Villablino

In January I had the privilege of traveling to Spain to teach a linguistics course in Villablino, León. I lived in Granada for one year while I was studying Spanish in university, and being in Spain felt like being home again. Nevertheless, Northern Spain has a very different culture from the South.

Villablino is a smaller mining town, nestled in the mountains and practically forgotten except by those who know it’s there. Skiing is the main attraction for outsiders; there are no must-see historic sites or ancient cathedrals. When I was there I couldn’t even find a postcard.

Yes dismissing the town would be a mistake. It’s a special mix of city and country; there are about four main streets with plenty of shops and stores, but it’s easy to wander out of the town and into the hills. Stone walls guard horses and donkeys, but I’ve seen sheep wandering freely on a deserted hillside road. A stork nests on top of the stone bell tower of a church. A particularly warm year, winter was an interesting mix of damp rainy days, warm sunshine, and heavy snowfall. The fate of backyard gardens would look grim if it were not for the hearty kale plants growing everywhere, their thick leaves a splash of green peeking out from under the snow.

When I was in university, I learned that Spain was home to four languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. The reality is far more complex with obscure little Romance languages scattered throughout the Northern mountains, isolation and time creating a perfect recipe for linguistic variation. The Laciana valley (where Villablino is located) is home to a language called Pachueso. Essentially moribund (linguistic speak for “practically dead”), there are next to no native speakers, only those who attempt to keep it alive through classes, public readings, songs, and conversations. It is sometimes sprinkled into the Spanish here in surprising ways. The majority of the cafés in Villablino have their open/closed signs in Pachueso instead of Spanish. My upstairs neighbor speaks it, and I had the privilege of listening to him read a story in the language. The story had a particularly rustic theme; it was about a boy who got chased up a tree by a wild boar and ended up arriving home late at night and being locked out. When my neighbor read the story, it seemed similar to Spanish, but not quite intelligible. It sounded as old as the mountains, a forgotten language that rolled off his tongue like water from a hidden spring.

Although the weather was unpredictable, it was generally cold and I was grateful for our heating system in the apartment. We had a coal stove. That’s right. Coal. Since Villablino is a mining town, coal is a relatively cheap resource and has been used to heat houses in the Laciana valley for years. It takes some maintenance. Hauling coal from the basement to the apartment in buckets every couple of days, scraping the grate from below daily so that it wouldn’t get clogged with ashes, emptying the fallen ashes once a week, and—if the fire happened to die—restarting it with newspaper and wood before adding more coal. It was labor-intensive, but I liked it. I felt like I was taking part of a tradition far more interesting and rich than simply pushing a button on a thermostat.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Spain feel like home to me. I have lived abroad in other places for just as long or longer without having the same feeling. And despite having never been to Villablino and knowing no one before arriving, it still felt like home right away.

I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching linguistics in Spanish. It was a small class, but the students were eager to learn. I taught an introductory grammar course, covering the basics of morphology and syntax. The best part for me was investing in the students and seeing them grow in their linguistic skills. At the beginning of the course they did not know what morphemes were, and by the end they were writing grammar descriptions. These are students who are interested in serving across the world in linguistics, literacy and Bible translation. It will be exciting to see where they end up. I like thinking about how God brings people together for a certain time or season and then scatters them across the world. Yet the connection and the impact everyone has had on each other remain.

It was an intense time, as it was my first time teaching my own class. There was a steep learning curve for preparing materials and exercises, outlining lesson plans, writing and grading exams, and balancing all of that with day-to-day life. I taught three hours a day, five days a week, and did all my prep work and grading in the afternoons and evenings. Add processing everything in my second language to the mix, and it’s no wonder I was tired at the end of the day. But at no point during the course was I so stressed that I regretted coming, and although I was exhausted after several weeks of this rhythm, I always felt like it was worth the effort. I lit up when I got to explain complex ideas or when I tried to show how beautiful language could be. It was a great fit, and I hope to be back.

And now my life seems full of contrasts. There was snow on the ground when I left, but now I am sticky from the humidity in Cameroon. I felt so comfortable and confident in Spanish, and now I am speaking halting French, trying to remember the syllables that have become rusty from disuse. There are more transitions down the road, but I will enjoy the bright moments and thank God for His provision and His dreams for me, far better than what I could think up on my own.

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The Things We Carry

When I was younger I was enchanted with the idea of having a personal library. I would frequent used book stores, hunting for the perfect prize for my collection. I amassed several bookcases of tomes, mostly novels, and was content to whittle the hours away reading and writing.

University slowed my pleasure-reading habits to a crawl, as there was always something else to be doing that was seemingly more important. While my reading faltered, my book collecting did not. I picked up books here and there, convinced I would read them later. My shelves grew, and dust collected.

I gradually became cognizant of the fact that I was becoming more in love with possessing books than reading them. I would read the occasional story and set it proudly on the shelf like a trophy. My bookshelves were not just furniture; they were an extension of myself, my tastes and interests displayed for the world to see.

Then I moved away and left my books behind.

And somehow, strangely enough, I began to read again. I found the English section in the public library, and a small international library with books in hundreds of languages. In the cold winter months, I had a break from classes and more time on my hands than usual. The words kept me company and I flipped through story after story.

I discovered Hemingway, which is quite possibly the start of a long, literary love affair. I’ve read two of his books and am starting a third, all of them borrowed. None will sit on my shelf at the end of the day as a physical reminder of what I’ve read.

But I own them. Not in the sense of property, but I own these stories because they have moved me and stayed with me even though weeks have passed since I closed the covers. In reading them once, I’ve placed them forever where age and mildew cannot touch their pages.

And now I realize I would rather own few books and read many instead of owning many books and reading few.

The sickness of ownership extends far beyond books. When I was in Santa Cruz, California, I walked along the famous West Cliff Drive. Stunning ocean views and multi-million dollar houses. People pay big to own their little view of the beach. And while I may not have access to that view every day like the West Cliff-ites, there is a path that wends its way along the street where anyone can look out over the water. I love the Pacific and I love Santa Cruz. I have a piece of it, not in deed or on paper, but as a part of me.

I am surprised at North American culture’s obsession about ownership, as if owning something is a prerequisite to enjoying it. If something is not our private property, the sharing somehow sullies the wonder of the object in question. The problem is that the focus is shifted and we no longer care about what we are owning so long as it is ours.

But there is a freedom in letting something pass through our fingers. Because who can take away what we don’t really have? Or perhaps more accurately, we have hidden what we love, cached it away in a secret place where it remains and where no one can take it away.

This year has been a process of losing all my repères, my landmarks, my points of reference. God has been stripping away everything I used to depend on so that all that remains is Himself. And I am beginning to realize afresh and all over again that His presence is the only constant in my life.

The truth is when I feel adrift, He is unchanging. My emotional state has no impact on His holiness. And His presence is something that can never be taken away from me. It is through this lens that I realize I am richest through what I do not actually own. And what I cannot possess paradoxically becomes mine in a way that is not physical, but no less real; always there, ever-present, and packed safely away in the things we carry.

“At either of those places…”

“At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you part of something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, Ch. 18

Lessons Along the Way

Recently I was talking with a friend about life lessons she had learned while traveling through South America. Hearing how her journeys shaped her into who she is today was a beautiful story. I know I could tell similar ones, and I love the idea of looking at place as a sort of classroom to learn the lessons we need.

Spain taught me a lot about courage. It was my first time abroad by myself, and bravery was a necessity to survive in another country. Canada taught me about living in the present. I learned that while future plans were helpful, life was happening right under my nose and wasn’t waiting for anything. There were many other lessons, of course, some too personal to post here. But what intrigues me is how I don’t always understand the lessons as I am learning them. Hindsight tends to bring clarity. So while I can’t say definitively what Switzerland is teaching me right now, I know that in spite of all the highs and lows–or maybe because of them–living abroad is still a great classroom.

I could go on about the advantages and drawbacks. However, what seems to be true regardless is how living abroad brings me to the end of myself much more quickly than if I were in a place where everything is familiar. It forces me to depend on God in a way that might not happen if I felt like everything was under my control. And living in a another country shows us how quickly we are not in control: of our own cultural assumptions, of finding our way; even our tongues betray us as we struggle with the local language. It is in this lack of control where we can finally begin to learn.

I measure my life in countries and years. But these are just specific ways to look at seasons of life, where we learn something about who we are and who God is. The key is to look back every once in a while, to realize we have not come here overnight, and to see what each season has taught us.

The Cross and the Crown

When I first started playing guitar, there was pain. My fingertips were soft and unaccustomed to the metal strings digging into my flesh. I couldn’t play for more than ten minutes at a time before needing to take a break. Eventually, the callouses developed and I could play beautiful music.

When I leave for a new place, I have to say goodbye to friends and family. Something tears inside of me and I find that I can’t even process what it means to leave until I am somewhere else and they are not at my side. But in leaving the familiar, I build my home in a new place and gain something beautiful that could never have been attained had I not left.

I do not yet understand why pain must be woven into the fabric of our lives before we can attain glory. But it seems that anything worth having does not come cheap. There is effort involved, struggle and sorrow. I don’t understand, not yet. But I am fascinated by the story of Jesus.

In the book of Colossians, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.” Jesus came to make known what we could not see and be Immanuel, God with us. If He had not come into the world, I think I would always view God as a God who is distant. Wise and powerful, perhaps even loving, but always distant and removed.

Jesus showed us that is not the case. He came down into our messiness, into our grief and sorrow. He experienced our pain. I can’t even begin to say how significant that is for me. The above examples of pain are trivial. Often times there is no clear answer or means of redemption. Sometimes we are still left waiting.

It is in this waiting period that I believe we can come to know God in a different way than before. It is excruciatingly difficult to reconcile God’s love for us with the pain in the world. We wonder why He doesn’t demonstrate His love for us by taking our pain away. But in a twist that is made possible only in an upside-down Kingdom, He shows His love for us in a different way: instead of taking away our pain, He shares it, taking it upon Himself.

Many today might reject God on the grounds of pain and suffering in the world. I cannot pretend to have an answer to justify the existence of torment and trouble, of sickness and sorrow. It doesn’t make sense to me either. But I take comfort in two things. One is that our indignation at pain suggests that life was not always this way, and that perhaps it isn’t meant to be like it is now. Two is that no matter what happens in the world, I cannot reject God on the grounds of the existence of pain and suffering. It might be easy to do so, except for the fact that He knows loneliness. He knows grief. He knows betrayal, physical anguish, and even death.

He shares in our humanity and offers us immortality.

Light in Our Darkness

If you’re living in the States, Thanksgiving is coming soon, normally signaling the clear break for when we can pull out our Christmas decorations and start preparing for the season. But I have a confession to make: I’ve been playing Christmas carols since early November (maybe even very late October).

I know some people have strict rules about the order of holidays, but when you live abroad in a place where Halloween isn’t a big deal and Thanksgiving doesn’t exist, the separation between fall and winter gets blurred. The cold days are short, the nights are long, and you need some Christmas spirit to come a little early.

Thankfully, the city has obliged and has started putting up lights over the streets and garlands around the fountains. But the pretty decorations are not why I celebrate.

Christmas is gritty. We don’t like to think about that though; think about the tree! the tinsel! But the first Christmas was not like that. I celebrate Christmas for the birth of Jesus. For those who believe that Jesus is Lord, He is the light in our darkness, the Savior of the world who was born to die.

I love nativity scenes, and one year, I saw one with a cross placed just above where Jesus lay. When I saw it, it was shocking, but absolutely appropriate. There was a star above the manger, shepherds who came to worship, angels who sang, but surely there was still the shadow of the cross.

Jesus’ birth is more than just a nice story; He came into the darkness of our world to proclaim freedom for the captives and the year of our Lord’s favor. He started a movement that turned the world’s hierarchy on its head. And He came to die for us. Along with gold and frankincense came myrrh, a resin used for preparing bodies. It’s almost as if the bearer of this gift knew what would happen.

But Christmas is also full of hope; it means that we are no longer enslaved, that God has come to dwell with us, and that the One who said “Let there be light” has made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory. The fact that God came to pierce our darkness with His light is something worth celebrating.

The true light has come into the world, and we can rejoice over that any time of the year.

Psalm 139:1-10

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

Strangers and Foreigners

I have been asked by countless people in the last few weeks how I am feeling about leaving soon. At first I don’t know how to respond, how to convey the mix of emotions that comes from turning my life upside down. For as excited as I am about living in a new place, this is exactly what moving feels like. I will be packing everything I can into a suitcase, grabbing my guitar and heading to a new country where I will speak a new language, perhaps quite badly at first. But I know that time will help improve both my adjustment and language skills.

It feels like a nomadic thing to do. Instead of heaping everything into a truck I’m taking only what I can carry. I have always been a fan of traveling light. But this time feels different from the other times I have gone abroad, and the goodbyes are ripping something out of my chest each time I say them, so much so that I’ve settled for the “See you later” cop-out. And I still don’t know what specifically is causing me to be unsettled. Maybe it’s the lack of a return date, or maybe I am finally internalizing the truth that “home” is a relative concept, and not just because I move around a lot.

For those who follow Jesus, we sometimes forget that we are never truly “home.” Listen to how the writer of Hebrews commended the early heroes of the faith. These were people who chose to follow God despite not being able to see the results of their obedience. They lived by faith even until death, “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

I’m comforted by this state of being a stranger and foreigner, because I think it is the only thing that could make sense given the state of our world. Even if we choose a place to be our “home,” does it do anything to quench the longing inside of us for a better place without fear and without sorrow, or to be somewhere where we never have to say goodbye? I am looking forward to the days when goodbyes will be no more, when we will shake off sorrow like a bad dream and not remember what it is to be afraid. I am holding out hope for the city promised to me, one teeming with people from all nations, languages, and cultures who stand unashamed in the presence of God.

As for that restlessness I feel, the unease and the sense that everything in the world is not as it should be, these feelings remind me that I am on a journey and that I’m not home yet.

 

Psalm 145

I have been working on memorizing Psalm 145. I especially love this Psalm because of the focus on declaring what God has done in our lives and telling the next generation of his faithfulness.

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord is faithful in all his words
and kind in all his works.
The Lord upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord preserves all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.

On faith and missing pieces

There is a feeling of deep relief and joy after finishing something so big and consuming that you didn’t even realize how much it was hanging over your head.

Today I received my acceptance letter from the school I will be attending in Switzerland for French study. It was the missing puzzle piece to my visa paperwork that I needed before I could submit the packet to the consulate. After receiving the letter, I gave my printer a workout, fixing two paper jams and almost running out of paper. Then began the mad scramble to compile everything, double and triple checking the requirements, and racing to send my precious packet away.

And I am so grateful.

Originally when asking about my application, I was told I would receive an answer sometime next week. Two days later I get my letter. It had taken them less time than anticipated, they told me. But I could feel the hand of God in the process, pulling the loose threads together. One thing this leave-my-home-and-follow-Him process has been teaching me is that God is faithful and trustworthy. There are times when I don’t always believe it, but I am seeing it more and more. He does not forsake His children.

I am so excited about my classes at the university: to have time to intensively study a language (and for that to be the only goal) is a dream come true. I will have the chance to learn, to explore. I will soak up the language and culture through my skin to understand the rhythms and movements of a brand new place.

All of these are great reasons to go. But today I realized another one. I want to see–perhaps for the first time–where giving everything to God and trusting Him with my whole life will take me. I want to tell stories of His faithfulness and bind them around my wrist to remind me of what He has done.