For Such A Time As This

Dear Dr. Fledderjohann,

You were my 8:30, my first class, my first professor. You were my introduction to what Moody would be like. And you, with your stern-faced, soft-soul-ed, no-nonsense demeanor, said teaching the Bible had to be interesting. With punctuation. And so we learned, and I took a final in the fireplace room and was proud of my work, and I took criticism in my projects and learned that I deserved it. Thank you.

Dr. Profe,

I took you because I was afraid. Of failing, mostly. At some point in class, you said that learning a language involved being willing to make mistakes, and that when that mistake-making happened, to learn to have fun with it. You said that learning a language involved the sort of failure I was afraid of. I learned to be good at it, and even if I didn’t learn how to have fun at the parts I wasn’t good at, I could at least look at you and realize it could be fun. On another note, you were the first professor whose patience I couldn’t comprehend. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Baurain,

Did I still set the record for most writing done in those minute essays? I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t know how much I’d need those early crucial tools you gave. Your knowledge of Lewis intimidated me, your essay questions captivated me, your enthusiasm for Nebraska delighted me, and your willingness to engage in conversation taught me that professors could and should be approachable. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Park,

You are still a legend to me; an incendiary one, admittedly, but a legend in both your boldness and the fact that you still remember me–and my sister. You talked about an arena I had little technical knowledge in, and you drew it back to a region of personal impact. You taught me what it looked like to do something that I thought I already knew how to do. Thank you.

Dear Professor Worrall,

I still want to call you ‘Dr.,’ even after you corrected me. You corrected me in class, too, that first early time when the little bubble of loyalty was pricked and old griefs came spilling out. And you corrected me after class, in the pause between things you had to do and things I didn’t understand. You corrected without saying I should know these things already, and I learned–along with bold declarations of faith, deliciously creative classroom presentations, and absurdly beautiful handwriting–that teaching involved stopping and engaging, if even for a moment. Also, I still remember your teary-eyed delight at the wonder of having children. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Baker,

I think I doodled in the back row of your class quite a bit. I promise I was paying attention–truly. I had no concept of what these motions meant until I was out of the sandbox and onto the shore with waves too big for me. And then I realized that, all along, you had been trying to teach us how to swim. That was the first time I was late on a project, the first time I snuck into Fitz late so I could slip a paper under a professor’s door, and the first time I wrote a note to one and signed my name. I wanted you to know that the class mattered to me, and that you did, too. Also, my sister had said that I would want your sweaters. She was right. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Namaan,

You said you had an extra ‘A’ in your name so you could give us one. I appreciated that, but even more so I appreciated your endless desire to see the world know Christ. While I learned that yes, I could write a four-page paper in half an hour, I also learned that I didn’t enjoy being out of my comfort zone but sometimes I had to. I still remember Habakkuk 3:18-19, by the way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Lit,

That’s appropriate, isn’t it? I didn’t know what to expect, sitting in the back and wondering what this would be, but while I didn’t agree with everything, I did learn that theology involved lots of humor and the capacity for endless study. I also learned that I didn’t know theology half as well as I thought I did, and it was humbling in the best possible way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Sauer,

I didn’t know the nickname for your class until I was almost done, but ‘love hour’ wasn’t wrong. I loved every minute. I didn’t know one person could have such unflagging energy for the Word, for life, and for love. You may not remember it or know it, but you were the very first professor in whose office I sat, and said a little, and cried a little, and you flipped through that big Bible on your desk and spoke the very verse that I had been praying for my sister over and over again and never praying for myself. Thank you.

Dear ABD,

I still think of that, and am still rooting for you, however long this journey takes. Thanks for still remembering my name. You recognized our failings as students and sought–even while busy and burdened in ways we never knew–to feed us more information than we could grasp but badly needed to know. I wish I could go back and understand better now what you taught us then. The coffee was delicious, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Mathews,

I never understood how you did it, how you managed to teach and preach and speak and steadily love the Lord and His Word and His Church and His work and His children in the same unflagging breaths. I know we were few and listless, but I still have those books sitting on my shelf, because what you had us read could not leave us untouched. You haven’t given up on the vision of work done well, and you resuscitated that vision for us, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. McDuffee,

I’ve sat under you three times. I think you only remember the last two, but it was the first one that floored me. How do you think of the world with such breadth and with such humility? I finally saw White Cruficixion but it was only after visiting Chagall’s museum and being in tears because I was finally glimpsing a fraction of the way you see the world. I’ll admit that I did sudokus in class to keep my brain grounded to my hands, but I promise the hundreds of pages of notes were from those times when I was able to pin to the page those scraps of thought too vivid to leave alone. I thought you were profound; then I realized you were unforgettable. I had already wept in Yad Vashem, but you taught me that I could weep with both anger and gentleness. And then I wept in your office, and you were kind and still gentle. And you still remember, because somehow your mind can comprehend the full spectrum of color and not forget the specific hue of the people around you. Thank you.

Dear Mrs. Smith,

You were color and sound and always wore something sparkling and glittery. You were the pastor’s wife who never sugarcoated the work of it but never presented it as anything less than the richest gift. You wept in a moment and smiled in the next. You proclaimed conception a miracle and made it all make sense without it ever being made shameful. You gave me my only ‘B’ in 9 years of college. And then you sat across from me at a lunch table and said you could see me. And you sat across from me at a coffee shop and said you could see me again. And then you sat across from me on a plane and saw me again. And in those moments I saw you, a woman, who teaches with passion and loves with ferocity and gives both joy and tears their rightful place. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Weber,

I had heard about you before I sat in your class. So I wasn’t disappointed, and then I wasn’t disappointed again, and then I was surprised because I wasn’t disappointed again. You knew me because of where I sat and you gave us clarity because of who you are and you gave me a fair grade because you would never do anything less. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Peterman (Napoleon),

It only makes sense if you’ve seen it, but then it always makes sense. You were the first person to care about footnotes and margins and the period in exactly the right place. You meant ‘exactly,’ and I learned ‘exactly,’ and in between we were your guinea pigs and we turned out just fine. It seemed like too much reading and too many words and too much knowledge and suddenly it became pastoral because you could do no less. And when I was able to learn from you again, I knew both when to laugh this time and that you were capable of tears, too. And because I knew, I wasn’t afraid to ask, because you never caused us to be afraid of your answer. Thank you.

Dear MM,

I’m sorry I didn’t know how to appreciate you right away. You didn’t pretend that we were better than we were, and up until then I had pretended that I was. And then I was uncertain, and it led to certainty, but I was still uncertain how to bring new certainty to you. And instead you asked, and listened, and let me go with blessing and not complaint. And then I learned that you had taught us to appreciate you, in your own way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. de Rosset,

It feels pretentious to call you anything other than the real thing, but you were never anything remotely pretentious. You had just as many opinions as the next person, but more clarity and gravity in your words than the next fifty persons. And you laughed when it struck you as funny and cried when it wasn’t. You scribbled and marked out and brooked no excuses. You also savored words and named things as good without parsimony. And when I finally sat in your office, you walked straight to my soul, bypassing the masquerade of niceties along the way (and, coincidentally, my name). I treasure your praise, because you are unafraid to both withhold and extend it. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Koessler,

You may not remember that I spoke to you, twice. And the first time you said it was nice and well written and rather boring. And the words I had been so afraid to ask came tumbling out. You went next door to retrieve an awkward fistful of kleenex and gave them, gentleness, and wisdom all with the same generous hands. You had told us to ask what we dare not ask, and I did. And when I saw you again, you asked and were still gentle and I’m still not certain if I can tell what that meant to me in that season. I’m still asking. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Finkbeiner,

You were the nail in the coffin, as it were. Or perhaps the helium in the ballon. Or the instructor on the parachute jump. You made out both soaring and falling to be the greatest adventure of them all, and you scribbled out with pencil and paper those first instructions for how to begin. Then you stood against a wall with your hands in your pockets and asked bad questions and encouraged all manner of fumbling answers and loved theology all the while. And I still am realizing the places we jumped and the things we tasted and what richness you gave us in small, cheerful measure. Thank you.

Dear Mrs. Penfound,

I learned more about the grace of the Word than I did about fitness, I think. Your class meant a lot of pain, which I didn’t enjoy, but you gave a lot of grace, which I needed. You never said our goals were too lofty or silly or that we were not where we were supposed to be. You just did whatever you could to encourage us as who we are as people, people who could do better and people who you encouraged to do yet better still. Thank you.

Dear Coach,

You were pressed for time and persons and yet not pressed for grace. So you gave that to us, and the Lord used you to give us the gift of free time. And in the times you were with us, you didn’t mince words but didn’t withhold engagement. It was a relief and a gift and never a threat. Thank you.

Dear Coach,

I didn’t particularly want to be in your class, until you sat on the desk and took a call and made another one and exposed your love for life and sense of humor. I was reluctant and nervous and in pain most of the time, but even though you didn’t know, you encouraged us in the small ways with a cheer that made it all seem possible. Thank you.

Dear Dr. V.,

I got to know you at your best, didn’t I? Around a table in a little classroom, on the floor around a little living room, on couches in front of Indiana Jones. You said Sys Theo wasn’t your forte, but then you dove into the Greek of the thing with more elan than I had ever approached a language. And the language spoke to the theology, and Biblical theology and Systematic theology settled alongside and within one another better than I had seen before. And you remembered and asked and had a settled, unabashed honesty that stretched my spiritual muscles and helped to heal them, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Neely,

I was sorry not to be in class with you, yet I was privileged to sit under you at all. There are moments of you that still strike me; an opening word at FBM that oriented both our day and our lives toward Christ, a sermon at a church in Edinburgh, a conversation around the kitchen table at the Lighthouse, clarity around a campfire. You’ve repeated these moments time and time again in always choosing to greet me. The most striking thoughtfulness is a word you perhaps don’t remember, when your kindness to say how proud you were of me was a ribbon of kindness in a day seamed with grief. Thank you.

Dear James,

You presented yourself with integrity before you ever knew how deeply it would matter. You kept your honesty and welcomed ours and never lost your sense of the absurd, even when you were late to the bus and even when you knew the spiraling troubles ahead. Meanwhile you sat back and crossed your arms and somehow taught us to keep our feet steady when the theology was unsettling. You were honest when you said every passage told us something of God, and you were honest when you didn’t have the answers. And in that restless summer, when all I wanted was answers, I wrestled with God and was finally honest with Him in the end. I left limping and loved anew. I just wish I had more time to learn from you. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Root,

Your knowledge managed to both intimidate and inspire at the same time. Every day was extraordinary and heady and gripping and it felt like we barely scratched the surface. I treasure these moments; a coffee break when you were surprised and blunt in ways you didn’t know I needed; a quiet afternoon in a field when I fell in love with Alice in Wonderland again; a day traipsing in Oxford when you made a doctorate seem like the most ordinary and possible dream in the world; an evening watching and thinking and learning of redemption yet again. I learned to love the Word and its enduring treasures, while you were full of the life of the Word and its enduring transformation. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Goodrich,

I wonder why you never told us quite how difficult it was. Because you taught so steadily, as if was the most delightful and steadfast thing in the world. And it didn’t matter if we were sleeping or staid, because you pressed on and distilled years of study into minutes of teaching. I feel like I skimmed the surface in everything I learned, but I realized that the waters were far deeper than I first thought. I need to learn to swim, and learn to love it, but you helped us begin. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Merchant,

You entrusted us with hefty papers and loaded assignments, and I loved the chance to hear and exchange and begin to see the hands and feet of theology in new and unexpected ways. But what I needed most to hear was that early day, when you confessed and proclaimed that ours was a God of active redemption. In a semester of regret, I needed to know that He was still drawing us up from the deepest places we have wandered. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Schmutzer,

How did you know to ask that first question? To ask if there was something else behind that door that I didn’t want to open? You weren’t afraid to pull boxes off the shelf and name their contents, and in a year when nothing was in order, you spoke truthfully of even the most difficult things. I still feel as if I don’t know and have barely begun to understand, but even when I was uncertain and stumbling for words, you listened and still asked. You were careful with this hurt because you know the Healer so well. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Hong,

I’ve said it before, but I was continually astounded by you. You were tireless beyond comprehension, enthusiastic beyond measure, and prayerful beyond sight. There is much I didn’t say, but what I did you were always careful with in your own way. I didn’t know how bitter I was towards music until I learned to love it again and realized I’d forgotten what it tasted like to sing with both joy and tears in my throat. And you never condemned when my body failed and never ceased to call us higher when we could go yet farther. Thank you.

Dear Dr. C.,

I think of you in terms of honesty, except that your honesty is never unkind. So thank you for your kindness towards those I love, your kindness towards those I don’t yet love, your kindness towards me. I wanted to say thank you first when I realized the way you were gentle and honest in all the ways I couldn’t be, and then you willingly turned towards me with that same grace. Thank you.

Dear Dr. J.,

I have no words to say what you mean to me and what you have taught me. You are my brother and my friend and my teacher and it is forever my privilege to call you so. Thank you.

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Letters From An MBI Student – 7 OCT

Dear Family,

You know what I truly despise?

[maybe this is a rant]

[maybe despise is the wrong word]

[loathe?]

[abhor?]

[detest?]

Carelessness.

[maybe carelessness is the wrong word]

[recklessness?]

[heedlessness?]

[thoughtlessness?]

Those tiny things said, thought, done, undone – chosen without care.

[maybe chosen is the wrong word]

[neglected?]

[overlooked?]

[scorned?]

Is it just a lack of consideration?

[maybe consideration is the wrong word]

[appreciation?]

[deliberation?]

[education?]

Do they know no better; do they think we know no better; do they think we care as little as they?

[maybe care is the wrong word]

[maybe all of these are the wrong words]

[maybe there aren’t good or right words for bumping into the sharp little corners of those who don’t think; and those who think and don’t know; and those who know and were simply human for a moment]

[maybe this is just a rant]

I suppose I know no better, too.

[suppose is the wrong word]

[think]

[know]

[am]

[sigh]

[I am, I know, no better, too.]

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

Letters From Abroad – 24 JUN

Dear Family,

Can we talk about pain?

That sounds excessively dramatic, and it probably is. Maybe I should begin this the way I began every childhood letter…

Dear Family,

How are you? I am fine.

Today we trekked up to the castle, ventured out to a museum, found lunch on a cold and blustery day belonging more to March than June. Today was going to be a full, lovely Saturday, stuffed with things to be seen and experienced. Today was begun and ended and muddled in the middle with simple, ordinary pain.

How are you? I am fine, but I’d like to talk to you about pain: physical pain, specifically. And I need to be honest. Because pain tells many, many lies, and maybe putting them down on paper will make the black and white between truth and falsehood a little more clear. Because pain siphons away worth when the group trundles along the street at a faster pace than you can manage; pain taunts your inadequate muscles when the stairs are just too difficult to climb today; pain blots its dreaded inkspots into the agenda of the coming day; pain whispers of a lesser life when your mind is cloudy and your hands shake and your speech stutters in unfamiliar ways. Even those things that you once did or planned to do are not untouched, like the phantom pain of a lost limb. I know it’s something any retiree can tell you: your sleep will become a privilege, clarity of mind a rarity, and even your feet will betray you and keep you where you do not wish to be and lead you where you do not desire to go. I’ve been told that I’m in my prime of life, but pain speaks its classic lie to me as it does to any age: it says that I am not truly living, that I am experiencing less, drifting more, whittled down to joints and muscles and neurons that are all rusting too soon.

I’ve questioned myself: is it my will that is not strong enough? After all, I’m a walking antithesis of every sports t-shirt and self-help slogan: Just Do It, or some other unhelpful phrase. When do I say “I think I can!”, and when do I roll over and take a nap? When do I relinquish the backpack to someone else’s shoulders, and when do I muscle through on my own? When do I stop deciding my day based on the physical factors, and when do I start? When and how do I do both?

Today this was the part of pain that I struggled with: the lie of less. That this different sort of life is somehow less. That this is less when I watch the world from a window and leave my running shoes at the bottom of my suitcase. That this is less as one blissful day of wander and wonder steals the stamina from the next three days. I know it’s a lie. I know that I’m not alone or different or special. You live life tired, live with your own creaks and aches, live with your breath stolen in its own way. Physical pain is universally experienced and individually endured.

I just wish I knew when it was lying to me. Someday maybe I will be able to speak better of pain as a gift, not a lie. Maybe I will be able speak of how it shapes my relationship with the Lord, or how I am living differently–not less–for staying at the bottom of the stairs or handing off the water bottle for someone else to open. I’m not yet ready to declare those with confidence. But in the midst of the lie of less is the first step that I need: wisdom. The physical and the spiritual are not battles I have learned to fight together. Days like today remind me that James’ plea for wisdom is not simply for better spiritual sight or to gain a sort of ephemeral wisdom that takes me to a higher plane of piety. The struggle to know when to push forward and when to stay back is exactly the sort of wisdom I crave, the same wisdom that can recognize the quality of life in the midst of a quantity of pain. There are a million decisions and small struggles for which I am unequipped, but James speaks of confidence before God: that when I bend these knees before the throne in prayer, the Lord gives generously to all without reproach. He does not look at me less because I know so little of how to live like this. He gives as one who intimately knows my every need, who knows the spiritual bent of my soul and the physical bent of my body. He walked here, too. He who gives wisdom knows even the requests to which I cannot give voice.

And the wisdom He is giving in these moments is also what reminds me that my pain is not so bad. There is thankfulness in all things and new mercies every morning. There is the ordinary joy of another day spent travelling in places I never thought possible. There is the simple joy of breakfast at a kitchen table, pressed down and shaken together by the fellowship that does not care that we are eating differently. There is the biting joy of weather I cannot control, sharp with the reminder of the extraordinary Creator who sent it. There is the unacknowledged joy of freedom and taking steps to new places on ground that is steadier than it once was. There are the unrecognized joys of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste, countless unrehearsed joys for the journey. There is the expectant joy of Scripture that speaks truth when all I hear are lies. And there are those who have walked years far beyond mine, who look at these little things with eyes and hearts full of wisdom that has been asked for and granted in undeserved measure.

Like you.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

Letters From Abroad – 17 JUN

Dear Family,

I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about this whole travelling phenomenon. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think when I’m dropped into beauty and madness and community and isolation and the contradictions of being a student abroad who doesn’t want to come home and is extraordinarily homesick for countless unnamed things that don’t even constitute as home.

In case my last post didn’t give you a hint, I’m trying to put into words my inability to just be; to experience without littleness or ignorance. I’m trying to name the beauty around me, trying to put into words how other this is, and yet how normal. I spent today watching sunlight and shadows in a place that is older than the country I both love and uncertainly miss.

I’m struggling to process what I encounter, as it feels so disloyal to describe these places in terms of what I know. A cathedral that echoes of France, an edifice crumbling like Romania, a corner table that feels like Chicago, a smell that drifts from Israel, and a sunset with a Nebraska breeze. I want to speak of this place on its own merit, but every place is somewhere else. The more that I travel, that I experience, that a place settles into memory, the more I speak of these new things in terms of the old. And it doesn’t touch my soul.

And maybe that is why. Maybe it is because it doesn’t matter if the street is quaint or the façade impressive…I haven’t allowed it to mean anything more than an old memory in different colors. I’m in Europe, one month in, and that is extraordinary in a way I have not been able to comprehend, let alone describe.

But I’d like to try, try to tell you one of the stories of today in its own many words. Can I? Here.

Today I ventured to a new place, a staunchly Swedish coffee shop, two-story glass windows and shaker furniture, with hot yellow sunshine and little cappucinos. It was firmly in the university district and far enough outside the town center to abut buildings of glass where the only old things were the cobblestones between them. It was also close enough to the university district that everyone entering the shop came with a painted cheek and inadequate clothing, draped in rainbow flags and hair color as loud as their voices. I wondered at these people and what their lives would look like. Where do the fishnets and crop tops go after college? Where do those who march and cheer take their hoarse voices after this day is done? It was a strange question to ponder in a corner table with my colored pencils in hand and a blank castle waiting to be shaded in. Somehow, amidst the bustle of others’ activity and the quiet strokes of ultramarine blue, I still felt guilty for finding a new place in which to stop counting the minutes of a day.

A meander along the cobblestones brought me to one of the market areas with tilted tables of fresh fruit and Italian cheese, plaid neckwear and leather bracelets, set between the bars and restaurants and cafes. There was a circus act at one end and a magician setting up his table and scarves between. I wandered into a vintage clothing store; a flea market for clothing someone else once loved. There was a row of plaid kilts ready to greet you as you entered, and a dusty life-sized Egyptian coffin, the color of old gold and navy, guarding the steps up to the rooms at the back. It was a cacophony of color; old hats and glitter fringes hung from the ceiling, rows of dresses labeled by era (“1950’s” “1970’s” in Sharpie on ivory tags), colors and fabrics of magenta and gold and canary and forest green. A row of olive and tan tweed jackets hung above a packed rack of slacks in dark green and navy blue, and stuffed underneath them were scuffed shoes with worn straps and old shoelaces. The interior of each fitting room was plastered in some bold graffiti, with a garish curtain to pull across the front. The roof of the fitting rooms was actually a shelf, “For Display Only,” piled high with creased shoes, leather bags, the breastplate of a tarnished suit of armor, the tartan hat and kilt of some unknown heritage. There was not a single space left uncolored by yesterday’s styles. It was gloriously overwhelming. I touched the silks and fibers and shoulder pads of decades-old clothing and bought nothing.

I followed the uneven streets to an art shop with prints of Edinburgh framed in matte white cardstock. The castle was the prominent feature, mostly in gray and taupe and olive, but some artists rendered the city like a child’s picture book, with blond, round-faced-and-peach-skinned occupants posing in front of pastel shops and the castle in pale baby-blue shades under a faintly yellow sky. My favorites were the ones of whimsical Edinburgh–known places and streets in bold, shaded colors, touched by the fantastical; a goblin with an elephant balloon on a string in front of a red coffee shop, yellow windows bright against the night; large feet in blue striped stockings draped over a window ledge and a tasseled red cap nodding over the sill a few stories higher; a fox huddled under a sign pointing to the highlands with the faint impression of snow and a definitively red telephone box behind him. It was a child’s imagination printed on cards. I looked, smiled, and left them to settle in my memory and not my hands.

I trekked back to the main thoroughfare, all busy tourists and hissing buses, chasing one another back and forth along the gardens and monuments and green places below the castle. The street behind it was called Rose Street, criss-crossed overhead with strings of pink triangles. It was mostly restaurants, which my tongue could not taste but nose could not miss. So I drifted the length of the street with a new scent at every step, carried by the sounds of fellowship and the plink of silverware and the sorts of memories made over glasses of wine and bowls of heaped pasta. It was a feast of sight and sound and smell and it, for a wistful and forgotten moment, was enough.

Back on the main sidewalk, still swimming with people and beckoning stores, I found my first new bookshop, all piles of clean titles and crisp colors. It was a three-story delight of displays and vibrancy and endless possibility. There were immeasurable pages to read, but the sheer infinitude circled back on itself and I had no place to begin. So I climbed the staircases with their delightfully thick dark wood railings and creaky treads and found the sunlight pouring through the windows of the coffee shop. I settled at a table that overlooked the activity of the street and drank a latte from a homey gray cup and picked up my pencils again. Across from the big windows was the great brown castle, imposing against the stiff blue sky. From its cliff the castle looked down on the green swath of gardens, the street with its buses of maroon and gold, and the people busily counting the minutes of the day and giving them over to the stores and shops in hand with their pounds. With violet and indigo, I shaded in my castle roofs and brushed the curling shavings into the saucer, crumbling bits of color against the gray.

I spent the afternoon with coffee, pencils, and time that did not care. With the sky fading towards evening around the castle, I left the bookstore and ended at a park. It was full of people, with a movie projected on a screen the size of a small building. The people were the sort I’d seen all day; the rainbow-draped students in the morning, the children who had chased bubbles near the magicians in the market, the men and women who had sipped bottles and sauces on Rose Street, the bag-and-bustle-laden shoppers of that afternoon. I bought my own little container of ice cream and leaned on the iron fence around the park, watching the ending of a movie I didn’t care about while the sun colored the sky with its own pink pencil and the world slowed down to a few moments that I did care about.

And then I stepped aboard a bus that softened its hiss to a gentle shush and took me home along a skyline of pink and blue and just a touch of violet.

Not every day is so full of delight or so empty of things that must be done, but neither can every day be described. I wish you could be here to know the fullness of this life, even in its emptiness, so maybe it is you that I miss.

~Rae

Letters From Tour – 01 JUN

Dear Family,

What is beauty? We talked about it last night, the sort of night that is the last night on earth even when you know it isn’t. We talked about it in the dark blue dusk of evening along the Danube, with the bright, old yellow of city lights on cathedrals and Parliament and ordinary buildings across the water.

Forgive the sentimental prose for a moment so I can ask this: what is beauty?

There has been so much beauty on this tour. At every turn I wanted to tell my Gypsy: your country’s normal is so beautiful. But do I say that rightly?

What is beauty? What is the beauty of crumbling history? What is the beauty of a disintegrating human face carved between windows and around doorways? What is the beauty of cracked stone and streaked gray brick? Romania and Hungary still carry the leftovers of Communism, and I think they may struggle to answer this question, as well. What is beauty when it was meant to laud human dominance and the subjugation of man? There is a beautiful statute in Budapest, high on a cliff overlooking the Danube. The woman holds a branch aloft with both arms, a palm leaf flung up to catch the wind – and the light. There used to be two more statues below her: communism in metal, honoring a false freedom. They were called the statues of Liberation, this collective. The Soviet statues were relocated to a hated and historic wayside park, and the lady is called Liberty now. It’s a semantic tightrope across the Danube; once you are on the other side, you see the view and wonder how you ever could have thought that both sides were the same.

What is beauty for its own sake? What is beauty made by sinful man? Was the tower of Babel beautiful?

I wonder if our creation of corrupted beauty speaks of our identity as image bearers – imprinted with a reflection of the beauty of our Creator, spun outwards in statues and structures in an attempt to replicate what our souls long for.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

What is beauty? I have been far to quick to assign that to things I see and experience – far too quick to catch my breath and say “Ah, what a thing!” and far too slow to say “Ah, what a Creator!” Is the world beautiful in a way that delights my eyes, or is the world longing in a way that speaks to my soul? Or, possibly, is it both? Threads of a fabric woven in perfection and stained by sin, drifting music played by a child in hopes to replicate the soul-song he cannot quite hear, eye-catching colors in the faded shades of Paradise, monuments of and for and by man. God crafted a world of beauty and placed within man the longing for the reality of it. Our ability to create beauty is continually frustrated by sins, personal and collective, but we know we want it. These desires are as twisted as ourselves – our sinful hearts covet the greatness of other men, wishing that statue was of, for, by us…and our image-bearing souls recognize the diminished beauty that achingly cannot capture the greatness beyond it.

I love the beautiful things too much, I think. I wish to know better the difference between the beauty of this world and my longing for what it mimics. I wish to know when my self shakes hands with a sinner and lusts in rebellion against God’s beauty, and I wish to know when my soul is gripped in mutual longing for the beauty beyond the now. I wish to recognize the towering craftsmanship of these little Babels, to decry the sinful lusts of twisted longing, and to direct the ache of my soul to the author and satisfaction of true beauty. I wish to say, truly, with the Psalmist, as a cry from the sinner and saint:

“One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in His temple.”

Psalm 27:4

 

Missing you and the beauty of the far country,

~Rae

Letters From Tour – 31 MAY

Dear Family,

I’d like to tell you a story. A story of colors and first things. This tour has been full of firsts, but last week’s wasn’t my favorite: an ambulance ride.

Prologue: it wasn’t my favorite night, but there were still good things about it. We were in Gypsy’s hometown, she and Lady did everything, her mother drove, we were at a church with a very gracious nurse, I was able to go home that night…many good things. Many less than, though; and to be honest, I don’t entirely remember everything from that night. Mostly pieces and colors. Here they are, disparate and disassembled.

Black: I wore my Chorale dress the whole night. I tried to sing the first set (ha), came off for the second, and tried again for the third. The last song I had enough oxygen to sing was The Lord Bless You and Keep You, even though the world was already spinning by then (per usual). It’s a good song to end on.

Blue: I remember getting into Gypsy Mother’s car afterwards (being handed in, mostly), and being cold and it being very dark out. I thought it was funny that they always wheel you out in a wheelchair yet somehow expect you to get home alright. I also remember being annoyed at how much clothing I was wearing when Lady and Gypsy helped me get ready for bed.

Green: Green and blue and dirty-looking but almost overwhelming? There was too much already, so when I think of the color of the ER now, I’m glad it was muted to that side of the color wheel. My eyes and mind couldn’t really take much more. I wanted to sleep and couldn’t really and for a long time they didn’t want me to close my eyes, then they said I could, then I didn’t want to for the things that happen when you close your eyes without breath. Funny how an oxygen mask can’t convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Red/Orange: I don’t remember the ambulance people, but their vests were orange and there were red things around. I still had people telling me to open my eyes when they came, or maybe it was after… I only remember the pricks of early tests and those slices of color and far, far too much noise that still sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Pink: the color of the sky for the sunset I didn’t see. I think Nae Nae and Mountain Man had said it was beautiful, but by the time the concert ended I was heading out of daylight pretty fast. I wanted to catch my breath so I could go see the sunset, and I never found either.

Ivory and Brown: I think of Nae Nae in those colors, when the world went nope and turned into mud colors and went sideways. Her lap was soft and felt so safely unhurried when everything went very fast. I have never realized the measure of confidence one receives when one is heard and understood. Lady, Nae Nae, Gypsy…the Lord placed them under my head and around myself and somehow, they heard me and there was never a time when this highly verbal person did not feel like her voice was not heard through the fog.

White: the nurses and people with the cold and gooey EKG stickys and the one who kept telling me to look straight ahead when I was trying to leave and the world still wanted to tilt and I couldn’t squeeze his finger even when I tried. It’s amazing how frustrated you can be with the kindest of people when whom you are really frustrated with is yourself. I do recall the relief of leaning into someone and not having them push you away because at that point, you’ve returned to a body that feels as hollow and unfamiliar as a seed husk that was ground underfoot.

Gray: that’s the color I remember most of the night. Gray hands that didn’t work and were the sort of all-encompassing pain that made me forget everything else but that couldn’t be distracted away themselves like all the others; the sort of bewildering force that is almost too great to be responded to with something as little as tears. Gray lungs and body that folded up like creaky billows that get stuck and never quite open up for air. Gray self that spent itself like water wringing out of a towel and managed to hurt when there was nothing left to hurt. I was proud of this analogy that I said (and remembered!) from the ER: I am a juice box. One that is emptied out and all twisted up and can’t be undone yet. I’m still undoing it.

Epilogue: so there was my night, in the full spectrum of color. Except yellow and purple. Yellow was the color of Lady’s hair when she smiled at me and made the downhill slide feel not quite so fast. Purple wasn’t a color I remember, but maybe it’ll come later, like most of these pieces have.

I woke up sometime in the dark that night, still looking for that elusive breath, but the Lord, with His gentle hand that wastes nothing, taught me once more how to pray.

With all the dizziness of mind and disembodiment that comes with pain, somehow the thing that keeps me tethered to myself is this called prayer. I once would have said prayer is an ethereal thing; a paper crane that cannot fly. But when it is your soul and self that wants to fly away and make it stop, prayer is a tether strong enough to keep a kite in a hurricane. Is it the meeting of heaven and earth, the way prayer takes the physical self to the throne room of God and keeps your soul on its knees when the walls tumble down? Is it because it doesn’t matter whether or not the trembling walls are the skin that holds us together or the soul that shakes us apart?

When we return to these husks and hollows of ourselves and find that the muscles and mind and lungs don’t work like they should, prayer draws in the lines that should be there, returning the loose cotton to these empty cloth dolls, knitting soul and body together with prayer and breath, holding our fragile seed husks with hands we cannot see that work better than our own.

I remember my father’s hand, so large and heavy, and the way it felt to pick it up and draw his arm around my shoulders. That night, prayer began without the strength to pick up the Father’s great hand and place His arm around me..but in that yawning nothingness of my own strength, I found, underneath, the everlasting arms.

In the shifting prisms of graying color and the ungrounded firsts of that night, that was all I needed.

~Rae

Letters From Tour – 22/05

Dear Family,

I don’t know if it’s being in Europe, being tall, being a woman, or having long hair that makes bathrooms in this place just plain weird. I have never craved a regular shower before quite like this.

Shower 1: Our first two nights were in Hungary, at a delightfully American home with Cru missionaries. I’ll have to write to you about that experience another time, because it was lovely. The bathroom was slightly larger than the bedroom and tiled completed in tiny squares of a shocking sea blue. This huge room had a toilet in its own tiny room in one corner, a tiny shower in the other corner, a small standalone sink, and a small towel cabinet. The room was nice and big, however, so I think maybe it was supposed to make up for the size of everything? The plus side to this bathroom, despite the way the tiny shower leaked a surprisingly large amount of water into the room, was that it had a shower curtain.

Shower 2: We stayed in a small apartment in Oradea, being welcomed to the beautiful city by a night walk around the old quarter. It was jaw-droppingly-beautiful, and another post for another time (again). The shower, however, was not. Here was my first introduction to the tiny European bathrooms that have no garbage can, a frightfully loud toilet, a window you don’t realize is uncovered somewhere, a bathtub with a shower head, a recalcitrant temperature gauge that has two options (scalding and lukecold) and no shower curtain. Not for the first time did I wish I’d cut my hair before I came. The bathroom was a lovely purple color, and I managed not to coat it entirely with water by (TMI moment, sorry) laying down every time I tried to use that darn shower head. I took a long time in the bathroom, unfortunately for the other five people also staying in the apartment. In my defense, there was another half-bath at their disposal, and its window was bubble glass.

Shower 3: This lovely apartment in Brasov would have made Ikea proud. The green bathroom was very pretty, but the family had an unfortunate habit of keeping the bathroom doors shut even when not in use. I’d finally gotten used to the light switches being on the outside of the bathroom, and this night I realized a fantastic utility to this: ready indication of bathroom occupancy. This bathtub had a shower curtain; two, in fact. Two little squares that barely hung down to the tub edge and managed to give the illusion of protection while still allowing a massive amount of spray to coat the bathroom, the towel I was supposed to be using, and the clothes I needed to wear.

Shower 4: This was a particularly memorable one. We were welcomed into an apartment in Bucharest, owned by the quintessential Romanian grandmother: immaculate home, eclectic mixes of new furniture and ancient bed sheets, gorgeous library, and no English. Not for the first time was my lifesaver my Romanian roomie, occasionally known as The Angry Gypsy. We were shown to a bedroom with a classic (aka creepy) picture of Jesus–requisite halo and thin white European face–hanging at a 30 degree angle out over the bed. I believe the point was that you could easily see it when laying down. Point taken. We sat on the old bed and looked up to see a large face staring at us from behind the door. It was a giant bear, with a 15″ head, Winnie-the-Pooh yellow in another life, wearing a faded, handmade pajama shirt, and looking not-at-all creepy. To top off our apartment stay, which had no wifi, we were introduced to the beautiful bathroom, all light brown tile and clean white shower, sink, and toilet. The shower didn’t have a curtain, the toilet required a special touch to flush and sounded like it was tearing the bathroom apart, the towels were the sort of thin hand-towel that would manage to get one hand dry before being soaked, and the icing on this odd cake: no hot water. Yep: we had Jesus, Pooh, and no hot water. So no shower.

Shower 5: Instead, our chauffeuring host picked us up at 6:40 on our second morning there and took us, bed-headed and sleepy-eyed, to the church. Not at all awkwardly, we trundled our suitcases to the office on the second floor, where a little bathroom was built into the eaves of the building. The pastor ran the water for five minutes straight while we stood and wondered if there was no “apa calda” here either. Eventually we were in luck, but Gypsy went first and came out with a helpful warning: “It’s not made for tall people.” True story. The bathroom was canary yellow, the shower was cornered in the slanted space, and the shower head had a few spastic sprays heading sideways off of it. Like most European bathrooms, there was no fan, but the 6″ x 14″ screen-and-paneless “window” waist-high in the wall right behind the shower helped. It was another showering adventure as I crouched down in the corner, trying to shower while holding one hand over the shower head to keep the errant sprays from coating the entire bathroom since, of course, we had no shower curtain.

Showers 6 & 7 have been in regular hotel-style bathrooms, with their own collection of oddities. But all in all, I have to say that I am grateful for a bed to sleep in, and a spout somewhere with water that lets me do my thing.

Maybe missing you and the promise of hot water,

~Rae