Sunday, December 11, 2016

An empty crib and Mary's occupied womb: When life turns out differently than you had hoped

Right now, there is an empty crib in my bedroom, along with dozens of other unfulfilled wishes collecting dust in my heart. I am knocking on the door of 27 and life was supposed to look differently by now, at least the way I wrote it in my dreams. Married with at least one on the way? Perhaps. Or playing the role of "middle mom," rocking a precious child-born-of-another at midnight and whispering in her ear that she is safe? Glorious. At the very least, I should be righting wrongs and solving the world's most perplexing problems. Life was supposed to be different. 

Instead, I stare at an empty crib. Undoubtedly an odd thing for a single, childless, 26-year-old to have in her bedroom. It really was my crack at stealing the pen from God's hand. Maybe I can create on my own this story I thought I should be living, I said. Let's just say it didn't go as I expected. So I take inventory, counting the people in my life who seem to have found the corner on fulfilled dreams. Or at least, they have discovered MY dreams and are living them (whether or not they are one and the same as their own). I stare at December 25th on my calendar, another holiday to be spent single, childless, and not as I had do I make sense of this? 

I think about her and wonder if we might have been friends. With the Expected One unexpectedly cradled in her womb, surely she felt the twinge of dreams shelved to gather dust. How old might she have been? A teenager, they say. Looking at the days and months ahead and perhaps marveling at how far they would extend beyond the storyline she had written for herself. Mother of a child conceived by the Spirit? Did she ever think, "This was not how I wrote the story?" Gone would be the traditional wedding ceremony, friends and family prepared to celebrate a new marriage. Life would never be simple. Did she mourn what could have been? 

We see the story differently, of course. We say, "What a privilege! To carry the Son of God in her womb!" Of course there would be hardship, for watching the child you raised be misunderstood, scorned, and ultimately slain on a cross could not have been an easy road to walk. But she spent years cradling Jesus, first in her womb, then her arms, and forever in her heart. A unique calling for a humble girl. What a privilege!

I think about her and wonder, though. When she "pondered all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:19), did she ever go back to that day the angel visited Nazareth with earth-altering news? To the minutes and hours before that announcement and the dreams that had captivated her heart once-upon-a-time? I can't know, but I wonder. We are told she was "troubled at his words" (Luke 1:29). But then, after Gabriel reveals the plan God has for her as the one to bear the Savior, she simply says, "I am willing to be used of the Lord. Let it happen to me as you have said" (Luke 1:38). 

This is the part that squeezes my heart. When Mary realizes the script is taking an unexpected turn, one that will no doubt bring misunderstanding and hardship and pain into her life (even if alongside honor and privilege), she simply hands the pen to God and says, "I am yours. Write the story as you wish." 

I look at the empty crib across the room, at a story that is so very different from the one I would have chosen, and I tremble in light of this question before me: How will I choose to respond when the story of my life takes a turn for the unexpected? Will I clutch the pen and cling to unfulfilled dreams? Or will I release the pen to the sovereign Author who promises to "finish the good work begun in me" (Philippians 1:6), to "work all things for the good of those who love God in accordance with God's will" (Romans 8:28), to   "never leave or forsake me" (Deuteronomy 31:6)? 

This story of my life is turning out differently than I had hoped, for sure, and there is grief to be had over dead dreams. But there is also indescribable joy as I discover new dreams, breathed into life by a God who pursues my soul on this unfolding journey. Tonight, I want to join Mary in handing over the pen and waiting with baited breath for the next page to be written. After all, God only writes page-turners. I think Mary might agree with me there. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Wonder: Ramblings on Friendship and Community

Just last night, a friend and I were reading about Dr. Patch Adams and his vision for a hospital built around the concept of life-giving friendships and community. In his presentation HERE, he mentions that most adults are unhappy with their lives, and suggests that a significant cure for what ails the human population might be intimacy and friendship.

This idea of healing community is one I have thought about a lot lately. In a nation where we value independence and material possessions over intimacy and vulnerability, is it any wonder our country is so divided? We spend more time in conversation ABOUT people, as if they are political "issues" to be solved, than in actually KNOWING people. Myself included.

My friend Rebecca* has taught me so much about community. I started spending time with her soon after she moved to town. She needed a ride to the store, so I picked her and her sweet little ones up and gave them a ride. One ride turned into another, and then another the next week. These "rides" have quickly become a ritual I look forward to every week. You see, she needed a ride, but I have gained a friend. Every week we laugh together, marveling over the silly antics of her kids and noticing how quickly they are changing and growing. She teaches me about the challenges of being a single mom, and I share stories from my childhood. She constantly amazes me with the way she fights for her little family. She is one of the strongest women I know, and I am starting to treasure our moments together. 

Rebecca has taught me about the necessity of community. In offering a ride, I gained a friend. We learned how to need each other. We need the opportunity to learn from the other and to grow together. We need a chance to build common experiences that will give us understanding and grace for the moments when we disagree or find we come from vastly different cultures. And is it any wonder? You and I were created for relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with the God of the universe. Remember? "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone'" (Genesis 2:18).

What would our community look like if we responded to needs with relationships? If we invited people to our tables and into our lives instead of dropping off food at the closest food pantry? 

How would my life be enriched if I intentionally built friendships with the very people I don't understand? 

How would our faith communities be enriched if we took church to the unchurched instead of expecting the unchurched to come and "fit in" among us? 

What would my neighborhood look like if I was vulnerable with my neighbors, sharing the joys and hardships of life instead of just a terse "hello!" as I rush back inside and lock my door?

I wonder. 

*Name changed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Convicted to the Core

"Did you hear he died on Sunday?" My heart sank when I read the text message. A neighbor, gone suddenly and far too soon. A little one left without a daddy. My neighbor, guys. A neighbor I have spoken to but never pursued. The sort of neighbor you exchange casual hellos with but allow an instinctive suspicion and recognition of differences too numerous to count to build up the invisible divide between MY house and YOUR house.

I just finished writing a different post before I learned this tragic news. A post that confessed a lack of vulnerability and transparency on my part. People comment all the time on the ministry I have entered into, saying all sorts of positive, unmerited things about who I am. The truth? I am a mess, saved by the same God who chose to use the likes of David the adulterer and Rahab the prostitute to do the work of redemption. I am on a crazy journey that means I stumble and fall and make mistakes all the time, and hopefully learn a few things in the process. I long to share this journey openly, learning together WITH you what it means to practice the kind of hospitality that Jesus invites us to live open-arms, pull-out-all-the-stops, love of strangers. The kind of hospitality that seeks to build friendships with those who are vastly different than I am. That seeks to KNOW and BE KNOWN, not so we can just  slap an easy checkmark next to the "service" box in our hearts and minds, because when I see it as "service," the divide that separates "us" from "them" grows.  Relentless, crazy hospitality that remembers that Jesus does not call us to comfort and safety, but to an upside down kingdom where we are to take up our crosses and follow him daily.

In the vein of being vulnerable and transparent, I have to tell you that the news I received today convicted me to the core. I spend so much time trying to "love and serve" others in my community, and yet here is a neighbor--a literal neighbor--I failed to invest in knowing. I encourage people to spend time and resources in opening their homes and lives to strangers, and yet I did not even know--really know--the man who lived next door to me. The whole starting close to home thing? Yeah, missed the mark on that one. Jesus is so gracious with me, but I am so broken over the missed opportunities, the times I chose to lower my head and quickly move about my way instead of engaging. The times I have chosen to stay in my comfy clothes in my cozy, safe little house instead of doing the work of knowing and pursuing the people who live RIGHT NEXT TO ME.

I could easily write it off, but instead I am asking God to work on this lazy, selfish heart. I am sitting in this heart-deep conviction and asking hard questions of myself. Where do I need to adjust my priorities? What does it look like to step out of my comfort zone in my own neighborhood? Do I really care about my neighborhood? If so, does it show?

Today, I am bringing it all back to my street, to the people God has placed right next to me. Sometimes loving your neighbor looks like serving the marginalized on the other side of the world, and sometimes it means building friendships with your literal neighbors. Sometimes it feels easier to "love" those who are on the other side of town, or across oceans. Loving my literal next door neighbor? Well that takes intentionality, and patience, and a day-to-day selflessness that this girl needs to work on.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

When Love Isn't Easy

We met in a dimly lit room. Her eyes briefly met mine before she scurried off into mischief. She is a ball of sass, wound up energy, and hurt she doesn't even know she harbors. She eagerly climbed in my car that day, both of us ready for an adventure. But adventures aren't always easy, you know?

Those first couple days, we survived. We tapped out a rhythm, she and I, figuring out how to keep time with each other. But we never really found that magical beat. I wondered, "Where did I go wrong?! Why can't I figure this out?" Her heart, I'm sure, had questions of its own, questions I could never  answer. Adventures aren't always easy, you know?

She broke one night. Spilled and dumped and splattered feelings and toys all over the bedroom. After it was over, I stewed. I brewed up a pot of black anger, no cream, and my eyes were opened to the darkness of my own heart. The love has never come easy with her. I've known easy love before, the kind that blossoms without even water or nurture. The kind that curls up beside you and warms your insides. With her, I've had to search for it...digging deep, trying to mine moments that sparkle so the ones that dampen don't seem quite so overwhelming. Sometimes when they say "fake it 'till you make it," they mean fake it for a really, really long time. Maybe forever. But that's ok, because adventures aren't always easy, and we put compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience on like clothes (Colossians 3:12).

The other night, I was with some friends, helping their toddler change into his pajamas. The only thing was, he didn't want to put his pajamas on. He fought hard, throwing them across the room. He screamed and clutched at his daytime clothes, not wanting to be stripped of his shirt and pants for those darn pajamas, so-help-him. I think about how often I am just like him. There are these clothes of compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience we are supposed to wear, and I DO.NOT.WANT.TO.PUT.THEM.ON sohelpme. I kick and scream and clutch at my comfortably familiar outfit of selfishness and pride and MYplan and anger. I don't want to take MY outfit off and I CERTAINLY don't want to wear patience or kindness or compassion.

Love is easy when it's easy, isn't it?! I think I expected easy love, and instead Jesus is giving me a good dose of exactly what I needed: Hard love. The kind you have to put on EVERY MINUTE (of every day) because it doesn't come easy. The kind you have to CHOOSE to WEAR. The kind that says, "I'll wipe the snot off your face and clean up the room you destroyed and STILL scoop you up and call you precious." This adventure? It has not been easy. But it is good. And maybe one of these days this outfit of compassion and kindness and humility will fit like I've never worn anything else. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When a step of faith feels like a dive into the abyss

I didn't go to work today. Yes, that was planned and no, I am not playing hooky. Today is my step of faith.

A couple months ago, I was working over 80 hours a week between my "day job" and my ministry with Safe Families. I was physically exhausted and emotionally spent, and God whispered into my heart, "It's time." Time to cut back my hours at work, time to make myself more available to the needs of others. Time to take a step of faith.

It really is just a step. A tiny one, actually. A leap would have been quitting my job, and I am only going to part time hours. But not going to work today feels a little like falling, like I'm diving into the unknown.

As I sit here, sipping my coffee and listening to the sound of the washing machine running, I'm not sure what all this means. I know I'm losing benefits, a significant portion of my salary, and the luxury of security. I know I will be relying on God's provision more than ever now. I know that I am available and ready for whatever is to come. But I have no idea what that is or what it will look like. Thus, the abyss.

Do you ever feel like a couch potato when it comes to matters of faith? Like a tiny step takes every mustered ounce of your strength? I know I much prefer what is comfortable and familiar. It would be so much easier if I quit my ministry, not my job. And believe me, I think about that kind of quitting just about, um, every day. I keep inching forward on wobbly legs not because it is easy or fun, but because that whisper compels me.

"When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, 'This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.' But he answered them, 'You give them something to eat'" (From Mark 6).

You give them something to eat.

Why the bread and fish? After all, the people could have easily found a meal elsewhere. Or had empty stomachs for a night. No harm, no foul. At first glance, this seems like kind of a "small" miracle to me, nestled between accounts of Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, and calming storms. But then I notice...Jesus was inviting his friends into the miraculous. He didn't say, "Poof! Come get your grub, people!" He had the disciples take inventory of what was there, and he had the disciples distribute the food to the people. He blessed the food and multiplied it; they did everything else.

Do you think he was letting them practice their small faith? To flex the same muscle of trust and obedience that would one day become strong enough to do things like build the early church and write what would become Biblical cannon and sacrifice their very lives for the sake of the call? Jesus didn't need his friends' help, but he invited them participate in what he was already doing. He gave them an opportunity to get up off the proverbial couch and take a wobbly step of faith.

What is your wobbly step of faith today? For me, it is not going to work. It is making myself available for what is to come, even though I don't yet know what that is. And today, I am going to whisper thanks to a God who allows me to practice taking wobbly steps of trust and obedience on this journey of faith.

Monday, April 18, 2016

We are not that different, she and I.

I see her life and my gut aches. We are not that different, she and I. Separated by social class and education, but bound together by our humanity, by our grit-your-teeth-and-go passions. She for the sake of her for the sake of babies like hers, whose mamas have fought until they have no fight left to give. She is desperate, and my gut aches. Where can my hands serve her, when systemic injustice and racial disparities heap the mound she is buried under ever higher? I see her frantic thoughts and decisions, and my gut aches. How is she supposed to get from here to there? "They" make it sound so easy..."Get a job!" {but how can she when she can't afford daycare?} "Clean up your filthy house!" {but how can she with kids splattering food and her own sanity splattering too?} "Save your money so you can move into a safer neighborhood!" {but how can she with mouths to feed and school clothes to buy and the scrounged together pennies just don't add up??}

I see her life and my gut aches. Maybe the ache is why so few people understand. The ache is not comfortable, so we stay far away and instead lob impossibly simple solutions across the chasm to feel like we are helping in all our better-than-you-ness. I think to myself, Jesus loved people by meeting them in their mess. He shared meals with outcasts. He touched the filthy and diseased. He embraced children and was scolded for doing so. He got down into the dirt and sat in the ache of broken humanity. When was the last time you ate with the outcast, or embraced the diseased and bug-infested, or scooped up a snotty-faced little one craving the consistent love and affection of an adult?

I look at her life and my gut aches. But I try to remember that she and I, we are not so different. I can't fix her life. But I can get down in the dirt, look into her tired, desperate, lonely, beautiful eyes...and whisper that she is not alone. I don't know how to fix her life, but I do know how to listen and say "I'm so sorry," how to clean dirty kitchens and scoop up an attention-starved little one. Maybe, in sitting together under the heaping mound, we will figure it out.