Hi. Remember Me?

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I haven’t blogged in three months.

I’m not proud of this.

The last time you heard from me I had sore legs from hiking and was reading really good books in the mountains of Colorado. That was one wonderfully restorative vacation and I needed every second of it. I read the last post I wrote on August 1st, and thought about how much has happened in the past three months. It was a good thing I took advantage of the hikes, the books, the family time, the quiet, because I came home and the whirlwind began. I decided to stop talking, step back, and listen. You can learn a lot in the silence, and in many ways listening was also restorative. It brought me to a place of realizing that I know very little, and control even less.

I don’t really know the best way to condense the last three months, but here’s at least what I think I’ve learned:

1) If your 17 year-old cat has become skin and bones and is limping around the house howling, she is trying to tell you that her time on earth is done and she would like for you to help her cross over to the other side. Our old cat Mattie died about six weeks after we returned from Colorado. Honestly, we’re not cat people and she’s the only one we’ll probably every own (please, Lord), but we had grown fond of her presence, if for no other reason that she stubbornly maintained her place as the senior pet and she didn’t take any crap from the dogs. I liked her grit and tenacity. When it was time to go, she let us know, but we were dense and mostly irritated with her crankiness so we didn’t take the hint. I won’t go into the details, but things got messy with her bowel functions, which was the catalyst for realizing that her nine lives were up. So Kyle and Colin loaded her up and took her to the cat doc and they did that thing they do. I still miss her.

2) When the college graduate comes home to live because he doesn’t have a job, it’s not the end of the world. I always pictured this as a kind of depressing scenario, filled with tension and someone feeling a sense of failure. But now I know better. He’s been under our roof for a reason, and the truth is I don’t know how we would have made it through the last three months without him living in our house. And while we’ll all be thrilled when he is able to get the job and the funds to be on his own, this will happen when it is supposed to happen, and I don’t wring my hands over it or wonder what people are thinking. He does his own laundry, likes leftovers (we eat a lot of these), plans movie nights, and helps in the family business. More about that later.

3) Change happens just when you least expect it, but always when God plans it. Kyle and I have had big job changes. We both find ourselves leading nonprofits – mine small and new, his large and established. We didn’t expect to be in these roles, but here we are. And I could give you a separate list of what we are learning in the midst of this journey, but the biggest lesson comes in the form of a boat, and a thread. Here it is: When the storm is raging and we’re not sure how things are going to turn out, we keep reminding ourselves that God is in the boat. And even if we know this in our heads, our hearts sometimes are just hanging on by a thread of faith. But that gets us to the next day where we just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I love journey stories, which is why I seem to write so often about loss, lessons, and God. That seems to be the recurring cycle for me on this journey. I experience loss, learn the lessons, and find God again in the midst of it.

So, I guess I’m done being silent. Thanks for hanging in there with me. It’s good to be back.

Years and Cheers: Hold Your Head High, 48

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Yesterday was my birthday and I spent an hour of it in the dentist’s chair. By choice. I’m not proud of myself for scheduling a dentist appointment on my birthday and so I’m overanalyzing why I would do this. It helped that my friend in Ghana, Isaac, sent me a  message yesterday morning with birthday greetings and a request to let him know all about my celebrations. I told him I was going to the dentist. He seemed disappointed. “But please get time to celebrate,” he said, and then informed me he would be waiting for celebration updates and pictures. The pressure was on.

So I had to ask myself, why would I so diminish the significance of the day I was born by agreeing to lay in the dentist’s chair and have my teeth cleaned? And to make it worse, I had nothing else planned for the day except work and then a dinner out (and although I appreciate dinner out, we do this at the end of the day). After all, it’s a birthDAY. I’m sorry to report that I did keep my dentist appointment because I wasn’t willing to pay the $50 charge for canceling in less than 24 hours, but I decided to take my friend’s advice and celebrate. In Ghana, birthdays are a reason to set aside the mundane and acknowledge that life is fragile, and that every day is a radical gift.

I promised my friend Isaac I would celebrate and take photos, so after my teeth were cleaned and polished I slid out of that dentist’s chair and proceeded to acknowledge that every day is a blessing, especially a birthday. I am 48 years old, which is a number that makes me cringe just a bit and might explain the ease with which I basically disregarded the day. I know very few people over the age of 21 who count down their birthday with exuberance. We might enjoy the dinner out, the gifts, and the cake someone brings to the office on our birthday, but other than that we don’t skip around shouting to everyone “Hey! I can’t wait for Tuesday because I’ll finally be 48!” But my friend’s words the morning of my birthday made me realize that scheduling a dentist appointment and not altering my work schedule did little to acknowledge the blessing of another year and the grace that has been shown me within that year. With polished teeth and a report of no cavities (pretty good for 48, right?), I grabbed the two people who were in closest proximity and told them we were celebrating. And we did. Lunch, a stroll through the Woody Guthrie Center, a walk around Guthrie Green, and I didn’t even check email on my phone. At this point, you’re probably making the spot-on observation that this is hardly kicking up my heels and really celebrating, but it was spontaneous and something that absolutely did not fit into my busy schedule. Which made it wonderfully celebratory.

I’m learning that with each passing year, I fit more comfortably into who I really am. I’ve stopped trying to please everyone or try on personas that make me more agreeable and tolerable. I’m trying to listen to the deepest places inside my soul. I’m learning to be comfortable with drifting just a bit, despite high expectations, my need for speed, and the feeling that I must fix the world. I haven’t conquered anything completely, but I agree with Anna Quindlen who says, “Control is a nice concept, little more.” Perhaps these are the things that should make each birthday a cause for celebration. I’m not getting better, just better at being okay with my limitations and imperfections. 

So thank you Isaac, for causing me to slow down and think just a bit about all the good vibes of a birthday, even one that marks 48 years on earth. I did take photos. And I did acknowledge the blessings of June 25, 2013. My birthday. Cheers!

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How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

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Alison and I watched CNN together the night of the Boston Marathon bombings and the night the suspect was captured. I know that family therapists and child psychologists would probably warn against exposing a 12-year-old to coverage of such a horrific event (especially CNN coverage), but I’ve learned to happily ignore the parenting experts. We did spend a little time snickering over Anderson Cooper’s choice of attire on Night #2, so it wasn’t all heavy-loaded. But the event was tragic and there was no way to spin it otherwise. So I didn’t try. I answered her questions as honestly as I could while we watched the events unfold. Over the past week she has been especially concerned about the young man who was taken into custody that evening. For some reason, she has focused on his injuries and how he is healing. She asks about this regularly and I am unsure what to say, so I tell her that he is in a prison hospital and that is all I know about his physical state. Yesterday, she wondered if he was scared in the boat. Her tenderness towards this individual seems out of place.

I read a post from someone a few days after the event. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to know his life’s history, his back-story, who his family is, where he went to school, or what he liked to do in his spare time. I don’t want to know what “cause”, if any, he was fighting for. I don’t want to know why he did it, or may have done it, or what possessed him to carry out his actions. I don’t want to know. Because that’s what he really wants. I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him what he wants.

I completely understand  and share in the anger that is felt toward this person. But when my daughter asks about him, I also understand where she is coming from. We have told her that every person is loved deeply by God whether they are the worst person in the world or the best person. We have quoted the verse “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then talked honestly about how near-to-impossible it is to do. But yet, we are asked to do it. We have told her that every person matters and that grace is not out of reach for anyone.

But what about terrorists? Shouldn’t we share the sentiment of the person who cheers the death of Osama Bin Laden or the person who says “I don’t want to know his name or see his face?” That seems fair, except that we are told that God cherishes his created ones so much that he knows the number of hairs on their head. This verse rolls off the tongue when we’re telling the loveable how loved they are, but it’s a little harder to comprehend when we’re talking about the unloveable. You might say to me at this point that if a relative or dear friend died at the hands of a terrorist I would feel differently. And you might be right. But according to what God says, I wouldn’t be entitled to feel differently.

So what do I tell my daughter when she expresses concern for a terrorist who perpetrated a senseless, cold-blooded killing? Do I tell her tell that we are not supposed to care about him and that it is permissible to spew hate for those who have carried out hateful actions? Do I allow her to cheer the death of those who caused death?

Here is one thing I tell my daughter about terrorists and tragedy: There is good in the world. There is also evil in the world. And God cares deeply about our response to both. 

We’ll never be able to love like God loves, but when tragedy is in front of us we have an opportunity to practice that kind of love if we will choose it. I keep going back to the prayer Jesus uttered before he died:  Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. It is beyond comprehension that he prayed this with his back shredded and nails in his hands and feet. I easily spout off these radically difficult verses and treat them as if they are platitudes. They are not. These are the very actions that show the world what God looks like. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And they are hard to live out, which is why most of us don’t do it. Does my daughter’s response of tenderness toward the perpetrator reflect the character of God? I can only answer with this:

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45. That’s what Jesus said, among many other mind-blowing things, when he was sitting on the side of a mountain talking to a crowd of people. So I’m going with that, even if most of the time I find it very difficult to do. When I talk to my daughter about terrorists and the tragedy in the world, I can find no better words to use than those of Jesus. Because I’m pretty sure he was talking to us as well.

Why I’m Ditching These Accessories

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So it’s come to this. I can’t imagine why a dog would allow herself to be so demeaned by a 12 year-old who claims to love her, however this is too good not to share.

But there is another reason I’m posting this photo. It may be a stretch, but it illustrates something I’ve been tossing around in a jumble of thoughts over the past couple of years. Those thoughts have slowly taken shape and led me to believe that I’ve spent too many decades of my life wearing a cupcake necklace and bow headband when I should have ditched the whole ensemble. Okay, hopefully you get the point. I’ve actually never worn these accessories, but I’ve worn others. Haven’t we all? I would blame this on my gender, the part of the country I live in, and my childhood churches, but this is not unique to female Evangelicals who live in the Bible belt. Those of us who fit into those categories, however, just might have a harder time believing that God could have a different ensemble for us to wear.

Here is a for instance:

In college, I majored in journalism and went on to work for our city newspaper as a desk reporter, and then features writer. I loved the world of journalism. I was a newspaper fanatic and still treat myself to the occasional print version of The New York Times on a Sunday afternoon. But back in the days when I worked for the newspaper, I almost never talked about my job with church friends because I didn’t want to have to defend myself as a part of the “liberal media.” So when I moved in those circles, I donned my cupcake necklace and my bow headband and pretended that I wasn’t passionate about things I was passionate about. And conversely, I pretended I was passionate about things I wasn’t passionate about because they seemed more “right” than being a newspaper reporter.

Another for instance:

I don’t like Women’s Conferences. There. I said it. And I should tell you that if you love them, I have no problem with that. There isn’t any principle involved, I just don’t care for them in the same way others don’t care for New Year’s Eve parties (not saying the same things go on at both events). I would just rather stay home. But, once again, I spent a decade donning that necklace and bow and going to some Women’s Conferences because there were a bunch of Godly women there and I thought that maybe if I went it would make me Godly too. It didn’t.

It’s interesting how we assume everyone in our spiritual circle likes the same things we like, or that they believe in the same things we believe in. We’ve come to expect that we’re all on the same page, and so those who aren’t either end up slinking away or donning the ensemble to keep the peace. There was an older gentlemen in the church I grew up in who would say, “Let’s just keep the main thing the main thing.” These days, however, it’s hard for many discern what the main thing is because we’ve taken so many things that don’t matter and made them paramount to being “people of faith.”

What if our circles consisted of variety and diversity? What if our churches were filled with people of differing passions, opinions, ideas, styles of clothing, likes and dislikes? Is it okay to turn up Mumford & Sons and turn off Casting Crowns? Can I admit that I care about the environment? What if I’d rather hear Rachel Held Evans than Beth Moore? Can I like some different things? Have some different opinions and persuasions and not feel like I have to wear the accessories that everyone else has on? Or will I just end up looking out of place without them? I hope not, because I’m in the process of ditching the accessories that don’t  fit me and am trusting that all of us who say we are following God will allow one another to do the same. I want to encourage the people around me to be who God has made them to be, even if that looks different. Even if it makes some of us uncomfortable. Let’s not force anyone to wear things that don’t fit them. Sometimes, as you can see from the photo, it just looks wrong.

Thoughts on a Hurricane

On our return trip from Ghana Sunday afternoon, I barely escaped New York’s JFK airport ahead of Sandy. Having just flown in from the other side of the world, I didn’t know there was a hurricane brewing. We heard about Sandy as soon as we hit the ground in NYC and we tried to process the possibility of such devastation: the crush of water leveling homes; the dangerous winds that could blow automobiles off the road; the hundreds of thousands who were going to be without power (it’s still 5 million without power as of today); the lives that might be lost. I arrived home on Sunday evening just in time to see the coverage on Sandy begin. While Alison and Kyle combed the neighborhood for candy last night, I sat in front of CNN and watched with disbelief. The terror of a natural disaster doesn’t respect the state, country, or continental lines that have been drawn by mere mortals. I witnessed people in distress and struggling to survive in Ghana, then came home to see it in my own country. I have taken note of the difference in reaction, however, between those who suffer disaster in places where disaster is prevalent, and those who suffer where comfort is the expectation and demand. The interviews with people who were walking in Manhattan – forced out of their cars and mass transit by a shutdown of roadway access – ring in my ears. “I’ve walked two hours,” said a UPS employee. “It’s been a marathon.” And while our President and his administration are being held in high regard for their quick response to the suffering, experts are speculating that if the power doesn’t come back on in short order, those affected might take their frustrations to the ballot box.

At this point, I could make an expected comparison between the resilience of those in developing countries where conditions force them to endure with little complaining, and the reaction of Americans to a hurricane disaster that affects them in such direct and painful ways. But that would be wrong. Those of us who live in relative comfort are blessed beyond what we can comprehend, and when disaster comes, we are rightfully shocked and talk openly about the pain of what we are experiencing. We make note of the fact that we are used to having access to basics like mass transit and electricity, and we watch in awe as rugged homes are washed away or reduced to rubble. I don’t blame the UPS employee for complaining about a two hour walk across the city. We are rightfully vocal about this hurricane and what it has done to our cities and communities.

But we also endure.

In the midst of all the coverage, what has drawn me in is not the ugliness of Sandy, but the beauty of people who may weep over what they have lost, yet also throw back their shoulders and vow to stay and rebuild. Neighbors and strangers cared for one another in selfless ways when they thought no one was watching. But those of us in the rest of the United States and around the world are watching. And what I see causes me to feel an even deeper sense of gratitude for this country I live in. Maybe it’s a result of being away from it – and all of its comforts and attributes – for ten days. If so, all the better. Sometimes we don’t realize the wonder of our blessings until we are absent from them for a time. I pray that each person who is suffering in the path of Sandy will have everything restored to them – from electricity to a roof over their head. Those who have lost loved ones will have the lingering question of “why?”, but I pray they will rebuild their lives and move forward with an even greater sense of how lovely and fleeting life is. These are easy prayers to pray from my home in the middle of the country where hurricanes don’t devastate. But I pray these prayers because I believe we are also a people of resilience and endurance, despite our First World comforts. We have learned to enjoy them, but we’re still strong when they have been ripped from our fingers.

So I return from Ghana and find myself on my knees for the people in my own country. Will you join me?

Ghana in October, Day Six : Wrapping Up in the Dark

It’s official: the SDA School Computer Lab is now up and running!

Otis and the other IT instructors know computers. They got everything set up quickly, but also realized that in addition to the computers, they would need a projector in order to teach the students effectively. There are over 400 children in the school and about 30-35 children in each classroom. It would be difficult to gather all the students in a class around the screens. So we immediately decided that the lab must have a projector. Peter took a trip to Kumasi with one of the IT teachers to purchase a projector. They returned with it Wednesday evening, and yesterday the IT teachers set it up in the lab. The students were crammed together looking into the windows and doorway to see the images projected on the wall. They were in awe.

We began to imagine all the creative ways the teachers will be able to use the computers: Internet tutorials, Powerpoint presentations, photo slideshows to accompany lessons. The teachers will do a great job of using the computers to open a new world of learning for the children at Ankaase SDA. I love the way generous friends in the U.S. have resourced this small lab in this not-so-small school, in this small village, in this beautiful country, on this huge continent. Your hearts have traveled a long distance to make life a little better for people you have never met.

This is what it looks like for those of us who have more  to resource those who have little. So many things are broken in this world. It doesn’t matter how they have gotten that way or who is responsible. We’ll never know all the reasons why, but we can be people who work for restoration. I want to be someone who believes that restoration is not only possible, but also necessary if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ. I want to have eyes that look for ways to join God in His restoration project. He is fixing what has been broken – in people, places, circumstances. Someday He will finally and completely restore all things, and until then I want to be a part of the every day work of restoration. In small and big ways, we can look around and find ways to make things better and to help change stories.

This morning I met with 17 women who are interested in becoming seamstress apprentices. I pray that we can help change the story for some of them, and to help bring restoration. There is a little something for everyone in this village: sponsoring children, resourcing a computer lab, partnering with a woman who wants to start her career and business. We had two experienced seamstress sew these wonderful bags that we’ll be selling to help fund these programs. This is the Ankaase bag.

The pattern was designed by my friend Steffani, who does this kind of thing on a big scale (she’s been a costume designer in Hollywood, and has written a book of pattern designs). We’re so blessed that she agreed to design this bag. Its incredible. Roomy, lots of pockets, and fabric straight from Ghana. The best part is that the two women who sewed each bag have an incredible story, which you will be hearing. Purchasing this bag also helps Hilda and Gifty.

This is my last post from Ghana. We leave early in the morning. The power has been out since yesterday afternoon and they say it may not come back on until Monday, so once again I’m typing furiously and racing my computer battery. So I will leave Ghana in the dark, but I pray that God has used us to shine a little of His light here. I know the people of Ankaase have done that for me. Their light shines bright.

This is my final goodbye from Ankaase, Ghana. Thank you all for the prayers and your open hearts. You have blessed us all.

Join Us on the Front Porch: We’re All Messed Up

I’m a rut girl when it comes to exercise, which means that I walk the exact same route at the same pace every morning. And many mornings, I see my neighbor – who is quite old – sitting on her front porch with a cup of coffee. Some mornings she is completely unresponsive to my waves and greetings and although I’m not sure why, I suspect she has some form of dementia. It’s not the kind of thing I would want to ask her on a good day, so I haven’t. I just wave and greet her and accept the days when she gives me a blank stare. This morning, however, she was all there and her response to my greeting was the most refreshingly honest thing I’d heard all day (granted, it was early).

“Good morning!” I shouted to her.

“Well good morning!” She replied.

“How are you today?”

And in the happiest sing-song voice she said, “I’m completely, terribly messed up. How are you?”

And there it was. The blessed truth about every single one of us summed up by my sweet neighbor from the comfort of her front porch over a cup of hot java.

A church friend of mine pointed out that our trite, chanted greeting of “How are you?” is almost never met with an honest reply. She finds it an offensive greeting and seethes inside when someone asks her this as they hurriedly swoosh by. “Like they really want to know,” my friend says through clenched teeth. But like the rest of us, she usually gives the proper reply of, “Fine. How are you?” It’s just easier, she says, because no one wants to know how we really are. And most of the time, church is the place where we would be most likely to give the trite chanted reply because it’s the last place we would confess our messiness.

But I would like to join my neighbor on the porch and confess that on most days, I’m completely, terribly messed up. Here’s proof: I just finished writing my column for Mia magazine about how to simplify relationships, specifically with our children. I dashed off over 700 words about how far I’ve come as a parent and how I have learned that we miss the blessings in parenting when we are busy trying to control how our children turn out. In other words, enjoy your children more and bark at them less. Be more amused and less annoyed. And then, I stood up from my computer and barked at my daughter for something ridiculous. She tried to diffuse the moment with some humor, and I was not amused.

I give myself grace about these things, but they do confirm the truth that when I act as if I’ve got it all together, it’s a big facade. My word for 2012 is Descend, which is supposed to remind me throughout the year to be humble and comfortable with my own imperfections. It also helps me give grace to others around me who are imperfect. Somehow, this makes it easier to accept grace from God and take a deep breath. I don’t have to pretend that I’m better than you, or her, or him. Or that I’m moving toward some sanctimonious place where God will finally be pleased with me. Nope. I’m happy to sit on the front porch with my neighbor and give an honest reply to your greeting:

I’m completely, terribly messed-up. And how are you?

We Said Goodbye Today

I’ve said in earlier posts that I do not like goodbyes. But on this rainy Friday we said one at a funeral home, and then the final goodbye at the cemetery in the middle of wheat field country in western Oklahoma. I have come to expect, and often welcome rain when it accompanies a funeral because it seems that nature is agreeing with the human sorrow of loss. We cry, and the sky concurs with our grief by pouring out its own tears.

I met Calvin Miller through my father. Calvin’s friendship with Dad centered around the pastoral role, but in those early years, my relationship with him was simply a novice writer looking up to an accomplished and published author. I was young and hungry to have my name on the cover of a book, so I sent him pieces of a manuscript and bothered him with questions about agents, publishers, technique, book proposals and odds. By this time he had a least a dozen books published, several of them bestsellers. He should have brushed me off, but he never did. He read my writing and would mail back comments, ideas, and honest evaluations. If I was able to get published, he agreed to write a foreword. What grace he showed to a writer who had mostly selfish ambitions.

I never got that book published. The manuscript is still hanging around in my heart and on my hard drive. It was about faith, old hymns, and working out what it means to be on a spiritual journey. Back when I wrote it, I thought I had quite a few answers to life’s questions and that those answers were fairly simple. But Calvin taught me that if we talk about the spiritual journey, we should never be content to scratch the surface. “Don’t be afraid to go deep,” he said. But I was. It was easier to churn out trite phrases, spiritual cliches, and feel-good stories. So I took his suggestions and reworked it – but I only went so far. Honestly, I hadn’t lived long enough to discover God in the dark, frightening places. I hadn’t plunged into depths that caused me to ask hard questions or shake my fist at God for a really long time. But Calvin wasn’t afraid of these things. He had been walking this journey a long time and he had long since gotten over the idea that in the end, God wraps things up for us with a tidy bow.

Calvin’s memoir is titled Life is Mostly EdgesI love this book for so many reasons. Calvin exuded joy, cherished humor, and wasn’t afraid to rock the boat when it came to the stilted world of church life. He loved the edges because he believed that we are not people who should ever be content to live in the middle. Calvin says this in his memoir:

“We all like the middle. The middle is safe. You can’t fall off the middle. Only the edges are dangerous. The great lessons, the deep tragedies, the storms of unbearable heart-quakes happen along the edges. We don’t cry much in the middle, but then we don’t laugh much there either – at least with any belly-deep laughter. Still, every day, nine to five, we suit up for the only contest that can be played along the unsafe edges of our years. Brinkmanship is the name of the game.”

I am learning that living on the brink – the edges- is the only place to live. We lost a friend this week who taught us just how beautiful the edges can be. I’m going to do my best to live along those unsafe edges without fear, and with much joy. I will do this in honor of my friend. Goodbye for now Calvin.

Saving Seats in Church

I grew up in the church I attend, which makes me a bit of a relic.

It’s an evangelical Baptist church and I live in the Bible belt, so it’s possible that I’m also somewhat religiously damaged.

It’s a good church though. We never heard sweaty preachers pounding the pulpit and screaming about the fires of hell. I walked the aisle after our vey intellectual white-haired doctoral degreed-pastor delivered a sermon from the book of Revelation. Maybe it’s all the same because when he took my hand I said, “I think I might be going to hell so here I am.” I was a dramatic adolescent, but it’s still a terrible way to start a faith journey. It’s my conversion story, however, and it probably confirms that I am, indeed, religiously damaged.

But aren’t we all?

My family always sat on the same side of our church sanctuary – about 11 rows back on three end seats. The family that sat in front of us consisted of three generations who took up about eight seats. And if you by accident forgot where your row was and sat in their seats, they asked you to move. I never found this odd, because we all had our places. My parents were fine to deviate a few rows or shift a few seats down when necessary, but it was rarely necessary. Visitors usually didn’t venture that far toward the front. They preferred the balcony where they could scan the crowd and keep a safe distance until they had a lay of the land. I don’t blame them.

One Sunday, a young couple dared to sit in the seats of the family in front of us. I had never seen this couple and they were quite obviously visiting or they would have known better than to sit in those seats. And then, the matriarch of the family came in and walked up the aisle to her row. “Excuse me,” she said leaning over and smiling tightly. Her little black purse was swinging from the crook of her arm. “Those seats are saved.”

In an instant, everything that I thought might be wrong with the church coalesced in those words. I was college-bound in a year and skirting the edges of cynicism. I sat in quiet embarrassment with my head buried in my Sunday school quarterly while the couple apologized, stood up, and scooted to the middle of the aisle. The hymns, sermon, choir songs, and everything else that made up that Sunday morning service was lost to me. I spent the entire hour glaring at the back of the old  lady’s head, wishing I was courageous enough at the end of the service to apologize to the young couple, but I just hurried out of the side of the sanctuary with a loose vow to never return.

But I returned.

And I’m still there.

As far as I know, no one saves seats anymore – or at least they don’t rudely claim them. But we still think there are those who just don’t deserve our seats. I may not be guilty of asking someone to get up and move, but I have jostled my way to the figurative communion table, thinking that I am somehow more deserving of the bread and the wine because I’ve been in the house for so long. But this is not true. I am not any more deserving than him. Or her. You know the one. The person whose sin turns our stomachs. That one individual who we smile at through clenched teeth because their lifestyle choice frightens us. We spend so much of our time protecting God by making sure that his house doesn’t get overrun with the kind of people that offend him. But God most certainly doesn’t need us to walk him across the street like he’s a little old lady.

Confession: This morning I withheld a kind comment that someone desperately needed because they were irritating me. It might seem small, but it’s not. I’m still pretty icky underneath my shiny exterior. My selfishness is not at the bottom of the hierarchy of what grieves God. Yet God welcomed me into His house and gave me the best seat and he still does. I want to do the same thing – to turn everything a little upside down by extending ridiculous grace to those who we label the worst offenders. Is this possible? I think it is. God does it every day. Maybe he’s waiting on some of us to stand up, gather up our baggage, and give our seats to the people we have barred from the house.

Shameless Plug: The Mia Column

I used to edit a print magazine, Mia. For three years, my publishing partners and I birthed a “baby” every three months and then proudly toted that baby around, holding her up and asking people to read her. Lots of people shared in our pride and joy, and they subscribed to the magazine. But the print publishing business is tough even if you have an excellent product, and so after 11 issues we decided to fold the print and transition to online. It took quite a while for us to take the plunge into online publishing, but I’m so glad we did. Mia online is excellent. I can say that objectively because I am no longer the editor, but instead just a lowly columnist – which I love. Finally, I get to write and let someone else worry about editing and typos. Well, mostly. I must keep in mind that a good editor doesn’t like to find any. If you find a typo or poor grammar in this post, ignore. My editing skills might be growing rusty. Excuses, excuses.

My column is called “Simply Being” and you can find it here. Selfishly, I’m writing it because I need to learn more about what it means to live simply. My life has been chaotic and cluttered through most of my adulthood. I am always looking for the next project to start, the next thing to buy, and the next activity to scribble in the calendar boxes. I find new and creative ways to multi-task while simultaneously longing for focus. I desperately want and need simplicity. But even simplifying can get overwhelming. A trip to the bookstore afforded me the opportunity to see how many books have been written on this subject. A sampling: Organized Simplicity, Radical Simplicity, The Laws of Simplicity (there are laws?), Choosing Simplicity, Abundant SimplicityInside Out Simplicity, Voluntary Simplicity, The Simplicity Survival Handbook. Really? A book on surviving simplicity? This gives me pause.

The last thing I want to do is make simplicity a project, a task, or a quest. I would like for simplicity to emanate organically from a soul that is settled. I’m not there yet. Not even close. My soul is so often on the hunt for significance, meaning, comfort, pleasure. But I wonder – what if I already have everything I need? What if simplicity is only a matter of embracing the beauty of what I have been given, where I am at this moment, what is straight in front of me instead of what is out there?

I’m nagged by these words: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)  Maybe it’s time for me to stop putting my cultural spin on what Jesus meant.

So I’m inviting you to join me on the journey of simply being. It’s going to look different for you than it will for me, but I think we can learn from one another. I’ll post a follow-up blog post each time my monthly column in Mia is published. And yes, I’m putting that on my calendar.

The Simple Made Complicated

I’ve just finished reading the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2012 issue. At this point, you are about to click off this post and go back to your Facebook newsfeed to see photos of cute kids and watch cat videos. Please don’t, just yet.

I fear the beginning of a divide between the good people of this world who care deeply about children in crisis, specifically orphans. To be clear, I’m defining orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents through death, or has been relinquished by a parent. I’m adamant about not getting technical when it comes to the definition of orphan because a child who is without a family feels like an orphan. Perception, folks, is reality. The Journal highlights dissenting opinions between those who defend the Christian adoption and orphan care movement, and those who believe that the theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is erroneous and dangerous for children and families. Put simply: it’s an argument between those who feel mandated by Scripture to care for orphans, and those who feel uncomfortable with that approach.

I come at this issue with a bias – on both sides of the dissent. My husband is Vice President of an international adoption agency – a Christian international adoption agency. Also, we have adopted internationally and, so far, our daughter is happy and thriving. Also, I think Scripture should move us to action, and I have no problem taking James 1:27 as a mandate. Oh, and because of the church I attend, I wear the label of evangelical Christian.

But I’m biased on the other side of the dissent as well. I’m a cynic when it comes to evangelical “movements” in general. I believe that Scripture can, and is, often tossed around to justify and perpetuate our own political and social agendas. Interestingly, Jesus was silent on the issues that evangelicals are most vehement about, and spoke passionately about things we stay silent about. Evangelicals sometimes embarrass and anger me. So I don’t typically jump on the bandwagon of everything that evangelicals deem to be crucial social issues.  Also, I have a bit of bias since I am adopted. It’s one of those circa mid-1960s closed adoptions, which means I have two birth certificates – one that I have seen, and one that is sealed in a court of law that I have never laid eyes on. It’s “as if” my birth mother never existed. There is little about this arrangement I find appealing, but as the adoptee I don’t have the legal right to open the sealed court records. No one does. So when those who are critical of adoption (especially closed, “as if” adoptions) speak out, I find myself shuffling over to their side.

So for me, this is complicated. But it’s also complicated for a guy named David Smolin, who is a Professor of Constitutional Law and Director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at Samford University’s College of Law. He writes exhaustively on this issue and comes down on the side of those who are uncomfortable with the evangelical adoption movement. And I sympathize with him. He and his wife adopted two older girls from India, only to discover after the adoptions were finalized that the girls had been trafficked. Their impoverished mother had placed them in the orphanage as a temporary solution, but the orphanage had illegally adopted them out. Trafficking is ultimately the bottom line concern of all who would seek to end or curtail international adoption. Those who have been damaged by international adoption (and many who haven’t) continue to squirm as evangelicals point to Scripture when advocating for adoption as one answer to the crisis. On the surface, James 1:27 is simple. What does God ask us to do that represents Him in the purest form? Care for the most vulnerable people – the ones others ignore or exploit. There you go. Now that’s something to sink your life into. Except…in our world today, it’s just not that simple.

Smolin brings up points that should not be glossed over in our efforts to offer up our purest form of God-honoring activities in the realm of intercountry adoption: There have been systematic abuses such as child trafficking, child laundering, and falsification of documents on the part of both some sending and receiving agencies. There are most certainly bad apples in the world of adoption agencies, and even the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has not been successful in eradicating these abusive practices. They are few and far between, but they are the squeaky wheel that gets greased, sometimes in the form of our our State Department shutting down entire countries (Nepal, Guatemala, Vietnam). And yes, it is often hard to define when intercountry adoption is an appropriate intervention – what children are truly in need? Here’s an example of that particular complication: UNICEF and folks like Smolin will tell you that if there is any kinship options available for a child in the birth country, this is the second-best option if the birthparents have died or the child has been relinquished. So take the case of one little girl in Uganda named Mary. Her parents died of AIDS and so she went to live with her uncle in a nearby village. Someone could have come along and said, “We know of families in other countries who will adopt AIDS orphans.” But those who believe that culture and kinship trump everything would shake their heads and send Mary off to live with the uncle. Which is what happened. In the course of a three-year period, Mary was raped repeatedly by her uncle and several cousins. The tiny bit of property that was rightfully hers is really what the uncle wanted. He had no interest in raising Mary, and eventually he threw her out into the streets when enough time had passed that her property became his. Mary was 10 years old. He began raping her when she was seven. She has been physically damaged so much that she will never bear children, and she has nothing left that was rightfully hers after her birthparents died. Of course, no one could have known what was going to occur when Mary went to live with her uncle, but to brush the kinship option with such broad strokes misses some cultural realities. In not every culture is kinship a sure-fire second best option. Sometimes it is, but when it isn’t, it can ruin a child’s life.

Sweeping generalities about intercountry adoption – in either direction – cause us to forget that every situation is unique. Sometimes adoption is the best option for a child. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes child trafficking is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes God gives us clear direction on how to carry out James 1:27, and other times He doesn’t. I have felt conflicted about these issues many times over the past several years. We adopted our daughter almost eleven years ago, and then learned about the orphan crisis. Our adoption of Alison was not because we were moved by James 1:27. We just felt our family was incomplete and something kept leading us to China. Now, however, I’m deeply involved in the issue of the orphan crisis and I am passionately moved by James 1:27. But I’m often unsure what to do with that passion. I see both sides. I think intercountry adoption can be a beautiful solution, and it is most certainly a picture of how we have been adopted by God. But it isn’t the only, or even the best long-term solution to the orphan crisis in our world. Those who are passionate about caring for orphans should be equally intentional about finding a more encompassing way to do this. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.” I think people on both sides of the international adoption discussion can agree on this one.

As an adoptive mother of a daughter from China and someone who is grieved by 147 million orphans (at least), I am concerned about the broken structures that continue to cause the orphan crisis. I want to find a way to help repair those broken structures. I believe that’s what Jesus came to do, and then He left His followers to walk the same path. Perhaps, in the end, this is the bigger picture of what it means to “care for orphans.” And maybe, this is where we find the purest form of our religion.

The Sanctity of Every Life

I have a friend who attends quite a few pro-life rallies. She believes deeply in the sanctity of life and so she holds placards on street corners, at the state capitol, and sometimes she travels to Washington D.C. so her voice can be heard on behalf of unborn children. There are many people who do this, and their passion and zeal is undeniable. They are willing to go to great lengths to get people’s attention about the horrors of abortion for both the fetus and the mother, and they don’t shy away from the graphic images that make an effective accompaniment to their arguments for the sanctity of life. I admire their commitment to advocate for those who do not have a voice and cannot speak for themselves. However, I have a tiny problem with my friend’s rallies and placards. Maybe the best way to describe it is to tell a couple of stories pulled straight from the pages of our hometown newspaper:

On March 25th, a toddler was found dead in a car that had been stopped for erratic driving in Tulsa. Zamontay Green, 19 months old, had been dead for hours and abused over a period of time, court records show. He had subdural hemorrhage, abdominal trauma, broken ribs, multiple bruises – including loop marks around his legs, which indicates he had been whipped with a type of rope. Jazmin Williams and Mica Shoate, both 22, have been charged with child-abuse murder, permitting child abuse, and child neglect. they were taking care of the boy while his mother was staying in Arkansas, records show.

Felicia Dawn Potter, 21, was charged with child neglect on March 19 on accusations that she exposed a 2-year-old girl in her care to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. Court filings allege she exposed the child to “marijuana, human vomit, human feces, used tampons and/or rotting trash and food.”

These, my friends, are not good stories. But neither are they unusual, isolated incidents. If you want to read a smattering of other tales that will turn your stomach, you can find them here. Okay, I know this is not a post you’re probably wanting to finish at this point, but please do. Humor me, okay? Here is why I have a problem with the very loud and pervasive conversation about the sanctity of life: I think our passions often wane when the child exits the womb. Somehow, once we’ve successfully convinced a woman not to have an abortion, then it becomes her responsibility to make it work from there – even if she’s single, uneducated, unemployed, and without a healthy family or community structure in place to help give support. So, who suffers in this scenario? Children, of course. The ones that we advocate for while they are still in the womb.

Where are the passionate souls who will charge Capitol Hill on behalf of children – now born – who are victims of child abuse? Who holds up placards for children who languish in state custody? Where are those who will march around to decry the lack of foster homes for children who, through no fault of their own, have no home?

“That’s not my responsibility,” is the unspoken justification that most of us hold out. “It isn’t my problem that mothers use drugs or allow their boyfriends to abuse their children.” “If these people can’t take care of their children, they shouldn’t have them.”

Well, it’s too late. There are approximately 8,300 children who are in state custody in Oklahoma, and over 400,000 nationwide. Some of them await adoption, many are being bounced from one foster care home to another, and far too many are living in shelters waiting for adequate and safe foster homes to be found for them. In fiscal year 2011, our underpaid and overworked DHS employees took 9,344 calls alleging abuse or neglect of a child in Tulsa County alone and completed 3,096 investigations. 1,023 of those cases were confirmed abuse or neglect. Wait, let me restate: 1,023 children were confirmed to be abused or neglected. That’s in one county in this state. Multiply that across this great nation and you have a crisis of tragedy involving the most vulnerable among us.

If you’re still hanging with me, (and if you are, thanks so much) I’m going to explain the photo.When Child Protective Services (DHS workers) are called to a home to remove the child from an abusive or unsafe situation, they give them a black trash bag and let them pack a few things before they take them to a shelter to await a foster care placement. A trash bag. On Saturday, a group of people who are generally appalled by all of this gathered at our city’s child welfare shelter, The Laura Dester Shelter. We brought suitcases to donate because we understand the state DHS is underfunded and can’t supply them for the children. And then we walked around the shelter and carried our suitcases to represent that we want to speak out for these children who cannot speak for themselves. The event is called Walk a Mile In My Shoes.

So here is the challenge: Can we believe in the sanctity of every life? The born child. The single mother. The deadbeat dad. Are there only certain lives that are precious to God? Or is every life – whether we deem it worthy or not – a life that God wants to save? And if God believes that life is worthy of saving, then perhaps I should too. Next year when we attend Walk a Mile, I’m carrying a placard.

Growing Up Born Again

The title of this post is also the name of a book by Patricia Klein.

I think that could be me on the cover – minus the older brother (always wanted one though). We dressed in our finest for Sunday morning and I swear our church had green hymnals. In fact, I’m all over this book and so is my husband. His father was a Baptist minister, mine a Baptist deacon. We grew up in small towns: he was in Tennessee, I was in Oklahoma. We were three states apart, but we had twin experiences as kids who grew up Born Again in the South and almost-South. A few of these shared memories:

  • Sword drill competitions and scripture-memory contests
  • Pack a Pew Revivals
  • Offering envelopes with boxes to check if you: brought your Bible, attended worship, prayed daily, brought a guest
  • Choir musicals (our church youth groups both performed “Cool in the Furnace” – my husband and I can still chant the lyrics together)
  • Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night; Training Union on Sunday night
  • Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
  • Missionaries on furlough speaking on Sunday nights with the carousel slide show presentation
  • Salvation, Rededication, and Commitment to Full-time Christian Service (I did all three of these, my husband two of them)
  • Vacation Bible School complete with salutes to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
  • Puppet ministry (never liked this one; I have issues with puppets)
  • Church camp (me: Falls Creek, him: Camp Caswell)

A friend who also grew up Born Again gave me this book several years ago. She read it with great nostalgia and passed it along to me with the comment, “This book will make you laugh, but it will make you feel good about our spiritual heritage.”

Well, sort of. It made me laugh because I think playing rock albums backwards to find subliminal satanic messages is, in retrospect, quite humorous. So is fear of dancing and referring to a single woman as an “unclaimed blessing.” Those of us who grew up with deeply entrenched church traditions seem to spend a fair amount of our lives trying desperately to see God through the fog of routines and rituals. I’ve often wondered what my church attendance feeds more: my soul or the machine of institutionalized religious experience. Can both be fed, or should we choose one over the other? I’ll be honest – I’ve done some stints of faithful service in my church for some very bad reasons: guilt, pride, loyalty, and yes, nostalgia (Women’s Missionary Union craft fairs give me a warm feeling inside).

In my most cynical moments, I’ve wondered if there were good reasons to give up on all the traditions, rituals, and routines. In Philip Yancey’s book, Church: Why Bother, he quotes Winston Churchill as saying that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. Sometimes, that’s tempting. I agree with Yancey that following Jesus is one thing, but following Christians into a sanctuary is quite another.

Can I say this? My most profound encounters with God have never happened inside a church building. I’m more than willing to take full responsibility for that, but it certainly makes me wonder about all the hard work that seems to go on inside those buildings.

Several months ago, I spent the day helping two homeless friends get the battery changed in the car that held all their worldly possessions. They called me that morning and we hung out together for most of the day, waiting for the battery to be tested at two different places. We talked about everything from their wedding in a local city park to their dreams of reuniting with their children, and God was laced through every conversation. We talked nothing of church. They did not grow up Born Again, and so we had no shared nostalgic memories of Sunday school picnics or fall revivals. They would have never understood flannel boards or sword drills. But they seemed to see God pretty clearly, and God seemed to be present with us in a way that is difficult to explain, so I won’t try.

“I know we should be going to church, but it’s hard,” the wife said. I looked at her husband’s long black hair tied back in a ponytail, their dirty clothes, and the car with the junk piled to the ceiling and I concurred with her inwardly. Yes, it might be a bit hard for them to follow the Christians into the sanctuary. But perhaps if we could unleash ourselves from the rituals and routines every now and then, the church could follow people like John and Lisa into their sanctuary. What if instead of landing in a safe harbor of comfortable pews on Sunday morning, we opted for taking our “service” to one of the many places where desperate people are congregating. What if we sought out these places as sacred spots of worship?

At the Last Supper, the disciples left the upper room, singing hymns. In honor of that scripture, my father-in-law always led his congregation to sing a hymn after observing the Supper: “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.” There is an irony in the title of that hymn. When what binds us together is sharing God’s radical grace and inexplicable love with others, then the church is taking part in restoration and redemption – and that’s a blessing. But when what we share in common rests only on tradition, ritual, and routine, that is a tie that is binding. It lulls us into a place of complacency and comfort, and deafens us to the voices of those who are crying on the other side of the church walls. I agree with Philip Yancey’s conclusion that church is worth the bother. Especially for those of us who grew up Born Again and are still trying to find ways to clear away the fog.

Last Week’s Lessons from Ugandan Women

There are those moments when everything in your life gets put in sharp, pointed, and sometimes painful perspective. Last Thursday, I sat at a friend’s kitchen table with two women from a small village in Uganda who taught me more about life than anyone has in years. And that is not an off-the-cuff statement. I mean it.

One of the women is a widowed mother of twelve children, some biological and some orphaned, and the other a young mother of eight biological children and six orphaned children. They live in the midst of sorrow because they watch as death and abandonment unfolds on a daily basis. Consider this:

  • In the months of December 2011 and January 2012, 14 women in their tiny village died in childbirth.
  • Many of the orphans that are housed in the complex they live in (a church, parsonage, orphan homes) are members of large sibling groups whose parents have died of AIDS.
  • Children as young as eight and nine come to the church for help with younger siblings in tow because they have run out of food. The parents have died and these young heads of households have nowhere to turn after having exhausted their food supply.
  • Some of the children in their complex have been infected with HIV and must receive antiretroviral medicines daily.

In the midst of all this suffering, the women have no time to sit around and lament the conditions that surround them. Why? Because there is work to be done. Work. Here is a typical day in the life of a woman living in a Ugandan village:

  1. Wake up early
  2. Sweep the house (floors get dusty and dirty overnight)
  3. Walk 2-3 miles to fetch the water (no taps, faucets, or indoor plumbing)
  4. Clean the dishes to prepare for breakfast
  5. Make breakfast (this is a longer process than you might think)
  6. Get the children up, get them ready for school, prepare something for them to take to school to eat midday
  7. Take the goats out to pasture, feed the pigs
  8. Fetch firewood for cooking two more meals (this is done with baby on the back, baby on a hip, and firewood on the head…wanna try that?)
  9. Prepare lunch (again, a longer process than you might think)
  10. Make the trek to fetch more water (still juggling the babies)
  11. Work the crops
  12. Welcome the children home
  13. Bring the goats in from the pasture
  14. Fetch more water
  15. Prepare dinner (again, a longer process than you might think)

“We work like horses,” one of the women said with a wry smile. It was amazing that in the midst of relating the sorrowful conditions in their village, the plight of the orphans they care for, and the hardships of women in their country, my two new friends sprinkled in lots of laughter. Not the polite, phony kind of laughter, but sincere, joy-filled laughter that comes from a deep place of contentment. These are women that do not, and cannot, depend on their circumstances to produce this laughter, joy, and peace. I, however, spend far too much time allowing my circumstances to determine whether I am up, down, or somewhere in between. Oh, I fake it well by not sharing these ups and downs with everyone around me, but they are there most of the time. And so many times they are petty: a frustrating work experience; an off-handed comment from someone; a sore knee on a day when I want to run; not enough money in the savings to buy something I think we need (I confuse needs and wants); parenting struggles. I know these are real issues, but on certain days I’m so driven to a sour mood by these circumstances that you would think I was carrying firewood on my head and two babies on my body. I only admit this because I’m hoping there are those of you who struggle with this same thing. If not, I’ve gone too far out on the limb, which wouldn’t be the first time.

We live in a culture riddled with depression and anxiety, but we live cushy lives by the world’s standards. It really doesn’t compute, however I don’t have an answer for it. All I know is that when I am with people who are joyful despite their circumstances, it puts things in perspective for me. So I’m thinking that perhaps it would do the people around me some good if I was this type of person as well. I have it in me, I just forget that. I let the circumstances control me, instead of remembering that I have control of my attitude toward those circumstances. The thing is, I don’t want to be phony about it and I don’t like the philosophy that says you have to smile first and then you’ll feel it. Those are usually phony smiles. I’d rather find the way to actually feel this and live it from the inside out, not from the outside only. There are too many of us playing that game and I think most of us can tell the difference. Any anyway, faking it probably causes a fair amount of depression and anxiety.

Every day, I must be driven back to the truth that everything I need, I already have. There is a different message that gets blasted at me every moment of every day, but it’s up to me to remember that I don’t need a life that is bigger, better, faster, louder, smoother, more predictable, or less chaotic. I need a life that is lived from a deeper place than the surface stuff that pulls me in all directions. And I need the perspective of  those who live this out with gracious joy. Thank you, sisters. Your life is a testimony and your laughter gave me vision.

Uncomfortable Places: Life Begins Here

In an unintended effort to find numerous and varied ways to waste even more time on my computer, I have entered into the world of Pinterest. I shall now ask forgiveness from my friends who are sincere about unstrapping themselves from the lure of media screens. Sheepishly, I would say to these friends that I am using this latest social media obsession for good: pinning healthy recipes, free trade products, quotes, and photos from around the world. But I know what they’re thinking: addicts justify. And that is true, so I’m limiting my pinning time to between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. And maybe 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Early mornings are pretty good too, but I’m feeling guilty enough to eliminate the 7 to 7:30 a.m. slot. See? I’m aware of my problem. However, I found a wonderful quote on someone else’s board that I repinned and it is the subject of this post. So even if no real good comes from it, Pinterest has reminded me of this:

This is not a revelatory statement for me. I’ve been giving it lip service for decades. The only problem is, I like comfort zones. Of course, I would never readily admit this, but I spend an inordinate amount of time working to make myself and the people that I love incredibly comfortable. Every day and in a hundred ways I’m creating safe places for me and mine. I fluff our stuff, organize my days, line the ducks into neat and straight rows, gather more junk, and surround myself with the illusion that my world is safe and secure. I struggle mightily against anything that might cause the boat to rock. Oh yes, I take a few risks here and there, but they’re safe risks. Nothing too out there.

Then, inevitably something happens and I’m tossed out of the boat and into deep waters that are far beyond my zone. It’s frightening, intimidating, and supremely uncomfortable. I’m treading water, praying, sputtering, cursing, and desperately trying to find my way back to safety. My heart is racing and suddenly I realize that in the midst of all this I feel completely and beautifully alive.

This has happened many times in my life, which makes me wonder why I keep running back to the comfort zone. It’s dull there. The colors are gray. The voices are muted. The air is thick and sluggish. I posted the banner photo above because I want to remind myself how wonderful it feels to be uncomfortable and alive. These are places I grow and become the person I was created to be. That will never happen when I’m playing it safe. A few times in my life I’ve taken the initiative to step into these uncomfortable places instead of being thrown into them. Which is how some friends and I ended up doing makeovers on female patients in a psychiatric hospital in the middle of Azerbaijan. Our bright idea landed us in a situation of language barriers, confusion over the purpose of the make-up, and 50 women who were overly excited at the sight of a camera. Their idea of what was about to happen and our plan of what was going to happen seemed to be moving in two different directions. Our translator couldn’t keep up. It was confusion and chaos. And I loved every moment of it.

You can real the full story here – not written in blog-post format, but in magazine format (i.e. longer and more journalistic in style, so you might want to settle in). I write to bring experiences into fuller expression, but I also write to remind myself of things easily forgotten: life begins at the end of my comfort zone.

Gift Bags for the Red Lights

It happened again last week.

As I was approaching a red light after exiting the expressway, I saw the man sitting on the side of the street holding a cardboard sign that said Anything Helps. I watched the light, hoping it would turn green so that I could slide on through without having to stop right next to him and either a) pretend I didn’t notice him, or b) hand him a dollar simply because my 11-year-old daughter was sitting in the passenger’s seat. If it’s just me, I can make excuses. If she’s with me, not so much.

“Why don’t we help him?” she used to ask when she was younger. I don’t think my answers to her questions held much water:

We can’t help everyone that holds a sign.

We really don’t know if he’s in trouble. Sometimes people run scams pretending to need help.

I don’t have any money.

“I do!” she piped up once, but the light turned green and it was time to move.

“What’s a scam?” she asked another time, and I spent the next two miles trying to gently explain that sometimes things are not what they seem, and then sometimes they are, and sometimes we help when we’re not sure simply because it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes we don’t help because we have to be cautious because bad people use other people to get money. She nodded, but my rambling, convoluted explanation was lost on her two green lights back.

Now she stays silent because she has seen the sign and others like it so many times, and she has watched me inch my way past the sign-holder without even a glance. But I know what she’s thinking. The unasked question rings in my ears every time I see that cardboard sign: “Why don’t we help him?”

Why don’t we help him?

Sometimes I really don’t have any money, so I’m off the hook. And other times the light is green, so I’m off the hook with that, too.

But there are times when the light is red, and he (or she) is directly next to my driver side window, and I have multiple bills in my pocket. It’s at that moment that I have to wrestle with the question of why I stare straight ahead and pretend the person isn’t there holding a sign asking for help. Maybe she’s a phony. But maybe she isn’t. Maybe he’s being pimped. But maybe he isn’t. Maybe if he told me the truth about why he sits in the heat and the cold holding a cardboard sign in front of his chest, his story would break my heart. Really, what should my response be?

I don’t want to come up with an answer that either assuages my guilt or protects my self-interest. I want to find the answer that plunges me into God’s restoration project, even if it doesn’t make very much sense. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this restoration that God is doing. That’s what he does, in case we’re not very clear on that. He is about the business of fixing this broken world and the people in it. If that’s all you ever know about God, that’s all you need to know. He makes the dingy shiny, the ugly beautiful, the crooked straight. It’s his delight. But he almost never does it the way we think he should. His ideas about how to restore the broken world are way off our radar screen (think baby born in stable to impoverished teenager). And the most unbelievable way God does this (not the way I would have chosen) is to use broken, dingy, crooked people like me to join him in the restoration project.

So, I have to ask myself as I sit at the red light next to the man with the cardboard sign, what exactly is God wanting to restore?

Here’s what I think: He wants to restore that moment when I look at another human being, a deeply-loved creation, and care not one whit about why they are sitting by the side of the road. He wants to restore the cynicism and the apathy in me because they really bring nothing of value to his restoration project. He wants to restore me (certainly an ongoing and frustrating process) so that I can link arms with others and continue what began in the stable.

So here is what Alison and I are doing, crazy as it may sound. We’re assembling gift bags for the red lights.

We are placing in a gallon-size ziploc bag:

1 stocking cap

1 pair of socks

1 granola bar

1 $5 Quik Trip gift card (yes, I know they could buy beer with it)

small toothbrush and toothpaste

a personal note

The total cost of the bag is about $8. I’d like to find ways to cut the cost so that we could give out more bags, but this is my starting place. And I completely stole this idea from the book The Missional Mom lest you think I am creative. And lest you think I am strutting around boasting about my good deeds, I am not. I believe when we come together and share ideas for how we might might make the world a better place, we take another small but beautiful step in this restoration that God is doing through us.

Receiving

I got everything I wanted for Christmas and a few things that weren’t on my list. Life is like that. We receive it all and realize that the things we didn’t anticipate can also be a gift. Unfortunately it takes some years under the belt and some tumbles and detours along the path to learn this. When we’re young, we think everything is divided into good and bad and can’t imagine that the good stuff might not actually be so good, and the bad stuff can really be blessings we don’t recognize. I’m learning this, but I also know I have a long way to go.

So here is what I received this Christmas:

1) Three children tucked safely at home (for a while) and happy to be here. I don’t take this for granted.

2) Traditions continued, which makes us feel as though the world and life is a little bit predictable. That’s an illusion, but on some level, Christmas is about suspending reality and relishing the thought that we have been inserted into one of those homey Christmas songs. My favorite is Amy Grant’s song “Christmas Can’t Be Very Far Away.” You can bet any song that begins with a line like “Little bits of heaven floating gently by the window…” is going to drown you in sap. And it does. But I love it. I also love our family traditions: at least three batches of chex mix, “the best sugar cookies ever”, and puppy chow (we do love our Christmas calories); a mandatory watching of Elf, A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation; an extended family Christmas party that is LOUD and LONG (love it!); lazy days between Christmas and New Year’s that include a visit from my in-laws (You know what? I love this too and always have).

3) A crazy, ridiculous schedule the two weeks before Christmas that should have driven me insane. Instead, God gave me perspective through the eyes of a friend whose husband had to have emergency brain surgery (he came through and is recovering…praise!), a Christmas party at the Realation DHS Group Home, and Kyle’s trip to Colombia to visit orphanages in three of its cities.

As I ran from place to place and skyped with Kyle every evening, I began to realize why we wait in anticipation for the Savior during Advent. Life down here “under the sun” is broken, but Christ came to put it all back together. Every Christmas, we light Advent candles and read Scripture about his coming, but do we really know why we’re supposed to be impatient about this? I caught a glimpse this Christmas and it made some sense. In the middle of the hectic pace, that was most definitely a gift.

3) And, I received some tangible gifts. Here are a couple: One hummel, which I receive every year. This year, Kyle chose one that fits perfectly with the past twelve months.

Our eyes have been opened to how many fatherless (and motherless) children there are around the world. I love this image and hesitate to place it in the display with all the others. For now, I’m keeping it where I can see it every day.

And…fish!

I did not grow up with aquariums and have never wanted one (do we need one more creature to feed or clean?), but I’m liking it. There is a reason why places like doctor’s offices have fish tanks. Calm. Soothing. Distracting. Nice. Kyle has taken this on as his – so he shall clean, maintain, troubleshoot, flush dead fish down the toilet. What a guy. He’s a gift I am thankful for every day of my life.

Some of what I received this year was expected. Some things came from nowhere. But I extend my hands and receive it all, knowing that it has passed through hands big enough to hold the world.

Advent Week Three: Be Still

I grew up hating conflict until I got to college and found my voice. I blame my conflict avoidance as a kid on my status as an only child. I blame my conflict seeking in college to the school newspaper.

My junior year, I safely tucked my newfound voice into the pages of the OBU Bison. This new voice of mine was slapped on paper in black ink and spoiling for a fight. My senior year I was promoted to editor and able to choose my topics for editorials. My first editorial column was a doozy and it got me accolades from like-minded students and a stern lecture from my journalism instructor/newspaper advisor.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” she asked me one day in the newspaper office. She had shut the door and leaned against it with her hands behind her back. Her cheeks were splotchy red, which was literally the only clue that she was angry. Her name was Kathy McKee and I still revere her after 25 years. Sadly, I had no idea what she was upset about. I had written an editorial about what I believed to be hypocrisy that was running rampant on our Christian college campus. Throughout my editorial, I took to task those who claimed to be Christlike but were shunning students who didn’t fit the Christian college mold. I had included scripture verses and pointed my cursor at students who were legalistic, pharisaical, morally superior, and judgmental (I included all these labels at various places within my scathing editorial).

“What have I done?” I asked my mentor innocently. We had spent many afternoons discussing exactly what I had written about in my editorial, and so I knew that she didn’t disagree with my conclusions. But she was a very wise woman who was often viewed as “different” because she did not share the denominational affiliation of our university. She, more than most, knew how important it was to be a peacemaker.

“You have thrown the first punch,” she said. “As an editorial writer, you never throw the first punch.”

Editorials, as it turns out, should be tied to an event, a concrete issue, a news piece. They should not be the writer’s opportunity to vent about things that make her gag. Even if those things are legitimate.

It was one of many lessons I learned (and continue to learn) about peace. It’s surprisingly easy to talk about peace. It’s another thing to live it out day in and day out. I’m continually shocked at how many times I throw the first punch.

Jesus, the Savior we wait for during these days of Advent, is the Prince of Peace. I’ve pondered that title at various times in my life: when I need peace from fear, when I want peace from the rumors and realities of war, when I crave peace in the midst of a far too hectic lifestyle, when I wish I could be a more peaceful person. I often wonder what we are missing in our violence-filled world. And still, I am saddened that often, those of us who claim to be Christlike can be the people who don’t look much like they are following the Prince of Peace. I suppose this is what I was getting at in my editorial, but unfortunately I was the hypocrite who threw the first punch.

When the snow fell last winter just a few days after Christmas, I stood outside and listened to the silence. There were no cars on my street or on the busy thoroughfares that surround my neighborhood. It was eerie, but absolutely beautiful. “Peace. Be still,” I could almost hear God say. The snowy silence was a reminder that our world will one day be free from all the edgy noise, the sorrow, the battles, and the fears. The move toward that day began in a stable with the birth cries of a tiny baby. I’m a bit of a hand-wringer and a control freak, which is a deadly combination for someone who longs for peace. But during these days of Advent, as we wait, I am reminded that the baby in the manger really did come to bring peace – into the world and into my heart.

 

Advent Week Two: Born for This

I forced Erin to take piano lessons for a very good reason: because my mother forced me. In the course of her compulsory years at the keyboard, she learned to play Ode to Joy, also known as Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The tune is the fourth and final movement of the Symphony Number 9 in D Minor written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and for many years, it was only song she remembered from her forced piano lessons. Before she left for college, every now and then Erin would wander into the living room, pull over a chair from the nearby table (the neglected piano is now missing its bench), and begin to play. It’s been many years since I’ve sung hymns with any regularity, but I would automatically began to whisper along as she played. I would stop after the last line of the first verse because that is all I can remember without butchering the words, but that last line is the prayer that often stays on my lips for quite a while after the song has ended.

Please give me immortal gladness. Please let me feel the light of day even in the worst moments of my journey. But I always have a little voice (not my prayer voice), that adds, But really, please don’t give me bad moments in my journey. Keep it nice and easy, if you don’t mind.

I heard Pam Cope speak last Saturday morning. Pam has written a book, Jantsen’s Gift, that you should order immediately after you read this post. Pam was thrown into the pit of grief after many years of standing on the edge of the pit hoping that she would never have to enter it. Don’t we all do that? “Lord,” we pray, “keep us safe, keep us well, bless us with your joy and purpose.” Pam got every bit of this stripped away from her. And she doesn’t sugarcoat it. In the middle of her darkest days of grief, she didn’t walk around with a smile plastered on and she gave up searching for a silver lining. Joy was absent. There seemed to be no hope.

This season, we wait for a Messiah who said these words to His disciples at the Last Supper: These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11) It was an interesting setting to be speaking of joy. The Last Supper was the prelude to three days of immeasurable suffering for everyone reclining around the table. The suffering was a prelude to Resurrection morning joy. But would the joy have showed up with the same intensity if there had not been previous days of agony? Pam found (and still finds) joy in the darkest, toughest, most hopeless places on earth. This truth is spinning around in my head these days. I know it’s Christmas and this is probably not the kind of Advent post you were expecting. But I’m putting all of this together this season and realizing that the baby in the manger came to earth to suffer because that’s the only means by which the joy could come. That’s the gift we sing about.

Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony between 1817 and 1822, years after he had endured his mother’s and alcoholic father’s deaths, failed loves, and a worsening hearing impairment that would eventually leave him deaf. “We mortals with immortal minds are only born for sufferings and joys,” Beethoven said,” and one could almost say that the most excellent receive joy through sufferings.”

I have spent most of my life staring down into the pit and praying I don’t end up in it, but people like Pam don’t fear the pit because they’ve been there. In fact, they climb down into it with those who are suffering because (and this is what I’m trying to comprehend) they find joy down there, and a Light that illuminates the heart. I don’t look for paths down into the pit to join those who are suffering, nor do I want my own suffering to land me there. I can’t imagine I would find joy in a dark place. But what I hear from people like Pam and what I see from the life of Jesus is this: Suffering makes for a gladness that transcends our mortality and gives us the ability to sing an authentic ode to joy.

Touch a Life Foundation was born out of Pam’s grief. Read the stories and you will see the joy that has come from the suffering. As Pam says in her book, “I was born for this.” I think, perhaps, we all were.

Advent Week One: The Manger Scene

When Alison was in her first Christmas pageant she was chosen to portray the mute and blessed Mary. I was so proud my daughter had landed such a plum role. Mary!  I helped her practice her serene gaze of love and told her to smile at Joseph every now and then. “Walk in slowly,” I instructed her. “And don’t worry about the audience…you know, all the mommies and daddies out there. Just pretend you’re Mary.”

I went to the pageant with a loaded camera, ready to document the beauty of it all so that we could look back on it in years to come and remember what a plum role Alison had landed. Mary! The nativity actors walked in wearing miniature Bible-era costumes and a few bathrobes. Alison was wearing a pink bathrobe, which bothered me a little. I don’t think Mary wore anything that resembled a pink bathrobe, but I shrugged it off and poised my camera. The children were waving at the mommies and the daddies, but Alison was following my instruction not to worry about the audience. Her eyes were fixed on the manger. I wanted to get a good picture of her with Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all kneeling before baby Jesus. What a great image for a homemade Christmas card! Friends and family could see what a plum role Alison had landed.

The children shuffled around to the back of the manger and looked down at the plastic doll wrapped in a white baby blanket – all except Alison and Joseph. They weren’t budging. They stood with their back to the audience – and my camera – the entire pageant. The preschool teachers kept making subtle arm gestures for them to circle around to the other side of the manger, but it did no good. Finally, when they were taking a bow, Joseph turned around and gave Alison an elbow in the ribs to join him, but the moment had passed.

I was going to say something to Alison after the pageant because I thought if she ever wanted to land a plum role like this again, she better get straight what it is that Mary is supposed to do. But I decided against it. Alison had played the part exactly as it should be: Mary staring at the Son of God – her baby boy – and ignoring the audience.

The Nativity that we set on top of our piano during the Christmas season has become such a part of the holiday décor that no one seems to notice it anymore. This year  I’m considering turning Mary around to face the baby in the manger, and if anyone says anything I will tell them that I am trying to remind myself what I am supposed to be doing during Advent.

The arrival of something – or someone –  wonderful makes our heart pound a little faster and our breath shorten a little. We feel exhilarated, fresh and filled with new hope. I have a difficult time getting to that place during the holiday season. My anticipation mostly revolves around taking the Christmas card picture, entertaining houseguests, shopping, buying, wrapping, and watching the kids on Christmas morning. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I forget that the One we are waiting for is the Savior who opened the door to heaven the moment he emerged from the earthly womb. It seems to be a large truth lost in the small reality of seasonal rituals. I keep looking at the audience and forgetting to turn around and focus on the manger.

“So hallowed and so gracious is the time,” says Shakespeare of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Turning around to face the manger seems the very least I could do during this Advent season as I wait and anticipate the arrival of God clothed in human skin.