Elephants in the snow

IMG_0170My mom used to put a night light in our bathroom when I was little. It was a ceramic house with Victorian windows and snow-covered roofs. It was such a pretty sight, aglow in the dark, and I was fascinated by it. Maybe because when you’re wide-awake at two in the morning as a seven-year old, the light from the hallway bathroom is the most interesting thing in the house. But probably also because that quaint little house looked so out of place in my bathroom. Something so elegant, so fairy-like, shouldn’t be sitting next to my toothbrush. I would stare into the light and imagine beautiful parties or cozy family dinners in that little house. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be on the street outside its front door, in that winter wonderland, in whatever world its from, far, far away.

Let’s fast-forward to the last two days of January 2015. I’m sitting on a bus that bounces down a familiar road from Prague to Liberec to visit some friends. As we rise in elevation, the fields outside go from brown to winter green to white. It’s snowing in Liberec when I step off the bus onto the cobblestone of the city’s transit center. My friends are waiting for me – both blond-haired and blue-eyed. Twins.

We say our ‘hello’s and I dance around merrily, delighted by the weather. Then we march off toward our destination: the city pool.

It’s snowing lightly as we slip across the stones and sidewalks. If you’re an American reading this, I can promise you that you’d think the distance we walked just to get to this pool was outrageous. Honestly, it feels pretty normal to me now. Europeans walk everywhere.

Czechs do public pools differently than Americans. There is a whole sanitation and pre-swimming washing ritual that is religiously upheld. You wade through foot pools between each room to keep the dirt out, shower before entering the pool area, and get blasted by waterjets as a final measure of cleanliness before you can enter the deck. But it’s worth it. There are water slides and toboggan runs like those you find at aquaparks. There are multiple spas and diving boards and a power-generated river that sweeps swimmers outside (into the snow) in a steamy current. And then, of course, there’s the massive pool in the middle of it all.

“This is the largest pool of its kind in Central Europe,” explains the twins’ mom who has joined us at the poolside. I believe it.

Eventually, we go back through all the shower jets and water pools to get to the lockers and then it’s into the cold January afternoon again. Lunch time.

“Do you want to take the bus back?” asks the sister. The mom has gone ahead and the brother is still somewhere in the men’s lockers.

“I don’t mind walking,” I say. So we trek. It’s a hike through slushy streets and park walks and snow-capped hills dappled with laughing children tumbling off plastic sleds. We talk about names of birds and animals, tripping over the language barrier as frequently as we slip on the frozen path.

Lunch is hot and waiting when the elevator doors drop us off on the fifth floor outside their flat. The kitchen table is set right against a large window that looks out over the town as it winds its way into the foothills of the mountain.

My breath completely escapes me. It looks like a snowglobe in the frame of the window. Thick flakes whirl outside, frosting sea-green and candy-red rooftops. A church steeple lifts above the sleepy homes that sink into the forests climbing the mountain. Everything is dusted with sugar-white snow and pressed against a pale grey sky.

“The view from the front window is even better,” says the Mom from the stove. “But you won’t be able to see much right now. It’s too cloudy.”

I spend all of lunch just looking out that window.

We go to a tea house when the dishes are cleared and whittle away the rest of the afternoon playing cards games and sipping special brews from china cups.

It is dark when we re-enter the apartment. A movie and then bed. After all the swimming and all the walking, I fall asleep right away.

We wake up to sunshine – a rare treat this time of year. The sky is bright blue and soft as a bird’s feather. The view from the front window is indeed breathtaking. With clouds out of the way, the lookout tower is clearly visible on top of Ještěd, a mountain that looks like the flank of a sleeping dragon. The lookout tower, dressed in crystal and icicles, could just as easily be a fairy palace. It seems out of place above the sprawling apartment complexes below – it should belong in the clouds.

Breakfast consists of bread with cheese and meat spreads, apple strudel and hot tea. We bundle up, pulling out snowshoes and pants, scarves and hats and gloves. The elevator takes us and our two wooden sleighs to the bottom floor where we make our way outside, across the town, to the bus leaving for the mountains.

It’s a jolly bus, packed entirely with skiers and sledders (and their dogs). Everyone is in a good mood, even those of us forced to stand in the isle. The bus driver is playing a mesh of classic American folk music and Czech bluegrass, the latter of which is a special kind of joy that I only discovered just last year.

There is even more snow carpeting the ground up here in the collar of the mountain. Sledding the hills and walking the straights, we set down a path in the middle of an enchanted, snow-flaked forest. Every tree branch looks like a sugar cookie that has been piled with too much icing. The snow crunches – actually crunches – beneath my feet.

Downhill isn’t as easy a path as one might expect, mostly because sledding isn’t as easy as one might expect. Lots of overturned rides, lots of wet grins and frosty giggles. Lots of snowflakes.

They look like fairies, they really do. So delicate and precise, their swift dance through the woods around us, I can almost see their glowing faces and silver wings.

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We reach the bottom of the mountain in about an hour and a half. Then we pick up our sleds and walk – walk – all the way back to the house.

Just below the path we’ve left is a botanical garden and a zoo. We can see the elephants in the corner of their enclosure, keeping each other warm. It looks so odd to see elephants in the snow and I wonder how well their leathery skin keeps them warm.

As we drag our sleds through the town we turn into an older neighborhood, nestled along the ridge of the mountain steps. All the houses loom over us as we patter down the cobblestone street. Built at the turn-of-the-century, they have all the trappings of the once-wealthy, aristocratic life. Many of them have not been well kept up, but some still have deep blue trims and tiles or ivy growing in heart-shaped patterns around red-framed windows. And they are all covered in snow. I can almost hear the sound of music and laughter from balls and dinner parties that must have happened in those homes a century ago. It feels strange to be standing right outside them, like walking below giants that have been frozen in time. They look like gingerbread houses. No, they look like my nightlight.

The apartment comes into view and I can almost smell the lunch that is waiting for us. In those final steps home, I think about how strange it is that we spend so much time trying to fit in when the most beautiful things in the world are the things that stand out.

I think it’s okay to march to the beat of a different drum. In fact, I think that’s what we’re called to do. As Christians in a world where most people will fundamentally not understand our perspective on living, we must look a bit like elephants in the snow. But I’m okay with people gawking through the cracks at me if it also means that they’re reminded of some place warmer. I’d be honored to be the mountain tower that people see and think of heaven, even if it means feeling out of place on earth. I don’t mind sitting next to the toothbrushes if I can be a light for someone in the dark.

 

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Cosmic spots

The bus driver gave us an early-morning glower as he held the doors open long enough for us to jump through, bags still flying behind us.

“Okay, I owe you one,” I said, panting.

“You owe me several,” Sarah said, leaning against a balance railing. Julie spotted us from the back of the bus and moved forward.

“Did you just get here?” she said. “I didn’t think you’d make it.”

Sarah glared at me and I sat down, untangling myself from my scarf and hat. Our bodies were hot from running uphill through the icy forest and our lungs burned from heaving in the frozen air.

“It’s been a rough morning,” I said. I keep forgetting Americans in our neck of the woods don’t often run after buses. Sarah wasn’t used to this.

Julie laughed. “I know, I’ve had some of those days too.”

The morning had really only just started. It was barely 6:30 a.m. and still very much dark outside. The bus rumbled through the village, on its way to the city, and our stomachs rumbled with it.

“I don’t do well without breakfast,” Sarah had told me several times earlier as she wolfed down a bowl of yogurt and I scrambled to get everything by the door in time to leave – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

From the bus, we took a metro all the way to the end of the line – about 40 minutes to wish we were back in our warm, cozy beds. We climbed out of the metro, the light just beginning to wake the sleepy earth, and all three of us gasped.

Snow.

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A light dusting like powdered sugar covered the whole station. Having been deprived of a white Christmas, Sarah and I were pretty ecstatic that it had at least come before the New Year.

“If you think it’s nice here,” Julie told us as we trudged down the stairs to our next bus, “Wait till you see Liberec. It’s much farther north. They’ll have lots of snow.”

Liberec nestles the borders of Germany and Poland and our friends have a farm just outside the town. A family of all boys, save their charming British mother, they are sweet, fun and (do I even need to say?) energetic – although I’ve noticed the energy levels vary depending on the proximity of the latest meal.

Julie was absolutely right. When our bus pulled into the station an hour later, snow carpeted everything not under a roof.

Mrs. K met us with the second oldest boy and their dog, inviting us to bundle into the car so we could hurry home for breakfast and hot tea (“Tea. Yes,” Sarah sighed).

I made a snow angel before popping into the van. No one ever tells you how wet you get making those things.

At their home, Mr. K met us at the door and shoes and coats were shed inside. The other boys meandered down eventually, one of them bringing a striped cat named Sox.

Breakfast consisted of tea, nuts (which we got to crack ourselves), cheesy biscuits and ginger cookies. Enough sustenance to get us through a day of hauling wood.

After clearing the meal, we began the “dress parade,” as Mrs. K calls it. The dress parade is the act of searching for, trying on and claiming old coats, hats, boots, mittens, overalls and jackets to wear on a cold day at the farm. We all looked rather ridiculous by the time we had adequately wrapped ourselves in the mismatched garments, but I’m fairly certain that was the whole point. No one works hard when they’re trying to look good.

One son, one dog, three shivering girls and Mr. and Mrs. K piled into a loaded van and began the trek to the farm.

The day was beautiful, even from the foggy window of a car. White rolling hills spilled out on either side like a great, frothy ocean. Smoke rose from chimneys and spires stuck out from behind frosted rooftops and iced forests. I watched Sarah, hoping she was enjoying herself as much as I was. This was new for both of us, but as Sarah was the one who gave up Christmas with the family to make sure I wasn’t alone for the holidays, I was trying especially hard to show her a good time.

Through several ponied pastures and a large metal gate, we found the farm house. The yard was packed with frozen precipitation and some of us (I won’t name names. It was Julie and Sarah) decided to throw snowballs at others of us (me. They threw snowballs at me) when we weren’t ready for it.

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The dog ran about, excited to be out of the car, and the rest of us stacked wood and prepared to go into the woods.

Sarah and I got to ride in the tractor (a birthday present for Mrs. K, because tractors are what all the best women wish for) which jolted through the frozen fields till it berthed next to a patch of trees.

“Get out and look around,” said Mr. K. “There may be deer in these trees and sometimes we see wild boar. You can look for their tracks.”

The dog, who had followed us all the way from the farm yard, nipping at the tractors wheels as he ran, muddled any tracks we may have found. He covered more ground in two minutes than we did the rest of the day.

“I can’t feel my fingers,” I said to Sarah as I fumbled with my camera lens.

“I can’t feel my toes,” she grinned. We licked up slow-falling snowflakes and made footprints in the snow just to hear it crunch beneath us.

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When the rest of the gang showed up with the loaded van, we began pulling dead wood up the hill and stacking it in the tractor. Mr. K cut several trees into logs and we dragged those up the slippery slope as well. Lots of heavy lifting. Lots of sliding backwards. Lots of giggling and groaning and singing wintery songs. Frankly, a lot more tripping on untied shoelaces than I’d like to admit on this blog. Some logs we launched like javelins. The wider, heavier logs we rolled up to a halfway point and let those on the ridge finish dragging them to the tractor.

It took several hours to fill the tractor bed (that’s an estimate – I actually have no idea how long it took because some places are just so beautiful that time stands still). When we were done, we drove back to the farm yard, our warm breath crisping into tiny frozen crystals even inside the van.

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Mrs. K had more cheesy biscuits and some hot cider waiting for us.

“Don’t let the dog eat them,” she told us. I wasn’t about to. I’m very protective of my food.

We unloaded the wood – quick work with many hands – and stretched our arms and legs a bit with a stroll to the edge of the fence.

A pine tree garden was hidden behind the barn and the baby trees were peeking out under their snowy coats. Crumbling majestically to our right was a large building with no roof and faded brick walls. Sometimes, I was informed, the boys would shoot the remaining glass from the windows with their BB guns for practice. There was so little left, I imagined it would take a sharp eye. But it was a beautiful building all the same. A relic of another time, a testament to change.

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We left the countryside and drove back to town in time for a lunch of soup, homemade bread and a curry dish with sausages and greek yogurt dressing.

More tea and cookies followed, and the conversation warmed up the parts of me that their heater and fresh, dry clothes couldn’t reach.

Eventually, as can be expected at the K home, we turned to the topic of our faith. There aren’t too many Christians in this part of the world and our God is the greatest thing we have in common.

Hard to remember which directions our conversation ambled along, but I do remember talking about the insignificance we sometimes feel, caught up in the rush of life.

“We’re like cosmic spots, when you think of it,” said Mrs. K, her lovely English accent splashing into the air like hot tea into a cup. “And yet there’s a Creator who made us and gave us each a purpose.”

Mmm. A purpose and a path. A Savior.

I think that’s why so many people like the holidays – in the stillness of a world covered in snow, the softness of a night lit by hundreds of candles and the peacefulness of a moment when people you love are finally near again, we can pretend that we don’t need a purpose or a path or a Savior. We can enjoy the moment and hope its effects will last us till the next one comes along.

It began to get dark on our way back to the bus station and it was definitely colder.

Hurried but sincere ‘thank you’s’ were exchanged with hugs and well-wishes. Snow started to fall again and we girls climbed aboard the magic carpet headed for home. Farewell, winter wonderland, farewell.

Sarah and I both agreed that was one of the better days of her stay here. I had to leave for school the morning of her flight home. She walked me to the bus stop (because we finally figured out how to leave enough time to get there without running). I made sure she had a full breakfast before taking off.

We chit-chatted, waiting for the bus to come. A lot about not much. Sister stuff.

When the bus pulled into view, I pulled her into a hug. It was one of those hugs that really feels like a hug. It felt like two little cosmic spots saying ‘goodbye’ and wondering when their paths would cross again.

I watched her disappear from the foggy window of the bus, lost in a blur of white and grey. My favorite Christmas present, possibly ever, and my reminder that God has a purpose for us, even if just in the lives of the people he’s given to us.

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*Thanks for everything, Sarah. I owe you so, so many.

Devils in the hallway

I could hear the chains rattling on the second floor the moment I stepped into the stairwell. The bell had just signaled a break and scuffling of feet and creaking doors drowned out the somewhat ominous clank-chink-clank.

December 5 is Svátek Svatého Mikuláše – St. Nicholas Day. Typically, gifts are given and the Christmas atmosphere kicks into high gear.

But that’s certainly not the only thing about this peculiar Czech holiday.

You see, the tradition of Svatý Mikuláš includes three important figures – St. Nicholas himself, who appears not as a jolly old man, but as a bishop in flowing white robes; angels, sweetly designated to hand out candy; and the devil, the most prominent figure, if for no other reason than that people love a bad guy.

In schools, and in smaller villages and neighborhoods, I’m told, people will dress up as these characters and … well, I was about to find out just what exactly goes down on December 5th in the Czech Republic.

An hour before my first lesson, I trooped into school with a camera and a lot of expectation. I missed this event last year but it’s pretty widely talked about.

In 9.B, boys and girls were busy fixing their costumes and make-up. Each of the ninth grade classes had one Mikuláš and the rest of the unruly students were divided between the ranks of devils and angels. Our Mikuláš in 9.B was a sweet, albeit extremely wry, boy of average height and above-average prankishness. The angels were all girls (except for one, very small boy who donned a wig and satin nightgown just for the occasion) dressed in pretty white gowns, halos and fake wings.

But the devils are what really stole the show. Czech devils aren’t like American devils. There is no sheik suit, no slick horns, no sharp chins or forked tongues. Czech devils, which appear routinely in the popular (though cheesy) fairytales shown on television, are furry and fiendish. They have masses of black hair, vests of animal skins and fur-covered boots. Soot-painted faces gleam as the chains around their waists and shoulders rattle.

My students – though exceptionally cute on a normal day – looked every bit the part a Czech devil. For the girls and the smaller boys, this was an entertaining transformation. For the few gents who’ve already topped six feet, it was an intimidating one.

“Oh, sorry,” said a boy with a shaggy wig as he bumped past me. I caught a glimpse of his face and smiled.

“Hey!” I said, tugging on his elbow for him to stop. “What are you doing here?”

Radek transferred schools last year, a move he didn’t want to make. Leaving for Gymnazium in eighth grade and missing the ninth and final year is like moving to a new high school as a senior. You miss your old friends as they do the “senior thing.”

“I skipped class for the morning,” he told me with a sheepish grin. Radek was a favorite in 9.B and he sometimes comes back when the school has a special program like today to visit his old friends.

“Well,” I said, giving him a friendly pat, “It’s good to see you.”

He walked away and I heard my name. Three devil-decked students ran up to me with charcoal in their hands and began smearing my face.

“Having fun, are we?” I asked, not daring to move but not entirely sure what else to do. They giggled maliciously as someone gave me a mustache.

The bell rang again, issuing children into their classrooms, but 9.B waited in the hallway. Time to work!

In a few minutes, their class teacher bustled over and hurried everyone upstairs to 4.E, a ferocious collection of ten year olds. The door was shut. The hall was silent.

Then, the devils began pounding against the doorframe, yelling at rattling their chains.

It was enough to scare me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a fourth grader in this country.

The door swung open and in trooped the posse of celestial beings, led by the dear old saint brandishing his tinfoil staff.

The angels stood aside and the devils ran through the classroom, smearing kids’ faces with chalk and chortling gleefully. Now and then, someone would grab a kid and drag them from the room.

Old Saint Mikuláš just leaned patiently on his cane with a disapproving look at the students. When the last fourth grader had been wrestled out of the room, kicking, yelling and (usually) laughing, Mikuláš glared down the remaining children.

“Well,” he said sternly in Czech. “Are you going to sing?”

With some encouragement from the two teachers in the room, the kids bumbled their way through a song and the angels glided their way between the desks passing out candy.

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Mikulaš 2014

IMG_2612I slipped into the hallway. Here was a different scene entirely.

None of the corridor lights were on and even the large windows did little to illuminate the setting as grey sunlight seeped through thick panes of glass.

In the relative darkness, I could see what can only be described as a divine struggle.

It appeared as though several of the fourth grade boys had escaped and the devils seemed to be chasing them down. Most of the trapped souls were huddled between the darkly masked ninth graders, a few still attempting to break free. Sometimes they would be offered a potato, sometimes they’d be painted in more charcoal, and sometimes (if they put up enough of a struggle) they’d be shoved back into the classroom – kicked out of hell for bad behavior.

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The six graders were next and things played out similarly. The raid, the singing, the candy, and the havoc in the hallway. The only difference was that the sixth graders were much less inclined to sing for the company of fidgeting angels, all tugging at their skirts and halos or hijacking the classroom chalk to scribble on the board behind them. Frankly, it looked like the devils were having a lot more fun.

The eighth graders were even more difficult to coax into song, and certainly too big to carry out of the classroom. Several of the more willing victims were led away, the rest sat looking as though they weren’t sure if imprisonment in the hallway wasn’t better than singing in the classroom.

There were no fugitives on the run this time as most of the eighth and ninth graders are friends. They allowed themselves to be painted in black and lumped reluctantly back to the classroom to resume lessons when the angels finished their routine.

The seventh graders downstairs were much like their sixth-grade counterparts, only harder to get out of the room. A larger boy refused to leave his seat, so the cheeky ninth grader grabbed his chair and dragged both ‘the horse and his boy’ from the class amid roaring laughter. A few moments later, another boy was shoved back into the classroom with a potato sack over his whole body. He found his chair and sat down without ever taking the bag of shame off.

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By far, the fifth graders were the most entertaining. This is largely because 5.B houses some of the most rascally boys I have ever encountered in my life. It only took a few moments for my ninth graders to realize they might have been wearing the costumes, but they weren’t the real devils in this situation.

Captain of Chaos and Scallywag-Sweetheart Extraordinaire is the one and only, Lukáš. He’s got eyes the size of planets and a smile that spells trouble. He can squirm his way through the eye of a needle and he’s faster and more agile than any boy I’ve ever met. I spent the better part of last year trying to figure out how to get him to sit in a chair for more than three minutes at a time. I was largely unsuccessful. He climbed into cabinets, stole my keys and held them for ransom (that was a lesson: don’t ever bargain with the terrorists), and hid under my desk for nearly fifteen minutes before I realized where he was. The last one was a special feat for him just because he had to stay so still to go undetected.

The devil in charge – an equally headstrong girl who had positioned herself as the unofficial ringleader of the devils’ squad – had taken Lukáš from the room and was attempting to subdue him.

I could have told her, he would not be subdued. When I slinked out of the classroom and the forcefully cheery sounds of singing, Lukáš was grunting, elbowing and kicking like a spring colt. He bolted loose and took off down the hall, passing Radek who was dragging another runaway back fromt the stairwell.

It took the whole squad of ninth grade devils to stuff Lukáš into a bag, everyone holding a limb or a part of his writhing torso.

Even as his subduers tried to drag him back into the classroom, Lukáš squirmed and fought, finally breaking out of the bag in front of all his school mates.

IMG_2587Most of the devils collected in the doorway to watch the events that followed but I crept back into the hallway where Radek was waiting by a windowsill. It didn’t occur to me that something might be the cause of his isolation – he was always a quieter student.

“What do you think of everything?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, not wholly sure how to answer. “It’s definitely interesting. Much different than anything we do in the States.”

He looked at me as if that answer weren’t enough for his question.

“Honestly, I think it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so much fun. But It’s also a little sad to me.” His face drew in and he looked puzzled. “It’s sad to me because I know Hell is real and we’re making fun of something without understanding how serious it is. We’re joking about getting dragged away, but the truth is, without Jesus or the love of God, that’s exactly what will happen to us.”

He nodded his head. I’m not sure if he was processing what I just said or just trying to understand all the English. He speaks well, but second languages are difficult, always.

Having completed the ritual in the last class, 9.B and their teacher asked me to take their picture on the stairs.

“Is everyone in?”

“Can you take one with my phone too?”

“Where’s Radek?”

“Someone’s standing on my tail!”

Then we all marched down to the principal’s office to sing for her and the vice-head with the other ninth graders, 9.C.

I let them do their thing and quietly slipped back up the stairs to my office. Sitting the hallway outside my door was Radek. He was leaning crosslegged against the wall the same way I had seen him every Wednesday afternoon last year before our afternoon English lesson. But this time he obviously wasn’t waiting for anything.

“Whatcha doing?” I asked, sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of him.

“Oh, just sitting,” he said in rather a Pooh Bear voice.

“Do you like your new school?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. There was some hesitation.

“Are you making new friends?” I asked. More hesitation.

“So what’s going on?” I asked. It’s one of those questions you already know the answer to but you know they need to tell you anyway.

“I’m not sure if I can say it in English,” he said. Emotions are complex, even in your first language.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I think I understand.”

“You do?”

“You miss it here but you can feel everyone moving on without you, so even though you come back, it’s not really the same.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s about it.”

“I know that feeling pretty well, too,” I said. “I kind of have it right now.”

He looked at me curiously – as if the idea of adults having feelings was totally foreign to him.

“Well, I have to go back to America in the summer and I don’t know if I’ll ever be coming back,” I said. “It’s hard to leave a place you love and feel like you belong.” He nodded again. This time I knew he understood what I was saying.

I went back to my office and he, I assume, rejoined his friends when they finally made it back to their own classroom.

Sometimes we find ourselves in dark hallways sharing our hearts with unexpected people. I think that’s partly because we always underestimate how much humans have in common with each other until we stop and listen, and partly because dark corners are more common than most of us assume.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the clutches of devils that make us wrestle and fight to get back to the safety of the classroom and no one will bat an eyelash because, what’s not normal about that? No, what’s not normal about struggle? What’s not normal about that on-going battle between our sin natures and the renewing of our hearts through the Lord? We fight impatience and doubt, discontentment and distrust. We wrestle and squirm and struggle. Welcome to the life of the Christian soldier.

I think it’s important to remember a few things.

1. Moving on or away may be hard, but God’s plan is always, always better and more beautiful than ours. And when we cling to what is slipping away, we find ourselves both without what we had and without what God is giving to us – we’re just alone in a dark hallway, refusing to move on.

2. The struggle with our flesh will not end until we draw our last breath. When we’re tired and ready to give up, we need to turn to the Lord and his Word to renew our strength and continue the battle. Always, always fight your way back to the classroom.