Category Archives: Kingdom of God

The Book

As per usual, I couldn't take a glamorous picture because I have a very crappy phone (which blesses me and allows me to feel smug and superior, but is annoying on the whole instagram level).

As per usual, I couldn’t take a glamorous picture because I have a very crappy phone (which blesses me and allows me to feel smug and superior, but is annoying on the whole instagram level).

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a hard spring and summer, harder than I care to admit; now that everything is better I realize what level of stress and sadness I was operating under. Coming out of a winter where it was colder than mars, we ran headlong into a season of chaos and being crushed under the burdens of trying to neighbor well in intense situations. I thought I became allergic to something, found my throat closing up, started gasping for breath at the most inopportune times. I went to the doctor and had them stick all the needles in my back, but it came back negative. The doctor gently told me that there was no biological evidence that I was allergic to anything. You might want to consider panic attacks, he told me, and I instantly felt foolish. I didn’t know that was what they felt like–I assumed shaking and jittering and crying. Not wanting to drive or talk on the phone of feeling like your throat was closing in on you–this was just my new normal.

Now I breath clear and fine, I have forged through rough relationships and came out tender and new on the other side: what lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves? It is truly a mystery, finding yourself rock solid in selfishness, having the Spirit crack you wide open, deciding that you are the worst and everyone is the worst and why don’t we all consider the lilies together? Because there really are some lovely ones in my neighborhood.

This summer I went back to Oregon for a visit, the place of my family and my people and so many of my threshold experiences. I visited with the Somali refugee family that changed my life, nearly a decade ago now. The girls are tall and tower over me, high schoolers who take inordinate amounts of selfies, giggling into laptops, cooking the evening meal. I wrote a book, I told them, feeling more than a little nervous. They were non-plussed. Oh yeah? I thought you liked to write or something. I pushed ahead. The book has a lot to do with you guys. They look at me, but don’t say anything. You know, how you guys changed my life. How you taught me so much about God, about what it is like to be a refugee, what America looks like to you . . . I trailed off. I suppose I was looking for their approval. They shrug their shoulders and look back at their screens. Yeah, you did learn a lot from us, both of them say. This has been apparent to them since day one. They are bored of this conversation, and pull out a baseball cap that is completely covered in large gold studs, the bling just dripping off of it. Want to take your picture wearing this hat? they ask, and of course I say yes.

 

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Very few people I see everyday care about books. They do not read the magazines I read, they do not adore the same authors, they do not understand the intricacies of industry and marketing and platform, the great big desire to be noticed, to be new, to be good, to be admired. They do not understand how people who publish books can sometimes become giant cardboard cut-outs of themselves. They do not know how easy it is to fall into those categories, to wander in the way of self-righteousness, irony, elitism, hubris, or easy breezy moralism. Most of the people I hang out with are refugees, many of them non-literate, the majority of them all carving out lives in the hard stone of the American Dream. The other person I hang out with is 4, and she is a wormhole of ferocious need, an excellent advocate for herself, a barreling ball of kingdom values (truthfulness, faith, love), and she most emphatically does not like anything that takes my attention away from her.

It is good to be small, good to have more than a handful of identities (wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, teammate, teacher, advocate) that vie for your attention, split you up and keep you on the ground. For awhile I looked in despair at the discrepancies of my life: living and working within one population (people experiencing poverty in America) while writing for another (mainly Christians who come from somewhat privileged backgrounds). But now it starts to seem like a gift, an authentic whole, a way to beat back the sin of pride (which comes at me from every direction). To be small, everywhere. Living in the upside-down kingdom, and writing about it. To try and be honest, to be vulnerable, to open yourself up for the inevitable misunderstandings and criticisms, to forge on ahead and practice forgiving and being forgiven. What lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves?

 

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I was born a reader and fed by a mother who let me be interested in the world, by small-town libraries, by a quest to know truth. But I did not start writing (beyond the college paper or a re-cap of a missions trip) until a few years ago. I now pinpoint the shift to when I had my daughter. I was made small and still by that experience. I had many more hours to contemplate (feeding and rocking and jiggling the baby), and it seems to me writing happens in your head when you give yourself some space to think. So I wrote a few things and sent them off, was legitimized by places I adored and read religiously. And I was surprised to find that the element underlying my new obsession with writing my own words was this: I finally wanted to be as honest as I could. And the only way I could be honest with myself is if I wrote it down.

And in the past 3+ years, that is what I have been doing. Eventually I realized I had written a book. It took me a long way to get to the place of saying I am ready for people to read that book, but here I am. I am over the moon. I am entering into this new part of life, this plan I never expected for myself. I just signed a contract with HarperOne (such a dream choice!) and I am excited for the expertise and the bridge-crossing that this particular publishing house is capable of. I’ll be sure and give you all the particulars as I come to understand them, but for now I just wanted to say thank you. It’s been a hard season, it has been one that has changed me. I am still coming to terms with all of my different selves, especially the ones that I never lived up to. When I started writing, I was finally able to be honest with myself and with God. And it became my way of considering the lilies–especially the ones that the world forgot. When I started writing, I started to finally start being able to understand the radical nature of honest in relationship to reconciliation and forgiveness. And I know I will have to keep re-learning it until I can learn no more.

I guess I just want to say thank you to everyone: thank you so much for reading along with me, for encouraging me and praying and being the cup of cold water that I generally always seem to need. But most of all, thank you for letting me write it out as I need to. It means more to me than you can possibly know.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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the crucified God

“There is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with their alienation” –Jurgen Moltmann, the Crucified God

“For in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves” Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

 

The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned in our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: you have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is. In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand. 

It has taken many years, many relationships, cringe-worthy questions and blustering self-righteousness to get to the place that I am today, a place which is still far from where I want to be. My choice of neighborhoods is just the tip of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel far from the people in Ferguson, but not as far as I was a few years ago; I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.

That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refute that our systems might have the exact same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me before, until I realized what the converse of that equation is.

Those systems are against others.

That sentence alone is enough to stop me. The words sin and repentance and judgement swim before my eyes. But this time, the meaning is different. Turning away from myself, and turning towards God: for me it has looked almost unbearably practical. It has meant turning towards the ones who are being shut out.

It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgement, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep but it has turned out the opposite. The struggle to convince myself and others around that we were not, in fact, prejudiced people living in a very un-equal country–this is what has caused my soul enormous pain and distance from Christ himself.

Because Christ came to suffer with us, and he has no use for people who brightly and loudly exclaim that they indeed are well, that there is no need for radical transformation, no need for someone to save us from the seeds of white supremacy that have been sowed in us from the beginning. So in order to edge nearer to a God who is present in suffering, I had to lay down my mantel of being well. I had to, in the words of a beautiful poet, “start cleaning my house.” 

Make no mistake, I am scrubbed raw and bare and feel the impending panic of how often this process will need to be repeated. But the freedom–the absolute and utter bounty of staring our alienation in the face and telling it to go to hell–is something I will never give up again.

What has and is happening in Ferguson (which is a picture of what is happening all throughout our country) is an invitation to us all. The more we declare that we are well, the farther we will drift from Christ. And he is the only one with the words of life. He is the one offering us his own scars, pleading with us to look at our own. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Our Life

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I graduated with a degree in Bible/Theology in December of 2007, and a few short days later, we were married. We moved into the old farm house next to the mega-church where you were the care-taker/maintenance man. The price was right (free) and the rolling hills and llamas-for-neighbors allowed us to buy a beat-up old drum set and start a 2-person family band (sample lyrics: We’re just two pork chops marinating love/we’ve got each other and that’s enough).

You were still in school, I was working depressing retail jobs, we were young and in love and materially poor. We ate candy for dinner and never worried about anything that happened outside of our cozy house, safe and secure with each other.

At the independent bookstore on campus, that oasis within the storm, I saw a book that would not escape me. Jesus for President. Faux-battered, a precious little lamb on the cover, an intriguing political title. Although we never, ever did this, I bought the book at full price, fresh off the press, and took it home to read.

We took turns, devouring entire chapters, me impatient with your slow and careful reading. Maybe this was our first married fight. We sat together in the over-sized recliner that was there when we moved in, too large to fit through the doors. Squished next to each other, we would talk long into the night: serious conversations about what we were reading. Words like “Empire” entered our vocabulary for the very first time. You were converted intellectually and theologically to the idea of pacifism right away, chasing down the rabbit trails in your mind, finding for you a belief that mirrored your own sacrificial love, your unshakeable forgiving spirit, your sense of God as a very good father. I was captured by the immediate practicalities, casting off the cloak of the kingdoms of capitalism and consumerism. We changed all of our shopping habits, committing to second-hand and doing without, tuned out of all the political discussions swirling around us.

We were being converted, together. This doesn’t always happen, and I know what a precious gift this time was. We were changed, both of us, and we decided to obey together.

The book spoke to us in a time where we could recite the Bible out of both ears yet hungered to know how it could penetrate our spirits and our wallets and our relationships with everyone we knew. The subversive nature of it was exciting, the practicalities beyond challenging. We spent a night or two hopeless at our own complicity. And we repented to one another, and held hands as we tried to move forward.

A few short months after we read that book, we made some changes. I went to graduate school, getting a degree that was slightly less theoretical in nature. You pursued your calling as a notice-er and a peacemaker. We moved into the low-income apartment complex where so many of our refugee friends lived. We said goodbye to the rolling hills and llama’s and our last chance to play the drums as loudly as we wanted to, to live just exactly as we pleased.

And it has never been the same. With Jesus as our President, the world has become so much more complicated. We have been shocked at the amount of confrontation we have run into, the amount of forgiveness we have had to ask our Father for. Nothing is easier, but it has all been so much brighter.

Sometimes, if I am being honest, I still feel a little afraid of what will happen next, now that we have no Empire guidelines to fall back on. All I have is this little piece of Jesus I hold onto, believing that he can heal us from ourselves. And you are here with me, sitting right beside me as I type this out. It helps me to no end that I know we will continue to turn again, to be converted towards the Christ that brought us together, and I pray that it never stops.

And maybe someday we will buy another old drum-set, and start a band where everyone we know will be invited to sing along.

That certainly sounds like something you would do.

 

 

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Other posts in the Book That Changed Your Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

 

 

 

 

 

Look out for a killer guest post coming on Thursday!

 

 

on homesickness

There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I’m home. The sweetness inherent in that thought–of being known and wanted and comforted–is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I’m not. I don’t live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes.

It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.

One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.

Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors

Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me–the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God–quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.

A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.

And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Women, Infants, Children

us, just trying to survive.

us, just trying to survive.

 

It’s been a rough few weeks on the internet. I have wanted to write about violence, #yesallwomen, abusers, rape apologetics, and #howoldwereyou; instead I wrote an essay about WIC.

 

Of course, it really isn’t about WIC (or Whole Foods for that matter). It’s really about a much bigger issue that creeps into my bones: how much I would like to forget about the most vulnerable. In my life, there have been a few times I have been confronted with this, and in the end it is better to face it than explain or medicate or wish it away. The world has always had a hierarchy that was very much at odds with the kingdom of God, and it still continues to do so. Every day I see the fruit of this, teaching English to women who were never allowed to step foot inside a classroom before–due to outright discrimination or due to the constraints of crushing poverty.

I suppose this piece comes out of a renewed sense of wondering how our family is going to grow and the frailties inherent in all of our options. I am also thinking about the meals my daughter eats at the park, all the children who come to get fed. I am thinking about my own #howoldwereyou story, which I would much rather forget. I am thinking about a God who is so relentlessly for the vulnerable that I feel nearly swallowed up in his love.

So it’s not really about WIC. But it is about the good news, for people who tend to not experience very much good in our current world.

 

 

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

 

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:3

The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.

The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.

The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who found themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.

The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly 2 months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was sad and shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remembered the price of formula, the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend in the area of feeding the baby. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.

In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.

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Go on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest.

 

 

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the ministry of watching sparrows fall to the ground

image found here: http://the-worship-project.tumblr.com/post/54327156660/his-eye-is-on-the-sparrow-civilla-d-martin

image found here

 

 

 

 

It has been a few weeks. Death has been stalking this neighborhood. Suicides, both passive-and-not, have haunted us. I have sat in the apartments of recent widows and had nothing to say but “I’m sorry”. I have listened to people as they told me about all of their possessions going up in a blaze, looked at the floor where they and their 8 children now sleep. I have had people clutch my arms, tell me their stories in snippets, beg for bus money. I have heard so much that I cannot share with anyone.

Lately I have taken to chastising myself– what right do you have to be sad? You are just a newcomer, an outsider. Don’t co-opt the grief of others and pretend like it is your own. So I have settled into a numb sort of dullness. Objectively identifying situations with my lips: yes, yes, this is all very sad. But I am floating far above it all, afraid of being an emotional, slobbering wreck; tired of the increased distance I feel between myself and people who are not living this same life; hesitant to plumb the depths of my feelings towards the person who got me into this mess. Who is, of course, God.

Some people feel called to do certain things called by God they say and I listen with envious ears. I imagine a gentle voice, a guiding light, when all I ever feel (like my good friend Jessica says) is a great big shove from the Almighty one. A grim sort of determination is the sheen around everything that I do. Of course, there is joy–I cannot get over the pleasures of living in diversity–but still I think that compulsion fits the bill for me better than calling.

This compulsion does have its benefits. I am good at what I do. I decided I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor, the people on the margins, and I found them. I wormed my way into a situation where I work with them, live with them, eat and shop and play at the park with them. I believe that Jesus meant it when he said the real blessings of his kingdom were to be found with the poor, the sad, the sick and the oppressed. I believe it, but lately it has seemed as if the blessings are such a long ways off. I went there, to the place of promise and the kingdom, and I found crushing poverty, illness and death and depression, systems so broken they seem beyond repair. Where are the blessings? I am starting to demand. I thought I was going out to both preach the good news and receive it as well. I thought I would be a witness to God’s dream for the world and I would get to experience it too. But instead of debating the finer points of Pauline doctrine or sharing the stories of Jesus I find myself sitting in stuffy apartments, listening to sad stories being translated to me. And all I can say is: I’m sorry.

Is this witnessing? Is this being a witness? I don’t get to use a whit of my degree in Theology. Instead, I am burrowing deeper and deeper into the forgotten parts of our world and I am trying to keep my spirit and my eyes open. Really, when it comes down to it, I am not the famous missionary or preacher or theologian I always yearned to be. Instead, my ministry is about watching the birds. His eye is on the sparrow. I know this because he has asked me to be the witness to it, to be his eyes and ears and hands on the earth.

And I am here to tell you, they are falling to the ground in droves.

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A boy wanted me to help him write his life story. It was very tragic, and he was insistent. I vaguely agreed, and then forgot about it. He was found dead this last Wednesday, and the newspapers did not print his name. Anonymous. A body in a neighborhood where no one cares what happens.

Some friends came over the other night and we prayed. I was ready to ask questions of God. I was ready to be angry. I was ready to listen. I was ready for him to speak. I was desperate for hope. We read Scriptures to one another, and they washed me of my self-consciousness. For the first time in a long while, I was able to cry.

My friend Molly read from Zechariah 8, inserting the name of our believed neighborhood for Zion. At the end, the prophet writes this:

 

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going. Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you. (20-23).

 

 

When I heard that, I could not stop sobbing. This is all I ever wanted to do. I never truly wanted to convert anybody–I have never been comfortable with the notion that I have all the right answers. But I have held on very tightly to the robe of Jesus, my priest and my prophet and my king. And he has taken me to places I would never have imagined for myself. He has wounded me and healed me and he has led me to the heart of the city, and to all the nations that reside within. And he has shown me that all the Father God wants is to be in relationship with me. He wants me to entreat after him, to seek him, ask him my questions, tell him of my sadness, burn with anger towards him, beat back the numbness of the Empire with everything that I have got. And all he wants to do is invite other people along with me.

He never wanted me to have all the answers. He wants me to follow Jesus towards the sparrows that the world has forgotten, to stick around and be a witness to their beauty and dignity as they drop, one by one, to the ground.

 

So I guess I am asking if you want to come along. Because I myself am going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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i am the beggar of the world

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I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors–calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones–not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling–a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.

 

 

I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. “I am not interested in the headlines,” she told us. “But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening”.

I’m taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:

 

In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

 

As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren’t there, who felt excluded in some way–due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.

 

I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.

 

 

 

 

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translators

I live in a neighborhood where the youth group comes on Spring Break. I see them prayer walking, prayer giggling, prayer flirting up and down my slushy, grimy streets. I hear them, and I am transported back to last summer, when the churches flocked in to the neighborhood parks, put up awnings, cooked a meal, gave a message. People wandered around in T-shirts that said “Bringing Good to the ‘Hood”. I went there a few times with my daughter, happy to eat a free chicken dinner. But I stared at the people running around in their lime green t-shirts, and I was confused. I forgot, for a moment, that I lived in the hood. Thanks for the reminder. I forgot, for a moment, that there was no good here until you showed up with your microphones and chicken dinners and matchy-matchy shirts. Thank you, thank you for bringing it, I shook my head slowly, wiped the sauce off of my daughter’s fingers.  I felt sorry for the do-gooders who I am now willing to assign positive, if not ill-advised, intent. I felt bad for them, not being as enlightened and humble and missional as I was. I ate my free chicken dinner, on the dime of the large church a few blocks and a million years away from what goes on in this park, and I felt smug.

I had lived here one year. I too, in my heart of hearts, believed that I was bringing good to the hood. I had just learned to not put it on a t-shirt anymore.

//

I am an outsider wherever I go. I on-purpose moved into a neighborhood, a job, a life, and relationships with people who are so very different from me. It takes so much work, every day, just to navigate the perils of these differences. To try and understand better. To try and learn better. To try and advocate in a way that is actually needed. To will myself small, like the little seeds Jesus was so fond of.

But inside there are dreams of large trees, big enough to create safe havens for the birds of the air. I am writing, all day every day, in my head. The disasters, the miracles. The despair, the joy. The abuses, the sadness, the mental illness, the addictions, the disabilities; the perseverance, the community, the colors, the embraces. The erasers taped on to the end of a pencil. A box of free bananas in the hallway. The snow slowly melting to reveal a graveyard of vodka bottles, gray and blue and brown. The youth group roaming outside of my window, hungry and scared for that mysterious, inscrutable kingdom to come. I don’t even know it until I write it all down: I love them. I love everything about my life, even as it pulls me down, forces me to see inside myself in ways I never wished for. And that too, I must write about.

Every day I surround myself with people who are so different from me. Every day I write. There are so many ways I could do it better, so many fears of not doing it right. Like translating poetry, as my friend J.R. says. We have a choice: it is too much work, too perilous, too fraught with complications and you leave it be; or, you pick up your courage and try your darndest to translate to the very best of your ability. Either way, your heart comes out a little bit more broken.

One of my writer friends was talking to me about her own feelings on the subject. She mentioned the War Photographer series we ran here, and how she thought about it often. I just wish, she said, that so many people hadn’t ended in the place of “well, it’s really hard and complicated, so I guess I better not tell any stories”. Her voice is ringing in my ear, echoing what I don’t say often enough, but I believe right to my very core: there are so many stories waiting to be told, and they need to be told well.

I am in the thick of it; my life is a fine balance between learning and practice. Of getting high and mighty and then getting the smugness kicked out of you by life. Of blundering, learning, making mistakes, asking for forgiveness, picking yourself up and trying again. Of becoming paralyzed by our privilege and choices and systems, and forging on to be the miserable, lonely, messed-up agents of reconciliation that we really are.

I still have dreams of large trees, of beautiful safe places for the sparrows of our world. This, of course, is one dream in the kingdom of God. But for me, these types of dreams are so tied to productivity, problem-solving, tangible proof that I am bringing good, one small step away from a lime green t-shirt of my own. And the reality, the way I have seen the kingdom at work in my life is like seeds spilled and scattered on the ground. I am the farmer, oblivious and bumbling, not knowing how in the world these seeds sprout and grow. But they do, the seeds of Christ and his love for his world, they are sprouting all around. Some look like weeds to me, some look like fruit, they all look like people I know and love and am in relationship with. I always thought I would be ready for the harvest, a sickle in my hand, content to reap and be proud of all the good work I had done.

And instead I am being told to sit tight, listen hard, and watch the kingdom grow.  Be prepared to have your heart broken over and over again. Pray for the day when you are no longer needed, and until then translate those poems you are privileged enough to see, the ones that often enough look scattered, lonely, decayed and forgotten.

And stick around long enough to see the good that grows up and out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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#thirtynerdyandsturdy

look what my husband got me this morning!

look what my husband got me this morning!

 

I’ve had quite the week–my sisters flew out to the frozen tundra that is the Midwest to celebrate my milestone birthday (hashtage thirtynerdyandsturdy). I couldn’t think of anything I would have liked more than tromping through art museums, seeing a cheap play, eating Nepali food, going to the Mall of America and seeing how many free things I could get for my birthday (a lot, actually). Then they left on Sunday and just as I was preparing to settle into the gloom and existential crises of it all my husband threw me a surprise “13 going on 30″ party. We listened to our favorite music when we were 13 (mine was MxPx all the way) and talked about the books we read (Frank Peretti and Bruchko for me). Our small apartment was crowded, stuffed to the gills with a crowd diverse in ages and backgrounds. And I sat on my little chair and soaked it in. This is my life: squeezing the celebrations out of everything we can, cobbling together a community wherever we can find it. It is all so hodgepodge, it is never enough, it is enough.

There were a few things I wanted to do before I turned thirty, and not many of them have come true. No books published, no more babies in our house, no miraculous movements. But I keep writing, keep trudging through the paperwork for foster care, keep praying for healings in spirit and soul.  And usually on my birthday I do the old evangelical habit of trying to find a verse for the year. But this time, a poem came out and hit me in the face (in a good way). I guess this is how I know I am getting older: I like reading poems, I am going to learn how to garden this year, all pop music seems very distasteful. Anyways, I read this poem by Wendell Berry and the last lines especially resonated with me:

 

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.

Be like the fox

who makes more trails than necessary

some in the wrong direction

practice resurrection

 

 

A long time ago I committed to the idea that there was one straight and narrow way to serving God. The hardest way, the best way, no room for trial and error and failure in my world of righteous living. But of course I have wandered, and I have been crushed by the guilt of it all. All the decisions I have made in the recent decade of my life, all of the identity makers I have clutched with white knuckles–they aren’t enough for me anymore. And as Christ has so kindly stripped me of these illusions, he has been building me up too. Reminding me of the smallest ways the kingdom of God comes. Like my commitment to glittering all the things. Or my commitment to baking chocolate cakes for uncelebrated birthdays. Or my commitment to journaling every morning, petulant and emotional and expectant. Or my commitment to living in a place where I live and work with the poor every day, because that is where I meet Christ. In every face, every story, every life. It’s all so hodgepodge. It’s never enough, and yet of course it is.

I hear him say: be like the fox. This is the year of making trails. I struggle with this, because my entire life I have been so afraid of going in the wrong direction. He knows this too, and he tells it to me gently:

 

But for every failure, there is a chance to practice resurrection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to read the Bible for all its Worth*

You would think growing up Christian, having consistent times in the Scripture, journals, prayer diaries, attending conferences/lectures/twice weekly sermons and studies would be enough. Or traveling the world and performing plays about the love of God, passing out Bibles, preaching in small and sweaty churches. Or spending years sitting in seats and taking copious notes while learned and honest men lectured on all the truth they had found, getting a degree in Bible and Theology.

But in the end, it’s not enough to make you want to read the Bible, for the words to swim alive in front of you, for you to walk away a changed person.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Bible. I love it, I’ve been reading it since I was literate. There have been some seasons and years where I wasn’t so keen on it–it became a textbook, it became a millstone around my neck, it became one more thing I was failing at. But in the past few years, the Bible has slowly wormed its way into my life, a steady presence, something I long for, cling to, read in a state of astonishment and mild desperation. If you are not in a similar place, I totally get it. I’ve been there too. So I wanted to think about what are some of the practices that I have developed that have caused me to fall back in love with the Bible. Here are a few of them:

 

1. Read it with people who have never read it before.

This one is a life changer. This means you will have to step outside of the carefully constructed ghettos we build for ourselves–we have to find the unchurched. The ones who would never feel comfortable stepping inside of our houses of worship. We find those people, we read the Bible with them–and we watch. We see the Spirit of God hovering on the page, watch how people are drawn in, sucked into the stories, watch as their lives change. This has been the single greatest miracle of my life. My faith has grown in leaps and bounds, and I have been so blessed by reading it with the new eyes of my friends–a messy, chaotic, book and a very loving God. If you don’t know anyone who hasn’t read the Bible, it’s time to start widening that circle of yours.

 

2. Read the Jesus Story Book Bible at night to your kids (or yourself).

Life is hard, the days are long, carry on warrior. I count the hours until bedtime, and then miss my daughter terribly as she sleeps deeply and sweetly. Every day I hear stories of sadness and perseverance, every day I have to nod my head and think yeah, that’s how it is here. Life is really, really hard. And then I read the pages of this book, the one I pray my daughter will someday love, and I find myself crying. Stories of the unloved and the unheard, the short and the messed-up and the silly and the sad, all being given a chance to be a part of God’s dream for the world. Every night we read a story, and we are circling through the book again and again. The truths are getting sunk into my bones, I go to sleep with the stories playing in heart.

 

3. Play around with it.

A simple story I have heard my whole life, but with the pronoun changed: “And Jesus said to her, “arise, pick up your mat, and walk“. For the first time, I considered that Jesus might have been speaking to me. That he wants me to walk. It took my breath away. Read the Message (gasp!). Re-write the stories in your own words. Allow for emotions like confusion, disgust, anger. Be prepared to be surprised.

I recently did an experiment where I re-wrote the Sermon on the Mount in more socially acceptable language. It surprised me, kicked me in the gut a bit, all of the words me and my culture seem to have put into Jesus’ mouth (if you want to see it, my re-write is over at A Deeper Story today).

 

4. Be prepared to obey

Maybe that word has weird connotations for you, so I will say it in another way: be prepared for your life to turn upside-down, as soon as you start asking yourself: “ok, so what do I do with this?” This one follows #1 closely. People who have never read the Bible before don’t spend a ton of time arguing over weird and minute theological points. They do tend to apply the Bible in instantaneous and unorthodox ways, able to identify patterns that need to change, asking God for the help to do it. Once you are in a similar place, be prepared for how life will get crazy. What if you actually believed God loves you? That Jesus came to make the world a better place now? What if you actually forgave everybody, even that person who doesn’t deserve it? What if there was nothing you could do to make God stop being for you? It would change your life, wouldn’t it?

 

5. Live like you need it.

Be despairing, despondent, mixed up and muddled. Be tired, forlorn, weary and burdened. Be lonely, be sad, be sick with a chronic illness in your body and in your mind. Know all the right answers in your head but have a huge, gaping chasm in your spirit. Be overwhelmed with life. Be messed up, and show up anyways. Open up the book that has changed so many before us and will change so many in the future. And recognize yourself in those pages–those horrible, murderous, ridiculous men and women–and realize that they are the ones bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.

And so can you.

 

 

*Actual title of a book I was required to read in Bible College. I don’t remember a blessed thing in it.

 

 

 

How about you? Do you have any experiences on what has helped the Bible be a living, breathing, cutting-like-a-sword book?

 

 

 

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