Shayne Wheeler was my youth pastor before he left to plant All Souls Fellowship in Decatur, GA—a church which I joined a few years later my freshman year of college. After a collective 10 (?) years, I am no stranger to his stories and teachings. And yet, despite the familiarity, The Briarpatch Gospel’s woven words brought true conviction, and a reminder of the deep affection of God. The message is clear, If we claim to follow Jesus, our path leads straight into the midst of the shadows and prickly places of our lives and the lives of others. Of course, we are not alone, though it may be terribly difficult not to feel like that sometimes. Going into the “briarpatch” would be devastating and impossible, except it comes with Christ. It comes with his strength, with his promises, and his love. The Briarpatch Gospel walks right up to those issues that are complicated and painful for the Church, her congregants, those outside and those unsure. It walks into them with rolled up sleeves and a soapy rag called Jesus.
You could get through the book quickly. It is very readable, filled with humor, anecdotes and layman’s language, but I wouldn’t suggest flying through it. Let it challenge you. Let it change your lifestyle and your worldview. Let it encourage you because “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6 (NIV)
These don’t count as posts, but I want a way to track their growth. And I’m rather proud of attempting this. I haven’t successfully planted anything since that 4th grade science project everyone does. This is stage one: plant, water, cover and sun.
I tried to run my first half marathon last week. I made it just shy of 12 miles (out of 13.1). I had just made it to the top of a very long hill. I paused, and realized my body couldn’t make it another step. I lost. I had been losing the whole time. From the start I realized everyone’s pace was faster to mine. Then, at 8 km, an intestinal torment required a detour in the course. Not to mention the nausea and 3rd-to-last place positioning that caused doubts and questions and exhaustion for the following 11km. I have enough blog fodder from just those two hours that I no longer have an excuse not to have a post every week (of course material has never really been the issue). In fact, I think, minus some book reviews, the next month or so will be just that. And why on earth would I write again and again about such a humiliating experience? In truth, I am partly inspired by Pat Conroy’s autobiography, My Losing Season. I read it a while back and wrote a brief report on it for work. Here is an excerpt:
“Conroy is sharing the lesson one can glean from those gut-wrenching times in life when we cannot win, despite our grandest effort or most desperate plea to the muses that control our fortunes…[It] explicitly conveys the importance of recognizing the impact loss can make in your life. Dealing with pain is allowing the furnace to reshape you, take out impurities and make you into something that is unique and beautiful.”
Americans are a society of winners. We hail the champion, the underdog who made it, and I love that about our culture. I love that we are optimists and happy-ending addicts. But there has to be space for our “losing seasons”, and without sounding whiny, this is mine. Not just the race – the learning curve of the past months has kicked my butt, and I am putting along in last place here with doubts and questions and exhaustion. And so I will write because that is a way of working things out. And it’s funny and sad and hard, but so is every story…any one worth reading at least…So if you will bear with me I’m fairly certain this ends very well though that can hardly be seen now (but it will-one day it will).
“Mind over matter,” Sophie repeated. It was still in the first week of training for our half marathon that’s coming up next week. It certainly didn’t feel like mind over matter. It felt like my heart was more than a little upset that it had to do more than usual and my legs were feigning ignorance. “What is this running you speak of?”, they seemed to ask. My running buddies were encouraging and supportive but that wasn’t enough to make up for my serious lack of running over the previous 3 months. They had been running – a lot – and I couldn’t take it. But I couldn’t quit. I signed up for the half, there was no way I could back out now. I would just walk/run. This long distance stuff was shaking my pride. I’m a good sprinter, I’m a good 1-miler. But 5 was killing me, and so was being beat by my running buddies. So I started running by myself, like I used to do – before Spain, before training. Granted, in the past I ran because I’m like a border collie and I have to get some energy out everyday, and because it helped me pray and think through the muck and joy of life. Now, those things were still happening, I just had to do them longer. In this lonesome manner, I continued my run/walks, adding distance every weekend. Then came an 8 miler. I’ve never run 8 miles. I’ve hiked over 10 in a day. I walk everywhere everyday because I live in Europe, but I’ve never run 8. “It’s ok,” I consoled myself, “walk if you have to. Runner’sWorld says it’s ok. Better than injuring yourself…”. The sense of dread was greater than any previous run. The looming exhaustion and duration had me bad tempered and sighing. So I started with a shuffle. One foot in front of the other. Repeat. In the cold and the fear I managed a jog. My audiobook is a wonderful work of non-fiction, and I found the heavy themes and steady rhythm sink down to my toes. I found a peaceful pace beyond my original shuffling. Around mile 2, something unenergetic but sure said, “I’m not stopping”. And I didn’t. I didn’t want to walk, I didn’t want to stop. I just wanted to keep jogging along like Forrest Gump.
Was it “mind over matter”? Was it my training the previous month-the build? Was it my slow start? My sister-in-law is always gently reminding me to pace myself in my runs. Did it finally happen? I don’t know. I changed the title of this post. It started out “Learning to Run Long Distance”, but I changed it to “Go Long” because when I hit mile 2 and realized I wasn’t going to stop it didn’t feel like learning. It felt like the breeze that catches your kite to make it soar. It felt like I finally found the light switch in the dark room. I’m still learning to push myself. I still look gloomily at the cold and rainy outside when it’s time for my run, but as I put one foot in front of the other no dread accompanies me. It falls off with my pounding feet.
I opened my box.
A box of books and things of story,
A painting sad and turbulent.
A tale adventurous and brave.
A picture of a party, friends, a family, a past.
A postcard from far away.
These drawings and words all jumbled together,
From theory to fiction to personal history to the ultimate story…
It seems what I have decided to take with me
Remember when you were a child
And you had so much frustration at your limitations,
And only dreams to battle them.
But it was happy.
Remember when that friend was the best friend you thought you’d ever have?
This friend here, this one though has stood the test of time.
Remember when you made promises?
Remember when you learned this lesson?
This person here says he remembered a time of darkness, too.
This author reminded me of David and other psalmists.
This character didn’t even have his books when he went far away.
Remember how to cook for 200 people? Here’s the recipe.
Remember how the grinch stole Christmas?
Poems are remembering and hoping
Sermons are exhorting and pleading to remember and think and reflect.
This is my box of books.
Sometimes I think it is all I have.
And then I remember.
Transitioning here has been challenging. I have encountered a desire to give up, which is a somewhat alien concept to me. I believe the turning point was when I let the lump exist in my throat–when I realized with acceptance the reality of living in a foreign country is that you will always be a foreigner. No matter how many roots I grow or how well I speak the language or understand the culture I am still not from round here. Maybe the day will come when I don’t jump when someone stops me in the street to ask for directions, or I manage a cheery “Hola” to the elderly lady who greets me in my apartment building. I think there has been a fear that I would be dismissed with the stereotypes of my nationality. While that fear isn’t unfounded, and people will choose their behavior regardless, the reality is and always will be I am a foreigner. Even if I moved back to my hometown, I will still go through the process of trying to blend my experiences. I find that there is an incompatibility of me with the world and try as I may to fit in, I never can. I’m loud and I have red hair. Fitting in has never really been an option. Although, I have certainly tried and worn myself thin giving it a go. So there is one of my lessons from this Spain thing: You are a Foreigner (and that doesn’t mean a rock star). You are a in a strange land, and no amount of disguise or clever speech will cover with any sufficiency that fact. And so we (me and my fellow American teammates) live as awkward, bumbling, little creatures with truth spilling out as well, and I suppose that makes it all worth it…to see that the light can creeps out of us as accented and different we are.
Often when sci-fi comes up in conversations, minds roll flash images of badly costumed extraterrestrials and sound bites of monotone voices talking about some made-up physics phenomena. Our 50’s movies about Mars invasions have forever sealed the genre’s fate in our minds. But for me, what started out as copying my big brother turned out to be gathering stories that change me – not in some weird technology way (if you’re familiar with sci-fi, you would know it is highly detrimental and morally wrong to alter your mind or form for ambitious gain) – but rather in a hope way. Sci-fi is often about some form or risk of oppression, be it under an advanced species or self-inflicted bondage. There is great need for courage, perseverance and vision. And as I watch Firefly or read Dune (by Frank Herbert), I see people bond together to fight for humanness. They fight for family and liberty and vitality. They fight for it so terribly imperfectly, but do so nonetheless. And so as it turns out, sci-fi is about hope. Humans are nothing if not tenacious. Humans (and cockroaches) will out live anything. We survive. And we survive with our humanity intact, at least some of us. In The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, the man’s determination to keep his son safe in an apocalyptic hell is the story of love in a world without. This is what I discover sci-fi to be about. In a genre dancing around technology’s advancement, it is about how all that means nothing next to the person standing next to you. You fight with and for them.
I believe in a omnipotent God outside of time, who lays all of that aside to be human and live next to us on the dusty Earth. He says, “Light shines in the Darkness. Give everything, even if that means your life for the person next to you.” To the point that he did it Himself for us. His relationship with us is paramount. And so He fought for it.
And of course, I like science fiction, because as Walter responds to Peter’s inquiry (Fringe) about a seemingly needless anti-gravity toy, “Because it’s cool, Peter. It’s just cooooolll.”
For such a dinky little cube, it’s amazing what journeys our front loading washing machine takes with every cycle. After adding water and soap, it starts with a typical churn, stop, spin, stop, churn. This is the preparation. Because that little guy is planning on going to the moon. As it really gets into spin mode, it makes a noise like a rocket on its maiden voyage. Starting low, whhiirrrrr, it gradually gets louder and faster and more intense: wwhhiiIIIIIRRRRRRRRRR!! RRRRRR!! RRR!! With every ounce of effort that lavadora is going to launch one day, and take my clothes with it. The machine takes about 2 hours to do a load, (which equals forever in my American estimation) so I think it actually could being going to Saturn and back. I just hope I get a souvenir next time, but perhaps it’s holding out until it gets to Pluto. Goodness knows I mean no disrespect. It’s an enormous step forward having a functioning washing machine in this apartment. And what’s 2 hours, when it can take anywhere from 6 hours to days to dry the clothes depending on the weather. Oh, yes, my clothes hang on a line with clothes pins. How quaint! I laughed to myself the other day when I was walking in blue skies and unseasonable warm weather and my initial thought was, “What a good day to do the laundry.” But the washing machine probably likes having blue skies for its atmospheric ventures, and I don’t have to hang clothes with numb fingers; a win-win by all accounts. Up, up and away.
The bells ring in an arrhythmic pattern. It is the sound of joyous celebration. On the 26th of December in this German town, the streets are still and sloped roofs glisten with rain, but the bells pay no attention to the quiet demeanor. They are like the Shepherds’ voices raising high and bringing the news of the most scandalous and glorious birth of all time. They sing because anticipation has finally given way and everything we have been waiting for has, in fact, come. God pitched his tent among us. And that matters more than all the dark things in this world because it means those things have lost and though we will continue to fight them with everything there is, we fight them knowing Light has won. If there is something worth putting up lights and greenery and singing songs in the cold and exchanging gifts and expressing inexplicable joy, it’s that: That Light shines the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Pronouns will be the death of me. Pronouns and prepositions with a little mix of uncertain past and a desirous future will be the long, slow, torturous end of me. Learning a language has proved more difficult than I had originally planned. One doesn’t actual plan such things, but in my daydreams I would remember words the first time I heard them or diligently write them down and study late into the night with a nice cup of tea and soothing music. I would prance around Salamanca having no fear and walking up, smiling, to the camareros, with an order ready on my lips. When I mispronounced words, everyone would laugh, and I would take it gracefully with humor like we were all in some Katherine Hepburn film. But as things turns out, it isn’t like any movie I’ve ever seen at all. However, it is like some books I’ve read. Les Miserables, for example. An excellent read, but there are a solid 100 pages (at least) were everything is worse than the dreariest day in the most depressing month of the most monotonous year. Four pages later it’s still awful and then 50 pages later nothing has changed. I remember having a strong dislike for Mr. Hugo during that section. I thought to myself, “Those old authors. They have good stories, but what is the deal with the mundane crap fest that all of them seem to put in their novels?” Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Austen in Mansfield Park, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas…They all have these long, seemingly pointless sections in their books. But in living here for 12 weeks, learning a new language and a new culture I’m realizing the stuffy old men and women who scribbled by candlelight in worlds of disease, dirt and slow communication understood far better than us the importance of those tedious periods in our life. They empathized with those seasons and wrote about them. But our generation cuts it out. Jean Valjean’s months and months of this drawn-out tedium isn’t in the musical and hardly in the film adaptations*. I mean who wants to watch a man moping around for 30 min? Those 100 pages aren’t in the abridged version of the book either. In our fast paced world, we just don’t want it to exist , so we cut it out. But I can’t cut it out of my life. And perhaps Victor Hugo couldn’t write it out of Jean Valjean’s life because he was creating a character of brokenness and redemption and struggle and joy and journey. He is a character we relate to and root for. I’m frustrated that remembering which pronoun I need and how it interacts with the particular verb conjugation I am using is taking up a good 100 pages of my life. Granted, comparing my time of acculturation with war torn France and being chased by an over vengeful inspector is a little dramatic. But what I am driving at is the boring and sad exists in stretched out seasons of life. We can’t cut it out. My life isn’t a 2 hour film. It has taken nearly 3 months to grow some love for this place, and I know it will take even longer before the grammar begins to come naturally. I finally find myself applauding those authors of old for writing characters who really have to fight to keep going; who have long periods in their life where everyday they have to overcome and get up and keep on keepin’ on. We all do. One day more! And another and another, and so on and so forth.
*This was edited Jan 14, 2013 after re-watching the musical and confirming: that section isn’t there.