One Word 2016: Return


2015 was a wild year for me: I gave birth to a beautiful boy, moved to Southern France, and began leading a Discipleship Training School with my husband. We fueled our 12-hour workdays with baby-interrupted sleep and an unspeakable amount of coffee.

RISE was my vision word for the year, and it couldn’t have been more accurate. There was much rising from sleep this year, and even more ‘rising to the occasion’ as I took on two new jobs—motherhood and school leadership—with little training and no idea how difficult each could prove. It was a year of high capacity, and though I’m tired, I also feel more accomplished than I have in a long time.

As the new year begins, it’s time for a new season and a new vision word.

The other day, I sat down to pray about my One Word for 2016. I’ll be doing much of the same work this year, so I expected my word to be another lean-in moment: maybe ‘perseverance’ or ‘discipline.’ To my surprise, God began speaking to me about the sensitive and creative little girl I used to be. He told me He wanted to give me the word RETURN.

I promptly asked Him if I could have the word ‘brave’ instead, because it sounded less scary than revisiting my childhood.

You see, while most people I know reminisce about their carefree childhoods, I had just enough big scary bad things happen to me that they dominate every other memory. It’s hard for me to remember who I was or what life was like before divorce, suicide, spiritual abuse, and chronic illness entered the picture.

Which is, of course, why God wanted me to return. To restore what was lost, and lay down what never should have been carried so long.

My mother tells me about a little girl who used to twirl in her “shimba-shimba” dress, make crafts out of junk, and cry when someone else got hurt. This year, I’d like to get to know that little girl again. I’d like to stop self-protecting so much and start living from a place of vulnerability and free-spiritedness.

Thankfully, I have a wild-hearted, curious little boy to guide me on my way. Being a mama has already retaught me so much about play, and I’m sure that as James begins to walk and explore, we’ll have even more opportunities to see the world afresh together.

As it happens, this year begins with another RETURN as we visit our old home in Kosovo. Our school has both a lecture and an outreach phase, and we were excited to send our students to Prishtina for the latter half. Though we as school leaders don’t spend the full three months with them, we do get the privilege of making a pastoral visit to check in on the students and staff there.

To be honest, I am equal parts delighted and anxious to return. There are so many beautiful people I love in Kosovo, but the place itself harbors difficult memories for me. We’ll be going in the smoggy winter, which I remember as one of the most isolated seasons of my life.

I have immense hope that God will restore that season, but it’s still hard to revisit. As always, my instinct is to burrow and self-protect, rather than let God touch that tender area of my heart. But in the spirit of returning, I’m resolved to go with an open and vulnerable spirit.

And finally, my hope is that this blog will RETURN to regular posting. Though I love my job, I’ve missed writing immensely and am planning to carve out more space for it this season. Stay tuned for more posts on marriage, French living, motherhood, food (maybe even some recipes!) and evolving faith.

Happy New Year, dear friends. May you have a clear vision for the year and the grace to live it out.

What’s your One Word for 2016?

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Having It All


Like most women, becoming a mother was a huge turning point in my life. I suddenly had to reassess everything I wanted and decide if and how I could do it with a baby. Did I want to be a stay-at-home mom? Did I want to work? Would we hire a babysitter for date nights and adult get-togethers with friends? Would I still pursue my personal callings? Of course, being me, I decided I wanted it all—motherhood, career, relationships, purpose—and I wanted it all at once.

Thankfully, I was offered a job that allowed me to do just that.

While most women have to choose between staying home or going back to work, I get to have it all, taking work home and bringing baby to the office. My job description here at YWAM Bridges of Life includes leading a Discipleship Training School, making desserts for the base cafe, and taking part in daily worship and community work. James tags along for all of this, sitting on my lap during meetings, nursing while I type one-handed emails, and napping in the baby carrier while I walk to the store.

As sweet as this situation is, it doesn’t come without complications.

Balance is forever an issue in our household, as we struggle to draw lines between work and family time. I oscillate between mom guilt and career guilt, convinced I’m neglecting my child or failing to live up to my personal potential. And even when everything goes smoothly (which it never does with a small child), my days often feel like a long-distance sprint. I fall into bed exhausted, just barely closing my eyes before it starts all over again.

In the good and the bad, having it all is teaching me one invaluable lesson: you have to say “no” to a lot of good things to say “yes” to the best things. 

Like most Americans, I’m tempted to take a “more is more” approach to work and family life. More jobs, more relationships, more activities, more responsibility…until my body or mind gives out. This weekend, it was my body. After taking on way more cooking jobs than I should have, I got a wicked case of food poisoning. Despite sleeping next to a bucket all weekend, I actually found myself enjoying the rest and quiet time with my family.

Helpful tip: when food poisoning is a reprieve, you’re doing too much.

As I slowly eased back into work, I finally began drawing some healthy boundaries, admitting to myself and others what I could really handle. I spent more time simply playing with my son, rather than distracting him while I tried to catch up on work. I rested and had quiet times, something that rarely makes it onto my schedule.

As my priorities here become clearer, I’ve decided to say no to everything but those essentials. It goes against every grain in my work-driven body to do so, but the more I narrow my “yeses,” the more joyful and light having it all becomes.

I’m still figuring it out and fighting the urge to have it all and more more more, but that joy has become an essential marker for me. When joy leaves the building, I know it’s time to bring out the “no” card again, paring back until life comes back in balance.

Today, my balance is this: a baby on my hip, a pie in my oven, and a smile on my lips, knowing that even as I strive to have it all, I don’t have to do it all…at least not today.


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The View From Here


As I type, I can see cliffs and gardens out the window: Southern France in all her glory, bathed in blue skies and sunshine. We arrived here last week, and it’s still sinking in that this is our home now. I never imagined living somewhere so beautiful.

A year ago, we were living in Kosovo, and I had just found out that I was pregnant. I remember feeling weak and afraid, looking out the window at the dusty minarets and the swarms of blackbirds. I couldn’t picture where we would live as a family, but I knew it wasn’t there. It had been a hard year for me, and I was ready to move on, start fresh somewhere new.

Fresh is a good way to describe this place. The air is warm and dry, and everything grows here. There are cherries at the market now, and later this season we’ll have olives, grapes, and figs. A river runs through the village with waters are so clear you can see every little pebble on the bottom. Flowers bloom wild on its banks.

In town, ancient stone houses nest one against another. Cats lounge on their sunny windowsills, framed by oh-so-French blue shutters and red geraniums. Neighbors say bonjour with the kind of gusto you only hear in small villages. Their eyes crinkle at the sight of my baby.

I love it here.

I’m sure culture shock and language frustration will hit me soon enough, but for now, I’m thankful and awed. Every time Sam and I walk over the bridge, I look out over the river and tell him, I can’t believe this is our life.

I always thought I was built for hard places. I thought I’d live among the poor and the war-torn. I thought my hair would always smell like lignite coal. I cannot stress enough how much this beauty and abundance has surprised me. 

I wish I could go back a year ago, tell that scared pregnant girl that things were about to get really good. I wish I could tell her that the view from her window was about to change drastically. That it would go from a sooty Soviet-style nursing home to a lush garden. That she would start her mornings with her little boy on her hip, opening the blue shutters together and breathing in the fresh air.

I’m not into the prosperity gospel. I’m a firm believer in the value of suffering—perhaps even a little too much for my own good. But I do want to say, as I look out my window, that God gives good gifts to his children. He is not lacking in beauty or resources. He loves a good surprise, loves to give exactly what will bring refreshment to our hearts.

If we hadn’t have learned to follow him into the suffering, we probably wouldn’t have followed him here, and we would have missed out on so much.

But here we are, and it is beautiful.


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Back to Expat Life

Moyan Brenn

This weekend, we’ll be packing bags, praying away sickness, and preparing to move to the other side of the world. We’ve been in America almost an entire year, and it’s been an amazing time of reconnecting with family, friends, and churches we love. But France is calling, and it’s time to venture back out into the great unknown of expat life.

Back to a life with no dishwashers, no dryers, and no Walmart.

Back to lost-in-translation moments, conversations made entirely of hand gestures, and fixing your shower head with a spoon because attempting communication with your landlord would be more exhausting somehow (true story).

Back to figuring out every little thing as if it’s the first time you’ve done it: navigating foreign health care, buying cell phone minutes at the post office, and remembering whether or not it’s your job to weigh the fruit at the grocery store.

Back to a life spent leaning on the kindness of others.

Back to appreciating the simple things and celebrating the small victories.

Back to small portions, tiny coffees, and real croissants.

Back to recognizing my weaknesses: how language-learning has never come easy to me, how I’m never as mentally tough as I think I am, and how quickly I retreat to my expat bubble when the going gets tough.

Back to a life that forces me to give up control and trust in the goodness of God.

Back to the kind of hard that binds people together, that has made my marriage strong.

Back to a life I pray my son will love as much as I do.

Back to being brave together.

Even though we’ve done this before, it doesn’t really get easier. Hopefully we’re smarter this time or better-packed or less starry-eyed about what lies ahead, but the real work is just beginning. And it’s here, in the earliest stages, where our French is still atrocious and our address has yet to be determined, that I ask you to pray for us. 

Pray that we go out with the radiant face of God shining upon us. Pray that we have traveling mercies, a forgiving stint of jet lag, and the fortitude to embrace this new life. Pray that we will see, even now, how this will all be worth it. How we will tell these stories for the rest of our lives.

Thank you, dear readers. After we get settled, I’m sure I’ll have some stories for you.

À bientôt,

Photo: Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons


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Clothespins and Culture Shock

Christian Schnettelker

I’ve been back in America for six months now—my longest stretch since college—and I have to admit, I’m still not over my reverse culture shock.

A couple months ago, Sam and I thought we were pretty well re-assimilated into Midwestern life, and then we went to an Olive Garden, and there was bacon and cheese on everything, and it was weird. Weird in the excessive way that only America is. We rolled home with heavy bellies and swore to eat nothing but vegetables and rice for a week.

Then, as if we needed to prove our patriotism, we went to a craft store. 

Holy glitter.

Our mission was simple: buy a package of clothespins. I was hardcore nesting before James arrived and was convinced we needed to make a clothesline of pictures over our bed. (Thanks, Pinterest.) When we walked into the store, I expected maybe a few different sizes of clothespins. Maybe some wood and some plastic. Instead, I encountered package after package of clothespins. Not just small, medium, and large, but also jumbo paperweight pins and some so tiny I couldn’t determine any reasonable purpose for them. There were colored clothespins and patterned clothespins and metallic clothespins. Every color of the rainbow. Polkadot. Chevron. Floral.

As we continued browsing, we kept stumbling upon more and more clothespins. They were everywhere. I felt that familiar culture shock creeping up on me, the kind that makes you have a panic attack in the toothpaste aisle of Walmart because there was only one brand in India, and you don’t remember how to choose between twenty. I grabbed a package of plain wooden clothespins and hurried to the checkout.

America may be my homeland, but its culture of choice never ceases to stress me out. Here, you have a thousand different options for every little thing. The choices should make your life easier, but instead, they’re a constant reminder of what you’re missing out on. You know that you could have picked the blue clothespins, and maybe they would have looked better, and it’d be oh-so-easy to go out and get them, too.

It’s an endless cycle, swinging between the instant gratification of one-stop shopping and the let down of buyers’ remorse.

To be honest, I miss this when I’m abroad. I get tired of closet-sized stores and walking miles to find limes (because one grocery store was out and the other was closed for lunch, of course). But when I do come back to the land of warehouse-sized stores, it’s never as satisfying as I’ve imagined. I miss the ordeal of it all. I miss the satisfaction of finally finding everything on my shopping list. I miss the gratitude that inevitably follows. 

Once, in Kosovo, I found a rare packet of cumin, and it was the worse cumin I’d ever tasted, but I treasured that spice and cooked with it anyway. And in India, I pestered a shopkeeper for weeks until his “brother” showed up on a motorcycle cradling a unmarked can full of the coffee beans I’d requested. The coffee was sketchy and terribly acidic, but it didn’t matter. I’d found real, non-instant coffee in the middle-of-nowhere India, and that felt like a win.

As we prepare to move to a small village in France, I find myself once again grateful for tiny shops, limited inventories, and random store hours. I’m glad that my son will learn to be happy with fewer options. I’m glad he’ll have to be patient as we hunt things down. Of course, he could learn these things in America—and I admire lots of families who practice minimalism and gratitude—but it’s much harder when there are a thousand choices at every turn.

These days, I don’t want choices. I want to sit on the French bakery steps with my son, waiting for the owner to return from her coffee break, dreaming about the macaroons inside.

I want to see his face when his patience pays off and he takes that first delicious bite.


 Photo: Christian Schnettelker, Creative Commons 

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Scratch-Off World

Timothy Krause

During a road trip this summer, I crashed at my friend’s apartment in DC. Years ago, she and I were roommates in rural India. When we caught the seasonal fever, I threw up in the bucket we shared for washing clothes, and she didn’t get mad. You could say we’re pretty close.

On her wall, there was a large map of the world. It was one of those scratch-off maps you see on Pinterest and gift guides for travelers: once you visit a country, you scratch off the plain brown overlay to reveal a brightly-colored map of that nation. The idea is to keep track of all your travels and show them off to anyone who happens to see your map. My friend has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia, and America. Her map was beautifully adorned with color.

My immediate reaction was jealousy.

In most circles, I’d be considered well-traveled. I’ve spent much of my twenties studying, living, and traveling abroad, and I’m more proud of this fact than I should be. I think it makes me interesting and cultured. In other words, I’m exactly the kind of person who wants to buy a scratch-off map of the world, just so I can tell everyone how cool I am. My friend received it as a gift, but I would totally buy it for myself. Shameless, I know.

But I suspect I’m not alone in my travel pride.

More and more, I’m seeing this trend in our culture: make a bucket list, pin it on your Pinterest travel board, scratch it off your map. Americans are becoming increasingly transfixed by the idea of a consumable world. A world laid out like a grown-up scavenger hunt: designed solely to be checked off the list. And like any good scavenger hunt, the person with the most checks wins.

I’ve seen people design trips around this idea, choosing to spend a day each in 7 different countries rather than plant themselves in one place for a week. They spend half of their time in transit, but at least they can say they’ve been to all those places. They can go home and scratch a few more countries off their maps.

The problem with this mentality is that travel isn’t a game, and there’s no real way to win. Getting on an airplane doesn’t automatically make you a better person. Spending a day in Copenhagen doesn’t mean you can “check off” the whole country of Denmark. And even though it might get a hundred likes on Facebook, snapping a selfie at the Eiffel Tower won’t do much to enlighten you about French culture.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge proponent of travel, and I think the world is the best classroom you’ll ever enter. I’m just tired of watching tourists—myself often included—care more about the image of their travels than the actual experience of traveling. I’m tired of watching people stop short of actual life-changing moments because they settled for a scratch-off world.

Catching the seasonal fever in India and ruining our laundry bucket was most certainly not on my list, but it’s one of my favorite travel stories, because it reminds me of my roommate and what a trooper she was. We laid under our mosquito nets for days, sweating out our fevers and sharing life stories. By the end of our time together, we had a healthy respect for Indian viruses and a solid friendship that has lasted to this day.

I could tell you a million stories about the way traveling has changed my life—brought new friends, opened my eyes to new ideas—but suffice to say that almost all of these positive effects have come from moments I didn’t plan. As much as I’d love to take credit and be proud of my travels, I know enough now to respect the places, people, and processes that have taken me by surprise and challenged me to the core.

I know enough now to keep my map unscratched, my lists unchecked. There’s always more to see, do, and learn. Always some new cafe waiting to be stumbled upon, always some wise grandmother sitting on the steps.

If you put down your map, you might find them too.


Photo: Timothy Krause, Creative Commons 

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Thankfulness in a Himalayan Bar


I don’t know what most women do when they’re seven months pregnant, but I ended up cooking a French-themed Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family.

Totally reasonable, right?

I’m not often home for the holidays—and usually in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving—so I guess you could say I was a little enthusiastic this year. Though it included gratin dauphinois and haricots verts rather than the typical Midwestern jello salad, this Thanksgiving was all-American to me: no fighting to find ingredients, no Skype calls, no expat friends standing in for flesh-and-blood family.

It was the perfect American holiday.

Yet, I have to admit, my favorite Thanksgiving story is far from this American perfection. My best Thanksgiving happened in a bar in the Himalayas.

At the time, I was researching Tibetan poetry in northern India, equipped with only a few bucket-washed outfits and a notebook. For lack of a proper kitchen or any of the traditional ingredients, my housemates and I gathered at a local bar to celebrate Thanksgiving. I remember that they had pizza, tikka masala, and Kingfisher beer. Apparently, both Pierce Brosnan and the Dalai Lama had been there.

Everything about it was weird. Yet, I remember being incredibly thankful.

I was thankful for good pizza—hard to come by in rural India. I was thankful for each one of my few possessions, which seemed entirely enough. I was thankful for the opportunity to be out exploring the world. Most of all, I was thankful for the way God had arranged everything in my life—my nationality, personality, economic status, and era—to bring me to that moment.

Surrounded by actually-from-India Indians and Buddhist pilgrims, it was the first Thanksgiving I truly saw my American privilege. As I interviewed refugees and activists, I realized how much power my U.S. passport afforded me. I realized how much my country’s political and economic stability contributed to my personal success. I realized how little I had to worry about violence, corruption, and disenfranchisement compared to the rest of the world.

Northern India is not a particularly comfortable place. The air is cold and thin, and the living conditions are spare. But on that Thanksgiving, I knew I could leave. My passport and bank account gave me endless options. They set me apart, made me privileged.

We’re conditioned in the West to think of privileged as a synonym for spoiled. We’d rather ignore our privilege than admit that the word describes us. But in doing so, we’re snubbing the good with the bad. Yes, privilege comes undeserved, and yes, it can produce feelings of entitlement, but it can also be a source of power and agency in a needy world. Coupled with gratitude and humility, privilege can do a lot of good. Used wisely, it can create options and a hand-up for those around us. Laid down, it can create a more equal world.

Years after that Himalayan Thanksgiving, I am still so grateful to be privileged. I have no idea why God decided to put me of all people in this position, but he did, and I’m trying my best not to waste such a precious gift.

I begin with gratitude—humble acceptance and thankfulness for what I do not deserve—and go from there.

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