This is How We Survive the Winter

winter

This is how I survive winter:

I run on the treadmill in the basement until the sweat runs down my face and the endorphins kick into my slogging bloodstream and make me feel temporarily euphoric. I make kale smoothies and put heavy lotion on my hands and binge-watch Hallmark movies and, if it’s not too cold, walk the dog around the block.

I survive the winter with extra Vitamin D pills prescribed by my doctor, which I pick up at the pharmacy along with my antidepressants. I use a special light box for a half hour every morning. I cut back on Diet Coke in case aspartame really does contribute to depression like they say. I try to drink more water.

I know that this time of year is dangerous for me. I am prone here, more than any other time, to give in to the pull of depression. So instead, I listen to the thump of my feet against the treadmill and feel the end of my ponytail brush against my shoulder blades. I hold my two beautiful sons close and look long at their faces…and this is how I survive the winter.

flash cards

Today we rode the bus up into the mountains of Amasia where it is still very much winter. I wore two pairs of socks and my snow boots, and still my toes went cold as I walked with our group up steep slopes toward small homes there.

I could not stop staring at the mothers. They were my age. Had we grown up in the same town, we would have gone to high school together. I suppose I should have expected this, but the last time I was on a trip like this, I was seventeen. The last time I stood in front of families like these, motherhood was worlds away, and the women seemed positively old. Today they seem young, young, young. Too young for the hard life they are living.

The second woman we met, Margarita, had fire in her eyes and a missing front tooth and two boys almost the same ages as my own. When we walked into the house, a nature program was showing on the tiny box-television in the corner, and it almost took my breath away, because this is what my boys would be watching too, if they were here. On the wall, there were flash cards carefully arranged in a row, and I thought instantly of the Word Bird full of “sight words” stuck to the wall of my own house in Minnesota.

This is how she survives the winter:

She shovels wood or cow chips into the furnace to warm the room, and then she hunkers down in it with her family. She hauls in the water and warms it on the stove. Then she rolls dough and flips it onto the oven one piece at a time until she has ninety pieces of traditional Armenian bread, which she’ll keep in the back room in a large green pot and use sparingly throughout the week. She’ll holler at her boys to stay out of that room, because the snow is growing wet and heavy on the roof and the whole thing could cave at any moment.

The lambs in the pen outside her house — these will help her survive, as will the work her husband did last summer, collecting grass from the nearby hills for hay. She hangs the wash on the line to dry in the cold; she rations out the last of the canned fruit and vegetables, refuses to cry over the ones that have gone sour. She hangs lace curtains over the cracked window panes and watches as they brush up against the crumbling concrete, letting in the light.

She holds her two beautiful sons close and looks long at their faces, and this is how she survives the winter.

margarita

Here is the temptation of the cross-cultural experience. Here is the cliched, obvious, immediate response:

Look how small my problems are in light of their BIG GIGANTIC PROBLEMS! Look how much I have! I should feel lucky! I should be more grateful!

Compare, contrast.

“Real” hardships versus “first world problems.”

Them and us and guilt, guilt, guilt.

And while it’s an understandable response, I don’t think it’s a helpful one. Not for the strong, beautiful woman in the house with the lace curtains. Not for the strong suburban woman who keeps getting on that treadmill every long winter day.

Instead of comparing, let’s just admit it out loud to ourselves and each other: winter is hard.

The snow stretches into the distance and your toes grow numb in your boots, and we’re all just trying to keep walking. Just trying to make it through.

In the middle room of Margarita’s house, her oldest son, Tigran sits down to do his homework. She reaches across the table to help as we watch. She lets us take photos of her son as he bends over his words, a deep scar on his head visible just above his ear. She lets us see the broken windows, the laundry hanging, the sheep in the pen, the places they sleep. She takes us to the back room with the caving roof and shows us her last two cans of wild pears.

And I think as we follow her that this is how we survive winter: we let each other in.

We choose to open up the rooms of our hearts with all of their struggles and issues and to allow ourselves to be seen. And also, we choose to take a step into the unfamiliar rooms of others’ lives and to sit quietly, listen, take it all in, bear witness.

We huddle together around the stove, surrounded by the endless hills of white. We pass the bread, slice the cheese, wait it out together.

details

Today, two of the members of our team were so moved by the stories of these families, that they chose to sponsor a child right there, on the spot. (My family sponsored a child before I came, and I’ll get to meet him tomorrow.)

If you’re on the fence, I can tell you right now — it makes a difference. And there is so much need. I’ll tell you more about it as the week goes on, but in the meantime, click here to learn more or to find a child to sponsor.

Light a Candle, Plant a Tree

yerevan

This morning, I lit candles in the Church of St. Etchmiatsin — the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The oldest cathedral (according to Wikipedia) in the world.

The sanctuary was under construction. The whole place smelled of sawdust and paint, and men climbed on high ladders, banging around in the ancient rafters of this old place of worship. At the alter, a large tapestry hung heavy with the scene of Gregory the Illuminator receiving a vision: Christ descending from the clouds with a golden hammer, telling him where to build the church.

Other than those tiny white tapers we get every year at the Christmas Eve service that spill wax down your fingers while you sing “Silent Night,” I have never lit a candle in church before. It’s not something we practiced in my tradition of guitar-studded worship songs and inspirational topical sermons. But today I stood in the silence of that dark, ancient annex, and I lit candles for two of my dear friends.

I stood there for a long time, thinking about my friends, remembering their suffering, watching the candles crowded together, burning down to wax in the sand and water. At the other end of the alter, an Armenian priest worked slowly, raking the burnt-out candle nubs gently out of the water with his fingers.

Outside the church, seminary men in black cassocks talked on flip-phones. Old men sat on benches in black newsboy caps, watching us as we walked — awkward and foreign and snapping picture after picture with our iPhones. But inside, my two small candles burned alongside dozens of others — the light flickering on long after we have left the courtyard, passed the beggar woman with the dried pomegranates, and boarded the bus.

candles 2

This afternoon, I laid flowers next to the Armenian Genocide Memorial.

It is a simple, breathtaking concrete structure at the top of a hill overlooking Yerevan. Inside, there is an eternal flame surrounded by pillars where people come to pay their respects, and we lay our cut flowers alongside them in a ring around the fire. From somewhere above, an Armenian lullaby rolled on an endless loop.

This April, the Armenian people will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of that genocide, and most of the memorial’s museum is closed now to prepare for that event. Still, a young woman with tall black boots and sad eyes walked us around a small room of display cases and told us about the day the men were sent away, the day the Intellectuals were executed, the day the women and children were marched off to die in the desert.

Under the glass, there were photographs of emaciated children and portraits of famous strangers. Newspaper clippings in the looping unfamiliar Armenian alphabet. The covers of several old memoirs — stories of survivors.

At the end of her presentation, the girl tells us that 22 countries recognize the Armenian genocide — and while 43 individual states also recognize the atrocities as a genocide, the United States as a nation does not. She says it, and then she looks at us for a long moment. She lets it rest upon us as we stand there, surrounded by the black-and-white horrors of history, clutching our backpack straps and purses.

Outside the Memorial, a tall concrete pillar stabs the underbelly of the gray sky, and there are rows and rows of pine trees. Each one, our guide tells us, is planted by a dignitary from another country when he or she visits. A small act of solidarity. A remembrance.

I notice that there is one from the state of California not far from the pine tree planted by Italy. Rows and row of sharp green memory lining the edge of that eternal flame.

eternal flame

At the end of my first day, my mind is churning, overfull of mixed-up facts about Armenian history and culture and food and language. Try as I might, I can’t seem to remember the world for Hello, so I just keep smiling dumbly at strangers.

But what stands out as clear and haunting as the St. Etchmiatsin bells is the importance of actively recognizing and remembering each other’s sorrows.

This is what the candles I lit in that old church were about. It’s what the cut flowers and the pine trees and the memorials and the photos are about.

It’s saying: This happened. It is real. It matters. 

Tonight, I started to read through the stories of the families we will meet this week in the poorest communities of Armenia. I got halfway through the second one before I was hastily pawing at my tears at the end of the dinner table, trying to get it under control. What can I do in the face of so much suffering?

But then, it’s simple isn’t it? As simple as a flickering candle. As simple as a small, growing pine.

Bear witness.

Recognize the pain. Look it straight in the eye. Honor it, but also, recognize that it’s only part of the story — that there is beauty and strength and hope and love.

Remember. Do not stop remembering.

Plant a tree. Light a candle. Take the hand of one small child.

*

I don’t know what this week in Gyumri will hold, but I know that on the bus ride here, I could see Mount Ararat. It was only the faintest shadow at the edge of fields of snow and rubble. For the Armenian people, is a symbol of hope and pride. History and pain and loss.

And really, what is there to do in the face of something so breathtakingly insurmountable except crane your neck out the window and stare at it? Bear witness.

Watch the mountain disappear in and out of sight as the road bends and curves. Imprint it on your mind as best you can. Watch it fade softer and softer in the white sky until finally, you’ve arrived at your next destination.

ararat

Halfway to Armenia

airplane

On the day I left for Armenia, I pulled the boys out of school and took them to McDonalds for hot chocolate…and then to Chuck E. Cheese to play bright-and-noisy arcade games and hug that creepy rat. I suppose it was yesterday, technically, but sitting in the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris, time is starting to bleed together like watercolors on tissue paper.

I spent the morning getting weepy at the oddest moments — as they rode around in circles on the tiny carousel, as Liam chucked balls down the wrong ski-ball lanes, as Dane grinned in the photo-booth, arm swung around a plastic Chuck E. Cheese. Every now and then, my tender-hearted oldest sidled up to me to squeeze my hand or give me a kiss. “I’m gonna miss you Mom,” he said, more for me than for him, so aware of the anxiety and emotional turmoil I’ve been feeling the last few days.

It was hard to drop them off at a friend’s front door and kiss them goodbye. So much harder than I expected to board a plane headed halfway around the world — nearly 6000 miles away from my family.

Once I was a sixteen-year-old girl with wings on her feet, and I thought the suburbs were too small, too inconsequential, too boring to be worth much of anything. But lately, I’ve been on a journey into the smallness of my own life — each year, the circles of my world getting tinier.

This one small church. That Walmart greeter. These neighbors. This barista. These two blonde-haired-boys and their Daddy.

I have a 9×13 pan with that Mother Teresa quote — Small things with great love — etched on the cover. It was a Christmas gift from my next door neighbor, and it’s perfect since I’m learning the simple beauty of loving others one hot-dish, one cup of coffee, one church-lobby-hug at a time. This girl who once thought she was meant to go, go, go has fallen in love with staying. I am rooted deep in the unlikely Minnesota soil, spread bare and shivering in the winter world I live in, yet still, amazingly, alive — expanding into it all a little more every year.

When I tell you that this trip is “out of my comfort zone,” I mean that I’m sitting at gate L31 at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, half-drowned in the enormity of the world. The accents, the languages — a million people, an infinite number of stories, all of our small circles intersecting into some abstract painting that I can’t understand.

I’m halfway to Armenia, and when I say that I’m afraid, it’s because I know that when you choose to open up the tiny circles of your life, there is so much you have to take in. Pain and chaos and joy and sorrow. Poverty and beauty. All of the things you cannot change. All of the things that you can.

Out the airplane window last night (this morning?), I watched the sun dip out of sight in Minnesota and then rise again over a landscape of clouds in France. I sat there with my paper cup of coffee feeling so out of context — a single word ripped from the paragraph of my life.

I hope that the word is love.

The chairs at Gate L31 are hard against my back. The carpet is red striped, and there is a Playstation Lounge next to us from which the varied sounds of video games come tearing through the air.

I’m waiting for the rest of the team, waiting for the flight to board, waiting for Armenia and God and courage and love. Waiting for my heart to split open like the morning sky.

Armenia Bloggers 2015

3 Things We Need to Stop Saying to Youth Group Kids

photo credit: MercyMe via photopin (license)

photo credit: MercyMe via photopin (license)

A month or two ago, I stumbled upon a televised version of the Acquire the Fire conference on some obscure Christian channel on cable. This was the conference that I attended every year as a high school student, the conference that deeply informed the way I understood and lived my faith.

I couldn’t believe it was on TV. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there, watching it.

In the opening segment, Ron Luce sits with a very young (and slightly starstruck) reporter. The President of Teen Mania Ministries has gained weight and his hair has grayed a bit at the top, but he’s still the same person I remember from all those years of Acquire the Fire conferences.

The theme of this year’s ATF is “Epic Truth.” The reporter asks Ron Luce questions about today’s youth, and Ron blames comedians and sitcoms for the rise of “new atheism” and then awkwardly injects Katy Perry into the conversation. “I know her parents well,” he says. Then he gives a little pitch for the Honor’s Academy: “It’s like Red Bull for your walk with God,” he says, and he flashes that white-toothed grin at the camera.

Red Bull. Epic Truth. Acquire. The. Fire. Big words. Charged words Fighting words.

I fast forward through the first speaker until I get to the skit being acted out on stage by Teen Mania interns. The skit, which will run through the entire conference, is about a new Christian kid named Travis who suddenly finds himself being “persecuted” by his former friends at school. “I am Travis, and my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” he narrates. “I have to be more than full of heart. I’ve got to be headstrong.”

The skit takes place in Travis’ brain, which we come to understand because the booth at the center of the stage is labeled Cortex. The character labeled “Conviction” has curly hair and rides around the stage on a Segway saying pompous things like, “I’ve been stirring in Travis for some time, and today is the day he’s going to do something about it.”

Off to stage right, two girls with bows in their hair play the part of “Free Will,” smacking nonexistent gum, speaking in tandem, and acting the parody of a ditzy cheerleader.

On the giant video screens flanking the stage, bits of the story unfold: we see Travis’s ex-friends creating a YouTube video, mocking Travis and his faith with a puppet show about how much Christians suck.

In Travis’ brain-skit, someone says, “I really want to transition into pride right now. I really want to flip some tables!”

The YouTube video sparks a school-hallway argument that escalates quickly until Travis is heard shouting, “SHUT YOUR LIE-HOLE, ALEX!!” (This is an actual quote. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Suddenly, an antagonistic teacher enters the scene, and the hall goes quiet. With pursed lips, she tells Travis and his ex-friends that they will settle their differences over a debate about whether Christianity is true. “You have one class period to polish,” she says haughtily to New-Christian Travis, who she clearly doesn’t like. “You’d better get to the library.”

“Definitely a liberal,” someone in Travis’ brain-skit mumbles.

One of my kids cries from upstairs in bed, and I stop the recording. By the time I get back down, I don’t have the heart to watch anymore. I meant to get far enough to hear what Ron Luce has to say to today’s youth, but I’ve heard enough.

Fifteen years later, it’s all exactly the same.

*

After my first book came out — that memoir, documenting my own somewhat toxic evangelical youth — people kept asking me, “What should we be doing different;y with our teens?” I always stood there, blinking at that question. I still don’t really know, and I’ve been around the whole thing long enough to know that there’s no formula. No exact equation.

Teen Mania’s approach has always tended toward the extreme end of the spectrum, but it does makes me worry about the messages we’re communicating to our youth still today.

Here are a three undercurrents that stuck out to me as I watched a little bit of Acquire the Fire this year — three things that I think we need to strike from youth group curriculum, conferences, and talks.

1. Your classmates/peers/friends/teachers are going to persecute you for your faith.

One of the recurrent themes in my Christian youth was the pressure to stay strong for God around peers and teachers who, I was told, would be antagonistic toward my beliefs. So many talks and sermons and rally-sessions wrapped tight around this topic, constricting my chest with the urgency of knowing how to accurately and compellingly disseminate the specifics of the Christian faith to others…even if they mocked me for it.

I spent the duration of junior high and high school braced against the entire student body, sure that they secretly mocked/hated/despised me. I wore Christian t-shirts like some kind of bullet-proof vest. I memorized all of the brilliant apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity in case any teacher or student ever cornered me in the hall and forced me to debate my faith.

But here’s the thing. No one ever did.

What actually happened is that I distanced myself from everyone who didn’t believe like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me — it was that I had barred my arms in an eternal defensive pose, and no one could even get close. So after a while, they stopped trying.

I understand that there are places in the world where persecution exists. I know that, particularly in light of current events, it’s  is not something to take lightly. But the American cultural climate, right now, is not violent toward Christians. We are not being beheaded, here, for our faith. And despite the popularity of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead, I’d argue that 99% of teachers are not in it to shatter students’ faith. And yes — kids can be cruel. But, in the land of first-world problems, it’s usually not about anything quite as noble as religious beliefs.

I’d love to see youth pastors and teachers who refuse to play into that “Us” and “Them” paradigm. Who encourage, instead, their students to understand that we are all so much the same. Complicated and quirky and broken and beloved. Afraid and brave. Tactless at some points, impossibly kind at others.

I’d love to see a more compassionate approach — toward both the Christian student and her friends. Listen, they might not understand your faith, and there’s a chance that confusion might come out sideways. But they are still the same person they always were. Instead of teaching our kids that Jesus is something that we have and they don’t, let’s teach them to look for the bright image of God in each person that crosses their paths.

2. Your friends’ salvation hinges on how well you can defend the Gospel.

In this stage of their faith, kids tend to ignore conflict and inconsistencies in their beliefs…simply because they’re not equipped, yet, to deal with those complexities. (See Fowler and Peck’s Stages of Spiritual Development.)

This is normal, and okay. It’s an essential stage of their faith development. But when we combine it with the urgent, heavy responsibility to witness to their friends and bring revival to their schools, we’re inadvertently creating an atmosphere in which cliches, trite answers, and Christian t-shirts pass for “evangelism.”

Let’s start by telling them this instead: You can’t save anyone.

Jesus is the Savior, and we are not. We might get to play some small role in the redemption narrative of someone else, but if we do, it won’t be because we’ve got the perfect defense or memorized the right Scriptures or read the right books.

Instead of teaching our youth group kids six different ways to explain “the Romans Road” to their friends, let’s take this time we have with them to show them Jesus. Let’s do it not so that they’ll have a perfect defense when someone asks about their faith…but simply because he is unfathomably beautiful, because his love is so deep that we cannot see the bottom.

Later, when they begin to grapple with the inconsistencies and the doubts and the hard things in their faith…it won’t be trite answers that see them through. It will be that single glimpse they’ve gotten of the beauty of God. It will be the muscle memory of having dived deep into something real. And if and when their friends question them about their faith, it won’t be about showing them a diagram. It will be about showing them Jesus.

3. You have to do something to make a difference for God.

Youth group kids are so often pulsing with possibility, wild with hope and optimism, immortal in their chests. They want to do BIG THINGS, and if they’ve grown up privileged and loved and safe, they might even still believe that they can.

It’s natural to want to tap into that desire — to show them that faith itself can be exciting and extraordinary and dangerous and beautiful.

But at the same time, what we don’t need is a bunch of kids hopped up on a kind of Red-Bull-faith — over-caffeinated and overtired and then, finally, crashing into the ground. I belonged to a generation of on fire kids who careened like fireworks through the dark world and then burned out. We don’t need that either.

The Christian walk is a long journey — so often mundane and difficult, putting one foot in front of another — seeing nothing, feeling nothing. And linking faith with extraordinary actions and extraordinary feelings makes it so much harder for us when we slam into the inevitable ordinary.

YES — let’s get excited with our kids about their dreams. Let’s encourage their passion and their hearts. But also, let’s make sure that underneath that, we are offering a steady drumbeat of timeless truth.

You can’t do anything to make God love you more.

You can’t do anything to make God love you less.

You are already enough.

God is already doing amazing things through you — even if it all feels hopelessly average.

*

I didn’t watch the rest of the Acquire the Fire conference. Who knows? Maybe Travis figured out that his teacher is just a woman with a husband who just said he’s leaving and two grown kids she has to tell somehow.

Maybe he’ll blink a couple of times and realize that Alex is still the same guy he used to hunt frogs with after school as a kid, and he’ll say, “I don’t want to debate faith today. Let’s go play basketball.”

Maybe he’ll learn that he does not, in fact, have to be “headstrong.” That all God ever wanted was his heart.

I doubt it. But maybe. And maybe if not him? Maybe the rest of them — the glowing, immortal kids sitting in youth group rooms all across the country. Loved by God . Loved by us.