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
of all kinds.
Sign a lease—
just a year
Get a cell phone
with a contract.
Frame and hang
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
long to live well.
Expand your world;
don’t shrink it.
This isn’t forever—none of it.
When it’s time to go,
But you’re here;
I haven’t forgotten you:
The plans are brilliant,
Brimming with delight,
Tomorrow will come,
And the day after that.
But in this desert
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.
I confess, I wasn’t watching when they scored the first goal.
Distracted by the coolness of the German away jerseys–red and black blocks that take me straight back to Ballard High School–I was doing some online shopping when the pub erupted, reacting to Thomas Müller’s clean shot past Brazilian keeper Júlio César.
“Ahh, I missed it!” I wailed, looking up in time to catch the replay. My friends laughed at me. I’ve missed most of the German goals this World Cup, distracted by conversation or falling asleep before the inevitable extra time periods at the late ends of 0-0 games. Watching sports is not one of my gifts, you see. Distraught that I’d possibly missed the only action in this game, I fixed my eyes on the screen bedecked with international bunting, hoping there would be another goal.
I needn’t have worried.
Quite by accident, I’ve been in Germany during the last four World Cups. I don’t remember 2002, South Korea, though there must have been posters or headlines somewhere when I was dragging my 17-year-old self through the dim underworld of the München Ostbahnhof, trying to figure out where to buy a train ticket to Salzburg. I wasn’t paying attention when Germany lost to Brazil in the final.
I remember 2006, though, taking a night train full of drunken Italian footballers headed for Dortmund, shopping in Munich on the raucous day that Tunisia played Saudi Arabia there. I remember my friends telling me, wide-eyed, that they’d never seen so many German flags on display. “We don’t usually display our flags,” they explained to me, “Not since… We’re careful about nationalism now.”
In 2010, two American girls and three German girls grilled bratwurst in Austria, then sighed when Germany lost the semi-final to Spain, way down in South Africa. We watched the final in a library, and two Dutch Tauernhof students dominated both the cheering and the lament, though we were all wearing orange and were all disappointed.
This year is different. This year comes at the end of four years living in Germany, where people care deeply about this sport and feel comfortable expressing love for their country only during football matches. There are more German flags out in general than there were 12 years ago, but especially now. Since this World Cup began, I’ve watched games in three countries, and heard commentary in four languages, only two of which I understood. Back in 2010, when my Somali and Mexican students would watch the group stage games in my classroom during lunch, I got the impression that this World Cup business was a big deal, captivating the whole world in a way that few other events did. Now, I know for sure.
Afraid of missing something, I pay fastidious attention to the rest of the game, a 7-1 rout by Germany, which will be catalogued in history with statistics particularly miraculous or damning, depending on your perspective. “What is even happening?” we cry, disbelieving, after each goal. “Does this ever happen?” We cheer as well as we can–and have dressed in the required red, black and gold–but we’re no match for the Kanderners, who shout, cry, and break into song as the victory grows more secure.
Tomorrow, I’ll read the German coach Joachim Löw’s consolatory words for defeated Brazil, and scan faintly guilty Facebook statuses from German friends, along the lines of “We wanted to win, but this… Wow.” Tonight, though, we celebrate. When it’s over, the Kanderners jump into their cars for the bizarre and perilous ritual of driving around in circles through our village, laying on their horns and shouting. “Wir haben gewonnen! We’ve won!” they remind us as we walk home, laughing. “Show some spirit!” Apparently, a honking horn is the only acceptable response in cases like these.
I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to speak of the influence of the World Cup on the world, whether it ultimately unites or divides, whether it’s worth the cost, especially to Brazil tonight. But I’m thankful to be here, to share something so deeply important to so many, to live in this village where they cheer into the night.
News and Dates:
- June 30-July 11: Work weeks at BFA
- July 4: Timmy graduates from Liberty Seminary
- For the month of July, Timmy is completing a tour with the Air Force Reserves as a chaplain candidate. He is serving at Spangdahlem Air Base in western Germany.
I’m Thankful For:
- Timmy Gaster, my talented husband, who finishes his Masters of Divinity this week. Completing a graduate degree while working full time and getting married is no easy feat, and I am incredibly proud of his hard work.
- The Class of 2014, with whom we’ve been privileged to spend four years. It has been a joy watching them grow into talented, mature and godly young men and women. We’ll miss you, and we’re so proud of you!
- Goodbyes, of which June brought many. Though neither easy nor fun, these farewells reminded me of the deep friendships that God has blessed me with here at BFA.
- Summer, bringing time to rest, reflect and refresh.
Please Be In Prayer For:
- Summer. Pray for Timmy and me as we spend time apart this summer, he serving at Spangdahlem Air Base and me finishing work and professional development here in Kandern before traveling to Austria towards the end of the month.
- New Roles. Pray for us as we prepare to take on new roles for next year in new teacher mentoring and advising Student Council. Pray that we would learn quickly and ask the right questions as we plan for the coming year.
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 email@example.com.
Peace in Christ,
Kristi & Timmy
Still I always look up to the sky
Pray before the dawn
Cause they fly away
One minute they arrive
Next you know they’re gone
After the wedding, we wake up slowly. Even Emily and I, who slept on the cool tile of the of the solarium, don’t immediately get up when the June sunshine splashes our faces. We were the first back, just after midnight, and the rest arrived after we’d gone to sleep.
We’ve come to Switzerland this weekend to celebrate the wedding of Rochelle, a former Black Forest Academy student, a Swiss-British-American girl who grew up on the steep, vineyard-striped shores of Lac Léman. The wedding was surreal and marvelous, complete with an ancient church in a steep Swiss village, an afternoon at a castle, a boat ride, and the traditional dinner and dancing familiar to all. It was a star-studded evening, magnificent and festive.
Now we’re sitting on the lawn outside of the bride’s childhood home, looking over the silky blue waters of the lake, eating breakfast. On the table is a generous loaf of crusty Swiss bread, along with butter, honey and Nutella. Our hostess, the mother of the bride, brings out tea and orange juice, encouraging us to dig into the bread and begin.
Many of Emily’s and my small group girls had been among the crimson-draped bridesmaids, and now they yawn their sleepy way to the breakfast table, laughing and collapsing into chairs. They tell stories from last night, last week, the years that they’ve known the young bride. They laugh about the breakfast–essentially good bread with things to put on it–and declare how much they’ll miss meals like this when they leave Europe.
“When I leave” is a common suffix today. Most of them are leaving Europe, and most of them soon. By the end of the month, this tightly-knit group of friends will be in Ontario, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Croatia, and Korea. Only two of us will still be in Europe by the end of the summer.
I remember Lexi, a friend with whom I’ve worked, played and shared life for the last three years, once writing about Saturday breakfasts at Storchenblick dorm, where we spent a few weekends volunteering last year. We’d get up early and make waffle batter, then sit with cups of coffee at the counter, talking with the waves of sleepy girls that trickled through the kitchen. Those mornings were sweet, unpressured time to spend with these students we’ve come to love.
Today is like that. Ignoring all the work we have to do as soon as we leave the table, we linger. We sit in the morning sunshine, drinking in the hazy mountains and crisp air, the triple languages and good breakfasts of Switzerland. We memorize faces and voices, laughter and mannerisms, or at least record them with smartphone cameras, hoping to capture the moment. They go home to packed bags and empty houses, home to load their lives onto planes and on to the next adventure. This moment together, an idyllic breakfast above a Swiss lake, will be the last for a while. We cut slice after slice of bread, the dwindling loaf reminding us that our time here is limited.
It’s almost lunchtime when the first departure breaks the spell, taking the first of us off to Geneva, then to Korea. We stay a while longer, before finding our bags with a sigh, piling into the rickety van that will take us back. We wind our way down the hill to the lake, to the train station from which Emily and I go on to a few days of camping in Montreux. Untangling ourselves from the dusty seatbelts, we give hugs, shed tears, say a prayer as it begins to rain. Eventually the van goes west, and we continue east, further into the heart of these mountains.
We don’t always see them coming, these goodbyes, but this year has taught me that even when we know for a long time–for four years even–that eventual parting is inevitable, it’s still sad. We’ll still miss each other as we walk ahead, still long for home as we explore new lands. As we walk away, I find myself still praying for each of them, both that they continue to love one another well from a distance, and for the friends that they’ll meet in the new homes waiting for them. God will provide for them, as He does for me, that much I trust. Uncurling my fingers from the gift of these years–and this morning–I give them back to Him in thanks as we start a new chapter, beginning summer with a camping trip in rainy Switzerland.
Fly on Fly on, ride through
Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you
Fly on, ride through
Maybe one day I can fly with you
Today is Commencement Day. After a hectic morning of pinning and adjusting mortarboards, searching for missing tassels, and ushering nervous graduates in to the earworm notes of “Pomp and Circumstance,” we watched as our 76 seniors, the Class of 2014, managed the many words and steps required to graduate from Black Forest Academy. They shook hands with administrators, listened to the carefully-crafted blessings and verses with which we send them out into the wide world, gave clever calls of solidarity to their dorm brothers or sisters, then had photos taken. It was all planned, rehearsed and executed to perfection, and now they’re done.
I haven’t been this attached to a class since 2009, the first class at Ingraham that I saw from their freshman year to graduation. There was another class after them, 201o, but that was the year that I, too, “graduated” from Ingraham, and so the significance of their transformation faded into the background of my more significant life changes that year. This is the first year in a while, then, that I’ve walked the long road of investment, been there “the whole time” with a class. It’s a long season, this cycle of a whole high school, and a good one.
Now, I’m standing at the post-graduation reception, surrounded by graduates in the half-dress of the accomplished. Some wear sundresses with blue mortarboards, while others billow around in unzipped blue robes, looking like Technicolor penguins or Hogwarts professors. Everywhere there are smiles, pictures, and goodbyes.
Between photos, cake and punch, I watch the celebration from the edges for a moment, my attention wandering back to fiction. I’m thinking of a series of book, called The Mitford Years. While technically not literature–the prose will win no awards, and the plot offers few surprises–it’s always been a favorite of my mother and me, the charming tale of an Episcopal priest, Father Tim, and his small parish. In the course of the series, this staid priest’s world is upended, as he marries, adopts children and tends to the ever-changing needs of his parishioners.
It’s a long series, nine books in all, offering a great perspective from which to see the transformation not just of the protagonist, but the community and its members all around him. Some characters are present in all books, beloved and familiar. Others pop in and out, visiting their priest only when circumstances require.
“It seems like I’ve known you forever,” a student remarks, handing me a letter he’s written to Timmy and me.
For once, I’m a speechless English teacher, because I know what he means. Of course I remember meeting him, a gangly, uncertain ninth grader, as if it were yesterday. But with the accumulation of experience and conversation–the bus rides and baked cookies and proofread papers–it feels like much longer than four years that we’ve spent together.
In short stories and shorter novels, the characters are static, introduced as soon as possible so that they can create the action of the work. In a series, though, a life-long book, characters come and go. Life is like that, as I’m reminded today, so gloriously complex that our plotlines sometimes intersect for only a short while. It doesn’t make them minor characters, flat foils to move the plot along–sometimes the briefest cameos can resonate for years.
As I look around me at the “leavings” of Commencement Day, it seems like a long time I’ve known these particular characters. This one chapter–four years of school at BFA–divides into 76 different next chapters. I won’t be able to read all of them, and I can’t tell how many will ever intersect with my own story again, but I’m thankful for these years, and excited to see what’s next.
The pavement bends up behind the Catholic church, and we leave the smallest city in Germany down in the valley, turning a corner to find ourselves in the bottle-green halls of the summer Black Forest. It’s been a long time since my trail map was a constant companion, since Emily and I traced these little diamond-marked lines with hopeful fingers before beginning our explorations. We know them by heart now, these hills and forests as memorized as the faces of a friends.
Though it’s after eight, it’s still hot in the forest. It’s Friday night, the end of a long and busy day. We have only one more week of school, an odd one full of exams, farewells, honors and diplomas. I’m proud and weary, happy for our graduates and genuinely sorry to see them go. Still, it’s not the seniors I’m thinking of tonight, but the two friends walking beside me on the trail.
“Leaving is a loud presence lately,” I wrote, almost exactly four years ago. “Leaving cheers from goodbye parties, smiles its way across from me in restaurants, reminds me that it’s the last time for a while.” I was leaving then, packing up fifteen years of life in Seattle, bound for a village in Germany I’d never visited. I was leaving alone, my departure the only irregularity to disturb the pleasant rhythms of our lives there.
Leaving is louder here, and expected. While I once left a place where people tend to stay, each spring promises change, irrevocable and swift. For better or worse, Black Forest Academy is new each fall. This means the promise of new friends and students, adventures yet unmapped and conversations still waiting to be had. It also means that this is a place of goodbyes. It’s the goodbyes that I’m considering as I walk up to the castle with my friends, both of whom will be gone within the month.
The sun is just beginning to set when we reach Ruine Sausenburg, a crumbly half of an 11th century castle holding state on a leafy ridge. Sausenburg is not a particularly well-maintained castle. There is one faded sign sketching out the history of the castle, below a much larger sign full of rules, which includes “No Campfires” despite the presence of fire pit, grill, benches and friendly supply of firewood in the courtyard. We leave our bags in the courtyard and drag ourselves up the dusty wooden staircase to the top of the tower.
Even the tower isn’t terribly pristine or ancient-looking. The crenellated battlements are filled in with concrete, into which a circular iron railing sticks like a Sunday-school halo. We sit down on the wall, holding the railing with our legs dangling down, toes pointing to France. Awash in golden light, with Switzerland down to our left, the Black Forest behind and the Rhine Valley ahead, we toast to our years in this green valley, this place between.
“You know,” Lexi says after a while. “There’s not a whole lot that’s better than this.”
Another friend recently wrote about leaving here, saying “I don’t doubt or question or mistrust this. I just don’t like it.” And that’s how I feel, in the midst of the leavings and farewells. I am confident that God’s plan is unique and creative, fully trusting that my friends and students go in His love and power on to their next adventures. I’ll just miss them.
We stay atop the castle for over an hour, watching the sky melt from yellow to orange, red and blue, until the first stars wink down from directly over our heads. No sunset lasts forever, even the protracted ones you see flying west on airplanes. Eventually, even the grandest fade to black and white, another kind of glory.
And even knowing the busyness of the days ahead, the hectic farewells layered amidst packing, grading and events, knowing that time will stubbornly refuse to slow down, I’m more grateful than mournful, grateful for these friends, this place, these years we’ve shared. Seasons, like sunsets, don’t last forever. We celebrate them as they come, savor them, remember them. And most of all, every day, we’re thankful, praising the God who gives us such good gifts, like a castle, a sunset, and friends to share them with.
As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.
My Dear Juniors,
Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.
I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.
Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.
Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.
Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people that you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.
Peace in Christ,