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October 20, 2014

here and there

They were worried I wouldn't like it here.

Maybe it was the crawling vines clinging to the stone houses, or the red berries that grow in storybook-like clusters along the roadside, that they thought I wouldn't like. Or the fallen orange leaves that brighten the slippery grey cobbled streets. Or the bread pretzels topped in chunky white salt and the hazelnut chocolate spread that are never far away. Or the plentiful, varied, fresh and clean produce. Or the warm-compared-to-Canada winters. Or all the quiet and privacy and shiny machines that do every task imaginable. 

Maybe these were the things that came to their minds, when they were worried I wouldn't like it here.

They ask what I've seen so far and where I've travelled since arriving. I tell them I've seen my fiancé, and this city. They ask if I like it here, and I say "Yes, because my fiancé is here." My fiancé tells me that his is a dirty city, by European terms, and that others turn up their noses when people talk about this region of the country. And yes, I see the bridges scarred with graffiti, the industrial smoke stacks or the homeless men by the bus stop with urine-soaked trousers. But it's nothing I haven't seen before, or nothing that would stop me from living here. And somehow it doesn't cancel out the beauty of being here.

I have always been happy with simple pleasures. Here I've been happy to take walks under sunny fall skies, to buy discounted nail polish and shoes at the flea market, to make homemade lasagna and serve it on a colorful new tablecloth, to pick a bloom from along the roadside and grace a jar with it for days, to weave words together on the printed page, to notice how the trees stand majestically in rows by the river, and to watch the hillside flame with fall. To breathe in the quiet and rest, before I return to North America for a busy month of wedding planning.

And though I enjoy simple pleasures, more importantly, I remember that life is so much more than what we like, or even what we can see. What is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal. When my fiancé and I speak of expectations for where we'll live after we are married, answering questions from premarital books, we both realize that we have never chosen our geographical location only for our pleasure, and we never will. We will never live by the ocean simply because we like beach walks, or nest in the mountains just because we like alpine air. We'll see which temporary circumstances make the most sense based on our understanding of our eternal circumstances. And we'll hammer in our tent pegs into this temporary soil accordingly. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

I'm staying in a spotless, spacious flat owned by friends of my fiancé's. They welcomed me to a pristine spare bedroom with a flat-screen TV and bubbly water. I am to help myself to their lovely kitchen's contents. Even now, I just finished a tasty European breakfast and I'm looking out onto their spacious balcony that overlooks the hilly city in which they live. They have made me more than comfortable for the remainder of my visit.

Somehow, they were worried I wouldn't like it here. And merely in a physical sense, it is quite likeable here. But as I move to my fourth continent, I know that life is about so much more than me, or about here. 
It's about HimGod.
And now, himmy almost-husband.
And thereHis unseen home and kingdom.

It's fun to be in love in Europe in autumn, eating street falafels and taking long walks. Last night foreign-sounding music was blasting below the bridge and we watched a boat crease through the river, folding the sunset's reflection in the water in its wake. As afternoon became evening we were going through more premarital counselling questions, this time about finances, and were reminded that we aren't owners, we are stewards. He is over all, and through all, and in all. In Him we live and move and have our being. All this is for Him—all this moving and settling, marrying and giving in marriage, Europe-living or Asia-living. All this is His.

For now we are stewards of bread pretzels and European efficiency—a memorable place to begin our marriage, in our cozy IKEA-furnished flat looking out at a quiet red-roofed neighbourhood. It might sound exciting to others, that my fiancé is whisking me off from dusty Asia to one of the world's top move-to countries. But we won't cling too tightly, as we may anytime be asked to exchange this for rolling corn fields and down home Americana, or another honking, writhing Asian metropolis.

Any day, this all will end and we will see, face-to-face, the spiritual kingdom on the other side of this life. I wonder, based on our stewardship here, what our assignments will be in His kingdom. How did we use our engagement season to edify others? How will we employ our wedding ceremony for His purposes? Will He be lifted up in our marriage, in our Europe months or years? We are training for reigning, by our stewardship of what we have here.

If we're going to "worry" about anything,
let's worry about that.

 But if we have food and clothing,
we will be content
with that.
— Paul

"Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,  for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.  Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.  Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.... Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.  We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.  Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you... — King David

October 08, 2014

dear single friend

Dear single friend,

In July, I did something unprecedented. Unexpected. And if you ask my siblings, un-Julie-like. I told a man I'd marry him.

We sat on a park bench next to old Civil War cannons in the dapple of mid-morning sunlight. He did something ordinary for him—read to me from the Good Book. But this time, when he finished reading, he pulled out a red letter which he'd concealed between that Book's pages, and asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could see my eyes. I knew what must be coming. He read me words of godly commitment—and with his trademark genuineness, asked, "....will you marry me?"
Of course, I said "Yes!" And we cried a little, and smiled a lot, at this decision that seemed so obvious and so right, both to us and to our families...a decision that has seemed more "right" the longer we've watched it play out.

Dear single friend, we've dreamed about that moment for years, right? And often wondered if it would ever happen. Maybe that's why I cried, when he proposed, and also as I started to write this post.

Because singleness left an ache,
that ache that Genesis termed "not good",
that ache that we almost feel unspiritual admitting to
("Isn't God enough?")
that ache that ebbed and flowed through the years,
sometimes worse, sometimes better.

I don't quite know when I started identifying as a "single". Maybe it was in high school, when there were nearly no boys to date but my teen girl magazines assumed there were. Maybe it was when the boys who pursued me were socially awkward, or lacking common sense or insight when it came to conversational topics. I had only one semi-brush with romance in my first 27 years, and afterward my friend told me that I didn't talk about guys as much anymore. Because I was realizing that finding romance seems more akin to winning the lottery than to going shopping: you can't decide for yourself when it will happen. You can't go out and buy genuine, reciprocated affection and commitment. For the most part, you have to wait for it to happen.

(I think that the waiting, the not knowing if it will ever happen, is one of the single person's most precious "materials for sacrifice"—demanding nothing from God, being patient to go from day to day with no promise of marriage by a certain age. If someone had told me I'd be married just before my 29th birthday, I would have been OK with that. But the hard part was contentment in not knowing if I'd marry at all. You know what I mean.)

To make matters worse, as single girls, most of us have been told, by a well-intentioned married friend: "It seemed like just when I surrendered my singleness to God, that's when [insert Husband Charming's name here] came along." Which always left us feeling that if we were only more spiritual and surrendered and satisfied, somehow a man would materialize before our eyes. As if marriage were a prize handed out to the godly.

I won't burden you with any such story. I'm just amazed at how hard it was to meet someone until it was my someone, and then how easily it all came, once God knew it would be a good thing for me.

Engagement thrust me into a world of veils and vows, reproduction and registries. I don't know about this stuff. Remember, I've been single, for nearly 29 years. I had never owned a diamond until my fiancé gave me one. I still can't spell "boutonniere" to save my life; I have to Google it every time. I hardly know any "human love" songs to play at our wedding, because I had to abstain from listening to them so as not to foster discontent when I was single. (It's OK, I know lots of "God's love" songs, and His love is better, anyway, for the single and the married). I feel awkward in front of my peer single friends when a big fuss is made over me because I'm getting married—you should be fussed over just as much as me, you're just as valuable to society. And no, I haven't finalized my dress yet, and the wedding is just over one month away.

Married ladies are saying "Welcome to our side! Here, reuse my veil!" and giving me free birth control advice. Well-intentioned married people are telling me how tough marriage can be. And I'm transitioning, because I still identify with my fellow non-wives, many of whom have shared my journey. My non-wife years have been rich. In my mind, I'm slowly shifting into thinking as someone who comes in a pair, someone who is almost a wife. (Thankfully, it's coming quite naturally).

It's quiet on the phone and then he asks me—
"Are you excited about moving and living here?"

(Did I mention, that by marrying him, I'll be moving to another new-to-me continent, again? He's a bit nervous that I won't like his host country.)

I ask for clarification,
"Do you mean, am I excited to marry you, or excited to live where you live?"

"I know the answer to the first question, Julie. But what are you most and least excited about moving and living here?"

I tell him that I'm excited to make a home for him—to transform his bachelor flat into a joyful and colourful place for him to come home to. To have our conversations over supper, not over Skype. But I admit that I'm concerned I might be a bit lonely, some days, due to the double-edged sword of learning what it's like to make friends as a married woman, and making friends in a language I hardly speak. Some days I'll probably miss the freedom of friendship-building from my single years—our impromptu outings, our late-night talks on the doorsteps of the chruch or on bunks at camp, or our trips from anywhere from Anchorage to Prague. While I'm happier than happy to marry this godly man, it's just reality, that some days I might miss some aspects of being a

dear single friend.

We always expect that life will change in great jolts. Certainly, sometimes it does: the sudden death of a loved one or a shocking situation changes life as we know it, forever. But for the most part, life is just lots of everyday living. Decisions that we make (or don't make) over dirty dishes or laundry or in other mundane circumstances shape our lives.

And maybe I thought that becoming engaged would be one of those jolts, but for the most part, it just felt like another day. Another day, on which I finalized a decision that will affect every day to come (though really it was a decision we had been easing toward since we first started talking, almost one year before.)

After agreeing to marry him, I thought to myself, "I don't know what 'until death do us part' looks like." I don't know what engagement, newlywed life, or parenting looks like. I don't know how to tell a man that I will love him for the rest of my life. Through holidays and hepatitis (God forbid), romance and renovations.  

But promises aren't kept in one-year, or five-year, or fifty-year chunks. Rather, they are kept in faithful seconds, thoughtful minutes, committed hours. I can seek to love him this hour, and then the next hour, and on and on after that. And if I do, someday I'll find that I've loved him in accord with that promise.

At the time of my engagement I was reading about Abraham, and that's probably an appropriate narrative for me, because he sure looks like he didn't know what he was doing. (Also, he moved all over creation. Apparently I do, too.)

God had to patiently work for many years with Abraham. There were a lot of years between "Get out of your country..." (Gen 12) and "Do not lay your hand on the lad..." (Gen 22). Sometimes with our "great patriarch" glasses, we forget that Abraham did stupid things too, like making a baby with Hagar, or deceiving people about his wife's true identity. His son, grandson, and great-grandsons had their share of faux pas as well. Actually, as I read their stories again recently, I saw with fresh eyes what a mess they were. They were no five-star family with a godly portfolio; they were much the opposite.

And friend, that's because the story recorded in the Good Book wasn't ever really about Abraham, Isaac or Jacob anyway. The story is about God. I started worshipping God in a new way, this time, after reading the miserable patriarchs' stories. I started worshiping Him for being different. Because the rest of us fail, and often we fail miserably. But He never failed. J'esus is better. He is the perfect prophet, perfect priest, perfect king. The perfect patriarch, if you will.

As I studied God's appearances to Abraham (sometimes spaced apart by many years) it struck me that for every command He gave Abraham, He made more demands on Himself than He did on Abraham. If He could work in Abraham's story, He can work in mine, too. My life story is about showcasing His greatness, not my own prowess at being single or married. It is God who is at work in you, to will and to do according to His good purpose.

Before Isaac was even born, God was speaking in what sounds like past tense: "I have made you a father of many nations...." Because when God makes a promise for the future, it is as good as done. It comforts me to know that when God sees our lives, He sees them already completed. He must not know whether to laugh at us or cry, when we insist on worrying or fussing about something that, in His eyes, is complete. He doesn't see us as singles or marrieds, He sees us as pilgrims and sojourners on this earth, where titles that refer to marital status often divide instead of uniting us.

Dear single friend, for every stage of our journey, we need and we have a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. Before a man ever promised me, "I will...", my God had promised first. His promise is the most reliable. I rested in that promise as a single, and must continue to rest in it once I marry.

While my life is changing, and my loyalties, my time and my love are becoming more and more my husband-to-be's, I do still love and appreciate you,

dear single friend.

Thank you for journeying with me.