Prodigal Daughter

Snapchat-1412695388Honesty usually comes easily to me, but telling this story has not.

I think many of us can relate — my brothers and sisters who grew up in the church, in Christian families, steeped in good doctrine and surrounded by friends in the faith. It’s hard to admit that we’ve fallen away.

I never thought I would willingly walk away. I’m an obsessive rule-follower. My skirts go to the knee. I still address adults as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ The only tattoo I have is a Czech phrase taken from the statue of a martyred reformer which stood in the village I lived in while serving as a missionary associate for two years. Both my parents play visible roles in the Christian community, so if ever there was a poster child for what a good Christian young adult should look like, I was it.

For the greater part of my life, I could honestly say that, though I have struggled in aspects of my Christian walk, my faith has never wavered. Not once.

I cannot say that anymore.

When I lived in Prague, I commonly hosted friends and acquaintances who were meandering their way through Central Europe. Kids I knew in high school, people from church, some of my brother’s friends from college — the routine was the same: we’d meet up, I’d show them the city, and sometime between the hot coffee or the spiced wine and the sweeping views of majestic castles and steeple spires, we’d talk about God.

I had never felt closer to my Maker. It was clear I was where he wanted me to be, serving him in a beautiful place with people I fell in love with so quickly. I had purpose, I had contentment, and I had joy, and on the other side of the world from the community I grew up in, I felt none of the pressures of singleness or job security or social status. I could feel God in everything, and even though it was by no means a simple two years, his presence was so tangible and his provision so evident that I felt refreshed and revitalized daily.

But many of my friends were struggling. They didn’t feel connected to God or the faith of their parents. They were afraid to let people in their church know they had doubts. They were afraid to tell their families. They felt like hypocrites and many of them were considering leaving the faith altogether because, like an Irish goodbye, it would be easier to slip away unnoticed than to cause a very public, very humiliating stir in the community. You can only pretend for so long.

At the time, I didn’t understand. I told them that they should talk to someone, seek accountability, pray, draw near to God. After all, I had a great relationship with the Lord, so clearly, it could be done. It was all so clinical to me, someone who had never been through a spiritual drought.

One summer, in Prague, a Christian friend and I were discussing the story of the prodigal son. I never really liked that story because I always related to the older brother who stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to do. It seemed unfair that some Christians should have a better welcome into the fold just because they had a better conversion story. Sitting on the steps of the garden, surrounded by plump tomatoes and the stillness of the muggy afternoon, my friend insisted that I was misunderstanding the point of the story — we are all the prodigal son.

“The sons represent the elect, not the unsaved,” he said, as hot summer thunder clouds boiled over our heads. “Both sons are already children of God, but one walks away for a while — and, at some point, so will we all. The older son represents the Christians who are still leaning on their own works to win their inheritance, not realizing that everything the father has is already theirs.”

I didn’t fully agree with him, mostly because I still felt like the older brother. I had never walked away. I never planned on walking away. What a stupid thing to do.

But the point is that neither son understands the father’s love — one does what is right out of obligation and not out of gratitude for the father’s generosity, and the other assumes that he can return and earn his forgiveness by working in his father’s house as a servant. They both believe their inheritance depends upon their own merit. Yet the father treats both his foolish sons the same way, with unconditional love.

What a father. What a God.

But I think I left a lot of my relationship with God in Prague.

Almost immediately upon returning to San Diego, I was swept up into college and work and making new plans for the future.

And I was lost. There were no road signs from God, no clear direction. In a lot of ways, I felt like he had just backed away completely, like he didn’t need me anymore now that my time in Prague was done.

My Bible reading was the first to go. It was followed closely by poor decisions at school.

I wasn’t making bad decisions — I’m the rule-follower, remember? But they were worldly choices, things that drew me away from the Lord rather than to him. And, like the prodigal son, as I began to recognize the trouble I was getting myself into — especially as I felt myself falling away from the Lord, I assumed I could work my way out of it. I could do it on my own. I could earn my faith back.

Small sins became habitual, big sins began appearing.

It amazes me, looking back at the last two years, to see how God sustained and protected me, despite moments where I consciously decided to step onto a path that I knew would lead me away from the God who carried me through my time in Prague, the God for whom I went to Prague in the first place, the God who was feeling farther and farther away from me every day.

There could have been so many devastating earthly consequences to my actions, and yet there were none. It both emboldened and embittered me.

Rebellion is not a characteristic I would have associated with myself, but this was full-on, unapologetic revolt. I wanted to see how far I could push myself down the wrong path before something went really wrong. If I hadn’t witnessed the progression, I would never have recognized the person I had become — a person that was still parading around as a put-together Christian, leading youth group events and explaining to my non-Christian friends that “my faith is everything to me.”

What a lie.

A few months ago, I realized just how hallow those words felt coming out of my mouth. I came home from work late one night, sat on the floor and desperately opened my Bible, like someone who has been walking aimlessly for years only to wake up one day and realize they are hopelessly lost and need a map.

But it had been a long time since I had sincerely searched Scripture and I didn’t know where to start. I had a devotional tucked in the back cover of my Bible, so I pulled it out and read the first page. A voice in my head interpreted every line with bitter, cynical mockery. It was a voice I had never heard before — certainly not mine! I loved the Lord, I loved his Word, I believed that this was the Truth, so where had this voice come from?

I closed the book and tried to pray only to find my heart empty of words and my mind doubting that my prayers would find a listener. God wasn’t there. He was gone. I had walked so far away, he had disappeared entirely from view. For the first time in my life, I found myself cut off from my Savior.

I was alone.

Suddenly, I understood what my friends travelling through Prague were going through. I had both consciously and unconsciously let myself be pulled away from the faith, through wordly priorities and the cultivation of destructive patterns, by starving myself of Scripture and prayer. I was sickened by myself. I was a hypocrite, drenched in sins that had grown to consume my life, separated from God.

And worst of all, I really wasn’t sure if God existed at all. Sin I knew I could be forgiven of, but if there was no God, then there was no hope and no purpose. The world as I knew it was wrong and everyone I loved and trusted was a fool. I was a fool.

Falling through the next two days like a wounded animal searching for water, I questioned everything. What if God had just been a figment of my imagination for all these years? What if I had been brainwashed by a group of narrow-minded people who were believing a lie? What if these mountains I always assumed belonged to the hand of a Brilliant Designer were in fact merely the product of billions of years of evolutionary change? There was no God and I had no reason to be here. Right and wrong did not exist. Purpose, irrelevant.

Those were agonizing days.

In hindsight, it strikes me that even the shame of my sin was swallowed by the fear of a life without God — that is the true devastation of disobedience, after all, the original consequence to sin: separation for our Creator.

In that initial moment of despair, the night I found I couldn’t pray, I had two options.

The first option, of course, would have been to give in to the despair and walk away for good. In so many ways, it would have been easier. I was so far into the world already, and I desperately wanted what it offered — status, opportunities, fun, romance and relationships I had not been able to enjoy yet.

I thank God that he gave me the grace to choose the second option.

Crying on the floor, unable to even look at my Bible, writhing in the physical pain of my spiritual loss, with the clock on my wall blinking just past one o’clock in the morning, I picked up my phone and sent three text messages.

One message to three friends, and they all responded before morning with verses and prayers and promises to meet up. And for the next three weeks, they were God’s living witnesses, displaying through their actions his faithfulness, his kindness, his mercy, his strength, his love. And they held me tightly with arms, like His, that would not let me go.

One friend met up with me in person multiple times — a half hour before work, a quick cup of coffee at the end of the day to pray and read Scripture together. She sent me articles to read and told me to meet up with godly people at my church to broaden my circle of accountability and seek out the wisdom of our elders (which I did, and it was equally difficult and rewarding).

One friend sent me Scripture verses, almost daily. He challenged my doubts and questioned my devotional habits with unbending tough-love. It was uncomfortable and humbling, and I needed it.

The other friend — my prayer warrior — messaged me daily, “How are you doing? I’m praying for you.”

And slowly, slowly I started to find the pathway home.

God still felt far away, but I was reading Scripture every day, I was actively fighting the sin that had built up in my life, and I was praying again. I was drawing near to God — toddling closer with the clumsy steps of someone learning to walk for the first time. And this time I understood what was hanging in the balance.

For the first time in my life, I truly understood what grace was. I understood why we refer to our Christian walk as the ‘good fight’ — because it is a fight. It is spiritual warfare that we must consciously engage in, and we must win. And only by the grace of God will we.

The good news, of course, is that for those of us who do don the armor of God, the fight has already been won, our souls purchased by the blood of the Son of God himself.

I share this story, not because I am proud of any of it — not the fall from grace, nor even the return, for it was not my doing, but the Lord’s.

I share because I know I am not alone. I know that those of us who grew up in the church will one day be put to the test, if we haven’t already, and I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight either. The body of Christ, fellow saints and believers are struggling too, and they are here to pick us up as we stumble — in sin, in doubt, in fear, in grief, in loss.

It is easy for Christians to pretend that we do not stumble, to waltz into church on Sunday in our best clothes, singing with our loudest voices, while hiding the sin and hurt and pain that is welling up inside of us.

The facade of the perfect Christian will kill the church.

If you assume that the people sitting next to you have never struggled with temptations, never failed in their walk with the Lord, never doubted their faith or their assurance, how likely are you to share your own struggles with them? And if we do not confess to each other, we cannot build each other back up. We cannot edify and heal the body, so it will rot.

God uses a broken church to work out his sovereign grace, which means we need to swallow our pride, face our shame, and ask our brothers and sisters for help.

I share this story in order to shatter my own self-crafted image as a poster child for the Christian community — me, the missionary associate, the youth leader, the camp counselor, the school evangelist, the Christian blogger or whatever false idea exists about who I am and who I am not.

I am a sinner, ransomed and redeemed, lost and found.

I share this story so that you, too, might share yours with those who need to hear it or those who can help you through the battle, to the glory of God.

The story of the prodigal son isn’t about the sons, you see, it is about the father. It is about his faithfulness — and how great it is! New every morning, with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

I realize now what it means to be the lost sheep — all those years in Sunday school learning the story, and I finally understand how it feels to walk away from the pasture, how it feels to be scared and alone and wonder if you’ll ever find your way back, how it feels to be wrapped in the tender arms of the Shepherd and brought back to the fold.

So, I share this story because I want you to feel this too. I want you to know that our God is so good to us. That his grace is sweet and his mercy is free. That you are his forever. That, even though the road home can look long and feel empty, you will not be walking it alone. Christ will be shepherding your footsteps all the way, until you reach the end and find our Heavenly Father waiting to receive you with open arms.

confessions of a ragdoll athlete

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

The sad thing is, my season was over before it ever really began. It all started with that stupid hamstring injury I got while doing off-season training on my own in Europe last summer — born out of my enthusiasm to begin something new and my unquenchable desire to be good at it. The story about how I ran myself through Central Europe with starry-eyed dreams of coming home ready to take my place as a cross country champion, or at least a contender, has been told before. But the story doesn’t end with me sitting alone on a hillside in Southern California after the season’s final race, shouldering the immense disappointment of unsalvageable failure.

In fact, if I had known then how much farther my quest for success would take me, and who it would turn me into, I would have taken a much deeper breath that afternoon and braced myself for the longest, most grueling seven months of my entire life.

Coach was the first one to suggest I consider track in the spring. He kept saying, “With those long legs of yours, maybe I’ll stick you in the steeplechase.” At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t planning on doing track. Real life beckoned.

But I’m nothing if not extremely competitive and, as I’ve said a thousand times, I compete to win. So when I realized that these silly injuries had robbed me of a proper competitive season in cross country, I decided that perhaps a season of track would be good for me. I needed to do it. I just didn’t feel like I had finished yet.

So, all Christmas I trained with Coach and a handful of dedicated athletes who, like me, were determined to begin the season with one foot already in the blocks. And, just like the summer, I found my holiday season disappearing into a rigorous practice schedule. The day before Christmas Eve and the morning after Christmas itself, I was out on the field with Coach and the gang. (Christmas Eve I spent stuck on the couch because the lactic acid build-up in my thighs was so intense I literally couldn’t move).

And the practices weren’t easy. I’d run myself stiff on the field and then walk over to the weight room, nauseous and weak, and begin lifting. Deadlifts, hang cleans, and other various forms of addictive torture became a regular part of life, as did protein shakes, balanced meals and 64 ounces of water daily(ish).

IMG_20170310_145402When the season officially began in January, I was ready to go. A 59.59 quarter mile, making State Championships — my goals were set, as usual, unachievably high. But I wasn’t worried, because now I was used to pain. I knew I could push past that barrier in my head that said it was too hard. I had mastered the little voice that says it’s okay to quit. I was ready to put in whatever was needed and there was nothing standing between me and that medal podium.

And then it all unraveled.

It started out innocently enough. The deltoid muscle in my ankle tightened one day during the second week of school while I was practicing 650 meter repeats with the distance kids. I couldn’t finish the last few laps and the distance coach sent me to the trainers. During that all-too familiar walk across the parking lot from an uncompleted practice to the trainers, I prayed, God, please don’t let this be like last semester. Please don’t let me spend a whole season injured and on the bench again. I worked so hard all of Christmas break and I really want a chance to win this time.

Screenshot_2017-03-04-23-28-52A few days after the deltoid, I pulled my quad. It only kept me out of practice for a week or so, but I had to wear a sleeve and now I was spending extra time at the trainers before practice to get my ankle wrapped and do rehab on my leg. Moreover, the quad injury forced me to switch lead legs going over the hurdles. It was a death sentence for my season, I just didn’t know it yet.

“Back again?” Dennis and Stacey would ask every time I hobbled in on weak legs with a weak smile. “You’re just a regular humpty-dumpty, aren’t you? We’re just going to have to tape you together entirely one of these days.”

When we began practicing at the Olympic Training Center on a real track, I found myself jumping real hurdles and all the excitement was just a little too much for my right shin, which began a regular habit of lapsing into splintering pain midway through each warm-up. Once the quad injury forced me to lead with the right leg, I found myself careening over hurdles and thudding to the ground on a splintering shin.

So now my stunts at the trainers included taking care of my shins and popping 800 milligrams of ibuprofen before practice to curb the pain and inflammation.

None of this I minded — I loved spending time at the trainers because they are kind, interesting people with super cool, space-agey gadgets that do the most incredible things to help the human body. No, the problem was that I finished work at noon and practice started at one o’clock, which meant I had only an hour to get to school, change for practice and still get a substantive workout at the trainers. So, I was usually late for practice.

But I also had class at three every day, which meant, either I lost time at the front and back end of practice or I was late for class as well.

My level of respect for student athletes has multiplied a hundredfold in the last year. That needs to be said. What these kids are able to balance is amazing.

IMG_20170202_162406I was doing a decent enough job managing the stress of trying to be in four places at once, all things considered. But, even though my times were getting better little by little, I was frustrated that I seemed to be missing out on getting a full practice in. As the realities of being an injured student-athlete who also has to pay bills began to sink in, so did the nagging spirits of doubt. Maybe it’s not true that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Maybe sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or your body just physically does not have what it takes, or the window of possibility has closed already. The more time I spent on a table at the trainers, knowing I was missing warm-ups again, the more keenly I felt my chances at State slipping away. And with our first meet a week away and my quad still wrapped in a sleeve and mounds of tape wound around my ankle, the fear that this season might actually be just as frustrating as the last one tightened its grip.

So then, my prayer changed — God, please just let me compete this year. Even if I don’t win anything, please just let me compete.

And, for reasons that I would question for the next nine weeks, God said, “No.”

Halfway through our second meet of the season, immediately following my 400 meter race — a nerve-wracking thrill of an experience in which I distinctly placed dead last — my shins began their usual song of shrilly-sung misery.

“It’s really bad,” I told a teammate as we laced up for our next event — hurdles.

“Everyone gets shin splints,” she said. “You’ve just got to muscle through it.”

And it’s true. Most of the athletes on the team have complained about shin splints at some point this season. So I put my spikes on and I finished my last race of the day.

Fullscreen capture 5112017 103335 PM.bmpI wish I had known then that it would be my last hurdle race of the season. I wish I could have savored the feeling of soaring into the air, moving forward with purpose and poise, and the rush of my heart as we careened around the track. But I didn’t. I was too busy trying not to come in last place, worrying about whether Coach would be disappointed if I got a bad time.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. On Monday the trainers told me to get my shin x-rayed and I spent a week doing my workouts in a pool so I wouldn’t be putting weight on my leg. I limped around campus until Friday when the doctor saw me and immediately put me in a boot.

“We’ll check on it again in about two weeks,” he said, giving me the number for a physical therapy place to call. The prescription said, “Twice a week, five weeks.”

Five weeks put us into April and dangerously close to the end of our season.

When I told Coach, he folded his arms and sighed. I think he knew then what he never once said to me: my season was finished.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

I was quiet for a minute. What did I want to do? I wanted to rewind to the first week of January when I was still hurdling pain-free. I wanted to go back to sprint workouts in December, the heaving and hurting and harried breath. I wanted to run.

“The doctor said I can do javelin if it doesn’t irritate the leg.”

Coach just nodded. “OK,” he said. “But I want you to keep doing your pool workouts.”

I promised I would.

So that was that. Now, I began my mornings extra early, heading to the gym to practice sprints in the pool before work, then hurrying to the trainers before javelin practice, and hitting the gym again in the evenings after class to get an upper body workout in to supplement the javelin routine. And, somehow, I still managed to squeeze in those physical therapy appointments twice a week (my therapist informed me that my shin splints were a reaction to the hamstring injury I had gotten over the summer, which never really healed. Each following injury was, to some extent, a domino effect from that first pulled muscle). My day was planned down to the minute. Heaven forbid I forget to pack a lunch or leave a book at home. I basically lived out of my car. My gym bag was a veritable zombie-apocalypse survival kit.

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Every day was more frustrating than the one before. At first I had hoped that, with the alternative workouts, maybe I’d be able to keep up with everyone else and still have a shot at qualifying for SoCal Championships (I had all but given up on State, even in the unrealistic version of my dreams). I was even practicing static hurdle drills at home, using an intricate jimmy-rigging of my livingroom furniture.

Yes, I understood that the chances of being able to get out of the boot in time for one last race was almost non-existent, but as soon as that thought crept into the back of my tired mind, I pushed it away. I didn’t have the strength to think about the odds. I just needed something to hope for. I needed a reason to not give up. So I hoped for one final, magnificent race.

But as the weeks dragged out miserably and my leg showed little improvement, I stopped hoping for a quality race and just started hoping for a race, any race.

Oh, the conversations I had with God this semester… Questioning, accusing, pleading. All I’ve wanted to do all year was run. Why would He keep refusing such a simple request? Such a little thing in the grand view of the eternal cosmos, wanting to run. Why would He deny me that when I’ve worked so hard? I was hurt, confused, and discouraged. I would drift into the trainers and try to match the cheery smiles of Dennis and Stacey, but by mid-April, my spirits were failing. It didn’t help that the javelin workouts had begun a whole new set of sore, bruised or strained muscles.

“What are we going to do with you?” Stacey would ask with her fix-everything smile.

“I don’t know,” was all I could manage. “I think I’m just unraveling.”

IMG_20170216_145151That was me, emotionally and mentally thread-bare and physically unraveling at the seams. And all the while, I felt like I was drifting away from the team and my teammates. I rarely saw anyone anymore.

I still drove up to meets on the weekends to support everyone. I’d see them in the trainers after a practice. But it wasn’t the same. Even fondly being known as “the girl who’s always injured” by my fellow athletes on campus didn’t make up for the fact that I was missing a second season — my last season.

But every time I was tempted to give up, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the madness, the hopelessness of it all, I would tell myself, “This is just the last curve in the track. This is the 300 meter mark and after this is a straight sprint home. You just gotta keep going.”

So I did.

The week we were preparing for the Conference Championship, Coach asked the throwers to practice with the sprinters at the local high school (it still felt weird, being a thrower and not a runner). I was in and out of the boot that week. My movements were limited, but I could walk and trot as needed. One of the interns at the trainers had taped up my ankle a little too tightly and as I limped onto the track, I knew it was going to be a problem.

I hobbled around for a few minutes before resigning myself to the fact that the tape was just going to have to come off. A teammate tossed me my keys and I sat down on the twenty-yard line and tried to cut the tape away from my ankle with the jagged edge of the metal.

“Mary, what are you doing?” Coach asked from the side of the track where he was surveying the team.

“The tape is too tight,” I answered, trying to keep the frustrated tears from my eyes, gingerly wrestling with my ankle as I watched another practice slip away. Coach does not believe in crying, so I try not to do it in front of him.

Walking over with lanky strides, his large, friendly gait silhouetted in the bright sunshine of the hot spring afternoon, Coach took up a spot on the turf next to me. He spread his legs out into a ‘V’ like a big, twelve-year-old boy and pulled my ankle up onto his knee.

“Here, give me that key,” he said. The gentle lull of his voice was coated in his usual chuckle, amused at my propensity for getting into scrapes, like a cat that always finds itself up a tree.

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning,” I said. “I’ll find out then if I’m cleared to run.”

“Wednesday,” he said. “That’s the day of Conference Semifinals.”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, “But they were all booked up this week — it was the soonest I could see him. And it will be before the races start. It’s a morning appointment.”

Coach didn’t say anything, but I knew I was cutting it close.

For the next few minutes, as Coach tore at the thick fibers of the tape, the world seemed to take a deep breath and I felt the relief. Around us, my teammates were still sprinting in their lanes in flashes of maroon and black. Janet and the hurdlers were racing around the track, bathed in sweat and sunshine, and a part of me yearned to be out there with them. But strangely, part of me was content to just be here, injured as a I was, simply resting in a moment’s pause from my usual hurry of commitments. And what a coach, I thought as I watched him slice away at the ankle wrap, to take the time to sit here and help me with such a menial thing. It was small, but it mattered so much. It made such a difference to me that day to know I wasn’t forgotten.

Whatever emotional respite those few minutes gave me were all that sustained me through the last big trial of my long, long season.

Friday afternoon’s team meeting was moved from 1:20 to eleven o’clock. I rushed over as soon as I got off work, but they were already finished and filing out of the parking lot when I arrived. I found one of the throwers and asked her what I missed.

“Just assignments for conference,” she said. “Coach put you in javelin.”

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, looking a little confused. “I mean, you’re not cleared yet so he can’t.”

I don’t remember if I said ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to her. I think I may have just drifted away. I meandered over to the school’s track field where my cross country season began nearly a year ago. Looking out over the lonely grass where I learned how to be a runner, heart aching, I burst into tears.

Weeks and weeks of pool sprints and physical therapy and driving myself crazy trying to keep up with everything, all for nothing. My season was over. My last race had been run.

July’s dreams of being a cross country champion, the early hopes of December and January all seemed ridiculous, vain. All my efforts washed away with one, unforgiving blow — a blow that happened months before I even knew what a hurdle was. Like the invisible gears of a broken clock, closed behind little golden doors, the muscles and bones of my body continued grinding out of place until something finally snapped, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again. At least not in time for my last race.

Sobbing into my hands in the middle of that empty field, I asked one more time, God, why? Why would you bring me into this only to know from the start that you were going to take it all away?

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

I had a few days to calm down before I saw Coach again. He didn’t say anything about my season, so neither did I.

The doctor did clear me to run on Wednesday morning. “Probably not hurdles, but if you were to run a 400, if it was just one race, that would be okay. It might set you back a week or two in the healing process, but I can understand why you would want to, seeing as this is your last season.”

It didn’t make any difference, of course, even with the little slip of paper, all signed and pretty — registrations closed for conference a week ago. But I told Coach anyway when I showed up at conference semifinals that afternoon, and then I got ready to throw javelin at finals on Saturday. By that point, I was just happy to still be in a uniform. Happy that the championships were close enough to home that my parents could finally see me compete. Happy to be out of the boot and walking around on my own two feet. You don’t wish you could win races when you can’t even walk — you just wish you could get up stairs.

The fierce winds that had kept my sails blowing all year had finally died down to a whisper. It was calmer. Quieter. I felt empty, but at least I was at peace.

I threw my final round of javelin and it was decent enough. Nothing special, but I hadn’t been hoping for greatness.

“How’d it go?” Coach asked me as I rounded the corner by the triple jump, a flurry of school colors and officials’ whistles in the backdrop.

“It was okay,” I said. “I got a new PR, but I didn’t make the final round. So that’s it. It’s been a good season.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “Your season may not be over. We need someone to fill in a leg of the 4×400 relay. Were you serious about wanting one last race?”

My heart stopped.

“Coach, are you serious?” I asked, barely enough energy left to even hope for it. “Yes, yes, I’d do anything!”

“I know you would,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Go talk it over with the girls, they’re warming up now.”

The bounce in my step as I rushed over to the relay girls gave away my enthusiasm.

“You are way too excited for this,” said Jessica as I bounded over to their circle next to the sand pits. The girls were sprawled on the grass in their warm-up suits with their spikes laying next to them.

“This is my last race,” I tried to explain, attempting to contain the smile that had etched across my face. “I’m getting my last race!”

“Have you even done a relay before?” Jessica asked skeptically with a knowing smile. I shook my head.

“Alright, go warm up and then I’ll show you the hand-off,” she ordered, flipping a long braid over her shoulder and giving me a catty grin. I did as she told me to — no one says ‘no’ to Jessica.

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My warm-up was short, we didn’t have a lot of time. Just jogging around the empty baseball field next to the stadium felt amazing. My legs, so long dormant, were delighted to have blood pumping through them again.

Had it really only been eight weeks since the last time I ran? It felt like years.

Jessica and Jennifer showed me how to do the hand-off — that was the part I was really worried about — and then Janet came over with orders from Coach. I was fourth leg, I was the anchor.

“Coach wants us to give her a good lead,” said Janet. The girls all nodded. We haven’t been competitive in the relay all season. In fact, I don’t think we beat a single team all year, so it didn’t really matter who ran which leg, we were going to come in last anyway. Hypothetically.

But Coach had a plan, so we went with it. And I didn’t really care where we placed anymore. I was over the moon just to have spikes on my feet again.

We took our places at the starting line, Janet in her blocks, Jessica waiting behind her at the mark, and Jennifer and I on the sidelines.

The gunshot sounded and Janet took off like a rocket. Janet is fast. She ate that first lap like a piece of cake. Jessica successfully took the baton and widened the lead, which was quite a feat considering she’s a short sprinter normally. Jennifer was still issuing me instructions when she took her place on the starting line, seconds before grasping the metal rod from Jessica’s steady fingers and making the loop herself. Jennifer is a 400 runner, so the sizeable lead we had grew into something magnificent and suddenly I found myself standing at the starting line of my first race in eight weeks with a tiny possibility of actually winning.

But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about the fifty-meter lead the girls had just earned us. I wasn’t even thinking about how painful running this race usually is. In fact, all my nerves were gone. I was cool and calm and ready. As soon as Jennifer slid that metallic-red baton into my hand and I felt it firmly beneath my grip, the world slipped away.

My feet took off beneath me, fierce golden breezes beat down on my back like wings, and I was flying. For the first time in two months, I was racing down a track again, hugging the bend and plunging into the straightaway.

I laughed out loud — mid-race, I actually laughed out loud, it felt so good to run again. Joy and adrenaline shot through my body as I dove into the 200 meter stretch. I could hear Coach from the sidelines telling me to breathe, the same thing he’s been saying to me since September.

Everything else was clockwork. Like riding a bike, it just all came back. Dorsiflex, open stride, shoulders down, elbows at ninety degrees.

Even headed into that dreaded 300 meter mark, I felt good. If there was pain, it didn’t register. My mind was too full of stars and sunshine and freedom.

Somewhere in the stands, I could hear Corey shouting that the girl behind me was catching up, and as I turned the last curve and headed into the final stretch home, the roar from the stands told me my place was in contention.

My opponent, quickly closing on me, had won the open four earlier in the day. She was a bullet, and now she was shooting past me. Seventy-five meters from the finish, I felt my legs start to cramp. I still had air in my lungs and energy in my body, but eight weeks of not practicing on a track finally caught up to me. Every step was like running waist-deep in mud, until finally, fifty yards from the finish line, my legs locked beneath me and I toppled to the ground.

The bullet-girl whizzed past and I could feel my muscles seizing. For a minute, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be able to stand up again.

Lucky for me, I have had an entire year of practice when it comes to falling down, so I know first hand that you can always find a way back up.

Heaving myself back onto my feet, I shot a quick look over my shoulder to see where the third runner was. She was nowhere in my peripherals, but I wasn’t taking any chances. With every last ounce of stamina I possessed, I pulled myself across that finish line and into the arms of my teammates before sinking to the ground once more as my legs gave out beneath me.

Within seconds, half the team had filed onto the field to help lift me up and carry me off the track. All these kids I hadn’t seen in weeks were there hugging me and congratulating me on what they considered to be quite the finish.

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“I’m sorry for losing the lead,” I kept saying, but Jessica would shush me.

“But you got back up! You finished!”

Janet made me lay down so she could stretch the butt-lock out of my glutes and one of the guys brought my shoes over so I could change out of my spikes. I tried standing but felt the overwhelming urge to puke, so I stayed bent at the waist for several minutes, trying to let my body calm down. My elbow burned from where the track had shaved off several layers of skin during my spill.

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The next thing I knew, amid the blur of congratulations and the ever-present urge to vomit, I was being pulled onto a medal podium.

“What’s this for?” I asked, head still spinning slightly.

“We got second place,” Jennifer told me as they put medals around our necks.

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They took our picture and I had to use most of my remaining concentration to not fall off the podium. It wasn’t until we were back on the grass that I looked at the medal.

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer excitedly, her big, beautiful smile dressing her face with glee. “You get that for running. We got second place, Mary!”

That’s when I lost it. After all that, after my expectations and aspirations of winning had long been put to rest, here was the long-awaited medal in my hand.

All year long, God has closed every single door I’ve tried to walk through. From that first hamstring fiasco in July that cut my off-season workouts short, to each of the subsequent injuries that prevented me from practicing or competing, every time I thought I found a way to do it on my own, God said, ‘no.’

It wasn’t until I had been humbled to the point of surrender, stripped of my pride and steadied in the contentment of His will that he finally said, ‘yes.’ And then I understood that this medal and this race were His and not mine.

Suddenly, something much greater clicked into place. A point of doctrine that I learned as a little girl in Sunday school, a functioning of my faith that I have always understood technically but never before had context to: that we obey God because we love him. As Christians, God calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience, in big ways and in small. It is a long, difficult race to run, but there is no fear of failure because we already know that a victor’s crown awaits us at the end — not because of our good works, but because of His. And so the race we run as Christians is not one of dread and misery, it is a race in which we set forth with joy and perseverence. Joy, because we know our pardon is sealed and the race is already won — perseverence, because we want to live up to the high calling given to us by our God. 

And so too, my hopes for track were no longer those of personal ambition. I was running a race I knew was a gift to me, a race I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in. Coach had given me the chance to run one last time, so I ran not just with delight for the privilege to participate, but also with determination to redeem the honor Coach had won for me in hopes that he would be delighted too. And those 70 seconds might just be forever emblazoned in my heart, like words of promise in stone. 

We could have come in last place. I could have tripped every three meters of that track and I still would have been happy at the finish line. How much my attitude has changed since November. How humbling this season has been for me, to learn that everything I am able to do, each moment of my day and effort of my life is a gift from God. 

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Suddenly, on that golden field, surrounded by people I love — people whose love I’m not sure I even deserve — all those closed doors made sense. God had not forgotten me. How amazing that, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, he would take the time to carefully walk me through this year — not just shutting doors, but providing people to help me bear up beneath the weight of discouragement and despair. Friends who took time out of their practices to teach me how to throw, trainers who patiently and cheerfully treated my every injury, a Coach who never, not once gave up on me.

If this year as a college athlete has taught me anything, it is, firstly, the peace and fulfillment which comes from embarking on life’s grand journey with steadfast joy. Secondly, it has reaffirmed the absolute certainty of God’s loving hand in my life. Like a toymaker carefully stitching together a doll, not leaving out a single button or seam, or a busy coach who takes time to tend to the very least of his athletes, He will not forget me.

 

once a teacher

img_20160906_085443There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”

It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.

So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.

My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.

I wasn’t.

Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.

But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.

None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.

And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?

And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”

There was a turning point, I remember.

During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”

All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.

And I knew that feeling so well.

So I took the job.

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Harvey, the fake owl that sits on my candy bowl. He is a dear friend.

I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.

And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.

For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.

All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”

And I was, surprisingly.

After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.

On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.

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It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.

As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.

My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.

But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.

When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.

But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.

an open letter to single women and literally everyone else

single laaaaadaysssszzz

Dear single women and literally everyone else in the whole world, but especially in the Christian community,

I think it’s time we cleared up a few things. These are things I know you know, but sometimes a reminder is helpful (if you’re tired of reading things about singleness, feel free to move along. I’m impressed you even stopped by). And because I’ve had this conversation four times in the last week, I decided to just blog about it to save myself some time.

Because tone is tough to convey online, please know that this is said in love with firmness of conviction and gentleness of heart. This did not used to be an easy subject for me to talk about and I know many of my dear friends still find it hard to put words to the feelings of doubt, loneliness, isolation and rejection that can come from being a single woman of “marital age” in the Christian community.

So…

  1. Your value as a human being is not in your relationship status, but in the image you bear that reflects our Creator.
    Okay, this one is basic and we all know it. But I also know it doesn’t always seem like this when our friends get married and have kids and we’re still here burning poptarts and watching Netflix by ourselves on Friday nights (..um, okay, maybe that’s just me). The point is, I know that the trend in our community sometimes seems like you aren’t important unless you have family – this is true especially in the church. Gosh, it’s like we aren’t even fully human until we get someone to put a ring on it. But know that God didn’t make you half a person, destined to wait for your other half to come along. He made you a whole person. And he also made you with a job to do, and right now he’s asking you to do it in whatever your current relationship status is (because this applies to married people too). God has a purpose for each family, and each individual. So go out and do it, you beautiful, capable, whole person!

     For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

    -Ephesians 2:10

  2. A relationship will not fulfill you.
    Mmk, in the spirit of honesty, I learned this one the hard way. I was in a relationship with a godly young man that could reasonably could have ended in marriage. I was surprised to find that after six months, not only did it not feel fulfilling, but (at least on my end) it also didn’t seem very godly. This may have been because I went into the relationship hoping to achieve my own ends rather than allowing God to work out his own. The only relationship that will fulfill you is the one you have with God. But when we take our eyes off God and our aim is no longer to glorify him, we will ultimately fall short of the good things God has in store for those who wait on him. Keep in mind that good things do not necessarily mean “husband and kids” (though they also sometimes do, and that’s wonderful because it has made me an aunt and that’s probably my life’s second-greatest joy and definitely my favorite job). Those good things might look very different from what we’ve been wanting, expecting, or told we should want or expect (but we will rejoice in them because they are from him and his inexpressible fullness and grace will be far greater than what we had even thought to ask for!). And that leads us to our next point.
  3. The community does not decide your calling, God does.
    I don’t mean to sound prickly here, but sometimes the church community can be a little over zealous about marriage. We know everyone is well-intentioned, but it can feel like a witch-hunt sometimes (single women being the witches, with gossip, judgement and pity – the very worst of the three – being the flames that consume). And if you embrace your singleness and explore the plans God has for you, sometimes those flames get a little aggressive. (STOP AND BREATHE: I am obviously not saying everyone who has asked you about your relationship status is a witch-hunter, nor should you. I’m saying, a lot of us know what it feels like to find our feet walking down a path leading us far away from the expectations and hopes of dear people in our lives). Do not be dismayed. God sees your patience and your graciousness. And he also sees the plans he has for you, and he knows they are good. Because, of course they are. He is a good God. If God calls you to be a wife and mother, rejoice. If he calls you first to go to college, become a doctor, work on a mission field, travel the world, pursue the arts or stay home to care for elderly parents, rejoice! If he calls you to be single till the day he calls you home again so that you can serve him in that capacity, rejoice! Rejoice always. Rejoice, because you have been created for a purpose, elected as a child of the Risen King, and given a job to do, chosen by the Almighty himself. And if that job is sweeping floors, or building skyscrapers, or raising children, or sitting deaf, lame, and blind in a corner praying for people you’ve never met, it will be the same in the eyes of God. And believe me, if done unto the Lord, there is peace that comes with sweeping floors.
  4. Love God first, and he will help you love everything else.
    It is easy to feel isolated when you are single. Easy to feel like everyone else caught the wave into shore and you’re still sitting stupidly on your surfboard in the open ocean, wondering if sharks can smell fear and cheap pizza. It’s easy to feel like every glance your way is a pitying or judgemental one, like no one understands what you’re going through (especially married people), like life is a little more unfair than people claimed it would be. And it’s easy to think that maybe there’s something wrong with you. (Like, I know I’m a little high-maintenance and have the emotional stability of a goldfish, but I’m really a charming person beyond that. Just ask my pet rock!). People will tell you to love yourself. People will tell you to find contentment in the Lord and then he will give you a husband (Ha!). People will say that you are fine just the way you are (that may or may not be true. I know I personally have some work to do). I’m here to tell you that this is misguided advice. Love God and he will give you a new heart with which to love everything else, including yourself. When you start seeing yourself as a child of the God you love, and everyone else as his children, and this whole world as his beautiful work of art, a divinely written story that we get to be a part of, suddenly it does seem lovely. Our own attitudes will inevitably shift when we look to truly see the works of God’s hands and are filled utterly with his ineffable grace. And this is important because the more we channel that love into our lives, the better witnesses we will be for God’s kingdom, to testify to his goodness and minister to his people.

Now. Which of those four things might also apply to someone who doesn’t strictly fit the “lonely 20-something” category of youngish women? All of them. That’s because relationship status does not put you in a separate category of what it means to be a Christian. It’s simply another way we are sometimes called to serve.

So enough of the pity-parties (for yourself or for the poor, dear single women in your church). We have been given jobs to do on this earth in this lifetime. What a privilege!

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

-Hebrews 13:20-21

And, lastly, know that if you are called to serve as a single person, you will not be doing it alone. We work together, the unified body of Christ, brothers and sisters. We are all his bride. Let us unite and use the gifts, time and talents he has given us to fight the good fight. And may we find peace and joy in the task!

sincerely,

a sister in Christ

Mary vs. Olympic shoulder angels

Forty thousand feet in the air and my mind was tracing a dirt path on the ground in worn out sneakers. Over and over again, I saw myself round the track, hit the final grass stretch before the finish line and blaze into a first place medal. Not even the turbulence could stop me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything competitively. My last high school speech and debate tournament was an unmitigated disaster (by my own standards, at least). I was second in the State going into that national tournament. I finished somewhere in the teens. After the awards ceremony, all my friends went out to watch the fireworks over Mission Bay. I just stood there and cried, colors bleeding down my face and across the black bay water. I was so disappointed. Six years of pushing myself towards this one goal and I had fallen short.

I don’t often feel defeated because I’m not a quitter, and as Babe Ruth says, it’s hard to beat a man who never gives up. But that night, I felt defeated. I felt defeated for a long time.

Needless to say, I am nothing if not over competitive.

I stopped competing formally in college. Too busy to join the debate team. Then life and work and the real world kicked in and I never had a chance to go back to anything that might put me on a path towards a podium and a medal.

Not till this summer.

As some may know, I have been working as a sports reporter for nearly a year, and it has been brought to my attention that I may broaden my abilities as a journalist in this field if I actually had some experience in athletics (which I don’t, unless you count some intense games of ultimate frisbee, or that summer my church insisted on playing volleyball every Wednesday and I was named the MVP for the opposing team three weeks in a row).

So I signed up for the cross country team. They spent this summer training. I spent the summer in Europe. Aware that I would need to keep pace with everyone, I asked the coach for some things to practice while I was traveling around.

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Running through Czech forests, summer 2016.

In Prague, in Budapest, on the silver shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary and in the majestic mountains of Šumava, Czech Republic, I ran. I did 300 meter sprints that nearly killed me, again and again. I raced up hills. I ran for miles through forests. I’d get up before my friends to finish my workouts so we could spend the day together. I ran my way through Europe.

Coincidentally, I also ran my way into a bit of a hamstring problem.

One night at the English Camp I volunteered at, we watched “Chariots of Fire” (everyone was getting pumped for the Olympics two weeks down the road and Chariots of Fire is like, the greatest Olympic movie of all time).

Irish missionary Eric Liddell and self-made man Harold Abrahams are running these 100 meter sprints in ten seconds and because I’ve been doing sprints all summer, I know just how ridiculous that is to do. You guys have no idea how long 100 meters is when you’re running hard.

I really relate most to Abrahams. He has an intensity I resonate with when it comes to winning. He lives and breathes competition, so much so that the anxiety and the pressure of it seems to shake him to his core, but it’s what drives him forward too. And although he has something to prove to everyone else, you just know he really just needs to prove it to himself.

But when I would be in cold sweats outside a semifinal round, it was Liddell my dad would remind me of as I wrung my hands and paced the floor. Dad loved Liddell’s quote about God making him fast and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.

That was Dad’s way of reminding me that I do what I’m good at not to prove that I’m good at it, but because when I exercise my God-given strengths, God is glorified in it.

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

― Eric Liddell

By the time I touched down in the USA this summer, my leg and I were not on speaking terms.

I stretched, I iced, I ran again, because I am not a quitter. And because I didn’t know what else to do. Coach wants us to be at 12 miles by the time the season starts and I can barely manage eight.

Sitting on my sister’s couch, watching the Olympics and sitting on an ice pack, I thought to myself, I want to feel that thrill. Not even the thrill of winning, just of getting to compete again.

“Are you going to see someone about your leg?” my sister asked.

“Naw,” I said, shifting on the ice-pack under my thigh. “It’ll get better.”

Besides, I had other things to worry about.

All new athletes have to get a physical from the school medical staff. I showed up with like 50 wanna-be football players and spent the day having my blood pressure taken, my weight measured, my balance examined and my eyesight checked. It was all rather new and glamorous to me. I’ve never felt so cared about by strangers. This must be what being a princess feels like.

“You’re 5’11,” said a nurse measuring my height.

I gaped at her. There’s just no way I’m 5’11, ma’am.

“Let me see that,” I said, bending over her petite shoulder to see the chart. The stocky jock behind me snorted.

“Can I have a few of those inches?” he asked.

I’d trade, I thought as I walked to the last examination station. Thirty of us waited in a crowded line in the sun for the examination. Behind me, several football players were making some low-key cat calls (I’d like to assume they were directed at me, but they were probably intended for the blonde soccer girls a few heads in front of where I was). The guys were rowdy. The day was warm. And I was tired of standing on my bad leg.

But I was just so excited to be in this new, seemingly glamorous world of athletics that I didn’t even care. Also, I’m not a quitter.

We must have waited in that line for half an hour, and by the end of it, I’d been invited onto the football team as an honorary member (they said they needed a kicker).

Then it was my turn. I was almost done. So close to having everything I needed. Just one quick sit-in with the doctor and I would be finished!

She checked my vitals and said some friendly things that I don’t remember. Then she looked at my chart and asked, “Have you had chest pains during exercise this summer?”

Yes, I had checked that box. It was just once, I explained to her, right after that first round of horrible sprints in the summer heat. Just an ache. Only lasted a few minutes. No big deal. I’m not a quitter.

“You’re going to need to get an EKG before we can clear you,” she said.

My heart sank.

Instead of getting out of there, I found myself in another series of lines to have my insurance checked, my medical history reviewed, and my options clarified.

During the process, we discovered that I was one academic unit short of eligibility.

“To compete, you need to be a full-time student,” they told me. “You need 12 units. You have 11.”

My mind roared in frustration. How was I supposed to find another unit? I’m about to transfer! I have no classes left to take! And where am I going to find the time (or the money) for another class? I’m already working two jobs and I’ll be training all afternoon every day. Most of my night classes don’t end till 10 p.m. anyway.

I left with a piece of blue paper that had the number of a clinic in Chula Vista, a printout of my current class schedule (11 units circled in red) and a few fraying threads of my resolve to do cross country. I could feel my hamstring wincing all the way up the stairs to the parking lot.

But I’m not a quitter.

I spent a week trying to set up an appointment for that EKG. I found a 7 a.m. yoga class (which is full, but I am on the waitlist and I’m ruthless. So…). I also started going to the neighborhood hot tub to soak my leg (which is some mighty dedication to recovery, given the 90 degree temperature we’ve been scorched with this month).

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Hiking to church with the fam-bam, August 2016.

On Sunday, we hiked to church for evening service. My dad has done this periodically since we were kids. If the afternoon is too restless, we walk to church. A good way to simmer down before worship. And truly, one of the prettiest corners of San Diego you’ll ever see, especially in the golden stretches of evening.

It’s only two and a half miles and we were only walking, but when we got to the church, my hamstring was practically singing. I tried stretching it out a little with no luck. Fighting back the urge to cry, I washed the dust off my face in the bathroom sink and went to find a seat with my family in the sanctuary.

On Monday, I still hadn’t heard back from the doctor regarding my EKG, and now my coach was sending me emails asking if I had been cleared to run yet. I called up the receptionist again (who knows me by name now because I have called her every day for a week and a half). She said she’d personally inform the head nurse of my message.

It’s been a long summer and I felt myself running out of steam. I just wanted to compete again. How hard could this possibly be?

“Maybe God is closing this door?” my pastor said gently. I’m sure it would have been a helpful nudge to anyone less of a hardhead than myself. When people tell me I can’t, the Harold Abrahams in me rises up to say, Oh yes I can!

It’s possibly one of my worst qualities and has gotten me into more than one traffic citation.

“Why not just drop this?” my dad asked.

“I can’t,” was all I could think to say back.

Why not? Because I spent my whole summer abroad training for this when I could have been sleeping in or hanging out with my friends a little more. Because I can basically feel the blood shooting through my veins when I even think about running competitively, vying for a medal, aiming to win at something again. And because the idea of coming back to San Diego to compete in cross country this fall was one of the only things that soften the very difficult goodbye when I had to leave Prague again this summer.

I really needed to be able to do this.

So there I was, lying on the ground with my mind up in the air, somewhere floating around the sewage of lost dreams and abandoned ideas. I felt very much in a haze, the way Abrahams looks when he’s lost a race (which he doesn’t do often, and frankly, neither do I).

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All iced up in the field house at school, a week before the start of the fall semester, 2016.

All the anxiety built up on being able to compete and win was taking the fun out of running. And running is something that I have always loved to do.

Eric Liddell sat down next to me, taking the fuming Abrahams’ place. “God made me fast, and when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”

More prone to turn God-given abilities, these divine gifts, into my own self-serving aims, Eric’s perspective is one I have to fight to hold on to. I learn because God gave me a brain and it glorifies him for me to do so. I teach because God gave me a big heart and a steady hand and it glorifies him for me to do so. I run because God gave me long, healthy legs and a passion for movement and it glorifies him for me to do so.

I pulled myself off the floor and immediately drove over to school.

I sat on the examination table and let a trainor bend and prod my leg in all directions. Then I sat on more ice and was told not to run till the start of school. So much for 12 miles.

But I felt better.

It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”

Eric Liddell

The nurse from the clinic called back and I scheduled an appointment for the EKG. Hopefully it comes back clear, but if it doesn’t, I know I’ll find a different race to run.

Because I am not a quitter, and not every race is on a track.

a return to joy

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Speeding on a train from Kutná Hora to Prague. Photo Credit: Eli Hirtzel.

“Did you get any rest?” Rachel asked me, lowering herself into the deeply cushioned chair next to my corner of the couch.

“Not really,” I said. Early evening light filtered into the livingroom of the house I had once lived in for two years. The day was hot and muggy and we were both glistening, despite the coolness of our new surroundings. It’s a long walk from our hotel rooms on top of the hill to the house at the bottom (during the late summer evenings, you can sometimes see fireflies along the path in the forest, but I’ve not managed to spot any this trip).

Rachel tilted her head sideways and eyed me, looking every ounce the schoolteacher she is.

“Why not? What were you doing all afternoon?”

“Mopping up the bathroom,” I said. “And crying.”

Rachel smiled. Not a happy one, but a knowing one. She understands, about the crying at least.

“Why were you mopping the bathroom?” she asked.

One of my roommates, a girl from the American team who had come to help with the English Camp, had had a disagreeable moment with the shower in our hotel room and we didn’t have time before church to mop up the lake left in the wake of their dispute. So following Sunday lunch at the house, I trekked up through the forest alone to our room and found myself knee-deep in water, wet towels and something unexplainably sticky.

Then I rehung all my laundry around the open window, hoping they’d dry out better in the fresh air than in the dank of our bathroom before I packed them for a final time in the evening.

Then I broke the bathroom hairdryer trying to shortcut the hang-dry process with a pair of shorts.

Then I stared out the window for a while.

Then I sat on my bed and cried. For about two hours.

I don’t know why I came back to the Czech Republic, to be honest. Technically, I came to help with an English Camp the church puts on every summer. Technically, I came to see my former students and fellow teachers one last time before their school year let out. Technically, I came to catch up with a few dear friends I had to leave behind when I returned to San Diego last July after living and working in this beautiful country for two years.

But I couldn’t tell you what I was really coming to find. Peace? Closure? The missing remnants of my broken heart so I can piece myself back together before resuming my new life in San Diego?

Why had I come back to Prague? What a truly awful, horrible, stupid idea. Because I knew this moment would come. This afternoon when I’d be sitting on this couch for the last time, wishing with all my heart I could stay, knowing I’d have to leave.

I wish I could explain why leaving Prague last year was so devastating to me. It’s a question I have thought about a lot this summer as I have revisited forests, fields and the homes of friends I know so well. My breath still vanishes when I cross Charles’ Bridge. My eyes still linger on the horizon whenever St. Vitus Cathedral stands against it. Prague is always new for me. But it also has the feel of a very old friend, one who knows me perhaps better than I know myself.

Every sidewalk I traversed this summer led me down a thousand memories of the city and its people, each in a different season. Every friend I visited refreshed my mind and loosened my tongue to the Czech language (which, sadly, I have only been able to speak with my cat for the last year, and she’s not much of a conversationalist). And every day, I remembered anew why this place feels so much like home.

Which is unfortunate since I don’t live here anymore. And I find myself asking God, “Why would you give me this just to take it all away?”

“Have you ever thought about moving back?” Rachel asked me, echoing a question I’ve heard maybe a hundred times.

Of course, is always my answer. I’d give my right leg to be here forever. Sometimes I wish I was Czech or wonder whether my Czech friends feel special to belong to a people and a place like this.

In fact, even the difference between returning to San Diego, which was difficult and stressful, and returning to Prague was shocking to me.

They say you can’t go back. You can’t go home again. That was totally true for me. When I moved back to San Diego, it felt forced and awkward. I had become a stranger in the town that raised me. I had chased a different wind and had changed with the current, such that the old seas felt rough and strange to me upon return.

Okay, I realize this all may sound a little over-dramatic, but I just don’t know how else to explain how I’ve been feeling for the last year. Not that I haven’t adjusted, made new friends, started new ventures. But in the still moments before sunset, the walks from my car to the house when the stars are out, the muffled laughter of people enjoying themselves right here, I find myself somewhere else. Somewhere far away, in a time that almost seems imaginary, as though I fell asleep for two years, dreamed a wonderful dream, and woke again to a world that has moved on without me. And it leaves me feeling heartbroken and lost.

I thought ‘coming back’ would be the same with Prague. I had been away for a year after all. Would I recognize this place? Would it remember me?

Prague surprised me. I instantly felt pieces of myself fall back into place as I immersed myself again in a culture and a language. I visited my school and saw my students and fellow teachers. It felt like I had never left. Like I had been gone only a day.

And I’m wondering if this is because the ‘Home’ where we begin is a launching point, setting us up for flight and a future. To return is impossible because it represents the past. But the ‘Home’ we create on our own is our future. Coming back is easy and natural, like finding your way back to the path that leads you onward.

So why don’t I just move back? Get a teaching position again? Make my own way of things?

Simple, really.

I first considered moving to Prague in 2010 after a short term mission’s trip when it was obvious that there was a need for workers in the field. I felt so called to go. For three years, I waited, planned, prepared. Finally, I was accepted to go as a missionary associate for two years, with the possibility of extensions. It was so hard and yet so easy to struggle through those two years (five, if you count the three years in San Diego it took to get me to Prague) because, at every step, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. And in my heart I knew I wouldn’t leave Prague unless God sent someone to replace me or made it very obvious he wanted me elsewhere.

In a way, He did both. So I left.

I’m in San Diego because it’s pretty clear to me that God wants me there right now. And I’m not unhappy.

Not unhappy, but I’ve been missing something. For months now, I’ve noticed the lack of something very important in my life, something I long to have back.

I’ve lost my joy.

I’ve been missing the delight of waking up every morning and knowing I’ll get to see all my students, I’ll get to walk through fall leaves or winter snows, I’ll get to learn new words and practice old ones. I’ve been missing my friends from school, the women who opened up their lives and hearts to me. I’ve been missing impossibly clear Czech skies, feathery forests and wayside flowers. I’ve been missing the life I had and all the joy that came with it. I have this fear that my two years in Prague were the best I may ever get, nothing will ever be quite so golden. And even though I know in my heart that this is probably untrue, it’s hard to fight the feeling. Especially sitting in a house that was once home, looking out a window into what was once my world and my future.

“It is hard having your life in one place and your heart in another,” I finally said.

Rachel gave her head a little shake, sympathy in the highest degree, and we waited for the evening devotional to begin.

The dear man who led us through Scripture and then prayer began quickly and finished quietly. We read only three passages, each about the sacrifice of the Christian life. For us, living safely and happily in the first world, the Christian life doesn’t require many sacrifices. Certainly not the pain of death. Not torture, not imprisonment, not persecution.

Literally, all I have to do is live by the Word of God and follow His direction in my life. And in return, He has given us a peace that passes understanding.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:4-7

All this I know in my head, but it has taken a year for that knowledge to work its way into my broken heart.

Suddenly, I felt a lifting of my spirit, a calming of my soul.

My world of hopes and dreams here in Prague seem like an awfully small sacrifice to make for the One who gave me all.  

Sitting there in that living room, I suddenly felt myself breathe for what felt like the first time in a year. The idea of being able to bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Lord brightened my soul in a way I didn’t expect.

Prague is not something God is taking away from me. It is something He has given me, which I should be delighted to return to him to make room for the new plans He has for me whatever or wherever they may be.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense. It is very truly a peace that passes understanding. And, although it didn’t come all at once, that evening I began to realize it personally.

I trooped back through the forest to the hotel that night with another friend from the team.

“I really want to see fireflies,” I told him. “This is my last chance before I go home.”

In the dark, I could hear him laughing, but he made a point of staring into the abyss of the shadowy creek for bobbing lights with me. We found none.

I sighed. Not even fireflies? Like, I understand that God gives and takes away as he pleases, but not even one little firefly? You know, as a consolation gift? Is that too much to ask for?

We kept walking, my friend bending the conversation as softly as the curves in the road.

And then I saw it.

Glowing unmistakably, it flickered a few yards in front of us. Beating nearly as loudly as my friend’s heavy footsteps, my heart seemed to pound uncontrollably as we slowly approached the little creature.

“It’s not a firefly,” my friend said, crouching on the pebbled pathway near the grass where our new acquaintance lay blazing like a supernova.

“No,” I said, entranced. “He’s a glow worm.”

A dozen memories of Czech mountains and Czech children and all the glow worms they’ve brought me over the years blinked before me.

“Should we take him with us?” asked me friend.

“No,” I said again, feeling a smile spreading warmly across my face as we watched the only glowing insect in the whole forest beaming before us. “His place is here.”

He’s not a firefly, but he’s something – a reminder from the Lord that he hears me. That I’m not alone. That he’s sending me back to San Diego for a reason. Just like he sent me to Prague for a reason.

Prague is my glow worm. Beautiful, magical, moving, but not mine. Prague and the people in it belong to God and it is time to let go of the idol I have turned them into, to give them back and trust that they will be just as safe in his hands as they’ve ever been.

Coming back to San Diego was no easier this time around. I still feel so deeply sad to leave a home I hoped was mine. But my heart is healed, fully back, not inside me, but in the hands of my Savior. I’m ready to love again, adventure again, find a new home with a new people, if that’s what he asks me to do. What a little sacrifice, to live this life God gave me unto him and no other.

And with that readiness has come the return of my joy.

Saint George, tea and my wee little star

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges was a book I was raised on. Beautifully brought to life by the art nouveau illustrations of Trina Schart Hyman, the story captured my childhood imagination with distant lands and faraway places.

As Saint George, mounted on a valiant steed and bearing a red cross upon his white shield, follows the fair Princess Una into a realm terrorized by a dragon, I too trailed behind them, lighted by images of faeries and magical creatures, led by the dim glow of adventure ever on the horizon.

Northern Ireland looks a lot like the pages of that fairy tale. Green and gold fields lie in patchwork patterns, stitched together by rows of hawthorn bushes. Brick cottages line country roads like red-capped mushrooms leading towards a fairy castle. And sunlight, softer than stardust, falls from magnificently clouded skies.

After leaving Prague, which was just as difficult as I expected it would be, I found myself on a bus speeding towards Belfast to spend a day with one of my very most favorite families, literally ever. I like to break up the trip home with a stop in Ireland because 24 hours on a plane is just no bueno, and I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing the MacArthurs.

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They picked me up from the bus stop, drove me southeast into the countryside, put me up in a room inside their beautiful Georgian dollhouse of a home, gave me a spot of tea, and sent me to bed, which was basically the best welcoming reception of all time.

That feathery sunlight woke me up the next morning, which was incredible considering how dark a morning it was, complete with the foreboding winds of a coming storm.

“Victoria’s going to take you around today,” Mrs. MacArthur told me over cereal, hot cross buns and tea.

Victoria seems exactly the same since the last time I saw her 18 months ago. There is something about youth that keeps a person growing, and yet unchanged, like a star that churns in the abyss of the galaxy where time cannot reach its effervescent twinkle.

She’s a pretty girl, sweet and unassuming, with a perfect blend of joviality and tempered enthusiasm. And she’s just gotten her driver’s license.

So it was with mild trepidation that we both began our morning’s adventures, her as she got behind the wheel of a car, and me as I climbed into the left side of the vehicle.

Our first stop was Greyabbey cemetery, and the road that took us there wound through a collection of villages decked with flags and bunting from the most recent public holiday.

“Those are for Prince William of Orange,” Victoria explained. “He defeated someone on July 12, but I don’t remember who. And this used to be a castle we’re passing but I’m not sure who it belonged to.”

Where information was lacking, charm and general pleasantries about the countryside was used as substitution. For Victoria, this magical place is just home. For me, it’s a strange new wonderland and I spent most of the day picturing myself traversing it on a grey horse with a gleaming sword (and a super pretty, probably impractical princess dress).

“Do you ever think that whoever owned that castle could be your lords today if we were still under that kind of governance?” I asked as we pulled into the gravelly car park.

“I guess not,” she said. “I don’t think I really know the area that well. This is actually only my second time to the abbey. I only discovered it a week ago.”

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Greyabbey was built in the 12th century by a group of people whose names we could not pronounce and therefore cannot remember. Most of it still stood erect, minus the roof and about sixty percent of the walls. But the beautiful arches and the front edifice remained. It was huge.

Wandering through the garden, past plants like mugwort and vervain, felt very Medieval indeed.

And then the graveyard. It’s stone markers falling over, crumbling to pieces, it looked derelict and forgotten. Most of the tombstones dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. These people lived and died before my country was ever born.

We got our fill of nostalgia and wandered back to the car. Next stop: Victoria’s grandparents.

George and Rosemary live in a quaint brick house. A sunroom off the kitchen juts out into the brightest flurry of garden flowers you will ever see. Blazingly orange nasturtiums and baby-pink wall roses nestled between shocks of purple and blue flowers and doves and pigeons lighted in and out of low-creeping tree branches. What a garden!

In the sunroom, a blue-and-white tea table was set with little cups, plates of potato bread, jams, honey, berries and a tea pot snuggled deeply into a tea cozy.

Rosemary led us to a sofa and Victoria took a seat at one end. One more spot was open next to her and a wooden chair sat just beyond that. Suddenly, years of flipping through Norman Rockwell picture books came flooding back to me. This was a real tea. I was expected to sit like a real little lady, probably with legs crossed at the ankle and back straight, as Victoria was already so aptly demonstrating. Thrill filled my soul. Tea time.

I sat down and was asked questions by Rosemary about my life and plans, and when she got up to busy herself around the kitchen, George came out of the garden woodshed and took up her place.

Was I a student? What did I study? Did I work? What kind of journalism did I do in the States? Where was I coming from? Did I like Prague? Had it been hard to leave? Yes…some changes are very hard, indeed.

George led us in prayer before tea began.

“We thank you, Lord, for all these good gifts,” he said, his deep brogue bending wide in sincerity as we approached the feet of our Creator. “And let this food nourish our bodies today – even Mary’s, though she is herself a journalist.”

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And so commenced our tea. Delightful, from the first sip to the last breadcrumb. I especially enjoyed the “traybakes,” a scrumptious compact of biscuits, candied cherries, marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk. But before reaching for a butter knife, stirring my tea or taking a bit of something laid out before us, I would glance over at Victoria first to see if I was doing it correctly.

When tea was finished, Rosemary showed me her collection of tea cozies, which she sells online (and which you should totally look into if you’re at all into the tea scene).

Then she packed us a picnic lunch and filled our arms with gifts and goodies for the road, and we were ushered on our way.

Several runaway strands of sunlight christened the start of the afternoon as we drove past the local lough, which, I later learned, has the largest presence of organisms of any lough in Ireland (or something along those lines. I mostly just remembered that it look pretty).

We parked on the slope of a hill and walked a short ways through a stronge breeze and grey sunshine to the top where Scrabo Tower stood proudly and alone against a pale sky.

Around us, Northern Ireland stretched out like a blanket, covering the world we could see in deep greens and golds. To one side, the Irish Sea sidled along the coast, bringing the Isle of Man and the shores of Scotland just into view.

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“They were going to build a castle here too,” Victoria explained as the wind rattled our jackets (I was wearing a jacket and a hoodie because it was freezing. Victoria barely had a sweater on).

“Why didn’t they?”

“I guess they got lazy,” she said.

The tower was tall and dark, made of thick brown stones and covered with moss around the base. My head filled with images of knights climbing the hill, fully armored, ready for siege or ready for rest. What a world this must have been only a few hundred years ago.

We climbed back down the hill for a spot of tea (again) and lunch. Sandwiches were pulled out of our hamper and chocolate and traybakes were distributed. I rambled on and on about fairy castles and dueling knights as Victoria sat in patient silence.

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“This is beautiful,” I finally said.

“It’s home.”

In an instant, that word brought me speeding back to the Czech Republic, beneath amber rays of sunlight and skies as big and open as the universe. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the last six years, home for me became the winding curve of the Vltava covered in hoar frost and the gentle sloping of forested hills and spired villages. The feeling was so powerful that not even the enchantment of a day in a fairy land with my wee little friend could distract me from the sudden rush of heartbreak that welled inside me.

I don’t know what I had been thinking, going back to Prague. Because, although my six weeks in the Czech Republic were a dream, I knew, I knew, leaving was going to break my heart a second time.

Our last stop of the day was a pottery barn where we could hide from the rain that had begun to plop down against the countryside. The weather was beginning to reflect the somber churnings of my mind, so bright colors and sponge molds were a welcome relief from it all.Temp1_drive-download-20160801T181131Z1

Victoria is a pottery pro. Her plate was finished and looking fine a good half hour before mine was. She patiently sat and watched me painstakingly etch out my feelings onto a plate, disguised as clouds and birds and seascapes. I threw in a few faerie mushrooms as well, just because.

When we got back to the house, the heavens had opened up on us and rain was coming down with sincerity.

Dinner wasn’t for a few more hours so Victoria and I agreed we had both earned a nap. I shut the door to the little guest bedroom on the second story, the view of hawthorn trees blowing in the gale framing my window, and fell fast asleep into dreams of home.

Dinner was a wee affair, with just the four of us there to enjoy the delicious food and splendid conversation. Mostly, we talked about other missionaries, some I had met in Madrid when I first ran into the MacArthurs, others I had only heard about from them. Lots of people coming and going from one spot on the map to another, wherever the Lord calls them to serve next.

Finally, we piled into the car one last time and went into town for ice cream and coffee. Victoria grinned eight shades of happiness behind her cone and cup.

Curled up next to a window that looked out onto a street splashed with rain, we continued to chit chat about life and the world. This little family exemplifies Christian hospitality, such that I am humbled and inspired in my own Christian walk because of them.

And it was a good reminder for me.

I’m sure the Lord is using these good people for more important tasks than simply helping one lost Pilgrim find the path of purpose again and the way home, but on this day, that is exactly what they did. They reminded me that God calls us to serve in many places and none of them will be home, for home is heaven.

“The Fairy Queen has sent you to do brave deeds in this world. That High City that you see is in another world. Before you climb the path to it and hang your shield on its wall, go down into the valley and fight the dragon that you were sent to fight.”

-Margaret Hodges, Saint George and the Dragon

Who knows where we’ll be called to go under the banner of God’s Kingdom? To the darkest parts of Africa or the glimmering lights of cities who do not know our Savior, or even right back to our own front door. All these adventures we must first embark on before we can truly go home, and when that day comes, every tear shall be wiped away and all that was lost will be refilled with the goodness of God himself.

And I will rejoice to see the MacArthurs right there with me, joining the throng of the church invisible, brought to completion at last.

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