Europe, It’s Been a Month.

I am currently positioned in the middle seat of a full airplane on its way to Washington, trying desperately not to jam an elbow into the ribs of my seat-mates as I transcribe this… so here’s to three hour flights (aka unadulterated writing time), too small public transport seats, and bladders the size of peanuts (see my future memoir for the time that I flashed an unsuspecting business man trying to muscle my way to the back of the plane – on a Washington-Arizona flight nonetheless; also that pun was somewhat intended…)

It has been just over a month since I came back from England and my heart hasn’t stopped aching since. There is something inside me that can’t let it go, even as I write this my computer window gives way to a sunset picture of King’s College on my desktop. Studying at the University of Cambridge was a literal dream come true, and besides the fact that it makes me feel like a badass because I can say that I studied at one of the WORLD’S premiere universities and survived, it was so much more than the academics that have left my heart yearning for the unimposing university. *insert wink emoji*

I was wholly unprepared for what I would experience during my time in Europe, and I am completely and utterly beyond grateful that I made the decision to be there. I cannot imagine a better, more life-giving and life-changing way to have spent the summer, my time at Cambridge was the hardest and greatest months of my life. I think that’s why I am still staring at pictures of formal dinners and thinking about rainy summer days on the daily.

And now that its been a few weeks, I think I’m ready to try to articulate the ways that living in England this summer has changed my life and the things that I have learned. 

On the final day, we spent some time at Hitchin Lavender Field to say goodbye

I dropped a major after my time abroad.

To begin, I’ve wanted to be a journalist since the age of 12. I picked my university based largely on their nationally recognized and well funded communication department and set my life trajectory on a course that followed journalism to the ends of the earth. My freshman year was relatively easy, I had to take the general lectures – you know the ones with about 500 people where we stare blankly at lecture slides and panic over texts that we have no idea how to process – and it was easy enough. I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to tell stories for a living, I would have the license to go places that other people couldn’t and bring them back a piece that spoke to other walks of life, I would be able to shed light on injustice and shake the world with revelations of corruption, I would be able to meet hundreds of people and speak into the lives of hundreds more.

Everything was fine and dandy while I was taking my pictures, writing colorful blog posts, processing projects in Photoshop, and creating media packages; I passed the weed out class, a feat that strikes fear into the hearts of many of my cohorts, but as I got farther into my degree I started to realize that my soul was dying with every mark of the red pen that x’ed out my pretty words. My professors started telling me that my writing was too “colorful” not “concise-enough,” and I swear in my mind Rob Thomas’ “This is How a Heart Breaks” was on repeat every second of those bloody classes; I practically felt my heart drop out of my body every time I stepped through the doorway of a media literacy class.

This child is my spirit animal when it comes to my Comm course load

Not because I don’t care about current events, or political transparency, or global competency – because, Lord knows, those are some of my most favorite things, but having to create media packages that were drier than the Arizona desert was a surefire way to make me feel dead inside.

I had taken my first college creative writing class when I was a sophomore, and it was GLORIOUS. I found other people who loved sentence structure, crafting a narrative, and  pretty words. I found my people.  So I settled for a double major and by the middle of my sophomore year I was on a five year trajectory to walking away with two separate Bachelor of Arts degrees and a minor in Comparative Ethnic Studies.

And then Cambridge happened. While I was there I focused wholly on literature studies and my heart was exploding with joy. I joined a writing workshop where I met with a few other women every week to work on creative pieces and talk English, I made friends who were also studying English, and I realized that my entire  I had merely used journalism as a practical way to get to storytelling the way I wanted.

I have loved writing since I could figure out how to string letters together. I love everything about being able to express myself through the creative medium, I love that I have a voice that I have the privilege of sharing, I love that through creative writing I get to say everything that my comm degree banned. So I made a terrifying decision after verbal-vomitting to several mentors, professors, friends, and family members and I dropped my comm degree.

I am now full time English with an emphasis in creative non-fiction writing and an editing and publishing certification, with a Communication minor and a Comparative Ethnic Studies minor. AND I FEEL SO GOOD ABOUT IT. I get to spend my time working on the things that I love, I get to write a thesis all about essay structures and the power of the personal essay, I get to have internships with literary magazines and spend my time in the company of other creatives who inspire me to be better. It is absolutely terrifying to think that I am leaving college with a Creative Writing degree, but I feel at peace about it. All I needed was for England to show me my priorities.

Nightlights over the River Cam, picture by S. Whaley

Focus on the present.

Since I dropped a degree, I now only have two semesters left after the current one. This is a God-send as I am able to finish a full year earlier than expected, and a semester earlier than most; but it’s nerve-wracking to think about what happens next. I am learning to focus on the present, and within that be present in every moment.

This can be a hard feat when I am trying to balance a full course load, two internships, and six jobs in addition to paying bills and finding time to have a life. I am 24/7 on the move, and 24/7 just trying to function. A good day is one where I make it to all my meetings and still have time to sleep. I’ve been terribly overwhelmed by the prospect of making ends meet, and in full transparency, I have been extremely bitter. I hate that I am working six jobs and well over 20 hours a week to be underpaid and still come up short at the end of the month when there are hundreds of people around me whose parents pay their way through life. I hate that I am so bitter about it. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how bitter I have become. God has been doing some serious digging, and some hardcore work in softening my heart, but its a long and winding road.

And that’s where England has taught me a great lesson. When you are abroad it feels like the world stops spinning, like a cosmic pause button holds everything on reserve until you return. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about bills or car insurance or work schedules, I was completely engaged in the present moment, wholly occupied with my life in the U.K.

When I was focused on my present experience – studying and living in Cambridge, I found that the present was a much more fulfilling place to thrive than the past, and a much better focus than my anxieties about the future. I faced some hard challenges that meant every morning I had to wake up and choose to dress myself in grace for the present.

The River Cam at sunset from King’s College

With graduation upon me so soon and graduate school applications taunting me, I am practicing grace in the present moment in allowing myself the breathing space to think about the future in the present without being present outside of the present… did that make sense? Basically, I am practicing faith by choosing to pursue being present in each moment and believing that whatever step I am meant to take next will happen on the divine timeline, and not my own, because what do you know – those don’t seem to often line up. (Lolz, thanks Jesus.)

I’ve had a lot of peace in being assured that my future is out of my own hands and I’m excited to tell you all about it when it’s time! So more on that at another date, but for now…

Living intentionally with a reformed missional mindset.

I’m glad that there is no cosmic tally of good deeds versus major failures, if so we’d all be doomed. Aforementioned, I had to choose to extend grace to myself more often than not this summer.

And here is where the blog post gets personal and scandalous because of political, religious, and personal discrepancies – so, friends, power on, I love you no matter what you think about how I live my life…

Botanical gardens are the perfect place to seek out peace in the beauty

I first felt called to missions when I was fourteen when I went on my first mission trip to Ecuador, and the rest is history (read this for more background: Reflections on Summer). Studying in England was the first time I would be out of the country and not be serving at an official missional capacity and in the underdeveloped world.  I was more scared of this than I have ever been to trek through rural villages across the world. What was that even supposed to look like? I didn’t have built in community and for the first time I left the country for no one else but myself. You could say that I was stressed.

There’s about a million reasons why – the first of which being legal drinking age and my affinity for alcohol.

Whop, there it is.

In England, when you have glass after glass of whatever it is being handed to you and drinking is a celebrated social norm, it is harder to say no, and to be frank, I rarely did. It was all a part of the experience — clubbing with some of my best friends, sharing a glass of wine at a picnic, or a cocktail over dinner — all contributed to my transition to a “Brit.”  I know at this point there might be scrunched up noses, and to that I say: I’m sorry that my humanness makes you uncomfortable.

I didn’t feel much convicted when I was being responsible – and I really tried – but its hard. I like alcohol and that was painfully obvious, so I started to worry about sharing the gospel.

I was embarrassed. I felt ashamed of the way that I had handled myself. I believed lies that told me that the mistakes I made rendered me inadequate to  share Jesus with people because I had forsaken him myself. I refused to read my bible, and I rarely prayed. I was too ashamed to stand before the Lord. I had spent too much time in the club where my body was being groped and appraised, and I felt like little more than a crack in the sidewalk, and smaller than a granule of sand in the eyes of the Lord.

2 for one cocktails to reward our traveling efforts to Wales. 10/10

I believed so many lies.

But, I learned so much in spite of the temptation to believe them. I learned about myself. I learned about the value of Godly community. I learned what it looks like to do life in community outside of the church.  The people I was surrounded by weren’t having gospel conversations on the daily, but we loved each other genuinely and wholly as hard and as best as we could. We fought for each other and encouraged each other. We took care of each other. And I learned so much from them, and when we trusted each other through friendship I was able to broach the topic of Jesus, not to Bible bash, but to share.

And that’s where my wrestling with the “reformed” ideals of Christian ministry comes into play.

I think that, especially in the Westernized brand of Christianity that we have in the developed world, we have a tendency to send people out as missionaries at an unusually high rate of “professional ministry” with no substitutes. There is nothing wrong with sending out missionaries, as long as we aren’t expecting every single person who leaves America to be labelled an official missionary. Unfortunately, I feel as though I have been confronted with condemnation of ministry in other countries unless it is an official missionary position. As if doing life isn’t enough. As if you are not living missionally unless you are raising support for it.

I wrote a post many moons ago about my freshman year at WSU and how I felt like the Lord had asked me to share the gospel in a different way — by not saying much at all (read this post from my freshman year). My mission field was my university and I was going to approach it differently than I ever had.  It was different for me, and so hard because I love to talk and I’ve never been very shy about sharing my faith (which is another reason why this summer was difficult because I felt wary for the first time sharing the gospel). But I felt like the Lord was calling me to listen instead of speak, so I  just loved people exactly where they were at and left the door open. It revolutionized my life by showing me the power of genuine love regardless of circumstance and I have been praying through it ever since.

When I got to Cambridge, my goal was not to covert every human there to loving the Lord, honestly, it wasn’t even to bring up the topic of faith on my own, it was to be unapologetically myself and love them as hard as I could and through that hopefully share the gospel through my life. I want people to see Jesus in me because I walk in hope and show grace, and offer a contrary image to the damning depictions of Christian people that the world has stereotyped.

On the last day, when I was having a proper emotional breakdown, my friend (one who I had briefly mentioned my own faith to in light of her own recent crisis of faith and uncertainty of its validity) leaned across the table and told me that she loved me for how I had loved her, and she told me that through knowing me she knows Jesus better.

I was stunned.

I’m pretty sure I was literally catatonic for, like, a full thirty seconds.

I had failed so much. I had drank too much. I had gone to the club way too much. I not said enough about Jesus, not been the woman who I thought I was. I was having a crisis of faith and then this girl, a woman whom I love with my whole heart, told me that because of how hard I loved her she knew better who Jesus was.

Now this doesn’t automatically make everything that I did okay, but it does exemplify grace.

It was a hard compliment to accept and I have been praying over it since, mulling over the words spoken to me, praying against pride and into an overwhelming since of gratitude for unworthiness turned divine appointment.

And that is where the “reformed” ministry comes in: in our church I think it is sometimes hard to grasp the idea of living missional without being on an official church/organization sponsored mission. For me I know that this is especially hard because I have had the privilege of serving in the field so many times already and  it can be hard to work outside of the boundaries of an assignment, to occupy the mindset of practical missional living. But, the more that I am out in the world, the more that I understand the merit of what David Platt describes as missional living via one-on-one living in any situation of life.

Practically, this means that we are able to serve at a missional capacity regardless of where we are geographically, situationally, or professionally located. I think we have glorified the missionary to a point that sometimes it can be frowned upon to “go” without being first sent as a full-time missionary.

But shouldn’t the gospel be told through the story of our lives on a daily basis, regardless of if we are in a rural village living in a bamboo hut or a penthouse suite in New York City?

While I am in complete and full support of full-time missionaries and believe that they are absolutely crucial to the infrastructure of the church and  believe in my own personal calling to reach the nations, I have been confronted with the reality that this might not look as it does in the traditional sense. Rather, extending gospel-oriented love  might be better served to offer through lifelong friendships in whatever geographic location the Lord allows me to occupy to share hope through grace and my participation in the world around me.

*smiles for freedom* …. and lavender

It’s been a packed two months.

I’m still figuring it out, and I get the feeling that in life that’s a constant.

So, until next time, wonder on!

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