This post is part of Andrea Lucado’s series, “Notes to Your Younger Self,” celebrating the release of her new book, English Lessons. It’s an honour to be part of it; this is a note to myself when I was in the middle years of university. At the end of this post, there are details about a fun book giveaway, so read on and find out how you can enter. You can also read this post at Andrea’s blog.
It was a solid concrete mass of a highway that got you there. Straight on Highway 412, a right onto Holly Street and then a slight left on West University Avenue. On the left across from the cathedral is a graveyard. Concrete tombstones dotted the green field, there were trees and a gravel path that wove between the plots. You went there to run and to think, brown and red leaves crunching under your feet in the autumn and frozen air burning up your lungs in the winter. It was a quiet place for your thoughts. No one would know about the fear, the anxieties, the despair. The graveyard was almost always empty.

University started when you were 19, a Sri Lankan missionary kid from the Philippines. Your mother hugged you goodbye on the concrete pavement in front of the women’s dorm, and you walked inside, into an American life on a small, Christian campus. There were daily classes, the all-you-can drink soda machines in the cafeteria, shopping at Wal-Mart and chapel services twice a week.

It has taken us 12 years since graduation to begin unraveling the space between the days.

Your life was going to be a mistake-free, dead straight road, heading in one direction. Jesus, heaven, peace. Was that the destination? There were visible off ramps and some detour signs, but you couldn’t possibly take a break from the straight road. If you did, you were lost with no way back. Your certainty was your security.

I see your fears, the ones that keep you inside the four walls of your dorm room. You’re afraid of making a mistake, of failing, you’re afraid of sin. Earning your way into belonging and love is the only way to satisfy your fears, but you can’t cope with the work it involves. So you wait through it. There is an unknown world of culture and calling right outside the door, and you don’t know how to navigate it. You think that by living less, by limiting your decisions, by staying safe you will keep yourself away from the unknown towns on the side of the highway.

One day you get off the straight Arkansas road, fly to the far side of the sea, travel around the world. You get married, you have children, and as the days tick over, you fight to live.

But I need you to know that there are so many mistakes, so many failures, and sin that so easily entangles, and I’m sorry, but this is life.

It is full of darkness.

You learned to fear the things that seemed big, so you stayed away from a second drink and didn’t date, but no one told you that selfishness breeds loneliness and pride only leads to destruction and your years can waste away in bitterness. You have no idea how much you will struggle to be truly honest with the man you love, how easy it is to lie about the small things, how easy it will be to not keep your word. You will not always be honest with friends, you will play a role you were not supposed to fill, and when you can’t take it anymore, you will run away from expectations you cannot meet. You will fail so many people.

Darkness will wrestle with you. It will not win, but it will be there. It has to be there. You cannot know the light until you’ve sat in the darkness.

There is a life waiting outside the highway. It will often look like a wilderness, but someone else is there. Did God grab hold of you? Did you grab hold of him? Theologians spend centuries debating how it works, and all you know is that you don’t know, but you are not in the wilderness alone.

His love and his truth remake you away from the straight road, in your mistakes and failures and sins, he is working.

It looks like asking for forgiveness. Often. You will have to learn how to belong to friends, community, husband and family, and learning how to belong to people when you make mistakes is a painful, beautiful lesson in grace. You learn that you don’t have to trust everyone, that building a friendship takes time. Endings become comfortable, you know now that not all things, not all people, not all relationships last forever.

I need you to know that the mistakes and failures lead to redemption and hope – this is the long road of wisdom and experience that you cannot see in a fall and spring semester. But when you turn around and look at the decades, you see the dead things made new, the ashes turning into beauty. It takes time for the spirit of despair to become a garment of praise.

So go ahead and live. Take the back roads and the tree-lined boulevards. Skip on gravel paths, fly down the autobahn, you cannot get lost because you don’t travel alone. He is leading you home.

Notes to Younger self growing up

Fun giveaway time!! I’ve got two copies of English Lessons to giveaway to anyone living in the US, and one copy for someone in Australia (apologies to those in Europe and Asia!). The giveaway is open until Friday, June 9.

To enter: Just leave a comment on this post and tell me, what’s one thing you would go back and say to your younger self? Please also indicate if you are in the US or Australia.

Update: The giveaway is closed, and the winners have been notified. Thanks!

autumn leaves in melbourne australia

Autumn in Melbourne has been a few months of beauty and hard. March was probably the hardest month I’ve had in years, and it’s taken a few weeks to recover, but I am always, always amazed at the richness found in the seasons of difficulty. It becomes fuel for the seasons to come. Here’s what I learned in Autumn 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.

I want to live in Melbourne. Maybe forever. 

It’s too long a story to share here, but we had to deal with some administrative paperwork related to my husband’s Australian visa this autumn. Having to stare in the face the reality that living in Australia together is not guaranteed is the first time I realized there is nowhere in the world I would rather live than Melbourne. I guess you don’t know what you want until it feels like someone is going to take that away.

Take away social media, add in something else.

I went off social media for Lent, and it was not nearly as restful as my previous social media sabbaticals have been. Instead of surfing Facebook and Instagram, I watched Stephen Colbert’s Late Show monologues every day, I started watching The Crown and SeaChange (an Australian drama from the late 90s). What I learned: Media is easy to consume. Whatever that media may be.

Homemade hot cross buns are a thing of wonder. 

Easter morning was insanely delicious. No need to elaborate.

Music makes miserable moments a bit better. 

Hubby started making playlists, and he finds the best music, and one of my kids is calmed magically by tunes, the other one is obsessed with playing DJ. We have music on most  mornings, evenings and afternoons now via Spotify, and it has been a delight. Music has been bringing tears to my eyes, levity to difficult moments and dance party fun. Some of my current favourites are Stay Alive, Fools Gold, and for something sassy, Hey, Soul Sister.

Don’t just say yes to a project. 

I said yes to a writing project without thinking too much about whether or not I could write it. Saying “Yes” was easy, I was flattered, it involved a contract and pay, but when I got to writing, I felt out of my depth in a way that I did not expect. The deadlines were around some of the personally darkest weeks of the autumn season as well, I could not have anticipated that, but I wonder what would have happened if I had actually sat down, weighed the work and seen. Can I do this? Am I supposed to do this? I won’t be taking on another writing project without having a strong sense of “Yes” to those two questions.

Fidget spinners are a big deal. 

Oh my word. I think this toy initiated us into the “there are cool and not cool toys” stage of having children. My son received so many gifts for his birthday, but the favourite without a doubt – a small triangular shaped piece of metal that spins. And I learned to swallow my fears and just say it. God is good. He gives good things.

I love keeping track of what I’m learning, and thanks to Emily P. Freeman, there’s a place where it can be shared. Head over to her blog to read other great posts about what we’ve been learning and share your own story as well.

fidget spinners

One of my sons had a birthday last week, and our neighbour brought him over a gift while he was sleeping. When he saw it the next morning, his brown eyes ignited, the smile stretched across his face as he excitedly talked about finally owning his very own fidget spinner.

For the uninitiated here’s my best fidget-spinner explanation: It’s a piece of metal somehow connected at the centre, and the blades spin fast. This is apparently a source of endless fascination for children, or at the very least, a good source of income for toymakers.

But for my son, this red, white and blue piece of metal is something else entirely. He leaned over to me and whispered in awe, I’ve been wishing for one of these, Mommy. 

Wanting to understand what he meant, I prodded. He had never asked us for one. This was my first time to hear of it. Fidget spinners, it turns out, are a popular commodity at school. Several of the boys in his class have them, he’s been watching them for weeks and the seed of desire grew in his heart. Even though he didn’t tell us, he wanted one.

See, I smiled at him, God knows – but the words stuck in my throat, silencing me. I started talking without thinking, and I could feel grown-up fear fighting the words back down.

You can’t tell him that God gives him what he wants, what if he grows up thinking he’s entitled to whatever he wishes for.

He can’t remember the days without end, and the answers were always, always, “No.”  You can’t tempt him to believe otherwise.

You can’t teach him to expect good things when you know bad things are always around the corner.

But I ran my fingers through his brown hair, looked in his eyes, and pressed into territory that feels dangerous and somehow wild and unknown.

God knows what you want before you even say it, I said, he loves giving you good things. 

 

A small postscript: I have not done much research into fidget spinners, but I appreciated the thoughts in this article, “What the fidget spinners fad reveals about disability discrimination.” It’s well worth the read, we all need to be more sensitive, knowledgeable and helpful toward adults and children in our lives whose minds are different from ours.

When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines. 

The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it. 

We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night. 

To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road. 

Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane. 

To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.

Continue reading at GraceTable

When February starts, I feel a deep settling in, a sense of, “Here we go.” They say our birthday is the day we entered the world, but I think our lifetimes mark days when we are reborn. February holds most of my beginnings.

On February 4, 2009 I boarded an EasyJet flight from London to Geneva, Switzerland. I was in the middle of my trip around the world and about to head into the one part of the trip that was totally unknown. Most people who travel do it for the sense of adventure, the longing to see new places and meet new people, being in an unknown European city would be a dream, but I still don’t know why I did it. I’m a homebody and an introvert, and I had no interest in Switzerland. If I was going somewhere in Europe, I would have gone to Italy, Greece or Spain, the places that fascinated me from my history textbooks.

My bank account was running low, and the Australian dollar was crashing, and I didn’t want to have to figure things out for myself. I wanted to be somewhere where someone else was taking care of me and telling me what to do.

So why was I in Geneva? The answer is one of those awkward “Christianese” responses, but it is the truth. God told me to go.

When I share this story, most people fixate on the God telling me part. How? They ask. That is amazing, they exclaim, How did you know for sure?

But for me the fascinating part isn’t that God told me. It is that I went. And to unwind that story, I have to take you back to Northwest Arkansas in 2003 and my friend Amber.

She has brown hair and brown eyes, and in those early university years, something was happening to her. What I remember her talking about was how God would talk to her, in prayer, through the Bible, but also just prompt her to pull over and talk to the person walking on the road and other things. She wasn’t telling me about who God had told her to marry or what she was going to do with her life. She told me about the person she stopped to encourage, the moments when she sensed she was supposed to go and do something that didn’t make sense and the conviction in her spirit of the things that she was supposed to do differently.

Maybe it was because she was a “dependable” Southern Baptist and not a “crazy” Pentecostal that I trusted what was happening in her life, maybe it was because I knew her and loved her and could see first hand the transformation. Listening led to obedience, hearing led to action, and I witnessed a slow deepening of love in her heart for the things of God, it unlatched freedom in her life, and I watched, captivated by the life of adventure unfolding in her life.

I knew I wanted what she had.

After Christmas break in the drive back to my townhouse room, I decided 2003 was the year I was going to start listening to God. I didn’t set an alarm and depended on the Holy Spirit to wake me up for class (he didn’t, I started setting an alarm again). I could tell you lots of crazy stories, clothing I threw out, music I deleted from my computer, and the many other zealous signs of youthful passion. I could tell you about reading Isaiah 61 and memorising those words, Beauty for ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, oak of righteousness a planting of God, and holding on to those promises to get me out of a period of depression.

Maybe you smiled, maybe you rolled your eyes, but I can tell you that 2003 is the year when God became my friend, it was the year the words in my Bible started to live inside of me. There was a trust unfolding in my soul as we talked through each day, the knowledge that God would never leave and that I could expect his hand to be faithful. 

It is difficult to obey someone you don’t trust, but the more I listened, the stronger his voice grew, the more familiar it sounded. It called me home, slowly redefining my identity, shaping my beliefs, creating a space in my life that was both terrifying and tender, sacred and funny. And slowly obedience became easier.

So much easier that when it made no sense at all to fly to a small town in Switzerland, I did it.

I often wonder what I would say about Geneva if I never met the man who became my husband five days into that two-week February visit. 

I think I would say that learning to listen to God and do what he says has been one of the sweetest, most frightening experiences of my life; that you cannot predict how it will go; that obedience is both painful and lovely; that you will wonder if you hear right and you will question yourself; that there is grace abundant for each moment and each day.

For the girl wandering around Lake Geneva in a coat that wasn’t warm enough and for you today, I would say, You can trust him, and it is worth it. You will never regret saying yes to God. 

I’m linking up with Amy Peterson today with this story. Amy wrote a beautiful book, Dangerous Territory. I read this memoir in a few days, the writing is solid and meaningful, the story is compelling. For anyone who works overseas in a ministry context, this book will give you language for the many stressors and complexities of missionary work. For anyone in a western country, this book will give you words for your own desire for a meaningful life and the broken ways we can create that for ourselves. I highly recommend it.