Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Luxury of Ignorance

There is an image I can't get out of my head, a depiction of how African slaves were stacked on ships to be transported and sold in places far from their homeland. There were maybe eight shelves, no more than 18 inches between each, with naked bodies lined up flat on their backs filling every available nook and cranny. They say that 23 hours of each day was spent laying on these shelves, in human waste, and only one hour of each day were they allowed on the deck of the ship to be washed off and the dead bodies thrown overboard.

I try to imagine the stories of the men and women and children who were herded like cattle aboard these ships. I wonder about the agony faced by their mothers, fathers, children who were torn from their arms, never to be reunited again. Can you imagine a world so dark where it seems more appealing to throw yourself to blood-hungry sharks than to continue on in your physical body? Except, you can't escape to the sea because shackles crush your throat and bruise your limbs?

Someone pointed out that we like to shelter our children from the gruesome realities of a history we perpetuated. Heck, forget the kids! We don't even like to face the horror ourselves.  Oh, that we have the privilege of sheltering our minds and children! I weep to think of the children who had no such luxury, who instead lived the brutal reality. Today, we skim the tortuous truth and choose to highlight just a few of the "bright spots," the victorious, courageous men and women who boldly and creatively found their freedom [don't get me wrong...these accounts deserve to be highlighted as well! Just not at the expense of telling the truth about inflicted horror].

I just read an article about how some former slave plantations are starting to discuss the truth of what happened there, beyond the wealth accumulation, stately homes, and beautifully manicured landscape. Honestly, this only makes me cringe. The year is 2017, and we are only just now starting to talk about the truth of what happened more than a century, even 150 years ago?!? Apparently we find comfort in avoiding the truth.

Sometimes, it is hard to know how to move forward toward justice and reconciliation. I wonder if it doesn't start with truth-telling. With exposing ourselves and our children and our communities to the history of a brutality inflicted upon one race by another. When images and stories horrify us, to press in instead of cringing and turning away. How else do we understand the current tensions we seek to repair?

As I move forward, I am seeking--choosing--to press in. To see and hear and imagine all the horror of the past as I also strive to be a good listener to the present. I will continue to revisit a history that was excluded from the classrooms and textbooks from which I was taught. I am imprinting images like the one I described above on my brain, so that I can share with those who come after me the truth so deliberately excluded from many classrooms and textbooks. The truth, after all, is what gives birth to freedom. The question is, will we listen?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Choosing presence and lament


We pulled up alongside a beautiful, brick church, and I tried to imagine the scene of bloody chaos that played out there only a couple of decades ago. We walk inside and sit down in pews, showered by the sunlight pouring in through majestic stained glass windows. Some of those windows, blown to smithereens only a couple of decades ago. I look up at the screen, and there they are. Four beautiful, little girls whose lives were snuffed out by hatred and evil...a hatred and evil so many were at least complicit to, if not active perpetrators.



Can you imagine your 11-year-old child, in her Sunday-best, chatting with friends in the bathroom lounge? I can almost hear their gleeful banter, their childlike joy in a place that is supposed to be safe. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." The year was 1963, and if ever there was a need for a safe haven, a place for the weary and burdened, it was that day.

We walked down the stairs, turning the corner that would place us exactly where those four little girls chatted gayly. Suddenly, my ears pounded and my chest shook with imagination.

BOOM!!!

The beautiful building crumbled, and innocent life was snuffed out. The weary and burdened were terrorized and murdered in what should have been their place of rest. Four little girls, snatched from their mothers and fathers and dear little friends. I watch as mothers, decades later, still weep with the pain of it all.


(The memorial marking the exact place where the bomb was placed and went off.)

All this evil, hatred, terrorism...because one race decided they were superior to another.

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I am feeling a little lost today, and I can't rid myself of the images and evil brutality of a history (and ongoing narrative) I walked through this weekend. And truthfully, I don't want to escape. I want to sit in this lament and brokenness and anger and pain, because the reality that I CAN escape is a privilege many do not have. I am on the "right" side of history, and I despise that I belong to a race that has brutalized other people for decades, centuries, millennia. Today I want to step out of this shell in which I live. I want to disown my own people and our role in a history we don't even teach or own up to or acknowledge. 

But here's the thing...I can't shed my white skin. And I can't distance myself, because to do so, again, is privilege. Conviction has gripped my heart in an iron fist, because I listened to a man of another race look in the eye a man with white skin and say, "You can't give up on [those who look like you and perpetuate attitudes of racism and white privilege]. Because there are things you can say to [them] that [they] cannot hear from me." I wept. I wept because I know my tendency. I know how I have separated myself from those of my race, religion, community who just don't get it. I think, "They will never understand, so why even try to engage them in dialogue?!" And I distance myself.

White privilege.

There are people who cannot distance themselves from racism, evil rhetoric, a ghastly history, and a continued narrative that says one race is superior (more worthy of opportunity, education, safe living spaces, just courtrooms, life) over another. Because this is their LIFE.

So today? Today I will sit in this lament. I will feel the anger and pain and sadness in every corner of my body and soul. I will continue to read books and watch documentaries about a history and narrative it would be far too easy to not see, hear, feel (because we have made it easy to not know). I will choose to speak up and speak out for those we have deliberately forgotten, ignored, and terrorized. And I will remain. I will remain in conversations and relationship with people who look like me but do not think like me. As much as I want to purposefully separate myself, I will not...for those who CANNOT.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Let me tell you a story...


I rose early that day, eager to sink my toes in sand and water because I knew I had only a few more days to do so. The sun was low on the horizon, but already its warmth was beaming down and kissing the sand. I walked slowly, sifting with my toes through the piles of shells deposited on the beach the night before. I was looking for sand dollars, a hot commodity with my little friends still sleeping back at the condo. It may seem a silly prayer, but I asked God to help me find a sand dollar to take back to them. I walked and sifted for close to an hour, not finding what I was looking for. Suddenly, I felt a whisper tickle my soul. Look closer.

I stopped, kneeling down and using my hands to sift more thoroughly through the sand. When I looked more closely, I saw that there were hundreds of baby sand dollars dotting the sand, mixed in with broken shells and ocean debris. I had been looking for a big sand dollar, not pausing to even notice the piles under my toes that held a bounty of what I had prayed for. I smiled and started collecting some to take back to my little friends, knowing that this treasure would make them squeal with delight. My heart was delighted too, and I felt the nudge of a reminder: God delights in providing for me. The provision just might not come in the form I was looking for or expecting.

I am two months away from embarking on what feels like the scariest and most exciting journey of my life. Most days it doesn't feel real. Most days, I waver between worry over details, sadness about this change that will take me away from all I know and love, and a sense of wonder that God would allow me to take part in bringing restoration to this world. 

This morning I listened to these words and felt a resonance in my heart: "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:13-14). A flood of memories from the last five years rushed over me, and I felt a swelling in my heart and tears welling in my eyes.

A decade ago, I had plans. I had dreams and ideas about what the future would hold and where I would go. None of my plans have been brought to fulfillment. None of them. If I have learned anything in my life, it is that life is a mist. For me, that makes this journey all the more meaningful. Life is a mist, and yet God has allowed me to experience valleys where divine faithfulness has tended to my heart. God has allowed me to experience the intimacy of deep, abiding community. God has allowed me to experience the joy of living into who I was made to be. I am so humbled.

I have shared about an unlikely friendship that God wove together last year. I met a young mom through my work with Safe Families and we have spent many, many hours together in the last year. Grocery shopping, haircut getting, dinner eating, and errand running became an avenue for friendship. Several weeks ago, we sat at a table licking ice cream when she said, "So, are you moving?" She had heard through the grapevine before I had a chance to tell her myself, and my heart did that familiar shudder/twinge as I answered affirmatively and watched her face fall. I was struck by how far we have come, that both our hearts would ache with the separation of a cross-country move. I will miss her, and I tear up to think that I could have missed this. In all my well-laid plans, I never could have dreamed I would have such a friendship. I am so humbled. 

This week, I sold my house and most of my possessions. Every time I felt the urge to cling to something, I was reminded...it's just a thing. Life is a mist, and all these things will fade away. I pray I never lose that perspective. Even as I have opened my hands and released all I have built up around me, God has provided in the most generous, miraculous ways. And I think about those baby sand dollars, how God delights to give us what we do not even know we need. 

This next season, I want to be about stopping and sifting through the sand. I want to recognize on a daily basis that life is a mist, and yet God allows us to take part in experiencing and initiating the restoration of all things. Had I stubbornly continued to traipse all over the beach in pursuit of a big sand dollar, I probably would have missed the baby sand dollars that brought big smiles and childlike joy to a little girl later that morning. Had Jesus not interrupted my carefully laid plans a decade ago, slowly ruining me for the ordinary, I probably would not be embarking on this journey of a lifetime. I pray I never stop following Jesus into the unknown. Because even in the midst of the ocean debris that can be this life, a journey following Jesus is like mining for baby sand dollars. And I never want to stop looking for baby sand dollars.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

When it feels like the light becomes night all around us...

I have been packing boxes lately, and also packing memories away into the recesses of my heart. Some of the most profound moments I have experienced in this house have been the recognition of my own humanity. I have been humbled here, faced with the cracks that incise my heart. I would rather not reveal my brokenness, but sometimes it bubbles up and cannot be hidden.

There were the instances when I charged ahead and pursued my own dreams and fantasies, claiming divine calling but mostly just wanting to do what I wanted to do.

There were the moments when hot anger bubbled up and trembled to the tips of my fingers, escaping only in sharp words but escalating far beyond in my head.

There were the selfish nights, ignoring little souls who needed tending but choosing to beg for sleep to come instead.

There were days of lingering in laziness instead of following the murmurs of "Follow me."

The heavy weight of conviction settled in on one disastrous night. We had both lashed out, battling with our wills and our words and not wanting to back down. She fell asleep, but my "victory" was short lived. I was reminded of a time when I was running and stopped for a swig of water, only to choke and gasp as the cold liquid filled my lungs instead of my stomach. That's how I felt that night as I sat alone, the wind knocked out of me by the weight of my selfishness and anger. I was the adult, but I had acted like a petulant adolescent. The brokenness ricocheted, and I cried heavy tears under the heavy blanket of conviction.
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Last night, I sat mesmerized by the news. Pure evil roamed unleashed on the unsuspecting streets of London, and brokenness reigned. For eight minutes that I'm sure felt like the longest eternity, fear consumed and choked. Despair bled out and claimed lives like they were but a breath to be snuffed out aimlessly. Eight minutes, and our souls scream out, "Where is the justice? Where is the shalom? Where is the redemption and restoration of all things evil and broken?"

I catalog memories of standing toe to toe with my own brokenness inside the four walls of this house, and I wonder sometimes if the cracks are too many to justify repair. But. There is a deep battle cry that surges from within, that rises up and rushes forth. That says, "Where, O Death, is your sting? Where is your victory?" (from 1 Corinthians 15). When the evil and hate that threaten to consume this world (my own brokenness alongside) say together, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," there is this knowing that gains strength in my heart and responds with even more force.
"Even the darkness is not dark to you" (from Psalm 139)
The darkness will never overcome You, and because I am forever hidden in You, it will not overcome me either.

I have grown here. I have been reminded, time and time again, of my broken humanity. But the cracks in this chipped and fallen vessel have only reminded me of the Potter who uses broken things to restore ALL things. It seems contradictory, doesn't it? That God uses the broken to restore the broken, the incomplete to bring shalom--completion--to all things? Wholeness. Restoration. Utter peace. There is mystery, and today I rest in the beauty of this mystery. Because evil? It never gets the final word.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Next Journey, Part 2: Community Building

She was timid when I met her, obviously worn down from the darkness she had walked through. She was new to town, alone and without housing, support, or hope. She was expecting her third child, and she told me she planned to walk to the hospital when it was time to deliver her baby. She was prepared to fight for her little family, and I immediately noticed how deeply she loved her children. Over the next several months, I connected with her and started walking alongside her in establishing a home and new life for her family. Over the next year, she would become a friend. We are from two different worlds, but she changed me, and our worlds started to meld together in unlikely friendship.
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In my 3 1/2 years with Safe Families, I have met a lot of single moms in crisis. I have scrambled to assemble resources, to place kiddos with host families, to help patch together families deeply affected by poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. But in the last year, a question has weighed heavily on my heart. How do we help families long term? How do we do more than just temporarily patch together families facing hardships? How do we love and pursue these precious souls once we get them through the initial crisis? Poverty is, of course, a hugely complex and multifaceted issue that requires an equally complex and multifaceted solution. However, I began to see a piece of the puzzle emerge:

Community. Relationship.

We all face crises over the course of a lifetime. Hardship is an inevitable part of life in a broken world. How do we respond in the midst of the challenges of life that arise? I know that for me, I would never survive without the community God has given me. A family that loves me, friends who have opened their homes and lives to me, a church community where I can know and be known. God created us for relationship with one another, and we need community.

Many people in our world do not have community, though. In the past several years, I have watched how this lack affects families and generations of families. I have also had a front row seat to the beautiful journey that unfolds when someone chooses to enter into the messiness of relationship with someone who has never experienced the love of Jesus in community.

It is hard. It is costly. It is exhausting. It is demanding.

But it is also transforming. And it is necessary to seeing brokenness restored.

As I have processed all this and watched it play out in my own friendships with women through Safe Families, I have developed a desire to learn how to create places where marginalized people can experience safe community. To learn from those who are practicing the art of moving into poverty-ridden neighborhoods and loving hard. I have been so convicted by how insulated my life can be, and I want to practice throwing the door wide open and stepping into the hard, costly, exhausting, demanding, yet transformative ministry of relationship-building.
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There are so many incredible pieces to this story, ways God has moved and provided and directed. I have shared with you the hard of it all, but there has also been so much good on this journey. I would not be walking this out if I wasn't assured beyond the shadows of all my doubts that this is where God is leading me. So. I'm jumping off a cliff and following Jesus into the unknown, with the full assurance that I never walk alone and this really is what God is calling me to in this next season of life.

At the end of this summer, I will be leaving my hometown and family and all I've ever known to venture out West. I have the opportunity to learn from some folks who are doing these things--missional, incarnational living and community building for those marginalized by society and church culture. Yes, it is hard (as I have shared previously). But I am also excited and ready to learn and use God-given gifts and passions. I am being intentionally vague in this online space, but I would love to share more over a cup of coffee if you are interested in knowing more specific details.
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My sweet friend and her three babies have changed me. Just this week, I stopped by to drop off some diapers and was greeted by the delighted squeal of her little boy and a toothy grin from the baby, now crawling all over the place. I have learned so much from this friend, about persistence in the face of hardship, joy in pain, and the simplicity of just being together. I wonder where both of us would be had we never met. I don't know where this journey will take me, but I think about her each step of the way. I pray that men and women like her will find hope and healing in loving community and relationship with a God who loves them more than they will ever know. I pray that God will continue to shape and transform my heart and life as I learn from the beautiful people who enter it.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

My Next Journey, Part 1: Stepping into Courage (Terrified)

I was a late swimmer. I loved the pool, as long as I could sit on the steps and cling to the side, thank you very much. By the time I was in second or third grade, I still refused to put my face in the water most of the time. My mom did what any wise parent would do and enrolled me in my fourth 77th swimming class. Slowly but surely, her patience and that of the instructors began to pay off. I finally got to the point where I could hold my own in a shallow pool of water, but there was still one obstacle: The Diving Board of Terror. I refused to even touch it with my toe. I thought I would drown if I went near it. One day, I nearly did.

They tricked me. The instructors were determined to get me over this last hurdle, so they told me they would walk to the end with me and lower me into the deep water. I nervously agreed and took that slow, terrified trudge to the end of the board.

I waited to be gently lowered into the water. Instead, I was jolted by a rough shove. I didn't have time to even take a big breath, and suddenly I was under water. It was deep, and I couldn't tell which way was up and which was down. None of my limbs touched a solid surface, and I seriously wondered if I would ever feel the ground under my feet again.

Of course, I didn't drown. And they probably didn't shove me as maliciously as my childish mind deduced. I sputtered my way to the surface, and upon urgently filling my lungs with air, realized that I was stronger than I thought. I could swim! I could really swim! In the deep end!

I don't remember ever being afraid of the pool again.

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I have alluded to big changes coming in my world, and I will share the specifics of those changes in due time. I have to go back a ways first, though, to that diving board moment so many years ago. You have to know this...As I continue to walk this journey out, it feels a little like walking to the end of that Diving Board of Terror and being pushed over the edge.

I want to be the one who looks up at the instructor with a grin before cannon-balling over the edge and glorying in the big splash that ripples from my weight hitting the water.

I want to be the one who is brave and fearless and full of gumption.

And maybe, just MAYBE I will get there one day. I pray my faith continues to increase as I come to know the Faithful One more intimately. But today.

Today I say, "I'm ready!" in a timid voice and inch my way to the end. Today, I squeeze my eyes shut and sometimes even imagine my demise. I know that when I get shoved off the end and take the plunge, I will briefly wonder which way is up and which way is down. I will wonder if I will make it.

But then I will swim.


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My dad was one of the most courageous people I ever knew. He never moved across the world, or stepped into physical danger to save someone else, or really did anything particularly remarkable. What he did do, though, was live missionally and purposefully in his context. Day after day, year after year. He was mocked and dismissed and did not, by any means, live an extravagant life. He would frequently say to me, "Ab, just show up. Half the battle is just showing up." And he did. He showed up, again and again and again. He showed up and he loved and served relentlessly.

As I leap jump dive fall into this next season that God has for me, I think about my dad a lot. I hear those words in my head every step of the way: "Ab, just show up."

Then I pray over and over again:

"Jesus, help me to trust you. Help me to trust you. Thank you for giving me beautiful examples of courage and faith in the people who surround me. Oh, and help me to trust you."

Or something like that.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

When saying yes requires saying no....

This week, I have cried a lot of tears. My inner spirit has groaned as I have counted, over and over again, the cost of following Jesus into the unknown. This week, following Jesus is hard. While I would like to tell you I am handling it beautifully, I cannot hide the wrestling. So here it is...gut level honest. 
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There was a point in Jesus' life and ministry when he was mobbed by crowds and crowds of people following him. Interestingly enough, Jesus turns to the crowds, and rather than cheering them on and congratulating them for picking a worthy leader, he says:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). He goes on to say that unless a person bears the weight of his own cross, a literal instrument of torture, he cannot be a disciple of Jesus. 

Interesting tactic for growing a ministry, eh? It seems as if Jesus is actually discouraging the crowds from following him...raising the bar so high that most will never reach the level of devotion he is demanding. And yet, we read these words today and rarely give them pause. 

Today, I pause. 

Hate my family? Hate my own life? What does that mean?! How?! I've heard plenty of sermons where it has been said, "Well, he is just drawing a drastic comparison...your devotion to Jesus should be so great that every other relationship in your life looks like hate." Peachy. And also very, very aloof and ethereal. I've never really understood how this is supposed to actually look in real life. Until this week. 

This week, I feel like I am hating my family. I feel like I am choosing to follow Jesus and it means that I sacrifice. A lot. But it also means my family and my friends and my coworkers and my church and my community also sacrifice and grieve and experience loss...because of me. Not because of their choosing. And this weight, this grappling with grief and loss and change, feels like a beam strapped to my back. It feels heavy and hard and unwieldy. Frankly, I would love to just ditch it. I would love to stay in my comfortable little tents of ease and familiarity and steady income. But today, following Jesus means tearing those tents down and trusting that I will still remain under the dome of God's refuge. 

In order to say yes to Jesus, I have to say no to a lot of other people. The "no" hurts, but it is necessary for the "yes" to come. So this week I say "no" with tears and groaning and heartache, knowing that Jesus is good and never asks from me what he has not already done himself. I carry this weight, and I lock eyes with the One who carried the weight of the world's pain and brokenness on his back all the way to his death and my resurrected life. Today, I stand apart from my tents, choosing to trust that no matter how hard and costly it is to follow Jesus, it is good because Jesus is good. And that is enough.