Give thanks

To me, the holidays bring a sense of belonging. There is a warmness, an extra niceness. 

Yes, the world gets frantic and grumpy when the store shelves aren’t stocked with what we want and the check-out lines are too long and the children need naps and, well, so do we but we still need to make that Aldi stop because Wal-Mart was out of pumpkin pie filling.

But then we come home and the individuality fades and there is a togetherness again, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen.

Celebrating far from family isn’t quite like this. The sense of belonging is lessened. Not vanished, but subtle, something I need to search for. But those remaining shards are precious too. Even from far away, I belong. And that belonging tints the world with bright, warm tones and I find myself extra happy this Thanksgiving and Christmas season. 

I don’t want to spend the holidays wishing I were somewhere I am not. I choose to contribute to the joy of right here, because this is where I belong too.

Ten things I’m thankful for this year:

  1. the great faithfulness of a loving Father
  2. Spain’s acceptance of my 5-year residency application
  3. the tail-end of COVID-19
  4. friends and neighbors that I bump into every time I step outside
  5. strong family dynamics, even though I live thousands of miles away
  6. music
  7. opportunities to travel and experience other worlds
  8. my team, my “right-here” family
  9. sweater and boots weather
  10. enough, even with climbing energy and food prices

What are you thankful for?


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A time to weep, and a time to laugh: Residency renewal

It’s that time again.

A friend told me it seems like I’m always renewing my residency. I agree. 

But this time was supposed to be easy. I waited for my appointment, full of confidence. Of course, my confidence may have been due in part to the fact that the immigrants in front of me had their dubious paperwork shoved into crumpled plastic page protectors. I, on the other hand, had my blue passport carefully tucked behind a stack of crisp, typed forms, neat photos still in their protective sleeve, and an appropriate receipt matched with a tax form. Bring it on.

But it was I who slinked defeated from the office, ready to throw my hands in the air and tell Spain, “FINE! I’m DONE being legal! So there!” 

I was able to stifle that impulse. And I’m not done being legal, of course. But it did take several hours of rigorous cleaning and a listening ear or two before I was inclined to persevere. 

Which, in turn, led me to a management office. And then a second management office. And finally, per directions, to a right hand turn by a children’s shoe store and down an alley to a hole-in-the-wall lawyer’s office which mercifully listed “immigration” on the plaque beside the front door. 

I stepped into the dim office to find the waiting wall lined with sub-Saharans, North Africans, and Asians. Congratulating myself on finally being in the right place, I took a seat. 

The man at the front desk didn’t acknowledge me as he gave slow, clear instructions to a client. So I had time to look around. The attempt at decor was shuffled aside for the sake of productivity. Stacks of paperwork in wild piles. Artwork lost behind taped up notices or a whiteboard. A bookcase filled with untouched manuals and a silent essential oils diffuser.

It was a bit messy, but not dirty, I decided. And it held a slight odor of the people who were crushed inside. 

Five minutes later, when the clerk had finished, he turned to me. I explained my situation, finishing with: “Can you help me?”

He took my card. “Maria, we have an American here!” he chirped. I must have been the first. Actually, I almost assuredly was. North Americans are an endangered species in Mytown. And how many of the seven or eight of us would have stepped foot in this office?

Only the desperate ones.

The lawyer peered down at me from her desk. I shuffled my neat stacks of paperwork, aware of the dozens of eyes now trained on me from the waiting wall. 

The clerk made a copy of my card and asked some questions. But could they help me?

It turns out, they could, but it would take several more trips to the office. Several more surprised stares from the other clients as I joined their ranks. Several more long stretches of leaning against the waiting wall and studying the half-hidden artwork. 

Then on one visit, the clerk removed the whiteboard to let me study more than just the fringe of the painting. On another visit, I was witness to a fight that the clerk helped diffuse before it escalated to the point of no return. On another visit, I bumped into a family I knew which helped to pass the time. That same visit, I took advantage of the clerk’s warm, North African culture to negotiate the fee. And on that last visit, he handed me a neat stack of stamped papers tucked in a plastic page protector. Success.

That was only step one. I will have to return. Being a legal immigrant is not for the faint of heart, no matter where you are in the world. But I’m full of confidence again. Bring it on.

Worship in routine

Last week, a friend told me that she wants her appearance to reflect who she is on the inside, to reflect her inner value and worth as the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place (1 Cor. 6:19). Hmm. That’s good, I think as I lounge in my sweatpants and dirty socks and, oh, oatmeal still between my teeth from breakfast.

I’ve been struggling with the elbow grease of my friend’s realization before she even sent that message. See, I hate getting out of bed in the morning. No, it’s not depression; it’s because my morning routine takes too long, a chunk of seemingly misused time. The world is going up in flames and I’m making my bed and starting the tea kettle and washing my face. And, goodness, what should I wear?

These small tasks don’t feel useless, per se, but of such triviality that it’s irritating how they eat up my morning. They are necessary and I do them, but they feel to me like wood, hay, and stubble. Bedtime is even worse because I have to undo what took me so long to do in the morning plus I’m sleepy and *gasps* grumpy.

WHEN WE GET TO ETERNITY, IS GOD GOING TO CALL US TO ACCOUNT FOR WEARING DIRTY SOCKS? That’s what I want to shout sometimes.

In 2020, I read and recommended Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. “[M]y theology was too big to touch a typical day in my life,” she writes (p. 55). Trim my fingernails? God’s not going to call me to account for that either. I want to do the big things, the kingdom work.

Warren challenged me to view my routines as sacred and meaningful, part of the abundant life that Jesus has for me (p. 22) “How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life” (p. 24). And that includes my attitude. “The crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines” (p. 34) because, according to Warren, that is where we can truly start the revolution we’re dreaming of (see Lk. 16:10).

So, God might not call me to account for my dirty socks or overflowing dish drainer, yet, that doesn’t make me unaccountable for how I treat God’s temple (my body) and the gifts He has freely given me. 

As I type out these thoughts, I interrupt myself for a shower, to heat a bowl of soup, and yes, to empty that overflowing dish drainer. It doesn’t feel worshipful, especially when I find a spoon that still has dried bean broth on it. 

But maybe I’m looking at it backwards. Like my friend, I think I should start by reclaiming my motivation and letting my life–even those mundane fingernail clippings and bed makings–come out of that motivation in something like a sweet-smelling savor of worship.


Photo by Nick Page on Unsplash

Thank you, my Illinois Library

Thank you, my Illinois library, for creating an expanse of accessible books to those who live next door and those who live an ocean away. Your effort to create this haven of enrichment, adventure, and knowledge is not unnoticed. 

With every book recommendation, I drop by your institution first, in case you are one step ahead. You usually are. The delight of selecting my next read or even those gentle reminders that my book is expiring soon and will shortly disappear from my account makes me glad to be a name, even a number, in your system.

On those rare occasions when I step through your creaky door–the one with the same creak since I was little–I take in the smell of the aisles and piles of books and wish I had unmitigated time to read, to learn, to grow.

I remember wandering among those stories, getting lost in The Boxcar Children or Garfield, Gilbert Morris or biographies. I sorted through research paper books to find the ones that didn’t make my eyes glaze over on the first page. I stood before your wall of audio books before every trip. I thumbed through your discard pile to find five cent treasures.

All the time, you were there, like a committed friend, offering what I needed if I had the patience to look for it. Apt to teach. Apt to serve.

Thank you.


Photo by Zaini Izzuddin on Unsplash

Well? What are you thankful for?

Well? What are you thankful for this year? 

Thanksgiving is one day that we set aside to be thankful for our blessings. 

Of course, we shouldn’t only practice our thanksgiving sitting down to a feast of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, homemade dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie. We know that. And I hope we practice that. But it doesn’t hurt us to recap a year of thankfulness before every Thanksgiving feast. 

I look back on 2019 and see things I wish had not happened, things I wish I had done differently, and things I wish others had done differently.

But even though we bumble through life, getting a few things right and a lot of things wrong, the “High King of Heaven” is always in control. He’s not up there sweating bullets that we will mess up His plan. In fact, He is letting us be part of His plan. Our sin and sorrow are never too big to be turned into a beautiful redemption story in His plan. 

As this year closes, I am thankful that after all I have done and faced this year, the Father blesses His child’s prayer:

“Thou and thou only, first in my heart.”

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tow’r:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Attr. Dallan Forgaill, tr. Eleanor Hull

Go ahead and hurt

Not acknowledging your own pain in light of someone else’s worse pain does not cultivate a heart of gratitude.

Last fall, I was hurting, but I noticed that there was always someone hurting more than I was. So I began to bury my pain inside, believing that my struggle was not valid compared to what others were going through.

I did a lot of people a disservice. Had I acknowledged that pain to the Lord and sought healing, I could have been part of the healing process of others. Instead, my own hurts handicapped me because I sunk them deeper and deeper into myself. On the surface, my pain gave way to resentment. It made it almost impossible to respond to others in need.

I stopped seeking out a place to share my pain because it wasn’t supposed to be real anyway. And I reminded myself over and over that I had so much to be grateful for. 

What was I doing? I was comparing myself to others and saw them as more needy and thus more worthy of care and attention. And my hurts…what hurts? I don’t have any hurts!

When we compare ourselves to others, it can cultivate faux gratitude. “This relationship may be broken but at least I have a solid roof over my head, unlike those war torn refugees.”

Real gratitude comes after we acknowledge our pain and still find God bigger. And still find Him good.

Have you ever read the Psalms? The psalmists don’t pretend that everything is okay. Instead, they often pour out their hearts in startling honesty. But then they rest in God’s goodness, His faithfulness, and His love. They see their pain in light of God’s bigness and they are grateful.

I’m not sharing this piece of my journey with you because it’s pretty (it’s not) or because it’s eloquent (it is only notes jotted down on my phone); I’m sharing this because maybe you are here at this point with me where you feel like your pain isn’t worth God’s time of day, or anyone else’s, for that matter.

We can keep believing that if we would like, but life is so much richer when we seek  healing. What does healing look like? I’m not an expert yet, but I know that sometimes it looks like confession, sometimes like forgiveness, and sometimes, it’s just acknowledging that the pain is real.

None of those options mean we magically stop feeling the hurt, but that we relinquish control of it and its control on us. And without the “at-least-I-don’t” comparisons that tell us we should be grateful, we find that we have tasted God’s goodness and we are truly grateful.

Reluctance and gratitude

9:30. All I wanted to do was get ready for bed and curl up with a book for an hour or two.

My phone buzzed. It was my friend: “My son is sick. I have to take him to the ER but I can’t go alone.”

“He’s sick? What does he have?” My mind was spinning with ways to get out of her indirect request. I’d had enough experiences with friends using the ER for an easy prescription for medication. Queasy stomachs, aching wrists, stuffy noses.

“He’s had diarrhea since yesterday. That is not good at all. It takes all of the liquids out of his body.”

I imagined myself tromping 40 minutes across town to sit in the stuffy ER full of others with similarly unimpressive diseases. I didn’t want to.

“Is he drinking water? Does he have a fever?”

“Yes, a lot of water like usual. No fever.”

It was sounding less serious, admittedly. But what kind of a friend was I? This friend was a first time mother, hours away from her own mother’s wealth of experience and advice. And her husband was less than helpful on most matters. She just needed someone to walk with her. So it was decided: for the sake of this relationship, I should slay my desire for relaxation!

I groaned. I know I did. And probably more than once. After a long day, this felt more like drama than reality.

Soon another message arrived. She was going to pharmacy instead. (Had she sensed my reluctance?) If it got worse, she would let me know.

“Let me know when you know more. Meanwhile, I’ll pray for him,” I told her, still wondering if I should be putting on sneakers instead of pajamas.

She came back from the pharmacy with a syrup. We discussed the case a bit more and decided to wait and see how he was doing in the morning. The case seemed to be more of an excuse to overreact than a real danger.

Her parting comment was, “Thank you for always listening to me.”

Suddenly, I felt guilty. Even after my less-than-compassionate response, she had come back to thank me. Her gratitude shone a light in a dark corner of my heart. 

Giving thanks

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family just before moving to Spain. That seems so long ago. Much more than a year.

And I’ve accumulated more than a year’s worth of things for which to be thankful.

The year has been very good and very hard. But sometimes, the hard is what makes us thankful.

This year, I spent our Thanksgiving celebration bundled up in my bed with a head cold. It made me thankful for the health I take for granted most of the year. Crazy busy days make me thankful for alone ones. Residence visa struggles make me thankful to have a week left on last year’s visa.

I have not arrived at “counting it all joy” when trials come (James 1:2), but facing trials helps me see my own unthankfulness before a God who has given me His life.

So today my headcold and I have started counting a few blessings:

three young children in wagon
illinois cornfields
bride and groom with sunflower bouquet
silhouette of two women

20 even more things I’m thankful for

  1. Dreams I can climb out of
  2. A quiet market
  3. Syrupy tea poured from a neighbor’s kettle
  4. Observations so true they hurt
  5. Little boy grins that come shy and blushing
  6. Remembering the awe of a blessing forgotten
  7. A cheerful chat at the bus stop
  8. Hearing my name on the street
  9. Language lesson over towers of fruit and vegetables
  10. Cicadas
  11. Damp outlines around fallen leaves
  12. A speedboat skimming along the horizon
  13. Middle of the day thunder
  14. A pale lizard running along the boulevard just ahead of me
  15. Opening a door to find a cool breeze
  16. Fresh paint
  17. Humor when I’m not expecting it
  18. Heads bent in prayer
  19. Conversation so long we forget to clean up dinner
  20. A Kindle full of waiting books

20 more things I’m thankful for

  1. A night full of sleep and an unresented morning
  2. Early morning messages that change the day’s agenda
  3. Together giggles to lighten a disturbing situation
  4. Handwashed clothes dripping into floor puddles
  5. Picnic lunches that are fun to pack and fun to eat
  6. A little boy casting shadows on an unceasing stream
  7. Giddy laughter and story-telling from children having fun
  8. A clock with a slow heartbeat
  9. Maps covering the wall
  10. The trickle of filtering water
  11. Creamy iced coffee
  12. Honesty that comes genuinely but not harshly
  13. The far away booms of fireworks
  14. Black mountain silhouettes
  15. A thousand nooks and crannies of foothills
  16. The delight of gift-giving
  17. Old city streets baked in the sun
  18. Cool tile floors
  19. Days that don’t end in the woes I had imagined
  20. Plan B when Plan A vanishes