Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Remembering the human in the age of digital mud-slinging

remember the human

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore

I knew a man once who grew up watching his alcoholic father beat the life out of his mother.  A friend whispered to me that, as a little boy, he would run to her house in tears to hide, afraid of his own home.  Over the years, the violence hardened him.  By the time I knew him, he was no different than his father, filled only with rage and alcohol. Sadly, I watched his children repeat his boyhood story of hiding their tears in neighbors’ homes.

Before I learned about the pain of his childhood, it was easy to label this man idiot and asshole and abuser.  While his rage scared me, I also knew different.  Though he appeared a violent and ruthless man, I could not help but also see a teary, scared little boy hiding from his father in a neighbor’s house.  This one fact changed the way I thought about, prayed for, and responded to him.

Sometimes, I muse that there are corners of the North American church that reflect the life of an alcoholic like this man.  We come from so many places and perspectives and experiences.  We have different needs and hurts and hopes and dreams that shape how we understand The Story God left for us.  For some, the Bible has proved no better than an abusive father, having been used to beat us down and send us hiding in neighbor’s houses, tears streaming down our hearts.  For others, it has been the authority of life, a testament to be revered,  followed-to-a-T and never challenged.  Still for others, it has been a life-changing, restorative and hope-filled new way.

As I participate in the conversation emerging in our digitized world, I’ve observed that social media has become a great venue for our alcoholic traits to rear their ugly heads.  From the safety of our computer screens, we rant and rage, accuse and deny, promise and fail, stereotype and namecall.

Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1 haunt me every time I smugly disdain or praise the public voices who I find either ridiculous or brilliant.  We might as well just substitute new names for our Big Fight: “One of you says, “I follow John Piper”; another, “I follow Rob Bell”; another, “I follow Joyce Meyer”; still another, “I follow Jesus.”

His words haunt me primarily because I do this very thing. Paul is talking about me.

[Gulp.]

I recover quickly from my conviction because, let’s face it, folks: some people are wrong.

There are racist people out there, people who are prejudiced and mean-spirited and divisive, all in the name of Jesus.  There are people who preach that following Jesus will make you rich.  There are people who put on a good show just for the money and the fame, using Jesus like a trick-or-treat costume to reach the ranks of the kid-with-the-most-candy.  There are people who preach a beautiful grace from the pulpit but can’t manage to apply an ounce of it to one single person in their life.

I judge them, flinging my mental rants at them because I don’t want them messing up the life-giving message of the gospel that Jesus came to save us at our worst.

The very-sticky-problem is that the very people I deem ‘wrong’ may well think the same of me.  So we polarize, mudsling, stake our ground, call for schisms, and tweet and post our disagreements with furor.  It is perhaps one of the most complexly sad sights of the American protestant church today.

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One of the most potent lessons that living between worlds has taught me is that people have many sides.  As I’ve lived among both rural and urban poor,  wealthy coastal elites, perseverant immigrants, powerful politicians, awe-inspiring performers, stodgy academics, consumeristic metropolitans, shallow surbanites and simple minded small-town folk, I’ve rarely seen any of them live up completely to the stereotype their namecallers hold them to.  The media shouts that red-states-hate-blue states and vice versa, but the story that we’re slower to remember is that everyone – regardless of ideology – loves, wants to love or be loved.

In the age of opinions becoming digital sound bytes, it has become far too easy to fling our anger at each other and forget that we are humans, not screens.  “The person-who-disagrees-with-me deserves my wrath because he is WRONG,” we chant.

I get it.  I’ve been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, of bigoted teenagers in pick-up-trucks, of name-calling and assumption making.  It wounds.  It infuriates. It keeps me awake at night.  It sends me running to my neighbor’s house in tears. But as much as my gut reacts otherwise, it is not the way of Jesus, even when “they” are wrong.  

Father, forgive them, he said as they took his very life.  Seventy times seven, he’d told his followers.

Turn the other cheek.

If someone wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.

I nearly walked away from Jesus once, but one of the primary things that drew me back was learning more about the ‘other way’ of which Jesus speaks.

Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  

Don’t do your righteous acts for others to see.

If possible, live peaceably with all men.  

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Whenever I hear people from one region of the country disparage the ‘crazies’ in another region, I find myself getting strangely defensive regarding traits that drive me equally crazy, You don’t understand, I want to explain. They’re more than just red and blue, conservative and liberal.  They’re humans, just like you. In the words of my witty Grandpa John, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”

We are one in the spirit, we like to sing but struggle to live.  I recently heard Michelle Bloom, a singer-songwriter, point out how we often overlook the words at the end of the second verse, We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.

As we navigate this topsy turvy path of our new digital world, let’s practice a new way of talking to and about each other as we stumble along the path toward unity.  When we remember the human behind the screen, we echo the very words of Jesus as we seek to protect every man’s dignity.  While this does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions, it does mean that we commit to walk alongside one another in our humanity with respect for the God-given dignity of all our fellow sojourners, not just the ones with whom we agree.

Further Reading

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Spiritual Formation, Travel

Living in light of global reality

The heaviness of the tropical air settled on us as we waited for our baggage, two pieces of which had been lost. It was an instant reminder that life marches to a different beat in the developing world than in our Organized States of America. After a seeming eternity, we pushed our overloaded baggage cart through customs to finally embrace my husband’s parents who were convinced we’d missed the plane. As we left the airport, our arrival into another world descended on us quickly.

Driving in Sri Lanka looked more like a chicken fight gone bad than cars following rules of the road (what are those, anyway?). Piles of trash covered random street corners, their putrid odor overwhelming passersby. I breathed it all in deeply – finally, a vacation!

For me, the word vacation usually conjures up images of resorts, beaches, and relaxation rather than of bad driving, inconvenience and trash heaps. Yet as we’ve spent our days in Sri Lanka over the years, I’ve experienced a vacation of a different sort, for I did not occupy myself with the same kinds of expectations I carry with me in the U.S.

In the US, when I sit in an uncomfortable chair, I curse under my breath at the negligence of whoever must be at fault. In Sri Lanka, I was grateful to get a chair under the fan, comfortable or not. Here, I concern myself greatly with the tastiest brand of apple sauce or ice cream. In Sri Lanka, I’ve recognized that eating these foods at all is a luxury. Here, I rush to the hardware store to buy ant poison upon the discovery of a few ants roaming my living room floor. In Sri Lanka, the ants roam so freely and abundantly that on occasion, I’ve stopped on occasion to study their resourcefulness, order and determination.

In America, vacations nourish my self, surrounding me with opportunities to be served and relax. In Sri Lanka, the vacation was from myself, from my daily list of expected rights and materialistic consumption.

In Sri Lanka, I do not have the luxury of ignoring the reality of the harshness in our world, for it has all been in my face at once: poverty, injustice, beggars shadowed by a history of war, tales of child soldiers, land mines, suicide bombers. I do not step outside the gate without a breath of prayer for the safety of myself and my family, or pass a beggar-in-front-of-a-mansion without seething at the inequitable distribution of wealth around the world. I do not read the paper without shaking my head at the greed, selfishness of the-hands-that-hold-the-power.  I do not walk into the homes of my family with out breathing deep their resilience, faithfulness and fortitude amidst all of these realities.

Even in light of such immediate chaos, I still find myself easily consumed by my own humanness. Daily life settles in, and a battle between the global and the personal ensues.

My children wake up from jet leg four times in one night = despair … but at least they have a bed to sleep in.

The heat is so exhausting I can barely keep my eyes open = whiny attitude necessitating an afternoon nap … but at least I have a place and time to take a nap and a fan to sleep under.

A taxi driver cheats me because I am a foreigner = indignance! … but at least I have enough money to even be a foreigner, let alone get cheated.

My in-laws don’t get to see my sweet kids actually be sweet due to their 10 hour jet lag = pouting … but at least they get to see them at all.

Clothes are sooo cheap here.  I want to buy as much as I can! = greed … but the break from the obsession of American materialism is so refreshing.

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“The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God,” writes Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk. “The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs overeasy.”

When I taught at a wealthy Christian university, I would dialog with students about what my husband calls “living in light of global reality”. We would discuss such complexities as the inequitable distribution of wealth, the lack of proper health care, the travesties of ethnic conflict and corrupt governments and what that meant for our personal and professional lives.  Occasionally, I’d run into an unusually naive student (usually a freshman) shocked at the prospect of poverty, but overall, the students were more trying to grasp a reality they had never known themselves.  Their background of privilege and sheltered lives made it difficult to understand another world, and even more challenging to determine how to make daily decisions in light of this reality.

It meant a lot of paradox for all of us.  Great compassion for children with AIDS or sex-slaves or racial inequities vs. buying new shoes to keep up with the trends.  Seeking a deeper understanding of the world vs. obsessively following the coolest music scene.

As I grow older, the questions only magnify.  Public schools or private? Suburbs or city? Safe or risky? Internally, I see that there are things far more important than my trendy new shoes or funky hair-cut. However, I continually grapple with the concept that ‘just because I can, doesn’t mean I should’ acquire, accumulate, and keep-up-with-the-Jones. As much as my mind throws its weight around by trying to be aware, my will acts far more often as its sidekick, settling for eggs over easy and a cute pair of shoes.

After years of ‘vacations’ in a war-torn tropical paradise, I’m slowly understanding this word paradox. It surfaces not only in the breath-taking beauty and heart-wrenching injustices of Sri Lanka, but also in my truth-seeking mind and self-seeking will. Living in the developed world, I face a constant tension to live in light of global reality because the pressure to keep up with the neighbors usually outshouts the hungry stomachs and unseen injustices in my direct line of sight.  (Even my dear mother-in-law comments when she visits how tempting it would be to buy things when they’re packaged so nicely).   In light of this tension, I count it a great gift of intercultural marriage to have reason for this reality to be part of my own family.

For Western believers, living in light of global reality means we need to spend far more time facing our role in better responding to these paradoxes, not shying away because we don’t understand. We begin this process by seeking to live humbly with each other, by listening for voices big and small, and by examining where our treasures truly lie.  A daunting task to be sure, but one that our Father clearly calls us to.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the Story tells us.  May we care for more than just our little corner well.

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Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

When the shell cracks

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Sometimes, there are stories without answers, stories that, try as we might, leave us perplexed, longing for resolution but seeing no possible path toward it.  In their shadow, we feel vulnerable, forced to acknowledge the frailty we live with as humans.

Some of us prefer to think we’re strong, so we coat ourselves with shields like perfectionism, control, achievements and agendas.  Others of us are paralyzed with fear, so we drag our feet, hoping that if we don’t move too far no one will notice our sloth (or the hours we waste on Facebook).  Regardless of the disguise, when the answerless stories show themselves, we grasp at straws, shaken out of our own worlds and into another’s.

Some college friends’ children are dying of a incurable genetic disease.  They were born seemingly healthy children, but developmental delays in their toddler years led to the discovery that they had an incurable and fatal genetic order called Sanfilippo syndrome. I catch glimpses on a screen from afar as they share of simple joys of the moment, appreciation of the days they share with their children now, and tears roll down my cheeks when the grief over their devastating life circumstances slips out.  Their situation has rendered them far more vulnerable than most of us will ever be, and one beauty in how they walk through their life is that they share it with others, one small step at a time.

A sister-friend recently battled a relapse of an eating disorder.  I had walked with her through it once before, and let me tell you, it was no spring picnic to stumble through it again, for me or for her.  She’s a fighter, for sure, but there were moments when the disease got the best of her and ripped the days out from beneath her feet.  On those days, I would glance at the sky with my lifelong whisper of ‘why’?  But other days, the desperation of her honesty stopped me in my tracks, reminding me of the power of vulnerability to clean out even the deepest crevices within.

I, too, have known my own moments of devastation, of coming to grips with a different kind of story than those of my friends above, but filled with the same humpty-dumpty crash of breaking and falling to pieces.  In fact, I know many who carry their own such stories, perhaps less tragic than my friends above, but still very real.  Rarely do we share such stories aloud with each other.  Instead, we tuck them away in a little corner deep down inside, leaving them quietly hidden.

In brokenness, there can be great loneliness, for who understands the unique terrain of the rocky paths we each walk?  For this, I listen carefully when my friends risk the vulnerability to share from their broken places.  I don’t understand what it means for children to live in wheelchairs, or to starve myself so that I can feel safe.  My friends’ willingness to share more than just the happy parts of their stories gives me a sensitivity to the parts of others’ paths that I have never navigated myself.

I don’t know if I always respond to such paths ‘right’ or well, but because of their vulnerability, I am compelled to give it a try when I might have otherwise avoided it. We walk only in our own shoes; and we know only the depths of our own stories. Sometimes we are like the king’s men, fumbling because we don’t know how to pick up the fragile who have fallen down and cracked. So we distance ourselves, fearing that we’ll somehow break them into even more pieces when we don’t know how to ‘put them back together’. The question staring everyone in the face is what if they can’t be put together again, or at least, right now?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?  Instead of putting back each other back together, what if we just walk alongside, listen to, embrace-as-we-are?

Here, there is no easy answer, no triumphant victory, no miraculous intervention.  This brokenness is the daily grind. We wait, longing for healing, not knowing when, or even if, it will ever come. As we wait, walking alongside others or, perhaps even sharing our own broken selves, something more emerges.

It is a beautiful story of hope written by a father for his children.

It is a marker on a white board.

It is a slowly but steadily healing heart, drowned in tears and awakened by the hunger within.

It is the surfacing of the quiet, deep down moments that we share for our own healing, and for others’ to remember they are not alone.

“All his life long, wherever Jesus looked, he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”

A friend of mine who lost his firstborn son at age one calls them God Fingerprints, the little moments that steal our breath and remind us that we do not walk alone.  Mysterious and buried in the midst of the days of pain, we must keep our eyes peeled lest we miss them, but they are nonetheless there, touching so many little moments around us.

For even if all we feel is broken, we are far more than our brokenness.  Right there smack dab in the middle of our foreheads is a screaming loud fingerprint that shouts, “YOU ARE MINE!  The brokenness is not yet healed, but it is already redeemed.”

It began first with the day of the ashes, and then reached out a hand toward us from an empty tomb.

“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength,” mused Freud.

The God Fingerprint said it something like this, “For when you are weak, then I am strong.”

Immanuel, they called this strong One. God with us.  We wear His ashes on our foreheads proclaiming our hope in the power of Life even when our shoulders sag under its heavy weight.  And when a great fall leaves us feeling cracked beyond repair, Immanuel walks alongside, giving us a strength we never knew we had.

Meet the McNeils

If you’d like to learn more about the friends I mentioned above, you can read more on their blog, Exploring Holland.  Matt, their father has also written an excellent children’s book called The Strange Tale of Ben Beesley to process his grief over his children’s diagnosis.  All proceeds from the book go the MPS Society to search for a cure to Sanfilippo Syndrome.

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Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

Between the chaos and the calm

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We nearly lost it when we realized we’d forgotten our hammer and couldn’t find the tent corners, but we both took a deep breath and pushed through.  It was our first time camping together as a family and my husband and I were both determined not to ruin the experience.  The kids were bouncing off the bushes with excitement to sleep in a tent, but we were both still somewhat apprehensive about the whole tent-set-up thing.

I grew up camping, but in an RV with a microwave and mattress. My grandpa John would take us to state parks in a bright orange motorhome, and before the weekend was over, the friendly farmer was best buddies with the whole circle. My husband, a tried-and-true city boy, had only camped once as a 10 year old, and didn’t share my fond memories as his tent had leaked and he slept in water all night. For obvious reasons, he was less eager than I to reattempt the endeavor.

Between sleepless toddlers and rural Midwestern campground dynamics, we never felt particularly drawn to the experience, but the mountains and the sea tempted us, and we bought a tent last Christmas.  We’ve since been determined to take our feels-God-in-the-mountains son and comes-alive-in-the-ocean daughter camping by the beach.  We decided a short, 24 hour trip would be best for our debut adventure in case things went really bad.  It’s one of the things we’re learning from transition – to dive into new situations head first, but to not stay under for too long.  

So, we dove.

I put on my friendly-Grandpa-John hat and borrowed a makeshift hammer from our neighbor.  The tent got set up without a fight, and it even stayed up for the whole night.  Hubby and I were so darn proud of ourselves that we snuck in the tent to cuddle but the kids came in and squealed, “Eeeewwwww!” and then jumped on top of us to join the love.

We walked down to the Pacific waves with the idea of a “just a short walk before dinner” and the fully clothed kids ended up drenched head-to-toe while we dug our toes in the sand, watching the surfers and the sunset.  We roasted hot dogs and ate too many marshmallows and toasted ourselves by the fire once the sun went down.  We stared at the glowing embers and marveled at the stars we hadn’t seen for so long. Then we snuggled into our proudly-constructed tent, and visited Harry and Hermione by flashlight.

My daughter woke up in the middle of night with a stomachache from too many hot dogs and marshmallows. My dear husband braved leaving his sleeping bag to help her and ended up giving her his spot on the soft-for-us-old-folks bed to sleep on the camping pad meant-for-much-younger-bodies.   I hunkered low in my sleeping bag, hoping I wouldn’t need to give up my soft spot too…he’s always been a better parent in the middle of the night than me.  Thankfully, we all fell back asleep, and I awoke with my son’s elbow in one ear and my daughter’s body plastered to my other side.  It was like heaven as we lay there snuggling our cold noses close, listening to singing birds and crashing waves and early rising toddlers.

From just one night under the stars, I am reminded anew at all the little gifts that catch us be surprise when we pause the chaos long enough to listen to the calm.  After more than 15 years together, hubby and I have *almost* learned how to put something together peaceably and finish with a high-five and a long, grateful hug.  The waves slowed our souls and in the midst of the breakneck speed of a semester, we remembered each other. The fire burned long, and I found myself grateful for both embers and flames in the fires of life.  Between some rough years of early marriage, babies, toddlers, careers, PhD programs, and lonely days we’d nursed the embers on for quite a few years.  The fire had never gone out completely, but it was good to remember that keeping embers warm allows for flames to rise again.

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What my grandpa knew

grandpa john

Most days, he sat in a chair staring into space, his brain unable to make the connections of laughter and eye contact and meaning that it once had. His unshaven chin, hollow cheeks, and wild hair echoed dimly of the lively man I’d known as my grandfather. My grandma, a former hair dresser, faithfully brought her comb to try and tame his wild do, but he didn’t like it much.

Actually, he didn’t like anything much those days. The dementia had stolen him from us one-slow-day-at-a-time, and replaced his jolly warmth with violent reactions and confused arguments. It was like having a three-year-old in the family all over again.

But there were moments of clarity. He knew my grandmother most often. His sweetheart since fifth grade, he used to ride his pony down the railroad tracks to visit her, so his memory of her stretched back nearly his entire life. As his disease worsened, it was dodgy if he knew any of the rest of us.

One day, I helped him decorate a pot in which to plant a flower. The nursing home had sticker-letters and decorations to put on the pots, but most of the residents were too busy introducing themselves to each other repeatedly to do anything as focused as this. So I put the letters on the plastic little pot for my grandpa.

“J-O-H-N,” I read to him, trying to have some semblance of conversation. “See grandpa? I made this is for you.”

He looked at me blankly, “John? Who’s John?” then turned to the lady in the wheelchair next to him and asked, “Are you John?”

“I’m Helen,” she took his hand. “So very nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

The dialog then repeated itself like a skipping record for the next 10 minutes while I quietly added some flower stickers to the pot.

This was no longer the J-O-H-N I knew.

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From my childhood, I remember most his endless puttering. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I watched him wander between his house next door and the barn, sometimes on foot, sometimes the lawn mower. I’d hear him bark at the dogs to move out of the way, or stick his head in our house to bellow, “Anybody home?”

He was a paradox of the kind that many from his generation are. When we remember him, we’re just as likely to use the words gnarly and cantankerous as kind and gentle. My ever-sweet grandma would sometimes scold him to not swear in front of the grandchildren, and there were a few times when I remember hiding because I’d made him spittin’ mad. Yet his brief moments of anger never overshadowed the fact that he loved his family. He took us to Disney World more times than I can count just because he loved to see children happy. He bought a big orange motorhome with bunkbeds and drove us all over to camp at state parks.

The child of Swedish immigrants, my Grandpa John grew up on a farm in a hardworking family, and lived out his childhood with a mother who he claimed was the ‘best woman he ever knew’ for loving her children sacrificially and surviving his much-less-than-kind father. He served in the war, worked the family farm, and did a bazillion other odd jobs. Though he had the intellectual ability, he never went to college because the money wasn’t there and the farm was.  

He devoured the daily newspaper and had all sorts of opinions about its stories.  While some of his opinions were a bit hot-headed, others were quite well-informed. I loved picking his brain to hear how a whole lifetime of wisdom processed the modern world. (As his dementia worsened, his opinions didn’t really lessen, they just made less sense and contained quite a few more curse words which, at times, was equally entertaining.)

One of the things I appreciated most about my grandfather was how he’d accepted and loved my husband. Much unlike many from his generation and background, it was not a problem for him that his granddaughter loved a man with brown skin.  One day, I’d asked my grandpa what he thought of my then fiance. “Me?!?” he responded in surprise. “Who cares what I think? You’re the one who’s gotta live with him.”

That was the extent of his opinion. In his typical fashion, he showed my future husband his acceptance with a nickname, an arm around his shoulder, a half-joking reprimand to stand up straighter, and an ever present handshake and hug.

His was far from a perfect life, scarred with so many of the stories common to his generation, but it was a good life, one that, when all was said and done, he told honestly and well to his family.

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In the very last days of his life, my husband and I visited him in the nursing home.  As usual, there was little conversation, no eye contact. The stubborn Swedish farmer who’d fought off dementia for ten long years had nearly quit eating, and the doctors said he would not last much longer. We said everything we could think to say, suspecting it would be our last time together.

When our words ran out, we stood to leave, and my mom asked my husband to pray. If you knew my husband, you’d know how the rich prayer voice of his preacher family lineage leaks out when he speaks to God, capturing ears and blocking out the noise of the world around. He prayed a simple, grateful prayer and the Spirit filled our room. Tears dripped off all of our noses when he closed with a quiet and sweet ‘amen’.  So be it.

At that very moment, my grandfather opened his clear blue eyes, looked my husband straight in his deep brown eyes, and responded with long-ago lost words, “Thank you,” he mumbled plain as day, and then squeezed my husband’s hand tight before his mind slipped away from us again.

It was then that I realized what my grandpa knew. After a life filled to the brim with both the good and the hard, the messy and beautiful, the broken and the healed, his dying days told us this:

When memories fall away, brains slow, muscles wither, the words that remain known to the heart are simply

amen

and

thank you.

His life spoke for itself that they are the only words we really need.

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Spiritual Formation

Seasons of a cornfield

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The sunbeam warmed my face, and I slowly opened my eyes to greet the morning. There it was – a big ball of yellow stretching its rays over every inch of my backyard cornfield.

As a little girl, I loved the sunrise so much that I moved my bed next to the window so that I could wake up every morning to the brilliance of the morning sun rising over my cornfield. When the sun faded for the day, the deep shadows swallowed the field into their darkness.

Season after season the field and its sunrise lay as a stable backdrop for my comings and goings. Overflowing with life in spring and summer, the fields reflected rich seasons of growth I have known in my life. The contrasting harvest of the autumn crops and fallowness of the winter fields mirrored the seasons of my life in which dormancy, emptiness, and loneliness pervade in my soul. With remarkable distinction, each season offers unique contributions to the process of growth.

In spring, the freshly plowed field was clean, velvety, rich. I remember abandoning my shoes to squish my toes in the soft, dark soil. At times, my life feels the same way – clean and rich after periods of intense personal “plowing.” These times hold deep fellowship from intentional time with friends, intense growth from purposeful devotions, and inner peace from patiently waiting on the Lord. Such plowing removes the weeds and their roots, and my soul lies quiet and clean. I approach my heavenly Father with quiet confidence and humility, basking in the warmth of a summer day.

Summer in my cornfields brought tiny corn sprouts that grew noisily (yes, you can hear a cornfield grow!), yet steadily. Inevitably, their immense growth always caught me off guard as the stalks suddenly rose well above my head. A unique noisiness characterizes these times, as clamoring spurts of growth occasionally interrupt the steady humming. They are the times when I consistently read my Bible, sacrifice for my family, and participate regularly in the family of God. Every so often, I catch glimpses of the closeness of my heart to God’s, and true joy runs deep. Filled with both busyness and calm, fun and tedium, hard work and relaxation, my summer growth happens sometimes a bit at a time and other times in huge leaps.

The autumn cornstalks withered in preparation for the harvest, accompanied by a brisk wind that reminded us that all signs of life would soon disappear. The farmers diligently gathering their crops held a subtle sense of both urgency and fulfillment. At times, my faith has felt as though it is withering. After long periods of struggle, I find myself tired, skeptical, depleted. While my faith has not faltered completely, I feel on the verge, asking questions of God I have not asked before. Where are you in this withering season? Will all my growth make a difference once the crop is harvested? I share the farmers’ urgency to find answers, resolution, eager to feel fulfilled again. Yet neither come quickly.

Instead, winter arrives. The fields lie dormant and dead-looking, frozen under a cold layer of snow. The hope of the green is long gone, a lifeless brown has taken its place. After a long and withering autumn, I too feel dead, dormant, and frozen. Sometimes I am simply too worn-out to seek God; other times I no longer even know where to look. Yet I do not see what is happening deep below my surface. Being renewed by its fallowness, the field is resting, preparing, rebuilding, and restoring itself for yet another intense season of spring. It is these bitterly cold seasons that prepare me for the coming warmth, for in their barrenness, they expose the emptiness of my soul apart from God, its plower, planter, harvester, and sustainer. This time of rest then restores the fertility of my soul, removing deep, old roots that choke life from the freshly planted seeds.

Season after season, the sun rises over my fields of growth with gentle persistence.  Like my backyard cornfields, the growth happens in seasons. Sometimes it’s as rich as the silky soil I loved to run through barefoot as a kid and sometimes it feels like frozen tundra – bitter and biting. Sometimes it’s a warm sunbeam on my face and sometimes it’s a chilly wind. Sometimes it’s noisily growing and sometimes it’s quietly withering.

My bed no longer sits right next to my window, and the cornfields and sunrises of my childhood seem long ago. But I will forever carry their secrets within, thankful that the process of my own growth requires both the mystery of a barren and bitter winter field and the richness of the fresh spring soil.  

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Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

Finding hope in the shadows

After 13 years of marriage, it is a joy to reflect on the growth that has occurred since the experience I share below. I remain deeply grateful for the beauty that such broken times can become; and this reflects one of the most redemptive, restorative and valuable experiences of my life.

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“That counseling ain’t gonna help no one,” the speculation rolled off Marco’s sorrowful lips, no hint of their familiar bitterness. “We’re still gonna think the whole day about how he died. The driver was stoned—ran right into Dennis on the side of the road while the mother of his unborn child watched from their car. It just wasn’t fair, you know. All he ever did was smile.”

My teacher-self paused slightly, there in the hallway, to ponder the meaning his words held. Just a week before, I’d sent Marco, once again, to the vice-principal for lack of respect. I’d never really bought into his tough-guy shell; nonetheless, he’d pushed the limit too far that day.

Yet through his words today, my original suspicions were confirmed—his heart was breaking, life was unfair, and he wanted more than what these days offered. With shrugs of “I don’t care” and “none-a-yo-business,” he liked to pretend he was hopeless. But in the few words he shared, I suspected he was closer to hope than he let on.

As Carl says in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” This simple commentary seems haunting when one of the human stories repeats itself to those who have not yet experienced it.

Grief is always new. Strange how it is not something to which we comment, “Been there, done that, movin’ on.”

Loss paralyzes us. The world appears to stop, as all that was seemingly urgent and important fades away.

A son loses his father and we all stop to weep. A mother loses her hopeful companion and our hearts sink in pain. After all these years here on earth, one would think we might be used to death and pain by now.

No chance.

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All these years here on earth, and I would think I’d be used to some death and pain by now.

No chance for me either.

When one of Willa’s human stories repeated itself, fiercely, in my life for the first time, it sent me reeling. While I knew this story had been told over and over for generations, it still caught me off guard, still snatched my breath away.

We had been married for only a few months, and each month of marriage had grown more difficult than the last. In short, the intimacy of such a relationship had forced us to face the depravity of our true selves. Truly, the heart is deceitful above all things; and it was in marriage that we finally were forced to face our long denied deceit of stubborn habits, selfish expectations, and unrealistic dreams. Disappointment surged as I grappled with the reality of truly knowing and loving everything about another despite his flaws.

Flaws, I chuckle, such an understatement of the tears, the fights, the misunderstandings!  And yet, to overcome this trial, I had to allow our intimacy to become far more ugly, painful, and revolting than I had ever anticipated.

We entered the counselor’s office with some trepidation, fearful that if we acknowledged our struggle aloud, it would destroy us. But in that small room, a gentle, observant soul with a white board and a marker set us off on a journey toward a deep, no-holds-barred intimacy that is taking a lifetime to develop—far from Hollywood’s fluff-of-the-month romance story.

This intimacy became the microscope through which I was examined without relent. It smooshed me flat on its viewing slide, no cell left unseen. I was humiliated to be seen for what I truly was—yet also relieved to finally come out of hiding. In the past, such transparency had appeared quite appealing to me. To know and be known beckoned as the pinnacle of human experience. Yet now that it was actually happening, it felt like it was the inferno. Put simply, I did not want my happily imagined knight-in-shining-armor-husband or Disney-princess-self to be tarnished.

My starry dreams melted to realistic faults as I learned that, in marriage, we live with human beings, not human dreams. My high hopes crashed to humdrum expectations as I faced the reality that even I myself could not measure up to my own standards of perfection. In the pit of my stomach, I had discovered both the deep disappointment and the great hope in life.

Sometimes I was tempted to sugarcoat my disappointments and pretend that life was just plain peachy, that I had no problems or sore emotions. Yet in more sacred moments, I would speak solely from the disappointment in that pit of my stomach, from my own personal tragedy of life, “I so wish this story of pain and disappointment weren’t repeating itself on me,” and silently let my long withheld tears fall.

Through my tears, unexpectedly, I read another’s story of tragedy with an odd hope: “We can use any tragedy as a stumbling block or a stepping stone,” comments Glyn, a Lou Gehrig’s patient very near to death. “I hope [my death] will not cause my family to be bitter. I hope I can be an example that God is wanting us to trust in the good times and the bad. For if we don’t trust when times are tough, we don’t trust at all.” (In Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven, Word Publishing, 1990, 5).

On encountering these words, hope emerged from that same pit of my stomach. While the nature of my current tragedy stemmed from an entirely different experience than Glyn’s, I had caught an oh-so-slight glimpse of those who faced their own failures and disappointments and pain. I caught a glimpse of why it had come to me.

In one fleeting moment, a glimmer of hope shone onto the shadows of my disappointment.

In slow and small moments, the glimmer grew to a beam and illuminated all that I was. It illuminated my fear to trust, to believe that hope may still be there even when all I saw were shadows. It melted away the sugarcoated lies in which I had buried myself and shamelessly exposed my fear of transparency. In one slight flicker, it changed the lens through which I had been viewing hope.

The counselor put her marker down, and grinned subtly at the realizations I was making. Through tears, I looked beyond myself to see my husband for the first time—a broken but redeemed soul encountering the story just as fiercely as I was.

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From pits of despair, the psalmist often proclaims variations on the theme of “My hope is in you, my savior, my Lord” (e.g. Ps. 25, 42, 130). It is difficult to imagine that the psalmist’s picture of hope as a romantic sunset and trouble-free life. He does not allow for this misinterpretation when he speaks of his enemies attacking or his heart anguishing within him or his body wasting away. The hope of the psalmist stems from a view of his savior that outlasts his own tragedy. His hope stretches to a life beyond his own.

It is with this view that my own disappointment began to mingle with hope. No longer are the recurring tragedies I encounter – both big stories and little ones – characterized solely by their shadows.

The light has shown itself, and I am stepping, albeit slowly, toward it. It may be that many remaining steps will hold great sorrow, struggle, and pain; I have no way to know. Yet when I face the light, the shadow is now cast behind me rather than leading the way.

What I do know is that Marco was right: hearts break, life is unfair, and we deserve more than what these days give us. It is only when I allow my disappointment in this life to surface, when I actually hold it in my hands and look it in the eye that I catch a glimpse of how “hope does not disappoint us.”

When God comes to us at our most powerless moments, who among us is able to stand (Rom. 5:4-6)?

Who among us even wants to?

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Recommended Reading

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

“We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God.  And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom.  The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”

Belief, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

Where my treasure is

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Materialism is not a welcome subject to my ears. Ask my opinion on the matter, and I silently wish the word itself did not exist. It is a loaded subject for me – full of implications with which I would rather not deal. I am a product of the American dream. I work hard and “deserve” special treats on occasion.

I.really.like.shoes.

So I attempt cover-ups, convincing myself that I am not materialistic, I am simply taking care of my well being (and my feet).  In spite of my best efforts to ignore my materialism, it is slowly (and by that, I mean s-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w-l-y) become something I protest within.  

On a global scale, modern protestors decry materialism because it reflects an imbalance of power existing in the world. While I don’t disagree with their arguments, my protests against this vice are more personal: the strangling grip it has on my soul.  

In spite of my best attempts to avoid acknowledging my own materialism, I battle it on a regular basis.

  • The homeless man on the corner holds a tattered sign that reads, “Hungry.  Will take anything,” and I clutch a little tighter to the granola bar in my purse before rolling down my window to give it to him.
  • Asylees who have fled their countries, leaving everything behind to relocate in a new country tell me their stories of separation and adjustment to a new life as  I battle the impact of how listening to their stories messes up my tightly arranged schedule.
  • I see photos of refugees posing with their most important thing and then head on over to Zappos to check out some new shoes.

I have no excuses for my actions.  I am a paradox.  I care, but I don’t.  My heart aches at poverty, but my actions value my own comfort more. The world’s need undoes me, but if it makes my life inconvenient, I blissfully ignore it.  

Sometimes, I white-knuckle my way past the lure of materialism by denying myself every slight pleasure. Other times, I throw my hands up in the air and go on a really great shopping spree. 

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The shock sunk slowly in as I heard my husband’s voice on the cell, “The airport has been attacked.”

I was running errands, navigating the busy streets of our metropolitan home, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what airport he was talking about.

Then it hit me.  We had returned three days before from my husband’s home of the war torn island of Sri Lanka.

While there, we didn’t think of it as “war torn”, but “home”. Suddenly, though, “home” for me had become a war.

A short three days after our departure, terrorists had invaded the country’s only international airport and had incurred over $300 million damage. The attack commemorated the 1983 riots that had launched the beginning of a 25 year civil war.

The media reports such atrocities so often that it is easy to become calloused. Yet for me, this was different – it was up close and personal, a place I knew with my own heart and hands and feet. It held beloved family members, cherished memories, deep attachment. Having grown up in the relative stability of Midwestern America, facing the devastation of war was way outside of my frame of reference. While I have traveled in many developing countries, wrestled intellectually with issues of poverty and injustice; the ever-repeating story of violence, corruption, and fear had never crept so close to my own heart. 

Although many disturbing images surrounding the terrorist attack crept into my mind, the most personally convicting was that of my own struggle against materialism. A strange (and perhaps egocentric) connection, I know, but I’m no longer speaking solely of the materialism associated with houses, cars, clothes, and the like, but of those unseen things in the material world that I routinely place in the box of “fundamental rights” – conditions I deserve by very nature of being human. 

Personal safety, physical comfort, financial opportunity, and convenience rose quickly to the top of the pile as I examined what I feared losing had I been in the airport three days prior. Though physically intangible, these very material commodities are a large part of the world to which I am inextricably bound. I just happen to live in a place where I have the option to numb out such realities by buying a pair of shoes.

Certainly God does not ask everyone to live in a war torn country. Yet he does allow difficult circumstances in the lives of all his children at one point or another, whether they be facing the death of a loved one, coping with chronic illness, losing a job, moving to a different city, or dealing with a difficult family member. Perhaps one step toward surrendering materialism lies in our response when these difficulties arise. In my life, this surrender plays out by letting go of the notions of my “expected rights.”

I must ask, “Who am I, really? Who am I that I should not have to face the ravages of war (or illness or financial collapse or the loss of a home I love or a sick child)? God may not ask that of other people, but if God asks it of me, am I willing to face it and not run away?”

[Gulp.]

The ramifications of these questions run so deep that I shudder to imagine what the future might hold if God really asked such things of me. And yet, God asks these questions of each and every one of us – not always about such extremities as war, but about our own unique tragedies of life.

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At times, much of the Western church reacts to materialism just like I do.

Run. Hide. Rationalize. Ignore. Spend money on myself.

Sadly, as we continue to order our world with more things and self-centered expectations, I fear these actions will only lead us toward more confusion, distraction and disillusionment. In sitting with the scriptures, I am confronted with three attitudes that often hinder my ability to confront materialism: greed, fear, and pride.  

Greed

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus spoke emphatically against the greed of our hearts in this world, pushing us to examine what use it would be to gain a whole world of material possessions, and yet still lose our souls (Mark 8:36). He cautioned us to keep free from the love of money, and to be content with what we have (Hebrews 13:5).

Living in a wealthy society, it is easy for me to rationalize my materialistic habits. To many American eyes, I am not the poster child for materialism. I’ve stayed at home with our kids, sacrificing salary by working flexible, part-time jobs. My husband is a professor, and we live on a modest income. We rent a small house and drive practical cars far longer than we’d like to. We budget carefully, pay off credit cards, tithe regularly, and prioritize spending. 

Yet when I examine my life in light of global reality, I see how tightly I hold onto the material aspects of my life, meager that they are. I hang my head, ashamed of what resides within. Jesus’ words pierce my heart, and I am forced to reevaluate the conditions of the faith I offer Him.

Fear

Fear takes on many forms, some quite subtle. It drives me to surround myself with things and live in environments that protect my insecurities. By focusing excessively on the management of both my possessions and the comfort level of my life, I build a fortress around myself rooted in earthly things, not godly ones. 

This is why Paul challenges us to pursue godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6). By reminding us that we brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it, he challenges us to pursue fulfillment in our Creator and not to use possessions to mask the fear that God alone cannot truly satisfy.

Another way I distinguish my fear of being unfulfilled is by examining my level of contentment. Whether I worry about how to pay the bills (and there has been plenty of that), if I look fashionista enough (or if the cellulite is taking over for good), or what kind of car I drive, each concern reflects a lack of contentment. And each lack of contentment reflects fear that God cannot, or will not, care for my needs. 

In reality, I do not deserve the safety or convenience or comfort of this country one ounce more than a Sri Lankan child caught in the middle of crossfire. While my intellect may agree with this statement, my materialistic mindset subtly convinces me that living in a physically safe environment will preserve not only my body, but also my soul.

Pride

Just as the Pharisees’ pride blinded them to the Messiah, so this same pride blinds me to the grip materialism has on my soul. When Paul writes that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he is, he speaks to being content both with humble means and in prosperity, both in being filled and going hungry, in having abundance and suffering need (Philippians 4:11-12).

In the frustration of combatting materialism, some may find it oddly tempting follow Jesus’ challenge to the rich man of selling everything we have and giving it to the poor (Luke 18:22-23). In such a vague issue, it can often feel easier to go to one extreme or the other rather than balance precariously in the middle.

While God legitimately asks such aestheticism of some people, for most of us the more difficult task lies in Paul’s lesson to the Philippians. He acknowledges his powerlessness to determine both the good and bad of life, and places himself in a position to trust God by seeking contentment regardless of his external circumstances. In a similar way, pride threatens contentment by creating either 1) a sense of entitlement to what we have or 2) a sense of superiority because of what we have given up.

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Every era has a currency that buys souls,” writes sociologist Eric Hoffer. “In some the currency is pride, in others it is hope, in still others it is a holy cause. There are, of course, times when hard cash will buy souls, and the remarkable thing is that such times are marked by civility, tolerance, and the smooth working of everyday life.”

Upon close examination, what buys my soul and what buys the soul of a Sri Lankan suicide bomber may not differ as I much as I would like to imagine. In fact, my soul is probably bought with much less sacrifice.

Where does my treasure lie?”, I sheepishly ask myself, feet shuffling, eyes to the ground. If I am unwilling to face the answer to this question, I am equally unwilling to acknowledge where my heart and my soul lie as well.

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Further Reading

Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Welcoming the stranger

The practice of ‘Welcoming strangers’ has been a part of my heart for as long as I can remember.  Somewhere early on, Matthew 25’s call to see Jesus in the faces of strangers took root deeply in my heart.

If I’d grown up in suburban Los Angeles where I now live as an adult, I suppose it would be normal for my childhood best friends to have come from all over the world.  This was not the case, however, in small town Indiana.  Yet from my youngest years, I was drawn to people who were outside of the mainstream.  From kindergarten on, some of my best buddies were Mexican, Swedish, and Finnish.  In high school, my friends used to tease me that they’d likely all marry local boys and I’d marry someone from halfway around the world.  No one was particularly surprised when I married a man from Sri Lanka.

It wasn’t only immigrants who caught my attention.  I would cringe in high school when I saw the cool kids torture the uncool kids.  Sometimes, I’d leave my friends at lunch to sit with the ‘reject’ because it saddened me to see them alone.  In church, my eyes look first for who doesn’t fit, rather than who does. I ache when I hear stories of people of all backgrounds who feel ostracized for their differences and long to find ways to help them feel heard.

Welcoming the stranger plays out in my life today as I guide students through the crazy-land of the English language and American culture, as I teach my children to bring in those around them, even as I pray for the same homeless man I see regularly around town. When my heart sings to take freshly baked banana bread for the new Chinese family down the street whose daughter has made friends with mine, I know I am walking the path laid specifically for me.

Having spent the last year being the ‘new kid’, I recently watched my daughter develop her own ability to welcome strangers.  This year, she came home delighted to learn that the previously mentioned Chinese neighbor girl was in the class just next door to hers.  When another friend didn’t want to play with the new girl at recess, my daughter looked at her straight-faced and responded, “We were both new last year, so we know what it’s like.  I won’t leave her out.  She needs friends,” and stood her ground while her friend walked away to play with someone else.  My mama-heart soared to hear her practice the joy of welcoming strangers.

Identifying my life purposes has come slowly over time as I pondered stories that stuck with me and captured my heart.  I learned to pay attention when I felt strong emotion over a situation or cared deeply enough to get involved.  While I often walk imperfectly in  my attempts to speak for the unheard, care for the tenderhearted, or welcome the stranger, knowing these purposes has been a primary means through which I seek to faithfully live a purpose-full life.

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Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Caring for the tender-hearted

I’m reflecting this week on my own process of living with purpose.  In my first post, I wrote about speaking for the unheard.  In this post, I’ll explore how caring for the tenderhearted emerged as another life purpose for me.  I’ve loved how this is remarkably transferrable between contexts, for I’ve learned that nearly everyone is tender-hearted, or vulnerable, in some way or another.

When I was younger, I thought caring for the tenderhearted looked ‘edgy’, and impressed everyone around you.  As I matured, I began to see that often caring for the tenderhearted was the bland story rather than the exciting one.

A young mother, I found myself caring for the tenderhearted, stumbling to form a new identity as a mother and care for precious new life, screaming toddlers, and curious preschoolers.

As an urban middle school teacher, I cared for the tenderhearted by working with adolescents navigating the reality of both their hormones and the harshness of the streets they called home.

Caring for the tenderhearted meant sitting with my mentally failing grandfather, helping him plant a seed in a flower pot and decorating it with stickers that spelled the name he no longer knew.  It meant sharing tears with my grandmother when he couldn’t remember our names either.

When I taught at the university, I often walked alongside students attempting to fit the pieces of their life together for the first time.  Their questions echoed the tenderness of their hearts, “Why is my family broken?  How do I heal from my loss?  Where is my faith?  How do I make sense of the world on my own?”

My current work with immigrant language learners gives me frequent opportunities to care for the tenderhearted.  Learning a new language is especially humbling for adults who have once been competent communicators.  Simple actions like encouraging mistakes, listening carefully, or speaking slowly expand and challenge my understanding of how to care for people in vulnerable situations.

On some days, I find myself the tenderhearted one.  At times, I have found myself bruised from years of racial and cultural isolation, struggling to find understand my purpose in a new context, or lost in a sea of sleeplessness and diapers.  In these moments, I’m grateful that my purpose includes caring for myself with a deep breath, a cup of tea, a good book, a wise counselor or a long chat with an old friend.

In conversations big and small, regardless of personalities or politics or personal histories, everyone has a tenderness somewhere deep down.  Small town life helped me see understand this idea in a way that the city cannot.  We were all smooshed flat on microscope slides; so you could barely have diarrhea without someone overhearing it at the pharmacy.  Because my path repeatedly crossed the same stories, I was often forced to remember that people are multi-dimensional.  The guy who yells more than he listens at work could very well be far kinder to the gas station attendant than I have ever been.  The teddy-bear sweater wearing women that I assume I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with has a gift for hospitality that I would do well to learn from.  The neighbor who won’t ever look me in the eye has a backstory I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Living to care for the tender-hearted reminds me of God’s unconditional love for us.  It humbles me – one whose weakest spiritual gift is service – to step out of myself and toward others whether or not they can offer me anything at all.

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Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Speaking for the unheard

purposefull lifeOne of the most transformative books in my life has been Jan Johnson’s Living a Purpose-full Life.  I came across it in my twenties – a decade that often lacks clarity, direction, and purpose – and have read it multiple times over the years.  One of the most helpful themes that emerged for me was the idea that our life purpose transcends our life’s current situation.  Johnson suggests that knowing our God-planted purposes helps us to discern direction in unclear times and make decisions when we feel in the dark.

Feeling isolated from a combination of staying home with small children and living in a tiny rural town, this was a relieving idea to me.  I had just finished a degree in Multicultural/Multilngual Education, and we moved to an area that, to quote one principal, was “99.9% white.”  I was also discovering that staying home full-time with toddlers might very well push me over the edge of sanity.  Utilizing my professional training, the prospects of living out specific goals in my new context appeared bleak.

As I worked through many of the questions and practices in Johnson’s book over the years, however, I identified three primary purposes that can flourish within any context that have guided me ever since:

  • Speaking for the unheard
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Caring for the tenderhearted

These are purposes I can live out regardless of my life’s situations.  They help me decide when to say yes and when to say no, how to pursue jobs, and even how to spend my money.  Over the next few posts, I thought I’d unpack how these purposes have emerged, and what they mean to me.

Speaking for the unheard emerged as one overarching purpose for my life.  My initial phrase for this idea was being a voice for the voiceless, but over time, I grew uncomfortable with the term voiceless, for so many of the people I knew had very real and valuable voices.  The larger issue was that they were not being heard by those who held the channels of power.  While in no way do I consider my voice more worthy than others, I am quite cognizant of the privilege that my education, citizenship, economic class, and race carry, and the access this gives me to power.  As a result, it is important to me to use these privileges for others’ benefit rather than my own.  It is in this spirit that I use my voice to “speak for the unheard”.

Over the years, speaking for the unheard has played out in a variety of ways:

  • In the isolation of the midwestern cornfields, speaking for the unheard meant listening to those who often didn’t fit in the mainstream and pursuing avenues for others to hear their stories.  It meant persevering when I felt like giving up, and weeping with those who wept when no one else would listen.
  • Teaching for several years in an urban context gave me a glimpse into a world that still shapes how I advocate for the public good through actions like my voting record and professional pursuits.
  • Being bilingual continually allows me to apply my purpose quite literally with those who don’t know English.  Teaching English as a second language does this as well.
  • Another literal application came in caring for my babies who needed me to attend to their voice and respond.  While it sometimes felt their voice was a bit *too* loud (especially at 2 am on a cold winter’s night), attending to their needs taught me how to think of someone besides myself one step at a time.
  • We regularly fund microloans on Kiva.org to give voice to those seeking to improve the world around them in order to empower voices of global entrepreneurs that our world needs to hear more from.
  • Rather than shopping at corporations that often underpay the workers who make the products, I try to frequent thrift stores like Goodwill who channel my money into restorative efforts for those in need like job training or community projects.

City or cornfield, home or abroad, I walk in purpose to speak for the unheard.  Ironically, sometimes this means that I only listen – listen to stories of the oppressed, tales of the broken, or small victories that no one else will ever hear.  And sometimes it means I speak, even if I must stand against the mainstream, quivering in my boots, challenging those who hold the power to see beyond their own two feet.  Daily, it means that I pray for guidance in the next step, both speaking and listening to the One for whom no voice is left unheard.

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Belief, Spiritual Formation

Why I still believe

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Sick of endless choruses of ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ echoing through my Christian college chapel, I snuck away to a quiet corner of campus with a blanket and my tears. It was my sophomore year and not only had the exciting newness of college worn off, I wasn’t sure where I fit, and my lifelong faith was crumbling beneath me.

I don’t see you shine, God.  Heck, I don’t even know if you’re there at all.  This Bible business makes no freaking sense to me.

A thought bubbled up that I was terrified to admit, but I didn’t have the energy to suppress it any longer.

I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.  I’m tired of this.

I looked around, wondering if I might be instantly struck by lightning, but the only thing that happened was that I felt instant relief.  My sentiment had been a long time coming after years of fighting quiet disappointments, fears, questions, and doubts.  Residing in the midst of Christian college student singing praises to a far away God didn’t help either.  I couldn’t sing with them.  If I joined them at all, I stood silently, hands in my pockets, heart cold.  I’d resolved that I wouldn’t fake it any more, that words were too important to say if I didn’t really mean them.

My only prayer for nearly a year, the only words I could actually sing were these lines from an old hymn:

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;

I tried on atheism, but found it hollow and meaningless.  I looked into other religions, but found no satisfactory answers to the questions that were nagging at my soul: Where is God when the world hurts?  Why is life so disappointing sometimes?

Growing up in the church, I hadn’t noticed anyone ever highlighting these questions as a critical part of the spiritual journey.  Doubt meant weakness. Faith meant strength.  Left without faith, I curled up in my blanket and cried, feeling lost and alone.

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A chat with a friend asking many of the same questions I asked all those years ago got me thinking.  She’d found a book on the stages of faith development and was intrigued by the premise that many churches only nurture the first three stages of faith which focus on belief, learning, and belonging.  After progressing through these stages, it is common to hit a wall of confusion and unanswered questions.  Many often walk away from faith completely because the church isn’t a welcoming environment to this stage of faith.  Together, my friend and I wondered why Christians are encouraged to live in the shallow stages of faith – ones without questions, doubts, grappling.

“You’ve asked these same questions, but you didn’t walk away,” she observed.  “Why?”

Tears sprung to my eyes as internally, the words from another part of that old hymn echoed quietly within,

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

To be honest, I told her, some of my questions and doubts haven’t ever gone away.  They linger quietly, jumping out suddenly at me from behind tragic situations, social injustices, philosophical dilemmas and unhealed wounds.   But as the years have passed, I’ve discovered ways of walking with God that offer more sustenance than my questions.  These paths are why I’ve stayed, and why I continue to seek life in Jesus even when I don’t fully know all the answers.

Embracing Mystery

“It is unfortunate that evangelicals have quit building sanctuaries and began building auditoriums,” writes Calvin Miller.  “It seems to make a statement about our trading mystery for lectureships.  We were never good at mystery, smoking incense, towering glass rituals, or veiled entreaties…  So we have become the plain, pragmatic people…  We must quit making God a practical deity who exists to help us succeed.

Or, as my brother wittily observes, we need to stop treating the Bible like a Harry Potter spell book.

As an intellectual type who has spent much of my life immersed in analytic and critical thought, one of the hardest truths for me to accept was that I was not God.  I realize this makes me sound a little dense, but it was a life-changing revelation to me.  While much of my previous understanding of faith was rooted in attempts to control outcomes by measuring up spiritually, accepting my powerlessness in a fallen world has humbled me like nothing else.

Acknowledging that God knows, sees, and understands more than I do allows the mystery to intrigue my mind.  It leaves me with curiosity, wondering how I can understand more about who this good and mysterious God is.  Instead of rejecting faith for the lack of answers I find, I am compelled to search more diligently, embracing new questions as opportunities to learn and grow.  The answers rarely come easily or quickly, but when they do, they are both rich and satisfying.

Being Quiet

Much of my previous faith experience was based on noise: prayers, songs, sermons.  While I don’t decry any of these things, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find deep peace through seeking out quiet places. Sometimes, I just need to sit with a scripture, walk out a question, or cry for an unmet longing.  Sitting in quietness allows my soul to settle and root itself in what is firm and unchanging.  I don’t empty my mind as some traditions promote; I just let it be. I don’t force it to think ‘right’ thoughts, push away ‘wrong’ thoughts or even focus on what its ‘supposed’ to. I simply listen for the direction that might come and let my spirit rest.

Walking Humbly

Intellectuals aren’t well known for our humility.  We know a lot, and even if we don’t say it directly, we take great pride in displaying that knowledge.  The danger in this, of course, is that all minds have their limits.

God’s questions to a suffering Job (chapter 39) spoke directly to my pride, for I knew I could not so much as begin to answer any questions like this:

  • Where were you when I created the earth?  
  • Who decided on its size? 
  • Do you know the first thing about death?  

But it was the tender display of love in God’s questions to Job that followed that broke me:

  • Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?
  • Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives so you can take them by the hand and lead them home when they get lost?
  • Do you know the month when mountain goats give birth?

Beginning to understand this kind of humility helped me see evidences of God in places I’d never seen before: the indescribable connection between lovers, the haunting beauty of classical music, the fascinating complexity of the created order, the fierce devotion of motherly love.  There are no scientific proofs for these sorts of things, but their power over us is undeniable.

Loving Mercy

Sadly, I have known many situations where judgment flowed much more freely than mercy.  These days, I try not to be too hard on such actions for I’ve since learned for myself that judgment is much easier to offer than mercy.  Just watch the news – criticism of others sells. The worse the twerk, the more attention it gets – of course it does, for it lets us feel like we’ve got it waaay more together than the next guy.

Judging others is human.  Mercy, however, is nothing of the sort.

Mercy – when we don’t get what we deserve. It’s not nearly as newsworthy as Jerry Falwell soundbites, but it’s much more deeply Christian.  Learning about unmerited acts of forgiveness within tragic moments of history like apartheid, the civil rights movement and the holocaust disrupted my anger with ‘hypocritical’ Christians. Tales of authentic faith chased me as I tried my best to walk away.  Observing quiet lives, healed and well lived, painted a very different picture of faith than the headlines and the church buildings.

After encountering these stories, I began to see the mark Jesus in every one of them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prayed as they crucified him. Mercy.

The soundbite faith was easier to find, but the merciful faith was far more convincing.  

Living Justly

Raw from both my first exposure to extreme global poverty and my mother surviving cancer, one of my primary intellectual and emotional struggles through my college years became “Where is God in the pain?”  While my faith development had focused rightly on the value of a personal relationship with God, it had not helped me understand a Christian’s role in the kingdom of God past evangelization.  I didn’t understand how someone could grasp a need to know Jesus when they didn’t even have food.  “Bread for myself is a material problem,” Norman Bowie’s observation voiced my internal conflict. “Bread for other people is a spiritual problem.”

The hyper-emphasis on an eternal future in heaven or hell overshadowed the need to live as God’s hands and feet in the story that God is telling here on earth.  In short, a gospel of ‘Jesus-for-sinners’ only didn’t tell the whole story.  It was also a message of ‘Jesus-for-the-hungry’, ‘Jesus-for-the-oppressed’, ‘Jesus-for-the-broken-systems’, and ‘Jesus-for-president‘ (thanks, Shane Claibourne 🙂 )  While my childhood tradition had emphasized that Jesus was for our hearts alone, I was captivated to learn that the Bible speaks to a much broader redemption of our bodies, systems and communities as well.  

As I encountered people living lives of Biblical justice by caring for the poor and the abandoned, advocating for just laws and business practices, and fighting to free the oppressed, their actions spoke loudly of another world, a higher ethic that I could not easily dismiss.  While I questioned the cultural imperialism of the historical missionary movement, I could not deny the goodness that these same Christians created worldwide through networks of hospitals, schools, and relief agencies.

One of our family goals is to live in light of global – not American – reality.  Living in suburban Los Angeles, it is a win-again-lose-again battle.  But the gospel calls us to pursue the path of justice for the least of these, and I’ve grown to understand this path as a vital component of a faith that sustains.

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So yes, I still believe in Jesus – a belief that stems in large part from a shift of an either-or to a both-and faith.

I believe both in spite of the questions that linger and because of the mystery that beckons, “Come and see.”

I believe both in spite of the painful silence that numbs and because of the silent goodness that heals.

I believe both in spite of the pride that lingers in my heart and because of the humility that breaks it.

I believe both in spite of the bleakness of the headlines and because of the mercy that reverberates in the moments that follow them.

I believe both in spite of the brokenness that so often overwhelms and because of the justice that always hopes.

Some may call me crazy, perhaps rightfully so, but the paradox within the Christian faith is no longer a show stopper for me.  It is, in fact, a deeply orthodox part of the Christian faith, one that G.K. Chesterton explains so well in the classic Orthodoxy, “Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal:  it breaks out.  For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature;  but it is fixed forever in size;  it can never be larger or smaller.  But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its center, it can grow without changing.  The circle returns upon itself and is bound.  The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

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Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

all the little stories

“Teacher,” she caught me in the hallway where I teach English as Second language to adult immigrants. “Can you help me today?  I need make phone call and my English no is good.  Can you make call for me?”

“Of course,” I told her, wondering what the phone call was about.  “Find me after class.”

After class, I learned more of her story.  An Egyptian asylee, she needed to call the immigration office to check on the status of her husband and son’s paperwork to join her here in America.  They’d been separated for a year – her in the US with their two-year-old son and her husband in Egypt with the five-year-old.

“He tell me I need to call very soon,” she grinned coyly. “You know men.  The children are hard for them sometimes.”

We chatted while waiting on hold for the government agent to answer.  She explained that she was a Christian asylee, that her husband had sent her to the US ahead of him because of high persecution of Coptic Christians in their region.

Then she apologized, “I’m so sorry to take your time, teacher.”

“It’s no problem,” I assured her.  Imagining myself in her shoes, I was struggling to maintain my composure.  There’s usually so little I can do to help in such situations that I was grateful to be able to help through something as simple as a phone call.

The government was predictably slow, so we chatted more about her life, her family, how to survive two-year-old drama.  An agent answered, but the details were complicated, so we had to call another number.  She apologized again.

“Really – it’s no problem,” I explained.  “I like to learn about immigration laws. This is interesting for me. I don’t mind.”

Still no answer on the other end of the phone.

“You know,” she said soberly. “This is a very sad day for your country. I so sad for America.”

I remembered the windows of my apartment shaking when the plane hit the Pentagon only minutes from our home 12 years ago.  “Yes,” I responded in equal seriousness. “It was a very sad day. I was scared.”

“Sad for all the world, teacher.  I remember still.  I cannot believe when I see the plane hit the building on TV.  I so sad for America.”

We recalled our reactions and shock, agreeing that 9/11 had forever changed the world we both knew.  The conversation shifted to middle eastern politics, the tragedy in Syria, Obama, the accuracy of news media and all sorts of topics far beyond my knowledge and her language capacity.  We agreed that war is terrible and that it’s often difficult to tell who’s right or wrong.  Finally, we both ran out of words and the conversation grew silent except for the bad telephone-hold music.

“You like this music, teacher?” she asked.

“Not really,” we both chuckled.

“I’m so sorry this take long time,” she apologized again.

“Really, it’s ok,” I responded, this time meeting her eyes.  “I’m a Christian, too.  We’re family.  I will help you.”

“Yes,” her shoulders relaxed in relief and her eyes lit up.  “We follow Jesus together.  We are family.”

“Do you have anyone here who can help you?” I inquired gently.

“No, teacher, I’m alone here,” she paused and added, “But Jesus – Jesus is here with me too.  He help me very much.”

It was a holy moment, a little story shared by two mother-hearts who understood.

The immigration agent never answered the phone.  We ran out of time to wait and parted ways to pick up our children.

9/11 has lingered quietly in my soul all day.  I didn’t bring it up at all in my class of so many cultures, languages, and religions mostly because I didn’t know what to say, how to speak of such complex tragedy in simple words among such diversity, but the gift of this unexpected interaction pushed that unspeakable day back to the forefront of my mind.

As I drove to my kids’ school, grateful for simple freedoms of togetherness and safety, I reflected on the hard, sad stories of this day – stories of unimaginable loss and painful separation.  With the Egyptian mother’s voice echoing in my heart, I realized slowly that such stories tell themselves every day, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All the little stories. 

They matter.

I could probably write a glimmer-of-hope stories like this almost every week, stories where hope sneaks in to overshadow despair, but I don’t always notice them.

we scatter light

“We scatter light”,  the motto of a Christian school in a predominately Buddhist country where my mother-in-law used to be principal, these words have been randomly inserting themselves into recent moments, whispering me toward small acts of kindness like letting people go in front of me in line, chatting with a store clerk, and today, waiting on hold to help out a mother longing to hold her child again.  The light might not always shine brightly in the face of the darkest moments, but scattered about, it may offer a much-needed glimpse of hope at just the right time.

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

The quiet joy of healing

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the creator calls a butterfly.”

-Judy Squier

When wounds begin to heal instead of just hurt, it’s sweet, tender process.  There are moments – like when the sun shines, the palms blow, and the mountains stand – that I breathe it all in with a deep thank you – one that I could not have even begin to muster even a year ago.

When I left the Midwest, I gave up a lot of me – a thriving career, proximity to my family, cultural mobility. Yet I also saw clearly that the loss of my own personal benefits meant an entirely new reality for my family: an environment that would value my husband for his skill more than his skin, that would offer my children the opportunity to grow up in a more diverse environment, that would challenge me to see beyond the familiar.  While I knew it was the right thing to do on so many levels, it still wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow with regards to my own personal gain. And yet, the path became so clear that I just kept walking (or perhaps more precisely, limping) all the way to California.

There are times since we arrived that I’ve felt like a popped balloon – blown into pieces from eight years of living in a place in which my most developed spiritual disciplines became speaking courageously, persevering, and hoping.  To say the least, it was not an easy place to live even though it was my home. Most of those years were spent begging God to either deliver us or change our hearts about living there.

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When my daughter was one, she had a severe staph infection which resulted in a two week hospital stay and surgery in children’s hospital.  There were moments before her diagnosis when we didn’t know if she would live, or if she would have to fight a disease like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.  Thankfully, the whole thing was resolved with no long term ramifications, but the day we finally left the hospital, we felt numb and weary, as though we’d been through a war.  Even in the midst of her illness, it hadn’t been hard to see the blessings in the whole situation. We had access to medical care. We had competent doctors. We had insurance. We had kind nurses whose shoulders I cried on. We had family to help. We had friends who prayed and brought food.  Our daughter had been healed. We acknowledged all of those things, and were so deeply grateful for them.

But even though there was so much goodness, we were still exhausted.  The hard parts had been just as real to us as the good ones.

Some experiences are difficult to share because the battered parts of our lives can sound so depressing.  We look better when we share our triumphs rather than our defeats.  Lest I sound like there was no goodness to our Midwestern years, let me share a bit. We loved our jobs and pouring into the lives of our students. There is nothing like watching young adults become flourishing, thoughtful people who care deeply about the world, themselves and other people. The strong spirits of the friends who loved and supported us through those years will long linger with me.  My children know and dearly love their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  They have roots in my home and know what it is to trek across an empty cornfield and make angels in freshly fallen snow.

But, like having had a seriously ill child, the hard parts were just as real as the good ones. And, as I heal, sometimes those hard parts feel so very real that it’s difficult to imagine that I’ll ever fully understand God’s purpose to land us there for such a long time.

What I do grasp is the unexpected joy that sneaks up on me as I make a home here, in this place where God pulled us to.  It comes when I stand in front of my students and quietly observe how we understand each others’ experiences of relocating, recovering, healing, and making a new home.  Sometimes a tear sneaks into my eye as I watch them fight to learn English – a crazy-hard language – at age 60, and then brokenly explain to me how they pray to God to stop the war in their home.  It comes when we go to a park and relax because there are no confederate flags threatening our existence as an interracial family.  It comes when my children hear me speak Spanish and beg me to teach it to them, and when my daughter tells me how her best friend shared homemade sushi with her at lunch. It comes when my brother calls with plans to visit, and clearly shares my love for adventure as he plots his family’s trip West. It comes when we’re flying down the eight-lane freeway into a sunlit valley and I feel a freedom that I could not have ever created for myself*.

“It’s ok to be lonely as long as you’re free,” wrote the late Rich Mullins.  I learned this first in the Midwest, and I’m learning it again here in the California foothills.  We’re still new.  We’re still learning and establishing (which brings plenty of awkward and lonely moments), but the wounds of the past are slowly healing, and God is providing for us in ways I would have never dared to dream. While I know not what tomorrow brings, I’m so very grateful for this quiet joy that today holds.

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When I began this blog seven (!) years ago, it was my effort to connect with others in similar situations at a time when I felt very culturally isolated in my life.  Given my new life change, life doesn’t feel nearly so isolating anymore, so I’m currently having an internal debate about the whole point putting of my words here.  Consequently, I might not be around much here until I figure this out, but I did want to at least write an ‘end’ to the story that began here, both to give credit where it is due and to provide some closure on this part of my life.  

*These moments occur nearly exclusively when my husband is driving.  I am still slightly petrified behind the wheel on the freeways here and find it difficult to feel anything but fear when it’s my responsibility to keep us alive on the road…

 

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Spiritual Formation

Come visit me at Far, Far Away

I’m guest posting today about painting my fingernails over at Far Far Away.  Head on over to check out why it’s more about bravery than vanity… here’s a sneak peek:

I don’t want to pass this unresolved habit of years of bleeding cuticles and peeled-off fingernails along to her. I don’t want my brokenness to show up on her hands too.