I wish I knew you

Maybe you think I don’t notice that bruise on half your face. You light the room with a smile and a dignified calm.

But I wish I could grab him by the throat and not let go until I know that he will never touch you again.

Except with love.

But how can I know unless you tell me? And how can you tell me unless you trust me? And how can you trust me when you just met me and he calls your phone and you need to go before we even know each other?

We say goodbye with an embrace, two kisses, and a few besides.

Then I stand and watch you walk away, wishing I knew the you behind that sparkling smile. 

And that black eye.


Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Leaving behind our fish

My writing prompt this week is about letting something go. What have I let go? 

A couple of years ago on another blog, I wrote a lament about living far away from family. I understand the sacrifice of “letting go” theoretically and even theologically but not always emotionally. Now and then, especially when I’m homesick, I renew my lament. Yes, I love the life God has given me and the deep and beautiful blessings that come along with it, but it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. 

Sometimes even the wonderful, valuable gifts in this life are things we must let go, things God asks us to miss out on. So we watch from afar with palms pressed against the window pane that divides something we long for from our reality.

We all have laments, don’t we? Things we miss out on because we have counted the cost and decided to follow Jesus.

I won’t elaborate on this particular lament. I’ve done it in pieces on my blog: here, here, here, here, here, and here (oops, I didn’t realize there would be so many “here”s). The writing prompt reminded me of a passage I recently read, a passage I still need time to think through. Below, I have retold the story from Luke 5:1-11. I hope the story touches a dark corner of your heart like it touched mine. What do I need to let go? Really let go? Can I believe that Jesus is worth it?

May the victory of Jesus’ death and resurrection fill your life to overflowing.

The Lord is risen!


They were tired when Jesus came. It had been a long night with no fish. No fish meant no market. No market meant no income. No income meant, well, not much of anything.

He was a bit strange, this Jesus, climbing on board Peter’s boat to talk to the crowd. A few people began to splash into the lake to be close to him, and it was then that Jesus quietly asked Peter to push out just a little from the land. Peter gladly gave up his task of washing the fishing nets to hear for himself why so many people were following this Teacher around.

Jesus taught in language that was both simple and profound. The crowd pressed against the shoreline, engaged, spell-bound even. When Jesus was done teaching, he turned to Peter and said, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

They had already tried that. All night, actually. So Peter said, “Master, we worked all night and caught nothing! But if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

The nets slipped in the water with the familiar creaking of ropes. A creaking of familiar hopelessness.

And then their nets were breaking, splitting with the load of fish! It took a moment to understand what was happening, so astonished were they. “Help!” they cried to a nearby boat. Soon both boats were overflowing. They began to take on water.

Excitement and wonder were thick in the air. Peter and his companions, James and John, stared at this Teacher, this Master, who seemed to have power over creation. Overcome, Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

“Do not be afraid,” said Jesus. “From now on you will be catching men.”

They rowed to the shore as their boats sank lower and lower in the sea. Those from the crowd who had not yet dispersed stood on the shore, gawking as the water lapped at their ankles. 

Fish meant market. Market meant income. Income meant, well, anything.

But they left their boats, their nets, their fish and followed Jesus because He was everything.


Photo by Cassiano Psomas on Unsplash

Goodbye for keeps

The living room was a disaster of misplaced everything. As if an unsupervised 1-year-old had been unleashed. Indeed, he had. After he  yanked the tablecloth off the coffee table, he came over for a hug and tickles. But he squirmed away when he glimpsed his juice box. Now was as good of a time as any to squirt the remaining contents onto the table and floor. 

But my mind was elsewhere and so was his mother’s. It was our last evening together before they moved away. Our last talk face-to-face. 

We were both pleased by the prospect of a promising future for the little family, but also stunned that this moment was a last. Our last conversation parked on our stained living room couches. The last time I could grin at her as I heaped her plate higher than she wanted. “Eat! Eat!” But she ate every bite of couscous tonight despite the protest that she wasn’t hungry. And she made a dent in the chocolate cupcakes I had made just for her. The ones with cream cheese in the center. 

Her son bit the couch cover with a mouthful of chocolate and left a reminder that I would have to scrub out later.

We both hated goodbyes. We talked about the past, the future, black magic, God’s power over Satan, and how God’s power is available to us. She let me pray for her–a long prayer in the name of Jesus. 

A spoon dropped over and over onto the accommodating tile until I realized the neighbors below might care and snatched up both little boy and spoon. He giggled as I tipped him upside down.

“I allow very few people to enter my heart, and you are one of them,” she said.

We didn’t cry as we hugged goodbye. Neither did I cry as I scrubbed at the stubborn chocolate stains and wiped up sticky juice puddles. Goodbye was too final to sink in. 

It still is.


Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

Lose your life for my sake: Remembering Grandpa

What does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake?

I was sitting on a park bench, feeling the warm sun just under the gentle breeze of a perfect day.

Florence, Italy. My sister, my friend, and I had been planning this trip for months. Flights, buses, trains, shuttles, airbnbs, tourist sites.

But there in the park, I was thinking about losing life. Because while we were still in Madrid, Grandpa had passed from this world to the next.

“Dad, should we cancel our trip?” I would not have been able to travel back for the funeral anyway, but being on a belated 30th birthday trip while my family mourned…

“Absolutely do not cancel your trip!”

So here I sat in Florence, pondering Matthew 10 on the day of Grandpa’s visitation. Have I found life by losing it? This familiar passage wasn’t making sense anymore.

The late cappuccino (we had defied the culture by sipping our cappuccino after 11 a.m.) was still taking effect. Just over the mesh-lined fence, tennis players swung rackets at a yellow ball. I could barely see them, but I heard them. Grunt. Thwack. Grunt. Thwack. “Out!”

Am I worthy of Christ? Do I love Him more than family? Have I taken up my cross?

In Italy—in a world so different from the one I grew up in—it was hard to understand that Grandpa was gone. But I let my mind drift through memories.

Hours and hours of reading “Burn-stin Bear” books and “Dead-Eye Dick.” Patiently teaching us grandchildren (his “coochtie boochties”) to play 42. “Honda” rides. Issuing drivers’ licenses for the golf cart. Constantly wanting to tape record his little grandchildren singing songs. Sketching maps that directed us past where this or that “used to be” as if we had been born in his generation. Chanting “Cumbine coorn and cumbine be-eans,” as we pulled ourselves up to sit with him in the combine. Giving us “bubble gums” from the door pocket of his F-150, the one that had the automatic window buttons in little blue and red bubbles that I would run my fingers over while I waited for my gum.

Letting Grandpa serve you something from the shop was always exciting because it was fascinating to watch him prepare something from his stash of snacks. (Did you know you can make hot chocolate from microwaving chocolate milk? Or a “roastin’ ear” by microwaving an ear of sweet corn wrapped in a wet paper towel?) Sunday night at Grandpa and Grandma’s typically included helping Grandpa get the ice cream out of the “shed” and hiding a pickle or an olive under the heaping scoops in Dad’s ice cream bowl.

And then Grandpa began to get older and frail. Some of his stories came out confused. His tall body began to shrink. His blue eyes got watery. But those watery eyes always brightened when he talked about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When I told him goodbye last summer, I wondered if he would remember that I was going back to Spain.

Grandpa had dozed off while Grandma and I were chatting. “Touch his shoulder,” Grandma said.

I touched his shoulder and his blue eyes opened. Instead of watery, his eyes were clear as they stared up at me wordlessly.

“I’m going to go Grandpa. And I wanted to tell you goodbye.”

The clear, blue eyes continued to stare for several long moments. Had he heard me?

And then, “Kiss on the cheek!” So he remembered that my goodbye was longer than a “see you later.” I leaned over to hug him, kiss his cheek, and let him kiss mine.

My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you here again, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

He smiled. I cried. He was silent as I hugged him again.

That goodbye felt like a closed chapter in my life. It was one that I mourned, not only that day but also when Grandma passed away in November. And now again while sitting on that park bench, trying to register the reality of Grandpa’s death.

Death is real. It’s ugly. It hurts.

But what does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake? My mingling thoughts that late Florence morning brought me here: It isn’t until you die that the greatest potential for life is set before you.

How do I love her?: North Africa part 2

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.

“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”

It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.

“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”

Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.

At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.

But all was not well.

The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.

Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.

As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.

More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.

Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.

The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.

In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?

A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.

“How do I love her?” she asked.

How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?

As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.

Grandma

Grandma imagined a pump of cold, running water in heaven. She told me so as we sat side by side on the couch just before I left for Spain.

“What do you imagine?” she asked.

Heavenly mansions were on our minds, not the frailty of human life.

When I said goodbye, I hugged Grandma and then Grandpa. My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you again here, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

They both smiled.

But I couldn’t control that rush of grief. The memories, joys, sorrows, and love just landed in a heavy heap on my heart. I started to cry.

Like I am now.

Today is Grandma’s funeral and I’m an ocean away.

Grandma spent her whole life quietly serving others. She inspired almost subconscious admiration and love; she was the rock that we all leaned on but sometimes forgot was there. She always had time for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (and even our pets too!).

And yet, she loved to be alone, content to be still while the world marched by. She enjoyed life without needing to partake of all its luxuries, and contentment made her life richer. Her faith in God, her love for others, and her hobbies—collecting, organizing, couponing, gardening, reading— strengthened her for the hard things life threw at her.

On Friday, the hard thing was emergency surgery with very little chance of success. The family was stunned. We knew she was ready to meet her Maker, but we weren’t ready for her to meet her Maker.

And then she was gone. Before most of us had the chance to say goodbye.

It’s as if the book of some of my best memories has closed. No more melting plastic game chips on the threadbare carpet. No more sleepovers on crinkly pillow covers. No more poring over stacks of Berenstain Bear books. No more Keebler cookie snacks. No more tiptoeing around in the forbidden basement with cousins. No more strict “with soap!” hand washings. No more maneuvering the golf cart between the fragile fir trees at the risk of Grandma spotting us from the living room window. No more Grandma stories from when Dad was a little boy. No more of her French silk pie or other outstanding desserts and dishes. No more talks on the couch. No more phone calls or quirky, Grandma-style emails.

Her last email came the middle of October:

“Think I swept my time under the rug and now need to reverse that. All kind of things collect there under that cover up. That’s why some people insist on hardwood floors. Do you have hardwood floors or rugs with secrets?”

Her emails always put a smile on my face, no matter what kind of day I was having. Especially when they ended like this one:

“We don’t sweep love under the rug so you’re safe! Grandpa and Grandma”

On Saturday, I sat on the lonely beach, staring at the sea and trying to swallow the suddenness of her death. There’s just no easy way to say goodbye. No easy way to hurt. Friends from here and there and everywhere have decided to hurt with me and my family. Thank you.

Today we are grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother. And we’re also celebrating Grandma’s gain as she welcomes eternity.

I hope there’s a pump of cold, running water.

What leaving feels like

I leave tomorrow. I’m excited and almost ready. But right now, Spain seems far away. Maybe life as it is now will go on forever: me almost leaving, a surgery here, a new job there, a new baby a state or two or three away.

To not be part of this ever-changing cycle at home is unfathomable. And when I do fathom, I burst into tears. My nostalgia remembers the days, weeks, and maybe even months that used to pass dry-eyed.

The other evening, I stretched out on the carpet with my head next to Clark’s. I stared into his bright face and could not cherish the moment. Neither could I reject the moment to protect my heart. The moment just was and I watched it pass.

Later as my nephews were leaving, Albert got zipped up in his too-big, puffy coat. Soon he will fill up that coat and I will not be here to see him do it.

I made gingerbread cookies. My sister made coffee. We hung out with Christmas music. And at night when I crawled into my own little bed, all I could do was cling to the ghosts of those memories and cry my tears of regret that I hadn’t experienced them more fully. Or sealed off my heart from loving.

And I cried out, “Oh God, why do I have to follow You?” There was no answer. I knew, and He knew that I knew. There was no warm, fuzzy peace either. Just a calm that felt more like resignation as I braced myself for more goodbyes.

I hope tomorrow things will look different. But this is what leaving looks like today.

Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet

There is shrieking laughter as my nephew shakes bugs off of Grandma’s laundry and watches them vanish in the warm autumn sunlight above his head. Oh, that boy.

And to think that soon I’m going to be packing up my things and leaving. I cringe to think of those moments of transition when you’re sitting on a cold airport seat with little sleep and lots of memories of the world you’re leaving behind. Those are the worst moments.

The moments when you have completely left something but haven’t embraced the new something yet. And there you are, in the middle, caught in a swamp of your internal sorrow.

I know, because I’ve been there.

That’s why hearing my nephew’s laughter today makes me glad to be where there is grace enough, in today and not in the tomorrows that haven’t arrived.

Celebrating life

Sitting down to write a blog post is the last thing I want to do right now. Today I cannot pretend to have the formula to solve life’s problems. I have just said goodbye to a life where I had started to belong and I’m feeling rather homeless.

But there is Someone who experienced a transition much more challenging than I will ever have to face. Imagine leaving the presence of God to become a needy child, a hormonal teenager, and then a radical adult first pursued and then rejected by a group of wishy-washy followers.

Jesus Messiah understands the struggle and the heartache that come with transition. But instead of hiding from life, He still chose to live intentionally. He chose to invest in the lives of others, sometimes despite a low return on His investment. And what happened at the end of this intentional life? Jesus was killed for living unashamed. That sounds like a noble end, doesn’t it? But noble as it is, that isn’t the end of the story. Death didn’t stop Him.

This year, I am celebrating Resurrection Sunday in Spain before I move back to the States to apply for residency. Transition has really only just begun. But despite my heartache and perceived homelessness, today I want to celebrate life: Jesus’ life on earth and my own life because of Him.

Djellaba shopping

We were supposed to be going djellaba shopping. Aisha had volunteered to help me when she found out I wanted to buy a traditional dress. I had agreed to meet her at her house, knowing well what would happen.

I was right. After an hour or so, when lunch was cleaned up and everyone was dressed, we moseyed out to a shop that happened to be closed. So we spent another half hour sitting on her mother’s couch and chatting over cups of thick coffee as someone dozed under a wool blanket across the room.

We entered a tiny shop that sold mostly pajamas. They did have a few djellabas, however. The tailor made me try them on and was disheartened when they all ended before my wrists and above my ankles.

So he took my measurements and told me to pick out a fabric. Aisha negotiated the price alone. When we walked away, she squealed. “That is the local price. You would not get a price like that. If I wasn’t with you, people would take advantage of you.” I didn’t doubt it.

She still had my money in her pocket and waving the scrap of fabric the tailor had snipped off for us, she insisted that we find a headscarf and traditional shoes to match my new outfit.

In that neighborhood there was such a camaraderie of poverty- a people that hovered just above the grime of life, but hovered together. Still, admonitions came to “hold your sack in front of you, not behind you!” Indeed, a lady in front of us paused when she realized that she no longer had her wallet.

But I was so watched that I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have stolen anything from me without someone else noticing. People swarmed around us, bumped into us, gawked at us.

A shopkeeper motioned to me while addressing Aisha. “Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Not yet.” He eyed me. “Why aren’t you a Muslim?”
Taken off-guard, I straightened. “Why do I need to be?”
“She prays!” Aisha inserted, intent on protecting my religious freedom.
“Who is she?”
“My sister.”
“You’re short and she’s tall. How can you be sisters?”
I cleared my throat. “She is like our mother and I am like our father.”
Then Aisha and I giggled together, and the shopkeeper gave an irritated but irrepressible grin.

Another lady stopped us and Aisha proudly told her that I was getting a djellaba made by a local tailor.
“Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Does she pray?”
“Yes.”
“Does she fast?”
“Yes, she fasts.”
“Well then, what does it matter what she is?”

I spoke up then, but the lady was more interested in the fact that I was speaking her dialect than in what I had to say. And she walked away, still convinced that my good deeds gave me a good shot at paradise.

The sundown prayer call sounded. Aisha kissed me goodbye and tucked me into a taxi, even while insisting that I stay for tea.

I stared out the window at the sunset on the way home, pensive and full. It was one of those days that I would like to store in my pocket and pull out when I get lonesome for these people.