Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sunday afternoon bliss

A park bench basked in sunshine. Finding myself on Prince Edward Island amidst the endearing characters and the poetic style of Lucy Maude Montgomery. Alternatively, closing my eyes, lifting my face to the sun, and letting my mind wander where it will. Defying both convention and manners by stretching out on the bench for some sun-induced dozing. Further defying convention (as well as the temperature) by freeing my feet from their boot-constrained bondage and wiggling my toes in barefooted freedom. The unceasing amusement of duck-watching. The sight of a multitude of crocuses, beautiful in their simplicity, across the way. The splendor of spring that even the smell of fertilizer cannot deter.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A recollection of a Lenten reflection

 If you were to do an internet search for quotations about disappointment, as I have done, you would find countless motivational proverbs attempting to paint it in a rosy light and deem it as a necessary factor in the search for success.

Conversely, author Thomas Hardy, ever the pessimist, tells us that “the sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.”  While I have only read one of Hardy’s novels and found it so dismal and depressing that I could not bear to try another, he may just have this whole concept figured out. 

When others disappoint us, they fail to meet our expectations; they let us down.  And it hurts.  And the more often or the greater extent to which someone disappoints us, the deeper it hurts us, and the longer that hurt lingers.  

Perhaps the greatest let-down, however, comes when we disappoint ourselves.  We create goals and expectations for ourselves, and we berate ourselves when we fail to meet these expectations, even if they were unattainable to begin with.  We convince ourselves that our failure is a weakness.
Our own weaknesses seem to constantly confront us, and they appear in every aspect of our lives.  To begin with, we can let ourselves down physically.

Last spring, the combination of exhaustion, 90-degree heat, lack of any food for the day, and seeing mass amounts of blood proved too much for my body to handle.  After returning to consciousness, all I could think about was how I had failed my expectations for a trained rescuer and how weak I must appear.  The following couple of days, I tried to prove to myself that I was too strong to let a concussion stop me from my duties of work, school, and junior high lock-in preparation.  Yet, my expectations were opposed by physical limits, and instead of being strong and independent, I ended up unable to do much of anything and requiring the intervention of friends.
The summer found me as a youth care worker in a treatment home for adolescent girls with various emotional and behavioral problems, and it was here that I let myself down professionally and relationally.  Some of my self-perceived strengths included success in my various job attempts as well as my ability to, on some level, connect with everyone with whom I got to know.  Yet, no matter how hard I tried, there were girls with whom I could not relate, girls whose issues and past experiences I could not reach past.  It broke my heart, and I felt like a failure in my job.  Another let-down, another weakness.
 Finally, and what stung the most, was a let-down in faith.  This past semester, I befriended a young woman who had grown up in East Germany.  One day, I started to tell her about what I had seen while leaving church, and before I could even get into the point of my story, she asked with shock "You go to church?....So you believe in God?" And thus started my theological conversation with 28 year-old who was raised in a Communist state and who today doesn't know anybody who goes to church.

It was very interesting to hear from someone with such a background, and I didn't even find myself offended when she stated, as politely as she could, that she has always viewed belief in God as a weakness. My sense of personal weakness didn’t come from hearing this but from the fact that, after having grown up in the church as well as scholastically analyzing various issues of theology, I couldn't provide good answers to any of her questions. I was disappointed in myself because I could not come up with rational explanations for the faith I have followed for twenty-one years. I knew there are reasons for what and why I believe, but I somehow could not identify and relate them to her. I've studied all sorts of ways to perceive God and still could not elaborate on what I believe God to be. I know I've discussed and examined the eternal "If there is a God, why do bad things happen?" question, but when she asked how God could allow 9-11, I couldn't give an answer. I have often shared my ideas of God and faith in settings like this, but when put on the spot by a curious atheist, I was stupefied. I had failed to meet my standards for what a strong Christian faith should be.
In conclusion, if my personal anecdotes can be at all generalized, life appears to be one disappointment after another, a series of illuminated weaknesses.

But there is nothing conclusive about that, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, as we are."

 Jesus came to this earth as part of the divine, blameless and sinless.  Yet, in taking up the physical form of man, he took up the battle of man’s weakness.  As just one person, there was a limit to the number of people he could reach; the number crying out for help always exceeded the amount of help he had to give.   The disciples, imperfect as they were, were given Jesus’ power of healing because Jesus’ expectation of alleviating suffering could not be reached by his physical form alone.  Further, even Jesus became simply worn-out and exhausted.  Multiple Gospel stories tell of Jesus seeking time away from the crowds in order to rest and rejuvenate.  Although that rest was continually denied by the unending need and Jesus’ sense of compassion, by the end of three years of ministry, his body has reached its limit.

 Perhaps Jesus experienced personal disappointment his relational and professional realm as well.  Despite his best efforts, there were some people whom Jesus’ words simply could not reach.  Even the people of Jesus’ hometown snubbed his words and deeds.
 Would it not be easy to view his life’s work as incomplete on the many instances when even his own disciples failed to comprehend his message?  Would it not be disappointing to think that all the meaning and power of his life and coming death were not enough to keep his closest friends awake?

 And even Christ himself was tempted with the weakness of faith.  As he prepares for his coming crucifixion, Jesus prays that, if it be the Father’s will, the cup should pass from him.  After spending his entire life in preparation for such a death, he still finds himself deeply grieved and agitated as the end draws nigh.  
Does a sense of grief weaken his sense of faith?   Knowing the reason why he must die, is it then disappointing to not view his fate as savior of the world with eagerness?

As Christians we are continuously told that, in times of trouble, we should look to Jesus as a source from which to draw strength.  Yet, perhaps just as important, is looking to Jesus as a source by which to validate weakness.  

The Lenten season is often viewed with an air of gloom.  From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.  In this time, we are confronted with our own frailty and forced to acknowledge our own weaknesses.  But let this not lead us to despair. The last forty days of Christ’s life were the days in which he was most connected to human weakness, but they were also the days in which he imparted some of his most meaningful wisdom and bestowed the all-strengthening gift of salvation and eternal life.  

When we sing the words “Take, oh take me as I am” we are beseeching God to accept all that we have to offer but also that which we lack the strength to give.  We may be disappointed by our own limits, but God is not. 

 The men following Jesus for those three years served as more than his disciples; they were there to aid and support him when he had reached his limit.  So too, with each of us, God places people in our lives to aid and support us when we come up a bit short.  

Through Christ, God showed the power that can be found in weakness; sometimes we can not, need not, and should not try to do it all on our own.  And because, through his sacrifice of life, Christ worked through his weaknesses, we are no longer ruined by ours.  

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Facing the Inevitable

Not too long ago, I visited a friend and accompanied her as she helped lead a confirmation event for kids at her church.
As we were leaving, she offered to give a couple of girls a ride home so that they wouldn't have to wait in the cold.  The girls hesitated momentarily, and I, as if guided by a supernatural force, found myself blurting out the concerned admonishment of "You're not even wearing a proper winter coat!"

And then it hit me: I had become my mother.

Why I should never become a telemarketer

A few days ago, I was given the task of calling the offices of roughly 45 German members of the European Parliament to follow up on a conference invitation we had sent several weeks ago.  I am not even fond of calling up strangers on the phone in English, let alone tripping over my German with the impatient underlings of high-level politicians.
But as with everything, practice makes perfect, and after repeating my broken-record speech several times, the calls were no longer so intimidating.
Yet, when making so many calls saying the same thing, it can be tricky to keep track of whom exactly one is calling, especially when I had to skip several names because I didn't reach anyone in the office.  And so it came to pass that I took part in the following highly embarrassing exchange:

Kendra:   "Hello, this is Kendra from Peace Brigades International......and we
                 were checking if Mr.  Republican would be able attend."
Lady:        "Mr. Republican?!  This is the office of Ms. Democrat.  You have the completely wrong  party!"
Kendra:    "Oh, excuse me........but, um, Ms. Democrat is actually on our list as well.  Will she be attending
                   the conference?"
 Lady:       "You should really pay better attention to who you are calling."


Friday, March 25, 2011

Island Adventure

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a two-day conference on peace education.  Aside getting to hear a lecture from an Israeli professor who researches/teaches peace education between Israelis and Arabs, I must say that I found the conference rather somewhat disappointing.

This was ok, however, because the conference was held 1) on a Baltic Sea island 2) roughly 500 meters from the Polish border.  As can be expected, I had several adventures....

Starry, starry night.  Upon taking an evening stroll with a co-worker, I discovered that being in the middle of the countryside on an island makes for spectacular star viewing.  I didn't have my camera with me, but no picture could have done it justice, anyways - I've never seen so many stars and of such brightness in my life.  I was in awe, so much so, in fact, that I couldn't resist laying in the grass to take it all in, despite the below-zero temperatures and a brutal sea wind.

The next morning, I proceeded with one of my new favorite pastimes: walking across national borders.

Poland beckons.

'National Border'
If I were them, I would add 'Please don't invade us.'

My Polish expedition was, alas, rather lacking in cultural enrichment, as I didn't have enough time to get much further than the gardening community next to the border.

The day continued on a rather sober note with a tour of the Golm War Cemetery.  The cemetery is the final resting place for as many as 14,000 victims of a US Air Force bombing raid on March 12, 1945.  The bulk of these victims were German civilians (residents of the town of Swinemunde as well as countless refugees fleeing the Red Army in East Prussia), forced laborers from the Netherlands and Poland, and injured German soldiers.

'Die frierende Frau im Soldatenmantel'
'Freezing Woman in Soldier's Coat'

On a lighter note, following the conference, I had about half an hour to spend at the sea.  Although I would have loved to stay longer, it's probably for the best that I couldn't because it was SO COLD!  So cold, in fact, that the Baltic Sea (a miniscule portion of it, at least) was frozen.  And thus, even more enchanting than normal.

This is likely as close to Eskimo living as I'll ever get.

Frozen waves!

Such views are worth the risk of frostbite.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

January Hymn

On December 30th, ten months after having moved to the country, the German authorities gave me the official document stating that they would stop trying to kick me out (for the next year, at least).
And what do you do when you finally have permission to stay in a country?  You book a plane ticket home for the next day, of course.
And so it was that after 3 flights, 7 time zones, and 24+ hours without substantial sleep, I fell into bed at 10pm.  On New Year's Eve. Partaaaaaayyy!

The party continued as I headed to Nebraska!

Upon crossing the border, it's required by state law to visit Runza, the most disgustingly-named fast food establishment in America.
 RIP Dana
I returned to the metropolis of Blair to pay my respects to the remains of my alma matter.  Despite the absence of life on campus and the empty buildings, it was still hard to believe that the college is no more.

And when we launch our little barks on destiny's deep sea....

I can tell you what's NOT coming to Dana. 
The fact that the bulletin boards are still decorated just adds to the eeriness of it all.

But where will my future be defined now?!

Just to make the visit a bit more surreal, we visited the clan of denim-jumper-clad nuns that have taken up residence in one of the dorms and who rent the gym as their dining hall/chapel.  Best quote of the day, upon passing a tackling dummy stuck on a volleyball pole: "Some of the sisters are learning karate, so they use that to practice."

And in January, we're getting married.....

Going to weddings is one of my favorite pastimes, and being in them is even better.
There aren't many people for whom I would don a white, furry shawl (not pictured).

The journey westward continued to Las Vegas!

I obviously never realized what I'd been missing.

Roadtrip.......to Disneyland!

I'd never had any major inclination to visit a Disney park, but it truly is magical!  I'm fairly certain I could spend the rest of my days alternating between Splash and Space Mountain.

Friends that surprise you with such wonder are worth holding onto.

The Price is Right

That's right - we were in the studio audience of this classic game show.  Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed, so I can't show you what it was like.  Even more unfortunately, I was not called to come on down, so I can not share my winnings with you are.  However, let me sum up the experience:
Despite having tickets, spend 4 hours waiting outside the studio, as they herd you progressively closer to the door. 
Have roughly 30 seconds to convince the producer that putting you on Contestants' Row would make great television.
Enter the studio to the sounds of Katy Perry's 'California Girls' and, as if hypnotized, automatically join in on the dance party.  Take in the 70's-style decor and be astounded at how much larger the studio looks on television.
Spend the next hour being prompted how to behave (Applause!  "Higher!  Lower!  It's the frozen pizza, no the hand cream!"  Awww....so close!) and marveling a how much weight Drew Carey has lost.
Leave in defeat after failing to win a fabulous dining room set.

The ocean!

Growing up in Iowa with summer vacations never extending much futher than Minneapolis (go Twins!) or St. Louis (go Cardinals!), I am fascinated by beaches of all sorts and by oceans especially.  A sunny, warm day on my third ever trip to the ocean was nothing short of heavenly.

Cirque du Soleil

There are simply no words to describe this.  A video can't do it justice, either, but it's a start:



You can keep your Vegas Strip, nightlife, and casinos - I'll take the red rocks and snowy mountains any day.

Those desert folk sure have a sense of humor.

The rest of my visit home consisted of soaking up quality time with the family and relishing many other aspects of this American life:

American informality (as evidenced by repeatedly being called 'sweetie' and 'honey' by O'Hare officials).


The sight of my bookshelf and the joy of combing through its contents.

A closet filled with hooded sweatshirts.


A bedroom filled with sunlight.

Dancing with Anna.

American pizza.

Free refills.

An actual laundry basket.

The Waffle Stop.

The dryer.

The gluttony of American junk food.

Bill Bryson and Thomas Merton.

Staying up until 4am with giggly reminiscing.

The Cedar Falls Public Library.

Rocking my nephew and niece to sleep.

TIME Magazine.

Sweet potato fries.

The convenience and comfort of my own car.  A respite from riding a bike in the cold.

Trivial Pursuit.

Grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Bubble baths.

Cup of Joe.

Small-town Iowa and its family-owned restaurant, where everyone does in fact know your (grandmother's) name.


Frozen yogurt.

Strolling down Washington Street, admiring the "My Girl" porches and contemplating how much better my life would be if I had a porch swing.