Only If

Small Group BirthdayI wasn’t going to lead a small group this year.

I remember this Thursday night, as I climb the stairs of one of my senior small group girls’ homes, ready to partake in the birthday feast that the girls have prepared for me and my co-leader, Allison, whose birthday is one day before mine. Earlier this week, the hostess sent out an email to the small group:

“Alright guys so small groups this week at my house! For us girls, let’s meet at the school around 6 and for Kristi and Allison, come over to my house around 6:45ish.  It’s gonna be a great birthday celebration!! Can’t wait!”

So we arrive tonight, after long days and weeks filled with travel (for me) and play practice (for Drama Teacher Alli), to have dinner with five eighteen-year-old girls, themselves wading through the busyness of senior year with all of its essays, leadership and college plans.

I wasn’t going to do this, I think to myself, and I had good reasons. Far from being dissatisfied with my experience as a small group leader over the last four years at BFA, it was an amazing experience. With my roommate and co-leader, Emily, I was able to walk with six girls on a journey of faith and friendship, seeing them mature from giggly ninth graders–obsessed with Justin Bieber and the newest trends in America–to young adults of maturity and grace, looking ahead to see how they can live out their relationship with Christ in brand-new settings. It was an incredible four years, not always easy but always filled with reminders that Christ had brought these girls into our life for this season, as He gave us specific words to speak into each of their lives. I love these girls, and I miss them every day.

Sometime last winter, I remember saying to myself, I won’t sign up for another group next year. It would only be for a year, anyway. Never one for definitive statements, I countered a few minutes later in my self-negotiation. The only way I would do it would be if it were a senior group. Whose leaders were leaving. And only if someone asked me specifically. I’m not telling anyone about this. I didn’t even think of it as a prayer, at the time. Just a resolution.

It was the knowledge that my six girls would be gone that made me worry that I wasn’t sure I had “space” for a new group in my heart. To an extent, I fret about this every fall, feeling that I can’t possibly love this new class as much as the ones who are now a grade older. I feared it would be worse with a small group. If I’d spent four years investing in these six girls, how much would I have left to give to another group, especially one I’d be with for only a year?

To which God said: Ha. Plenty.

In late spring, Allison emailed me. Her request read like the formula of my non-prayer from a few months earlier. I have this group of seniors. And I’ll be here in the fall, but not in the spring. Could you help? She listed the girls, students that I was currently teaching in my junior English class, and my heart melted. Of course it would happen like this. God knew.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as we sit around with bowls of pasta and cake, talking about their trip to Italy last week. They tell about bonding on the beach outside their hotel, about seeing these sights that they’d been waiting all their lives to see. They talk about the future, how tangled and complex it looks from their vantage points, and I understand. Not just what they’re going through–future complexity that looks much like what we’re wading through these days–but how deeply beautiful and intricate are God’s plans. For these hours and days I’m spending in this valley, and all the lives He’s woven up with mine. For these months and years He’s given to me, and the steps He’s still waiting to reveal.

October: News, Thanks and Prayers

Out for dinner with the Maug boys!

Out for dinner with the Maug boys!

News and Dates:

  • October 2-10: Timmy in Rome with the seniors
  • October 2-6: Junior trip to Normandy
  • October 1-4: Freshman exchange with a Christian school in the Netherlands
  • October 6: Freshman and Sophomore trips to the WWI trenches and French concentration camps
  • October 13: My 30th birthday!
  • October 31: Herbstmesse

I’m Thankful For:

  • A New Small Group and Allison, my co-leader. Looking forward to sharing life with these excellent senior women this year!
  • Visits from Parents in August and September. So good to show them around this part of the world and spend some restful time with them.
  • A New Role at BFA this year, mentoring new teachers. Exciting to spend time in so many different classrooms, seeing these teachers devote energy and care to their material and students.
  • Autumn in Kandern, always spectacular and earlier this year than ever. Can we hope for some snow this winter?

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Travel. As you can see, our students are scattering all over Europe in the next week or so. I’ll also have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. for a wedding next week. Pray that these trips go smoothly, for health and safety for all.
  • Future Plans. Pray for Timmy and me as we continue to seek guidance regarding the future. Pray that God will make it clear to us where we should be next year, opening and closing doors as He sees fit.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

Töpfer

IMG_1483“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21

IMG_1479It starts to rain on Sunday afternoon, as we weave our way through the quiet crowds and costly tables. The Kandern Töpfermarkt, a pottery fair that takes place two weeks after the raucous and delicious Budenfest, is in town this weekend. From all over Europe, potters and ceramicists have brought their wares, filling our Blumenplatz with tables laden with cups, bowls, pitchers, and lamps of every color, shape and size imaginable.

This is my fourth year at the pottery market. My first year, I missed it because of a trip to Austria, but every year since I’ve returned, a pleasant ritual that marks autumn in Kandern. I remember the first time, coming down with Emily after a hike in the forest, late summer still pouring light and warmth into the little square. We wandered around, bent on purchasing the perfect cup, deciding after much deliberation to purchase tall, cylindrical mugs in blue and beige. That same year, a handsome new RA I barely knew bought himself a green mug, declared it the perfect one, and suggested that we have coffee and compare purchases. Today, I poured coffee into that same green mug and passed it to him across the breakfast table.

IMG_1475As we circle the market, I realize that it’s laced with all sorts of memories now. I see the orange and brown plates that Alyssa used to collect, or the blue and yellow mug whose older brother sat on Becky’s desk. I pass baskets holding cups that my three roommates and I have bought in earlier years, mugs that smiled down from cabinets and shelves, waiting for tea or coffee, waiting for the evenings when they’d all be used. Everywhere I look, familiar patterns, colors and forms stand out, recalling people and occasions when I’ve seen them before. It’s a fragile hall of visual echoes, a parade of memories in ceramic form.

This little market–a traveling event that visits us each September–embodies the community we’ve found here over the last four years. This is my fifth fall in Kandern, and this place has become home. It isn’t perfect, full of the same flaws and worries that I’ve found everywhere else, that I’ve brought everywhere else. And yet I’m thankful, struck in an overwhelming sense that God has created something beautiful around me over the last four years.

IMG_1488We’re beginning our last year in Kandern, at least for a while, and we don’t yet know what happens next. It could be that this next year is an intermission between two long acts in our green valley. Or we might be in the final movement of Kandern life, poised to begin something new, in a fresh new place. We wait, we pray, we listen, hoping for guidance in our next steps. Perhaps it should be agonizing or frightening, but it isn’t.

Because I can look around this pottery market and see what God has done here, with us, over the last four years. I can see dinners with friends, coffee with students, hikes in the forest and conversations in the classroom. I see my students coming in early on winter mornings to make tea before first period, cupping their hands around steaming mugs as we read Whitman, Twain, Fitzgerald. It’s all so much more than I expected, more than I even asked for. With God, it seems what He gives me is always more, better. I can’t see the next home yet, over the high, green pass of June 2015, but I know that God walks before us, making a way, reminding me that the view is glorious if I’ll keep following Him. It’s likely that next September won’t include the Kandern Töpfermarkt, but for today I’m thankful, looking back at what He’s done, ahead in the knowledge that He’s with us.

Of Prayer {From A Puddle of Yogurt}

“Do you know what this means?”

He pushes his workbook over to where I’m sitting on a couch in Maugenhard’s living room. I’ve helped set up an ice cream sundae bar tonight, and made a blueberry coffee cake now in the refrigerator, ready for Maug’s dorm mom to toss in the oven tomorrow morning. Now I’m sitting in a busy rectangle of boys, all in various states of studying. I squint down at the workbook, and realize the instructions requiring interpretation are in German. That’s a new one.

“Actually… yes. It means… Complete these sentences. Actually, it means Make whole these sentences,” I comment with a smile. The nuance of the language isn’t as interesting to him as it is to me, but he seems emboldened by the translation. He asks about a few more words, and I ask him how he, a French speaker living in Israel, came to be in second-year German.

“Took it in France. Seventh grade. So… I’m missing some words.”

I nod, understanding, and he points down to a new word.

“How about this one?”

“Um… dauert means lasts, sort of. Like, How long does it last?”

“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”

I can only laugh and shake my head, because lately that’s not how I’ve been feeling. At all.

Flash back a few days, to when I ran errands around town after school. There was the insurance agency, where I needed to cancel insurance I thought I’d already cancelled, before I got a bill for said insurance in the mail. Then the cobbler, who told me he could not fix my defective new Birkenstocks, at least not with the original… whatever the German word for buckles was. I never found out. In any case, I’d have to return them, a mail-order process involving a double-sided form I can’t really read, all to explain that yes, I’d like the same model in the same size, just not backwards-buckling.

This errand-venture ended at the grocery store, usually a haven of mastery. I understand this place, Hieber’s, which is a size of an average Seattle local grocer. I know where most things are. I even negotiated–in German–the exchange of a bag of quinoa a few weeks ago, when a newly-purchased supply proved full of moths. I’ve got this, I said like a crazy person, reassuring myself that I know something of the language and culture I’ve spent four years with.

Except that when I reached up for a pail of yogurt, on a top shelf well above my head, it brought its poorly-placed neighbor crashing down to the floor. This second pail exploded, sending yogurt and plastic shards everywhere–the floor, the dairy shelves, my feet in their flip-flops. I was marooned in a white sea, speechless.

And every German word escaped me. What does one say, stranded in a puddle of yogurt? What would I even say in EnglishJogurt… um… fallen? Gefallen? Kaput? Who even knows?

I stood there for a while, catching the raised eyebrows of other customers, but unfortunately no store employees. Several minutes later, an off-duty cashier spied my predicament. Just as I opened my mouth to ask the question I didn’t know how to ask, she said, in German, “I’ll get someone to help.” Hilfe–help. That’s the word I was looking for.

I stood around a while longer, stood in the yogurt as friends, neighbors, colleagues walked by, eyeing me sympathetically, until a large floor zamboni and roll of paper towels came to my rescue. I went home crestfallen, yogurt-covered, tired.

This week at Black Forest Academy, Dr. Richard Alan Farmer has been speaking with our students–each morning in a special chapel before school–about prayer. Different types, postures, reasons for prayer, which he calls “conversations with Papa.”

I love this. And my struggles with language lately make me think of prayer and its many varieties. On occasion, like with the quinoa, I know exactly what to ask for, with just the right words, and I am overjoyed when God responds to me, right away, exactly as I expect. More often, though, I find myself crying Puddle-of-Yogurt Prayers, cries of my heart when I can’t find the words. And while I may find myself endlessly frustrated with my own inept grammar and sparse vocabulary in German, God isn’t so picky. How marvelous to know that He hears, He knows, He understands.

Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.

On Time

Time, the brunt of many metaphors.

Time is money. Time is a father or a ghoul. Time flies and crawls, always when you’d rather he doesn’t.

School began today at Black Forest Academy, with the same flag-bearing pageantry that’s brought tears to my eyes for each of the last four years. This time, my fifth, was perhaps the most poignant of all. I know more now than I ever have, so each carried flag waves a story at me, not only of its hold but of siblings, homes, nations, histories and futures that they’ve written into English papers or murmured into conversation. I think about time as I watch them, how the years spent in this place have embedded these stories and people in my heart. Time does that, but so does attention.

The hours, still far from empty, are different, as my assignment at BFA has changed this year.  Gone are the regimented days filled with classes and students, governed by the imperious tri-tone of school bells. I have only two Honors American Literature classes this year, 100 minutes a day with the vocation I understand best. In addition to that, I’m coordinating mentoring and training for our new teachers, and assisting Timmy with Student Council advising. Both roles require more flexible scheduling, hence the lighter teaching load this year.

A new year means a new office, with a freshly-decorated bulletin board and a view of the river. I’ve never spent much time here. With five sections of junior English, I’d run in and out  to take phone calls or print assignments, but mostly I lived in my classroom, either vibrant with students or calmly empty. Now I’m surrounded by busy colleagues, teaching math and music and English, immersed in conversation and questions, with ringing phones to answer and lost students to assist. “You’re here!” exclaimed a fellow English teacher, finding me working at my corner desk. “You’re never here! This is fun!”

Reading through Harry Wong’s First Days of School today, I encountered his warning against teacher isolation. He admonishes new teachers to ask for help, and veterans to welcome collaboration. It was fitting to read it today, as I try to understand–and sometimes remember–what it means to support new teachers. What did I want when I was just starting out? How could someone have helped me? Who did help?

And I remember that it was people who had time. They were unpressured people, whether colleagues or supervisors, who would set aside their own busyness to step into the chaos of my beginning-teacher world and walk beside me, with a listening ear and judicious advice. I remember one who would make copies for me, and another who went to Staples to buy the school supplies that I needed in my new classroom (that year a conference room in the Library). They didn’t take the reins or shower me with handouts. They were just there.

These hours in the humming staffroom are the unexpected gift of this year. A change in teaching schedule and the graduation of my small group along with the Class of 2014 have left me with plenty of time, unscheduled and available. Suddenly I find myself able–as I’ve seldom been for the last three years–to listen and to help, to learn what it means to be truly hospitable in the workplace. It won’t be structured or predictable, not the cyclical creativity of lesson planning and grading. But I’ll be able to listen, to figure out how the laminator works, to sit by the river and hear about a day. And for that, unfamiliar as it is to my classroom-dwelling soul, I’m grateful.

September: News, Thanks and Prayers

Student Council 2014-15

Student Council 2014-15

News and Dates:

  • September 2: First Day of School
  • September 12: 2014 Fall Party
  • September 15-19: Spiritual Emphasis Week
  • September 17: Kandern Impact Day
  • Timmy has agreed to fill in this year as a teacher in the PE Department, teaching two sections of PE in addition to his role as Student Council Coordinator

I’m Thankful For:

  • Student Council 2014-15, thirteen energetic and engaging students who are eager to serve God and our school this year as student leaders.
  • New and old friends, coming to Kandern in this busy season
  • Rest together, for Timmy and me, at the end of this summer apart
  • My colleagues, fellow teachers at BFA who inspire, teach and challenge me daily.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Fall Party 2014. Our first event with Student Council, this evening offers students the opportunity to dress up in crazy costumes and play games, building community at the beginning of the year. Pray that this event goes smoothly, that students work together as they plan and promote, and that the event is welcoming and inclusive, especially for new students as they get to know the community.
  • New Staff. We’re beginning the year again with about 65 new staff members. Pray for me as I work specifically with the new faculty, helping them to make a smooth transition to teaching at BFA.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

On Patience: Teaching, Risotto & Two Dots

It’s nearly the end of summer, and I’m making risotto. The setup requires half a dozen steps, but after a while it’s just pouring white wine and broth onto rice, stirring for a while, and thinking while the liquid soaks into the tender monochrome pearls. So I’m thinking, not as distracted as I’d usually be by my excellent ingredients, the crisp apples and smoky bacon waiting to jump into the action. I’m thinking about patience, slowness. And, to my equal embarrassment and amusement, I’m thinking about a computer game, Two Dots, that I played for a while this summer, until I finished the last level this afternoon.

“What do you do all summer?”

Since it’s been ages since I’ve been out in the grown-up world where people work all four seasons, I seldom hear this question delivered with the tones of accusation or scorn that get teachers so riled up that they have to create BuzzFeed lists or Pinterest memes justifying their summer vacations. I read these lists all the time, though, posted by my colleagues, little missives that remind everyone that we, the teachers, spend our summers planning for the year, catching up on professional development, or even getting jobs to supplement our incomes. To which I respond: Yes, but…

…it’s still summer. At least for me, for now, summer looks a lot like it always has.

I tend to divide summers into Nothing and Something. This has little to do with how exciting a summer was–it was a Nothing summer in which I climbed Mt. Rainier, and a Something summer in which I worked as a filing clerk in an insurance agency–but rather how easy it is to describe the summer. The quicker the reply, the more something that summer. The Nothing summers are often long and slow, with brief intervals of intense busyness. By this definition, this was a Nothing summer, in which I vacillated between my empty German village and the fullness of Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Spangdahlem Air Base.

So what did I do? I traveled a bit. When I wasn’t traveling, I did other things. If I were feeling defensive, I could tell about the online class I took, or the orientation program I planned for the new faculty at BFA. I could list the motley titles that accompanied me on approximately 24 hours of train-riding over the last month. I could show Instagram photos of recipes tried. All good things, ingredients to a full summer.

But I also played this computer game. As in, I played the whole game. I have never done this before, and chances are slim that I’ll do it again. I’m not a teenager; I didn’t play for hours a day. I did pick it up between chapters and emails, waiting for pizza dough to rise or the train to arrive. I read some reviews of this game, since I’m the sort who loves reviews, and discovered two distinct camps. There were those who found the game–which is a series of puzzles, divided into levels–“impossible” or its more spiteful counterpart “purely based on luck.” These reviews always garnered a calm response from the other camp: “It’s not impossible. You just have to be patient. Keep trying.”

Teaching can be like that. A series of challenges, some so seemingly insurmountable that we’re tempted to call them impossible, or ascribe success to “pure luck” rather than learned skill. I’ve always been thankful to have mentors and peers who remind me that teaching, like any other skill, requires practice and patience. From both students and teacher, to learn we must risk failing in pursuit of growth, and a space where that kind of risk is safe must be a place of grace, of patience. It’s the grace that God gives to us as we learn, and the grace we’re asked to extend back to ourselves and on to our students.

This isn’t how I always think of patience, the capacity to keep at something for a good while, willing to fail a bit in pursuit of success. But there is a sort of expectancy there, knowing that if I remain present, continuing to “show up” through the challenges of life, God can make something wonderful. Like an essay that makes sense, or a classroom in which learning and community mellow into something beautiful. Like this risotto, done to creamy perfection only if I stick with it, paying attention and stirring the afternoon away.

Prepared {A Place For Us}

My parents plan our next steps.

My parents plan our next steps.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-5

After dinner–a four-course Tyrolean meal that included prosciutto-cloaked melon and spinach späzle–I head back up the trail. I walk in flip-flops, eager to get out of the boots that I wore for 18 kilometers today. The trail is still uneven, just as it was when we came this way around mid-morning, and it’s colder up here than the valley in which we’d hoped to spend the night.

We’d hoped. That the huts we wanted to stay in–mountain lodges perched grandly on ridges, beside lakes, in the shadow of the spiny Dolomites–would have space for us. That the town to which we’d hiked instead would provide a charming guesthouse, with showers in Internet, where we could wash our socks and hair, check email, reconnect with the grim news of the world outside the Italian Alps. That each destination today would be our last, providing rest and restoration for the walking ahead.

I’m hiking with my parents, beginning their 40-day trek through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps. The first day, we hiked as planned, up a valley to Dreizinnenhütte, red and white and boxy, balanced on a rocky saddle in the middle of a Dolomiten panorama. It was spectacular. The next day of hiking brought its share of wonders, too, World War I bunkers buried in green forests, and new mountains unfolding with each pass, but at the end our hut was full. We stayed in a hotel that night, a prim, clean, Austrian affair down the road in a shady green valley. We heard the rains pour, and were thankful not to be in a tent.

Now, the third day, there were times when we longed for a tent, some shelter that didn’t depend on reservations, transportation or phone calls. Nine hours of wandering brought us down three valleys, back up one, then back up another, so that we’re only six kilometers from where we started in the morning. Tomorrow, we’re taking a bus and train to Austria. Italy is full.

I have the lyrics to a pop song stuck in my head as we walk, Mikky Ekko wailing “Hey, is there a place for us? Where flames flicker and wave for us?” We want places, safe and dry and warm, waiting at the end of the various journeys of which our lives consist. How comforting it must have been for the disciples when they remembered Jesus’ words, after the dinner they didn’t know would be the last, a promise that he’d not only prepared a place for them, but would take them there himself. There would be room, space enough for all who loved him, a place for them to be together again.

I reach the top of the valley, the point where the trail juts into the forest, and find a bench by a creek. The water is icy cold, sharp against my aching feet, so I sit down on the bench, a forbidding wall of stony peaks folding their arms in front of me, bouncers of the Dolomites.

It’s not just at the end–the beginning of eternity–that he prepares for us, I realize. This place, somehow, was prepared for us today. The last room in the last hotel in the area, this semicircle of mountains in front of me. We’re prepared for places, too. Twelve years of traveling in Europe led me to this day, making reservations in German and navigating Italian public transport. I think of the ways that Timmy and I have been prepared to work at Black Forest Academy, the years of experiences and education, chances and circumstances, that led us to Germany and to each other. Prepared.

In a week I’ll be back in the classroom, cutting out signs and rearranging furniture to begin the year. Preparing a place for students I’ve never met. In a year, Timmy and I will be somewhere new, somewhere God is preparing for us, preparing us for. Like this strange yellow house in the Dolomites, it may not be what we’re expecting now, not the destination we’ve picked out on the map. But Christ is preparing us, even now, for the next valley, the next journey.

August: News, Thanks and Prayers

Catching some rays in the beautiful town of Cochem, Germany.

Catching some rays in the beautiful town of Cochem, Germany.

News and Dates:

  • August 11-15: New Staff Language Training
  • August 18-29: All-Staff Conference
  • August 29-31: Student Council Planning
  • August 31: New Student Orientation
  • The first week of August, I’ll have the delight of spending some time hiking with my parents in Northern Italy. Pray for good weather!

I’m Thankful For:

  • Time to rest and reflect this summer. I’m thankful for long days and quiet hours after a busy year.
  • My parents, who are beginning a 40-day trek across the Alps on August 3. They continue to inspire me every day!
  • New roles for Timmy and me this year, which will allow us to grow professionally and relationally as we interact with students and staff in new ways.
  • Financial partners that allow us and so many new staff to serve here at Black Forest Academy. We couldn’t do it without you!

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • New Beginnings. Pray for new staff and students as they prepare to come to Kandern. Pray also for Timmy and me as we plan for the year with the Student Council.
  • Travel Safety. Pray for Timmy as he returns from Spangdahlem, and for me as I travel to Austria to spend time with my parents. Pray also for the students and staff returning to our corner of Germany from all over the world.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, which makes our ministry here possible! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in our ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

29: To The Wanderers

A few years ago, I paraphrased some of Jeremiah 29, the oft-quoted letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. While no one I know is in literal exile, it occurred to me then that many of my friends and students–all over the world and for a variety of reasons–find themselves in unfamiliar places, and are uncertain of how long they’ll stay. As I spend the summer in Europe, thinking of the weddings, movings, job interviews and freshman years happening in North America, Jeremiah’s words seemed especially relevant. This poem is my prayer for all of us.

 

To the millennial wanderers.

To the graduate students

soldiers

missionaries

residents

spouses

corps members

of all kinds.

 

Sign a lease—

just a year

or two.

Get a cell phone

with a contract.

Frame and hang

pictures—

even shelves.

Buy some plants—try

to keep them alive.

Join a soccer team.

Get a dog—or a cat—

if you must.

Make friends, good ones,

who make you laugh

think

long to live well.

Expand your world;

don’t shrink it.

 

This isn’t forever—none of it.

When it’s time to go,

you’ll know.

But you’re here;

Be here.

 

I haven’t forgotten you:

Believe me.

The plans are brilliant,

Brimming with delight,

Not despair.

Tomorrow will come,

And the day after that.

 

But in this desert

you’re listening

close,

looking at me

like you never have.

As lost as you’ve ever been,

you’ll find me

if you keep looking.

And here’s the magic:

I’ll be found.

And so will you.