First Last Days

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It’s my last first day and I’m thinking about the excitement of the other first days. First days meant (and still mean) a shiny bookbag, new clothes, and meticulously selected pencil cases, notebooks, and folders. First days meant showing off a tan and swapping stories of the summer’s adventures.
It’s my last first day and I’m thinking about the long line of people that got me here. The physical therapists that didn’t give up on teaching me to speak and walk. The kindergarten teacher that assigned someone to walk to the library with me because I was too small to open the door by myself. The first grade teacher that got me my own chair because I couldn’t stay seated on the floor during story time. The eight grade teacher that came to my house and helped me study the night before the final. The dance teacher that made every girl in the studio believe she was the favorite. The college professors who have handed out cell phone numbers and kept faithful office hours, always willing to help a student in need. The parents who made each first day a special day.
It’s my last first day of college and I’m thinking about the last first day of high school. There was an assembly for the whole school, the same one held every year. Kindergarteners through 11th graders would be shuffling impatiently on the bleachers, until the headmaster came to the microphone and the room stilled. We heard the words we’d been thinking of all summer, “Please rise for the seniors to enter”. It was like a wedding, everyone stood as we walked in, and then applauded as we found our seats on the front row.
Today there is no such fanfare, there is no class picture or matching t-shirts. There is just me leaving my apartment and walking with a friend to class, us both with the bittersweet knowledge that today is our last first day.

Beyond the Fog

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There’s this fog in my future.

It rolled into my sight a while ago, though I just now realized how dense and all-encompassing it is. It extends from tomorrow, to the internship I have to get this summer, to the life I’ll have upon graduating college. The friends I have now are wrapped in it (though some of them are crystal-clear beside me) as well as any future relationships.

I’m willing to bet you have some fog in your life as well. Maybe you are starting a new job and are unsure of how to fit in at the office. Maybe you are ending a relationship and don’t remember what it is like to be single. Maybe you are moving cross-country knowing no one in your new town. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Either way, I have never met a person with a constant panoramic view and so the comforting news is, you’re not alone.

This hill that I’m standing on in this picture, I’d been to before. I know what the view looks like (it’s a good one!)  and I know you can go a long way before it drops off.  The friend I was with had never been there, and was more hesitant. But here’s the thing about fog: it’s only messy at a distance. The closer you get, the further ahead you can see. So my friend ended up walking down the hill and as she walked I wondered if that was how God feels watching us get nervous about our futures. I can picture Him watching me squirm and stress, shaking his head at me saying “I don’t know why you’re afraid-I know what’s beyond the fog! I picked it just for you and man, will you enjoy it.”

Nothing under God’s control is ever out of control. You’ll keep marching towards your future and I’ll keep marching towards mine and one day we’ll both look up and exclaim in wonder at the sight before us. The fog will be gone and we’ll see our big, bright, special futures stretched out before us.

We’d better savor the view while it’s here, though. There might be another fog rolling in soon.

 

American Girl

It was Laura Ingalls Wilder, boldly blazing her way across the prairie. It was Ramona Quimby, always coloring outside the lines. It was Nancy Drew, outwitting criminal after criminal. It was Samantha standing against child labor. It was Kit reporting on the Great Depression. It was Molly putting on a USO show to benefit the troops in World War II. It is me voting in my first presidential election. It is generation after generation of women deciding to get off their couches and do something that defines the term American Girl.

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Fourth of July has become my favorite holiday. There’s no controversy, no pressure of gift giving, and everyone is celebrating. It’s one giant glorified pep rally, and as a former cheerleader I’m all about a pep rally. Last summer, I painted my face, I listened to “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” on repeat, and I waved my flag like there was no tomorrow. I assured everyone I saw that there ain’t no doubt I love this land. But until the moment I put pen to paper and checked off a candidate, I was speaking empty words. How could I be proud to be an American when I had not done anything to BE an American? I admit to you, with some shame: I was not planning on voting. I read the news articles, watched the debates and generally kept myself updated. But when it came to forming and acting on an opinion, I was basically an ostrich burying its head in the sand. I avoided the people posted on campus asking me to register and I stopped talking when my friends brought it up. It wasn’t that I did not want to vote, I was just indifferent, which is the worst thing an American can be.

I live about a fifteen-minute walk from my campus, a walk that I truly cherish each day. It’s my guaranteed me-time. I call my mom, I talk to God, or I give myself pep talks. I live in a safe place, but I’m not stupid. If I’m on campus at night, I try to make sure I’m with someone who can give me a ride back, or I walk with friends that live near me. But last Tuesday, I lost track of time and found myself walking back at night, alone. I was thinking about the election and the candidates and my body got shivers when my brain got to Trump. Most of what the candidates talked about were just words to me, never issues that intersected with my life. But there is one topic that grabbed my attention that night and took it for a ride. I am a small girl in a big world, and the horrifying truth is that if a man decided to rape me, there is little I could do about it, and there’s no guarantee he’ll get in trouble for it. This is not just a me-problem. This is every woman who has learned to hold her car keys pointed stabby-side out. This is every can of pepper spray ever bought. I realized that any president that is okay with this is not okay with me. And I realized that if I don’t do anything about what I’m not okay with, I’m letting down the American Girls I mentioned earlier. I’m letting down future American Girls. Most important, I’m stripping away my right to call myself an American Girl.

Two days later, I voted.

Being an American Girl is not wearing red, white, and blue. It’s not being able to make the perfect apple pie. The quality of our citizenship is not determined by whether we sit or stand or where we put our hats during the National Anthem. It is not determined by wearing a sticker that says “I Voted!” but instead, it is determined by the action behind the sticker. The test to being an American girl is simple: all you have to do is do.

Here is the Church 

“The walls of the church are meant to be structured enough to create a sense of real belonging yet fluid enough so that no one is left out.” Rend Collective 

My friend Megan is a couple years older than I am. When I was a freshman in college, she was a junior, and many weeks I rode with her to her church. I always enjoyed visiting there-the music is good, the people are friendly, and the pastor gives sermons that take your mind for a ride. But I could never bring myself to make it MY church because I could not get over one thing-this church does not have its own building. Instead, it meets in the auditorium of the county’s high school. They have the resources to get a building, if they desire, but they don’t feel that it is necessary. As a freshman, I did not understand that. I had this idea that not having a building or place to call their own meant they simply ceased to exist during the other six days. 

Fast forward to now. I’m about to be a junior, and I’ve become very active in a different local church. And though it is a church that has its own 150-year-old building, it is the church that has challenged my every thought on the word “church”.

We all know the rhyme that goes “here is the church, here is the steeple; open the doors, and see all the people.” Everyone’s heard that, everyone knows the motions-hands in fists, index fingers up, thumbs out, then flip it all upside down. It’s fun, catchy, easy to learn, pretty well-known. 

But it’s also wrong. 

That fun little rhyme, it mentions the church first, and keeps the people inside it. As a now-junior, I’m seeing why my friend Megan’s church had the mentality that it did. It is the people that should come first in the rhyme, a church without people is just a building. The term church, it refers to fellowship of brothers and sisters, not four walls and a steeple. It refers to a joint abandonment of this world, a group effort to keep minds and hearts pointed to Christ. It can happen anywhere-in a home, on a mountain, and as I’ve recently discovered, in two languages at once. Here is the church should not mean “here” as in a contained set of coordinates on a map, but “here” as in the space you and I and God are currently existing in. 

I’ll say it once more-here is the church. 

Happy Feet 

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week with this picture. Looking at it, thinking about it, trying to come up with a  clever caption I could pair it with on Instagram (nope). I tried to tuck it away in my brain’s file cabinet, but it kept flying out of the drawer and drifting into my radar.

Funny how God works (isn’t this phrase the beginning of most great stories?)-as this picture popped into my mind over and over again, so did the verse Romans 10:15.

“How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

I Google image-searched the words “beautiful feet”, and (not surprising to me) my feet do not match the pictures. In those pictures, the skin was smooth, even, and the toes were all painted. My toes have been un-pedicured for well over a year, the skin on my heels is rough, and I have strips of pale and tan skin criss-crossing each other like the pattern on a zebra, forming the shape of my sandals. I often end my days with dirt as a souvenir because (I am a child and) sidewalks just aren’t my cup of tea.

But here’s the deal with that “not being of the world”idea (Romans 12:2). It means that Google does not get to define me. My feet are beautiful to God not because they can win a modeling contest (if such a thing exists for feet) , but because they are capable. My feet, who at first didn’t even want to  let me walk, eventually got on the same team as my brain. Since then, they have carried me through dance after dance, up mountain after mountain, and have enabled me to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people all over the state of North Carolina and beyond.

This summer, I’ll be traveling to Romania with a group of people from the church I attend in Boone. This is new territory for me. I don’t know the culture and I don’t know the language. I don’t know who I’ll be interacting with or how and I don’t know that I will be good at it. 

But I do know God won’t let us down. He’ll guide us through the murky waters of the river of Sharing the The Gospel with Unreached People, and hopefully we’ll see incredible things happen. How beautiful are the feet of those who share the good news. How beautiful are the dusty feet, the calloused feet, the feet that have climbed to the highest of places to shout to the world “Good news and great joy!”, the feet that have been lived on. 

The Power of a Cheerleader-Part Two

(Backstory-Part One is an essay my mom wrote on cheerleading, parents, and a present.)

On his last Christmas (December 2004), my grandpa gifted to my mom a briefcase. A super-deluxe, multi-pocketed, briefcase-to end-all-briefcases. My mom didn’t understand why, as she was mostly a stay-at-home mom then. But she accepted his gift and when he died a week and a half after that Christmas, she put the briefcase up, my family made a quick trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral, and then our life in Andover, Kansas went on as normal.

Or so I thought. Later I learned (and I was eight at the time, there’s no reason why she would have told me then) that in those months after my grandfather died, my mom had fallen into somewhat of a depression. She woke up every night in sadness, her daily activities were muted, and she couldn’t figure out the briefcase.

My mom never has been and never will be a sports-oriented person. Growing up, she was always reading, never went to her school’s football games, and (if we’re being honest) thought cheerleaders were a little dumb. I can’t imagine her surprise when I, at seven years old, threw down my book and said “Mommy, I want to be a cheerleader.” Like the supportive parent she is, she signed me up, probably half-hoping I would try it, figure out it wasn’t my thing, and go back to my books. Spoiler alert-that wasn’t the case. I didn’t set my pom-poms back down until my senior year of high school. Everywhere I went (vacations, the grocery store, the car) my cheers came with me. Saturday mornings in elementary school meant waking up early, putting on my perfect pleated skirt, and yelling my little heart out for the Andover Cyclones. I loved that at least for a little while, my sole purpose in life was to tell someone “good job!” It didn’t matter if my team was winning or losing the game-I was there to encourage the team, to remind them they were great.

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On one of those Saturday mornings as my mom was sitting in the bleachers watching me perform, she realized why she had been feeling so down. Just as I was cheering on my  team, her father had always cheered her on. He was always on the sidelines of her life, waiting with a pom-pom and a smile. He gave her that briefcase because he truly believed that one day she’d be able to fill each and every pocket with something important. I know from experience-most people don’t pay too much attention the cheerleaders. They hear us yelling, they see us clapping, but for the most part, we’re peppy background noise. And for my mom, that background noise was suddenly gone.

I’ve known this story for a long time, but I never truly understood it until yesterday. As a birthday gift, my mom ordered for me business cards. Don’t get me wrong-I absolutely love them. They’re pretty and polka-dotted and make me feel so important. Not to mention, they came in their own little carrying case, etched with the phrase “let’s do lunch”. I was so grateful for this newfound glamour, but just like the briefcase, I was confused. Who on earth would I possibly have to hand out a business card too? But then I realized- I’d spent so long on the sidelines cheering others on that I didn’t know what it felt like to be the one on the field, to be the one being cheered on. And although she would never classify herself as “peppy” or “athletic”, my mom has been on my sidelines my entire life, doing battle on my behalf with pom-poms and a pretty bow. She truly believes that I am important enough to own business cards, that I’m special enough for people to want to take them.

As a cheerleader in high school, I sometimes wondered whether the players cared about our encouragements, or if they even noticed. But now I know the power of a cheerleader. When I’ve got the ball and the big guys are coming at me from every direction, that one voice on the sidelines can make all the difference.

Optimism (Lessons from a Button)

A couple days after Christmas, I was in the car with my friend Andrew, driving across the state of North Carolina. We had about three hours in the car, and we were debating the key difference between the two of us: what we do with life’s lemons, how we describe the level of liquid in the proverbial glass, whether or not we think the sun will come out tomorrow.

Two facts about me: I’m terribly optimistic, and I have a lot of energy. When I was a toddler, I couldn’t crawl and I couldn’t walk, but I wouldn’t just sit there, so I chased after my older brother by pushing myself around by my arms (I imagine I strongly resembled a worm). In first grade, my class sat on the floor during story time. Within a month of school starting, I was stripped of that privilege because I would randomly yet regularly stand up. My teacher set up a small camp chair in a  creative and valiant effort to contain me. Fast forward to now: I’m a sophomore in college, and I haven’t settled down any. I wake up before 8:00 most days ready to roll. I don’t drink coffee, and the last time I had regular soda I couldn’t stop moving for the next twelve hours. I have a theory that over my almost-twenty years of life, my physical refusal to stay down has somehow leaked over into my mental state. I experience negative emotions, just like everyone else, but they are strongly and swiftly run out of my brain by a voice telling me “Wait but look! Look at this bright spot! Look at this fun thing!”

I have been told this is a contrast to most  college students, and I can say with certainty that it is a contrast to the one that was currently occupying the passenger seat of my car. Andrew Mckinney is a lover of coffee and a needer of caffeine. He is six feet and six inches of musical cleverness, creative handiness, brave adventure-ness, and strong kindness. His view of the world is (self-described as) cynical, often bordering on pessimistic. I appreciate and celebrate this difference between us, though I have before felt the need to insert in him an IV of straight sunshine.

We go down the highway debating back and forth and I’m trying to think of a way to explain my optimism to Andrew. See, to me, finding the good in the world is as obvious as a fish swimming through the ocean in search of water. The fish may have to focus for a second, but then he realizes, oh wait, oh my goodness, I am surrounded by this. But I know seeing the happy in the world is easier said than done, and  I wanted to find a way to better illustrate my mind.

Two days ago, I was at one of my favorite stores Anthropologie. Anthropologie sells clothes and home decors. Everything is whimsical, colorful and straight out of my dreams. I was flipping through the sale rack (bad thing about this store: it’s generally out of my price range) when  I came across a pair of pants with this tag: 

That little button is already of great use: it struck me with a truth I couldn’t believe I had forgotten.  I think we can all agree: that button is completely ordinary. It’s of average size, brown, four holes, no fun pattern or anything. Without that tag, I may have seen it, but I wouldn’t have thought about it. But with that tag, that button made me smile and take a picture and sent my mind spinning. That’s what optimism is all about: finding the extra in the ordinary. Taking those things that no one thinks about, like the button, and making them count.

Thank you, Anthropologie, for making things count.

In Support of Starbucks 

It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without presents, boxes, or bags! It came without…..a decorated cup?

Since first appearing in 1997, the reveal of the Red Cup in Starbucks stores has meant that the holiday season is here. Previous designs on the cup have included snowmen, reindeer, ornaments, and other symbols of winter, each one telling a story. But this year, Starbucks decided to let customers write their own story, introducing a simple two-toned red cup.

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And people are mad about it. Joshua Ferstein, a former pastor who calls himself a “social media personality” posted a video on Facebook that went viral. In this video, Ferstein accused Starbucks of “removing Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus.”

I’m sorry, did I miss something? The long-haired, chill-looking person that’s usually on the cups isn’t Jesus, it’s a mermaid. And customers have NEVER been able to sip from a cup showcasing a nativity scene. Customers can still purchase the Christmas Coffee and purchase gift cards with “Merry Christmas!” written on them.

Newsflash- Starbucks has never claimed to be a Christian company. In fact, quite the opposite. They have stores in 68 countries, serving millions of customers a day. These customers, they celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, other holidays, or nothing at all in December. They were just trying to be as inclusive as possible in this season of many holidays. Truthfully, Starbucks is doing what God calls us all to do: love your neighbor as yourself.

Dr. Seuss was on to something- maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store (or coffee shop.) Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a bit more. Nobody’s choice in decoration is the reason for the season. The Great Commission is kind of a DIY operation. So if you really want to see the Christmas spirit at work in Starbucks, buy the person in line behind you a drink. Sit down with them, crack open your Bible, and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Pretty Girl

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I recently put this picture on my Facebook page. Someone (I don’t remember who) commented “You both have such pretty smiles!” That’s not a particularly profound or unique thing to say, and whoever wrote it probably didn’t even think about it while she was typing.

But I did. I thought about it once, twice, a lot of times. You see, I have this thing called hypodontia, which means that I’m missing a lot of teeth. No one punched them out of me. There’s no dramatic story. They just never showed up. I don’t know how or why that happened-my best theory is that I got distracted and wandered off while God was handing out teeth in heaven. But I do know that because of it, most of my life has been a long road of retainers and braces and surgeries and bone grafts. My first set of braces was put in when I was eight-I’m now nineteen and still not finished. In August of this year, the permanent versions of my top teeth were put in (what a celebration that was!!!!) I still don’t have permanent teeth on the bottom- I wear a retainer that has teeth that can pop in and out of my mouth. It’s really not bad, my quality of life has never been affected. But it does mean that  I would never describe my smile as a pretty one, and I’d never heard it described as such until I read that comment. 

And, I know, there are a lot more important things to be than pretty. Pretty kind, pretty curious, pretty creative, pretty helpful. Those traits, they’ll get me far in life. They ensure that I am never bored and never alone. But here’s some advice-never underestimate the power of beauty. Sometimes the only thing that gives me confidence is looking at the mirror and smiling at myself with the knowledge that yes, finally, I am a pretty girl.