What’s Next?

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“What’s next?”
Since returning from Europe, we’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. If you’re a twenty something, then maybe you too can relate. Of course, it’s possible that the awkwardness of living an unpredictable life plagues other generations too. I suspect it does. And maybe you too know how difficult it can be to string together words in some sort of an answer to the “what next?” question.

As a historian, I’m much more inclined to answer this question with stories of my past than with predictions of the future. So this means that if you ask me, I will likely tell you about moments in our trip that convinced us that Victoria is still the best place for us. Keep in mind that when we left it was with every intention of discerning our future direction. Move back to Smithers? Apply for a dream job? Press on towards that lucrative History PhD? Become a professional Instagrammer? It was anyone’s guess. Thankfully, a few key moments along the way brought some clarity to this muddle, like…

  •  That time we were sitting on a gorgeous windswept beach in Greece and Jakob said “Man, I just want to sell a car right now.” Me: “(?!?!)”
  • That time we were sipping pints in a tiny dutch pub and a wise-beyond-his-years homesteader told us how difficult it was to raise his children far from their extended family
  • That time we crashed on the couch of a Canadian english teacher and long-time resident of Istanbul and she shared the complexities of expat life
  • That time I was working in a particularly cozy archive in rural France and I felt a profound sense of acceptance and thankfulness for my somewhat obscure and possibly irrelevant degree
  • That time we stepped off the plane and Jakob took an actual real breath through his nose (thanks to that sweet salty ocean air) and I heard the irresistible call of my hippie grow-your-own-food roots

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But lately I’ve realized that it’s not just my historical training that calls me to ponder the past, it’s also my faith. Throughout the Bible, God calls us to remember our story. The story of God’s faithfulness. The story of human failure. The story of unending forgiveness.

The story I’ve been reading lately is that of a shepherd boy turned warrior king. According to bestselling author, Malcom Gladwell, David was the best kind of underdog: a smart skilled boy who knew his limitations and knew he could win if he didn’t play by the rules. He was supposed to beat Goliath with an honourable bronze age duel, but instead he pulled out militia style wilderness farming tactics and killed the hulking Philistine hero with an average slingshot and a stone no bigger than a paintball. Gladwell even speculates that Goliath had some major vision problems connected to his excessive height growth disorder.

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That’s why Goliath says,  “am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” When of course, David didn’t have any sticks in his hand at all just “five smooth stones that went into the sling and the sling went round and round.” So according to Gladwell, David is a hero because he used his underdog status to his advantage instead of playing by the rules of the powerful. How inspiring. Everyone loves an underdog. But Gladwell missed what every Sunday school kid I’ve ever taught knows intuitively. David wasn’t a particularly talented or even flukey underdog. He was a person of immense honest, gut-wrenching, embarrassing, and courageous faith. He danced undignified in the streets to praise God, he poured out his deepest doubts on paper, and he continued to run to God for refuge no matter how scandalous his family’s sexual drama (hint: there’s more than just the Bathsheba fiasco).

How often do you think people asked David: “What’s next?” amidst all the turmoil of life as a king fighting for a contested throne in a fractured kingdom. How often do you think he whispered to himself with tears in his eyes and blood on his hands: “What’s next?” Most of all, what answers did he receive from God that lead him time and time again to write things that sound a lot like this: “Put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3), “In God I trust and am not afraid.” (Psalm 56:11), “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.” (Psalm 3:6), and “The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:7).

So will I run to God in faith? Or will I plead the arts major underdog victimized by a STEM tech start-up world? Will I look to my creative analytical mind to make myself relevant in a difficult job market or will I look with eyes of faith upon my degree and trust that God called me to this place on purpose?

How do you see yourself as an underdog today and in whose strength will you seek to overcome it? Where will you find your courage? No matter what’s next.

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The Joyful

He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.

Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.

At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.

“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.

“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.

“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”

I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.

“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?

It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.

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Waiting Day

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6

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Today is Saturday, yesterday was Friday, tomorrow is Sunday. Keeping track of the days gets tricky while travelling. But I actually care this time because today is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Does it have a special name? I don’t think so. Perhaps Grocery Shopping Saturday? Hide the Eggs Saturday? Clean the house Saturday? 

Is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter supposed to have a spiritual mood or is it just a day for getting everything done for Easter? 

While travelling I don’t have much to do for Easter prep. I don’t have a house, probably won’t have a fancy dinner, and I spend enough time hunting for chocolate in the dusty bottom of my backpack. Strip away all of that and today just feels like a waiting day. A day to wait on the Lord. 

The good news is I have been practicing waiting. I’ve gotten good at waiting. Waiting for trains, waiting for buses, waiting in lines to see old things, waiting to find out if a host will take us, waiting to see if our working holiday visas will be approved….I could go on. But all those little writings are just symptoms of a much bigger waiting season. For the past three months I have entered a purposeful season of discernment. Sure it may seem like I am traipsing across a continent with my husband in tow hitting up all the major landmarks, but what may not always be apparent is that while staring up at yet another cathedral ceiling I find myself in purposeful prayer, wondering when God will speak his words of wisdom to me. I know I’m not Joan of Arc, but would a clear loud voice from heaven directing my future path be so much to ask for? Be honest, I’m sure you’ve asked for it too. 

I have heard snippets of God’s voice: in an email from a friend reminding me that my value is not defined by economic productivity, in an acquaintance’s honest Facebook status, in finding fulfilling work at the archives, in watching other families play at a city park, and so many other fleeting moments. But I crave the clarity of God’s actual voice saying, “you chose the right degree, dear daughter. You will have a fulfilling career and you’ll be able to balance it with motherhood, no problem!”

But God doesn’t work like that. I’ve been reading the first five books of the Bible over the last few months and I can’t help but notice all the waiting. Not just one day or three months, but years! Forty, fifty, hundreds, thousands of YEARS. God plays the long game. An eternal perfect being isn’t confined by our tiny ideas of deadlines and efficiency. God speaks and calls when the time is right. When the time has fully come. Therefore I will wait upon the Lord and trust that just as he brought the Israelites through the desert, just as he brought the promised Messiah that this world desperately needed, just as he raised him from the dead after three days, that same Lord and saviour will instruct my path. All I can do is embrace the waiting, trust God’s timing, listen attentively, and act faithfully.

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“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8