For Goodness’ Sake

There it was, laying face up on my chair like a cheery piece of sunshine. Unaware that it was Valentine’s Day – or even what that meant – 2nd grade-Mary bent down to examine the token of friendship bestowed anonymously to each member of first period choir class. She was floored, as any eight year old would be by a purple card with pink hearts and a cheap lollipop glued to the top. But instead of delight, she felt jealousy. She was envious of those girls who had something to give out, who had the power to make people feel special with their flimsy purple cutouts and cheap candy, because she had nothing.

IMG_0325That was my introduction to Valentine’s Day, a holiday I have always loved because I’m a hopeless romantic and because CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING.

Obviously, the first thing this proves, is that even eight-year olds have a sin nature, and mine hasn’t changed much since 1998. I have always been a little obsessed with being the ‘goodest’ person in the room, not for goodness’ sake, but for my own vanity.

In 2013, Sarah and I – stranded at a drugstore in Irvine – bought several bags of those cheap Valentines cards and heart-shaped pops. We sat on a curb in the parking lot and signed every single one, and then handed them out to our friends. It took most of the weekend, but it was the best Valentine’s Day adventures ever. Partly because I do genuinely enjoy giving, but also partly because I relished the powers of bestowing ‘specialness’ upon those I deemed deserving of a Valentine and being worshiped as an exceedingly thoughtful and kind human being in return.

How we do set ourselves up as gods.

That was the last decent Valentine’s Day I had. The day has expectations attached to it and frankly, I found myself buying chocolate in bulk for personal consumption after hours at Target more than once. It’s just hard for any day (let alone one that parades around in red teddy bears and CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING) to live up to the standards we set – a day where we feel completely loved and special. Ha, a day about us, essentially. (Ergo, I don’t feel as guilty as I should about the buying of chocolate en masse on my own at midnight).

Valentine’s isn’t really celebrated as pompously in the Czech Republic as it is in the USA. But I decided to make the best of it this year anyway, because you can’t waste an opportunity to put hearts on every available surface.

I got up early to make mini cinnamon rolls (pink, because, obviously). Despite my turbulent history in the kitchen, they came out alright – fluffy and sticky and sweet enough to not need frosting (which I forgot to make because, obviously).

I cleaned the kitchen and the living room, stuck little hearts on the window and piled craft supplies on the dining room table.

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Once a month, my church here in Prague hosts a ‘Girl’s Club’ for 11-13 year olds. I do a lot of the organizing and prepare the devotional. Many of the girls who come are from the school I teach at. It’s a really good opportunity for them to practice English because my Czech taps out after ten minutes, but Marilyn helps with translation when needed, especially for the Bible study.

The girls arrived promptly at ten o’clock, coming up to our front door, bundled in hats and mittens. It’s cold outside.

Warm cups of fruit tea (pink!) were passed around in flowered china mugs. They sat around the coffee table for a few minutes, thawing out by the fire, as I tried to explain what cinnamon rolls are (because they don’t exist in this country).

Then it was on to the craft: puff monsters. These are direct proof that some good things do come from the hours I spend on pinterest. In 45 minutes, eight girls went through all four skein’s of red, white, purple and pink yarn. Most of the fake eyes were used and a lot of the brightly threaded pipe cleaners. Lots of giggling, lots of nimble fingers, lots of focused eyes. Once they got going, talking faded out as they concentrated on winding string, tying knots, and placing pipe-cleaner. I’ve become a firm believe in crafts. Working with your hands. Producing something that you can give. What a lost art – giving.

The table looked like a colored thread factory ransacked by chimpanzees by the time we moved on to the devotional. Honestly, it’s a good look for a table.

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Bibles opened to John where we read about the woman at the well. It was sweet to see girls learning how to find things in the Bible, many for the first time. Numbers for pages, numbers for chapters, numbers for verses.

The woman at the well has become a relatable character for me as I get older and lose more and more of my self-righteousness. I see a lot of myself in her. Five husbands? I can see a parallel universe where that ends up being me. Desperate for love, desperate for fulfillment, desperate for meaning. And in my community, meaning and purpose for women is marriage. That’s what we’re taught. Family. Raising the next generation. And I want it. I want that. I want to be wanted and to mean something to someone and to have an important, fulfilling job – to have a purpose.

So that’s what we talked about, me and these little girls. Love and purpose. Did the woman at the well find what she was looking for?

No.

Did all those relationships make her happy?

No.

What changed?

We opened up to my favorite Psalm (139) and read about God – because some of these girls know nothing about Him. We read that God knows us better than we know ourselves, that we can’t hide from him. We read that he formed us, created us by hand, unique. And we read that he can lead us in ‘the way everlasting.’

What changed? She was found by God. She was saved. She was shown her purpose – to glorify God! What does she do? She goes back into town and tells everyone about the man at the well and through her testimony, others are led to Christ.

That’s purpose.

We answered questions and closed in prayer. Tea was refilled and several girls made me promise to send them the recipe for the cinnamon rolls.

Then on with the hats and mittens. Out the door into the cold. Literally, the most perfect little Valentine’s Day morning ever.

I spent a half hour washing mugs and sweeping up bits of colored yarn. Time to think about Valentine’s Day and the sweetest party I’ve ever been to.

This year has been so different for me. I keep telling my Mom it’s because I’m not in the American pressure cooker that insists you’re not anybody unless you have somebody. But it’s the same everywhere, really.

What changed?

When did this day stop evolving around me?

I think what happened was moving to Prague. It was seeing that my life will feel like an unsatisfactory let-down – like a boring Valentine’s Day – if my focus is myself. Not that moving across the world helped me focus on and serve God better – I could have done that in San Diego. But I have no excuses here. My faults are spread out like butter across bread for everyone at the table to see. Vanity visibly gets in the way of my work here so I’ve learned to keep it at bay. And God is faithful. He has shown me that my best efforts to be gracious and good, when they have been to please myself or impress someone else, feel empty and fake. He has shown me that when I labor for him, his glorification is reward in itself.

So, like the woman at the well, I find my purpose. I find my fulfillment. I find love at its very source, in its truest form.

And Valentine’s becomes special in a way I could never have imagined. Not because I’ve learned how to be a better giver, but because I understand what it means to lay your heart before the Lord as a humble receiver.

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Lunch in a foreign land

I’ve grown quite fond of Czech lunches, but it occurs to me that many of my friends back home may be surprised to see what exactly we eat here at midday.

A few things you should know about Czech culture, before we begin. Lunch is the big meal of the day. Breakfasts vary from family to family but tend to be light and dinners are more of a “tea” or “leftovers” kind of thing. Lunch is where it’s at. Also, soup is always, always served with lunch, though my school has an optional soup line and I don’t always partake.

Another sidenote: There are two menu listings at my school and I’ve finally learned enough Czech to know how to avoid the weirder things, so the following pictures are several weeks worth of the “better options” in my school’s cafeteria.

Pork and potato dumplings in gravy with soup, apple and juice (called šťáva).
The meat / carb ratio in this country can be a little disturbing. As in…very, very little meat. Ever. Thank goodness the carbs are good enough to carry the show by themselves.
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Battered pork with boiled potatoes, soup, apple and šťáva.
Cultural observation: nearly ever dish is served with some kind of sauce. Dry meals are unacceptable. If you gave a Czech a steak served by itself, they wouldn’t know how to eat it.

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Dumplings in strawberry sauce, apple and tea.
Yes. This is lunch. And, yes, it tastes exactly the way you’d expect it to.

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Fried fish with boiled potatoes and yogurt dressing. And šťáva.
I still occassionally have trouble understanding the lunch menu. “Jogurtoví dresínk” is always a tie-breaker. It redeems the foulest of foods.
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Mini-meatloafs, potato mush, carrot and cabbage salad with potato / sausage soup, an apple and šťáva.
It should be mentioned that even though that meatloaf looks a lil’ suspicious, it’s the bomb.
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Beef and vegetable stir-fry with rice, yogurt and šťáva.
I avoid the rice whenever possible because it tends to be too salty – a side-effect of living in a country where all the cooks are smokers.20150116_115234

Pork and noodles in “Universal Brown Sauce” (I didn’t make up that term – Czechs actually call it that), with soup and šťáva.
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Pork, “Universal Brown Sauce (with chunks of hot dog!)” and mashed potatoes with dill / potato soup, a chocolate-banana cake and šťáva.
Mashed potatoes in this country are really more like pureed potatoes. Very soupy. Very delicious.20150120_124902

Pork and gravy with bread dumplings, soup and šťáva.
Bread dumplings are always a good call. Always.

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Sausage, mashed peas and pickles with a piece of “chocolate cake” and šťáva.
Believe it or not, this is one of my favorite meals here. “Chocolate cake” is in quotations because there isn’t enough chocolate in that bread for it to be considered ‘chocolate’ or ‘cake.’20150127_124252

Pork with spinach, gravy and potato dumplings. Dill / potato soup and šťáva.
This is another one of my favorites and it also happens to be a very traditional Czech meal. Sometimes in restaurants, they’ll serve the spinach with garlic cloves. Mmmm, good!20150203_124147

Fried rice, beets, pea soup, a kiwi (because, why the heck not?) and šťáva.
For those of you who are too American to know this, the beets are the diced up red things. Deeelicious.20150204_124316

Mini-yeast rolls in cream sauce, soup, apple, šťáva.
This is the most “un-lunchy” lunch we are served at school. The cream sauce is basically sweetened-condensed milk. I cannot find the redemptive, nutritious value in this food – pretty sure there is none. I guess it just goes to show that every culture has their “soul food.”
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