The Observer

Travel with no purpose other than seeing how big the world is. Look at the mountains, see the shores of a new ocean, eat strange and crunchy foods, talk to people in a language that is different than your own. Look at the city streets with big eyes. Take in all the savory (and sometimes revolting) smells. Cover your ears when the screeching buses drive by. Travel far beyond the land you know and learn how to exist in a new place. 

It’s easy to minimize the value of travel for the sake of travel. If you are a global-minded person like me, you might feel the need to travel with a very tangible purpose. You know, the classic mission to save the world kind of thing, build the new school house, teach the English class…

But why not travel just to see new places and faces? I don’t think we realize how wonderfully transforming, rewarding, and even generous it can be to enter a place as nothing more than an observer.

I just got back from a two and a half week backpacking adventure around Peru, and I think my eyes are still trying to come to terms with the beauty that they saw–everything from soaring mountains, rolling sand dunes, and waves over the Pacific Ocean to the sweetest of kittens, people with overwhelming pride for their country, and plenty of honest conversations about the world’s struggles. This trip as an observer was something special. Here is my best attempt to explain why that was the case:

  1. Marveling at the earth’s rugged, dangerous beauty. On this trip, we did many activities for the sole purpose of seeing more of the planet. We hiked canyons and climbed mountains and crossed streams while looking up at dazzling waterfalls, and we did most of this at elevations that would (seriously) take your breath away. It was truly amazing, and as cliche as it sounds, I really did gain a whole new appreciation for this amazing planet and the awesome power of the God who made it. I don’t think I would have come away in the same amount of awe if I didn’t take these hikes just so I could see more beautiful things.
  2. Seeing and appreciating a daily-life different than my own. I’ve been on several international trips that allowed me to participate in the day-to-day tasks of the locals. This trip gave me the chance to watch the daily activities from a distance, and in some ways (although definitely not all the ways) it was more authentic. This time around, people weren’t hosting me. They were just doing, and I liked to watch that. There is something to be said for simply watching how a person lives, noting the differences, and coming away with a better understanding of the person or people involved. I was able to remember how good I have things in the US (flushing toilet paper, drinking tap water, and air conditioning), while not getting stuck in the mindset of “oh these poor people are so impoverished and they have no idea what luxuries are out there in the rest of the world.” There was no looking down on the people or the situation, but there was plenty of learning and appreciating.
  3. Not being the hero. Going off of simply appreciating another way of living, I did not leave this trip feeling like I did something amazing for the people there. I was not the hero. I did not want to be the hero. I interacted with plenty of locals, heard their stories, and shared smiles. Without me coming with something to offer (in the form of English classes or donations) we were equals, and we got to share in the human experience of being equals…honestly, I wish I had the words for how insanely valuable this kind of interaction is. I don’t today, but I do know that it gives worth to everyone involved.
  4. Global conversations with global friends. Finally, one of my favorite parts of this entire trip was the may conversations I had with people from every corner of the world. Staying in hostels and going on group treks left me with friends from Brazil, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Canada. While observing all that Peru had to offer, we also had plenty of conversations about our own countries and their advantages and shortcomings. Getting an outsiders perspective on the American education system and Trump’s current presidency was a very enriching experience. It was even more enriching when you consider we were having such conversations while hiking through some of the prettiest mountains in the world. Sharing the journey with other observational traveller is one of the best parts of this kind of adventure.
  5. Getting dirty. You can’t do much observing from the comfort of a hotel room. This trip allowed me to fully embrace the joys of confusing grocery stores and jam-packed vans, but it also allowed me a real and true, up-close view of the country I was visiting. I wasn’t watching through a window, I was negotiating with taxi drivers and talking with the lady about her alpaca sweaters. Observational travel doesn’t mean ignoring the people, it means interacting without gifts or advice, just allowing yourself to live life alongside them.

Let me conclude by saying that this post isn’t written as an attack on mission trips or cruise ships. It’s just an attempt for me to reflect on my overwhelming thankfulness for this adventure I just experienced.

I know traveling isn’t easy or cheap, but if you ever get the chance to go…buy the plane ticket and the cheap hostel rooms, scramble along the mountain path, walk through the market, learn how to live in a new place, and look with wide eyes on the world in front of you. Its beyond worth it.

 

Rest

Rest is important, but rest is hard.

I’m coming off of a year with very little rest. Seriously, very little rest. We are talking about no more than 6 hours of sleep most nights, being with people from 7am to 12pm, taking classes and working and teaching. I was busy, but I was happy. I was also dreaming of rest.

Candles. Books. Finally enough sleep. Crafts. Friends. Rest.

I just graduated college. I’m home for a few weeks and I am sitting here amidst an abundance of rest. I’ve been reading and sleeping. I even started reupholstering a chair today (I’ve never done that before, but it sounded like a good idea and I have the time, so why not?). I’m doing anything and everything to fill my days with rest. But I am sitting here restless. I don’t like it.

Why do I feel the need to make my day busy with “restful” activities? Oh the irony.

Why is real rest so hard?

…Questions you ask yourself when you have the time.

Well I can tell you from my restful musings that rest is hard because we don’t really know how to do it. We live in a time that honors the busy, the achievers, the people who never waste a second of their day. I am a part of this. Side track for a second–I was in class a few months back and my professor said something along the lines of “I really am a better person when I’m busy.” That resonated with me. I truly do feel best when I am doing, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, especially if there is purpose in what we are doing (this makes me want to go into a whole other conversation on purpose, but I’ll save that for another day).

All of this being said, my point is this. While there is purpose in what we do, we must also realize that there is purpose in the rest that comes after doing. Sure, it’s easy to see the results of our doing, but rest is where some of the greatest changes can occur.

Times of rest are when we get the chance to reflect–to look deep into ourselves, to dive into beliefs, to dream, to reevaluate and work through things that we don’t like. Of course, reflection is rarely comfortable. It’s much easier to stay busy, to avoid thinking because thinking can be scary.

But it’s good.

Rest is what keeps priorities in check; busy schedules rarely do that. Rest has purpose and it also teaches us about our purpose. If we feel purposeless in the season of waiting, what then are we drawing our sense of purpose from? Things to think about.

So “embrace the rest” I say to my antsy, impatient, restless self. The rest I take now can only prepare me better for the joyfully busy seasons to come. The rest of now can only help me to see purpose in all the seasons.

 

 

All that YOU have done.

“When I look around…I am overwhelmed…by all that You have done.”

It’s funny how God likes to surprise remind you of how good he is. For example, at a cold, outdoor concert that you really had no plans of going to. As the performer sings out a simple verse of worship, “When I look around…I am overwhelmed…by all that You have done. When I look around…I am overwhelmed…by all that You have done.”

When I look around

Lee’s soccer field. Bright lights and a large temporary concert stage. Some apartment buildings. A sunset. Sweet friends. Strangers. Parents. High school students. College students. Hands lifted up. Eyes closed. Jesus.

I am overwhelmed…

How much this place means to me. How much these people mean to me. God’s presence and good work on this campus.

By all that You have done…

I am here. Why am I here? I didn’t want to come to this concert…four years ago I didn’t even want to come to this school. But I am here with hundreds and hundreds of friends and strangers praising the Lord at the place that I call home.

I stand here with a strong faith…full of questions and wonderings, but still trusting that God is good, that He is there, and that He knows me. I stand with my hands raised in an outward display of praise. I stand here recognizing the power and joy of communal worship. I am here, but without God I wouldn’t be.

By all that You have done…

I think back to the earlier stages of my Christian journey, to the times when I thought everything was meant to be private–doubts were meant to be battled alone, lifting up hands was embarrassing and awkward, talking about God was reserved for formal church gatherings, and praying out loud happened in church and before holiday meals.

I was raised in a Christian family, but a very private Christian family. We didn’t talk about God, not really. I learned that this thing called a “Christian walk” was meant to be your own journey, not something to be shared with others. Spirituality was for the individual. Reading the Bible was rare and in private. Prayer was in the space of your own bedroom. Sharing this with others was awkward.

[Let me take the time to insert here that my parents are wonderful people and they raised me so well. Looking back, I believe that their own experiences with church and spirituality led to this environment in our house. I believe they did the best they could with guiding me and my brother in our faith, and for that I am deeply thankful. But that is a different conversation, and maybe I’ll dive into it one day.]

By all that You have done…

Yet I am here, truly thankful for faith in community.

I look around me at all the people. For the first time, I truly ask the question, “Why am I here?”

The answer is Jesus, and before this time that never seemed a satisfactory answer. If I am being honest, I always thought that answering a question with “Jesus” was the Christian fake and easy answer for “I’m not really sure” or “I don’t want to tell the whole story.” But as I sang out again and again “by all that You have done”, I was positive that this time the answer was actually Jesus.

By all that You have done…

When I was younger, there wasn’t anyone in my house encouraging me to pray. There was no one telling me to read the Bible every day. There was no one telling me about how good God is.

But I did pray in the privacy of my own room. I did read my Bible. I did ask God questions. I did try to know Him. WHY? Why would a child do that on their own?

Jesus.

When I look around…I am overwhelmed…by all that You have done…

Truly overwhelmed. I see so clearly the image of God pulling little me closer. Putting in me a curiosity to read the Bible, to pray, to know Him more. Putting people in my life to guide me further.

I should not be on a soccer field, worshiping, at a school that puts such an emphasis on spirituality.

I should not have faith.

I should not be willing to share that faith with others.

On this soccer field, I am so overwhelmed and humbled and glad of your goodness. And I feel it so deeply. I am amazed and overwhelmed and thankful, that such a big God could captivate such a little child and bring her to such an amazing place. As I look around at this place and these people, I am reminded once again that You are good. And I know that I am here just because of all that You have done. 

[See picture of baby, freshman me above. It seemed appropriate.]

Repeat.

Wake up. Make coffee. Dress nice. Out the door. Drive to school. Teach some things. Home and friends. Lesson plans. Late to bed.

Repeat.

Weekend. Sleep some more. Friends. Rest. Breathe. Goes too quick.

Repeat. Repeat again.

How easy it is to get caught up in the busy, the obligations, the stress. How easy it is to go on autopilot. How easy it is to miss the little moments that really do matter so much. How easy it is to get stuck on repeat and lose passion and purpose that are so important.

This is my fifth full week of being a full time teacher (my seventh if we are counting the weeks that were broken up by seminars and spring break). I have slowly slipped into the cycle of repeat–each day is part of the checklist, each lesson something to get through, each sassy teenage comment another annoyance, each activity a responsibility. I wait for the weekend when I get to breathe a little and sleep a little and then I repeat.

Today didn’t go so well. When I walked into first period and prepared to greet my students, I found myself stalling for a few extra minutes just to not have to start the lesson. I lacked the passion that I had when I first started; the desire to give fun lessons that made language more than grammar; the hope to impact lives. It showed…I felt it and I bet my students did too. They definitely acted like it. I mean, if I’m standing in front of them bored they’re definitely going to be bored too. By the end of the day, I new something needed to change.

As soon as my last class ended, I went to the open door, took off my shoes, stepped on the grass, picked a flower, and took a deep breath. No more repeat.

Friends. It’s so important to break the pattern of repeat. It steals our joy and passion and we lose every opportunity to truly invest in the moment. We lose the chance to make our community, our lives better. We get tired and we completely lose track of our purpose. Instead, we need to be present in the moment we are living. Even more than that, we need to take time in our day and we need to appreciate the small things. Pick the flower. Look at the ladybug. Smile at the clouds.

Yes. The responsibilities remain, but that doesn’t mean they have to rule you.

For the record, soon after picking the flower one of the teachers said “You look so comfortable right now, but think about all the kids that spit on the grass out there!” I came inside and started lesson planning, but my heart was a little more joyful. Then, I went home, grabbed some good cold brew and a blanket, and sat in the sun for hours. I rested and I enjoyed the warmth and thought about how lucky I am for the life that I live. I thought about all the beauty around me. I broke the cycle of daily tasks.

No more repeat.

Language is…

LANGUAGE.

Language is…a graduation requirement.

Language is…something to boost your resume.

Language is…a job opportunity.

Language is…meant to be so much more.

I recently attended a conference  for Latin American and Iberian Studies, and the main speakers talked about the value of language. This wasn’t a new topic for me–I wouldn’t have spent my entire college career studying to teach Spanish if I didn’t believe it was important–but I still got chills when Emily Bricker said:

“When I tell people I was a Spanish major, the first question they always ask me is ‘So you speak Spanish?’…Yes. I speak Spanish, but that is not what is important to me. I can listen to and understand Spanish. I can listen to people’s stories in Spanish. That means more to me than being able to speak Spanish.”

Wow. I think we’ve missed the point of language.

To ask for things. To advance. To impress. No.

Language is the ability to listen. To listen in a way that demonstrates the truest form of hospitality–meeting and welcoming the stranger, listening to their story, welcoming them into your home through an exchange of words.

But we do not see language this way, because we live in a world that is resistant to the other. We are told that the other is too different and dangerous, and we learn very early on that we are better off keeping to ourselves. Little by little we start buying into that idea that we don’t really need relationships out of our people group; the others aren’t our responsibility after all. We start to learn they are just too different, and we would never understand each other anyway. No, it’s better to stay with what we know. We build our personal wall and we stay there.

But language. It breaks down walls and it connects people and cultures that shouldn’t be connected. I have seen it in action. I have watched high school students use broken language to make friends with people from a “dangerous” country. I have seen people realize that different isn’t so scary after all. I have witnessed the look of relief on an woman’s face upon realizing I could translate for her in the US customs line. I have seen adult’s eyes sparkle as they are finally able to share their stories and dreams in their heart language. I have felt the same joy and relief when someone was able to listen to me in my own heart language.

I have shared meals because of language. I have shared laughs because of language. I have made friendships because of language.

Language is…

Listening. Connection. Friendship. Love beyond borders.

And I sit here today and I think, how would the world be different if we could just latch on to this true purpose for language? What if we embraced differences and tried to connect? What if we replaced fear with wonder? What if we loved, regardless of skin or culture or stereotypes? What if we listened first?