Category Archives: Kingdom of God

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.

//

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.

//

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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The Consoled, the Insiders

I’ve been reading my old blog, for some inspiration and also to jolt my memory a bit. I am losing myself a bit here, in this space, in this season of life. There are mountains, mountains of snow and ice every where I go, the wind whipping my cheeks raw and red. I am turning 30 in a few short weeks. I have good intentions to read beautiful books and watch heartbreaking documentaries, but instead I laugh my way through Brooklyn 99 and find myself sobbing to 13 Going On 30. I am smack dab in the formative years, the rings of growth spreading outwards, painful, necessary, exhausting. I am bouncing between worlds, between people who argue on the internets and people who don’t have access to computers, between the haves and the have-nots, between all of us trying to love God as best as we can, most of us on the verge of burn-out.

 

Christus Consolator 1851. From https://collections.artsmia.org/?page=detail&id=104894

Christus Consolator 1851

 

I saw this picture in the middle of the art museum. I had run away from my life for a moment, was wandering the cavernous galleries with a journal in hand. This picture of Jesus, tucked into a corner, caught my eye. I read about the painting, and I was crying before I realized, the guard looking at me with alarm and compassion.

Based on one of my favorite passages of Scripture in luke 4, Ary Scheffer, a dutch painter, was inspired by the declarations of Jesus: Luke 4:18: “I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains.”

He painted Christ, in the center, and around him he filled in the broken-hearted.  A woman kneeling with her dead baby clutched in her hands. A refugee with a walking stick. A man lost at sea, a man who killed himself with his own dagger. A poet imprisoned as a madman, three generations of women, all abused. The oppressed throughout the ages–a Polish independence fighter, a Greek warrior, a Roman slave, an African slave. A dying man, with Jesus taking off his shackles. Mary Magdalene, the famously forgiven, kneeling at his feet. Everyone is pleading, stretching, shackled, in agony–and everyone leaning into the Christ.

And he consoles them.

It’s what he came to do. like he always has done, throughout the centuries. He comforts the imprisoned, the sick, the sad, the dying, the lonely. The burnt-out, the lost at sea, those floating out ever farther from the land they staked their lives on, adrift and unmoored by the suffering and pain of the world.

And we who are lost are brought back by one person alone, and that person is the Christ. The one who suffered like us, with us, for us. Who promises to break all the chains, to bring his new kingdom here in this earth. Who hangs out with the outsiders, the ones the world forget. Who sees us for who we are, as the bringers of his kingdom.

We, the ones who most need the consolation: we are the insiders here. I scribble this down in my journal, and I walk back to my life. Every day a chance for my own shackles to be taken off, the ones I put there of my own accord. Every day a chance to tell someone else: there is a place where you are the insider, too.

 

 

 

Thanks to those who have already submitted ideas/essays about “Upside-Down Art“–keep them coming! I look forward to the conversations we will be having in regards to art and how it widens up our world. E-mail me your ideas/submissions at dlmmcsweeneys @ gmail . com. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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mercy > sacrifice

there’s nothing like spending time with family and your closest IRL friends to shine a light on the murky depths in your heart. there’s nothing like rest, of sitting down with no screens in sight, of walking on a foggy beach, running in the pale oregon sun, listening/reading/soaking in the good stuff, the words that will lodge tight and remind you of truths you knew as a child but somehow shoved to the side.

everyone has already said it, but i will reiterate: it’s hard to be truthful on the internet. the levels of complexity here are fierce. i desire authenticity, and privacy. i want to share the deep parts of my life while never betraying the confidences of my neighbors and context and location. i want to process, i want to empower, i want to stir all the pots and but mostly i want to tie up everything in a neat little bow.

this is not how life is, however. so, here i am to say:

lately, it has been hard to drive. this is how i know my anxiety is getting to a place where it is maybe out-of-control, when the thought of driving paralyzes me, when i make excuses and walk or bike or (when frostbite is a real and pressing concern) have others drive me or simply stay at home. i am white-knuckled behind the wheel, the fear always a river running through it, illogical and senseless and frustrating. i am pulling, pulling, pulling on my bootstraps, and this is just one of many areas where daily pep talks are needed just to get myself out the door. the other day i charted a map in my mind of how my dislike of driving has turned to annoyance, then loathing, and now dread. in the chart in my mind, the fears just went up, up, up. i realized, in that moment, that if i continue on this path, there will come a day–perhaps next month, perhaps next year, or even the next decade, when i will be physically incapable of driving.

writing that down is hard, as i want my life to be all about going and obeying God, not fearfully staying in my apartment because it is the only place where i feel i have control, where i can keep everybody safe. and i am quick to point out that i am still doing a lot, i am still going out and saving the world, i am still busy and productive and i have all my little rags of righteousness clutched in my hand. but the question remains: how long can i hold on?

my anxiety, like many i suppose, is partly due to me and it is partly due to a battle being waged that i don’t quite have the eyes to see. oppressions take many forms, both systematic and spiritual, and you can’t seem to fight one without fighting the other. and for me, much of my fighting seems to stem from two competing thoughts swimming around in my brain, two slippery eels which propel me forward into places both good and bad alike, and they are these:

 

1. that i am invaluable to the world, that without me the work of the kingdom will stop, all of these beautiful people will be lost, that it is all contingent on me and my small determined shoulders, the entire weight of the world.

 

and

 

2. that unless i do all the things, God won’t ever love me.

 

 

 

and i really, really need him to love me.

 

//

 

it’s hard to hate the lies, to root them our of your life for good, when they have taken you to where you need to go. i tell other people “don’t do anything out of guilt” and yet guilt is the backbone for much of my life, what i wouldn’t wish for others i gladly accept for myself. there are so many things i love about my life, adore even, and then there are other aspects–the nagging thought that i could always do more, more, more, the sense of worthlessness if the tangibles are taken away, the hysterical sense that nobody is doing enough–that i could surely do without.

i was mentioning this to a counselor not too long back, rolling out my litany of questions i have about my life, should i be doing more or less, tossing out that word that we in the business so often misuse–what is sustainable? i told this counselor about one of my dreams, moving into the high rises where i teach, taking it to the next level. there are many reasons why moving into this place would be amazing, beneficial, and life-giving. there are many reasons why it would also cause my anxiety to skyrocket, how it would grind down me and my little family,  how many things about our life would get harder. but doesn’t that make it the best option?

the counselor nodded her head, listened. and then she said something that shocked me.

you could move in there, she said, that is a choice you could make. and you would be a beautiful flame, a fire burning bright for God. and like the brightest flames, you would not last for very long.

but, she said, tapping into my truest, basest desire:

 

 

you would be very beautiful while you were burning out.

 

 

 

//

the desire to be beautiful is deep within me, which has led me to places that are somewhat close to being extinguished. and i wrestle with this too, because currently in my life i am in a place of smoldering, a sputtering candle, tossed and turned by the winds of the world and the darkness in my own soul. but i think you already know where i am going with this, that it is these half-burnt out flames that Jesus most likes to use.

where my bruised reeds at? he says, looking for the walking wounded, the bent-over men and women, the smoldering wicks. where are my people who don’t even know up from down anymore, who can no more suss out what is sustainable than they can solve the problems of the world? where are my people at, he says, the ones who are beating back addictions, dysfunctions, lies that slink in and out around our ears? those are my people, he says, the ones i will not break. they are the ones i will not snuff out.

i used to think there were only two options for life: burning bright into the dying of the light, or sitting quietly to the side, snuffed out by the cares of life. now i am seeing all the middle places, the flickering candles, the fragile ones, the ones keeping vigil, praying, fasting, singing songs of truth, teaching, believing, creating.

but of course everything about Jesus is so upside-down, so the third way, eschewing the false dichotomies we create in order to love or loathe ourselves. he chooses the half-burnt out, the emptied, the white-knuckled. because it is for us, the ones who have tried so very hard to get both God and the whole damn world to love us based on merit, to whom the burden of following a radical servant-king seems light in comparison.

i don’t know how to end this right, i still want to say i am healed, i am loved, and everything is fine. but the truth is that right now i feel caught in a middle of a brush fire, all of my precious sacrifices going up in flames. and there, on the horizon, on the char-streaked hills, i see a glimpse of my future, being formed even now. i see a flickering candle, instead of a flame. i see a bruised reed, instead of a sunflower. and i see mercy, mercy, mercy, growing in the hardest heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the year of the minivan

we bought a minivan just a bit over a week ago, and i can’t hardly believe it. our car, the suburu we drove over from portland, has been breaking down on us, over and over again. the mechanic told us not to put another cent into that vehicle, and we believed him. we spent a Christmas break cobbling together cars from generous friends to borrow, getting the flu, trying to navigate the wilds of captialist Craigslist without getting yet another lemon. kind, generous people donated money, and for the exact amount they gave we got ourselves a swagger wagon, the opposite of every car i have ever driven. the man we bought it from told us about his sobriety, his kids. he was confused when we declared that the dvd player being broken was a good thing. we drove away in our safe, boxy, gas-guzzler, and i am so continually surprised and confused by this life i am actually living instead of the one i would like to tell you about.

many of our neighbors do not have cars. we are friends with many people who have large gaggles of kids, all of who get extremely bored in this crazy extreme-weather town where we live. in the past, we could only take 2 at a time with us as we went off to explore lakes and museums and pantheon of american consumerism (it turns out pre-teens really, really like going to malls). as we started to think about what beater car we will drive to its death next, the image of a minivan floated through my brain. no, no way, i said. i am a minimalist, i have a shred of credibility, how will i park it in our inner-city life? but it isn’t about me, it never really was, God is having a good laugh about that downward mobility girl driving her 2005 kia sedona around.

because there are somethings that are more important than the ideology i surround myself with, the ways i try to present myself to the world. my life is not about downward mobility, or loving my neighbors, or working and living with the urban poor.

my life is about being obedient, which is all so much harder than that.

and it is never, ever boring.

//

there is another reason we got a minivan. we sent off the papers last week, our application for fost-to-adoption. it doesn’t make sense in so many ways, the legion of which i cannot tell you here. but it’s the same thing, me wrestling through every single horrible, heartbreaking scenario, the voice saying this is not just about you.

nothing can ever be easy, is what i say in my bitter hours, as i fight my way through another day of chaos, as i long for routines and results, never fully expecting either. my next baby will not be grown in my belly, my next baby will be baptized into sorrows that took me decades to find. the next bend, the next year, will only further explore the broken aspects of my neighborhood, my city, my government. i will teach my class, be reminded every day of the traumas and life situations that brought me these strong, survivor-women who are only now holding a pencil for the first time. it’s the year of sending my writing off into the great unknown, of opening myself up for critique and criticism, of struggling to do right by all the people who got tangled up in my story.

none of this is about you, is what i hear, but i don’t know how to take myself out of it. all i know how to do is take the next step.

send in the application.

create my lesson plan.

write a chapter.

knock on a door down the hallway.

drive the damn miracle minivan to the mall of america, tired and grateful as the kids riding along with me.

try so very hard not to shut my heart down to all of it.

because more is coming.

//

i’m sending you off as a sheep among wolves, jesus told his disciples. in my mind i see the sheep, marching white as snow, great gray wolves cowering off to the sides. but what happened to his disciples? i think about it now, sobered and shocked by the actual metaphor: the wolves got them, and the sheep did not come out unscathed.

it’s hard for me to write this, because i know it is true. we are being asked to be the sheep, and it does not mean we will be safe. it means Jesus is sending us out to be wounded, because that is what happens when you open yourself up to love. you will get hurt, very badly. Jesus made it clear: you could die, you could be tortured, you could be beaten and imprisoned and all sorts of other things. and you will, most certainly, get your heart-broken.

as i pray and think about this next year, i am thinking about what it means to be like a sheep. to trust, to put one little foot in front of the other, to head straight for the pack of wolves.

the other words Jesus said, right before that part about getting torn up, was about going out and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. i went back and re-read it today; that’s all he told his followers to say. nothing about doctrine or even that the messiah had come: just go out and proclaim the kingdom of God: healing the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

and that’s where the wolves are–with the ones who are already beaten down by the world: the sick, the hurting, the addict, the broken relationally. the people and situations in my life that scare me the most–the scenarios looping in my mind as i close my eyes–those are the ones who need the most proclaiming. they are the ones Father God has his eye on, the sparrows who are falling to ground in droves, and he counts them one by one. he sees it all, and he is asking me to keep looking, to keep walking ahead.

because it’s the year of love, and all the sadness that comes with it. it’s the year of authenticity over ideology. it’s the year of sheep and sparrows, demons and wolves.

it’s 2014, you guys. it’s the year of the minivan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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