D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Celebrations

thirty-two and rock'n this 'do

I feel bad that everyone can't have as cool of sisters as I do. my younger sister especially is amazing at creating custom birthday hashtags.

I feel bad that everyone can't have as cool of sisters as I do. my younger sister especially is amazing at creating custom birthday hashtags.

 

Both of my children are sick today. Sick enough to be cranky and not go to school, but not sick enough to take long naps. In our personal lives, huge upheavals are happening. We trust the end outcomes will be good, but in the meantime it is unbelievably painful. I just finished the copy edits for my book, and I feel incredibly vulnerable. The negative self-talk has reached a fever-pitch, and I truly wonder why anyone signs up for this. Why do I feel such a compulsion to write down as honestly as I can everything I am noticing around me? Reading this final manuscript, I have to confront a few truths about myself. I am not a funny, empowering Jen Hatmaker type. I am not a gorgeous, literary ethnographer like Chris Hoke. I am not a hard-hitting investigative reporter like Barbara Ehrenreich. I am not a contemplative academic artist like Kathleen Norris. I do not inspire like Shane Claiborne or gently instruct like Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove. Instead, I am a complete and utter mess. 

 

But perhaps my only saving grace is that I tried very hard to be honest about that.

 

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I used to love writing birthday posts, I used to love having themes for the year, I used to love picking out one Scripture to give me focus and inspiration, I used to love the centering practice of being intentional about the next 12 months, of reflecting on who I am and where I have come from and what lies ahead.

 

Now it’s just another day, except it’s a day where I make myself a cake (a Funfetti poke cake, if you must know). It’s another day to kick anxiety to the curb. Another day to say “Not Today, Satan!” (my current favorite phrase). Another day to listen to Rain for Roots sing about the parables (I think it says something right now that I need songs about God that are crafted for children; I am trying so hard to have more of a child-like faith). Another day to marvel at my husband, such a magnificent creature that he is. Another day to kiss my babies and make sure they don’t eat too much sugar or stick their fingers in the electrical outlets. 

 

I’m 32 now, and in the past year I: quit two jobs, had a baby, almost died, moved across the country, developed depression and an anxiety disorder, settled into yet another low-income apartment complex comprised mainly of refugees, edited and revised a book about myself. So . . . that is a lot of stuff, and I can recognize it as such. The upcoming year seems a bit blurry to me. I will get to do a little bit of travel again, I’m gonna run a half marathon in 2 weeks, I’m going to do pursue the weird blend of activism/charismatic ministry/radical vulnerability/relational presence or whatever it is that I do and try to not worry so hard about whether or not others are doing it too. I’m going to try and repent of judgement more often, and care less what other people think of me. 

 

So I don’t have a verse or a plan or a theme for this next year. I still feel worried about it, truth be told. But I do have this picture that my husband took of the tree right outside our door. I have this symbol of so many things I wish for myself and for others, that we can bloom where we are planted, no matter where that place might be. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s to the next year. I hope we all get to see some blossoms. 

 

 

 

 

five things I will miss about Minneapolis

So this is what I have been mostly been up to:

Which is why it has taken me all week to write this tiny little post. Also, I am super glad we had Ransom here, because it will forever tie us in a very real way to this city. 

 

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Hey guys. So in less than 2 months we are taking our show on the road and moving back to Portland. Our nearly three years in the exotic Midwest (I say exotic to be funny—mostly because I always thought the Midwest was terrible, like how the two coasts are supposed to think about the flyover states—but then I came here for a visit three summers ago and my mind was blown by how awesome and diverse it was) has been amazing and difficult and unbelievably refining (that is Evangelical code for: we got smashed up real good by life and it changed our character in very positive ways). Hopefully in another post I will write about the things I am excited about in Portland, but for now I need to tell you about some of the things I will really miss about Minneapolis. I picked 5, because that seemed like a bloggy sort of number and I realize we all have the attention spans of a gnat. So here they are, in no particular order:

 

 

1. The free/low-cost things

There are so many free things to do here! This is our family jam. There are awesome lakes everywhere. There is a free zoo and a conservatory (technically in St. Paul, but still only a ten minute drive away). There is the most amazing art museum I have ever been in (The Art Institute of Minneapolis) and it is all free (srsly it would take you days to see all that they have there). The public parks all have wading pools for the kids in the summer. MPLS has an amazing theater culture (second only to New York City) and if you are under 30 you can routinely see fantastic, award-winning plays for $10-15 dollars (I have seen more than a couple). There is so much culture to be found here, both the indoor and outdoor kind, and it will be very hard to give that up. 

 

2. The amazing refugee/immigrant communities

This is the original reason why I moved here, after all. It’s hard to explain how glorious it is to find these vibrant, thriving, complex non-western and non-white communities smack dab in the heart of Minnesota. I live right by a bunch of mosques, Somali malls (which literally is the cheapest/quickest way to travel to another country—they are just stall after stall selling the same assortment of gorgeous clothes/headscarves, tea sets, sandals, perfume, and henna treatments), grocery stores that sell sambusas and camel meat; everywhere I go I see people from East Africa and I don’t know what I am going to do back in Oregon. The sheer magnitude of the numbers here (some estimate 70,000 Somalis in MPLS alone) plus living in a crowded inner city means the proximity is just wonderful. I have learned so much from just being a neighbor to this community. Which brings me to . . .

 

3. My job

One of the best things that happened to me here was that I was able to have the job of my dreams. I have definitely been the White Girl Who Charges In plenty of times, and our organization very much tries to do things differently. So at their encouragement, I went a different route. I volunteered, a bunch, and eventually found myself tutoring non- and pre-literate students at the largest housing complex in our city (this particular place I had been obsessed with since day one—unofficial estimates say the 8,000 people live in one city block, most of them immigrants and refugees). True to my nature, I couldn’t help but suggest that we start an actual class catering to the students who needed the most help (level 0, they are sadly called) and then I suggested they hire me. Which they did. The wonderful thing that made this so different was that I was able to hang around long enough to sense a genuine need, and the rest of the community saw it as a need as well. I also had the unbelievable privilege of having my bosses be from East African backgrounds, and I learned so much from them. Also, the school where I taught was actually started and run by the tenants of the apartment complex themselves, which was so awesome. The mutual learning that took place there was unquestionably one of the things I will miss so much. 

 

4. The thunderstorms

They are awesome. Note: this is really the only weather-related thing I will miss. The winters here are more horrible than I can articulate. Just awful. Everyone who lives here should get mad respect (especially the people who come from warmer countries!).

 

5. My community

As is true for anyone trying to live out any kind of communal living (and that takes many different forms/levels of participation) you know how wonderful and hard it can be. Three years of being on a team with people who are different from you can change a person. We definitely had some struggles, but overcoming them has proven to be the most absolutely helpful thing that has ever happened to me. You can work with, eat with, and play with people who are very different from you. You can forgive, and be forgiven. You can make mistakes, and move forward. You can choose to see the best in others, and you can receive it when they see the best in you. For these reasons alone, being a part of this Christian community here has made the past three years more than worth it. But I also see how refreshing and encouraging it has been to be with people who are trying to live out quiet lives of simplicity and service. They also love the poor, and feel no need to explain or defend that position. They have also taught me so much about white supremacy, systemic injustice, and are neither defensive nor overly optimistic. They just love their neighbors so much. It has meant everything to me to learn from this posture—love over fear, people over programs, repentance over politics. The more I interact with Christians, the more I realize how rare these types of people are. 

 

 

So there you go. A few of the things I am already processing/grieving leaving behind. I’m not going to lie and say that this isn’t a big deal for me. In particular, leaving our organization is very difficult. Again, we are leaving on good terms (and the reasons why I will articulate in another post) but being a part of a visible, quantifiable organization has meant so much to my identity—something I could point to and say “see! I am a part of this! I am doing something good!” and I am being asked to give up all of that.

It’s hard, no lie, and quite necessary for the next season of life. I am looking forward to it, but in order to go into what's next without bringing along a ton of baggage, I am in the thick of doing the hard work of processing it all as much as I can. Which definitely includes making a list of a few of the things that made this place so awesome. Who knew it was such a treasure trove? Minneapolis will forever be in my heart. 

 

 

Writing About Thanksgiving (Part 1)

Do you guys know the Enneagram test? I tend to think people who get waaaaay too into personality types can be a teensy bit boring, but there is something decidedly spiritual about the Enneagram. I think it is because it points us to our flaws just as much as it points to our strengths. Anyways, this was my Enneagram e-mail of the day (I'm a 4, by the way, if that means anything to you):  

Remember that your Direction of Stress is towards the Two, where you people-please, try to find needs to fulfill, and call attention to your good works. Is this showing up in you today?

 

Um, yes. Every damn day. And this especially comes out during the holidays, where I go into a zealous sort of overdrive, trying to cram goodwill into every thing I do. I think that this year marks the 10th or 11th time I have made a traditional (yet pared-down) Thanksgiving meal for refugee friends and neighbors.

Celebrating holidays is always such a mixed bag for me . . . this year it has come up more than others. It's just unbelievably difficult to celebrate holidays with a). people who don't celebrate your religion/culture and b). people for whom the holidays are the worst time of year and they just want to hibernate/drink/medicate until January 2nd. And that sums up a large chunk of our relationships--which causes me to constantly wonder who am I cooking this for for?

This year is no different. I went to the store and bought all of the supplies for the meal and I never know who will really show up. There is a large, lovely family of Kurdish refugees who we are friends with and we invited them over. In true Muslim hospitality, they then insisted that we come over to their place on Saturday for an epic 4+ hour feast (my daughter was in heaven, both because she loves Kurdish food/music but also because she got to watch cartoons and was surreptitiously fed pieces of candy all day). It was so relaxing and so wonderful and makes me feel very pitiful about my own awkward attempts at hospitality. I think they are coming over for Thanksgiving, but as they are quick to tell us--they don't like trying new foods or going to new places. Life is hard enough, and they prefer to eat their own foods on their own terms (one of the few things in life they can control). It has taken me years to get to this place, but I am trying to have open hands about it all. I am prepared for nobody to eat much this year, and it will be ok.

 

 

she waited patiently for 3 hours while the food cooked, and then she was ready to EAT.

 

All this to say: I did write about a Thanksgiving we had a few years ago and it is up today! I am super excited to tell you that I am going to be writing semi-regularly for the Good Letters blog (which is run by Image Journal). The company I will be writing with is . . . intimidating, to say the least. I think I will have a post up over there once or twice a month, and I will be sure to link here.

 

So head on over to read about my type 4 tendencies, hospitality, and the Day We Cooked the Big Chicken.

 

 

 

 

 

happy birthday dad

My dad is 60 today. He is far away from me, and I am tearing up as I realize that afresh. I moved away almost 2 years ago now, and I miss him every day. His spiritual gift is helping others: picking up people at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, vacuuming out the carpets in your car, running to the grocery store for that last-minute ingredient you need, taking you out for Chinese food when your heart feels like it will burst from sadness. When I was younger, I was foolish. I spouted my ideals like they were the gospel truth, because I thought they were. My dad did not always understand me, but he always took care of me. When I was in college, I had a beat-up old Toyota Corolla that I loved with all of my heart. I never once checked the oil, and so one day the engine caught fire. I called my dad late at night in a very bad part of town and tried not to cry. Not only had I ruined my car, I had done it in the most foolish way possible: by ignorant neglect. My dad got up out of bed and came and rescued me, and he never said an unkind word. Instead, he told me that he wanted to give me my college graduation gift early, which was our family's Toyota Camry. I think he just made that up on the spot. He is the kind of dad who gives good gifts, and who gives them early when his children are acting particularly like prodigals.

It is not a stretch to say that my own dad has shaped my view of God, and it has been so comforting: God is reliable, God loves me, and the very moments when I am most scared to approach and seek out his love are the times when he is most willing to lavish it on me. Today I am crying as I write this because I miss my dad so very much. He will come and visit me in a few days and I will be comforted by his steadfastness and genuineness, his ability to be comfortable in nearly every culture and continent. He will probably buy me some Chinese food. And then he will get back on an airplane and fly far away from us once again.

 

Even if I said it every day, it wouldn't be enough: I love my dad. He ushered me into the kingdom and he made it incredibly easy for me to view God as someone who is good and kind and gentle and utterly reliable. He also made it easy for me to miss him so incredibly much, to cry on his birthday, to be so grateful for the good gifts I have been given.

 

my daughter and her beloved pop-pop.

 

 

 

Happy birthday dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#thirtynerdyandsturdy

look what my husband got me this morning!  

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

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

 

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn't go.

Be like the fox

who makes more trails than necessary

some in the wrong direction

practice resurrection

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WONDER YEARS IS coming (or, the year 2013 in fake status updates)

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So, today is the last day of 2013. I have the flu, naturally. So instead of some insightful meditation on the past and a hopeful reflection on the future, I am just going to post a bunch of screen shots assembled from the What Would I Say? app, which takes your FB statuses and creates new ones. It is a time suck. It is also the best thing for insecure narcissists who have the flu! You should go to there. But first, read these fake/yet strangely based in reality “statuses” from me.

I was super into humblebrags:

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I had a lot of sage advice/poetic reflections:

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What? I truly want to know. Why did I leave myself hanging like that?

 

 

 

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i want to know what those are.

I had some suggestions for the world:

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Some of these fake statuses were surprisingly accurate:

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yup. I did that. for reals. a lot.

 

 

 

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truth.

 

 

 

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pretty sure that actually all happened.

 

 

 

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yup.

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always. except downward mobility.

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so many of these were about polish dogs. and Ghandi, weirdly enough.

 

 

 

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well, i prefer "thrifty".

 

 

 

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what? ok.

 

 

 

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totally.

 

 

 

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exactly.

 

 

 

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hmmm. maybe this one should be in the humblebrag category?

 

 

 

I was super into pop-culture/spiritual status mash-ups.

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(this one is for Addie)

 

 

 

Aaaaaand here it is:

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are you ready?

 

 

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and that, my friends, was 2013.

 

 

 

 

(thanks to Marilyn Gardner for introducing me to this delightful app).

 

 

 

 

santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation--recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn't sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It's a hard decision (um, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with "A Tender Tennessee Christmas" by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it's the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are "kindness elves" awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don't think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of "Christmas magic" that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie--so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled "from St. Nick". But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can't help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can't help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way--for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families--the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good--count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That's it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity--extra food cooked, coins given to the children--reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I've started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn't look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration--firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

beautiful, difficult, radical thanks

i woke up this morning to a quote by Craig Greenfield: "we cannot separate the beauty and goodness of radical hospitality with its difficulty". i am feeling this today. i am grateful and excited for a day of cooking and eating with dozens of neighbors--introducing people who have never had the traditional meal to turkey and mashed potatoes, and my all-important sugar pie. our apartment is strung with twinkle lights, we are listening to sufjan christmas, and we have decided that one of our new traditions is to eat cinnamon rolls and play with legos in the morning. it's a beautiful life.

and also: i am missing my sisters and my mom and my dad something fierce. i will try not to think about it, all the rest of this day, this month, this holiday season. i have a bit of the ache that so many carry with them all the time. i look at old pictures and i cry; not just out of sadness, but out of all the goodness that makes me miss it so much. my mother, my sisters, my dad: they are the ones who first modeled radical hospitality to me, made me the person i am now. they showed me that family goes beyond blood, that there is always room at the table for more, that traditions are beautiful but so is turning everything upside-down for a king and a kingdom which can hold us all.

our mission organization has written out some beautiful commitments that we meditate on throughout the year. we just recently finished up thinking and praying about our commitment to celebration. here are some of the thoughts that we will be carrying with us through out this day, this week, this season, this long wait until everything is made new.

I will celebrate the light of Christ

in a world of darkness

the life of Christ

in a culture of death

the liberty of Christ

in a kingdom of captivity

and the hope of Christ

in an age of despair

I will rejoice always and in everything give thanks.

amen. happy thanksgiving.

thankful that i miss my sisters so very much.

the best man that ever lived

In college, I had a crazy friend. He was wild, unbroken, a bounding force across my mild-mannered Bible college campus. I think I was a conundrum to him: part buttoned-up librarian/missionary, part weirdo with a non-conformist streak. My crazy friend was always going on and on about a friend of his, how he was the best man he had ever met, how people should stand up and applaud when this boy walked by. I pretended like I wasn't paying attention, but I was. I started to stare at this certain boy, the best man that ever lived. That turned out to be you. We three--the crazy, the best boy, and I--went on long car rides to buy good cups of coffee. Our friend drove and we listened to Johnny Cash. I would put on "It Ain't Me Babe", a clear enough signal I thought, but you were silent and grinning like a cat in the back seat. You lied and told me you were older than you were, and I believed you and your adorable beard. A few months down the road and then you had your serious face on: there are two things I've been thinking about, you said. one, I think we should be in a band together. And two, I think we should get married. Ok, I said, calm as you please. Because I knew: once you meet somebody as kind as that, you don't let them get away. //

We had a baby but she came so early and almost killed me in the process. I sat in my hospital bed, unable to get up, and I watched as you grew up before my eyes: a boy in a worn-out yellow hoodie, holding the tiniest baby either of us had ever seen. I watched as the nurses taught you how to do all the things I thought I would do first: how to feed, diaper, and bathe our child. I watched as those nurses looked at you, how their hearts burst a little to see your intensity, your wholehearted absorption. How they loved you, that young, overwhelmed young father. I watched, helpless and grateful, as you were the one who took care of us all. In those early months, those first few years, you were rocking and shushing and burping and laugh-crying like the best of them. It never was an option for you to not be the best dad in the world. I watched as your world expanded, how all of us started to realize what it means when God is your father, Jesus your example, the Spirit your guide.

You threw yourself into the fire of life, and I got to see it.

//

We are in the car, you are driving and I am probably looking at instagram on my phone. You turn down the radio, the pop station that is one of your few vices. Looking very concerned, you explain to me that the song we just heard was extremely exploitative of women, and that this upsets you very much. I try not to laugh, because--pop radio, right? But it troubles you deeply, you who hang out with kids that soak up these messages like thirsty ground. You spend your time with hooligans, thugs, the drug-addicted and mentally ill, those who aren't quite making it in our society and who act out in various ways. You paid thousands of dollars to learn how to listen to others, and now you do it for little-to-no money, and absolutely zero prestige.

You stand in-between those are are fighting and get punched in the head. You take the best pictures of cats. You can quote any Friends episode from memory. You are the only boy I ever kissed. You never raise your voice. You have overcome more pain than I will ever imagine. You pick up cigarette butts in the morning, and say hi to the people who throw them down in front of you. You make me coffee, nearly every single morning. You are the one who comforts the toddler in the middle of the night. You write poetry and music just for the sheer joy of it. You cook a mean stir fry. You hate citrus-flavored pastries. You make everyone feel listened to. You make no one feel threatened.

And oh my gosh I get to see it. How people talk to you, how they slowly encircle you, how they are always looking to see what you are doing out of the corner of their eye. Your whole life has been one of peacemaking, which isn't for the faint of heart.

I know you don't see it, but everywhere you go, people stand up and clap.

//

 

 

 

 

 

Happy birthday to my best boy.

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The Powers of Addiction, The Honesty of our Neighbourhood -- Guest Post by Exile Fertilty

The post today, while seemingly not at all about downward mobility, really addresses some of the deeper issues I was hoping to discuss in this series. Mainly, how do our neighborhoods affect us? How close are we to the brokenness of the world? What are the blessings and drawbacks of running towards the hurts of the world? I adore Becca and her husband, and this vulnerable, insightful, and hopeful post got my brain spinning just thinking about the creative ways that the kingdom comes, even (or dare I say especially?) in our most troubled neighborhoods. It comes through our desires to choose one another--our spouses, our children, our neighbors--to honor instead of exploit.  This is not an easy post to write, and I want to honor the struggle of how hard it is to be honest. Addiction is a common thread in many of our stories, mine included. So thank you, Becca and Chris, for encouraging us all with your commitment to God and his kingdom, and to each other. 

 

 

Love

The Powers of Addiction and the Honesty of our Neighbourhood

Guest Post by Becca (Exile Fertility)

I'd known Chris for two weeks when he told me about his addiction. It wasn't a confession, nor an attempt to reel me in with an attractive pseudo-vulnerability.  We were talking about his album, eclectic, poetic and strange, and I asked him what the songs were about.  He went through them as he walked me home, of number six he said "That one's about how I used to be addicted to pornography".

I'd never heard anyone say those words before, not out loud, not in a normal conversation.  We said goodbye that night in 2007 not knowing if we'd see each other again, but began writing emails every couple of weeks (although my interest was much greater than my frequency let on).  Nine months later we became extra special friends of the long-distance kind and another year later we were extra special friends of the married and suddenly sharing everything kind.

When we met, Chris had been sober from a pornography addiction for two years.  That was after a decade of secrecy, self-hatred and intense shame, beginning in his early teens.  It was a private hell, he was powerless to stop using a substance stronger than hard drugs, one that completely re-wired his brain towards objectification of women and bonded him to a severe distortion of God's design for sexual intimacy.  Coming out from under the addiction's power began with extreme desperation and some life-altering honesty.  From then it was 18 months of regularly sharing in community, receiving unconditional love from people and letting God renew his mind.  One day it was done, he knew he was free.  For him, walking in that freedom has meant continually allowing people into that part of his story.

I'm so proud of my husband, eight years clean this August.  When I told him how amazed I was by him he said to me, "I'm still a recovering addict, becca.  I always will be.  You need to know that."  There's this honesty about him, this humility and openness about where he has been and a continual pursuit of wholeness.  We communicate very openly around the subject, with each other and with our community.

It was never really a pressing subject until we moved onto the main street of an industrial neighbourhood where we've lived for two and a half years.  I love it here–our street is lovely on sunny mornings, people visiting the small businesses and art galleries that have been popping up, it's easy to forgive the abandoned buildings though they outnumber the healthy ones.  Neighbours teach my kids to speak Aussie and meet us at the park, shop owners know us by name and talk about grandbabies.

The situation has drastically improved in the last decade but people still come to our neighbourhood to feed addictions, escape reality and numb themselves.  Men file into the three pubs (read: bars) on our street or drive up and down looking for a sexually exploited woman who may be standing on the corner, leaning against a wall or stepping out of another man's car.  Sometimes there are used condoms and needles at the park or you see a man and woman come out of the bushes together in the middle of the day.  Friday night is "waitress night" (read: topless) and I hear men hoot and holler when a woman appears at the pole specially erected for the weekly event.  Maybe five or six times I've been walking by and seen a woman's breasts on display while she serves drinks to a table of men.  The more I learn about sex trafficking and prostitution worldwide the more aware I am of the invisible shackles on women in the industry, that it's hardly their choice to be there if it is at all.

Power over addiction begins with honesty.  The media sells us a thousand lies about sexuality and pleasure and need, saying nothing of the terrible damage that occurs when we objectify other human beings.   But our neighbourhood is honest about the cost, about what addictions can lead to: a married man with kids risking everything for a body to orgasm inside, he'll exploit a woman who is desperate, high or out of her mind; guys meet weekly with friends to drink while topless women 'entertain' them, people stumble outside drunk and angry at 2am.  There's nothing glamorous or sexy here.

There's been a new kind of pressure on our marriage since moving to this street- there are times when relatively small disputes feel like they carry this enormous weight, that there's some cosmic battle already raging that we are just stumbling into.  God's kingdom is a delicate eco-system of justice, freedom, and wild, beautiful Love and we are called to be an alternative people who honour rather than exploit.  When we are demanding rather than giving and ignoring the diversity and equality within each other we have subscribed to the dominant consciousness around us.

It's really, really hard sometimes but there is something prophetic happening in our upstairs apartment.  It's when my husband and I choose only each other again and again, even when we're exhausted and frustrated and have said things we regret.  It's when our friends pursue sexual wholeness together, when we name addiction for what it is and walk the hard road towards sexual sobriety.  It's when we re-imagine the possibilities of honest to goodness friendship within our own gender and between men and women, when we really see each other as unique individuals powerfully equal, Imago Dei shining bright.  It's when we practice the quiet, subversive sacrament of neighbourliness.  We are digging a hole here, planting our little tree and watching it grow; one day those roots will erupt through the concrete on our street.  As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has written, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Jesus' resurrection frees us to to model our lives in his likeness, to treat each other with the honour and respect we all deserve.  Jesus has triumphed over the powers of addiction and exploitation that rage in our neighbourhood, he's paraded them around to be seen for the lies that they are.  He's made them get honest, and that's our first step to freedom as well.  There is no shame or condemnation here, only healing and freedom and the transformation of our minds, the 'conversion of our imaginations'.

Someday the tide will turn and the raging waves of misogyny and exploitation in the world will be drawn back out to the chaotic place from which it comes.   The pornography industry will self-destruct and all the precious children of God who make and consume it will be reconciled.  Men will drive home to their wives rather than up and down our street, our neighbourhood pub will be known for it's good beer and honest conversation and everyone will take ownership over their thoughts and actions.  No one will feel shame over their God-given sexuality.  As we get free from our own addictions to self-comfort and escape, and when we give love freely in our families and communities, we are a sign that the new world is already on her way.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the image of God in us all.

----

For some incredible resources on recovery and addiction visit The National Association for Christian Recovery.  

Becca spent five years working in mother-child healthcare in beautiful places like South Sudan, India and Nigeria.  She now spends her days chasing two toddlers around the post-industrial Australian neighbourhood she calls home.  She’s American, married to an interesting and kind Canadian musician and they haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the babies came.  She writes about lots of loosely related things at exilefertility.com while keeping a fairly messy, but welcoming, home.  Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

For all the posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

Re-Neighboring and Staying -- Guest Post by Deanna Martinez

It's been one of those weeks. Two people were killed in a drive-by close to us, and the mood at the park was somber yesterday. A semi-famous Christian political figure came to my neighborhood to buy barbeque sauce and told news reporters it was like stepping into a third world country. It's hot, and people are just trying to survive. But there are also the joys: people sharing food, neighbors telling me all their favorite state fair memories, the friendly pre-teens who splash with my daughter at the public pool. It's one of those weeks where the good and the bad are so intertwined, and I don't have the energy to untangle it all.

Which brings me to this guest post. Deanna is one of the reasons I stay in this blog-writing (and hosting gig). I just met her out of the blue internet, and here she is encouraging us all with her insight and obedience, her sorrows and her joy. I too have been encouraged by the gentle writings of Bob Lupton, and encourage you all to do the same (my favorite is this one--thanks John and Jill!). It is clear to me that Deanna views her neighborhood, with all it's mess and trauma and glory--with a sense of gratefulness. It is a gift to her, given to her by God. And that's exactly how I feel about my own little corner of the MidWest.

 

 

Re-neighboring and Staying: Some Thoughts Living and Teaching in the City

Guest post by Deanna Martinez

 

The idea of downward mobility has fascinated me since I first started to grapple with what Jesus meant when he said that in His Kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth, and the Kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit. The life and teachings of Jesus subvert power structures and confound the wise in such a way that I feel drawn to him. I understand a bit why Peter says "Not just my feet, Lord, but my hands and my head as well!"

 

Life in this upside-down kingdom brings freedom.  My security does not come from my savings account.  My authority is not based on having advanced degrees or a library of leather-bound books.  My value is not determined by my zip code.  I desire a life where bridges are built and barriers are taken down.  I am convinced that God’s heart is with the marginalized, and I want to find myself there.  My prayer is that my life would be an instrument of his peace and reconciliation.

So long story short, I live with my husband and son in Compton, California- a city made famous by the gangster rap of the 90's, stories of corruption by notorious city officials, tales of poverty, screwed up school districts, and all manner of dysfunction that comes with the "Inner City." I was not born here. I did not grow up here. Why do I live here?

 

Sometimes my response depends on the day, but we have been influenced by the writing of Bob Lupton and others in books such as Return Flight. Lupton talks about how healthy communities are diverse in every way- culturally, economically, and racially. As people flee urban centers because of crime, unemployment, and lack of housing, there is a drain of resources. The new enclaves that are established by the people that have left also suffer. These neighborhoods are often marked by a distinct lack of cultural, racial, and economic diversity. One of Lupton's solutions to this issue is that people begin to return to areas that have been largely abandoned by those with resources. He calls it "re-neighboring."  The goal is that all neighborhoods would be integrated and diverse.  I can contribute to my city’s development by paying property taxes, buying my groceries here, and sending my kid to a local school.

That's the idea anyway. If care is not given to ensuring that affordable housing options remain intact and mom and pop shops don't get pushed out by big box stores, criticism of gentrification and economic changes that don't bring benefit to all residents are legitimized. Sometimes I have to refocus my motives in all of this. What is the metric of "improvement?" Is it when people stop leaving their couches on the side of the road? When front lawns are nicely manicured and teenagers stop tagging up the ally around the corner from my house? When we get a frozen yogurt shop? When these things are my focus, I must acknowledge how entrenched I can be in my middle class values and culture. That is not why I live in Compton.

 

I also am also confronted with this in my profession.  I teach at a school not far from my home.  Education is often touted as the great hope for students in disadvantaged areas.  Get good grades!  Got to college! Get up!  Get out!  You can make it!

But what if my student sincerely loves working with their hands?  Is there not value and dignity in leading a quiet, honest life, working each day to support your loved ones?  As an educator,  I value learning.  But when I reflect on what I really want for my students, the narrative of upward mobility is not necessarily one I wish to promote.  Rather than climbing the ladder, I desire to plant the seed of another Way.  What if they excelled academically?  What if they become doctors, lawyers, and engineers?  And then what if they stay.  They don't have to, but they choose to.

 

My students know well the frustration of having a health care provider that doesn’t speak their language, or of social service providers who don’t understand their community or where they come from.  So my question to them is, “What if it was you? Why can’t it be you?” Development does not mean things get neat and tidy and clean and Compton simply turns into a place where people can hide their messiness with money.  Development means that people have access to opportunity.

 

My street is getting better and I will tell you how I know. I know that kids play in the front yard now. They ride their bikes up and down the street. Houses that once stood vacant for months, sometimes years are now inhabited by hard working families. There are birthday parties with plenty of pozole to go around.  And I find that I our lives slowly intertwine.  And my son is going to grow up like this.  And I would not trade this choice for anything.

 

 

 

deanna 004Deanna and her husband live with their son in Compton, CA.  She's not hard to make happy- a good cup of coffee, the neighborhood kids hanging out in her kitchen, or life shared over a meal is all it takes.  She is figuring out on a daily if not hourly basis what it means to love her neighbors well.  She sometimes writes about it at www.whatmakesitgreat.wordpress.com, and occasionally tweets much more superficial thoughts at (https://twitter.com/DeaBeEm)

the ministry of funfetti

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I used to read a couple of blogs, just for the fun of getting filled with rage. I can't be alone in this addiction--the viscious cycles of self-rightousness, anger, and cynicism. All of the blogs that made me feel both superior and strangely sad were ones by women with beautiful houses, chevron typography, gorgeous home-cooked meals, and a belief that most troubles in your life would be solved by trying harder.

A lot of those bloggers and writers would talk about the little things they did in life, and the pleasures to be found therein: creating a safari-themed birthday party and spray-painting tiny giraffes and elephants gold, filling their walls with artfully constructed Scripture references, pictures of their spotless children running through fields of wheat.

I would read, transfixed by the perfect curated-ness of these lives on the screen, both scorning their temporal pursuits (HELLO! PEOPLE ARE DYING IN DARFUR) and yet strangely longing for that assuredness that everything matters. That finding moments of beauty wherever we could get them actually did, in fact, matter to God. the trouble was, I just couldn't believe it.

//

As many of you know, my little family and I are in a Christian order among the poor. I like saying those words aloud, like the way they trip off my tongue. For I have spent my entire life, even as a little girl, pursuing martrydom. When I was small, I was obsessed with missionary biographies, Bible stories, and Joan of Arc was my patron saint. I created a hierarchy in my mind of who God loves best (those who do big and wild and scary things) and I wanted to be right at the top. Which brings us to today, and joining a Christian order among the poor. I have many of the trappings of my heroes now: a self-sacrificing narrative, exotic locations, strange and terrible and beautiful and miraculous things happening. The trouble is, based on that hierarchy I created long ago, it turns out I am just using my friends and neighbors on the lower ends of the economic spectrum as conduits to make God love me more. Even though I have tried hard to do the oppostie, the people I am supposed to love and serve are still functioning as props in the larger story of me.

Obviously, this is a little devestating to realize, 20+ years into the game.

When I asked God about all this, he told me some hard and true things. Which basically amounted to what I had heard my whole life but didn't have the wherewithal to actually believe: that God loves everybody, exactly the same. No matter what you do.

If you grew up like me, then you are waiting for the asterik to that sentence. Sure, God loves everybody the same. *But he really likes it when you go to Africa. Or start a food kitchen. Or adopt through foster care. Or buy cool, over-priced shoes that may or may not give an orphan in some nameless country a complimentary pair. Or turn your TV into garden for succulents. Or whatever it is that we believe we must do in order to be fully loved.

God took away my asterik, and now I don't know how to classify myself anymore. I'm just a sheep of his hand, and it is more lowly and lovely than I could have ever imagined.

//

I am reading a book by Jonathan Martin, and he talks a lot about how Jesus is the example for everything. Yes, of course, I said, as I read along, but at some point I realized Martin wasn't just talking about Jesus being all about love and social justice, some anti-folk hero who died for our sins. Instead, he focused on how Jesus was beloved by God, how he knew he was, and how that affected his every moment.

Martin also goes on to talk about the difference between King Saul and King David in the Old Testament. From day one, people looked at Saul like he had already arrived: so handsome, so tall, so brave and so fierce. It appeared that God had gifted him, so he was thrust into leadership right from the start. And it absolutely ruined him.

David, on the other hand, was forgotten for many years. Off tending sheep while all of his brothers did the "important" work. But what we in our hubris usually imagine to be a desert or a wilderness is actually the best gift of all: a place of obscurity, where God has us all to himself and tells us how much we are loved. David had this in the fields, years and years of soaking in his belovedness. And even though he went on to do many stupid, terrible, ugly things, David never forgot that he was loved. As Martin writes in Prototype, just go read the Psalms (seriously, go read then right now). That sense of belovedness underlies every single sentence: the joyful, the sorrowful, the angry and the awe.

This is a hard truth for me, a girl who always grew up reading the stories of the Bible and thinking but all those people God uses are so horrid. I've always hated David, just because I could never wrap my brain around the fact that this adulturous, murderous, neglectful father-type could really be so loved by God. Because if God could truly delight in a person like that, then why am I trying so damn hard?

Because, you guys, I never believed he loved me after all.

//

This first year in the MidWest was supposed to be our Year of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord's Favor. And it was, oh yes indeed, it just looked so different from how I thought it should.

But here, at the end of the apprenticeship year, I feel a bit like I had my own time in the wilderness. I found myself in situations of no importance, of little power. Nobody was throwing us parades, if you can believe that. And by the end of it, the hierarchy I had created in my mind about God and his love had started to crack. Because even if you sell all that you have and give the money to the poor (or move in next door) and have not love--well, I think you know the rest.

There came a point a few weeks ago where I noticed that I was yet again baking a Funfetti cake for one of my neighbors. If I had to count it up, I would say that I have made hundreds of these cakes for people over the years. I just really like doing it. There is someting about the sprinkles, the colors, the pleasures and joys of teaching people the elements of baking. I know it is horribly uncool (preservatives! peak oil!), and I should be making seasonal fruit galletes and all that (which I do, occasionally), but I just can't quit the Funfetti. I love making these cakes, just like my own mom made for me.

I was making this particular one for a neighbor who is moving far away, to a situation that is likely very bad. My heart was sorrowful as I baked and frosted, as I did the only things I knew how to do. And as I did this I wondered "what will I do with the next person who moves in? Won't they probably end up moving away and breaking my heart? How do we keep doing that most radical thing of all--keeping room in our hearts to love--when we are constantly, lamentably wounded?"

And I feel like God said: you keep baking cakes.

//

Some of the most unrecognized ministries are my favorites.

Like, the ministry of playing yu-gi-oh cards with awkward adolescent boys. The ministry of bringing white styrofoam containers of Pad Thai to people whose baby is very very sick. The ministry of picking up empty chip wrappers at the park. The ministry of sending postcards. The ministry of sitting in silence with someone in the psych ward. The ministry of gardening flowers. The ministry of listening to teenagers talk about their relational crises, and not laughing hysterically. The ministry of making an excellent cup of coffee. The ministry of noticing beauty everywhere--in fabrics, in people, in art--and in the wilderness.

The older I get, I realize now that the ministries I once thought so trivial I know think are the most radical. I spent the last year being stripped of anything that would make me feel lovely to God and I came out a different person. Because I discovered that he always loved me anyways.

I'm not Joan of Arc, it turns out. I'm just somebody who likes to bake cakes.

If I had said that at the beginning of this post, it would mean almost nothing. But because I am writing out of a place where I know that God loves me, my ministry of Funfetti is different. It's radical. Anything that asks us to walk in our belovedness and extend that to other people is the best kind of madness there is.

I think about those blogs I used to read, and all the feelings they would bring up. And now I just want to sit down, over a good direct-trade cup of coffee, and say to those writers: spray all the things gold. Bake all the tarts. Make all the lemonade's you want. And take all those little lovelies and run, run in the direction of the world's brokenness.

In my world, there is a lot of pain. People in abusive situations. Addictions. Mental Illness. Sickness. Poverty. Demons. It's like the New Testament, come to life! And God is asking me to run, not walk, into all of those contexts. Because I know God loves them more than I do, and the gospel of Jesus is one of freedom. I am being asked to start living like I believe in that love, like I believe another world is possible. I am being asked to bake cakes and knock on doors and believe in healing and deliverance and transformation because that is what our God does. I don't always know what it looks like, but I can tell you from personal experience: He loves.

Because every year is the year of the Lord's favor. I just needed the eyes to see it.

//

 

 

 

My friend Kelley is doing an online book club and this month we are reading Prototype by Jonathan Martin. I highly encourage you to read it. Plus, today you can head on over and ask him some questions.

 

 

Also, my family and I are trying to be a bit more open about the work we are doing in our neighborhood and the miracles we are experiencing, and asking for support along the way. It's hard to write about on the internet, which is a good sign. If you are interested in learning more about our organization, our ministry, or just want to process the places God is calling you to run into, we would love to hear from you. Send me an e-mail at dlmmcsweeneys@gmail.com.

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

Jenny Flannagan is super cool. Into drama, music, and the arts, she writes about the realities of her neighborhood with crushing clarity, empathy and a much-needed sense of humor. Seriously, the girl is funny. I had my eye on her writing for this series from the get-go and am so pleased to have this essay here today. I identify with so many aspects of her story, but none more than the apparent joy she gets from all the pleasures of her abundant life. It just doesn't look abundant in the way that the world would have for us.

Make sure you check out her blog (Jenny from the Block) and find her on Twitter.

 

 

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

 

 

A few years a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success.  I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me.  I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success.

So wrote monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1979 in his typically provocative and paradoxical manner.  His words feel important and at the same time bewilder me.  They’re not what I grew up with.

More words, quoted recently by Shawn Smucker in his guest post:

My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go ‘higher up,’ and the most-used argument was : ‘You can do so much good there, for so many people.’ But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. 

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

These words give shape to the fears and anxieties that assail me when I hear the term downward mobility, a phrase we have used in the past few years to describe how we are trying to live.

The truth is, I’m not sure quite what it means and if I qualify or if we’re just kidding ourselves.  When I really think about it, I get confused as to whether it’s even a goal we should be pursuing.

It makes sense when I think how we’re not trying to earn as much money as we could, that we’ve chosen part-time work and rejected career ladders and embraced a lifestyle with less money to have more time in our neighbourhood and for our family.  It explains why we’ve chosen to stay in the inner-city and live on a government housing block alongside people from different immigrant communities as well as long-term locals, many of them on low incomes or benefits.  It’s a fitting commentary on our attempts to live light and cheap and thrifty and open-handed.

It feels hollow and pretentious when I head out with my suitcase on another international adventure for my job, past my neighbours, some of whom have never left the country and who have lived their whole lives within a mile radius or others who can rarely afford to visit their homeland.  It feels like a lie when I consider the choices we have because of our family’s support and our savings and our education; the invitations we get to share our stories at conferences and write books and make albums.  Occasionally people tell us “we could never do what you do,” and I think of my comfortable bed and colourful home, our friendly neighbours and amazingly central location, and wonder what on earth they have in their head.

We aren’t part of a missional order or an organisation.  We have taken no vows. We don’t have a project.  No-one supports us with donations or ministry gifts*.  We just live here and try to be good neighbours and listen out for what God is saying and doing so we can be part of it.  And pray to see the stuff we read about elsewhere happen here.  And plug away.

We don’t have a team.  We have church, and a few friends who are trying to do similar things, but no-one in the same neighbourhood or building.  Most of our friends are making really different choices, the ‘responsible’ choices that give them bigger houses and gardens for their kids to play in, and on my worst days my heart is full of pharisaical judgement for them, my thinly disguised resentment of their successful upward mobility.

Often I feel lonely and wonder what we’re trying to do exactly.

Even working out what downward mobility looks like in the UK is a stretch.  The inner-cities have become the preserve mainly of the extremely rich and the poorest communities (whose housing is subsidised), with few others able to stay.  It’s at its most extreme, of course, in London.  The private market is so obscenely expensive that anyone on an average or even fairly good income usually has to leave the moment they need some space or have a family.  But we have a system of social housing that means that subsidised accommodation is available across our cities for those who meet particular criteria like homelessness, sickness, unemployment – and other kinds of intense social needs. If you don’t qualify for this kind of housing but want to stay on the stigmatised council estates, the supposed hotbeds of crime and your only chance of life in a mixed income environment, it won’t be cheap.  You will have to pay a lot of money to rent them privately or buy them.  The most expensive places I’ve ever lived are inner-city council flats.

So somehow you need to find enough money to live amongst people with a lot less money, making a real sense of solidarity increasingly inaccessible.  And, like them, you end up living across the street from the crazily-wealthy whose lifestyles are insanely out-of-your-reach.

Downward mobility feels complicated and compromised and confusing.  As an end in itself it seems a bit pointless. Unless, unless it makes other things possible.

And I think that’s what I believe.  I keep coming back to this conviction that God doesn’t call to us to more frugal life, but a more abundant one.  Only it looks totally different to what the world would make us assume.  Abundant living is free from aggressive and destructive (and even complacent) consumption, which numbs us and distracts us from really experiencing life.  It is rich in relationships and vulnerability and community, it isn’t sheltered from chaos and pain, it is sometimes agonising but always creative and steeped in hope and faith.

It was certainly never the life I planned. Oh no, I was going to be wildly successful but then generously give away most of my winnings.  Invisibility, obscurity, doubt, identity crises, these were never my ambition.  Success was inevitable.

But then if downward mobility means anything at all to me, it has started to mean a death to success in more and more of the ways I counted it.  I have old friends from college taking Hollywood by storm, sitting in Parliament and writing acclaimed novels.  That’s not my life.

We’re here because we believe it does make a difference when people stick around in the inner-city and build lasting friendships and raise their kids here and love their neighbours and work for reconciliation and hope.  Even if the fruit of it is hardly visible in this generation, we have faith that we’re part of a bigger, better story that has a good ending, and we want desperately to be part of that story in this neighbourhood.

But we’re not just playing an endgame.  We live this way because we believe it is a better life (on our good days we believe that).

It is, however, a daily affront to all the assumptions I made for so many years about how successful I would be, an affront to my pride and my competitiveness and my belief in what a difference I can make.

I don’t know if our income or square footage or CVs will look ‘downwardly mobile’ in the decades to come (and maybe that would just become a counter-intuitive, an alternative success indicator for me), but I hope that my heart will find the long-haul courage to choose something real rather than just something everyone else is trying to sell me, to look down more up, and most of all to listen for the life Jesus is inviting me to live rather than everyone else.

 

 

 

 

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Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker.  She has worked for Tearfund for the past 9 years, spending the past 6 of them travelling a lot, finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse and amazing ways all around the world.  But now she is pregnant and can't get on any more planes. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as "an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry".  She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile.  They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

*****Quick plug: I wrote something on the Trayvon Martin case for Out of Ur. You can find that article here.******

 

 

Rachel Pieh Jones has shared her astounding thoughts in this space before, and I was thrilled when she agreed to tackle this subject. Her post resonated so much with me, because I too find myself in so many seemingly contradictory spaces--and I am learning to love them all. Rachel continually inspires me with her commitment to celebrating her life (while not white-washing it either). I call her the "Katherine Boo" of Djibouti, since this is one lady who has definitely earned her facts. If you are anything like me (and even if you aren't) I am positive you will find this piece to be both relatable and encouraging. 

 

 

Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

I haven’t thought much about downward mobility but I have thought a lot about moving toward need.

Not just moving toward need but moving toward need and bringing comfort, attention, and affection. Bringing Jesus, dignity, and relationship. And not just bringing these things to deliver, but bearing them in my skin and in my soul and receiving them back.

I don’t view need in purely economic terms, but also in community and spiritual terms. A wealthy, childless widow. A toddler begging on the street corner. A man searching for peace in Islam, then Buddhism, then pot. My own vulnerability and loneliness.

I spent last Wednesday with two other expatriates in a Djiboutian village. We visited fifteen members of the Girls Run 2 club I helped to start in 2008. Eighteen of us, plus more than a dozen neighborhood children, sat in an unlit cement room, and talked about running and school and family responsibilities.

Some of the girls have electricity, none have running water. Some have at least one permanent structure to call part of their home, some have walls made of sticks and flattened powdered milk cans and t-shirts. All of them are required by club rules to be in school. Most of them come from large families where the emphasis is on survival and hard labor – hauling water, scrubbing clothes, herding sheep, walking four miles to school, there is little time for affection or personal attention.

After all the girls arrived, after we kissed hands and cheeks, and after I had asked each of them about their running events and best times, about their dreams for their future, their favorite subjects in school, and what their mothers thought about them running, we walked to the car.

The Land Cruiser was heavy with thirty twenty-pound boxes of rice, with additional nutrients, from Feed My Starving Children. Each member of the club received one box and the extra were left at the stadium for when they needed more.

Then I drove the two hours home to Djibouti City and read an email about my upcoming family reunion this Christmas in Disney World.

And I cried.

I cried for the confusion and the contradiction in it. I cried for the joy I felt sitting in the dark room with the running team and for the joy I felt thinking about Christmas with my entire family, including a newly adopted niece I have never met. I wept for the joy in the conversation with the other expats in the car on the drive, about prayer and comfort and brokenness and Jesus.

I need God to show me how to live in this life of authentic engagement with girls in the depths of poverty, girls with strength and dignity, girls who crave and thrive on physical touch and individual attention, and at the same time how to live in a life of Land Cruisers and Disney World with my beloved family.

I think the way to live this life is to live like Jesus, to be always on the move toward need. My own and others’.

The girls in that village needed food. But they also needed to talk about school and their training. They needed to be told they are precious. They needed to hold my hand while they talked about mentally unstable fathers and dead babies. I needed to hear them laugh and I needed to watch them care for their siblings and their parents and each other. I needed to hear them defend their fellow runner who has never been to school before and can’t write her own name yet. I needed to know their names and their unique stories, unique personalities. And so we moved toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

My family needs to be together. We have said goodbye and been separated so many times over the years. My parents need to draw their four children from the four corners of the earth to celebrate who we are and to delight in each other for a week. I need to hold my new niece and hear my nephew explain Lacrosse to this clueless aunt. I need to hear how God is moving in my brother. I need to watch my children tackle their grandparents. And so we move toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to go to Disney World with my family. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to sit in the cement room with the team. And I would be lying if I hid one side of this life from the other, that feels disingenuous. But this, this moving toward need with the confused-crying and the releasing-joy of it, feels like authenticity.

It feels like authentic mobility. Not necessarily downward or upward, possibly both. I move both ways in my Djibouti life and while it feels like a split down my middle some days, on most days it feels true and honest.

Sometimes moving toward need means bringing rice to hungry families and accepting a chilled Coke from them. Sometimes it means going to Disney World and accepting the gift of family. Sometimes it means bringing my own brokenness into the conversation and accepting the step of someone moving toward me, bearing Jesus in the soul and in the skin.

 

 

 

downward1Doesn't she just look like the coolest/nicest War Photographer ever? Rachel can be found here: Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

On Mother's Day

me and my tiny, tiny, little sack of sugar. I've written a little bit about motherhood before, and I am always amazed at how this holiday continually knocks me off my feet. Motherhood isn't for sissies; remembering isn't for the faint of heart; life isn't for the easily cowed.

 

I watched a movie yesterday, one a friend recommended some time ago. I didn't know it then, but this might be the most perfect Mother's day movie I have ever seen. Pray the Devil Back to Hell shows what happens when a group of mothers got together to protest for peace during the civil war  in Liberia. The documentary chronicles how these women, Christian and Muslim alike, came together to pray, worship, and disrupt the cycles of violence. The width and depth and scope of their protest is astonishing. The personal costs were staggering. But they all got the chance to say, when their children asked them what role they played in the conflict, that they were ambassadors for peace. They did it for their children; they did it for the children of their neighbors.

 

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The scene that stood out to me was one in which the women gathered around a candle-lit vigil, praying that the president and the rebel troops would agree to come to a peace table together. You could see the small children, clinging to their mother's skirts, watching them push the candles into the dirt, the holy process of both surrendering to God in prayer while firmly believing that the world is not right. The children watched, and they were being taught every moment by their mothers, that another world is possible.

 

My own parents loved me into the kingdom of God. My mother especially, she taught me that God speaks to us, all the time. It was such a living, breathing, faith that I grew up watching, the most normal, all-encompassing spirituality. I learned that life is hard, and that beauty is to be celebrated. I watched with eyes wide open as my own mother planted her candles in the dirt, as she taught me both that things were not right, that there was always something to be hoped for. Long before I learned the words in Bible college, my mother taught me about kingdom come.

 

Now, I have my own daughter. What is she learning from me? I have some hopes, my own flames I set off in the night. That there are things more important than security, a yard to play in, friends who only look and think like us. But more than that, I want to stake my flag in both worlds at once. I want to never forget that Jesus can be found all over my neighborhood; I never want to forget that he is found in the face of my daughter.

 

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The world is not all right, and the mothers know this. Let us keep on teaching, through our words and actions, that another world is possible.

 

To my own mum, who gave me the keys to the kingdom:

thanks for teaching me, every day, what it means to hold a candle-lit vigil against the evils of our world.

 

 

my mom and my daughter. two of my greatest blessings.

 

 

Happy Mother's Day. 

Waka Waka

The first time I saw the music video for Shakira's World Cup 2010 song, I grew teary without even really knowing why. I went on to use it in many of my ESL classes, usually playing it during our end-of-term class party, where people from Asia, Africa and Latin America were bound together in their love for the song (and soccer and beautiful women shaking what the good Lord gave them). We ate sambusas and cake and lukewarm orange soda, and we celebrated our small victories of grammar and friendship, all while Shakira danced in the background. I am the student now, taking a Somali language class in my new city. I hear the song in the hallways of the elementary school where my little community education class meets. The janitors have the same rotation of songs every week--mostly latin pop songs and love ballads. When Shakira comes on, everyone in my class gets silent. My teacher, a young Somali man, talks wistfully about football, which turns into conversations about politics and Africa in general. I am reminded of how important all these things are, how identity is a fragile thing, especially in our fractured world.

The song still makes me cry, every time I hear it (and especially if I watch the video). I can't really explain it. The shots of soccer victories and defeats, the people dancing from every tribe and nation, the repeated refrain "this time for Africa" being hailed as a joyous, prophetic truth. It's an infectious song, celebrating a country who more often than not gets nothing but bad press in my world: a place of orphans and AIDS and crisis and corruption. A place where we send teams of people for weeks at a time, a place in constant need of outside saviors, mysterious and unfathomable, mired in troubles.

But this is only a part of the story. In the singing and dancing of the video I find so much articulated that I see every day: the men in the Somali coffee shops, huddled around the TVs, catching the latest soccer game. My Sudanese brother-in-law, reading the news in Arabic every day, his watchful eye ever on the politics of Africa. The women who blast tinny African music from their cell phones as they cook fish and rice and bread for me, the Somali teenager who knows more about the Kenyan president than I will ever hope to. I see it, every day, in my city of immigrants, a people in a sort of exile I can never imagine. Every day, millions around the world, are thinking the same thought to themselves: when will it be time for Africa?

Shakira, unlikely war photographer. You captured what so many of us already believe, even if we never knew how to say. Of course it's time for Africa. It always was. The thought is so joyous and heartbreaking, the struggles so sharp and the continent so grand, I can't help but join in.

 

For like all my friends, I believe it: this time for Africa.

 

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRpeEdMmmQ0]

 

all hail the refugee king

  the hubs took this rad picture of our tree.

Are you sick of reading about Christmas-related stuff yet? I hope not, because I have one piece I want you to read.

I'm over at A Deeper Church today talking about what it means to hail the refugee king. As many of you know, several months ago we up and moved to the exotic midwest, far from friends and church and family. It isn't exactly the end of the world, but sometimes it feels like it is. Shedding off so many layers of our built-up lives has been painful, costly (in many ways we did not expect), and worth it, without a doubt.

In many ways I wonder where this journey will end (thank goodness, that isn't for me to know). We all have invisible lines we will not cross--I will not put my child in danger, give up my morning coffee, say goodbye to my family (just as, you know, "theoretical" examples). And I'm not saying you have to jump those lines just yet; but what if you simply started to wonder about what you might be missing out on, while you keep your hands held tight over your eyes and ears.

We visited a church this past Sunday and the sermon was on "Jesus as a Refugee". It was so lovely to hear it from a pulpit, gray heads nodding in agreement, candle lights flickering in the background. The pastor also showed a clip from God Grew Tired of Us, an amazing documentary detailing the experiences of several Lost Boys of Sudan. Here is the clip, which juxtaposes the recently arrived-refugees experiences with American Christmas and how they celebrated in their refugee camp (Kakuma, where many of my friends lived for years and years). It just made me sob:

  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZvwm3TJXNo]

 

After that clip, the worship band ended with a song by Rich Mullins, "My Deliverer", which left both the husband and I with Ugly Cry Face big time. I used to play that song and pray it over my refugee friends, all the time.

 

So all of this to say, the concepts of refugees and Christmas have been swirling around my brain. So I wrote about.

 

 

Head on over and check it out? Don't be shy, now.

Advent in the Abandoned Places of the Empire

url My writing always goes in waves--just like this week.

Today I have a guest post up at my friend Amy Lepine Peterson's blog. She is currently in the midst of a series about Advent wherein she posts something every.single.day. I admire this girl, for so many reasons (intellect, quality writing, her amazing critiques of pop culture). But our friendship was cemented into soul mate statues due to her love of certain 90s era Christmas movies.

So I wrote a tiny post about Advent, cribbing from Common Prayer, naturally. Here is the passage I wrote off of:

Everything in our society teaches us to move away from suffering, to move out of neighborhoods where there is high crime, to move away from people who don’t look like us. But the gospel calls us to something altogether different. We are to laugh at fear, to lean into suffering, to open ourselves up to the stranger. Advent is the season when we remember Jesus put on flesh and moved into our neighborhood. God’s getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up even in the forsaken corners of the earth.

Head on over and read the rest?

 

 

Image by Amy Friend, found via Pinterest. Just made me think about how Jesus is the light and the incarnation, never me.

i'm the christmas unicorn

Two years ago, I saw Sufjan in concert, promoting his new album, the Age of Adz. It was a disconcerting experience. People were flapping around in grubby bird costumes, Sufjan was dancing like a tired kid at a rave, everyone was wearing neon colors in a decidedly self-conscious way. The auditorium was packed with people just like me, enraptured with a story that seemed to have no soul. I myself felt like I was watching the concert behind a plate of glass; I was separated, simply by my need for something real. That concert was the first time my husband and I had left the house together as parents; our first date since everything changed for us 3 months earlier. Since we had our baby, long before she was due. Since I almost died, long days spent in the hospital, longer days spent quarantined at home. Life was now filtered through a different colored lens, and it made frivolity and noise seem juvenile, pretentious, and more than a little stupid. Sufjan, in an interview with Pitchfork, admitted that The Age of Adz was a departure from songwriting, more like an experiment with sound and excess. “This is not a populist album”, he said, “It isn't for everyone.” But from where I was sitting, perched up high in the balcony, I was the only one left wanting more. I was the only one who yearned for an actual message, not some trussed up exploitative meandering song based on another man's mental illness. I wanted my own illness to be addressed. The gaps were widening between the people who were content with strutting and dancing and making art; and those of us who were barely treading water, wanting something to clutch as we floated along.

Like many long-time Sufjan listeners, I wanted something spiritually significant In all my sleep-deprived emotionalism, I nearly cried that night as I watched the performance. I couldn't find anything to hold on to, at all.

//

I am going to see Sufjan again tonight, a part of his Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice Tour. I'm a little nervous, but my expectations are quite a bit lower. I no longer feel the need for popular music to validate my experience; I am getting a tiny bit more sleep now than I was back then.

But Sufjan's music continues to dig into my soul, causes me to lay awake at night and think Big Thoughts. His new Christmas Box Set is no exception--for every silly song about Santa there is a gorgeous, haunting hymn to go along with it. The music seems to sum up the mood of myself, and so many others around me.

I did a weird little review of the album for The Curator, which in my opinion is one of the websites to read on the internet (intellect+wit+soul=magic).

Here's the intro to the piece:

 

Being a Christian in the midst of Christmas is hard. I have tried making presents by hand; I have tried not going to malls. I have tried abstaining from peppermint lattes; I have sat in midnight mass and prayed to feel sober and holy like I should. But time and time again my good intentions get crowded out in the collective search for a holiday that is my own invention. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of times with family, before people got sick or moved across the country, before we knew what things were really like around the world. I find myself longing to forget my troubles, my struggles, and instead find myself looking fondly at all the cultural displays—presents, Santa, spiked eggnog. I guess everything does look better under twinkly lights.

 

Why don't you mosey on over and finish the rest?

christmas bonanza!

WHEN MY FRIENDS ARE ALL LIKE, LET'S CELEBRATE THE HOLY EXPECTATION OF ADVENT, AND I'M LIKE

j/k, people.

But srsly. I like talking about advent as much as the next person, and I also really like curling up on the couch and watching a good ol' secular holiday movie. I have a bit of a suspicion that you do to, if you grew up anywhere in western culture. This is the dichotomy we were served, that we ate up with abandon: our most spiritual of days blended with capitalism, consumerism, a misplaced sense of longing.

In years past I tried to combat this. I got really into the Advent Conspiracy, Buy Nothing Christmas, and have for quite some time now made horrible, horrible presents for people (my poor family). I also passed out Thanksgiving food boxes, brought my refugee friends chocolates and oranges and delivered toys to their homes. I felt good, about these actions; I was taking back Christmas.

Except, it was still all about me. My holy endeavors, my enlightenment, my charitable heart. And in their own way, most of my actions still revolved around what I wanted (to feel good, to feel free, to feel righteous). I have always wanted to be the holy rebel, the non-consumer, the self-righteous advocate for the voiceless. But as I am learning, every day, even these actions scream of my own poverty, of how hard it is to be in relationship with people in my life. I would rather write a blog about all that is wrong in the world than engage intimately with its people. I would rather scorn other's choices than inspect my own selfishness. I would rather deliver presents (made in a sweatshop!) than spend the entire day with people so different from me because . . . I want Christmas to be my way. I don't want to change everything about my life. If I invite alchololics over than that puts a damper on things. If I have muslims over then I have to dress differently, eat differently. If I have one of my crazy locavore friends over than I have to spend an arm and a leg at the co-op to make a meal that comes from sustainable places . . .

I don't want it. As much lip service as I pay to justice, it becomes clear I don't want it. I am fine with staying poor in relationships, because it allows me to do what suits me and mine, much better. So in the past, I have rushed head-long into charity, into finding small ways of helping that fit into my already-solidified life. Some of these made it into my Christmas rituals, and I am now in the slow process of purging them. I am moving beyond Advent Conspiracy here; I am starting to find out that everything is tied into relational poverty, in my inability to get down to the muckety-muck of those around me. And thus, Christmas is starting to feel joyous again, as I look to the supreme example of someone who gave up everything of himself for the love of us. I feel a great hope, actually.

Now how did we get here? I was just going to write a little post talking about some of my favorite, silly, cultural expressions of this season that mean something to me. I guess you can take the girl out of the conspiracy but you can't take the conspiracy out of the girl. Or something like that. But I am starting to believe: as we move from living in a season of charity to a life of justice, there is room for these small celebrations.

Feel free to share yours as well, as I suspect many of us are on this journey of figuring out what to do with our weird holidays. So here is what gets me, D.L., into a holly jolly mood:

1. Old-Timey Christmas Music.

Srsly. On spotify look up Doris Day singing Christmas music. I love it! Plus: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. Also, I found this amazing video of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing Little Drummer Boy. You're Welcome.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fulrewj6Noo]

2. This Amazing Nativity Video.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWq60oyrHVQ]

This is what happens when hipsters re-create the nativity scene with their children! And the accents! I die, I die. And my toddler loves it too. I am happy that she now thinks that when Jesus was born there was a giant, kid-friendly rave at the beach. Perfect.

3. Subversive Crafts-As-Gifts

I wish I could show you some pictures of the "art" I am making for people this year. Oh family, you have no idea what's coming!

4. Kids Crying When They Meet Santa

This is my favorite thing ever. Just google it.

5. Unexpectedly Amazing Christmas Movies.

Love Actually (warning: langauge/nudity alert. but ya'll can fast forward. or buy the edited version--like my mother-in-law).

You could use this movie as a personality test. What is your favorite sub-plot, and why? I am partial to the Colin Firth one, as an ESL teacher ("Just in cases"!) but the storyline between the Rock Star and his manager makes me giggle-cry all the time.

Little Women

Classic. It opens at Christmas-time, so this makes it Christmas-y, right?

Classic Claymation Christmas movies

Am I the only adult person that thinks claymation is magical? I don't think so. Rudolph was awesome, but my family grew up watching a Claymation Christmas, which you should definitely check out. Or just watch this clip:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs--phzj2TQ]

The California Raisins! Children of the 80s, Unite!

Millions

This might be my most favorite Christmas movie ever. Danny Boyle (28 hours, SlumDog Millionare) directed this amazingly beautiful, slightly tense story of a young boy who talks to saints and gets embroiled in a robbery. This one makes me sob big, fat tears. You must promise me you will find this video and watch it. Please?

6. Good Thoughts on Advent

I have a lot of cool internet friends. And a lot of them are writing about Advent. My friend Amy is doing it for the entire month, which you should totes check out. My friend Kelley expressed the ache so well, and my friend Addie talks about Christian cliches and depression (so good!).

So there's my grown-up Christmas list. Some of the stuff I have been into, as we live out our lives in the dark and the cold and the bright. What about you?

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