How To Survive a Culture War

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Having lived abroad the last few years, my friend group has become incredibly diverse. Though social media often acts as an echo chamber, my newsfeed remains evenly balanced between conservative and liberal, religious and secular. I usually enjoy this diversity, but when current events trigger another round of cultural warfare, I cringe as they dig their heels in and shout.

I have my own opinions on hot-button issues, but I’m also curious enough to continue reading all the statuses, blogs, and manifestos that get thrown around with each new battle. Sometimes I learn something new. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been bludgeoned by an internet troll. Always, I see two sides fearful of what will happen if the other “wins” and willing to do anything to make sure they don’t.

I understand the impulse to fight for what you believe in, but I have a hard time navigating the nastiness that often accompanies it. As I look to my political right and left, I don’t see faceless enemies. I see friends, family members, and peers. I see people I long to understand and get along with.

In order to maintain these friendships and my own sanity on social media, I’ve adopted a few mantras to carry me through the war:

I Don’t Have To Have An Opinion.

We live in the age of over-sharing. Spend a few minutes on social media, and you’ll suddenly know what your coworker had for breakfast and what your high school classmate thinks about global warming. It’s easy to feel like you have to have an opinion on everything…and that it’s your job to share it. But here’s a freeing thought: it isn’t. Sure, there are issues that need a voice, but you cannot and should not take on everything. Better to choose a few key issues and really know your stuff than subject your peers to a bunch of half-formed, crowdsourced opinions on every little thing.

I Don’t Have To Be Right.

One of my favorite phrases in the English language is “I don’t know.” It protects me from being the Great Knowledge-Keeper of Everything and allows me to learn from other people who are really interesting and smarter than me. Being right is, quite frankly, boring. Sometimes even lonely. Being curious about other people’s opinions and experiences is a far greater adventure, and you generally make friends along the way. Even if you have really strong convictions, try not to let rightness be the end-all of your encounters with others. Ask questions, listen, and grow.

Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

Whenever I’m tempted to react to a culture war, I stop myself and ask why it matters. Is someone being hurt? If so, what can I do about it? With culture wars, there’s often a lot at stake. That’s why they get so brutal. But it’s important to channel that passion and indignation in the right direction. For example, if you’re pro-life, consider spending your time and money supporting pregnant women, low-income mothers, and adoption programs. Advocacy is important, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg with most issues. If it’s worth arguing about online, it’s worth fighting for in real life too.

It’s Okay To Unfollow

As I said earlier, I read a diverse group of statuses, blogs, and rants. I like to remain open-minded and learn new things, but even I get angry sometimes. Even I find myself disliking people because of their uber-political social media personas. Even I press the “unfollow” button sometimes—and I think that’s healthy. Knowing your boundaries is key to good relationships, and sometimes that means bowing out of a comment thread or unfollowing a Twitter feed. If you wouldn’t spend all day talking about it in real life, you probably don’t need to read your friend’s every political status online.

When In Doubt, Choose Empathy

It’s hard to empathize with someone who seems to be the antithesis of everything you stand for. But that’s what culture wars force us to do: either demonize the other or try to understand where they’re coming from. When I empathize with people who are very different from me, I often discover that we want the same thing: freedom. We just have different ways of articulating it or different ideas of what it should look like in society. Ultimately, these differences are good—they challenge us and bring balance to our world. But if we constantly live in fear of “the other side,” we’ll never reap the benefits of diversity.

At the end of the day, a little bit of grace goes a long way in these cultural battles. If we can put down our guard, shelf our pride, know our limits, and ward off fear, we have a much better chance of surviving the war with relationships intact.

 


Photo: Grigory Kravchenko, Creative Commons

 

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Long-Gone American Dream

Luftphilia

This week, my Facebook was inundated with friends in graduation robes, proudly adding letters to the ends of their names. They will go on to become professors, doctors, pastors, and artists. They’ll be successful, and I hope they’ll be happy too.

As I look into their smiling faces, I can’t help but think that I could have been them. In fact, I would have been them, had God not intervened in my life plans. But here I am, far from the professional world, rocking a baby and fundraising my salary.

I’ve walked so far away from the American dream, I probably won’t ever get it back. 

My future holds no white picket fences, no suburban comforts. If I do get back into the normal workforce, I’ll never earn as much as if I’d stayed the course. I don’t regret opting out, but it’s sobering to know that I’ve likely passed the point of no return.

I’m a mom with an arts degree, a sparse resume, and a track record of working for free. The last time I had a semi-normal job, I got paid in food and tent space. And that was four years ago.

During my senior year of college, my options for post-grad life seemed endless. I had job interviews lined up. I was considering graduate school. I knew which volunteer programs would look best on a future resume. But I ended up walking away from all of these. Instead, I chose to enroll in an intensive discipleship school. I believed God was calling me to take some time out of my busy life to focus on Him and learn to be a better part of His church.

I thought it would only take six months, but it ended up becoming my whole life.

I made no intentional vow of poverty, but my life took a surprisingly monastic turn from that point on. I found myself in service roles, doing work that was “rewarding,” but not literally, you know…rewarding. Instead of a wedding registry, my husband and I asked for the funds to volunteer abroad. We moved to Eastern Europe and worked in schools, churches, and missions organizations. We produced free articles, blogs, and music. We committed ourselves to doing whatever God asked of us, trusting that He would provide the means for us to do it.

After a couple years, we became parents—the ultimate unpaid volunteer gig. Now we’re working with the organization that started it all: we’re leading a discipleship school just like the one I attended after college, and we’re fundraising our way through it.  

Of course, plenty of our friends are just as poor as we are. Piles of college debt and a rough economy haven’t made the American dream easy on our generation. But while many of our friends are beginning to settle down—buying houses, adopting pets—we’re still running in the opposite direction.

When given the choice between financial security and Jesus, we can’t help but choose Jesus. Even when it seems impossible or scary or irresponsible. Even when it means going through another embarrassing round of asking people for money. Even when I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why we don’t just get real jobs.

Life with God is simply better. I got a taste of it with that school, and now I can’t stop.

Every once in a while, I look over my shoulder at my could-have-been American dream. I imagine myself in a cap and gown or in a cubicle wearing business casual. I scroll through home design boards on Pinterest. But I know now that it wouldn’t have satisfied my heart.

Following God looks different for everyone, but for me, it meant abandoning that life and trust-falling into His arms. In the process, I discovered how how warm and inviting His embrace could be. I saw His generosity, His attention to every little detail, and how He fulfilled dreams I didn’t even know I had.

I watched as He made this impossible life possible for me.

It may not be the American dream, and it may be scary some days, but this life is also good. Now that I’m here, I wouldn’t give up this baby-rocking, blog-writing, missional life for all the white picket fences in the world.

 


Photo: Luftphilia, Creative Commons

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Self-Care for Dummies

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A few months ago, if you’d asked me what I like to do for “me time,” I wouldn’t have known what to say. I’ve always been the counseling type, the honorary mama. It’s what I did for fun.

Then I gave birth for real.

Turns out, being a mother is not a hobby. It’s a full-time, high-energy, high-stakes job. And it’s easy to completely lose yourself in it. You look in the mirror, and you see this tired woman with spit up down her shirt, and you have no idea who she is or what she did with the pre-baby you.

Suddenly, “me time” is no longer a luxury. It’s a full-out search party for that elusive “me.”

A couple months into parenthood, my husband and I began establishing our essential, I-have-to-do-this-or-I’ll-go-crazy activities. We were both attempting to work from home, passing our nap-resistant baby back and forth and trying to accomplish something, anything on our off times. For our sanity, we had to prioritize wisely. 

Of course, our son was number one. And two and three. His neediness and our head-over-heels love for him demanded it. I didn’t (and don’t) resent our time spent together, and I craved seeing his little face hour after hour.

But it didn’t make me feel like “me.” It made me feel like “mom.”

My essential activities make me feel like myself again. My husband and I were out for a walk when I finally realized what they were. I was exhausted and whiny, and I blurted out, “I just want to write and make pretty food!” The words came from this pure, unfiltered part of me that was too tired to think about what I should do and only wanted to salivate over food blogs.

For a girl who has never made self-care goals in her life, it was a hallelujah moment. “Yes,” I thought, “That is exactly what I want to do!”

I went home, baked a few pies, and felt like a downright champion. 

Easy as that.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. But, despite the fact that I baked fifty cupcakes a week in college—you know, as you do—I didn’t realize until recently that this was effective self-care for me. Because I am a self-care dummy.

Thankfully, motherhood has cured me. Suddenly, I know all sorts of things I like to do. I like to take baths, go for walks, and sit alone at a coffee shop. I love perusing the grocery store and buying whatever produce looks the best. I love dreaming up new culinary challenges. I love writing this blog.

Now that self-care is a necessity for me, I wish I’d been doing it all along. I wish I’d spent time getting to know myself and allowing that woman to do the things she liked. Of course, I’ve baked pies and gone for walks many times in my life, but I never really did them on purpose, and they certainly weren’t a priority.

It’s a classic case of you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I had lots more free time to discover and practice my “me time” before having a baby, but I spent most of it either working myself into the ground or binge watching TV because I was too soul-weary to do anything else. It was an ugly cycle, and it probably could have been avoided with some strategically-placed self-care.

But, hey, you live and you learn. And you start baking pies for the joy of it.

Go forth and self-care, my friends. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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Three Generations, One Roof

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I was three months pregnant when I moved back in with my mother. Even though I was twenty-four and married, I felt like a knocked-up teenager running home to mommy. Our living situation was so clearly “not normal” to American culture that it bordered on embarrassing. Eyebrows raise when a twenty-something moves back home after college. Multiply that times a hundred if she brings her husband and unborn child with her.

Initially, Sam and I had planned to stay a few months while we transitioned from Kosovo to France. We’d done this arrangement before, visiting family for a couple months before heading back to our own apartment abroad. But this time, we had no apartment, and my desire to give birth near home meant we’d be staying a lot longer.

We assured my mother that we’d start looking for jobs and our own apartment. Though we were exhausted from working abroad and re-adjusting to American life, we didn’t want to be a burden on her. To my surprise, rather than urge us out of the nest, my mom told us to stay as long as we needed. My family has always been the bootstrap-pulling type, but she knew just how tired we were, and she wanted to see us rest and enjoy being all together again.

My husband is a saint and had no qualms about living with his in-laws. I, on the other hand, had all sorts of reservations. My pride didn’t like the idea of being dependent on my mom, and I still remembered being an eager-to-leave teenager in her home.

But we were poor, I was pregnant (read: unemployable), and I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing my burnt-out husband into the job-search vortex. I agreed to try it for a few months. I cleared out and redecorated my old room, and we began negotiating grocery runs and cooking schedules.

Soon enough, we had a livable rhythm. Though we maintained our privacy, we still ended up doing a lot of life together. We ate together, had movie nights together, and shared everyday details we usually missed while living in different countries. When the baby kicked, everyone hurried over to feel my belly. When I had a craving, my two caretakers were all over it.

Life together was good, but when James came into our world, it became essential. 

After his birth, my mother took the week off work to cook meals, hold him while I showered, and assure me I wasn’t going to break him. When I struggled to nurse him, I cried on her shoulder for days, and she arranged for a lactation consultant to help me. When Sam and I were desperate for sleep, she rocked our little boy in the early morning and sent us back to bed.

She was there for everything: James’ first bath, first coos, first smiles. She survived jaundice and the struggle to get him back to birthweight. She was both mom and grandma, sending me back to the couch to rest my healing body, while tenderly caring for her new grandson.

We emerged from those hard first six weeks with a happily-nursing, long-stretch-sleeping baby, and I knew I couldn’t have done it without the full-time support of my mom. Instead of feeling embarrassed about living with her, I started telling my friends what a perfect arrangement it was, and how grateful I was to be home.

Of course, I’m not the first to discover the wonders of family living. Many cultures do this on a regular basis, adding on to the home as new generations are born. If they don’t already live there, pregnant women often stay in their parents’ home for birth and postpartum recovery. Alternatively, mothers move into their daughters’ homes for months or even years to help with housework and pass on their wisdom.

By contrast, American culture encourages new mothers to be independent, doing it all on their own and losing that baby weight while they’re at it. It’s a recipe for depression and isolation.

I, for one, am glad I didn’t have to go it alone. I’m grateful that my mother rescued me from the norm of living alone and Googling baby advice. I’m grateful that I wasn’t too stubborn or prideful to receive her support. I may not be a good, self-reliant American—and I may be the butt of those living-in-mom’s-basement jokes—but I am one happy and healthy mama.

Though we’ll soon be moving on to our own apartment in France, I’ll always remember this time as a sweet season: how I was cared for, how my son was so loved he rarely got set down. How we fit three generations under one roof and loved each other the whole way through.

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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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One Word 2015: Rise

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If you followed my previous blog, you may remember my One Word post from last year. After a difficult season, I chose RECLAIM as my vision word for 2014, and it turned out to be more than fitting. Since writing that post, I’ve reclaimed my health, creativity, and identity. I left behind oppressive systems and theologies, and I walked into a new understanding of God’s last-will-be-first kingdom. Everything blossomed again.

This year, with all kinds of exciting opportunities on the horizon, I’m finding it easier to choose a vision word and expect good things to come of it. My One Word for 2015 is RISEI love its various definitions: To move upward, to increase, to get up from sleep, to return from death, to exert oneself to meet a challenge. 

Pregnancy often wakes me up in the wee hours of the morning, and it was during one of these bouts of insomnia that the word came to me. I’m going to be doing a lot of rising this year: rising in the middle of the night to nurse a newborn, rising in the early hours to prepare for work, rising when all I want to do is sleep one more hour. I’m not naturally a morning person, but some of my best seasons have been the ones when I’ve been forced to rise and shine. A little coffee and fresh morning air, and I usually end up not only productive, but actually happy in the early hours.

I’m looking forward to mornings this year, especially since they’ll come with a sweet face and that soft newborn smell. I’m looking forward to the ways God will meet me in those tender hours, and how I’ll learn to appreciate the small and slow things in life. I’m expectant that His mercies truly will be new every morning.

I also love the idea of “rising to the occasion.” A few weeks ago, the leaders of the mission base my husband and I will be working with in France asked us to co-lead a Discipleship Training School—meaning we’d be in charge of staff, students, and curriculum for the whole six-month intensive. I was absolutely floored by the offer. Having spent the last few years in an extremely patriarchal country, it’s been a long time since I’ve been allowed to lead anything, let alone asked. But it has been a desire of my heart to walk into a more pastoral role, with my equally-gifted husband at my side.

The only problem with the offer is that we’ll have recently had a baby and very recently moved continents. Of course, these factors didn’t stop us from giddily saying yes, but they will make the whole endeavor more difficult. Fortunately, I love a good challenge. I love that the base leaders knew exactly what a wild scenario it would be for us and still thought we were the ones of the job. I love being asked to step up and do more than I could ever have imagined as a new mother in a new country.

Finally, as I think about rising this year, I can’t help but think of Maya Angelou’s iconic poem, “Still I Rise.” With all the terrible news and racial tension of the last few months, I am hopeful this year not only for my own ability to rise, but also for the rising of minorities and the oppressed everywhere. I’m looking forward to a year of learning how to be a better ally and affect positive changes for these communities. My prayer for the year is best summed up in Maya’s own words, “Out of the huts of history’s shame / I rise / Up from a past that’s rooted in pain / I rise.”

May that rising be a reality in our world, in our neighborhoods and churches. May we rise together in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, which restores and unifies all things.

As I learned with my year of reclaiming, God has a lot more in mind for my word than I do, and I’m excited to see what he’ll bring to the table this year. Come next January, I’m sure rise will have a whole new meaning for me.

Do you have a vision word for 2015? Check out the One Word 365 website for ideas, or simply ask God to reveal a word for you, as I’ve always done. Then tell me about it! I love hearing your hopes and dreams for the coming year.

 

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Welcome

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Hi there, and welcome to the brand-spanking-new blog!

 

We’re just getting things up and running, but here’s what you should know about this site:

This blog is written by me, Elizabeth Steere. That’s my writer name, but my friends call me Liz. You can too. If you don’t know me in real life, you can read about me here. Hopefully, we’ll be getting to know each other a lot better as this blog continues.

I write a lot about faith and culture, and how the two intersect. You can expect to see a wide variety of topics on this site, but everything will ultimately tie back to one of those two ideas. I also enjoy writing about food, travel, marriage, womanhood, and soon, motherhood. So stick around and see what catches your fancy.

New posts will be up every Friday. This is a continuation from my previous blog, which followed my life in Kosovo. Pop over here on the weekends to catch up, or sign up for email updates on the sidebar to the right. (Note: When you sign up, Feedburner will send you a confirmation email, which you must click in order to get subscribed. Lots of people miss this step, and there’s nothing I can do to sign you up without it.)

Comments are welcome, but subject to screening. I am all for feedback and story-sharing, but let’s keep it kind, constructive, and focused on the topic at hand. Remember: if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, it’s probably best not to say it on the internet. I read all the comments and emails that come my way, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness in writing them. I will also do my best to respond, but as I’m about to have a newborn, I make no promises.

 

Thanks for dropping by—more content up very soon!

 

Until then,                                                                                                                                                                         Liz


Photo: Giuseppe Milo, Creative Commons

 
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