I Invite Myself to My Own Dinner

Preemptive parenting is my strategy. I have a running schedule and clock in my mind at almost all times because either it’s how God made me, or I’m a catastrophizer. I dislike being late, being complained to, and being under pressure so much, I will put the 6-year-old down for a nap, I will start Operation Shoes and Socks 15 minutes before we actually need to leave, and I will pack back-up Goldfish, gum, diapers and wipes in the car because so often in Los Angeles, we are without access to food, other people and stores.

Preemptive work in relationships requires a lot more vigilance and gumption. While a Christian woman might be affirmed for being prepared with a kids travel game or for bringing snacks, she is not usually applauded for boundaries, saying no, or sharing her expectations for an event in advance. Those are typically assigned negative hues of guardedness, selfishness, being a control-freak, anal retentive or other suspect characterizations (I have heard…).  We are trained to defer, accommodate, submit, overlook, and serve. While at times these actions can be great strengths and hold within themselves a powerful freedom and love when chosen, they can also enable the entitlement of other people to the diminishment of our own personhood. We are not destined to become smaller; it is not our job to disappear. 

Going into the weekend, my spouse and I often have expectations for the precious 48 hours. They are generally competing.  Going into the holidays, we may all be facing the same dilemma, only with the added help of multiple-day road trips, long-distance family suddenly sleeping in the next room, candied children, and, if we’re lucky, bacterial infections. Nothing says joy and peace like spilled juice in the car, sliding around snowy passes next to semis, mysterious and constant appearances of glitter and snot, and off-colored jokes from the uncles, ammiright?

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I’m just here to say, if you can pack a diaper bag in your sleep, or have thus far managed to feed, clothe, and bandaid actual living people, including your self, you are allowed to say “no,” or “I want,” or “we will.” Merry Christmas. The safety and intimacy of our relationships relies upon our exercising agency and boundaries. Particularly for those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression or addiction.

It’s not about controlling others or being rigidly closed off. It’s about self-awareness and working from the best part of your self and not the worst, or fastest, or most sensitive. Preemptively making a plan to cut off chaos at the pass.

This may look like extending a request along with an invitation: would you be willing to not discuss ______, or isolate anyone in conversation regarding that topic? (And if this does happen, my family and I will be taking a walk.) It may mean saying ahead of time that you will be leaving by 9, when things really get boozy. It may look like staying at a hotel instead of your childhood bedroom, with the nephews and the giftwrap. It may mean scheduling alone time, and letting your host know you won’t be around Friday afternoon. It may mean using paper plates no matter what your mom thinks.

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What are your expectations for the rest of this year, which, for the most part, has been really challenging? What concerns do you have going into group gatherings and which of them are valid, addressable, and likely shared (ie: managing uncle bob’s anger, not addressable; making a plan for when it is triggered, absolutely)? What would it mean to experience the holidays with freedom and presence rather than anxiety and reactions? (“While we love traditions, we won’t be squeezing in the movie this year between presents and dinner; we’ll see you when you get back!”) What preparation and communication would help these times be building rather than destructive? Who are the safe people who can help you stick with the plan?

I encourage you in your preemptive policies. I cheer you on as you exercise agency, take your heart and brain seriously, and invite others to do the same. It will be a gift to the people ready for better relationships; it will be a model for our sons and daughters.

When I think about it, my relationships and the way I enter 2018 are at least as important as how many snacks I’ve packed. It’s time to get planning.

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My Brother and Me

It is an angry time and anger is my signature vice, according to the enneagram, and, maybe everyone, so I’m kind of in Anger TAG. Nbd.

I’m finding it is not an opportune time to be a Christian, a proponent of power/class/race reconciliation and civil discourse, and an outspoken woman because, aside from the obvious perils, there are many opportunities to just fall flat on my face in a puddle of hypocrisy and/or feel like I’m dying trying every. single. day. And I am likely judging people as I go down, disappointed, but I’m on the top of my own list. It’s not opportune because it’s excessively challenging, but maybe easy was never the point.

It’s not an opportune time to preach grace when there are so many landmines, mistakes, envelopes pushed and lines in the sand. I’m praying that in the midst of all this reckoning, we will regain our souls, our North, and forge a new identity as Christ followers. It hurts, like tearing off a bandage of superglue, but necessary for healing.

But in the meantime, we are human, and he is wrong, and I am hurt, and many of us are all doing it as openly as possible because we care and push has come to shove.

My brother and I have one of the most infamous and observably difficult familial relationships on Facebook that I know of. We have had periods where we decide it’s best to not be connected on that medium, present included. We have had other seasons where we respect one another’s corners and pay each other no mind…but there is a tipping point and undoubtedly we strike up a “conversation” for all to eavesdrop and weigh in on. We do this knowingly. Our dear parents try to busy themselves elsewhere, like kids do when the parents fight. Our conflict-avoidant family members grimace. Our younger siblings, who often have stakes, watch quietly. Our respective fan clubs help. It’s all very beautiful and sagely and calm, in the way mud wrestling or Black Friday doorbuster shoppers really just uplift the senses.

I have a point.

My brother and I have a tremendous amount in common. What we lack in shared DNA, we make up for in common experiences such as being adopted from South Korea as babies, living in Montana and Oregon, and then moving as pre-adolescents to equatorial Nairobi. After some international travel and a revival of sorts in our parents’ faith, we found ourselves in the low-key church public eye as missionary kids. We went to every sort of school, and ended up attending an international Christian school in Kenya, he for 7 years, me for 4. We were joined by three significantly younger siblings there, and watched the news of 9/11 from BBC reports and Kenyan news in a not entirely sympathetic student body. We’ve walked the sewered paths in urban slums; we’ve ridden through the savannah on roof racks, facing a herd of elephants. We’ve also both had the unique experience of moving back to the west coast of the US, attending private colleges and re-connecting with extended family, sending churches, and one another, while our parents and younger sibling remained overseas. Growing up we couldn’t agree on how to fold a shirt, or what should be packed to Kenya or where to go out for dinner, but no one has charted the same path we have traveled but for one another. And that has been a good gift and a wonder as we consider our unconventional stories thus far. It’s good capital to have in the bank as we navigate relating in our present political tumult.

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As adults, our experiences have diverged. He’s rural, I’m urban; he’s Air Force, I’m non-profit. He’s Wyoming, I’m California. We have spouses, kids, bills, wrinkles, and Facebook now. And we’re still growing up.

After a week of recent conflict, which first occurred on Facebook (as we do) and then behind the scenes through texting, my brother called me–aggressively. Like actually wanting to speak aloud. The typing interactions were not ugly but they weren’t exactly congenial. I had called (and by called, I mean I stated via text) for another Facebook break up, and he apparently doesn’t try to avoid the phone as a talking device like I do. I groaned as I answered.

He pursued. We talked and had a productive conversation. He understood more. I understood more. Fists were not raised. There were no one-twos or referees. There was a brother and a sister, who online, and in many other regards (for example, folding a shirt like a nincompoop or not), are opposites. In practice though, we both care an awful lot. I remembered his caring, loyal self. His investment and sympathy towards his community; his sacrificial work for a few, who’ve had a rough go. His reactions are mirroring my own undying commitment to a few, who’ve had a rough go. I told him I didn’t like his sources. He told me he doesn’t see the problems I do. We talked about Christmas.

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It reminded me of a recent Bible study I was a part of. The Sheep and Goats parable was discussed and one person had a different understanding of the passage than I have carried; the feeding, the visiting, the inviting, wasn’t as much a social and determining instructive to this man’s understanding as much as a natural fall out of being sheep already, and first and foremost the movement was towards those in the flock, the “brothers” of the ESV. This person is learned and wise, and while I differ from his interpretation, I let the tension be. I know the habits of this man. He is loving, sacrificial, and spends extra time in prisons, with the least of these, opening his door to the poor in spirit. Truly, naturally, he is practicing in the way of the sheep of this parable, of those who the Lord recognizes as His. By word, I may feel more comfortable with twenty other Christians’ read but their actions may show nothing. I’d prefer the first arrangement.

Like him, my brother’s life, in practice, is not opposite in character than my own. We have seemingly opposing environments, lifestyles, and definitely opposing media images but I am comforted by his love for others. For all that is behind the scenes, for all the similar that no sharing of articles can confirm nor deny. And not because he’s more like me than I thought, but simply because he’s striving to be loving to his people, including me. And in doing so, he helped me develop better empathy and understanding. And gave me the opportunity to do the same. Cheyenne to Los Angeles. Seoul to Nairobi. Who knows what the future holds.

The truth is tangled. Our anger gets misrouted. People are usually much different than in the 2-dimensional spaces we observe them, and this is generally a good thing. Our relationships are really at risk. I wanted to share these stories with you because I can talk in broad strokes about faith, and loving others. I can champion the underdog in my way, promote civil discourse, and preach giving the mic to those with less power… but I’m in the trenches of this too. If I lose the ability to relate with people closest to me in the midst of activism, I have missed the mark.

In case it wasn’t clear: I mess up all the time. I’m still writing midway. I’m making mistakes, I need grace, and I am learning and falling, and learning too. Despite all the errors of the past couple weeks, heck hours, there are good things about push coming to shove. Anger and discourse are necessary for there are a lot of things to be vigilant about if our faith matters a bit. In the midst of the fight, pushing in, like my brother did, is better than writing off. Pushing in will help us get there, without losing each other.

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(This was posted with my brother’s blessing.)

My Unbecoming

Women are unbecoming.

They are unbecoming the silenced one, the interrupt-able, the indirect object, the first apologizer, and the compromised.

This is not a scary thing if we believe that success and shalom for women are not inherently threatening to the success and shalom for men. And other women. And everyone. What if we did not assess humans competitively?

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I am only 33 but I am unbecoming. I’m unbecoming my childhood shame and guilt that made me nearly perfect, as I examine and re-examine the unkind behaviors of my child. I’m telling her she’ll be okay as we take the time to look at his heart, behind the cutting words and punishable arrows. Behind the performance and the pains.

I am unbecoming the self-righteous sensitivity that, like a clam shell, seemed to protect me, but then, turned out to isolate me instead. No pearl was forming, only imagined; all orthodoxy, no generosity. Like Beth Moore recently said, liking fewer people and calling it sanctification. No clarity maintained, eyes closed. In my fear of worldliness, I blocked human goodness; in my disdain for darkness, I blocked the light. I am unbecoming the closing.

I am unbecoming the reluctancy to say I was wronged, or hurt, or impacted. I am unbecoming a stoicism that the clam took well to and the patriarchy approved. I am undoing the dishonesty that other people’s comfort demanded; I am recovering from my own learned deafness to my needs, hurt, and worth. I am unlearning the lie that looking at something gives it infallible power.

I’m only 33 so I have only started to see the things God’s inviting me to unbecome. The undoing is not as a sweater unraveled, a heap of chaos and wonky, but as a first shoot from a bulb, headed up, having a taste for light. A mystery, a toil, to be sure, but a gift in this gift of time. Unbecoming into who I am better being.

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Also there is becoming. Women are also becoming. Definers. Decision-makers. Comfortable. Singular. Pervasive. Connected.

It can be hard to not trap the becoming, the new, in the unbecoming, or the old. It is hard to keep the two separate and moving, like siblings. For me, this includes the wildernesses of domesticity and being a woman in 2017 specifically. The ways to help, the gaps in our society, the cultural shifts, the breaking down of Christianity in our context, the new science, the recent poll. The conversations and opportunities that meet me each day, new pages, fresh print–not to be jammed in an old drawer and defined by an old construct.

It requires courage to not automatically reach for the old drawer, the last language. The becoming lessons are new to stay new–to start brand new hope, conviction, and relationship. Framing them in the past makes the lessons fade and compromises the work of unbecoming. We are brave when we look with curiosity. The situations my children face, that children before have never faced. Failures and successes that need to stand on their own two feet. The becoming is daunting in its own way because we don’t have the syllabus and the deadlines are moving; constantly, we are asked by this life to show movement, memory, and change–in this becoming, we are never finished.

Shalom, if we can dare speak of shalom within the world of only one person, is the overlap. When the lanes of the unbecoming and becoming merge. When the past isn’t too heavy but its substance is polished, and when the new isn’t hype or cheap but tailored…I suspect those moments when our gut, and mind, and lungs, and prayer, and worth are full, those are the times of most truth.

I pray for this work of unbecoming and becoming, a dotted line between the two in their youth. Traveling companions, but different journeys, each needing to stay in their lane for the most part. I pray for divine differentiation for healthy attachment; that the becoming would not have the lid of unbecoming, and that unbecoming would not go unnoticed in the fervor of becoming, and that both would help us be true, and full, and sources of shalom. I pray we would have people in our lives helping with each, pulling us to do whichever one comes least naturally, applauding the overlap, cheering for shalom.

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May you find the dotted line to occupy both spaces.

Undo, and new, ever human, going deep.

Unlearn, and discover, safer still, you and me.

 

 

God, Grief and Group Projects

There are times when it seems inconceivable to believe in a God and those are the same times I’ve found it impossible to breathe without faith. Each breath requires a prayer. Each prayer a resistance to turning stone cold.

The air tight apologetics I was raised in, that tried to make story irrelevant, emotions sap credibility, and choice an insult, are a vapor. It is only the story, only the feelings, only the choice to believe in these moments when we cannot get warm. And what good is faith if not for these moments? Where proofs and data were intended to bulwark (bully?) faith into being, the test of life, of exposure to suffering, of engagement with my internal world and the true external world–those pulled me into immersion in this faith river. Those were in fact the currents that keep me and hold me, when all else has failed, and me right along with.

I’ve been asking God, Parent and Creator, I Am that I Am, “Isn’t it too much?” The attacks, the weaponry, the assault, the epidemic of lies, on the airwaves and on my street–it just. never. stops. More so, isn’t it too much, what my friend has had to bear? And that friend, and this friend, and that family member, and that country, and that people? How, God–how are people supposed to pray, to give, when they are rampaged by suffering, betrayal or disappointment–by inconsolable grief to every cell of their being? How can you expect us to believe in You under the weight of this breaking?

Is there a way to find you God, to find Love, real, not through the threshold of pain?

Is there a way to edit Gethsemane and Golgotha and keep the empty grave?

Before I knew real pain and injustice, my sturdy and safe faith was clear and confident. It’s not to say lacking in value, nor deny it a piece of the puzzle, but it was as skinny as a pre-teen with an early growth spurt–all bones and corners and a little anemic.

It’s just not that straightforward anymore. And it’s also not such a lightweight.

In the moments of highest exposure, greatest pain, and deepest grief, we are naked before God. The garden story, to me, is not only about guilt and shame but perhaps more about grief and isolation. When tragedy falls hard, there is no where to hide and we want layers and holding and concealment. Oh to have the weight of something covering, of absorbing the racking sobs, of comforting the abandoned child within.

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Impossible is the new story, and the only way we make it into the next moment is thinking, hoping–believing?–that impossible is not the end of the story. Faith is setting our eyes outside of our raw chaos–daring to think that the people who we find next to us may be of some help–that the lineage we come from, the story we’ve been ingrafted into, will repeat. The story of suffering into love. Of grieving into wholeness.

I walk with tender and vulnerable people. I am a tender and vulnerable person. Not one person whom I really know is whole. I used to see people as whole; I used to expect people to have it together. To generally be doing well. I saw them as independently successful or overall autonomous. Now, the wholeness is only done in groups. When our broken pieces, our faith, and our love for each other melt into a whole, the sum greater than the parts–the impossible becoming possible, a minute at a time. When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, when the victory is relief lighting all pairs of eyes–this is wholeness as it was meant. This is shalom that will stay.

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And somehow, tomorrow happens in this way. Somehow the crying takes pauses. The shameful parts don’t seem so paralyzing. The death doesn’t define the life. The suffering breaks into love. And our resources are multiplied. Our generosity renews itself. Our faith is linked and sacred anew. It turns out we were made for this. It turns out everyone is doing better when we’ve all shown we’re doing a hell of a lot worse.

This will only make sense to you who have carried your stomachs in your throats for days, who also soak your steering wheel with the occasional cry fest. You’re not alone, you who audaciously prayed despite the circumstances that merit calcification of the heart. If you are searching for covering, if the cries are muffled, I hope you will ask for help. Reach and grab someone before the mask is clad, before the thoughts take over and spiral you into isolation. Include another soul into your hole-ness, and find yourself more whole than you thought. Let someone be more of who they were made to be by including them in your grief. Pray a breath prayer as a radical ellipsis into the future. Give something out of the bankruptcy and find your own anxiety and impossible a little farther away. Be undone and in turn done in by the connection and comfort of others, God incarnate.

I don’t know if God is known resiliently without deep acquaintance with suffering, but I know for us it’s been the best introduction. Regrettably, and redemptively, so.

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Maybe Happens

One thing that I have not shared much about is a very good and important thing that happened over the summer. Last summer had some real downers but those don’t subtract from our joy, and rejoicing, over a new victory.
Our second born had a rough time for a few years. A major accident at our church, febrile seizures, and getting very sick in Guatemala. When we returned home and began fostering, he embraced her fully as a toddler would, and his febrile seizures continued but thankfully he was not often running a fever. 9 months after her arrival, in the aftershocks of her sudden removal, some of his first sentences were heart wrenching. While we were fighting that battle, Asher began having many more seizures. Maybe stress and the emotional trauma of losing a baby like that did something, maybe it’s just coincidence. It was a very hard period. These were not just febrile seizures like they had thought and the medical bills started piling up.
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There are many things we don’t know about epilepsy, and that doctors and scientists don’t know. It is a scary diagnosis. Asher began treatment, and despite changing jobs and insurance twice, and becoming part of medical, was able to see the same pediatric neurologist his whole life. Because of the Affordable Care Act, we were able to have continuation of care and not be penalized for his epilepsy. I tried going to the first neurologist we were referred to on one of our new plans at the time. It was a truly terrible experience and I could not imagine working with them to sort out appointments, let alone solutions, as we found ourselves on this path.
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The first medication didn’t slow down the seizures. We gave it a good run but we saw the negative side effects and didn’t notice much relief. It was hard because he couldn’t tell us how it made him feel, and if he sensed anything different before or after his episodes. We slowly began a different medication–one which introducing too quickly to patients could end in fatality. Doctors said after more testing and overnights that they didn’t think he would outgrow epilepsy. I briefed babysitters and teachers and sunday school. I tried not to think about IEPs one day, or driving, or camp, or anything restricted on this bright eyed wonder.
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He did well on the new medication and we could breathe once we reached a therapeutic dose with no rash outbreak. We were still dealing with collections, payments, and billing reductions but we were not documenting seizures. Eventually the grip on the phone when separated loosened. The spans of playing out of eyesight lengthened. The months between UCLA neurology visits and that $14 parking garage grew. He was pro at taking his pills. We were pro at fighting, I mean working, with the local pharmacy to help them keep their inventory up and refills regular.
As Asher’s Kindergarten graduation plans were taking shape, and no ambulance was ever called, we had another checkup. It was a slow breakthrough. With epilepsy they call seizures emerging under medication “breakthrough,” which is the opposite of any headway a parent wants to make. I was shocked to hear of a real breakthrough: the dr thought we could try titrating down, off the medication, to test the epilepsy. Maybe he was outgrowing it. Maybe it was different than they had thought. It had been over a year. No delays. No jumps in dosage. Maybe the prayers, the hopes, barely spoken aloud for fear it would ruin our ability to walk the prescribed, long road ahead, were coming true.
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On my birthday, Asher took his last, now tiny dose of epilepsy medication. And there have been no breakthrough seizures during the months of transitioning off. His moods and energy seem to have panned out, from however the drugs affected his system, combined with the excited exhaustion of starting 1st grade. We don’t wonder if something is seizure, drug, or age/misbehavior/mood related now. It’s just C, a 5-year-old boy, learning. We are thrilled at his progress and health, for him, for us, and for the pharmacy on the corner. I don’t know when we can say he does not have epilepsy, when it will be far enough away that a glazed look doesn’t cause my 2nd take, but each day is closer to then.
To be sure, it has been a rough year on almost all accounts. Homes, literal and figurative, are burning down all around us. But this is quite the foil. We are so proud of this boy and his love and tenacity and incredibly excited that this is yet another new normal. This victory, this praise, deserves our tears, applause, and thanksgiving and I’m so glad to be able to share this today, in the midst of all the todayness that weighs heavy. We’ve learned so many lessons by his side. From the waiting, to the hurting, to the forgiving and the grieving, to the advocacy, to the pain of children’s hospitals, in which so many have stayed for far more time. We’ve learned to take things by the day, that anesthesiologists have their own groups, and nothing is for granted. We’ve seen how limited we are as parents, and how scary pre-existing conditions and medical bills can really, really be. And we’ve been encouraged to keep places of hope in our lives that defy reason, that may be hibernating, for an unexpected spring. Who knows, maybe your birthday is coming. Maybe the breakthrough is slow. Maybe because this maybe came true.
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Her Permission

I am a feminist deeply concerned about the liberation of men.

Just as in the case of equality for my black brothers and sisters being interrelated to my own thriving and wholeness, I recognize as a deeply feeling and mothering woman that there are certain spaces I occupy which the more powerful gender does not get to inhabit. And that is to all of our detriment.

It is not easy for women to admit wrongdoing, to about face, to express emotions particularly negative ones, or to differ to others, partially because we have been forced into silence and submission too many times, they have been used to disqualify us, and we are constantly aware of our vulnerabilities physically and vocationally. At the same time, our wired-ness for connection, our internal responsiveness to vulnerability, and our reciprocal permission for emotionality amongst ourselves all work to undo and unlearn the walls. The pride. The scariness. We, amongst ourselves mostly, have created a different economy that rewards, or at least respects, wholeness and authenticity. 

For men I see a different landscape. I can count on one hand the number of men I’ve known in authority positions who have openly admitted to wrongdoing and sought help, humbly led and sidestepped accolades, and expressed and esteemed emotions appropriately. And I have been in more than my fair share of places with men in authority roles. I can count on one hand the number of lay men I know make public apologies or change their minds about a position, a conclusion, and a line in the sand. And there have been a lot of things to change our minds about.

These observations lead me to wonder how many walls do men have to scale to get from the unhealthy, the codependency, the pride, the shame and insecurities we all build homes in, to the wide places of vulnerability, process and connection? It is more than I have to scale. How is the journey different for my male counterparts, for my husband, for my father, and how can I contribute to mapping it for my sons? 

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There are different pressures on different cultures and socioeconomic landscapes, and so the risks for men vary. The positive reinforcements for rigidity, authoritarianism, stoic demeanors, and self-reliance fluctuate. But I’d like to learn more despite the complexities.

As a woman and as a leader, I hope to do whatever I can to allow for men to admit their mistakes, change their minds, and be fully present to their emotions. I would like to help them do this because I know from experience that it is in acknowledging the misunderstanding, the inadequacies, the feelings, that we assert our identities over them. We differentiate from the shame and arrogance; we look fully in the mirror. I can’t help but think that women lead this revolution; we lead this integrity. We know the unlearning. We contribute to the paralysis or tip the scales of new permission.

Do I keep space open for Ryan to emote? Do I allow men who have wronged me the real opportunity to apologize and change? Do I encourage my sons to name failures and mistakes without becoming anxious or rushing it away with reassurances or successes, inadvertently suggesting that the failures or mistakes are too powerful and scary?

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Integrity means all mixed in, combined, and through and through the same. Integrated. I picture bread, leavened, beat up, but rested and rising. Men of integrity are not so much marked by being the same as they were 20 years ago in doctrines, family role, finances, and job security. Men of integrity are fully in touch with how 20 years has changed them, how that brokenness meant this mistake and that mistake meant this need and that need mean this community. In our culture, we’ve exchanged an idea of men of integrity for men of stability, a first cousin of rigidity. But we were created for change and growth. No wonder men especially are lonely and self-protective. No wonder our society is so deconstructed. No wonder our parties are polarized. No wonder lobbyists rule. No wonder the church is nearly irrelevant. No wonder we are hurting.

There is no shalom without the whole band involved. Without liberation on all fronts, under all shadows, behind all doors. Shalom, wholeness, centeredness–that is what Jesus announced. And yet His bride more often than not is ruled by bottlenecked power, decisions made by money because no one has time for another rubric, and control. The gender that holds the power can still be empowered by the gender that does not, slowly and barely, because despite all the mess and disparities, our familiarity and comfort with vulnerability as women is the key to the wholeness of men. As Christians, as leaders, as feminists, as women, we promote integrity and shalom in this brutal world through including men in these conversations. We must recognize our role to play in redefining masculinity.

Did you know your strength is in your brokenness? Did you know there is power in the stepping aside? Do you know the past you’re avoiding predetermines the future until you feel it? Did you know I have the same problem?

Brother, be free. Sister, make the way. Spirit, lead us.

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Feels Like September

I have a half-written grant proposal collecting dust in my computer. It talks about the dream of sitting under someone much farther along, who is not emotionally invested in your identity and protection in the way that your mother, or even grandmother, is, and should be. But she is someone who still knows, and who, because of her completed steps, can guide or understand or cushion your own. The brewing idea is one of intergenerational community of sisterhood, that debunks the mommyblogs and echo chambers we fall into, because like tends to like, and our technological toys silo us as much as they can connect. She is the see-er. The voice missing in our confounding mental loads as women doing it all, fighting competition, pushing justice, weighing obligations and avoiding high fructose corn syrup.

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I have this idea of learning from older women, not in spurts but in rhythm, and making it more possible for others, because of the incredible women who are already a part of my life. But in practice, I’ve struggled to do this.

Because the ladies in the shallow end at swimming lessons have also recently given birth. The women in my grad classes were career-minded, seeking first mortgages, internships, and noble peace prizes. The ladies on my feed are in the trenches, reaching out in the nano seconds of alone time our thirties give us for a like, a laugh, a lunch break. And it’s hard to stop and visit with my senior neighbor when the whining pulls. It’s hard to interview and take long walks and listen to senior women when I am chasing, scrambling, and budgeting every minute and dollar.

There is another voice I have missed, in addition to the one far in front of me. It is my own. To a lesser degree, to a smaller detriment, but still. Interruption is my norm. Bending and adjusting is the plan. I forget things when I only have to think about myself at this point; I am more awkward and uncertain the fewer moods rely on my preparation. I have sought the help of professionals and brutal/beautiful friends to help remember me before us.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health.       –Courtney Martin

I promote solitude in theory, primarily as a mode through which we hear God’s heart, not just our own. Not to brag but I have exercised it in 90-120 minute parcels irregularly over the past 11 years of adulthood/marriage/motherhood. The last time I had solitude that was not measured in minutes, but days, in which I was not completely anxious, was probably when I was 20. I am soon turning 33. I tried taking an overnight solitude retreat a few years ago. An alarm kept going off and there were no curtains in the sweet cottage nestled in the woods. I was officially citified by that point and completely distracted and edgy. Barely slept. When I was 20, I had 48 hour of solitude on a rock face, with a clif bar, a journal and bible, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a water pump and bottle, and some sunscreen. It was one of the best things of college.

Tomorrow I embark on both a time of sitting for extended times with a woman much farther along than me, and being alone with my self and God, for not a matter of hours, but days. And I have no idea what to expect. It is a completely different situation than the past, oh, all my years, and I’m so grateful and humbled in advance, but also have trepidation. What does a day look like without a deadline and nap schedule and bell system? What DO I want to eat for breakfast, that meal that always eludes me? What will God show me as I sit, awkwardly quiet and un-needed? How will my life of planning, devoting, working, fighting for causes, and connecting with friends leave me to be, or inform who I am, away?

This summer has left some scars and presented good gifts. The school year is in full swing now. I remember that feeling of September, up in Oregon when we’d start school after Labor Day. Excitement. Unknowns. Courage and nerves, holding hands. Tiredness from that summer still on our shoes. This kind of feels like all of that. September is about diving in, and stepping out, and back to school. This year, me too.

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The good, the bad and the ugly.

Sometimes suffering comes crashing upon our personal lives despite our best maneuvers—perhaps a tragic accident or diagnosis, a betrayal or crime. But sometimes suffering touches us in the embrace of a friendship—through walking with a loved one who finds themselves in the throes of struggle.

It was natural to say yes when my neighbor asked me to read over some letters she had received. Though her English is excellent, the official documents were laden with terms difficult for me to decipher as a fluent speaker. This small invitation into Lily’s* life was the beginning of a long initiation process. I was soon researching the housing department and learning with her how to stand up against illegal hikes in rent. It is under her tutelage that I have learned about renter’s rights, power company corruption, the complexity of gaining citizenship, a vehicle towing racquet in cahoots with LAPD, and the impact of incarceration on our community. She is not a local politician or a professor of community development, urban culture, or theodicy, but perhaps she should be. Lily has taught me more than any textbook or class. And she has done so through allowing me to be her friend.

Lily has a small stature but immense presence. In her person, faith and bewilderment, celebration and grief, are fast companions. She has shown me how to walk with God in suffering, and she has generously opened a world to her friends through that posture. Lily’s life has included waves of undeserved suffering, the other not subsided before the next hits; interacting with suffering is not optional. With each wave, her authentic friendship with God has moved her theology further from steady explanations and resolutions to suffering, and my own with it. What I have lost in certainty, I’ve gained in empathy. Nerves newly exposed. As a witness and companion to Lily, I have felt the discomfort of losing touch with that worldview and the reassuring, privileged sense of order and justice in the world I once held. I have also felt the companionship suffering breeds. When we have gone through dark valleys, she is one of the first to listen. To cook. To cry. And I am bowled over all over again at the way love and friendship multiply themselves.

As aware as I have become of my privilege from trying to keep up with spiritual giants such as Lily, I continue to have impressive blindspots. I speak out of new knowledge and experiences too often, instead of letting them settle, and staying humble and contrite. I struggle to apply the things I’ve learned at Lily’s side to the little souls under my care.

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As a mother, I am daily challenged by the desire to nuance judgments and descriptions that seem inescapable in our binary climate. But parenting doesn’t wait for preparedness. I cringed when I first heard my oldest talk about bad guys, many years ago. It’s hard for me when they play cops and robbers. I pray, “God, please help relieve my heart from things I cannot carry, feelings you’re not asking me to feel. Grow in my children a sensitivity that is loving. Help me know…what is good to teach them.” 

How do you help a child, so honored in Scripture for their simplistic faith, refrain from oversimplifying people into good and bad? How do you decide what is innocent play and what needs to be reframed–in the name of loving playmates who have been terrorized by, guilty of, or in the middle of cops and robbers? How do I help this mess of boyhood mine to embrace suffering, to endure loss, as an invitation…when I barely remember myself? To have more time between hearing about something and knowing why it happened. How do I show them misfortune is so often the ultimate bridge between people, not a charge against them?

When things go sideways, from a toy breaking to a sickness, I watch their minds and hearts try to make sense. To sum up whys and dive into despair or push away with blame. I see the nature of Job’s friends in the Bible, of my own craving for judicial order and linear effects. This is a big job–to fight the goliath of distance from suffering as an adult, and also try to be alert to it as a parent. This is a calling.

Walking alongside Lily was initially a choice, indicating my privilege. But now I consider it a luxury in its own right. She’s shown me more of Jesus, and because I’m learning, just by being nearby, I have hope for my kids. That their privilege, their resources, and their choices will not keep them away from truth and complexity. I hope they have to unlearn less than me, and that extending friendship to suffering will be second nature.

We are all learning beside each other, in this big city, on this little street. Suffering lives nearby. But friendship and love are growing like weeds, thriving in its shadow. A child, with children, I’m lucky and humbled to reside right here.

Eyes to See

I have to see my neighbor to respond. I have to be near them to identify they’re hurt, that there in their face is Jesus, and in the space between me and them is the salvific command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Perhaps others have better memory. God has seen it fit for me to stay in physical proximity to arrays of need, since moving to the equator at 13 till now, at 32, living on an equator between rich and poor. And I still forget. I still forget we belong to each other and the good samaritan example is the climax of this life of Christian discipleship.

Yes, there are needs everywhere, and so many under my own roof, but there’s something forceful about living in a place where your looks don’t match, your culture and background don’t match, and your norms are shown to be privilege, with daily reminders of the inequity and blight of this temporal world. It is my pleasure, my privilege, and my pain to be a guest here. Yes, becoming less and less each day but no matter how it all develops, it started with choice, and that sets me apart. It will always set me apart.

I live and love in a beautiful neighborhood with lush, inventive yards, gourmet home chefs, majestic magnolias, and strollers and children and small businesses everywhere. There are also money stores, robbing the poor, and failing schools, feeders to a criminal justice system that feels more criminal than just. Heat reverberating off the cement, bouncing off the stucco, gleaming in the sweat of hardworking people, pointed in the bars on the windows and burning in the hearts of the mothers wanting the best for their children.

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It is here, between three planes of cement, with a faraway sky looking down from above, that a neighbor was attacked, stabbed more than a dozen times, in the middle of the thoroughfare between the middle school my husband works in, that started my entrance into this zip code, and the elementary school my children attend. At 11 in the morning, before God, in the alley that looks like a gutter, blood was pooling, and people poured out from all the walls.

It is here I was reminded with scarlet and shrieking alerts that good samaritans do not work remotely. And though physically I may live in the midst of need, I can emotionally and mentally relocate. Her cries echo still in our community, pulling us out of our silos, pointing us, pointing us, back to the road to Jericho. Asking us, asking us–when was the last time you touched the stranger, risked your safety? When was the last time it cost you something to prepare for this eternal life?

The men called the professionals and offered advice. The impromptu team of women bent low, the first to touch, to ask about her kids, as though meeting in the market–the lifelines of connection, family and what to live for. The Lord shielded the eyes of the children, no classes out between nutrition and lunch, no transfers between electives and schools. Pressure, and touch, and prayers applied. Blood thickened, the loss slowing. Hearts went out, and were returned emboldened.

We didn’t know where all the wounds were. We never do.

In time the uniforms arrived. She was taken to better help. Her son on the way. Her attacker found. A young man, wounds inside, being chased by his own attackers. God have mercy.

I was on my way to precious office hours. The privileged work I’m paid for, the place where children are not tugging and the climate is controlled. I saw my friend running. The screaming was not a normal screaming. The interruption was glaring, the invitation stark. I couldn’t miss it. But so often, so often, I do. In less dramatic stories, I find the angle to the other side of the street. I don’t look up from my text, my text of Christian employment, domestic hurry, measured sacrifice, as though that could be true. I miss the bending to the ground, the giving and finding of life, the neighbor I so need.

I forget that the commands are in the middle of the gift, the good samaritan told in the context of how to gain. The mystery of this Christian life is not how well it coincides with our American identity and sensibilities and comfort. The mystery of this Christ-filled life is how the giving and the lessening and the kneeling is our only way of promotion and purpose. The broken hallelujahs. The breaking of the bread. The exposure of scars.

“In shattered places, with broken people, we are most near the broken heart of Christ, and find our whole selves through the mystery of death and resurrection, through the mystery of brokenness and abundance.” -Voskamp, A Broken Way. Blessed are you when bad things happen and faćades fall down–favored, preferred, attended to by God are you when…

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This morning I was replanting feeble seedlings in a garden bed. I am a stranger to growing green, to trying new things, and risking failure. As I pressed on the good soil I had mixed in with the old, surrounding the small plant–propping it up with a hope and a prayer–I heard “you hem me in, behind, and before…you lay your hand on me…” I felt so lucky to have laid my hand on that dear woman in a time of brokenness, and a few days later, replanting for abundance, both pressing and feeling pressed upon. A couple hours later a friend sent me the same text, graphic and new.

Yes, there is no where we can flee from His glory. In death, in pain, in the gutters of our own selfishness, we are not abandoned. We are surrounded, as though a woman in an alley, bleeding but helped, wounded but rescued. We are each so human, so broken. Vulnerable. And these very things, which Jesus tenderly modeled, are the currency of God’s favor and love–of transcendent life. Give and receive; break and find life.

See and be seen.

Staying

It is no small and unholy thing to stay.

I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.

In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.

Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.

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We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.

As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.

Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).

We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.

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As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.

Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.

And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.