the pharisee in me

There are cigarette butts and plastic wrappers carpeting the cobblestones; a mixture of leaves and dirt and gunk plants itself in the cracks between the buildings and the street. A street cleaner barely misses the backs of our bean boots and Converse and Vans with his hose–it’s probably intentional, washing away the grime of this place, one that so many come to gape at now, a tourist attraction. There’s grime from the lives lived here and grime from the lives who pop by for just a day, or a weekend, a new European city on the agenda in 72 hours.

That’s something I’m learning: wherever people build their lives, they leave their grime. Grime isn’t a privilege of leading what’s considered a “seedier” lifestyle–prostitute, pimp, drug dealer, john. Grime is a byproduct of being human, of sin itself. My cookie-cutter college girl life still produces grime without Christ to redeem me. It shows up in the times when I break promises and deceive and manipulate.

It’s 9am Monday morning and we’re in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The sun is up. The red lights are on–they always are, somewhere in the streets. The District houses a few hundred windows, shrouded in red from light just above the doorframe, where prostitutes work.

I learn my usual bright-eyed, bushy-tailed curious attitude is less welcome here than at a classroom desk or in a lecture. The women are used to stares from wide eyes that have never dared venture into their world before. But in the way I expect, the Red Light District doesn’t deliver. There aren’t men banging down all the windows, barreling through the streets like hungry pigs. There aren’t husbands slipping wedding rings into pockets, nor are there lurkers, feet planted firmly in the shadows, gripping condoms between a thumb and index finger.

There are, however, girls in the windows. There are girls who pose in police outfits and bikinis, girls in lacy lingerie and even a girl, bored, standing against the door frame in what looks like a Comfort Colors tank top, scrolling on her phone. There are girls playing music, with handheld stereo systems dancing around their allotted square inches of window space, and girls who lean back behind the divider to converse with companions. Each one of them is a sinner loved by the Lord–just like I am. Some of them, to my shock, choose prostitution willingly.

I looked for Sodom and Gomorrah in this place and I got a good, long look at my own homegrown sin. I looked for a place I could point a righteous finger at, call it wrong, and leave. I got a reality check and a deeper understanding of the Lord’s love for us.

The discussion surrounding the sinfulness of buying and selling sex is not my concern, the life-rocking understanding of the humanity of the people who walk and pose in these streets is. There are always going to be people crying out that we the people–we the dirty, stinky, grubby people–are, by our sin, destroying morality and Biblical values and chastity but when the Lord tells us it is finished, it is.

In the end, He wins. It is finished.

It is finished, which means God’s going to use our world, layered in grime, to glorify himself in ways we can’t imagine. Our surface-level analysis of the ways we’ve failed is the deluded science fair project to his NASA-sized love and redemption.

To me, that means less judgment when I see a girl standing in an outfit I couldn’t dare to wear in public and more understanding that this girl’s heart is being pursued by the Lord. She is valuable; she has something to offer; she might not benefit by my patronizing, unwanted opinion, “Do you know how much you’re giving away when you let all these men touch you?” Maybe I went to Amsterdam not to teach prostitutes how unfortunate their lives are but to trade in my judgment for a kind smile, my righteousness for understanding and the respect a woman loved by the Lord should always be offered.

I choose to believe that the Lord is working in the hearts of all people, including the women who stand in their windows in Amsterdam day after day. By this belief the Pharisee in me no longer has to run through the streets with shouts of “Repent!” on my lips. I am free to value them as women and people and friends, to walk knee-deep into fellowship rather than making myself the savior of their lives.

europe is rad: part 2

Hi my friends! Happy Thursday!

Tonight is the first night all week that the wind hasn’t been whipping around the entire city of Copenhagen as I sit down to do my homework. When I went to bed Monday night, it was a little eerie to hear outside my window, but I got to be snuggled up in my cozy home, so no problem there. But when I woke up Tuesday morning and the wind was whistling just as fiercely as the night before, I was impressed!!

Dinners with my host family each night have been a highlight of the semester so far. After classes and work and after-school sports, the five of us convene at the table to pass meat and potatoes and laughter and little snippets of our day along to one another. This daily nonnegotiable fellowship time around a table is something I didn’t know I was missing out on–both with my parents at our home in Wilmette and with my friends in Nashville. My sweet host family and I have broken bread over a range of topics that makes me grin–the lack of Lunchables in Europe, the word “scaffolding,” European impressions of JFK–a list I could keep writing for days.

It seems like ten different platters and pans and plates always end up on the dinner table every night. Our conversations are littered with doubled-over laughter due to words lost in translation or the impressive comedic timing of my 14-year-old host siblings.

I am so thankful for this world my family’s invited me into: a bustling, thriving home, full of love, complete with a variety pack of shoes at the front door and an apple tree in the backyard.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I stopped in the middle of our trip last week! Last time we talked, I was climbing every mountain and eating apple strudel in Salzburg! We took a bus and a train and another bus for a grand total of 11 traveling hours on Tuesday, and made it to Prague!

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Prague (called Praha in Czech, which Adeline liked to cackle “Prahahahaha”) is absolutely beautiful–and cheap too! I am thankful we were able to meet Ellen, one of our friends from Vanderbilt, after her classes ended for the day. She is studying in Prague this semester and seeing her again after so many months reminded me of the compassion, kindness and empathy she lets out into the world every day. Prague is so lucky to have her!! She showed us her flat and took us to a great Indian restaurant for dinner, and then we got to celebrate one of her flatmate’s birthdays after with brownies and a big heaping portion of laughter.

At one point when we were sitting in her flat, I looked around and counted that there were 10 girls in that living room, crowded around the food and each other and the joyful space we’d created together. It reminded me of my Mayfield common room, or really when any of my sweet friends from school can be together. That was such a happy piece of home, even though I hadn’t met 6 of these girls more than 30 minutes prior!

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In Prague we visited the Lennon wall and ate goulash and trdelniks (and $4 pizza!), but the trdelniks were the most memorable. They’re slabs of dough wrapped around a long roller, dipped with cinnamon sugar on the outside and shmeared with Nutella on the hollow inside. Yum and also sugar crash.

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Berlin was our last stop. It’s a giant city, not exactly my cup of tea, and all three of us were a little hangry after lots and lots of walking in Adeline’s quest for a burger for lunch. We finally found them, and then a sweet chocolate shop after–thanks for your great food, Berlin!

We also spent part of our afternoon walking along what’s left of the Berlin Wall. It was scary and moving to see where the wall had been broken through and where bullets had been shot through. None of us knew that the Wall hadn’t been torn down until 1990. For our millenial minds it is hard to comprehend that this historical event happened only five years before we were born: we were guessing World War I, or the 1960s, but not only 25 years ago. This is another place I don’t think I’ve completely processed yet, and I’ll be going to Auschwitz in November, so I want to save those thoughts for that space.

Very thankful for y’all and your continued texts and emails asking how I am doing and sharing your lives with me. This life is a gift–every day I am in awe!! I want to leave y’all with a quote I’ve been thinking about often this week:

The seasons change, and you change, but the Lord abides evermore the same, and the streams of his love are as deep, as broad, and as full as ever.

Charles Spurgeon wrote it in a devotional book called Morning & Evening, and I’m glad to remember these words he strung together in a time like living abroad, where life is adventurous but doesn’t ever feel quite settled–knowing that the Lord is where we are truly settled is helpful for me!

I love y’all!!

europe is rad: part 1

Y’all!!!! I miss you all. Europe is rad. I spent our first travel break in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic with Laura and Adeline. For a week, we landed in one city just to slip into another by train and walk and walk and walk and walk. I am grateful!!

We met the Saturday morning sun at the Copenhagen airport, currency exchanged and bellies full of coffee and chocolate muffins. By lunchtime we had stepped out of the Cologne, Germany train station only to gape at the majestic Cologne Cathedral. I’m convinced the next Disney Pixar movie should use this place as its backdrop. All week, I alternated between wide-eyed gazes out to the world and quick typing on my phone so I wouldn’t forget the week’s stock of worth-remembering moments.

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We ate brats drenched in ketchup and waffles and schnitzel. We sat around the dinner table with Caroline, one of my friends from Vanderbilt who showed us a little picture of what it’s like to be a college graduate. Caroline is traveling for the year with the Keegan Fellowship program. She is studying end of life care all over the world, in places like Ireland and Brazil and Japan.

We probably laughed and listened around the table for almost three hours, Adeline picking Caroline’s brain about the program. Caroline’s thoughts about how we live and how we die are really special, and you can read her blog here.

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On Sunday morning we boarded our first train, for Salzburg. Our ride to Munich, the first hub on the way to Salzburg, was about five hours, and everyone on board hunkered down pretty quickly. My seatmate downed a beer and burger while the elderly man across the aisle munched on broccoli and carrots. I pulled out my plastic fork and ate chunky peanut butter by the forkful. We were in it for the long haul. But the trip that I thought was going to be a massive waste of time turned out to ridiculously beautiful. The train car was a little moving conglomeration of people, luggage tucked above our heads, all scanning Kindles or newspapers or just gazing out at the German countryside.

The train chugged along the Rhine river for hours, and dotting each side of the bank were white houses with gingerbread cookie trim. Their flowerboxes spilled over big blooms, pink and magenta and sunshine-colored. 

After the beauty of our train ride, the rest of the journey felt a little less worth celebrating. We had to get off the train before crossing over the border of Austria, and took a shuttle bus from the closest point in Germany into Salzburg. This was because of the refugee crisis. It was impossible to miss the border because tents and camps and sleeping bags were packed into a makeshift camp right in front of the Austrian police. We saw families walking along the highway, mothers carrying children and fathers carrying bags. I wanted to cry. It is overwhelming being here while this is happening; we’re walking straight through a high school history class movie.

We saw refugees escorted around the Munich and Salzburg train stations, too. What kept running through my mind the whole week was confusion. I see families fleeing for their lives into the countries I am visiting as a tourist, and feel upset because I’m riding around in a coach bus for the Sound of Music tour and making sure I try the traditional food in each country. But if these better-off countries didn’t have money coming in from tourism, wouldn’t they be in an even worse place to care for their people? I’m still really sad about it and I don’t have any answers. More on this later when I’ve had time to process.

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Regardless of our emotional upheaval, we really enjoyed our time in Salzburg. It’s a beautiful city of only about 150,000 people. Monday morning called for the Sound of Music tour, a 4-hour venture around Salzburg and the surrounding mountains. We saw Nonnberg Abbey and the Cathedral where Maria and Baron von Trapp were married and the original gazebo that Liesl and Rolf leapt around and Mirabell Gardens from the “Do Re Mi” scene. The three of us could not stop smiling the entire time!!

Something really special happens when the songs you’ve sung for years and years come to life. “Edelweiss” is a special song to me, as is “My Favorite Things” and really the entirety of the soundtrack. Our tour bus was full of young engaged couples and families and older couples and the three of us, American girls who sang “Climb Every Mountain” for at least 48 hours after the tour. My favorite bus buddy we had sat across the aisle, a woman my mom’s age who sang the soundtrack opera-style every time we got back on the bus. She was the best. Outside the Cathedral, we downed tomato soup and apple strudel with ice cream for lunch and got to talk about how traveling is the biggest blessing.

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After the Sound of Music tour, we took a cable car up Untersberg Mountain, which is the mountain you see often in the skyline during the Sound of Music. We fondly refer to this part of the trip as “all the Salzburg we cannot see” or more specifically, “all the schnitzel we cannot see.” There were a lot of clouds up on Untersberg and not a lot of views. The cable car took us most of the way up the mountain, straight through some clouds. That was pretty scary. When we got out of the car, visibility was zero. Absolutely nothing. It was pretty funny. The hike to the summit took about 20 minutes, and at the top there’s a cross that reads “Im kreuz is heil,” or “the cross is salvation.” I get happy chills when I think about all the mountain climbers and winded tourists who have seen this redeeming message.

After a few minutes of standing at the summit laughing at our joke of a mountain, I turned around and screamed because the clouds were breaking and we could finally see! It was beautiful. Worth waiting out the clouds and goosebumps from the cold!! God’s creation is dang amazing.

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This is just half of our trip–I’ll write about the second half in a few days once I catch up on school work!! Life is dreamy here in Europe and I want to hear all about how life is dreamy back in America. Europe and the Middle East are experiencing a tragic crisis right now, and I sometimes feel petty writing about the joy in my life. But my being able to travel is a generous gift from my parents and my school, one that I don’t want to belittle. I love y’all very much!!