D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Kingdom of God

The Year of the Bully, The Year of the Artist

If I could characterize it, I would say that 2016 was the Year of the Bully. Personally and on a national level this was true for me and mine. If you love all the things that come with oppressive power—perks, privilege, your own empire safely guarded—you probably had a pretty good year. But if you are someone who has suffered at the hands of others, if you are not at the top of any particular ladder, then you know that crushing feeling when you realize it is the one who wants to harm you who once again gets all the power. It was a year where it became crystal clear that our world is oriented towards the abusers. 

When Donald Trump was declared the winner on Nov 8th I could not sleep at night. My own energy already worn thin by life, I suddenly discovered I was down to the dregs of my ability to empathize, and it went to a scary place. I imagined the children sleeping in beds all throughout my neighborhood. I felt their fear, their worry, the way they were grown beyond their years. I saw myself, safe and sound in my house—white, privileged—and I saw everyone around me that I loved be carried off by a wave of hatred. I watched myself remain while everyone else was swept away into suffering. I was paralyzed by grief. In my mind I started prepping for the end of the world.

But as luck (or providence) would have it, I happen to live surrounded by survivors. My neighbors, mostly refugees and immigrants, when they have chosen to share, display a wide range of reactions towards the past year and those upcoming. What they do choose to share is both heartbreaking and inspiring. They will not ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. They push me to do the same.

I’ve been learning from others, as well. People for whom America has never been the promised land. This is the year when the majority of white evangelical Christians were loud and proud about their bullying ways, revealing true natures that I have long tried to apologize for. To save my faith in the wider church my husband and I drank like people dying of thirst from the books and podcasts of people of color. They reclaimed our religious words and infused them with real meaning. Is it possible that the Jesus we have tried so hard to follow really is good news for everyone? Is it possible that God’s kingdom has a place for my neighbors? Is it possible that white supremacy is not God’s dream for the world? These pastors and prophets and poets said yes. Their faith is like diamonds in my eyes, something glorious and true that only comes out of intense pressure and suffering. 

//

I got the chance to go to Montgomery for a few days last week and I took it. I paid my own way, but along with a crowd of other people who spend their lives thinking about Jesus and Justice, I got to spend a morning and afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative, the place where Bryan Stevenson has poured his heart and soul into. Is it a law office or an art gallery or a museum or a halfway house or a living testimony to a history most people would prefer we forget? It is all these things, and more. I was only there for a few hours and I knew: it was kingdom ground. 

If you haven’t read Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, I urge you to stop now and remedy that (I wrote about it and Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman last year). In Just Mercy, he highlights the dire inequality of the criminal justice system, looking mostly at death row cases in the South. There is a reason Stevenson moved his life and work to Montgomery. As he met and talked with us, he told us just a bit of the history. On the wall behind us in a conference room there were rows after rows of glass jars, filled with soil. They were gorgeous, filling the room with rich tones of red and brown with hints of gold and green. But upon closer inspection, you discover: the soil in each jar is from a specific lynching that happened in Alabama. To stare at that wall, the jars towering above and on either side, knowing this is just one state, these are just the documented ones, this is just the smallest slice in the terrorization of black bodies that has been sown into the very ground of our nation. 

A man came in to talk to us. His name was Anthony Ray Hinton. He was on death row in Alabama for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. He is a lovely man. When he spoke it felt like a testimony in the truest sense of the word. “I wish I could tell you that the state of Alabama made a mistake, but the truth is—they didn’t.” They arrested and tried him on purpose, because he was a poor black man, and they could. Anthony speaks in a gentle voice and tells us funny and sad and poignant stories of how he learned to deal with his life in prison. He told us about how he went away in his mind, how he travelled all over the country, how he came back occasionally to check on his body. He made us all laugh, is the thing, he was and always will be a man with a sharp sense of humor, he made us see how he survived, at what people who are like him have to do to make it out. 

 me and Anthony

me and Anthony

Anthony does not hate. Anthony loves God. Anthony bought himself a California King sized bed when he got out but he still can’t sleep in it unless he curls his knees up to his chest, because that is how he had to sleep on his tiny bunk in his 5x7 cell. When Bryan Stevenson came to visit him in prison Anthony said he heard a voice saying “this is God’s best.” Bryan worked and got famous ballistics experts to prove the bullets from the crimes committed did not match the gun found in Anthony’s mothers bedroom. They had to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court since Alabama refused to re-open the case. And finally, finally when they were forced to, they said they no longer saw what they had 30 years ago. And Anthony walked out, he felt rain on his face for the first time in 30 years.

There was so much more I learned in my few days in Montgomery. I hope to share more about it at some point. But what I want to say right now is this: Anthony is God’s best to me, and to you. He is a prophet, revealing the true nature of our systems, how they only work with those who have power. 

Every year for Anthony has been the year of the bully; for so many people I know and love they can say the same. For me it is new, and it tastes sour like betrayal, bitter like fear—and yet, there is something else. Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton, and countless other people I have been listening hard to this year—they all say the same thing: we have to have hope. Faith is easier, said Bryan. You can keep doing what is good just because you know it is right, without ever believing that you will change anything. Having radical hope in the face of extreme injustice is much harder. And yet, it is vital for the days coming.

//

If 2016 was the year of the bully then 2017 will be the year of the artist, I think. 2017 will be the year when Matthew 25:40 becomes the watershed verse for those professing to be Christians. “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” 2017 is the year we can change who we are listening to. 2017 is the year we stand up to the bullies. 2017 is the year we look for God’s best exactly where our culture tells us to see the worst. 2017 is the year our faith becomes true, and beautiful, and terrible to those who are in power.

And lastly, it is my hope that 2017 is the year the least of these will lead us, in all ways—through stories and songs and testimonies and Facebook videos—it is the year they will lead us to Christ himself.

 

 

 

 

 

*If you have a moment, I invite you to explore the Equal Justice Initiative's website. It is a treasure trove of information

 

 

 

 

A Visible Life (Or, an Update on That Brutally Honest Christmas Card)

 

You know things are better when not all the sad songs seem to apply directly to your life.

 

It’s been about 6 months since I wrote my brutally honest Christmas card, which astounded me with how it seemed to resonate with so many. But I shouldn’t really be surprised, since the walking wounded is my tribe and my family, since I live surrounded by survivors of the very worst situations the world has to offer. Six months ago I was still in the trenches of a darkly gray fog—call it PPD, or PTSD, or Secondary Trauma, or just plain old grief at processing so many transitions in such a short amount of time—whatever it was, I had it. And each morning I woke up knowing it was still there, sometimes a friendly little Gollum, sometimes an oppressive weight that I prayed aloud against. Sadness became a part of me, and the hardest part was wondering if it would ever go away.

I stopped having panic attacks, eventually. I went to see a counselor for a few months. I took low doses of a medication to help me sleep and to also combat depression. I watched Tom Hanks movies like my life depended on it. I trained and completed a half marathon, letting my thoughts wander wherever they wanted to go. I did not hang out with a lot of people, because it was very hard for me to pretend I was OK, to talk about kids and jobs and whatever else I thought was expected of me. I wanted to be intense and quiet and a little rebellious. 

I hated my new neighborhood, but tried hard to fight that feeling. I slowly found a sense of solidarity with it instead. As it turns out, depression, coupled with having young kids and zero dollars, is one of the best ways to get to know your new neighborhood. We took walks, we hung around, we never went anywhere, because there was nowhere cool to go (plus, someone would have been in tears anyways). Slowly, we started to recognize people, and they recognized us. We got a sense of the layout, of the atmosphere, we learned things that you can only learn by staying put and being quiet. Even though it was a burned-our suburb, the new face of poverty in America (payday loans and 7-11’s being some of the only stores within walking distance)—I started to try harder to look for the good. Mexican food, I decided, along with the incredible view of Mt. Hood. Tacos and a great view of the mountains. Lift your eyes up to the heavens, then lower them down to your plate. Say thank you, and eventually you will mean it.

Things have simmered down emotionally, but it is not perfect. I get thrown back into chaos over simple things: reading a story of a missionary trying to do good, for instance, or by the thought of my baby getting his shots next week. These moments of irrationality (I am no longer doing anything of value with my life! I don’t want my baby to get sick and die!) remind me that I am not in control. And in my own small way I am grateful for that reminder. Because control itself is a big fat lie, one that I will have to keep beating back with all of my worth if I am to make something of this chaotic, delicious existence. None of us could ever really be rich enough or safe enough or praised enough to satiate us. No, we have other, much deeper wells we need to be digging.

A few months ago, we started helping out at the homework club our friend and neighbor started. The kids are wild and scrumptious, all over the map scholastically, and when it is sunny they play soccer in the busy parking lot because there is nowhere else to go. I started an English class, really an excuse to meet people and to help them meet each other. It’s like a little gathering of the United Nations, we are a map of people from the most war-torn countries you have read about in the newspapers. The troubles of surviving pile up in front of me as people tell me their stories and situations and I feel the old temptation to despair. But how disrespectful would that be, to wallow in sadness when their bright eyes are in front of me, wanting to learn and change and grow and thrive. I learn from them, is the cliche thing I am trying to say. I learn how to get better, because every day I see it modeled in front of me.

I can feel it, like the changing of a season. I am entering into a new phase of life. I feel incredibly visible, like I am living in a fishbowl. Now that we know people, if we step outside our back door into the communal courtyard the interactions are immediate: women inviting me over for tea, women waving from the balconies, commenting on my appearance, children wanting to play with my daughter or eat the few tiny strawberries we are growing. I feel like I am living in the Oregon (and happier) version of a Ferrante novel, everyone living life in the sight of each other. I try and wear long, baggy clothes, conscious of my mostly-Muslim neighbors. Our small little prayer time that we hold weekly is growing, slowly. We say the same words to each other, every week, as we share the joys and sorrows of our lives: O Lord let my soul rise up to meet you, as the day rises to meet the sun. Every day, every morning, every week. Look for the mercies, they are new every morning, even if they are surrounded on all sides by lamentations. 

I also wrote a book, and copies are making their way into the hands of reviewers and endorsers, and soon enough—to your hands too. It’s a different way of being visible, and I am not quite sure what to do because I don’t live next door to you. My story, my thoughts, my neighborhoods and how they have changed me—they will all be laid bare before anyone who wants to judge. But instead of focusing on that, and my fears and insecurities, my pride and my hubris, I am trying to look for the good. And that, as always, is connecting with others through our hearts. Connecting with others who wanted to change the world, or thought they did, or thought that in some small way they could make it all better and possibly convince God to love them just a little bit more. 

I have some exciting things coming up in the next few months, podcasts and articles and giveaways and blog series. I’m going to be preparing to send the book of my heart into the world, and I look forward to hearing from those who read it. To all who have been with me on this journey—from the beginning, or maybe just from last week—I am so grateful. You have been a part of helping me heal in a way, as well. You continue to help me move forward, and you show me that it is possible to love neighbors both near and far.

 

 

 

Also, if you pre-order the book now it is currently on Amazon for a little over ten dollars. Get it!

Here is what one of my literary heros, Kyle Minor, has to say about it:

As always, if you would like updates and/or links to places I have written or spoken in the past month, please sign up for my newsletter. I will be sending out a juicy one soon!

 

 

 

On Top of the World

In the airplane, I put on my headphones [this is the first time I have flown since we moved back to Portland 10 months prior, the first time I have ever left my baby behind, the first time I am going somewhere to talk about my writing, the first time I wore boots and a faux-leather jacket borrowed from my sister in order to appear confident, calm, professional, put-together].

The words and music that pour forth unnerve me [ I had listened to my husband’s weird and wild and quirky album before, sure—while I cleaned the house or had the same conversation ten times in a row with my child. My husband knew for some reason I needed to hear it through his fancy headphones, in a suspended place, I needed to pay attention. My husband is bearded, kind, adorable. He hides his angst and is learning to better understand that it is OK to be angry at things that are unjust and unwell].

During my talk, I unabashedly cribbed from my husband and his songs [I said, to a certain extent, that I love to write troubled, to write scared, to approach our life and work and our compulsion towards meaning-making with a bent towards complicating matters. Heaven knows Twitter wants to take my thoughts and make them short and snappy and sanctimonious. Heaven knows I want to be seen as good and perfect and an artist and an activist. Heaven knows we are just grappling, all the time, with the ways the devil convinces us that the world should work]. 

So here, I will just leave them here. The words that reveal so much about our hearts. We long for that equitable kingdom to come. We long for it to not cost us so much. But the very best things are worth everything, aren’t they?

 

 

Top of the World 

By The Maiden Name

 

 

top of the world 

bourgeois at least 

it’s clear it’s engineered 

for folks like me 

top of my game, I mean top of the game 

but then again from my end I didn’t really have to compete 

 

white, straight, master’s degree 

cards lined up in hand, so it’s guaranteed 

that this world will work for me, was built for me 

my demographics is my skeleton key, 

 

at least this system runs 

so let’s tweak it gently 

yeah, when the Kingdom comes, 

let’s, let’s change things gently 

 

power isn’t a problem 

gotta get it in the right hands 

fingers in front of me are fit enough 

just watch, I’ve got compassionate plans 

 

let’s raise wages just enough 

don’t raise the prices 

and don’t lower my salary 

or take away any of my write-offs 

 

we’ve basically arrived, right? 

seems like it from where I stand 

at the top the game, it’s good 

offer the less fortunate a helping hand 

 

justice vs. compassion, take the latter every time 

it feels better to give than to pay a proper dime 

 

let’s raise the valleys 

without tearing the mountains down 

I want justice to roll down like river 

but I’m afraid I might drown 

 

I’m opposed to violence 

and I’m opposed to not feeling safe 

and when those two come head to head 

I’m still not sure which choice I would make 

and I used to avoid paying war-taxes 

by keeping my income low enough 

but with both of us working 

can’t bring myself to donate the surplus 

and my neighbors next door 

yeah, they’re on the run from war 

while I’ve been sitting on my sofa 

writing theology behind closed doors 

yeah, I’m safe and I’m secure, 

even in my neighborhood 

they say it’s the hood, hood 

but I know that I don’t look like you’ll think I’m up to no good 

 

so I walk down dark streets 

and I don’t look over my shoulder, 

and if there’s no one I have to meet 

then I’ll walk a little slower 

without a worry or a care 

I take my walks without falter 

maybe that’s the reason why never had 

any use for the Psalter 

 

question: can I ever be saved? 

you know my face looks enraged 

but I have slave trade chocolate 

silently running through my veins 

before we give these valleys a raise, let’s wait 

cause I’ve escaped the curse at the cost 

of inequality’s iron rod 

of others being crushed by the weight 

of a system I did not create 

but I’ve bought into it in a literal way 

my money for products at a low wage 

my vote working in what I pay 

my heart in exchange for what I gain 

my soul in exchange for what I save 

I’ve never worked the ground from which I was made 

-can I ever be saved? 

 

Up on a mountain looking down 

you only see loss 

so when the Kingdom comes 

I know it will come with a cost 

I know it cost someone like me a lot 

 

I want to justice to roll on like a river 

its current to flow strong and mighty 

but I want to keep my feet dry 

and from what I hear that’s just not likely 

 

what did I go out into the desert to see? 

a wind-swayed reed? 

did I hope to stay as I am? 

or did I hope to be redeemed?

 

 

(You can listen to the song/hear the rest of the album here)

 

 

 

 

The Privilege of Lent

Lord, not many of us could sustain hope in the midst of such horrors as Apartheid South Africa. Thank you for the witness of people like Nelson Mandela, who remind us that hope is a lifeline for those who hang by the threads of injustice. As long as there are people held in captivity, oppressed, and denied basic human rights, help us all to consider ourselves to be hanging by the same frail threads.
— From Common Prayer for today

 

I drive 25 minutes to my parents house, my children in the backseat. We take the back-route, winding through our burnt-out suburb and heading into the hills and farms and subdivisions. Every once in awhile the trees clear out and I see them, scattered up and down the gorgeous green hills: large houses, in various shades of brown, pristine and similar. Every once in awhile the thought creeps into my brain: there are enough people in this area to afford to live in these houses? Houses that cost upwards of half a million, 4 and 5 bedrooms, backyards and play structures, two car garages? How can there be so many people with money, I wonder, truly in awe. But it's obvious to me that this is true, although it does not speak to my reality. As soon as the questions appear in my heart I shrink back into myself. The layers of disbelief, judgement, sadness, isolation come and go in waves. I am starting to make peace with the idea that I might always be in culture shock, all the rest of my days.

In a book I am reading, the author discusses two stories which are placed side by side in the Scriptures, but which are often told separately. First, Jesus stands on top of a great green hillside, and he feeds the 5,000 people. And right after that, his disciples go out on the water and get caught up in a terrible, chaotic storm, where Jesus eventually meets them. The book said, we look at those two stories side by side, and we accept them as true. For every person sitting on a hill with Jesus, their every need met, there is another in the midst of a terrifying pitch-black storm. Both are real. And the sooner we accept the truth of where we are, the sooner we can accept the truth of where others live. 

This leaves me weepy with gratitude. It feels beyond my power to change my personality anymore. I am a stormy person. I am more Hamilton than Burr (I can't talk less or smile more). I am also drawn to other such persons—the hollow-eyed, the doubters, the single-minded activists, the outsider voices. And this is ok. This is my reality, and I accept it (even as I wish it weren’t so, as I wish it were all easier, more tidy, that I was more content). And already, by voicing this, I can see it starting in my heart: my indifference towards others is getting smaller. I can see us all coming from different places, I can see the beauty in a kingdom that thrives on vast and varied lives and perspectives. 

At least, that is what I am hoping for. Hello to being honest about where we are, whether in the storm or on that great, green hillside. 

//

The way I celebrate Lent is very non-denominational. It’s all over the map. It is for the messy and tired and for people who can’t parse out all the theological reasons for it. Some years I skip it altogether, and it’s great. But this year, I feel the prickling to actually do a few things. Like: I will not be mindlessly scrolling on my favorite social media spaces (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I’m not going to check out any hot new book titles from the library. I will decrease the clutter of words and focus on a slow reading of my own bookshelves, choosing those books that nourish me. I hope to create some emotional margin in my life so I can start an ESL class/tutoring time in my apartment complex. I will be praying along with Common Prayer every morning (feel free to join me!). I want to start dreaming up ways for me to get outside the boxes I still continually build up for myself. 

But there is something else, something more amorphous, that I am feeling drawn towards this year. Pope Francis says we should give up our indifference for Lent this year, and I agree. And we all flounder in this area, no matter where we live—at least, I certainly do. Lately I have found myself surrounded by books and tv shows and churches where there seemed to be no sense of the struggle. The struggle against inequality, the struggle against complement consumerism, the struggle against a system that isn’t just broken but rather insidiously designed to elevate some at the expense of so many others. Any time someone mentioned a good gift from God I wanted to scream and cry in rage, my mind flooded with the thoughts of all of those who don’t receive that same thing. If you are blessed, does that mean they are cursed? I had lost it, all of my perspective—whatever that means. I had a bad week and my depression made me feel alone, drifting further and further into my own mind. 

But then I opened up this book in a coffee shop and I was sobbing before I knew it, especially when the author started talking about testimonies:

“Jesus fed me when I was hungry, we hear, and those who are hungry feel bereft. Jesus healed me when I was sick, say the healthy, and the burdened feel more burdened. Meditation cured me of depression, say some, and others make plans to hide the Prozac. Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglued. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shadows some and it shelters others . . . Hello to what we do not know.”

And there it was, what I needed to say: hello to recognizing where we are.

Hello to the hard work of not becoming indifferent to all of those not in the exact same spot as ourselves. 

//

Today is Ash Wednesday and I will not have time nor be able to attend a service. I will not be marked by an ashy gray cross on my head, but this is OK for me. I grew up never celebrating this particular holiday, I would feel like an outsider amidst the language and the ritual, but perhaps in the future I will risk baring my ignorance and attend one all the same. I think about what I know of Ash Wednesday, how it begins: a bright green palm leaf, so exotic, so full of promise, waved around a sanctuary by joyous and un-scarred children. And then, that same leaf, a year later: dried out, burned, ground into ash, smeared onto the foreheads of murky, complicated souls on their way to the next trial to be overcome. 

I have been thinking how marked I have been by my life, by my friends, by all the very hard stories I heard last week, or last month, or last year. What a sorrow, what a privilege, to be scarred like this. To carry a reminder,  everywhere you go.  Always, always, hidden in your heart: the ashes of those lives around you which are hanging on by a thread. 

 

Lord, hear our prayers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Brutally Honest Christmas Card

Edited on 12/13

When I wrote this post with my regular (small) audience in mind, I had no idea it would resonate with so many. My intent was not at all to ask for help for ourselves, but rather just to engage in the practice of radical vulnerability. Thank you all who have reached out to ask if you could donate to our family financially. Since there are so many others struggling (and with far fewer safety nets) we ask that if you feel moved, to donate to a reputable refugee resettlement agency, such as World Relief

 

Hello! Greetings from the Mayfields. This was our hardest year ever, and we still haven't recovered!

In the past year we:

Left our mission organization. I experienced a traumatizing pregnancy and birth and nearly died. Our baby was born a month early and had to be hospitalized for several scary days at 6 weeks old. We moved across the country and said goodbye to amazing friends and jobs. We put our daughter through a hell of a lot of transition. Our baby never did learn to sleep very good.  Our van broke down never to be resurrected. We moved to the outer edges of Portland, a food-and-culture desert. We moved into a cramped, loud, chaotic apartment complex. Our upstairs neighbors drove their car into my daughter's bedroom. My husband got a job but it is taking forever to get back on our feet financially. Every month we hope that this time we won't qualify for food stamps, but it hasn't happened yet. My anxiety got so bad my body decided to get depressed in order to "fix things." I wrestled with my book manuscript, but it's hard to edit when you are sad and aren't sleeping and have little people to care for. We became very isolated, partly on purpose, partly because we didn't have the energy to reach out to old friends.

 

It was the year of hard things. Temper tantrums, anxiety disorders, strange fevers, panic attacks, shut-down souls. We have been in survival mode since April, we are shocked that we are still not out. We grit our teeth as we agonize over every purchase, every stomp from above that keeps us up at night, as we stick close to our apartment complex due to lack of money and a baby who doesn't like to be out too long. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity. It doesn't really help.

 

But the other day we came home after being at my parent's house for a few days (they were fixing my daughter's wall, due to the aforementioned car) and as we walked in I said I missed this place. Just a tiny, pleasant, normal thought. It felt like our place. It didn't feel like a huge mistake. I wasn't resentful, or despondent. I missed our apartment. That was a pretty big deal. 

And I do, I see glimmers of our new normal. I cut all my hair off. Neighbors dropped by Afghan food and we ate it standing up in my kitchen, wanting to cry with how good it tasted, how lovely it felt. My husband wears ties and listens to problems from people on a wide spectrum of mental health and resources. The baby giggles at everyone, baring his dimples. My daughter taught herself to read this year, she is friends with blonde boys named Lucas and black-haired boys named Mohammed, and now she gets to spend every holiday with cherished cousins and grandparents who dote on her. I'm going to start an English class in January. My baby is going to start crawling. We are going to have a savings account again. We are going to have to keep learning to be generous, vulnerable, hopeful, grateful. We might go to church more Sundays than not.

 

But perhaps the most significant thing is that Jesus is no longer an abstract person, a walking theology, a list of do's and dont's to me. This is the year I recognized him as my battered, bruised brother, and I see how he never once left my side. 

 

Every year I think now this year, this is the year I finally *get* Advent. The sadness, the waiting, the longing for all things to be made new. And every year I do understand it a little bit better. This does not show any sign of stopping.

It's been our hardest year yet my husband said. He paused for a minute. But our kids sure are great. We don't have the energy to pretend we are OK, because we aren't really. But the light around us remains, we take our mercies as we get them, we see a new year just around the corner. Maybe, just maybe, this one will be a little bit easier. 

 

 

 

 

 

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re-entry shock

This is a picture of me in our new apartment, taken maybe a week after we moved in. Today on facebook I was asking people to weigh in on a few pictures I had taken to be my new real-life-author headshots. The one everyone liked best was the one where I was smiling, where I looked very cute and accessible (it should be noted that last week in a fit of emotions I went and got all of my hair cut off). They are pretty great pictures, and I am sure you will see the official one here soon enough.

But it made me think of this picture, which my husband took without me paying any attention. It is a picture of how I really am these days, nothing posed about it. My husband loves this picture but he was afraid that when I saw it I would find things to dislike about myself, that I would let the truth and beauty of it wash over me. He was nervous to show it to me but when I laid eyes on it I loved it immediately.  I love it, I love that chubby, squishy baby and his beautiful, sad mama. I feel such a tenderness for them both.

// 

A few months before we moved back to Portland my husband and I were discussing how difficult it would be, the transitions and all of that. We were discussing all of the upcoming changes for us, what it would be like to return home after three years away. I was very stubborn. I am never going to re-enter Portland I told him. I just flat-out refuse. Whenever we came home to visit, to see family or support raise or whatever, people would always remark on how quickly the time had passed. It's been three years already? Wow!  And we would smile and nod because for us, those three years were as slow and rough as a stalagmite forming, the drip drip drips of us changing and hardening into new creations.

We've been changed, is the thing. Trauma has carved deep grooves in our foreheads and brain hemispheres and the blood vessels in our bodies. Love has stretched us wider than we thought possible. We are quicker to believe stories of oppression and injustice from people who look nothing like us. We are less knowledgeable than we were before, which sounds like a negative but it could have been the best thing to ever happen to us. 

We aren't humble but we have been made low. We picked a place to live in Portland where we could sit in proximity to the outer rim of the American Dream, the place where people get caught in the vortex of spinning after safety and security and a roof over their heads. The kids play soccer at night and I hear them laughing in so many different languages. They peer into my living room when I least expect it. Men in underwear lounge in doorways and smoke cigarettes, women push strollers and bags of groceries from the store many miles away. I am one hundred blocks away from the Bible College where I met my husband, where our journey started almost a decade ago. But I could be in another country for how different it is out here, in what always felt like it was a no-mans-land, when it turns out it will now be my land, too.

But what is new to me is the depression like a fever, clouding my future days with the sheen of gray. The anxiety whispering in my ear as my baby lays heavy in my arms yet he feels too light for this earth. The feelings of intensely missing who I used to be, that naive little darling do-gooder. What is new to me is the realization that I can never go back to the girl who used to live here. She is gone, and the one who has replaced her is so fragile. The e-mails and the texts have piled up, friends and church buddies and acquaintances wanting to connect, but I don't know what to say. Just trying to keep my two kids alive and fed while my husband works to to be able to pay rent next month have exhausted all of my energies. I have nothing left, but I sit inside my apartment and hear the possibilities outside. When, oh when, will I be able to go out and join?

//

It is only now, a month and change after we have been back, that I count the cost of us going to Minneapolis. The pearls we have cast aside in search of that one, great, big, luminous one. Coming back was just another step in that direction, in search of the kingdom, ears to the ground. It feels very costly. In terms of money, yeah, but also friendships and mental health. 

I still don't really know any of my neighbors. We smile shyly, sometimes. I feel comfortable just looking at the headscarves and the children playing soccer, but everyone pretty much keeps to themselves. I get it, I am tired too, although once a week or so I get the itch--I could easily teach an ESOL class once a week. Should I volunteer at the homework club? Should we organize a Thanksgiving meal? And my kind, sane husband is quick to gently tap me on the shoulder. You have a baby and you are writing a book and maybe you should see a counselor and besides none of our refugee friends have ever liked your turkey

It's true, they never did like it. But still, they would eat it, because they loved us. And this is the hope that we have. We need that love now. We are the ones in need. My hands and feet are as still as I have ever seen them, but my Spirit is alive, vibrant, quick to discern, confident in a love that I am not terribly good at earning at present. We are in shock, is all. We have gotten very bad at pretending these days. I hope you will forgive us. We are struggling to re-enter, but the truth is that we can't. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hometown

 

 

We moved. Across the country. We packed up the house and gave away most of our earthly possessions. We kept the clothes, books, blankets, and art. It was 91 degrees and dark and stormy and humid as we scrubbed down the walls of our little dollhouse. How did we live for three years in that city? How did my baby girl grow up there, how was my little boy conceived and born there? How did we manage to live in the Midwest yet not in the midwest, how are we to carry on back to our hometown when we have been irrevocably changed by this place?

I feel poor in spirit, these days. I sit in a backyard surrounded by my mother and father and sisters and babies. I sip iced coffee and eat tortilla chips and feel the warm, dry heat and smell the pine trees of the northwest. I can tell I am older now. I notice the smells of the trees. I need more time to sit and catch my breath. I cry at all the worship songs, even the terrible ones. I just want to go on walks and sometimes I feel tremendously sad but there are several lives all tied to mine and we all need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

How do you explain poor in spirit? I think it means people who have been crushed by the world. This has happened to me, just a little bit. I feel guilty for even typing that out, because I know so many who have been crushed by so much more. My daughter loves that we are spending the next few weeks at her Mimi and Pop-pop’s house, surrounded by chickens and treehouses and fire pits. She tromps around in boots and garden gloves, taking wheelbarrows of sticks and twigs somewhere important, she runs around and waters the plants, plays with the kitten, practices her ABCs. She is having the kind of childhood experience that up until now, she has never had. She is free. But the other day she woke up sad, and it just never went away. I rocked her and rocked her and rocked her, because it is so hard and confusing to be sad in a place where there is also so much joy. 

We still don’t have jobs, we are still waiting on an apartment. I’ve had mostly good days here but a few very sad ones as well. Sometimes it is hard to drive the car, leave the house, talk to anyone, not crouch in a ball of fear and anxiety. I have eaten a lot of blackberry pie. I have tried to sit in the backyard and be grateful for a time of rest. The word Sabbatical has been tossed around. I alternate between wanting to sit in the sun for the rest of my life and rushing into helping save Portland as quick as I can. There has never been very much gray in my life.

This is my home, yet I don’t know it anymore. I don’t know what is good about this city, I don’t know all of the problems. So many people want to tell us about both of them, but we are pretty tired. We are moving slow as molasses these days. Give us a year, maybe, give us some friends who grew up in our new neighborhood or give us friends who moved there involuntarily, give us the newly arrived refugees and immigrants, give us those whose incomes and livelihoods and families depend on it, and then maybe we will know a little bit. We spent the past three years undoing our school book days, we spent the past three years being emptied. And of course we were filled up, but only for that day, that moment, that season. There was no scarcity in the kingdom of God, but there was no hoarding either. 

It’s a new season. I drove past the neighborhood where we will most likely be making a home, on the suburbs of Portland. It’s where the poor have to live now, in so many cities, the very outer ring. It has its problems—lack of walkability, social services and grocery stores, fewer bus lines—and it is, quite frankly, ugly and bleak, full of apartment complexes and shuttered businesses and precious little else. A far cry from our beautiful, old, tree-lined inner-city neighborhood in Minneapolis, a public park every few blocks, the diversity stunning and breathtaking and a gift to all. I try not to mind, but I do. 

Still, I get the sense that it is home. We know who we are a little bit more now, so we know what we need. We don’t need to live in one of the craziest apartment complexes in the city, nor do we need a gorgeous old house to rest our souls in (though we have enjoyed our time in both of those). We need a place to be together in the midst of many, we need a diversity of experiences and languages and countries. We found an apartment complex with 188 units, most of them refugee families. It is the kind of place where it will be very easy for me to be a mom. It is the kind of place where we will be blessed. It is the kind of place where one can be poor in spirit, for as long as they need be. 

Until now, I thought I was rootless. I was born in California and raised all over the western side of the map: Alaska, Wyoming, Oregon, Northern California. I moved away to the Midwest but in reality I was in a microcosm of East Africa in a diverse urban settlement, a culture within cultures. Now I am back, have been here for a few days and my heart relaxes just a tiny bit as I run trails through the bark dust and green ferns, the old-growth forests pressing down on me in comfortable silence, the days hot and the nights cool. I am from the northwest, it is in my bones, I belong here and yet so many are not here. I miss them.

It is the part of being crushed that I try not to mind as much. To love and be loved means to be changed and damaged and strengthened. I feel it in my legs as I run up the small mountains that surround my parent's house, feel how my body has changed due to kids and illness and time. They are going to be stronger than they ever have before I think to myself, and I know it is true. I will run harder, and faster, and push myself because I wasn't swallowed up, because there are new mercies and new trails to be discovered this very morning. 

I am back in my hometown, and it is a very mixed bag. But underneath all the crazy-making of the past few months of anxiety and transition, I see the roots of the future spreading out. I am so poor that I can only catch a glimpse of it, in my spirit. But when I do, I see us all becoming old-growth forests for others, to seeking the stability and peace of the neighborhood, whichever ones we might be in at the moment. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when every day feels like it is your birthday

 

i took a walk the other day, because it was 60 degrees, which is a damn miracle in this place in this month. it has been awhile since i have been able to walk--so much ice on the ground, all that cold wind blowing in my grill. i am still struggling with my body, still not OK with being pregnant and what it all does, i try not to look in the mirror and try not to care as the numbers creep up and up and up. but the other day i was walking around my neighborhood, and i fit in as never before. people gave me the chin-up nods of acknowledgement, the moms pushing strollers side-eyed me with compassion, i hoofed it around the convenience stores and halal markets and taco shops large and in charge and i was just another piece of the scenery of making it here.

we all feel like we never fit in, i am sure of that. but to be a re-locater puts another layer on that whole lie, the one that says both our good qualities and our sins are so very different from the person living in the next neighborhood over. i wear my whiteness every day, and i also wear my pietism and my moralism, the desperation to do some good, the eagerness to befriend and cozy up and transform. but the best thing happens when you get tired, so very tired, and you find yourself just living life and trying to make it. no strategy, no compulsion, just the routines of where you walk and shop and read and play piling onto one another, it all adding up to something more.

i went to get myself a birthday drink this morning (hashtag thirtyoneandhavingfun). i had an hour or two by myself at the coffee shop--a greater gift can no one give to an introvert, i am sure. the coffee shop is starbucks. i hesitate to tell you this, because i know the scorn of the mass-produced myself. but i can't bear to drive farther away to the hipster places, the ones where the coffee is delicious but out-of-my-budget, where i can read and write in peace and quiet and not be bothered by excessive friendliness, content in my isolation. this starbucks i go to is a hub of activity, chock full to the brim at all times with the faces and languages of the neighborhood--mostly East African, and mostly men. they talk loudly and argue and so obviously enjoy hanging out with each other; the lines out the door are long and i fight for a seat at the bar. the word on the street is that this starbucks is called the sugar shack, due to how it goes through 4x more sugar more than any other starbucks in the city. i think about the chai i make for my students during our break time, the horrific amount of sugar i am required to put into each cup in order to make it pleasing to them. and i sit in my noisy, crowded, bastion-of-Empire coffee shop, and revel in the fact that it is simply too chaotic in there to read.

but i try. in fits and starts i read the first few chapters of City of God by Sara Miles and my heart aches with love for my own city. here's a quote from the introduction:

"I began to see that city-ness, not necessary prettiness, might be the characteristic sign of heaven. Sexier and more beautiful than Eden, the city of God is a crowded, busy place jammed with languages and peoples, including the ones who argue so incessantly with one another. A place so mixed, so layered, and apparently impure that it proclaims a love vaster than humans can come up with on our own. A place as surprising and generous as the sheet full of formerly unclean food in the Book of Acts that turned Peter from heaven's gatekeeper into it's dazzled servant."

 

 

as i was leaving the coffee shop i ran into an old student of mine, a woman who never learned to read despite our countless hours trying. she is beautiful and wide-hipped, and her eyes appear to be naturally lined with kohl. she was talking loudly into her cellphone, her bright dress blowing in the breeze, and i timidly waved at her. Still on her phone, she hugged me and kissed me and then exclaimed over my belly. Alhamdulillah! all praise be to God! and she did what my students have been doing for the past few weeks, she kissed her hand and put it on my belly, over and over again. and then she walked on up the street to where ever it was that she was going, and i continued on my own way, receiving the blessings that she had so freely bestowed. 

 

 

in truth it has never stopped feeling like every day is my birthday, my privilege to be here. I am just dazzled, dazzled by it all. 

 

 

 

A few questions I got asked recently.

Q: what drains you about relational/apartment/incarnational/missional/neighborly/whatever-the-heck-we-are-calling-it-now living?

A: Hearing the domestic disputes through the paper-thin walls. Loud, angry voices, at all hours of the day. Wondering if you should call the cops, then being very regretful when you do. The cockroaches. The mice. The anthills exploding up through the carpet. The constant threat of bedbugs. 

Becoming embedded in a community and a neighborhood so different from the one you were brought up in, far from the successes and the upwardly mobile of the world, then being asked on a dime to enter back into the other America, where you are meant to smile and give poignant updates and do no harm and not make anyone feel terribly guilty all the while withering inside for more people to just do the hardest simple things, to be planted and sprinkled like seeds throughout the entire world, to be relationally embedded, to commit to not going anywhere. to try to communicate both the depths of trauma and chaos and despair and also speak into words the fact that you have met Christ here, the one you had always dreamed about, the kindest, best, most prophetic, caring, angry Savior one could ever hope for, and he is out wandering the wilderness and he cannot possibly be as tame as we desire him to be. 

also: trying to convert people. 

 

 

Q: what energizes you?

praying with people and reading the scriptures, begging for eyes to see and hearts to obey, none of us knowing the answers, our eyes continually grower wider and wider to the ways the Spirit moves in the world, experiencing the kingdom here and now, longing with broken hearts for it to come in full. 

acknowledging the truth that I am a privileged, racist, emotional girl, working through her savior complexes and moralistic interpretations of scripture, moving into a neighborhood with so much baggage as to be back-breaking, a do-gooder, a mistake-maker, a failure, a colonizer. and people, my neighbors, choosing to love me anyway: reading scripture, opening doors, showing up to classes, cooking me meals, shoving presents and dollars bills into my daughter's hands, texting me, embracing me, enveloping me with clouds of perfume and jangles of bracelets, accepting me just as I am, their eyes seeing right through me, their hearts of love and hospitality healing me more than I could have ever known I needed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving (part 2)

This summer while doing research for a book review I stumbled upon one of the most famous documentaries of the last decade, called A Harvest of Shame. My husband and I watched, astonished at how powerful and intense it was. The documentary also made me rush back to re-read one of my top five books ever, Children in Crisis by Robert Coles. In it, he has an entire section devoted to migrant children (and their parents). Here is a (long) quote from that section:  

“Somehow, then, we come to terms with them, the wretched of the American earth. We do so each in his or her own way. We ignore them. We shun them. We claim ignorance of them. We declare ourselves helpless before their problems. We say they deserve what they get, or they don’t deserve better—if only they would go demand it. We say things are complicated, hard to change, stubbornly unyielding. We say progress is coming, has even come now, will come in the future. We say (in a pinch) that yes, it is awful—but so have others found life: awful mean, harsh, cruel, and a lot of other words. And finally we say yes, it is awful—but so awful that those who live under such circumstances are redeemed, not later in heaven, as many of them believe, but right here on earth, where they become by virtue of extreme hardship a kind of elect . . . I have many times extolled these [migrant] children and their people—extolled them all almost to heaven, where I suppose I also believe they will eventually and at last get their reward, and where, by the way, they will be out of my way, out of my mind, which balks at speaking what it nevertheless must be said about how utterly, perhaps unspeakably devastating a migrant life can be for children." (201)

The conditions chronicled in Harvest of Shame remain virtually unchanged--we just have a different population working the fields now. As a season of feasting and abundance is nigh upon us, this is an excellent time to consider where our good fortunes are made. Can we put down our religious language and lofty idealism and consider the human cost of our broken world?

I can think of nothing better to do with your time (today, tomorrow, or on that most horrid day known colloquially as "Black Friday") as watching this documentary. Gather your friends and family and watch it together. And think about how the kingdom can come, and even now is coming, here on earth.

Here is the video:

 

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E]

 

 

 

I wrote more about this documentary for Red Letter Christians. Go on over to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The State of Our Union Address

What are we doing here? is a question we ask ourselves often, constantly, a thrumming beatbox to our jam-packed lives. What are we doing here, what is the point of all of this: relocation, downward mobility, eschewing hierarchy, doggedly believing that Christ is here? All we ever do is learn from people, I told my husband last night. That is truly all we do. We don't do anything of importance, we are stretched too thin by too many needs to ever really be of use (the one thing that I so wanted to be). We do not have opportunities to share complicated doctrines or theologies, we are not making a difference in the world. But oh, how we are learning from people. How we are wide-eyed and mouth-closed, how we are the opposite of workers, how we are trying so hard to pay attention and notice all of those important lessons we somehow missed along the way.

Peter didn't pay good attention in the Bible. He scoffed and scorned those women who showed up and said what they all wanted so badly to be true but couldn't let themselves believe: that Jesus had transcended death, that he was alive, that his kingdom was here, that forgiveness and resurrection was now available for all. Peter didn't believe them, he ignored the marginalized just like everyone else. But when no one was looking, when he could no longer ignore the hope in his chest anymore, when everyone else had left--he ran to the tomb as fast as his legs could carry him.

All we ever did was try to be good, productive, correct. All we ever do now is stand still and notice. All we ever do these days is run, run as fast as we can to where we can only hope our signs of resurrection will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write Like A Mother

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Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

--Cheryl Strayed (as Dear Sugar)*

 

 

 

//

I have two friends who are very pregnant right now, and both of them are writers. They are smart, thoughtful, beautiful souls, and when they pour themselves onto the page you just want to stop everything and sit with them. They both have other children (beautiful, loud). And they both told me that with the upcoming birth of their next child, they felt like the writing part of their life was going to be over.

I understand where those thoughts come from--the hormones, the panic, the sleep deprivation that acts like a very bad batch of drugs for a very long time--but I can't condone them. I know my friends, and I know the work they have produced, and I know what is in their future. They will experience the mess and the chaos of birth and newborn land and shifting, growing families. They will cocoon inside of themselves, for months and even years perhaps, pouring out their bodies as sacrifices of love, rocking and shushing and feeding and cleaning and wiping, all while they tend to the endless minutia of everything else they are in charge of in their lives. They will continue on in that long obedience of selflessness, the continual little deaths and rebirths that parenting is comprised of, and one day they will lift their heads up and find that their head is clear and their mind is itching. They will start writing again. And they will be better than ever. Their babies will make them better writers.

 

//

 

If you asked me, point blank, what my thoughts on motherhood were, I would hem and haw for as long as possible. I have nothing eloquent to say, except that it wrecked my life in so many ways, and it healed it in just as many. Marriage for me was no big adjustment, just a lot of fun to have a partner to roam the world with, and we made a lot of space for us to be our individual, introverted selves. But motherhood was the great shedding of selfishness that I didn't even know existed, it was the time of confronting how very tied up my own identity was in being productive for God: helping others, loving my neighbors, teaching ESOL classes, volunteering with refugees, working full-time. Then I got pregnant, developed a rare-and-life-threatening condition, and found myself both very ill and with a premature baby to care for. Suddenly, I could not do most of those things that had always defined me as me. I was alone with a sad baby who was not quite ready for the world, and it was my job to keep her alive.

When she was 6 months old, possibly 8, I started to write. In earnest. The hours of being alone-but-not-alone, of rocking and shushing and swaddling and feeding and cleaning and walking and breathing, had built up to a point of pressure in my mind. I started, for the first time, to objectively look at my life. To assess my background, how I grew up, what I was taught to believe, and what that meant for my life choices. My baby, with her round-the-clock-needs, turned me into a bird that soared high above my own life. It was the first time I was able to step outside of it. The first time I realized how important honesty and vulnerability were to be in my life going forward.

I wrote for her, that chubby-cheeked spitfire sitting on her bumbo on the kitchen table while I slowly started sending pieces off into the void. And she helped me, in so many ways, push beyond the narrow confines of what it meant to be in the world, of where my value came from. And this, my friends, is the backbone of what it means to have prophetic imagination, of what it means to be a creative in a very conforming world.

I learned to write when I became a mother, because that was my vehicle for stepping outside of myself. For you, perhaps it was something else; something tragic or wonderful (or some combination therein). Something that helped you to see your small place in a very big world, to wonder at what your response might be to it all. Motherhood certainly doesn't necessitate great art (in fact, many can cling to the trappings of motherhood as yet another symbol of productivity in the world) but I have known enough great writers now to know that it spurs you on towards the deepening of things.

Motherhood, for me, has been my agent of becoming small, of living a true upside-down life, of whittling away at my draughts of self-absorption. I am more afraid than ever, and yet I continue to do very brave and hard things. And I just want to say to all of my friends out there, the ones who adore and fear the changes coming: write like a mother. Write like the souls that you are, the ones who were put here to notice whatever it is that God placed in front of you.

The kingdom of God comes through babies, I imagine Christ whispering to his disciples as they tried to shoo the unkempt, uncouth, loud and beautiful children away. They didn't understand, because they so badly wanted to be doing something so good for him, their savior. But later, through their own forms of death and rebirth--watching Jesus slowly die as a failure in front of them, huddling up in an empty room together--they would be cracked wide open by the pain and joy of being so connected to everyone in the world.

And luckily for us, some of them stopped and wrote about it.

 

//

 

a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

 

 

 

 

*to read Strayed's entire advice column (of which I "Christian-ized" a bit in this post--sorry, Sugar!) go here. You will not regret it. While you are at it, why don't you go and read all of her columns? You will not be left the same.

 

 

when i go out, i want to go out like elijah

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Yesterday my friend sent me an old picture of hers from Instagram--a photo of my daughter, age 1, crawling around the floors of our apartment. my friend said "I just want to be back at [your old apartment complex] with you, drinking French Press and getting scratched by your cat Huckleberry. SOB. Can we go back in time a bit when life was simpler? I'll meet you there."

The picture, and the sentiments, stopped me cold in the middle of my day. My baby--so little, so adorable, such a weird little mullet--I had almost forgotten what she had been like at one. Then there was the apartments: the well-kept low-income housing complex where we lived for four years in SE Portland, which in my minds eye seems cleaner and quieter than anything we have experienced since (a dishwasher! no cockroaches! my husband's life only got threatened once!). I remember the huge windows, the natural light streaming in (even if it was a bit cloudy), sitting on my orange corduroy couch and drinking coffee with my friend. How we agonized about our lives, how far they were from our ideals, how we were always itching to get on to the next phase of life.

And now here we are. My friend and her husband moved to Uganda, their lives are a mishmash of experiences I cannot even imagine, her photo stream filled with joy and sweat, me wishing I could reach out and touch her. Me and my grown-up baby and my husband moved across the country and plunged ourselves a further bit down the ladder of the American dream, our lives a beautiful jumble and we can't keep track of all that we have learned or all the ways we have been changed. And as much as I love my life now, I still, just for a moment, longed to go back in time. To sit with my friend, clutching my baby, in my beautiful cozy apartment surrounded on every side by refugee friends and neighbors, to drink coffee and to appreciate the day for what it was.

I told my husband about this. Remember when we lived there? I said. It was a great time to be alive. We were so happy.

I don't know, my husband answered slowly. You always seemed a bit lonely to me.

 

 

 

full

 

 

 

 

There is another picture I thought of the other day, which I tracked back to my Myspace page (oh my word do you remember those?). This is me when I was probably 20, maybe 21. I am untroubled by the world. My face is smooth and unlined, my hair short and swingy, a beautiful baby strapped to my back. i was no doubt running around tacking up flyers for the kids homework club that I started, visiting various families, sitting on floors and eating with my fingers, sitting on couches and being ignored, just showing up week after week for this amazing life that I had discovered in the pockets of America. I did not have angst. I was pleased with myself, pleased with the part I was doing in the world, pleased to know I was using my gifts well.

On second thought, that isn't quite true. I was, after all, there to "practice" on people before I moved overseas, before I really dedicated myself to God, when I had all my theologies sorted out and a team and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I was testing it out, seeing if I was any good at it, slowly becoming suspicious of all of the people I knew who loved to talk about mission but couldn't be bothered to come once a week and help refugee kids learn basic math. I discovered that I was not good at a whole lot of things: proselytizing, supervising homework clubs with 50+ kids and no other volunteers, doing it all on my own without getting bitter. I was more than a little bit lonely. And instead of being good at anything, I began to realize how much pleasure I found in being with people who were different from me.

 

//

 

I'm thinking about all of this, because the angst has never really left me. Even in this season, it is here, lurking underneath. I recently watched Ragamuffin, the story of Rich Mullins (a personal hero of mine), and it left me more than a bit uncomfortable. I recognized so much of myself in him, both his depths of unhappiness and fierce propulsion to continually move forwards. How can somebody continually have revelations from God, write songs about his love, and then have moments of being completely unconvinced of that truth? But this is how it is, this is the reality of the world. We hear revelations, and we forget. We experience love, and we forget. We witness the miracles of forgiveness and resurrection, and we forget. We see the kingdom come, we are filled with love for the church, we are content to be little mustard seeds and then--it all flows away like water.

I have no doubt that in three years time I will look back at this time, this day, this season in my life with nothing but kindness. Through rose-colored glasses I will only see the good, will only see the revelations, will choose to not see the clouds of forgetfulness. I will be kind to my un-perfect self, realize that if I spent over 20+ years of my life willing myself to be the one who goes out and saves everybody then it might be realistic to think it would take some time to gently undo those faulty beliefs and all the relational brokenness that comes out of them.

If I could go back in time--ten years ago, three years ago--what would I tell myself? I would probably say:You can move across the country, sell all that you have and live in a poorer neighborhood--and you will still feel that restless urge. You will not be able to outrun your demons, the sense that you are never doing enough. You will continue to fluctuate between deliriously happy in the love of God and what he is up to in the world and being crushed by the inaction and apathy of so many around you. The angst is not going to go away. The love will continue to grow until it engulfs you. You will be crushed, and you will be resurrected, time and time again.

 

You will still be so very lonely. You will still be so very loved.

 

I am writing this here to remind myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will soon forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Don't Go to Church*

*Ha! I totally got you! That, my friends, is called clickbait. Of course I go to church. I just am not very good at it.  

 

image from here.

 

//

 

Yesterday I did not go to church. I did not feel well at all, and usually we come to the ends of our week ragged both with the good things and the incurably mundane. I read a Walter Brueggemann sermon instead (suggested by a dear friend) and cried my eyes out. I watched a video of a prophetic demonstration, and cried some more. I listened to a podcast while I cleaned my kitchen and--you guessed it--the tears came again.

A few times a month we go to a little Mennonite church in our neighborhood. We started going there because we could walk to it when the weather is nice. Before we started attending, a year and a half ago, we had never been inside of a Mennonite church before. We really like it. It is so peaceful (a result of their theology, perhaps?) and I sit and listen to the songs I didn't grow up singing, the four-part harmonies that spill so easily out of the lips of my neighbors. I am lost, but I enjoy it. I sit in the pew and soak up what I do and do not know.

Before the Mennonite church we were in a beautiful little house church. People coming together to share their gifts and their crockpot casseroles, everybody has a job, everyone has something valuable to share, the children run around and wave prayer flags, there is shushing and nervous silence and awkward sermons and it is so empowering to be reminded that all the church is are people. We are it. And we are enough.

Before that we came from churches where the music was gospel, the music is one white boy with a guitar, the music is non-existent, the music is projected onto the 3 large screens up front. We come from churches where the pastor tells us what to think, where he tells us how to live a better life, where all are supposedly welcome, where only some are. I have a bit of charismatic in me, a little bit of conservatism, a tiny bit of anti-intellectualism, a dash of anabaptist with a sprinkle of old-school evangelicalism. A lifetime of Bible Studies centered on the rapture, of pentecostal Bible colleges, charismatic conferences, Baptist professors, church of Christ doctrines, a non-denominational pastor dad. I can't leave any of it behind. Nor can I forget all of the ways I have grown in the love of God that have happened outside of the doors of the church: friendships and relationships with those that would never feel comfortable stepping inside a traditional church. The uneducated. Those experiencing poverty. People of different religions. People who can't bear to be marginalized again.

So we don't really belong to one particular church. Oh, we attend somewhat regularly and are involved in the "body", as it were (volunteering for nursery, serving on the mission committee). But no matter where we are, what season of life we are in, we always have one foot out the door. The question of my whole life has started to thrum louder and louder until it becomes hard to hear anything else: who isn't here? Who is excluded? Who are we missing out on being in relationship with? And no matter where you go, there are always so many who are missing.

We've got to start broadening our definition of church; perhaps our unwillingness to be forthright about the exclusivity that undermines nearly every element of every Sunday service in this country is a reason why some might feel less than thrilled at the prospect of a traditional church. The world is too beautiful and varied and wide for us to fiercely hold to one pastor, one building, one sermon series. Whenever someone is a bit too gung-ho about their particular location/brand/sermon podcast I always have to wonder: that all sounds lovely, but surely you know that this isn't all there is? That none of us, on our own, ever truly figure it out?

I have been changed, in the best way possible, by my experiences and interactions with everyone in my life. The fundamentalists, the progressives, the charismatics, the un-churched, the Baptists, the mennonites, people of different cultures and ethnicities and spiritual backgrounds.

I'm all for supporting and encouraging the local church. But I've got two eyes in my head and I see that God's dream for the church is nowhere to be found in my neighborhood. It's always one tribe, one tongue, one nation over here. So until we have the imagination and the wherewithal to bring God's kingdom down to earth, I guess I will continue to keep one foot out the door, always looking for who isn't here. I will of course continue to go to church most days, support it, love it, learn from it, push it, and prod it. But may I never fully belong there, may I never fully be satisfied. May I never, ever stop asking: who isn't here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

teeth and kitties

the other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things you said once, quite some time ago. but life marches on, and you move into a beautiful lil' house that actually has a basement where you could purchase and store sensibly-priced paper goods in bulk, where your life could be just a tiny bit easier. time is a river rushing by and there are so many ways to remember that you are always coming up short in your quest to identify with people on the margins. there are so many ways to tune out the prophets. //

where we live, going to the dentist is an ordeal. we live in the midst of a city, as urban as i have ever experienced. we are surrounded by payday loan companies and "treatment centers" and halal markets. But the only available dentists for miles and miles around are all students: bright-eyed young things who poke and prod your mouth and have to call in a crash of supervisors for any little old thing. it takes forever (it costs relatively little). people make mistakes. a one-visit procedure stretches into 3 or 4. i take my daughter to these students because she is complaining of tooth pain. they look at me and my medical insurance card from the government, and they loudly tell me that i really should be bringing her in for a cleaning every few months. i hang my head, ashamed, letting this young thing think whatever it is she wants to about me. my daughter's teeth are perfect, they cannot see any cavities. i only feel slightly better.

my husband got his tooth pulled last year. it is one of his canines, you can only tell when he smiles so wide that his eyes get lost in the crinkles. before this happened i didn't know there was yet another way to categorize people in our society, a way that we not-so-subtly put people in their place. there are people in our country who are missing teeth, and there are people who get them replaced. nowadays, i know so many people with the tell-tale gaps. my students, the ones who are so recently arrived here in this country, they are in the midst of it. a student will be gone for a few days, then come to class, holding an embarrassed hand over her mouth. she doesn't want to talk. when she finally does, i see it: 4 or 5 teeth pulled, many in the front, just like that. no replacements, no nothing. we all have the same insurance. the government will help us all pay for the teeth to be removed, but replacing them is viewed as "cosmetic". vanity of vanities, to want to look in the mirror and remember for a second, how it all used to be.

i don't mind the gap in my husband's smile, i think it is rather cute. but the dentists said that since my husband is so young that is could permanently mess up the way the other teeth in his mouth move around, could cause him many problems in later years. so we scrimp and save for a year, shelling out what amounts to more than what we paid for our (admittedly not-so-great) minivan, our identification coming to a screeching halt. my husband is on his way to let students insert a screw into his jaw; in a few months they will affix a new, shining tooth. he will go on with his life, eating whatever he pleases, working in his professional capacity, bearded, pleasant, whole.

//

a few months ago our cat was bit by another; the wound was large and gaping and we didn't know what to do. we tried to clean it up but by the next day it was clear that this was bad news. we found a cardboard box and brought her to the vet; they put her anesthetic and cleaned her wound and put in a drain. she was gone the whole day and when she came home we had to put a cone around her miserable head. she moped, for a week, and we bought her special kitty food to coax her. she got better, day by day. we fixed the screen door so she couldn't get out anymore (our neighborhood does have the meanest cats you ever did see) and she meows pitifully, longing to be out. but it cost us so much money to save her that we can't afford for it to happen again. a neighbor came over and sat under our tree in the backyard and we talked about pets who got hurt, and all the ones who died because vets were not even an option. all the animals we loved so much when we were young, the ones we clutched and cooed at and kissed; the ones who fell by the wayside, who were attacked by the robbers of the world, the ones that we were always powerless to save. i look at my cat, gleaming and whole, and it is a marker of difference. of options. the opposite of identification.

teeth and kitties, such vulnerable parts of ourselves. the whole world is a place that is liable to hurt us, to weaken us, decay us and bite us. some of us have access to resources and money where we can forget about these realities for a few more months, a few more years. we can justify ourselves to people just like us all the day long, but in the end, the same Christ looks at all of our hearts. and he will ask all of us: did you learn from the prophets, the ones i sent you all along? the gap-toothed and the sad, the wounded and the un-whole? because they are preaching to us, all the time.

they are the reminders of the kingdom that is slowly barreling into our hearts and our minds and our lives, a kingdom where every tooth and every kitty is cherished, valued, and most importantly, mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).  

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

//

 

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?

 

//

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

BK_JFP-2  

 

 

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!

 

 

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