What if we’re all bullfrogs?

Some days are deep-pond days. When the afternoon sunlight is clear and warm and stretches lazily across the deck where you sit eating cake, truffles and braided raisin cake; when your head feels swampy from the springy perks in temperature and the richness of your coffee; on those days the smallest things will reveal the deepest meanings.

Friday was a deep-pond day.

I had been meaning to visit the ‘P’ family for weeks but holidays and school schedules kept getting in the way. It was all for the best. Friday turned into one of those days which required an escape from my usual routine of going home, cleaning up, and putting in a few more hours of work till sundown. I needed a break.

So off the train to the small village, one stop outside Prague, and into the ever-open arms of Mrs. P, I literally ran. She’s been my mom-away-from-mom for two years now (one of several that I’m blessed to have here in Prague, actually. Life Tip: endear yourself to loving adults – they will scoop you out of messes you don’t even realize you’re in).

The moment I walked through the door, I was given a second lunch (mucher better than the first, served in the school cafeteria) and a tall glass of Kofola. For those who don’t know, Kofola is the Czech version of Coca-Cola. It’s decent enough, though not as sweet as American Coke, and I have quite adapted to its gingery taste. I’ve known the P’s since 2010 and they’ve never failed to feed me into oblivion.

After I finished eating the dumplings and sun-dried tomato-stuffed chicken, my water glass was topped off and Karel brought me a caffe latte.

I met Karel when he was just sixteen. He has turned into a sharp, smart, driven young man studying at the most prestigious University in Prague, but I still see the sweet boy with mispronounced English showing us Americans all of the city’s oldest sights.

His younger sister, Jana, is a darling. I gave her English lessons last year and she’s improved immensely, although I doubt I can take much credit.

The four of us – Karel, Jana, Mrs. P and myself – lounged on the shaded deck around a wooden table covered with a colorful spread of desserts and coffee trimmings. The sunshine washed over us like cool waves on a tired beach.

It’s hard to admit, especially for young people, I think, that we get tired. That we’re at the end of our rope. That we need a break. We are not the endless stores of energy that we thought we were in college (and now that I’ve given up the energy drinks and napping through Astronomy class, I’m beginning to feel it). It’s not just a physical thing. It’s emotional too.

I feel old even saying this, but I’m learning how important it is to take care of yourself – of your whole self. This Friday afternoon with this lovely family was part of my treatment.

Eventually, we left our chairs and moved over to the pond.

“We have maybe twenty frogs in here right now,” said Karel. I didn’t make it all the way to the fish pond at the end of the garden. About a foot from the water’s edge I collapsed into the soft grass, barely able to see the water glistening in front of me. It was silky smooth and I much preferred lying on it to looking for bitty, web-footed jumpers.

“There’s one,” said Jana, her sweet, school-girl face dancing with a smile. “Do you see him?”

I looked at the glassy surface. All I could see was a pool of green, blue and brown rippling beneath golden fingers of sunlight. No frogs.

Karel reached his hand into the pond and pulled it out.

Let me first say that frogs are not a creature I have a lot of experience with.

Let me add that this was no petite, little tree frog.

This was a bullfrog. It was massive. And as soon as I saw it, suddenly the whole pond came into better view. These green mammoths were swimming, darting and pawing at each other all around the basin. For a split second, I contemplated running away or bursting into tears, both of which are totally normal reactions and I judge no one for thinking the same way.

I think at some point in my life I would I have been okay simply standing around the pool, counting them (we got to about 28 before deciding that we’d never find them all hidden beneath the scum and algae). But I’m realizing that I’m a different person than I thought I was. Time changes us and we don’t notice it happening till it’s done. I’m realizing I’m now a kind of person who doesn’t mind frogs so much.

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Some of the frogs were dark green, others were nearly white with muddy brown speckles. None of them turned into princes, though Jana and I tried to convince them it was in their best interest to do so.

Into the clear, cold water, my hand dove and reached for a chum. It was about half the size of my hand and slimy to boot. Pushing aside the wives’ tales about warts (isn’t that toads, anyway?), I pulled out my very own croaker. He was gorgeous.

He stayed still for about two seconds before diving back into the pond. Again and again, Jana, Karel and I coaxed and prodded frogs into our hands, sloshing them gently about before letting them return to their underwater homes. Some of them had surprisingly strong grips, and several sang sweetly for us before hopping away.

“They come from the forest,” Karel told us, pointing to the trees just beyond the field outside their garden. “They’ll just be here long enough to have babies and then they’ll go back to the woods.”

I watched a dark green bullfrog soar through the water, a lighter, smaller frog clinging to its back, like Superman and Lois Lane.

“They’re gonna have cute kids,” I said.

“They’re gonna have 300 cute kids,” said Jana.

“Three hundred? Really?”

She looked at me and smiled, not understanding that my question was sincere.

“Why so many?” I asked.

“Well, some will get eaten by snakes and birds,” she said. “They won’t all make it back to the pond.”

I looked at the bullfrogs below us. These were the lucky ones then. The ones who made it back just long enough to love somebody and produce heirs to their froggy world before heading back out into the great beyond to do whatever frogs do.

Is this all there is? I wondered as we left the pond and retreated to another round of coffee, chocolate and fruit inside the house. Is it just this? Finding someone to hold on to? Is this what we live for?

For a moment, the thought was comforting. How nice to be a bullfrog. Bad days, mess ups, failures can all be pushed aside because they don’t matter. All that matters is that we love and are loved by others.

WRONG.

Please excuse my bluntness, but that mode of thinking is exactly what screwed up my Friday in the first place.

Frankly, it’d be pretty depressing if love was all there was to this life, because I haven’t found another bullfrog yet (and I’m totally willing to settle for one that doesn’t turn into a prince). And, anyway, being loved by humans is a broken, fleeting blessing that comes and goes with the tide of human emotions and the ebb and flow of life’s unstoppable current. Just like the spring ends and the frogs return to their woods (to be eaten, most likely), so our relationships – fragile, imperfect, finite – will not be lasting, will not have an eternal significance in their own right.

But the thing is, we’re not frogs. We’re people. We are made in the image of God and God has a plan for each of us that extends beyond living and loving and dying. We were made for a purpose. Our relationships – with spouses, family and friends – have significance because they are woven into the purpose that God has for each of us. We are tools to build one another up and help each other down the God-given road.

So even if we don’t all make it back to the pond; even if we get a little lost in the woods; even if we swim in that pond alone; even if we have really, really awful Fridays that turn into awful years, we are more than just lost, lonely frogs.

We are children of the Living God, caretakers of His world. We are His hands to the poor and His voice to the lost. We are His ambassadors and His soldiers. We are His people.

And that means the mess ups and the failures and the bad days do matter, but only inasmuch as they draw us closer to Him, showing us our need for His grace, and reminding us that His love and his power to heal and make us whole does not come and go with the seasons.

It is eternal.

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They call it Great Friday

IMG_7126Czechs call today Great Friday. The days leading up to Easter (which is celebrated on Monday) all have names. Green Thursday. White Saturday.

But today is Great Friday.

I find that especially interesting because most Czechs don’t actually understand the significance of the name – much like most Americans don’t appreciate Good Friday, and perhaps even less so because we don’t get to take the day off from school. My school in Prague closed on Thursday and won’t open again until Tuesday. Easter weekend, in a self-proclaimed atheist country, is just an excuse to squeeze in one last weekend of skiing or take a long weekend at the cottage. The meaning of the holiday gets lost in painted eggs and ancient traditions. Most Czech kids cannot even explain the story of Easter – though, now that I think about it, I’m not sure how many American kids can explain it either.

It is on these things I ponder as I walk home through the forest. I’ve spent the afternoon at the pub with some french fries, hot chocolate and svařák (mulled wine). It doesn’t feel like Easter. The day is cold and dark and I still haven’t emotionally recovered from the freak snow storm yesterday morning. Not even the patches of blue sky help the bare forest to look less empty and lifeless.

There are, however, tiny buds on all the trees. They’re barely visible, but I can see them, lined up in perfect rows like pearled ridges on a baroque crown. Grass is coming up through the chocolatey-brown dirt as well. It’s the only real green anywhere right now.

Down in the neighborhood the forsythia is blooming bright yellow, but the only flowers up here in the forest are the white petals swarming the trees on the slope like a thousand pale moths.

The thing about spring is that it comes so suddenly. And you don’t even realize how much you’re aching for the warmth of the sun and color of the earth until it’s there. You can’t see how much the winter has imprisoned your spirit until the rebirthing of the earth sets it free again.

It’s incredible, experiencing a real spring. The transition from grey winter to golden summer is nothing short of magical. It’s a miracle.

I wish for a spiritual spring for the Czech Republic – and for the U.S.

I wish that hearts that have been locked away in fear and anger, doubt and pride, would feel the warmth and richness of God’s love. That they would be reborn from the frozen ground and bloom in the hope of forgiveness and the promise of redemption.

I wish that they would understand why Great Friday is really Great Friday. That someone would tell them the story of a God who loves them so much, he sent his only son to die on a cross so that they might live. And then that son rose again, conquering death as the sun defeats winter, promising new life to all those who believe.

And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

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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