Sunday, July 17, 2011

Q and A: Simple Abundance

Q: What have you been up to for the past month?

A: Mom and Dad came to visit for just over a week, and we filled the time with castle tours, ice cream, red poppy gazing, dinner with my host family, the chicken dance and conversations about our work in the world and the courage to do things that have not been done before. Following their visit, I joined 5 other North Americans (one of them Canadian) for 10 days of Viata training.

Q: What is Viata?

A: Viata (Romanian for “life”) is a 12-year-old adventure camp dedicated to building social capital among Romanian youth, empowering them to make a difference in their communities.

Q: What is social capital?

A: Social capital is the set of networks and norms that allow people to work together for the common good. For example, lacking a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility a neighborhood’s flower beds might become overgrown with weeds because of neglect. These norms are like oxygen: you only really become aware of them when they are absent.

Q: What kind of people are attracted to work at the Viata camp?

A: One of my fellow trainees characterized them as people who “dream with their eyes open.” During training week, I rubbed elbows with twenty-something’s who had started NGO’s, people who referred to themselves as “social entrepreneurs” and others who were whole-heartedly committed to the development of “non-formal” education in Romania (Viata camp is an example of this). I was humbled and inspired.

Q: Can you illustrate the spirit of Viata camp?

A: The day begins with breakfast at 8:30 (often a dish of hot dogs consumed after a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer) and progresses to the element of the day, whether that’s high ropes, low ropes or rock climbing. Before every activity, leaders guide their team in a discussion of what values the activity might call upon (courage and perseverance in rock climbing, for instance) and then follow up with a debrief after the activity, drawing parallels between the obstacles and feelings experienced during the activity with those in real life. The day is interlaced with games and camp songs. Many activities are transferable to real life, but some are just for fun, like the Tarzan Song:

“Tarzan {Beat chest with fists}/Swingin’ on a rubber band/

Tarzan {beat chest with fists}/Got hit by a frying pan

Oooo, that hurts!

Now Tarzan has a tan/And I hope {squeaky voice} it doesn’t peel

Like a banana {Beat chest}"

Q: What’s on your mind as you head down Straja Mountain?

A: I’ve been mulling over what I wrote in my last posting, and though I still agree with myself, mostly, I take issue with something I inferred. One element of freedom is freedom of choice (such as the freedom to choose one’s preferred candidate in an election), I still believe, but I do not think that there must be an abundance of choices in order for freedom to be alive and well. In fact, Romania in general and Viata Camp in particular have taught me that a shortage of options breeds creativity and a good sense of humor. Without the stickers and kits and fancy costumes and plastic doodads that so many programs for children in the States seem to deem necessary, Viata camp leaders managed to so thoroughly entertain and instruct campers that many cried when they had to leave at week’s end. Our imaginations don’t need so many props and formulas as I thought, nor do our bodies require so much food and our closets so much clothing. Freedom is not about stuff. In fact, stuff may encumber freedom, weigh it down. The abundance that resides in simple things – meals together, dancing, shared experience – supports freedom.

“Cultivate a love for what seems poor,” one friend advised me recently. Live the simply abundant life.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I’ve made a friend. Well, he made a friend of me, more like. One morning I looked down and there he was…and almost every day since we’ve made the commute from the farm down the mountain into town together.

Lupeni has given me a new appreciation for the term “underdog.” Its streets swarm with stray dogs – soaking up sunshine from where they lie on the sidewalks, trim pups rummaging through dumpsters, menacing thigh-high ones lurking around apartment entrances – and I’m shocked that the miniature poodles and mangled dachshunds survive. At first I was put off by the little dog’s feigning friendship (sometimes licking my ankle) in order to garner my protection, but now I’m grateful for the companionship and glad to be a reassurance for my shaggy-little-footstool-shadow.

Romania, a real underdog in political history, spent a lot of time under other people’s feet. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarians all trampled over it, blown by the winds of imperial ambition and power. Most recently, Russia, though technically not an empire, held Romania under its boot.

Before beginning my course on “Modern Romanian History” this spring, the section that Cold War/iron curtain/Soviet Union/Eastern Europe should have occupied in my brain was completely empty, except for some vague notions furnished by old TIME and National Geographic articles lying around the house growing up and by Animal Farm and 1984 readings in school. To illustrate the depth of my ignorance, on a missions trip to Russia in high school I wondered why John Lenin had been buried in Moscow…

Slowly now, but surely, my research and studies are painting the painfully ironic picture: what began as genuine faith in the possibility of equality and wellbeing for all of society through violence, coercion, and disregard for the individual (carried out against new “underdogs” by people who themselves had once been “underdogs”), became complete absence of freedom. In Romania, for example, following WWII and with Soviet assistance, Romanian communists managed to falsify election reports to become the reigning political party for over 4 decades during which it demolished churches, uprooted peasants from their land, collectivizing their farms and stuffing them into bloc apartments, unleashed Securitate (secret police) and their informants on Romanians who dared to raise their dissenting voices above a whisper, and whisked intellectuals/dissidents/clergy away to prison for punishment and “reeducation”… As Polish Solidarity activist Adam Michnik points out, those who start by storming Bastilles often end up building their own.

But what if a group of communist idealists managed to inspire others to adopt their form of government, and of their own free choice people democratically elected a communist or socialist official? This did happen in Chile (President Allende) and Guatemala (President Árbenz Guzmán), and, in a manner not unlike the Eastern European communists whose undemocratic policies they were supposedly “containing,” the Unites States CIA promptly incited coups d’état and installed dictators. In a democracy, just as “good” ideas are never so good as to warrant violent implementation, “bad” ideas are rarely so bad as to warrant violent eradication.

Now Romania boasts a new, democratic government not without corruption, but having in place the structures necessary for freedom. As part of my history course, I had the privilege of interviewing some Orthodox priests in the area. When asked how he perceived the changes since the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Romania, one priest said, “We have so much freedom. We are not used to it and do not know how to use it.”

This is true with my little friend, too. Emboldened by my “protection,” he’ll march up to huge dogs (bound by chains and fences, these guys are still frightening, bred as they are to kill bears in defense of sheep), bearing his teeth, growling and forgetting himself, dizzy with “freedom.” Likewise, some Romanians have used their freedom to express old prejudices, and nationalism and anti-Semitism have reared their ugly heads in publications and political platforms. On a lighter note, of all the music made available to them with greater contact with the rest of the world, Romanian radio stations choose to replay the same handful of European techno songs over and over…And, perhaps out of habit, supermarkets offer a small variety of food options.

But who am I to judge? What noble and creative things do I do with my abundant freedom? I sleep late, spend hours on facebook, daydream about a burrito from my favorite Mexican restaurant…In democracies, freedom means responsibilities, it requires initiative and vigilance and care and a lot of other things that involve work on the part of free citizens.

When we were in Argentina, Mom and I noticed that, in contrast to the often sexual and territorial messages found in graffiti in the States, there graffiti expressed political discontent. We were impressed that, in their moment of passion, these public-property-defacers chose to exercise their freedom of expression in this way, that their sights were set at the systemic and institutional level. Maybe this is a poor indicator, but I do think it points to the fact that in a place like the United States where things like personal security and government protection are widely taken for granted, people (myself included) do not always choose to lift their eyes to the larger political landscape.

God grant that I not fall prey to complacency, but rather live a life full of gratitude and advocacy for the underdog.

Monday, May 30, 2011

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Several things have struck me recently about Luke 10:25-37 (See the Good Samaritan page if you are unfamiliar). First of all, perhaps unlike the questioner of this story whose intent is to trap Jesus in his words, I really want to know what Jesus has to say in response to the question, “What is required of me?” When Jesus responds to the question with another question, “What does the law tell you?,” he seems to be saying, “Well, let’s start with what you know. Always strive to answer questions by piecing together those things you already know to be true.” Along with this man I could have answered easily, “Love the Lord you God and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though for different reasons, Jesus’ affirmation that I’d answered correctly would not have satisfied me either. I too would have pressed further, “No, what I mean is, how much is enough?” Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes the Good Samaritan kind of love comes naturally. The most severe exchange I’ve witnessed so far between Romanians did not occur between sworn enemies but on a weekend rock-climbing trip between a mother and her child who had just dashed out in front of a car and was almost hit. The tremulous, high pitch of the mother’s scolding was unmistakable, even though my limited Romanian preventing me from catching each word. She just loves him so much.

Love toward non-family members often does not come as easily as love for family members. Volleyball has my allegiance for this reason. More than any other sport, I would argue, volleyball is a team sport. Thanks to the centrality of “volleying” to the game (in order to deliver the most powerful attack, at least two team members must be involved in every play), one team member simply cannot win a game single-handedly. Furthermore, perhaps only in as great a degree as tennis players, good volleyball players prefer to play against challenging opponents because (due to the speed and rhythm of play) only against teams of greater or equal ability is a team able to play its best. In volleyball, it is in one’s best interest to play with teammates and opponents who play their best.

A lot of people don’t appreciate this about the sport. A couple weeks ago while playing volleyball (to my delight, I’ve been able to play several times since arriving in Lupeni!) my teammates (inexperienced players) didn’t bother to pass to one another and congratulated themselves on scoring points with cheap shots, while our opponents (older and experienced) stuck to three-hit, quality volleyball. I wonder if God ever looks down at us on Earth, laughs pityingly and shakes his head saying, “If they would only see that it’s a better game when they play together.” Volleyball opens my eyes to the reality that often the gain of my neighbor is my own gain. Other times my eyes lie to me and say just the opposite: my neighbor’s gain is my loss.

Then life holds up a mirror to reveal the absurdity of my withholding love from others. Last week I was invited to an after school care center nestled among the red tile roofs and lacy curtains of what used to be the miners’ quarter (now predominantly Roma/Gypsy) of a neighboring town to teach dance. Only when the child care workers helping me instruct stomped their feet and bellowed, “Be quiet and pay attention!” at the children who, excited but not defiant, would squirm in anticipation of the next step, could I see, as if in a mirror, the absurdity of my own tendency to lose patience with the children. My Mom has warned me before, “When children make you mad, sometimes you have to realize that even if it feels like it, they’re not doing it to you.” Somehow, maybe because of the noise inside their own minds as they tried themselves to learn the dance, the day care workers became angry and short tempered at children who weren’t doing anything to them. I had to ask myself, how many times at dance class have I, certain that I had no patience or grace or smile or gentle voice left to give, been so caught up with my own limitedness that I cannot see the children’s deserving? So focused on the amount I’ve already drawn that I forget the unending supply of Love within me?

My Mom and I have discussed it before: just how far will you take this Christianity thing? Just how literally will you interpret commands to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”? Or assertions such as “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me”? It all seems so extreme, so radical. Absurd, even. And it is.

I don’t know “how far” I will take it. But I’m not sure that “how far” is even the right question. The man asked Jesus for a measurement, and Jesus replied with a story. We ask “Who is my neighbor? For exactly which ones am I responsible in this world?” Jesus replies, “The person before you who is in need.”

Development Studies, like theologians in the tradition of Martin Luther, is concerned with numbers, minimum requirements. Peter Singer famously argued that, at the very least, “morality” requires a wealthy person to give aid to a person in need, so long as in giving it the person does not sacrifice something “of comparable moral value” and does not extend herself beyond the range of “marginal utility.” A logical argument! It’s only decent for a person who has more than enough to share what she has, and since she herself deserves a dignified life and would be no use to others if she compromised her own well-being, her giving is limited.

But Christians follow a self-sacrificing God who instructs followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” Maybe it’s not about logic. Maybe our “morality” cannot squeeze the whole scope of reality into its lens. Maybe it’s about more than merely “confessing with your mouth and believing in your heart.”

The life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, a communist sympathizer and an Orthodox counterpart to Catholic Dorothy Day, suggests as much. After her daughter died of influenza Mother Maria felt she must become “a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection.” She opened up a home in Paris where any who needed were welcome to stay and eat, and when Nazi’s would come in search of the Jews she sheltered, she would show them an icon of the (Jewish) Virgin Mary. Practicing a new type of monasticism she strove to eliminate “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds” and believed that love functioned as coins drawn from a supply that is never spent. Ultimately she died in a concentration camp just days before the Allies reached it.

Could this be the kind of love Christ had in mind? A reckless, even foolish kind? A determinedly inclusive kind? A sacrificing throughout-life-and-unto-death kind? “And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

I can get tired just thinking about all that work, anticipating all the expenditure. Could there be any joy in it? Once I got to hear Shane Claiborne speak, and he said that when people question his decision to give up all his stuff and live among the poorest folks in Philadelphia, he has to shake his head because they forget that in giving up everything, he’s gained the “pearl of great price.”

When Jesus’ questioner correctly identifies the Samaritan as the example of a loving neighbor, Jesus doesn’t say, “That’s right. Now you’ve got the golden ticket. Now you’ve found your loophole. Now your conscience can be silent.” No. He promises something more wonderful and whole.

“Do this and you will live,” He says.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ingredients for the “Good Life”

In one of those plane conversations of accelerated intimacy while flying home from school, the woman sitting next to me pronounced that I was a serious person. Too serious for a person my age, she thought.

I’ve realized in thinking about education and development and parenting and evangelizing (see May 2nd’s posting) that these forms of leadership all contain a pretty lofty implication: living as a “leader” implies that you have a grasp on “the Good Life.” That you embody the ideas you proliferate, that you are worthy of imitation, even.

Now, I don’t consider perfection/absolute integrity/crystal-clarity of vision prerequisites for leadership. In fact, I think a healthy dose of incapability and self-doubt (as well as good listening skills and prioritizing the interests of others) does a leader good. These implications are still important to examine, though. When I find myself dreaming up an ideal form of education (one that involves farming and painting and dancing and good books) and fantasizing about the products of this education (individuals who are capable and happy), I have to pause to ask whether I live the life I would want for future students? The woman on the plane would say that I don’t…

But seriously! ( :P ) Sometimes I fear that, as the woman in the poem “When I get old I’ll wear purple” puts it, in “the sobriety of my youth” I am missing out on the Good Life, the very thing I strive to help provide for others.

In the past few weeks of being abroad, I have discovered my conscience’s pressure points (You’re going to regret later spending that money, now, Joanna. If you don’t work all the time, you’ll probably fall behind and never catch up! If you’re not careful with your use of Romanian, you’re going to offend people here!) and, in the same relentless way a tongue finds a lose tooth and pokes and prods even though it smarts, my anxiety abuses my conscience. I was so anxious the other day that when some Romanian women saw me fumbling with my Romanian and apologizing profusely at the grocery store, they bade me relax. “Calma,” one said, gently.

Wonderfully, the past week has been a series of invitations to leave needless anxiety behind and to live life to the full. Sunday I joined my host family and their friends on an all day hike. It was a thoroughly Romanian experience: each “pausa” we took during our climb lasted as long as it took two of our party to smoke their cigarettes, we commandeered an unoccupied shepherd’s hut and cooked lunch (a fatty smorgasbord of meats and cheeses with no apologies) over the fire we made there, and we all laughed hard and often. As we made our descent that evening, I wanted to memorize every detail of the day and incorporate all of it (save the body-harming parts) into my life: Their intimacy with nature (all day I ate various leaves and berries familiar thanks to generations of wisdom to my fellow hikers), their playfulness, good humor, affection and devotion to one another as friends…

Thursday was our second Dance Class. About twenty children (ages 5 to 12 or so) and I are preparing dances for International Children’s Day on June 1st – we plan to perform a dance around a maypole in one of the parks in downtown Lupeni! The little dancers are marvelous to me. I’m always surprised to find which movements are difficult for them (I was sure this Palestinian grapevine move would be a winner…but first there’s that whole, “Which foot is right and which left?” thing, and then there’s the “I lack the fine motor skills that prevent my legs from getting tangled,” thing…oops!). And after all my clumsiness and bossiness as a teacher, I’m touched by their grins, hugs and “multsumesc’s” (“thank you’s”) at the end of class.

One little girl especially inspires me. It’s obvious that she absolutely delights in moving her body, and no matter how chaotic class gets nor how faded my smile, I can count on her always to be grinning and her eyes sparkling. She finds joy in every minute of class.

Later that evening for the weekly debrief dinner I’d determined to make Mexican food. As I made the twenty-minute trek to a second grocery store in pursuit of tortillas or some suitable substitute, I wondered whether I was being unreasonable. A book I’ve been reading about life in Eastern Europe during communism has heightened my consciousness of the almost disgusting number of choices we have in the United States - from feminine hygiene products to eating “conventionally grown” versus “organic” to options for education and employment. Maybe I should restrict my own lifestyle as an act of solidarity with those around the world whose lifestyles, by forces they cannot control, have been restricted? Maybe so. Especially if in so doing I can help achieve a better standard of living for others. But that night, at least, as I tasted the salty melted cheese and tangy mango salsa, I knew that periodic acts of extravagance (in a relative sense) are integral to a Good Life.

When I near my life’s end, the last thing I want to see looking back is a life too full of work and seriousness to include friends, joy or a measure of extravagance. And as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Guess I’d better start incorporating these ingredients for the Good Life now!

P.S. Mom and Dad, you two are my example in this whole “worthiness of imitation” thing. I know it isn’t on accident that in striving to be the best parents you could be you became the best individuals and the best couple you could be. You guys will always see room for improvement, but on the whole you are living the “Good Life” – full of karaoke parties, rich church community, Sunday family dinners, laughter, and constant learning – that you want for us girls. I love you! Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Means and Ends

I probably first encountered this difficulty while “helping” my little sister with her homework. When you try and try to explain why of course an all-encompassing thesis statement belongs in the first paragraph of an essay, and can’t she come up with a sentence that does that?, and other paragraphs with examples to support that?, but she just looks at you all imploringly…sometimes it’s just easiest to do it yourself! (I can hear Dad's "Amen!"). It’s easier to just take the pencil in your own hand, to do all the thought formulating, to dominate rather than facilitate, control rather than empower.

If a simple homework assignment presents such difficulties, how much more a teacher’s presentation of school material or an organizer’s development of community or revolutionaries’ institution of government! The challenges may vary in size, but I think they are analogous. Should we not ensure that, if the end goal is independent thinking or agency and solidarity or democracy, the means we employ to achieve the goal also honor the goal? Shouldn’t we refine the process as well as we tend to refine the result?

Czechoslovakians in 1989 thought as much. In what has since been named a “velvet revolution,” anti-communist revolutionaries, committed ultimately to the goal of democracy and peace, determined to conduct their revolution democratically and peaceably. Revolutionary leaders held regular press conferences in “The Magic Lantern” theatre in Prague, to set a precedent for transparency in leadership. As best they were able, leaders of the revolution followed the will of the people as they chose new leaders to replace deposed communists. At protests, revolutionaries extended candles when police extended truncheons.

The cutting edge in Development Studies also calls for continuity in means and ends. Whereas the reigning development paradigms tend to overemphasize “life-sustenance” to the point that “development” is reduced to economic growth, development theorist Denis Goulet asserts that community developers must attempt to balance three values: life-sustenance, esteem and freedom. Instead of entering a community as outsiders and diagnosing that community and imposing development strategies upon it, developers must allow communities to become the authors of their own development, to identify problems and imagine solutions themselves. That way, not only does development sustain life, by empowering community members to develop authentically, it also safeguards community members’ dignity and freedom.

Waldorf educators might refer to this as “building capacity.” Rather than teaching children what to think, they teach children how to think. Rather than offering children lines within which to draw or dots to connect, they offer children blank pages. Believing children enter the world bearing unique gifts for the world and furthermore believing freedom to be the goal of education, Waldorf educators build capacities in their students – the capacity to relate numbers to one another, the capacity to move one’s body elegantly, the capacity to create music – and then they leave it to student to imagine how these capacities will be developed and applied.

In the context of Romania especially, community developers emphasize the importance of building trust among community members…and I think it is just as important that community developers learn to trust community members: legitimizing indigenous wisdom, accepting their responsibility of facilitation rather than domination, and, ultimately, entrusting to community members the task of improving their community.

Easier said than done! On those occasions where I determined to actually help my sister with her homework, asking questions that allowed for her to discover answers herself rather than supplying them for her, encouraging her to follow the steps of the writing process (brainstorm, outline, rough draft etc.), just because the process had improved did not mean that the results showed improvement. Often I disliked words she had chosen, or felt she didn’t take full advantage of the advice I offered from my superior wisdom. But however unsatisfied I felt, the truth is that she took one step closer to becoming self-reliant and proficient in her writing – and she, deservedly, felt pride in her good work.

Heh. Now that I’ve outlined the keys to effective leadership/teaching/sistering/developing on paper, I get to go and try it out in real life tomorrow night at the first IMPACT club meeting :P Wish me luck!

(And for the record, my sister is an excellent writer, and has been all along. Hopefully she won’t mind this analogy too much…)

Friday, April 29, 2011


It is springtime in Romania! The sun is warm on my face, the trees glow with new green growth, tender crocus blossoms line the way up Mount Straja, and people everywhere (even on Romanian television) greet one another, “Hristos a inviat!” “Christ is Risen!” And springtime extends beyond the natural and liturgical calendars, too: since 1989 when it joined other Eastern European countries in upending communism and paving the way for democracy, Romania has undergone a process of renewal. I’m excited to see and take part in this new growth during my time here.

Some highlights from this first week:

Friday, after disembarking from the overnight train where I had scored a spectacular introduction to Romania’s Carpathian mountains (I would not have been surprised had a medieval monk appeared among the trees through the mist and morning light as we passed), I joined other Americans and nearly the whole town of Lupeni in a procession up mount Straja.

An Orthodox tradition for Good Friday, the procession or “Drumul Crucii” commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and involves carrying a huge cross up the mountain and stopping at twelve Stations of the Cross along the way. The views were breathtaking and the devotional participation of young and old inspiring.

The widespread participation in the Easter service Saturday at midnight also inspired me. During Holy Week especially, to be Romanian is to be Orthodox, and cell-phone-brandishing youth as well as kerchief-clad grandmothers circle the church three times with candles burning the light of Christ. “Hristos a inviat! Adevarat a inviat!” - “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Monday I met my host family! And their farm! My 8 year old host sister and I spent the morning running up and down the property that has belonged to the family for generations, pausing now and then to meet a cow or to soak in the view of the town below and blue mountains beyond. It is such a gift to be removed from the noise and congestion of the communist-style bloc apartments-dominated town, and to live with such a generous and good-humored family as this host family.

During my Sustainable Development class with Dana Bates, the director of my semester abroad program and co-founder with his wife Brandi of New Horizons Foundation (, I got some sneak peaks of Dana’s PhD work at Oxford. Without spoiling surprises, I’d like to share that his thesis kept conjuring up a certain image in my mind…Have you all heard about the sunflowers planted after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to help clean up the soil? Apparently a similar measure will be taken in Japan now too (, and the idea is just beautiful to me: following destruction brought about by human action, nature in its patient, yet vigorous way brings healing and new possibility for life. And that’s what Dana’s thesis is about.

I’m the picture of a liberal young person, and still harbor a fondness for communism (in theory, that is, but even about this I invite your input!), but however ideal the system seems in theory, even I recognize that the reality of Romania under Ceausescu’s communist regime was hell. Through his work with New Horizons - facilitating team building exercises in the Carpathian wilderness with Romanian youth and empowering them to execute community service projects – Dana has seen first hand how the “natural” forces of individual freedom and communal care, as modeled by the three individual persons and one essence of the Trinity, in a patient, yet vigorous way bring healing and new possibility for life.

It is good to experience Romania during this season of renewal, of hope.

Friday, April 22, 2011

“Give Way:" A Reflection on Lent

From the second level of a double-decker bus on the way from London’s Heathrow Airport to visit my friend in Oxford, I noticed the British yield sign as we entered a rotary. “Give way,” it ordered. Another reminder to adopt a Lent-appropriate posture, I thought.

This time of year you may hear a lot, “Oh, no thank you. I gave chocolate up for Lent.” But what does Lent mean? Lent (or “spring”) spans the forty days preceding Easter Sunday, and provides observers the opportunity to fast, to clear the clutter and distractions out of our heart to make room for Christ.

A particularly awe-inspiring discovery for me this year in my continuing education on the Church calendar was the Feast of the Annunciation (celebrated March 25th, during Lent) which commemorates the day the angel announced to Mary that she would bear God. Growing up in a Protestant church I learned a gentle reticence towards Mary, clicking my tongue at those who erected statues of her, deeming their reverence admirable but their devotion idolatrous, frankly. I continue to believe Mary is not to be worshiped; but I’m coming to believe that in Protestants’ zealous avoidance of idolatry, we’ve estranged one of our most important role models.

Upon receiving the world’s most important announcement, Mary replies, “may it be done to me according to thy word.” Both her physical and spiritual anatomy have made space for Christ, God incarnate. She gives way to God’s will.

As I look ahead to the next three months of living in Romania, I am inspired by the example of my friend Jess who just finished a school year in Oxford. In the three days I got to spend with her there, it was obvious that Jess strove in every way – from the way she approached clerks at the store register to the way she crossed the street and from the way she planned her day to the way used/discontinued use of idiomatic expressions – to yield, to give way to the culture that surrounded her. And I’m under the impression that the more she bended and compromised in order to accommodate what was foreign, the more she grew in understanding of “the other” and of herself.

God grant me the courage and humility to give way… To approach Romania wide-eyed, adaptable and awe-inspire-able as a child. If You will it, what begins as a Lenten discipline during a study-abroad term can become a way of life for life.