Grief is a vehicle

I drive his 1985 Mercedes SEL on Sundays.

It feels right when I stop to consider that our shared faith was one of the more driving connections between the two of us, my grandfather– my “Papa”– and I.

When I felt the Lord tugging on my heart to follow Jesus to Alaska without rhyme or reason back in 2015, my family’s reactions were varied:

“Your getting too old not to settle down.”

“That lifestyle isn’t one for a respectable Hispanic woman.”

“You’re out of your damn mind.”

With him, it was different.

“Well kid, if that’s what you feel like He’s telling you to do, ya’damnsure better do it.”

Never one to mince words or be flustered by what his greater life experience had proven to be only a seasonal change, my grandfather was my sounding board, my strong backbone, and simultaneously the safest space my heart had for nearly twenty seven years.

Fifty two years ago, nearly three decades before I was even thought of, this man redefined the idea of family as I would one day inherit it. He and I never shared a bloodline, but rather became family through his choice to adopt my mother. With his quiet stability, he dared to interrupt a storyline and thereby changed the life of my mother, me, his “granddaurter”, and hopefully that of generations to come.

My dark features and string bean build may not emulate his sturdy German stock, but it’s unmistakable that my inability to sit still when music comes on is a trait of his I’ve carried in my body since he first enrolled me in piano lessons at the age of five and taught me how to tap my foot to the metronome atop his old piano.

After years of botched recitals and your standard small child temper tantrums, weekly piano lessons were abandoned and monthly jazz concerts took their place. The scratchy tulle of the dresses my mother would wrangle me into scraped the back of my legs and I would pretend to be far more irritated than I was. But there I would sit, in the second row of a jazz concert one Saturday a month, transfixed with the way the musicians’ fingers danced up their saxophones and across their basses. My Papa would close his eyes and drink it in, moving as many muscles as he could to dance in his seat without being noticed. But oh, how I noticed.

On Sundays such as this, I unlock his car and slide into the old burgundy leather seats. I run my fingers across his jazz tape collection and close my eyes for a moment before I drive. I can’t manage to get the old stereo to work to save my life, but some days in the silence as I drive, I swear I can hear him quietly humming Bucky Pizzerelli’s Stars in Your Eyes.

With every passing Sunday, I learn a little more deeply that maybe the grief that continues to come, even a year after losing my grandfather is just another vehicle. One constantly moving me closer to the heart of the One whom me grandfather taught me so much about, and imitated so well in word and deed.

So I wipe my tears and drive toward Jesus, just as my Papa taught me to do.

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A hyperbolic WebMD-esque perspective on homesickness. Also, Jesus.

My mind and heart have been at war Monday through Friday at approximately 6:45 am for the last three weeks.

You see, about five minutes into my morning drive to work, I have a choice to make: I could merge right, onto the I-70 on-ramp and head to Denver International Airport, or I could continue driving south down Wadsworth Boulevard to my classroom. Every morning thus far I’ve made the sane choice; I’ve gripped my coffee cup, exhaled, and driven past that on-ramp to the Street School.

But as I drive past the interstate and inevitably get stuck at the traffic light just past the on-ramp, I let the same daydream unfold in my mind every morning. In it I’m whipping my car around in traffic. I’m racing home, throwing everything I can fit into my biggest suitcase, throwing said suitcase into my car, peeling out of my driveway, and merging onto that on-ramp on my way back down the street. Forty-some minutes later in this fantasy, I’m abandoning my car in the departure lane at DIA, running to the ticket counter, and breathlessly requesting a ticket for the first flight I can catch to Alaska.

It’s become an everyday, conscious decision not to give in to my fantasies, pull onto that on-ramp, and spontaneously fly back to the little Alaskan village that captured my heart while simultaneously undoing everything about who I thought I was.

In all the times I’ve moved and all the places I’ve lived, I never really understood homesickness. In Alaska, I often said I was “people-sick”. I missed the people who held my heart here in Colorado– my family, my church, my DSS students– but I rarely missed the hubbub of city life or the bizarre-o hipster culture of Denver that I slide back into all too easily when I’m here.

But this homesickness for Alaska? It’s unshakeable. I miss my new-found best friends and my Gospel Community. The laid back culture. The “it’ll probably be fine” attitude that somehow seamlessly meshes with the tough Alaskan ingenuity that is essential for survival in the bush. I miss trail running in the mountains and having coffee with Jesus on the pebble beach in my backyard in the morning. I miss the simplicity of life and the canned moose that lined my pantry. I miss flying as pilot-in-command and as a passenger whenever mail runs to the next village down needed to be done…

This homesickness isn’t mild– no, it truly feels like an illness that started in my heart, infected my blood, and has made its way to my bones. In the hyperbolic metaphor and picture in my mind, there’s a WebMD site listing the side effects of my disease. It reads:

Homesickness

Homesickness is a disease plaguing disheveled in-transition missionaries, expats, and school-age summer campers alike. There is no known cure for homesickness, other than to “rub some dirt on it” and “suck it up”.

Symptoms can include:

  • Daydreaming. Excessively.
  • Staring at the roundtrip ticket’s worth of frequent flier miles in your Alaska Airlines account far too often.
  • All too realistic dreams in which you’re back in your little village. (These dreams may lead you to wake up in your actual location and irrationally sob into your pillow.)
  • Sensory overload leading to intense introversion…leading to more daydreaming. [Are you sensing a theme here yet?]
  • Struggling not to reminisce while having coffee with Jesus in your classroom instead of on the beach. (This may also lead to sobbing… It seems to depend on the day.)
  • Recalling only the beautiful events that occurred while living somewhere– not the situations that almost killed you.
  • Oh. And in some incredibly severe cases, death.

Yes, like I said, the metaphor is hyperbolic. But oh, does it seem to be a little less-than so some days.

Logically, I know I’m not going to die from this bout of homesickness, but sometimes the pain that shoots through my heart as I pass that on-ramp makes me wonder…

Why am I still so attached to the little one-square-mile of tundra in the scenic middle of nowhere called Port Alsworth and it’s two hundred inhabitants? Is this pain a sign that I will one day return to the Alaskan bush? Will this inability to keep my head out of the clouds lead me back behind a yok and into the sky as a missionary pilot someday? Will the dreams (day or night alike) ever stop? Will the jarring sense of transition ever quit? Or am I forever doomed to feel homesick and homeless all at the same time?

As I’ve sat at that stoplight morning after morning, wrestling to keep my steering wheel straight and my mind off the millions of questions buzzing in my brain, the Lord has continuously led my thoughts back to the book of Exodus. After all, what is Exodus if it’s not a story of being led into the wilderness and back out again?

As I sat, reading in the corner of one of my favorite coffee shops Sunday morning, it was as if for the first time in months, my homesick/daydream-y brain was able to make sense of scripture.

In the second chapter of Exodus, Moses has not yet come to save the Israelites from their famous slavery. In fact, he hasn’t even been called to “ministry” yet. Life is simply normal and hard, and both Moses and the people of Israel are feeling the weight of their circumstances.

“During [the days of the Israelite’s captivity in Egypt], the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25)

I can only imagine the Israelites were homesick. They wanted their old way of life back; they wanted normalcy and freedom. They groaned and cried out to God and scripture reminds us that He heard them. He remembered them in the midst of their sorrow and wrestling. He saw them. And above all, He knew what He was going to do with and through every single circumstance and trial.

As I read and reread those verses, oh, how my perspective on homesickness shifted. When I took the time to consider that in the midst of my wrestling and sadness, I am seen and loved and remembered by the Most High God… That He is the same God who knew and still knows what He is going to do in the lives of all of his children– in the lives of the Israelites thousands of years ago and in my life now in 2016 and beyond… It was a realization that somehow changed everything.

Sure, my heart is still hyper-aware that it doesn’t belong in Colorado, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it belongs in Alaska either… In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were created for another world.” 

I wasn’t created for Alaska or Colorado; I wasn’t created for this world anymore than you were. I was created to be with the One who hears me senselessly crying alone in my classroom when no one else does. I was created to be in perfect union with the God of my Fathers– the One Who remembers His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and makes good on them daily, thousands of years after their deaths.

In reality I know I’m not homesick for Alaska, even though I am. (What a fickle heart I have.) No, I’m homesick for my Jesus and for heaven– for that coming world where the perfection of Christ reigns and where I will be with Him. 

The scribbles in my journal from that little Denver coffee shop are simple (and poorly punctuated, but I digress).

My heart longs for you, alone, sweet Jesus. For Your stability. For my one true Home. To be in the presence of Your fullness. And I know that day will come because You are faithful and true. You are making all things new. And as it says in Exodus 2:25, You know. You know the depths of my conflicted heart, but also the complete and utter goodness of Your unfolding plan. 

I simply need to breathe through the illness and trust the words I so often say to my students in my best church lady voice… ‘Jesus knows, child…. Jesus knows…’ and ‘You probably won’t die…’

Because those promises are enough. Because You are enough. No matter the circumstances or my location.”

 

Do I know you?

This past week I had the honor and blessing of being able to see Carl Medearis speak at a Perspectives class near my house.

About half way through his lesson, he said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:

Several years back, Carl was given the opportunity to speak in a mosque in Lebanon. As he was walking up to the podium, the shah who was introducing him, tapped him on the shoulder and quickly asked him not to speak of Christianity, but simply of Jesus. (In our American-Christian minds, these two seem inseparable, but in most people’s realities, they’re not. Muslims believe that Jesus was a teacher and prophet, just as Christians believe that He is our Messiah and Savior.) So Carl chose to speak about Jesus as a teacher, sliding in tidbits about His life, love, and Ultimate Sacrifice on the cross as he went along.

At the end of his 45 minute time slot, Carl had run out of things to say. He had told all of the parables that he knew off the top of his head and was feeling stuck, so he tried to end his speech. But when he turned to walk away from the podium, he looked down to see the shah twirling his finger in midair, as if telling him to continue. “Continue? But my time is up…” He mouthed aghast, when a man stood out his seat and shouted, “YES! TWO MORE HOURS!” As he stood at the podium and stared out at the room packed with people, a murmuring of agreement went through the crowd.

This mosque full of men was so enthralled with the teachings of Jesus that they were begging him to continue. But Carl, internally panicking knowing that he was out of words, politely declined his half-request, half-command to continue, prayed, and walked off the stage, with his head hung low.

“I didn’t know anything else about Jesus. I was a “professional” Christian, a man who had given up everything in America to follow Jesus to the Middle East and I only had 45 minutes worth of knowledge about Him– My “Everything”, my Savior. I couldn’t believe it, and I knew that I never wanted to be in that position again.”

As I sat in my chair listening to him recount this story, I was stunned. My first thought? Oh my gosh, could I talk about Jesus for more than 45 minutes? Probably not. I’ve been a Christian for over 6 years, and I couldn’t even tell you more than maybe five of Jesus’ parables, at least not without butchering them. My second thought? AHHHHH! I’m about to give up the life that I love in Denver to go to school to (hopefully) become a Bible translator and I couldn’t even tell you more than five parables right now if you asked me to! Crap!

Hearing Carl talk about these things made me realize a third thing also… albeit later on in my week: I need to stop being a passive participant in my quiet times with God. How often do I read my Bible and think, “Wow, that was nice”, write about it in my journal, pray about it, and then not do anything further than that?

This Perspectives lesson reminded me that it’s not just the job of missionaries or seminary students to learn scripture. As Christians, we should be unable to function outside of the word and will of God. We should constantly be looking at scripture for guidance, and then committing that to our memory so that we can bless others with the words of God when they need it.

As Christians, we need to learn the teachings of our teacher and be able to talk about Jesus as if He really is our best friend, lover, and everything, like we say that He is.

I never want to be at the point again where I can’t think of more than five of Jesus’ parables, or where I doubt that I could talk for more than an hour about the things that I have seen God do in my life and the lives of those around me.

Never again do I want to doubt that I really “know” Jesus the way that I say I do.

(Also, Carl Medearis tells the above story much more eloquently in his book Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships. Check it out. It’s pretty rad.)

Tell me once again…

I am many things.

I’m a daughter, a student, a teacher, a friend, a sister, an auntie, a niece, and a cousin— just to name a few of the many positions that I fulfill in life.

This summer, I have had the privilege of bouncing back and forth between Colorado and California, focusing on the last two “jobs” on that list as I act as a live-in nanny for my aunt’s two-year old daughter Monica.

Staying out in the Bay Area again has been great. I’ve met new people, seen old friends from Berkeley, and have had amazing home cooked Mexican food and fresh fish for almost every meal. But most importantly, I’ve gotten to build a new layer into my relationship with my aunt.

Being the only two girls on my dad’s side of my family for nearly two decades, my aunt and I have always been very close. In fact, when I was a little kid, I essentially wanted to be my Aunt Vee when I “grew up”.

She has influenced every decision in my life from wanting to be a cheerleader in high school to where I applied for college to what NFL team I cheer for. (Raider Nation, baby! Sorry… couldn’t resist.)

When we’re together, my aunt and I always have a great time. But no matter how much I love my second home with her and her little family, I can’t help but feel a bit stressed out here.

You see, in Colorado I know exactly who I am. I have a routine. I have my job and friends. I even have a regular coffee shop where the owner knows exactly how I like my coffee (and occasionally my breakfast) made.

In Colorado, I’m someone’s teacher, someone’s intellectual equal, someone’s best friend.

But here, I’m just “Vee’s niece. You know, the tall one that used to have a cute Latina afro and little pink boots when she was three…”

Here I’m the bridge between two generations; not an adult in the eyes of my family, but certainly over qualified (and far too tall) to be considered a child by anyone’s standards.

I’m living in a weird flux state where I can’t quite figure out my identity in this new place. I don’t know if I’m coming or going, but I do know that this situation makes me want to get on the first plane and go back home to Colorado.

I know that retreating back to my comfort zone won’t do me any favors. I know that my identity is in (or should be in) my Heavenly Father, and not rooted in who I say I am or who my family views me as.

I know all of this, but I still have identity vertigo.

I’m well aware that I’m not the first, or only twenty-something-year-old to feel this way. But I want a definite answer about who I am, in every situation, not just at home. I want to take the control away from God and say “Look Buddy, I’m getting whiplash here. Just give me an answer before I lose my mind!”

And there in lies my problem. I am trying to discover who I am on my own… and in that process I am removing God. The same God who is the one true root of my identity; The one who knows me better than anyone, including my aunt or even my closest friends.

In the middle of my panic and vertigo, I am reminded…

I’m the one You love, that will be enough.”

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

~Isaiah 43:1

[Eat,] Pray, Love

Roughly three years ago, a book came out and seemed to (at least temporarily) revolutionize our static American culture. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was a gutsy self-help-esque book centered around the idea of “doing what you need to do to be happy”. (You know, standard “Oprah’s Book Club” stuff…)

On her journey to “finding herself” Elizabeth exposes her darkest secrets to her audience, and after ripping her own heart out and allowing it to bleed all over the pages for a while, she eats a lot of Italian food, takes a trip to India, and is suddenly able to sew herself back up, and viola! After a divorce, a family feud, and a few bad relationships, she is magically fixed!

Now, if you’re thinking that I sound skeptical, you would be 1,000% correct.

During the time that this book was all the rage, my life had essentially caught on fire and everything (and everyone) that I valued had either disappeared or had been removed for one reason or another. Everyone except the gentleman (hardly…) that I was dating at the time.

I was desperately seeking happiness and figured that if Elizabeth Gilbert was able to find happiness in her journey, that I might be able to get some happiness by proxy if I read her book.

I bought it, kept it in my purse, and struggled to enjoy the first third of the book. But there was simply nothing about her journey that seemed to bring me any joy; In fact, I only seemed to be slipping further down the rabbit hole of “blah”.

In an effort to speed up the process of rediscovering my happiness and myself, I decided to buy the movie when it came out on DVD (I’m an American, what can I say? Instant gratification is what we’re all about, right?). But even the movie put me to sleep– literally. I’ve tried to watch it on several occasions and have never made it past the second section when she’s in India.

For months and months, I continued to struggle to find some source of happiness. It wasn’t until I was given no other choice than to give up my comfortable lifestyle with my then-boy-toy and try to stand alone that I completely shattered.

If I was unhappy before the split, I was barely human after it. When my life had crumbled around me for the previous year, I had poured myself into making my relationship work. His friends became my friends. His interests became my interests. Heck, I even began reading the same books as him, simply so we would have some common ground amid our dysfunction.

After the break-up, I did the logical thing: I looked where society said that I would find happiness and I went after that. To my dismay, Eat, Pray, Love was still what the world was telling me would “fix me”. So I gave it another shot.

Pathetic and broken, I sat on my back patio and forced myself to re-read the book when this nifty quote jumped out at me for the first time:

“Moreover, I have boundary issues with men. Or maybe that’s not fair to say. To have issues with boundaries, one must have boundaries in the first place, right? But I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time—everything. If I love you, I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts (in every definition of the word), I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will project upon you all sorts of good qualities that you have never actually cultivated in yourself and I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check. I will give you all this and more, until I get so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover my energy is by becoming infatuated with someone else. I do not relay these facts about myself with pride, but this is how it’s always been.

Some time after I’d left my husband, I was at a party and a guy I barely knew said to me, “You know, you seem like a completely different person, now that you’re with this new boyfriend. You used to look like your husband, but now you look like David. You even dress like him and talk like him. You know how some people look like their dogs? I think maybe you always look like your men.”

It was like Elizabeth Gilbert was reading my mail!

I had become so much like all of the people around me that I literally lost “me”. Sitting in my backyard that day, I began to wonder who “I was” before I had gotten invested in all of the people in my life.

The first thought that came to my mind was “I was a follower of Christ” and the second thought almost made me sick to my stomach– “I was…”

I had been so busy following other people, tending to other people, trying to love other people (many against their will), that I had stopped following, loving, and pursuing Christ.

The years since that revelation have been rocky, but now as I sit here and think about my life, I can see that I have lost myself in someone once again… People think I’m crazy, but I am in love.

I am head over heels for my Creator and I am working everyday to give him everything that I have. My time, my devotion, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money [Sorry, Charlie], my dog’s time… I am working hard to ensure that all of it goes to furthering His Kingdom.

My previously non-existent boundaries still don’t really exist, but I care less about that now. I have a peace that passes all understanding. I have the joy that I was so desperately seeking in other people. I have a wonderful, flourishing relationship with Christ and through Him, I have found my worth and my joy again.

I’ve still never read, or seen Eat, Pray, Love all the way through (and I likely never will) but I’m grateful for the bizarre way that God used it to pull me back into my relationship with himself.

All of this to ask my question of the week:

When people look at you today, who do they see? Are you reflecting your spouse? Do you look like your dog? Or are you a mirror of your Father in Heaven?

Who have you lost yourself in? And are you happy with that decision?

~

 “I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.” (~Elizabeth Gilbert)

Maybe Elizabeth Gilbert was onto something there… It all sounds so familiar…

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~Romans 8:38

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you.” ~Deuteronomy 31:8

Need I go on?