half hour walking tour of the entire city, followed by a quick jaunt to opera house, the recovery of a lost beret, a brief stop for cheese and wine, and then three-and-a-half more hours in the Louvre, I was surprisingly awake as I rode the metro Tuesday morning. I reached my stop, scurried along the platform, down the street and off toward my next stop, eating breakfast as I did. It was my last day in Paris, and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to cram everything I could into it.

I ran through my mental checklist: Eiffel Tower – check, Arc de Triumph – check, Notre Dame – check, Sainte Chapelle – check, Sacre Couer – check, river cruise – check, the colonnade of the Palais Royale – check, eat crepes – check, consume baguette – check, devour croissant – check,. And then I heard the train – my train – the train headed for Versaille - approaching from the other side of the platform. I was off toward the stairs, my feet picking up pace until they were moving as quickly as the thoughts in my head. Just as I was trying to decide whether I should spend the evening admiring the names on the graves in the Pantheon or touring the grounds of the Luxembourg Gardens my foot missed a step. And then another step. And then a whole flight of steps. For a brief moment I was airborne before landing on the smooth gray pavement of the metro.

I didn’t get up. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t pick up my thoughts or the loose change that had dislodged during my trip down the steps. I just sat there, rather dumbfounded by what had just happened. The train took off without me.

A few moments later I picked myself up, checked for bruises, and headed in the direction of the platform. Another train would be by in less than ten minutes. As I waited for it to arrive I reflected on what I was doing in Paris. It was a dream really. A dream that started forming around the age of ten, the first time I saw Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina. That dream was fueled by other movies, and by books and photos and stories. I wanted Paris, and I wanted all of it. But in my attempt to fill every minute of my day with every inch of the city I lost sight of what it takes to really enjoy something. I forgot how to stop.

That afternoon as I ate my lunch in the gardens of Versaille I reflected on the fact that I had become so fixated on doing and seeing Paris, that I wasn’t really experiencing the city. I can come up with plausible reasons for having a “busy week,” or a “busy month,” or a “busy schedule;” but a busy vacation? A busy time in which my schedule is mine to scrap or keep or don whatever I want with? Yes. It sounds ridiculous, but I do this. All the time. I fill my life with as much as possible in my attempts to have the kind of “full and abundant life” that I believe I will get if I have enough "life experiences".

But if you really want a life that is full with the things I wish my life were full of (peace, space, contentment), you can’t create a schedule, spreadsheet or list of objectives that will allow you to go about attaining it. It requires space and time. It requires scheduling absolutely nothing and leaving that space open. I have come to believe that really experiencing people, places, and life in general requires making time to sit and admire a tree in the same way you would watch the ocean or stare at a camp fire. Summer affords many of us more unstructured space than we typically have. The challenge for me is to keep myself from filling it.


From the St. Stephen Archives

Last week, Holy Week, I celebrated the Passover with a small group of friends. Wednesday evening we gathered together to drink, eat, sing, and tell the story of how God liberated the Hebrew people, his chosen people, from slavery to Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. We took part in a Christian seder, a symbolic meal that retells the story of the exodus and recognizes the great deliverance that God has brought, still brings, and promises to complete in each of our lives.
I love the seder (a Hebrew word meaning “order”). I love the sequence and structure of the meal, the preservation of ancient rituals, and the sacredness of the celebration. I love reciting prayers that have been spoken in Jewish homes for 4000 years. I love retelling a story that has formed the identity of an entire people, a people who have become my people because of Jesus. I love seeing the connections between the exodus and the crucifiction, the point at which God delivered us from our slavery to sin. And I love the meaning behind each item on the seder plate.
This past year I was particularly struck by the pairing of the karpas with the salt water, and the maror with the charoset. The karpas (a green vegetable, usually parsley) represents spring and new life. It is fresh and vibrant and crisp and green. Its place in the meal is accompanied by a reading from Song of Songs, which reminds us of the joy and fullness of life that is given and sustained by God. But before we eat the karpas, we dip it in salt water, which represents the tears of the slaves and reminds us that life itself is not always sweet. This combination of newness and bitterness reminds us that though God has created life to be good, it is often mixed with tears of pain and hardship and sorrow.
The eating of the maror and charoset are similarly symbolic of the positive and negative emotions and experiences that make up our lives. The maror, or bitter herb, is traditionally a horseradish root. If you’ve ever had horseradish in its rawest form you know that it is potent stuff. It burns the sinuses and often brings tears to the eye. Maror reminds us of the bitterness of living in slavery, the hardship of the Hebrews before liberation, and the bitterness of our own lives when we are slaves to sin. Following the eating of the maror we add the charoset, a chutney that is a combination of apples, nuts, kosher wine and spices. The charoset resembles the mixture of clay and straw that the Israelites used to make bricks. When added to the maror it reminds us of the mixture of joy and sorrow that makes up our lives. The charoset also serves as a sign of hope, hope that the bitterness will pass and that deliverance and redemption will come as God has promised.
Take a moment to consider the bittersweetness of life – your own life and the lives of those around you. We need only turn on the radio or open the newspaper to stories of tsunamis, earthquakes, and civil war to see evidence that life is bitter. And we need only look outside at the spring sun that shines through the branches of the trees or the green buds that blossom into flower to see evidence that life is good. Hope for new life illuminates even the darkness of death.
It is in our darkest and bitterest moments that we most rely on the unchanging nature of the Hebrew God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of you and me. He is a God who delivers us from darkness and sets us free from all that enslaves us. He is a God who redeems our lives and restores what is broken. May he give you the strength to endure hardship and hope to trust in the promised restoration.

Lessons from Johanna

Last week I spent three days in St. Louis visiting my brother, his wife, and their nine-month-old daughter, Johanna.

I do not consider myself to be a “kid person.” I don’t dream of someday living in a little house filled with baby bottles, rocking horses, and copies of Goodnight Moon. I don’t ooh and ahh and coo over infants or make a fuss over the cute little socks or precious tiny dresses when I walk past the baby section of Target. Truth be told, when a baby enters the room I’m more likely to become uncomfortable than to reach for it with eager arms.
I think I lack maternal instincts.
I was a little worried about this when I first visited my niece a month or so after she was born. I feared that my unease around her (and babies in general) would offend my brother’s wife or hinder a future relationship with Johanna Ruth Kuehn; the realtionship that might exist after she had developed the capability for rational thought (thereby making her “safe” for me to interact with). Fortunately my mom and sister were visiting as well, and between the two of them there is enough motherly affection to satisfy a nursery full of children.
The “grandmother factor” was present on Thanksgiving and Christmas as well, meaning I could continue to admire my niece from a distance. There was a safe place to pass her off or return her when she started crying, drooling, or otherwise fussing. This past week, however, Aunt Amanda was on her own with little Jo Ru.
Similar to our first encounter, my niece and I spent a good portion of time staring at each other, wondering who (and perhaps even what) was starting back. I was surprised by her helplessness - her inability to wipe her nose, transport herself, or procure her own food. I was surprised by her ignorance - her inability to understand where we were going or why she needed to be strapped into her stroller. And I was surprised by her defiance – her refusal to behave during church, finish her breakfast or go down for a nap. But most of all, I was surprised by my affection for this squawking, chirping, cooing, crying little creature.
I do not love Johanna because she is gentle or beautiful or kind. I do not love her because of what she provides for me or the way that she impacts my life. I love her simply because she exists, and because – to some extent - she is mine. I reflect on this and realize that this is love the way that God loves us, the way that he loves me. He is not surprised by my helplessness, my ignorance, or my defiance. He has likely become accustomed to such things from me. And despite them all he is overcome with affection for me – the grumbling, complaining, rejoicing, confusing creature that I am. He does not love me because of what I can do for him, which is really nothing at all. He loves me simply because I exist, because I am his.
Even at nine months old, I suppose my niece has something to teach me. 

Artificial Update

So I realized today that I haven't properly blogged for a good many months. Sad (at least for me), but true. Though I doubt there are really any readers of this blog at this point, it's good exercise for me as an "aspiring author" to have a place I feel I ought to be writing. Also, when we write (or even when we retell stories over and over again) it cements memories that would otherwise vanish with the passing of time.

The following was not written for this blog. It was written for "The Voice," our church newsletter. The next few blog posts are articles I wrote for The Voice. No one really reads the church newsletter, which leads me to think I ought to try something a bit racy next week. For now, there's this:

Friday, March 25, I stuffed my backpack with books, snacks, medical forms and a sweatshirt; grabbed my water bottle, and boarded a First Student school bus. Waiting for me were over three dozen middle school students, hyped-up with energy (and caffeine) and ready for the three-hour trip to Roach, MO.
“This is great. You’re excited. You’re going to have an excellent weekend. No one will get hurt. No one will hate you. The kids will have fun. You will bring them home safely.” I repeatedly chanted these phrases to myself loudly enough to drown out the songs from Messiah’s spring musical, but quietly enough to avoid drawing too much attention. Either the mantra sank in pretty deeply or God chose to surprise me (I think the latter). The weekend really was quite excellent. None of the 20 kids that came along from St. Stephen expressed deep feelings of resentment toward me and all of them came back safe and healthy, albeit a little sleep-deprived. I daresay they may even have learned something in the 48 hours we spent together. I know I did.
I’ve taken part in my fair share of retreats, camps and weekends away in the past ten years: volleyball camps, dance camp, Christian teen retreats, National Youth Gathering, campus ministries retreats, church camp, and long road trips with good friends. There are reasons we leave. Reasons we need to “get away” physically in order to “get away” spiritually. And there are reasons we do this together, as a community. Something about three-hour bus trips, fast food frenzies, team building exercises and shared sleeping arrangements is bonding. In a single weekend we are often able to meet, know, and connect with one another and with our heavenly Father more deeply and memorably than we do over nine months of weekly Sunday school classes. That is not to negate Sunday school or the benefit of regular rhythms, patterns and practices - all of which I believe to be vital – only to say that retreats also have their place and purpose.
This past weekend 20 middle school students, four adult chaperones and I joined over 600 other middle school student from over 40 different LCMS churches in learning more about what it means to pray. Together we pondered what it means that a holy God has invited us to call him Abba (“Daddy”), together we trekked through the wind and snow to get to the chicken tenders in cafeteria (well, some of us may have driven), together we worshipped with Parrallax View, and together we debriefed in our cabins, put on our pajamas and didn’t go to sleep as soon as we should have.
I can’t tell you the impact that three days away had on any of the individuals that went to Windermere, but I can tell you that it had an impact, that those three days someone seemed to be a week in length, that they allowed for the fostering of conversation and forming of relationships. And I can tell you that when we cut ties to our work, our electronic devices, our do-lists and our agendas, it allows us to make receptive space in our hearts. It is when we are away, when we are in need, when we are without our entertainments, comforts, familiarities and friends that God can most effectively work.
You may not be able to sacrifice three days, and you probably do not need to go to Camp Windermere, but I challenge you to “get away,” to go someplace where you will be in need, and out of your need to learn what it means for your Abba to fill you, to meet with you as he met with Moses on the mountain and in the desert. Leave what you know, that you might discover what you do not.