Two Weeks of Gratefulness [A Series]

“We will feast in the house of Zion

we will sing with our hearts restored

‘He has done great things’ we will say together

we will feast, and weep no more.”

Sandra McCracken, “We Will Feast in the House of Zion”

I’m wrapping up the second week of writing down all the things to be grateful for, and writing a novel.

I have to say: this entire journey has been much more difficult than I anticipated. I, nearly daily, have to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and say, “Alright, I’m going to sit down. I’m going to write another paragraph. I’m going to pause long enough to consider what all I have to be grateful for.”

And honestly, some days I have not shown up to write the manuscript or in my little gratefulness notebook.

Isn’t being a human crazy? That I have to pick myself up to do the things I most want to do? That it’s a practice to follow a dream? And to even pause? The things that bring us the most joy can often require the most convincing, and that’s really frustrating to me.

But this week, this truth was spoken over me: I don’t have to wait until I’m in the mood to live with purpose. Actually, I can live by a firm commitment to go after it now, regardless of what I’m feeling.

Friend, we are not victims. If we’ve made the decision to live for Christ, then we are empowered and cherished by a God who has crafted stories we’ve yet to unfold. Let’s not be enslaved to what we do or don’t feel like doing. Instead, let’s press into the desires and dreams he’s placed in our hearts. And let’s go after them. We get to live by a commitment to the purposes set before us. We get to say, “Hey, I’m not going to be tossed about today. I know my purpose. And I’m going to keep stepping into it.”

Don’t give up. Keep pressing on. This is worth it. You might be tempted to think it’s not worth it; don’t believe it. You are sustained by the Sustainer himself. He’s got you. Even in the waves and tosses of the day, he’s got you.

And with that, here are only a few things I penned in the gratefulness notebook over the last several days.

  • singing with the church
  • the last few autumn trees that are still full and vibrant
  • snowfall and 2 hour delays
  • the satisfaction of meeting – and far passing – a goal
  • fleece blankets under the sheets
  • the warmth of the sun on a cold day
  • hearing a child say they want it to be Christmas every day so they can celebrate God every day, and getting to say, “But you can!”
  • going back to the place we got married just to reflect and say thanks

By the way, here’s a link to the song we sang in church on Sunday. It always breaks my heart. I mean this in the kindest way possible: I hope it breaks yours too.:

One Week of Gratefulness [A Series]

As I shared in last week’s story, I am participating in NaNoWriMo. I also shared that I am keeping track of little moments I’m grateful for in a small composition book I’m carrying with me this month. Both have been surprisingly challenging. More on that to come.

Before I get back to writing the manuscript this morning, I wanted to share a few things I wrote in the gratefulness notebook over the last few days. They’re small, but seeing them as precious gifts this week was good for my soul. I hope you feel them too.

  • fuzzy socks
  • the comfort of curling up in a warm blankets on a cold night
  • winning an Instagram book giveaway
  • winning anything, really
  • Travis driving my broken car all week, even though he hates it, so that I can drive our reliable vehicle
  • solving problems
  • the fuzzy, velvety feel of a horse’s snout
  • the kid who came to me just to say, “Ms.Brianna! Friend!”
  • a friend empathizing with your crappy week and then asking what they can do to help
  • pricey dresses that fit like a glove
  • cheap electric bills
  • when the cat walks on my back
  • Travis talking to me early in the morning, because I know he’d rather be sleeping
  • Paul’s longing to go to Rome

One Final (Random?) Thought

I spent last night and this morning just looking at Romans 1:1-15. It is literally just the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Roman church, but it’s plenty full of love and encouragement.

The Apostle’s love for Rome, for people, and ultimately, for the message of Christ, encouraged me. I pored over it for a couple hours, just sitting in Paul’s gratefulness for this church, his gratefulness to God for alotting a time for him to visit, and his gratefulness to God himself for the story he’s worked and invited us into.

We are tremendously loved and cared for, friends. It’s only because of Christ that I can show any thanks whatsoever. And being able to express my gratitude has filled a void I didn’t know I needed before I met him.

My prayer today is that I would show my thanks to him by showing thanks for the people, things, and moments he’s given me.

“As it is through Christ that God’s grace is conveyed to men, so it is through Christ that men’s gratitude is conveyed to God.”

F.F. Bruce, “The Epistle of paul to the romans: an introduction and commentary,” page 76

November: Writing Thanks and a Novel

That’s right,’ said Gandalf. ‘Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you may guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. You may (possibly) all live to thank me yet.’” Tolkien, The Hobbit

No one told me that adulthood would feel like a rut.

You wake up to the same alarm every day. You drive the same car to the same office. You swerve to miss the same pothole in road, and don’t even complain when you still bump over it. It’s happened before. You’re used to it.

You work the same hours. See the same people. Wrestle with the same insecurities. Come home with the same kind of tired. Then you go to sleep, hoping that same familiar pinging of your alarm doesn’t come too soon, just to do it all over again.

Okay, this sounds bad. But I’m not bitter about it. When I boldly asked the Lord to show me how to be faithful to where he’s planted me, I’m learning this is actually what that means: showing up to the sameness. It means being there for the same friends when they call, and going to the same Bible study every week. It’s working from that same office you’ve known for almost 2 years, and watching the kids you’ve taught graduate from one grade to the next.

The next step in this faithfulness journey, and the one I’m fumbling in, is learning how to show up to the sameness with the joy and passion that led me to ask him to bring me to it in the first place.

What I’m unsettled by is the belief that this is all there is. Like going to work and being tired is all adulthood will offer us, so we better settle in. Being stable and making money – this is the American dream, after all.

They might tell me to get over it. They might say that we live to work and pay bills, but I cannot stomach the thought. They’ll tell me that dreaming is for kids. They’ll say this is it. Work and routine, this is what I’ve waited my whole life for.

But I don’t believe it.

Jesus did not save me to a safe, planned, routine life. A faithful life to his reasons, yes. But a life stuck on repeat, no.

My Jesus is yours too; He didn’t save you to a life on repeat either.

November, You’re Special

This month, in this chilly November, I know that my heart needs refreshment. I know that even now – up to Thanksgiving and start of Advent – my heart needs to begin its preparation for December. I am not ready to receive the coming of Christ with joy; I need to reposition myself.

I am human enough to admit that my preparing the way for Christ in December begins with preparing the way to prepare his way in November.

Why? Because I don’t want to miss a single miracle that God can work this season.

I want all the grace and joy bestowed upon me as I look ahead to family dinners and get-togethers. I want the joy of Christ to radiate from me. Not because I’m special, but because he is and I’m in tune with his ways.

I want to feel deeply-rooted contentment when I’m eyeing gifts under the tree, or shopping for others. I want to believe at the core of my bones that I’ve already been given enough, and that I am not defined by things I don’t have.

I want to listen to what God has to speak and show. I want to believe that even in my every day, he is here, crafting glory and beauty in the mundane; let me not forget him. I want to know that I am not a slave to the rut and routine of adulthood. But actually, life is a miracle – and as a believer, I have full permission to enjoy it.

He knows every step I take and beat of my heart, and I want to praise that. I just want to increase in my gratefulness to him.

Starting today, even right now, I can number what he’s already done for me. I can ask for eyes to see the wonderful mercies he’s given me already, and tune my heart to receive it, while still showing up to my same circles of faithfulness.

Writing Thanks

God has already given us so much. Hello, have you counted your fingers or numbered your breaths today? Have you noticed the way the sun rises through the tree tops? Did you hear what your husband said of you, and did you feel your heart flutter?

Life is beautiful. And how much do I miss when I’m looking down?

I’m challenging myself to look up and number my thanks this month. I’m going to keep a mini composition book in my bag, and pull it out when I’m on my lunch break or sitting in traffic. When I see a kindness of the Lord, one that I just want to simply say thanks for, I’m going to jot it down. I’m going to remember that he is, in fact, my lovely king – at work in all things.

You can too. Maybe you prefer using your notes app. Maybe you want to reflect on your day in you journal before bed every night. It doesn’t matter how you incorporate it, but that you do. It barely takes any planning. Just a simple raising of the hands and uttering the prayer, “Lord, help me to be thankful. Let me see what I’m prone to miss.”

And a Novel

This month is also NaNoWriMo – short for National Novel Writing Month. In these few weeks, writers from all over will commit to writing a 50,000 word manuscript. For some, it will be the start of a great work. For others of us, it will be a chance to finish what’s been started. But for all, it will be an opportunity to share the stories that need to be told.

I’m joining the journey, and am hopeful that God will give me the words I’ve been looking for. Or running from. Whichever.

Welcome, November

So that’s where I am today, on this chilly first day. I’m taking a step deeper into faithfulness, although it looks different this month. In these weeks, my faithfulness will be tested on the page. It will show up to the pen, and I’ll get the wonderful opportunity to feeling its pressing on paper and learning how to simply say, “Thank you, God.”

This is a chance to show the rut that I will not be bound by its cruel restrictions, but actually, am going to live fully aware of joy and chasing dreams. I’m going to practice believing that God loves when we enjoy his gifts to us – whether it’s a spoken or written word. And today is a great place to start.

I can’t wait to share with you what I find on the other side of the month. Until then, let me leave you with a note from Gandalf, when the dwarves despaired that he was leaving them to their journey:

“We may meet again before all is over, and then again of course we may not. That depends on your luck and on your courage and sense; and I am sending Mr. Baggins with you. I have told you before that he has more about him than you guess, and you will find that out before long. So cheer up, Bilbo and don’t look so glum. Cheer up Thorin and Company! This is your expedition after all. Think of the treasure at the end, and forget the forest and the dragon, at any rate until tomorrow morning.”

The Enemy Didn’t Win This Round

What I Would Have Told Myself Yesterday

Sometimes your 1st graders will ask you to hang out, so you’ll say where and they’ll say CiCi’s Pizza, and you’ll say when, and they’ll say Saturday morning.

You’ll think it’s crazy, but you’ll commit to it.

So when you show up on Saturday morning – promptly at 10:30, the exact time CiCi’s opens — the girls will be waiting in their apartment complex parking lot. They’ll be wearing their African and church dresses with puffer, winter jackets to protect them from the wind and sprinkling rain, even though it’s over 70 degrees. Their faces will light up when they see you. They’ll wave and run to your car, probably because a part of them feared you wouldn’t show up.

And before you know it, after checking in with parents and exchanging phone numbers, you’ll be buckling in 3 girls in booster seats in the backseat of your car. You’ll struggle, because goodness, can a car really hold 3 booster seats side by side? You’ll struggle a little more, and the girls will clap for you when you finally hear the click of the buckles. You’ll wonder how parents do it every time.

It’s only a 2 minute drive. Close enough to walk, and you probably would have walked if it wasn’t rainy. When they ask on that short drive over if they can roll the windows down and how much pizza they can eat, you’ll be so happy to tell them, “Yes, and as much as you want!”

And as you have a contest to see who can eat the most, you’ll play iSpy and teach them the words written on media scattered around the restaurant. They’ll ask you questions about life, and you’ll hold onto this moment, already excited to share these memories with them when they’re older.

You’ll be sad when their tummies are full, and realize it’s time to go back home. When they say on the drive to their apartment, “Ms. Brianna, are you driving us to Africa?” and giggle, your heart will break a little because they’re so little and have already been through so much.

What I’m Telling Myself Now

Really? This is crazy. I can’t believe I get the privilege of walking with little ones, with the unwavering hope that they will rise with resiliency into remarkable adults one day. Going to CiCi’s Pizza is a big deal, and not something they get to do often. I really can’t believe I get to be the one to stand in the gap, and do that for them.

But to be completely honest: it’s hard. This is my calling. And yet, a lot of times I don’t feel like going. I face inwardly, struggling to look through someone else’s lens. I just don’t want to go. I didn’t work it in my budget. My to-do list is long. Looking ahead, and knowing that these little moments have the potential to love these kiddos to a stable adulthood – it can feel hopeless.

I usually have to pep talk myself, and ask the Lord to help me. He does, every time, and I’ve never left disappointed that I chose to give time to my kids.

It’s no surprise to me that I can’t love or serve well without God. That – I’ve known that for a while.

However, what I’m also learning is I can’t love or serve well without people.

Those booster seats? Given to me by mommas who didn’t need theirs anymore. When I called on help to become more accessible to my students, women stepped in and offered to literally just give me theirs. Within minutes, I had enough seats for my car and to share with coworkers striving for the accessibility.

The idea to go in the first place? God giving my girls the courage to ask to hang out. I don’t know why they want to hang out with an “old lady” like me, but I’m glad they asked. This is not my work; this is Christ at work in me and my students to help us build relationships.

Encouragement along the way? My incredible coworkers who consistently give so much of themselves to their work and our kids. They are walking testaments of the power our Father can weave through us if we show up, trusting him to provide our way. I look up to, and model much of my work after them. They are my wise counsel, and the ones I strive alongside.  

And the motivation to go when I’m tempted to stay? Certainly born out of a prayer from family and friends who have surrounded me, and shown interest in my work. Undoubtedly, this is the answer of a God who has been faithful to both hear and act.

Go, But Not Alone

Do something today. Anything. Because we know that the enemy loves to rip us from sweet moments. He knows that by tempting us to stay away from the things we love – by filling us with exhaustion, fear, worry, and honestly, lack of motivation – that he has blocks us from loving what we love to love.

It’s so stupid. Don’t fall for it. Do the thing on your heart, the same one that you are the most least-willing to do today, knowing that it has been planted for a reason. Don’t reason your way out of it. Show up. The fruit waiting for you on the other side of it is so sweet.

We won’t make memories with our fast-growing 1st graders that make us eager to tell their older selves about this time together, if we don’t commit to going to CiCi’s Pizza in the first place.

And believe this: you need people to serve people.

Don’t go at it alone. You’ll go so much farther if you choose to invite people in. Let them give you booster seats. Let them pray over you. Let them ask question, and be patient enough to answer. Stand humbled and in awe of those wiser and admirable around you.

It’s hard to serve and love well; it’s even harder to do it alone. There’s more to say. But the best, most simple thought I have for you on this rainy, cozy Saturday is to let people love you as you love people too.

The Cats Eat the Houseplants

Nearly all my houseplants are a blend of vibrant green, and a pathetic shade of darkened brown. Lack of sunlight, or too much water aren’t the issues. Actually, it’s that the cats love to gnaw on them.

I’ve tried a few different tricks in the book. I’ve placed double-sided sticky tape around the plant to detour the cats from stepping too close. I’ve sprinkled cayenne pepper on the top of the soil, and sprayed lemon juice all around it because I’ve heard those are both scents cats hate. Everythinag short of simply getting rid of the plants, I’ve tried.

But Dash, my precious, plant-eating cat – she only licks the tape and comes back to the plant once the scent has worn off later. When one of the reviews for the tape mentioned a demon cat eating the tape off its surface, I thought: Surely not my demon cat. Wrong.

It’s been an annoying, frustrating journey of trial and error. But the worst of it happened last week when we cleaned up cat puke. Multiple times.

The first time it happened, we didn’t think much about it. The second time? We thought it was only what was left of the first. But by the third time, we knew something was up.

And so it went on for 2 days: listening to the cat heave, and then cleaning up puke.

Bless her. I knew she wasn’t feeling well. Her food bowl sat full those days, and we held our breath until she went back for water. She seemed even more put-offish than normal (if those you that know Dash can even picture it.)

As bad as I felt for her, it only took one whiff of her mess to assume what had made her sick: the aloe plant. That same one with the hardened, brown tips – evidences of her chewing. Apparently, my ridiculous attempts to detour her had been ignored.

First off, I don’t get why she even goes to the plants in the first place.

But secondly, why does she go back to the plants, even when they make her sick?

We watched her do it. Just moments after getting sick, she’d go back to the very source of her sickness.  Time after time. Eventually we’d have to completely move the plant out of her reach. But until we did that, we waited anxiously, hoping she’d get the point and stop going back to the very thing that was damaging her.

As much as I wanted to be like WHYYYYYY??!, the strange realization hit me: I do that too.

No, I’m not confessing that I eat my aloe plant and puke it up every day. No, not quite. But this is a confession that I go back to the things that damage me. It’s not an aloe plant, but it’s a whole list of other things I go back to –

My phone for comfort and distraction.

Social media to desensitize.

Unkindness to myself and to others.

The crippling list of could haves, should haves, and would haves.

Believing lies.

Telling lies.

Literally, stuff.

All these places, and more I’ve not listed, are the ones I run to. I know they’re not good for me. I know they’re not helpful to my life’s vision, and I know that these are not things that I want to be marked by. These things don’t refresh me, or enliven me. These are not the will of God for my life.

They bring me anxiety and worry, fear and cowardice. They cripple me, causing me to feel stuck and think that my Savior doesn’t care for me. They leave me out, make me feel unworthy and far from my best. It disgusts me every. Single. Time.

And yet, I keep going back. Even though I know full well that these things make me sick with regret and discontentment, I return.

It’s stupid because my Father promises to give me the opposite of these things. He promises kindness through and to me. He promises to give me the truth, and assures me that when I believe it, I will truly live. He gives me permission to be content and joyful, staying focused on my tasks ahead without the hindrance of the regrets. And when I believe him, I am restored and nursed back to health.

But when I don’t believe him, it’s damaging.

We all have something that tears us up, but we keep putting stock in. For Dash it’s the aloe plant. For me, it’s that whole list – and more. But today, I am remembering that I don’t have to go back to the things that make me sick. I might have hunger pangs for them, but I don’t have to thirst for them.

What if instead of going to them, I ran to the things that do enliven me?

Like writing, both here and in my paper journal.

Reading the story of Jesus.

Talking to God.

Reading my current book (The Hobbit!).

Serving and doing well toward my people.

Snuggling with the cats (always necessary).

Setting screen time limits.

Jotting down goals.

Taking the time to hike beneath a sky that is beautiful and fills me with wonder, being sure to breathe in deeply and say thank You.

I might look at Dash returning to her sickness time after time and be like WHYYYYYY??!, but one beautiful thing to remember is that is not how God sees me. He looks at me with a tenderness, not an astounded frustration. I’m surprised by Dash, but God is not surprised by me. And yet, he still fully loves and accepts me, despite my sickness and crazy. I’m glad for that.

Here’s to a day another day of practicing running to the things I love, not the things I hate. It feels more awkward than it should, but I know this is going to fill me with a life and health that I didn’t know I was missing. That’s worth it.

Writing Poetry

I stopped by the busy apartment complex where most of my students live. Kids chased each other through the grass, and mommas donning brightly colored patterns walked with babies on their hips.

Whether or not I knew them, I waved at them as I slowly bumped over the humps and pot holes of the parking lot. I always do. As I bumped and waved along, I tried to review what little Spanish I know. But I barely made it past hola.

On a mission to speak to a set of Guatemalan parents, I kept driving toward that apartment and trying to remember what came after hola. It didn’t take me long to admit that there was no chance I was going to have a successful conversation in Spanish without help. There was no way I was ready to knock on that door.

And where else could I go but to the front door of a 4th grader?

Making a quick pit stop, I pulled my car around to a different building in the complex. I knocked on the door, and was immediately greeted by two smiling girls that are new to my summer school program. I asked them to tag along to visit another family a couple of buildings down from them. You might call it a moment of humility, even desperation, but the excitement on their faces called it joy as they looked at each other with wide eyes.

“Let’s go ask!” they said, quickly turning and running to their mom. Soon enough they were lacing up their shoes, and heading out to the door to the day’s great adventure: helping Ms. Brianna talk.

The sun beat down as our strides shadowed the pavement beneath us, every stride closer to our mission together. When we finally reached the covered stairs to that Guatemalan family’s apartment, I lagged behind the girls as they took the steps two at a time before me. And finally, we arrived outside the home I had originally come to see.

Doublechecking the address, I began to knock on the door next to the box of mud-caked construction boots. We knocked again. No answer. Another time. And no answer.

In between knocks, the girls talked more. The girls hardly noticed how their speedy, high pitched voices filled the silence in the corridor. They didn’t hear how our knocks echoed past the door into an unmoving room. They didn’t realize how many minutes passed as we waited outside the door. No, they didn’t notice. There were too many other things to talk about. Cartwheels and summer school, movies and Starbucks.

I had to announce the news.

“Well, girls. I don’t think they’re here. We better head back home,” I told them. Their faces dropped when I told them it’d been nearly 5 minutes and the door remained closed. They really had no idea.

“Do you have anyone else we can visit?” they asked, obviously not wanting to go back home. I shook my head no, and we turned around. We retraced our steps back down the stairs toward their building again, still chatting along the way. Lines and cracks on the pavement passed below us as we followed the sidewalk past the homes of their neighbors.

“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.

“English. I love to write,” one of the girls said. I told her that was amazing and that I liked to write too (which she obviously thought was the coolest thing ever). She went on about the other stories she has written, and what she’s currently working on. She’s young, but already her portfolio is growing.

She talked, and images of my childhood – long bus rides spent gazing out the window, stretching myself across carpeted floor to read, journaling every night – passed through my head. I thought I was the only 4th grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.

I thought I was the only 4th grader who watched the world around me in pure wonder, and crafted moving lines in my head as it passed. I think I’ve gone my whole life thinking I was the weird one. Maybe this is how all writers are born.

I asked her about her writing and she told me about a poem she’d been working on for 3 months, among other short stories. But that poem, she was working on getting it just right and came back to it often.

“This girl has more discipline than I do. She’s years younger than me, but she’s already figured it out. Writing, as is any good thing worth pursuing, requires days and days of going back to the page, and spilling words even when it’s hard. And she already knows that,” I immediately thought.

“That’s amazing. Keep working on it. I want to read it when you finish,” was all I said.

“Okay! My friend reads it for me. She helps me,” she said, pulling the other girl in close for a sideways hug as we continued down the sidewalk. The quiet one smiled shyly, and I saw so much of myself in her too: the writer with a vision for the world, and the diligence to pen it and the encourager who wants to see people do amazing things, and will help people get there.  

We talked on that sidewalk until I had only given myself approximately 3 minutes to get to my next ESL class. It was hard to leave a conversation when I felt like I was learning so much about these people – these young, growing people. And, I was being pumped with inspiration in my own life too.

I gotta get back to the book tonight.

Need to make sure I wake up with my alarm to write in the morning.

I need a friend to read my work too.

Even when it sucks, I need to come back to it.

I can’t give up.

There are infinite beautiful things to share, and it can bring joy to someone.

And all that simply because my chatty 4th grade friend spoke up about her writing. She showed me how to speak of my craft with confidence and joy, and how to arrive to the paper with diligence often. I think this was the day that I believed, in real ways, that kids are capable too. Full of ideas and wonder, dreams and the ability to chase them down. They have voices, and you might be surprised at how life-giving and powerful they can be. We can learn from them.

Fourth graders can write poetry too.

Trying Not to Litter the World

A scene that describes my early mornings lately: waking up early to grab a cup of coffee and cast vision to bold ideas. Like, really bold ideas.

On Tuesdays that means teaching a class before my “real” job.

On Wednesdays it’s a Bible study.

On Thursdays it’s project planning.

I didn’t really set out to make this the summer of making important plans at 6 AM, but I’m glad for it. Tuesday is fun and Wednesday speaks to me, but today, let’s talk about everything that’s tied into Thursday.

Thursday is shaking my world right now. It’s a place of eager anticipation and preparation, where both hope and fear are equally woven together. It’s a morning of peacefulness and joy, but there’s also worry and confusion. Maybe the honest thing to say is this: On Thursdays I muddle through my thoughts, discerning what’s valuable and sifting through what isn’t, and attempt to tidy the ones worth saving.

And so I’m here – nestled in a coffee shop with my favorite pen and the hardcover green notebook I’ve been saving since Christmas for a special project. It’s freeing, really. I’m writing notes between sips, and not worrying about what will be scribbled out later. “Let’s give each wild, reasonable, lame, lovely idea its fair chance,” this fearful, perfectionist heart is learning to mutter. Sometimes the only voice an idea gets is a single line on the paper, and that’s plenty to show me its heart before striking through it and writing something better beneath it. I’m learning that.

This is scary though. No way I could do this alone though. 

But I’m with a friend who is already like a sister. We’re dreaming. Planning. Building off one another. Listening. Note taking. Making decisions and wondering what the Lord would have us do.

It’s a safe place where the conversation is easy and we both show up with cat hair on our shirts. We share even the least of our ideas, and there’s no shame or ridicule when we decide it won’t work. We just listen, hear it out, and let it take us to the next idea. When words start to fail us, we sit in quiet. Sometimes for several minutes, and I think I’ll never underestimate the power of simply sitting again.

We’re nothing special, she and I. We’ve got just enough courage to show up, wrestle with our ideas, sit in the quiet, and ask God for more. Some mornings that feels like all the courage I have.

And when the overwhelm of the task ahead starts to get to us, we reach across the table to grab hands and ask our Creator to help us create something meaningful. Let us not litter the world with more junk. Lord, help us to only add what will draw others and ourselves nearer to you.

And when our eyes open, the realization hits us – that this is a privilege that we get to share the heart of Jesus through our conversations with one another. No, we’re not perfect. Honestly, I’m not even sure if we’re qualified to do this. But, we’re going anyways because we’ve learned just enough to trust that sometimes the most inspiring work comes from the most common of people. Like us. We get to speak up about the beauty of life and humanity, process the lovely and meaningful things together. Not because we’ve done anything to earn this, but simply because we believe in this.

She and I. We’re just girls with cat hair on our shirts, sitting in a coffee shop with a dream to light the darkness with the kindness and hope in our words. Once we get that, there’s peace in the muddling.

So we pick up the pens again, and get back to work. We’re just out here, working through beautiful questions and ideas. Belonging in a space of intentional living means something to us, and we think it’s worth sharing. We want to do it well. And we certainly don’t want to keep it to ourselves.

If you need me on a Thursday morning, find me here: staying golden and daring to believe that today is the day to do something that scares the crap out of me.



			

I Try, I Try

We tightened the laces and practiced the art of walking on blades.

We probably looked like a mismatched group – a few white women with nearly 40 middle school students representing multiple countries around the world. Brown skin, black skin, white skin. Tall socks with athletic shorts covered some, and others had come in hoodies and gloves.

Despite whatever differences appeared on the outside, we had at least one thing in common: an hour of ice skating ahead of us. Just on the other side of the glass outstretched an empty rink, glowing bright white from the reflection of the lights above. And there we waited on that weird rubber-like floor, a buzz of eager anticipation filling our space.

When the gates opened, we took turns stepping out onto the ice. Most students entered with timidity holding on to the sides of the rink and reaching for stronger hands, but a few boldly set out and headed for the center of the smooth ice.

I clumsily moved across the ice, calling after students, offering encouragement and a hand along the way. As I went between students, I noticed the boy in the purple hoodie at the gate.

As I helped others, I kept glancing back at him. Watching, I realized that at the gate was a war between going and staying. Clutching the wall, he’d cross the threshold to put one skate on the ice just to quickly bring it back to the safety of the floor. This went on for nearly half an hour. He’d get tired, sit on the bench, and jump up just a couple minutes later to return to the war at the gate. Over and over. Classmates and friends came and went, but for the most part, he was alone.

He waited there.

I skated over to him, hoping I’d reach him before he left the gate for the bench outside again. I made it over to him in time to see his nervous routine up close. “No, no! It’s scary!” he’d say, as soon as the single blade hit the ice. There was no one else there to encourage that second blade to meet the other. Only the boy in the purple hoodie, who was both talking himself into and out of ice skating.

Much later in the day, long after we’d left, I would think about this moment. How many times have I battled with this tension of wanting yet not wanting? How often have I simultaneously danced with courage and fear? How familiar did this routine of flirting with leaving the safety of the gate look in my own life?

But in this moment, I thought only of convincing him to come. I knew he’d regret it later if he didn’t. “I’ll stay with you,” I promised him, as I led him to the wall. Getting his first foot on the ice was pretty easy, but it was the second foot that struggled.

“No, no! It’s too scary!” he repeated, clumsily turning around to meet the gate again. There he went with that dance again. He clutched the wall, and I reached out.

“Come on, I’ll go with you. The wall will be on your right, and I’ll be on your left. Let’s make it to that line. Then, if you don’t like it, we’ll turn around and come back,” I told him, pointing to a line on the ice just a couple yards away.

Hand still outstretched toward him, he took it after barely a single thought. And in that one moment, he made the choice to let his desire to try the new, hard thing; he overpowered the fear that told him to stay.

His hand squeezed mine and his eyes were fixed on his feet, we made it to that line slowly.

“Look, you did it! Do you think we can make it to there?” I said, pointing to a picture just a few yards further on the rink’s wall.

He nodded and we set off, again arriving within seconds.

Having left the dance at the gate, this is how we got around the entire rink: I’d point to a goal, he’d fix his gaze on it, and we’d go there together. Repeat.

Somewhere halfway around the rink, I challenged him to turn around to see how far we’d come. He cautiously turned, still gripping my hand and the wall, and let out a small shriek. “Oh my – no!” he groaned, a smile of accomplishment spreading over his apprehensive voice.

I smiled back, “You’re doing awesome. Do you want to keep going?”

“I try,” he said. Those words became his anthem during these laps around the rink. He repeated them over and over.

I try. Okay. I try.

We were on our second time around the rink when he fell for the first time. We were still moving slow, so he landed softly. He exclaimed, “OW! MY BUTT!”

I chuckled to myself and clapped for him, “Yay! You did it! You fell for the first time!” I reached out my hand to help lift him up. The same fear that held him at the gate threatened to keep his bottom sitting on the ice. But he made a statement to fear when he got back to his feet, dusted off, and set his focus toward the next goal.  

I stayed with him. We started making people our focus points. We’d fix our eyes on another teacher, and skate over to them to show them how much we had skated. Eventually, that led us to the center of the rink. Another friend had joined us by then, and the boys laughed and helped each other. But I kept to my promise, and I didn’t leave his side.

When the loud buzzer echoed loudly in the icy room and 00:00 flashed overhead, he looked up confused.

“Time to go?” he asked. I nodded, and we went to the gate together; he was one of the last kids to get off the ice. (A combination of being a very slow skater and being disappointed to leave so soon.)

But what my friend in the purple hoodie couldn’t see yet is how those few minutes changed him. A different kid came off the ice that morning. This wasn’t the same boy that had let fear make up his mind; he stood a little more courageous.

He could have stayed at the gate, and never come out on the ice.

In some ways, it would have been easier to say no. He didn’t have to keep going after that first goal was met – after all, we weren’t that far from the gate. Even when he fell, the pain of the moment wanted to keep him down. When we turned around that first time midway around the rink, fear wanted him to go back to the starting point and stay there.

But he didn’t listen. Instead, in brief moments of decision, he chose to keep going. Over and over.

In a hour of declaration led by a middle schooler set on being brave, perseverance rang victorious as we accomplished the hard task of successfully ice skating.

Hey, honestly. I needed that lesson as much as he did.

I needed to witness again what it looks like when courage speaks louder than fear, and the kind of good, faithful friend perseverance is to us. It molds and refines us, giving reward to our work and assuring us it’s not pointless. Without perseverance, giving up would be easy and we’d always be stuck with the feeling of regretting what we didn’t do.

So, here’s to another day of leaving the gate.

This is where we say yes to courage, silencing our fears long enough to take the first step on the ice. We’re afraid of falling and our clumsiness, yes, but not ruled by it. We do the difficult thing. We listen to the whisper. The whisper that tells us to do exactly what scares us the most in that moment, knowing that the whisper has more beautiful reasons for calling us out. We’d regret missing it.

The longer we practice listening to that voice, the more recognizable it becomes. Here’s where we set our eyes on a goal – no matter how small – and keep going. We stand up, dust off, and skate again believing that the ground hurts a little less with every fall.

No matter what your first (or even continuing) steps look like today, not one of them is without purpose. Even if the best thing they can offer is giving courage the louder voice, then it’s worth it. You are being refined. Just like my friend in the purple hoodie, you get to come back a little taller after it.

Swallowing the Bitter Tea

Arabic-tea
A green tea served by an Afghani student during Ramadan. Although it’s different from the tea mentioned in this story, it is still a reminder of the hospitality of the Middle Eastern people.

I showed up at the door of a Kurdish couple’s home on a Monday in September 2017.

They gave me Doritos and teas, and I “taught” them an English lesson about numbers they already knew. That’s when my Monday mornings changed for the better.  

Every week I come to their home. They usher me in gladly, and we sit down for English class. Nearly 100 Mondays of this routine of welcoming and learning, but we all knew this particular one was different.

We sat down. We reviewed our homework and chuckled over some of our mistakes. We laid out some work, and they listened as I asked questions. We played a game. We read some. They spoke. And the whole time, it just felt so normal.

It’s like we didn’t want to face that today would be our last day like this together. Without even agreeing to this, it was like we had decided to ignore it by going like normal. We were clutching these last minutes of our time together.

But at the end of our class, we moved slower. The clock neared 11:00. We knew it was coming. As we closed our full folders and packed pencils away, the woman spoke up. “Ms. Brianna, you coming next week?”

I’ve not mastered the art of saying goodbye yet. I hope this comes with age, because right now I am clumsy and awkward when I part. I knew this question would come, and I still wasn’t ready.

“No, I’m not. Today is the last Monday in May. This is our last class together,” I responded.

Even though we had talked about the ending of our class together weeks earlier, their faces dropped with disappointment. I wondered if they’d hoped I’d changed my mind. They didn’t need words to show me the forlorn looks on the faces, pulling down their mouths and lowering their eyes. 

Clinging to one more act of our routine together, they asked if I wanted tea – and don’t you know it’s impolite to refuse such an offer?

They had their daughter bring it for me within a couple minutes. Because they’re fasting, I prepared my cup alone as they sat with me. As I dipped the spoon into the dish of small white crystals, I explained to them what I’ve been praying for. I told them about how hours I’ve been working, and how I’ve been asking God for one job – not many, like I currently teach. I told them about how drastically my schedule is changing this summer, and how I wouldn’t have a pocket of time to teach their class anymore. They nodded in understanding.

I stirred the spoon in my cup as they asked me about my husband. “Ms. Brianna, now you are married. You cannot work so much. Now you have your husband. He need you,” they reminded me, and possibly themselves too. As much as they didn’t want this to be true because of the implications for our class’ ending, they understood.

Goodbyes hurt. And with that, I raised the tea cup to my mouth.

Immediately, I was surprised by the bitter taste. I quickly took the cup away, raising my eyebrows and reaching for my water bottle to wash it down. It only took a small sip for me to realize what had happened.

Thankfully, my expression had gone unnoticed. They continued talking. I thought to myself:

“This will be my final act of love for our class. I will finish this cup for the sake of not offending or hurting my friends’ feelings. I can finish a cup of bitter tea.”

I loathed the dish disguised as sugar next to my cup. I already despised the next sip I’d have to take.

The clock ticked as we continued talking, and my tea cup remain untouched. I watched it, and I knew I’d have to leave soon. The tea was getting colder; I knew I’d have to finish that soon too.

Preparing myself for the next sip, I resolved to just get it over with, and take a large gulp. I grabbed the cup’s handle and brought it to my lips. I braced myself for impact and… midway through the courageous gulp, my face puckered and I quickly removed the sour cup from my mouth.

In an ultimate act of failure, I refused to finish the disgusting cup of tea. I really couldn’t do it. No matter how much water I drank with it, the distinct taste of salt remained in my mouth, overpowering the tea leaves and tainting the entire cup.

I had to tell them. I couldn’t leave this nearly untouched tea on their table. That would be the ultimate offense.

Bracing myself once more, I knew I just needed to say it. I interrupted the silence in the room with a quiet, yet confident, “My friend, I think this is salt,” motioning toward the crystal dish.

My student’s brow furrowed, as she looked from my cup and back to the crystal dish beside it. She reached for the Kurdish word in her head. Salt. Salt. Salt. The silence lingered for only a second, and then the realization washed over her face as her eyes widened.

She found the word. She understood.

“Oh, Ms. Brianna! I’m so sorry!” she shouted, jumping up to remove the salt dish and tea away from me.

“My daughter, my daughter! She’s crazy!” my student continued, blaming her daughter for having served my tea mistakenly with salt.

Instantly, I laughed. I assured her it was okay, and she and her husband laughed too. They both rushed to the kitchen, hurriedly talking, and came back with a fresh cup of steaming hot tea and the sugar container. The metal lid that covered the small opening at the top of the dish was sticky with the remains of white crystals. I recognized this dish. This was the right one.

I didn’t want to watch the clock now. In our last few minutes together, we talked about all the feasts we could have and plans we could make together. We made plans to picnic and to text each other. With a cup of sweet, warm Arabic tea in hand, I promised them I’d come back.

When I sat the empty cup down on the table, I knew it was time to go now. We arose to say our final goodbyes, and I thanked them both for all their hard work. I hugged the woman, and she said, “Thank you for you,” as she had so many times before. I shook her husband’s hand, and with that, she quietly pushed me out the door. I turned for one last wave, but the tears in her eyes stopped her from returning the wave.

Then the door shut. It was really over.

As I walked down the steps and drove away, memories of our nearly 2 years together covered the pavement on the road and all the familiar buildings I drove past. This couple had been one of my first classes and my longest running one. It was hard to think it was over.

Nearly two years ago they had grace for me – a newbie ESL teacher, experimenting with her teaching style and methods. Even when my lessons sucked (and I know they did), they remained eager to learn. Again and again and again.

They celebrated with me when I got married, saying, “We are so happy. We cannot explain our happy.”

They came to my home, meeting friends from all over, on my birthday.

They invited me to their home for feasts when their fasting was over.

They showed me maps of their beloved country, describing the images of their past life in broken English.

They helped Travis and me move in the middle of the week last August, sweating and hustling to load a truck as fast as possible.

We exchanged gifts and cards, and they asked me to help them read their mail.

They fed me and welcomed me when I had nothing to offer them but more homework.

As images flashed in my mind, I smiled because I knew the thread in them all was this: we grew together. We settled in this corner of Southeast Nashville together. When I was new to this community of English learners and learning how to love across cultural borders, they welcomed me. When they sought to learn English, I praised them, remembering they once couldn’t make a phone call without help. Now they can and do.

I almost don’t even want to say this, but I’m going to: it’s good to say goodbye.

When you invest and pour your best into another person, things will change. I watched this couple grow from timid and nervous language learners, to people empowered to try. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but it does mean that they know the risk of their imperfection is worth it to be heard. They know now that their voice and actions matter.

They can make a difference, and I think they believe that now more than they did a couple Septembers ago.

How do I know? Because they did it for me. I became more accepting of differences and gracious toward mistakes. I learned to laugh more. I decided to be okay with deviating from the plan. I began the arduous task of refusing to freak out when the schedule gets off. I grew accustomed to sitting with a cup of tea without looking at the clock.

They helped me. They gave me the gift of presence and contentment when all I wanted was to run in my impatience. They showed me that sometimes sitting with tea is just as helpful as the work.

And now, when the lessons have been learned and the seasons have moved, we say goodbye.

Knowing that we gave our all, and have outgrown what we offer to one another, we turn to leave. It’s not a forever goodbye. But, it is a recognition that this weekly routine of strictly English class is not working anymore. We’re stepping away to give each other space, knowing this is where we need to go in order to keep growing.

For them, it’s time to plug into a higher level class with more opportunities to connect with other language learners outside their home. For me, it’s time make more space for finding more sustainable ways to use my gifts. For our relationship, it’s time to deepen our friendship without the implications of our student-teacher relationship.

Saying goodbye is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I know that too. Really, it’s an act of humility to declare: I can no longer help you in the ways you have grown to be helped. It’s been an honor to walk with you, but I want you to keep growing. Don’t let me get in the way.

I’m grateful to have said goodbye to a space and place that has shaped me and my students tremendously over the last 21 months. Here’s to loving my students – now friends – enough to give them the space to keep growing. Here’s to uttering a clumsy goodbye, and admitting when I can’t drink the salty tea.

When Betty Humbled Me

Smells of meat and rice interlaced with turmeric, coriander, and cumin wafted from the kitchen. Folding chairs lined the walls of the living room, save for a corner where a table of desserts covered the surface. Music with beats and tones that blended in the Middle East saturated the air we mingled in.

Travis and I had been invited to a feast, and the celebration would not be taken lightly.

Marking the end of a month of fasting, this feast would be a time to gather and make up for all the food missed out on over the weeks. Students of mine for nearly 2 years, the hosts – a Kurdish husband and wife duo – had invited their American friends to the party.

I should say, they only invited their American friends to the party.

When I slipped my shoes off just past the threshold of the front door, my eyes adjusted quickly to the realization that I was with white strangers. There were about a dozen Americans – adults and kids – occupying the seats and sitting cross-legged on the large area rug.

I would later learn that some of these folks had been invited by the other Americans in the room, and not our Kurdish hosts. Yet, it would take me most of the night to realize that these were most likely all the Americans my friends knew – even the ones they were only on meeting this night.

But honestly, a dozen American friends is more than most refugees and immigrants with limited English have.

Betty was one of these white women I met that night as we held foam plates nearly overflowing with food. She was older and reminded me of someone who had seen Nashville before it was what it is today. The lines on her face spoke of wisdom and her white hair boasted of a lifetime of work. This woman came over to the loveseat I sat on, asking to take the seat next to me.

All it took was a simple question about how I knew the hosts to start the words falling out of my mouth. I started from the beginning. Before I could even stop them from tumbling, I boasted in the sequence of events, leaving out no major detail of how I got to where I am now. It was the story of my cross-cultural work in the community; a familiar story I had heard myself say a hundred times.

I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a “Wow” or a “That’s amazing.” Some follow up questions. A lot of others respond like that. Instead, she just nodded. When she asked who I worked for, I told her. To which she replied, “Hm. Never heard of it.” I described the office location to her, and she asked about its founding. Despite the effort, her answer remained. Nope. Never heard of it.

Just when I didn’t want to admit that I think some part of me was expecting a pat on the back, a voice within me prodded me to ask more questions. Turn it away from me. This work isn’t about me. What can she teach me?

And all it took was a fleeting humble thought and a couple open-ended questions to learn about Betty.

Betty has worked for this people group all my life and then some. In her life, she’s done incredible things like purchase real estate and rent to families in need. She’s taught English, helped people get important documentation figured out, and been a friend and a helping hand. She described the Kurdish weddings she’s been to and picnics she’s been invited to. Her name means something to this community of displaced people. Her legacy shouts of love and kindness.

She told her story – one I’m sure she’s told over a thousand times – and I was enthralled. Every time there was pause in the conversation, I asked her another question. I wasn’t thinking of my own story anymore. Hers was captivating. Hers spoke encouragement over this work, wonder in my mind, and gratefulness in my heart for a God who does this for us.

As she and I talked together, she helped me to see some things in a different light. They were simple truths, but I needed them to bring me back to earth that night.

We are the faithful planters.

All her years of laboring on the field, she had never been there when someone made a decision to believe in the story of Jesus. I was honestly surprised. She had been doing this for so long, all for the goal of witnessing lives be glorified. Surely at least one person had seen the light of Christ in Betty? I asked her how that felt.

Discouraging at times,” she said. Of course. What else?

But then she told me about the folks who called her months or years later. They reached out to her just to let her know that they’d discovered the Truth. They had decided to follow Jesus and wanted her to know. And even though she wasn’t there, she rejoiced with them.

“I realized how special it was that they felt it important to call me and tell me about their decision. I wasn’t there, and it took a long time, but they knew He was in my life. I got to help plant the seeds,” she described.

Where she could have felt sadness or felt that she missed those moments, she spoke this with joy and excitement. That’s when I realized she was genuinely doing this work for a purpose bigger than herself. That she knows this isn’t about her.

When the discouragement pressed in, she continued to show up for these people. Every day. What she thought was failure became a wellspring of hope.

She had worked laboriously for months and years, thinking it might all be a bust. When the discouragement pressed in, she continued to show up for these people. Every day. What she thought was failure became a wellspring of hope. She came to the field knowing her weaknesses, and that was plenty. Yes, even that was plenty. Her shortcomings were enough.

Because in the end, just by being a familiar face to this community of people, she had given them a glimpse of something bigger than themselves. And without her being there in those early days, they might never have opened their eyes to the Truth of the world around them later.

We work together.

Betty’s work caused people to wonder about life. The Light and the Love she carried with her every day sparked questions within the deepest parts of the people she served. And when they left Nashville or moved out of her rentals, the questions and wonderings her work began in them was completed by other believers.

She didn’t get to see the transformation of a person’s life; she only caught a glimpse of it over a phone call. The believers who got to witness it came to answer the questions that had started being asked, and they got to see the reward. They came to finish the work Betty had started. And they succeeded.    

The church is a team. We work together for the same goal. And the wonderful thing is it doesn’t matter who gets the glory because ultimately, it’s God’s to have.

Church, we are a team of imperfect people knowing we’re going to let each other down but come together anyways. We’re a group of people that forgive until we’ve forgotten the number of times we’ve forgiven. We come alongside people who are difficult and hurtful because we know they’re loved. Tremendously.

We can only handle so much before we tap out though. We can only keep up with our routines in this neighborhood at this job and with this exact circle of friends for so long. Our assignments are temporary. Eventually, things will change. Who will be there to tap us out when we’re worn thin? Who will come along to continue loving the difficult and the hurtful when it’s time for us to head toward the next place? Who will meet the ones we serve when they suddenly pack up and move states away?

I can’t always follow, and I can’t always stay. If I’m at this alone, I’m never going to make it. I need the church to help me. I need a community to fill in my weaknesses, serving and helping others in ways I can’t offer them.

I’m not responsible for saving the world. I’m barely responsible enough to save a single person. Maybe this is why we are called to live in community, and to labor alongside the likeminded. Because we pick up each other’s work. We work together, by whatever means necessary, to see a single soul purchased for heaven. Humbly, I admit that this is not up to me; it’s up to the work of God through His people. We can achieve far greater rewards together than we can in isolation.

We don’t give up.

I get bogged down when I don’t see progress in the day to day. Our modern-day culture has taught me to always feel satisfied, comfortable, happy. I’m expected to always feel like I’m getting something or going somewhere. If I’m not, I’m failing.

But what Betty’s story told me is that even when we feel like nothing is happening, we stay. We stick around. We’re faithful to the task ahead of us. It’s not always going to be easy or fun, but we stay. We have dinner with that family on our mind, knowing they won’t ask a single question about Jesus that night. We offer up our home to a woman in need, knowing she can’t pay it back what we think it’s worth. We do this all, and even more, walking in the confidence that God has brought us here and that changes everything. 

This is called discipline.

As long as God has assigned you to a place, the knowledge of having been called is all you need to keep going.

As long as God has assigned you to a place, the knowledge of having been called is all you need to keep going. It’s going to feel boring and sometimes you’re going to wonder if you’re making a difference; stay anyways. What we perceive as failure is often what God uses to changes lives. Don’t leave yet. If anything within your bones tells you to stay, listen. He’s still at work. And you can’t even put a number on the people you’re going to help by choosing to stick around. 

I’m really not as impressive as I think.

Here’s a humiliating thought: I’m not that impressive.

I’m going to type it one more time, because I really need this: I’m not that impressive.

When I’m tempted to think that I’ve made it and have it figured out, or that I’ve reached all that God has for me, I’m going to remember Betty. I’m going to remember the laborers I’m working alongside who have left more, sacrificed more, given more for the sake of our refugee friends. I’m going to hear their stories of leaving home, buying a home, doing something truly radical in order to make the gospel real to refugees in Nashville.

As long as there are people to help, my job is not finished. As long as I’m on this side of heaven, I’ve still got room for improvement. I believe this most when I meet people like Betty. It humbles me to realize that there are ideas and opportunities that I’ve not yet discovered and people I’ve not yet met. Slowing down now because I’ve “worked so hard to get here” would be detrimental to the completion of this task.

So, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get back out there. There’s still work to be done. 

As Betty and I looked away, staring at the Kurdish music video on the TV and our eyes seeing but not really watching, a flicker of hope came across me. My eyes scanned the room and a question whispered within me: do my Kurdish friends realize every person they invited here tonight is a believer?

Betty’s words were still ringing throughout my body, seeping their way deep down into the quietest parts of my soul. As I realized that I didn’t fight the battle for my hosts’ hearts alone, a burden was lifted. Burdens that told me everything was up to me and what I accomplished seemed less believable. Lies that told me I worked alone were called out. In the place came a joy that my team was here – even here in this room – and that they hadn’t given up. It wasn’t time for me to either.

When I’m down, I’m going to remember the faces that made that large living room feel more cozy last week. We’re a team of people, planting seeds with a stubbornness that refuses to give up. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, I’m going to choose to believe that everything I can give to my hosts while I’m here might actually make a difference.