I ate sheep’s stomach and I liked it. Sort of.

If California’s palette is made of Mexicans, Eastern Asians, and African Americans (think, I guess, bright happy colors, sharp flavors and angled syllables, and music with a clean, hard beat), then Derby, surprisingly enough, is colored Central and West Asian, Caribbean, African, Eastern European, and more. Rich jewel tones, hot, smoky spices and scents, curves everywhere – the language, the dresses, the music. It’s a palette of a completely different range than the one I’m used to.

The more I pay attention to it, the more I’m entranced by it. There’s so much potential in Derby; I can’t get over it. I love walking down the street and seeing a Caribbean hair salon right next to an Eastern European corner market with a Pakistani couple entering into it, or hearing an unmistakably Asian accent break through carefully modulated British tones.

The Hispanic accents are probably my favorite, though. There aren’t as many of them, but they remind me so much of home. “Hasta luego,” a short, beaming Ecuadorian told me at ESOL class a couple weeks ago, and I smiled for two days. “Plesed to met yu!” labored another, shaking my hand firmly, and for a short while I was back in California amid its sun-faded boxy buildings.

Differently from California, though, my being here has a more missional focus. I’m in England to serve the local church community as well as to share the gospel through friendship evangelism (which I’m a big fan of.)

It does, however, lead to a lot of reflection on differentiating religions from cultures. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a responsibility of every human being and it’s one that Americans and American Christians tend to fail at.

It’s so untouched. We’re afraid that admitting that a head scarf is beautiful means we’re becoming Muslim, or we’re so alarmed by the reputation of Islam that we daren’t talk to one. Worse, we don’t dare to open ourselves to friendships with them, perhaps because we’re afraid of being tainted by association.

Load of nonsense, people. If we truly desire to reach out to Muslims, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by refusing to get to know and care for them. Through friendship we earn the right and credibility to push back gently against their beliefs—because they know we take them and their beliefs seriously enough to engage thoughtfully. When we can recognize the truths in their belief systems, we have discerned the thread that will lead to the Bible. We can’t force them to it, mind, but at the very least we have forged meaningful connections that aren’t intrusive and rude. In fact, they’re fruitful for both sides.

I experienced this with my Sudanese friend Nioal, who is Muslim. At English class some months ago I saw her write that she’s from Sudan. I asked her if she spoke Arabic. It was pretty much a total guess, but it worked (looking back, it looks like providence 😉

I saw her a month or so later, at a recipe book launch the ESOL centre hosted. After finally working up the courage, I approached her and the two other Muslim ladies with her. “It’s so nice to hear Arabic again!”

Not, perhaps, the most intelligent thing to say but it did get me three excited women talking at me in Arabic faster than I could process! No matter; the conversation quickly turned maternal as they cooed at my limited Arabic and my baby face. Nioal invited me to her home, so some weeks later, I visited her.

Walking through the door, I got my first inkling that this would be different. It was so dark that I almost didn’t realize there was someone in front of me until I saw the gleam of white teeth and doe eyes in a velvety dark face and was duly introduced to her youngest child, an 8-year-old girl (with a British accent!). It was also hazy inside, the scent of pungent spices and herbs lingering in the air. She ushered me into the sitting room and brought sweets and drinks. It was sumptuously decorated – again, dark, with dark fabrics that soaked up the light that seeped through the curtains and gigantic pieces of dark wood furniture that housed the requisite television and gold Islamic urns and artwork. We soon left for a more familiar scene: the dining room and kitchen.

Here the spicy smell was decidedly stronger, but the rooms were much more lived in so I felt more comfortable. Shortly after, Salwa, another Muslim Sudanese lady from the centre, showed up and I quickly realized that Nioal is very much a shy woman.

Then Nioal brought out the food (and kept bringing it out.).

“Do you like lamb?” she asked me.

Well, not exactly. “Oh, I’ll eat anything,” I answered.

So she brought out great big hunks of roast lamb still on the bone dripping with fat, a tub full of roast eggplant salad, bread, fresh salad, and a platter full of, well…

Sheep stomach.

Ohhh dear. Oh no! Eww. What do I do? She’ll be so disappointed if I don’t like it. I have to at least try it. Yuck. Well, buck up, Mary Sue. She’s probably not trying to poison you. Just hang on; it’ll be over soon.

To my surprise, it was actually not bad. NOT something I’d cook for myself, but I didn’t dislike it. The food was amazing in general—so very different. Two hours later, I literally ached from all the food that she kept ladling on to my plate. “Nioal, stop! I’m gonna—”

Oh dear. How to explain? She wouldn’t understand “explode,” and I don’t know how to explain that in Arabic, so she took my hand gestures to mean “Get fat.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she said, putting another piece of roast lamb, dripping with grease, on my plate. “It’s meat, it doesn’t make you fat.”

Blink.  “Ohh right, haha! Thanks!” Lord have mercy!

Salwa provided the commentary while we ate (after, that is, after kindly explaining all the food to me. In detail.) “Do you have boyfriend?”

I froze. “Umm, no, I don’t!”

“What?!? You don’t have boyfriend? Why not??” Surprise and consternation from both of them.

“Well I—I just, umm, I, God hasn’t given me one yet.”

“Don’t you know any men?”

“Well yes, but…” But I believe in marrying for love, but do I dare try to explain that to you? “I do, but they’re just not the right ones. I’m waiting until God sends me the right one.”

“Yes, yes. How old are you?!”


Salwa’s eyes positively gleamed. “You know Sudanese men make good husbands?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, they provide for them and they don’t abuse them and they love their families.”

“Oh, that’s so nice!”

“Yeah! Are you Muslim or Christian?”

“Christian,” I replied, thinking that’ll squash the conversation.

“Oh you can convert!” Salwa replied enthusiastically. “Muslim men can marry whatever religion they want, but if Muslim women convert to another religion they can be put to death. And you know, half-caste children are beautiful, with a white and a black parent. They are so beautiful. Beeeeyootiful!!

Torn between amusement and panic, I almost asked her if she had someone in mind but then decided, better not. “Oh yeah, we know a mixed-race family like that and their children are incredibly attractive.”

After that the conversation moved on, thank heaven, and we had tea, coffee, and baklava and basbousa, an Arabic cake. It was all fascinatingly foreign, the tea cardamom spiced with star anise, the coffee thick and syrupy sweet enough to set my jaw on edge. She also lit incense. She lit charcoal on the stove, set it in a brazier, and sprinkled herbs and dried flowers on it (hence the haze and the spicy smell.) The smoke rising high above the little brazier was mesmerizing.

We walked Salwa out soon after. Before she left, both women were praying to God that my wedding will come soon. Every time I’ve seen Nioal after that she affirms, dear heart, that she will come to America to help me prepare for my wedding. It’s so humbling to have a woman wish for me the height of what she knows as happiness so sincerely and so often.

It was such a privilege to spend time with her and get to know her. She’s such a gentle, hardworking soul. Her husband is still in Sudan, helping support his brothers’ families (after his brothers were killed in war), leaving her to raise her six children and navigate immigrating to a new country and learning the language and customs on her own. So she’s taking classes in English and in driving and involved in volunteering for charities and refugees and trying to start up her own business doing henna and feminine products.

On the second visit, it was all about perfumes. After a couple hours over English, unbelievable amounts of food, and visiting, she brought out her oils and handmade scrubs and perfumes to show me.

They are so different from the perfumes and scents we’re used to in the western world! Much less sweet and so much more exotic. I opened and smelled all of them (being rather wary about the non-handmade soap labeled “Virginity Soap”), oohed, and handed them back to her.

Of course, she wouldn’t take the virginity soap back. “It’s for you,” she said enthusiastically.

My confusion must have been apparent on my face (what on earth does that mean? Do I look a bit…not virginal? Was that an insult?) because she continued, “Do you know what this is? It’s to clean down there,” she said, gesturing vaguely down!

“Umm, wow, gosh, thank you! That’s so kind of you! I really appreciate it!” I said, and prayed God would keep me from breaking down into helpless laughter then and there.

Then she grabbed my hand and poured sandalwood oil into our palms. Hunh? Umm, what’s this for? Then, she stands up, reaches her hand down her sleeve, and just starts patting it into her armpits.

So of course I do the same. Two newly acquainted women, one from Sudan and one from America, in a sitting room in England, casually patting their armpits with sandalwood oil. Nbd. And it stays. If I smell different next time you see me, you know why!

My poor English friends are terrific sports, because when I convinced her to come visit us on our Wednesday hangout, she came back the second time with roast lamb, baklava, basbousa, and – you guessed it – sheep stomach. Poor dear, while walking back to her house together afterwards she confided in me, “I think the stomach is too spicy for your friends.”

Yes, that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, hahaha. “Yeah, you know, English tastes,” I told her. “They aren’t used to strong flavors like that. It’s just too different for them.”

“Ok,” she said. “I won’t make it for them anymore—”

Whew, that was—

“I’ll just make it for you when you come.”



 That I know her brings an urgency to my desire to share the gospel with her. That is, I think, the true power of the gospel: that we are afforded, indeed urged to seize, the luxury of loving the person as Jesus loves them, or rather, as He loves us. In the painful vulnerability it requires, we have the opportunity to grow in our humanity and our love for each other. If true friendship means wanting the best for a person, then the man or woman who knows and loves the Lord will want nothing less for her friend. Nothing less will suffice. I want her to know the One I love and I really want her to love Him as well.

I was grumpy when I woke up the day I was going to visit her the second time. Lord, I prayed. Put me in a better mood, please. Help me get over myself. Please, Lord, use me to speak to her. You are the one who put her into my life—please let her get to know You through me.

It was electrifying to hear her ask me later that day, “How can we know that God loves us?”

Did you—did you really just ask me that? God, did you just do that? Did you answer my prayer just like that? Once I picked my jaw up the floor, I told her about Jesus. Between my limping Arabic and her limping English I am not sure she understood that I disagreed with her Islam rather comprehensively, but I’m content to hold on to God’s promise that His Word won’t return to Him void.

After a painfully awkward situation wherein a waiter flirted with me so outrageously that it never even crossed my mind he was hitting on me – until he asked me for my number – things got even more awkward. Shocked stupid, I gave it to him when Nioal suggested it (I know, I know. He stopped texting me when I asked him to, thankfully.)

“I can’t give him my number! I’m—he’s Muslim, isn’t he? I’m a Christian—I can’t, uhh, I don’t, uhhh…”

“You won’t have a Muslim boyfriend? Why?”

AAHH GOD HELP! I was NOT expecting to have to answer this today, whatamigonnasay? How do I explain the whole unequally yoked thing without insulting anybody?

 So I stuttered my way through explaining that as best I could (again, I don’t know if it clicked). We left soon after and then, again providentially, I think, we met a relative of hers on the street, a Ukrainian woman who’d converted and married into the family—and then converted back to “Christianity” after separating from her husband.

Thank heaven for a bone! “If I convert to Islam, Nioal, I want it to be because it’s serious to me, not because I want to marry a guy or anything like that.”

She immediately agreed with me. “Yes, religion is serious, good, you’re right.”

After that she looked at me a bit differently – I think it clicked with her that I take being a Christian very seriously. And the elements that Christianity and Islam share have provided fodder for lots of conversations, which is amazing. We haven’t progressed quite to what we disagree on yet, but I have a feeling God will provide opportunities for that as her English improves.

But it’s set the stage so beautifully. She’s coming to hangout with my English church after I agreed with her that western society’s ideas of family are sadly lacking, especially compared to the beautiful Arabic/Muslim ideas. But I told her how my parents in California would never leave their church because the church has become their family, and I’ve told her again and again how much Urban Life has welcomed me as one of their own and that I consider them another family. And now when she comes to hangout she always thinks everyone must be related; she can’t quite comprehend “friends” that are quite that loving and comfortable with each other. She’s noticing that we are different, too; that we live life according to different standards than other people do. I’m so relieved and grateful that she intends to keep coming to hangout after I leave because that kind of steady, loving witness will speak directly to her heart.

And I’m so grateful for the privilege of knowing her and having her so close to my heart. Not only have I had a ton of fun experiencing her culture, but also it was a great way to live life as a Christian, both to appreciate and to stand apart.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of hard work to be done in distinguishing between the wrong and the merely different. But it’s not as black and white as we think. Religion isn’t just a book—it’s the people that live it, and in the case of Islam they’re so much more diverse than we might think (and we should know this; it’s true of Christians as well).

So we can say definitely that the Quran’s picture of Jesus is wrong and misleading and not the way to Heaven—but surely we may appreciate the gentleness and generosity and family-oriented spirit of the Muslim without compromising our stances on the person of Jesus and the importance of the Cross. Surely we may evaluate their statements in the light of the Gospel; we can glean and value the truths and insights without becoming hell-bent radical insurgents, and we can in fact maintain the integrity of the Gospel throughout and be the proverbial lights in the darkness. Surely we may value them as fellow human beings made in the image of God and loved by Him. LOVED. He will use that to speak to their hearts. And you’ll enjoy the experience too.

Christian, be active in appreciating difference. God uses it to reveal so much about who He is and why He loves us.


Sohaib, age 4, I think.

*marches eagerly into the classroom.*

“Miss, I got a bizz (mumble)! I got a bizz! A bizz!”

“A what?”

He keeps touching his hair, which I absently realize is short. “A bizz!”

“I don’t understand. What is that?”


“Oh! Do you mean a buzz cut?”

“Yeah, yeah! A bizz!”

I’d love to be a fairy’s child

The little people are a big part of my life here in England (I don’t mean fairies, though).

I’ve never spent this much time around children – especially of so many different ages – before. I spend nearly all day Thursday with children. There’s the mums and tots group Thursday mornings, where I have a couple special little friends. Little Ayna, who won’t leave her mother’s side but beams at me most mischievously from sparkling dark eyes and giggles madly and bats my hand away when I reach out to tickle her.Two little ones – I don’t know their names – who are hands down the most gorgeous children I have ever seen, with huge blue almond shaped eyes looking out of faces the color of coffee and milk. They stare and stare when they see me, but lately there have been glimmerings of a smile twinkling in the girl’s face. The little Pakistani girl who with her mother keep almost totally to themselves, but will stop and talk to me. Even the Pakistani matriarch who comes in with her two grandchildren (one of whom is always screaming) complimented me on my skirt and asked me why I didn’t speak Urdu or Punjabi (Well…).Or the girl who always shows up in dresses and insists on bringing me a toy phone so I can call my mom (“Mom” never fails. There were purple elephants in the backyard last time.)

Then it’s to the ESOL centre. Class has become so jam-packed that we moved down to the lounge to accommodate everybody, but for the month or two previous I had charge of little Nabikh, who is 18 months old, I believe. His parents recently came as refugees from Pakistan and are busily engaged in learning English. The first time, he behaved – cried, of course, but quieted down when I picked him up and walked around with him – and when a child starts falling asleep on you, it’s kind of hard to stay frustrated. Sadly, it didn’t last. Now all I have to do is walk into the room for him to start crying. Sigh. He’s not a bad kid, but these children usually go through trauma coming as refugees and aren’t used to being separated from their parents at all.

After that it’s lunch at the ESOL centre (usually cooked by volunteers, and they make the most AMAZING ethnic dishes. We’ve had Angolan food, several kinds of Brazilian and Colombian food, and I forget what else, and it has all been amazing.) Then a sewing class, during which I do childcare with another lady named Jeanne. Nabikh has been my primary concern, but we have had other delightful children. There’s been Asher, who is the most amiable little man I have ever met. He can only just sit up on his own, but with his blue eyes and fat cheeks – and constant giggles and smiles – he is eternally kissable =D. Or the four Sudanese children. The three girls played furiously with the 7 or 8 baby dolls in the toy box, changing their clothes and taking them out for shopping and to see their friends. Their little brother, the youngest, watched sleepily from where he was cuddled up – either with me or Jeanne –  until he decided to venture out to join them.

There’s Friday mornings at a local primary school with 27 4 and 5 year old children. It’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever done!! For one, I was homeschooled all my life so this was my first experience with that many kids in one place. For two, the noise! It’s chaos, but organized chaos – I am in AWE of primary/kindergarten/elementary school teachers now. If I’ve learned anything during my time in England, it’s that I’m not meant to be one of them. There’s the teacher (a gregarious young blonde that all the kids adore), the teacher’s assistant (less gregarious but no less loved), and a university student doing her placement there (she’s a bit austere, but we’re making progress :). It is amazing to watch the three of them maintain discipline. Miss G will break the kids up into groups and have each of the adults look after that group while they’re doing whatever activity. The other three operate like clockwork, while with me it’s a constant litany. “Keep going! What are you doing? Look where you’re going! Are you okay? NO STOP THAT! Get back here! Look how far everyone is ahead of you! Keep in line! Don’t cut! What? What? Don’t hurt yourself! Keep going. Keep Going. KEEP GOING. Why have you stopped? Go. GO! Was it an accident? Say you’re sorry. Get up! No, it’s not your turn yet. Hold on, I need to help her first, she was waiting before you. No, I’m not done helping her yet. Don’t be silly. STOPPIT!”

Life goal: learn how to maintain discipline among a group of little ones. College teaching is looking better and better.

But the kids are so cute. I love watching them. “Miss Mary,” they call me, and most of them have the darlingest Pakistani-British accent hybrid. Or just “Miss,” if they forget the Mary part.

Every time I see Sohaib, I want to grab him and kiss his cheeks. Or Hayder, who has a crush on meek little Hafsa. He planted a Hello Kitty sticker smack dab in the middle of her chest on the playground the other day, and they held hands the rest of playtime. Or tiny Maria, who giggles with mischief when she sees me and grabs my skirt. Or Vanessa, who is Romanian, doesn’t understand English, and thinks it’s a hoot to make the teachers chase after her in the playground. Or Darakshan, who is a crack reader. Thomas and Gabriel, who are two inseparable strawberry blondes. The other day, Thomas was distracted when Miss G was calling class to order. To save him from getting into trouble, Gabriel grabbed Thomas’ head and turned him to face the teacher.  And of course, well-behaved, solemn little Mollie.

My favorite thing to do with them is practice their reading. Most of them are already reading, thanks to phonics time in the morning. I wouldn’t mind doing that – literacy stuff. But that’s a given.

I also am spending time with preteens/teens, who are a different element altogether. I teach preteens in the US, but here it’s more about being friends with/mentoring them, and that’s weirdly different. The family I’m staying with has four kids. The oldest is immersed in schoolwork, so I don’t see a ton of her. The third one, the only boy, and I get along fine, and the youngest is all around adorable. I’m probably closest to the second one, who is 13 (which is funny because I think she took the longest to warm up to me. Now she scares me by creeping up behind me.)

Not too long ago, I offered to look after the kids, and invite some friends of theirs over, so their parents could go to a conference together. I planned to make pizza with them and watch a movie – but they arrived and I realized with a jolt: I have no idea what to do with you all! Somehow we got through the day in one piece and with minimal boredom 😛

Later, at a Tough Talks session, I had lunch with the preteen I’d looked after and ended up being her sounding board on some relationship issues she was trying to navigate. Suffice it to say, I had no idea there could be so many nuances to take into consideration when it comes to “liking a guy but wanting to be friends first but being pressured by x and y and z” and etc. and etc. and etc.

She’s twelve.

Twelve. I’m twenty-two and I have never had guy problems like that. How the heck did I get here? And then, her parents are going to kill me.

On top of that, that same day I badly unsettled another eleven-year old who joined our table by telling her I’m twenty-two. “I thought you were our age!” she kept repeating dazedly. The twelve-year old tried to reassure her, but she finally just left the table altogether. I kept catching her staring at me from across the room.

Sorry, kid! I’m sorry!!

I definitely want to be a mom someday. But – not yet. I’m in no hurry, hahaha.


Station Island, Seamus Heaney


As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
surfaced like a marvellous lightship

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face
that had spoken years ago from behind a grille
spoke again about the need and chance

to salvage everything, to re-envisage
the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
mistakenly abased. . .

What came to nothing could always be replenished.
‘Read poems as prayers.’ he said, ‘and for your penance
translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,
his consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,
he had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

Now his sandalled passage stirred me on to this:
How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

So pellucid it never can be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding-line can find its bottom
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.

Fill this House

The church community here is intensely practical – with a huge streak of gleefulness running miles deep. It emerges as a steady stream of humour that, I’m beginning to realize, doesn’t quite manage to be as sophisticated as it pretends. It has a certain twinkle in the metaphorical eye that doesn’t quite show in the books. Like when Andy (who with his wife Ruth makes up the grandparents of the group) glares at me for saying toMAYto instead of toMAHto, or tells me the right way to pronounce ‘Tuesday.’ (Tyoooosday!)

Andy might also be the most charming elderly British man I’ve met yet–white hair, blue eyes always glimmering with humor behind sensible glasses (spectacles!), slender, and always wearing a pair of colorful socks. Usually polka dots are involved. His mild-mannered English-ness is neither James Herriot nor Sherlock Holmes but somewhere in between.

Everyone has welcomed me truly as a family member, and the more time I spend with this lovely group the more I realize that they don’t go out of their way to be so warm and loving. They’d do it for anybody. I’m beyond humbled by their acceptance. For all intents and purposes, when I arrived I was a total stranger. I’d talked to Anthony twice via Skype, but I hadn’t met anybody in person.

I know I’m trustworthy, but I didn’t expect them to operate on that right away. To be honest, I didn’t expect that much trust until at least a couple months in (and it wouldn’t be unfair, either) but within a week they were sharing prayer concerns with me that I would share only with my closest friends. They expect me to participate in their day-to-day lives and events, which, considering that’s what I came to do, shouldn’t be surprising–but that they trust me to do what I said I would is beyond gratifying. They trust me with their kids, and are happy to include me in their family time, which is quickly becoming a cherished part of my time here.

Though honestly, the whole church is one big family (and by big, I mean about it extends to about 20 people). Ruth and Andy are the grandparents, as I said already. Then there are Adam and Anne, Anthony (who is the pastor) and Emma and their four kids (I live with them) and some single people: me, Sarah, Kathryn, Laura (we’re all about the same age) and John, an older fellow.

Anthony and Emma operate like clockwork. I love watching how they do things–they complement each other beautifully. Anthony is the talkative one, setting people immediately at ease with a couple words here and there. I love watching new people walk into the ESOL classes he teaches, because by the time the class ends they are confident enough to talk to him with the five or six words of English they do know.

I love listening to Emma pray and talk to others, because the strength of her faith shines. When she prays, she talks to God, and when she talks to others, she extends God’s grace. She’s ceaselessly gentle. I’ve sat with her at the nights we volunteer at a homeless shelter–she once spent over two hours playing chess with a belligerent young guy who threw a fit every time anyone interfered in any way, well-meant or otherwise. After five minutes watching them play, I was ready to slap him–but Emma maintained her composure throughout.

Adam and Anne are the couple who picked me up from the airport, and they too are like Anthony and Emma in how they complement each other. Adam is loud, funny, and impossibly gentle–Anne is feisty and serene all at once. Adam goes out of his way to include everybody in the conversation, and when he laughs you hear it through the whole house–but Anne is somehow just as present as he is. (It’s a bit confidence-boosting, really. If Anne and Emma can play as important roles as they do and still be quiet types, then there’s hope for me 🙂

I don’t think Sarah realizes how much of a pillar she is in the church. Though she’s currently an engineer, she is making plans to go to Bosnia for a three-year missions trip next year. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so determined to live out her faith humbly in every aspect of her life.  Prayer walks or meetings? She’s there. Courses on learning about other religions? Yep. Bible studies with me and Emma. Church, hangout, serving the homeless in three or four different places, reaching out to the many Muslim women in Derby through moms and tots groups and through just talking to the people that she meets–she’s always serving.

Only a week or two after I got here, she invited me with her to her friend’s house. This woman recently came as a refugee from Albania. She has two daughters, one of whom is autistic and the other is a toddler. We were going as support for her friend while a doctor and translator came to the house. The image of Sarah, sitting off to the side and listening intently to the conversation, is imprinted on my memory as the definition of what it means to be a good friend, taking notes to help her friend navigate through all the hoops of settling here. Sarah’s gone above and beyond her duty, even spending the night with her friend when she had to go out of town for an immigration interview. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Her courage is an inspiration, and I know God will continue to use her to do great things for Him wherever she goes.

I’ve struck up a fabulous friendship with Kathryn. Though she doesn’t believe in God, she’s fallen in love with the church community too. A uni student, she and Laura are studying occupational therapy, which actually doesn’t have to do with our jobs, necessarily, but with how we occupy our time and what we make an occupation. Kathryn is pioneering some work in dark occupations – as in, helping people who make drugs or other physical abuse their occupation. She theorizes that people are turning to these dark occupations to satisfy good needs, like companionship, and is pursuing that train of thought as a means to help people overcome these problems. It makes sense then that not only does she work and volunteer constantly, but also is easy and pleasant to talk to.

I don’t know Laura very well yet, but I admire her rather a lot and am praying for her. She’s been struggling through some stuff, and going through a lot to get things in order again, spiritually, emotionally, and in terms of health as well.

And then there’s John. God is working on him. He’s the older fellow who’s been teaching me how to speak Derby English. He’s gone through some stuff recently too, but even in the two months I’ve been here God has visibly been changing him – I think he’s really close to becoming a believer. Listening to him pray the other day was truly an honor.

Coming to England has made me realize the incredible privilege of being part of God’s worldwide church. More than part of God’s church–part of His family, that He still talks to. Back at home in CA, and even at school in VA, we always tended toward the abstract and metaphysical. We forgot that God is also Friend, and not just Author, Creator, King, Savior, Lover, and all the other beautiful titles He has. Here, they talk to Him as well as worship Him. They’re always praying here, and it’s beyond reassuring to hear people bring their requests to God. More than anything else – more than singing, more than preaching, more than serving, we pray, and it’s literally just talking to God out loud, all of us together. It’s dizzyingly heart-filling to pray and know that the God of the Bible, who is on our side, is hearing every word with His full attention on us. He wants to hear what we have to say, so we tell Him about the friends we are making in the community. We tell Him all about their struggles – to learn English, to get permission to stay as asylum seekers or refugees or whatever, to find good schools for their autistic children, to overcome drug and alcohol addictions, to find homes and jobs. We ask Him to teach us how to love like He does. And He hears, and does it.

The people here at Urban Life overwhelm me when they pray for love, because they live it out in their actions toward me and they don’t even realize it. Things like that prove God over and again to me, because it shows that He is working in us to make us more like Him – and it’s right that we never be satisfied, until we are perfected in Heaven.

God listens intently when we pray. He will respond — in His own terms and in His own time and in His own perfect way. Not, perhaps, in the way we think is best – but there’s no way He lets our prayers go unanswered, no matter how long it takes. Knowing that makes the potential, the dignity, in every human being, no matter how troubled or dirty or illiterate – shine. Truly we have nothing to fear; our God has redeemed the worst of us and never stops perfecting us. The work is already done on the Cross.

The more I’m here, the more I know that fear is unjustified. Even if things are scary, or you don’t have all the pieces of the picture, you can really know that He is who He says He is. He is God, and for all that He is Savior and Creator and King, He is also as close to you as the other side of the couch, so to speak. And He’s moving us toward good ends.

Thud, Thud, Thud; or, American English.

“DON’T expect it to be like the books, Mary Sue,” I (and everyone who knows me) told myself. “Or the movies, or the TV shows.”

After all, I’ve only really caught up to the 1930s and 40s. Doubtless I could carry on lovely conversations with hundred-year-old women with independent streaks a mile, but I didn’t think I’d be meeting a lot of those.

Well, I was wrong. Not about the hundred-year-old women, I mean, but about England being like the books and movies.

Guys, it totally is!

Languages and Accents and Vocabulary

Of course, it’s the language that first caught my attention. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of being surrounded by British accents and hearing all these words I thought only existed in the books. It’s brilliant. All these words and phrases I picked up from British literature – that I wouldn’t dare use in the States because I’d sound absurd – are commonplace here (still!). I’m getting awfully good at maintaining a poker face when hearing a phrase I thought only existed in the Lord Peter books or Agatha Christie or Dickens or Austen. I’ve heard everything from sozzled to pinched to meself, mollycoddle and cosset and Crikey and Blimey! There’s a little part of me still holding out hope to hear the “sound of a good, solid, absolutely British ‘Damn!’” Nothing yet, but I’ll keep you updated. I think it might be too old-fashioned.

It’s funny to hear my American accent clunking and thudding among all these lilting British inflections. I think we move our cheeks around a lot more when we speak, which is why it sounds clunky.

Slight tangent, but hugely funny: I got a bit of an insight into what I must sound like the first time I volunteered at a homeless shelter with the rest of church. I was watching Emma play dominoes with another volunteer and a Polish homeless guy (I think his name is Slav?). He’s got barely any English, and what he does have is thickly accented. Swearing, of course, is no object – so when he lost, he said—actually, not said, more like declared, “Awww, ****.”

It fell like a brick. Like he literally stood up on the table and dropped a big red brick – I saw it in gorgeous detail in my mind’s eye, and nobody batted an eyelash, which made me laugh all the harder. I did my best to hide my laughter behind an imaginary throat-clearing and experienced a sudden rush of gleeful understanding when everybody’s eyes twinkle when I say something American.

Like when I say the word “herb.” They pronounce the ‘h,’ so the word sounds like “hehrb.” Of course, I pronounce it “ERRB,” and everyone peals with laughter. Finally they explained why. Apparently there’s an accent – I think it’s Yorkshire? – that pronounces it something like that. “It sounds like – just for that one word – you suddenly picked up a completely different accent!”

My accent is a dead giveaway that I’m not from here, but for the most part nobody’s had any problems understanding me. Except for immigrants and children. I subbed a couple classes for an ESOL teacher who was out of town for a couple weeks and had one boisterous Pakistani man with an accent thick as curry correct my pronunciation of “can’t” while I was reading something from our book.

“Can’t? What, can’t?” The look of consternation on his face as he slowly craned up his head at me from his book is forever imprinted on my memory. “KAAAHHNNNT.”

Cue flashbacks to Singin’ in the Rain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3OkXi5osfU.


Another funny story from class, courtesy of Melik: we were doing some exercises that had them complete the sentence. I wrote on the board, “I look forward to…”

Melik finished, in all seriousness: “when the queen of my dreams will come.”

A female student retorted, “She’s already at home!”


My accent also deeply amused the kids at the primary school I volunteer at on Tuesdays. 70% of the children at the school are Pakistani (Derby is a beautifully diverse city; the main street in town is one ethnic shop after another). My first day, I was confused as to why the kids kept talking to me about China. One after another, they’d come to me and point out everything with the color red in it and tell me the Chinese think it’s lucky.

Later, when the teacher introduced me, I understood why. “Miss Mary’s not from here, my ducks,” she said.

“Pakistan!” interjected one.

“Err, no, not from Pakistan—”


“No, Miss Mary is from America, which is almost as far away as China.” She looked up at me and explained, “Most of the kids come from Pakistan, and we learned about China, and that’s the extent of their geography!”

So the reason I was told about China, then, is because I’m obviously not British – not sounding like I do!


For the record, avoid using the word “pants” when in England. Here, it means “underwear.”

I knew this. I did.

Enough said about that one. At least it made the girls laugh.

(When I was little, I never ever wore pants…)

(Or shoes with laces. Because those were boy clothes, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in those. Obviously.)


And they really do talk about the weather! I nearly died when someone greeted me with “Miserable weather, innit?” Strangers call everybody darling, and love, and sweetheart. And there are the regional slang words and phrases to pick up, too. They rarely say, “Hi, how are you,” as a greeting. It’s, “are you all right,” only with the accent it gets all smushed together. “ayouawright?” You should hear them when they really get cracking, too. One darling old man, John, who comes to church every now and again has a thick Derbyshire accent. It took two or three conversations with him before I could understand more than one word in three, he talks so fast and with such an accent.  I don’t think I’ve focused that hard on anyone since I graduated school!

I’m sure there’s lots more to come on settling into British English. Next blog entry (which is halfway drafted) will be on the church community here.

Sunweavers Book One: The Brothers

I had the privilege to read and review my friend Carolyn Golledge’s book Sunweavers: The Brothers. Carolyn was a mentor of mine in my LOTR fanfiction days in junior high, so I was thrilled when she approached me about reading and reviewing her book. I’m pleased to say, her writing was as good as I remembered 🙂

In Book One, Carolyn Golledge sets the stage for her six-part series Sunweavers by introducing us to two pairs of brothers: Sunweavers Taran m’Connor and Bren m’Fetrin, and Kerell Lerant and his foster brother Parlan Hollin, who are loyal to the emperor. Power-hungry Emperor Grouda is seeking to harvest the youthfulness of the Weavers, a people deeply connected with all living matter. With the help of the Spider Lords, Grouda removes m’Fetrin’s soul from his body. In order to save m’Fetrin, m’Connor must prove his innocence to Lerant, convinced that m’Connor is to blame for attacks targeting children of the city. Lerant already doubts the truth and morality of the war against the Sunweavers, but is constrained by guilt over his brother’s death (though Carolyn hints Parlan’s not finished yet!) and worry over his brother’s family. However, when Lerant finds proof of m’Connor’s innocence, Lerant breaks his allegiance to the Emperor.  Strange abilities begin to manifest themselves in Lerant, giving m’Connor more hope than the Sunweavers have had in a long time.

Two minor quibbles: though the book’s mysticism is fundamental to the story, it sometimes drags. Secondly, because Carolyn introduces many new names and places in the first few chapters, it is difficult to grasp the setting for the first hundred pages or so. But don’t give up until you get to the golden heart of the story: the compassion and brotherly love that promises beautiful victory. The main draw of the story is the brothers and the perils they face in getting back to each other and leading their families and allies to victory. Carolyn’s greatest strength has always been her characters. There are always strong women and noble men, and the best part is the growth of their fierce devotion to each other, stemming from their desire to do the right thing. It’s satisfying. When hope glimmers on the horizon as Lerant and m’Connor overcome each obstacle and learn to trust each other, you’ll be cheering.    

To a Loving Home

I thought about Woolf, and Faulkner, and Yeats, and realized: we’re nuts.

I love the modernists. Those messed up people were determined to live morally–even though they felt certain that God had abandoned them. God was so last-century anyway, even if He did exist. Which He didn’t.  And they don’t need Him anyway. At least that’s what I got out of reading Yeats and Faulkner.

Yes, their viewpoint isn’t Christian, but in its expression of stark, lost humanity their work reflects the world that God came to save, and it is beautiful, in a foreign, negative-image kind of way.

Dr. Anthony Esolen is best known for his book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child as well as his respected translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Additionally, he writes for several Christian magazines. I had the privilege of studying Dante and the two modern poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats under his direction last summer. One of Dr. Esolen’s recent articles (http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/a-nation-of-sludge) proved especially thought-provoking to me, because it is full of yearning in the way that I used to go wild over. However, when I first read the article something didn’t sit right with me. I used to love this sort of thing–something chock full of sadness and beautiful in a way that really touched the heart because of it (that’s the reason why I loved  Tolkien so much).

“And so my heart yearns for a place that was.  It was not perfect, as nothing on earth is.  But it had all the simple sunniness of ordinary time, because it was ordinary: there was an order to it,” Dr. Esolen says.

He celebrates the beautiful old traditions and ideas that marked time, that structured it and gave it order so it could move as God’s love drew it; that idea is all over Dante and Eliot too. But the irony–and one of the two elements that helped me crystallize my response to Dr. Esolen’s article–is that he opens with W.B. Yeats’ classic poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Although I read the article months ago, this thought didn’t hit me until I was thinking it over again yesterday.

 I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

 And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

It’s a short poem, and yet within it Yeats captures the longing for a place to go home to much better than Dr. Esolen or I can. But Yeats wasn’t a Christian–in fact, he was full-out pagan, holding seances and believing in the occult. His favorite everything, pretty much, resided in Irish myth and legend; if he could have, he would have been born in that era. Yeats lived his life stuck in what Eliot calls (with uncanny aptness) “the backward glance.” Yeats kept his face turned backward, so to speak, and he missed — everything — that spills over with news of God that lay in the future.

I love Yeats, but reading him made me less eager (healthily so, I think) to indulge myself in longing for the past; maybe in time God will grant me the wisdom to navigate it as Dr. Esolen does. Yeats broke my heart as I studied him last semester. He came so close to seeing who God is. Yeats’ poetry is wildly beautiful, but he didn’t take the leap of faith to God; rather he let himself get lost in the misty Irish fogs of millenia past. What Dr. Esolen says in his article resonates so strongly with the Yeats poem he quoted that I was depressed all day after I first read it. I want to go home, I thought after reading the article. Here are Dr. Esolen’s closing words:

There is only one choice; and to tell the truth, it was always the only choice.  I will arise and go now to my Father’s house.  It is time, Christian, to go home; there are no homes to be found anywhere else.

After I thought (and thought and thought) about it, I realized: I’m not okay with this. Yes, I want to go home. We all do. Including the modernists. The atheists, evolutionists, homosexuals, even the pro-choice people–they want to go home.

But they don’t have one.

They don’t have one. As Christians, our lives are transformed by the very existence of God; even though Christianity and suffering/persecution/fill-in-the-bad-thing-here go hand in hand, we have a home to go to in the end. Nonbelievers have nothing–and that reflects backwards into their lives now, and drains their lives of meaning. Yeats’ dream of a peaceful island is really the same thing as Dr. Esolen’s plea to go home; we’re homeless here. Dr. Esolen is so right–I want to go home to my Lord and see Him face to face, to be finally rid of my sins and to cry with relief that all the bad is done and all the good has barely begun. But Dr. Esolen, as opposed to Yeats, does know God. We have the luxury of looking back and seeing our God actively involved in time and working on our behalf, and that should be an encouragement to us to keep on going. Our work’s not done yet.

Yes, it’s become a nation of sludge, looking backward. But, looking forward–faring forward–it’s still God’s world. “I would have lost heart,” says the Psalmist, “unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and it’s in the modernists too. I saw it reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last fall in American Lit; Quentin (I have a weakness for conflicted academics) couldn’t stand everything he deemed wrong in his world so — but I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a photo-negative image of God’s goodness, but is nevertheless still effective in showing how and why we need the Lord; His absence is truly evil, and not in the “why do the wicked succeed” kind of way either.

Psalm 27 is my favorite chapter in the Bible right now.

 4 One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His temple.
5 For in the time of trouble
He shall hide me in His pavilion;
In the secret place of His tabernacle
He shall hide me;
He shall set me high upon a rock.

Isn’t that just heady? Especially verse 4 – to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple. Makes me think of Augustine. I want that so badly, but David doesn’t mind the sludging part of life as much as he could have (I’m misappropriating Dr. Esolen’s argument a bit here, but I hope it’s not unjustified. Saul went nuts trying to regain God’s favor by killing God’s anointed–which seems like a nice modern dilemma to get yourself tangled up in). Anyways, David closes the psalm with verses 13-14.

 13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the LORD
In the land of the living.
14 Wait on the LORD;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the LORD!

In the end, the worst sinner is just like us, only worse off. We both want to go home, if we’re honest with ourselves, but we know where home is and Who is waiting there. The nonbeliever doesn’t. So we can’t go home yet. It’s still “fare forward” for us for a while longer, but we can make it. Until either Christ comes again or takes us home, the nonbeliever would be lost in between this world and the next and at the crossing of the river they’d be denied entry into the eternal fellowship we’re given with the Father–the fellowship that makes us truly free to enjoy this astonishing world God gave us. Be of good courage–it is truly God that we serve.

The View from the Room

It’s a beautiful afternoon.

My room looks out westward into the garden my mother has lovingly cultivated over the years and now, back in my room after four long years of contented rushworkclasshurrysleep, I’m so enamored of the way the hours can tread patiently into sunset.

That’s probably why I’ve spent the last hour or so with my back propped up against my headboard in my room, looking out my window and enjoying the light and the way the breeze washes in.

The breeze is holy today, the way it washes in like the Holy Ghost, flying away with your breath, leaving you astonished and a little giddy. It’s carried the outdoors in–rose-scented. I stand at the door and knock, and Lord the window’s open too.

And the light. The room is brilliantly lit as the sunlight, colored with its own gold, comes in through my open window, let down gently by the wind. The light reflects upward, making the purple wall glow with warmth at the proffered friendship. He’s coming in, the light, rising over my bed as the red flowers and green leaves outside my window fairly thrum with anticipation. All creation groans. It’s a good thing, the agapanthus nods.

It all is, each sun-soaked undulation of my sleepy curtains, each gentle creak of the white rocking chair, each drowsy journey of the wasps arcing past my window. It’s marking time–so long since He came, so long till He comes again.

Fare forward, voyagers.

A Room of One’s Own

My mom loves to tell this story from when I was little:

I love to read. Apparently, before I started reading I was quite the talker. Once I started reading, the unspoken words quickly became more important. My reading ability grew by leaps and bounds until one day, she told me, “Mary Sue, maybe you’ll be a writer someday.”

I looked at her. “Nuh-uh. I’m gonna be a reader.”

Twenty-odd years later, it’s true. I love to read. It’s my thing, my vocation, part of my soul and the air I breathe and the things I say, think, do. Naturally, then, I got my degree in literature, and am taking a gap year before starting, Lord willing, graduate school in the fall of 2014.

But I’m still not much of a writer, and by that I mean I can write reams of academic stuff and have the time of my life…when I’m writing under a deadline. Not really a good thing, especially since four years in college formulated a taste for searching out the ways God has made Himself known through good, thought-provoking literature.

I guess my goal for this blog is to learn discipline in writing and thinking. There’s a certain document (called, innovatively, “Stuff to Write”) in a folder (more innovatively still, “my scribblings”) with a list of twelve topics I wrote down during the school year to think about later. They range over a whole host of ideas; some gargantuan (Number 1: time and place and Christianity) and some rather ridiculous (Number 12: Don’t tell me to get some rest.)

And there’s this big thing I’m beginning to see, and I have a feeling it’ll be a life-long (maybe eternity-long) seeing, if you know what I mean. It’ll be this seeing that’s gonna lead to me to write and think for the rest of my life, in order to understand (and by that I mean  the “put it in words so that I can define it to myself over the years” sort of way) and begin to explore the facets He shows me through books and life and people–facets of God the Creator and Savior, and what He’s done, and how He loves, and how He wants us to love.

So this is the still point. This’ll be where I stop and try to think (and just maybe, someday, it won’t be quite so laborious :s) and see, at least a glimpse, of the dance going on.