Start Small

It has been a summer, and it is barely even summer.

I cannot talk about all that has happened here, but I have felt the wrongful use of power from within the ekklesia–the adopted family of faith, the light-holders, the called. This is a special grief.

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When I was young, my family experienced a profound betrayal. At the heart-wrenching news of a sibling’s diagnosis, the inherited virus that struck fear in the hearts of the most educated and powerful at the time, a church responded as though they were not heirs to a different Kingdom, as though their inheritance did not set them apart to love and courage.

New to the mission field and missionary kid identity, a hemisphere away from the congregation, my heart was still in those stateside walls. I had grown up there. I had stenciled its bathrooms. I had flipped those worship song overheads. And my faith and discipleship had flourished within that loving community. I didn’t have many friends in Kenya yet. We were sent but had not completely left perhaps. On the ground, but maybe a little in the air.

When as a family we were in the throws of the grief of the surprise diagnosis, I was incredibly unsuspecting that loved ones could respond in any way except empathy, sadness, and love. I didn’t know the word stigma yet, and I wasn’t versed in the rationale behind HIPAA. So when that home church board, which had shown Jesus to me in so many ways, rejected my sibling, and questioned our new livelihood and partnership, I grappled. The silence of others was an injurious as the words blasted out. (My parents tried to shield me from much of this, but they also taught me how to use e-mail and read, so…) Grief upon grief. One parent eventually flew back to the States in an effort to find reconciliation, with the help of a mediator. I remember the other parent crying in their bedroom, when the water tank decided to leak through the roof, alone in a foreign country with 5 kids, spotty electricity and that hovering sense of abandonment. Water pouring down the walls, and my own sense of belonging and home pouring out with it. It was disorienting, and though we did not speak of it much or share about it then, it was defining.

That experience forced my faith to differentiate from a place, or an outcome. And it showed me that the most mature, the most devoted, by word, may be the youngest in deed. Everyone has work to do. And fear is a convincing hurricane pulling up the tallest trees.

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A few months ago, I was working with some colleagues to address some sensitive and serious matters. I heard the words “stay small,” during one time of prayer. As an advocate, a first-born, a leader, and achiever, we can all be confident that these words did not come from my head. The words helped me with patience, and to work within the given system, to wait behind leaders, and watch. And the words help me today as I am forced to continue waiting and watching from this place of betrayal and grief, as I see false narratives and am left alone to check my own attitude and actions in this Church.

I find comfort in the smallness, the humility, of the passion of Christ. The disorder he endured and the abandonment central to our Good News disarms my expectations while hosting my pain. I compare alluring human success, the touting of statistics, name recognition and acquisition of comfort, with his rhythm of ministry, his walk of suffering, and I don’t see much connection. I know from his life that collecting successes and platforms was not the aim; the power and the transformation he preached was in the visit to the prisoner, quiet and inconvenient, the feeding of the individual, unknown and undocumented. His stories are small, like the vulnerability of confronting and empowering a woman, in the heat of the day, at a pivotal moment. His record was one of investment into real relationships. Proximity to the pain was central. His acquisition of status did not overlap a hair with this world’s. His smallness and humility was our very victory and salvation.

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I can no sooner slow the growth of my children as I can solve my current problem or convince people to do the right, small thing. So I am left to start small, to stay small, with my self. Am I one that employs language of reconciliation and love but do not meet at the table with the complicated friend? Do I outwardly suggest all means of generosity and inclusion, but side step relationships when they smack of sacrifice? Do I stay at his feet, do I quiet the demons, enough to be draw near to the God of the margins, the Lord of kings? Do I build equity and justice in the small ways, in the daily steps?

There is enough work to do in me to keep me thinking small and to extend far beyond the puffing chest or the raised fist. Giving helps the grief, and blessing out of brokenness is the only way to heal. So far Life keeps reminding me that it is in the pouring out and the breaking, the kneeling and washing that we meet, we share in, and enjoy, the holy. We echo him, and we find him, and that is all we ever could hope to do.

 

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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.

Recipe Sharing

It was once recommended to me to walk into a room and consider myself the worst sinner there. Not to paralyze or dismantle identity or purpose, but to deteriorate the pride and pretense, and diffuse the human condition of anger and judgment.

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Social media is the room these days.

 

I raise my hand as the first among sinners in this room. I will say that I have done all the talking and none of the listening. I have engaged when I should have ignored or just watched. I have been condescending and used my privilege and power in unproductive ways. I have experienced the remorse that comes after speaking online, and after not saying a thing.

I confess this even as I brazenly share what I wish to keep in mind going forward (I know, I have some nerve…), because this environment isn’t ending anytime soon for most of us. And self-correcting, changing our minds and resetting is what keeps us human. I collect and share these things not as a teacher but a learner–humbly, acknowledging my blunders and gaffes. For some of you, this is too conservative advice; for others, you just wish everyone would return to their recipe sharing and crafts, me especially. For the two of you interested, here is where I am working from right now. I am still writing mid-way. This is the recipe I’m interested in and tinkering with and trying to crave.

None of these are original thoughts (obvious considering your unreliable source)…They are conglomerates of advice and note-taking and scripture and reading. Take what you will to your reflection in the mirror, or in the screen; lay whatever sticks before your God and test. I’d also like to hear your approach as we strive to live into this space with integrity.

 

7 Practices in Internet Hospitality

  • Identify truth as holy. Any little blip of it. Celebrate the holy. Dwell on the holy. Proliferate the holy.
  • Bear in mind your relationship with the person, and how much you value them. Affirm this if you can, whenever you speak. We are sensitive people, changing, reacting, hiding. Keep the humanity and personhood of the other in view. You may be doing all right today. Someone else may be at their worst. Don’t compare your best to their worst. Review your relationship. Get nostalgic about the other.
  • Pray about a response. Name what you want to say or not say before the Lord. Ruminate if this is the Spirit prompting or permitting you, or if the problem is a tickling in your sense of identity or pride or fear. Consider the Beatitudes. Would speaking put you closer to one of the groups mentioned that are blessed? Would sharing align with righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness (Eph. 1:6-11)?
  • Consider who has the least power, both in the conversation, and in the topic at hand. Give them extra room. Pass them the mic. Share their stories if you are speaking on their behalf. Accept that narrative or point of view and sit with it for a day or two. It may be packaged in something you could tear to shreds, or in a way you fundamentally disapprove of—the powerful get to walk away and define what is respectful, what is appropriate, how something should come up, and when something should end. Defer to the less powerful. Practice Jesus’ downward mobility. This is terribly uncomfortable and divine.
  • Excuse yourself from the binary tug of war that says speaking is wrong, silence is right or vice versa. Turns out social media is a place where people have to share the Good News, be the light, fight the good fight, apologize, forgive, shut up, laugh and connect over tough stuff. Hospitality looks a lot of different ways and when we make space for another person, we make space for their approach and consider what responsibility and Love look like within that. We don’t control it. We ride it. We avail ourselves here to someone else. “Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves.” – Joan Chittister
  • Self-assess your limitations. How is my anxiety today? Am I in a self-preservation mode? Is my conclusion already set? Does this person remind me of someone else that I have unresolved issues with? Do I believe I am an established expert about this and therefore have no space to hear, and, maybe would have been invited if wanted? Some other great questions from Christena Cleveland specifically:
    • Am I believing the lie that if I don’t say it, it won’t be said?
    • Am I believing a lie that this person is bigger than God?
    • Am I remembering all humans are like grass?
    • Am I confusing taking up my cross with placing myself as a martyr?
  • Give and receive grace. What is your heart here? What is their heart here? Conduct yourself with integrity; there are no points. This is not debate class. Remember a time when you believed something wholeheartedly differently than now. Be prolific and sincere in your apologies and vulnerabilities; overlook whatever you can that is offensive and skip the vain defenses. Forgive yourself, and sit with the Lord to receive His forgiveness. Pray for the other person, the other pilgrim. Mercy is poured out each new day over us all. Grace is glory.

 

May the God of hope dwell within you richly.

Pancakes

Ironically, having a baby forced me into contemplation today. This almost never happens.

Lucas is sorting out his sleeping demons, which is really fun for us, and in a last ditch effort we went for a walk this morning. With each step I found myself able to pray for quiet, consecutive minutes, a luxury I used to ignore.

So many things facing us, aren’t there? Personal health. Court trials. Paperwork. Bills. Activist hearts, cluttered brains, booked calendars. Faith and fear. Life and death.

We ended up at a large cemetery, a block away. It had been years since I had been there. It’s a quiet walking area in the middle of our densely noised neighborhood. It’s also where we honored a student and friend who died unexpectedly in 2007. I found his resting place.

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I was so young and inexperienced with grief at the time. He had been my student the year before, and was in his freshman year of high school when “Pancakes” suddenly became very sick. The questions outlived the answers.

Today is his birthday. Today this young man would be 24.

My prayers turned to his family. I couldn’t believe the math, the date. This rock and this contemplative place, where so much grieving has taken place, reminded me that God has asked us to mourn. He has invited us to be a lamenting people who kept the faith, a grieving people who looked at the truth of their hearts and situations, not deny it. One of the main things God has been teaching me over the past 11 years is grief. I am still so young and inexperienced, I know. But experiences like losing Cesar and witnessing the pain in his family and the community have been formative and eye-opening.

Forced contemplation today reminded me that God is very, very big. The stretch of His reach and power are not dismissive to the list of needs I brought today; the true burden of those things inform my appreciation for His superior breadth. The grandeur of our problems and burdens, of the losses we face or carry, are enveloped in, and indeed inflate, our view of His greatness.

I felt that reassurance today, as I found myself at this grave, warmed by the sunlight, and the memories of this young man, on his birthday. I feel so lucky to learn grief with those who have become my neighbors and family, and want to give others the permission to name their own. I am encouraged by the reminder that God is larger than the scope of my concerns and inadequacies this week.