Blessings in the Midst of Burdens

During the long weekend, my little family piled into the car and headed for Tennessee to visit dear friends at their new house. Somehow we didn’t get the news that a massive winter storm would be sweeping over our entire nearly 700-mile trip down on Friday, or that another winter storm would be sweeping over much of our nearly 700-mile return trip Monday. I guess being rather more disconnected from social media has its disadvantages.

Fortunately, we grew up driving in Michigan.

Unfortunately, most of the other drivers we encountered did not.

And apparently the Tennessee Department of Transportation doesn’t understand how to properly salt their roads. Or, you know, salt them at all.

We were so grateful not to have been stuck on I-40 West, which was closed for hours and hours due to a crash that involved 16 semi trucks, and on which some people were stuck in their cars overnight. (There were still stranded and overturned semis on the highway when we left three days later.) We had gotten off that highway early on and taken a dark, winding, icy state highway that was mostly empty, rolling into the Jackson, Tennessee, area around 9pm. We should have gotten there by 4pm, had it not been for the weather and traffic snarls.

But we did get there. In one piece. And that is a blessing.

We had a delightful couple days hanging out, eating good food, smoking cigars, watching movies, and marveling at how an entire state can be so unprepared for winter weather events, even though apparently it does snow occasionally and, sometimes, intensely. (The lady at Wal-Mart had never heard of using salt to melt ice, and while the store was well-stocked with gardening gloves and grass seed, there was not a snow shovel to be found.)

The trip home was rather uneventful and far less stressful, though the roads were still sloppy part of the way. We were happy to be reunited with our newest family member, who I introduced in my latest email newsletter. (Aside, if you’d like to get on that mailing list for future monthly newsletters, you can sign up here.)

Then this morning when my husband was taking my son to school, my car got a flat tire. And I felt grateful all over again that it didn’t happen on an already long and taxing multi-state drive down treacherous highways.

Sometimes we have to look past our inconveniences to see our blessings.

We had a terrible drive — but not as terrible as some.

We visited the South on the one weekend in years that it was experiencing the kind of winter weather we always experience and, by January, are usually pretty tired of — but it meant that we spent all of our time in the house with our friends, and that’s what we wanted to do down there anyway.

We got a flat tire — but in the scheme of things, that’s not really that big of a deal.

Storms sweep through our lives — but in the midst of them, we can still praise the God who brings us through.

And next time we visit our friends, we’ll be flying down.

The One Who Leaves and the One Left Behind


The summer after my freshman year in high school, my best friend Tina announced to me that she was moving to a boarding school. We were fifteen. I was crushed.

All of my fondest memories starred me and Tina. Against varied backdrops — her bedroom, her cottage, a stretch of sand along Lake Huron, the auditorium at the Bay City Players, the Wheel at First Presbyterian Church, the back of their ’80s-fabulous van — we shared secrets and music and thoughts and dreams. We laughed uncontrollably at inane inside jokes, the basis of which I can no longer pull from memory. We weathered the hell that is middle school together, walking the long stretch of road from Cramer Junior High to Lesperance Court, where I dropped out, followed closely thereafter by our friend Andrew. Then Tina would continue on alone.

She was the trailblazer, always traveling, always going somewhere and doing something and sending me a postcard written in her huge, lefthanded script with the strange M’s that looked like a hammock strung between two trees — like the one in her backyard that I would never lounge in again. When she left, I began to scheme about a way to leave as well, not because I wanted to get out of my hometown or get away from my parents, but because I wanted to be the one who leaves instead of the one left behind, the one who was embarking on a new adventure instead of the one standing on the porch and watching taillights fade away in the distance. The one who leaves and the one left behind are both parted from one another, but it is far from the same experience.

I had the distinct joy of keeping in touch with Tina. After she graduated from her boarding school, she went on to Boston then Boca Raton then Colorado then Argentina and then back to Colorado with occasional trips to Cambodia and Thailand and Scotland. Whenever she was back in Michigan I tried to make it back to Bay City to visit. She was a better letter writer than I, and so occasionally I would get a card or note in the mail. I never felt like I had much to report back to her; my life was so tied to routine and the everyday tasks of the student, the worker, the wife. In 2002 or 2003 I sat with her in the cafe at Schuler Books in the Meridian Mall in Okemos, overjoyed to hear of an important change in her life. When I drove out of that parking lot to head back to Grand Rapids where I was living at the time, I could hardly see the road for the tears — tears of joy, yes, but also tears of loss. And every time I have thought very long about her since she left me on my porch in 1995 — my God, twenty years ago — I have cried.

Five years ago I flew to Denver to attend her wedding to a wonderful man I have recently had the pleasure of getting to know a little better. A few weeks ago, I flew out again to visit for a few days and meet their little baby boy. We rambled about in the mountains, shared meals at their table, talked of our parents and our friends and our families. And like all true friendships, we picked up where we had left off like no time had passed between us. But even now, as I type this, tears are in my eyes. Because I’m still the one who was left behind, and the ache never quite goes away.

Last night, my husband and I got the heartbreaking news that our closest friends in town are moving three states and ten hours away. It’s wonderful news for them — an answer to years of fervent prayer for a teaching position. And I am truly happy for them. Yet here we find ourselves again, standing on the porch while the ones who know you most deeply, for whom you put up no front of having-it-all-togetherness, drive away to a new life. We feel emptied of something that made us us. And it sucks.

My sophomore year of high school started without my best friend. I wasn’t sure if I would make another close friend — everyone else already had their best friends. They’d been best friends, most of them, since elementary school, just as Tina and I had. But then, a few weeks into the school year, I met a senior named Zach.

And five years later, I married my new best friend.

Proper Ladies, Nepali Dishes, Amorous Frogs, and Opera Outings

Sometimes you just have a string of great days full of irregular bits of life. We’re a family that is fairly set in our routine. Work, school, church, karate…over and over again in an endless but pleasant cycle. And then you get a weekend like this:

Friday – Attended the reading of a paper about 18th Century Gardens at the Lansing Women’s Club as the guest of a member. Very formal. Tea afterward. Did not embarrass my nervous host. 😉

Saturday – Ate the best pancakes my son and I have ever made. Began constructing an Itty-Bitty Bungalow for a contest at our favorite area nursery, Van Atta’s Greenhouse, out of items found in the garden and yard (pictures when it’s finished). Raked the leaves off the gardens (again) and trimmed the rosebushes. Ate scrumptious food and shared long and entertaining conversation at the home of some Nepali friends.

Sunday – Church (of course) followed by steaks on the grill and a phone call from my mother asking me if I had plans for the night (of course not). She happened to come into possession of two tickets to The Phantom of the Opera at the Wharton Center. Got into my jeans and walked around Fenner Nature Center observing foraging deer, mating frogs, and busy chickadees while waiting for mother to arrive in town. Changed back into a dress. Attended the opera. Randomly saw my sister-in-law and her family there, though they are from the west side of the state.

And then it got interesting…

Rather than deal with parking at the Wharton Center, I had asked my husband if he would just drop us off. Mom knew others from her church in Bay City who would be there and we could just ask them to bring us home. If they couldn’t, my bright idea was to take the bus, which is a fairly straight shot from MSU’s campus to near our house. Well, the people from her church had a pretty full car, so off we walked to the bus stop. However, I hadn’t thought about the fact that the buses don’t run as late on Sunday evenings. The last bus had picked up at our stop two hours earlier.

Zach couldn’t leave the house to pick us up without waking our sleeping son (who had school the next day), so I suggested we just walk home. It was a lovely night, the sidewalks are well lit, and there are no sketchy areas to walk through, so off we went. I figured it was about two miles. I lied to my mother and told her I thought it was about one mile. Turns out, it’s almost four miles. Which would have been fine, if Mom had been in tennis shoes. And if it hadn’t kind of started to rain.

After walking two and a half miles, we stopped at Quality Dairy and asked Zach to wake the boy up, stick him in the car, and come pick us up. All’s well that ends well, and at least we got some exercise! And now both of my parents have a story (about twelve or thirteen years apart) to tell about how I made them walk long distances due to a mistake regarding transportation and parking.

From the planned activities to the spontaneous, it was all in all a lovely April weekend.

Spring Fabric Swap and a Sunny Yellow Table

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis weekend I had seven ladies over to go through each other’s unwanted fabric. It was a fun take on spring cleaning. We chatted, had gallons of coffee and snacks, and pawed through a ton (literally? figuratively? who can say?) of fabric that was just taking up room in one person’s closet or attic but could be used by someone else. Now, granted, some of it will just be spending more time in a Rubbermaid bin, just in a different house. But ideally we will use some of the new stuff we’ve taken home.

I scored a few apparel fabrics (including a radical vintage 1980s splashed paint-looking knit that will become PJs for my son), far too much quilting cotton, and and a really striking Amish (or Amish style — I’m not entirely sure of the origin) quilt top in a lap quilt or wall hanging size. I’ll post about some specific pieces and projects in the future.

Of course, not all of the fabric was claimed. Luckily a woman I work with has told me she will take everything that is left. (Yes, everything.) I wonder if she knows what she’s gotten herself into.

Also of course, I forgot to take pictures. I did take a picture of my table once I put it back together and dressed it for spring. Oh, to have fresh flowers in the house and not worry about where to put them out of reach of a cat. It’s been a long time.


Entering a Season of Joyful Anticipation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m still recovering from a fantastic extended weekend of great food, family, friends new and old, and lots and lots of cleaning up. I managed to somehow be involved in three Thanksgivings: one at my in-laws’ with fifteen people; a quick visit to my aunt & uncle’s house to see them, my parents, and one of my cousins; and one at home a couple days later with eleven people that I actually prepared singlehandedly.


It ended up being a very multicultural Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law invited four international students who wouldn’t be able to be home over the holiday. Our Kenyan friend Grace we have known since she was nine and her father Jeremiah was attending seminary in Grand Rapids. She brought three friends: Korean Grace who grew up in China, Korean Grace who grew up in India, and Nigerian Oyin who grew up in Nigeria. The meal we had at our home on Sunday night was our little family and eight Bhutanese-Nepali friends from one of the congregations that uses our church building for their church services.

It was fun to share the story of the first Thanksgiving with our Nepali friends who had never heard it. And it was fun to discover, through my mother-in-law’s careful genealogical research over many years, that my husband Zach has two ancestors who were actually on the Mayflower! Thinking about that distant connection gave new meaning to the very old story.

And as Advent began on Sunday, Zach (who is also my pastor, in case you didn’t know) made a poignant connection for me. The same distance in time that exists between us modern Americans and the Mayflower existed between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as a baby in the manger. Four hundred years. Four hundred years from when God said this:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6

to when God said this:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17

I think about those four hundred years of waiting, listening, wishing for a word from one’s God, wishing for fulfillment of a promise. And I believe I shall think on it all during Advent, in a time in our world when it can feel like God is silent and everyone simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”

Tonight we’ll finally have time to decorate the house for Christmas. On our pre-lit tree, I believe there are four hundred lights. One tiny light for every dark year of anguished waiting. Altogether they make a bright and beautiful light and will point me toward the one Light that was soon to make His humble entrance into His creation, in order to redeem it.

Sweet December (or…Be Careful What You Pray For)

For those of you who don’t know, I tutor a very nice Chin family in ESL once a week and have been doing so since they arrived from Burma/Myanmar two years ago. The parents struggle, but the two school-aged boys, Moses and David, are doing quite well, especially Moses who is now asked by many of his Chin friends to come with them to appointments to translate. (Aside: it seems to me that refugees have more appointments than anyone I have ever met.)

This wonderful family invited my family to come to their apartment Saturday night for a celebration. This was right after I had asked them if they planned to celebrate Thanksgiving. They swiftly told me about “December One,” which they called Sweet December, and which, in my limited understanding of what they told me (there’s a difference between being able to speak English and actually speaking English after all), seemed to be a celebration of when they first arrived in America, like their very own personal Thanksgiving. I gladly accepted the invitation, despite my fear that I would again be served intestines, and started thinking of a way I could serve myself at the meal.

As my husband typically works Saturday evenings, just my four-year-old son tagged along with me on Sweet December. When I got to the Lian home, I could tell from outside that the place was full of celebration–kids yelling, people singing, lights on in every room–and I assumed that the already large family had invited some other friends from their church, which meets in our church building Sunday afternoons. Moses met me on the dark porch and explained that we would go in once the song was done. A moment later, he opened the door.

You know how Lucy must have felt seeing Narnia for the first time? Or how Dorothy surely felt when she opened the door of her dark gray house and was confronted with the bright and colorful world Oz? That’s kind of how it was when Moses opened that door. The dark concrete porch was awash in golden light and instead of seeing the dozen people I expected, it was more like fifty. One hundred deep brown eyes in tanned faces. Plus the children who were running about and playing. Altogether I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to place the total number of people in that one apartment at about 75. At least two thirds of that number were seated on the floor in the living room, facing the front door, and looking at me and my son as we squeezed in and added our shoes to the veritable mountain range that already blocked the front closet and much of the front door.

Moses pointed me to two empty kitchen chairs along the edge of the sea of people seated on the floor, the only two chairs I saw in the entire room. Now, being one of only two white people there (the other being my son), and being a good liberal arts graduate and stuffed full of oodles of white guilt from all of my white professors, I felt distinctly uncomfortable sitting “above” all of the Chin people in the room. Heck, even if I sat my 5’9″ self on the floor I would tower over these petite people. So I told Moses no, we would sit on the floor. But he again gestured to the chairs.

Then I looked to my immediate right and saw their pastor and his wife seated on a sofa in the front of the room. I realized that they had given me the chair because my husband is the pastor of our church and I, his wife, would be honored the same way he would. Coming from a country in which they are persecuted for their Christian faith, the Chin have the utmost respect for clergy. So I sat down and tried to figure out how I had thought I was coming to a family gathering when I was now so obviously in a church service. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about being offered intestines.

After another couple songs, I sent my son upstairs to play with the other small children, many of whom already speak English like natives. He gleefully joined them and I didn’t see him much for the next hour. Back in the living room, Moses took the chair next to me in a valiant attempt to help me understand what was going on. While people were talking he would lean in and say in his very soft voice, his words slurring together, that this was a prayer or this was announcement time or this was a group song. Most of the time I couldn’t quite make out what he was trying to tell me because, despite it being a church service, the din from the children upstairs, in the kitchen, on the staircase, and even sometimes in the living room, was constant and seemed fairly loud to someone who grew up in the Lutheran church with a very German sense of decorum (i.e., no talking, no fidgeting, and certainly no messing with the keyboard or standing right in front of the speaker and staring up at her as though you were a living pulpit…which, as you may have guessed, happened later that night).

But the wonderful thing about being part of a worldwide body of believers is that even if you aren’t quite sure what someone else is saying, and even if you only catch occasional words (Abraham, Hosanna, Jerusalem, Christmas, December, God is good) you still know the story. Moses gave me an English Bible and told me the passage that Pastor Hrang’s wife was going to speak on. Luke 2:11-… well, to be honest, I’m not sure where she ended, so I kept reading until verse 21. The story of the angels announcing to the shepherds that Jesus was born and the shepherds going to see the baby in the manger.

And even though I speak very limited Chin (I know that watermelon is dawnzuk–though I’m sure I’m spelling it wrong) I could still follow some of her sermon. I had to fill in enormous gaps, but when you know the whole story of God’s people, it is not difficult to do. She mentioned Moses, so I thought of Moses being sent as the deliverer of his people Israel from the whips of the Egyptians. Then I thought of Jesus the deliverer, sent as a little baby to save the world not from human oppression but from spiritual death. She said Hosanna and so I knew she was talking about Palm Sunday, when Jesus road into the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, entering to the shouts of people asking him to save them. She moved her hand up, looked to an unseen hill, and I knew she was talking about those same people yelling “Crucify him!” and taking him to Golgotha to be executed.

After that, there were fewer things I could understand. No more familiar words, though she gestured several more times to the cross. But it was enough. I knew the story.

During this service there were also several prayers given by several people. I could recognize only the words Christmas and Amen. That, too, was enough.

Perhaps the strangest thing I witnessed that night was when everyone in the room prayed individually, not silently or taking turns as you would in an American church, but out loud and all at once. A cacophony of loud and fervent voices lifted to God in adoration. It took me so much by surprise I felt extremely uncomfortable for a moment (remember: German Lutheran). And I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that all speaking at once might not be looked upon favorably in the pages of Scripture (husband tells me it’s 1 Corinthians 14:26-33).

All the same, I felt compelled to join my thoughts and prayers with theirs and offer them up aloud to God (though at a much more restrained volume–God’s not hard of hearing, after all). And further checking into that Scripture shows me that it is talking about an orderly worship service and speaking in tongues. This service was certainly orderly and any speaking in a different tongue from the one everyone knew seemed to be done by me. So I thanked God for bringing these people safely out of a land of persecution to a land of religious freedom. I thanked him for the opportunity I have had to serve a few of them. And I asked him to show me and my church how we could serve them further.

And that’s where I went wrong.

There are prayers that God seems to take a long time to answer–months, years, decades, lifetimes. And there are prayers that God answers almost before you’ve said Amen. This was one of the latter kind. The service ended, strange food (though not intestines) was served, my boy came into the room for a doughnut hole and some water, his hair plastered to his head with sweat from running around constantly, and a woman asked me (through Moses) if I knew if there were any other people at the church who could help her niece and nephew with their homework.

Ah, yes. Homework.

One of my primary gripes when coming home from my ESL tutoring with this family for the past two years has involved the boys’ homework. In a large city with as many refugees and immigrants as ours, I simply can’t believe we don’t have a better system for intensive English instruction as the primary discipline of a new transplant and instead send students home bearing pointless and inane worksheets that will never help them succeed at life or even secure a job (like the crossword David was supposed to fill out last December in which every answer came from the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and ‘Twas the Night before Christmas–seriously).

Immediately I wanted to help these young people. Then I thought of how many junior high and high schoolers are in the Chin church and how many willing volunteers we might get from ours. The numbers didn’t match up. One thing that might make it more feasible would be if we had one big tutoring time scheduled at a central location that all students needing help could get to, transportation being an issue for almost all of them, and that the volunteers could easily reach. Like the church.

I asked Moses and this woman’s niece (I really couldn’t hear her name in all the noise) if they thought that those who wanted homework help could stay after their church service ended around 4:00pm. It would be so much easier to get volunteers to come to a central place. If we had even three people there for a couple hours, how many kids could we help decipher instructions, understand complicated concepts, write with proper grammar?

Remember a week ago when I posted this little gem:

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.


And on Sweet December I foolishly prayed for more service opportunities to present themselves. But I hope I’m not a big enough fool to ignore a very clear answer to prayer. Now I must trust that the God who answered that prayer will also give me success in finding volunteers to fill the need. So if you’re a praying person, maybe you’ll say a little prayer for me today.