Why Korea

Last month, I took a ten-day trip to Korea.

Seoul’s a fantastic city to visit. It’s easy to navigate, welcoming, and relatively clean and safe. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable and restful trips I’ve taken in a while.

In the run-up to the trip, however, as I announced my plans, I was faced with an almost universal question: “Why?”

Why the Why?

I’ve traveled internationally a bit. Most places I go, nobody asks why.

The last few years took me to Scotland, New Zealand, England, and France. People invariably told me to have fun seeing the castles, say hi to the Hobbits, pack an umbrella, enjoy the cheese, and take lots of pictures.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” they told me, and “That sounds amazing.”

I did, and it was.

Practically no one spoke this way about my trip to Korea. Instead, they asked why I was going.

Beneath the Question

As to what’s driving the why question, I have a theory.

As a member of Generation X, I came of age in a school system teaching a version of World History that was basically Euro-centric with a few global frills. Our curriculum did reference Asian or African countries, but only as their timelines intersected with the overarching Western narrative. Most of the mentions were war-related and negative.

Until I started traveling the world, I had no sense of the gaps in my education.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been playing catch-up. I read where I travel and travel where I read.  Sometimes I forget how wide my gap used to be.

Until I’m asked repeatedly why I’m going to Korea.

There’s More

Someone actually articulated it to me like this, “The only thing I know about Korea is the Korean War.”

If war is all you know about a place, then sure. The why question makes sense.

But Korea’s more than a place where a war happened.

Most places are.


My next post will be a series of vignettes from the Korea trip. Things we did, what we saw, and what happened along the way. I just want to clear everything with my travel partner first. Though she’s responsible for zero of the truly embarrassing incidents, she deserves a say in what goes public.


For now, please enjoy a few snippets from my daily travelogue.

Friday, September 6, 2019

4-hour flight, then 14-hour flight, then 1-hour bus ride.

Whole day was a blur. More like a smear.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

We only got lost(ish) twice!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We walked the route down to the main road correctly for the first time, but because we’d done it wrong so many times, we thought we were lost because nothing looked familiar.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My overconfidence got us lost.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There’s a Popeye’s near the DMZ! Didn’t get to check if they have the sandwich.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ramyun, sweet fried chicken, dumplings, hotteok, bindaetteok, knife-cut noodles. Perfect broth, sublimely chewy! I forgot everything else about today except that I have a huge blister.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A woman in a public restroom at the park gave us paper towels from her purse to wipe our hands with.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Wasted a bunch of time because I thought we were locked out of a building when really the door was push instead of pull. Still want to die as I think about this.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We sucessfully hiked Bukhansan! Well, I bit it pretty early.  But I didn’t hurt myself. So that’s a success.


The whole trip was a success, really. Other than the push/pull situation. And all the times we got lost.

Plus two incidents with umbrellas.

But that’s for next time.

Seeing What’s There

Last month, two friends and I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama.

Our intent was not simply to eat, drink, and be merry, though we did manage to fit those things in as well. Our main purpose was to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of American history. We’d centered this particular trip around hitting some of the historical stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing locations I’d previously only read about in books. Inevitably, I come away with lessons that only experience can bring. It’s why I so often read where I travel and travel where I’ve read. The realtime learning cycle makes eureka moments nearly inevitable.

On this trip, my keenest realization came not from anything I read in the museums or saw at the memorials. It arose from a deep sense of place.

The evening we arrived in Montgomery, we walked down to the waterfront. On our way back up Commerce Street, I had the first inkling of what was to become my major takeaway.

You don’t need a tour guide to tell you that the city of Montgomery had originally been centered around a single focal point.

Market Square.

As it appears today, the intersection presents as a wide, innocuous traffic circle with a fountain in the center. The night we first approached, it was relatively free of traffic. Quiet and peaceful.

Historically, Market Square was home to Montgomery’s thriving slave market.

This was once the nexus of the city, and when standing in its center, you’re afforded a clear line of sight down Commerce Street to the waterfront, where still rest the crumbling foundations of city’s enormous cotton slide. Pivoting only slightly grants a view up Dexter Avenue to the state Capitol Building at the top of a hill, looming over all.

Standing there in Market Square, I felt the wheel of history slowly swing around us. Laws and regulations handed down from the capitol, goods and slaves streaming up from the waterfront, cotton flowing down the slide.

Though America’s chattel slavery system has been dismantled, Montgomery’s original design still clearly reflects its legacy.

These things weren’t done in a corner, in Montgomery and beyond. The slavery system wasn’t a footnote. It was a focal point.

And it left its mark.

I know I promised you a summer blog series, and here we are at the end of August. It’s not that I forgot. It’s just that my summer took some unexpected turns and disrupted my best-laid plans.

You know how life does.

But look! We’re all still here, and I’m just as happy with the prospect of a fall series as a summer one. My current schedule is much more coherent than my summer one was, and I look forward to leveraging that cohesiveness for our mutual advantage.

Catch you on the flippity flip!

Florida Summer Is Your Winter

The evidence is undeniable.

Holing Up Indoors

Those who spend winter huddling under a pile of blankets truly appreciate the arrival of the summer sun. As one of my Midwestern friends is fond of saying, “Sun’s out, guns out!” (She’s referring to her arms. She lifts. She’s crazy strong and enjoys sporting tank tops.)

Down here, however, we have a different summer motto. “Flee the sun lest it boil your face.” While November through March are nearly idyllic, drawing visitors from around the globe, April through October cause us to question why anyone ever settled here. 

Most of us prefer to spend summer inside huddled under air conditioning vents.

Extreme Storms

For most of you, winter is the time to brace yourself. You dress for extreme cold and fortify your homes and vehicles against major storms. For us, the opposite is true. Extreme temperatures and damaging storms arrive during summer.

In addition to soaring temperatures, Florida summer heralds the arrival of rainy season.

These aren’t just cute little rain showers, either. They’re tropical deluges. Towering thunderheads build quickly, unleashing torrential downpours accompanied by electrical storms. Personally, during summer I plan to run errands in the morning or evening to avoid getting caught in them.

In addition to near-daily storms, summer heralds the threat of named tropical storms and full-blown hurricanes

Is it any wonder our seasonal residents abandon ship every spring?

Complaining on Social Media

Northern friends spend the winter posting pictures of the snowfall accumulating on their back porches and Tweeting low temps. They bemoan the wind, decry a lack of sunlight, and wish for winter to end.

Meanwhile, during Florida summer, we post that it’s still 90 degrees after sunset (seriously, how??) and complain that we broke into a sweat while walking toward the gym at 6:00am.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to turn this into a contest about whose seasonal issues are worse.

I think we can all agree Siberia has us beat.

All places have ups and downs. All things considered, Florida’s pretty great. Once winter rolls around, I’m sure plenty of you would be happy to trade places. 

Bear in mind, however, that we do have other problems.

matthew-essman-IVG-_atJ048-unsplash


Note: An early version of this post appeared in June of 2016 on my former blogging site. With record highs hitting the northeastern United States this weekend, it seemed like an opportune moment to dust it off and trot it back out. Keep cool, check on your neighbors, and take care of each other!

Florida Summer: The Ultimate Bummer (A Poem by Me)

When thunderclouds rise in the deep Western skies

And the air is as heavy as lead –

When fat Bufo toads squat right there by our toes

And the snakes topple down on our heads –

When we feel ourselves frown as the sweat trickles down

From our necks to the smalls of our backs –

Then we know without doubt that our luck has run out

And the summer’s arrived right on track.

Oh, this Florida summer–it’s really a bummer.

The sunshine’s so bright we go blind!

It’s hot and it’s muggy, and outside it’s buggy.

That heat index? Simply unkind.

The gators are gloating, the fire ants floating,

The snowbirds have all fled up North.

On the Fourth of July, we’ll sit inside and cry

As the A/C once more proves its worth.

By fall, you may find that we’ve all lost our minds.

But there’s a good reason, remember.

(The number one reason is Hurricane Season,

Which stretches from June to November.)

So let’s hang down our heads for the season we dread –

It’s summer down here in SoFlo.

Sure, we know how to deal, just don’t ask how we feel

Unless you–in fact–want to know.


Despite the tone of the poem above, I’m actually doing pretty well today, both mentally and physically. After nearly two years of almost strictly running, I’ve rejoined a gym. My arms are remembering what weights feel like. It’s a whole scene. So that’s how things are going here.

It’s true I’ve been slacking on the blogging front. There are reasons. I hope you’ll accept this little post to tide you over until my next personal essay is ready.

Speaking of which, I am planning a short series this summer that’s going to blow everybody’s hair back – including, probably, mine. Actually, if you wouldn’t mind praying for me as I prepare it, I’d appreciate that. It’s sort of a doozy and a has proven a stretch for me to write. But I can’t not write it. It’s basically boiling a hole in my brain!

In the comments below, be sure to check in and let me know how you are. Critique the poem if you like, and feel free to write a few lines about summer in your own hometown! I’d love that.

Happy Wednesday, everybody!

May your coffee be hot, your A/C cool, and your hearts warm with joy!

S.O.S. (Support Our Singles)

My book on singleness and the church released in November of 2017, and since then, I’ve had increased opportunity to discuss my single life.

I was able to write such a book because I’m supported by my community. My family, friends, and church family do really well at rallying round to ensure that I’m well cared for. This is partly true because I’m vocal with my needs. It’s also true that when I reach out, they reach back.

Here are a few things they do for me. Consider whether or not these practical steps would also work for the single adults in your lives.

Feed Us

In my book, I discuss why I don’t like to eat alone and how my community helps ensure that it doesn’t happen very often. I won’t cover that ground again in this post. Instead, I’ll highlight ways in which others go above and beyond when it comes to keeping me fed.

In addition to not liking to eat alone, I also don’t like cooking for one. (Who does?) It’s not rare for me get a text saying there’s a Tupperware of lasagna or a crock of soup in someone’s fridge with my name on it. All I need to do is pick it up or (depending on my schedule) wait for it to be dropped off. Honestly, few things make me feel more cared for.

Second, I have friends with whom I exchange fresh fruits and vegetables. I mean, there’s no way I’m going to eat an entire bag of tangerines by myself before some of them spoil, and most people won’t miss parting with a few shoots of green onion, a handful of carrots, or a single stalk of celery. Sometimes the exchange rate works in my favor; sometimes in theirs. That’s just how these things go! At least fresh fruits and veggies aren’t going to waste.

Surround Us

There’s a difference between inviting someone along and inviting them in. The former makes sure we’re not alone. The latter ensures we’re not lonely.

Don’t just seek to “hang out.” Surround your singles, physically as well as emotionally. Don’t just spend time with us. Invite us fully into your lives.

Pray for Us

The best way to know how to pray for your single friends is to ask individually.

If someone were to ask me today, here’s what I’d say.

  • Pray that I walk in the will of God.
  • Pray that I can maintain a chaste life.
  • Pray that my life shows off God’s glory.
  • Pray that the Word dwells richly in me.
  • Pray that God blesses my work both inside and outside the church.
  • Pray that God grants ongoing grace as certain aspects of my life run counter to my expectations and desires.

Press Love In

A friend and I were talking last week about how in the Old Testament Book of Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi didn’t just need to be loved. Naomi needed love pressed into her, and Ruth spends much of the book doing just that.

What a wonderful picture of Christ, not to mention a perfect description of how we’re to express Christian love. Love isn’t just a passive emotion. It’s a continual, active response.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

When you press love in, it’s not possible for people to be with you and walk away feeling neglected.

Exactly what this looks like will depend a lot on your personality and how you naturally express yourself. Pressing love into someone can be tiring. It’s work. But it’s worth it.


For more information on caring for singles in your church, please see The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles: How Pastors, Marrieds, and Church Leaders Effectively Support Solo Members.

Available now! (5)

Worst Parade Ever: Surviving My First (and Only) Marathon

On Sunday, March 3, 2019, I ran my first (and only) full marathon.

Having a handful of small races, a few half marathons, and even a Ragnar Trail Relay under my belt and faithfully following a training program did not fully prepare me for the physical and emotional roller coaster ahead of me.

Rather than subjecting you to all the arm-flailing details, I’ll share a quick summary of the run itself, a few vignettes from the course, and some concluding thoughts.

Running Details

The race route was actually gorgeous. We started in Downtown Stuart along the scenic waterfront, ran out to Sewell’s Point, up to the Jensen Beach Causeway, across the Indian River Lagoon to Hutchison Island, down A1A to Stuart Beach, over the Ernest Lyons Bridge down to the southern tip of Sewell’s Point, back the Evans Crary Bridge to Steele Point, passing back through Stuart on East Ocean to the Finish Line.

At the Start: My sister Bethany and good friend Jodee ensured that I arrived on time at the start, fully awake, hydrated, and stretched out. They even stayed to cheer me through the first few miles!

Miles 1-9: I hung with a pace group set to finish in 5 hours and 45 minutes. Unfortunately, once the sun rose fully, the course heated up quickly. With the temps hitting 87F and the heat index somewhat higher, I decided to drop into high/low intervals.

Miles 10-17: I ran high/low intervals. The 5:45 pace group left me behind, and the 6-hour pace group and most of the other turtle runners passed me as well. I was still feeling good, though, and moving at an acceptable clip.

Mile 17: Physical and mental breakdown on the Ernest Lyons Bridge (more on that below).

Miles 17-22: Shambling runs, uneven intervals, lots of shuffling and some fast walks with my hands on my hips. Heat and misery.

Miles 22-24: Mostly walking with a few little bursts of hopeful jogging.

Miles 25-26.2: Jogging again, because walking across the finish line was unacceptable.

Finish line: Joy and relief! Friends and family! Cold limeade! Ringing the PR Bell!

Vignettes from the Course

High points included lining up at the back of the pack with the rest of the slow-moving party crowd, coming upon a trio of older ladies mid-morning in lawn chairs offering runners scoops of ice to shove down their tops, and arriving at the finish line to discover friends and family holding out hope after the crowds had left and the crew had started shutting things down. (“If they took down the PR bell, we were going to riot!”)

Low points included soaring temperatures, my body pulling a bathroom emergency fakeout in Mile 16, and crying at the top of the Ernest Lyons Bridge in Mile 17.

I believe those two events are related.

The Bridge

By the time I hit Mile 16, I was running out on Hutchison Island, alone without a pace group.

I’d already rounded that bend near the Elliot Museum and was headed toward the double bridges to the mainland. I was running high/low intervals in a hot, airless section with no shade when my body informed me that we needed to find a Porta Potty, pronto!

Feeling pressure to deal with the situation and worried that further running might force the issue, I fell into a fast walk. While the stomach cramping faded within a few minutes, I’d lost my rhythm and drive right before I hit the Ernest Lyons Bridge.

I started up the bridge at a walk, continuing to lose steam as I ascended. The sun pressed down, the air thickened in my lungs, and the impossibility of finishing the race overwhelmed me just as my body gave out. My hands and feet began tingling. Black splotches danced across my line of sight. I swayed on my feet.

In short, I’d hit the wall.

I remember shuffling one foot in front of the other and actually grabbing the railing running between me and the sheer drop to the Intracoastal Waterway, hauling myself hand over hand toward the Olympic heights of the summit.

Just before the apex of the bridge, I stumbled upon a bench. Don’t do it, I told myself, even as I fell onto it.

I rolled onto my back, sticking my hands and feet in the air like a little bug. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, trailing toward my salt-matted hairline.

The moment had arrived. This was do or die, and I was fairly certain my body was making the decision for me.

Why postpone the inevitable? If I was going to quit, I should quit now and get it over with. No use shuffling any more miles. I should just surrender.

I dropped my hands and feet, leaving them to dangle over the sides of the bench. I opened my eyes, staring into the impossible blue of the sky. The black spots were gone.

On the bridge beside me, cars and trucks whizzed by. Even if I was going to quit, I couldn’t quit at the top of the bridge. It was too dangerous for anyone to park, for one thing; for another, I’d either have to roll over the cement barricade or be hauled over it. That sounded harder than walking down the bridge itself. Much better to walk down and call someone at the bottom.

After all, if I was quitting, I had plenty of time.

Fortunately, I could feel my hands and feet again. I rolled off the bench, stumbled to a standing position, inched over the tallest point of the bridge, and started down the other side.

A blessedly cool breeze lifted before me, and suddenly I felt fresh life. While I couldn’t run yet, hope rose. Maybe I wouldn’t have to quit after all.

A local man out for a walk up the bridge (it was an open course) passed me going the opposite direction. His gaze flicked to my runner’s bib (on which was my number and my first name), and he said, “Ruth! Your friend’s waiting for you!”

I didn’t have the energy to ask him what he meant, let alone puzzle it out for myself. A minute later, another passerby said something similar. “Ruth! You’re almost there! I saw your sign!” I broke into a shuffle.

There, at the bottom of the bridge, was my friend Alissa, holding a huge sign with my name on it, dancing like a crazy person. When she saw me coming, she ran straight to me, bearing iced coffee.

“You’ve hit the wall,” she told me. “So that’s over with.” I don’t remember what else she said, but I remember that only after talking to her did I feel that I might actually finish the race.

received_315518422438330

The Song

The week before the marathon, I’d somewhat jokingly selected Psalm 118:17 as the theme verse for my race: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”

That verse not only proved true but also was an actual comfort as I found myself shuffling through the dreadful miles between my breakdown and the end.

At one point, I was trapped in a sunny stretch along Sewell’s Point feeling like I might die at any moment.

Suddenly, drifting from the open windows of a residential home, I heard the strains of the worship song “O Praise the Name (Anástasis),” a song our church family has been focusing on in this season approaching Resurrection Sunday.

Themes of pain, death, and inevitable resurrection overwhelmed me. I would not die. I would live and recount the deeds of the Lord.

I didn’t have the energy to sing or the spare moisture to cry, but I raised a hand and mentally sang along.

Then on the third at break of dawn,
The Son of Heaven rose again.
O trampled death where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King!

O praise the name of the Lord our God
O praise His name forever more
For endless days we will sing Your praise
Oh Lord, oh Lord our God.

Even now, I’m unable to put into words what it meant to me, hearing that song in that moment.

The Finish

Losing steam partway through the race meant that I was one of the final finishers. While I wasn’t the very last runner on the course, I was among the final dozen or so to trickle in. The police were literally taking down barricades and reopening intersections as I shambled through them.

Still, my family and friends (and random passers-by) cheered me across the line as if I were one of the top finishers.

And you know what? I’m not embarrassed by that.

I spent six months pushing myself to train, struggled through physical, emotional, and mental battles, and in the end, I finished.

0303191432_HDR

Concluding Thoughts

Running a marathon was an audacious goal for someone like me. Considering my age, temperament, and physical capabilities, it was truly an awesome challenge.

While I feel absolutely no drive to try a full marathon again, I have zero regrets about signing up, enduring the training, and suffering through the experience (although during the race itself, I couldn’t help but think the whole thing had been a huge mistake).

All I can tell you is this: if I can run a marathon, anyone can do anything.

Make a goal, set practical steps, and work toward fulfilling it.

Though you’re worried you might fail, share your journey with friends, family, and loved ones because you will definitely fail without them.

received_372561810004040

Schrödinger’s Cancer: My Recent Biopsy and the Reality of Living Death

I’d like to share what I learned during my recent cancer scare, though perhaps I should employ a less dramatic opening, considering the results. I am, after all, perfectly fine. I do not have cancer; and although my situation requires some monitoring, I can now continue with my regularly scheduled life.

Back in October, however, I did not have the benefit of foresight. I had to go through the process one step at a time, without knowing how everything would turn out.

The Test

As I sat in my doctor’s office this fall as she told me I’d need a biopsy, cancer was just a theory.

The whole thing reminded me of Schrödinger’s Cat: you know, that thought experiment with the cat in a sealed box with a decaying radioactive substance, a hammer attached to a Geiger counter, and a flask of poison. Until you actually open the box, you can’t know for sure the fate of the cat. Until the box is unsealed, the cat is both dead and alive.

That’s how I felt. Only this time, I was both outside and inside the box. I was both waiting for a revelation and waiting to be revealed.

Schrödinger’s Cancer

During the wait, I kept thinking that no matter the outcome of the test, the truth was already real in my body. A simple test would not alter reality: it would only reveal it. Therefore while I waited to hear from the lab, I was both sick and well, healthy and ill. This was Schrödinger’s Cancer. Nothing had changed and everything had.

I wasn’t afraid—not exactly. I wasn’t losing sleep or wandering the streets in a haze or holding my breath. I was, however, evaluating my life.

If I really had cancer, why waste energy on minor annoyances? Who cares if the weather isn’t cooperating or if there’s a hair in my sandwich? It takes more than petty problems to rattle the living dead.

Living Death

If anyone is suited to endure a living death, it should be the Christian. It is, after all, our primary calling.

Though the call to follow Jesus is often framed in terms of new birth and everlasting life, the reality is more complicated than that. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer states in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The call to follow Christ has always been one of living death.

And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23)

Consider also how the Apostle Paul calls the church in Rome to understand baptism.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3-11)

Both dead and alive, alive and dead. Already declared righteous and not yet perfected. This is Schrödinger’s Catechism, if you will, and I had never been more attuned to its paradoxes.

Further Lessons

Apart from the readjusted perspectives mentioned above, I walk away from this experience with increased empathy for those in medical limbo.

While I’ve always been sympathetic and prayed with people waiting for serious test results, I’ve never been able to truly empathize. As a result, I’ve historically offered a brand of buck-up-and-hope-for-the-best and let’s-not-worry-until-we-know optimism that has likely proven unhelpful. I know better now.

I’m also moving forward with the comfort of this Scripture freshly graven on my heart:

For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8)


Three quick orders of business:

First, my holiday novella Murder on Birchardville Hill is still on sale. Go snap it up!

Second, this week I’m celebrating my 40th birthday! Since I have no material wants or needs, I’m asking you to help celebrate by making contributions to the ministry of my friends Jairo and Vania. Their family will soon head to Jordan to serve displaced Sudanese refugees, and I’d love to send them off well supported. Please see here for information and to make your contribution to their ministry.

Third, remember to sign up for my 2019 Year of Books. Each month during the coming year, I’ll be sending a recommended list of titles for you to check out. No discussions, homework, or anything like that. Just fresh reading recommendations casually delivered to your inbox every month: fiction, non-fiction, classics and new releases, accessible theology, well-known authors and debut writers, you name it. Go sign up!

Happy Monday, everyone! I’m sure it’ll be a busy week for many of you. Don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the delights of the season. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your coffees be flat white.*


*Or whatever you like. Just going for the rhyme, not commanding your coffee choices. But if you haven’t tried a flat white, you definitely should. Consider the recommendation a gift from me to you. Merry Christmas!